Richman Scrabble: A play report

A while ago I proposed Richman Scrabble. Nearly a year later I’ve finally got around to playing it, with my flatmates Dave and Rae.

The specific rules we played:

  1. Richman scrabble as described in the link, with the take a penny leave a penny rule for change left after splitting. Each starting with 30 tokens (chosen to be “a bit less than a bingo”).
  2. Currency was supposed to be secret, but we didn’t have a good way of hiding it so you generally had a rough idea of how much people had even if you didn’t know the exact count.
  3. Bidding happened when everyone agreed they were ready with no time limits.
  4. In the event of a tie, the winner is randomly resolved (we use a die). The second price is of course the tied bid (so if two people are tied for 8, a random one of them wins and pays 8).
  5. No dictionary research, no word lists, etc. “Sudden death” challenging – anyone can challenge a word at no cost, you lose your turn if your word isn’t valid. Validity is determined by SOWPODS.

The game went pretty well. By which I don’t just mean “I won”, though I did. Rae had a 22 point lead on me, but I had a 31 currency token lead on them, so that made the difference for me winning. So, obviously I think that adding the currency to your score at the end is a good thing.

Dave was quite far behind on points but managed to claim the lion’s share of the currency tokens, which brought him very close to victory. If he’d known the word “pice” (which, of course, is “a former monetary unit of India and Pakistan, equal to one quarter of an anna”) he’d have pulled ahead at the last minute and won.

Over all I think the bidding for turn mechanism worked pretty well. I did find myself fairly often forgetting the second price rule, but between us we remembered it. I thought it had a pretty positive effect on the bidding.

The strategy I settled on was basically to bid 2/3rds of the score I’d get by playing plus an “urgency bonus” for tactical considerations around really wanting to play (e.g. if I was desperate to get rid of a bunch of tiles I would overbid compared to the cost of the word I’d get).

One thing that was interesting and I don’t know if it’s legitimately how this style of game plays out or just the result of us all being slightly drunk and a bit out of our depth with the new rules is that the scores were really low. I normally aim for a par of about 20 points before it’s worth playing (a strategy  hit on by my brother which I shamelessly stole), but I only got 20 points twice in the game – most of my scores were closer to the 15 point mark.

I’m not entirely sure why this was. I was trying for 20 point pars I think, but it didn’t seem as easy to achieve. Possible due to less letter churn when your hand is bad – normally if you have a rubbish hand you’re going to have a turn anyway and that will force you to get rid of some letters. Other possible theories are that you’ve less incentive to mess up the board for other people because you could just play twice in a row. I’m not sure. I’d have to play more games to know whether this is a real effect or not. Right now I think I’d put my money on it just being a result of unfamiliarity.

Dave, who is totally fluent but not a native English speaker, reported that he felt the game put him at a bit of a disadvantage because he’s much better at Scrabble strategy than he is at the words, and this seemed to emphasise the words more. This sounds more like a feature than a bug though, as I suspect (particularly with the above caveats) that once we’ve adjusted to the new style of play this version will be full of strategy, but hopefully one that results in a slightly less frustrating game than normal scrabble (one of my bugbears is that optimal scrabble play makes the game less fun).

The only thing that I felt hurt the game a bit was the lack of letter churn. I think it might be interesting to play a variant where before the bidding people can freely swap out tiles from their hand. I don’t know if that would be an improvement, but it might be worth trying.

All told, I think the bidding for turn mechanism is a good one and will probably be playing around with it as a concept a bit more.

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