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Scrabble
It is a fucking mystery to me why a game as bad as the Scrabble Brand Crossword Game is as popular as it is. I suppose there are two factors at play: the [you-can-never-go-wrong-underestimating-the-] taste of the American public, and 2) the tendency of human beings toward an unexamined, unquestioning, undying, and superstitious love of tradition. Because I really believe that in every important way Scrabble fails as a game, and that if it were released today it would be ignored. Why?

1. It purports to be fun for people who love words, but actually, if you love words? This game sucks. If you love words, you want to use them and see them used in interesting ways. A typical scrabble game will have like 20 words on the board if you make it to the end without shooting yourself. Most of them will be shitty words you could build out of racks like AEEEIRT. The odds that any player will get to play a truly cool word are exceedingly thin. If you like to see interesting words arranged cleverly in a grid, do the NY Times crossword, which is created by people who have the entire dictionary at their disposal, instead of a stunted handful of crap.

2. It impossibly favors those initiated with arcane knowledge. It is well known -- and accepted! -- that the key to winning at Scrabble is knowing a shitload of two- and three-letter words like QI, UT, DUP, IGG. This is not about having a good vocabulary; it's about learning a bunch of tricks. So many of these words are useful only for playing Scrabble. Can you see what's wrong with that? The game is eating its own tail.

3. It is almost impossible to actually play. By which I mean it is almost impossible to engage in the most essential element of gameplay, the laying-down of tiles. Once you accept the fact that you will not be able to play an interesting word or a 7-letter "bingo," you are still faced with a set of appallingly limited options. But you still gotta try to maximize your points, so you look for the best way to lay down the tiles FAR on the board. FARM for 4 points? FART for 5? Ooh! double letter score for the R makes it 6! FUCK YOU, SCRABBLE.
     Look, even if you are shitty at poker, you can still play the game -- you can sit a 5-year-old down at a game of 5-card draw and, though he may lose every hand, the game will proceed. But it's common to see four grown, literate adults huddled behind a ten-year-old's Scrabble rack, trying to find one legal move for the poor bastard.
     If you like to build interesting words in a grid -- which I think is the implicit (and unsatisfied) promise of Scrabble -- you should play the Scrabble variant Take Two (aka Bananagrams), in which you juggle an ever-increasing pool of tiles, racing against your opponents to create a crossword-style grid. Throw away your Scrabble board and use the tiles to play Take Two. Do it now.

4. It takes forever, and continues sucking. My ADD makes me especially fidgety during any game that takes over an hour. But at least some games are worth the wait. Scrabble is so intolerable because other people's turns are long, boring, and end with shittiness, and when it's finally your turn, more shittiness ensues, as described above. So what is the fucking point? Wait forever to be frustrated by stupidity? Sounds fucking awesome. Can you turn Jury Duty into a game I could play at home? How about the DMV?

5. The gameboard is shitty. After all the valid gameplay reasons above, this just seems petty, but it just shows how COMPLETELY Scrabble fails. If you sneeze or, god forbid, jog the board a tiny bit, the unanchored pieces will go flying all over the place. Obviously, I consider this a blessing. Some editions allow letter pieces to sit in little cells, and I've seen magnetic travel versions that solve this too, but the standard Scrabble set is fragile as the hips of its most devoted players.

So there it is. If you think you like playing Scrabble, you are probably wrong. Perhaps the sights, sounds, and postures you experience while playing Scrabble trigger some deeply buried Pavlovian associations. Maybe, at family gatherings as a child, the only time your mom paid attention to you was during Scrabble games with her sisters; you sat on her lap and she ran her fingers absent-mindedly through your hair, scritching your scalp, the most she'd touched you in a year. She sipped at her tea (she never usually drank tea, what a magical beverage!), rearranged her tiles on her rack, hummed occasionally, no song in particular, and she accepted, acknowledged your presence, your nearness, almost as if you were her good luck charm. Like... she needed you. She'd plop a little kiss in your hair and ask "you okay?" and no way in hell were you gonna say anything but "mm-hmm." This was heaven. What a wonderful game.
.: .2.0. . : . . . :
3/17/2009 • link

14 comments:


Blogger Sarah D. Bunting said...

I say this with love, and because to my surprise I agree with many of your points -- misspelling the word "elderly" in your hed is going to increase the rain of Scrabble-fan wrath to a torrent. You make a good argument and shouldn't have it undermined thusly.

That said, putting a timer on turns helps immensely, and I hope you're feeling much better.

3/17/2009 9:50 AM  

Blogger Universal Donor said...

hmm. I must have fixed that because I can't even find the correctly spelled word in this morning's re-edit (now with closing paragraph!) But thanks!

3/17/2009 10:18 AM  

Blogger Dave Przy said...

Thanks for setting me free from Scrabble. It's a game I got good at by learning all the tricks you describe. But after reading your review, I see it for what it is. To play it, you have to pressgang a bunch of unwilling passers-by and then trick them into losing. If you're really lucky, no one will abandon the game before it grinds to its end. Have you ever finished a game of Scrabble? The end cheaply involves the swapping of points and the further punishment of the suffering players with tiles leftover. Everyone who has played a Scrabble game through to its end should get a merit badge, and then they should get the Fifteenth Station of burning the board together while drinking directly from a bottle of well vodka.

3/17/2009 11:03 AM  

Blogger tuckova said...

I like games in general, and I like Scrabble a lot. It's not that your points are wrong so much as that you're only showing one side of them. For example, I can't believe your listing "arcane knowledge" as a bad thing.

I think you just don't like losing.

3/17/2009 11:38 AM  

Blogger Universal Donor said...

That's cute, Tucky, the idea that I don't like losing. My guess is that you're playing the "sore loser" card to be funny, right? Making fun of someone who would actually say that?

Because if you read that stuff above, it's obvious that I don't like PLAYING. Even if I win the game, it still sucks.

As it happens, with the exception of SET, I lose most games I play.
(I am the best SET player of in the entire world, so I always win. Not bragging or challenging: just saying.)

There are a couple of reasons for this.

1) I usually play games against people with whom I am evenly matched. It makes it a fun challenge, instead of cruel bullying. Therefore I have a roughly 25% chance of winning a 4-player game.
2) I don't really care, emotionally, about winning. I don't. It's simply an in-game goal that motivates gameplay and strategy.

I am an aficionado of the art of game design. I like playing a well-crafted game. As long as I feel that I have played to the best of my ability, I enjoy myself. Some people would rather not play than lose. THOSE people like winning, not games.

3/17/2009 12:17 PM  

Blogger Hunter R. Slaton said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your review, Jeremy. Scrabble is an abomination. What makes it a particularly frustrating abomination is the fact that, on paper, Scrabble is the Best Game Ever for Someone Like Me. And yet, alas, it sucks.

3/17/2009 12:26 PM  

Blogger Sarah D. Bunting said...

Brooms: I can't find it now either. Weird, it showed up on my RSS feed. Sorry! I'm correctypants AND wrong.

3/17/2009 1:18 PM  

Blogger Stu said...

I like Scrabble.

I never played it as a kid.

I think you're wrong.

I've got no really good argument for why you are wrong, other than I don't find it all that irritating.

Scrabble is a game that happens to use words as an element in the way that Sudoku uses numbers as an element. You don't need to be able to do math to do a Sudoku, you just need to be able to remember the numbers between 1 and 9. You don't need to know great words to win at Scrabble, you just need to be able to form valid words.

Once I got over the "playing the coolest word" idea, I grew to like the strategy part of Scrabble.

I do understand why you don't like it, I'm just saying the things you find negative about it are not things that bother me, and in some cases, they're things that I find encouraging.

Yes, people who play Scrabble find useful words that they can use on people who don't play Scrabble all that often, but people who play chess also learn combinations of opening moves that they can use on people who don't play chess as much. This is not a direct parellel, but I think there is a similarity there.

3/17/2009 4:51 PM  

Blogger Universal Donor said...

No, Sarah, you were right. It was on the DHAK page -- I found it and corrected it after I commented that I couldn't find it in the post. Thank you. I always like a typo alert. We're good. Don't ever change.

---

Stu: fair enough. I'm trying to elucidate my resentments, not convince you to share them.

I agree that stripped of all of its hype and historical freight, Scrabble has at its core a playable game design. But ASIDE from the fact that it rubs my temperament the wrong way, I just don't think the game's design is very good -- compared to other games that exist on Earth. I think it is undeserving of its place in the canon.

3/17/2009 11:39 PM  

Blogger tuckova said...

My guess is that you're playing the "sore loser" card to be funny, right? Making fun of someone who would actually say that?

DING.

Really we must run away together. Or Indian wrestle. Play Pandemic?

3/18/2009 4:00 AM  

Anonymous Arthur said...

fully completely utterly right on.
I make this rant to people from time to time, although never quite so clearly and never with anything as funny as "DMV: The Family Fun Game"
(I also like "handful of stunted crap")
So, thanks. Now I can direct people to your take on it and it will satisfy some of their need to purge their own resentments (see below).
Most of the time, when I'm making this rant, I'm making it in order to empathize with someone who I've just introduced to the game "Snatch It". (It's got scrabble-like letters but no board. You make words in the open and then steal them from other players by anagram-ing them, adding at least one letter)
This game has everything that Scrabble never delivered. The cool "7 letter" word making happens regularly. There's NO wating. It's always your turn because you need to to scan constantly to see a new "steal" before anyone else does. Most delightful, I find that the joy of a good steal happens equally whether I make it or someone else does. Isn't it fun to see ZEBRA get turned into BRAZEN? Even if it was my ZEBRA and now the person beating me is all BRAZEN, I still just like the button it pushes in my brain when the word morphs in a surprising way.
Anyway, when I introduce this game to someone who has played a lot of Scrabble, hoping it would someday stop sucking, they usually experience glee at the discovery, combined with annoyance that it has taken them so long and they have wasted so much time waiting to make UT.
To put it more simply, if you like making words and playing with them, you should play Snatch-It. If you like real-estate transactions, then by all means, sit around and wait until they build road access to that triple letter score and then build your Q mansion on it. woo hoo.

3/19/2009 9:23 AM  

Blogger Universal Donor said...

Arthur, I love playing Snatch too, but aside from the fact that you can use Scrabble tiles to play it, I feel like the gameplay is different enough from Scrabble that I try to convert Scrabble fans to Bananagrams first.

But yes, Snatch rules. It me causes more anxiety than Bananagrams, because it's so frustrating to make awesome words only to have ten of them stolen in the last two minutes. (I guess have to learn to build more steal-resistant words.)

3/20/2009 3:16 PM  

Anonymous mr. perkins said...

i like scrabble. but it does piss me off from time to time for the reasons you mention.

i do think it might not be the strongest game from a design standpoint, but it does give a group of people a reason to sit around the table for an hour or two with the chatting and the snacking and whatnot. which i enjoy.

speaking of design, interesting article in wired about klaus teuber (the designer of international megahit settlers of catan), and more generally about german and american game design:

http://www.wired.com/gaming/gamingreviews/magazine/17-04/mf_settlers

5/12/2009 1:13 PM  

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