Review: Squabbling Over Words in Freeverse Puzzle Game

Thursday, 2004-06-24; 03:30:00

Squabble is a unique, fast-paced word game that's sure to have you scrambling for words up until the last second.

(Originally posted on AppleXnet)

For those puzzlers out there who love word games like Scrabble or crossword puzzles, Andrew Trevorrow, creator of X-Words and CrossCards, and Freeverse Software have recently released a game that you're sure to love. It's called Squabble, and the gameplay is about making the longest words as quickly as possible.

At first glance, it appears that Squabble is the computer equivalent of a real board game like Scrabble. The players are presented with a board filled with tiles that each have a letter on them. The number of tiles with a given letter on the board depends on how common the letter is in the English language, and each tile is assigned a point value based on that letter. As in Scrabble, players try to form words from the tiles as they progress through the game. But Squabble is a much more fast-paced game than Scrabble, which is probably why you can't buy Squabble from a toy store.

In Squabble, players don't have separate sets of tiles; each player uses the same tiles with the same letters that are revealed on the communal board, or "pool". Initially, all tiles are face down, but when the game starts, about five tiles are flipped over, and an additional tile is flipped over every few seconds. It's the job of each player to scramble and make words from the tiles that are revealed in the pool before other players can use up those same tiles. For each word created, players score 10 points plus the total value of all the tiles used in that word. Rarer letters like Q and Z are worth more points, so players have more incentive to create words with those letters as quickly as possible. There are also various wildcard tiles that take on the value of the letter when used. If you're lucky and alert, you can create small words like QUIZ that are worth 32 points alone. If you create unknown words from the tiles in the pool, however, you'll get penalized 5 points, so don't try to create words unless you're sure they're valid.

A Squabble game in progress with a word make in the rack

There's just one small catch to the gameplay: words can be stolen. If a word is stolen from you, you retain the 10 points for simply creating the word, but you lose the points associated with the tiles themselves. The stealer gains not only the points associated with the tiles in the stolen word, but also 20 points for making a successful steal.

Here's how it works. Suppose one player creates the word LUGE from the tiles currently revealed in the pool. A few tiles later, the letter D appears in the pool. Another player can steal the word LUGE by adding D to it, and rearranging the letters to create the word GLUED. Steals don't need to be created by only adding one letter: the word TRAILED can be made by combining the word TAIL and the letters, R, E, and D. Stealing words is easier by only adding one letter, but sometimes these better opportunities present themselves.

Making and stealing words can be done from the keyboard, the mouse, or both. Like in Scrabble, a "rack" appears at the top of the board where you start creating words. You can either drag letters from the pool, rearrange them in the rack manually, and press the Make button, or you can simply type them on the keyboard (as long as the letters you're typing are actually revealed in the pool) and press return or enter to confirm that you want to make that word. To correct a word by using the keyboard, you simply use the delete key to remove one tile from the rack, or the escape key to completely clear the rack. Stealing is just as easy. With the mouse, you click on a word to the left of the pool that's already been played, rearrange the letters, add whatever you need from the pool, and click the take button. With the keyboard, you simply hold down the shift key (or engage Caps Lock), and then type the new word. Squabble will automatically figure out which word you want to steal and which letters come from the pool, and will inform you if it's a valid steal or not when you press enter.

The only rule when stealing words from other players in Squabble is that the original word cannot still be visible in the new word; that is, you cannot take the word GLUED from GLUE combined with a D, because the word GLUE is untouched in the word GLUED. The letters need to be rearranged or split in the middle, as in taking TRAIL from TAIL. Multiple words can be stolen at once in some cases, as in making MURDER from RED and RUM (in which case you get 40 extra points for stealing 2 words). Additionally, players can "steal" words from themselves in the same way they would steal from another player. However, doing so adds only 5 points plus the value of any new tiles, so while protecting your own words is good to do, you score many more points by stealing from other players.

Preparing to take TIGER from GRIT

What makes this game so nerve-racking is that your words are almost never safe. One player can create the word LIT, another can steal it by making TAIL, the first player steals it back by making TRAIL, it's stolen again by making RETAIL, and yet another time by adding a D to make TRAILED. Even words with rare letters like QUOTE can be taken by simply making EQUATOR. The best players win with not only fast typing skills and fast identification of words, but also with large vocabularies. And those players are also the most annoying, because they manage to squeeze a letter in to all your words and steal all your points.

The great thing about Squabble is that various aspects of the game can be changed to suit different playing abilities. You can play against a computer opponent or multiple computer opponents of skill levels from 0-9. You can set the time delay between each new tile being flipped over. The minimum word length can vary from 2 to 6, the number of letters in the pool can be small or large, and the time allowed after all tiles are flipped can vary anywhere from 0 to 300 seconds. If you're trailing by only a few points, those last few seconds can make or break the game. (For real scrambling to create words, there's even a variation of the game called "Hypersquabble": all tiles start face up and players scramble to make the longest and the most words with every tile revealed.)

And being a Freeverse game, Squabble has online network play with up to 9 other players through GameSmith (complete with ladder rankings), and also allows the setup of local network play via instant Rendezvous networking.

There are various other nice features of Squabble including the ability to change the list of valid words by either selecting the Kids or Junior lexicons, or by creating your own. Statistics on the various players are saved so you can see how they're doing, and you can also turn the various sounds on or off as you see fit. The theme of the game board can be changed. Squabble also offers a "hand of god" option that animates a hand to turn over the tiles, but remember to turn this off as soon as you start up Squabble: it can slow you down by fractions of a second that are so critical when playing against other players.

In playing Squabble, I found it to be pretty straightforward and fairly polished. Squabble has rarely crashed on me, and there haven't been any significant problems with gameplay -- only the fact that the creator of the game, Andrew Trevorrow (who often plays on GameSmith), is frustratingly adept at stealing and transforming your points into some obscure word that you have no hope of stealing back. Even if you're quick on your feet, he still manages to take the lead. But of course, that's not a problem with the game.

There are some minor issues. The "Official Squabble Lexicon" contains words like QAT and AALII that not even can define. (Luckily, can.) It would be nice if the definition of each word would be displayed as it is played, so instead of simply memorizing random words, you could actually learn what they mean. Granted, Squabble is a fast-paced game and you may not have time to look at the definitions, but it'd be useful for those few, relatively quiet moments in the game. Not only that, but be aware that proper nouns like AMERICAN and TEXAN are not valid words when playing Squabble. It would also be nice if words could be defined when playing over GameSmith: in some cases, the option is grayed out for no apparent reason.

Another slightly annoying problem with Squabble is that when you make an unknown word or try to steal a word using non-existent tiles, a dialog box comes up telling you this, and you have to dismiss it quickly before continuing play. After a while, you get used to quickly hitting return to dismiss these dialogs, but a better solution would be to just display the message in the already existing message area on the board without introducing a dialog. Also, sometimes Squabble has problems connecting to GameSmith: the first connect may fail, but a subsequent connection a couple seconds later succeeds. As for finding human opponents on GameSmith, they are a bit rare. If you stay in the lobby for 15 minutes or so while doing something else on the computer, though, someone's sure to show up for a game. (If his name is "Andy" though, run!)

For what it's worth, Freeverse has announced that a Squabble competition will be held this Wednesday, July 30th at 8:30 PM, Eastern Standard Time. Participants in the Squabble competition will have a chance to win a number of games (presumably Freeverse games), and a new Airport Express. All you have to do is sign on to GameSmith at the time of the competition, and you'll be directed to the right place. There's no mention as to whether unregistered players of Squabble will be eligible to play, but presumably they will be. So if you try out Squabble and end up liking it, log on to GameSmith on Wednesday, and you might even win a free copy of Squabble. (If you're participating in the competition or just want to play a fun game with another Squabble player, log on to GameSmith -- I'm usually there under the name "simX".)

Overall, Squabble is an extremely fun game to play, especially against other human players on GameSmith. You're sure to be spending a significant amount of time squabbling if you like to have fun with words. Play it enough, and you'll end up trying to "steal" words wherever you see them: from the newspaper, from books, or from street signs. And then you'll know you're a Squabble addict.

Squabble can be tried free for 30 launches with no restrictions except a reminder to register at each startup. Purchasing one copy of Squabble costs $19.95, and requires Mac OS 8.6 or later, including Mac OS X up to Panther.

-- Simone

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