So yesterday the Internetz reported that, in some places, the rules of Scrabble would change to allow proper nouns. Gaming geeks like myself were completely outraged. Many flecks of spittle hit many monitors. Then the dust cleared and it began to appear that we had all been played in a careful bit of PR. Which is all to the good.
But why would it be such a terrible, terrible thing to allow proper nouns in Scrabble? It's a nice exercise in Game Design 101, methinks. Try answering the question for yourself. Go on. I'll wait. I'm sitting right here, chin in my hand, listening to the White Stripes and waiting for you.
OK. Got your answer? Well, here's mine.
One. In games, the ability to determine whether a move is legal or not is kind of a good thing.
When you play Scrabble, you first point at your dictionary and say, "That is the dictionary" and then you had a foolproof way to settle any argument about whether your awesome play of "quitzwij" gets 80 points or not. Sure, your dictionary might suck and not always approve of words you are SURE are correct, but at least you have a final arbiter.
But what if proper nouns are allowed? Well, there is no single authoritative dictionary of proper nouns, and there never will be. Thus, there is, like, no hard and fast way to determine what you are ever allowed to do in the game. This isn't a way to get people to play a game. It's a way to get people to argue.
Sure, each individual house could then come up with a stack of books and have them be the source of all legal proper nouns. An Atlas. An encyclopedia. An almanac. But there are several problems with this. First, that's offloading a lot of design work on the players, which is lazy and sucks. Just saying, "Grab a dictionary" is infinitely more reasonable. And, second, it makes validating a move far more time-consuming. Looking something up in the dictionary? Fast. Looking up one name in in eight books, less so.
Two. There are too many proper nouns, so there are too many legal plays. Just about any short combination of letters with a vowel or two is a name for something SOMEWHERE.
Here's an exercise. Go to Google and just generate a short random word with a vowel or two. Search for that random word and see what you get. For example, I literally slapped the keyboard to generate "Jihnu". I searched for it, and found several people with that name.
Amazing! Before, J, I, H, N, and U would have required thought to play. But the magical alchemy of this rule change have transformed those letters into 15 points of gold! And I didn't even have to, like, know anything.
Having a puzzle where every answer is correct takes a bit of the fun out of doing puzzles.
Three. It completely changes the nature of the game. Maybe you like the newer game, maybe not. But it worked extremely well for decades as a game of strategy and grammar, and objecting to completely reworking it is entirely understandable. At this point, you can accuse me of hating change. Well, once a game has reached a certain status and omnipresence, it shouldn't be changed unless the change is a clear, unarguable, huge improvement. Want a game where you get points for thinking up city names or whatever? Good for you. Invent it.
But, as I said, it looks like this is just a big misunderstanding and a PR bonanza for the Scrabble people. Which is good, because now we can focus on rules to classic games that should be changed.
My favorite? The Income Tax space in Monopoly. That's the one where you pay $200 or 10% of the value of all your holdings. Which means that the space invites you to grind the game entirely to a halt while you haul out an adding machine and add and subtract and carry the two and figure out exactly how much money your position is worth. Who still thinks that adds to the fun?
But my favorite part about the Income Tax space? The rules specifically say that you aren't allowed to figure out how much 10% is before you decide to pay $200 or 10%. Here's a game design tip I'll give you for FREE. If a design element requires you to place rules on what a player is allowed to think, you might want to reconsider it.