I was going to write a bunch of notes about games, wasn’t I? Well, the most recent game I have played with other people is Word-O-Rama, and it is one of my very favorite pastimes, and it turns out that I’ve mentioned the game frequently on this site but haven’t really talked about it. I assume that all Gentle Readers play it already. Don’t you?
I learned the game from the official Word-O-Rama board game’s rule book. It’s one of those games, though, that does not require an official boardgame to play, which is just as well, as all I ever had was the rule book. You don’t even need that—the rules can be written in a paragraph and then you just need paper and pens and a timer of some kind. I believe that other people play it under different names with slightly different rules, but I’m going to give the whole ruleset here as we currently play it.
Each player has a writing implement and a piece of paper. On the paper make a five-by-five grid (one could pre-print this, but that’s scarcely necessary) with room at the top and side for titling categories and rows. The group chooses five categories across the top; the categories can be anything of any kind, from Famous Structures to Tools, from Birds to World Leaders, from Weather Words to Things Commonly Found in a Classroom. Once these are selected and written in at the top of the columns, the rows are given letters—the usual method is to choose a five-letter word with no repeating letters and write it down the side. As soon as the letters are chosen, start the timer for whatever length of game you’ve agreed on. Each player enters an example in as many boxes as possible, fitting the category in the column and beginning with the letter of the row. In general, use last names of people and don’t count articles at the beginning of titles. Players receive 10 points for every valid and unique answer, five points for an answer that one other player writes, and no points for either a blank space or an answer given by three or more people. That’s it. The whole ruleset, I believe, and the rest is commentary.
Example: The categories are Plays, Monsters, Diseases, Colors and Judges, and the word is HOURS. Entries might be Happy Days, Harry (from Sesame Street), Hemophilia, Hot pink, and Learned Hand; Old Hats, Ogre, BLANK, Orange, O’Connor; BLANK, Ursula the Sea Witch, BLANK, Umber, BLANK; the Ritz, Robot comma killer, Rickets, Rose, Roberts; Summer and Smoke, Scylla, Sleeping Sickness, Sepia, Stevens.
That’s, what, four blanks? That’s not bad. I suspect that I wouldn’t get full points for all of them, depending on how many other players there were. Roberts and Stevens seem like things other people would likely put down, as do Orange, Hemophilia and maybe a few others. More, maybe, in a big group. One of the interesting things about Word-O-Rama is that it works quite well with three or four people, but it also works quite well and entirely differently with ten or twelve people. And I suspect that an on-line version with forty or fifty people would work reasonably well also, although there would have to be some sort of authority control over answers. Which brings us to some MFQ issues about the game.
The validity (or otherwise) of answers: I am a big-category guy, and generally want to allow even moderately absurd answers. In a category such as Things that are Hard, I am happy to accept not only Limestone and Linoleum but Luck and Liquor and Living, and would also be willing to accept Lacanian Theory of the Real. That’s not the only possible attitude to take, however, and the important thing is to know before time starts whether it is a Big Category game or not. I suspect that in larger groups there is a danger of the fun being destroyed by an argument over whether Laminate is really hard. Don’t be that group! Maybe in a bigger group, I’d be more inclined to interpret categories narrowly, just to avoid argument.
Categories: I have a carefully curated list of 119 categories. And by carefully curated I mean that some of them turned out to suck and I haven’t actually crossed them off. Ah, well. My advice with categories is (a) be willing to toss out a category if someone doesn’t like it—don’t make people play with Famous Operas if they don’t want to—but at the same time, (2) be willing to play a category that you don’t think you know anything about, as you probably know more Famous Streets than you think you do. As a Big Category Guy, in People categories (such as Famous Judges, Warriors or Artists) I accept male or female, living or dead, real or fictional answers, and have a low bar for famousness. In non-people categories, I’m happy to accept fictional Streets but not fictional Corporations, fictional Nations but not fictional Cities, fictional Sports Teams but not fictional TV Shows. I dunno why. Worth saying the House Rules in advance.
Digression: I found that a good habit is to start every game session with the cry House Rules! Then if there are any actual house rules, they can be repeated. Word-O-Rama is a big House Rules kind of game, but most games have some sort of options, and if you are used to the same group of people playing all the time, you can get out of the habit of repeating them aloud, and that can lead to trouble with new friends. So. House Rules! End Digression.
Still talking about Categories: I personally enjoy a mix of the more difficult and the easier categories. When you are coming up with Actors, it’s fun to come up with ones you don’t think the other players will use. When you are coming up with Bodies of Water, it’s fun to just try to complete the category. Different kinds of fun, both fun, more fun together.
Randomness: I carefully came up with a list of 100 five-letter words that don’t duplicate letters, and that has what I considered a good distribution of common and uncommon letters. I’ve played dozens and dozens of games where I choose the word from that list randomly (either with dice or a random-number-generator) and I’ve played dozens of games where the word is chosen by somebody just calling out a word, and as far as I can tell the MFQ difference is entirely nugatory. When people just come up with words, you’re likely to have fewer really difficult letters and more S and A rows, and I personally enjoy having a grid that’s difficult to fill out now and then, but it’s not a big deal—it isn’t, for instance, generally worth booting up my computer to get to the list, if my computer is not already booted up. Similarly, the difference between categories randomly chosen from my curated list and categories shouted out by the players has been nugatory.
Time: My most-usual Word-O-Rama group plays four-minute games. A five-minute game is not too long (particularly with teams), but the ten-minute duration in the Official Board Game rules is Right Out. I know some people play until the first player completes a grid, but I think that makes the rounds too long. And I like that completely filling the grid is a fairly rare achievement—I find that four minutes is just right for that, for me, anyway.
Scoring: The Official Board Game Rules say to collect the papers and redistribute them so that your grid is scored by someone else. Bah! If someone cheats, let them. The MFQ hit for trying to make out each others’ handwriting is much bigger than the hit for someone claiming an extra ten or twenty points. However, the really important thing is that when players share their answers, they read across the grid, not down, such that all the categories of one letter are scored before moving on to another letter. Some people do this wrong! Reading all of the first category before moving on. I know, shocking. We won’t talk about it.
Teams: some people play with teams. I strongly deprecate this, but of course if it works for y’all, have fun. The main problem with teams is that it requires separating out for the duration of the filling-out-the-grid time, which I think drastically reduces the MFQ. At any rate, a team fills out one grid together.
Traps: Aside from the aforementioned descent into argument about the validity of answers, the main MFQ trap is somebody feeling stupid for not filling out much of the grid. Aside from being nice to each other, and having a decent mix of categories and letters, I’m not sure what can be done about this. I suspect that the more lowbrow the categories are, the better, unless you’ve got a small group of highbrows playing, but perhaps a person whose brain freezes a bit would feel even sillier if they freeze on Tools or Garments than if they freeze on Composers or Bible Characters. And my experience is that I’m about as likely to freeze on either. So I’d love some advice about this from experienced players, if y’all are willing to chime in.
Another trap is playing too many rounds: four is the correct number. Four grids will fit on two sides of a letter-sized sheet of paper, and when you’ve filled ’em up, you’re done. Move on to something else.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,