It is debatable that we are living in a golden age of board games. What is less debatable is that we are living in a golden age of party games. Codenames, Spyfall, Werewords–is there room for one more…even if it’s Just One?
How It Works
Just One is a cooperative party game for three to seven players. Players take turns trying to guess a one-word answer based on clues from their teammates. Players play until their stack of cards runs out and count their score.
To begin, each player receives a dry erase easel and a marker. Thirteen word cards are dealt out face-down. Play begins with one player chosen as the guesser.
In a round, the guesser, places a face-down card on the lip of their easel, facing toward the other players, and chooses a number 1-5. The other players look at the word and then write a single-word clue on their own easels as a clue for the guesser.
Clue words are not allowed to be a form of the word to be guessed, nor are they allowed to be the word in translation, but onomatopoeia and acronyms are acceptable.
Once all players have written their clue words, the guesser closes their eyes, and the other players show each other their easels. Only unique clues are allowed to be shown to the guesser, so if two or more clues are identical (and forms of the same word–e.g., “prince” and “princess”–are considered identical), they are put away before the guesser can see them. The guesser then opens their eyes, looks at the clues, and can guess. If the guesser gets it right, the card is placed face-up in a points pile. If the guesser gets it wrong, that card and another from the stack are thrown out of the game. The guesser also has the option to pass, in which case only the card for this round is thrown out. Play passes to the next guesser.
The game ends when there are no more face-down cards to guess. Players count the number of face-up cards they claimed and compare their score to the table on the rules to see how they did.
Just One (More)
Just One is the kind of party game that feels more discovered than designed–which, as I always say, means it is very well designed indeed. In fact, it is largely this “discovered” quality that has made Just One ascend the ranks to become one of my favorite party games.
What I mean by “discovered” is that Just One feels like the kind of game that, even though it hasn’t always existed, is pure enough that it feels like it has always been around. The rules are simple and disappear almost instantly, leaving players to enjoy the company of the group. And the cooperative play is so natural that it made me question why more party games aren’t cooperative.
The title “Just One” illustrates the elegant design decisions that permeate the game and serve as a constant rules reminder. Every answer that players are trying to guess is just one word. Every clue that players devise has to be just one word as well. What clues the guesser is allowed to see are–you guessed it–unique: there can be just one of each clue shown. Even though the game is essentially themeless (it lacks even the spy veneer atop Codenames), the simplicity and pervasiveness of the concept helps keep the game on point without any extraneous fluff.
I’ll admit that as I wrote out the “how it works” section above, I almost bored myself. Really? That’s all there is to it? Surely this isn’t as fun as I remember. But Just One has consistently been a catalyst for enjoyable moments–because of either cleverness and creativity or a lack thereof.
What makes Just One compelling is the same idea that is at the heart of so many modern party games: you want to be clear in your clue, but also obscure. If you’re too clear, someone else has probably already thought of your clue, and they’ll both cancel out. But if you’re too obscure, your clue could mislead the guesser toward a different word. So players are trying to thread the needle between their clues being clear (helpful but potentially thrown out) and obscure (likely to remain but potentially misleading). The trick here is that players aren’t allowed to discuss beforehand what they’ll put down.
One of the best parts of the game is simply finding out how other players’ brains work. In one game with my wife and two of my sisters, the word the guesser was trying for was “sleeve.” I wrote “long,” thinking someone else might write “short” or “clothes,” but instead my two sisters wrote the word “saltines” (???), leaving the guesser essentially nothing to go on. And this kind of odd connection is common in Just One. Where in Codenames the spymaster is trying to tie several strands together in a single clue connection, in Just One, the guesser is crowdsourcing clues and trying to find the one word that holds them together. The result is a game with lower pressure and more laughs. Codenames might be a “better” game (a big might), but in most situations, I would prefer to play Just One.
Just One works so well because it’s not about what you know, or even about coming up with the best clue; it’s about coming up with the clue that is most likely to help. In one game, the word the guesser was trying to get was “Amazon.” I work at a book publisher, so clearly, this is a subject very near and dear to our hearts. In this case, we were almost too close–we knew too much–to be of much use. But the five of us dutifully wrote out our clues. When they were revealed, two had put “rainforest,” two had put “Bezos,” and one player had written “Hippolyta.” The guesser, faced with a character from Greek mythology she had never heard of, wisely passed.
The thing is, we all knew countless words to describe Amazon–“everything,” “online,” “retailer,” “books,” “Kindle,” “Prime”–but because everyone is trying to thread the needle, logjams like this are common.
And because logjams like this are common, it makes every success feel like a big win. I wrote about The Mind that it is a good-feelings generator. Because players are working together toward a task that seems impossible (or at least very difficult), mistakes are forgiven and successes are celebrated. Just One isn’t quite the good-feelings generator that The Mind is–the task is doable, sometimes players quibble over what “common knowledge” is, etc.–but because it’s cooperative, it does the team no good to remain in long-term bickering. When you get a card wrong or throw away a card you should have guessed, it’s a mild bummer, you might quibble, but then you move on and try again.
And from my experience, you will want to try again and again and again–both in the same sitting and across multiple sittings. I purchased the game in early March, and after an initial play with my Friday lunch group, it was requested and enjoyed at the following three Fridays, which is unprecedented in my “variety is the spice of life” group. And surprisingly, I found myself recommending it, too. I’ve played this with coworkers, friends, and family, with all counts from three to seven, and it’s been enjoyable every time I’ve brought it out. With three players, it’s a more intimate game of knowing the guesser; in a larger game, it’s more about trying to keep your clue unique and helpful. In all settings, creativity is the star.
My complaints about Just One are all components-based and have nothing to do with the design. For one, the included dry erase markers are not very high quality. After the first lunch hour playing, two of them had already dried out (and the caps were on, from what I could see), and after having to deal with unreliable markers for the next several games, I just replaced them with higher-quality ones. Even when they were working, it was nigh impossible to clean the easels of the marker residue after each clue was given. This is a bummer considering that the components for this game are already sparse. Granted, the easels are functional and nice, but this is the kind of game that could easily be recreated from found components, especially given the prevalence of word games in my collection. I’d prefer nicer components if I’m dutifully supporting the designers and the idea, especially considering the $30 price tag.
The game comes with 110 cards, each with five words on it, which seems like a lot, but even in my over 20 games so far, we’ve had a lot of repeats. Part of this is due to the rule that the deck is fully reshuffled after every play, and part of this is because every player chooses a number 1-5 when it’s their turn to guess. Even though players don’t mean to, I think players choosing a number is less likely to provide a truly “random” result. I’ve included a die in my game to make it truly random, and sometimes we won’t reshuffle cards between games.
(This apparent lack of variety, though, also isn’t really a problem. Even when a word is duplicated, there’s no guarantee that a round will play out the same way it did before. I’ve had the word “sardines” come up several times, and “packed” has become the clear pathway to guess it, although it’s never certain which player is allowed to give it as a clue, because if multiple people try, it won’t be given at all. And similar to the fabulous Time’s Up, in-game shorthand develops and might make the game even more enjoyable.)
And let me say that even though you probably could “find” components to mock up your own copy of Just One, the words included in the game are very well chosen. Words like “Johnny”–which might not work in another word game–are perfect for Just One. Appleseed? Quest? Carson? The words are open-ended enough that players get to fill in the blanks. I love how even simple words like “pizza” are transformed as players try to thread the needle between clarity and obscurity. (In one of our five-player games, three of us Chicagoans wrote “Giordano’s” as a clue for pizza, leaving “slice” as the only clue–which the guesser got.)
As you can see, I think Just One is great, and not just because it’s well designed or fun to play. I enjoy it because it creates a memorable experience–when clues fail or when they succeed. I struggle to think of anyone that this game isn’t for, and that’s the brilliance of Just One. It distills what has made so many recent party games great into an experience that is nigh universal. There’s the middle-of-the-road clue giving of Dixit, the word connections of Codenames, and the good-vibes cooperation of The Mind, and that is a winning combination in my book. If you like party games at all, you most certainly need to give Just One a try. (But you’ll probably try it more than just once.)