Epic Gumdrop Ep 35: Scrabble

Scrabble

This episode Jeff and James look at the story behind Scrabble, and Jeff tries to impress James with misspelled words containing silent letters.

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(Length: approx 26min)

Scrabble

My son is now old enough to be interested in spelling for fun, and he’s layered that on top of his love of gaming. Which means Scrabble.

This is great. Scrabble is a fun game that my wife and I used to play every day for a long time. Probably until she got sick of me spending a whole game trying to spell a word I got into my head. I would look at the tiles and see the hints of a really great word I could spell. It might mean collecting letters all game, positioning things this way and that just to spell it. Sometimes these would be high scoring words. But usually I had sacrificed a whole lot of game in order to spell it. As you can imagine, playing with me became tiring. Go ahead, make a cup of tea, I’ll still be here working on how I’m going to force xenophobia onto the board over the course of the next several turns.

I look forward to finally having a new family member to play against.

But where did Scrabble come from? Now that we’ve looked at the history of a few games I thought I would try to imagine its roots before I researched it. My brain came up with bits of string and a rusty coin. Nothing.

So let’s look at Scrabble.

Could you have guessed that the game was invented in 1938? Not really.

Could you have guessed the inventor was an unemployed American architect named Alfred Mosher Butts? Maybe. There is a beauty, a structural integrity, to the board that doesn’t seem like it would come from the mind of, say, someone who races cars or cuts down trees for a living.

The story doesn’t start there, though. It goes back to the beginning of the 1930s when Alfred was thinking about the different kinds of games being made, board, card, dice – and he struck upon the idea of a word game. Except it didn’t have a board. And it was called Lexico. The purpose of the game was to spell a 9 or 10 letter word and players had 100 tiles to work from. He couldn’t find a publisher for this Scrabble precursor, and lost money selling the few he made himself. The one interesting fact that ensured the latter game’s success, though, was the rigour with which he approached game design. He was the kind of person who looked at the alphabet and looked at a newspaper and wondered about distribution. If he was to create a game about spelling words, he needed to know how many letters he should have to choose from. And to do this he tried to work out the frequency with which letters appeared.

Fast forward to 1938. Alfred is rehired as an architect, but he’s still perfecting a word game. It might be called Criss-Crosswords. It might have squares that give you bonuses. There might be blank tiles. The game would have a board, but the grid size was still up for grabs.

When he finally settles on the 15×15 grid on a board and the name Criss-crosswords he starts to make the sets himself. He can’t find a game company interested.

Fast forward again to 1948. James Brunot comes along and buys the rights to the game. He will manufacture it and Alfred will receive a royalty for each unit sold.

After this the game moves around a bit. According to Alfred Butt’s obituary in the New York Times, a Macy’s executive played the game on holidays and when he returned home couldn’t believe Macy’s didn’t stock the game. Demand increases. The production of Scrabble cranks up to 6,000 sets a week and becomes too much for Brunot. Selchow & Righter, a company who had originally turned the game down, now step in to produce it. In its second year of production they had produced nearly 4 million sets. Brunot maintains the rights until 1972 when he finally sells it completely to Selchow & Righter.

But what game doesn’t bounce around from owner to owner over the course of its life? There’s a few more acquisitions to follow.

Coleco buys Selcho & Righter’s games in 1986. Although the video games industry wasn’t doing so well by this point, Coleco had a field of Cabbage Patch Kid money to harvest. Shortly after, Coleco goes bankrupt and sells its main assets to Hasbro.

It’s worth taking a brief pause to do another pop quiz:

Q: What does Coleco stand for and what year was it founded?

A: “Connecticut Leather Company”, 1932. They originally processed shoe leather and in the 1950s made leather craft kits. Then they made plastic pools. It wasn’t until 1976, with the Telstar system, that they got into games. They wanted some of that Atari money.

But back to Scrabble.

So what happened to Alfred Mosher Butts and the Scrabble money? Did he get ripped off as so many seem to? Well, he seems to have come out alright. His 1993 obituary notes the following:

For many years Mr. Butts earned royalties, which he said were about three cents a set. “One-third went to taxes,” he said. “I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life.”

That’s a nice ending to a good story about a great game.

It’s also worth reading the last bit of his obit, which is a reminder that so many game designers have very rich lives outside the hobby:

Among the buildings he designed were the Charles W. Berry housing project on Staten Island and the Stanford Free Library in Stanfordville, N.Y. He was a co-founder of the library. He was also an amateur artist and had six drawings collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As for his game design legacy, well I think we all know about that part. Scrabble is now played by 27 billion people annually in one of over 500,000 tournaments. Or something like that. By 1993 its sales had seriously approached 100 million sets (and that last number is for real). I think it’s fair to say it’s relatively popular around the world. I mean, how many boardgames end up with their own TV show hosted by Chuck Woolery?

Now let’s look at Scrabble in terms of game design.

Great Design Elements

  • Blank tiles. A fully wild card. Interesting to add a poker element to a word game.
  • Spacing of bonus scores: the scoring increases as you get farther away from the centre of the board. You can hit one right out of the gate with the right letters. But if you are on the edge you can also hit two triple-word scores, a Triple Triple.
  • The novel ways you can play off a word already on the board:
    • Adding a letter (or letters) before or after
    • Putting down a new word directly parallel to the old word, scoring points for both the new word and a bunch of little two letter words
    • Playing a word perpendicular to utilize an existing word
  • The playing of a 7 tile word to get a 50 point bonus
  • The beauty of the letter distribution that constrains the game and defines the point structure. It’s not just a game of making words, it’s a game of making the right words. And what is the right word depends on your opponent’s vocabulary and style of play.

It’s elegant. It’s streamlined. It’s fun. How many games continue to be this loved this many years after their inception? Part of what makes the game great is that it grows with you. When you play it as as kid you are spelling simple words. As you grow up and think you have become book smart you start to play more sophisticated words (and get called on them a lot more). The game is more a reflection of its players than anything, and that gives the game a living quality. Will AI assistance eventually kill our ability to spell anything more than our own names with an X? Or will Scrabble live on despite our increasing reliance on autocorrect? Perhaps Scrabble’s popularity will wane, as people become increasingly reliant on technology displacing rote learning activities like spelling. Perhaps the game will be relegated to a few old people who like to shake their canes at the world and curse about the good old days when a person could sit down a throw down some seven letter words for fun.

If you have any comments about this episode, or want to correct some glaring mistake, please leave a comment below. As well, you can yell at me on twitter – I’m @epicgumdrop.

Further reading:
Alfred Mosher Butts Obituary (New York Times)

 

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