Peter Roizen has a game. It's called WildWords. He made it himself, and he has hand-selected every element of the game, from the unusually high quality tiles and tile trays to the slightly cheesy graphics and design. This is a phrase you don't often hear: Independent board game. If you're ready for a more "thinking-man's" version of Scrabble, Roizen's WildWords might be just what you need.
A man on a mission, Roizen has a beef with Scrabble. Mainly, Scrabble's limited "blank letter" tile and its controversial Official Scrabble Dictionary
are the roots of he problem as Roizen sees it. These combine to limit the Scrabble player's vocabulary to short phrases and obscure words such as "souk" (an Arabian word for an open air market) and "aalii" (a small Hawaiian tree with hard dark wood).
Obviously born from many hours spent with Scrabble, WildWords looks very much like its predecessor on the surface. Players take turns placing letter tiles on a grid peppered with special spaces. Each letter has a point value, and the different spaces on the board might increase or decrease the letter or total word score. The goal is to play many letters at a time, accumulate lots of point bonuses, and get the highest score.
The first difference anyone notices looking at a WildWords game in play is the asterisk (*) or "wild card" tile. These wild cards can stand in for any single letter or any sequence of letters. For example, the world "game" could be spelled "g*me" or "g*e" or any number of other ways. This single change in the game makes a world of difference.
WildWords allows players to fully flex their vocabularies. Large scientific or technical terms become incredibly valuable, as well as a great working knowledge of word roots, suffixes and prefixes. In short, the more you've read, the better you'll do. The new play possibilities built into this alteration make WildWords a significantly different experience from Scrabble.
Playing with the wild cards makes the game more strategic. When a player lays down a sequences of letters, she does not have to tell her opponents what the word is. Thus, the other players must decide whether they believe the word is correct or a bluff. If a player challenges a word, then the person who placed the letters must say and spell the word, which is then looked up in a previously agreed-upon dictionary. If the word is legitimate, the challenging player loses points, if not, then the bluffer suffers the consequences.
Players can agree upon any dictionary, which encourages players to experiment with themed games (using only the medical dictionary or a foreign dictionary, for example). This also illustrates the somewhat activist feeling that WildWords embraces. In the gameplay, there is the slightly edgy, combative challenge/bluff mechanic, which brings a certain amount of obfuscation (ob*s*ion) into the game.
Once a wild card has been played, another player may use it in a word as whatever letter or letters she desires. Thus, the possibilities for big points combos grows exponentially as players fill in the board. Often the decision a player must make is not so much "what word to spell? as "which word would score the highest?"
It's understandable if my descriptions here are not entirely convincing. On a certain level one must play WildWords to understand WildWords. I sympathize with those who wonder whether a game modification of Scrabble is worth the $29.95. I sympathize because I felt the same way until I checked out the WildWords website.
Roizen has done what the best game developers do: He displays a great love of his game, and a clear understanding of what makes it enjoyable. His sometimes wacky approach to dramatizing WildWords makes the WildWords site worth reading. He explains the gameplay in an imagined WildWords match between George Bush and John Kerry
. In the News section he includes a faux article about using the Official Scrabble Dictionary
as fuel for pre-game bonfires. He posted a photo of himself wearing an oversized asterisk tile as a necklace posing with cheerleaders for the San Francisco 49'ers.
And WildWords is a coup. As anyone who has seen Word Wars
knows, Scrabble players are not building vocabulary. Scrabble is a game of numbers and obscure small words. From Roizen's point of view, Scrabble is also an over-regulated safe-zone where the only legitimate words exist in the official reference. WildWords throws the doors open to the full breadth of your vocabulary, and while it could undoubtedly be approached as an exercise in cut-throat memory and strategy, it is also rewarding as a word game for regular folks.
WildWords also has the benefit of connecting with the "tech" generation because of the use of wild cards in our day to day lives. Many computer science students will get a kick out of using the asterisk in a Scrabble-like game, which also lends it a bit of a retro-cool geek chic appeal.
Like any good indy game, WildWords offers a demo. There is an electronic version available for free from the WildWords website
. The Free Internet Version of WildWords allows you to place words in a free-practice mode, as well as to play against a friend online. There is no matchmaking component, so you'll have to manually enter your opponent's IP address, but the website provides clear instructions that should work for most users.
Overall, WildWords is more than just a Scrabble clone, and it provides some excellent gameplay. Equal parts intellectual, strategic, and cut-throat, WildWords is a remarkable achievement, and it's flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of players. If you're looking for something to swap out with Cranium on family game nights, WildWords is a great candidate. If you know a Scrabble fan, do them a favor and turn them on to WildWords. And if you love word games, you've got to check this out.