What’s better than Scrabble? Here’s my two QINTARS worth

You know: a QINTAR, that Albanian unit of currency, 1/100th of a lek … and one of the few Scrabble words that uses Q without a U.

Anyway, I like Scrabble well enough. As word guy, I kind of have to. Haven’t played in forever, but I recently enjoyed a viewing of “Word Wars,” the 2004 documentary about competitive Scrabble. This is great way to spend 80 minutes.

Like “The King of Kong,” the 2007 movie about video game addicts striving for the world’s best Donkey Kong score, “Word Wars” follows four Scrabble masters on the tournament circuit, documenting all the egoists, nutjobs and neurotics who devote themselves wholly to the pursuit of something that doesn’t pay very well.

It’s both a little inspiring and a little depressing. Are these the luckiest guys in the world because they excel at a game they love to play? Or are they driven by demons to pursue unattainable perfection?

Is passion a blessing, or is it a curse?

Well, either way, I know that many people who might otherwise enjoy a word game think of Scrabble like this:

"Well, This Just Really Sucks," T-Shirt from Threadless.com

For those people, I have an amazing solution: Clockwords, the world’s most awesome online word game. It’s more fun to play than read about, so I’ll make this quick.

Clockwords is Scrabble plus Space Invaders. Like Scrabble, you’re given a few letters to work with, but you can type any word using any letters. Use the letters you’ve been given, and you get bonuses. In the game, the words you type empower a machine that runs on language. Once you give it words, that machine fires upon little clockwork spiders that are invading your lab and stealing your stuff. Simple, right?

OK, but there’s an extra element that appeals to the tinkerer, the futzer, the optimizer in all of us. Because as you play, you earn the individual letters that appear randomly in those chambers next to the gun. To optimize the variety of letters you can use — and to get letters with special damage powers — you have to switch over to “The Boiler,” a steampunk chemistry set for words.

Here’s where the magic is. The field on the left is like the bag of tiles from Scrabble — these are the only letters you’ll be given in the game, and you can mix and match this array any way you like. Like Scrabble, certain letters have more power because they are harder to use. If you want a super-damaging Q or Z, you have to “transmute” sets of lower-power letters (combine them). If I were to transmute that Q and Z up there? They would turn into a low-level letter made of “brass,” like that E and A at the bottom. Brass letters explode and spread the damage. Jade letters (the lime-green L) provide greater oomph per letter.

This bit of tinkering is what makes the game for me. What letters do I want to see in my rack? What can I work with? Am I not getting enough easy letters? Do I have too many Ls or Us? Do I need more power letters, or do I have too many?

You can judge my success for yourself. Note that while I failed level 34, I totally killed with QUANTIFY. Man, 423 points? That’s smokin’. (Can you do better?)

3 Comments

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3 responses to “What’s better than Scrabble? Here’s my two QINTARS worth

  1. Ben Stephens

    If you haven’t read it, you should check out Stefan Fatsis’ book “Word Freak” — a sort of insider’s view of the pro-Scrabble circuit, with all its eccentrics and lunatics and prodigies and politics. Essentially, it’s like a much longer and more detailed look at the world depicted in the movie, written from the point of view of someone who is actually a participant (Fatsis becomes a ranked player over the course of the book) rather than an outsider.

    *bumps fist on chest* Hammacher Posse, near-north si-yeeeede!

    • jdrewscott

      Big ups to my Hammacher homies!

      As it happens, Fatsis is interviewed in this movie, and his book profiles many of the same people as “Word Wars” — including director Eric Chaikin, who is a tournament player himself.

      My favorite character is “G.I. Joel” … in his case, the G.I. stands for his gastrointestinal tract, which bubbles incessantly with nervous acid.

  2. Pingback: Dice are nice: The growth of gaming as revealed by Gen Con 2010 « The Retort

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