Party game enthusiasts will know from experience that the genre consists of several types of game, which are picked based on the mood and make-up of the crowd. There are the family-friendly ones that focus on fun above all else, like Mario Party. There are the meatier ones which involve a degree of skill, are more adult-oriented, and best enjoyed with an alcoholic beverage, like the Jackbox Party Pack. Then there are ones which don’t really fit comfortably into either category and end up feeling lightweight and not particularly satisfying because of it. These are often bought with high hopes before being left to gather dust in your digital library. Wordhunters, despite its best efforts, ends up here.
Up to six players can join in with their smartphones for, you guessed it, word-based shenanigans spread over fifteen different puzzle types. Well, fifteen is a bit of a push since some rounds are variants so similar to each other that you may wonder if you’ve played them already. Each player is given a secret four-letter word they need to collect the letters for, and to do so they must visit a city containing the letters they need and hopefully win the round there. If they do, they can pick two letters to add to their secret word, but only if those letters appear in the city name. Travelling to Toronto, for instance, would be no help if the word you’re trying to complete is “FAIL”. However, winning in this scenario prevents other players from choosing letters, so regardless of whether you were successful in your choice of destination, there is still an incentive to win each round.
So far, so straightforward. The problem is, it doesn’t really get more complicated than that. Each of the games you play are enjoyable enough in their own right, but bundled together for a ten- to thirty-minute experience depending on the number of players, monotony sets in. There are word search grids where you need to find as many words as possible, anagram rounds where you need to find the biggest word from the available letters, rounds where you need to select the letters of a word in alphabetical order, games where you need to remove letters one at a time from a word to make a new word, a game where you choose between real and fake words, and so on.
If you like words and are good with word puzzles, you’ll enjoy Wordhunters. However, unlike other party games based on trivia or drawing or simply being able to fudge your way through crazy minigames, there isn’t really a levelling mechanism to help those less skilled. As such, if you’re not fond of manipulating letters it’s likely you’ll get turned off pretty quickly. Larger group games will inevitably end up with a split between people who can reform an anagram at fifty paces and those who find the idea hellish and a little depressing as they end up at the bottom of the pile time and again. There are a few power-ups at the start of the round to try and help people out, such as letting you override the winning city choice with a new destination, or giving you a time-based head start on a puzzle over your opponent, or allowing you to pick a third letter if you win. Yet these simply don’t offer enough assistance or variety to help level the playing field, or engage groups of good players when their experience is on a par. In some cases, they utterly break the game: anagram rounds where a good player gets a head start means that they can finish the puzzle before it even appears on other players’ phones. How this wasn’t picked up in testing is beyond us.
The cities you visit are represented nicely enough and the music isn’t unbearable, but a four-letter goal means that games can be over pretty quickly if one of you picks a city containing two letters, uses an extra letter booster, and wins two rounds in a row. That said, the voiceover host is categorically awful, churning out repeated jokes about aeroplanes and flying which would make your dad wince (including one about a broken plane being called an “errorplane”, god help us), so perhaps it’s just as well that the experience doesn’t outstay its welcome.
There is a nugget of enjoyment to be found in Wordhunters if you manage to pull together a good group of similar wordy people. However, word games on their own just don’t make for exciting party fare and the balancing is so skewed that some players will inevitably end up resenting others through no fault of their own. It’s not a difficult conundrum to solve, it’s just the way the game has been thrown together. If you want an appropriate anagram to sum up the game, solve this: “More Iced”.
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