Thursday, December 20, 2007

Word game as a mechanic?

Word games are popular among certain types of people, and are generally maligned by others... likely the people who enjoy word games are people who can spell and have a reasonable vocabulary while those opposed can't or don't.

I happen to have a reasonable vocabulary, and I can spell alright, so I'm not frightened off by word games. I'll play Scrabble, Boggle, Upwords, Anagrams, Buyword, Quiddler, Palabra, etc. anytime anyone wants to... which seems to be almost never. My mom used to go to a Scrabble club, and sometimes I'd go with her - those little old lady's were really good, having memorized 2 and 3 letter word lists, tons of "vowel dumps," and words containing the letter 'Q' (with or without a 'U'). I couldn't match them in word knowledge, but I could stay competitive through tactical tile placement for higher scores (triple letter score on a 'J', going 2 directions for example). Also, they let me cheat sometimes and use their Scrabble dictionary computer thingies.

My friend Gil made a word game called Prolix which is interesting because rather than having to use only the letters you have, you can use whatever word you want and you get rewarded for using the letters on the board. It also has neat gamery stuff like variable point values for the tiles, so there's some incentive to use some of them over others for a better score, and sometimes there's actually incentive not to use certain tiles because it would make them more valuable to the next player. I like Prolix a lot, but it's still a word game, and word games seem to share at least one trait - they're about making words for the sake of making words. You just make words and score points.

Actually, Buyword is a little different. In that game you're trying to buy-low-sell-high, buying letters and selling words, but it still feels like words for words' sake.

I think I'd like to see a different type of word game. One where the word building - which is really just fancy set collection - is a mechanic, but not the end goal. Here are some things I'd like to see in this new type of word game:

  • With word building as a mechanic, someone with good vocabulary and spelling skills should be able to do well based on that
  • There should be tactical play such that a player without a good vocabulary or spelling skills could do well another way.
  • Obviously a player with both language and tactical placement skills should excel at this game.
  • The game should have a point that's not simply "make words to score points." Rather there's some game (or theme) goal, and the way you go about it involves word building as a mechanic.

I've been discussing and considering the possibility of a game which is sort of a marriage of Scrabble and Ticket to Ride or Railroad Tycoon... originally suggested by Doho123 in the BGDF chat room, probably as a joke. At first I was also joking, but the more I think about it, the more different ways I could see a train game with word building as a central mechanic working, and maybe being fun and interesting. If Doho and I can get it to work, I'm sure you'll hear more about it here or at Meeplespeak.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hear what you're saying, Seth! I intentionally didn't theme Prolix; it would have been a distraction. I think that's the problem with theming most word games, because getting arbitrary points for words is quite difficult to theme well.

I'll give you two examples I've never played. Coincidentally, they're both designed or co-designed by James Ernest, and they both feature insanity as central themes...

In Escape From Elba, everyone is playing Napoleon (or someone claiming to be him), and trying to escape from an insane asylum. You draw letter cards throughout the game, and you can steal these cards from NPCs or other players. Once you can spell a word specified on the "escape list" (like ELBA), you win.

Unspeakable Words doesn't have a theme so much as a setting. It's a Cthulhu-themed word game, where the high-scoring words tend to drive you insane.

When you come up with a word, you must roll a d20. If you roll lower than the value of the word (likely with a good word), you go a little more insane (nice touch: the points of a letter is determined by the number of angles it has, from 0 for S to 5 for A and beyond).

You drop out of the game if you lose five sanity points. Another nice touch: Once you're down to one sanity point and the men in the white coats are presumably on their way to pick you up, you can play any combination of cards, seeing as you've just about become a raving lunatic.

It may be luck-based, but it's surprsingly thematic (especially considering that, from what I hear, they slapped the Cthulhu theme on late in the game's development!). I'm curious to try it.