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

Thursday, January 27, 2011

WordSquared update

The WordSquared team has been busy. After reprogramming their massively mutliplayer Scrabble game (previously reviewed here) to be faster and more responsive, they've rolled out a blog and more site improvements:
  • There is now a real login system, giving you the option to either assign a password to your existing WordSquared username or link your Word2 game to one of a number of other accounts (Google, Twitter, Facebook, AIM, Yahoo, or OpenID). Which means no more worrying about losing your game due to site upgrades. And your game is no longer tied to a particular browser via cookies, so you can log in anywhere and play.
  • The game now tracks and displays statistics about your games, like the longest word that you have formed (longest since statistics started, that is).
  • Whenever you lay down a word, the resulting score (or scores, when you form multiple words) appear on the screen at the location of the word and float gently upward before disappearing. It's a nice, elegant effect. (This turns out to be the way HTML5 browsers display word scores. Current Firefox versions (>3.6.9 but <4.0) do not have any HTML5 capability built in, not even as an option, so I prefer Safari for Word2.)
  • WordSquared now has achievements that you can earn. Some are based on the number of words that you have formed, but I knew right away which one I wanted to get:

    I also picked up this one:

    Getting a rack of Is was pretty easy, but to get to the T Party, I had to unload one last J. It can be tricky to find a place to dump a J. I wound up scrolling way back along the path of words that I have made, trying to find an AM or OUST or OWL or an UMP or a UKE. (This is where it would be nice to have a search function to let me jump to particular words I've already formed). Eventually I found an unobstructed INN and went with JINN. Which seems like an appropriate way to get to the T Party, as I can totally imagine Mr. T playing a genie.

    Achievements are not retroactive, so you get to earn them all (even easy ones like "Get a rack with no vowels") for the first time.

    The achievements stay on your screen until you dismiss them, so you can continue playing with the cartoon Mr. T overlapping your board as long as you like, pitying your foolish moves.
  • And finally, while it's not a new feature, I just discovered that since WordSquared is an HTML5 game, it is possible to zoom in and out just by changing the font size. This is really cool and often preferable to scrolling the board since it can be done quickly with a keystroke.

Also, Word2 now produces sound effects when you lay down tiles and score points. You can toggle them on or off with the speaker icon in the lower right.

The Word2 coders have formed a company called Massively Fun, and their site says that Word2 is to be just the first of their games. Good luck guys!

Further reading:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ghost, Superghost, and Disorder: Word-dodging games

I recently played a game called Disorder, which is a neat little word-building (or more accurately, word-avoiding) game. To explain it, it's best to start with the simpler games that it is based on:

We begin with an old parlor game called Ghost. In Ghost, players take turns adding letters to a word they are building, trying to avoid being the one to actually finish a complete word. If a player adds a letter that makes it impossible to form a real word (e.g., T-R-I-C-J), another player can challenge him. If the first player cannot name a legitimate word that he's trying to make, he loses the game. But if the challenger is wrong, he loses instead.

Example gameplay:
Player 1: A
Player 2: M [A and AM are words, but words shorter than 4 letters are permitted.]
Player 1: B
[At this point in the game, there are lots of words that players may be thinking of like AMBITIOUS, AMBULANCE, AMBUSH, AMBIGUOUS, AMBLE. But with each new letter the options narrow.]
Player 2: E
[This is a brilliant play because the only common words that can be formed starting with AMBE all have the root AMBER which is a valid word. The options for Player 1 are to choose the R and lose or choose another letter and try to bluff. Bluffing adds an interesting gameplay dimension to Ghost and related games.]

A Ghost variant called Superghost allows players to add letters to both the beginning and the end of the proto-word, opening wide the strategic possibilities and making for a game that you really have to think about.

The writer James Thurber enjoyed playing Superghost with his friends and wrote a New Yorker essay about it back in 1951 (delightfully titled, 'Do You Want to Make Something Out of It? (Or, if you put an "o" on "understo," you'll ruin my "thunderstorm")'). The essay can be found on the New Yorker site (behind a paywall) or in a collection of Thurber's writings called Thurber Country).

[Disorder] Finally we come to Disorder, which is a board game that comes with 1) cards that players get dealt so that they have a hand of letters to choose from, 2) a long skinny board with slots for each card to go into as the word is being built, and 3) chips for keeping score. In addition to giving players a set of letters that they can use for word-extending, Disorder introduces a few more twists on Superghost. Mixed into the deck of letters are four types of power cards. The Exchange card lets you swap a card in your hand with a card on the board. The Switch card lets you take two cards on the board and switch their positions. The Squeeze card allows you to make a one-card gap anywhere in the word and insert a card from your hand. And the Pass card lets you skip a turn.

And finally, any card can be used as a wild card, simply by flipping it over (they all say "wild!" on the back) and laying it down as part of the word. Wild cards can be tricky to deal with since (unlike in Scrabble, where a player declares what the blank tile represents) in Disorder, the wild card can be any letter. This makes it easier to build toward a word without giving away to your opponents what you are planning, but it also makes it difficult to think of all the possible words that could be in play.

Scoring is simple. Each card has a point value on it, with harder letters like Q and Z having correspondingly larger point values (roughly like in Scrabble). At the end of the round, the point values of the cards that have been played on the board are summed, and the total is awarded to whoever lost the round. After how ever many rounds are played, the winner is the player who accumulates the least points. I enjoy playing Disorder so much that I am willing to play without keeping score (though that may just be the Bananagrammer in me).

Disorder is a great game. I have already bought someone a copy for Christmas.

I like having the cards and the board, but in a pinch, this could be played with Bananagrams tiles with a few modifications: Each player can take 7 Bananagrams tiles and, in the absence of racks, just stand the tiles up on their edges. Note that Disorder has a flat letter distribution (4 cards for each letter of the alphabet). While I haven't tried it, I think that using the standard Bananagrams distribution of letters will still be fine. The important adjustment I would recommend borrowing from Disorder is the notion that you can play a tile face-down and have it act as a wildcard. If you're playing for the first time, I suggest starting off with the regular Ghost version until you are ready to graduate to the Superghost variety.

Ghost lends itself to rule variation, spawning games with names like "Superduperghost" and "Spook". My ambition is to come up with a mutation that will best them all. I think I'll call it "Pac-Man".