Tuesday, August 14, 2012

You’ll have had your T

P1100615My time as sleeper agent is over. I’ve just been activated by a single scrabble tile arriving in the mail today.

OK that’s a fib, but the thought of having a single letter mailed to me immediately evoked memories of my childhood Friday-night TV favourite The New Avengers. While they don’t use Scrabble tiles in this episode, it’s exactly the sort of story device that they used throughout their rather camp tales of international intrigue. Reminding myself of them by watching a 1977 episode featuring “A small town in France” , I can vouch for the streetscapes being unaltered twenty-five years later albeit with fewer Russian soldiers running around the hillsides and no Joanna Lumley running around in brown dungarees.

In my case the single tile, letter T, arrived to correct an eBay purchase of two complete sets of matching English scrabble tiles. I counted out the tiles from the order to ensure they matched the correct letter distribution, which differs from language to language. I informed the vendor who sent on the missing piece, although judging from the envelope it had a rather torrid journey from the UK to France.

The resulting 204 tiles have been placed in a bag to play a boardless Scrabble variant referred to by my friend Peter as simply “The Game”. When Peter introduced this to me in London some years ago, he said that it had been invented by Leonard Bernstein or some other member of the Kennedy clique. I’ve done some more digging around and have identified it as Anagrams, which goes back to Victorian times, and as such predates Scrabble (1938) by a half century or so.
There are many Scrabble variants, played with and without a board. One of the closest to Anagrams is called GrabScrab or Attack Scrabble, which shares many of the same principles. Anagrams has been marketed commercially many times since 1890, including as Snatch in 2001 and as an online version called Anagram Thief!
P1100617Given its lengthy history and the commercial variations produced, especially with respect to letter distribution, there is no canonical version of the game. The US National Scrabble Association does have a set of rules for its own tournaments, the Wikipedia article describes another set, and BoardGameGeek.com some more.

I was fascinated by the discovery of the image of the Australian board game MillerAnagrams with its picture of physicist Julius Sumner Miller on the cover. I’ve mentioned him some time ago on the blog as I bumped into him now again during my undergraduate science degree. I can just imagine his distinctive voice, well-known to a generation of Australian children, explaining the rules of this game.

Peter’s house rules for the game are as follows:
  1. Each player takes a tile out of the bag and places it face up on the table in the POOL
  2. When a player reaches his turn and can make a word of four letters or more he may do so and lays that word in front of him.
  3. When a player forms a new word they get an extra turn. If they can make further words by drawing tiles they may continue to do so until they can not make another word. Unused letters go into the pool for subsequent play.
  4. A blank tile can stand in for any letter.
  5. Rather than building a new word, a player may elect to STEAL another player’s word by adding one or more letters to it. One may not create a word with the same root or stem, e.g. by adding –S, –ED, or –ING. Thus you could steal BEAR with a D to make BREAD. BEARD would also be acceptable (but would not under NSA rules which have the stricter requirement that the original letters cannot stay in the same order).
  6. You may “steal” one of your own words in the same way so as to make the word less stealable, or to keep a particular letter out of the pool.
  7. If you already have a word that incorporates a blank tile, you may later replace the blank with the actual letter it designated. The blank is then available for general use within the same game turn or else returned to the pool.
  8. If a newly created word is challenged (e.g. not a valid word) then the winner of the challenge gets an extra turn. If a word is unchallenged then it stands for the rest of the game.
  9. The first person to have 8 words is the winner.
P1100618Players generally line up the words they’ve formed so that they face the other players. I’ve played games with between two and four players, with a great deal of thieving words back and forth.

I think I’ve recorded all the rules as I’ve played them but will consult with Peter if he thinks I’ve overlooked or misconstrued something. I’ll make any edits obvious if I update what I’ve written above.

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