Scrabble rants

According to Carl Bialik, “za,” “qi,” and “zzz” were added recently to the list of official Scrabble words. I’m not so bothered by “zzz”–if somebody has two blanks to blow on this one, go for it!–but “za” and “qi”??? I don’t even like “cee,” let alone “qat,” “xu,” and other abominations. (I’m also not a big fan of “aw.”)

Without further ado, here are my suggestions for reforming Scrabble.

1. Change one of the I’s to an O. We’ve all had the unpleasant experience of having too many I’s in our rack. What’s the point?

2. Change one of the L’s to an H. And change them both to 2-point letters. The H is ridiculously overvalued.

3. V is horrible. Change one of them to an N and let the remaining V be worth 6 points.

4. Regarding Q: Personally, I’d go the Boggle way and have a Qu tile. But I respect that Scrabble traditionalists enjoy the whole hide-the-Q game, so for them I guess I’d have to keep the Q as is.

5. Get rid of a bunch of non-English words such as qat, xu, jo, etc. Beyond this, for friendly games, adopt the Ubs rule, under which, if others aren’t familiar with a word you just played, you (a) have to define it, and (b) can’t use it this time–but it becomes legal in the future.

6. This brings me to challenges. When I was a kid we’d have huge fights over challenges because of their negative-sum nature: when player A challenges player B, one of them will lose his or her turn. At some point we switched to the mellower rule that, if you’re challenged and the word isn’t in the dictionary, you get another try–but you have to put your new word down immediately, you get no additional time to think. And if you challenge and you are wrong, you don’t lose your turn. (We could’ve made this symmetric by saying that the challenger would have to play immediately when his or her turn came up–that seems like a reasonable rule to me–but we didn’t actually go so far, as challenges were always pretty rare.)

Regarding points 1, 2, and 3 above: I know that traditionalists will say that all these bugs are actually features, that a good Scrabble player will know how to handle a surplus of I’s or deal with a V. I disagree. There’s enough challenge in trying to make good words without artificially making some of the rare letters too common. I mean, if you really believed that it’s a good thing that there are two V’s worth only 4 points each, why not go whole hog and get rid of a bunch of E’s, T’s, A’s, N’s, and R’s, and replace them with B’s and C’s and suchlike?

P.S. Also interesting is this chart showing the frequencies of letters from several different corpuses. I’m not surprised that, for example, the frequency of letters from a dictionary is different from that of spoken words, but I was struck by the differences in letter frequencies comparing different modern written sources. For example, E represents 12.4% of all letters from a corpus of newspapers, whereas it is only 11.2% in corpuses of fiction and magazines. I wonder how much of this is explained by “the.”

12 thoughts on “Scrabble rants

  1. This game is big in our family and we've argued about many of these issues over the years. Getting rid of non-English words sounds like a great idea, but where do you draw the line? Just about every word in the English language is a loan word. What is the basis for accepting sirocco and bazaar but not qat?

  2. first of all, i entirely agree with all the nonsensical words in the scrabble dictionary. if the only place you'd ever find a word is in the scrabble dictionary, it shouldn't be allowable for play. to that end, i always stick with a more rational dictionary when i play.

    my own little tweak, however, is to play the game with a theme. we agree on a theme before the game, and words judged by the players to meet that theme gain the following benefits [1] the value of each letter is considered 1 higher for all purposes. an X becomes a 9 point letter (trippled to 27), or a blank becomes a 1 pointer. [2] acronyms and overly proper nouns become acceptable. for example, if the theme was statistics, pareto and pdf would be legal words.

  3. Interesting ideas. I would think you can find some folks to playtest your version for you & see how it works out. You could GM from your desk and pull from your modified letter sack.

  4. Actually, thinking about this suggests "Statistician's Scrabble" where tiles are drawn with replacement, with selection probability according to whatever dictionary you're using, and points per letter inversely proportional to frequency.

  5. All of these things only really matter to the competitive Scrabble community. When you're playing with family or friends, just change the rules like suggested above. In my case, I agree to answer basic questions about weird words (e.g., what two letter words can you make out of 'J'?; what words can you make out of 'Q' without a 'U'?). If you're really concerned about it, you can develop a beginner's cheat sheet that you give out to all sides to level the field.

    In the competitive Scrabble I've seen and played, the connection of words to reality is far from the focus of the game. Players would rather concentrate on figuring out the most important lists to memorize (e.g., all of the 7 letter words that can be made by adding a letter to a rack of 'SATINE'), coming up with and learning mnemonics (how do you remember which letters go before 'AE' to form a word? _G_ina _H_as _K_issed _M_ike, _N_ow _S_he _T_alks _W_eird), and the strategy involved balancing scoring with rack composition.

    Drastically changing the official dictionary, tile scores, and tile composition would undo a lot of hard work that people have put into the game by either (a) rendering mnemonics wrong, or (b) changing the value of memorizing different lists. Either way, the more drastic the change, the more serious players you're likely to alienate.

  6. One thing that might be interesting is if there were some way to evaluate the luck-skill tradeoff given changes to the game. Intuitively, it seems that adding 'ZA' and 'QI' make luck more of a factor, since pulling a 'Z' or 'Q' becomes worth a lot more on average.

    I'm not sure televised competitive Scrabble is ever going to make it mainstream, but one of the difficulties that televised competitive poker has is that there is too much variance in who wins each competition, so it's hard to market a small group of players to a broad audience. By this reasoning, adding 'ZA' and 'QI' is probably not good for top Scrabble players trying to establish their brand name by winning year after year. Then again, maybe that's what the Scrabble bosses want…

  7. Perhaps you'd prefer a challenge rule like the following:

    If you play a word, and it is challenged successfully, the first player to initiate the challenge gets the points for the word (and essentially lose the turn, and take your letters back). If the challenge is unsuccessful, you get twice the points (like landing on a double word score), and they lose the same number of points.

    I personally think that you should get a bigger bonus for drawing a failing challenge. I like to draw challenges for my (real) words, and eventually, here and there, sprinkle in nonwords that people are afraid to challenge. I don't play with really good players though, so this is easier (I'm not great either, I just enjoy the game).

  8. I'm not surprised that, for example, the frequency of letters from a dictionary is different from that of spoken words…

    … given that spoken words don't have letters. [/pedantic]

  9. The "Ubs rule": You've mostly got it right, but to clarify: (1) You can't use a word unless you have some idea what it means. You don't have to get the definition exactly perfect, but you have to be reasonably close: you can't just say, "I don't know what it means, but I know it's a word." Obviously, judgment is required in determining what is reasonably close, so this is a loose rule to be observed in a friendly manner. (2) If no one else at the table has heard of the word, then you can't have it. (This too must be cooperatively enforced, since there's nothing but good faith to stop you from pretending not to know a word you do know.) Your item b, "it becomes legal in the future" is just a corollary of this. After we discuss the word, now you've heard of it.

    By the way, I only use the Ubs rule in Boggle, not in Scrabble.

    For the rest, I'll try to be brief, so my response doesn't become longer than your post.

    The addition of ZA and QI is not recent. They've been around for several years now.

    About 80% of the complaints about words in the official dictionary (OSPD) are really complaints about normal dictionaries. You can say, "That's a weird freaky word," but if you look in a normal dictionary, you'll probably find it there, too. You can blame American Heritage for "za". It's listed za since 2000. They say it's slang for pizza. I don't know if that's true, but if it's false, it's not the Scrabble folks who made it up. Qi really is the preferred transliteration of what we used to call "chi" (the life force, not the Greek letter). It's quite common in alternative medicine and related literatures.

    That said, I'm strongly of the opinion that the OSPD is too permissive, and I think it sorely needs to tighten up its methodology. But that's a long long rant I won't have room for here.

    On the other hand, we should count ourselves lucky that American rules didn't accede to SOWPODS. The international dictionary is even more permissive still, and U.S. Scrabble came perilously close to adopting it.

    Re the imbalance of letters in the bag, that's like qwerty. Everyone knows it's not optimal, but that's how it's been and it's too standard to change now. No one disagrees with you about the specific letters — everyone hates to draw I's and V's, and everyone loves to draw H, S, or X. It's just part of the game: some tiles are better than others. We both have equal chance of drawing them, so it doesn't imbalance the game. If you get hurt by a rackful of I's more often than I do, it's only because I've learned to play I's quicker so they don't pile up. Would the game be better if two I's were changed to O's? Sure, I think so. But again, it's like qwerty. You can buy two Scrabble sets and tweak your own bag, but good luck getting others to follow suit.

    As for the Q, you should know that the introduction of QI changed the Q dynamic tremendously. The whole sub-strategy built around not getting stuck with Q-without-a-U becomes much much less crucial now that you can dump a Q by sticking it beside an I. I think the game is better for it, and if you hate the whole Q-without-U stress, you should be glad for QI. Danny in the comments above has it exactly backward: adding QI makes drawing the Q much LESS of a luck factor, because the Q is far less likely to kill you now.

    I too dislike double-challenge. It's too hardcore. That's how the rules are written, but it's not universally observed. When I play live I prefer single-challenge. If I play an illegal word, I lose my turn; if you challenge and it's good, you lose nothing. That way the onus is entirely on the person trying a word, which I think is just fine. I have to think about whether I want to risk my turn on a word I'm 50% sure of, but you have no disincentive to challenge anything you're not 100% sure of, except to avoid wasting time. When I play online, I prefer the "void" setting, in which the computer knows the dictionary and just won't let you play anything illegal. Then there's no such thing as a challenge.

    For those frustrated by the strategy of Scrabble driving them in directions that they think make the game less fun, I strongly recommend Super Scrabble. The gimmick is that it's a bigger board with more letters and more points, but it really does profoundly change the game dynamic. (Making it bigger is actually one of the drawbacks, because it makes the game too long.)

    Among other things, they take advantage of expanding the pool of tiles to change the distribution to better reflect the language, answering one of your complaints here. That's not the biggest change though. I don't have room for a full analysis, but the end result is that it rewards open play far more than regular Scrabble. Casual players generally prefer this, and often hate the sort of tight compact games that hard-core Scrabble players often get into. Without dissecting it in detail, the basic inputs are (1) a much higher consonant-to-vowel ratio, and (2) points available on the board are increased while the bingo bonus remains constant thus relatively devaluing the bingo.

    Final thought: Unless you're practicing for a tournament or playing online, there's no reason you have to use the "official" dictionary. Use whatever dictionary you want. When I play with Mom we use Merriam Webster. The only downside is your normal dictionary isn't authoritative on plurals. It won't explicitly tell you that DOGS is a legal word. Of course you know that DOGS is good, but what about IRES? what about BORONS? It's often not obvious. (Of course, OSPD solves the problem by allowing almost every plural imaginable….)

    Oh, and speaking of plurals, although "corpuses" is not wrong, you missed a rare opportunity to write "corpora"!

Comments are closed.