Review: Qwirkle18 Feb 2014 0
Perhaps you've never thought about it like this, but Scrabble is partly a trivia game. If, for example, you happen to know that "qi" is an alternate spelling of "chi" (which the Scrabble Dictionary recognises), then valuable moves open up for you, and the game takes on a different tactical bent.
The fundamental insight behind Susan McKinley Ross's Qwirkle is that Scrabble actually has a pretty interesting game underneath the linguistic knowledge and anagram-crunching ability. In setting that game free, the design becomes approachable by a far wider array of groups of players. This accessibility has paid off, with a Spiel des Jahres (think boardgaming Oscar) win and rapid mass market adoption, and now a handsome iOS translation.
The game itself is simple and language-independent, and the computer enforces the rules, so even a preschooler could play. There are six colors and six shapes, but no duplicate tiles are allowed in a contiguous row or column, just like in Sudoku. Each turn, you place tiles in a contiguous row/column and then score a point for each tile in each row/column you've placed in (plus a 6-point bonus if you played the sixth in that line). Alternatively, you can turn in some or all of your tiles for ones which, you hope, won't be such abject rubbish. The overall flow of play looks like the growth of a crossword puzzle for extraterrestrial children, with players struggling to make lines as long as possible without repeating tiles, and with many intersections to maximize the number of lines scored.
What that preschooler couldn't do is manage her hand to set up large scoring opportunities later, nor manipulate the board to deny them to opponents. Here's hoping it's entertaining enough for her just to be playing with mom and dad, because if they're gamers, the poor child doesn't stand a chance. There is quite a bit of randomness in the tile draws, so poorer players have hope, as is appropriate for a family game, but wide skill disparities will be reflected in the score. I suppose, technically, a parent could let even a preschooler win, thereby fostering self-confidence and a love of games. I prefer to start my lessons on the brutality of existence before kindergarten.
There are some issues with the implementation. On the phone, the interface elements are small enough to cause trouble for the large-fingered, and the online multiplayer is both rudimentary and somewhat buggy. Same-device play seems to work well, though, and the convenience of the iPad nicely compensates for the loss of the tactile experience of playing with the tiles of the physical version. My biggest problem with Qwirkle is just that the foundation of Scrabble is not tremendously deep or rewarding.
Qwirkle is the Domino's pizza of games. I ate a lot of Domino's as a kid, and loved it, but I now regard it as sort of blandly unobjectionable. I've been told by an English friend of mine that, in England, Domino's is good pizza [blasphemy --ed.]. When I asked what they did differently, he clarified that the pizza is the same, but the alternatives are worse. In the world of mass-market boardgames, Qwirkle is good pizza, and you'll never have trouble finding someone happy to share a slice with you. Well, willing, anyway.