Observations on Scrabble for the iPhone.

I want to be kind to the digital manifestation of my favorite game of all time on my favorite device of all time. Everything looks sharp. Performance is crisp. The features and game modes are robust without being overbearing. I particularly enjoy the cumulative statistics and moves list. This isn’t a review, though, so I’m not going to delineate the pros and cons of spending 99¢ to have the classic word game on your phone. ((Download the free version if you want to try before you buy. It’s essentially the same but ad-supported.)) Just go get it. I could use a few qualified opponents. That said, caveat emptor. You’re about to enter a world of pain. Despite the aforementioned purchase-worthiness, Scrabble for the iPhone has a few exasperating flaws.

Facebook giveth, Facebook taketh away.

Integrating Facebook, not merely as a shortcut for player accounts (which, truthfully, would now be better served by Game Center) but as a fully-featured alternate opportunity to play the game ((Yes, I’m aware the Facebook version preceded the iPhone version. RIP Scrabulous.)) is brilliant. It expands the base of players and provides convenient access when away from the phone.

Whether due to EA’s implementation or Facebook’s API, however, staying logged in is an exercise in futility. ((I’m inclined to fault EA on this as plenty of applications use Facebook to outsource logins without issue.)) Prepare to be bewildered as time after time launching Scrabble will reveal, if it doesn’t crash first, no available games — the telltale sign you’ve been mysteriously and obnoxiously logged out. For those practicing good password hygiene it’s a particularly frustrating experience. Each new login means launching a separate password database, going through that rigamarole, returning to Scrabble, typing your email address, pasting in the password, and finally, submitting your login credentials for authorization. Facebook (helpfully?) emails you immediately to notify you that a new device has logged in. ((I have ten such emails in three days of playing.))

Speaking of notifications, the cherry on the fail sundae is the (logical) lack of push notifications while you’re logged out. Have fun playing an asynchronous, turn-based game when your phone never bothers to let you know it’s your move. The Schrödinger login flaw alone might persuade you that Words with Friends is more deserving of your money, your attention, and, critically, your word of mouth. I certainly wouldn’t blame you. ((In a slightly related but ultimately harmless vein, EA has also chosen to encourage you to pimp the application each time you best your highscore by posting it to your Facebook wall. It’s a duplicitous bit of marketing, camouflaged as the worst kind of thoughtless, self-promoting, push-button oversharing. </soapbox> ))

Design oversights, perhaps.

Compared to the Facebook login Hindenburg, the remaining UI conflagrations pale.

In the full-board view, tiles are missing point values. I suspect this is a deliberate decision intended to reduce clutter, but it’s a painful loss. Thankfully, zooming in reveals them, yet unless you’re intimately familiar with Scrabble, that’s going to result in a lot of unnecessary taps. Even those who can recite the tile values from memory ((Count me doubly impressed if you can tick off tile distributions)) will be noticeably inconvenienced. Chalk one up for Words with Friends on this point.

Superfluous dialogs. Want to view a game in which it’s not your turn? Be prepared to be assaulted by a warning that it’s not actually your turn. Every time. Want to jump from the current game to another? The only list is in the main menu, which wouldn’t be so bad if accessing the main menu was a one-tap affair from within a game. The good news is, that’s pretty much it. The bad news is you’ll hit those frequently enough to notice. Once you do, well, sorry for Goldbluming you. ((I wanted to add a section here entitled “Egregious animations” for the frequent, tedious screen gyrations for scoring plays and shuffling tiles, but, I suppose, spartan interface is a personal preference to some degree. To each his own.))

Don’t bother re-arranging those tiles. It should go without saying that re-arranging the tiles on your rack is half the battle in forming successful plays. That Scrabble on the iPhone abandons all pretense of re-arranging the tiles as you move them is a staggering failure, especially in light (yes, again) Words with Friends’ excellence in the identical area. In Scrabble, dragging a tile across the rack has no effect on the other tiles. Dropping it will snap everything into their new, updated locations — most of the time. Miss by a few pixels though and the dragged tile will simply revert to its original position, leaving you berating the UI rather than playing the game. Words with Friends, on the other hand, smoothly juggles the rack as you pass the designated tile across, providing constant and immediate feedback each step of the way. It’s a luxurious experience when contrasted with Scrabble’s feckless disinterest in even making the attempt.

Scrabble with Friends

If the situation were reversed, if Words with Friends was the original and Scrabble the clone, I suspect I’d have difficulty selecting EA’s offering despite its merit. It’s snappy, slick, and clever in all the ways Words with Friends isn’t. Its Facebook integration enables games with friends (ha) I’d be otherwise unable to engage.

Conversely, Words with Friends can on occasion feel slow, it exhibits surprising bugs, and overall exudes a crude amateurism in contrast to Scrabble’s sophistication. Frankly, it’s a toss-up. For now, I’m tipping the scales in Scrabble’s direction thanks to an as yet unrevealed ace: balance. The Words with Friends board is overpowered. There are too many word multipliers and many letters have higher point values, enabling luck and randomness to outweigh skill. Similarly, Scrabble’s 50 point bingos reward wordsmithing to a greater degree than does the comparatively paltry 35 allotted by Words with Friends.

Executive summary: if EA doesn’t address the login situation in Scrabble, it’s going to be difficult to justify the dog and pony show necessary merely to play. All the gloss and thoughtfulness means nothing when confronted with repeated blockades each time the app is launched. I therefore find myself frustrated; yet, I am, until further notice, a Scrabble man. I wish I could be optimistic that EA was on the ball.

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