Monday, June 3, 2013

Review: Bananagrams (and Scrabble)

This was an interesting experience, having played Scrabble for years, growing up.

Bananagrams is a relatively new board game (I guess technically not, because there's no board), which is similarly based on the free form crossword structure that its much more venerable counterpart, Scrabble, is based on. I'd seen this game played several times before, but recently had my first experience playing it. This review is based on both my experience and more extensive observations having seen the game in action.

I'll be comparing this to Scrabble, and the review assumes at least a superficial knowledge of Scrabble.

Scrabble is a turn-based game. Either you play with timers and you'll find yourself pressured for time, or you don't play with timers, and can sit around for a long time while your opponent(s) find their ideal moves if things don't line up quite right.

Bananagrams has no turn system: the only structure in the game is a beginning, when new letters are generated, and when someone thinks they've won.

The advantage to this is that there's nearly no down time, however, it also means there's equally little player interaction. Since you're each working on your own crossword structure, and there are no turns, you're constantly active but your only connection with the other players is when they (or you) announce their/your moves (discard or generate new letters).

Scrabble has very tight strategy of position and timing. With bonuses and everyone sharing the same space, you want to control the board by forcing the other players to choose either poor locations or risk giving you bonuses.

The number of players alters strategy: against one other opponent, if you know you have two strong places you can play, you can be less careful, since your opponent won't be able to stop both, but more players means you can't predict the shape of the board by the beginning of your next turn, even if you have a

There are distinctly valuable letters: certain ones are incredibly flexible (most notably some of the vowels and the letter S), while other ones are tricky to use but are more valuable (such as the letter Q).  Not only are these valuable to you, but your opponent can take advantage of your valuable letters by playing off of them. Valuable letter might be better to save for a better position or if you're expecting to have trouble playing the board later.

The game only flows forwards and is participatory: the game always starts in the same place, and once each letter is played, there's no way to remove it. The first few turns will often dictate what happens in the rest of the board: it might be spread out and high scoring, or a few tricky plays early on might be advantageous but restrict the board and make it so you need to scrounge for places to play by the middle of the game even.

In contrast, Bananagrams is incredibly nebulous. You can actively rearrange pieces and position is only static in so far as it may be difficult to re-order your board quickly, and there are no borders on it. Again, each player has no interaction with others' boards, so you've got no positioning to vie for.

Pieces have no distinct value, so difficult pieces have no value other than utility.

The only strategy I've experienced in Bananagrams is near the end of the game, where, if you can arrange a few successes in a row, you can often overwhelm other players, though this seems largely a matter of luck and quick thinking rather than strategy.

Scrabble has a points-based system, with the lowest possible play being worth a single point, and particularly spectacular plays can be worth upwards of 100 (though most tend to be in the 10-40 point range).

When a word is played, opponents can challenge the word, with varying consequences (from skipping a turn to a point penalty).

One of the most influential parts of the lack of both turns and points is that wins and losses are absolute win conditions, rather than a spectrum. If a player finishes first, they win and all of the other players'  board states are inconsequential. If they finish first and make any mistakes, they lose, and the game continues without them.

I won't lie. I grew up with Scrabble, and don't particularly like timed things. Scrabble is still, in my opinion, arguably the best of the old school of board games (mentioned in the same breath as Monopoly, Risk, Stratego, etc... most of which I think are poorly designed methods of expressing chance and/or angering family and friends), and Bananagrams hasn't made me think any differently about it. Instead of comparing the merits in an inevitably biased manner, I'll compare the style of play.

Scrabble is essentially a strategy game. You have turns, compete for position, and use your knowledge of the field and your opponents to your advantage.

Bananagrams is a racing game. Yes, this is kind of a weird analogy, since racing games are generally video games, but I was trying to think about what I could compare it to, and this was what I kept coming back to. You're not competing against each other, so much as you're playing against the course. You have only indirect interaction with the other players until the end of the game, until someone wins.

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