wordhog, or, going hog wild with game design.
Last semester, I worked with my classmate Jesse Sell to design a board game for our graduate course CMS 950: Workshop. We share a love for word games and puzzles, and wondered if we could break into this hallowed realm of the game world.
The result? Imagine if Scrabble and Carcassonne had a baby. We combined the word building objective of the former with the landscape and path building of the latter to create Wordhog. Here, I’ll describe how to play the game, share some of the feedback we received during playtesting, and outline some our design challenges.
In this game, two or more players build words along horizontal and vertical paths. Unique to Wordhog are tiles that, when put together, form paths, much like the tiles played in the board game Carcassonne. Players lay down one tile at a time matching tiles along open and closed sides, which create paths of words. Words are read horizontally and vertically, and tiles may be rotated to be played in any direction. On each turn, the player does not necessarily complete a word (as they might do in Scrabble), but instead must add tiles that can build towards a legitimate, non-proper noun words.
When a player completes a word that is three or more letters long, he or she claims those tiles. However, these tiles may be “hogged” by an opponent when he or she either adds another letter to the word, creating a longer word and therefore winning back all of the tiles in the word, or when an opponent creates an intersecting word. At the end of the game, the player with the most tiles, and therefore points, wins. The “hogging” system thus incorporates an element of the strategy game Reversi (also known as Othello), a two-player game in which players place double-sided tokens on a board to change tokens that are in a straight line to their color.
A few more notes on the rules: Players maintain seven tiles in their hands at all times. The game ends when all of the tiles have been played or no other moves can be made. (If you want to see the complete ruleset, feel free to contact me—see the about section.)
The intended audience for Wordhog is for word game and word puzzle aficionados. However, the game is not intended for the most elite of players, but rather a more general audience interested in playing with language. One playtester, who has played Scrabble often but does not identify as a fan of the game, noted that “this game is easier than Scrabble, and I like that.”
Board game version
We originally conceived of Wordhog as a board game with contents consisting of 84 tiles and colorful tokens that mark tiles a player has “won.” The board game version presented a few challenges, some of which are addressed in the app version of the game. However, the board game version has many positive characteristics. In a game in which only one tile is played at a time, a physical board game allows for faster-paced and more social, enlivened game play. Additionally, as in Scrabble, players can challenge each other’s moves in this version of the game. When a player questions whether an opponent’s addition to a string of letters will lead to a valid word, he or she may challenge the opponent; if the challenged player cannot provide an example of a word that uses the letter sequence, he or she loses a turn.
After receiving feedback from a few playthroughs of the game, someone suggested that the game would work very well as an iPhone application. We mocked-up the potential designs for digital version below.
The digital version of the game has some inherent benefits coupled with a few significant drawbacks. First, the digital version of the game allows for a clean and ordered board which clearly defines which players are in control of which tiles and tracks the number of points each player has. Any time a player wants to reorient his or her tiles, they can do so without losing the orientation of the letter. The digital version also allows for extended play. This allowance can be seen as both an augmentation or as a detriment to the game. If players feel stuck, they may want to put the game down for a moment and come back to it later; however, this feature may lead to frustration or lack of motivation in some players. Additionally, players cannot challenge one another’s word choice and have discussions about it. Instead, the program dictates what is and is not an acceptable word.
The number of tiles in a player’s hand became an issue in creating the mock-ups for the app version of the game. It quickly became apparent that seven tiles were too many and the screen looked cluttered. While we don’t believe that this change would have significant impact on gameplay, it could limit a player’s options throughout the game.
We knew early on that we wanted to make a Scrabble-Carcassonne hybrid; we did not, however, know how to end our game. In our initial test sessions, we ran into the issue of play sessions lasting much longer than expected. Eighty-four letters ended up being far too many to expect two players to get through without feeling overwhelmed. As fans of word games, Jesse and I felt that the game was easy to play, but more casual players quickly revealed some flaws in our game. (That’s why playtesting with lots of different people and skill levels is important!) Players often felt as if their available moves were very limited. One playtester commented that “I had very few options to put anything” and that, sometimes, “it feels like your moves don’t have weight or strategy.”
To alleviate this issue, we allowed players to rotate the tiles and orient them in different ways to open up more play options and allow for further strategy. In the board game version, the result looks a bit sloppy, but this fix translates well into the digital version of our game. The orientation of the letter tile turned out to make perceptual difference in the game play. When all of the letters face the same direction, play seems much more cohesive and understandable. While reorienting the tiles afforded players with more options, it was more difficult for them to read the board and determine where best to play their tiles. One possible solution for the physical board game version would be to design tiles that have letters printed in multiple directions.
A few final thoughts…
Wordhog is a game which encourages players to build language skills in a fun and innovative way. The game is simultaneously more cooperative and competitive than classic word board games like Scrabble: Players add to each other’s string of letters, thus building words together, but they may also “hog” a word, stealing their opponents’ points. The game tests players’ mastery of vocabulary, spelling, and anagramming, while also incorporating new strategy, such as thinking about which tile to play—a closed side or an open one to try to end a word or elongate it—or how to orient a tile.