- Words With Friends is one of the most popular mobile games ever, and is very similar to the game that inspired it,Scrabble.
- I’m a nationally ranked tournament Scrabble player, and I can safely say playing Scrabble is way more satisfying than playing Words With Friends.
- I prefer Scrabble because it rewards skill over luck, is fairer for both players, and its dictionary won’t cause as many headaches as the one Words With Friends uses.
Words With Friends is one of the most popular mobile games of all time, with around 13 million users playing the word game each month.
Anyone who’s played Words With Friends knows it bears a strong resemblance to Scrabble, the timeless board game that debuted in 1938.
But take a closer look and you’ll see that there are several differences between the two games, from the types of words they allow to the strategies required to win.
I’m especially attuned to these differences. I’ve been playing in Scrabble tournaments across the country since I was 16 years old. I’ve played in two North American Scrabble Championships, and my official ranking places me among the top players in New York City.
I’ve also logged more than 1,000 games in Words With Friends, and although the mobile game has a few advantages to Scrabble’s mobile app – it’s sleeker, has a bigger user base, and has addictive mini-games and challenges on the side – I can safely say that when it comes to the gameplay itself, Scrabble is the superior game by a longshot.
The Words With Friends dictionary is maddeningly inconsistent
One difference between Scrabble and Words With Friends that isn’t obvious at first sight is the two dictionaries the games use.
Because the Scrabble dictionary is copyrighted by Hasbro, the developers of Words With Friends sourced its words from a public-domain word list called ENABLE, along with a few of its own additions to the dictionary.
Unfortunately, there are some frustrating inconsistencies with the Words With Friends list. It allows you to play “dongle,” for example, but not the plural “dongles.” You’re free to play “vape,” but not “vapes,” “vaped,” or “vaping.” The game allows you to play certain acronyms like “BFF” or “TFW,” but not others like “LOL” and “OMG.”
Any word game is free to use whichever dictionary it chooses, however the inconsistencies in the Words With Friends list make it too unpredictable of a game to enjoy fully.
There’s no 50-point bonus for using all your letters
In Scrabble, if you play a word that uses all seven of your tiles, you earn a 50-point bonus. That play is called a bingo, and for expert Scrabble players, it’s normal to get two or three bingos every game.
Bingos are the key to a sky-high Scrabble score, and Scrabble strategy is built around maximizing your chances of playing one.
In Words With Friends, on the other hand, using all of your letters earns you a 35-point bonus – that’s 15 fewer points.
It may not seem like a huge difference, but the smaller bonus takes much of the fun out of what should be the most exciting play in the game. In many cases, playing a bingo in Words With Friends is actually the wrong thing to do, either because you can get more points by playing a shorter word, or because the bingo would open up several dangerous spots for your opponent to score even more than you did.
Scrabble got it right by awarding more bonus points. Seven- and eight-letter words are considerably harder to find in a scrambled pool of letters than four-letter words, and the extra brainpower and skill required should be rewarded with extra points.
And the design of the board leads to a huge imbalance in scoring
Look at a Scrabble board and a Words With Friends board side by side and you’ll notice that the premium squares – the double- and triple-word scores and the double- and triple-letter scores – are laid out differently. Take a look below:
The board layout in Words With Friends is far from just a cosmetic departure from Scrabble: It has a dramatic effect on how the game is played.
In Scrabble, the placement of those premium squares is such that no matter where on the board you play, you open up scoring opportunities for your opponent. You’ll see what I mean in the example below:
In this example, I can play ZEBRA on my opening move for 52 points, which is a great way to start the game. But it also opens the door for my opponent to come back with big scores.
The double-word scores above and below the Z ensure that my opponent will score 28 or more points if they can manage to string together a five-letter word like BLITZ or ZONED. There are also double-word scores above and below the E, so if my opponent can come up with a seven letter word with E in the middle, like ABSENCE or FIREMAN, they’d hit both of those squares at once for close to 50 points.
Lastly, the center space on the Scrabble board – which the first word of the game is required to touch – is located seven spaces away from a triple-word score. In the above example, an eight-letter word starting or ending with A would hit a triple-word score for a massive amount of points. Because of the location of the triple-word scores, no matter what word the first player makes, they will always open up a high-scoring lane for their opponent.
In the book “Word Freak,” author Stefan Fatsis wrote how Scrabble inventor Alfred Butts labored for countless hours to find the perfect board layout that would guarantee fairness for both players throughout the game.
“The distances and location of the premium squares are just right,” Fatsis wrote. “The game is a carefully choreographed pas de deux, a delicate balance between risk and reward.”
Unfortunately, that fairness doesn’t exist in Words With Friends. Here’s what a typical first move looks like in Words With Friends:
With this board design, there’s no triple-word score that’s accessible after the first turn, and the double-word scores are spaced just far enough apart that my opponent can’t hit both of them in one turn. That greatly diminishes the number of high-scoring opportunities my opponent will have simply because they had the misfortune of going second.
But the real damage comes later in the game, as the words expand outward toward the edges of the board. Look at this hotspot on the board that’s only possible in Words With Friends:
You’ll notice that in the top left corner, it’s possible to play a word that hits both a triple-word score and a triple-letter score. Using that R, a simple word like PARK or CARVE can easily score 60 or more points without creating a comparable opportunity for my opponent. Even if they used all of their letters, they still wouldn’t reach the nearest triple-word score, which is eight spaces away:
Similarly, the placement of the premium squares also opens the door for absurdly-scoring moves like the one below. Although DOOZIE is a nice find, on a Scrabble board, it would only be worth 72 points, instead of the inflated 105 it scores here:
Those little tweaks to the board design completely throw off the balance of the game, as very often, the final score comes down simply to whichever player can reach those corner premium squares first. That creates an incentive for both players to play conservatively by playing short, clunky words that block off certain sections of the board, like in the example below:
What results is a less enjoyable playing experience, as the danger of opening scoring lanes for your opponent is far more serious in Words With Friends, and the outcome is much more luck-dependent than Scrabble.
Although there’s a time and a place for everything, if you’re looking for the game that has the better balance of luck and skill, I’d stick with the classic.
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