Letter Jam is a clever little game that will have you assembling letters, decoding clues, and unscrambling words.
What Is Letter Jam?
Letter Jam is a cooperative word-making game for 2 to 6 players, ages 10 and up, and takes about 45 minutes to play. It was released in 2019 by Czech Games Edition and is available in stores for about $20. The primary requirement for playing is the ability to spell and decipher words, so the primary difficulty for younger players may be a smaller vocabulary to work from.
Letter Jam Components
Here’s what comes in the box:
- 64 Letter cards
- 1 Wild card
- 8 numbered chips
- 6 red tokens
- 9 green tokens
- 6 card stands
- 6 pencils
- 1 Guessing Sheet pad
- 4 Setup cards
(Although it’s not shown in the components list, my copy also came with a pencil sharpener—a nice touch, and something I don’t usually see in games that include pencils.)
The letter cards are pretty simple: a large letter in the center of the card, with a smaller copy of the letter in all four corners, so you can see the index letters no matter which way you hold your cards. At the top and bottom are some odd rectangular codes—these are for use with the app, but you don’t need to pay much attention to them otherwise. (A fun Easter egg: when you first open the deck of cards, before shuffling them, take a look at the order of the cards.)
The chips are nice, weighted poker chips, numbered 1 through 8, each with different colors and designed to look like the cross-sections of various fruits. They’re cute, and satisfyingly heavy. The fruit design, of course, goes with the title of the game, though it’s not entirely clear what the game has to do with fruit or jam-making.
The setup cards are designed for different player counts; each depicts a flower with green dots on the leaves and red dots on the petals, and one more green dot in the center of the flower. The number of dots varies based on the player count. These hold the red and green plastic tokens, used to keep track of which players have offered clues during the game. Compared to the fruity poker chips, the flowers are somewhat plain and not very impressive, but they serve their purpose just fine. Again, I’m also not sure how flowers fit into the theme of the game, either.
The card stands are simple and work well: you insert a card and it holds it upright, without gripping so hard that it damages the card, but tight enough that it won’t fall out.
Overall, the components are fine but fairly simple: good quality cards, excellent poker chips, nothing really fancy to look at except for the fruity chips. The box is the same size as Codenames, which is a little larger than it strictly needs to be, but isn’t huge; there’s no insert, so you just throw everything into the box.
How to Play Letter Jam
You can download a copy of the rulebook here.
The goal of the game is for every player to figure out their secret word before the group runs out of clues.
Use the setup card corresponding to the number of players, placing it in the center of the play area with red and green tokens on the dots. Place the number chips and the wild card (with the asterisk) in this area as well. Give each player a guessing sheet, a pencil, and a card stand. Fold your guessing sheet in half lengthwise so that you can keep your notes hidden from other players.
Each player will create a secret word for the player to their right—or, alternatively, you can use the free app to create everyone’s words instead. Shuffle up the deck of letter cards, and then divide the deck roughly among all the players. Using the letters you have, create a 5-letter word (don’t show anyone!). Then mix up those 5 cards and place them face-down in front of the player to your right. Place your unused cards into a common deck in the center.
Put the cards you received in a row in front of you. Place the leftmost letter in the card stand facing away from you.
Once everyone has received a 5-letter word, shuffle the rest of the cards together to form a deck. If playing with fewer than 6 players, there will be nonplayer letters in the remaining stands. The setup card will show how many cards to make for each nonplayer pile. Place a green token beneath each of these stacks, and then put the top card from each stack into its stand.
When you’re set up, you should be able to see 5 letters facing you (either belonging to players or in the nonplayer stands) and your own letter card facing away from you. No peeking at your own letters!
In Letter Jam, players don’t take turns in order. Each round, there will be some discussion and then you’ll choose a player to be the cluegiver.
Everyone looks at the letters they can see, and tries to come up with a word they can spell using those letters, plus the wildcard if needed. You may use the same letter more than once in the word, and you may use the wildcard multiple times (but it must represent the same letter each time in that word). Do not reveal what your word is. Clues can be pretty much anything: proper nouns, acronyms, you name it—but the catch is that you can’t tell the other players what sort of word it is.
If you have a clue, you may say:
- how long the word is
- how many player letters it uses (but not which players)
- how many nonplayer letters it uses (but not which ones)
- whether it uses the wildcard (or bonus letters, which come into play later)
You’re not allowed to give any other information, such as whether it’s going to be a tough word to guess, or which letters you’ll use multiple times, or if a particular player has a difficult letter, etc.
Once everyone has agreed on a cluegiver, that player takes a clue token from the setup card. For your first clue, take a red token from the flower petals; for all subsequent clues, take a green token. (In a 3-player game, your first 2 clue tokens will be red.) You may not take the green token in the center of the flower until all the petals have been taken. Using the numbered chips, spell your clue word by placing the chips in order next to the letters: 1 next to the first letter in your word, 2 next to the second letter, and so on. Note that if you use the wildcard in your word, you may not indicate what letter it represents.
If the cluegiver used your letter, then write down the clue on your sheet, writing a “?” anywhere your own letter appears. Use a “*” for the wildcard. There’s room to the side for you to write down potential guesses for your letter, based on the clue. For instance, if the clue you were given was “?ARP” then you could guess C, L, or W.
If you’re sure of your guess, you may announce that you’re ready to move on. Write down your final guess at the bottom of the sheet. Take your letter card out of the stand (without looking!) and place it face-down back into its position, and then move the card stand over to your next letter and stand it up. Once you’ve moved on, you cannot ever go back (though you could change your guess later if you realize you made a mistake).
At the end of the round, if any of the nonplayer letters were used, discard them and replace them with letters from their corresponding stacks. When the last letter is placed into the stand and the green token is revealed, add the green token to the setup card, where it may be used for a clue in future rounds. If a stack runs out, then draw new letters from the main deck.
If a player has moved on from their last letter, they draw a bonus letter from the deck and place it in their stand. If the bonus letter is used by the cluegiver, the player has one chance to guess what letter it is. If they’re correct, it is placed face-up next to the wildcard; if they’re incorrect, it is discarded. Either way, they will get a new bonus letter for the next round.
The game ends when there are no clue tokens left at the end of a round, or when everyone decides they don’t need more clues.
Looking at your guessing sheet, you try to unscramble your secret word based on your guesses for the letters. Without looking at the cards, rearrange them to spell the word. The wildcard and any bonus letters on the table may be used by players to replace letters or even to lengthen their words, but each card may only be used once.
Everyone then reveals their cards: if everyone spelled a word, then everyone wins! (Note that you don’t necessarily have to spell the word you were given, as long as you spelled a word.) The rules are somewhat flexible, and allow for a “close enough” win.
There’s also an optional scoring table on the back of the setup card:
- Score 3x the original length of correctly guessed words, plus 1 point per added letter
- Score 1 point per correct letter of incorrectly guessed words
- Score 1 point per green token left on the setup card.
Compare your score to the chart to see how you did, from “edible” to “supersweet.”
Why You Should Play Letter Jam
Letter Jam is brought to you by the same publisher (but not designer) as Codenames, and it’s similar in that it’s also a clever game about providing clues to your team. This time, however, it’s about guessing individual letters rather than entire words, so the focus is on spelling rather than meaning and associations.
Letter Jam primarily uses two different word-making skills. First, you have to be able to make words from a scramble of letters—okay, so that’s kind of like Scrabble, except that you can use letters multiple times and you get a wildcard. Next, you have to be able to fill in missing blanks in a word—kind of like filling in a crossword puzzle, except without the hint, and it could range from something really obvious and definite like “GEEKD?D” to the I-guess-it’s-probably-a-consonant clues like “?AT.” (Note: if your clue word is 3 letters long and ends with “AT,” maybe reconsider.)
The big difference in Letter Jam is that it’s not enough just to make a word with the available letters. What you really want is to create a word that is as unambiguous for as many players as possible. That means not only coming up with a word, but then thinking about how your clue will appear to each player. That goes doubly if your word uses the wildcard, because it can be extremely unhelpful to get a clue like “?*N*D*.” (See below for the answer.) What this means is that just because you’re good at Scrabble doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll automatically be good at Letter Jam. The ability to use the same letter multiple times can also be tricky at first because that’s not as common in word-making games.
I’ve really enjoyed Letter Jam because I like things like word jumbles and anagrams. I was a spelling bee kid, which means I have an aptitude for making words regardless of meaning. For some players, though, that’s not as fun: just because your gaming group loves Codenames or Just One doesn’t mean they’ll automatically fall for Letter Jam, too. Those games can leave you with memories of great clues because of the way somebody connected some words in a clever way; the clues in Letter Jam are almost stripped of context, which makes the game feel a bit more abstracted.
While the rules about taking red tokens before getting to the green tokens may seem a little strange at first, it’s sort of a nudge to combat the “alpha player” problem in cooperative games, where a more domineering player takes charge and tries to direct everyone else. With Letter Jam, there’s already a bit of self-correction built in, simply because the person giving the clue will never get any information about their own letter. Sure, you may be coming up with some awesome clues and everyone else is guessing their letters, but if you don’t let other players take a turn, you’ll still be sitting on your first letter when the game ends. The red and green tokens encourage the team to make sure everyone gives at least one clue, because otherwise you won’t have access to extra clues.
A lot of the time playing Letter Jam is spent staring at the letters, everyone trying to come up with clues and proposing them. Sometimes you can see a really great word, but you’re also the furthest behind and you know you should let somebody else go. Sometimes all of the visible letters are consonants and everyone is groaning, because while the wildcard is there to help you make more words, it also makes things harder to guess. That does mean it can feel like it has a good bit of downtime, though at least in my experience it’s not true downtime because everyone is still actively working on a clue—it’s not like you’re just waiting for somebody else to take a turn and you can’t do anything.
It’s definitely a game that rewards repeated play, because you’ll start to learn how to evaluate clues based on the limited amount of information everyone can share. Is it better to have a short clue that uses 4 players’ letters, or a longer clue that only uses 2 players’ letters? Sometimes, you’ll even be able to glean some information—like if you’re the only player with a vowel showing—just base on a clue proposal, without even seeing the clue itself.
While Letter Jam may not have quite as broad appeal as Codenames did when it was first released, gamers who love playing with letters might enjoy its depth. Since everyone plays as both cluegiver and guesser during the game, it allows everyone to experience both aspects in a single game. It’s been a hit at my game nights for several (but not all) of my regulars. If you love word games, it’s worth checking out!
By the way: that clue I mentioned up above? “CANADA.”
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.