Gil Hova Gets Wordy About WordsyNovember 8, 2016
Ryan wanted to have a word with game designer, Gil Hova, about his newest game Wordsy. The Wordsy Kickstarter campaign is currently live on Kickstarter and you can play a Twitter-version of the game by sending tweets to Wordsybot.
Gil, could you share a little with us about yourself and what got you into tabletop gaming?
Gil: I’m a game designer and self-publisher living in Jersey City, just a few minutes from Manhattan. As Formal Ferret Games, I’ve put out The Networks and Bad Medicine, both of which have sold out their initial print runs.
I originally wanted to be a video game designer. I’ve had that dream ever since I was a kid. In my early 20s, I figured that if I was going to learn to make video games, I should start with board games, since I could learn a more “pure” form of game design there.
I wasn’t starting from zero; I had a bunch of old Steve Jackson games as a kid, like Car Wars, Illuminati, and Ogre. I didn’t have people to play with, so I only ever played them solo.
I discovered game conventions, and attended a few local New Jersey conventions. After playing Puerto Rico, I realized I liked board games more than video games!
Gil: Wordsy is a word game for 1-5 players that runs about 20 minutes long. There’s a deck of cards, and each card shows a consonant. You deal 8 cards onto the table, 2 each in 4 columns. Everyone simultaneously looks at the board and tries to come up with a word.
What makes this game different is that you don’t need all the letters in your word to be represented on the board. You can add any letters you’d like and you can use letters in any order. So the game favors longer words; those obscure 2-3 letter words are useless in this game!
The first player to write down their word grabs a 30-second timer and flips it. They’re the fastest player, and everyone else has 30 seconds to write down their words.
Once the timer runs out, the fastest player scores their word. Letters in each column is worth a different amount of points, and rare letters are worth more points. The next player clockwise scores their word and compares it to the fastest player’s. If the next player’s word is worth more points, then they score a 1-point bonus. Then the next player compares their word against the fastest player, and so on.
After everyone’s scored their words, if the fastest player’s word score was equal to or greater than half the other players at the table, they score a 2-point bonus. So there’s a benefit to flipping the timer, but only if you have a good enough word.
Then you discard 4 letters from the board, slide the remaining 4 letters down, and add 4 new letters. In a game with 3 or more players, the fastest player may not flip the timer again next round.
After 7 rounds, you add the scores of your best 5 words, plus all your bonuses. Highest score wins.
This is something about me as a designer; I’m a fiddler, and I will always tweak my games to find ways to make them better. Prolix was a polarizing game; hardcore game fans loved its intensity, but it was always a little too raw for a wider market. Wordsy is a much more accessible game, which I think fits the demographic more interested in a word game.
What makes Wordsy different from Prolix?
Gil: Both games have the same basic letter mechanism; you have letters on the board, and you can add any letters you want. Wordsy’s scoring is a tad higher, but it’s the same basic idea.
But what’s different is the gameflow. In Prolix, it was always one player’s turn, but any other player could interrupt the active player and “steal” the game board. At the end of the game, your interrupts replaced your lowest-scoring words, but if you weren’t careful, you could lose points from your interrupts if they were worth less than the words you replaced.
This made the game quite intense. It also affected the player scaling; the more players, the more likely an interrupt was. A 5-player game of Prolix is extremely nasty, with interrupts flying all over the place.
None of this makes it a bad game, but it’s a very niche game, and the fact that interrupt scoring is weird enough that it takes a full play for some gamers to understand didn’t do me any favors.
Wordsy dispenses with all that. Now, rounds are real-time. It’s never one player’s turn; everyone is going simultaneously, but the fastest player sets the pace for the round. That fastest player must come up with a word good enough to beat half the other players, so they can’t just come up with any word.
In Prolix, only one player could score a word at any time, so player scaling was a big factor. In Wordsy, everyone scores their word every round, with bonuses going to words that beat the fastest player (or the fastest player’s word being better than half the other players), which minimizes player scaling. Prolix was a different enough game at different player counts to require 4 different scoresheets: 1-player, 2-player, 3-player, and 4/5-player. Wordsy needs only one scoresheet design for all player counts, and even scales up to 6 players without issue.
What made you want to design a word game in the first place?
Gil: This goes all the way back to Prolix. There was a card-based word game that was popular in my local scene. It was terrible! I won’t name it here, but I will say that among its fiddly and counter-intuitive rules, it had the “feature” that you could play a card you happened to have previously drawn to cancel another player’s word.
I now understand things like core engagement in a game. The core of many word games, including both Prolix and Wordsy, is coming up with an amazing word. That’s what makes the game fun. But in this game, that feeling got immediately torpedoed if someone happened to have the right card.
What was this game trying to incentivize? What was supposed to be fun about it? I don’t know, and it drove me crazy. If this was a successful word game, how hard could it be to make a good one?
Of course, the answer was: hard. But I hope I succeeded!
What was, in your opinion, the most interesting design choice you had to make in re-implementing Prolix into Wordsy?
Gil: One thing that troubled me through most of the design is that it lacked a game arc. For much of the design process, Round 7 was the same as Round 1, in both rules and feelings. So it felt like a “rinse, lather, repeat” exercise.
I needed a way to give the game an arc, to make the last round feel a little more dramatic than the first round. I tried a bunch of systems, from limiting the number of times a player could flip the timer and become fastest player (now implemented with a simpler rule) to a bizarre endgame scoring mechanism where players collected letters from the board and tried to score them for extra bonus points.
Ultimately, the simplest solution turned out to be the best: I simply increased the bonus points for being or beating the fastest player in rounds 4 and 7. That gives the game extra drama and stakes late, and provides just enough spice to make things interesting.
What has been your favorite experience in designing Wordsy?
Gil: Prolix was a niche game that some people loved, but a lot of people disliked for counterintuitive scoring and overly-intense gameplay. And it came out 6 years ago, which feels like a generation in terms of games. Seriously, the scene has grown so much since then, there are a ton of new enthusiastic and informed gamers who weren’t around when Prolix came out, but who would be open to a game like Wordsy. I’m excited for them to try the game!
So it’s been amazing seeing all these gamers who have entered the hobby since Prolix’s original release curious about Wordsy. The game has gotten so much more enthusiasm than Prolix did. That’s partially because Wordsy is more accessible, there are more gamers, I have more social reach than I used to, and it’s a lot easier to communicate with gamers using social media than it was in 2010. This game has the potential to stick in a way that Prolix didn’t.
What was the most challenging part of designing it?
Gil: Honestly, it was the name. I called it Prolix Redux for a while, but I eventually accepted that no one knows what the word “prolix” means (it means “wordy” or “verbose”). So what do I call it?
Nothing seemed to work: “Loquacious” was okay, but seemed like it would fall into the same trap. For a while, I was thinking of giving it a weak science-fiction theme and calling it “Lexinaut”.
Thankfully, I know Amber Cook, who is a branding expert in the board game industry, and who’s now working with Asmodee. I got an amazing lesson from her when I told her my problem. She asked, “What does Prolix mean?” I answered, “It means wordy.” She said, “Why not just call it Wordy?”
So it was Amber who led me down the best path. There are a few other games called Wordy, so Brett Myers (designer of Roma and co-designer of Nanuk) suggested adding the S, and Wordsy stuck.
Twitter was a huge help here. I was able to bounce the proposed name off thousands of people, and I got to drink from a fire hose of feedback. It’s really amazing to connect with my fans like that. I love having them be part of the process.
What was the biggest lesson you learned in designing Wordsy?
Gil: When Zev and I worked on Prolix, we tossed around some ideas about the graphic presentation. We settled on something abstract, as this was an abstract word game. The cover that Gary Simpson really popped on our monitors, but was not well-received. People didn’t really go for its abstracted look.
I’m taking a different tack with Wordsy. My graphic designer Scott Hartman (who also worked with me on Bad Medicine) will be making the game box look like a book. It’s hardly the first game to do this; I can think of a ton of games that adopted this approach, from Biblios to Scepter of Zavandor to Iello’s Tales & Games line. But it suits Wordsy perfectly; one glance at the box tells you that this is a word game.
Being a self-publisher has helped me a lot here. Not only do I get to fully control the look of the box, I have control over the entire experience. So we’re setting up the cards in the game to look like pages from a book, with yellowed parchment. It comes out looking very nice; the game has a ton of table presence.
And from a practical point of view, we’re choosing mini cards instead of Prolix’s circular tiles. This is for two reasons. First, cards are cheaper, and will allow me to keep the cost of the game (and cost to fulfill to Kickstarter backers) relatively low.
Second, cards are a lot better than circles in this particular game. I found that players reflexively had to straighten out the circular tiles, which give no tactile indication to whether they’re right side up. If you look at a rectangular card, and there’s a letter showing portrait-style on it, there’s two ways it can be properly oriented: right-side-up or upside-down. Whereas with a circular tile, you have 360 degrees it can spin. So rectangles feel much less clunky here.
So Wordsy is teaching me a lot about experience and table presence. I’m finding it has a lot more charisma than Prolix, between the skeuomorphism of the game’s appearance (making it look like a book), its classy color palette, and the more intuitive arrangement of rectangular cards versus circular tiles.
What is one thing we haven’t covered today that you think fans of Wordsy would find interesting?
Gil: I mentioned this briefly, but I wanted to really emphasize it. Wordsy plays 1-6 players, and is really good at all those player counts.
I have to call this out because it’s something I’m skeptical of when I see other games do it. So many times, a game says it plays up to 6 players, but it turns out that you don’t want to play with more than 4.
I’m going to get a bit nitty-gritty here. The actions in a game will have certain scopes: local, adjacent, and global. Local scope are actions that only affect you. Global scope are actions that affect all players. Adjacent scope are actions that affect more than one player, but not all players.
Games with global-scope actions, like moving pieces on a shared central board, tend to be very sensitive to player count. These games are also very dramatic, with lots of player interaction, but need dummy players at low player counts, or feel meaningless at high player counts because there’s no way to plan for the next turn.
Games with local-scope actions, like manipulating a personal board or deck that no one else can affect, tend to be very tolerant of different player counts, but do not have the interaction that lots of players crave.
There’s no good or bad here. Blood Rage and Alhambra are games with significant global scope, and they’re both very highly-regarded games. Notre Dame and Race For The Galaxy have a lot of local scope, and they’re also quite highly regarded.
But like anything else, a designer who doesn’t carefully craft their game may come up with a scope that doesn’t suit the game well. I think an issue with Prolix was that the Interrupt mechanism was globally-scoped. When one player interrupted the active player that was an action with a global effect. That made the game sensitive to player count and alienated players who didn’t like that much interaction in games (although it gave the game a delicious tension that was what I was going for when I made it).
Wordsy replaces this globablly-scoped action with adjacent scope, as each player will only compare their scores against one other player (the fastest player) each round. I think this aligns better with how most people want to play a word game; there’s no global scope or stealing of another player’s word. Moreover, the adjacent scope means the game scales extremely smoothly, which Prolix couldn’t do as well with its global scope.
It’s a bit of a technical analysis, but that’s how I roll!
When you step back and look at the finished product, what makes you the most proud that you designed Wordsy?
Gil: There’s no game out there that feels even remotely like it. I’m honestly not a fan of many word games. I’d rather play a small indie word game like Ker-Flip or Dexicon than Scrabble, which I find too restrictive and rewarding of obscure words.
And with its new ruleset, I think it’s extremely approachable. I can teach the rules in 20 seconds, and anyone can play it. True, not everyone can play it well, but that’s something you have to accept with a pure word game. Just like people who aren’t comfortable with strategy won’t enjoy strategy games and people who aren’t comfortable with dexterity won’t enjoy dexterity games, I won’t win over people who don’t like word games. But for people who like the genre? You’re in for a treat.
Why do you feel someone should take a serious look at Wordsy on Kickstarter and possibly back it?
Gil: Like I said, there’s really no other game like it. Prolix naturally comes the closest, but this is so much easier to play, and it plays in half the time. You can play it with gamers and non-gamers alike, and I think everyone will enjoy it.
Also, Formal Ferret is still a very small company. I actually need Kickstarter to make this game. I don’t have the capital to make this game otherwise. I hope to be there someday, but I’m not there yet, and I genuinely need my backers’ help.
In return, I tend to be very receptive to backers’ suggestions in my campaigns. I’m not saying I implement every suggestion I get, but in exchange for your pledge, you will have my ear, and I’d be happy to listen to any suggestion you have about my game. There’s usually some wiggle room to update art in my projects, and both Bad Medicine and The Networks have had their components improve through some amazing backer suggestions.
So my Kickstarter campaigns are not glorified pre-order systems, and I don’t use them only for the marketing platform. I really do need to raise capital that way, and backers get to help out in ways they wouldn’t for a regular pre-order.
If you had to describe Wordsy in 3 adjectives, what would you choose?
Gil: Fun, unique, and inexpensive.
For any game designers our there reading this, do you have any advice about designing a word game you can pass on?
Gil: Word games aren’t easy. I had a head start with Wordsy because I built it up from what I had with Prolix, but you’re going to find something to distinguish your game in a crowded field. And that distinguishing factor must be simple, salient, and really interesting. With Wordsy, it’s that the game rewards much longer words than other word games.
Also, you’ll have to get used to the fact that word games are not as popular as you’d think. If you’re aiming for the board game hobby market, prepare for a lot of rejection. Most gamers want to play strategy games instead. If you’re aiming for the mass market, be prepared to spend a lot of money. That’s a tough nut to crack; you need to print a lot more copies, get into a lot more stores, and spread the word to a lot more people, most of whom don’t really care about games in general, let alone your ingenious new word game.
Finally, be really careful about word games that incentivize anything that’s not building words. Like a word game that has a strategic component or a word game that has a take-that mechanism. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s tricky. If you’re trying to incentivize people to come up with a great word and you have a mechanism that allows another player to easily nullify that word through cardplay, then you’re not going to see people get excited about coming up with great words. Take a cold, hard look at the behavior you’re really incentivizing, and see if you’re making a game that isn’t actually about building words.
As we wrap this up, is there anything else you would like to add?
Gil: Thanks everyone for reading, backing my games, and keeping my dream alive! Wordsy means a lot to me. I would love to see it enter the gaming landscape.
Thank you Gil for taking time out to do this interview.
For those that are interested in checking out Wordsy on Kickstarter, you can do so by clicking on this link.