Letter Jam Review

For those reading this in the distant future: Wordle is all the rage right now. Maybe it’s still the bee’s knees in your time too, but I suspect it’s faded away to the status of “answer to a trivia question”. Also, how’s the future? If you all figured out time travel, someone pop in here and tell me who wins the world series . . . . . worth a shot.

Anyways, Wordle works because word games are a nice diversion and Wordle gives us the chillest implementation of a word game we can share with each other from our various screens. Ondra Skoupý’s Letter Jam, which predates Wordle, operates on similar principles: you get access to some of the letters of a word and have to figure out the intended solution. But where Wordle is minimalist and slight, Letter Jam is more detailed and a bit gangly: rough around the edges. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Wordle stretched out to the length of even a party game would dissolve away. It doesn’t have the necessary substance. 

Letter Jam involves the players in every level of the puzzle. Everyone begins by spelling out a 5 letter word in cards for the person next to them. Shuffle it up and pass it over, face down. Everyone grabs one of their cards and places it in a stand face out, Hanabi-style. From these letters, plus one random table letter and a wild asterisk, players try to spell out the best words possible to help people guess what their letter is. This is freeform, and the person who can convince the others that they have the best word is allowed to go, placing numbered chips in sequence to spell out their word.

The trick with clue-giving in Letter Jam is that it functions the opposite of what you’d first expect. Typically with this kind of set up you’d expect that you’d be tasked with elegant solutions. Instead, you should seek unusual solutions. An example: suppose the letters you can see are A, L, S, and T, with E as the table letter. “Slate” or “stale” appear to be great words, as they use every available letter and therefore clue everyone (other than yourself, of course). But think about what the person with the L is going to see in their notes: “S?ATE”. You’ve given them some idea of what their letter might be but it’s still down to one of a few: K, L, P, or T. Consider a different clue, one that uses the asterisk but nonetheless is more distinctive: satellite. The L person will see “SATE??*TE”. Not much room for ambiguity there.

Much like in Codenames, understanding what could lead to incorrect answers is often more important than what best leads to the correct answers. The best clues are often distinctive words rather than elegant letter combinations. The more quickly you internalize this the quicker you’ll start enjoying Letter Jam.

Every step along the way Letter Jam requires a bit of buy-in from the players. Party games can get away with this better than more strategic games where common magic circle assumptions include things like: “everyone is broadly attempting to win” and “the rules dictate what is an acceptable move”. In a party game we tend to make more allowances for the spirit of the game over “optimal” play.

You could, for instance, think about a good ratio of vowels to consonants when constructing your initial 5-letter clue to assist in word construction later on. Or, and hear me out, you could pick ADIEU or BUTTS for a giggle. You could, hypothetically, construct and rigidly adhere to a system of signaling to the others how good a potential clue is. But if Lindsay, with a cheeky grin on her face, says “hold on, I might have one” while holding back laughter you’d be a monster not to see what she’s cooked up.

Score: 7.5/10

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