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Words with Fiends

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Mar 12, 2012

Someone once said that a good metaphor for life is a box of chocolates. That may or may not be true, but it's so unbearably '90s that we need something better, something more au courant... and what do you know? The online age has spit the perfect metaphor right into our faces!

There's an online game almost identical to Scrabble called "Words With Friends." Uh huh. "Words With Fiends" is more like it. And it really is a whole lot like life: The rules are a little unclear, everyone else seems to be better at it than you, and all too often the word you really want to play is denied you because you don't have that extra "E" (if anything, you've been saddled with a "J" or a "Q" you just can't get rid of)... or you don't have enough space on the board to fit the word in... or the way your vile opponent, er, friend has played his tiles blocks you in some way. Or... or!... the earlier moves you made yourself come back to bite you.

Once in a while... just here and there... you'll get the letters you need and the space you require and the opportunity (not to mention the clarity of thought) to create some grand word, a sprawling masterpiece that not only employs all those high-value tiles but also encompasses a "triple word score" space and maybe one or two "double letter score" spaces as well.

Oh, and it'll be a lovely word, something that sounds eloquent and funny, something just a little obscure so that you sound smart (or at least informed) and has a ring of poetry about it even as you rack up bigtime points. Words like "SERENDIPITOUS" or "SCINTILLATE." Words like "BEDOUIN" or "AZIMUTH" or "VOLUPTUOUS."

Of course, since you have only seven tiles at any one time to work with, masterstrokes such as these rely on your ability to build on the words your opponent has played before you. This is a good thing. This is what we call, in science, "Standing on the shoulders of those who came before us in order to see farther." Or, in the arts, we might call it an "homage" or even a "furtherance" of someone else's work.

But it's the language of business--with words like "exploitation"--that truly captures what's going on here, because no doubt your opponent had plans for that four-letter word that fell just short of the "triple letter score" space.

You just know he meant to revisit "SOP" in order to create "SOPORIFIC," or he was just waiting for that infamous extra "E" to transform "PALE" into "PALETTE." Only (ha ha ha!) you go there first, nabbing the points (and the pear-shaped, orotund splendor) right out from under him!

How do I know this? Because I'm your opponent, y'all, and you keep doing it to me!

It's not that I blame you. That's how the game is played, after all. But what truly irks is how the game seems to accept bizarre words that are ugly (and, worse, dubious; words like "MOG" or "MIRK") while rejecting perfectly lovely words like "HOHOKAM" and "ZOOT." I mean, come on. "ZOOT" should be fine: What is a Zoot suit, if Zoot itself is not a real word? (And yet, the game accepts the word "ZOON." I got 28 points for that... whatever the hell it might mean.)

And you'd be surprised by the four-letter words the game is happy to accept and reward points for. Modesty and good taste prevent me offering a catalogue here (though I will admit that on occasion, whether from curiosity or from practical necessity... or even from blood lust in the heat of battle... I have played a vulgarity or three. Or six.)

Indeed, you'd be astonished by the degree to which the English language consists of four-letter words. Not, mind you, words that are crude or obscene, but... simply spelled with four letters. It's an infuriating state of affairs when those cunningly-placed "triple word score" spaces seem constantly to require that you scrounge up a five-or six-letter word.

All that to say that the game is frustrating, random (seems that way, at least), and rewards those who have learned to game the system. (Tactics I most love to hate include continually grouping all one's word plays into as tight a bundle as possible in order to deny the opponent the chance to build new words, and finding ways to vastly increase points by building multiple words all at once. The first strategy is plain graceless, and the second... well, I'm not clever enough to pull off the second strategy, so it's only out of envy that I resent it when others make it work.)

And yet, the game is irresistible. I mean, yeah, my aunts kick my ass (how do they manage to score well over 400 points every time while I struggle to clear 250?) and my friends similarly trash me without so much as breaking a sweat... and here I am, supposedly a writer. But hey, look, Shakespeare himself only had a functional vocabulary of, like, 700 words. It's not the size of the dictionary, after all, it's the way you string the words together that makes the difference in romance, right?

But this ain't romance. This game is an out and out brawl. How else to characterize any human activity that bestows its largesse on terminology like "TARN" and "THRIPS?" Or offers such paltry options in the case of a "Q" unattended by a "U" (the words "QI" and "SUQ" seem to be the only, or at least most used, solutions here). One wants elegance and poetry and settles, often, for Anglo-Saxonisms of the least imaginative and most blockily rendered sort.

Most of all, what we all want from this game is the occasional Great Big Score. You know, like when you play a single letter and reap 150 points (this actually happened in one game; my fiend, er friend, at least had the kindness to tender an apology even as he crowed and gloated). When it happens, it's a rush, believe me--no wonder when you actually eke out a win, the game offers you a chance to tweet about it or post a boast on Facebook.

A friend in the know recently confirmed my darkest suspicions when he admitted to using online resources to find words, rack up points, and win our games. In other words--you often have to cheat in order to win.

I knew it. See? What did I tell you? "Words with Fiends..." Pardon me, with "Friends" is just like life.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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