I will be honest. I’m not sure why that skunk is on the box cover, nor why this game is called “Stinker.” I suppose most party games need a gimmick, and this gimmick is as good as any other.
But gimmicks aside, is Stinker any good? Does it pass the sniff test, or will it leave you holding your nose?
How It Works
Stinker is a party game for three to six players. Players use their letter tiles to create the best answer to the prompt, judged by another player. At the end of the game, whoever has the most points wins.
To begin, each player takes two orange skunk tiles and twenty-three random letter tiles from the bag. At the start of the round, one player reads a prompt (something like “What not to say to your mugger”), and all the players simultaneously use their letters to form an answer to the prompt. The rules for letters are lax: you can turn letters to make them be something else (e.g., Ws and Ms and even Es are interchangeable), and you don’t have to spell correctly, but you want to try to get your point across as clearly as possible. Once a player is finished, that player says, “Stinker!” and can no longer change his or her letters around. Once all players but one have called “Stinker,” the remaining player becomes the judge. The other players read their answers, possibly trying to persuade the judge that their answer is best, and the judge chooses one answer to win. The winning answer scores a player 1 point per tile used (excepting skunk tiles).
After the answer has been chosen, tiles pass to the left. Once a set of tiles has made its way completely around the table, all letter tiles are returned to the bag, and a new set of 23 letters is drawn for each player.
After ten rounds, the player with the most points wins.
Sweet Aroma, or Too Ripe?
I’m typically not a fan of party games with judges. I learned very early on in the years after college that Apples to Apples is a game I loathe. Impressing a capricious judge with an oddball answer is not my idea of a good time. There’s little control, there’s no criteria for what is and isn’t a good answer, and even claims that “you have to know the judge” are at the mercy of the cards you’ve drawn. So after I looked at the rules for Stinker, I thought it was just another game in a similar vein, only this time you’re at the mercy of the letter tiles you have. Scrabble meets Apples to Apples? NO THANKS.
I’m happy to say that while my expectations for Stinker were low, it managed to exceed them many times over with just how fun it is.
Stinker has some key twists on the “judge” genre that elevate the game quite a bit over Apples to Apples. First, you never know who the judge is going to be. The judge is simply the last person to arrange their tiles, so you can’t tailor your answer to a specific person: everyone is trying to make the best answer they can. Also, there is not a fixed number of points for each round, so even if you are behind, if you have one or two terrific rounds, you can pull ahead and win. Points are scored by number of letters used and not by generically “winning,” meaning that if you play your letters right, you can score big. And because players receive letters instead of prepackaged words, players are able to use their creativity to make up their own answers, which eliminates a lot of the bummer of a bad card draw in Apples to Apples.
Of course, being limited to the letters you have places hard limits on player creativity, but here I think they lead to better answers instead of worse ones. Until recently I was an enthusiastic Twitter user. The reason I preferred Twitter over other social-media platforms is because of the creativity required to write a good tweet. Twitter is at its best when tweets are short, 140-character bursts rather than disguised blog posts. The best tweets find a way to succeed within the hard limitations of the medium.
A similar principle is at work in Stinker. If players had all the letters of the alphabet at their disposal, and as many of them as they wanted, the answers could fall into a predictable rhythm. The fun of Stinker is that you have these 25 letters to work with, and you have to spin the straw before you into gold. In one round, the prompt was “How to catch a thief.” My first inclination was “Trip him when he runs”–which is as prosaic a response as they come–but I did not have the letters for that. After puzzling for a long time, I cobbled together “surwaylluns” (surveillance), which carried the day for that particular judge. I’m not sure I would have come up with that answer had I been able to use whatever tools I wanted. The limitation forced me to use a different kind of creativity. (Necessity is the mother of invention.) And seeing how other players face this limitation is the fun of the game. Stinker is the poster child for a party game where the points don’t really matter. The joy of the game is in seeing what your friends come up with.
However, as I mentioned above, the score system here is clever if you want to use it, and for score’s or humor’s sake, you’re also never fully stuck with a crop of bad letters. Because your 25 tiles pass each round, you get a new set to try the next round. And if there’s a really bad batch, it will leave the game about halfway through, giving players a new chance to try their hand at the prompts. I initially thought the letters in the game were just a gimmick, but it’s hard to overstress just how much they make the game. The game is legitimately hilarious, and this is due in large part to players having to make the best of what they’re given. And the game, through the letters and the scoring mechanism that rewards players for using more of their letters, channels players into funny creativity, making the fun seem effortless.
The prompts in the game are well chosen. Many of them are off-the-wall questions that most of the players haven’t considered (e.g., “How to stop Putin” or “The title of a lost Dr. Seuss book”), so if the letters you have to use to form a response aren’t disorienting, the prompt is. The prompts themselves are creative, and I find the odder the prompt the better the answers. However, as with most games of prompts and creativity, you need to be aware that there is the opportunity here to spin the game to become less than wholesome, and the cards are purposely flirting with the propriety line. They’re written in such a way that if they aren’t encouraging this bent, they’re at least leaving space for it. This is by no means Cards Against Humanity or Scruples, and the card prompts are mostly tame, but be advised that if you’re using this in the family context, you may want to look through the cards in advance and remove those you deem inappropriate. Most of the cards are still on the safe side of edgy (I wasn’t embarrassed to play this with my coworkers in the lunch room at work), so it likely won’t be a problem in most adult settings, but…well, you know your gaming audiences better than I do.
Like most party games, Stinker involves some level of specialization, meaning you’ll want to know your group is right before introducing them to it. For starters, the game relies on quick, tactical word thinking–kind of like bananagrams, but more focused on meaning–that some people are good at and others are not. It’s easy to imagine a player who isn’t good at thinking on his feet who falls into the judge role again and again. Similarly, it’s easy to imagine a player who is out of sync with the humor of the group and doesn’t get the same affirmation that her answer was a funny one. Stinker is meant to be a game that elicits laughter, and in my experience it succeeds. But like most games of this type, you’ll want to make sure the group is right. (And you could introduce a variant means of judging to allow even the slow players to participate: some judging games have players point at the best answer, with the most fingers getting the victory, and this could be a workable solution in Stinker, or you could just pass the judge role clockwise as in Apples to Apples.)
The components are mostly good. The letter tiles are easy to read and have a nice build quality to them. The cards are flimsy–only slightly better than slips of paper–but they serve their purpose fine. The box is a little bigger than it needs to be, and I would have appreciated an easier way to store the clue cards–there’s a box to stand them in during play, but it doesn’t work as a storage solution. Still, what you get in the box is of good quality (even though I’m not quite sure what the skunk theming has to do with anything).
Again, I am quite pleasantly surprised by Stinker. It’s a simple concept, easily explained, and it does just what you want a party game to do–produce good laughter, a springboard for conversation, and a chance to amaze (and be amazed by) your friends. And it does it in a package that’s well designed from a game standpoint, fixing (or minimizing) many of the problems I have with judging games and naturally channeling players into providing the funniest answers. Judging games still aren’t my favorite, but Stinker is a judging game done well, and I plan to keep it in my collection. It’s certainly a party game for a more creative crowd, and for my friends and family, I think it’s just right. I’m happy to say that Stinker doesn’t stink.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank FoxMind for providing us with a copy of Stinker for review.