Scrabble Flash (Hasbro: $30) is one of those pleasant surprises, particularly since it’s a high-tech take on an appealingly low-tech game. My normal attitude is: electronics are good, and boardgames are good, but let’s just keep them apart, shall we? I may like chocolate in my peanut butter, but I utterly HATE electronics in my boardgames.
Well, I may have to change that attitude if Scrabble Flash is an indication of things to come. Really, though: it’s not a board game: it’s a whole new concept, and it’s pretty impressive.
Scrabble Flash is a set of 5 “smart” tiles. Each is 2”x2” square, and about 3/4th of an inch thick. The body is white and red plastic, and the face is dominated by a screen with a little input button at the bottom. Each of these screens is a liquid crystal display (LCD), unlighted and capable of fairly simple graphics. When placed next to each other, the smart tiles communicate via infrared (IR) technology, and thus begins the magic.
Once these tiles are placed in a row and turned on, they collectively show the startup screen, which allows you to choose from one of 3 game types: Scrabble Flash, Scrabble Five-Letter Flash, and Scrabble Pass Flash.
Games begin with each tile displaying a single letter. When you put those tiles into order and they form a valid world, the screens blink, the game registers your score, and you can form the next word. The word database is based on the official Scrabble list, which means it choked on the word WODE. (It’s a variant spelling of “wood” and the Middle English word for “madness,” and I always get ticked off when it’s rejected. What’s the point of knowing Middle English if you can’t throw down WODE?)
The three games run different variations on this format. Flash is a solo game that gives you a selection of 5 letters and 60 seconds to form as many 3-, 4-, and 5-letter words as you can. Each word is worth 1 point, and each 5 letter word adds 5 seconds to the clock. At the end, the game tallies your actual score, and displays the maximum possible score, just to rub it in.
Five-Letter Flash is similar, but you’re only making a single 5-letter word with each set of tiles. When you find that word, the letters change and you have to make another 5-letter word. This one is pretty frustrating, because often there’s only a single 5-letter word to make from a given selection of tiles, and if you don’t get that word, you wind up just running down the clock.
Finally, there’s Scrabble Pass Flash, which is the only multiplayer game. In this one, you make your 5-letter word, then pass the tiles to the next player. Players are eliminated when they can’t form a word, and the last player standing is the winner. There seems to be no limit to the number of players who can participate.
All three games are playable with only 4 tiles, as well: simple leave off one tile when you begin. The whole thing actually feels a bit more like Boggle than Scrabble. (NOTE: I just noticed that it’s called “Boggle Flash” outside of the US and Canada, which tells us a bit about which brand is more popular in the rest of the world. Also: I’m pretty sure Mattel owns the name “Scrabble” outside of the US and Canada.)
Everything about this game just works, right down to the packaging. A small plastic box holds all 5 tiles, and the instructions are even properly pre-folded to fit in the bottom of this box. This allows you to chuck the bulky display packaging and makes the game nicely portable.
I’m a Scrabble nut. I always have a game going via Facebook, and it’s the most used App on my iTouch. I’m not one of those people who gets all bugged out whenever someone alters a classic game (or movie). The classic is still there: no one is taking it away from you. This just extends the idea a bit, and when the gameplay is this fresh and fun, I’m not sure how even the Scrabble purist can complain.
Look, I may make fun of Hasbro when they tart up classic games with utterly superfluous branding, but they've also created some very clever and appealing variants on their amazing roster of games. Of all that I have seen to date, this is the most interesting.