Find the best play in LZTYBRN

Wednesday, 18 August 2004 — 11:25am | Scrabble

I’ve watched the feature-length Pixar movies several times apiece, and just when I think I’ve caught everything, they continue to surprise me with the sheer depth of the artists’ care and attention to detail. Most of the hidden Easter eggs that I came across for the first time in this week’s pass are fairly common knowledge as far as obscure trivia goes, like how the bookshelf behind Woody when he delivers his “moving buddy” briefing in Toy Story sports several hardcovers entitled after Pixar’s pre-Toy Story shorts, Tin Toy and Knick Knack among them. But while watching A Bug’s Life again last night I noticed something that, as far as a quick flip through the major search engines and film sites I’ve found, nobody has made a point of catching before.

You know the scene where the circus bugs, freshly fired, are all having a few drinks in the empty Low Fat Lard can that serves as a bar? Listen carefully. In the background is the faint and familiar sound of a honkytonk piano playing “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. That, my friends, is the Pixar difference.

Hypothetical question for the experts: your opening rack is Al’s all-consonant license plate from Toy Story 2. How many tiles do you exchange, and which ones?

Back at the Scrabble tournament earlier this month I mentioned a new game board design that I procured for beta-testing purposes. Before I comment on the board itself, I want to go into a little bit of background, as the story of how this board came into being is an interesting one.

Right now the most upscale Scrabble set commercially available in North America is Hasbro’s Deluxe Edition. For all competitive purposes, it’s useless. If you go to a typical Scrabble tournament, everybody brings their own gear, and under optimal circumstances you would be hard-pressed to find anything from the Deluxe Edition box. Nationals, however, operates differently; out of logistic concerns, the tournament employs a standard board at every table fresh out of the box.

This raised the ire of many a player back at the 2002 Nationals in San Diego, as these boards are clearly inadequate for tournament play. The ridges around the individual letter spaces, designed to hold the tiles in place, don’t hold the tiles in place; turn the board, and they are in for a slip-slide ride. Spinning the board is also a problem. With about an inch-wide bevel around the square board, it is all too common for a corner to inadvertently knock over your opponent’s rack, should he place it too close. This is not an issue for casual players, because the Deluxe Edition comes with a storage ring that doubles as a turntable support, which raises the board high enough that toppling racks is not an issue. Tournament players cannot do the same, as it is against the rules. Yes, there is indeed a rule that says the board must be low enough so the number of tiles on your rack is visible to the other player, so one can spot overdraws or plan out-plays in the endgame.

The fallout of these complaints was that the National Scrabble Association talked to Hasbro and consulted on the design of a new tournament board to eliminate some of the problems with the Deluxe set. It was scheduled for a surprise unveiling as the board that would be used at this year’s Nationals in New Orleans.

That did not account for shipping delays en route to New Orleans from the manufacturers in China, and the boards arrived on the last day of the tournament.

Instead, a board was bestowed upon every winner of Round 30, the last game of the tournament aside from the Wright-Gibson final. The new design’s debut in tournament play was in the best-of-five final itself, and you can see a photo of it here as it looked after the deciding Game 3.

In the two weeks since the tournament I have had the opportunity to play a few casual games with the new board. While Victoria player Thana Kamabanonda covers pretty much what I think in this post, I have a few things to address.

The new design is a huge improvement on the Deluxe set. The ridges are high – perhaps too high, as I observed that it took longer than usual to slot the tiles into place when making a play. But once they are in, they stay in. The turning mechanism is stable and avoids raising the surface too high. The board is thin enough for easy transport in a tote bag, though the wooden framing adds some weight and makes it heavier than it looks. Gone is the outer bevel of the Deluxe Edition, though there is a wide margin on one side sporting the Scrabble logo and the tile count, so it does feel big enough for a square board that knocking racks over is still something to be cautious about.

The set comes with two wooden racks that match the frame, but these are just asking for trouble. They are too narrow and too steep, and tiles look like they might fall off at any moment. At Nationals a lot of people will bring their own racks anyway, but if Hasbro is actually planning to sell this thing, they need better racks now.

I am unsure as to the look of the board – specifically, how the plastic surface is the dull grey of a Civil War ironclad. Let’s be honest: it’s ugly, and it doesn’t match the frame. Aesthetically, it looks unfinished. Now, in the context of a game, this does not matter so much, and the fact that the background is as dull as it is actually evades excessive glare and other distractions. But if Hasbro wants to send this to store shelves, it is in serious need of colour coordination.

I still prefer my personal board, a circular wooden one with a green marble-pattern finish made by Calgary player Ross Stevenson, which I keep in a padded Sabian cymbal case. Round boards are an indispensible comfort once you play with them frequently, though they are a bit difficult to lug around. Also, if Hasbro wants to sell a line of boards geared towards competitive types, they might as well make it a complete out-of-the-box experience. Right now, the woodcarved tiles in every Scrabble set on the market are against tournament regulations, because the grooved surfaces are an invitation to cheat. The tile bags are also poorly made; mine ripped at the seams not long ago, but I replaced it with a more spacious flock bag with a cylindrical bottom, far less prone to wear and tear. If you are going to sell a tournament board, sell it with flat plastic tournament tiles, stable racks and a better bag. Omitting the clock I can understand, as a standard digital timer like the SamTimer or Adjudicator is by far the most expensive part of a complete tournament-ready Scrabble set, but everything else needs to be there. There’s no point in targeting competitive players if after buying the set, they still have to run over to Word Gear and replace half their equipment.

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