A blog for fans of Bananagrams, word games, puzzles, and amazing things

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Scrabb.ly/WordSquared - Massively Multiplayer Online Word-formation Game

The biggest word game ever is slowly growing still bigger over at Scrabb.ly (recently renamed "WordSquared"). Created by four programmers over 48 hours for a competition, it's effectively an infinite grid (though currently limited to a giant square with each side being about 200 million tiles long) on which people all over the Internet are simultaneously laying down tiles to build words. You can play it in most recent web browsers at http://wordsquared.com.

For your first move, you can build a word (using a subset of your seven available tiles) off of any available tile on the board. For all subsequent moves, you need to build off of your own words.

Scoring is like in Scrabble. The tiles have values on them, and the grid has been formed by putting a bunch of Scrabble boards together, overlapping the rows and columns on the edges, so that the triple word score squares are shared with the neighboring boards.

Additionally, you have a certain number of available "lives" like in a video game. If you swap out your rack for new letters, you lose a life. If you form a word that overlaps one of those bonus squares in the center (the ones with the star on them), you gain a new life.

Probably my favorite part about this game is exploring the map of the grid. A lot of the overall structure of the interlocking words looks rather organic, but there are a few places on the grid where someone (possibly automated scripts) have constructed long staircases of two-letter words or other regular structures.

One downside is that the site is a bit slow to load, and even just when I switch over to the browser tab that has Scrabb.ly in it, the browser hangs for a while. Every time you enter a word, the game takes several seconds to update and give you your new letters. [This is no longer an issue, as the updated version of the game is much faster.] Also, the large scale map seems to be updated very infrequently (maybe every few hours or once a day), so by exploring the apparent frontier (by switching back from the map view to the zoomed-in grid view), you will find that there may be words several board lengths beyond where the map suggests they will be.

If you stop playing and come back later, your previous position on the map and tiles should be restored, assuming you are using the same web browser... Player identification is done through cookies. "Claiming" your words by adding a username (or Twitter username (preceded by the "@" symbol)), just makes public your position on the high scores list... it does not enable you to set a password or log in from another computer or browser. I would guess that this will be changed in Scrabb.ly 2.0. If you are lost on the board, you can find your words by clicking on them in the word history bar on the right hand side.

The game is still a bit buggy. If it gets confused about what tiles you have or anything else, you can always reload the page in your browser. And I have found that the blanks can never be used to form words in all but the most recent browser versions. If I try to use them, I get prompted to enter what letter they represent, but then the word never gets accepted. There were reports that blanks would be accepted if used as the final letter in a word, but that's not working for me either. Basically, I save up blanks until my rack becomes unusable and then hit the "Swap Tiles" button.

One other caution about this game: It can be kind of addictive.

If you want a lot more Scrabb.ly information, you can watch this YouTube video of one of the Scrabb.ly programmers giving a talk about the game. There are some fairly technical details between about minutes 5 and 10, but most of the rest of the talk is pretty accessible.

The designers have apparently considered making a similar gigantic chess or checkers game (with appropriate rule modifications) or giving some classic 8-bit Atari games the Scrabb.ly treatment. A planned Scrabb.ly 2.0 will have some social features and additional new game mechanics. They might also incorporate play in foreign languages, but still on the same grid as the original game, though possibly starting each language in a different sector of the board, just for the fun of watching what would happen when two language grids collide.

Further reading: