GTM #236 - Letter Jam
by Czech Games Edition

You are all sitting in a circle. Everyone has a card in front of them they cannot see. You are scratching your head. This one is a toughie. You have one last clue left and your fellow players desperately need to know what letters they have. But all you can see is C O P S U. So, what good clues could these letters make? COPS is too short, for sure, so you can’t offer that. COUPS would use everyone’s letters, right, but the girl with U might think it’s CORPS, so let’s better not confuse her. But now you see it! If you use the wildcard to make up an additional T and use the O twice, there might be something! You grab the rainbow of numbered tokens – this time you’ll use seven of them. You put number one in front of the player with O, number two to C and so on. You can’t tell others what letter the wildcard stands for, but from looking at other players’ cards, everyone soon gives a sigh of relief once they all understand the tokens spell out a clue OCTOPUS. 

This is what Letter Jam play can be like. This article is about one of the most challenging parts of the development - finding an identity and visuals for the game. 

The story started one nice spring evening in 2017. The Game With Letters was played over and over again by our testers at our annual testing event. Still, it was a really crude prototype. The cards were just office paper tucked into shield sleeves. All of the letters and numbers on the tokens were written with permanent marker and everyone made notes on what was actually a printed spreadsheet, and yet, testers kept coming and wanting more plays of The Game With Letters

We even started discussing releasing the game! But then, somebody came up and said: “But we need to find some theme and visuals for it, so it’s much prettier! For sure we can’t call it The Game With Letters!” So we sat in a circle, scratching our heads. This one was a tough one, because the game didn’t have any theme and whatever we tried to paste on it seemed too silly and pointless. 

The first thing we had was the name. Letter Jam was an idea that emerged during the same testing event. The word “jam” has multiple meanings that seem to fit the nature of the game and its cooperative aspect – and also that sometimes you get jammed spectacularly. Testers seemed to love the name, too, but there were some concerns from some of our partners about it, because putting a “letter”, “word” or “gram” in the name is an alleged jinx that may somehow make the game less appealing. Some hinted that we should try making up a name that ends with the magic bigram of “LE” and throw in some double consonants. We dedicated quite a lot of time to finding the right alternative. We even discussed some wildly original and exotic ideas like Japanese or Swahili-sounding nonsense words. Still, none of these seemed to capture the nature of the game as well as Letter Jam did. 

So we decided to make Letter Jam stand out from the crowd by other things than the name – for instance we decided we would not go for the classic game-components-spelling-out-the-game-name cover, because how can you tell this game might be something better if it looks like all the other word games? 

One of the most important things I really wanted was a box cover that passes the “short simple description” test – you should be able to unmistakably describe a game cover using just a few words so your friend can easily fetch it from your three-walls-spanning collection. This is a criterium I actually made up (shhh) to avoid ending up with an incomprehensible and indescribable mishmash of “stuff” on the cover – a natural but often underperforming result of designing visuals for a theme-less game. 

There were many, many ideas and iterations of the box cover. We built upon the name – we tried fruits, trees, jam jars, chip rainbows, you name it. One of the initial ideas we kept coming back to was a strawberry-themed box, because strawberries are one of the magic things that gives everyone strong positive emotions, such as ice cream or a good Wi-Fi signal. It started with an idea of strawberry texture, then we tried putting a small strawberry on white background. Still, we wanted to make it a bit more thematic and connected to the actual game, so we tinkered with the seeds a little bit.  Once the first image appeared in the design thread, we immediately knew this was the right way to go. Then we embarked on the Eternal Quest for the Perfect Strawberry and if it weren’t for deadlines, we’d still be on it. 

As for the game component visuals, we decided to use color scale for the clue tokens so it’s easier to make notes and search the table for the right token. The name, naturally, determined these tokens would be fruit-themed. Still, due to the consistency with the minimalistic box, we wanted to keep all the other material as unobtrusive as possible. We wanted the game to be clear and uncluttered for everyone, even onlookers. So, we avoided adding things that could make the game look more complex without holding any actual information value. 

Since Letter Jam is a game where you are not allowed to look at the face of your own cards and you really need to discern between one side and the other, we decided to make one side dark and the other one light and decided to use the same font, style and color for every letter. We went for a dark obverse because the color fits the “secret” you are uncovering and also it helped make the digital code more readable. The card is meant to be scanned by a special smartphone app we developed to generate setups that give a better sense of mystery. As for the reverse, you constantly see many face-down cards throughout the game, so a strong visual motive could easily wear off anyway. That’s why we made the reverse just white. We only added the logo and partial varnish features to give a sense of solid production value despite the minimalistic design. By the way, you can find another surprise hidden in the deck, if you are observant enough. 

In the end, all of the important features – i.e. tokens and obverse side of cards – work as either colored or dark gray focus points while everything less important is white. This is how we put the gameplay and clarity above everything else. We were aware that this purely minimalistic approach might have been quite bold and potentially risky move in today’s world of eye-candies and beautiful-illustration-heavy games. We believed, however, that people will actually find it functional and rather refreshing. From the first reactions, it seems that the bet has paid off.  Granted, it was easier to take the risk when we knew people always enjoyed the game for how it played. Even when it was just called The Game With Letters and everything was written with permanent marker. 

Letter Jam is an upcoming cooperative word game for 2-6 players designed by Ondra Skoupý and published by CGE. The art was directed by Michaela Zaoralová. With the help from Lukáš Vodička, Dávid Jablonovský, František Sedláček, and Radim Finder Pech, she managed to turn these either too silly or too austere design ideas into something pretty. The game recently received a strong positive reception during its pre-release at Gen Con 2019. It will be available in stores in October.