Facebook Scrabble flashy, but not better

February 4, 2009 6:05:43 PM PST
A sanctioned version of Scrabble for Facebook, released this week by video game maker Electronic Arts Inc., boasts animated graphics and true-to-the-board-game design. But underneath its flashy exterior, the new Scrabble's features are very similar to those of its wildly popular but unauthorized competitor, Scrabulous. And that makes me wonder whether lots of people will switch unless, as threatened, Scrabble rights holders Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. shut Scrabulous down for copyright infringement.

When I fired up the official Scrabble game, my first thought was: There goes my favorite office time-waster.

Where Scrabulous uses text links and muted colors - giving me the illusion, at least, that my co-workers won't notice when I'm playing - Scrabble employs rich reds and blues and sends digital replicas of the game's iconic wooden tiles dancing across the screen.

The two versions - both of which are free - offer most of the same bells and whistles. They each have a built-in instant-messaging application, a dictionary for looking things up and a list of Scrabble's precious elements: valid two-letter words. Scrabble's design is more polished, though, which helped one of my opponents discover features he didn't know existed in Scrabulous, such as an archive of completed games.

Beyond the bolder, more professional look, Scrabble's designers added numerous cosmetic touches that set it apart from the minimalist, two-dimensional appearance of Scrabulous, which was created by two brothers in India. The Scrabble tile rack is much larger, and it's easier to rearrange letters by dragging them with the mouse. Buttons to shuffle or alphabetize the tiles are big and easy to identify, as opposed to the tiny, unlabeled dots that serve as buttons on Scrabulous.

When I play Scrabulous, I have a hard time remembering what the blue and red squares mean - double letter? Triple word? Scrabble cuts the guessing with labels like "DL" for "double letter," though it veers from the board game's traditional design by adding green and orange squares for more clarity.

It took several turns for me to get used to so much motion on my screen - Scrabble's designers seemed to animate everything they could think of. Buttons come to life when the mouse passes over. Letter tiles sit charmingly crooked when I place them on the board, then straighten themselves out when I click "Play."

At best, the legit Scrabble saves time and mouse clicks, as when my opponents' moves magically appear on screen without my having to reload the page.

But sometimes the animation just slows things down. For example, Scrabble shows me how many points potential words are worth as I fiddle around on the screen. But then, when I play the word, it ponderously sends the tiles into another little jig as it totals each one's worth. As one opponent put it, "I don't feel like I need a rotating star to make me feel good every time I play a word."

My early Scrabble opponents - all fellow journalists and Scrabulous addicts - disagreed on whether the authorized version advanced the game. One called it impressive and predicted the mass defection of Scrabulous players, while another called it hideous and hard to look at.

That doesn't bode well for Scrabble's popularity while Scrabulous is still on the scene. While I can't predict a winner in this matchup, Scrabble won't be any fun unless a critical mass of my Facebook friends are playing with it, too.