Wordsmithing Like a Boss
In 1989, my mother made the tragic mistake of bringing me into this world. Ever since, she’s been punishing me with semi-regular games of Scrabble. First published in 1938, Scrabble is literally everything bad about old school tabletop games in one fusty little package. Look, if you like Scrabble, you’re not alone. The game still sells extremely well. But I’m telling you this: there are straight up better games you should be playing instead, and I’d like to take a little of your time to tell you one in particular – Letter Tycoon.
Dictionaries and Top Hats
Letter Tycoon is billed as a “word game for 2-5 capitalists”, which makes it sound about as interesting as counting five thousand posters of one rather large sheep to make sure they’re all identical. The game has also won a Mensa Select award, and you should apparently care what Mensa think because they’re an intellectually elite bunch of boffins. Unfortunately, it seems that you should care about what Mensa thought in 2015 because they hand picked at least two decent games. Firstly, they liked Castles of Mad King Ludwig, which is a cleverly designed game about building an insane castle with bowling alleys next to bedrooms. Secondly, they liked Letter Tycoon too, and for the most part, it’s really good.
Letter Tycoon is published by Breaking Games and designed by Brad Brooks. His first game was apparently called Aloha: The Spirit of Hawaii, which nobody I’ve spoken to has ever heard of. Mackenzie Schubert (perhaps soon to be of Secret Hitler fame) and Peter Vaughan are credited as the artists of Letter Tycoon’s absolutely stellar illustrations.
At the beginning of a game of Letter Tycoon you’ll have a deck chock-a-block full with letter cards. You’ll start by dealing each player seven cards and placing three cards face up in the middle, which is called the community pool. There are lovely wooden coin tokens which will be used to buy stuff and rectangular stock tokens (also wooden) which are essentially points.
On your turn you have two options: you can discard as many cards from your hand as you like and draw new ones, but with ten letters to choose from this rarely happens. Instead you’ll look through the letters at your disposal – the seven cards in your hand plus the three on the table – and build a word. At least one letter must come from a card in your hand. In the above example, you might use the EAR from your hand and the HT from the community pool to make the word HEART. Having a cheeky little look at the scorecard you would see that you have made a five letter word, which earns $3. If you make a six letter word or more you can start to earn bonus stock (which add to your points).
Monopolising the Letter “O”
Crucially, you may then use any money you have to purchase a patent for one of the letters used in your word. Every letter has a patent card: vowels are red, most consonants are green and consonants with special abilities are white. Once you’ve bought a patent then whenever another player uses that letter in the future the bank will pay you $1. Gobbling up these patents also helps you win the game. In our example, my $3 wouldn’t be enough to pick up the patent for the letters H, E, A, R or T so I’d have to wait until next turn.
Naturally, buying patents in the more frequently used letters earns you payouts more often, which means they’re more expensive, but buying patents of the lesser used consonants can help you on the way to becoming a card-carrying Letter Tycoon too. This is because they provide optional special abilities which are extremely powerful, so woe betide you if you avoid picking any of them up. Each of the special abilities are listed on the patent card and on the back of the rulebook (pictured below). For example: the V patent allows you to build and receive coins and stock for two words; Q allows you to discard and draw a card before you start tycooning for that turn. Everyone I’ve played Letter Tycoon with has liked the extra sauce provided by these special ability patents.
Once you’re done making words and buying patents, you discard all the cards you’ve used and restock them immediately. Ultimately, the game end will be triggered when one of the players controls an amount of patents equal to or greater in value than the goal card in play (which is based on the number of players, shown further below). Each player clockwise from the starting player will get one final bite at the capitalist alphabet cherry before points are totted up. The winner is the player with the highest combined value of patents plus coins and stocks. If there’s a tie, it’s the player with the highest value in patents who seizes victory.
Apple Cider Factories, Railroad Stations & Zeppelin Docks
The artwork in Letter Tycoon is wonderful. You’re building an alphabet empire here and, as such, the deck of letters is a “factory” deck. It follows that the A card is an Apple Cider Factory, the B card is a Bottling plant, the C card is a Construction Crane, and so on. This wholly unnecessary element to the game is one I’m really thankful for. Paperback, an absolutely stellar word game which uses deck-building mechanics familiar to games like Dominion, tries to push its own pulp novel theme into play but I feel it’s far less successful than Letter Tycoon. Adding in the ridiculously over-the-top first player token, the plastic Zeppelin included in Letter Tycoon is a beaut, and the wooden stock and coin tokens are welcome in a game that could have just had run-of-the-mill cardboard instead. Another wonderful little touch is that letter frequency and patent cost are listed on each of the letter cards,which is good design plain-and-simple.
Out with the Old and In with the New
So what’s wrong with Scrabble? Mainly, the problem with Scrabble is downtime. Whilst your fiddling around with your tiles, the state of the board can change quite dramatically. There’s little point in you setting up your wonderful “Zephyr” play because old Aunt Doris, seated across the table, might slap down ‘dog’ and steal your thunder. Ultimately, Scrabble is highly tactical too. If you’re just playing the best word you can think of every turn, my Mum and her neighbour are going to absolutely muller you (though the tea and cakes on offer will be lovely). Knowing stupid two letter words and capturing critical spaces on the board are crucial to success in a game of Scrabble where the daggers are really coming out.
While this downtime problem has been mercifully solved by Scrabble’s entrance into the phone and tablet game market, there are other issues. For one, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a game against a normal human being. Instead, you might end up locked in with a bunch of a cheaters who just Google the board position: “Kwyjibo?! ARE YOU KIDDING ME? CuteDawgs89 you BELONG IN A SPECIAL CIRCLE OF HELL POPULATED BY A BILLION BITING WEEVILS”.
So while Scrabble is passable on your smartphone, the game just isn’t that fun at the table any more. I was enthralled when I saw a collection of penny-farthing bicycles from the 1880s in a museum, but that doesn’t mean I want to start riding one around the park. Letter Tycoon offers much more interesting tactical choices: do I want to score big with a huge word but hand over a few extra coins to my Mum and Aunt Doris for their next turn because of their patents, or keep it tight and wait to make a huge move later? It rarely feels like I have to SCRABBLE (HA!) around looking for ridiculous words with Letter Tycoon and can instead focus on quite an involved, thinky game that’s very easy to explain and get on the table. In summary, my advice is this: consign your copy of Scrabble to the charity shop and pick up something much, much better. Get the game Paperback when it’s reprinted, get Letter Tycoon ASAP and make sure you treat yourself to a copy of the phenomenal Codenames too.
A Little Grumble About a Great Game
However, being an insufferable curmudgeon, I would be remiss if I didn’t moan about one tiny little thing. Just one stinky little rule. I’m talking about those three community cards in the centre of the table when you’re playing Letter Tycoon. As mentioned before, Scrabble increases downtime by failing to allow players enough information about their own turn while other players are making moves. Well, oh noes!, these community cards in Letter Tycoon cause the same issue too. After a few rounds of plotting how you can transform the cards in your hand and those on the table into a MONSTROUS BEHEMOTH of a word, only to have old Auntie Doris swipe the communal Os to play POODLE, you’ll just stop bothering. You’ll wait until it’s your turn to think about your play and slow down the game for everyone.
The aforementioned Paperback runs as smooth as a newborn’s rump because while your fellow wordsmiths are noodling around with their own cards, you can be thinking of your own big scoring word. In Codenames, the rival team captain can be thinking of their own word clue while your sorrowful band of misfits is trying to decipher your own genius clue. In contrast, these communal cards throw a spanner in Letter Tycoon’s nicely-oiled gears. However, the good news is that it’s easily fixable. As soon as you get this wonderful game, do the classic stereotypical-man-about-to-build-a-bookcase thing and hurl that instruction manual out of the window. Well, actually don’t, because it looks lovely and the rules are mostly sound.
But if you get frustrated with the rules as written, simply apply the following fix: let all players have ten cards in their hand to make words from; don’t use community cards. It won’t change the game diddly-squat and will cut down thinkywinky-yawnyawn time down to an absolute minimum. With this house rule in effect, you can mostly plan your turn before it comes back around to you. You still might alter things if Aunt Doris has gotten her grubby old mitts on the ‘o’ patent, and you want to ensure you don’t give her an extra dollar or two to use on her turn, but it’s not as game-crunchingly problematic as the three card face-up fiasco. In short, Letter Tycoon is a shining thoroughbred example of a modern word game, and Scrabble is a wheezing old mule. Do the right thing and take those tiles out behind the back of the barn. Trust me: 1938 was a really, really bad year. For everyone.
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I love playing board games and RPGs with people and spend far too much money on the hobby. I'll play any game at least once. In an ideal world, I'd find a suitcase of cash and become a full time board game player.