The origin of word games (and word game gamers) is tricky to pin down, and contrary to what you might think, didn’t begin with Scrabble , which will celebrate only its 65th birthday next year. As far as anyone can tell, the first known example of a word game is the appearance of an acrostic; a sort of code variation in which the opening letter, word, syllable or paragraph of a poem or other written material spells out a message of some sort, like . . . .
He wanted to greet the man
In a simple fashion
. . . where the first letter of each line spells out “Hi.” Anagrams are a form of acrostics, often used as memory devices, like the way music students learn the notes represented by lines in written music – Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (E, G, B, D, F) – or the spaces between those lines – FACE. Evidence of this type of word gaming dates back to the Roman Empire.
All this said, it is hard to underestimate the influence of Scrabble in the pantheon of modern word games. The population of games based on a random set of letters requiring players to form words using them has grown exponentially since 1948. Many of these are variations of Scrabble, while others take a different tack; Boggle, and Bananagrams, for example. Hangman, and its game show equivalent, Wheel of Fortune, are word games.
Into this literal alphabet soup, in the year 2011, comes the subject of today’s discourse, Dabble, a word game that blends word formation with letter tiles and a ticking clock. You draw 20 letter tiles from a bag and try in a sand-timer five minutes to form exactly five words, using each tile once to form a 2-letter, 3-letter, 4-letter, 5-letter and 6-letter word. It would be interesting to calculate the probability of being able to form five words from a randomly selected group of 20 tiles drawn from this game’s bag of 142. The bag also contains two blanks, two apostrophe’s and six Spanish letter tiles – two each of “rr” “ll” and the “n” with a mark over it, indicating pronunciation as “ny.” These six Spanish tiles come in a separate bag so you don’t have to search through the other 142 tiles before starting an English game (nice touch, by the way, automatically increasing its sales potential by a few countries).
Not sure how the designer or company (INI, LLC) came up with the letter distribution for this game. It has some obvious components – more “e”s than any other letter (16) and a total of 53 vowels (about 38% – 11 “a”s, 10 each of “i”s and “o”s, and six “u”s). Seems a little odd that there are more “n”s (9) than “t”s (8) or “s”s (6). There are eight “r”s, and six “l”s. Seems a little shy in the “m,” “p,” and “c” department (three each).
The apostrophe’s are a nice touch, and while they bear no point value (we’ll get to this in a minute), they do score double points for their use in any word, for either a round’s winner, or anybody else who’s managed to employ one. They also score points for a round’s winner, if another player has failed to use one in his/her display.
Point-wise, here’s how the actual game works. You could play this alone, drawing 20 tiles, turning over the timer and seeing if you could accomplish the five-word goal, but it’s designed primarily as a win-or-lose game, which utilizes points to determine winners and losers. Played by 2-4 players or teams, each tries to accomplish the goal in the five minutes allotted by the sand timer. You might opt to employ another device, like a watch timer. The sand timer that came with my review copy of the game had a moisture problem which led to a round of play that stretched beyond 10 minutes when the sand clogged (a problem common to a lot of plastic timers). Nobody noticed as we scrambled to form our words. I think it’s still ‘running.’
Anyway, off you go. You keep trying to formulate the five necessary words until the timer runs out. If someone has accomplished the objective, that person is deemed the round’s winner and he/she collects the points associated with all of the opponents’ unused tiles. If more than one player has accomplished the objective, they each score the points of everybody else’s unused tiles. If everybody accomplishes the objective (good luck with that), there are two suggested options: no one scores, or the player with highest score for any one word wins the round and gets the points for that word. Any ties encountered in this second option score points for each of the tied players, and no one else scores.
If no one has formulated five words in five minutes, all players can opt to turn in as many of their unused tiles as they wish, and replace them with new ones. The timer is re-started and the game (round) goes on. This continues until someone has formed the necessary five words and a round finishes. This will rarely continue beyond a third or fourth round, at least in my experience. You can opt to play it on a round-by-round basis or select a point total to be attained, like 250, which is suggested by the rules.
A notable phenomenon that occurs as this game progresses is a tendency to second-guess your early choices. You look at your array of 20 letters, and you get some quick ones – “Hi” for the two-letter word, “cat” for the three-letter, and something else for the four-letter word. You’ve got 11 tiles left and they have to form a 5-letter, and 6-letter word, and the second-guessing begins. You might ‘see’ a five-letter word for which you need an “i” and opt to take the “i” out of your “Hi” and use it, replacing the vowel in your two-letter word (to “Ha” or “Ho” or “He”). Or the opposite might happen. You see a six-letter word right away, and get it out there on your plastic tray, but as your five minutes are ticking away, you see various ways that you can use letters in the six-letter word elsewhere and think about starting all over (tick, tick, tick).
With normal random distribution, you’ll be looking at an array of 20 tiles, with about one of every three (that 38%) being a vowel. This gives you six or seven vowels for five words, which means you’re going to have to use at least two in one of the words, most likely either the five- or six-letter word. If your 20 tiles have more than seven or eight vowels, you’re in a little trouble right from the start, basically. You have to figure that three of your words will contain a single vowel. There are a number of four-letter words that have two (rhymers, like pain, lane, cane, rain, or cone, hone, moan, bone, etc.), but single-vowel four-letter words are much more common (drip, trip, slip, whip, what, herb, and on and on. . ). There are a lot of five- and six-letter words with two vowels, but they don’t leap as readily to mind as you’d think. I came up with ‘insist’ in one game, and in one of those second-guessing episodes, switched it at one point to ‘living’ (and then switched it back). The sheer number of five- and six-letter words utilizing two vowels is narrowed by the tiles at your disposal, of course. Everybody can think of a few, but how many times will the ones that leap to mind be available with the tiles you’ve drawn?
This is part of the fun of it. It’s a quick game, unless you opt for the multi-round point goals and the mechanic of being able to re-draw tiles when all players fail at the task, initially, is a good one. You find yourself praying that your opponents are having as difficult a time as you are making those 20 tiles fit into exactly five words. And then, of course, there’s the agony of decision-making as you select which of your remaining tiles to replace. Dumping the “x” would be a no-brainer, but should you keep the “i”? How many letters are you away from completing your five words? Should you dump a word you’ve already formed in hopes of getting a better array that will help you finish, or do you stick with what you have and hope to draw the one tile you need to finish. I replaced a single tile twice in one game, looking for an “e” that would finish it for me, crossing my fingers that each time the timer ran out, someone else wasn’t as close.
Dabble’s a worthwhile addition to your word game library, sufficiently different from any of the others on your shelf to warrant its inclusion. Simple rules, limited time frame (optional) and the component quality (letter tiles and word racks) is very good.
Dabble, is designed by George Weiss, and published by INI, LLC. It can be played by 2-4 players (or teams), with an age range beginning at 10. Younger players could play, provided there was some way to level the playing field, like reducing the number of words a younger player might have to complete with the same number of tiles. Depending on the choices you make regarding time length (point system, or simple, round-by-round play), it can be played in under an hour, or possibly more, if you set the point bar high. It’s gotten some, but not much attention on The Geek, and currently boasts a 7.43 average, based on 7 ratings; a 9, an 8, and five 7s. It retails for under $20.