Tag: word association

Trapwords Review

Trapwords Review

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.

Trapwords Bosses
Is this a picture of the bosses in Trapwords or of the United States Congress? You decide.

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).

Trapwords curse
Hilarity ensues….?

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.

When I Dream Review

When I Dream Review

In my experiences over the past three to four years in this hobby, whether it’s introducing games to new groups, playing lots of new ones myself or consuming so much board game media content that I see more of Tom Vasel than my girlfriend, there’s one thing that I’ve noticed: Social deduction games are very polarizing. This genre is the very definition of divisive, one that you either love or hate. Apparently, some people just aren’t into lying to their friends’ faces or getting into heated arguments where most people’s main point is, “Listen, just believe me, not them!”

Imagine that!

As for myself, I love social deduction if it’s done right. One of the most memorable and stressful (in a good way) experiences I’ve ever had in the hobby was from a game of The Resistance. Spyfall and A Fake Artist Goes To New York not only offer a fun avenue to pick your friends’ brains and discover just how clever everyone around the table is, but have also resulted in some of the funniest moments I’ve had in gaming. As much as I love these games, however, I pivot back to the beginning where I said some people are just going to outright hate these games. That game of The Resistance I mentioned? That very same game resulted in one of the players announcing he’ll never play it again because of how everyone was at each other’s throats and how he felt cornered when the game was at the height of its intensity. And Spyfall? As funny and light hearted as I find the game, I have one friend who gets such anxiety when she’s the spy, she literally blurts out “YES, I’M THE SPY” at the slightest hint of suspicion towards her (she has since refused to ever play the game again too).

I completely understand the hang ups with the genre and am at peace with the fact that I just won’t get to play these types of games that often. That’s why it does my heart good to know that there is a social deduction game that works for people who don’t like social deduction. And that game is When I Dream.

To call When I Dream a social deduction game may be a tad misleading. The game, as I’ll explain, is actually as much a word association game as it is a social deduction game. But social deduction is certainly still there, with the tropes of hidden roles and traitors alive and well in its design. So what is When I Dream? Besides the answer to the question, “When is the only time where I’m truly happy?” of course.

When I Dream is a delicious fusion of word association and social deduction. The game is comprised of double sided cards with dream like, Dixit style surreal art, each with a word on top and on the bottom. The cards are placed into a plastic bed with one of the words covered, showing which words on the cards need to be guessed as they’re cycled through.

When I Dream bed
Easily the best bed component in board games since the timeless classic Don’t Wake Daddy.

One player dons a sleeping mask and is known as The Dreamer and they are going to receive clues from the other players to help them guess the words on the card as they come up. The Dreamer gets one guess per card and if they’re right it goes to the correct side and on the incorrect side if it’s wrong. The Dreamer gets points for every card on the correct side. Simple, right? Weelllllllll….

Here’s the twist that makes When I Dream so brilliant and takes it from a super straightforward word association game and turns it into a fiendishly clever social deduction game. Not everyone around the table wants The Dreamer to get the words correct. In fact, some want The Dreamer to get the words flat out wrong. At the beginning of every round, the non-Dreamer players are given a hidden role. They’ll either be a Fairy, a Boogeyman or a Sandman. The fairies are allied with the Dreamer; they also get a point for every card on the correct side of the bed. The Boogeymen are the exact opposite; they get a card for every card on the incorrect side of the bed. Finally, the Sandmen are a mix of both roles and a bit of a neutral party. If the cards in the correct pile are equal to the number of cards in the incorrect pile, the Sandmen get a nifty score bonus to elevate them above the others.

These hidden roles mean the Dreamer is unable to trust anyone at the table. The Dreamer needs to pay close attention to the clues being given to see who is giving clues that seem fairly well linked together and who is giving clues that seem juuuuust a bit off from the others. This is complicated by the fact that, of course, you have no idea what words you’ve correctly guessed throughout the round. Which means if you put your stock in the clues being given by the Boogeyman early on in the round, you’re going to be paying attention to the wrong clues. And in this game, all it takes is one clue for you to guess the incorrect word. If you have the clues “big” and “cat” and “stripes”, you’re going to give a much different answer than if the clues are “big” and “cat” and “mane”. If the person who gives the deciding clue is on your side, awesome! You’ll probably get points. But if the person who gives that deciding clue isn’t…well, get ready for a smug looking face when you lift that face mask off your eyes.

Herein lies the game for the clue givers, as well. As the Fairy, your job is straightforward. Just try and link the word with obvious clues. The Boogeyman has a bit of a tougher job. They want to give clues that are close enough to the word but not close enough for the Dreamer to actually guess the word. Going back to my earlier example, if the word is ‘tiger’, than going “mane” or “spots” or “Africa” are great clues to give. They’re all related to big cats, but not to a tiger, which leaves the Dreamer in a vulnerable position. Not only is there a chance the Dreamer will blurt out “Lion!” or “Cheetah!”, but they have no reason to not trust you on future clues. BUT. If the word is ‘tiger’ and you give the clue ‘elevator’, the Dreamer is gonna start side eyeing you beneath their mask. As the Boogeyman, you can’t let the Dreamer know who you are or they’ll stop listening to your clues for the rest of the round and you might as well go grab a drink. But manage to hide in plain sight, giving clues that don’t give away your true intentions AND get words on the incorrect side, and you’ll be reaping in the points at round’s end.

This tight wire balancing act is the reason why playing the Boogeyman is the most fun role in the game for me. It requires you to be clever and quick thinking and the chaos you can sow with your misdirection is hilarious. Not to keep going back to the tiger clue, but imagine a scenario where someone says “Cat” then “Mane” and you follow it up with “Stripes.” Suddenly, the Dreamer is stuck in a scenario equal to that cliché movie scene where a character is standing with a gun in front of their friend and their evil twin and they need to decide who to shoot, as both of them say, “Listen to me! I’M the real one!” I’ve been in situations where the word was ‘hot air balloon’ and the clues were ‘transportation’, ‘flying’, ‘ocean’, ‘ship’, ‘sky’ and ‘voyage’ and you could literally see the Dreamer’s brain break into two. It’s moments like this that make When I Dream such a beautifully fun game.

There’s a couple of other cool things worth mentioning. After time runs out for the Dreamer, they can then reel off all the words that they’ve guessed, and they’ll get bonus points if they recall all the correct guesses. You can simply list the words in a monotone voice, like you’re brainwashing a Manchurian Candidate with activation words OR you can weave the words into an actual dream like story. Where else can you tell a tale along the lines of “I was dreaming and Keith Richards swooped down on a DRAGON and he had a MASON with him and they were both yelling at a TIGER because it forgot to buy a CLOCK for their CABIN.”? Not only that, but we’ve noticed the Dreamer is consistently able to better remember the words when telling it in story form rather than just listing them, so When I Dream provides a nice bit of psychological study along with your board game. How would THAT be for your next Kickstarter stretch goal?

The last thing I’ll rave about is the production value. I had one person turn their nose up at it and call it overproduced, but I rarely find ‘overproduction’ a bad thing. In this case, it makes a memorable party game that much better. I already mentioned and provided a picture of the bed that the deck of cards sit in, but there is also the board that the bed sets down into. It uses crisp and clear iconography to remind you of how each person scores and where the various cards go when guessed. Plus, the board’s art is colorful and lush, a vibrant type of art style that I absolutely adore in games. Speaking of the art, the art on the actual cards needs no introduction. So many games have “Dixit-style art” on its cards that it is basically its own genre at this point. And I’m totally fine with that.

When I Dream cards
Hunter S. Thompson calls, he wants his manic hallucinations back.

The surreal, dreamy art that adorns the cards will have everybody rubbernecking around the table so that they can gawk at it. I do find it a little ironic that the art is this amazing and one player around the table is literally blindfolded so they can’t even see it, but that’s okay, everybody else is able to enjoy it.

It’s tough to find things to complain about with When I Dream. Every group I’ve introduced this to has not only loved it, but immediately demanded to play a second game right after the first. At about $40, you can definitely argue that it’s a little expensive as far as party games go, a genre of games which usually range from like $15 to $25. In this case, you can maybe grumble about the overproduction because that is a bit of a price tag. There’s also the fact that the Dreamer puts on a sleeping mask which some people are not okay with, especially if they’re playing with strangers and/or in a public space. They can close their eyes, sure, but even that may make people feel uneasy and I don’t have a solution for that. Maybe just have them turn around from the board? Just something to keep in mind when introducing the game.

I started off the review by mentioning how this game is a great social deduction game for people who hate social deduction, so I’ll end it by standing by that comment. It takes what makes social deduction great (clever use of wits, using detective work to figure out who your friends are) and removes all the mean, stressful bits (lying, arguing, fearing for your safety as tensions rise). But it’s not just that. It’s also an amazing word association game and an awesome game for parties. At a player count of 4-10, it’s also incredibly versatile. I even skeptically tried it at 4 and was delighted to find this is a rare social deduction game that still manages to work very well at its lowest player count. If any of those things sound appealing to you, When I Dream is an absolute must have. It’s the best party game since Codenames (one of my all time favorites) and will hopefully be remembered right along side of it as one of the hobby’s recent classics.