In today’s article Jaya Baldwin compares two different classic word games and, when looked through the lens of modern design, finds one more dated than the other
It’s easy to ignore mainstream games when you’re down the rabbit hole of the hobby space tying to find out what makes games great. But the truth is that their aren’t many famous hobby word games. Those word games that are part of our modern crop – perhaps Codenames come to mind – are often built on the associations of words, not vocabulary or spelling as the classic games are. If you want to test your word skills, the classics are still where you normally need to go to get your fix.
But what games do you pick? The two biggest contenders have to be Scrabble and Boggle. Both games are about forming words out of a collection of random letters. Both have a a big fanbase and wide appeal; though only Scrabble has a true competition scene. But when asked to play, there’s a clear winner for me. And when compared to what we look for in contemporary games, one of them meets more of our increasingly high expectations of experience.
I have assumed knowledge of how Scrabble plays. A brief explanation of Boggle for the unfamiliar: In Boggle players must write down as many words as they can spell from a 5×5 grid of letters within a time limit. They can move orthogonally and diagonally through the letters but cannot use the same letter tile twice in the same word. Points are awarded only for words you wrote down that nobody else did and longer words are worth more points.
Time and pace
A game of Scrabble is going to take at least an hour with an average game consisting of 36 turns divided by the number of players. So in a four player game you would expect to spell nine words. A game of Boggle takes approximately ten minutes; in which you could spell as many as 50 words. The challenges posed by both games are slightly different but personally, if I’ve come to play a word game, I want to be using as many words as I can. Not only does Boggle lets me do more in a fraction of the time that Scrabble does, but should I wish, I can play another game of Boggle right away because of it’s rapid playtime.
Boggle is also a real time game, meaning for the 3 minutes in which the sand timer is running I am intensely engaged: non-stop. There’s not really any opportunity for downtime. Even in the scoring phase where other players are reading their lists, players are still listening to see where they did or didn’t score. Scrabble, by comparison, has huge amounts of down-time between turns and little to spectate. When they’re ready, your opponent will place their word down. If that takes them ten minutes, all there is to do is watch is them mulling an idea over in their heads or attempt to plan your next move. But even this can go badly is any plan you do make could be easily rendered completely null and void before play returns to you. Indeed if you leave the room altogether you would miss absolutely nothing. I’d like to think we’ve evolved past games with such long, non-interactive periods of downtime.
Chance and balance
In Scrabble, the letters you are dealt with are completely random. You can’t effectively predict the words your opponents will be placing onto the board and turn order alone can drastically determine who is able to take advantage of bonus spaces. Variance is extensive and the role of luck considerable. Even what mechanism the game has for managing a bad hand of tiles is punishing. While you can mulligan your tiles and draw a new set, it comes at a cost of an entire turn; a steep price in a game which may only have nine turns in total. In the opposite direction, a player able to secure a triple word score effectively compresses three turns worth of points into one: A player spelling ‘xenon’ could score only 12 points using four tiles while another can score 32 from ‘zoo’ on a triple letter bonus earning them 32 points for only two.
Then there is the 50 point bonus for using all of your tiles in a single turn: an enormous reward which is given to the player who has already done the highest scoring thing they could do with their turn. It rewards players who have, by chance, been dealt tiles which happen to make a seven letter word already: A perfect player could very feasibly play an entire game of Scrabble and never see a hand of letters that would make them eligible for that 50 point bonus. This bonus is also such a substantial a reward in itself that it often decides a game, there and then, before its actual conclusion. The classic recipe for a game now only to be worked-through out of politeness by the loser.
Some of this is quite obviously the kind of ‘swingy’, old -fashioned and arbitrary design you simply don’t see in quality modern games anymore (for good reason). But perhaps more importantly, none of this seems very fair or directly rewarding of one’s knowledge of words or ability to recognise an opportunity to use them. Scrabble does have a spatial, tactical element to gameplay in which you can deny other players bonuses or limit the available opportunities on the board for them. But the decisions involved are usually fairly limited in scope and highly constrained by what you can spell with your randomised hand of tiles. In the context of the game, it’s a fringe feature, and if you’ve come for the words, something of a sideshow.
Boggle on the other hand is only random in it’s set-up and chance affects players equally. If the board of letters generated by the dice is absolutely terrible, then it’s terrible for everyone else too and all players’ scores will be reduced. Indeed, somewhat surprisingly, Boggle is actually a pure skill, perfect information game; not something traditionally associated with real-time or mainstream family titles. Pattern recognition, vocabulary and tactical decisions about what words to attempt to spell (for instance, longer ones are more likely to score, but take longer to look for) decide the winner entirely. The role of luck, while still present (after all, simply knowing a particular high scoring and obscure word has emerged in the randomisation can’t really be regarded as skill) is enormously reduced compared to Scrabble. As far as the game itself goes, players are on a completely level playing-field.
What’s a word game for?
That’s not to say that Boggle’s reliance on certain skills doesn’t come with its own challenges; as all do such games with such a focus do.
For me, someone who has played it many times, is good at thinking on the fly, has English as his first language and has no specific cognitive impairments or issues, each game of Boggle is good, simple fun. But the sheer speed of the game can be tough on new players and requires being a in a certain kind of mental habit. Newbies are, for example, less likely to spot that just the letters O N T E arranged in a square will always enable you to spell ten words very easily: NOTE, TONE, NET, TEN, NOT, TON, TOE, TO, ON and NO. Since only unique words are scored, an introduction to the game can sometimes itself be punishing. Players with Dyslexia or simply naturally slow writers for example, may also have a hard time regardless of experience. For them, the real-time speed may just not be a fun experience.
But what is a word game for? I’d guess that if spelling isn’t your thing, you’re less likely to want to play any of this kind of word game anyway. There may be times when Scrabble’s slower, more methodical approach is more comfortable. But assuming a word game is what I’ve got a hankering for, it’s difficult to see how Scrabble can ever really compete with Boggle’s laser-like focus on the core activity: seeing the words that no one else can. Instead, Scrabble’s many other ancillary mechanisms and its outdated approach to scoring, push it more towards chance and away from the very point of it all.