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Word Score! Scrabulous Returns As Lexulous

For fans of online word games, an old friend is back ... sort of. Last year, the popular, albeit unauthorized Facebook version of Scrabble known as Scrabulous disappeared in a puff of lawsuits — leaving hundreds of thousands of word enthusiasts in the lurch.

Now, the creators of Scrabulous have quietly relaunched a somewhat adulterated version of the game called Lexulous. Stefan Fatsis, NPR's resident Scrabble guru, talks with Michele Norris about this new, pseudo-Scrabble experience.

Michele Norris: What happened here?

Stefan Fatsis: [Scrabulous] was exactly Scrabble: Same board, layout, colors, tiles. Scrabble is owned in North America by the toy and game company Hasbro. Hasbro absolutely had to protect its ownership of the game here.

So, last summer, it sued the Argawalla brothers in India who created the game, on intellectual property grounds. The brothers reportedly wanted several million dollars to sell the game to Hasbro — Hasbro declined. And it created its own version of Scrabble, an authorized version, that you can get on Facebook.

How is Lexulous different from Scrabulous?

As part of the settlement, [the Scrabulous creators] were allowed to create a disemboweled version of Scrabble. There's a grid and tiles and premium squares — double and triple words and letters — but it's not Scrabble.

You play with eight tiles instead of seven; the premium squares are in different places; the tiles have different values — the Q and Z are worth 12 points instead of 10, for instance — and the numbers of each letter has been tweaked. This matters not only aesthetically, but it also matters in terms of what your brain does when you play this game.

What does your brain do differently when you play this new version of the game?

Eight is a weird number to have in terms of the number of letters. We're so used to seeing Scrabble the way it is. It was invented during the Depression by this architect named Alfred Butts. He experimented for years with all of these issues — the size of the board, the number of letters and blanks — and he didn't realize just how right he got it. Sort of like how 90 feet is the perfect distance between the bases in baseball.

Seven turns out to be the number of pieces of information that our brains are built to process well. So when you have eight letters on a rack — and I just played a game of Lexulous today — it feels unnatural, and trying to anagram those eight letters feels more difficult.

So I guess Scrabble fans can vote with their fingers. Which game are they choosing?

For a lot of people, I think this is less about the specifics of Scrabble the game than it is about loyalty to the old Scrabulous — and there is some anger at Hasbro for shutting down the game in the first place. Scrabulous was, indeed, cleaner, sleeker, more user-friendly than Hasbro's online application. ... But if you're a hardcore Scrabbler who's used to the real game, you're going to want to find a place to play Scrabble.

Why did it take a couple of guys in India to demonstrate that there was this untapped demand for Scrabble?

Entrepreneurs see what giant companies often don't. Especially when have you an old analog company like Hasbro trying to navigate a digital world. Hasbro has been unable to develop a game that satisfies the competitive player — the person like me who memorizes words — as well as the casual but Internet-savvy player, while at same time meeting what it considers its own commercial needs.

I've been playing the Facebook application — because I like Facebook and want to play against my friends — but we competitive players also go to a renegade site that's operated out of Romania that has not been shut down as of yet. And there are no bugs there — like one I encountered yesterday when the Hasbro game refused to let my friend Austin play — and I'm serious about this — play the word "scarabaei" which is the plural form of scarab, a beetle. It was a remarkable play but it didn't go down because the computer wouldn't let it. It was a glitch.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stefan Fatsis began talking about "sports and the business of sports" with the hosts of All Things Considered in 1998. Since then he has been a familiar weekly voice on the games themselves and their financial, legal and social implications.