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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 7 of 21 Next

6. Scrabble

Published by Mattel worldwide, Hasbro in U.S. and Canada

Type: Two to four player tile-placing word board game

Depth: High

Designed by: Alfred Mosher Butts and James Brunot

Luck factor: Low to moderate

Description: Players take turns placing tiles on a grid of spaces in order to spell words that interlock with others already on the board.

Words are scored by letter value (from 1 to 10 depending mostly on rarity), special spaces covered (they multiply letter or word values depending on type) and whether they use all seven tiles in the player's hand (a flat 50-point bonus). The winner is the player with the highest score when the supply of letter tiles runs out.

Play Summary

Each player has a rack with seven randomly-drawn letter tiles on it. The remaining tiles go into a supply, here called the bag. And there is a 15 x 15 grid board with a star in the middle square. This is the battlefield.

Each participant takes turns places tiles spelling a legal word on the board, one letter per square. (Word legality may be determined, after a turn, by a dictionary of record.) The first player can play any word he can make from the tiles on his rack, but all later players must attach his word to the ones already in play.

There are two kinds of words produced thereby: there must be a primary word that is constructed using the tiles placed and those already on the board, and there may also be other words created by other tiles alongside the ones placed. No more tiles may be placed beyond those in the primary word.

Each word formed is scored. All new runs of two-or-more tiles must form legal words or the entire play is invalid. Two of the tiles are blanks; these are "wild" tiles, able to substitute for any letter, although they do not themselves score. Once used for a letter, the blank remains as that letter for the rest of the game.

Every tile except the blanks has a number on it denoting its score value. Playing a word awards the player the sum of the scores of the tiles in the word, both those he placed and those already on the board. Additionally, some spaces are marked with special bonuses, being: Double Letter Score, Double Word Score, Triple Letter Score, and Triple Word Score. These affect the scoring of a word according to its name.

While special spaces are placed sparsely to minimize the chances of it happening, they compound each other: a multiple word score also doubles any multiplied letter scores, and multiple word multiplier spaces can result in times-four or even times-nine scoring. Bonus squares only count if a tile is placed on one that turn. There is also a 50-point bonus, called a bingo for some unfathomable reason, for depleting your entire rack in a single play. Bingos are not affected by bonus squares. The starting square, the one with the star on it, counts as a Double Word Score.

After playing and scoring, the player draws tiles from the bag to get his rack back up to seven. If he cannot play, or does not wish to, he may instead return none, some or all of his rack to the bag and draw a like number of replacement tiles. The game generally ends when the bag runs out of tiles, but official North American rules state it ends when either a player empties his rack when the bag is also empty, or six consecutive scoreless plays are made when the score is not zero-zero.

If a player plays a word that his opponent thinks is not legal, he may challenge. Challenge rules are different in different countries. By U.S. rules, If a player challenges and is found correct, the played word is removed and the challenged player loses his turn. If an incorrect word is played that is not challenged it is made legal, and likewise playing a good word that looks bad may inspire a spurious challenge, which causes the challenger to lose his next turn instead. Intermediate-level players may find it useful to bluff with obscure words or believable fakes.

Scrabble rules are subtly different in different countries. Other-language versions of the game use entirely different letter sets, with different score values, and make for substantially different games. Challenge rules also vary considerably between release territories.

What can we draw from this game?

Of all the popular commercial board games sold in the United States, arguably Scrabble is the one most suited to deep strategic play, and the one most worthy of study. The best Scrabble players are fearsomely great; a novice has little hope of defeating them, despite the important element of chance in drawing tiles. It takes a lot of work to reach that level, and Scrabble tournaments are fascinating enough to have been the subject of a book (Word Freak) and a documentary (Word Wars).

Word games present a challenge to traditional classifications of gaming because they need not rely either on luck or strategy. An important aspect of these games is straight knowledge, in that players are aided by having a large vocabulary. They are like trivia contests in this regard, which can be looked down upon as possessing limited game-like qualities, but Scrabble balances this out with strategic elements like covering special board spaces and blocking opposing moves.

One quality of games played by two or more players which are symmetrical in setup and ability and involve a race against each other for limited scoring opportunity is that, to a degree, they are self-balancing. By this I mean that the players' self-interest and move opportunity costs, provided that the variety of moves is rich enough and not too limiting to the opponent, provide a tension against each other that good play tries to satisfy.

These kinds of games also tend to be somewhat vulnerable to first-mover biases, since that player may act on a virgin board, both gaining initial, unopposed advantage over the other player and also setting the character of the battle to come.

While blocking is important to high-level Scrabble, the board generally becomes more open to possible moves over time, which keeps the focus more on maximizing one's own score, instead of limiting the other's. Still, really good Scrabble players play with caution when approaching valuable spaces, so as to reduce the possibility his opponent may get a big play off of them.

Further reading:

I present the only link to the New Yorker on this entire list, a letter (to the editor) on whether the tile values are suitable for 21st century play.

I would link to the piece to which this letter responds, but it's behind a pay wall.

Article Start Previous Page 7 of 21 Next

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