Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Friday, February 01, 2008

A Scrabble Variant For People to Point Out the Weaknesses of

At last, I'm no longer wamble-cropped. So I'm heading into the city to (hopefully) meet with some friends at the AWP Conference (that's the Associated Writing Programs; it's where writers go to get university teaching jobs that probably aren't in New York City or anywhere else cool either).

However, before I go, I noticed a game idea I was going to post some time ago and I thought I'd send it up the flagpole.

It has long occurred to me that the main frustration with Scrabble is that the element of randomness accounts for about 40% of the gameplay. If your opponent gets both blanks and all the premium tiles while you draw vowel after vowel, even the best player will be hard pressed to battle to a win. But what if Scrabble were more like chess, with every option on the table, and almost no randomness at all?

So here's my game:

OPEN SCRABBLE

Each player gets fifty tiles, in the following distribution:

A-4
B-1
C-1
D-2
E-6
F-1
G-1
H-1
I-4
L-2
M-1
N-3
O-4
P-1
R-3
S-2
T-3
U-2
V-1
W-1
Y-1
blank-1

There are also a few special tiles, which in my ideal version would be a different color and double-sided:

Q/Z-1
J/X-1
G/K-1
A/I-1

Each of these can initially be played as either letter--but the moment a letter is chosen and played (using the Z on the Q/Z tile, e.g.), the opponent's unplayed tile MUST be the other letter. (So if you play the Z, your opponent is now holding the Q).

Players can play up to seven of their tiles in any turn. But for all practical purposes, they start with a rack of fifty tiles and can choose freely from any tile they still have. In every other respect, scoring and rules would be exactly the same. (At least for now.)

I'm curious to figure out how this would work, particuarly with high-level players. For any given Scrabble rack, there is almost always a single best play. But with all the tiles visible and available, I'm not sure whether there would still always be a best first play (ZANJERO!), or if it would start to become more like chess--"Oh, you're using the Zanjero Gambit? Let me just respond with the Zugzwang Defense." Obviously, the games would be quite a bit shorter, and the scores much higher, since there'd basically be bingoes every round. But this raises all kinds of questions. Would the first player always win? Should there be some inherent limitation (no bingoes on the first play) to limit this? Would there actually be different strategies, or would one obvious stereotyped game come to dominate (like the Fool's Mate) and make the entire game not worth playing on a high level?

I welcome comments, especially from any friends of mine who are among the top-ranked players in the United States...

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2 Comments:

OpenID qaqaq said...

Gee, I have this suspicious feeling you want me to comment.

I've seen a number of sensible Scrabble variants come up over the years. The one I thought was most intriguing was one by former National champion David Gibson: each player starts with one blank next to their rack. Each turn (until the blank is used used), the player draws six tiles, and can either decide to then put the blank on their rack, or draw a seventh tile and keep the blank in reserve. This obviously lessens some of the luck element in the game, and people I know who have played this way liked it. It hasn't really caught on, though.

The only Scrabble variants I know that have caught on have been Clabbers, speed Scrabble, and Volost (heh). Google {clabbers scrabble} or {volost scrabble} for descriptions.

I suspect that your version is computer-solvable given enough time and firepower, which naturally would lessen human interest. Still, it's an interesting idea, and I'd certainly be willing to try it out if the occasion arose.

2/02/2008 9:45 AM  
Anonymous Francis said...

I like the idea, but I think it might slow the game down a lot to have to decide among such a large set of letters for one's rack on each turn. The blank variant above seems like it has possibilities -- each player has the same tile distribution, but they draw randomly among all the tiles except the blank and the colored tiles. They draw to six tiles and have the option of picking up a special tile or drawing a seventh tile. If they draw a two-sided tile, they announce which side they're using and the other player must then use the other at some point in the game.

2/03/2008 1:40 AM  

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