Teaching Time: 2 mins
Playing Time: 20 mins
Setup Time: 1 min
Value For Money: Low
So, 2018 saw Azul win the Spiel Des Jahres, the year before it was Kingdomino, smart games that while being very much gateway games were games that hardcore tabletop gamers would happily sit down for. As such maybe it was only fair that in 2019 the winner was Just One, a game that feels like it was almost certainly played in one version or another in a Victorian parlor.
Gameplay is as simple as it comes. One player picks a random card and displays it in a manner that everyone else can see but they cannot (on a neat little sometimes whiteboard sometimes easel which is probably my favourite designed thing in the box). They then pick a random number from one to five that indicates one of the words on that card. All other players then come up with ‘just one’ word that they think will lead the player with the card to guess their chosen word. Once everyone has chosen a word, they compare them and remove any duplicates entirely before displaying them to the guesser, who then guesses a word. So, if you’re guessing apple and two people wrote fruit and one wrote green, you’d be left guessing with just the word green. If you guess right the team gets a point, if not they don’t, get to enough points out of a set number of rounds and you win more than if you got less points.
As a game its diverting enough, but its not often really what I’d call ‘fun’. Certainly not like similar games such as Articulate, Pictionary or Telestrations. Every so often a set of clues turns out to be accidentally filthy, but that’s as close as you really get to actual giggles. The rest of the game seems defined by largely insular thinking about words. There are no time limits and very little of the activity is communal or anything that might usually be considered ‘party’ in nature. Its lightweight, but that doesn’t make it inherently a fun party game.
On a game design front it has several areas that are, with all the will in the world, lazy. The scoring for example, making a game like this competitive is half the game design battle, because guessers have to be incentivized to guess correctly as do clue givers. You can divide people into teams, but then you have a minimum player count of four, or in this case six, and since frankly Just One doesn’t work at 3 players it would realistically be 8. Part of the genius in the design of SDJ winner Dixit is that it manages to make you really try to guess an opponent’s creative idea in a fully competitive game, as contrast just making the game co-operative and then getting you to check a score from a table seems unsatisfying, particularly for a party game. Then there is that player count and scaling, the game doesn’t really work for three players and its two clues per player stop gap feels like a half-hearted fix by a team that realized that a game with a minimum player count of four would be commercial poison. In addition, no effort is made to scale the game when playing with four players where up to three clues can be presented as opposed to seven where up to six can be provided. In theory the increased chances of overlap might be presented as balancing, but it seems doubtful, especially when a single overlap in the four-player game leaves the guesser with one clue, whereas to achieve that in the seven-player version would require five overlapping clues.
Lastly, there is the question of legitimate or overlapping clues. The rules have some pretty vague guidance about not using a member of a word family as a clue for the word, so Princess is not an acceptable clue for Prince for some reason, but is Brontosaurus an acceptable clue for Dinosaur? What exactly happens in a round when one person thinks something is an acceptable clue when someone else doesn’t? These are things that need to be clearly set out, even in a co-op game, otherwise the game can bog down and become annoying. There’s nothing worse than when the ‘compare and check clues’ step of Just One turns into some sort of mini-debate, in particular since the guesser can't have the discussion made clear to them without ruining the round. The result is often a couple of clue givers having a weird self censored argument that sounds like a couple of Sopranos characters talking about 'the thing' that someone can or can't know about because its too much like 'the thing'. There is ultimately a sense that for a game that requires relatively little actual design and refinement, even that level wasn’t actually put in to it.
Which sort of brings us to the elephant in the room, since this review is part of our series of reviews of SDJ winners it needs to be put into that context. When I played this game at Christmas with my family I pointed out to my mother in law that it had won the award previously won by Azul, Kingdomino and Ticket to Ride. She thought for a second and responded with what will probably end up being chiseled onto Just One’s proverbial gravestone, “Its not of the same class is it?”. Which is true, it’s not. But is it in the same class as Codenames or Qwirkle? Well, possibly, and that might be its justification here. Every three years or so the SDJ throws the award to a game that is just simple, Villa Paletti and Call My Bluff are not in the same class as Carcassonne or Manhatten. Is this just a case of any long running award hitting some clunkers every now and again? Maybe, I like to think it’s a conscious decision to drop in the occasional game that fills in a gateway gap. The SDJ is about recognizing and promoting gateway games, if we imagine that as a project bringing players and children from Snakes And Ladders to Cosmic Encounter, there is a step before even something as entry level and gateway as Ticket To Ride. I like to think that the choice of the SDJ committee to recognize the games that sit on that step is both conscious and worthwhile.
As far as value and quality of components goes this is another tough one, the easels are cute and a clever way of displaying cards so that one person can’t see them while the other can. The dry wipe pens are the same design as found in A Fake Artist Goes To New York, which is to say lovely, the quality of the product is physically all around high. But it’s not the lovely object that Fake Artist is, and it suffers from the same issue that Fake Artist does in that there is a very strong feeling that you don’t need any of the components. Just One feels like a parlor game, I’m pretty sure I could create a reasonable facsimile of the experience with some pieces of paper and a pencil for everyone playing, the upshot being that however nice the components feel they also feel like a bit of a rip off, and certainly not the most convenient way of carrying or playing the game. Its like someone charging you for special Rock, Paper, Scissors playing gloves.
In short then, is Just One the worst ever SDJ? No, is it the best? Good god no, not even close. Its much closer, on most objective criteria you could possibly name, to the worst ever than the best. Its not even the best entry level party game I could suggest. If you constantly need to be playing new party games with your friends and family, it could be the next one on your rotation, but for everyone else and on every other level, probably reasonable to skip this one.