Updated: Oct 24
I'm a sucker for a word game, be it association (Word Slam [Kosmos], Just One [Repos]) or spelling (Letter Tycoon [Breaking Games], Letter Jam [CGE]), so I was very happy to try Rod Currie's Last Word Standing from Chronicle Books. The game is well presented in a compact box; the card stock is nice and thick, although some of the text is small and fine, which is becoming more of an issue as I get older. The game is played in multiple rounds of four phases, which are described well in the rule book, though the order of the rules is not intuitive. The book also contains a letter distribution chart and the variable value of each letter: for example, A's are worth 1, 2 or 3, but the As with value 1 mostly give a bonus.
After the initial deal, letter cards are drafted and, each round, players have the option of putting a word down using letters from their hand and the round's communal pair, with the intention of having the highest scoring word of that round: longer words yield more bonus points. If the word ends up not being the highest, its score is halved. This in and of itself has some strategy to it: do I make many short words that clear my hand to keep my score ticking over and grab free cards; or do I wait to make a longer word for the bigger bonus? The threat of high-value low-use letters remains the usual word game quandary, too.
Mixing things up, from a little to a lot, are Action cards, which run the range from extra points and letters to 'take that' negative points and card stealing. To a hobby game player like myself, these hark back unpleasantly to mass market randomness: fortunately, Action cards can also be used as wilds or to jump the queue in the draft. Play continues in rounds until one player reaches 75 points: highest score is the winner.
A few issues come to mind: tracking the current highest value word is one; it is actually addressed in the rules, which suggest using a token on the score track to show the current highest value... That's a very sensible idea, and it's not difficult to find a counter you can cannibalise from another game to fill this role. Why, however, have Chronicle Books not supplied a counter as part of the game? Another is one I hope has been play-tested and the right decision reached: for a generally fast-paced game, the acquisition of letters feels slow; too slow for impatient logophiles like myself as I want to be making words every round, not biding my time. My immediate thought to 'rectify' this would be to draft two letters each round: simple, perhaps, but I'd worry that it would deflate the tension of the game's tactical decision-making.
One key rule brings up an issue that is tied to the very name of the game itself. When you make a word, it must exceed the value of the current highest one. So, while you might have a fine little JAB of a word to clear your hand, if it isn't higher, you're stuck with those letters until next round, when you'll be hoping for an S and no-one else making a word. Further, the rule means that, even if your word's half-value would take you over the finish line, you simply can't play it: very frustrating. You can exchange one card per turn, if you're stuck, though.
There is a lot to commend in Last Word Standing: as someone with a love of words and experience of many word games, it is one I am happy to play, but would advise those going into it of the above caveats. Much as in Letter Tycoon (itself in need of a minor tweak, as we pointed out in our review of the game on Board's Eye View two years ago), the chance to make really long words is a blessed relief from the seven letter strictures of Scrabble (Hasbro) and its many variants; and there are choices in the game that transcend basic word play, which is a most welcome thing. If I had to knock out all word games one at a time until there was one left standing, Last Word Standing wouldn't be it, but it'd be in the final ten. :-)
(Review by David Fox)