Monday, July 02, 2007

An Insane Angle on a Word Game

"Without knowing what futurism is like, Johansen achieved something very close to it when he spoke of the city; for instead of describing any definite structure or building, he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces - surfaces too great to belong to anything right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs. I mention his talk about angles because it suggests something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. He said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. Now an unlettered seaman felt the same thing whilst gazing at the terrible reality."
H.P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"

On a visit to the FLGS the other day (looking for Colosseum) I noticed the new Playroom Entertainment game, Unspeakable Words. Having spent 7 hours playing Arkham Horror against the kid only a week or two earlier, a 30 minute Cthulhu game sounded irresistible. Even better, it was a word game. Arkham Horror distilled to a 30 minute word game? I had to have it. Also, it was cheap.

The game is very simple. You make words out of letter cards. The letters contain angles - S has 0, M has 3, A has 5, etc. Making words with angles drives you insane. Try to get enough points to win without going insane due to loathsome redolence etc.

You have a hand of 7 cards and on your turn you may make a word or exchange your hand for a new one. You score the points for the letters in the word. In addition, you roll d20. If you roll less than the points for the word, you lose a point of sanity. Read that again - if you roll less, you go insane. So big words send you insane. Small words are safer. First to 100 points wins. To get to 100 points first you need big words, to avoid insanity (and its consequence, elimination) you need small words. Non-Euclidean, huh?

You start with 5 sanity points, which are, awesomely, little green Cthulhu figures. If you lose all 5 sanity points you're eliminated from the game. This can happen through bad luck or bad play, or both. Let's do the maths.

When you make a word worth n points you have (n-1)/20 chance to lose a sanity point. Let's do what statisticians do and say on average you lose (n-1)/20 sanity points to earn a score of n. As you're effectively using the cards to exchange sanity for points, you earn n / ((n-1)/20) points per sanity point, i.e. 20n/(n-1). As you start with 5 sanity points and need 100 points, and you must stay sane to win the game, you need to earn 25 points per sanity point. That suggests that n/(n-1) throughout the game should be greater than or equal to 5/4, i.e. your words should average 5 points or less. When an E is worth 5 points, that's hard work. Obviously big words are more dangerous and small words are safer. But then the luck factor gets involved.

Obviously any game will have some players who get lucky and some who don't. The luck swings in this game can be quite dramatic, and if there are 6 players you'd expect there to be a luckiest one and an unluckiest one. The likely winner of Unspeakable Words will be the player who best combines their skill with their luck. Some people can make lots of big words, rush to the lead and be eliminated, whereas others will ride their luck and win gloriously. That's life.

I'd like there to be a successful strategy to this game but I don't see that there is. I'd think you could make small words to be safe, and if you can make a very high scoring word, e.g. 25 points, go ahead and take the sanity hit. However my observations have been that the lucky player making medium (i.e. 12-17 point) words will win. That must be how she does it.

In any case, this is a fun game, from the very nice card art to the teensy weensy Cthulhu statues. It's great for kids, because if they can only make small words they can still do well - MET is worth 10 points but SOUS is worth 0. It's a great light game for gamers who can try to strategise and blame the dice when they lose. And most of all, it's a very funny nod to Lovecraft's genius, and a whole lot quicker than Arkham Horror.


Ryan Walberg said...

That game sounds cool. Has Scrabblette tried it yet?

Steve said...

This game sounds so very cool.

So much so, in fact, that when I was wandering the exhibitors hall today (I'm at Origins in Columbus, Ohio for the weekend), I bought it.

Hope it's as fun as it sounds :)

scrabblette said...

Yes, I have, and I like it very much. I'm the "she" that beat Friendless both times we played the game. He lost all his saniity counters just as we were both pushing 100 to win :-)
in reply to:
Ryan Walberg said...
That game sounds cool. Has Scrabblette tried it yet?

Friendless said...

Huh... Blogger hasn't been notifying me of comments. Scrabblette beat me in the first two games I played. I only beat the Evil Count von Walduck.

Hey wow... Scrabblette posted on the internet.