Boggle Is Better Than Scrabble

Don’t scoff, word nerds. It’s true.

A Boggle board.

The classic Boggle board. May it never die.

Courtesy of Rich Brooks/Flickr

Scrabble is a game that puts on airs. It’s more than a living-room pastime, its partisans argue. Played at the highest level, it’s as complex as chess. Scrabble is so strategically sophisticated, in fact, that—as readers of Slate contributor Stefan Fatsis’ best-selling book Word Freak know—there is a national Scrabble championship. (This year’s just concluded in Las Vegas.) Even when played at a middling level, Scrabble dominates the landscape. It is the default word game of nerdy American households: the vanilla ice cream of the rec room, its McDonald’s, its Coke.

But I speak today for a silent minority of word nerds: the Boggle fans. We stand in the shadow of the hegemon, sharpening our pencils and shaking our fists (and, with a deafening rattle, our Boggle boards). There is no national Boggle championship. There is, for that matter, no best-selling Boggle book. Indeed, the very game of Boggle is in peril; companies have stopped manufacturing the game in its classic form. And so the time has come to make our case: Boggle is better than Scrabble. It’s just as challenging, much more fun, and deserves your esteem and respect.

Boggle is deceptively simple. The board consists of a grid of letters (4x4 or 5x5) and players have three minutes to find as many words as possible hidden in that grid. Words must snake through adjacent letters, running up, down, sideways, and diagonally across the board. (Sometimes a word will helpfully appear in a straight line four letters across; sometimes you will find one in a snarled little loop.) At the end of each round, players share their lists and strike the words that were found by more than one person; you get points only for the words that you alone discovered. The longer the words, the more points you get.

As a living room game, Boggle has Scrabble beat. For one thing, it moves swiftly. As a word-loving American, it took me a long time to admit the truth: Scrabble is boring. It’s a game of waiting—as your opponents take their turns, noodle their letters around in their racks, squint at the board, sigh, rearrange their letters once more. In Boggle, there is none of that. When your opponents are playing, you are playing, too. Three minutes race by, you compare your finds, and voila—the next round begins.

Boggle is also superior because it’s a game where luck plays no part. In Scrabble, the most brilliant competitor can get stuck with a handful of vowels while a newbie notches the high-scoring Q. In Boggle, each player works with the same letters, so the game is a pure test of wits. Excited that you found MINION? Well, I found that, too—and CINNAMON!

Which brings me to another of Boggle’s virtues: It prizes long words rather than short ones. Sure, Scrabble has its “bingos,” the seven-letter (and occasionally longer) words formed when you deploy all your tiles in one turn. But the best way to improve your Scrabble game is to memorize the list of 101 acceptable two-letter words, because knowing them allows you to play multiple words at once, giving you more flexibility and adding to your score. From a linguistic perspective, however, this is a terrible list of words, alternately mundane (IS, IF, SO, GO) and arcane (cf. the dubious ZA, an abbreviation for pizza used by no one ever). Boggle eliminates these pesky two-letter words altogether; standard editions call for a three-letter minimum. Much more fun, though, is to up the ante by playing Boggle with a four-, five-, or six-letter minimum. Then you can spend less time writing TAT, CAT, RAT, and FAT and more time looking for FRACTAL.

What’s more, in Boggle, the best word wins. You write down everything you can find, and the most intriguing and unusual discoveries will win you the admiration of your fellow Bogglers—and, if the words are long, extra points. In Scrabble, your primary objective is to put up a high score, not to dazzle your friends with your linguistic might. You can only play one word each turn, which means you sometimes must sacrifice the most beautiful word for the one that will add the most to your score. Poet and avid Boggle fan Jenna Lê puts it thus: “Boggle is totally different in that the points aren’t tallied until the very end of the game, after all play is over; this allows the player three minutes of freedom in which to focus wholly on the beauty of words rather than the tyranny of numbers.”* In Boggle, you can play lovely words, high-scoring ones, pedestrian terms, and whatever else you see.

Of course, it is this undifferentiated lexicographical flurry that causes Scrabble partisans to scoff. (Or, more accurately, to condescend.) I asked the great Stefan Fatsis, as the nation’s leading Scrabble commentator, to demonstrate the Boggle scoff, and he obliged, with gusto. Boggle is “fun,” he wrote. It’s “entertaining.” Boggle is “the Twister of word games.” But, he avowed: “There’s no strategy. … I and thousands like me prefer our word wars to be more complex than just making letter connections. Scrabble’s challenge involves a range of skills: spatial relations, board geometry, probability determination and more. Boggle’s is narrow.” 

Fatsis is not the only one scoffing. Indeed, cultural representations of Boggle present it as the pastime of procrastinators, hicks and lamebrains. There’s the episode of King of the Hill where sweet, smart Peggy goes to the Texas Boggle championship; the joke is that it would be silly for such a thing to exist. On 30 Rock, self-defeating protagonist Liz Lemon cops to playing online Boggle: “It’s messing with my head!,” she says. “STAR … RATS … ARTS … TARS.” On Seinfeld, it was the bum bar mitzvah gift that helped lead the recipient to renounce Judaism.

There’s probably something to Fatsis’ argument. Scrabble does allow players to develop strategy over the course of a game, plotting out moves several turns ahead. But the fact that the marathon is in the Olympics doesn’t mean we exclude the 100-meter dash—or prize it any less. There’s not much strategy in that full-tilt sprint either, but it’s still amazing to watch Usain Bolt run.

I took Fatsis’ argument to the one man in the world who is poised to rule on whether Boggle or Scrabble is the superior game: Will Anderson. Anderson just came in third at the National Scrabble Championship in Las Vegas. He is also the top-ranked player on Prolific, the leading Facebook community for serious Boggle fans. I’ve played against him there and been awed by the sheer speed with which he can find and record the words in any given board; I’m not sure I could key in that many words in three minutes if I just typed CAT over and over again until time ran out.

Anderson, who edits textbooks by day, demurred when I pressed him to name his favorite game. Boggle was his first love. He started playing online when he was about 15. More than a decade later, the game still fascinates him. But he also loves the Scrabble tournament circuit, which affords him the opportunity to travel to play against other experts and make new, word-loving friends.

“Scrabble is more complicated,” he allows, but “Boggle is much faster paced. Boggle is definitely the livelier of the two games.” He believes Boggle deserves its own circuit for advanced gamers: “Boggle is definitely a great, interesting game with millions of permutations. It’s quite shocking that there is no competitive scene.”

The sensation of pure speed that Anderson cites is what I like best about Boggle. Scrabble is all about constraints; you trickle out one mingy word per turn. Boggle begets a deluge, with bits of the language bobbing from your eye to your mind to the page. Part of the fun is the challenge of seeing the words on the board, looking for promising groupings (an ED, say, or an ING) and then manipulating the surrounding letters in your mind until you find words that work. Anderson also pointed out another mental skill required by Boggle that has no analogue in Scrabble, something he calls the “mental queue.” Often, an ace Boggler will see a bunch of words at once and must hold them in his head until he can record them all with his pen (or keyboard)—all while his eyes are roving on to hunt out the next word. All that mental activity feels strangely serene when you get the rhythm right. Scratching words out on paper, keeping a keen ear to the pace of your rivals’ scribbling, finding the next run of related words—DINTED, DENTED, MINTED, DEMENTED—these are sensations of pure joy.

As it turns out, Boggle fans, we’ve reached a critical moment for the game: Boggle as we know it—a 4x4 grid of cubes that you shake around in a clear plastic box—is no longer being manufactured. Hasbro makes Boggle Jr. (a rudimentary spelling game for kids) and a version of regular Boggle that looks like a flattened orange football. Though the game play is what you remember, the aesthetics of that version don’t feel right. Winning Moves Games—which reissues and adapts classic rec-room diversions—sells games called Big Boggle (a 5x5 board) and Super Big Boggle (a 6x6 board). The good news, a spokesman told me, is that these games are selling well. But the company has amended the familiar board by including a cube with common two-letter combinations. In the original game, QU always appeared together, but every other letter in the alphabet stood alone. The new versions include a cube whose sides read QU, AN, IN, TH, ER, and HE. I’ll reserve judgment until I try this version, but it sounds an awful lot like cheating. Harder words would come so much easier with those gimmes on the board.

That means it’s time to stockpile older versions of Boggle, still available from select sellers on Amazon and eBay. It’s time to demand that Hasbro—or Winning Moves, or someone!—reissue the classic implementation of the game. It’s time to launch a competitive Boggle circuit so that expert Bogglers can get their due. And, most of all, it’s time to stop cowering before our Scrabble-mad peers. Whiling away a few minutes online? Forget Words With Friends and the multitude of knockoff Scrabble apps. Instead, bring your Boggle chops to Prolific, the marvelous Facebook community where Will Anderson is king. On vacation with your family? Cast aside that Scrabble set and its tyrannical sack of tiles. Find yourself a good Boggle board. Get out a pad and some pencils. Flip over that timer and play.

Correction, Aug. 1, 2013: This piece originally misidentified poet and avid Boggle fan Jenna Lê as Jennifer Lê. (Return.)