Word games don't get a lot of press. In the last three months, Zatu bloggers have reviewed 100 new games, but just three were word games. Publishers will often promote more traditional games and perhaps consign games with a word and language component to the “lighter” end of the gaming spectrum. That's not to say that they're less important. I'd argue that games that have a predominantly language-based element might be more accessible to the non-gaming public than popular gateway games like Catan or Ticket to Ride.
We often categorise games according to their mechanics, gameplay, and components. Word games are those that are entirely dependent on a specific language. These will often involve spelling and use of compound letters to create or change words. Associated with word games, but perhaps a little more challenging are games that involve meanings of words and phrases. This is a different category of word game but also would be entirely language dependent.
Allied to these games are ones with a strong narrative element. This is where the game is dependent on understanding the story behind the game, often supplemented by character descriptions. Players' decisions are dependent on an understanding of key events, choices, or actions. Most board games, however, have little language component. Indeed, most “Euro” games rely on symbols and iconography and therefore will cross continents well. At the extreme end of the gaming spectrum are the abstract games. These have no language relevance at all.
One issue with word games is language barriers. For many word games to get beyond the English-speaking world, this will require a redesign of the game to ensure that it still “works”. This involves extra time and resources. This may be another reason why there are few titles in word games compared with traditional board games.
In the Beginning was...
Scrabble. Most people will have an opinion about Scrabble. In some ways, this has regained popularity of late through mobile word game apps that encourage letter placement on a grid. The first concept of Scrabble as a game was mooted by Alfred Butts in 1938. It is now available in 30 languages [including Welsh] with about half of British homes having a copy. Mr. Butts used the New York Times to analyse the frequency of letters and developed the distribution and points values from this. The numbers and tiles have changed little over the decades. Numerous versions of the game are currently in print ranging from high end, deluxe versions through to standard family editions or even junior versions with simple directions for younger children on how to place tiles and make words.
One of the criticisms by some when playing Scrabble is that others always seem to get the “good” letters. The letter H or W are high value and seemed to be used easily. Players who have a rack full of vowels always seem to get a lower score [unless they can get a Scrabble]. This has always been my father-in-law’s excuse as to why he never seems to beat me, or perhaps he is just unlucky.
All Together Now
One way to mitigate against the random nature of the tiles drawn is to play a version called Scrabble Duplicate. This is quite popular in France and Belgium. This method of play is used for some Scrabble tournaments. Another aspect of Scrabble that can be so frustrating is the “downtime” between plays. There is nothing more frustrating than waiting for five minutes for each of the other three players to select and place their words. You are unable to consider your move as the board will certainly change by the time it becomes your turn again.
Scrabble Duplicate gets away from both of these issues. It is more of a Scrabble roll and write! It can be played with as many players as you choose. Everyone needs a printed Scrabble board and pen. One player draws the seven letters [this time printed on cards rather than tiles]. These are used by each player to create their own word which they will add to their personal whiteboard. The points value of the chosen word is then added to their score. However, the player who has generated the highest score will be the person whose word is selected. This is then added to the “master board”. The letters used are taken from play and new letter cards are drawn as in the standard Scrabble game. The master board then becomes the new board onto which everyone will place their next word from these new letters.
This method of play has been useful during lockdown. We have played Scrabble with relatives on numerous occasions but the Duplicate variation lends itself very well to remote play. Each household can discuss among themselves how they might play the letters and there was plenty of family rivalry.
Reach For the Sky
Not content with building a two-dimensional grid, game designers considered building tiles or cards on top of existing words and came up with the concept of Upwords or Wordstacker. These use a smaller grid with no specific bonus spaces. However, players can choose to stack some letters on top of the existing tiles to create new words. Over the course of a few rounds so WORDS becomes WARES, then DATES, and perhaps GAMES. The new words all need to “fit” with existing played tiles that are adjacent to them. It is best to keep words short as these are much more versatile.
Upwords requires a different mind-set to Scrabble. Rather than looking for the longest and most obscure word, here going for simplicity and interlocking shorter words to change several tiles at once, is the key. We have found that children prefer this game to standard Scrabble as it encourages their spelling, is much easier to play and to score, and takes a fraction of the time.
Stop Messing With My Words
For some, the fixed nature of words in word games Scrabble or Scrabble Duplicate can seem rigid or stifling. Imagine having the opportunity to take your opponent's six-letter word, cleave it in two, add a few letters from your own tile rack, and, hey presto, two new words, one of which might be longer than the original. Welcome to Rummikub Word. The only similarity with Scrabble is the use of letter tiles and a rack of seven tiles [players start with 14 letters but at the beginning everyone must create and play a word of 6 letters or longer]. The words are all laid into a common playing area and are free targets for all players.
Each player needs to place letters to make entirely new words or break up existing words by inserting their letters to generate new words of at least three letters or longer. Players may only score one point for each letter of the longest unique word created.
Rummikub Word is so family friendly. It broadens the mind in considering how words are made up by groups of letters. This makes it ideal for children too, and with a little help even younger kids can be taught word formation using their tiles.
An Amalgam of Science and English- Scilish Perhaps?!
Frenetic is a relatively new word game that combines letters, spelling, science and word creation - all with the pressure of a timer. The elements of the periodic table are represented by their one or two letter chemical symbol; C for carbon, Ar for argon, Fe for iron, Hg for mercury [obviously]. In the first round just four element tiles are selected at random and placed on the periodic table. The timer is started and players simultaneously create as many words as possible using just the letters from these tiles.
Points are awarded depending on the periodic number of the element used within each word. For example, C Ar would generate 6 + 18, 24 points. Fe Ar would score 26 + 28, 44 points. Players continue to create as many words as possible in the time allowed. Then two more element tiles are drawn and added to the table. Some chemical symbols need some serious head scratching to use them such as Yb. Others can be very high scoring as duplicates are permitted [Th Es Es will give 288 points]. The winner is the first to reach a specified target.
Frenetic brings the periodic table to life and encourages word play too with an element of pressure for every player. There is no downtime as all are playing at the same time. It’s a great game to encourage spelling in children who also need to learn some science.
Letters in a Banana
Bananagrams is a game where Scrabble meets Frenetic. Each player creates their own interlocking grid of words by simultaneously taking two letters at a time. Both tiles need to be placed to create legal words before a player can shout “peel”. Everyone must take two more letters irrespective of whether they had placed their first tiles. If you are lucky you might pick up an S and E tiles. These can be placed quickly to lengthen words. Shout “peel” and you will soon put the pressure on the others who are struggling. Although there is no timer it is the pressure of competition that can make the brain spin.
With 200 letter tiles, Bananagrams can be enjoyed by up to six players. Everyone has the same number of letters at the end and the total number of words created [vertically and horizontally] is totalled. Un-laid letter tiles will count against you in the final score so you are always hoping that the last letter collected is not a J. To do well it helps to know some unusual two letter words like QI- a Greek letter of the alphabet, XU- Chinese currency or ZO- a Tibetan yak. Playing with children encourages them to think of as many words as possible and to play quickly. Sometimes a degree of latitude is obviously needed depending on other player’s ability.
Word Games Under Pressure
Boggle takes word making to the next level. Instead of a handful of tiles, players have 16 dice and a timer to contend with! This classic game has been available for decades and is still enjoyed as much as it was in the 70s. The letter dice are shaken and arranged in a four by four grid. All players are armed with a pencil and paper, and have 3 minutes to create as many three-letter words or longer. Any of the letter dice can be used but they must be adjacent. Once the timer is finished the players compare their lists. Any duplicate words are removed and only unique words are scored. Simple three-letter or four-letter words are awarded a single point for each. With longer words so the point value increases significantly. This encourages players to look for the longer unique words rather than focusing on short simple words.
Boggle plays well for any number of players. We have also played it on Zoom calls with the family. When playing with children we have made the rule that adults may only create four letter words or longer to ensure that the simple words are retained. This little game shows how a couple of key letters such as STAR can make a huge number of words too. After a few games of Boggle with children the “4 letter word rule” is no longer needed and the kids are soon quicker than the grown-ups.
The Test of Time
What these games represent is phenomenal value for money. When you consider that all of these games are “old” by board game standards, they have stood the test of time. They have relatively few components, but those that are present are well made, robust, and have no gimmicks about them. Each game is based on a single mechanic- creating words. These games do not pretend to be anything more than that. There is a timelessness about these games. Certainly, some of the box art might be showing its age but once you have lifted the lid and started playing, it makes no difference to gameplay at all.
These are all games that will be continuing to be played by my children, and probably by their children in the generations to come. For longevity, education, and replayability, these games will last a number of lifetimes.