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Review: Bananagrams is addicting without the clicking


Perhaps you've seen them, in Word Wars or another Scrabble movie; people who are a wee bit obsessive about their word games. For the iPhone-carrying among them, there is the official Scrabble app or Words With Friends. For people who like a little more variety in their word game apps, there are a hundred other options. Today, we look at one of the better ones, Bananagrams [$.99], which is quickly developing a fanatic player base similar to the Scrabble fans.

In bookstores, libraries, and cafes around the world, people are playing Bananagrams face to face. There is also an online version through Facebook. While Bananagrams shares a lot of gameplay with Scrabble, it's really much more similar to a less famous game called Pick Two!, which was released in 1993, and to the homebrew game of Speed Scrabble. Since Bananagrams hit it big a few years ago, Parker Brothers has responded with the Scrabble Apple, and the Bananagrams company also released Pairs in Pears. There was also an official Bananagrams tie-in book. As we said, there are a lot of word game freaks fans who like to build crosswords competitively. If you're interested in ways to play a quick game like this on the iPhone, read on to see what all the fuss is about.

Gallery: Bananagrams | 42 Photos

The Game

In the original Bananagrams, players take the 144 letter tiles and put them face down in the center of the table. This is called the "bunch." Each player gets a set number of tiles (depending on the number of players) and tries to combine them into their own crossword grid. Once a player has gone through his or her personal pile, they say "peel" and take a tile. Everyone else also needs to take a tile. If you're fast enough to be the one who, more often than not, says peel, then you won't feel the pressure of all those new tiles building up.

If a player has a tile he or she can't use, they can turn it in for three new tiles. Once the bunch is exhausted, the first person to use all their tiles wins, as long as all the words they put down are legal (the rules here are similar to Scrabble – proper nouns are not OK, words in the dictionary are). The physical game comes with a few variants to make playing even quicker or for solo play, but that's all there really is to it. It's the simplicity of the game that appeals to so many people, and most of that energy and easy gameplay has made it into the iPhone.

The App

Theoretically, a Bananagrams app should be easy to implement. For the most part, the transition worked well, but this is not everything the physical game is in digital form. For one thing, the number of tiles is decreased to either 36 or 72 in the solo game. Multiplayer online games are similarly shortened.

Still, the basics are here. Your personal tile pile is at the top of the scree, and you can zoom in and out to view your ever-expanding crossword arrangement. Zoom out too far and the tiles are a little hard to touch directly, but mostly (mostly) things work well.

When playing alone, with the timer running, there is a small but not exactly pressing feeling that you need to hurry. Thus, the annoying ways that the tiles don't always move as you want them to isn't a big deal. You can just try touching the tile again. When you're playing online, though, the stuttering input is terribly frustrating because now you're playing against people, and a bit of lazy programming means you're losing. Remember all of those obsessive word gamers we talked about earlier? They're busy on the online version of Bananagrams, and they're tough to beat. Of course, since everyone has the same app version, everyone's dealing with the nonsense.

For example, we were never able to get the "move a bunch of tiles at once" feature to work correctly. We accidentally triggered it a few times, but still don't know how. Judging by the comments in the iTunes store, we're not the only ones. The instructions say to just "touch an open space then drag a lasso around a set of tiles." Good luck with that. We also had trouble spending our "banana chips" (earned during play) for new tile and board designs.

The way you play Bananagrams means that there is no pass-n-play option on the iPhone app. Luckily, games against online opponents are easy to jump into – usually requiring just a few minutes wait while the current game ends and a new one starts. If someone drops out of the game, the rest of the players just keep on going. Since each game only takes a few minutes, even if everyone drops out, it doesn't feel like a big loss if you need to restart once or twice.

On the plus side, the overall graphics are pretty sweet and we didn't have any weird dictionary issues. Long-time players may have discovered perfectly good words that don't show up as legal targets, but our initial impression is that the dictionary is solid. We didn't like how a short tropical bit of steel drum music plays when the app starts, then the game is totally silent – and your iTunes music cannot play through it. Grrrr. There's also no way to save your solo-game in progress.

The app has previously cost $4.99, so the current sale price is a bargain. Taking into consideration the app's bugs with the fun, competitive gameplay, the $1 tag is pretty reasonable. One final complaint: the screen and tiles are pretty small. They work, but we would like to see an iPad-specific update that gives us more room to play – maybe even with room for two players to compete head-to-head with the iPad between them. We'd peel that. However, considering that the game was released in September and there have been no updates since, we don't really expect an iPad version, or for things on the iPhone to get better any time soon.

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