By Doug Goldring on Fri, 05/20/2011
Otarine. Latrine. Ratline. Taurine. Reliant. What do all of these words have in common (besides being seven letters long)? Well, if you are a fan of the latest craze of crossword puzzle games, then these are all words you are going to want to commit to memory. Most of you are probably familiar with the classic board game, Scrabble. Up to four players can participate in a game, which starts with an assortment of lettered tiles being distributed to each player. The tiles are each assigned a number value, which denotes the number of points you will receive for using it to form a word. Earn points by strategically placing tiles on the board to form words. Earn even more points by creating a word on top of a bonus tile (double letter, triple letter, double word, or triple word).
Like many other areas of our modern day life, the game of Scrabble has now gone high tech, allowing you to play online against your friends. Not only that, though, the classic board game has inspired an entire genre of “copy cat” crossword puzzle games, som of which offer features which outshine even the original. Let's take a quick look at everything this genre has to offer.
Scrabble (Electronic Arts, $9.99) is the parochial school master of crossword games. It does not just know all the rules, it wrote all of the rules. This is the iPad version of the original classic board game which inspired the genre. Sadly, like anyone who has been in job just a little too long, Scrabble is all too familiar with the way things have always been done. As such, it rigidly adheres to the rules of the board game. There is no variation in the layout and design of the gameboard, gameplay, special tiles, or even the dictionary. This is the perfect replica of the original game. Still playing by the same rules it invented nearly half a century ago.
The news is not all bad for Scrabble, though. For one, I though Electronic Arts did a fantastic job recreating the original board. The graphics and animation are among the best in the genre. Additionally, like any old timer in a workplace filled with young turks, Scrabble fills the role of genre mentor quite ncely. It does this with the Teacher featuew, one of the best features in the entire genre. At the end of your turn, hit the Teacher button to see the best move you had available for that turn. While it can be a bit of a blow to your ego to look upon that 75 point move you did not make, it is a fantastic way to learn new playable words, and have a look at available moves for later in the game. The other nice thing about Scrabble is the live scoring. which will show you how many points your move will be worth before you enter it. This is a fantastic feature, which allows you to easily determine whether playing “YOST” on a double word score will give you enough points to overcome your opponent’s recent 53 point move.
Scrabble is also the only game in the genre which allows you to play while offline. Sure, you can choose to play online, and we will come back to that in a moment. If you cannot go online, however, then you can choose to play a solo practice game, or play against the computer. You can also play against a live opponent in Pass N’ Play Mode, or even activate Apple’s exclusive Party Mode, which allows you to connect your iPhone or iPod Touch to be used as the tile racks, freeing up the entire iPad to be the board. You can quickly and easily move your letter tiles between the iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad in order to take your turn. This really makes the game identical to the original, with you and three friends knocking knees as you huddle around the board clutching your secret cache of tiles. The only difference is that none of these tiles will get lost under the couch. That brings us back to the online version. The downside of Scrabble online is that it ties into your Facebook account, meaning you can only play online with your Facebook friends. The upside is that it ties into your Facebook account, meaning you can play against any of your Facebook friends, even if they do not have an iOS device with the Scrabble app loaded. This game ties right into Scrabble for Facebook, allowing you to play on your iPad while your opponent plays online through the Facebook interface. This is a fantastic way to expand the world of opponents available in your game.
Words With Friends (Zynga, $2.99 or free ad-based version) If Scrabble is the original Ten Commandments of the crossword game genre, Words With Friends is the New Testament. It brought along a critical new feature, which would forever popularize and change the genre. Of course, I am talking about the ability to play against any player anytime, anywhere. Whereas Scrabble limited you to playing online against your Facebook friends, Words With Friends opened things up considerably, allowing you to play against pretty much with an email address. Most importantly, Words With Friends is available for Android as well as iOS, making it a multiplatform delight.
Words With Friends popularized the genre, bringing it to the multiplatform masses (though I am still surprised Zynga has not advanced to Windows Phone or a simple online interface) The problem, though, is that the excitement of the ability to play online against really only carried this game so far. Once you reach that point, you quickly realize that it is the least feature rich entry in the genre. With too many other games since joining the fray, Words With Friends must add new features to the popular game if it hopes to remain anywhere near the top spot for long.
Abble Dabble (Coresoft, $2.99 or free ad-based version) Abble Dabbe picks up our narrative right where Words With Friends left off, leapfrogging past its online play, and adding a host of new features for a far more complete gameplay experience. To begin, Abble Dabble brings us the changeable game board background, with two different themes. New to the app store, there is also a vampire themed version of the game. Both versions, however, tie into the same games database. As such, I was really not sure why this needed to be a stand alone game, rather than an upgrade or in-app purchase to the original.
More importantly, though, are the changes Abble Dabble makes to the gameplay. This iteration of the genre brings the board to life. While the special tiles are all basically the same (DW, TW, DL, TL), they all seem to have grown legs, moving about the board at the end of each turn. This is a fantastic new addition, as it means you can wait for the special tiles to come to you, rather than building toward them. It also gives the opportunity for you to play a turn when the stars (or special tiles) have aligned, using multiple special tiles in one move, racking up hundreds of points.
The most important feature of the game, however, is the assistance it will give you along the way. Like Scrabble, Abble Dabble features live scoring as you play, so you can always tell how many points you will potentially score if you make a particular word. This is extremely helpful, as it really shows how a short word on a special tile can be far more effective than a longer word without a special tile. In addition, Abble Dabble takes the help one step further by showing whether your proposed move is a legitimate word. If the letters light up green, then your move is good to go. If they remain dark, then you will need to find an alternative. Frankly, now that I have played Abble Dabble for a few weeks, I get annoyed when I have to go back to Words With Friends and play a game without them.
War of Words (Wolf Studios, Free ($2.99 in-app purchase required to remove ads). If Scrabble is the parochial school master of this group, the perennial rule follower, then War of Words is the class clown, the rule breaker, sitting in the back of the room making fart jokes. This one takes all of those carefully crafted rules Hasbro created years ago when it designed the original Scrabble game, and simply ignores most of them. Sure, you still have to use tiles to create words, but the rest is unlike any crossword game you have played before.
For starters, let’s take a look at the board. Sure, you can stick with the original classic board, or you can go crazy and select one of the other 14 boards which come in a wide variety of different shapes and difficulty levels (as well as over a dozen backgrounds, including using your own custom picture). The fun does not stop there, though. Let’s take a look at the special spaces on the game board. Sure, there are the traditional spaces (2L, 3L, 2W, 3W) but look what else you see here. There are plenty of new tools, like the 5W, 5W, and the incredibly elusive 11L space. Not only are the gameboard spaces completely upgraded, but take a closer look at those tiles you have waiting to be played. In addition to the letter tiles, there are also quite a few special tiles, which can alter the course of the game. The special tiles include:
- Bomb Tiles, which destroy any tile it touches
- Barricade Tiles, which can block your opponent’s move
- Start Over Tile, which allows you to play a new word anywhere on the board
- Reverse Tile, which allows you to play a word backward
- Extra Turn Tile, which allows you to take two turns at once
- Multiplier Tiles, which allow to do double, triple, and even quintuple your score
- Land Mine Tiles, which hide on the board and destroys any letters your opponent places on that space
- Thief Tile, which steals points on the board from your opponent and places them on your tally.
Additionally, the Wildcard tile works a bit differently here than in other games. In other crossword games, you must assign a letter to the wildcard when you play it. Not so here. It will remain blank, allowing it to be played as multiple letters at once. Finally, like other games in the genre, War of Words will live score your game for you, and highlights the letters you are using when you are attempting to play a valid word.
Over the past couple of months, this has become one of teh fastest growing genres on the iPad, with thousands of new players signing up, and multiple new entries. What once was simply an overpriced version of a classic game has now become one of the fastest growing social networking fads (did I mention all of the games feature live chatting). Still, though, the genre has not grown nearly as quickly as a related genre, that of the crossword games cheats (or dictionaries) apps. These apps range from simple lists of words, to sophisticated apps which can analyze the game board and make recommendations. What really shocked me was how many of these cheat apps are available (for the record, I do not use them and will not be reviewing any specific apps). There are easily five times the number of cheat apps than actual crossword games in the iTunes App Store.
At the end of the day, the real question is which of these apps do I like to play the most. The answer to that is a little more complicated than it might appear. Like shopping for a new house, I like the bedroom in this one, the bathroom in that one, the Kitchen in another…and so on. So, rather than pick one app, I chose to create my own app. My app includes:
- Scrabble's polished graphics and animation
- The ability to play alone or against the computer (offline)
- True multiplatform connections, with versions for all platforms, including your desktop or Mac.
- Highlighting valid words as I play them
- Live scoring words before I complete my turn
- Massive gameplay options, so I can choose to modify the gameboard, bonus tiles, and the scoring spaces, using these options when I want to play a wild game, or turning them off for a more traditional game.
- Teacher feature, to help me learn the moves I should have made
Oh and I would also get rid of the free versions with ads. Let’s be honest, the ads are far more intrusive than is really necessary, and the only reason for this is to drive you to purchase the full game. If the ads were just a strip on the top or bottom of the screen, then that would be fine. The splash screen which pops up after every move is another story. Not only does that not make me want to purchase the app, but it also makes me want to delete the free version from my iPad altogether.
So, there you have it. I hope some of the developers are listening. Maybe some day, my Scrabble-Dabble’s War of The Words With Friends Crossword Extravaganza will actually hit the app store. Until then, I will keep on playing all four games and wishing each was more like one of the others.