Scrabble may be a simple game to learn to play, but it sure gets complicated as a business. For a start, Hasbro owns the rights in the USA and Canada and its arch-rival Mattel owns them for the rest of the world.
Now, adding further to the confusion are reports (for example here and here) that the rules are being changed to allow proper nouns. If you’re stuck with hard-to-play tiles you’ve now got Jay-Z and New Boyz to help you out.
The change, as many commentators have pointed out, is proof that the world is becoming a dumber place, where youngsters know the names of rappers instead of words such as adze (a woodworking tool) or calx (the residue from burning a metal), which previous generations used to great effect to clear troublesome tiles out of the racks or get a high-scoring tile onto a triple-scoring space on the board.
Except that it’s not true. The rules of Scrabble aren’t being changed.
What’s happening instead is a smart piece of brand extension by Mattel. Scrabble may be a great and loved brand, but the core game hasn’t changed for decades so most people who want to play have a set.
So Mattel UK spokesman Philip Nelkon told Randomly Noted that Mattel in the UK is planning to launch Scrabble Trickster, a souped up version of Scrabble in which players in some circumstances will be able to play proper nouns, steal tiles from rivals and even spell words backwards.
Standard Scrabble will continue to be sold, Nelkon says. “The rules of that are sacrosanct,” he stated. Scrabble Trickster is aimed at a new audience.
It’s not a new idea. Over recent years the Scrabble brand has been stretched and applied to games that aren’t standard Scrabble or even anything like it. Going by amazon.com sales rankings, the best-selling Scrabble game in the U.S. at present is Scrabble Slam, a $5.99 card game with no plastic tiles, no double word scores and indeed no board. However the Scrabble brand name gives it instant shelf space in retailers and credibility with buyers. The original Scrabble board game doesn’t feature in amazon.com’s top 100 games. However neither Hasbro or Mattel will be pleased to see that Bananagram, a US-designed wordmaking game that uses tiles but no gameboard, is selling far faster than any Scrabble spin-off. It shows that word games may have been around a long time but Scrabble can’t rest just on its brand.
Based on this writer’s own recent visits to Toys R Us, to see brand extension turned into a fine art it’s necessary to find the shelves selling Hasboro’s Monopoly. Our local toy superstore on the last visit had seven varieties of Monopoly, including Simpsons and Star Wars themes, upmarket versions with lots of electronics, a version where property values have been adjusted for inflation so you’re trying to keep track of huge-denomination bills, and another one with different rules where you don’t need to own all of a color set to start building. Yet Hasbro still makes the traditional version available – although they’ve included an optional twist in the rules using an extra die that can make the game quicker to play.
Of course the real money in all these classic games is going electronic. The success of Scrabble-alike Lexulous online shows that Scrabble has a real edge over many other games in that it’s easy to dip in and out of playing, making it ideal for mobile phones or playing in a 10-minute coffee break in the office. One question yet to be answered is whether spin-offs and electronic versions can survive if the original is deemed to have lost relevance or be played only by the non-digital generation. Mattel is obviously not keen to find out.