Silly Minds Think Alike

One of the things I love about the ‘Net is that it makes you realize that just about anything you can think has been discussed by someone else before.

Case in point. Some of my friends have started playing Scrabble within Facebook using the application. So I eventually decided to play with one of those friends. This game is almost over (we take our turns whenever we’re on Facebook) and my friend is clearly winning, but playing Scrabble has made me think about quite a few things.

I used to love playing Scrabble (in French) when I was younger but pretty much didn’t play at all in the last seventeen years. I had never played in English before. After trying the Scrabulous version on Facebook, I tried a few games on the website itself, and started looking for different ways to play Scrabble on- or offline. Luckily enough, the Open Source Quackle does have support for French games. But I’m still nowhere as good as the computer player.

I don’t typically find fun in any kind of competition. I don’t want to be the best at anything. I just want to be happy.

Things I find fun can be quite silly.

And I do find Scrabble fun. As per an overly simplified version of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory, things are fun when they’re doable yet challenging. Playing Scrabble against a bot which has access to the complete dictionary isn’t that much fun. Many of the words played by computer players (or highly competitive players) are extremely obscure. Now, it can be interesting to learn about all about qat and cwm, but this type of Scrabble becomes overbearing after a while.

So my favourite plays at Scrabble were with people who were not totally crazy at playing Scrabble. I remember one play where adding two letters made me score a rather amazing number of points because a high value tile was played on a high value square and was used for two different words. I don’t remember the exact score of any of this but it was quite high and satisfying for the mere rarity of the event. In fact, it’s quite possible that this play I remember so vividly was made by one of the other two player. Yet I only remember the glory of the moment.

Actually, it seems that players who are of a somewhat lower calibre than expert players may end up breaking records because they’re less competitive. But I digress even more than I should.

Point is, I find beauty in Scrabble when it’s not just about strategies for putting the largest number of obscure words on the board and blocking other players. In fact, I’d rather play something that I find neat even if it scores lower. For instance, I enjoyed adding “queen” to “ship” for the mere fact that “queenship” is a neat word (I wasn’t even sure it existed). Also, I like the ability to string two words together to make a new one. Call me crazy. Must come from my language science background.

So… I started thinking about variants. In one variant I had in mind, a player can invent one new word every game as long as s/he can provide a definition for it. This word would then be added to the working dictionary to be used in future games. In another variant, words from multiple languages could be used. In yet another variant, proper names could be used. In perhaps my favourite variant, words which relate to another word on the board would gain the points from that other word (all players would need to agree on the connection).

Possibilities are endless. And many of these variants would be rather easy to implement on a computer-based platform. For instance, all variants which relate to dictionaries could be implemented through the use of custom dictionaries. And alternative scoring rules could be added to a Scrabble program through the use of bonus points or some such.

One variant I thought about which could be quite interesting for language scientists would be IPA Scrabble or Scrabble using the International Phonetic Alphabet. Players could use IPA characters to “spell out” valid words using either narrow or broad phonetic transcription strategies. So, in some cases, ˈlɪtl̩ or ˈlɪtɫ̩ could be allowed. Personally, I’d be one to accept a rather broad range of even impressionistic variants, including “litl” and “lidl” even though they miss some transcription details.

Such a game could be quite fun for people who have working knowledge of IPA and it doesn’t sound so hard to implement. What’s more, it could help people get used to IPA transcription, which is often a good thing in language sciences.

Well, as it turns out, I’m not the only one who thought about IPA Scrabble. A simple Google search for these two turns returns several relevant hits including: a wishlist for fun language things in which IPA Scrabble is assumed to exist; a page for a linguistics club which lists IPA Scrabble as one of their activities; and a page citing Scrabble variants which lists the IPA magnets as a Scrabble-like game. As my wife happens to have these IPA magnets, I was thinking about the same exact thing.

What’s funny about this last page I mentioned as a result for my “IPA Scrabble” Google search is that author Jed Hartman spoke my mind, back in 1998:

I like playing word games for fun rather than competitively. So I like the general idea of Scrabble®, but I don’t much enjoy playing it with devotees of the game; they tend to score lots of points by playing dozens of two-letter words that nobody except The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary has ever used. vv is for vvariants

Three of the six variants he lists are quite close to what I had in mind

  • Multidirectional Scrabble
  • Wraparound Scrabble
  • Multi-Source Scrabble (similar to my multi-language version)
  • Stackable Scrabble
  • Plausible Scrabble (similar to my word-addition version)
  • IPA Crossword (similar to my IPA Scrabble)

So, I don’t score for originality on this one. Ah, well.

I do wonder if Hartman himself has played all of these variants. And I wonder how implementable they all are through computer versions. My hunch is that any competent program could easily implement most of them within certain limits. For instance, the multi-source variant would only need dictionary files to be implemented but such dictionary files may be hard to come by. Although, with initiatives like Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary, it may be relatively trivial to get wordlists for use in dictionary files.

One thing this all made me think of is the fact that there’s indeed a lot of data available out there and that uses of data may not be entirely predicted by the type of data used. Ok, sure, the leaps from online dictionaries to wordlists to dictionary files to multi-source Scrabble are rather obvious. But chances are that most contributors to Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary weren’t thinking of multi-source Scrabble when they added most of those entries. There’s a whole thing about human-readable vs. machine-readable data involved here. And it all makes me think about newish approaches to data management, such as Freebase (results for “Scrabble”) and Mahalo (results for “Scrabble”).

8 thoughts on “Silly Minds Think Alike”

  1. Wow, silly minds do indeed think alike. I consider my mind to be more than ordinarily silly. And I’ve thought for quite some time that I’d love to play a game of Scrabble where you could use invented words, as long as you could make up a definition. I like your idea of then recording these new words for future games. And I’m right there with you and Jed Hartman about liking to play Scrabble, but no so competitively. I find it more fun to come up with interesting long words than short words that score me a lot of points.

    By the way, I also own a set of Cascadilla’s Magnetic Phonetics. They live on my fridge, and have yet to be used in a game, though.

  2. Alejna,
    Thanks for dropping by! I will now endeavour to follow every single one of your posts with a note to myself about the overuse of the word “minstrel” in pseudo-philological parlour games.

  3. During a summer visit to Prague one year, I played a version of Czech Scrabble with a house full of English speaking ex-pats. What I realized is that there are only so many English words you can spell with “Z” “ˇz” “ˇs” and “W”. The distribution of the Czech alphabet made for an interesting few games to say the least.

  4. You know, even using the English version to play in French is incredibly difficult. We tried it once, in my family, and I’m really not sure we were able to finish the game.
    Not sure how easy it’d be to play Scrabble in English using a French letter distribution. I might try it, some time. Quackle makes it easy to try these things, actually. But just between English, French, and Korean.

  5. Just happened across this entry. Thanks for the link to my Scrabble-variants column!

    I think I’ve played Multidirectional and Wraparound Scrabble about once each; I don’t remember how well they worked as games. I forget whether I’ve played the others per se — we played around with Scrabble sets occasionally in college, but I don’t remember at this point which variants we actually tried.

    I’m amused that your wife happens to have the Magnetic Phonetics IPA magnets — my college roommate designed and sells those, and I helped him put the rules of the game together. (But I’m surprised you didn’t already know about the game — didn’t her set come with a rules page for the game?)

    A few years back, a couple of friends and I played a game I called Fantasy Scrabble that was kind of along the same lines as Plausible Scrabble or your add-a-word variant, but a little sillier than either of those; follow the link for details (and for a link to a copy of the game results we ended up with).

    You might also be interested in James Ernest’s Scrabble Poems, and in a blog discussion of various games including Scrabble. See specifically comments #10 and #11 for further variants, including Socialist Scrabble (where other players can help you out by providing letters that would help you make a cool word).

    …I’m reminded of a Boggle variant that my friend Ranjit used to play, in which (iIrc) any plausible-sounding word was valid (essentially the same rules as Plausible Scrabble, which I almost certainly derived from his Boggle variant), and particularly cool (or maybe particularly long?) unique words were awarded a “star,” a “staramundo,” or a “stararello.” (None of those awards could be cashed in for prizes; they were just labels of appreciation.)

  6. Jed,
    Thanks a lot for the comments and links!

    My wife does have the instructions with her IPA magnet set but I only saw the set briefly. She bought it at a conference and brought it with her to Northampton, MA. Interesting to learn that the author is a friend of yours. It really is a small world.

    It seems that I’m not scoring as many silly points as I had thought. Ah, well…

  7. Since some time I have a project of creating a Multi-Language Scrabble on pc. I couldn’t find it on the net, but you do mention it so I wonder if it is the same.
    My ideia was that one piece would have 2 different letters (or maybe the same in some cases) according to the distributions of each language (if more than 2 languages are used, then more letters to each piece).
    Then players would create words in their language connecting to the letters of his language available on the board. The game would check the correctness of each played word for his language from an online source and better yet, provide the translation to the other players.
    I’d love to have something like this to play with my wife who is turkish (I’m portuguese) and other foreign friends.

  8. Paulo,
    Yours is not really the version I pictured in my mind and I get the impression Jed’s version is also different. But your multilingual Scrabble project sounds quite interesting, especially for “Third Culture” people like yourself.
    Have you looked into the Quackle code? Maybe your project could use that code as a base.

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