Off the Grid: Scrabble and the elusive letter "Q"

This week, Bonnie Ruberg contributes to Off the Grid, Scott Jon Siegel's column on gaming away from the television screen or monitor.

Scrabble is not a sexy game. When you think of Scrabble, what do you see? Family gatherings at your Aunt Mae's spent quibbling over proper nouns? Conventions of blue-haired grandmothers and smarty-pants girls in braces, all clutching their Scrabble dictionaries? Maybe Scrabble deserves its homely image, after all -- as board games go -- it's pretty dull-looking. No bright colors, no "some assembly required" three-dimensional terrain, not even the satisfaction of a tiny, silver boot for a game piece. Just words. Words, words, and more words.

Scrabble may look, sound, heck, possibly even smell dorky, but when have gamers ever been afraid of a little dork-dom? I say, embrace your inner word dork. Okay, maybe I'm just a word dork. But if Scott had asked me, instead of all those games-industry leaders, what my favorite analog game was a few weeks back, it definitely would have been Scrabble.

What's great about Scrabble is that it takes an everyday thing like language -- so banal we barely even think about it -- and turns it into a game mechanic. So we've got this alphabet but, in English, we use certain letters more than others. Boom, mechanic! Widely-used letters can be worth only a few points, whereas letters we rarely use can be worth more.

All of which lends itself to some serious strategy. I'm not just talking about that heart-breaking moment when you're staring at the letters U-A-R-T-E-R and someone else pulls the last Q from the bag. Between point values, number of tiles, and special rules -- triple letter score, double word score, use all your letters and get an extra fifty points -- Scrabble makes something as simple as spelling into a complex ordeal. If you're me, that ordeal usually involves your opponent tapping on his watch as you take fifteen minutes deciding to make P-U-P-P-Y.

Someone should really invent a game where you can take all the time you want to form words, and a little voice tells you how much you rock just for spelling. Oh wait, they already did!

Scrabble has been on my mind lately thanks to the recently-released, word-dork heaven known as Bookworm Adventures. Greater powers than I have hailed its awesome powers but one of the things that makes the game so cool (okay, the word "cool" is probably a logical impossibility in a column about Scrabble) is that it combines the mechanics of language with the mechanics of video games.

Spelling and RPG-style combat, together at last? It sounds absurd, but that's Bookworm Adventures, and it works like a charm. Just think about it. Like in Scrabble, longer words are better, but instead of points on a score pad now your SAT vocabulary earns you hit points against enemies. It's like a spelling bee with knives ... seriously, there are knives.

So the next time your Aunt Mae pulls out the Scrabble board, don't yawn an over-exaggerated yawn and pretend to fall asleep in her apple pie. Yes, it's dorky. But remember, you're not really forming words, you're eating away at the health hearts of your loved ones. And that's good, old-fashioned family fun.

Bonnie Ruberg is a writer, researcher, and all around fangirl with a big crush on games. Find more of her work at Terra Nova, Gamasutra, or her blog, Heroine Sheik. She can be reached at .

This article was originally published on Joystiq.