Socializing Scrabble - Word Week


By Dane Feldman

Scrabble game. Photo courtesy of thebarrowboy.

Since 1950, Scrabble has been a paramount part of family life. According to the National Scrabble Association, 100 million copies of the game have been sold around the world with 30 million of those in America. Creator Alfred Butts began working on the game (he originally titled it Lexico, but later changed it to Scrabble) after he found himself out of work during the Great Depression.

In the decades following Butts’ initial success with the game, Scrabble tournaments were held worldwide with over 75 tournaments held yearly in Canada and the US. He lived to see that his game was even the focus of a televised world championship first held in London in 1991, just two years before Butts’ died.

He passed in 1993, just before the popularization of the internet, 11 years before Facebook launched and 14 years before Apple released the first iPhone. So, what would Alfred Butts have to say about the success of Words With Friends, the wildly popular online word game that bears a striking resemblance to Scrabble?

It seems there are multiple sides to choose from for gamers in the surging battle between Words With Friends and Scrabble. Before making a decision, however, there are some things to note:

While Words With Friends is arguably the exact same game as Scrabble, there are differences that may seem subtle to casual players that could be seen as not-so-subtle differences to lexicon-lovers.

For starters, the tiles are not the same. While some of the letters in Words With Friends kept their same value and distribution as they were in Scrabble, seventeen have changed. One of the most drastic changes comes for the letter ‘H.’ It was once worth four points, but is now worth three. This is likely due to the fact that there are two more ‘H’ tiles in Words With Friends, bringing the letter’s total to four tiles.

The two boards are also laid out differently in terms of where the greatest letter values can be found. The location of ‘Double Letter,’ ‘Triple Word,’ and other valued spaces are rearranged. The Words With Friends board is set up to look like something of a target. The ‘Double Letter,’ ‘Triple Word.’ And other valued spaces form diamonds around the center of the board. On the Scrabble board, these same spaces form one large ‘X,’ while the remaining special spaces form clusters around the outside of this ‘X.’

In Words With Friends, as long as the player who starts the game plays a four-letter word, they are guaranteed a ‘Double Word’ score because of the target set-up. In Scrabble, the ‘X’ makes it impossible to score so well on the first turn of the game. Instead, the player who starts will find him or herself with a measly ‘Double Letter’ score when playing a four-letter word. For Scrabble veterans, might this make Words With Friends a fairly different game?

Most importantly, Words With Friends began as an online game via Facebook (though it is also a smartphone app) with 14.9 million users today.

While Brian Clark Howard of Fast Company claims “Words With Friends beat Scrabble at its own game,” others are still skeptical.

In 2012, it was announced that Hasbro, the current makers of Scrabble, would join forces with Zynga, the makers of Words With Friends and other With Friends games. Since the collaboration, the companies have released a board game version of Words With Friends.

This is where the fight between diehard Words With Friends fans and Scrabble fans gets tricky. Words With Friends is wildly successful because, as an online game and as an app, it does something Scrabble cannot do in the 21st century: it brings people together who are not physically in each other’s presence. While there are online Scrabble games and there is an app, it has been said that its creators forgot an important ingredient in trying to bring their boardgame to the digital world: social media. Words With Friends is a success because of its social element in the sense that people play for the social aspect and the game itself is just an added bonus.

So then why would Zynga want to develop a Words With Friends board game?

The company wants its fans to “experience their favorite Zynga games in a new way,” says Barry Cottle, a Zynga representative. The board game will certainly have its successes, but can it really be argued that fans are enjoying this lexical game in a way not previously experienced with Butts’ Scrabble?