There’s an old saying, “the pitcher that goes too often to the well is broken at last,” which is commonly understood to mean that a good thing, repeated over and over, eventually stops working. For Electronic Arts, the iPod’s most prolific entertainment publisher, the well is classic board games. And in this case, the pitcher is Scrabble ($5), a 70-year-old title that — like EA’s Yahtzee, Mahjong, Sudoku and Royal Solitaire before it — hardly needs any introduction. [Updated July 23, 2008: We have added a new section to this March 4, 2008 review with information on the iPhone/iPod touch version of Scrabble, as well as updated rating information. Please see the end of this review for the new details.]
For the sake of completeness, we’ll go through it anyway. Scrabble sets a partially colored, 15×15 grid in front of one, two, three, or four players, giving each player a set of seven tiles marked with letters and numbers. A given tile’s letter is assigned a certain number of points—that’s the number—and each player’s goal is to make words with the tiles, racking up points for using more difficult letters and hitting more unreachable spots on the grid. There are 100 tiles in total, two left blank as wild cards, and the game ends when all of the tiles have been used or the players run out of words to make with the tiles they have left.
Whoever has the most points wins; truly big scores are achieved by combining rare 10-point letters such as Q or Z with marked “triple-word-score” squares on the grid, multiplying them to create decisive leads over competitors.
Electronic Arts has done a pretty good job of translating the core game mechanics to the iPod format. One person can play alone, against the computer, or versus three other human opponents in “pass and play” mode, and the game both features intuitive controls—tap the Click Wheel like an eight-direction pad to move on the grid—and automates several things that would otherwise require player effort, such as tallying scores, using a dictionary to check the validity of words, and re-shuffling the tiles on your rack to help you think of words. The good news is that EA’s built-in dictionary recognizes most words save proper nouns, which under Scrabble’s rules are not usable anyway, and the game generally assesses point tallies properly, not only racking up points for your word, but also adding ones for an adjacent word that was impacted by your use of tiles. A simple record-keeping system stores your best game, word, and turn scores, along with your win/loss/draw record, and the number of bingoes, where you use all seven letters at once.
Though the dictionary and point tallying will be acceptable to most players, Scrabble purists may not be completely satisfied with the way they work. In addition to intentionally omitting certain obscure or obscene words, as the game discloses, the dictionary sometimes didn’t pick up on ones we knew and subsequently verified with Dictionary.com to be legitimate. Consequently, we’d lose a triple-word-score opportunity without any ability to appeal—the sort of thing that serious Scrabble players find themselves whipping out dictionaries to remedy. We also noticed that, in situations of unusually high tile density where tiles were being laid down, the word checker sometimes appeared to be fixating on checking the wrong word rather than the one we’d laid down. On balance, these issues are not huge ones for casual players, and the dictionary clearly has plenty of brainiac-level words, but you’ll be happier with Scrabble if you go in with lowered expectations.
Since there’s no way to consult the game’s dictionary directly, we discovered the game’s linguistic limitations through a potentially game-changing feature called Best Word.
Selected by the player from a pop-up menu on the screen’s left side, Best Word lets the computer help you by searching its dictionary and the board for both the best possible use of your tiles and the optimal place to drop them on the grid. You can approve or disapprove of the choice, but unless you have a brilliant use of your current letters planned a move ahead, you’ll probably approve it and rack up the points. Using the tool is limited to four times per game per human opponent, which in our experience suffices to beat the computer pretty consistently on the middle of three difficulty settings; the computer has a better than average vocabulary on that setting, but a Best Word-caliber one on hard. We liked this feature, particularly because it can speed up a relatively slow-paced game with only a couple of button clicks, but wouldn’t have minded also having less aggressive, educational option such as a viewable dictionary or list of acceptable words to consult. That might not be part of Scrabble’s old rules, but then, neither is Best Word.
As with Yahtzee, Electronic Arts has done only a workmanlike job of reproducing the game for the iPod. The entire game is presented from a bird’s eye view of the grid, allowing you to see all of the tiles at once, though Scrabble also includes a no-frills zoom feature that hones in on part of the board if you want. Introductory screens highlight the game’s classically wood tiles, but in the actual game, the board and tiles look like higher-contrast untextured plastic, and once again, there aren’t any options to re-skin or glitz up the visuals. Similarly, there are two genres of music to choose from, “lounge” and “pop rock,” each with a couple of nothing special tracks that barely fit those descriptions, and repeat endlessly for as long as you continue to play the game.