Scrabble players around the world had to double-check their calendars this week after Mattel announced that it was releasing a new version of the game called Scrabble Trickster, which allows players to use proper nouns such as Quzhou (a city in southern China, worth 27 points) and Zuma (the surname of South Africa's President, worth 15 points). "I was sure it was an April Fools' joke," says John Chew, co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association. "I thought someone was a few days late reading the press release and the joke was on them."
But while the story was no belated April Fools' Day hoax, it needn't strike fear into Scrabble purists' hearts either. Some media reports claimed that the new rules would forever change the face of the game, but Mattel insists that they will only apply to Scrabble Trickster a spin-off game going on sale in July and that the classic version will still be available for sale. The new game will initially be available only in the U.K., where Mattel owns the rights to the game. Hasbro, which owns the rights to Scrabble in the U.S., says it has no plans to change any of the game's rules. This will likely be greeted with relief in the U.S., where Scrabble is not just popular as a board game but also as an electronic game on Facebook and mobile phones. (It's the ninth top-grossing app on the iPhone and fifth on the newly introduced iPad.)
Scrabble Trickster will include several deviations from the traditional rules. There will be squares on the board calling on players to draw cards, which may instruct them to forfeit a letter to an opponent or permit them to spell a word backward or use a proper noun. "Celebrity wars of words could now take place on a new battleground," Mattel spokeswoman Sarah Allen wrote in an e-mail. "It's another part of the process of expanding the brand it's an evolution." In other words, you might be feeling pretty smug about laying down "Jay-Z" (23 points), but if your opponent responds by playing his wife Beyoncé, that would be worth a mighty 64 points, as he'd benefit from the 50-point bonus (commonly known as a Bingo) that's awarded for using all seven letters.
Even though the original version of the game won't be touched, some serious Scrabblers are up in arms about the relaxed regulations in the spin-off game. "They're dumbing down a classic," Keith Churcher, chairman of a Scrabble club in the British city of Reading, told the Daily Mail newspaper. "Players like myself have spent decades memorizing words in the dictionary." On Twitter, a fan lamented, "Proper nouns allowed in new version of Scrabble?! Unbelievable ..."
But Mattel says the rule changes the first in the game's 62-year history will make the game more accessible to younger players. "We wanted to attract a slightly different audience, the people that perhaps get a bit put off by the rules," says Philip Nelkon, Mattel's promotions manager. Chew, who contends that the announcement of the new version brought extra attention to the game, says the initial shock of the rule change has since worn off. "I've had [Scrabble] tournament directors calling me to say they haven't ever had so much interest," Chew says. "There's an understanding now that the publicity is good."
So how many points can players rack up by using proper nouns? Here are a few heavyweight combos you might be able to put together under the new rules: Barack (14 points)
Kyrgyz (26 points)
Jacko (18 points)
Shakira (64 points if you include the 50-point bonus for using all seven letters)
Venezia (69 points, with the 50-point bonus)