MICHELE NORRIS, host:
For fans of online word games, an old friend is back, sort of. Last year, the popular, if unauthorized, Facebook version of Scrabble called Scrabulous disappeared in a puff of lawsuits. Hundreds of thousands of word freaks were left somewhat in a lurch, but now the people behind the game have quietly relaunched a somewhat adulterated version of the game called Lexulous. Joining us now to talk about the move is our resident Scrabble guru, Stefan Fatsis, and Stefan, it's good to talk to you, and it's not Friday.
STEFAN FATSIS: Yeah, I do exist on other days.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NORRIS: So what happened here?
FATSIS: Well, Scrabulous became this huge hit, as you said on, on Facebook particularly. There was a craze, hundreds of thousands of users, people obsessing about it, a video tribute and the game was exactly Scrabble, same board, layout, colors, tiles. Scrabble is owned in North America by the toy and game company Hasbro.
Hasbro absolutely had to protect its ownership of the game here. So, last summer, it sued the Argawalla brothers in India who created the game, on intellectual property grounds. The brothers reportedly wanted several millions dollars to sell the game to Hasbro. Hasbro declined, and it created its own version of Scrabble, an authorized version, that you can get on Facebook.
NORRIS: So, word freaks, Stefan, have lots of choices. They can play the game sanctioned by Hasbro, but I'm curious about this new version of what we used to call Scrabulous that I guess we now call Lexulous. How is that different?
FATSIS: Well, as part of the settlement, they were allowed to create a disemboweled version of Scrabble. There's a grid and tiles and premium squares, double and triple words and letters, but it's not Scrabble. You play with eight tiles instead of seven. The premium squares are in different places. The tiles have different values. The Q and the Z are worth 12 points instead of 10, for instance, and the number of each letter has been tweaked. Now, this matters not only aesthetically, but it also matters in terms of what your brain does when you play this game.
NORRIS: So what does your brain do differently when you play this new version of the game?
FATSIS: Well, eight is a weird number to have in terms of the number of letters. And we are so used to seeing Scrabble the way it is. It was invented during the Depression by this architect named Alfred Butts. He experimented for years with all of these issues - the size of the board, the number of letters and blanks - and he didn't realize just how right he got it. It was like how 90 feet is the perfect distance between the bases in baseball.
Seven turns out to be the number of pieces of information that our brains are built to process well. So when you see eight letters on a rack, and I just played a game of Lexulous today, it feels unnatural and trying to anagram those eight letters feels more difficult.
NORRIS: So I guess Scrabble fans can vote with their fingers. And which game are they choosing?
FATSIS: Well, you know, for a lot of people, I think this is less about the specifics of Scrabble the game than it is about loyalty to the old Scrabulous - and there is some anger at Hasbro for shutting down the game in the first place. Scrabulous was, indeed, cleaner, sleeker, more user-friendly than Hasbro's online application. But if you're a hardcore Scrabbler who's used to the real game, you're going to want to find a place to play Scrabble.
NORRIS: So why did it take a couple of guys in India to demonstrate that there was this untapped demand for Scrabble?
FATSIS: Well, you know, entrepreneurs see what giant companies often don't, especially when you have an old analog company like Hasbro trying to navigate a digital world. Hasbro has been unable to develop a game that satisfies the competitive player, the person like me who memorizes words, as well as the casual but Internet savvy player, while at the same time meeting what it considers its own commercial needs.
I've been playing the Facebook application because I like Facebook, and I want to play against my friends, but we competitive players also go to a renegade site that's operated out of Romania that has not been shutdown as of yet. And there are no bugs there, like the one I encountered yesterday when the Hasbro game refused to let my friend Austin play, and I'm serious about this, play the word, scarabaei - S-C-A-R-A-B-A-E-I, which is the plural form of scarab, a beetle. And it was remarkable play, but it didn't go down because the computer wouldn't let it. It was a glitch.
NORRIS: And we should say that the old fashion boxed version of this game is just fine, too.
FATSIS: And it turns 60 years old this year.
NORRIS: Happy birthday. Good to talk to you, Stefan.
FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.
NORRIS: Stefan Fatsis is the author of "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players."
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