The Thing About Scrabble for the iPad

Take a 15 by 15 grid and add one hundred tiles, each with a letter (excepting two blanks), whose distribution and point values were determined by performing frequency analysis from sources including the New York Times. What you have is a 75-year old word game, Scrabble®, that is the world’s second-best selling board game after Monopoly®. It is estimated that one-third of American homes has a Scrabble board.

It’s been one of the best-selling on iOS devices, since it was introduced, maintaining a position usually within the top 50 best selling apps. And now it has received a major revamp.

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What Needed Updating?

In the early days of iPad apps, Scrabble was one of the best that money could buy. It wasn’t the cheapest, but it was one of the best.

With one version for the US and Canada (that one was red) and another for the UK and the rest of the world (that one was green), it was a fairly faithful reproduction of the real-world equivalent classic board game with which many of us will have grown up.

The main complaints with Scrabble (prior to the current version 3.5) was that the dictionary was unrealistic in that it censored certain words that are in the Official Scrabble Words (OSW) dictionary. This was the sort of failure that could determine a win or a loss and was a significant detraction to the app.

Scrabble multiplayer options

No Game Centre option for multiplayer and local wi-fi option removed.

The other main issue was the multiplayer option being wi-fi only with no Game Centre, online playing option and no Bluetooth option for those times when an internet connection wasn’t available — for instance, playing a friend on the train.

So What Is Good About Version 3.5?

The good news is that the dictionary has finally been updated to allow rude words. C’mon, we’re all grown-up around here, and playing an expletive in Scrabble is acceptable especially if you remember not to say it out loud.

A welcome addition, and rude words are now permitted -- as they are in the board game. Use of the dictionary is open to abuse during the game, though.

A welcome addition, and rude words are now permitted — as they are in the board game. Use of the dictionary is open to abuse during the game, though.

The price paid for a decent dictionary is, unfortunately, a heavy one. Major changes to both functionality and the interface are what you have traded.

Getting Started

After upgrading, the first launching of the new Scrabble soon becomes a tedious affair, where the app wants you to step through some nine screens that explains how the app works and which forces you to start a game. Version 3.4 forced you to follow this whole process, but you can skip out of this easily enough in version 3.5.

All the time the you are battling the app, to get out of this prescribed walk-through, there is the most awful music playing in the background.

The first screen presents a dialogue box asking you to update the app to get new features including HD modern graphics, online play with friends and the official Collins Scrabble wordlist. Remember, this is asking us to update the app to the version we have already updated, so flinging us back to the App Store only for the app store to get us to open the app once more is waste of time.

Second, the Scrabble board game is sold in some 29 language versions across 121 countries meaning that an estimated 150 million sets have been sold worldwide. Given the success of the iPad (Apple sold 22.9 million iPads in the fourth quarter of 2012 alone), there’s going to be a fair number of Scrabble-playing iPad owners, too. Any app that has a mandatory nine-screen walkthrough process, explaining how to use it, probably needs to undergo more user-experience testing before being released.

The Interface

The first thing that will strike you is the user interface. For me, in the UK, this is green and yellow. And blue. And orange. And grey. It’s been hit with the ugly stick and it has been hit hard!

It’s not just the colours that are difficult (yellow on green does not provide much contrast and may be problematic for people with some visual impairments), it is the visual aesthetic, too. Aesthetic is probably too grand a word for what is an app that contains icons that look like freely-available clip-art.

Scrabble board

The Scrabble board interface is an exercise in aesthetics. Specifically, how not to do it.

Dictionary

Whilst the addition of the Collins Scrabble wordlist is a welcome, and long-overdue, addition, the fact that it is permanently available for perusal is not really in the spirit of Scrabble. The official wordlist should only be consulted, in order to validate any word played, upon a challenge by another player.

The Teacher

This is a new feature, together with another amateur-looking icon, that comments on each word that you play. If you play a particular word, and it remains possible that you could have played a higher scoring word, the Teacher will make some glib comment and show you the higher scoring word that was possible at the time.

Fortunately, this feature can be turned off as it soon makes the transition from useful and educational to annoying and interruptive.

The Scrabble teacher

The teacher feature tells you the highest scoring word that you could have played with your tiles.

Multiplayer Gaming

Where this was an area that needed improving, where only Wi-Fi multiplayer existed in previous versions of the app, you now have the option of connecting with friends via Facebook, connecting via an online gaming service called Origin, or just playing random opponents.

It’s not progress, though. Whilst Scrabble does appear to connect to Game Center, it is not possible to choose your Game Center friends from within the app.

Furthermore, the ability to play someone on a local Wi-Fi network has been removed — a backward step in my opinion. Only one in six people on the planet is on Facebook and not everyone wants to play that way.

Store and Customisation

Currently, this icon gives you access to a choice of Modern, Classic or Legacy boards and Modern, Classic or Legacy tiles. I’m not clear on the difference between Classic and Legacy, but they look slightly different. My preference is modern tiles on a classic board but, that said, it looks nowhere as good as earlier versions of the Scrabble app.

So we have some customisation but nothing to buy. I can only imagine that EA is going to introduce some in-app purchasing options here, as is the trend with iOS gaming moving towards a freemium model.

Multiple Simultaneous Games

This is a useful change. It is now possible to play more than one game at a time. You can even create a game against a random online opponent, single player (you play against the iPad), Pass N’Play (physically pass your iPad between friends) or social-gaming over Facebook or Origin.

For online players, you can send them a nudge (after 48 hours) if they take too long to take their turn which gives them one day (24 hours) to play their go. If they don’t the game will go in your favour.

Stats

Giving you information on wins, draws and losses, the best word (highest scoring) that you have played over all of your games and your highest game score, each for local and online, it is clear that no time has been spent on making this part of the app look interesting.

Tell Us What You Really Think?

The graphics are out of keeping with a premium tablet, looking as though they’d be more at home on a Wii, or something older. The functionality has not been properly thought through and I doubt much time was spent on user-experience testing. If it was, then they must have ignored the feedback.

At $4.99 for US iPad owners and £5.99 for UK iPad owners, it is clear that EA is exploiting its customers when you consider that £5.99 would be more than nine US dollars. This app should really be priced at £2.99 in the UK. Don’t spend that on it though, as it won’t be money well spent.

All-in-all, this is an app that I am quite ready to delete from my iPad. The latest update has made it unplayable between myself and my office Scrabble nemesis …unless we resort to passing the iPad between us, which seems so low-tech that me may as well get out the classic board game. After all, 150 millions households can not be wrong!


Summary

The iPad app of the world's second-best selling word game receives a major revamp. In: a decent dictionary and half-baked online gaming. Out: Wi-fi gaming, aesthetics and UX.

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