2012.07.25 Words With Friends is overheating my brain

Written by David Green.


Years ago, I read about chess players who carried on games with opponents from all around the world by mail. Each would set up a board, and the player having the first move would mail their play to the opponent. That player would move the appropriate piece on their own board, make his own move and mail it back. Months later, there would be a winner.

That’s kind of the approach behind Words With Friends, except technology allows you to play as fast as if you were in the same room  with your opponent, if you and they are using the application at the same time. If not, the game could still seemingly drag on forever. Plus, I’m sure many chess players consider the game to be beneath them. That’s their problem.

For those unfamiliar with the game, Words With Friends is quite similar to the Scrabble board game many of us grew up with. The game board, number of  letter tiles, and point values are the same. Your original seven tiles are randomly assigned to you and replaced as needed as you make words. The score is kept automatically for you.

I got started playing after my friend Hank challenged me to a game. He won our first game 489-212. He has a pretty good vocabulary for a car salesman. After a few games, I started to learn a few tricks.

Unlike Scrabble, which penalizes you for playing a word not allowed by the rules if challenged by an opponent, Words With Friends warns you that a word isn’t allowed before you send it to your opponent. There’s apparently no limit on the number of bad words you can submit, so, if you can’t find a real word, just make up arrangements of letters that could be words until one is accepted.

This feature has added a new group of “words” to those I already knew, even if many of them aren’t in the dictionary. Bract? Hoy? Smalts? Eery? Coted? Hoer? Doven? Mels? Curn? Cony? Feist? Kine? Kora? Lota? Kana? Even spell check on my computer is questioning most of these, but Words With Friends let them all through as acceptable.

Maybe even odder are some of the two and three-letter words that get the seal of approval. Hie? Vig? Neb? Aa? Ae? Gi? Oe? Ef? Hin? Za? Rin? Nu? Qi? Noh? Feh? Xu? Pe? Ret? Ka? Moa? Jow? Ere? Lin? It’s almost as if I’m playing in a foreign language. 

No wonder Hank kicked my butt so thoroughly at first. Eventually, I started to get the hang of the game and actually stayed even or slightly ahead of him in a recent match until he scored 99 points in successive turns to go ahead, then pull away to another win.

We’re currently playing two games at once and he’s ahead at this stage by 29 points in one game and 73 points in the other. Finally beating him will make my day, but I’m not holding my breath.

Since I’m playing several other people, I have managed to win a few games. I recently started playing a local woman and we’re almost evenly matched. In the two games we have going right now, she leads by 12 points in one and I’m up by a single point in the other. That’s more fun than embarrassing the other player and certainly more fun than getting embarrassed.

Plus, she plays quickly and is usually available, so we can get several moves in during my limited time at the library computer. Some of my playing friends aren’t around when I’m online, so we each make one move every day or two. It’s not unlike those chess players mailing their plays.

An entry in Wikipedia says that several marriages have occurred among people who met through the game’s feature that allows you to play a random opponent instead of a friend. You might even be matched against one of the celebrities who play the game. 

I’m trying to see if Alec Baldwin will play a game with me. He was in the news last December after getting kicked off an American Airlines flight in Los Angeles. He was having so much fun playing Words With Friends that he refused to shut off his iPad when requested by flight attendants.

Eventually, he was removed from the flight, an event he later spoofed on Saturday Night Live and a television commercial for the Capital One credit card. The more I think about it, though, I probably wouldn’t stand a chance against Baldwin. After all, he has a whole family of out-of-work actor brothers to help him make up words. I’d better stick to the opponents I know.

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