02 May 2010

Scrabbling for territory

Courtesy of JSBlog's "out-takes" section, I recently discovered Ian Sansom's His own peak, a piece on John Fowles. This was one more link in a decades long conversation between JSBlog's Ray Girvan and myself about Fowles as an exemplar of disconnection between talent and humanity. The JSBlog description “great writer but egotistical git” pretty much summarises our area of agreement – most discussion concerning the exact balance between the two, how far they interpenetrate, to what degree one spoils the other, and so on. (We also both agree that The Aristos does Fowles no favours even on the great writer front.)

This is post is not about Fowles, however; he is simply the trigger for actually writing something which has hovered o the edge of my mind for at least a year. Towards the end of His own peak, Sansom quotes from Fowles' journal; his neighbours invite him over for a game of Scrabble, and he writes:

The poverty of minds that can spend such evenings playing such rubbish . . . The Ms are wonderfully slow, really; like human snails, hardly credible.”

Lovely man. Not.

I am one of those human snails who enjoy Scrabble – though less as a game to win or lose than a fascinating process with numerous interacting aspects to observe.

Scrabble is, at the top level, a competitive game in which chance (the letter tiles drawn, the words and dispositions already played) interact with skill, knowledge of vocabulary, and so on. At that level, it would be fun but wouldn't hold me or inspire me to extol its joys. More interestingly, it is also a game which can be played coöperatively, or in which instances of tacit and tactical coöperation can benefit otherwise competing players. More interestingly still, to me, are the forces which act upon a game to decide the patterns which evolve within the playing space.

It is a game governed by a web of rules which, in large part and unlike other tactics/strategy games, derive in one way or another from natural language. It is goal driven, with maximum point scores being the game target. It is (again unlike most tactics/strategy games) played on a contoured terrain, the scattered double or triple letter and word score squares acting as attractors for letter chains. It begins at the centre of the board but the most powerful attractors, the eight red squares, are placed around the edges.

The result of all this is that a Scrabble game in play is a variety of finite cellular automaton with its own evolutionary pattern. The ways in which the physical pattern evolves in the game space from empty board to final arrangement of one hundred tiles (or nearly so) are complex and numerous.

The most interesting period is often the middle of the game. In the two examples shown here at top left, just under half of the one hundred tiles have been played. The first example (45 tiles) started with the word "TWILL" and has evolved upward and downward while staying mainly in the left hand side of the board. The second (41 tiles), starting from the word "PART" in exactly the same left of centre board position, has instead raced out to two diagonally opposite corners.

In the second pair of illustrations on the right, a single game is shown at two stages. At two thirds of the way through (upper frame, 22 words and 67 tiles in) the "organism" (or perhaps "colony"?) is confined to the left half of its environment. Immediately afterwards, however, the next move ("GAMUT") broke out of that straightjacket and by the end of the game (lower frame, 32 words and 99 tiles) both upper and lower right hand corners are utilised although a blank space remains between them.


Geoff said...

How about, what about, Upwords ?

Ray Girvan said...

I like Scrabble, but I think its dynamics are badly designed for a multi-player situation. For instance, it can be extremely annoying for other players when there's one poorer player who keeps leaving high-score openings for the following player.

Felix said...

Geoff: we have an Upwords set, and also Red Letter, both of which offer interesting variations on and extensions of the operational frameworks within which my "automata" evolve. I haven't, however, explored the results; my regular playing partner strongly prefers Scrabble, so that's where all my observation takes place! :-)

Ray: since it's the patterns of play that fascinate me, I shall seek out a foursome which includes an inexperienced player! It sounds like a variant which would produce interesting new asymmetries ... if also some blood on the carpet :-)

Acerone said...

Very interesting that you should post this today. There have been recent discussions about the makers of Scrabble (Wadworths?) changing the rules to allow names to be include as a way of attracting younger players. This has been met with a massive amount of opposition from Scrabble purists which amuses me no end...

Anything that makes this damn game easier is alright with me!

I actually started trying to make an art work that incorporated the scrabble board and tiles that somehow read 'Playing Scrabble makes me feel inferior' - but it didnt get finished. Much in the same way as the games of Scrabble i have started and never finished...

Ray Girvan said...

The particular pattern I'm thinking of - just going on observation - is that experienced players have (at least) dual aims in a turn: a) to create scoring words and b) to avoid creating easily-exploited high-score openings for the next player. Inexperienced ones tend to think primarily of creating scoring words and less about what their turn allows others to do.

If the order of play is ABCDABCDABCD... and B is the inexperienced player, this strongly benefits C, while D and A fume.

Felix said...

Yes, I can see the pain for D and A ...

Personally, I play mainly in two contexts. First, and most often, in a two handed game with (the same) one other person. Second, occasionally, with a child and one or two others. In the first case, I'm primarily engrossed in the evolutionary process; in the second, by educational support concerns. As a result, I'm largely immune to the frustrations which would afflict me if the game itself was my interest.

Felix said...

AcerOne: I, too, have tried to produce artwork from the Scrabble board ... in my case, using the patterns. Sadly, nothing I do seems to visually echo the delight I get from the evolutions themselves!

On the business of names ... it seems to me that players are perfectly free to decide what they wish to allow .... there is nothing to stop purists playing on along the old rules while others incorporate proper nouns.

I can see, though, that opening up to names makes it difficult to decide arguments over validity ... if I put down "Fzwhqjk" on a triple word score square and swear blind that I once had a childhood friend with that name when I lived in darkest WhereIsItStan, how is anyone to contradict me? This is probably where the no names rule originally came from, I suppose.

There is already a problem with special knowledge ... I know the Greek alphabet, every letter of which is in the Scrabble Tournament Dictionary, but most people don't; is it fair for me to put down "upsilon"? The best solution to that is to have on the table the dictionary which is to be used for the game in question, and ensure that it is a dictionary with which all players feel comfortable (a Collins Gem pocket dictionary clips my wings back satisfactorily). I suppose a dictionary of names on the table solve the problem nicely (but would not please the toxic Mr Fowles, who regards the word "nice" an abomination...)

Zainab Talu said...

On the "upsilon" question, what counts is surely not the specifics of knowledge but relative levels. If I am playing against a chemist who can put down words like "buckyball", I have no compunction about playing "qanat". Against my parents, who are wise but had not formal education, it would be a very different matter.

Which is where your Collins Gem comes in, I suppose: it cuts down the available vocabulary to a subset where the widely read player has her or his wings clipped to the diameter (excuse mixed metaphor) of something resembling a common word pool.

Dr. C said...

I gave up on scrabble when I couldn't beat the app on my Palm. There is no disgrace like disgrace in solitude (on the other hand, I'm a tiger with Spider Solitaire.)