More Scrabble thoughts

Having completed a couple games of Scrabulous in Facebook, I have some more thoughts about what I do and don't want in a game of Scrabble.

How I play

I'm not as pure about playing only cool words as I probably made it sound in my previous comments; if faced with a choice between a neat word that scores little and an ordinary word that scores twice as much, I'm torn. (If I can play EN for 18 points, for example, that's hard to resist.) But having made a public statement about it, I tried to mostly stick to my principles in the games I recently played--which is just as well, given that there's no way I could have won either of them if I were going for points, due to the other players being way better at that sort of thing than I am. . . . And on several turns I couldn't come up with a nifty word, so I did go for ordinary and points.

So score does matter to me--it's not that I don't care at all about it, it's just that nifty words are more interesting to me. (I'm not entirely noncompetitive; I tend to enjoy games more that I win often, like fan-tan or Illuminati, or that always end up being really close, like Puerto Rico.) But I don't like having wild imbalances in scoring in any direction. So when I'm playing Scrabble with people who care about scoring, I sometimes end up feeling a little resentful that the other players are playing in a paradigm that I'm not so interested in, and thereby winning by a lot of points.

In one of the recent games, I did end up playing one two-letter word that I couldn't resist. Part of the board looked like this:


and I played LO horizontally right under DETENTS and above ENVOY, which resulted in also making IDLE and PEON (both vertical), for 13 points. Even though I was passing up a chance to play WEAL elsewhere.

But even though it's neat, that's a violation of my preferred approach (see below)--I just don't find parallel-played words (as opposed to words that cross other words) satisfying, at a visceral level.

An example of my playing the way I'd prefer to play: near the end of one game, I considered playing WIENIE, but somehow that didn't seem as elegant as WEAN, so I went with WEAN. In some sense I shoulda played WIENIE, 'cause it would've let me go out the next turn, instead of being left with one tile; oh, well.

In these recent games, I almost never scored less than 10 points in a turn (and usually more), but that doesn't help against players who regularly score 15-35 points in a turn.

How I'd like to play

Here are some notes toward a set of house rules that would let me enjoy Scrabble more.

The main thing I discovered while playing is that at a gut level, I want Scrabble to be a cross-word game; I find it unsatisfying to see a word laid down next to another word, with no crossing, which is one of the main ways that people who are into the game play.

There's nothing at all wrong with playing parallel words, obviously; it's entirely legitimate, and it's probably the only way to consistently score a lot of points. It just doesn't feel right to me. Though adding to an existing word is okay with me; I guess my criterion is more that I want the main played word to use at least one letter already on the board, whether it crosses another word or extends it in the original direction.

(Crossing the end of a previously played word, in a T shape, and thereby extending the previously played word by one letter, is somewhere on the borderline for me.)

Another issue that I ran into several times is that I don't like the challenge system. When I come up with a neat word, but I'm not certain that's how it's spelled, I want to go look it up and check. Given that I can't (according to the rules), I tend to play it safe and avoid the word, which leads to less enjoyable (for me) play. Also, if I'm playing with serious players, there's no point in my challenging 2- or 3-letter words; they know far more of them than I do. It would be trivially easy for a serious player to just make up a bunch of 2- and 3-letter words and score big off me; I'd never know the difference, and I'd never challenge them. (Also tied in to this point is the fact that in most contexts, I just don't like bluffing, nor being required to figure out whether someone else is bluffing--poker and Bullshit being the only contexts I can think of offhand where I enjoy that kind of thing.)

As for validity, I'd rather play that at least one other player has to know the word, than that it has to be in some given dictionary. Of course, that doesn't help me when two or more of the other players know the words from having read them in the Scrabble dictionary or books on how to play Scrabble; I want to say that doesn't count, but arguably, they know those words just as much as I know lots of words that I've never seen or heard actually used.

I'm tempted to outlaw two-letter words entirely, except in the last few turns. At some point I went through the official list of allowed two-letter words and divided it into words that seem completely legit/common to me (BY, ME, TO, US, etc), questionable ones (BI, MM, SH, etc), and ones that I wouldn't allow at all (JO, KA, OD, WO, etc). But a lot of that is just gut feeling; my list of common two-letter words doesn't quite match the list of common ones on that linked-to page, for example. I suppose the players could agree ahead of time on a list. Maybe I'll publish my list and see if it becomes popular among less-competitive players.

My house rules

With all of the above in mind, here's a first draft of my ideal house rules:

  1. Cross or extend: Your main word on every play (except the first one) must use at least one letter from an already played word.
  2. Open-book: Dictionaries and web searches and such are allowed, but probably only to check the spelling of a word you want to play, not to browse around trying to come up with a word to play. Also, asking other players for help and advice is allowed, and mentioning words (including made-up ones) that you considered playing but didn't is fine.
  3. Validity: At least one other player has to know the word you're playing (for some definition of "know").

Here's another rule I'm considering adding but haven't decided on yet:

  • No two-letter words until there are no tiles left in the bag. May not be necessary (given the lack of parallel play), and may be too restrictive (given that there are times when it really does make sense to play a two-letter word). And is it okay to have incidental two-letter words when someone plays a legitimate crossing (or extending) word? Another possibility: it's okay to play or create two-letter words, but they don't score. And another possibility: common two-letter words are okay, but rare ones aren't.

More variants

Here are some potentially interesting variants or additional house rules that somehow don't feel like they should be part of my core house-rules ruleset:

  • Bonus points for using tiles from two or more words already on the board--that is, for linking previously played words. This is appealing in some ways, but (unlike most of the house rules listed above) it would be unplayable in Scrabulous or any other software that handles scoring for you.
  • Bonus points for playing longer words--not just the big bonus for using all seven tiles. (+1 point per letter in the word? Or the bonus could go up faster than the number of letters, like the Boggle word-length scores.) Has the same drawback as the previous bonus-points variant.
  • Allow well-known proper names and/or well-known foreign words. I mention this only because in the games I was just playing, I kept having the letters to play people's names. But this starts down the slippery slope of allowing all sorts of other things--which can also be fun, but in a different way.
  • Laugh Scrabble: Any set of letters is allowed if you can make the other players laugh, either from the word itself or from your explanation (which has to have something to do with the word, can't just be telling a joke or tickling them).

Near misses

Here are some "words" I would have liked to have played in my recent games, had we been playing much sillier variants:

  • TAYOGRAM (a way to send tea by wire. Especially appealing because it would've landed on a Triple Word Score and thus given me 45 points)
  • If only it were possible to turn walnuts on a NUTLATHE.

And some actual words that I was only a letter or two from being able to play:

  • Was missing only an E to make ETUDE.
  • TIERCE (this one I actually could have played, but I wasn't absolutely certain that was the right spelling, so I refrained)

Finally, a few proper nouns that I had all or almost all the letters for, but couldn't play 'cause they were proper:

  • AVALON (had all the letters)
  • LEONID (had all the letters)
  • LEIALOHA (missing L and H)

Scrabulous puzzle/question

I was looking through some high-scoring Scrabulous games played by other people, and came across one particularly odd one. How did this game work?

Looking at the move list, it looks like they started off by playing a word near the upper left corner, then played a bunch of words that didn't connect to each other at all. And at some point they played TERMINOLOGIES (13 letters) without, apparently, having any of the four crossing words in place. (Though they may've had the middle MI in place.) How'd they do that? Even if they weren't following the usual rules about connecting words, I'm not clear on how one player could put down that many tiles at once.

They also played several words that I would've guessed were made up, such as INKLE and TERAI, but those turn out to be real. I'm now guessing that FANDED is also real, but it's not in MW3 (unabridged), and TSOR isn't helping. Anyone happen to know what FANDED means?

Btw, it's kinda funny how many of the top-scoring "super bingos" in the Scrabulous "global stats" section consist of the word SINGHIOZZEREBBE, played by Marco Pagano in a bunch of Italian games; he and his collaborator very carefully arranged the board and their tiles to be able to produce that word (and others). Not my style, but I admire their dedication.

2 Responses to “More Scrabble thoughts”

  1. kairon_gnothi

    Our house variant: MUTANT Scrabble. It increases the # (and score) of nifty words and moves.

    You can pick up from the board up to half of a word and replace the tiles (and add tiles, at your option) to get a newly played word. No points for putting down a word which was already played there; bonus points for any square which is exposed and then played-upon. So:

    SQUARE becomes BEWARE. A double-word bonus under the W doubles the player’s score, but the double-tile bonus under the R doesn’t count – the R is scored as a single. BEWARE then beomces SQUARE (because some wanted the ‘B’). No points whatsoever. SQUARE becomes QUARREL, scoring points. And so on.

    I like the idea of no 2-letter words until the tiles are gone, although I would permit them if more than 2 words are thereby created (thus allowing LO, IDLE, PEON from your example). Too pretty to lose out on that!

    I should note that Bh generally play fairly loosey-goosey with the ‘if it’s neat, allow it’ rule and I do as well when I play with her; but I also enjoy switching gears and playing traditionally. Both are fun for me.

  2. Shmuel

    Re: FANDED. Webster’s Second has the following:
    fand, fond v.t. & i. [AS fandian to try, tempt, search.] Obs. a To make trial of; test; prove; tempt. b to attempt; undertake. c To look for or into; seek or search. d To have dealings with. e To go; proceed.

    Re: the challenge system. I hope you’re playing “regular” games on Scrabulous, then? No challenges, and you can look stuff up.

    The one variant I’ve always wanted to try is Anagram Scrabble, where you can add letters to any one given word on the board and rearrange them, provided that all of the words crossing it remain words when you’re done.


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