Ken Jennings


June 2, 2008

witswagers.jpgBack in the early days of this blog, somebody from North Star Games emailed me asking if I’d like a review copy of their new trivia game, something called Wits & Wagers. Being a big fan of trivia games, especially free ones, I said sure, and the game appeared in the mail a few days later. It then spent a year or two sitting shrink-wrapped in our game closet. I had good intentions, but there was always something else to play, you know? Do you subject your guests to your homework, or do you just pull out Taboo again?

Well, we finally enjoyed some Wits, and then some Wagers, last night when we had friends over (after they walked us through a fun, simple railroad game called Ticket to Ride, which I predict we’ll be playing a lot with train-obsessed Dylan in the months/years to come).

And the good news is: Wits & Wagers is, despite the sorta-clunky name, a great game. The bad news is that I now I feel guilty for not getting the word out sooner. While I dithered, though, Wits & Wagers has won awards from Mensa and Games magazine, among others, so maybe they didn’t need my help after all.

W&W bills itself as “The Trivia Game for Everyone,” which I take to be code for “The Trivia Game for People Who Think They Suck at Trivia.” All the questions have some numerical answer (the percentage of American households with dogs, the number of Emmy nominations earned by Cheers, the number of elevators in the Empire State Building) at which just about anyone could guess, but no one would be likely to know exactly…which levels the playing field considerably between trivia experts and rookies. It also privileges solid, common-sense general knowledge of how the world works over niggly little facts, which aligns neatly with my own trivia preferences.

But the game’s real genius comes after everybody’s written down their guesses. At this point, all the guesses are laid out in numerical order on the game “board,” actually just a sheet of green cloth printed to look like a casino table. Players have 30 seconds to wager chips on which answer is closest (without going over, a la Price Is Right). There’s a lot of strategy here–outlying guesses pay out higher than closer-to-the-median ones (3- or even 4-to-1), and you can “cover” by placing chips on multiple answers, or even lay no chips at all.

In many Balderdash-style games, this second “Who do you believe?” phase can drag on endlessly; Wits & Wagers keeps it quick and simple. Despite the many strategic possibilities, the chips-and-slots system is so elegant and intuitive that everyone will have it figured out after just one turn. The 30-second timer helps too. After the hourglass is empty, “No more bets, ladies and gentlemen!”

Game structure is beautifully streamlined as well: six questions, each with wagers, and then a final “all-in” round where players can bet as many chips as they like. Count up your chips for scoring, declare a winner, and then you’ll probably want to play again. A game lasts only 15-25 minutes, so you’ll never turn into a Trivial Pursuit- or Catan-style hostage.

So there you are. Go forth. Wit. Wager. Don’t leave it in your game closet for 18 months.

Posted by Ken at 3:24 pm