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Play Matt: Wavelength Review

MT Updated March 01, 2021
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Play Matt: Wavelength Review

Game Information

Game Name
2 - 12
There Will Be Games

After me, the next member of the household to see Wavelength is the dog, and she doesn’t like it. It contains an extraordinary plastic device that stands up in the box. Around the rim of the device is a wheel that makes a pleasing clickety-clack noise as it turns. Except it doesn’t please the dog. She comes running around the corner, skidding on the floorboards and barks at it until it’s put back in the box and the box is put back on the shelf.

Once she’s calmed down, we get it out again and click the wheel as quietly as we can. Wavelength is one of those party-style guessing games that continue in the deep and popular wake left by Codenames. Like the latter game, it’s very easy to play but quite hard to describe. Players take turns to give clues. There’s a clue card with two extremes, like “soft” and “hard”. 

The clue giver spins the clickety wheel hidden from the other players, causing a scoring zone to reach a random position on the dial. Then they have to offer a brief clue to help their teammates guess where on the scale, from left to right, the scoring zone, from two to four points, is.

At this point, I stop trying to explain and decide I’ll just show the family instead. So I’m going to show you too. Here are the seven clues from our first game, played with the co-operative rules. You can play along with us too: read the scale and the clue and have a guess before you find out how things unfolded. 

2021 03 01 08 44 19 mattthr wavelength Twitter Search Twitter

Scale: Tastes Bad - Tastes Good

Clue: Shit with sprinkles

We liked this clue. Not only because it was naughty enough to make the kids laugh but because everyone understood what was meant. Shit is about the worst thing you can imagine tasting but a few sprinkles make it the tiniest bit more bearable. So we guessed just a smidge above the extreme left hand of the dial. Which was exactly right. From this we learn that it’s often easier to give a good clue if the scoring zone is close to one end of the dial.

Scale: Bad Role Model - Good Role Model

Clue: Karl Marx

This turned out to be a fascinating example of how Wavelength can cut both ways. Initial discussion established that it can’t be to one extreme or the other. But one of the players was adamant it had to be a long way toward bad because Marx invented communism, and communism killed millions. But then other players chimed in and said well, he couldn’t foresee that but he was a womaniser and quite a mean bloke, so he was at least a bit bad. One of them was also convinced the clue-giver thought his politics was dangerous. In the end, they settled for halfway toward a bad role model.

In fact, the answer was a bit over the halfway mark toward good. The clue-giver explained that while much of that was true, he also worked hard, was clever and very influential. And contrary to the presumption, they felt that while Marx’s interpreters were dangerous, Marx himself was trying to do the right thing. You can learn a lot about your fellow players in Wavelength.

Scale: Not Addictive - Addictive

Clue: Netflix

Sometimes, you get the psychology of the clue-giver just right. In this case, it was given by a teenager. Someone that’s old enough to understand that heroin and cocaine exist, and what physical addiction means. But someone that also spends most of their time holed up in a dark bedroom with their phone, binge-watching YouTube. So we dialled this about two thirds over toward addictive. And we were just on the scoring edge - it was, in fact, a bit further!

Scale: Temporary - Permanent

Clue: Henna Tattoos

How permanent is permanent? In Wavelength, it’s easy to get fooled by the clue into seeing the scale in a different way from the way the clue-giver interpreted it. A tattoo is pretty permanent. It’s what makes them both popular and undesirable. Of course, they’re not wholly permanent as they can be removed by surgery. A henna tattoo is a flyway thing in comparison but it still lasts a while, measured in weeks.

Or so our train of thought goes, as we guess a bit over toward the permanent side. The clue-giver tries to keep a poker face but their frustration shows. And rightly so, because we’d been idiots. How permanent is a tattoo, let a lone a henna tattoo compared to a mountain, or a star? The real answer is a little over toward the temporary side and we score nothing.


Scale: Straight - Curvy

Clue: A line drawn without a ruler

This is another banging clue. Simple, yet effective and the person who thought of it knows as much, sitting back with a satisfied purse of the lips. Try and draw a straight line without a ruler and you’ll get a decent result but one that’s always, always, got an irritating kink or slope in it. We guess something like three-quarters over the way to straight, and it’s straight to bank the points.

Scale: Bad actor - Good actor

Clue: Martin Freeman

Some clues are tougher than others, and this is a doozy. There’s so much personal taste here that surely, it’s impossible for us to get the points. But we tried to break it down. Martin Freeman is not someone who’s won an Oscar or is going to trouble the “most talented” lists of many critics. At the same time: he’s good and consistently so. So we edged some way over toward “good actor” but not too far and presto! We bagged some points.

Afterwards, we are distracted from the game by a fascinating discussion of who we each think our favourite actors are. Wavelength is very good at engendering this kind of thing. Everyone stands in awe of Antony Hopkins but otherwise, there’s wide disagreement. Making it even more impressive that we got this one.

Scale: Normal Pet - Exotic Pet

Clue: British Shorthair Cat

What’s “exotic”, in terms of pets? Wavelength often challenges you to think about your own personal semantics. We forged ahead on the specificity of this clue. A very specific breed of cat is obviously more exotic than a cat. And specific cat breeds feel more exotic than specific dog breeds, which are now quite common. But they’re not, say like an alligator. So we guess a little bit exotic.

As it turns out, we needed to widen the scale. The actual scoring zone was a little bit toward normal pet. And in retrospect, that’s fair when the pet “cocaine hippos” of drug lord Pablo Escobar are in the news. We probably should have figured that the person giving the clue had just been watching Tiger King.

In truth, once we’d played, we played again. And then a third time. It’s so tempting when it’s such a great, polite way to start discussions and challenge presumptions. Only after that did the dog get a little bit of peace with the dial back in the box. The next morning, while performing some chores around the house, I found my two kids had set it up and were playing by themselves. This is something they’ve never, ever done with one of my games before. It was lovely to feel that they were finally attuning to my own Wavelength.

Editor reviews

1 reviews

A great guessing-style party game, with enough variety and subtlety to stay challenging, yet flexible enough to stay fast.
#1 Reviewer 286 reviews
Matt Thrower (He/Him)
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #319868 01 Mar 2021 10:01
Good game, or great game? Where’s the mark?

I liked this one a lot too, although we never played it with two. Like Codenames, this was one that often came out at the end of my game meetups, but could see it working with a variety of other people.
MattFantastic's Avatar
MattFantastic replied the topic: #319869 01 Mar 2021 10:11
At risk of sounding like I'm tooting my own horn, Team3 was up for a bunch of awards against Wavelength and every single time I preemptively said it's an honor to be nominated and to lose out to such an incredible game as Wavelength. I think it's one of the best games of the last few years and the way it creates these amazing discussions is just brilliant.

BUT it has a somewhat glaring flaw in that the rules themselves don't do a great job of scaffolding you up to how to play it "right". If you just say the scale, give a clue, and then collectively guess, it isn't really anything special. It shines blindingly bright when you're breaking down the nature of what it means to be "hot" or what it is to be permanent, and while it seems obvious to some of us, I was absolutely shocked to see people who just totally didn't play that way at all and thus thought the game sucks.

We've been trying to do something that encourages conversations like this but that makes it more apparent that's what you're supposed to do, and it's really fucking hard!
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #319870 01 Mar 2021 10:33
This is a brilliant game. With a group willing to really dig into the discussion, I don't think I'd rather play anything else for this style of design.
sornars's Avatar
sornars replied the topic: #319871 01 Mar 2021 10:37
One of the challenges I’ve had with Wavelength is exactly that - people not taking the philosophical, “what is the guesser thinking” approach which in turn puts a lot of pressure on the cluegiver to be accurate instead of interesting. Which leads to a much less raucous game.

Also I’ve played a couple of times at work and the need to not be particularly offensive definitely held us back. Playing with a group of folks where you can be somewhat less reserved makes the game work best. As an example, I work in tech and the scale that came up was “underpaid to overpaid”. With a diverse group of folks from different disciplines and backgrounds that clue was an absolute poisoned chalice. The indicator was towards overpaid so I went with a clue of “Us”. They didn’t get it.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #319873 01 Mar 2021 11:18

charlest wrote: This is a brilliant game. With a group willing to really dig into the discussion, I don't think I'd rather play anything else for this style of design.

Personally, I think I prefer Decrypto. I like the way you have to try and give clues without alerting the other team and the fact that they, in turn, have their own meta-puzzle to solve. But since the rest of my family disagree, it hasn't seen as much table time as I'd have liked to check.

Codenames is a slightly meatier game, but it's less fun, not least because thinking of good clues is really difficult and becomes dead time during play. With Wavelength it's much easier, if you're struggling for a clue, to just pitch in and hope for the best.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #319911 02 Mar 2021 01:13
Yeah, the discussion and trying to assess the psychology of the cluegiver - while they try and gauge the psychology of the group - is what makes the game.

I think Matt Fantastic's comment there, about how the rules don't scaffold you to play it right, is interesting... because, well, how could the rules do that? Would saying "all clues should be discussed, and the motivations and mental and emotional capacities of the clue giver interrogated rigorously" really do the job? I kind of feel like it rests on the players with something like this; if players can't see that that the most fun is going to be had out of discussion, maybe the game is not for them anyway, sort of thing.

I feel like maybe as well, this is the kind of game that the non-gamer is likely to just understand that implicitly with. Like, if all you've played is pictionary "THAT'S NOT A HORSE!!!" or scattegories "NO, YOU CAN'T HAVE JOEY JOE-JOE JEREMIAH!! or even Scrabble "SHAZAM IS NOT A WORD" arguing is part of this kind of game.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #319916 02 Mar 2021 08:40

mc wrote: I think Matt Fantastic's comment there, about how the rules don't scaffold you to play it right, is interesting... because, well, how could the rules do that?
I feel like maybe as well, this is the kind of game that the non-gamer is likely to just understand that implicitly with.

I find this whole aspect of game rules fascinating. Because you're right, there's a huge gulf here between what a hobbyist thinks of as "rules" and what regular players think.

The latter group know full well that you've also stated a truth in saying that it's hard to impossible to cover all the bases with a rulebook and that a lot of this stuff is implicit in the setup of the game and in social conventions. The former group, some of them at least, get quite angry if rules are not comprehensive and don't dictate how you're supposed to approach the game. There are folk who even go looking for obscure exploits that would hardly ever come up in play, and will shout the game is "broken" because they're not covered.

I mean ... why would you do that? One of my favourite things is playing one of these looser games with a group and seeing how they've chosen to interpret that looseness, and whether it improves or spoils the game compared with the way I interpreted it. In some extreme cases - like Hanabi - it can feel like an entire new game. It's wonderful.
MattFantastic's Avatar
MattFantastic replied the topic: #320249 08 Mar 2021 22:23
Ok so, the best rule systems are ones that scaffold you up and guide you along the way by structuring the rewards in such a way as to get you to do the "most fun/interesting" things naturally just in playing the game. At a very basic and obvious level, I could just award victory points for the different things I want you to do, which in turn will make you do them as a matter of playing the game successfully.

So in the case of Wavelength, there isn't inherently anything within the game system to make it particularly more effective a strategy to spend a while debating and discussing the weird nuances vs just taking a quick gut check and going for it. A lot of players will still naturally end up doing the deep dives, but there are a shocking number of players who just do not see it on their own yet they play through the game system successfully and have no idea there is this whole deeper layer.