So Frankly...

So Frankly...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mass Market Myth – Scrabble (it’s really not about vocabulary)

I am playing my first game of Word for Friends since its release on Android based phones.  (For those of you who don’t know, Words for Friends is a Scrabble knock-off for smartphones.)  My first game is against a friend of mine who rarely loses.  With sixteen letters left in “the bag”, I am up by 41 points.  I can give the toughest Scrabble program a run for its money.  The reason is that Scrabble is not about vocabulary!  It’s a strategy game.  It’s not about knowing fifteen words that have a Q and no UScrabble is really about four things: making sure you occupy the bonus squares and your opponent does not, creating multiple words at the same time, understanding the power of small words, and knowing when to dump the high value letters.

So here is the disclaimer.  I do recognize that knowing a lot of words does help, as does knowing a bunch of words that start with J or have an X.  I am not saying those abilities are bad.  You probably need all that and more if you want to play at the tournament level.  I am just saying that you can be a very competitive player amongst your friends and family, even those Scrabble fans, by realizing that Scrabble is a strategy game!

The first strategic concept is to take all of the bonus squares, and in particular the triple word squares.  It’s pretty obvious.  Scoring big points this way is good offense, but more than that it’s good defense.  By denying your opponent those squares, you suppress their score.  It’s even more important in a multi-player game, since it holds everyone back, and allows you more control of the game than you have by just aiming for big scores.  Like many games, a player’s ability to control a Scrabble game is lessened with each additional player, and this is a way to combat that effect.

The future of Scrabble?
Creating multiple words at the same time is accomplished by saving the S and D tiles for making plural words and past tense verbs.  I will say it another way: never use an S, and only rarely a D, in a word that does not connect it to another that already exists on the board.  Adding one of these letters to any existing word allows you to score not only your word, but all of the letters in the existing word again!  The joining letter counts in each word.  You don’t get any of their bonus squares, but this is still incredibly powerful!  It allows you to capitalize on your opponents’ vocabulary.  When they play “quark” for a double word score, you can get half of their points for yourself by using an S to make “quarks” in the process of forming another word. 

Use small words.  My wife calls me the king of cheap words.  That’s because I will regularly play some small word to link other words or to gobble up a bonus square – preferable both!  I will admit there are some tricks here that are worth knowing.  Realize that every spelling of a letter’s name is a valid word.  The name of the letter M is spelled “em”.  That’s a word in Scrabble.  It’s in the dictionary (even if my spell checker just flagged it!) For that matter, so are all of the Greek letters, psi, phi, beta and the like.  Greek letters can be used to dump those pesky I’s that clutter up your hand of tiles.  The one, and only one, “Q without a U word” I know is “qat”.  Don’t ask me what it means, I don’t know and don’t care.  All I know is that getting an A and a T is fairly easy, and will help me score the Q.  Beyond that, I use cheap every day words: “the”, “its”, “in”, “on”.  Whatever it takes.

In combination, these three can be very powerful, as I will illustrate.  Our opponent, Dr. Evil, has just played “quell” on a double word score for 28 points, breaking out in his most diabolical “Mwu-ha-ha-ha” laugh as he gloats over his cleverness.  Nonplussed, we play “psi” across the bottom, using the S to connect it in and making “quells” in the process.  The I in “psi” also falls on the triple word score, giving us a total of 30 points!  (“Quells” makes 15 points, and the triple on “psi” is 15 also.)  Dr. Evil snarls and goes back to thinking his dark thoughts and breathing his foul breath over his tiles.  (So I like fantasy themed games, is that a problem?)  If the S would have been gracious enough to fall on the triple word score, both words would have been tripled, for a score of 60!

Lastly, keep in mind that dumping a high value letter late in the game, particularly the Q or the Z, can cause a big shift in the end of game scoring: 20 points for each of those two letters.  Players cannot trade in tiles once there are less than seven in the bag.  Just before that point, take that troublesome letter and trade it in!  In a two player game, there is a 50% chance you will give that problem to your opponent, and too late in the game for them to use the letter effectively.  In a four player game, there is a 75% chance someone else will pick it!  So if you can’t use the letter for your benefit, use it to smack your neighbor!

Hopefully, I have shown you that Scrabble isn’t a vocabulary game, it’s a strategy game.  Occupying bonus squares, making multiple words, using small words, and dumping troublesome letters late in the game will help you beat that Scrabble fanatic in the family.  Working on strategic play rather than big words will improve your score.  I realize now that I have shared all of my secrets, I will never win again.  Oh, the things I sacrifice for my readership!  I guess it’s a good thing I like playing more than winning.  I will still play.  In fact, my username on Words for Friends is feldmafx if anyone is interested…

Keep rolling along!

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