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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Speed Scrabble

The other day I was hanging around the computer science student union while waiting for class when people started playing a game I had never heard of before called Speed Scrabble. While there is an entry on Wikipedia about a game called Speed Scrabble that bears a great deal of resemblance to the game played yesterday, there is enough of a difference that I will describe how we played in detail.

The game involves no board and, as far as I could tell, two full sets of letter tiles from the Scrabble game. These were placed face-down on the table, and each player selected fifteen tiles and placed them (still face-down) in front of them. Of those fifteen, eight tiles were placed to one side. On the declaration of "Go!", the seven remaining tiles were flipped and one proceeded to try and arrange their individual seven letters into words. As soon as one person used all seven letters, they would exclaim, "Go!" again and everyone would draw another one of their tiles. Once all fifteen tiles were flipped, whoever successfully used all tiles first would win. Because words that have already been formed can be broken up and their letters rearranged at any time, and because there is no score (other than perhaps counting the number of times you win), the beginning rounds may seem rather arbitrary and pointless (after all, it is really only the final round that matters for victory). It was interesting, however, to note that this was not actually the case. A good construction allowed one to have most letters already engaged, and thus with only a slight amount of finagling new letters could be added to the set. Of course, there was still a strong element of luck, as flipping an 'X' or 'Q' on the last turn could spell doom for even the most elegant and robust of setups.

Before I continue, there are a few additional rules to note. We used, for the most part, standard Scrabble rules about word construction. However, we played with the 'sissy rule' that if one drew a Q and had no U, he is allowed to push the Q to one side and draw a new letter from the central collection. However, if one does have a U (even if it is buried deep within an excellent word that one would really rather not break apart), the Q must be retained and played. The other major rule change was that one could have multiples of a word. For example, one could do this:


If I am not mistaken, that is not allowed in normal Scrabble play. One of the contentious areas of the rules, as always, is what words are allowed. While it is easy to rule out proper nouns and blatantly foreign words, archaic words or words adapted from other languages (such as quo from "Quid pro quo") were a matter of debate. This arose at one point in which I had spelt the word "DOGE" (the head of the Venetian city state in the middle ages), and it was ruled by the other players as not allowed. After the game, however, one of the other players agreed that it was a grey area when I asked him if "TSAR" would have been allowed (or, if you need to use up a 'Z', "CZAR" or "TZAR").

Anyway, back to the actual playing of the game. During the first few rounds I was enamoured with the idea of making one long main word with only a few tiny branches off. While such a strategy has some merits, what I found later to be much more effective was utilizing as much as possible nested structures of shorter words, like the construction shown below (please ignore the underscores, it is to avoid my white space from disappearing):

_ C
_ H I T
_ E _ I
_ D E N

This allows one to raid one or two letters easily without destroying the rest of one's words, for example if, in the above construction, one draws a 'D' tile. You can then remove an 'I' easily from either 'HIT' or 'TIN' and use that with the 'N' at the end of 'PAN' to make 'DIN' coming off the top.

Anyway, rather than blathering on about a silly word game I should be doing some work. I quite liked this game, though, because of its portability (all one needs is a container for the tiles) and relative simplicity. I'm also quite a fan of word games like this and Boggle because they tend to help build vocabulary (even though they are fairly restricted to short words, it is amazing how many words one can still learn through playing them (like 'doge')).