Growing up equal parts voracious reader and student of capitalism and imperialism (Monopoly and Risk, respectively), you’d think a game like Scrabble, combining the fun times of a competitive board game with the trapping of lit’rature would be, well, up my alley.
As a kid, and well on up into my teen years, I loathed Scrabble. The mere mention of it as a contender for family game night rendered me vehemently opposed, eyes ablaze and jaw firmly set in an unequivocal veto. Well, mostly I just whined. But you get the point: the two of us didn’t mix, jive, or coagulate whatsoever.
[[image:090410_lexulous.jpg:Q’s without U’s are the bane of my existence.:center:0]]
I always assumed it was the game itself — which is a little odd, considering my aforementioned appetite for all things fiction. Turns out, that wasn’t it at all. Because, you see, I hate Scrabble, but I love Lexulous. If you’re unfamiliar, despair not — I was among your sorry ranks but a few weeks ago. Lexulous is, basically, free Scrabble for the Internets, written in Java and as competent as any of the simplistic gaming services offered by Yahoo! and, well, whoever else offers free Java games.
After playing Lexulous semi-regularly for several weeks, I had the opportunity to play real Scrabble last weekend. Assuming my tastes had merely matured and that my childhood hatred for the game had recently evaporated, I leaped into the game and found it exactly as dull as I always had. It’s not the game itself I dislike — it’s the ponderous pacing. Maybe Lightning Round Scrabble would’ve caught my attention years ago, but the whole board game setup just didn’t do it for me.
Two things make Lexulous an easy winner over Scrabble. The first is the way the timing system functions: when preparing a table, you can set the amount of time players begin the game with as well as the number of seconds they’re rewarded with for finishing a turn. This allows for considerable customization — my favorite way to play is to start with 3 or 4 minutes on the clock, but reward each turn completion with a 45 second bonus. It keeps the pace snappy and adds a new layer of strategy — do you search for that 20 point word now, or cash in a quick 6 pointer to save up your bonus time for when you’ll really need it later?
The second game-changer actually has a fairly radical impact on how you go about playing Lexulous. In real Scrabble, you’re relying 100% on your own vocabulary. Sure, you can try to fudge a word, but odds are your opponent will call you on it and rob you of those points you desperately needed for zixey. Lexulous also offers this option — in fact, it’s configurable enough to make it play like traditional Scrabble — but I’ve found it entirely too much fun the default way. Suddenly, it’s not about what you know. It’s about what you can learn. Placement strategy and creativity take on a larger role, and the game is no longer an exercise in flaunting your vocabulary. It’s about expanding it…or just having fun with it. (Protip: Drop a Xi on somebody to really enrage them.)
Delving into a random Lexulous lobby and squaring off against a stranger would probably be setting myself up for an alphabetic pounding. Thankfully, it’s easy enough to set up a table, invite a friend, and play around with the options to suit your fancy. The only major shortcoming is in how each game ends: if your clock runs out, it’s game over, and there seems to be no penalty (or bonus point distribution) taking into account how many tiles each player has left. That essentially places the fate of the endgame into the hands of a player-determined honor system, since it’s possible to get the lead, let your time expire, and still come out with the higher score. But hey, the game is free. It’s a drawback I can live with.