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Spell Out!

Spell Out! from Next Dimension Games is an unusual confection. Tho' it's obviously a word game, it's not so much about word creation as area control style capture of letters on the playing board, and that process is itself one of tactical positioning of a kind mostly found in abstract strategy games.

The game design by Barry and Paul Sanders offers a solo play option but competitive play is for 2-4 players. There are decks of 'Challenge' cards. You decide which deck you are using and you deal out five face-down cards as your challenges for the game. Each card will be the challenge for the round. Players need to think of a five letter word that meets the challenge card's requirements: typically, containing a blend of letters or having a specific letter in the middle of the word. You don't pre-announce your word, which means you aren't committed to sticking with it.

Unusually for a word game, players don't have any letter tiles or cards. You'll be forming your words by moving your pawn and four cubes so that they have an uninterrupted line to the letters on the board that you need to spell out your word. Your pawn must have the first letter of the word. Pieces can move any distance orthogonally or diagonally but they are effectively blocked by your own and other players' pieces. You can't land on a letter, and tho' you don't necessarily need to be immediately adjacent to it the blocking rules mean that you can only safely rely on nabbing letter if you are on one of the spaces orthogonally or diagonally adjacent to it.

Strategies for players change according to the challenge on the card. Certain blends limit a player's choice of five-letter words - as will be attested by any Worldle enthusiast, so canny players may try to guess at what word an opponent is aiming to make and position their cubes to try to block their access to a key letter. That's less likely to be a consideration with, for example, challenges that just specify the middle letter of the word. When a player believes they have area control of the letters needed to spell out a word that satisfies the challenge, then instead of moving a piece on their turn, they Spell Out: starting with their pawn and moving all their pieces onto the letter spaces. If your word uses one or more of what the rules refer to as 'tricky' letters (Z, X, V, Q, J and, surprisingly, B), success wins not just the card for the round but also the 'extra move' token(s) on the challenge card: unclaimed tokens get added to the next challenge card to be revealed. A special rule for the final round gives players a chance to try to 'Match or Snatch' the final challenge by matching or beating their word on their next turn. You can beat a word by using more of the 'tricky' letters.

This all makes for an interesting tussle, tho' it's one that feels and plays very differently at different player counts. With two players there's often relatively little interaction: the game is mostly about finding the most efficient route to meeting the challenge in the fewest moves. Games will rarely take more than 10-15 minutes. Interaction and opportunities for blocking obviously increase with more players, and with four players you'll find there's often a huge amount of jockeying for position. Here there's likely to be a focus on securing any essential letters: if the challenge requires that the word contains the blend BR, for example, then you'll need to be sure you get access to that B, which is 'tricky' not because it's hard to use in a word but because it's positioned in a tricky position on the edge of the board. In a four-player game we found some of the challenges could leave a player completely frozen out: for example, in the game shown in our Board's Eye View 360 which required a word with a double E, players would need to prioritise getting cubes with unblockable access to the E because if all eight of the paths to the E was taken (perhaps because another player also wanted the adjacent N to make KNEED) you'd have no way of meeting the challenge. Similarly with the challenge requiring a word with QU: the Q is on the edge of the board with just four adjacent squares, one of which could be taken in addition to the Q by a player going for the M to spell QUALM.

Curiously, we found some of the challenges in the supposedly easier 'Starter' deck were potentially tougher than those in the 'Standard' deck (both our EE and QU examples came from the Starter Deck). That's not a big deal but we honestly couldn't see any reason for the cards to be divided into two discrete decks.

If you're looking for an abstract strategy game with a word game element thrown in, this could be just the thing. But then, we shouldn't need to spell that out for you!

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