As teens, my best friend and I were obsessed with the word “smug.” We had mugs with a smug emoji face printed on them (smug mugs) and once even hosted a party with a smug theme. Needless to say, I was immediately interested when I saw the title of this game. And while it could have any name and any theme, the cute owl artwork helps too.
Smug Owls is a game of riddle solving, with the box boasting a 3-15 player count, though I wouldn’t recommend it with more than 10 unless you use the no scoring variant, which I’ll touch on later.
Smug Owls includes two decks of cards—the Riddle cards and the Conjunction cards. To set up, place a stack of 8 conjunction cards on the table, then split the riddle cards into two decks and place these on either side of the conjunction stack. Finally, place the “What” and “?” card on the table, faceup, with room between them for the three cards that will create your riddle.
To play the game, draw one card from each of the three stacks to generate a riddle. For example, you might draw these three cards: “is strong,” “and always,” “is edible”; thus your riddle is “What is strong and always is edible?” Players immediately begin to think of an answer and, once they have it, slap their hand on the table.
Once there is only one player who has not thought of an answer, that player becomes the “Smug Owl” and will be the judge for that round. The Smug Owl will award the three cards that generated the riddle to their favorite answer(s). They may award all three to a single answer, or split them among multiple players who gave answers they liked. A new round then begins, with these steps repeated, until the stack of 8 conjunction cards is empty. The player with the most cards at game end wins.
This game will appeal to groups who enjoy creative thinking and playing “for the fun of it.” Strategically, there is not a lot of depth, but that is not to say Smug Owls isn’t clever in its own way.
The big question is, do the riddles work? And the surprising answer is, yes! I’m yet to face a riddle for which the majority of players simply couldn’t come up with an answer, whether witty or silly. It’s apparent that thought and care went into crafting the deck so that the riddles would make sense. If you do find your group struggles to come up with answers quickly, there is a variant that uses a timer, but it wasn’t needed in the games I played. Coming up with a clever solution to the riddles is satisfying and it’s fun to hear what the other players come up with, which will often be something that didn’t even occur to you. I also think there’s a lot of replay value here as there’s a good variety of riddle cards, which will always be shuffled and split into two decks, ensuring unique combinations.
I had a lot of fun playing this with my family and definitely suggest it for wordy groups who enjoy casual games; it may not be the ideal game, however, for competitive players who are looking for a purely strategic experience. I did feel the scoring structure could have been better. Because you always know who gives which answers, the Smug Owl could manipulate the score to their own advantage by making sure not to award cards to a player who would pull ahead of them. For this reason, I wish the answers were given anonymously, perhaps written down and then read aloud by one of the players; this would be an easy fix, but it also moves the game from the relaxing diversion I believe the designers were going for to more of a competitive party game.
There is even a variant in the rulebook that suggests simply throwing the score out and having players shout their answers as soon as they think of them, which is probably the only way you’d want to play with up to 15 players! For that matter, that variant could also be played with just 2 players, or even as a solo exercise. So the 3-15 player count seems rather arbitrary. For the regular game, I do think it works fine with 3, but is best with at least 4.
Ultimately, I found Smug Owls to be quite clever, but with the caveats mentioned above, especially the scoring issue. Also, I’m the right audience for it—I tend to enjoy games that emphasize creativity over competition when I have the right group to play them with. I could also see this working well in classrooms or with writing groups; but, for groups looking for a deep, strategic experience, it could be a major flop. As with so many games, it will come down to personal preference, but I believe it succeeds at what it set out to do.
Final score: 3.5 Stars – A fun bit of riddle solving for creative groups.
• Problematic scoring
• Highly group dependent