Magnificent 7… Literacy-improving games

Recent research revealed that the traditional board game is on the rise again. Despite the fact we live in an age of sophisticated games consoles, smartphones and tablets, sales of the cardboard variety are up between 25% and 40% annually according to the Guardian.

As well as the age-old favourites, dozens of new, beautifully-made boxed games come to market every year. Pubs host game play nights for board enthusiasts. And, of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a game or two for the whole family.

While games clearly offer hours of fun, growing up it was easy to ignore the fact that many were designed with the education of our young minds in, er, mind.

Here’s our round-up of retro games (not all involving cardboard) that aimed to improve our vocabulary… even if they weren’t altogether too successful.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s when card games were all the rage pre-televison, Waddingtons came up with Lexicon “the card game of skill, laughter and interest”.

This bold claim was attached to a deck of 52 cards each marked with a letter of the alphabet and a point score. Two to four players took 10 cards each, and proceeded to complete a word from their cut of the deck. Opponents then substituted or added letters to create new words, or swapped cards for better ones with the remainder in the deck.

The aim was for players to ditch their cards as quickly as possible by being as wordy as possible, and thus avoid being left with a high 100 point score and be eliminated from the next round… Sound complicated? There were plenty of hours to catch on while listening to the wireless back in those days. The game was still being made into the 1960s.

Possibly the world’s best-loved spelling game, Scrabble has outlived pretty much every other lexical game of its era. A prototype was first developed in 1938, but didn’t achieve widespread acclaim until James Brounot bought the rights and renamed it Scrabble in 1948 (paying the originator a royalty on every set subsequently sold – nice).

Two to four players take turns to arrange any number of nine letter tiles into words – the letters each having an individual score that accumulates. Strategic play involves placing your word across premium squares on the 15×15 board for extra points.

So beloved is Scrabble it has spawned a side industry of magnificent proportions: There is an official Scrabble Champions tournament, plus many national championships. Serious players aren’t without their Official Scrabble Players Dictionary and Word List. General fans may have a mini fridge magnet set or commemorative tea towel.

Banal facts abound in relation to Scrabble – such as the fact the longest game ever played was recorded at 153 hours… in Birkenhead.

Where do you go when you’re bored with Scrabble? Games makers the Milton Bradley Company (more recognisible as MB Games) believed the only way was up – and in 1981 created Upwords, a form of stackable Scrabble. Billed as the “3D game of high-rise word building”, letter tiles are placed on a board (so far, so familiar). The twist comes with the fact that you can create new words by placing tiles on top of others – and the more of a word skyscraper you create, the higher the score.

While it has never been played with the fervent devotion reserved for Scrabble (although it is available in 20 languages), Upwords has garnered a particular following in Hungary and Turkey, where national tournaments are played, and an online game playing community exists too.

Word Search
Games company Waddingtons wanted its slice of the lexical pie, and in the mid 1980s developed Word Search – a 3D multi-player update of the game normally requiring a pen and paper. Players must first randomly arrange a large set of quite posh looking wooden round tiles on a board, leaving clear four central spaces. The aim of the game is to slide other letters on the board into a new position to create words. Vowels and consonants each have a different value, and so depending on what you spell, your points accumulate.

“The fast-moving, quick-thinking board game” was invented by MB in 1977 and is now a vintage rarity. Players challenge one another to unscramble words they have compiled. Once you’ve concocted your conundrum, you rotate the board set the clock for your opponent in a countdown. The game has a passing resemblance to the conundrum section of TV quiz Countdown. Which came to Channel 4 in 1982… Five years after the creation of Wizzword. Cenidiconec?

Another grid, this time in a 4×4 formation. But throw out the boring tiles in favour of dice to get Boggle. Simply put 16 dice in the plastic tray, add the lid and shake until you’re dizzy. Once the player has allowed the dice to settle, three minutes are allotted for players to record all the words that can be spelled by linking adjacent letters in horizontal, vertical and diagonal directions (up to 17 consecutive characters). Players can challenge the validity of each other’s words for added fun or, in the case of siblings, foul arguments.

Boggle is played with a fervency almost akin to that of Scrabble, and the official Scrabble dictionary is a recommended extra even though there is no rule-making body or tournament regulations. Several universities in the US have had Boggle clubs, including Dartmouth and UC Berkeley.

For some players the 4×4 Boggle grid wasn’t enough, and so game-makers obliged with Boggle Master (a 5×5 tray) and Super Big Boggle (a 6×6 grid). Ruzzle, a phone game based on Boggle, was one of the most downloaded smartphone games in 2013.

Speak and Spell
A vintage 1980s gadget, Speak and Spell by Texas Instruments reached the peak of its fame in ET the Extra Terrestrial, when the eponymous alien vandalised a console in order to make contact with his home planet.

Speak and Spell was a highly coveted handbag-shaped computer fashioned from lurid orange plastic. Its primary function was to scare children into spelling correctly by learning rote from a very tiny angry American man hidden inside the console (as my imagination had it at six). Woe betide any child who didn’t realise the American spelling of flavour lacked the letter ‘u’ (an early lesson on language differences across the pond). The mean electronic man was quick to scold: ‘Wrong, try again.’ Fail a second time and you lost a point: ‘That is incorrect. The correct spelling of flavor is…’ Some of the words didn’t even sound like English, meaning you’d never get full marks on the test.

As the console’s sheen wore off, children gave Speak and Spell new uses. Top of the list was making the angry American man inside seem even angrier by spelling out rude words, or using the repeat button incessantly. Parents would come to regret buying Speak and Spell for long car journeys. A true classic.

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