|Cost: $7 From: Wizards of the Coast Players: 2-6 Playing Time: 20-30 minutes Type of game: Word / Card Skill level: 9 Complexity: 2 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 19, Summer/Fall/Winter 1998|
Earlier this year Wizards of the Coast released a quartet of card games targeted at the casual game player. Pivot, the first of these, is a merely ho-hum twist on Crazy Eights. Go Wild is a combination set-collection/trick-taking game that doesnít really work. Twitch is reviewed elsewhere in this issue. And that leaves Mike Selinkerís Alpha Blitz, the best of the bunch.
The deck of AlphaBlitz cards includes letters of the alphabet- the least common ones in red- and blitz cards. The central concept here isnít all that dissimilar from eg Spieleís Word Whiz. A few cards are turned face up, and players try to come up with the longest possible word using only the letters shown on the cards. Each letter can be used as many times as necessary, but not every card needs to be used.
There are actually two games in the box. Alpha is the two player game, which starts with six cards showing. Each player also has a hand of three. On his turn a player announces a word and replaces an existing card with one from his hand, drawing a new one to replenish his hand. The longer the word, the more valuable it is (with bonus points for every red letter used). If a blitz card is played it eliminates a letter pile. The game ends when just two piles remain.
The second game, Blitz, is for 3-6 players and is the more interesting of the two. Each player still starts with a hand of three cards, but now there are also two piles of cards face up in front of each player. Everyone selects a card from their hand and simultaneously place it on top of one of their piles to start each round. The first player to find and call out a word scores a point for it (plus any bonus points for using red letters) and draws a new card for his hand. That player canít score again that round. The next player to call out a valid word scores two points, the next three points, and so forth until all players have gone or given up. The catch is that each word must be longer than the word before it. The last word scores a bonus point. The game ends when a player blitzes both of his piles.
Because of its scoring system, Blitz encourages players who spot short words to remain quiet and keep looking for longer ones, which are likely to score more. It also encourages sandbagging- holding off on your big word until opponents have increased its value by calling out a few shorter ones first. The trick, of course, is not waiting too long and letting an opponent sneak in with an equally long or longer word before you. To keep the pace fluid, we like to reset a one-minute timer every time someone calls out a valid word.
The game can end very suddenly, and some might say unfairly, in Blitz. For a more exciting finish, you might prefer to play one additional round after someone blitzes their second pile, so that the blitzer isnít guaranteed a win.
If AlphaBlitz has a weakness, itís that the difference between a novice and an experienced player can be especially pronounced for a word game. Granted there are those annoying 2- and 3-letter word lists to memorize for tournament-level Scrabble play, but generally word games offer a fairly level playing field between players of equal vocabularies. But AlphaBlitz rewards a particular type of word construction, and itís definitely a skill honed with practice. Since players work with a very small pool of letters, the best scores are achieved by long words which reuse the same letters repeatedly. A novice looking at E-W might come up with EWE, but an experienced player will offer WEEWEE- probably because they remember it being used in a previous game. LENSES isnít a bad word for E-N-L-S, but SENSELESSNESS is much better. After playing for a while you start recognizing how to turn A-N-B into BANANA, A-P-Y into PAPAYA, and so forth- in fact, sometimes it seems more like a game of memorization and pattern recognition than the game of word construction it appears to be.
In reality the letter configurations change frequently enough that most games are a little bit of both. More cerebral than raucous, AlphaBlitz is an elegant game whose very simplicity and purity sustain a level of tension and interest clunkier games can only wish for. Assuming, of course, you enjoy games of spelling and wordsmithing.