During his four decades of life, the American author Edgar Allan Poe penned more than sixty tales and seventy poems as well as one play, two novels and a handful of essays and pamphlets — but only one tale amongst these would go on to inspire what would eventually become one of the best-selling board games of all time. ‘The Gold-Bug’, published in 1843, tells the tale of William Legrand, a patrician on a downward slide who seeks to restore his family fortune by means of locating a treasure buried somewhere on Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston, South Carolina. After managing to decipher a cryptogram (i.e. a short piece of encrypted text) written in invisible ink on a scrap of ancient parchment, and after being bitten (both metaphorically and literally) by a somewhat sinister gold-coloured scarab beetle, Legrand eventually unearths the treasure chest and restores his lost fortune.
As a pioneering blend of the treasure hunting and detective fiction genres, ‘The Gold-Bug’ was vastly successful and by far the most widely read of Poe’s literary works during his lifetime. The novelty of codes and ciphers gripped the 1840s public imagination, and Poe’s use of ‘secret writing’ or cryptography as a central motif of the tale ensured its immediate acclaim. Almost a century later, then unemployed architect Alfred Mosher Butts was reading ‘The Gold-Bug’ when he was ‘bitten’ by a flash of inspiration when reading a line detailing the English letter distribution. This, in turn, led Butts to his own analysis of English letter frequencies, the results of which were used to develop a word game named Lexiko. Rejected by games manufacturers, Lexiko was modified over the course of seven years and re-named Criss-Cross Words, with a few sets being handmade by Butts and the game remaining largely unknown. It would be another 10 years before, in 1948, James Brunot would buy the rights to Criss-Cross Words and re-name it, after some minor modifications, Scrabble.
Scrabble is straightforward enough: players score points by placing tiles — each bearing a single English letter — onto a 15×15 square playing grid. The game employs a crossword-style layout in which words read left to right in rows or downwards in columns. The placed tiles must form recognisable, dictionary-defined English words. Premium squares (e.g. Triple Word Score, Double Letter Score, etc.) help to maximise scoring. Informed by the era of its development and well-considered game mechanics the classic Scrabble has maintained its elegant simplicity despite being mass-produced for some 70 years, with each soundly boxed set including the iconic playing board and 100 letter tiles, plus four letter racks and a cotton tile bag. Not that Scrabble hasn’t succumbed to rampant gimmickry over the years; with two television game show versions (1984-1990 and 2011-2012) and myriad social and pop cultural cash-ins ranging from My First Scrabble, Scrabble Junior and Party Scrabble to Scrabble: Simpsons Edition, Scrabble: Pirates of the Caribbean Edition and even Scrabble: Chocolate Edition. Gimmicks aside, Scrabble remains an entertaining and accessible way to improve vocabulary and literary skills.
Playing time: 60 minutes
Scrabble is available in Chiang Mai from quality department stores.