The SdJ nominees for 2019 were announced last month and were full of entrants of interest to co-op fans. The traditional SdJ award, which runs pretty light nowadays, nominated Just One (a true co-op, sort of) and Werewords (a hidden traitor game). Then the heftier Kennerspiel award nominated Detective (another true co-op). It was a great year for cooperative play.
Could any of these games join the ranks of past co-op and teamplay winners like Exit Das Spiel (2017 KdJ), Codename (2016 SdJ), and Legends of Andor (2013 KdJ)? We should know next month. In the past, the SdJ hasn’t been that friendly to co-ops, with some true greats like Pandemic, both Pandemic Legacies, T.I.M.E Stories, Space Alert, Shadows over Camelot, and Lord of the Rings getting at best participation prices, but the last few years suggest that might be changing.
So here’s a like at one of this year’s nominees, Just One, and what makes it great too.
Just One by Ludovic Roudy & Bruno Sautter
Publisher: Repos Production (2018)
Cooperative Style: True Co-op
Play Style: Word Guessing
Players write clues to a mystery word that the active player must then guess. But, they can only use one word for their clue, and if anyone duplicates their clues, the copies are all thrown out.
Word-guessing games, including well-known ones such as Charades (1800s), Pictionary (1985), and Barbarossa (1988), generally differentiate themselves by how they limit player communication. In fact, the genre tends to define the “directed communication” mechanic: limited communication acts as the core of the gameplay and is directed through a specific medium such as acting, drawing, or clay modeling. Like the ever-popular Taboo (1989), Just One directs its communication through talking, but puts limits on that conversation: as the name of the game suggests, each player writes a clue that’s just one word. This is fairly typical for the genre: Codenames (2015) is another recent game with a similar single-word limitation, though its gameplay is very different.
Word-guessing games are usually team games where players use various directed means to induce their teammates to say a specific word. The first big cooperative innovation of Just One (2018) is that it’s instead a true co-op. Players run through 13 cards and then earn a score based on how well they guessed. A chart in the rules classifies the scores from 13 (“perfect score”) to 0-3 (“try again”), but as with more scoring mechanisms of this type, it’s not that evocative. However, a perfect score is a real (but tough) possibility, so most players will measure their success by how close they cleave to that ideal.
The other innovative element of Just One’s cooperative system is the amount of individual player agency it creates, totally removing any problem of Controlling Players while simultaneously eliminating the issue of Free Riders: everyone has to contribute, everyone does so on their own, and everyone’s contribution is important.
This comes in two parts.
First, each player has to individually choose a word as a clue. Then, there’s the possibility for this choice to be a success or a failure. If a player chooses the same clue as someone else, they failed, because all those identical words are eliminated. Conversely, if they were able to write a distinct, unduplicated clue, they saved the day, and if those picked a clue the nicely complements what other people wrote, even better.
Second, the active player has to guess the mystery word. There’s obvious pressure here, because the active player can be the hero or the goat, based on whether he guesses right or wrong. And, because of how the other players selected their words, there’s always going to be ambiguity — another great element for cooperative play. Just One makes this choice even tenser by giving the active player the opportunity to skip a word if they don’t feel confident: the group loses one point if the active player skips, but two points if he guesses wrong! This brings the personal responsibility up to a whole other level.
Minimal Challenge Elements: Round Activation; Card Trigger; Directed Communication; Tally Scoring
Expansions & Variants
Just One was previously published as We Are the Word (2017), in a smaller, French edition.
Most word-guessing games include cooperative systems, but they don’t tend to be that innovative. Technically, Just One’s conversion of typical team play to true co-op is innovative, but the introduction of a simple scoring system is a pretty minimalist way to enable cooperative play. Just One is much more notable for the high level of agency and responsibility it creates for both clue givers and word guessers. Every co-op game would do well to answer the two questions that Just One knocks out of the park: how can each player be empowered to make their own, individual contribution to the game? And how can those individual contributions obviously either succeed or fail at helping the group?
Ludovic Roudy & Bruno Sautter
In 2010, Roudy and Sautter founded Serious Poulp, a small-press French game company. They began publication with the two-player Steam Torpedo: First Contact (2011), but they found their biggest success more recently with the publication of the choose-your-own-adventure cooperative exploration game, The 7th Continent (2017), which raised a record-breaking seven million dollars for its upcoming What Goes Up Must Come Down (2019) expansion.
This was a game that we happily stumbled upon when it was put on the table during a local gameplay night (at the late, lamented Endgame, bastion of gaming in the Bay Area for almost two decades). We didn’t think to take a photo, so this one is courtesy the Repos Production and their Just One press kit.