Philosophy of Scrabble

At some point I'll post more about Facebook. But for now, having fallen into two Scrabulous games almost immediately upon arrival, I think I ought to talk a little about my philosophy of Scrabble.

As I noted in a comment on Vardibidian's blog a while back: "I'm much more interested in coming up with cool and pleasing words and making them interconnect than in knowing [lots of] two-letter words that nobody but Scrabble players have ever used that will allow me to place a word next to another word and score big."

Although I have occasionally said inflammatory things about the official Scrabble dictionary in the past, I should make clear that I intend no offense to people who are dedicated Scrabble players. I have no objection to people memorizing the official dictionary, or using brilliant tricks to make extremely tight grids of letters. But I don't personally enjoy playing that way.

Of course, I'm always pleased when the goal of scoring lots of points happens to coincide with the goal of playing cool words. I just played VIRAGO, and Mary Anne responded with STOAT--the latter of which wouldn't normally have scored well, but it was played in such a way and place that it did. So I have no objection to scoring well with a nifty word.

But when the two goals conflict, as they often do, I'm far more interested in playing nifty words (a concept that's obviously in the eye of the beholder) than in scoring points.

So anyone who wants to play Scrabble with me should be aware that I won't be really competing in the point-scoring category. Sadly, this tends to be a little frustrating on both sides, which is why I don't play Scrabble much. (I prefer Boggle anyway.)

(I'm reminded that one of my favorite word-game experiences was during my high-school trip to the Soviet Union. Jonathan W and I were sitting on the tour bus one day and one of us said a nifty word, and the other responded with another, and for the next while we entertained ourselves by taking turns coming up with pleasing words. We didn't keep score, but the activity certainly had game nature; there was a certain amount of table talk along the lines of "Nice!" or "Ooh, that's a good one" or "Don't think I can top that." We had been reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, of course, so there was something of the feel of the Questions game even though we had no formal rules and weren't keeping score.)

For more on related topics, see my 1998 column on Scrabble variants, my 2003 journal entry on Fantasy Scrabble, and Vardibidian's 2004 discussion of the Maximum Fun Quotient (a.k.a. MFQ), particularly Chaos's description (in comments) of "Socialist Scrabble"--I'm totally in favor of a game in which one can legitimately say "I could make a really nifty word if someone traded me an R."

6 Responses to “Philosophy of Scrabble”

  1. Jenn

    I like your Scrabble philosophy. That’s how I started out, but after having played so many games, I now know words I never ever wanted to know. (Like “QIS.”) I thought I would mention that when you start a Scrabulous game, you can turn off dictionary access, which leads to more “normal” words being played — I’m finding that very liberating in some of my games. I like cool words!

    Also, I just added the game “Scramble” on Facebook. It seems to be a Boggle-like game you can play head-to-head, but in a turn-based way (if that makes any sense). It’s very fun despite having an initially confusing interface.

  2. Tom Galloway

    Ever heard Bulbous Bouffant by the Vestibules, as featured on Dr. Demento? YouTube fan video with the original performance audio at Basically it’s all about saying nifty words; starts a bit slow, but is quite fun by the end.

  3. David Moles

    There should be a way to formalize it as an alternative scoring system.

  4. jacob

    I read this with some wistfulness. I used to have the same approach to Scrabble, but I got involved in a relationship with a woman who was very into Scrabble, and we used to have lots and lots of ferocious games of Scrabble, very much for the win, and my Scrabble instincts seem to have changed. It’s far worse than you describe — for serious competitive players, while it’s important to use those obscure words to squeeze stuff in unexpectedly, what’s even more important is controlling your opponent’s opportunities. If you’re really playing to win, you’re also playing to make it impossible for your opponent to make any good words.

    For obvious reasons, if I find myself playing against someone who isn’t taking this approach, my style of play will make the game not fun for my opponent at all. Since the girlfriend described above and I broke up (ten years ago), I’ve only played Scrabble two or three times, because I had a couple of games where I played to win and my opponent (once it was the woman who, despite this, became my wife) ended up looking at me like I had killed their kitten, and I felt awful.

    Since then I have come to understand better why this is not a nice way to play for casual players, and maybe (maybe) I could control it and play a nice game. I’m not sure.

    On the flip side, although I’ve developed the competitive instincts, I’m not really good enough to play in tournaments (and don’t have time to get good enough). So I just don’t play. Clearly you and I must never ever play Scrabble. But I’d love a game of Boggle some time….

  5. Peter Roizen

    I felt the same way about Scrabble, so I changed it to eliminate the importance of short words and promote long cool words.

    Hope you will take a look.


  6. Shmuel

    I’m actually glad you mentioned this, because I was thinking of challenging you to a game, and our styles would be totally incompatible; like Jacob, I’m all about scoring the most points while blocking my opponent from doing the same. (And I get just as frustrated when playing against somebody with a more casual style, particularly if they keep handing me ridiculous openings.)


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