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Subject: It doesn't suck (R) rss

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Matthew Harper
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I'm actually astonished that no-one has written a review on this before. There are literally hundreds of students in and around Gera, Germany, for whom my name will be inextricably associated with the Scrabble Card Game; and yet here on BGG no-one has anything to say about it.

This is the game that went everywhere with me for about five years - I always had a copy in my bag, and there was another in the school cupboard down in the teacher's room. I visit England only infrequently, but when I do, I usually end up in WHSmiths with a brand-new shrink-wrapped copy of this clutched in my mitts. I've even been sent on shopping missions by students who want an authentic English edition of their own (the German version has a different letter/value distribution). And advanced students who are teachers themselves have borrowed my set to use with their own students…

So, yes, I use Scrabble Card Game for educational purposes (more of that elsewhere - But I've also played it countless times on trains to and from work, using a table when available and a spare seat when not; and naturally I've played it at home. I don't actually own a copy of the original board game, mainly because nowadays, when I think of Scrabble, I think of this.

Basic differences from the board game

Whenever a game from one format is adapted into another format, there will inevitably be distinctive features which get lost in translation. Naturally enough, for board games the most obvious problem is the board, but luckily for Scrabble, there isn't that much going on top of the board which could prove difficult for a conversion. The basic game mechanics are the same: cards with letters are placed in a row to make a word; each letter has a numerical value reflecting the letter's distribution in the language, and these are added together to score the word. The next player places another word, using one or more of the letters already available.

And at that point the differences begin. The rules state that "only those words which have been created or modified on that turn should be left on the table." The problem is one of space: the cards are, well, card-sized, and not token-sized, and to play in the usual manner (in which all words remain on the board) becomes unwieldy. I did that the first time I played because I hadn't read the rules properly, putting four or five tables together; it actually proved much harder to see where words could go than in the usual board game.

The other main difference is the double letter, triple letter, double word, and triple word squares on the board. The solution to this was to produce cards with these qualities on them, and distribute them among the players. Now, if you have a double word card, you need only play it when placing your word to reap its benefits. However, the implementation of this feature differs greatly between what I will call the original edition of the card game, and the second edition.

The first edition

The problem with this edition was that it adhered too strictly to the convention of giving seven cards to a player. The double and triple word cards (I forget if double and triple letters were included) were simply shuffled into the letter cards and dealt out to the players. So receiving a double or triple word card was simply a matter of luck, and conceivably a player could play an entire game without receiving a single one. On the other hand, other players might receive four at a time; which sounds fine until you remember the maximum of seven cards per player; having four double word cards would mean that the player would have only three actual letters, and placing words would become enormously difficult. Actually achieving the grail of Scrabble games - a word composed of all seven letter cards - also became virtually impossible. I was pleased to find that this element of the game had been completely reworked for the second edition of the card game.

The second edition

In this edition, the fundamental problem with the rules has been changed: bonus cards are no longer shuffled into the pack, but formed their own pack. Every player now receives seven letter cards, and one bonus card; as bonus cards are used, they are immediately replenished, and so every play has an equal opportunity to increase the base value of their words. However, if every player has a bonus card, then all one bonus card does is effectively negate the effects of the others. To address this issue, the second edition introduced another type of bonus card, supplementary to the traditional double and triple word scores: the category card.

Category Cards
There are almost twice as many (13) of these in the second edition Scrabble Card Game as tradition double (5) and triple (2) word cards. Each card is has a lower and a bottom half, each of which contains a criterion and two modifiers, should that criterion be met. For example:

A category card wrote:
Ends with "T"
+5 -2

Contains 3
or more vowels
+13 -6
There are two normal rules here: firstly, if either of the criteria are met when a player places their own word, they can play the category card and receive the first bonus (the addition); if either of the criteria are met when another player places a word, then you may play the category card against them and the suffer the second bonus (the subtraction). A house rule included in the instructions suggests using both criteria, so that if both are met, both bonuses may be granted.

This opens up a fairly wide range of tactical possibilities; saving a good card until you can use it for yourself (particularly triple word cards); playing cards against other players as often as possible (probably the most successful tactic); choose to never play cards against opponents out of altruism; or only playing cards against the player in the lead. These are all elements missing from the original board game, but seem totally appropriate to a card game. And, in addition to the card game being faster than the original in any case (because of the narrower range of letters available on the table, thus reducing the time spend looking for the optimum placement), having to watch what your opponents play to see whether the criteria on your category card are met keeps everyone much more involved in the play and makes for a faster-paced game.

One little improvement…
Much of the Scrabble Card Game is customisable, and the instructions come with a few house rules ready supplied. Clearly there is room for plenty more. But the one rule I have always used is that rather than only words which have been added or modified remaining on the table (as quoted above), only words which have been used remain on the table. Any words which have not been used by the newest word are removed. Although this requires a larger table, it adds an extra level of complexity to the words and letters available while still keeping the playing area relatively small.

With the second edition, I think that the Scrabble Card Game is an excellent language-based card game, and not just because I've played it in the classroom a fair amount. I also think that it's an excellent conversion, which manages to capture what is characteristic about the original while adapting to it's new format admirably. To be sure, it will never replace the original in people's hearts, but as a portable version I think it's hard to beat. If you've only played the first edition, and came away wanting to like it but feeling disappointed, I would recommend that you give the second edition a chance.
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