We live in an age of external participation in games. Watching people play games is so long-lasting a practice that I literally cannot imagine a place it started. Even the earliest games have examples of people caring about the outcomes of games they weren’t playing, one way or another. The immense video firehose that is the internet and its significantly lowered cost to engage is a way we can take formerly niche games and present them to their audiences.
David Webb is Very Good at Scrabble and word games. In the ecosystem of British Television, he is a serial prize winner, showing up on various TV shows, and winning you know, teapots and houses, and whatever else British TV gives people as rewards for winning on their particular kind of game shows. If you don’t want to watch for reruns of 90s TV shows to see Mr Webb at work, though, you can tune into his Youtube channel, and watch how every few days, he presents a new Scrabble match against high-level players, with extremely detailed, clear step-by-step thinking of him trying to win the game aggressively and how he does it.
If you’re used to videogame Lets Players, or streamers, you may be used to a lot more trash talk than Webb’s going to give you. He opens things with the same phrase (Scrabble, my opponent/I am on the play, let’s go), and then it’s just thoughtful, slow, methodical play of Scrabble. It’s with an online tool, which handles things like automatically checking terms; you can’t play invalid terms, and the game shows you the points return of a play, or the remaining tiles in the bag. There’s a lot of information and no real ability to bluff (more on that later). And Webb wins a lot of the time, but he also loses often too — when you’re playing against the best, in a game where outcomes can be influenced by random chance, what other options do you have?
What I find the most fun, and often I skip to, is when Webb finishes a match, he gives his seemingly-habitual analysis of the game (huge, huge, win for (me or my opponent)), then pulls up a move analyser. This involves replaying the game step by step, and he reasons through his choices, even honestly indicating where he gave up points and whether or not he thinks that’s a good idea. In this section there’s a shocked sound effect he plays any time he misses a bingo, where he realises there was a way to score a huge pile of points and didn’t get it. And he does! This is a guy who’s very good at Scrabble, he’s in the top rarified levels of this game and wins money playing it, when that’s an option, but he still misses seven letter, eight letter, and nine letter words.
Reassuringly, he also mentions how yeah, he’s really good at Scrabble, but the game is too hard for a human to play perfectly. It’s a very gentle attitude.
One of the funniest things on this very sedate, very British channel focusing on language puzzle games, is that Webb has expressed a concern that his audience, his fans, are made up of two separate streams of interests, and they don’t overlap much. See, in addition to playing Scrabble against other high-level Scrabble players on the internet, he also does a weekly solve of the Times Cryptic Crossword.
And like, I know it’s funny to me, but it’s also kind of true. I watch him solving the Cryptic Crossword and find myself getting angrier and angrier at the Cryptic Crossword. That’s meant to be solvable? That’s a thing a person is meant to tease out of understanding? How! How was that even vaguely tenable as an explanation of the term budgerigar?
It’s still good for learning how cryptic crosswords are made up of technical language, that you have to become familiar with to play. It’s not just a matter of looking at a puzzle and seeing what words fit, you have to learn how those clues are trying to justify being a clue for the word they are, and how little they want you to imagine that word.
This is a focus on online play, though. Face to face Scrabble (and other, non-dictionary-checking) Scrabble games involves an extra layer of strategy that involves not just playing words but lying about them. The rules in tournaments run that it’s the job of the opponent to monitor the board to ensure your word are valid. You play a word, and your opponent can challenge it, and if they challenge it, and the challenge is valid, the tiles leave the board and you lose the points. But if they challenge it and the challenge is invalid, they lose a turn. This is to keep people from just challenging too much.
Problem is this means that there’s an actual strategic element to choosing when to bluff, and when to lie, and that’s where this kind of gameplay comes up. I’m sure this feels unpleasant to a certain type of player; the idea that playing your opponent in a game that otherwise feels very asocial and technical is, no doubt, concerning!
I think I talk about Scrabble a fair amount. It’s a really interesting game because while its core principles are pretty stable, its pieces are really dynamic. For example, the scrabble dictionary used to reject a lot of alternate spellings of words. It also used to permit slurs. Now, it includes neopronouns and has opted to exclude words that are predominantly only meaningful as slurs. The pieces change, the core game stays, and top level play isn’t about understanding words as much as it is seeing words in terms of their relationships. There’s anticipation of potential pieces, there’s an awareness of a huge arsenal of possible terms, and there’s even room for bluffing in a game that ostensibly is about the most basic form of technical challenge.
It’s an incredible game!