PuzzleNation Product Review: Word Domination

Gathering letters to spell words and gain points… it’s a game mechanic so familiar and traditional that it’s easy to take for granted these days. Whether you’re talking about the wooden tiles of Scrabble or the electronic tiles of Words With Friends, the mind-bending spin of Unspeakable Words or the three-dimensional challenge of Upwords, it’s a classic concept.

Word Domination builds on that concept by adding a new strategical element. As you spell words, you claim letters from a shared letter pool. It’s essentially a more aggressive form Boggle.

Each player assumes the identity of a James Bond-style villain, and each letter tile doubles as a prize or piece of loot that can be captured by a player.

The player then uses a letter tile drawn at random with some of the letters laid out in the play area to spell a word, temporarily capturing those letters. (Unlike Boggle, the letters in the word don’t need to be touching.)

For example, in the first round, Player 1 spells the word ODYSSEY, placing zeppelin tokens on each of the 7 letters in the world, including the O that the player added on their turn. Player 1 then draws a new random tile for the next round, and play moves to Player 2.

Player 2 spells the word FORGERY and places her zeppelin tokens. And since she used three letters that Player 1 had captured, she captures those letters and removes his zeppelin tokens from the board.

Let’s jump ahead slightly. Player 3 spells the word TESSERACT, stealing some captured letters from both Player 1 and Player 2, and that concludes the first round. When round 2 starts up, Player 1 spells the word DYNASTY and places his zeppelins.

And since the letters D and Y were already captured by Player 1 in the first round, capturing them a second time means Player 1 has stolen those letters from the game board, and claims them for himself.

Those letters are given to Player 1 to use for the rest of the game, and replaced with STOLEN tiles, which are worth points at the end of the game.

After six rounds of play, the player who has claimed the most territory (and earned the most points) wins the game.

Now, naturally there are wrinkles to add to the gameplay, like helping other players spell words in order to split the profits with them, arming yourself with certain rare letters and weaponizing them, and even utilizing special abilities only your character has access to.

Between these twists and the baseline gameplay, you have a rich and variable game experience that really allows a strategic player to shine when matched up against players that might have stronger vocabularies or better luck drawing letter tiles.

And the game aesthetic really adds to the playing experience. The idea of stealing letter treasures, claiming territory with little zeppelin tokens, and running amok as a film villain (complete with bizarre letter-based weapontry and a punny name) is the perfect mix of silly and clever, spicing up a solid game with enjoyable little quirks.

Word Domination balances luck, strategy, and vocabulary skills to create a game that feels familiar but keeps you on your toes. What a treat.

Word Domination is created by Jeff Beck and is available through Uproarious Games and select online retailers for $32.99.

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Scrabble-Rousers Change the Game with Shorter Words!

Whether we’re talking Scrabble, Words With Friends, or another word-forming game where points are king, there’s one abiding rule: bigger words are where it’s at.

They reach the bonus squares easier, they offer more slots for new letters in your rack, and there’s always the chance of scoring bonus points for using all your letters.

But as it turns out, bigger words are not the end-all be-all of Scrabble. Between computer analysis of scoring possibilities and the dedicated playtesting of champion-level Scrabblers from across the world, a sea change in gameplay is now underway.

Apparently, studying up on your 5-letter words is far more beneficial than shooting for 6- and 7-letter plays, since most of the bonus squares are four or five letters apart.

And slowly but surely, the formerly dominant North American and European players are losing ground to players from countries like Nigeria, culminating in a win last year for Nigerian Wellington Jighere at the World Scrabble Championship in Australia.

From The Wall Street Journal:

It was the crowning achievement for a nation that boasts more top-200 Scrabble players than any other country, including the U.K., Nigeria’s former colonizer and one of the board game’s legacy powers.

“In other countries they see it as a game,” said Mr. Jighere, now a borderline celebrity and talent scout for one of the world’s few government-backed national programs. “Nigeria is one of the countries where Scrabble is seen as a sport.”

[Image courtesy of The Wall Street Journal and Getty Images.]

And those sportsmen have exploited the West’s reliance on long words by strategically employing smaller words and being more judicious in their use of the letters in their racks.

Whereas Western players would often go for the maximum score every round (using every tile they can), they leave themselves open to bad draws of replacement tiles, which can hamper their efforts in following rounds.

This is considered poor rack management by players like the champion-level Nigerians:

Now, his [Jighere’s] method is changing the game. Champions have studied his defensive style, including his decision to put REPAIR on an S during the final, for 30 points. He could have earned 86, including a 50-point bingo, spelling PEREIRAS. Instead, Mr. Jighere kept an “e” for the next round.

“It’s this sort of strategic thinking that the Nigerians are embracing,” said American Chris Lipe, runner up in the 2014 world championship, who called Mr. Jighere’s performance a Scrabble master class.

It just goes to show you, bigger isn’t always better. (Though vocabulary still wins the day.)

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PuzzleNation Product Review: Mad Libs: The Game!


[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

There are a lot of puzzly games where wordplay is key. In Scrabble, Bananagrams, or Words with Friends, it’s all about forming words and fitting them into grids. In Taboo, it’s all about communicating without using certain words. In Balderdash, it’s all about crafting the perfect definition, either to mislead other players or to demonstrate your mastery of language and vocabulary.

Mad Libs: The Game follows in that grand tradition of wordplay, but instead of forming words, avoiding them, or defining them, this game is about using them to their utmost in order to entertain your fellow players.


Each player starts with 7 Word cards. Each card depicts a word in noun, verb, adjective, or adverb form (or multiple forms, for adaptable words), and these cards are the ingredients for cooking up funny, weird, entertaining sentences in the game.

But what do you do with those cards? Easy! Just like the original fill-in-the-blank stories, you’re going to use those cards to conjure up the best ways to fill the blanks in our Sentence cards.

So each round begins with a new Sentence card and the players choosing Word cards from their hand in order to come up with the most entertaining words to fill in the blanks for this round’s Sentence card. Then everyone reads their completed sentence aloud, and a vote is held where players point to the player with the best completed sentence. That player then wins a point.

The first player to earn three points wins.


Now, this style of gameplay won’t seem revolutionary to anyone who has played with magnetic poetry or indulged in the much-raunchier Cards Against Humanity or one of the many other games in that vein.

But whereas those games tend to traffic in shock value for their humor, Mad Libs: The Game is all about silliness. This is a game that encourages that same level of creativity, wordplay, and surprise, but in a way that’s appropriate for family gameplay. For example, unlike the very adult themes found in CAH, the harshest words in this game are more along the lines of “pierce” or “heartless,” nothing that would raise a parent’s eyebrow.


[Example of a completed sentence:
Puppies may make the world go ’round,
but it’s flower girls that pay the bills.”]

This is a terrific gateway game for younger puzzlers to get them to not only think about words, but to explore how to use them effectively. It combines humor, storytelling, silliness, and craft to make a good, clean, and most importantly, fun time.

Looney Labs is usually the home of gleefully chaotic games like Fluxx and Loonacy, but they always manage to couch their products in family replayability, and Mad Libs: The Game is no exception.

You can pick up Mad Libs: The Game here, and to check out all of our reviews of Looney Labs games and products, click here!

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United we solve…

[President Bill Clinton and Brit Hume team up to tackle one of Merl Reagle‘s crosswords.]

A while back, I wrote a post about some of the many puzzle competitions and tournaments that are hosted around the world. But ever since then, I’ve been pondering how odd it is that puzzle competition is so prevalent when puzzles themselves have always been a collaborative effort.

Think about it. Jigsaw puzzles can be solved alone, but aren’t your memories of previous jigsaw puzzles always the ones you solved with others? When you get stuck on a crossword, what’s the first thing you do? You ask someone nearby. I know plenty of couples that solve crosswords and other puzzles together.

[How great is this stock photo I found? It makes me laugh every time I look at it.]

Paradoxically, most group puzzle games are competitive, like Boggle or Bananagrams. Even the games where you build something together, like Words with Friends, Scrabble, Jenga, or Castellan, are all competitive games.

Board games follow the same pattern. The vast majority of them pit players against each other, encouraging adversarial gameplay that leaves a single winner.

[Let the Wookiee win…]

But thankfully, there is a small (but growing!) number of board games that have the same cooperative spirit that pen-and-paper puzzles often do. These cooperative games encourage the players to strategize together and help each other to accomplish tasks and achieve victory as a team. Essentially, instead of playing against each other, they’re playing against the game.

Whether you’re defending your castle from monsters (Justin De Witt’s Castle Panic) or trying to stop a monstrous evil from conquering the world (Arkham Horror), you succeed or fail as a team. It’s a wonderful gameplay experience either way.

One of the top names in cooperative board games is Matt Leacock, creator of Pandemic and Forbidden Island. His games are exceedingly challenging but an immensely good time, even if you fail to stop the viruses or the island sinks before you can gather up all the treasures. It just makes you more determined to play better next time. (This is a wonderful counterpoint to the disillusionment that can crop up when one player trounces another in standard board games.)

There are some cooperative games, like Shadows Over Camelot or Betrayal At House On The Hill that have it both ways, serving as a team game until one player betrays the others, and then it becomes a team vs. spoiler game.

While competitive gameplay certainly does have its advantages, sometimes it’s nice to take some time out and win or lose as a team.

What do you think, PuzzleNationers? Do you prefer games with a winner, or do you enjoy cooperative games? Are there any great cooperative games or puzzles I missed? Let me know!

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26 letter tiles, endless possibilities…

On Tuesday, we delved into tile puzzles and games, exploring dominoes, mahjong, and sliding-tile variations. Letter-tile games may not have the centuries of history behind them that those listed above do, but you simply cannot talk about tile games without discussing one of the world’s most popular and recognizable brands: Scrabble.

Scrabble was created in 1938 by an architect named Alfred Mosher Butts, and was adapted from a word game he’d invented previously, known as Lexiko. His second attempt at the game — delightfully titled “Criss-Crosswords” — combined the letter tiles and values of Lexiko with the gameboard and playing style that we’ve all come to know.

A decade later, Butts sold the rights to manufacture the game, and James Brunot renamed it Scrabble. (Some sources also cite that Brunot simplified the rules and shifted the locations of the double- and triple-value squares, but I was unable to verify these claims.)

The game wouldn’t become a household name until years later when it was marketed and sold by Milton-Bradley. Nowadays, of course, the brand is not only known worldwide, but in myriad forms.

Our friends at Hammacher-Schlemmer not only sell an extended version allowing for longer words, but a magnetic version and a giant version, dubbed the World’s Largest (with good reason). Several Penny/Dell puzzles are based on the Scrabble model, and those signature tiles have appeared in game-show form and made an impact in the pop culture lexicon, offering more than a few magical moments to author Joe Hill’s thrilling horror novel NOS4A2.

And then there are the electronic versions. From Wordfeud and Words with Friends to Scrabulous (later known as Lexulous after several lawsuits), Scrabble and other letter-tile games (like Dabble and David L. Hoyt’s puzzle-game Word Winder) are ubiquitous in app stores and all over the Internet.

I was recently introduced to Bookworm, a very addictive puzzle game that deftly mixes the pattern-busting appeal of Candy Crush and other games with the Scrabble aesthetic of assigning point values to various words, encouraging you to find longer and more complex letter chains in order to score more points.

But there are board game variations as well. A particular favorite is Upwords, which is basically Scrabble, except the tiles are designed to allow you to stack them atop each other, spelling new words as you use your opponent’s moves against them. For instance, if your opponent played HENCE, you could place an F atop the H and an I atop the E, and then add other letters to the end, creating the word FENCING.

This additional wrinkle creates opportunities for outside-the-box thinking that Scrabble doesn’t, opportunities easily exploitable for any puzzler who’s adept at Changawords, Word Chains, and other letter-shifting puzzles. (Imagine the tile towers you could build, shifting SPARK to SPARS to SOARS to SOAKS to SOCKS to ROCKS!)

All of these letter-tile games and puzzles encourage anagramming skills, strategy, and a dab hand at quick math — being able to tell if you’ll get more out of a double-word short word or a triple-letter longer word, for instance — but there’s another letter-tile treat that adds a bit of speed to the mix: Bananagrams.

Bananagrams works on the same principle of adaptability as Upwords, encouraging anagramming in order to use up every letter tile in your hand. Launched in 2006 as the brainchild of Abraham Nathanson, it breaks free of the board game aspect of Scrabble and Upwords, allowing you to play anywhere, trying to out-anagram and out-grid-build your opponents in the shortest amount of time possible.

I had the opportunity to chat with Lesley Singleton, the UK PR Manager for Bananagrams, after a YouTube acquaintance posted a picture on her Instagram of a Bananagrams game she’d just played in French:

Lesley told me that, much like Scrabble, there are Bananagrams products for multiple languages (in case any Francophiles out there looking for the best possible chance to exercise their multisyllabic linguistic chops).

Although, as it turns out, they don’t add extra u’s to the UK edition. I made sure to ask, just in case. *laughs*

In the end, I doubt there’s a better vocabulary-building tool on the market today than any of these letter-tile games and puzzles. Whether you’re reaching for a banana-shaped bag full of tiles, a magnetic strip of letters, or the app on your iPhone, you’re sure to learn new words, big and small, the more you play.

(Though be wary of Words with Friends. I don’t know where their word database comes from, but I’ve played words I KNOW are words, and they’ve been rejected. Games like that give me headaches, and make me more and more thankful for go-to guides like the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.)

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PuzzleNation Product Review: The Walk-By Scrabble Board

Hammacher Schlemmer is perhaps best known for its library of high-end products, from massage chairs and high-tech toys to outlandishly marvelous devices like a jetpack that propels you into the air on columns of water.

But they’re also home of some unexpectedly delightful puzzle products, like the latest edition to my cubicle space, the Walk-By Scrabble Board.

Lightweight, durable, and easy to mount around the home or office, the Walk-By Scrabble Board is designed for puzzlers who don’t mind taking some time between moves to accomplish other tasks.

The magnetic letters adhere well to both the board and the player tags that conceal your tiles from others, and the dry-erase board scoreboard doesn’t stain easily. It’s perfect for repeated, regular play.

But the Walk-By Scrabble Board has another terrific facet: the casual nature of its layout infuses your gameplay. There isn’t the tension and gravitas of having several players watch you as you make your move, feeling seconds tick away as you scramble to anagram in your head. 

You can play at your leisure, offering a similar playing experience to electronic versions of the game like Words with Friends and Lexulous, but without sacrificing the more social, familial spirit of playing a game with your family. 

That combination of the best of the electronic and board game versions makes for a much more congenial playing experience overall.

As you can see, it’s a hit here at the PuzzleNation office.

Well-made and affordable, the Walk-By Scrabble Board is a great way to reignite the puzzly spirit of your household in a fun, casual way.

[This product and many others will be featured in our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, going live on PuzzleNation Blog next Wednesday!]

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!