TWO WORD GAMES (by Amabel Holland)

Mary Russell

We go to thrift stores fairly often. Ostensibly, I'm there to look for clothes. Goodness knows I need more than the three outfits I've managed to cobble together. So I look at the blouses, the cardigans, the hats, looking for something that (a) is appealing and (b) is in my size. So far, I haven't actually managed to find anything that ticks off both of those boxes, but hope springs eternal.

I've yet to leave any of these stores with any additions to my wardrobe, but I have left with new additions to our board game shelf. This is a pretty rare occurrence, because most of the games that pop up in the local thrift shops are trivia games and mass market stuff. Once in a blue moon, I'll find an old Avalon Hill game, though never any of the good ones (on a related note, anyone looking for a copy of Outdoor Survival?).

Recently I picked up a couple of word games that I had never heard of. Now, word games lost their luster a good long while ago. I haven't played either of them, and I don't think I ever will play either of them. I don't really think either would be all that compelling or satisfying, certainly not to modern sensibilities.

But I thought both were really interesting in terms of physical production, embodying the notion of a board game's creator as an "inventor" rather than a "designer". Both games utilize a set of specialty six-sided dice, with each face bearing different letters.

The first of the two games is Duplicate Ad-Lib Crossword Cubes. Each player has a set of thirteen letter dice and a hinged tray in which to secretly roll them. You jot down what cubes you have to ensure there's no cheating, and then you arrange them inside your tray into a crossword pattern. That's the Crossword Cubes part, and I suppose it's also the Ad-Lib part. But what about the Duplicate part? When you're done copying your letters and jotting down your score, the players swap trays, challenging them to do better with the same letters.

Before you swap, you close the tray and shake it, so as to prevent your opponent from knowing what your puzzle was. And you're probably thinking, wouldn't that change the facing of the dice? Certainly that's the first thing that sprung to my mind. But it's pretty snug in those trays. There's enough room to jostle the dice, and to shake away all traces of your solution, but not enough where the dice can ever actually get rolled. And so you'll be handing your opponent the same letters.

It's an absurdly simple gimmick. I'm trying to imagine the circumstances of the game's creation. Did they start with the problem – how do you give your opponent the same letters without them seeing your puzzle? – and search for a cheap solution? Or did someone happen to have some dice in a tight box, shake them, and notice that the facing didn't change? "There has to be a way we can use this…"

To me, either origin story is plausible. Whereas the other word game I picked up, Razzle, feels a lot more intentional. It's an impressive hunk of plastic. A rectangle slides back and forth between two end zones – one for each player – and within the rectangle sits an assortment of letter dice. The first person to make a word with the letters pushes the rectangle a step forward.

When you push it, the dice are "rolled" by the grooves between spaces. These grooves aren't uniform, so passing over different spaces will alter the dice in different ways. The players push it back and forth until you slam it against your opponent's end zone. Then you score a point, reset, and go again, until one player hits five points – or ten, if you want a longer game.

I can't imagine playing it that long, even as a lark. It feels like it would outwear its welcome after the first couple of rounds, but again, I'm not really concerned with that. Neither of these games feel particularly interesting as games – as rules, as play experiences, as ideas – but as games – as objects, as toys, as things designed to exist in physical space and interact with the laws of physics. Outside of dexterity games, which I mostly despise, and junk like Flushing Frenzy, which I find repulsive, it doesn't feel like that's a space that folks really work in anymore.

And, you know, I'm not sure if it's a space that has all that much room for compelling games (rules, experiences, ideas). Certainly not the games that I would find compelling – games that have something "serious" to say or that explore interesting social dynamics. The gimmick – the object, the toy, its physicality – is so central, has to be so central (otherwise, why is it there?), that it crowds out everything else.


  • I also found Razzle at a thrift store at one time. It played really well (and I loved the gimmick). But its real-time aspect meant that one player won almost every single point. Every single time. Because they were just faster at making words than the other player. Still — what a cool idea.

    Adam Sequoyah

  • Recently in a used book store I also saw a copy of AH’s Outdoor Survival. I didn’t buy it. The good ones are increasingly difficult to find in thrift stores.

    John Theissen

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