In 2015, CGE took the game by storm by publishing Codenames, a word association game developed by game design legend Vlaada Chivatil. Its simple but smart and clever ruleset acted as a gateway for many a gamer into the hobby. Its gargantuan sales numbers and roughly 500 different versions that later got published (don’t be surprised if we ever get to see a Berenstain Bears Codenames) are certainly proof of that. For me, it was my favorite game ever for a while and was easily my most successful game when it came to indoctrinating I mean showing people how much fun board games can be.
So imagine my excitement when late last year CGE released a brand new word association game. That game was Trapwords, another team vs team game of clue givers trying to get their team to guess a certain word. The twist to this one, however, was that the clue giver wasn’t allowed to say certain words (the titular trapwords). So wait, isn’t that exactly what the old mass market game Taboo was? You’d be right, which is why there’s yet ANOTHER twist. The other team comes up with the trapwords and do so secretly, which means the clue giver has no idea what they’re allowed to say and not say.
Welcome to the chaotic but clever fun of Trapwords.
As mentioned earlier, this game shares a lot of DNA with Taboo, a mass market game from the late 90s that involved teams vying to get their teammates to guess words. The rub was that along with that word was a handful of other words that the clue giver could NOT say. If they accidentally or otherwise said one of the ‘taboo’ words, they lost the round. I think there was also a buzzer that you could press to alert the team when they screwed up, but I only have vague recollections because my brain probably repressed it.
Taboo was a decent game by mass market standards, but that’s not saying much. Trapwords takes the serviceable but bland dough of Taboo and injects it with a luscious modern board game custard, making a delicious Boston Crème donut that is far more palatable to hobby gamers (while still being accessible enough for casual and new gamers). As explained earlier, Trapwords is still a game of giving clues and trying to avoid restricted words (in this case called trapwords). The key difference is that the teams are the ones who make those words and the clue giver has no idea what those words might be.
The beginning of every round begins with a huddled session of whispers between teams, as they look at the word the other team must guess and begin debating over what trapwords to use. It’s like a small council meeting in Game of Thrones, but where the arguments are less “Who do we need to ruthlessly assassinate?” and more “Is Jenny more likely to use the word ‘cat’ or ‘stripes’ to describe ‘tiger’?” Then, once everybody is done making their list of words, they hand the cards over to the clue giver and the real fun begins.
The clue givers take turns trying to get their team to guess the word in a certain amount of time. And in that time the clue giver will inevitably sputter and grunt and chug like a Cadillac being driven for the first time since the Reagan administration. They’ll open their mouth, begin a thought and almost immediately close their mouth again when they begin to double guess every word they were about to say. Then when the clue givers finally get going, they sound like a nervous robot trying to work its way through a Turing Test.
For example, someone trying to describe ‘bank’ will likely sound like this:
“It…is..an establishment in which you go to receive reimbursement for things for which you earned said reimbursements and it is often a target of…criminal? Criminal plans to remove these reimbursements from the establishment and god how much more specific do I need to be, please answer it.”
As a spectator it’s hilarious to watch your friends short circuit and slowly talk like they’re clumsily working their way through a hostage negotiation. As the clue giver, it’s an agonizingly delicate dance of words, like you’re trying to maneuver a minefield but it’s also a raging blizzard so you can’t even see where you’re stepping. At any point your opponents can obnoxiously make a buzzer sound (thankfully this game doesn’t come with an actual buzzer, or else I’d get serious ‘Nam flashbacks), signaling your failure and shame to the entire room and costing your team a chance to move forward.
Which, by the way, is ultimately the goal of Trapwords. I haven’t even mentioned the game has a fantasy, dungeon crawling theme. Your team is represented by a group of adventurers trying to work their way down a corridor before meeting the game’s boss monster. The corridor is made up of room tiles with a number in the corner, denoting the amount of trapwords your opponents can make for that round. Obviously, the number gets higher the deeper you get, culminating in a room with the boss. If you’re in the same room as the boss and your team guesses their word during that round, you win the game. I’ve heard some reviewers complain about the theme, that it has the potential to put off non gamers who will spurn it because it’s too ‘nerdy’. The cutesy, quasi anime cartoon art in the game has also been polarizing and certainly doesn’t change the minds of these detractors.
I personally have no issue with either. I actually dig the fact that this game has a theme, rather than just have you guessing words over and over and moving down an abstract board. It helps make it feel more ‘gamey’ and adds a charming personality to the proceedings that helps show non gamers the twists modern gaming can add, even just thematically and aesthetically, that makes the hobby so great. So while some say the theme is off putting and distracting and unnecessary, I wholeheartedly think the opposite.
Plus, the theme is able to add some variety to the gameplay as well. Remember those bosses I mentioned earlier? Turns out each boss has a special power that makes it harder to guess the words while in the same room as them. As if that isn’t cool enough, the bosses all have two versions of said power: a basic, easier version and the more advanced, difficult version. This not only adds a neat little thematic touch, but also replayability.
That being said, the game’s other little thematic twist, the Curses, I’m a little less crazy about. Curses are cards dispersed throughout the dungeon that add a little rule that, like the bosses, make it a little tougher on the team while in that room. Sounds great, but it’s all silly stuff like ‘The clue giver must repeat every word after they say it’ (because they’re in a room with a lot of echoes) and ‘The clue giver must say all their clues in one breath’ (because they’re in a room that’s flooding). I enjoy the idea, but most of the curses remind me too much of mass market party games like Quelf (yes, a real game name) and Curses (hey, that sounds familiar) where the entire point of the game is “HA HA HA, I’M WEARING A SHOE ON MY HEAD AND TALKING LIKE MR. T., THIS GAME IS SO WACKY, WE’RE WACKY, HA HA HA”. Maybe I need to lighten up (okay, I DEFINITELY need to lighten up) but this kind of forced goofiness stopped being fun for me in high school (as did a lot of things, honestly).
Luckily these Curses are completely optional and thus don’t negatively impact my view of the game or its theme. And honestly, with enough beer I’m sure even I wouldn’t mind playing with them here and there. I just prefer the bosses much more and what they add to the game’s whimsical fantasy theme.
Outside of the optional Curse cards, is there anything else I’m not crazy about when it comes to Trapwords? Honestly, as someone who just adores these types of games, it’s tough to pick out anything that I really dislike. One complaint I could level, as a nitpick, is that the words come in two flavors: normal and fantasy. Depending on the way you read the cards, you get one or the other. I would have much preferred just basic words throughout, because having fantasy-only words narrows the scope of what the potential words can be. I suppose this is one way in which the theme does get in the way of the game. Another issue I have with the words is the balance is a bit suspect. Some words are waaay tougher to try and get your team to guess than others. Words like ‘monocle’ and ‘spreadsheet’ are darn near impossible when the other team is able to write seven or eight trapwords for you to contend with.
Even this though, I’m forgiving with because no word association game is perfectly balanced. Even Codenames, perhaps still the best of the genre, has this issue. Come on, don’t tell me you haven’t been in situations where the opponent clue giver gets to match ‘pizza’, ‘bread’, ‘ice cream’, and ‘pie’ while you’re stuck trying to link ‘polish’, ‘dolphin’, and ‘moon’. Sometimes you may luck out and some times you might not, but the games are short and silly enough that I doubt you’ll be stewing over it the rest of game night.
All in all, Trapwords is fantastic for anybody who enjoys these types of word association party games. It doesn’t surpass the genre’s greats, such as Codenames, When I Dream (hey, I reviewed that game!), and Decrypto but it comfortably rubs shoulders with them at the company picnic.