I love me a good bit of Scrabble. It’s the best game for feeling smart without actually being smart. People think it’s about having a large vocabulary, which isn’t completely true — strategy plays a bigger part, I would say, and chance bigger still. I’ve seen brilliant players of decades derailed by unlucky tiles, and yet when you win you think, “Yes, Mattel, I am a genius, thank you for noticing.” If you really were a genius, you’d be playing something like chess, that a) wasn’t copyrighted in the ’50s by a children’s toy company, and b) has nothing to do with luck.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, though, and the element of chance means you have to depend on your ingenuity even more when you need to dig yourself out of a deep bear-pit. I didn’t used to be all that interested in it, but I’ve since had several exes who fed my addiction and introduced me to some variations of the game. For reasons that will later become clear, let’s call the first ex the Scrabbleshark. Let’s call the second one Stropic Thunder.
But house rules are a dangerous game. There’s no better way to suck at real Scrabble than playing your own janky homebrew version because when you forget all your old strategies. I’ve been playing online Scrabble for so long now that I don’t think I’d be able to play the board game properly. The problem in that case is that you don’t get penalized for incorrect words, which means your strategy morphs from skilled gameplay into trying as many variations on “JZYXQ” as possible and hoping one of them sticks. There was a great article on Forbes about this a few years ago1, and if it weren’t for the fact that I need my Scrabble fix and there aren’t any popular alternatives, I’d have quit online Scrabble a long time ago.
Although house rules can screw you up, there are some variations that make it better as a party game. Your average game of Scrabble is a competitive thing — you’re pitting your strategy and knowledge against your opponents’ and you’re scoring points meticulously. There’s always that guy with the pencil and paper ready to tell you that no, you can’t play your tiles in that direction because YOUR FACE that’s why. A large number of Scrabble variants are already documented, but I was pleased to see none of these are on the list.
I got introduced to this a few years ago by the Scrabbleshark and his family. In One-Tray Scrabble you only have one tray of letters, and with each turn you pass it onto the next player. This makes for a faster game, but it also means that if you get any good letters, you have to use them right away or else the next player will get them. In this game it doesn’t even matter who else sees your tiles, but then I don’t think that makes any strategic difference — it just means you don’t have to guard your tray like a Nazi with the German codes.
I played One-Tray Scrabble with the Scrabbleshark and his family, and his mother is by all accounts a diabolical player with no mercy or forgiveness. It made me very happy that I won, which also meant that I could never play them again in case I spoiled my perfect record.
Phonetic Scrabble was described to me by Stropic Thunder. But first, I think, a little back-story. When I met Stropic Thunder I discovered that he’d been on an ill-starred date with the Scrabbleshark. It’s San Francisco — these things happen more often than I’d like to contemplate. Sometimes I think there’s a really gross game of “six degrees of separation” to be played.
Anyhow, Stropic Thunder had been on a date with the Scrabbleshark. The date nose-dived faster than a Malaysia Airlines flight, but at some point the Scrabbleshark had managed to trick Stropic Thunder into a game of Scrabble. The Scrabbleshark had passed himself off as only a casual player and then proceeded to trounce Stropic Thunder and earn his nickname in one afternoon.
Stropic Thunder was a bit leery of the game at this point, but he got some satisfaction out of bending the rules. He and his best friend had invented a variation called Phonetic Scrabble in which your words don’t have to be spelled correctly — they just have to sound like an actual word.
Challenge Scrabble is the only one of these games that I can lay any claim to. The others were invented without me, but I actually had a hand in this one. I forget how it started, though I’m like 99% sure I’d been drinking which would explain both how it happened and why I can’t remember it. It was invented on a date with Stropic Thunder (whose nickname, by the way, is not based on board games — this one’s all personality).
In Challenge Scrabble you have to complete a challenge set by the other players. Let’s say it’s your turn and your opponents decide your next move has to spell out the name of an American president. You could play “Bush” or “Truman”. You could play “Calvin” or “Ulysses”. You could even play “Dubya” if you wanted, because half the fun about the challenges is thinking up inventive ways around them. Now it’s the next player’s turn and you decide they must play a word that describes their boyfriend/girlfriend. Watch them squirm.
The reason I like Challenge Scrabble best isn’t just that I co-invented it, but also that it is such a good party game. You don’t need to keep score, and you don’t need to keep your tray private if you don’t want. The fun of the game is in the challenges and they can be as tricky or as personal as you like.
In what scientists are calling “a good idea”, I’m now seeing a boy who does not play Scrabble.
In an effort not to talk out of my arse, I did search for people who might have invented these variations sooner. Phonetic Scrabble, I gather, is not a new invention, but as far as I can tell One-Tray Scrabble is unique. I’m pretty sure Challenge Scrabble is unique too because Stropic Thunder and I came up with it on the spur of the moment, but if it does already exist then it’s a happy case of multiple discovery. Or two sets of drunks eventually arriving at the same conclusion, whichever makes you happier.