Sunday, February 14, 2016

Unnecessary breakage

Yesterday I was watching a bunch of my friends play a word association party game.  The basic idea is that you have two teams, and on each team one person is the caller.  There are twenty five cards with random words on them laid out on the table, and the caller has to try to give clues to get their teammates to guess their own cards without guessing the opponent's.  Teams alternate giving clues until one team discovers all of their own cards.  Each clue has to be a word and a number, and the obvious thing the numbers are supposed to mean is 'how many cards match this clue'.

So if the cards were


I might say "Animal, 2" to get my partner to guess Dog and Cat.

I started immediately thinking about how to optimize the clue giving to improve my odds.  The people playing were all just playing like the rulebook suggests, getting 1-2 cards each turn.  Fairly quickly I realized the optimal solution to this problem is to simply use an 18 digit number after the word to describe exactly which cards were the ones to pick.  Each set of 2 digits describes a particular card in the group, so the word itself doesn't even matter, the 18 digit number tells your partner all 9 cards they need to pick to win the game.

The rulebook does not suggest that this strategy would be against the rules.  They apparently hadn't counted on me trying to ruin a perfectly fine party game by applying thinking to the problem.

However, my solution doesn't simply provide a really good strategy - it outright ruins the game.  Given this, I decided to try to think of some more cool strategies that were powerful but which didn't render the game a coinflip nor completely remove the whole word association aspect.  One thing I decided is that the number you give definitely has to be a single digit integer.  Allowing people to go up to 9 to establish signals should definitely give me some cool design space, but hopefully will allow the players to still play the game.

What I was thinking with this is just leading with the assumption that any number you give above 0 is a signal as to card placement.  So if I said "Animal, 5" my team should assume that they should find precisely 2 cards associated with Animal and then pick the fifth unknown card in order.  This loses out if you can actually clue 4 cards at once with a single category, but lets you get 3 cards on the great majority of your clues, and I suspect that is good enough.  You could use 0 as a signal to just pick the single card associated with the word you state, which seems like a thing you want to have in your arsenal but which is pretty bad.

By my way of thinking, the power to nearly always get 3 is the ticket to winning.  If you screw it up, fine, but aggressively going after good turns is going to be the way to win the majority of the games.

In my head this kind of thinking means that people who make party games should totally hire me to review their rule sections to write things to prevent shenanigans like this.  I suspect what it really means is that I don't get how people play party games at all.


  1. The number you name is also the number of guesses they get. So any clue naming 0 guarantees you get no cards that turn.

    You do also get a bonus guess if your team gets the exact number you named. On any turn beyond the first this allows your team to go back and guess on previously missed clues.

    Both of these things combine well with stretching to create legitimate 5 clues on your first turn. Find something that loosely associates with 6 of the things, 5 of which you want, and you can likely pick up all 5 within 3 turns. This lets you go out in 3 turns with a 5-2-2 or 5-3-1 split. Both of which are as good as your plan to always get 3, though I remain unconvinced you'd find many boards where your guarantee of 3 would work.

    A bigger problem is cluing by number of letters in the word. We just disallowed that.

    Also, this game wasn't just made by someone who makes 'party games'. Vlaada Chvatil is one of the best designers of our time. Through The Ages, Galaxy Trucker, Dungeon Lords, and Mage Knight are among his games.

  2. The rules as explained to me said you always guess once each turn minimum, even if you pick zero.

    The advantage to my line of thinking is that if there are specific words you want to get that you can't think of a way to clue directly you get to pick them up numerically. You can actually make a plan at the start for a 3 turn victory, as long as you can find 3 groups of 2 words to clue. I admit that this will not always work! :)

  3. In defence of the rulebook and the designer, the Valid Clues section has a Firm Rules section on page 6 with the rule "The number after your clue can't be used as a clue." I'd argue that anything other the count of cards to which you believe your word clue applies is a clue, as it is providing information as to which card to pick. It's also explicit in the original Czech rules but not the localized English rules - I copied the text for this rule from the rulebook on the Czech Games website into Google Translate and got the additional sentence "The number is intended only to indicate the number of words, which the hint applies." I suspect that the sentence fell victim to the revised layout of an expanded homonym section. It's still fascinating to theorize on how to use the number as a clue though.

    0 is also covered in the Valid Clues section as an expert clue on page 7 that actually *removes* the guess limit, so guessers can keep going until they stop or get it wrong. It also gives an expert clue rule for using "Unlimited" as the number - basically, it doesn't give your teammates an idea of how many cards the clue applies to, but there's no guess limit. Their placement in the rulebook does make it a little unclear as to whether or not they are optional rules, although the rules themselves don't read like optional rules (and in this case, the Czech rulebook is laid out the same as the English one). I've been considering them to be actual rules, YMMV.