Scrabble - the Game of Don't Nuke your Neighbour

Scrabble - the Game of Don't Nuke your Neighbour

MattDP     
 
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I find myself in a slightly strange position and feeling rather stupid as a result. This isn't normally the
sort of game I'd consider reviewing for this site. But I did promise my fellow editors that I'd put all my reviews up on this site first, and I did promise myself that I'd attempt to review any game I've played more than five times in recent months. My partner and my parents all love word games so evenings on my recent trip home consisted of wall-to-wall scrabble (with one break for some Space Hulk with an old friend) so I find myself in something of a Catch-22. As a result, I'm presenting my review in a manner which I hope is consistent with the tone of this site.

Rules


Come on, this is Scrabble! Oh well, I suppose, for the sake of completeness ...

Scrabble is a word game in which players attempt to use a range of letter tiles in their hand to place high scoring words onto the board. Each player has a rack - a common or garden rack to put things on, not the torture chamber kind - on which they keep seven letter tiles. The board has a grid - nothing to do with defence computers, just cross-secting lines - onto which the letters are placed. Players try to form words by taking letters from the selection on their rack and placing them onto the board, although the letters they place must intersect - as in cross, not cut with a sharp instrument - one of the words already on the board. After playing, you replenish your hand back up to seven tiles from a bag of letters.

On placing a word, the word is scored - againt, not as in the sort of "scoring" you do with a knife - by adding up the value of the letters in the word. Each letter is assigned a value based on how unusually it occurs in english words, from the vowels (all one point) to Q and Z (both 10 points). To add interest to the game many of the grid squares on the board have bonuses such as triple letter score or double word score and obviously a key factor of the strategy - not in the military sense - in the game is to try and use these bonus tiles for maximum effect whenever you get the chance and when you haven't, to make a play which doesn't allow other players an opportunity to use them.

The game ends when all the letters have run out and no-one can make any more plays the game is over. The value of any remaining letters in your hand are deducted from your score. The player with the highest score - not the highest number of missiles, or the last player standing in a bomb-ravaged wilderness - is the winner.

There are no rules for forming military fronts with your letters and carrying out frenzied assaults on your
opponents' words. You cannot, at any point, start building up your tiles into a fleet of fusion-powered laser
bombers to swoop down and interrupt the concentration of the player on your left to gain an advantage. You cannot negotiate with the player opposite to set up a military Junta and pool letters to make longer and better words. Rifles, guns, swords, grenades, knives and tanks have nothing to do with this game except that all are legal words you can place on the board.

Skills

It is probably fair to say that Scrabble is a lexicographers' wet dream. A large vocabulary is probably the
biggest asset you can have here. Indeed championship scrabble players push this to such an extent that many of the know and can spell hundreds of words that they would probably be utterly unable to define, most of which contain high scoring letters like Q, Z and J. The meaning of words isn't the point here. Apparently the highest scoring word ever recorded in an official game is "caziques". You know what that means? Neither do I. Neither did, I suspect, the guy that played it. For the record it's a kind of Spanish peasant farmer.

If that were all there was to it, Scrabble would be a weak game and unworthy of differentation from the vast, undulating sea of other word games that throng the shelves of elderly women the world over. But of course, there's more. For starters, knowing a lot of words and having the imagination to sort the letters in front of you into the highest-scoring word you can manage are different things, as any well-read person who has attempted to solve an anagram can attest.

But the real clincher for me, with Scrabble, is the board. The board serves two purposes both of which are at the heart of what makes Scrabble a worthwhile game. Firstly because you're required to integrate - that's integrate, not assimilate, Borg style - your word with existing ones on the board there's a lot of mileage in analysing exactly what the highest scoring combination of letters in your hand is. It's not as simple as just picking out the longest word you can manage, because you also score any letters from words on the boards that you've assimilated, sorry, integrated, with. Placing a short word that includes an "s" added on to the end of an existing word can, for example, often be worth a lot more than a longer word that only intersects across an existing word because by using the "s" you've changed two words on the board and can score both of them. The other board aspect to scrabble is, of course, those bonus squares. Again, accepting a shorter word can often mean a higher score if it means you can get on a bonus square. And when it comes to bonuses it isn't a simple numerical calculation as to the value of your play - leaving one open will allow another player the chance to take advantage. So it's a trade off as to whether you might have to accept a lower score and prevent other players getting a higher score, or whether you should maximise your own play.

It's worth me re-iterating that this incorporation of positional board play into what is otherwise a fairly
straightfoward and cerebral game is the key to what makes it exciting. The point bears repeating because the designers of a vast number of tedious Eurogames in which the board plays no part other than administrative record keeping still don't seem to have grasped the importance of this lesson.

With Scrabble though, there's a trade-off. Obviously, whatever you choose to do when presented with the opportunity of using a bonus tile yourself, it's never a good idea to hand that opportunity to someone else. So it's quite common for games to degenerate into frustrating and rather dull matches of "dare" where the players compete to put down the highest-scoring short words they can until every legitimate avenue of new play is shut off and someone is forced into making a play which opens out the board but hands the chance of a big score with bonus squares to the next player. Usually this is only a brief phase since someone will take the dare and decide that making a bigger score for themselves is worth handing the same opportunity to an opponent but on occasion it can bog the game down into a tedious and repetetive snore-fest. The same issue can also turn into a player-binding problem where a weak player who constantly buckles in these situations and opens up the board constantly benefits the player next to them more than the other players. But the nature of Scrabble means that one long word often creates a number of opportunities that others can exploit so this isn't a big deal unless the skill differential is really huge.

Logistics

Scrabble will play with 2-4 players. Play time is tough to estimate since it's very dependent on the skill and patience of the players involved but in my games at least, around 45 minutes per player seemed a fairly accurate guide. The components in most editions are probably fairly descibed as "functional".

The game involves a lot of thinking. Because you need to see the play of the player before you in order to make a meaningful decision about what to do yourself, this translates into a lot of down time. Unlike a lot of Ameritrash games where you can spend downtime bargaining with other players or getting another beer from the fridge Scrabble is a game without bargaining and which doesn't encourage beer drinking. That means that this downtime is dead time, and that's not good. It's a major flaw with the game. I found myself either playing with my mobile phone or submitting myself to taking another loss (my parents and partner are good at this game) and just downing another beer regardless.

I find the game works best with three. With four the downtime between turns that I mentioned above can really become grindingly tedious. With two, it becomes very easy (and very tempting) to make the sort of shutting off turns that I described in the "skills" section and too high a proportion of games get bogged down by this problem.

The game has no particular requirements for space or gaming accessories (other than paper and pencil) but since it involved placing slippery plastic tiles in careful order on a slippery linen-finish board this is not a game where you want to get cross about loosing a dice roll, or a betrayal by an ally and pound your fist down on the table to vent your anger and misery. So it's good job that the game involves neither dice nor alliances. It does have a fairly significant random factor in the drawing of letters from the bag - it's not only possibly but relatively common to be stuck with a hand of tiles which are consontant or vowel heavy, making play very difficult, through no fault of your own. A good player will still be able to make the best of what they've got, but if it happens to you and you feel your blood pressure rising, curb the urge to kick the table in frustration.

Feelings

Scrabble scratches two important itches for me.

Firstly, whatever the random elements, it's an intensely cerebral game, the kind that can make your head hurt. I often find these sorts of games rather boring but various aspects of Scrabble come together to save it from oblivion. Positional play is one big one. The second is that unlike nearly all similar games, the cerebral element of scrabble is as much, if not more, imaginative than it is mathematical. This isn't a game of big sums or trying to think endless moves ahead.

The second thing is that it can be surprisingly tense. Waiting to see what's coming out of the letter bag when you've been on a run of just-consonants or just-vowels can be pretty exciting. But what really screws with your head is the waiting. Picture the scene - you've got an absolutely killer play lined up and you're sitting, waiting to see if one of the other players is going to blindly stumble in and block off the position you need to exploit without knowing that they're about to deprive you of hundreds of points. Of course as one of the other players you're also sat worrying that one of the other miserable bastards round the board is about to pull off the same stunt if you don't block his position and that there's nothing you can do about it because you can't see his letters. It can get excrutiating. It can get so that you can't pass the downtime by playing on your phone because all you can see are the four or five letter tiles you need burned onto the insides of your retinas. So you wait, grinding your teeth, biting your nails and sweating until the moment when you can either shout "Eureka!" and make a game winning play or yell "Noooo!" and bitch-slap the player who's just eaten up your own opportunity with a word worth three points.

However, we have to weight against this a measure of annoyance and frustration. Like a lot of heavy games it's possible in Scrabble for stronger players to disappear off into the distance leaving others behind. A stroke of luck can also sometimes hand one player a huge score, almost regardless of skill. Games can for all intents and purposes have a clear winner halfway through. If you can stop when you reach this point, then that's fine, but Scrabble has a strange draw for those that play it - for many the challenge of making best use of the letters in the hand is greater than the challenge of winning. Not so for me, and so I've been forced to sit out many mind-numbing hours of pointless Scrabble endgames wishing I was playing Zilch instead.

Conclusions

The pathetic attempts that I've made at juxtaposing the fact that scrabble is not a direct conflict game with what it actually is aren't just for a feeble stab at humour. There's a point here. Let's imagine for a moment that we could have warfare in scrabble - a variant where every time someone puts down a word with military connotations they could compare it's score value with another word and each player would roll a bunch of dice with the looser loosing the word, and the points. Suddenly, this becomes a game in which skill is paramount but in which the slow, painful drag of being left behind by the other players is tempered by the hope of a lucky play to make it back in to the game. It's a game where downtime is less of a problem because everyone can join in with the shouting and the hollering when an attack goes down and because a war-word is an easy and better choice than an equivalent which can't attack. It's a game in which the board position becomes dynamic and thus free of the threat of lock down under the auspicies of a pair of skilled and competetive players.

In short, it removes almost every problem associated with the game. And it does so without significantly
effecting the level of skill invovled in the game. And there is a big fat lesson as to why so many identikit  non-conflict games end up being nothing more than brief blips on the conciousnesses of a bunch of fickle gamers. It's possible to make good games without direct interaction but it's hard. And for the majority of game designers who want to make a living and make good memorable games the answer is simple - more direct conflict please.

What of Scrabble? It must be said that I like Scrabble, in spite of it's flaws. I may be biased because it's
one of the very few games my partner will willingly suggest and play with me but I enjoy the dance of the letters through my head and the positional play can be a tricky challenge to get right. It helps that I don't often play such intensely cerebral games, or that many word games, so Scrabble makes a refreshing change of pace. In my head I tend to think of games in four categories of quality, and Scrabble gets three out of four - a game I'll rarely suggest but will play with enthusiasm if picked by someone else.
Scrabble - the Game of Don't Nuke your Neighbour There Will Be Games
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