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Subject: A classic, but can this game be salvaged? rss

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Kendahl Johnson
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Scrabble is a game that my mom wants to play every time she comes to visit. She grew up playing the game and still enjoys it. I, on the other hand, have moved on to bigger and better games. But I oblige her, since she is always keen to learn a new game and I can get some of my unplayed games to the table when she visits.

This visit, we played a game. I fell behind quickly when she used all 7 letters on her first turn and due to poor tile drawing (I had all 1 point letters for the first five turns), I never caught up. Hardly two words were exchanged between us the entire game and I felt a bit unsatisfied as we packed up the game. Scrabble is no longer fun for me.

The game is simple - pick letter tiles and play words on a board. I won't go into further details on the rules, as there are plenty of other reviews that cover that and I think by now, everyone knows how to play.

There are certain problems that hurt this game for me:

1) Vocabulary - as a journalist and avid reader I think I know a lot of words. But they aren't weird words. In order to do really well in this game (or to play competitively) you need to know some of those more obscure words. You really need to know all the two-letter words especially.

2) Time - playing against someone who takes forever to play a word can be excruciating.

3) Luck of the draw - if you've ever drawn a handful of vowels you know how frustrating this can be. And if you exchange them, you score zero points and when playing against someone evenly matched, that's often a tough penalty to come back from. Furthermore, if you draw the majority of the high scoring letters and the Ss, you will usually win.

So can this game be fixed? Here's a couple of things I suggest that might improve game play:

1) A cheat sheet - print out a copy of all the two-letter words and give it to the players. This would even the playing field immensely.

2) Use of a Scrabble dictionary - the challenge rule which lets you challenge your opponent's word is pretty good. I enjoy putting a false word down and then holding my breath to see if my mom is going to challenge me. She usually does and once in awhile I luck out and it actually is a word. But in a sense, that also hurts the game. I should never be rewarded for guessing a word. So I suggest allowing the use of a dictionary X number of times per game. If you have some decent letters but can't find a word, toss in a dictionary token and grab the dictionary and see if you can find a word. We've actually used this variant and it's enjoyable, if you don't use it every time.

3) Timer -- adding a three-minute timer is a must. My mom hates it but she will take forever without it.

4) Drawing open tiles - I've never tried this but I think there might be something to it. Have a sideboard with several (10 maybe) tiles face up. After you've played your tiles, you don't pick randomly from the bag, you pick from the face up tiles. This would change the game drastically, but it would ensure you would never be stuck with all vowels or no vowels. It might also introduce additional elements of strategy, as you could plan ahead more than one turn knowing what tiles were available to you after you'd played. I think you would have to ditch the exchange your tiles for new tiles rule (unless these were picked from the bag).

5) Exchanging tiles on the board - I played a house rule with someone once who allowed you to take the blank if you had that tile. This wasn't great but interesting. Maybe also allow exchanging any tile on the board, as long as it was still a valid word.

Overall, Scrabble is just too dull for me these days. It needs some modernizing. It needs to be spiced up. It's still a classic. But it's aged. I think playing the game is a decent mind challenge, like a crossword puzzle. But I never liked those either. Spice the game up with some variants and while I'd still rather play Railroad Tycoon, I could at least stomach this one a little better...
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Randy Cox
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We play every night these days and, interestingly, we use some of the variants you mention.

1) We each have some cheat sheets. We mostly use the 2-letter cheat sheet which I uploaded to the files section here. We also printed the cross-tables cheat sheet which is quite useful, especially for the 3-letter words.

2) We play with dictionary access at all times. I used to never do this, but now we do it because it works--you learn a lot of stuff. Now, we don't go hunting for words. We look at our racks and, if we think something might be a word, we look it up. Kills the fake word strategy but, as you state, that's rewarding chicanery rather than teaching you new Scrabble words.

3) We try to move along. Our games average around an hour (2-player; much much faster with more players). If it's a real problem, a chess clock works well (and we have used that for awhile). If you give each player 25 minutes, as they do in tournament Scrabble, it moves players along (10 points per minute, rounded up, are deducted if you go over your time allotment). When we played with a clock, our average game length was closer to 45 minutes.

As to the one-point tiles, they are the best for producing 7-letter words. Granted, if six of them are vowels (a problem I had for three turns last night, but then my wife had the problem later), it's tough. But that's where the cheat sheet ("vowel dumps" section) comes in handy. Nonetheless, remember that trading letters for 0 points is usually better than playing two of those tiles for 3 points and still not significantly altering your rack contents. Turns of 0, 20, and 20 is much preferable to 3, 4, and 18 as you slowly dig out of that vowel hole.

As to esses and power tiles (J,K,Q,X,Z) determining the winner--we haven't seen this to be the case. Granted, those esses and blanks help--a lot--but they aren't the major factor in winning. In most of our games, victory goes to the player with the most bingos (7-letter words). This past month, in 30 games, when one player out-bingoed the other, the one with more bingoes won 11 times and lost twice. And if the bingo difference was 2 or more, it was a lock (7-0). So, trading letters to get that bingo is often the favorable option. Better yet, play one of those vowel dumps (MIAOU or OIDIA are good ones) and get some decent points while essentially cycling through your rack.

Anyway, I don't think of it as a vocabulary game (my vocab isn't all that great and I'm a horrible speller). It's a math game where you use combinations of straight and curvy tokens to generate points. After all, that's why the Malaysian players who can't speak English excel at the game--they approach it as a math game with special tokens, not unlike Ra or any other game we play.

I hope y'all give it a try with the modifications and that you begin to enjoy it. It's a classic.
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Bruce Murphy
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Sure. Bananagrams and Typo.

B>
 
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Ned Leffingwell
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My wife and I usually play with an open dictionary rule, i.e. either one of use can look through the scrabble dictionary whenever we want. I like this way because not only does it even the field but you actually learn the definitions to those bizarre words.

We've also tried playing without a board, which I enjoyed. I've always wanted to try some of the wrap-around board variants.
 
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Kendahl Johnson
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Great suggestions, Randy. I especially like the idea of using a chess clock. I think I am going to get one and keep it with the Scrabble game. I really think that the length is the biggest killer for me and this would really increase the enjoyment.

I do think you get better at this game the more you play (same with any game I guess) and that's another problem for me since the only time I play is with my mom.

I will probably introduce Scrabble to my kids eventually since I think it's a brain game, meaning the more you play, the smarter you get.
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Randy Cox
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Harv wrote:
My wife and I play without any dictionaries - Scrabble or otherwise. If you play a word, you have to be able to give a definition of it yourself, otherwise you can't use it.

That wouldn't work for me. I'd plunk down "CUSTROID" and say, "Small egg pie served is a special dish." Or something like that and reach in the bag to draw 7 new tiles after recording my bingo. :)
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Randy Cox
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Harv wrote:
Randy Cox wrote:
Harv wrote:
My wife and I play without any dictionaries - Scrabble or otherwise. If you play a word, you have to be able to give a definition of it yourself, otherwise you can't use it.

That wouldn't work for me. I'd plunk down "CUSTROID" and say, "Small egg pie served is a special dish." Or something like that and reach in the bag to draw 7 new tiles after recording my bingo. :)


Yeah, well, my wife and I are morons so that'd be fine. :)

Actually, we do allow dictionaries for one purpose only: to prove that your word exists and that it means what you say it does! I.e., if I put down 'custroid' and claim it's a delicious dessert eaten exclusively by people called Randy, and it turns out to be a native american tribe (try googling 'custroid'), I couldn't use it.

Mmm, custroid...

So if it's a word and you got the definition wrong, you lose the challenge. But if it is a word and your wife challenges and you actually got the definition right, does she lose a turn? In other words, do you use challenge rules, or just force the person to "play fair".

This is a roundabout way of asking if you use the US or UK challenge rules. I've never understood the UK one, where you don't lose a turn for a failed challenge, only if you play a bogus word.
 
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William Crispin
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I think it is one of the better classic games so maybe "salvaged" is a strong word. I have used some of these suggestions and I do think they remove some of the annoyances from the game.
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Tom Dickson
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The online "regular" games actually work pretty well - the two letter words are listed, and it won't let you play an invalid word, and turns can take as long as you want.

However, it does become un-fun. Unlike Go there's no easy way to handicap the better player.
 
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Paul DeStefano
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Quick review synopsis:

I lost. Game must suck.
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Paul DeStefano
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bombcar wrote:
there's no easy way to handicap the better player.


Sure there is.

You only get 90% of your score. Or 80, or as needed.

 
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Kendahl Johnson
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Geosphere wrote:
Quick review synopsis:

I lost. Game must suck.


I win regularly. And I never said it sucked. I just said I don't enjoy it much anymore for the reasons I listed.
 
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Chris Martin
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Chess is a game that my dad wants to play every time he comes to visit. He grew up playing the game and still enjoys it. I, on the other hand, have moved on to bigger and better games, like Guillotine. But I oblige him, since that is the kind of supercilious son I am.

This visit, we played a game. I fell behind quickly when he took my queen within a few turns and due solely to bad luck (I had all of my pawns taken before I even got one of his), I never caught up. Hardly two words were exchanged between us the entire game and I felt a bit unsatisfied as we packed up the game. Chess is no longer fun for me.

The game is simple - move your pieces and take your opponent's pieces on a board. I won't go into further details on the rules, as there are plenty of other reviews that cover that and I think by now, everyone knows how to play, even if some of us don't know how to play very well.

There are certain problems that hurt this game for me:

1) Thought - as a hotshot marketing executive, who came up with the Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man, and avid contributor to board games websites, I think I know a lot. Not a lot of anything in particular, but I'm sure I'm basically a genius, mostly because my dad tells me I am after he beats me at chess again, even if he does have this weird smile on his face when he does so. But I don't know irrelevant stuff like "how to play chess". In order to do really well in this game (or to play competitively) it turns out you need to know pointless things like how to play the game. You really need to know how the pieces move especially - watch out for those crazy knights.

2) Time - playing against someone who takes the time to work out how to show up my uselessness can be excruciating.

3) Luck - if you've ever been fools mated you know how frustrating this can be. Furthermore, if you keep your good pieces and take your opponent's good pieces, you will usually win. This is clearly a broken strategy.

So can this game be fixed? Here's a couple of things I suggest that might improve game play:

1) A cheat sheet - print out a copy of all the piece moves and give it to the players. This would even the playing field immensely. Maybe give everyone a list of openings to consult at whim. In fact, screw it: why shouldn't everyone get a chess computer? It's just not an even playing field for me to play someone who's bothered to learn how to get really good at the game.

2) Use of a rulebook - the challenge rule which lets you challenge your opponent's move is pretty good. I enjoy making an illegal move and then holding my breath to see if my dad is going to challenge me. He usually does and once in a while I luck out and it actually is a legal move because of some weird "onpason" rule. (That's another one they should put on the cheat sheet.) But in a sense, that also hurts the game. I should never be rewarded for making an illegal move, though I still do it, because cheating my dad isn't really cheating because he's so old and only plays games that are totally beneath me. So I suggest allowing the use of a rulebook X number of times per game. If you have some decent pieces but can't find a way to use them because you're a crap chess player, toss in a rulebook token and grab the rulebook and see if you can find a move. We've actually used this variant and it's enjoyable, if you don't use it every time. It's possible that the "Deep Blue makes all my moves" variant (see point 1) will make this one a bit obsolete.

3) Timer - adding a three-minute timer for the whole game is a must. My dad hates it but he will take forever without it. The fact that I couldn't come up with a decent move if I had a million years, let alone a fourth minute, isn't really the point here. The point is that I don't play games with my dad because I love and respect him and want to spend time with him: I play because I want to beat him into the dirt and prove that I am a better man than he is.

4) Choosing spare pieces - I've never tried this but I think there might be something to it. Have a sideboard with several (10 maybe) pieces on it. After you've lost a piece, you don't pick randomly from the bag, you pick from the available pieces. This would change the game drastically, but it would ensure I got some extra queens after I lost all those pawns. It might also introduce additional elements of strategy, as you could plan ahead more than one turn knowing that you could play as badly as you liked and you could still get a queen out of it. Please don't take my admission that I am not good enough plan ahead more than one turn the wrong way - ultimately, isn't there something deeply suspicious about someone who wants to actually plan how to win a game? It's probably related to that whole taking time to work out a strategy thing.

5) Swapping pieces on the board - I played a house rule with someone once who allowed you to convert their queen to your side if you still had yours. This wasn't great as I usually lose my queen before I remember this variant is in effect (maybe I should add it to the rulebook???) but it was interesting. Maybe also allow exchanging any piece on the board. Including the king, though it's possibly I would have lost my king through normal play before I remembered the rule.

Overall, chess is just too dull for me these days. It needs some modernizing. It needs to be spiced up. It's still a classic. But it's aged - it just doesn't have the staying power of a game like Railroad Tycoon, which has been out for FOUR YEARS!!! I think playing the game is a decent mind challenge, like a logic problem. But I never liked those either, because those are not for people as clever and enlightened as me either - in fact, I bet my dad likes retarded stuff like that too. Spice chess up with some variants and while I'd still rather play Guillotine, I could at least stomach this one a little better...
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Wim van Gruisen
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bombcar wrote:
Unlike Go there's no easy way to handicap the better player.

The better player starts with -100 points would be a good one. Or instead of 100 points, just the difference between the two scores from last game (assuming a two player game).
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kendahlj wrote:
1) Vocabulary - as a journalist and avid reader I think I know a lot of words. But they aren't weird words. In order to do really well in this game (or to play competitively) you need to know some of those more obscure words. You really need to know all the two-letter words especially.

As people said, cheat sheets.
Something that I'd like to try sometimes is using a puzzle dictionary. Here in the Netherlands you can buy crossword puzzle dictionaries; you can look up the description of a word (as given in crosswords) and then the words that apply. If someone puts down a word, he has to look it up in the puzzle dictionary - and he can only find the word if he knows the description.
Problem is that the puzzle dictionaries that I found don't have that comprehensive a vocabulary, actually.

kendahlj wrote:
2) Time - playing against someone who takes forever to play a word can be excruciating.

An hourglass would be nice - but a chess clock is better.

kendahlj wrote:
3) Luck of the draw - if you've ever drawn a handful of vowels you know how frustrating this can be. And if you exchange them, you score zero points and when playing against someone evenly matched, that's often a tough penalty to come back from. Furthermore, if you draw the majority of the high scoring letters and the Ss, you will usually win.

There are ways of playing in which you don't get hit too hard by unlucky drawing. A bit of rack management is required; just try to keep a few vowels and a few consonants on your rack at the end of your turn. Even if that means not taking the highest possible score in a round; by taking a lower score but keeping one or two vowels and consonants, you have a better chance of scoring again in the next round - and getting a better score over two rounds than if you just took the maximal score in one round, and then had to change letters.

There is an interesting Scrabble variation in which all players play with the same letters. There is a common board, and each player gets the same letters. All players puzzle about possible words at the same time, and when that time is over, each one has to say how much he would score. The player with the highest score places his word on the board and gets those points. Ties can be resolved by choosing the word at random, by coinflip or dice roll, and giving all participants who had a high score, that number of points.
The disadvantage of this variant is that tactical plays (not opening bonus fields, rack management) are not rewarded. It is all about the points in this particular round, and consequences be damned.Still, it is a nice alternative way to play Scrabble, and theoretically it could be played, over the internet, with thouands of people.
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Dave Small
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chrisjwmartin wrote:
Overall, chess is just too dull for me these days. It needs some modernizing. It needs to be spiced up. It's still a classic. But it's aged - it just doesn't have the staying power of a game like Railroad Tycoon, which has been out for FOUR YEARS!!!


Ahahahaha! You sir, have made my day
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Am I to understand that because Scrabble has been around a long time and has "staying power", everyone should love it? That makes little sense...but then again Monopoly has been around nearly as long and is the top ranked game at this website.

To each his own and Scrabble will always have its fanboys. For the record, I never said it was a bad game or that I hated it. I just don't enjoy it and I'd rather not play it when I have so many other games that enjoy more. The luck of the draw is huge and it can take too long. I wonder why Scrabble is only ranked 634th...maybe people enjoy different things in a game and maybe a few people even enjoy games that don't necessarily make you feel stupid if you don't have a huge vocabulary.

TiGrr wrote:
chrisjwmartin wrote:
Overall, chess is just too dull for me these days. It needs some modernizing. It needs to be spiced up. It's still a classic. But it's aged - it just doesn't have the staying power of a game like Railroad Tycoon, which has been out for FOUR YEARS!!!


Ahahahaha! You sir, have made my day
 
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Take a look at Option - it rewards long words, not short, obscure ones, and has added strategy in matching colors or flipping tiles. I felt like I was able to "stretch my legs" and think in different ways. It was a fun thrift find for us!
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kendahlj wrote:
I wonder why Scrabble is only ranked 634th...


Frankly, it's because most of the users at this site really don't get it. However your review has been read by a whole bunch of fanboys who do get it, and they don't agree with your opinion.

Now, why would I be so mean as to say you don't get it? Of your suggestions:

Quote:
1) A cheat sheet
2) Use of a Scrabble dictionary
3) Timer
4) Drawing open tiles
5) Exchanging tiles on the board


1, 2 and 3 are regularly done, and 5 is occasionally done. However number 4 is a game-breaker. It would hugely slow the game down as people needed to find two words in 17 letters rather than one word in 7. Good players would be aiming for a bingo every turn rather than just a couple a game. Your mom would still whup you.

Given that your advice on changes to the game is the equivalent to a 10 year old advising the president, it's no wonder you've been treated with mirth and derision. Don't play the game if you don't like it, but don't come into fanboy territory spouting words of wisdom if you're not prepared to take some flak.
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Chris Martin
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I would like to point out two things. One, 634th out of 5,388 is a great ranking, putting it in the top 12% of games, even before expansions and games with too few ratings are included. And two, I am not a Scrabble fanboy, but that doesn't stop me from having respect for a solid example of the wordgame genre and for the people who enjoy it.

Oh, and one final point: remember the Fifth Commandment.
 
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Friendless wrote:
Of your suggestions:

Quote:
1) A cheat sheet
2) Use of a Scrabble dictionary
3) Timer
4) Drawing open tiles
5) Exchanging tiles on the board


1, 2 and 3 are regularly done, and 5 is occasionally done. However number 4 is a game-breaker.


As an alternative to '4'...actually, it's more of a replacement for the 'must lose turn to discard/replace'...

...what if that was just part of the turn break? IE., currently a turn is:
- Place your tiles on the board (for points), or discard them outright (no points)
- Draw an equal number of replacement tiles

Instead, change this to:
- Place your tiles on the board (for points)
- Draw a number of replacement tiles equal to those played plus one
- Return any one tile to the bag

Wonder how that would play? I would suppose the inability to dump/refresh entire hand would be limiting, but the ability to make partial fixes to a 'poor' hand might balance that?

What about another alternative - stick with the stock place/draw mechanic, but also allow anyone to, at any point in their turn, draw and replace as many tiles as they want at a cost in points. Say, 10 points for every out-of-order draw/replace. And this doesn't interrupt the turn - they can still continue their turn and place scoring tiles on the board (for example).

This latter would also be a good opportunity for balance. 10 pts for every tile draw/replace for an expert, maybe 5 pt for an amateur, and 1 pt for each tile drawn/replaced for a n00b?
 
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WildWords is a good Scrabble-relative which allows you to make long words. Upwords is a good game but I find it about as challenging as Scrabble, and imagine that between experienced players (which I am not one of) that it will become just as tense.
 
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Harv wrote:
Apparently Upwords (still in print and cheap) is a better version of Scrabble. The board is smaller than Scrabble's, so fills up within a few turns. The letter tiles can be stacked on top of each other, so that you can put a 'p' on top of 'trail' to make 'pail'. If memory serves, this means that if I put down a high-scoring word, my opponent can score highly by modifying my word.


Technically, you couldn't replace two letters (tr in trail) with one letter (p in pail), but could replace mail with pail

I have Upwords, and before I got Option, was my preferred Scrabble alternative, if I was going to play a tile word game. Letters on the bottom level are worth two points each, and once stacked are only worth one, so going from mail to pail, you'd actually get fewer points with pail, but tiles can be stacked 5 high, so once the stacking gets greater, you can starting racking up points.
 
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kendahlj wrote:
The luck of the draw is huge and it can take too long.

I don't agree. As I said, to counter the "can take too long", use a chess clock.

Luck of the draw is not as huge as you think it is, but you can eliminate it by using a common rack and shared turns. All players play on the same board at the same time, with the same letters. Each turn, all players state how many points they can make, and the person with the highest score gets that score, and his play gets added to the board. Then new letters are drawn and a new turn begins.
 
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