Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Great Scrabble Controversy of 2010!

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.


  1. If we allow proper nouns, what is preventing me from bringing in a bunch of stuffed animals and naming them on the spot? Have you met my bear "qxzft"?

  2. When are you going to continue your series on "Tips for Getting Started in the Indie Gaming Biz"?

  3. My thoughts, in order, when I heard this:

    1. No, April Fool's was days ago.
    2. That's crazy.
    3. There's more to this...
    4. It's a spinoff? Those manipulative dogs!

    I may have edited that last sentence.

  4. Can't help but think of this scene:

  5. Duh, your Income Tax conundrum is easy. You start off the game with $1500. If you've gone past Go more than twice, pay the $200.

  6. It just seems wrong to me... No-one should win a game of Srabble by spelling out Victoria Beckham!

  7. There are certain "proper nouns" that I think should be allowable. For example, country names. I remember trying to play "Gabon" and thinking to myself, that's not a name, that's a country, and a country is a thing.

  8. @ronebofh: "Duh, your Income Tax conundrum is easy. You start off the game with $1500. If you've gone past Go more than twice, pay the $200."

    1. Not if you're close to bankrupt.

    2. So why not just change the space to "Pay $200"?

    - Jeff Vogel

  9. @Roneboth:
    You'e thinking only of absolute income, and not of money *spent*.

    If I go past go three times, but also buy $800 worth of property - the property is only worth it's MORTGAGE value. So my value is not $2,100 ... it's $1,700.

    If I then go past go twice more, but buy _nothing_ ... I might still have less than $2,000 ... ebcause maybe I paid YOU $180 in rent (unlucky me, happy you). At that point, if you haven't paid me any rent, I'm worth $1,920.

    So, it's really rather a bit more complex than "past go twice, pay the $200, duh".

  10. Sometimes you want to play Scrabble for fun, not competition. And make up your own rules, for example:

    - swear-words scrabble
    - "people we know" scrabble
    - world rivers scrabble
    - acronym scrabble (lmao/wtf/html)

    This works fine on a traditional board game, but the electronic versions force you to use dictionary-only words, they won't accept expletives.

    Playing online Scrabble - particularly turn by turn on an iPhone app - is more about communicating than playing, particularly as you can get away with cheating so easily if your Scrabble partner is several thousand miles away in another timezone.

    Allowing optional de-selection of dictionary checking would be a great move.

  11. WHAT? You mean you don't know how much your Monopoly assets are worth at the start of every turn? what a n00b!, just kidding. In my house the rules are for $200 flat rate....and, yes, free parking collects cash.

  12. Dunno... official rules in English were pretty easy as it is IMHO. I'm not a strong player given that English is my second language but the rules of the game in Russian are far more strict - only nouns in singular form and first case (nouns in Russian have six cases), that's it! No verbs, etc.
    That were rules I was thought 20ish years ago and we still play by them in my family when we play I Russian. In English pretty much anything goes and that recent change won't affect much, at least on my level but then I'm far from competitive level.

  13. Frankly, the "no proper nouns" rule has always seemed kind of arbitrary to me, especially as the difference between common and proper nouns is itself often rather hazy. I'm not arguing that something being a proper noun should justify its usage, but simply that if it is a proper noun AND happens to be a dictionary, the fact that it is a proper noun should not disqualify it. I am sitting here with a Merriam Webster's dictionary, and plenty of proper nouns are included, even excluding the biographical and geographical names sections. This would make using proper nouns ill-advised (especially with smaller dictionaries), but not impossible, while simplifying the rules.

  14. The British edition of monopoly does have it the way you suggest - you just pay £200, however much or little money you have.

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