Reviewed by Brandy Shaul
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2009-05-06 Nintendo DS Casual E (Everyone) EA

Scrabble is one of those tried and true board game formulas in the same realm as Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit. Individuals of any age or intelligence level can play with the same ease provided they at least know how to read and spell basic words like cat, dog, or even is and at. With the game being accessible to virtually everyone who might come into contact with it, it's no surprise that EA and Hasbro have added Scrabble to their new "board games turned video games" lineup.

Scrabble on the DS, which is played holding the DS sideways like a book, incorporates the original gameplay formula from the classic board game by offering two modes of play. The classic option is just that: you are placed against 1-3 AI opponents and given your first set of seven tiles and set loose on the board.

If you earn the first turn (determined at random), you can either pass to an opponent to allow them to set the game into motion or can study your tiles in an effort to find a word long enough to get the game moving (that is, a three letter starter word would almost certainly jeopardize the continuation of play, as your opponents have so little space to work from). As one would expect, the board is filled with the traditional double and triple letter score squares, as well as double and triple word squares. Each letter tile is assigned the same point value as in the traditional board game, with commonly used letters like A and S obviously being worth less than the letters X or Z, as examples.

Continuing with tradition, play is turned based, and requires that you use at least one existing letter on the board to create a new word with the tiles in your hand. No surprises there. However, where your own word usage will be absolutely dependant on your everyday vocabulary, the AI opponents (which range through six customizable levels of intelligence) all have access to the entire Scrabble dictionary, and will often play words that the average person will have never heard of.

To prove that they are indeed words, every played word is given a definition on the left screen (what would originally be the top screen), but even then, it is more than just a touch irritating when your opponent plays a word like "za" (which the Scrabble dictionary tells us is a type of pizza) on a triple letter score (Z is worth 10 points), when you had no idea the word existed in the first place.

While it is possible to play with your own real world Scrabble dictionary, in order to find the same sort of commonly unheard of words, a traditional game of Scrabble is long enough as it is without adding in the extra time.

For those who are in an even bigger hurry, the second gameplay mode is Speed Scrabble, which utilizes the same rule set as the Classic mode, but instead offers a (by default) 15 minute time-limit, creating more of a sense of urgency, especially when playing with more than one AI opponent, as it takes even longer for you to receive another turn.

Throughout both modes, the game is presented in the same fashion. With the board on the touch screen, players can choose from two views: a standard view which shows the entire Scrabble board, or a zoomed in view that allows you to use the stylus to drag the view to whichever section of the board you are interested in.

Either way, as you drag tiles from your hand to the board, the appropriate square will highlight red indicating that you are hovering correctly. However, when lifting the stylus, the tile often misses its mark, and not by just one or two squares, as more often than not, tiles that I had meant to place in one corner of the board ended up at the exact opposite, forcing to me scroll around the board long enough to find my rogue tile and try again.

This touch sensitivity issue runs rampant throughout the entirety of gameplay, and creates undo frustration that when at its best is already annoying, but at its worst is practically a deal breaker. The one area that provides a bit of solace, but not an entire escape, from the problem is the third gameplay mode called Scrabble Slam.

Scrabble Slam is an entirely different beast when compared to its predecessor. A card game, Scrabble Slam plays much like the card game "Speed," but instead of asking you to place numbered cards onto piles to create a pattern (3 can be played on top of 4 or 2; jack can be played on a pile containing a ten or queen, and so on), you are instead required to create four letter words by changing the card on top of one of four piles.

For example, if the game starts with the word "Dogs," and you have an H in your hand, you can drag the H on top of the D and create the word "Hogs." Gameplay continues as such until there are no more available moves, or until someone empties their hand.

One major disparity aside from the gameplay rules that really sets Scrabble Slam apart is the fact that where in the original game the AI opponents are incredibly intelligent, here they are slow, apparently unintelligent beings that will allow you to play almost every card in your hand before ever attempting to play one of their own. Whether this is actually a good thing, or yet another problem with the title can only be determined on a person-to-person basis.

Aside from the three basic gameplay modes, a few extras are thrown in, in an attempt to further flesh out the experience. There are multiple training modes that allow you to practice making words out of a given set of tiles (think Text Twist), and offer a look into the Scrabble dictionary at sections containing every word that uses a Q, either with or without the U, or words based on length. Where the dictionary portions are really only necessary for Scrabble purists, who expect to spend enough time with the title to make memorizing the lists worthwhile, the practice sessions are, as with everything else, plagued by poor touch controls that force you to repeat actions far too often to be made worth while.

Where the technical issues are enough to make one quit the game altogether, the visual and sound departments do little to help matters. The aforementioned board zoom options are two extremes that force letters to either appear as miniscule squares about the size of the tip of the stylus, or as huge blocks that force you to scroll for what seems like an eternity in order to accomplish anything.

While the tiles themselves are easy enough to read, surrounded by brightly colored backgrounds and menus, the sound department is a repetitive offering of upbeat tracks that end up being more of a distraction than anything else, especially when playing in the Speed Scrabble mode, where timing is key.

In the end, while the new Scrabble Slam mode is quite entertaining, the game's overall lackluster presentation, skewed AI intelligence, and the all-encompassing touch sensitivity issue make the game recommendable only in short play sessions, or to those with an extreme amount of patience.

Special thanks to Alexis Mervin and EA for providing a copy of this title to review.