Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Scrabble back on top: the irony

Apparently Scrabble is now Britain's best-selling game, for the first time in decades. And the article credits, among other things, the popularity of Scrabulous (though the spokesperson for Mattel, noticeably, doesn't.)

Let's recapitulate the Scrabble story:


  • As a game it is decades old. My great-grandfather brought back a set for the family, in the 1960s, that my grandparents still own. My parents bought one in the UK in 1980, that they too still own. We bought a set here the other day, of which more below.

  • It is curiously fragmented in ownership: in the US and Canada it is owned by Hasbro, and in the rest of the world by Mattel, by virtue of their purchasing J W Spears, the original creators of the game.

  • As with so many old British things -- Morris/Ambassador cars, Enfield bikes, P G Wodehouse, Agatha Christie -- the game stayed popular in India long after other games surpassed it in its country of origin.

  • A couple of years ago, two brothers Agarwalla from Calcutta created an online application, Scrabulous, that proved an astonishing success, particularly in its facebook version. The popularity, as a secondary effect, boosted sales of the board game.

  • Predictably, the owners of the Scrabble trademark (specifically, Hasbro, the US owners, as well as Mattel, owners in India and elsewhere) were upset and sued to stop Scrabulous. Facebook buckled and removed Scrabulous, but the website remained available.

  • Soon afterwards, the Delhi High Court ruled, very sensibly in my opinion, that though Scrabble is a trademark and Scrabulous is confusingly similar, the rules of the game itself could not be copyrighted and the Brothers Agarwalla could resume service under a different name.

  • Perhaps anticipating all this, the Agarwallas had in fact already created a similar game, Wordscraper, that differed from Scrabble only in the absence of the blank tiles and in the fact that it permitted a customisable board. Wordscraper remains available on Facebook.

  • Subsequent to the court ruling, Scrabulous resumed service under the name Lexulous. As of now, it has not returned to Facebook. I am not sure about the reaction of Hasbro and Mattel. My guess is that they want Lexulous shut down too, and don't care about the increase in sales: to them, it's the principle of the thing.

  • There is now an official Scrabble application on facebook. In fact there are two: one by Hasbro and available only to users in the US and Canada, and one by Mattel available only in the rest of the world. So I can't play with friends in the US. But that's ok, because the interface is dreadful, and Lexulous is available.


Footnote: Interest being re-piqued, I am one of those responsible for increased Scrabble sales in India. We bought an official board, in a handsome box reminiscent of the one my parents bought years ago, for Rs 599. Alas, the board in the interior is unbelievably flimsy and ugly-looking. Better results would have been obtained with a colour printer and some cardboard purchased in a local shop. I regret having contributed to Mattel's coffers, and have promised myself not to do so in the future. I hope the Agarwallas see the opportunity here, and produce a board-game of Lexulous that is more solidly built than Mattel's pathetic offering; I think there will be a good Indian market for it.

5 comments:

Tabula Rasa said...

scrabulous! wordscraper! lexulous! my status symbols! or is that tenuous links to sanity!

wv: worrys (see, i told you so.)

ps. your move.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

I didn't get the wv bit. And as for worrys: not in sowpods. Did you mean: worries

Tabula Rasa said...

wv = english for captcha.

wv: cousta. as in, from x to x.

Peter said...

Is Scrabble really that great?

Take a look at this:

http://www.wildwords.us

Anant said...

Nice post! I too enjoyed playing the game when I was a kid. Never realized that there is so much skulduggery behind such things.