Scrabble review

Scrabble (1948)

Game Details
NameScrabble (1948)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.10]
BGG Rank1662 [6.28]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Alfred Mosher Butts
Artist(s)C. Leslie Crandall and Michael Graves
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: Absolutely amazing! Don't bother reading any farther, just go try it.

Day One: Officer Training School, Scrabble Academy

The camera pans over a worn but well-maintained class-room. Wood paneled walls draw the eye and upon these are hung various posters and swish infographics. You can see the frequency chart for English on one wall, with a graph of the evolution of the Arabic lettering system hanging beside it.

The room is filled with austere wooden chairs and desks, behind which are two dozen or so fresh-faced and uniformed officer candidates. Their uniforms are pristine. Their haircuts so precise and straight that you could use them to hang a painting. There’s a kind of nervous energy here – each of them was the top of their class during cadet vocabulary training and now they’re here to become leaders. They have mastered Scrabble. They have lived and breathed Scrabble for most of their young lives. They’re not even sure why they’re in a classroom at all – none of them has anything left to learn. They intend to give themselves, heart and soul, to the word wars. They’re the best wordsmiths this generation has to offer. The best, and the brightest.

Scrabble box

The light smattering of chatter abruptly silences as a tall, disheveled man enters the room. He has an patch across one eye, with a livid scar crossing from cheek to forehead underneath its rigid fabric. His insignia proclaims him to be a Sergeant-At-Arms, and he glares at the presumptive classroom of budding officers with an expression bordering on disgust. He wrinkles his nose as if he’s smelled something unpleasant. The classroom comes to reluctant attention. There’s a simmer of obvious discontent in the eyes and expressions all around. This is officer training school – what the hell is a mere sergeant doing as if he has anything to teach anyone here, of all places?

The sergeant sighs and picks up a long, stiff piece of wood. He taps it against the whiteboard. All eyes are on him, albeit with an obvious reluctance. He turns his back to the class and writes on the board with a fading marker that squeaks unpleasantly with each letter. John Keel.

He slowly turns around, and starts to speak.

‘Listen up, rookies. My name is Sergeant-At-Arms John Keel and I am here to teach you what you need to know to survive Scrabble. I know what you’ve been told. Scrabble is a word game. It’s a family game. It’s a bit of harmless fun where the job is to make the best scoring words that you can with the letters you’re randomly given. Oh, I know what they teach you back in the cadets but that kind of thinking is going to get you killed on the battleground. It’s my job here to teach you the difference between the word game you have been taught, and the war game you’ll need to play.’

The class mutters indignantly. They know all about Scrabble. There isn’t one of them that can’t squeak a five-letter word out of a collection of random vowels. Most of them can reliably play down six-letter words in their sleep, and they do. The drills in their cadet classes were intensive.

‘Pay attention, and you might just make it through the first game we’re going to play together. If you don’t pay attention, well – not everyone is expected to make it out of this class as an officer. In fact, take a look to your left. Now take a look to your right. Half of the people you see won’t make it to the end of this programme.’

A dismissive snigger insinuated itself into the tension in the room. Keel snapped his gaze to the back of the class where one young man was smiling to himself with a look of casual insubordination. Keel grinned.

‘You lad’, he barked. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Coates, sir’, he replied.

‘Don’t call me sir, lad. I work for a living. Come up here’

Coates pushed himself up from his desk with a lazy arrogance and sauntered over to the front of the classroom. He threw a wink to one of the girls as he passed. Keel watched him impassively. When Coates arrived at the front of the classroom Keel leaned across his lectern and pressed a button. A projector slowly spun up into life, revealing a set of tiles on the whiteboard at the front of the room. The letters presented were A, R, E, B, A, T and H.

Scrabble tiles

‘Play a word’, said Keel.

Shrugging, Coates played out six letters without hesitating. The class nodded approvingly.

Playing breath

‘Breath, sir’. Coates said. ‘I could also have played ABATER, but that would have lost out on using the H. BATHER was also an option but it wouldn’t have scored better. By placing the B on the double letter tile, and the T across the double word score, I have earned twenty eight points for that play’. He smirked.

His classmates began to talk amongst themselves, debating and discussing the approach. Keel remained silent, permitting the class a few moments to build their consensus. It didn’t take long. The class decided – it was a good word, played with admirable haste.

Keel pointed to one of the young women in the front of the class.

‘Your name?’, he asked.

‘Sibyl, Sarge’, she said.

He nodded approvingly. He liked a quick learner.

‘What’s your opinion on this play?’

‘It’s the optimal word from the tiles he had’, she said.

‘You would have done that too?’

‘Yes si… yes Sarge’, she said.

Keel looked around.

‘Anyone disagree?’

Nobody did.

He rolled his good eye. ‘Rubbish, the lot of you’, he said. ‘I don’t know why, every single year, they send me a muppet-full classroom of felt and sewn buttons. It’s like they don’t even care how bad you are at this’. 

He then played down two tiles.

Playing za

‘ I think you’ll find’, he said, ‘that’s forty-two points to me’. The class stared. Coates most of all.

‘That’s not a word, sir’, he protested.

‘Regrettably, lad, it is a perfectly fine Scrabble word. Za – an abbreviation of pizza. As in, let’s go out for a slice of za. Having said that, if any of you ask me that question I will strike you and not feel a bit bad for the bruises I leave behind. People who say ‘za’ are only slightly worse than the cadets who call me sir for a third time because they’re hard of thinking.’

‘But that’s a two-letter word’, protested Coates. ‘It’s a trash word. Only trash people play trash words’

‘It’s a trash word that you opened up for me by leaving an A by a double letter tile. And then you added the pepperoni to my za by ensuring I could play ‘at’ to make the word twice. This, lad, is the Scrabble they play in the trenches. This is the Scrabble they play in the streets. Trash people? No – survivors. This isn’t all about your vocabulary. This is Scrabble as a war game. You play the shortest word you can that will score the most points. You’re not just looking to maximise the points you get in your turn. You’re looking to minimise the points the other bastard is going to get on theirs. Sit back down’

Coates returned to his seat, muttering but visibly chastened.

‘Rule one’, barked Keel. ‘Never play a word longer than you’re comfortable with. Never leave an A or an I open next to a multiplier. Those two letter words are like an assassin’s bullet. A canny player will keep them in their rack until they’ll do some proper damage’

Keel wiped the tiles off the board. ‘Sibyl’, he said, ‘You’re up. These are your tiles’.

They were a motley lot. G, Z, E, O, U, E, T. She pursed her lips. She played out an easy, conservative word.

‘Gout’ said Keel. ‘Where’s all your fancy vocabulary now?’

‘Togue and Touze would have been better scoring words’, she said meekly. ‘But there weren’t any other real options’

‘Why not play them?’

She thought for a moment. ‘Don’t want to waste my assassin’s bullet with Touze’, she said.

‘Excellent’, said Keel. ‘Why not Togue?’

‘Difference is only a point, and its’s safer to play four letters than five. That way I don’t run out of ammo later’

‘Top of the class’, barked Keel, ‘Almost top marks’

‘Almost?’, she asked with disappointment flavoring the word to a piquancy everyone in the class could taste.

‘Don’t waste a G’, said Keel. ‘G is one of the three letters in ING, and ING will get you a seven letter word in more circumstances than you can imagine’

‘With respect, sir’, said Coates – still smarting from his stint at the front of the class, ‘Isn’t a seven letter word even more risky than a five letter word?’

‘It is indeed, Mr Coates. Play small words unless you can play a bingo – that bonus fifty points you get usually makes it worth the risk’

The class made a series of notes. While they did, Keel selected his word. Oi.

Gout and Oi

‘Oi, for nine points’ he said. Not a great word, but I’ll make up for that later. He pointed his stick at a quiet woman in the middle of the class. ‘Why might I have done that, Ms…?’

‘Uberwald’, she replied, ‘And you did it because you don’t want to be the one opening up the board for another player’

‘Yes!’, roared Keel. The class jumped. ‘Don’t be a scout. Don’t be an explorer. Make sure that when the board opens up, it’s someone else that takes the risk. Play words that force them into moving into tiles they don’t want, and then capitalize on their mistakes’

This… this wasn’t the Scrabble they had been taught to play. Coates frowned.

‘Problem, lad?’, asked Keel. His tone was not unkind.

‘But this is horrible’, Coates almost wailed. ‘This isn’t fun at all! Scrabble is supposed to be about making great words together and showing off how well you do anagrams!’

The class went silent. Keel smiled indulgently for a moment.

‘Fun, eh?’, he asked.

Coates stared miserably.

‘Who the hell told you games were supposed to be fun?’, asked Keel. ‘This isn’t fun. This is war. Scrabble is about controlling the area, dominating the opportunities, and then making sure that you’re the one that comes out on top. Big words, smart words – great for showing off. You’ve got a job to do though. The Marquis of Queensbury has no place here’

‘Okay, let’s give you a fresh draw from the bag, Sibyl’. He shook it and handed it her way.

She drew out A, E, E, Z, E, L, Y. She played down LAZY with the Y connecting GO to make GOY. There were some uncomfortable noises but Keel nodded as the Z landed on the triple word score.

Lazy

‘Using your bullet, eh?’, he asked. ‘And on only one target?’

‘Somehow Sarge, I don’t see you coming out of cover at a time when it’ll be better for me’.

He grinned.

‘Good word, good job. LAZY with the Z on the triple word score gets you 37 points, and GOY, as politically incorrect a word as that might be, gets you another 7. Don’t let your discomfort with particular words keep you from scoring. Nobody will like you anyway because of the way I’m teaching you to play Scrabble – being ever-so-proper with your words won’t change that basic fact. 44 points. A damn good total, but you’ve run a risk there with the A.

‘I thought you could have an X and play AX’, she said, ‘but I thought I’d take the risk. After all. Maybe I’ll get an X before you’

‘Risky, risky’ said Keel rubbing his chin. ‘It’s not a bad plan but it leaves a lot to chance’

‘Yeah, but the best you could do there would be thirty-nine points and I’d still be ahead on the exchange’

‘Fair dues’, he conceded. ‘A bit early to get rid of a Z but I can’t otherwise fault your thinking. After all, it gets harder to use the higher scoring letters as the game goes and the words from the past constrict your options in the present. The point penalties also mean you don’t want to get stuck with one of those at the end. Save your bullet, but don’t save it too long. Use it when you think it’s best for you and sometimes that’s going to depend on anticipation. When do you expect an opponent to let you play it?’

Absently he played down his word. FEH.

FEH

’18 points for FEH, 10 points for AH, 2 points for LE. 30 points. Learn your three-letter words too. If you can’t consistently get at least twenty points per word in a round of Scrabble, at least when playing head to head, you should reconsider your options. Don’t play a four point word and a five point word from a bad rack. Swap your tiles and try to get two thirties to make up for it.’

‘You could still do better’, suggested Uberwald.

‘Probably, probably’, agreed Keel with a disarming amiability. ‘ But I almost certainly can’t make a word that would use the Z, and why might I not want to play a four or five letter word if I can’t?’

‘You open up the triple word’, said Sibyl and Coates together. The latter was now watching the board like a snake, eyes unblinking. This was a different energy to the game that he had been taught. This was more primal. More… animal. Brutal. Better.

Keep wiped the tiles away again and replicated the first game board as he gestured from Coates to join him. He then added the word HOTTER off of the H of Breath .

Breath and Hotter

He handed a new set of tiles to Coates. ‘Show me how to deal with the triple word tile I just opened up’

Coates looked at the tiles. They were rubbish. Nothing high scoring, nothing able to really pull off anything impressive. He thought for a few moments. And then he thought for a few moments more. His training cried out, but he silenced it.

‘If you don’t use it, lad’, nudged Keel, ‘I will in the next turn. Do you want me using that tile?

‘No sarge’, said Coates with conviction. He thought again. He thought harder. He sighed and played down HA_Y.

‘Hazy’, he said mournfully. ‘Had to use a blank to make even that’

‘Not bad’, said Keel. ‘4 points for HE, 2 points for AR, and 27 for Hazy. 33 points overall. Nothing to sniff at’

‘Waste of a triple word score’, muttered Coates.

‘Nah’, said Keel. ‘A waste is if you don’t use it. A calamity is if you let your opponent use it. If you can’t get as much as you want out of a dangerous tile, burn it to the ground so nobody else can use it. Surround it with impossible letters. Lock it up if you have to. Claim it with DOG if that’s all you’ve got in your rack. Just make sure that if you can’t have the tile, nobody else can either.’

HAZY

Keel sent Sibyl and Coates back to their seats.

‘This isn’t the game as you have been told it is played’, said Keel. ‘If you play Scrabble this way, no-one else will ever want to play it with you. It’s exhausting to look at a board in terms of positional vulnerability. Nobody thinks you’re smart for exploiting the small, agile words in the Scrabble dictionary. They think you’re a dick. This is not fun. We get something different out of this. This is tactical. This is satisfying. Your letters aren’t parts of words. They’re weapons and you need to employ them when you can do the most damage. Let your arsenal accumulate. Keep those S and blanks as long as you can. If you get an ER, an ING or an IER combo then save it for when you can inflict a headshot with a bingo. Scrabble is as much a game of psychology as it is vocabulary. If you play it well a seven letter word will put an unwary opponent so violently onto the backfoot that they won’t even be able to take advantage of the board you open up. Set traps for people, and make sure you don’t set up opportunities. If you’ve got the Z or the Q then take your time to arrange the board so you can really clean up with a later, unexpected, triple letter play. Play your words close – play the game tight. Force everyone else to do the risky plays and then swoop in and take advantage’

‘This is why they send you to me’, said Keel. ‘Your other teachers will tell you about the fun and honour and ‘sporting behaviour’ that you should be bringing to all your games. That’s all fine and noble for them that wants to play that way. Some of you though, you can taste the extra potential in the game now. Scrabble is a terrible game for those that just like to make words. Against someone playing to win, all a long word does is open you up to heartache. The multiplier tiles aren’t nice bonuses to have if you can get them. They’re the military objectives you absolutely have to make sure don’t fall into enemy hands. Imagine them full of military secrets – you’d burn those bunkers if you had to and so you should here. This is a game that doesn’t tell you how good you are as a writer, but how good you are as a warrior. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why Scrabble is one of the finest games that has ever been birthed from human imagination. This is why it is one of only a handful, a tiny handful, of perfect scoring games on Meeple Like Us.’

He snapped his stick against the table.

‘Now, pair up. Coates and Sibyl, you face off together. Everyone else, turn your desks towards each other. You’ll play to best of three. Whoever loses their tournament is out of this class and out of the officer training school. You heard me. Play for war or play for words. That’s your choice. But whatever you do, play Scrabble to win. ‘

 

 

  10 comments for “Scrabble (1948)

  1. Felicia Barker
    18/09/2019 at 5:32 am

    Ahaha, I need to share this to the small circle of my friends who now either won’t play Scrabble with me, or will do so with the aggression of a back street knife fight. One of the things I’m most proud of is after someone played Scrabble against me they subsequently complained to my closest friend that I played like ‘a calculating bitch who plans every move ahead with all the guile of a young Machiavelli’.

  2. Anitra Smith
    18/09/2019 at 5:32 am

    This summarizes why I don’t play Scrabble anymore. My mother is the type to exploit every weakness. I can finally match her for vocabulary, but still not for strategy.

    That doesn’t mean it’s a bad game! I fully agree with you that if you look at it this way (tactical war game played with letters), it’s fantastic. I just prefer my word games to be more wordy and less bloodthirsty. One of the reasons I’m super excited for a review we’ve got coming up – a word game that (a) does more than just “make a word that fits this spot and (b) incentivizes you to reward OTHER players when they make a great play.

  3. Robert Ahearne
    18/09/2019 at 5:32 am

    Thanks for this. I really enjoyed reading this piece – I’ve rarely seen a better melding of form and content in a review. Well done.
    Ever since you choose Scrabble as your #1 game (before Chinatown appeared), I’ve wondered what the heck you were talking about. I’ve played Scrabble roughly a dozen times, and dang it, you’ve just convinced me I’ve been playing it utterly the wrong way ’round. I am looking forward to the next time I play, and I am already feeling sorry for my opponents.
    The scales have fallen from my eyes. Scrabble’s not going to be my #1 game anytime soon, or even #2, but I agree with you about the elegance of its design.

    • 18/09/2019 at 5:32 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. 😀

      I would absolutely love to hear what you think of Scrabble when you approach it in this way – as a resource management, area-control wargame that just so happens to use letters as weapons. You’ll make it a lot less fun for your opponents but I honestly think when you play with someone else that approaches it the same way you’ll find new, wonderful worlds to conquer.

  4. Steve Nichol
    18/09/2019 at 5:32 am

    What an excellent review.

    Brilliantly conceived, and superbly executed.

    I know Scrabble was, up until the close of 2018, ranked as your number one game of all time.

    I know too that it was somewhat begrudgingly usurped by Chinatown and only after a LOT of consideration.

    We’re all loathe to have our beloved “number one. nothing can really touch this” game lose it’s crown, and perhaps even more so for you as a reviewer, where you’re subjected to the myriad of all things gaming but felt that you’d a holy grail to fall back on when challenged as to what your favourite game of all time is.

    I think you did wonderful homage to your recently bumped sweetheart here. I suspect it was a review you’d wanted to commit to for some time as well, and that now that your clandestine love to another has been revealed, it was only fitting that you acknowledged the greatness you still see in it, with this sublimely clever review.

    Well done Michael, you make it all look so frustratingly easy.

    I expect your Accessibility Teardown to only read :

    1) Place tiles lovingly back in the bag.

    2) Place board, bag and tile holders lovingly back in the box.

    3) Replace lid.

    • 18/09/2019 at 5:33 am

      Hi Steve – glad you enjoyed my weird foray into novella. I did indeed spend a lot of time weighing up Chinatown versus Scrabble and in the end I decided the only reason I might not rank Chinatown higher would be sins you would level just as easily at Scrabble.

      I wrote the review not because it needed writing – nobody needs anyone to say anything else about Scrabble – but because it’s so commonly referenced in the site that the lack of a page justifying my affections was kind of jarring and… lacked authenticity? I like to think that there’s an evidence trail through the blog where I can support whatever weird and wild thing I want to say with an appropriately evidenced post where it’s explained in detail. Saying ‘Scrabble is amazing’ without ever giving any kind of lens into why always felt a bit of a cheat.

      But as I said in the response to https://meeplelikeus.co.uk/scrabble-1948/#comment-4329417943 – this isn’t really a review. It’s a love letter. It’s an attempt not to convince people of what Scrabble does, but to show a mindset that reveals – if everyone buys into it – what Scrabble can be.

  5. Grumblefist
    18/09/2019 at 5:32 am

    Hi Michael,
    Mixed feelings about your “review”.
    Clearly you are a fantastic word smith, but actually this fictional novela is not comparable to your other great work.
    There is no objectivity, no justification or explanation for the views given.
    Scrabble for 50% of the population is not remotely fun. Even when disguised as a film noir war game.
    English and math is homework, even for 40 year old. Scrabble is not a fun way to spend time with friends. I’d much rather laugh and enjoy their company. What you’ve done is make a bad game unbearable.
    Sorry.

    • 18/09/2019 at 5:33 am

      Haha, no need to apologise. ‘What you’ve done is make a bad game unbearable.’ is almost word for word what most people say after they play a round with me. ;-P

      This is completely fair with regards to the review – it’s not the usual fare and part of that is because I don’t think a review of Scrabble is going to convince anyone. What I’m hoping to illustrate here is not a hidden facet of the game that people may not have noticed, but to highlight a different *mindset* that I think makes Scrabble much more interesting.

      I said this in the teardown: If someone proposed a new Kickstarter game that was basically a wargame played with letter tiles there wouldn’t be a power in the ‘verse that would stop it funding. Throw in some minis and a nice skin and it would be a major hobbyist darling. But that’s not how we, as a society, have come to think of Scrabble and I don’t even think that’s how it’s designer thought of it. As a word game, Scrabble sucks. It doesn’t emphasise words well enough to even remotely come close to giving anyone a reason to play good words. Good words are a weakness in Scrabble, and that’s a major flaw in a word game.

      The trick with Scrabble is to discount the word game aspect entirely and think of it as an area control game – a game where your role isn’t to show how good your vocabulary is but instead to show how you can most efficiently spend limited resources in controlling a board. Imagine Scrabble, but it’s Harry Potter and you’re casting little two-word hexes on a Horcrux to crack it open. That’s the kind of way I think about it – a battleground to be conquered, with key territories that must be claimed or denied to an opponent. A twisty little trap of an area where your own words come back to haunt you if you don’t use them wisely.

      But everyone already knows that’s part of Scrabble, so I don’t think a review would really be able to cvonvince anyone that this stuff matters. The thing for me is that it’s a question of emphasis, and that’s a matter of framing. This definitely isn’t a review in our normal vein – it’s a love letter cast as a military lecture because I just want people to maybe think of things from a different perspective.

      Even at its best I’d hesitate to call Scrabble *fun*. But for people that play it *this way* I think it’s incredibly *satisfying* and if you think of your letters as ammo to conserve for when it matters there’s a whole new game of tile-rack cycling that adds a resource management to proceedings.

      I can’t say anything new about Scrabble. But I can hopefully cast what everyone else knows in a a light that’s more accomodating of its design. 🙂

    • Shot007
      18/09/2019 at 5:33 am

      Logged into Discus just to give you a thumbs up. Thanks for putting this response into words. I hope as much people who read the review gets to read your excellent response; which I agree with wholeheartedly.

  6. Behrooz Shahriari
    18/09/2019 at 5:32 am

    I really enjoyed reading this review. By explaining the strategies that you employ, and framing them in a suitable narrative that mirrors your mindset, I think it reveals far more about your experience than a regular review would.

    One point of confusion. Can you explain the scoring, specially, “‘ I think you’ll find’, he said, ‘that’s forty-two points to me’.” after ‘ZA’?

    My understanding is that you play ‘ZA’ and also score for ‘ZA’ and ‘AT’. ZA scores 20 points for the Z and 1 for the A. Both score 21, for a total for 42. But then AT is 2×2=4, for a total of 46. Am I mistaken or were you?

    It’s quite possible that I don’t properly understand the rules of the game – it’s been many many years since I played. But I also know that you, as all humans, are fallible. :-p

    Does Pauline play against you often? I am curious as to how a game of that would go.

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