Scrabble Gets Dumber, Sort Of

Last year around this time, Mattel announced that Scrabble would now “allow” proper nouns in play. (Mattel owns the rights to Scrabble outside of the US, while Hasbro owns the US rights.) This was the outrageous outrage du-jour among the gaming community in general and Scrabble cognoscenti in particular.

Except that Mattel didn’t do anything of the sort. They were merely creating a branded spin-off called Scrabble Trickster, and misleading the press just a bit in order to gin up controversy and thus get some free publicity.

It worked like a charm (searches for the phase “Scrabble proper nouns” yield thousands of links), so they decided to do it again.

The latest news is that stupid non-words like “grrl”,”innit”, and “thang” are being added as “official” Scrabble words. Wellllll … yes and no.

The Collins Official Scrabble Word Book, in a desperate attempt to get themselves permanently dropped as a resource for tournament play, is indeed publishing a new edition with 3,000 additional words, some of them quite stupid. “Innit” is a kind slang contraction, which would exclude it from play. “Grrl” is just an abbreviation that’s not abbreviated. No word yet on whether “pwned” is included, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

The World Scrabble Championships uses the SOWPODS list as its official word source. SOWPODS is a combination of the US/Canadian Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (the OSPD) and the UK Chambers Official Scrabble Words (the OWL). In 2005, Mattel changed their preferred (non-US) dictionary to the Collins Official Scrabble Word Book, but as far as I can tell, SOWPODS remains on the OSPD/OWL standard. If I’m wrong about that, please correct me and I’ll update this post.

The US, Canada, and Thailand still use The Official Tournament and Club Word List (TWL), a modfication of the OSPD for tournament play, so these changes affect US play not at all. One the other hand, WESPA, the World English Scrabble Players Association, appears to be getting ready to use the new Collins list for international play.

All this does is create maximum confusion for international play and further discredit the use of Collins as any kind of international standard. The US player associations were correct to maintain conservative standards for acceptable words, thus avoiding the desperate trend-chasing and regionalisms of the international Scrabble community.

None of this matters one jot, however, in standard play. If someone slams down “grrl” during a home game, you’re quite free to shake your head in sad disappointment and refer to the OSPD or TWL. This is exactly why my ancestors fought the Revolutionary War: so I didn’t have to suffer stupid British word standards during Scrabble play. Up the Colonies!

Scrabble Ascendant

According to the New York Times, the proliferation of word games on Facebook and mobile platforms is driving a new renaissance for Scrabble-style gaming. The prime movers are Words With Friends (now owned by the demonstrably evil Zynga) and various adaptations of Scrabble itself.

More interesting is the information that digital sales are driving conventional sales, with 4 million Scrabble sets sold in 2010 alone. According to Hasbro, this represents a 100% increase over a five-year period. And, yes, it’s because of apps.

h/t: Erik Arneson

PUZZLE: Musical Letters

It’s been a while since I posted a puzzle, so let’s try some word playing.

Using just the musical notes–C D E F G A B–what is the longest word you can “play” on the piano? You can play the notes as many times as you like, but they have to a) make a single word and b) not require any letters but these seven.
There are multiple solutions.

REVIEW: Funglish

2+ players (the more the better)

I assume that Hasbro spends millions of dollars on R&D each year, and millions more on market research. Thus, it seems odd that they released a decent little party word game with that title that sounds like the word “fungus.”

Despite the mushroomy name, it’s still a lot of fun. Here’s the gist: Funglish is charades with words. Not words you speak, mind you. Absolute silence on the part of the clue-giver is still required. The words are on little tiles, and you must assemble them on a frame in such a way that they describe a certain object, place, person, or phrase.

The game comes with 120 descriptive tiles, each bearing a single word. The tiles are divided into various types by color: black tiles are colors and patterns (green, striped, colorful), puke-green tiles are negative traits (evil, sour, ugly), gray are materials (wood, fabric, glass, etc), yellow are shapes (thin, wavy, round), blue are related to origin (such as African, fiction, British), red are states of being (manmade, living, dead), beige are general adjectives (scented, moving, liquid), orange are sets of antonyms (hot/cold, old/new, smooth/rough), and green are positive attributes (lovable, happy, glamorous).

The other components are fairly simple. There’s a frame that allows you to set the tiles in place in one of three rows: “Definitely,” “Kind of ,” and “Not,” as well as a set of cards with words, people, places, phrases, and various object to describe. These can range from “toast” and “silk” to “Led Zeppelin” and “Al Capone.”

One person chooses a clue from the card, and then selects words that best describe it. The tiles are all laid out on a table, grouped by color to make it easier to assemble a description. Thus, if you pulled “honey,” you might put “sticky” and “yummy” and “sweet” under “Definitely,” “yellow” under “Sort of” (since honey is more gold than yellow, but there’s no gold among the color choices), and “furry” under “Not.” (If your honey is furry, it’s probably time you cleaned out your pantry.) People then have to guess what the words describe, without any acting or verbal input from the clue-giver.

There’s a timing element and a way to score points and determine a winner, but frankly the gameplay, win/lose aspect is a lot of hooey. This is less of a game and more of a social lubricant to get people thinking, talking, and laughing. As such, it’s actually a lot of fun. The cards have some insane clues (How the heck do I describe Led Zeppelin with a random clutch of adjectives?), and always seems to lack just the word you need. I have a feeling that’s on purpose, since a wider range of words might make it too easy to create very precise descriptions.

$23 seems a tad on the high side given what’s in the box, and the components won’t win any prizes. The tiles are thick and sturdy, but the frame likes to fall apart at random intervals. That said, it’s a nice little word game that is quite a bit of fun with the right crowd. It gets people thinking in words, and helps them make interesting connections between words and the meaning they convey. I could also see it being an excellent addition to some classrooms.

Recession Buster Version!
In these troubling economic times, shelling out $23 for a party game just may not be in your budget. It is, however, relatively easy to make your own version of Funglish by printing words on card stock, or writing them on index cards. That way, you can also choose your own words and use different colors of paper for different classes of word. You won’t get the frame, but since we’ve already determined that the frame is about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, I don’t think you’ll miss it much.

PS: The writer of this review wishes to confess that he tried to work the phrase “Fun Guy” into this piece. He is currently hanging his head in shame.

Gadsby: The Novel Without An "E"

A “Lipogram” is a written work–a sentence, paragraph, poem, or longer work–in which the author deliberately leaves out a particular letter, usually a vowel. (“Lipogram” is Greek for “missing symbol.”) As Martin Gardner points out in the Colossal Book of Word Play, the most famous lipogram is the probably the first stanza of “Old Mother Hubbard.”

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To get the poor dog a bone:
When she came there,
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.

But all writers, word buffs, and sane people must doff their hats to the man who raised the lipogram to unimagined heights. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ernest Vincent Wright, who wrote an entire 50,000 word novel without once using the letter “E.” 
The novel is called Gadsby, and although it’s quite rare, you can read it all online thanks to Spineless Books. Here’s how it begins:

If youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that “a child don’t know anything.”A child’s brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult’s act, and figuring out its purport.

The mind boggles. As a writer, I can’t even imagine the process of creating an entire novel with such a remarkable and random limitation. I’d get five paragraphs in, and then wonder “I’m doing this … why?” Of course, it’s a completely pointless exercise, but it’s a mightily impressive pointless exercise. It’s like someone making a model of the QE2 out of toothpicks: you’re simply in awe of all that misplaced effort. 

The Longest Palindromic Word Is …

… well, I’ll get to that in a minute. I’ve begun reading Martin Gardner‘s last book, the Colossal Book of Word Play. I’ll pull out some good bits as I read along, and then write a full review. This is Martin’s final work, gathered from a life-time of collecting wordplay, assembled with the help of Jeopardy super-winner Ken Jennings, and posthumously published by Puzzle Wright Press.

Anyway, back to the headline question. The longest single-word palindrome is, sadly, not in English, but in Finnish. The word is saippuakivikauppias and it means … soap-stone vendor. This raises the question, “Why did they need a word for that?” (Actually, I’m guessing Finnish must be like German, which pushes multiple words words together, as in the German herzkreislaufwiederbelebung, which literally means “heart-circle-run-again-revive,” or as we say in English, “C.P.R.”)
Gardner also included examples of “whole-word” palindromes, in which a sentence can be read forward or backward word-by-word. For example: You can cage a swallow, can’t you, but you can’t swallow a cage, can you?

PUZZLE: English into French

My Editor-in-Chief at Games, Wayne Schmittberger, sent me this puzzle from Martin Gardner’s final, posthumously-published Colossal Book of Word Play (Puzzlewright, $8.95).

What English word when spelled backward becomes its own French plural (i.e., the plural of itself translated into French)?

Answer: STATE (ETATS) [ignoring that etat has an accent aigu on the e]

App O’ The Mornin’: Words With Friends Review

Grade: A
Price: free and $2 versions

After doing the news post on Zynga’s acquisition of Newtoy, I realized I’d never done a full review of Words With Friends. I don’t play it that much, simply because I’m pretty wired into Scrabble and its ability to allow play from iOS to Facebook. That’s not to say I don’t like it: I do.

Words With Friends is a very good game, with effective matchmaking and connectivity. The interface works well, and the game loads quickly and functions smoothly. Unlike some of the confusing setup issues with Scrabble’s matching system, which requires you to begin creating a new game in order to continue an old one, Words With Friends just pops you right into the action.

You can get into a game almost instantly with either friends or strangers. There’s an integrated text chat system, and the ability to play 20 games simultaneously. These don’t have to be “live” games: push notifications let you know when your opponent has made a move, so games can be played over the course of minutes, hours, days, or even weeks.

The bonus square distribution is different in Words With Friend than it is in Scrabble, which requires an adjustment in strategy for those of us hardwired into Scrabble. My style tends heavily towards board management and blocking, and the WWF layout is different enough that it takes some time to adjust. The point values are also different in places, with J worth 10 points in WWF rather than 8 as it is in Scrabble.

Some pretty obvious features are missing. A point count for the letters in your current move is mysteriously absent. Sure, you can do this in your head, but why should you have to? There’s also no shuffle button for your tray. I like Scrabble’s ability to just shuffle your tiles around as you look for ideas. Words With Friends allows you to shake in order to shuffle, but this is needlessly awkward when a button would do fine.

For multiplayer word gaming, Words With Friends does work better than Scrabbles multiplayer functions, and perhaps the new connection with Zynga will bring a WWF app to Facebook.

NOTE: The free version is burdened with an aggressive advertising feature, which is removed in the pay version. 

Jane Austen’s Word Game

In Chapter 41 of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, several of the characters use an impromptu game of anagrams to convey thoughts and feelings they cannot express. In the case of Mr. Churchill, he offers a kind of oblique apology to Miss Fairfax by spelling the word “blunder,” in acknowledgment of his mistake, and then proceeds to taunt her by spelling “Dixon,” the name of another young man.
The game is played with “letters” used by Emma’s young nephews for their lessons. They are probably not children’s alphabet blocks, but more like Scrabble tiles. They work well for playing anagrams, which was a favorite parlor game of the English middle- and upper-classes, who delighted in puzzles and wordplay. 
Anagrams was a simple game of turning the letters of a word into another word. The characters in the novel create their words in secret, then scramble the letters and pass them to another person, who has to discover the original word. 
It’s remains an easy filler game to play while waiting for others to join a game of Scrabble, or just as a fun way to help children learn their words.
Here’s the entire passage from Emma, with the rest coming after the break.

“Miss Woodhouse,” said Frank Churchill, after examining a table behind him, which he could reach as he sat, “have your nephews taken away their alphabets — their box of letters? It used to stand here. Where is it? This is a sort of dull-looking evening, that ought to be treated rather as winter than summer. We had great amusement with those letters one morning. I want to puzzle you again.”

Emma was pleased with the thought; and producing the box, the table was quickly scattered over with alphabets, which no one seemed so much disposed to employ as their two selves. They were rapidly forming words for each other, or for any body else who would be puzzled. The quietness of the game made it particularly eligible for Mr. Woodhouse, who had often been distressed by the more animated sort, which Mr. Weston had occasionally introduced, and who now sat happily occupied in lamenting, with tender melancholy, over the departure of the “poor little boys,” or in fondly pointing out, as he took up any stray letter near him, how beautifully Emma had written it.

Frank Churchill placed a word before Miss Fairfax. She gave a slight glance round the table, and applied herself to it. Frank was next to Emma, Jane opposite to them — and Mr. Knightley so placed as to see them all; and it was his object to see as much as he could, with as little apparent observation. The word was discovered, and with a faint smile pushed away. If meant to be immediately mixed with the others, and buried from sight, she should have looked on the table instead of looking just across, for it was not mixed; and Harriet, eager after every fresh word, and finding out none, directly took it up, and fell to work. She was sitting by Mr. Knightley, and turned to him for help. The word was blunder; and as Harriet exultingly proclaimed it, there was a blush on Jane’s cheek which gave it a meaning not otherwise ostensible. Mr. Knightley connected it with the dream; but how it could all be, was beyond his comprehension. How the delicacy, the discretion of his favourite could have been so lain asleep! He feared there must be some decided involvement. Disingenuousness and double-dealing seemed to meet him at every turn. These letters were but the vehicle for gallantry and trick. It was a child’s play, chosen to conceal a deeper game on Frank Churchill’s part.

With great indignation did he continue to observe him; with great alarm and distrust, to observe also his two blinded companions. He saw a short word prepared for Emma, and given to her with a look sly and demure. He saw that Emma had soon made it out, and found it highly entertaining, though it was something which she judged it proper to appear to censure; for she said, “Nonsense! for shame!” He heard Frank Churchill next say, with a glance towards Jane, “I will give it to her — shall I?” and as clearly heard Emma opposing it with eager laughing warmth. “No, no, you must not; you shall not, indeed.” 

It was done however. This gallant young man, who seemed to love without feeling, and to recommend himself without complaisance, directly handed over the word to Miss Fairfax, and with a particular degree of sedate civility entreated her to study it. Mr. Knightley’s excessive curiosity to know what this word might be, made him seize every possible moment for darting his eye towards it, and it was not long before he saw it to be Dixon. Jane Fairfax’s perception seemed to accompany his; her comprehension was certainly more equal to the covert meaning, the superior intelligence, of those five letters so arranged. She was evidently displeased; looked up, and seeing herself watched, blushed more deeply than he had ever perceived her, and saying only, “I did not know that proper names were allowed,” pushed away the letters with even an angry spirit, and looked resolved to be engaged by no other word that could be offered. Her face was averted from those who had made the attack, and turned towards her aunt.