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'I wanted the game to feel unlike anything else': How I invented hit board game League of Lexicon

League of the Lexicon is a quiz game about words and language that started life as a way of distracting bored kids during lockdown

League of the Lexicon. Emile - character illustration

League of the Lexicon. Emile - character illustration

I dread the “What do you do?” question. My reply, “I make board games”, still feels as improbable as claiming I’m a chocolate taster. But making board games is, apparently, what I do; or has been since last year when, much to my surprise, a game I’d been tinkering with during the first Covid lockdown became the most-backed word game in Kickstarter history.

League of the Lexicon, the game I invented, is a quiz game about words and language. And if you’ll forgive some trumpet blowing, it’s pretty special. At least, that’s what Susie Dent and Stephen Fry said, as did Waterstones, who made it their Game of the Month. But it’s strange to think that something so successful started life as a way of distracting my kids, bored of home-schooling during the dark days of Covid. 

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Looking for an antidote to joyless English grammar tests, I made word games for my two boys (after whom the company, Two Brothers Games, is named). League of the Lexicon was my fourth attempt, after Word War, WordSplat, Dojo and Tyrannosaurus Lex. But something about League of the Lexicon seemed to click, and when lockdown ended, my work on the game didn’t. 

I’m neither a linguist nor a game designer, but that didn’t feel like a problem. I ran a design agency for 10 years and had two books published (one a photobook about London’s launderettes), so making the game wasn’t too daunting. I also worked with a team of question writers who shared my passion for language. More importantly, they shared my sense of curiosity, and language is endlessly interesting to curious minds. And that’s what players find in the game’s questions, which cover everything from archaic words to intriguing etymology, definitions to word trivia. 

Games like Scrabble and Scattergories might be classics, but word games account for a tiny part of the board game world, and games about words are rarer still. If I had a lightbulb moment, this was it: people are fascinated by words and language, but there wasn’t a game that tapped into this. I wanted to make the last word in word games. 

I started contacting linguists, lexicographers and authors asking them to contribute questions to the game, and the support I received was amazing. Michael Rosen, Lynne Truss, Ben Schott, Pip Williams and Caroline Taggart joined over 80 contributors to the game. We even got a question from David Peterson, best known for creating the languages in Game of Thrones.

Some contributors didn’t limit themselves to just a few questions. Jonathon Green, the world’s best known slang lexicographer, wrote all 500 questions for the recently released Slang Edition, and polyglot linguist Gaston Dorren did likewise for the Global Edition, featuring languages around the world. And it keeps growing. David Astle, Australia’s answer to Susie Dent, has already written an Oz-NZ ‘minipack’, and more ‘minipacks’ are planned.

The board games world is a tough business and it’s hard to get a game made, let alone sold. Which makes the story behind League of the Lexicon all the more unusual. Finding myself in Waterstones Piccadilly one day, I looked for the games buyer to get feedback on an early prototype. Two months later the book chain ordered 5,000 copies.

That’s not how things happen in the board game business, and it’s certainly not how Waterstones normally operates. But the game sold out, and Waterstones went on to re-order twice more, while adding the three special editions to their shelves.

League of the Lexicon

Making the game has been a labour of love. I researched and wrote over 2,000 questions, including everything for the new Junior Edition. Now, every time I hear something curious about what a word means or where it’s come from, my brain turns it into a question. It’s become a compulsion. But despite countless suggestions, I’ve resisted the temptation to create an online edition.

I jokingly call myself Analogue Dad, but the truth is, I always wanted League to be a screen-free experience. That’s what makes traditional board games so special in a world that’s always plugged in and online.

If this sounds old fashioned, it’s in keeping with the game. The beautifully illustrated character cards feature an eccentric cast of ‘adventurer lexicographers’ (the eponymous League of the Lexicon), best described as ‘Indiana Jones meets Doctor Johnson’. Even the game’s box, with its dusty vintage colours, features the symbols of bygone languages. I wanted the game to feel unlike anything else, although I know I’ve driven designers mad in the process. 

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” is the question adults like to ask kids. I never knew how to answer it, and still don’t. But for the moment, I make board games. And I want to make more. 

League Of The Lexicon is available from Two Brothers Games.

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