Playing Scrabble: How changing the rules can enliven the game

Photo by SOULSANA on Unsplash

Game-playing is supposed to be fun, right? And, part of the fun is adhering to a set of rules that everyone agrees to and then exploring what interactions happens within the bounds of those rules (a lot like life, if you think about it…)

But what about changing well-established rules?

That’s what our family did-well, really my mom did-with Scrabble, long ago.

My mom is Dutch, so English is her second language. She emigrated to Canada and then the US over 60 years ago. She became enamored with playing Scrabble as a fun way to improve her English. From the time I was about seven years old, the most coveted thing I could hear her say was “Do you want to play Scrabble?”

Playing Scrabble was a ritual that meant spending time together. It always included drinking tea and eating cookies. There was never a sense of urgency in playing. I was encouraged to take my time playing with the tiles to form words. Although we were playing to win, it was not a combative game. The dictionary, for instance, was never seen as tool to challenge each other, but rather as a lifeline or friend to confirm that the word you had created was real. In fact, mom encouraged us to try new letter combinations out, to look them up and see if they were legitimate, to even scan the dictionary a little.

“Scandalous! That’s cheating! “ (I know that’s what you’re thinking.)

But the thing is, it wasn’t cheating, not under our house rules for playing Scrabble. We had decided that looking through the dictionary was okay. That’s because the goal was never to see who had the best built-in vocabulary, but rather to inspire us to hang out together, to love words, to get creative with words and to grow our vocabulary. The dictionary became a magic book that might wield an actual legitimate word from the unlikely letters we had.

We have two agreed upon rules regarding the dictionary, in our version of Scrabble:

We have other rules too. One rule we added was that it was okay to have a list of all the acceptable two-letter words on the table while playing because it levels the field to have these available. Oh, the two-letter words I have learned playing Scrabble! Did you know “jo” is a Scottish Sweetheart? “Bo” is a friend? And, “qi” is the life force?

And then there are the two blanks. We decided we wanted them to last longer, so we made up a rule that if you have the letter that the blank is standing in for then (on your turn) you can swap the blank for that letter. And, it isn’t instead of taking a turn either. It’s just a bonus and it helps keep the blanks in play for longer.

This is the Scrabble I taught to my girls when they were young. It’s the Scrabble we still play almost every time we gather-on the custom board our daughter made in shop during college. And, it still comes with the ritual of drinking tea (now often decaf) and eating cookies (now usually grain-free and sugar-free).

But recently in the last year or so and especially during quarantine, my husband and I have changed our Scrabble playing rules up again. I LOVE playing Scrabble, while my husband tolerates it. I discovered that it was much more fun for him if we didn’t play the game all in one go. So, we now play a floating Scrabble game that may start on a Tuesday at 10 am and not end until Sunday afternoon. Each of us can take as long as we like. It’s become a fixture in our house that ongoing Scrabble game. We both work remotely, but now we can wander out of our office and sit down at the table and work on a Scrabble word. It’s relaxing. It’s fun.

The holy grail in Scrabble is finding and placing a “whole word” (one that uses all 7 of your tiles.) If you do so, in addition to the points you get from the word itself, you get an extra 50 points. During quarantine, my husband and I added an even MORE scandalous rule-change to do with using all 7 tiles.

Fair warning: if you are die-hard traditional Scrabble player, just quit reading now. You might not be able to take this change…

We decided that one player can ask the other player to look up whether it is possible to use all 7 tiles on the given board. So, say my husband asks me if I will look up his letters, then I check and advise if there are any 7 letter words (or 8 or 9 letter words using letters on the board). He then knows how hard to try to keep looking for a whole word. While I was initially resistant to this rule, I have found it adds a fun dimension to the game. I try so much harder to find a whole word if I know it’s possible! J

So, there you have it-our scandalous, but SO MUCH FUN rules for playing Scrabble.

The thing is all kinds of games-especially the game of life-can be more fun if you change up the rules sometimes. We can all be bound by rules that no longer serve us, rules that take the fun out of playing, rules that give an unfair advantage to one person or another. I say the important thing is playing together, so enliven things-make up some new rules! The only “rule” per se, is to agree upon the rules before playing!

Photo by SOULSANA on Unsplash

Originally published at on August 11, 2020.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Marijke McCandless

Marijke McCandless


Marijke McCandless is an awareness practitioner, playfulness instigator and award-winning writer. Her recipe? Listen. Play. Write.