Games and Their Overvalued Points

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Carl Bialik of the Wall Street Journal brings us a smart article on overvalued points in games. In short, the issue is that rule changes in games like Scrabble (allowing new words like "qi" and "za") allow players a new way to exploit the system, throwing it out of balance. Some high-level players argue that when a rule change allows in new high-value type of play (like "za"), the overall scoring system needs to change to account for it, rebalancing the game. Others disagree, seeing the rule change as a simple evolution of the game's already-complex rules. From Bialik's piece:

For some -- especially opponents -- "za" is too cheap and easy. The New Yorker recently published a letter from Matthew Butterick, a Los Angeles lawyer and Scrabble player, bemoaning the preservation of the original tile values as long as the new words are being added. He acknowledges changing the rules might hurt his won-loss record: "I realized that fewer people wanted to play me because I like to use words like 'xi' and 'xu,' which most casual players consider to be a form of black magic."

Larry Sherman, who has been ranked as high as 35th by the National Scrabble Association, also would like to see score changes. "X, Q, Z and J were originally assigned high values because of their rarity in our language," Mr. Sherman says. "Dictionary additions that make it much easier to use these letters contradict the game's internal logic."

But his brother Joel, a former champion, responds, "Good players adapt their play to the changes in the dictionary; changing the values only accommodates weak players."

The argument of those wanting to rebalance the tile scores seems to hinge on an assumption that the original game (in this case, Scrabble) was perfectly balanced -- meaning that the letter scores and the allowed word list were somehow in perfect harmony. As a nonprofessional (and indeed, sort of bad) Scrabble player myself, this seems unlikely -- the official Scrabble word list (see SOWPODS) is huge, and its relationship with the tile scores is unimaginably complex. Letting in new words undoubtedly changes the balance in some way, but it seems that only the highest-level professional players will ever notice...and haven't they already benefited from such imbalances throughout the game's history? Bialik points out that this problem is not isolated to Scrabble:

For amateurs, these are hard points to come by. But as professional kickers have specialized and improved their technique, field goals have become more common. National Football League teams last season made nearly 85% of field goals, compared with barely 60% in 1974, according to Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats. There were two successful field goals for every three touchdowns last season, compared with barely two for every five touchdowns in 1974.

Read the article for a nice overview of the issue, including an image showing Alfred Butts's original letter frequency tabulation.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user garlandcannon, used under Creative Commons license.)

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March 31, 2009 - 10:48am
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