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[Review] Palabra

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Joined: 03/23/2011

I often wonder if some game designers sit around, wondering what games they can mix together to design a new game. “I know - let’s mix Monopoly and Twister, or let’s mix mechanics from Acquire, Axis and Allies, and Igloo Pop - it will be a great game!” And sometimes - not always or even often - these mixtures of ideas and mechanics turn out a “child” of great potential - a truly excellent game. Other times, the mixes produce a mutt of truly disastrous proportions. Therefore, when the producer of Palabra (Palabra Enterprises, 2002 - no designer credited) told me that Palabra was a mix of Scrabble, Poker, Uno, and a variety of other games, I was fairly skeptical, and didn’t expect much.

After playing, I realized that his description had been a bit misleading. Palabra has a bit of the above games in its design, but it’s basically Scrabble with cards. So my recommendation is simple - if you like Scrabble and don’t mind a bit of a twist, then this game is for you. If you aren’t good at Scrabble but wish you could do better, then this game will also probably interest you. On the other hand, if you don’t like word games, this one probably won’t keep you interested - unless you like organizing cards into sets - trying to maximize your points. I thought the game was okay, but others - those who love word games - really had a good time with it. I must say, however, that even though I’m not sure this game is really my cup of tea, I did have a good time with it and did quite well at it, in my humble opinion. :)

A deck of 120 cards is shuffled, with seven cards dealt to each player. One player is chosen to go first, and then play proceeds clockwise around the table. Each card in the deck has a letter on it, with a point value associated with that letter (similar to Scrabble), and a color (red, yellow, green, or blue - some cards are dual colored). There are also three wild cards (no point values, but are of all four colors, and all letters), and two jokers - black cards. On a turn, a player lays cards down in front of themselves from their hands, trying to score points. There are different ways to get points.
- Playing a word. If players can form a word with the cards in their hand, they add up the points of all the letters in the word to find their score for that round. If any cards have two or three stars on them, the point total is doubled or tripled respectively. These multipliers are cumulative, as is another doubling bonus for playing all cards of the same color. Also, a Palabra, playing all seven cards, will give the player seventy bonus points.
- Playing a straight. Players can play three or more cards, as long as they are in order in the alphabet (i.e. “A-B-C, F-G-H-I, or X-Y-Z-A-B”) Stars and colors also give their bonuses.
- Playing a “flush”: Players can play five or more cards of the same color - gaining points for them, but getting no points for star cards.
- Vowels: Players can play six vowels for 20 points, or seven vowels for 40 points (something I’ve never seen done).
- Building: Players can “build” onto a word or straight of another person (for example, “some” could be added to the word “times” to get the new word “sometimes”). Cards only stay in front of a person for one round, then are discarded. When a player “builds”, they receive points for the entire word, and bonuses for stars that they play, but not for stars already on the table. If a word or straight is “color-locked” (all cards are of the same color), then all “builds” must be of that color, also.
- Jokers: A joker can be played on your turn to cancel points earned by another player. (Evil cards!)
- Shaving: A player can “shave” points from another player’s score, by playing cards that are in another player’s word on the table. The points from these cards (which might have scored bonus points) are subtracted from that person and added to the person playing the cards. The “shaver” then draws replacement cards and can play more cards from their hand - like a word, straight, etc. A player can only “shave” the player who goes directly before them. Shaving can only be done once per turn, and cannot be done against flushes or vowels.
- Replacements: A player can discard cards, drawing replacements on their turn - but they can do nothing else on that turn. Replacements cannot be drawn when there are only 10 or less cards in the deck.
- Passing: A player can just sit there.

After deciding what to do, the player records their score and draws cards, filling their hand back up to seven. Once the deck is exhausted, and one player has played all their cards (or everyone has passed consecutively), the game ends. All cards in hands are deducted from each player’s scores (including star bonuses), and the player with the largest score is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The game cards are of good quality and can really take a beating. My cards have been used countless times, and still have held up fairly well. The box I’m not quite as impressed with. It doesn’t hold the cards very well and is fairly cheap in quality. It has nice graphics, with a classy look, and the cards also are extremely easy to read. A card distribution chart is printed in the book, which helps those who are fanatical about that sort of thing.

2.) Rules: There are “Fast-start” rules, which are easy, and probably shorter than what I wrote above, and then the complete rules - all in a 30-page little booklet. The formatting isn’t the best, but I was able to understand the game fairly easily. I found that explaining the game to folks was very simplistic, and the company included reference cards - thank you! - that indicated the different ways to score. This was very useful, as I didn’t have to explain them every turn. “Shaving” rules is a little confusing, but the rules recommend that the first game be played without them, although they do add a lot to the game strategy-wise. The rule booklet has many strategy tips, a card distribution chart, and rules on what words are legal (similar to Scrabble).

3.) Website: The company website,, is very nicely done, and has a tutorial on how to play the game - something that I wished I had read first, as it’s much easier than the rulebook. Lots of interesting things can be found there, and it’s always nice to see care put into a website where people are obviously fanatical about their game.

4.) Scoring: Some huge words can be scored with the game. In fact, when at Origins 2004, there was a contest to see who could get a word with the most points (it was in the 500’s, I believe). On the website, even larger point words are recorded. This is the sole reason I think Scrabble players will enjoy the game, but at the same time not do as well at is as they might think, because of all the variety of scoring bonuses.

5.) Strategy: Probably half or more of the strategy is involved with the “shaving”, so I would recommend using it and learning when to use it. Shaving another person score not only hurts them, but it gets points for you - and you get extra cards! At the same time, players must be careful to not leave themselves too vulnerable to shaves - some massive negative scores can be found on the company’s website.

6.) Fun Factor: I had an enjoyable time playing this, and even though I’m not as good with words as other people (my wife could destroy me at Scrabble), the slight mathematical bent of the scoring bonuses really intrigued me, and helped me to do fairly well. To be honest, though, if words and cards aren’t your “thing”, then I doubt you’d have much fun here. It’s an excellent game, but has a very distinct audience.

If you like word games, but get frustrated at the restrictions of Scrabble, then this game is for you. If you like a dash of Rummy, Poker, and a huge chunk of word knowledge mixed together, this game might be your soup. But if words aren’t your forte, then I suggest that you move on to another game. However, Palabra is a fantastic word game, and fans of that genre should be happy with this game, picking it up if possible.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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