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A captivating quasi-expressional diversion or an abominable and ineffective feigning of its table-based progenitor?

There was an immortal scene in The Tall Guy in which Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson stood alone in Thompson's shoddy flat in the early afternoon. "Two people alone, in the middle of the afternoon," murmured Thompson. "Yes," replied Goldblum, "Ideal conditions for Scrabble".

Needless to say, they got up a good deal more than Scrabble that afternoon, but that's not the point. The game has proved fascinating to many people, although quite why I'm not exactly sure. It's been around in this country since 1954, the manual says, and over 35 million copies have been sold in over 90 countries since its launch.

The basic objective is to create words from your seven letters and place them on the board so as to score as many points as possible. Certain squares on the board double or triple the amount of points scored.

I must admit I was sceptical when presented with Scrabble. When the game has already proved so popular in its original form, why convert it to a less portable and far more expensive computer format? Well, I suppose the computer could at least settle disputes over allowable words. In addition, it provides an opponent of adjustable ability to challenge lonely Scrabble players with nobody to play against.

Boards can also be printed out for posterity, if you want, for example to adorn your walls with poster-sized Scrabble boards.

The game is controlled via the mouse, and during play the screen is composed simply of a board on the left-hand side and your letters and a few option to click on down the right-hand side. When it's your turn, you can click on letters and they'll appear at the top of the screen. Here you can rearrange them and when you've got a word you think will score well, select whether the word will read across or down, and drag this to the position on the board where you want to place it.

If you're stumped as to what moves you could possibly make with your selection of letters, there's a built-in help mode which makes suggestions to you. The dictionary runs to over 134,000 words, as listed in the Chambers Official Scrabble Words book.

The help mode can be set up to suggest anything from really basic low-scoring words to whopping great killer-moves. Apparently the record word score in Scrabble competitions is held by Dr Karl Khashnaw of Manchester, who scored 392 points for "Caziques" (which, also apparently, is the plural for a West Indian chief). Whether the help-mode could offer moves quite like that I don't know but it's still very useful.

Scrabble fans might be disappointed that a player's letters are displayed on-screen for all to see, although I really can't see any way of avoiding this. When it's another player's turn they do disappear again.

Graphically the game is about as exciting as Scrabble ever could be - that is to say, not very - and the sound consists of an irritating tune and not a lot else. However, this is excusable in a game of this type, since the emphasis is purely on making the gameplay as good as possible.

What else is there to say? Scrabble is Scrabble, and the computer version is a perfectly competent attempt at converting the game to a new media. The problem is that traditionalists will prefer the board game version anyway, and many people won't want to shell out £25 in these financially bleak times, when they could buy the original for a tenner.

The only disappointment for me is that in the computer version you can't cheat and swap your letters for more useful ones when the other players aren't looking.



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Many moons ago, on the 8-bit micros such as the C64 and Spectrum, a company called Leisure Genius brought out a computerised version of that old board-game classic, Scrabble. At the time it was considered to be brilliant, with a reasonably intelligent computer opponent and great presentation, including a feature known as 'dancing letters' - remember them? (it was a fancy way of jumbling up the tiles in your rack if you don't).

One massive problem with the game, though, was that the memory of the early 8-bit computers was very limited, and so only a small dictionary was possible. To get around this, when the program was confronted with a word which it didn't recognise, it asked you if it was a word or not. Easy, eh? Not really, because you could always enter something like 'HGQIKAJL' on two triple-word squares, and score something like 2,000 points. When Scrabble then queried the word, you simply pressed Y and the poor computer was powerless to resist.

Power player
Now, though, the big guns of the Amiga are blazing, and US Gold have considered that it's about time computer Scrabble was resurrected and brought up-to-date. The game is very similar in style to its 8-bit ancestors, but it has one major thing that makes it stand head-and-shoulders above them: a full OSW dictionary.

For those of you who don't play Scrabble, OSW is an acronym for Official Scrabble Words, which is a special book containing every word containing less than 10 letters that may be used in the game. This means that stored somewhere on the single Scrabble disk (yep, one dis), is a mammoth 134,000 word dictionary - certainly no mean feat.

So, you may be thinking, the Amiga must take ages to search through that dictionary for words, yes? Well, no, it doesn't - it's blindingly quick. This can be a little unnerving, because you can sit for ages racking your brains for a word, and the computer will immediately inform you that it's incorrect, and then quickly put another word down and begin waiting for your next go.

Each player has a time limit of 25 minutes for each game, which can't be changed, and which isn't very long for the average human. Fortunately, an option is included which enables you to adjust the average response time of the computer player - effectively a handicap system.

Depending on your lexical ability, whether you're a crossword master or you spell seize 'sieze', there is a difficulty level to suit you. There are 12 different settings available, from a layer with a basic vocabulary of around 2,400 words, to a Scrabble master who can pluck a word at will from anywhere in the huge dictionary - which includes many two-lettered words such as 'AE', 'AA', 'AB' and 'ZO' (essential if you're going to rack up plenty of points).

By now you may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the rules of Scrabble. That's because just about everybody in the world knows how to play Scrabble (if you don't then go and ask your mum or your grandad or somebody, because they're bound to know). Suffice to say that it involves several players taking turns to throw letters on to a board to form a crossword, and scoring points related to the complexity of the words formed.

Vile jumpers
OK, OK, I realise that Scrabble isn't exactly the sexiest game on earth, and that's probably partly because the president of the British Scrabble Association is in fact Gyles Brandreth. See what I mean? You shouldn't let this put you off though, because if you like using words, especially in crossword-type puzzles, there really is no better game than this. And if you need to peop up your English vocabulary, it'll help you along nicely in that direction too.

With tons of options, including a practice mode with a good help facility, and several save-game slots so you can continue a game at a later date, it makes an excellent opponent and referee for any Scrabble player, beginner or otherwise.



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It's been around in one form or another forever it seems, but now everyone's favourite word game is set to hit the Amiga, as Tony Dillon discovers.

When I first saw a Scrabble computer game (written by Leisure Genius for the Spectrum almost 10 years ago!), I remember thinking what a totally pointless conversion it was. Back then, the tools to create the sort of Artificial Intelligence and the storage capacity necessary for all the possible words just weren't available, and so you ended up with a very basic version of the game that was only slightly better than playing alone.

Now we reach 1993. The base level Amiga has at least 1Mb of memory and there are chess programs that can compete with Grand Masters. US Gold have brought forward Scrabble once more and this time I can honestly say that it gives me a real run for my money.

Everyone knows how to play Scrabble: intercrossing words are laid down on a grid rather like a crossword with a score calculated from the letters that make up the words and any special tiles the letters might be placed on. Each player has seven letter tiles, and each time they use one, it is replaced with a random letter. Play continues until no more words can be made and there are no more tiles to be drawn from the bag. Whoever has the highest score wins. And that's about it.

PUZZLE IT OUT
The question is, how do you take game that is already that simple and effective on a board and use a computer to improve on it? You don't. You merely add lots of options, menus and help and try to keep it as faithful as possible. Consequently, Amiga Scrabble lets you alter the colours on the board, play the whole thing in black and white with or without music, play with up to three other people or a computer opponent with 16 different skill levels (the highest of which uses a lot of strategy and tries to create nine letter words!) and use help if you like.

Help? Yes, to aid in your quest for Scrabble superstardom, you can get a little help from the computer. This comes in two forms - hints and advice.

Hints can be called before you make your move, and when selected the computer looks at your tile and the board and comes up with every single permutation it can, which you can then browse through. Advice is far more aggravating, though.

If you find the idea of someone whispering in your ear things like 'Oh no, you didn't want to do that' or 'I can think of a much better word than that' then you most definitely want to turn the advice off. After each move you make, the computer checks your letters and then tells you how many higher scoring words you could have made. This might not sound too bad, but it really gets up your nose when you have thought for hours, placed a six letter word scoring you 50 points, and the computer tells you that there are 72 more profitable words you could have placed! Aaargh!

All things considered though, Scrabble is a superb conversion of the original. If you like the game, then of course you'll want to get it. Otherwise, well, if words are your thing, then you could find yourself using it to sharpen up those skills. Scrabble may not be to everyone's liking, but this is a perfect version.


NO CHEATS

In the old days, if you entered a word it didn't recognise, the Scrabble program would ask you to confirm it, taking your answer in good faith. For the sake of looking really good on the high score table, I tried to play this new version the same way, only to find that you can no longer enter words the program doesn't know. Mind you, with a vocabulary of over 130,000 words, you'd be hard pressed to find one!