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

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Scrabble reformers: Donald Sauter and the Dover Scrabble Club

In contrast with the Scrabble reform proposed by Peter Roizen (see the previous post on WildWords), Donald Sauter's complaints are more of the "95 Theses" number. When he says he wants to fix Scrabble, some of the complaints he lists are:
  • Bluffing was never a part of the original game of Scrabble and was only introduced in 1976.
  • The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary has been anointed as the definitive word list, in spite of the fact that it contains lots and lots of bogus words (no longer printed in any dictionary), suggesting that about 5% of all OSPD words may be in this category.
  • As a corollary, conventional Scrabble encourages lots of little words to be played.
  • The standard Scrabble tile distribution gets boring after a while.
His solution?

Scrabble II: Amongst the new rules:
  • Play with 8 tiles on each player's rack instead of 7 and allow bonuses for 6-, 7-, and 8-tile plays.
  • Use a real dictionary (but toss some of its more made-up, iffy, or downright ridiculous words).
  • Allow words to stretch beyond the borders of the standard 15-by-15 board. (The extended board is such a cool idea!)
  • Forbid plays where only a single two-letter word is formed.
  • Mix three tile sets together and select a new, random tile distribution for each game.

Here are the full rules of Scrabble II, and a far more detailed description of the motivations behind and playing of Scrabble II. The latter is particularly fun to read because it is so spirited and analytical, and as a bonus it contains what amounts to a manifesto on two-letter words.

There are now tiny little ad hoc Bananagrams tournaments sprouting up in the U.S. without any organization or permanence to them. This is probably how Scrabble tournaments started up. Whether this will develop into anything like nationwide tournaments is yet to be seen. If it does, I would hope that some of the mistakes of the Scrabble tournament scene could be avoided. In particular, I would like to see competition divided into different groupings: one for the word-memorizers and one for the more casual player. Ideally, a newcomer to Bananagrams should be able to learn the rules of the game and start competing on the first day.

As Stefan Fatsis says in Word Freak (his book on the tournament Scrabble subculture), "Recruiting new players is Scrabble's toughest task." In addition to helping distinguish it from being just a "speed Scrabble" tournament, eliminating the requirement to learn a bunch of arbitrary letter sequences would make a Bananagrams tournament more inclusive and open and fun.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Synchronized Bananagramming and other ways to play Bananagrams

In thinking about games of Bananagrams I have played, I've realized that the amount of time it takes me to finish a grid can depend heavily on what letters I get and what order I get them in. Thus, the winner of any single game can depend heavily on the randomness of the drawn tiles.

Here is a way to take a massive amount of the randomness out of a Bananagrams game: Have someone who is not going to play, sort through all the letters and give each player an identical set of 21 (or however many) tiles to start off with. Also set up identical queues of tiles for each player to peel from. The outcome of such a match should be determined extremely strongly by the actual performances of the players.

Admittedly, it takes a lot of the drama out of the game and makes it a very different exercise. Played in a less competitive fashion, this would be a really strange and unique game: Imagine the reactions as all players peel a Q at the same time. It would be almost like everyone was sharing the same experience. Comparing grids at the end would also be interesting as it would better highlight the different approaches and tricks of each player.

This idea suggests to me a puzzle: Is there a way that two players could agree on an algorithm ahead of time which would allow them to make the same (or nearly the same) word grid? In principle, of course, you could just give them the same instructions as a Bananagrams-playing computer program, so the better question is whether there is a relatively simple way of doing it?

One more twist: It would be interesting to try to play a game where the objective was for players to make maximally similar grids. Without looking at the other player's grid, it would have a sort of mind-reading, Taboo-ish potential. If played where the players could look at the other players' grids (and where we would go back to a standard random drawing of tiles), it would add a sort of frantic element to gameplay.

If you try any of these Bananagrams variations or have ideas about solving the puzzle, feel free to contact me. I'd love to hear your game reports or other feedback.

UPDATE: Since writing this post, I've discovered that the Supernifty online speed Scrabble game (which I previously reviewed) actually implements the synchronization option that I described above. When one player starts a new Supernifty speed Scrabble game, they have the option (which appears to be the default) of having all players receive the same letters. This option can be changed by clicking on the link under the progress bar that counts down the time to the beginning of the game. So if you want to experiment with synchronizing your Bananagrams, you now just need two computers and a willing accomplice.