Things you can do to scrabble

I’ve recently had my biennial family reunion. Amongst many other things, this means I’ve spent a lot of the time playing Scrabble.

I’d recently read this paper about “Richman” games where you take a game that is normally played with two players taking it in turns and convert it into a game where each turn is an auction for who gets to play with the winner playing the loser. It occurred to me that this would work very well for Scrabble, and this line of reasoning caused me to think of a whole bunch of other different variations.

I’ve not played any of them. Most of them are likely to be terrible. One or two might turn out to be good ideas.

Richman Scrabble

This is the idea that started this off.

How to play: Add some sort of currency token to the game. The currency should not be points, as that causes the game to have unfortunate “rich get richer” effects. Possibly how many tokens you have left at the end of the game should be added to your score. Each player starts with an equal number of tokens (say 50).

Each turn is played as follows. Everyone is given some time to study the board (say 1 minute). They then must submit a sealed bid (by putting tokens in their hand and holding it out). The highest bidder wins the right to play. If there is a draw the winner is determined randomly in some manner. They pay the amount they bid, distributed evenly amongst the other players (bids must be a multiple of the number of players – 1. So if you have three players it must be even, four it must be a multiple of three, etc. This ensures they divide evenly). They now take their scrabble turn as normal.

How would this change the game? One really annoying thing in multi-player Scrabble is when someone takes the perfect place for you to go. This would allow you to bid higher in those cases to have a chance of getting in there. Adding the currency to your score at the end provides a nice grounding of the value of the currency in the points of the game, but isn’t strictly necessary.

Letter queue

Another currency based system. You could use this either separately or together with the auction system.

Instead of drawing tiles randomly there is an ordered queue of tiles (at least 7). Each tile has a number of currency tokens on it. When you pick up a tile you get all the currency on it but must put one token on each of the tiles that comes before it. So e.g. when picking up the 7th tile you pay 6 tokens. You pick all your tiles, then you refill the queue by drawing tiles at random.

This leaves an element of chance in it but reduces it slightly. You can take less effective tiles for the value they’ve accrued if you think you can use them, or you can pay money for the optimal tile.

Random winner

This is a change you can make to any game where the victory is determined by scoring. Rather than having the winner be whomever has the highest score, the winner is chosen randomly at the end with a player winning with probability in proportion to their score.

Why? Because this means that a slight advantage in ability translates to a slight advantage in chance of winning. It’s much like the argument for random voting over FPTP.

Additionally, in a system where the highest scoring player always wins, once you’ve got a significant point advantage it’s in your strong interest to shut down the board and make it as hard as possible for people to score well.

I suspect in practice this would be quite annoying to actually play – it’s a situation more analogous to electing a president than to electing a representative, and I don’t really like random voting for such systems.

Random ending

A special tile is introduced to the mix. As soon as this tile is drawn, the game is over. Everyone’s current hand is deducted from their final score.

I think this would be interesting. Instead of a hotly contested endgame, your score at every point matters. It also discourages keeping high scoring tiles in your hand during the game because at any point the game might end and they might cost you.

Single word scoring

This is in the most scrabble specific of the changes, and it’s also probably the most controversial for hardcore scrabble players.

Instead of getting to score all the words you played, you only get to count the highest scoring word.

Yes, this completely changes the tactics of the game.

Why would I suggest such a thing?

Because in current scrabble, effective play makes the game less fun. Playing tightly filled blocks of words is a very good scrabble tactic – you can easily get a lot of points off each play – but it makes continuing the game like pulling teeth. Having a “highest word only” scoring system instead encourages playing long words which open out the board a lot more.

As a side benefit, it also reduces the advantage of having drawn high scoring letters.

In conclusion

I don’t actually know if I’d want to play any of these. I think it might be fun to try though.

In some ways a lot of the appeal of scrabble is that it’s not actually a very good game. Tinkering with that might disrupt that, or it just might uncover a good game inside it.

This entry was posted in Games on by .

7 thoughts on “Things you can do to scrabble

  1. James

    Richman scrabble

    Instead of having to keep bids a multiple of players-1 you could have a take-a-penny-leave-a-penny system. You have a pot which starts empty, when you divide up a bid, you add the pot before you divide it up and any remainder goes back in the pot.

    Letter queue
    I dislike the card counting element of this (I generally dislike card counting mechanics) and it feels like you could quickly have absolute knowledge of other players hands. You could add a way to take tiles blind too.

    Random ending
    I like this.

    Single word scoring
    I think that this mechanic is very tweakable. you could score more than one word. Or you could score normally and then add a multiple of each player’s largest score.

    1. david Post author

      I like the take a penny leave a penny idea. It makes the system much simpler.

      I like the idea of allowing the option of a random draw in the letter queue option. Another solution to the card counting problem would just be to play with open hands.

  2. Pingback: More tinkering with auction games | David R. MacIver

  3. Pingback: Report on a scrabble variation | David R. MacIver

  4. Pingback: A potentially fun game mechanic | David R. MacIver

  5. Pingback: A mod for a large class of board games | David R. MacIver

  6. Pingback: Richman Scrabble: A play report | David R. MacIver

Comments are closed.