Gaming Unplugged: Unspeakable Words

August 1, 2010

The Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos is a fertile ground for game themes, although Unspeakable Words may be one of the oddest adaptations. Given that it was designed by Cheapass Games impresario James Ernest and former TSR/Hasbro (Avalon Hill) lead Mike Selinker, this may not be a complete surprise. 

At its heart, UW is a Scrabble-like word forming game, using cards instead of tiles and a board. Each player — the game supports up to 6 out of the box, with more theoretically easy to add — is dealt seven cards, each with one letter on it. On your turn, use the cards in your hand to make a word of at least three letters, then draw back up to seven cards. No word can be used twice in a game (so it’s useful to keep track), and the usual restrictions on proper names, abbreviations, contractions, and the rest apply. If you can’t make a word you must discard your hand and draw a new one, passing your turn.

Seems simple enough, but then it gets strange. As in Scrabble, each letter is worth a number of points; however, this score is based on how many angles are in the letter, not on its frequency in the English language (which instead determines their frequency in the deck). So round letters like O and U are worth zero, while fellow yet more angular vowels E and I are worth four and the very triangular A is a whopping five (the highest value, shared with its neighbor B). The object is to be the first to score 100 points… and stay sane.

Like most Cthulhu-inspired games, UW has a sanity mechanic. Every time you score a word, you roll a d20. If you roll equal to or higher than your word’s score, you’re safe (for now); fail and you lose one of your five starting Cthulhu pawns (or if you prefer a more thematic mechanic, you gain one). Fail five times and you become a gibbering mess and are eliminated. Rolling a  20 will earn success no matter how high your word’s score is, so there’s always a chance to survive. Fortunately you still score for the word even if it cracks your sanity — unless you fail the “sanity check” on the word that gets you to 100, in which case you not only get close to insanity, but you also score zero points on that particular word! 

There are a few variants included in the rules to keep games fresh, but the game is fast enough (and wacky enough) to never really outstay its welcome. Since it’s really more of a filler game there isn’t a ton of strategy other than when to press your luck with a huge-scoring word, but with word games like this the real fun comes from exercising your vocabulary. The cards are high-quality and shouldn’t need sleeving even with frequent play, and the Cthulhu pawns are cute in their own little twisted fashion. You can pick up Unspeakable Words, published by Playroom Entertainment, for $18.90 at Amazon and less than $25 at most gaming stores.