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A Fantasy of Control: An Analysis of SCRABBLE’s Player Experience


Takeaways:

  • Masterpiece of game design, earning its place in the canon of American and English culture
  • Word games allow for interesting and expansive player choices, but carry stigma that narrows its audience 
  • 70% skill, 30% random chance seems to be a good ratio for a play experience that is simultaneously accessible to beginners (in the form of beginner's luck) but still feels rewarding enough to retain skilled players 


SCRABBLE has its roots in the Great Depression. Invented by an out-of-work architect named Alfred Mosher Butts in 1933, SCRABBLE was named for the word meaning “to grasp, collect, or hold on to something”. Each of these three verbs play a crucial part in the player experience: the excitement when you grasp an idea for a word, the satisfaction as you collect valuable tiles, and the desperation as you hold onto the hope of a space staying open. The game is marketed as having “lift[ed] the spirits of millions” (scrabble.hasbro.com).

First, the formal elements in brief: Each player has a 7 tile hand. Rarer letters are scored higher than common ones, but are conversely harder to spell into words. The board is made up of 225 spaces, arranged in a 15 by 15 square. There are 100 tiles total, and the game ends when all the letters have been drawn and one player uses his/her last letter, or when all possible plays have been made. In addition to scoring by the rarity of letters used when forming words, there are bonus point spaces distributed across the board, which double or triple the point value of tiles placed upon them. Some spaces double or triple the value of the entire word that covers the tile.

The makers refer to these bonus point spaces as “hot spots”. This is an apt name, as players compete to reach them before the others, complicating the dynamics of the system. Due to the evolving board, players are very dependent upon each other’s moves. The game rewards building upon other players’ foundations, but also fosters conflict in the form of blocking and “stealing” hot spots before other players can utilize them.

SCRABBLE’s aesthetic closely resembles that of a crossword puzzle, though it is played much differently. This makes up SCRABBLE’s most significant dramatic element. Since SCRABBLE appears to be a game of wordsmith skills, players can attribute their success to their own mastery of the language or their strategy in navigating the board. However, SCRABBLE was explicitly designed to combine the randomness of popular card games with a word game. Thus, the outcome of a SCRABBLE game often comes down to “luck of the draw” more than vocabulary prowess.

That being said, a strong vocabulary or understanding of the board’s dynamics will give players a significant edge. SCRABBLE makes use of expansion dynamics, crossword aesthetic, and signature aspect of randomness. These core elements balance hope and anguish against each other and evoke the feelings of realizing or missing opportunities. The player experiences emotions parallelling the strong emotions of the Depression, though in a contained form. The game, therefore, may indeed have lifted the spirits of Americans, providing a relieving pastime in which their skill is rewarded quantifiably with points and an objective winner.

SCRABBLE’s core spelling mechanic allows for a remarkably wide scope of choices on any given turn. Players are required to agree upon a dictionary to use as a reference at the beginning of the game. Despite this, players may form any word they can think of during play, even those they don’t know the validity of. Players are provided with a second avenue of play - that of bluffing and calling each others’ bluffs. For if a player chooses to challenge a bogus word, the acting player loses their turn: a significant loss. However, if the acting player is in fact correct (as decided by the selected dictionary), then the challenger loses their turn. This mechanic captures another important component of popular games of chance. Poker players are often hooked upon the feeling of “getting away” with a bluff, and SCRABBLE manages to create the same rush of euphoria, extending its draw to a different branch of players.

Not only is there freedom of word choice, but also freedom of placement. This leads to interesting situations where players may choose lower-scoring words in order to steal “hot-spots”. The constant interaction of players leads to a game that reshapes itself with each play-through, adding replay value.

The rules left out of SCRABBLE play an important role in the game experience. Beyond the physical actions of the players, SCRABBLE naturally promotes an intellectual banter. This is often debate over an unusual word’s definition or existence, but playful heckling and bravado is equally common. This banter is as much a part of the game as the score, and verbal battles outside of the board are a key part of the experience.

There are no rules governing the time allowed to a player to take their turn. There is no way to force a player to place their tiles via game penalties, so it falls upon the other players to urge the active player to make a decision. “What’s taking you so long?” “It’s been five minutes!” and “Come on, just play!” are phrases that will be thrown at a contemplative player constantly, adding social pressure to the player experience.

Ultimately, SCRABBLE has earned its place in the canon of American culture. The board game is an interesting hybrid which takes the intellectual draw of crosswords and combines it with the addicting unpredictability of good playing card games. The board’s constant evolution leads to evolution of player dynamics while the written and unwritten social elements contribute to a satisfying play experience with strong replayability.

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