Words, words, words. (evaluation) Betsy Staples.
Some people like word games; others don't. To some, an evening or rainy afternoon spent playing Scrabble or Boggle with a literate partner is what an unlimited supply of quarters is to others. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to find a likeminded opponent. That is the beauty of computer word games. Some of them can be played with other people, of course, but they can also be played solitaire, offering the opportunity to sharpen your wits or improve your spelling or vocabulary skills.
The following are reviews of some of the popuarl word games available for personal computers. Not all are available for all computers. Not all are available for all computers, so check the Software Profile to see which ones will run on your computer. Monty Plays Scrabble
Monty Plays Scrabble is among the most impressive programming feats I have ever seen. Ritam has done such a good job with this game that it almost has to be seen to be believed, but I will attempt to do it justice in the following description.
It is easier to play Scrabble with Monty if you have handy a Scrabble board on which to duplicate the play of the game. Using the keyboard to rearrange your letters just doesn't measure up to the sensation of arranging your own tiles on your own little rack. The only problem is that I couldn't find a single computer that had enough room on its table or desk to spread out the board. I finally had to balance the board on a chair placed alongside the computer.
To begin the game, you can either have Monty choose the tiles for all players or you can choose the tiles for him. It is easier to have Monty do the choosing and tell you which letters you have to work with. From there on, the game plays exactly like a regular game of Scrabble.
When it is your turn, you see a colorful Scrabble board, complete with double and triple word and letter scores, on the screen. When you are ready to play your word, you press RETURN, and Monty asks what word you want to play. You simply type it in and tell Monty whether you want to place it down or across on the board. The board then reappears with your world flashing in the center, super-imposed over the game. You use the I, J, K, and M keys control the direction of your word as you move it into place. Monty then calculates and diplays your score; he may also add a congratulatory note--but only if your play was particularly good. Then he tells you which tiles to add to your collection.
When it is Monty's turn, you see the board again with the message I'M THINKING. The length of time Monty spends thinking depends on the skill level you choose at the beginning of the game. At the Novice level, he thinks quite quickly; at level four, Scholar, he can take several minute to find his best word. When he has made his choice, he tells you what letters he is using, so you can remove the corresponding tiles from the pile. You then see the entire board again with his newly added word flashing, and you place the tiles on the real board.
He calculates his score, displays it for you, and then asks if you want to challenge the word. Challenges are made according to official Scrabble Rules. Monty can also challenge your words, but you are the final arbiter; you must decide whether the challenged word is legal and tell Monty. If Monty makes a mistake, he apologizes: MONTY REGRETS HIS ERROR.
The games I played with Monty this past weekend were the best games of Scrabble I have ever played, in terms both of challenge from my opponent and the quality and point value of the words I created. I think this was because I was able to spend as much time as I wanted preparing my words; I did not have to worry about a human opponent threatening to go out for pizza during my turn.
Monty Plays Scrabble offers four level of play. At the Novice level, Monty plays like a good human Scrabble player. At the Scholar level, he takes so long to make his moves that I was tempted to go out for pizza. When playing at the higher levels, he increases the point values of his plays by creating two and three words at a time in crossword puzzle fashion. Oddly, at the Novice level he beat me by 16 points, while at the Advanced level, three, I was able to defeat him by about the same number of points.
Like Jotto, Monty has an enormous vocabulary. I thought that some of his words were just a bit much, however. How many humans do you know whose vocabularies include ala, Flied, yond, eth, op, cwm, and oxy?
As you may have gathered, the programmers of Monty Plays Scrabble have given Monty a personality. During his move he sometimes appears on the screen in lo-res graphics. When you use a word he doesn't recognize, he shakes his head and says: An interesting play, but Monty wishes to challenge. Monty, liek Jotto, is very polite, and I became quite fond of him during my play of the game. I even felt very guilty when I entered the illegal word pez and told him it was OK--just to find out what would happen, mind you.
I was suspicious when, during my first game with Monty, he "drew" 52 points worth of high value letters to my 25 points worth. I though theat perhaps he had become a little too human, but my fears were allayed during subsequent games in which the distribution of tiles was more equitable.
It is very seldom that I can find in a program as complex as this nothing to complain about. The game is flawless in its execution, and I recommended it highly. JOTTO
Jotto from Word Associates is a computerized version of the pencil and paper game we all played as kids (at least those of us who grew up to be editors did). It is also one of the few games you can play on the IBM Personal Computer in your office that does not have the graphics adapter. There is also a version for the Apple.
To play, you first think of a secret-five letter word, which you can write down on the special Jotto Scratch Pad that comes with the disk. Your word must be in English; and it cannot be a proper noun-those are the only limitations on your choice. While you are doing this, Jotto thinks of its own secret five-letter word. Then you both begin to guess.
You start by typing a five-letter word on your half of the screen. Jotto responds, telling you how many letters your guess and its word have in common. Then Jotto guesses, and you must reveal how many letters in the word it gussess are in your secret word.
You can, if you feel like cheating, enter non-words such as ABCDE. Both versions of the game know that you are cheating. The IBM version, however, is "too polite to tell you," according to author George Miller. The Apple version responds with "I don't know that word. Do you want to try another?" If you say no, it will accept your non-word.
The words guessed by both players remain on the screen, and you can keep track of the letters you think are in the secret word on the Scratch Pad. The first one to guess the other's word wins. If you make a mistake and give Jotto incorrect information about your word, it will eventually give up, asking what your word was. It will then tell you that you made a mistake and declare itself the winner. (Jotto never makes mistakes.)
The game is simple. the thing that makes it challenging is the same thing that makes it an extraordinary programming feat: the size of its vocabulary. Playing a preliminary version of Jotto, Dave Ahl was able to stump it with "quark"; he tried to do it again with the production version and failed. In fact, neither of us was able to come up with a word that Jotto didn't know. This does not mean that the computer always wins; it is possible to guess its secret word before it guesses yours, but your powers of logic and deduction must be in top form to do so.
Jotto is not a game for the casual arcader. It is a game for people who enjoy an intellectual challenge. If you like it the first few times you play it, you will not grow tired of it. It is the kind of game that will sit on your shelf and call to you from time to time, urging you to take just a few minutes off to try to beat it. Crypto Cube
DesignWare calls Crypto Cube. "The Family Word Puzzle" and couches the documentation in educational terms. It is also a genuinely enjoyable game, hence its presence in an article on game programs.
The game starts by offering you a selection of 50 word lists from which your puzzle can be made. The topics covered by the lists include such diverse areas as constellations, easy animals, writers, and Latin origins.
After choosing a topic, you may ask to view the list before beginning the puzzle. Then the program asks whether you want to use the pre-programmed puzzle or have the computer concoct a new one from your word list.
The game display is the blank face of one side of a cube. To play, you move the cursor around on the grid using CONTROL-I, M, J, and K. To flip a square so you can see what is under it, you press the spacebar. You may find a vowel, a question mark, or a blank square. If you locate a vowel, you get 5 points. If your land on a question mark, you must guess what consonant it represents; if your guess is correct, you get 10 points; if it is incorrect, you lose your turn and 5 points. If you turn over a blank square, you lose your turn. The computer keeps score for one or two players, and you can watch the points being subtracted from your score after every incorrect guess--a disheartening experience.
You may look at the word list from which the puzzle was made at any time during play, byt that seems an awful lot like cheating. Perhaps that feature is best used to equalize differences in vocabulary between players. A parent/opponent could, for example, offer to look away while a child examined the list during play.
The game is much more difficult to play than it sounds as I describe it here, and the word gamers on our playtest panel enjoyed it in both two-player and solitaire modes.
The one critcism I have concens the cursor control keys. Since the only difference between the letter J and a cursor movement to the left is the depression of the CONTROL key, it is very easy to find yourself "guessing" a letter J, K, or M and watching your points disappear when you really wanted to move to another square. There are many keys on the keyboard that are not used or letter guessing, and almost any combination of these would have eliminated this problem.
After you have learned all the words in the lists that come with the program, or if you have a list of words you want to practice, you can create your own word lists and have the computer scramble them into puzzles for you. Instructions for doing this are very clear and error trapping is good, so it is very difficult to make a mistake in this phase of the game.
The verdict: I like Crypto Cube. It is fun for adults and children alike, and a worthwhile challenge for people of all ages who want to improve their facility with words. Bomber Word
The packaging says that Bomber Word is "a unique graphic word game." Graphic word game, maybe; unique, hardly. Bomber Word is actually another version of Hangman.
It is not, however, a bad version of Hangman. The screen displays shows, instead of the familiar gallows, a row of small houses in the lower righthand corner. Above the dotted line on which you fill in the letters of the mystery word is a square in which the letter of your current guess appears. There is no provisions for display of the letters you have guessed on previous turns--a feature that even my elementary school teachers included on their blackboards.
You guess a letter by typing it in from the keyboard. It then appears in the guess square, and if it is correct, it is instantly transferred to the proper position on the dotted line. If the letter you guess is not in the mystery word, a small airplane flies across the screen from the left to right and bombs one of your houses. Unfortunately, the houses do not simply explode and disappear; after one is hit, you must wait for it to slide across the bottom of the screen and make its exit at the bottom lefthand side--a process that soon becomes tedious. When you guess the word, the screen display changes to a congratulatory message--always the same--and plays a rather long tune. Somehow, the promise of a "clver surprise" on the package led me to expect something a little more entertaining. Fortunately, you can cut the whole thing short by pressing the RESTORE key.
At the beginning of each round, you choose either hard or easy words. Easy words are said to have more vowels and be "more common in natural speech. Hard words are more difficult to guess," and presumably more common in unnatural speech. The hard words are, indeed, more difficult to guess, and, once again, this feature could be used to equalize differences in player skill.
Other options from which you can choose between games concern words that you add to the game yourself. To do this, you must first type in a 17-line program provided in the documentation, save it on cassette, and then enter your own words of up to eight letters. You may save these words for as long as you wish and practice them by choosing the proper option at the beginning of a round.
The documentation for Bomber Word is perhaps the weakest part of the package. It consists of a single 4 7/8" X 8" slip of yellow paper on which the typewritten information is printed. Everything you need to know to play the game is there, but the information is poorly organized and visually unattractive. The worst thing, however, is the presence of the non-word "cassette" in several places. Perhaps this is just a typographical error, but it seems to me that a spelling error of any kind is inexcusable in a spelling program.
At $29.95, Bomber Word seems a bit pricey for what it offers. At about $10 less, it would be reasonably entertaining way to practice spelling words. Pandemonium
Pandemonium, like Crypto Cube, is played on a grid. The difference is that in Pandemonium you place the letters on the grid yourself. The computer chooses letters for you, and you place them on the 5 x 5 grid one at a time as you attempt to spell words vertically, horizontally, and diagonally.
The game offers four modes of play, which significantly affect the way the game is played. Game one is the standard game in which th eprogram spews out 25 letters for you to arrange; you must take them all, and you can't move them around after you have made your initial choice. In game two, too, you are stuck with the letters, but after you get a chance to go back and rearrange them with the hope of getting a better score. In game three, you can't rearrange the letters, but you get to reject five of them as they are presented. In game four, you can both reject five letters and rearrange the grid at the end.
Needless to say, the last option leads to the highest scores. Letters are assigned point values based on the frequency with which they occur in English words: the vowels, L, N, R, S, and T are worth 10 points each; Q and X are worth 100 points each. Eight of the squares on the grid are "doubling squares which double the point value of the resident letter." The center square trebles the value of the letter.
Although the order in which the letters are generated is random, the frequency with which they appear corresponds to the frequency with which they appear in the language. Much of the time, this is actually bad news, because, although it makes the game easier, there is a limit to the number of interesting words you can make with vowels. In one game, for example, I was offered six A's, four R's, four E's, two F's, and two G's. Another time I got two Y's in a row. Perhaps a somewhat more sophisticated algorithm would have provided more interesting play.
The documentation, which is excellent, says that the game can be played by any number of people. It is, in fact, a solitaire game that can be enjoyed by a group in several ways: Players of differing skill levels can vie for the high score given different amounts of time. At the begining of each round, you must specify the length of the game you want to play--1 to 60 minutes or unlimited time--so an adult could match wits with a child somewhat fairly by giving himself a shorter time period in which to arrange his letters.
Since at the end of each round you have the option of replaying the letters you have just arraged, several players could take turns trying to get the high score with the same letters. The high score for the session is displayed on the screen but not stored on disk.
A less attractive scenario involves a group of players sitting around the computer making a committee decision regarding the placement of each letter--for this one you had better choose the unlimited time allotment.
In contrast to Jotto, Pandemonium does not have a particularly impressive vocabulary. The fact its entire vocabulary of three-, four-, and five-letter words is listed in the documentation booklet should have given me a clue, but I was disappointed, nevertheless, when it failed to recognize mourn, spate, preen, eye, and several other words that I played. It listed eyes in the Three-Letter Word Dictionary, but did not give me credit for the singular.
The documentation boasts that "the dictionaries contain most of the valid three-, four-, and five-letters words in the English language" with the exception of "proper names, obscure words, slang words, and uncommon spellings." I did not feel that the rejected words belonged in any of these categories, and it seems to me that a game that challenges you to exercise your vocabulary ought to be able to meet that challenge.
Aside from that one somewhat serious shortcoming, Pandemonium is a good game, and it should provide many hours of entertainment--and maybe even a little education--for players of all ages. Quotrix
Quotrix is a word game in which the guessing of a series of mystery words leads to the satisfying completion of a quote from a well known person.
Before the game begins, you have the opportunity to choose one of six skill levels and to set the number of players. As you begin the game, you see at the bottom of the screen the name of the person being quoted and a series of words all of whose letters have been replaced by question marks.
There are three "puzzle formats," selected at random by the program to help you guess the words in the quote. Load the Camel's Back is Middle Eastern style Hangman: you guess the letters in the word on which you are working. If you guess correctly, the letter is filled in in the word. If your guess is incorrect, the letter appears in a burdensome box on the dromedary's back and you lose points. The beast can carry only six of the superfluous letters; after that his back breaks and you lose credit for the word.
The second format is Word Jumble, a timed exercise in which you use the cursor control keys to arrange the letters of the scrambled mystery word in the proper order. This is at once the simplest and most difficult of the formats.
The third format is one which seems to appear most frequently. In Pick and Solve you choose from a list of about a dozen topics, including movie actresses, state capitals, Spanish words, French words, rock groups, and animal groups. The program then asks a simple question about the category you have chosen and you type the answer on a grid in the center of the screen. At the beginner level, you have six changes to get the correct answer; at the master lever, only one. When you get the correct answer, it is displayed on the grid, and you must choose a new category upon which to be quizzed. When the grid has been filled in, one of the vertical columns will spell the mystery word.
Pick and Solve is the weakest of the formats. If you have a good mind for trivia, you will enjoy testing your memory on the little quizzes--except when the same questions recur time and again--but you will feel absolutely no responsibility for having filled in the word. This part of the game would be much more fun if there were a way to earn extra points by guessing the word before the grid was full.
Likewise, the challenge of the whole game would be greater if there were a way to earn extra points by filling in words in the quite without entering one of the puzzle formats. You can choose which word you want to work on, but there isn't much point in doing so since you must work your way through every word. And it is nothing short of tedious to answer a question to fill in a one line "grid" solving for "a."
You are supposed be able to choose your word in the quote, your topic for the quiz, and your skill level by controlling a highlighted area with the cursor control and function keys. Unfortunately, this feature did not work on the disk we received. I called Insoft and asked for help. The woman who answered the phone surmised that I had a defective disk and promptly sent a replacement which had exactly the same problem. Further calls to Insoft elicited only assertions that they had never heard of the problem and offers of another replacement disk. I was able to use the selection feature by carefully counting my presses of the arrow and function keys, but that method was far from ideal.
Shortcomings aside, I felt myself drawn to Quotrix. As my deadline approached, I found myself putting off the writing of this review as I promised myself just one more chance to better my score. High scores for each player on each skill level are saved on disk, and the motivation was high for me to ensure that my scores in all categories were higher than those of other lexiphilic staffers. In many games of Quotrix I never got a duplicate quote, and I look forward to bettering my scores time and again.
Products: Monty Plays Scrabble (video game)
Jotto (video game)
Crypto Cube (video game)
Bomber Word (video game)
Pandemonium (video game)
Quotrix (video game)