How do you follow a massive hit?
Whether you’re a band that’s just released an acclaimed album, a director who’s swept the board at the Oscars or an author who’s rocketed to the top of the bestseller list, success can by a tricky thing to navigate. A piece of work that strikes a chord with fans can set the bar by which everything you go on to do will be judged. It can also create huge pressure to produce more of the same, a process which most often leads to disappointment. Think of every TV show you’ve ever loved that kept going a year past its sell-by date, every movie franchise that’s wrung out an extra instalment after its creative well has clearly run dry.
Sometimes, for a creator of any kind, the best response to success is to move away from it, to defy expectations with something no one sees coming. And that might explain why Matt Leacock has just released Knit Wit.
Leacock built his reputation with cooperative titles. In 2008, his game Pandemic saw players working together to cure deadly diseases threatening to destroy humanity. It’s remained one of the tabletop industry’s best-selling titles ever since. Last year’s Pandemic Legacy, co-designed with Rob Daviau, took the original game’s formula and added a campaign mode, with a storyline that unfolded from one game session to the next. It’s as compelling as any HBO boxed set you’ve ever binged on, and it met with a rapturous response from fans.
Knit Wit is about as different a proposition as you could imagine. A quick, simple, lightweight word game, it’s a complete departure from everything gamers have come to expect from its designer.
The first thing that strikes you about the game is its appearance. Open up its box and you’re presented with something that looks more like an arts and crafts kit than a board game. It’s filled with spools, strings, buttons and wooden clothes pegs – components that beg to be picked up and played with. There’s obviously been a huge amount of time and thought put into its visual and tactile appeal. Everything from the old-sewing-manual look of the rulebook to the rough texture of the little paper tags that come with the game is calculated to produce a kind of lo-fi charm.
The game begins with players taking turns to lay out loops of string on the table, each with a randomly-selected word tag attached. These all come bearing different adjectives – “slow,” “moving,” “intangible,” “sharp” – and as more and more strings come into play they’ll build up a spaghetti-like mesh of overlapping sections. The result is a kind of Venn diagram, with wooden spools marking different intersecting areas.
Your goal is to scribble down the name of an object (or person, or place, or abstract concept) that meets the descriptors for each individual section. In cases where only one word tag applies, this can be pretty straightforward. Something old? A pensioner! Something that floats? A rubber duck!
But the real challenge comes when you try to think of answers for spools with two or more strings attached. You might have to come up with something that’s both friendly and purple. Er, Barney the dinosaur? Mechanical and imaginary? Emmm, R2-D2? Old, rich and creepy? Oh God, I don’t know. Hugh Hefner? Donald Trump?
You won’t want to take too long thinking things over, because if you’re one of the first players to come up with answers for every section of the diagram, you’ll get to claim a bonus token – an actual wooden button that earns you extra points depending on how quickly you finish. Once these are gone, the round ends, so there’s real pressure to think faster than your opponents. But while speed is important, it’s not the only element to the game. You’ll only score for unique answers, and if two or more players come up with the same response for any spools, none of them will gain points.
If you want to win in Knit Wit, you’ll need to be both quick and original, and that turns out to be pretty difficult to pull off. The game encourages quick wits, and it gives rise to some clever, unexpected answers as players look for different ways to interpret the words they’re handed.
It’s an engaging, brain-teasing process, but it does come with a couple of niggles that mean that Knit Wit might not be ideally suited to every group of players.
One is that there’s scope for a huge variety of answers, and in some cases there’s a massive grey area with regard to what can and can’t be considered a legitimate response. If you’ve cracked the game out with your excessively pedantic uncle Neville, there’s a good chance that he’ll slow things down and diminish everyone’s enjoyment by challenging anything he doesn’t agree with. To be fair, though, that’s more of a flaw in Neville’s psyche than in the game itself, and maybe he’s not the best person to be playing with in the first place.
The other is that the likelihood of multiple players arriving at the same answer increases along with the number of people around the table. This means a game with the maximum of eight players feels a bit more challenging than a game with three or four, and given the choice, I’d always want to play with a larger group.
Neither of these points is massively detrimental, but you’ll want to bear them in mind when deciding who to play with. And Knit Wit is so light, simple and sociable that you’ll be able to get it to the table even with non-gamer crowds. It’s a perfect game to keep on hand for dinner parties, and it’s more accessible even than similarly brainy party games like Codenames, Concept or Spyfall. In fact, at times it feels less like a “hobby” game than it does mass-market titles like Balderdash or Taboo. But good. Really, really good.
As a physical object, Knit Wit is the kind of thing you’ll want to keep on your coffee table to impress visitors. As a game, it’s a fun filler title to slot into your game night, or the ideal thing to pull off of the shelf when you’re looking for a reliable crowd-pleaser.
I do have one suggestion for a house rule, though: award an extra point for any answer that gets a laugh from the table. If you’re doing it right, it’ll happen a lot.