Commentary

Why Boggle is better than Scrabble

 

Slate

Scrabble is the default word game of nerdy American households: the vanilla ice cream of the rec room. But I speak today for a silent minority of word nerds: the Boggle fans. We stand in the shadow of the hegemony, sharpening our pencils and shaking our fists.

There is no national Boggle championship. Indeed, the very game of Boggle is in peril; companies have stopped manufacturing the game in its classic form. And so the time has come to make our case: Boggle is better than Scrabble. It’s just as challenging, more fun and deserving of respect.

Boggle is deceptively simple. The board consists of a grid of letters (4 by 4 or 5 by 5), and players have three minutes to find as many words as possible hidden in that grid. Words must snake through adjacent letters, running up, down, sideways, and diagonally across the board. At the end of each round, players share their lists and strike the words that were found by more than one person; you get points only for the words that you alone discovered. The longer the words, the more points.

As a living room game, Boggle has Scrabble beat. For one thing, it moves swiftly. Scrabble is a game of waiting— as your opponents take their turns, noodle their letters around in their racks, squint at the board, sigh, rearrange their letters once more. In Boggle, there is none of that. When your opponents are playing, you are playing, too. Three minutes race by, you compare your finds, and voila — the next round begins.

Boggle is also superior because luck plays no part. In Scrabble, the most brilliant competitor can get stuck with a handful of vowels, while a newbie notches the high-scoring Q. In Boggle, each player works with the same letters, so the game is a pure test of wits. Excited that you found “minion”? Well, I found that, too — and “cinnamon”!

Which brings me to another of Boggle’s virtues: It prizes long words rather than short ones. Sure, Scrabble has its “bingos,” the seven-letter words formed when you deploy all your tiles in one turn. But the best way to improve your Scrabble score is to memorize the list of 101 acceptable two-letter words, because knowing them allows you to play multiple words at once.

From a linguistic perspective, however, this is a terrible list of words, alternately mundane (“is,” “if,” “so,” “go”) and arcane (the dubious “za,” an abbreviation for pizza used by no one ever).

Boggle eliminates these pesky two-letter words altogether; standard editions call for a three-letter minimum. Much more fun, though, is to up the ante by playing with a four-, five-, or six-letter minimum. Then you can spend less time writing “tat,” “cat” and “fat” and more time looking for “fractal.”

What’s more, in Boggle, the best word wins. Your most intriguing and unusual discoveries will win you the admiration of your fellow Bogglers — and, if the words are long, extra points. In Scrabble, your objective is to put up a high score, not to dazzle your opponents.

Poet and Boggle fan Jenna Le puts it thus: “The points aren’t tallied until the very end of the game, after all play is over; this allows the player three minutes of freedom in which to focus wholly on the beauty of words rather than the tyranny of numbers.”

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