Game design lessons: Scrabble and Wordscraper

Wordscraper is the new attempt by the Agarwalla brothers to keep the Scrabulous legacy alive. I am not going to comment on the legal issues, as others have done already. Rather, I’d like to explore what the comparison between Scrabble and Wordscraper teaches us about game design.

Last year I wrote a detailed design analysis of Scrabble as an exercise for my game design class. (I seem to have mislaid the document for the moment. I will try to exhume it if there is interest.) In it, I commented that the layout of bonus squares, particularly the double and triple word scores, is carefully strategic. A lot of the strategy of Scrabble play is about gaining access to those squares and preventing your opponent from doing the same. Often there is a trade-off when playing a word between maximising points and minimising the opportunity for your opponent to reach a bonus. These trade-offs are an embodiment of Sid Meier’s maxim: “A game is a series of interesting choices”. They are a large part of what makes the game fun.

The bonuses also determine the dramatic arc of the game. My games usually follow a pattern: an expansion from the centre following one of the diagonal lines of double word scores into one corner and then another. The triples are particularly hard to reach and their use marks a milestone in the drama of the game, with the possibility of a major turn-around in the scoring. Once a corner is “full” there is a lull as a new phase in the game begins as play expands into another corner.

Wordscraper, by eliminating predefined boards, loses this sense of drama. Randomly generated boards don’t offer the same choices or the same progression. Big bonuses arrive far too haphazardly, upsetting the scoreboard without the same build-up of careful negotiation. The work of game design is being neglected.

Boards can of course be adjusted by players, and some players may enjoy the process of inventing their own boards, but I predict the majority of casual game players will be disappointed. The default generated boards are simply not fun to play on. It is one thing to provide a level-editor as an addition to your designed content; it is another thing to provide no designed content at all.

I think Wordscraper could be rescued if:

  1. They provided a small number of pre-designed boards which matched the quality of Scrabble’s careful layout, and
  2. They provided players with the ability to share boards so that the average player can enjoy the work of the more skilled and motivated board designers.

Even so, I doubt that the design space is really rich enough to support innovative player-designed content. Is there another interesting board layout that is sufficiently different to the Scrabble standard to make it worthwhile setting up and playing? If they added more parameters than just the placement of bonuses (board size? hexagonal tiles?), maybe, but as it stands I think it unlikely.

In homage to Manveer Heir, I’d like to draw two design lessons:

Lesson one: Level design is a important part of game design. A good mechanism can be ruined by careless level layout. Use random levels with caution.

Lesson two: Level-editors should be provided in addition to well-designed content, not as a replacement for it. Level editors are pointless if the design space is not big enough to create interestingly different levels.

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Published in: on August 4, 2008 at 3:33 am  Comments (9)  
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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I don’t have a facebook account, but I’ve been kind of following their story for a while. Putting a pre-designed “Scrabble” board would probably get them in trouble again, though I guess having some different quality boards would be okay, and still not be scrabble.

    From what I read, it has lots of loyal fans and everything, so it should still be popular; if it’s easy enough to replicate the original board, maybe newcomers will like it.

    By the way, great blog, got here some days ago through Teaching Game Design and subscribed :D

  2. You might find this game of interest:

    http://www.wildwords.us

    It eliminates the emphasis on memorizing short odd words and opens the game up to every word in English and much more strategy. It feels very different from Scrabble after you have played it a bit.

    It should be up on Facebook this Fall.

  3. […] This is a guest post by Malcolm Ryan, a Post-Doctoral Research Associate and Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The original version of this post is also available on his blog. […]

  4. Isn’t this also an opportunity to find some crazy board designs that put the idea of Scrabble on its head? Really change the game in a fundamental way?

    I just started a game with a board my friend designed. Every square has a 2W bonus. At first I thought it was ridiculous, but it’s actually quite interesting – suddenly, the goal is to build increasingly long words; the point values mean little.

    It made me wish I were back in Game Design class, so that my professor would assign a cool assignment to make a Wordscraper board and do a write-up as to its playability and game mechanics. :)

  5. Sam, Yes absolutely. And if I was teaching Game Design this session I would do exactly that. But is your casual Facebook scrabble player going to be interested?

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  9. This is interesting. I’ve been thinking of using genetic algorithms to evolve good wordscraper board designs according to certain design criteria. Its a fascinating programming project with more than a little creativity to it. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on what would make a wordscraper board into a good design.


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