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Crossword Anagrams -

just another Scrabble ripoff?

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*** Background and Game Components ***

Scrabble took its final shape in 1948. The country went Scrabble nuts in 1953. As with any huge success, Scrabble spawned its imitators. There were a handful of word games that came along hoping to take over, or at least grab their piece of the pie. Not surprisingly, you've never heard of any of them.

But I say one of them has at least a small claim to some sort of "legitimacy." It was called Crossword Anagrams:

Crossword Anagrams box top.
Crossword Anagrams
It keeps the Entire Family Spellbound

Here's the board, complete with premium squares:

Crossword Anagrams board.
Crossword Anagrams board

And here are the tiles and racks:

Crossword Anagrams tiles and racks.
Crossword Anagrams tiles and racks

Even without being told the rules, you can see it oozes Scrabble through and through. (Maybe not as blatant a ripoff as Words With Friends, but don't get me started...)

So why do I grant Crossword Anagrams some sort of legitimacy?

Because Crossword Anagrams is an ever-so-slightly modified version of a very Scrabble-like game, called Anex-A-Gram, that preceded Scrabble by 10 years!

I have a page devoted to Anex-A-Gram detailing its components and rules, and it will be well worth your while to visit that sometime. But you don't need to right now. What you need to know about Anex-A-Gram is that it was very Scrabble-like in every way except for the scoring. The sole object was to be the first to empty your rack. Points were not scored on a play-by-play basis for the words you formed, but were awarded to you, in the negative sense, according to what you were caught with in your rack when someone went out. (And even that forms part of Scrabble scoring.)

That was 1938. Fast forward to 1953, and I'll bet there was some wailing and gnashing of teeth in the offices of the Embossing Company, who had produced Anex-A-Gram. (Much like at Decca Records, I suppose, when the president discovered a slip of paper in his desk drawer showing that he, in his almighty wisdom, had rejected the Beatles.)

So what did the Embossing Company do? Add scoring to the individual plays and reissue Anex-A-Gram as Crossword Anagrams, ta-da! Incidentally, they enlarged the 13x13 board to Scrabble's 15x15, sprinkled it with premium squares, and folded it. After chopping the racks down to Scrabble size, Crossword Anagrams fit in a Scrabble-like box, which, no doubt, sat right beside Scrabble's depleted spot on a shelf in all your finer stores.


*** Rules (the inner lid) ***

Here are the Crossword Anagram rules. You can also see them in plain text further down this page, where I highlight the differences with the Anex-A-Gram rules in red.

Crossword Anagrams rules.
Crossword Anagrams rules

In a nutshell: Scoring for a given play is simply 2 points for each vowel played, 1 point for each consonant played, plus 5 points for each "+" square you cover. If you empty your rack, you get 10 bonus points and are awarded the points that would have penalized the players caught with leftover tiles in Anex-A-Gram. Play to 200.


*** A real Crossword Anagrams game! ***

Here is perhaps the first Crossword Anagrams game played in 60 years. Both Anex-A-Gram and Crossword Anagrams limit you to "never more than 4" tiles per play. Perhaps you know of my mission to open up Scrabble to the biggest, juiciest words in your vocabulary. In spite of that, we just imagined it was 1954, that I had never heard of Scrabble (haha!), and jumped into Crossword Anagrams according to the box top rules.

It was fun. It works. It involved much more thinking than I would have guessed. You'd often find yourself stewing over several options: "Should I go for the points? Or should I play to keep a good rack for going out?" People who may take years, if ever, to start thinking about "rack management" in Scrabble will be faced with it right off the bat in Crossword Anagrams.

And while the "four tile" maximum may sound to you like an oppressive, "4-letter word" maximum, understand that words often get stretched beyond four letters. In fact--and prepare thyself for a shocker--the average length of all the words you see on the boards below is 3.6 letters. To an outsider, that may sound pretty pathetic, but let's compare it with the five playoff games of the 2015 National Scrabble Tournament, in which the word length averaged just 3.7 letters! And that with no constraint on the number of tiles played! So the very best of the best Scrabble players on the planet can only squeak out a measly tenth of a letter more than recreational Crossword Anagrams players. Yeowch...

If you skimmed over the preceding paragraph, go back and read it.

Here are all 8 rounds of that historic, Thanksgiving 2017, 3-person game. The riff-raff you see are the unplayed tiles from the two players who got caught, plus, in a few pictures, the "discard pile".

Crossword Anagrams game, round 1.

Crossword Anagrams game, round 2.

Crossword Anagrams game, round 3.

Crossword Anagrams game, round 4.

Crossword Anagrams game, round 5.

Crossword Anagrams game, round 6.

Crossword Anagrams game, round 7.

Crossword Anagrams game, round 8.
First Crossword Anagrams game in a lifetime!

If you're skeptical, as I was, of the need for a special rule against simply tacking S's onto the end of words, don't be. That is a carry-over from the basic Anagrams game. We oh-so-smart Scrabble players know how such a restriction is hardly necessary since you'd be squandering a great letter for chump points. But in Crossword Anagrams, where emptying your rack is a main goal, it makes perfect sense to put a damper on such a mindless tile dump. (Dang, I now see we violated that rule at least two times.)


*** Some House Rules? ***

The box top rules gave rise to a good, close game, 214 to 195 to 123. Still, in a heartbeat, I would add "swap for the blank" (i.e. the Plus Tile). With its difficult letter distribution, Crossword Anagrams, perhaps more than any other game, cries out for it.

And, with a few more test games, I confirmed (for me) my suspicion that you deserve to score for all the letters in your main word, not just for the letters you played. So, if you add -ED to HUFF, you score 8, not 3.

Here are a few more house rules for your consideration.

To make more satisfying use of the 15x15 board, and reach the outer premium squares, play two rounds on the board before clearing it.

A very modest "3-letter minimum" rule is placed on going out. This means the main word formed must be at least three letters long. It is not a requirement on the number of tiles played; you might form a 3-letter word by playing one tile.

Here's an idea for keeping the scores bunched closer together and making a win more meaningful. For a new round, each player starts with the tiles left on his rack from the just-finished round, BUT... each player may hand off his least favorite tile to the player who is currently leading (which is not necessarily the player who just went out.) Then, everyone replenishes his rack from the bag.

The rules aren't explicit about how the Plus Tile is scored. Our interpretation is that it scores like the letter it stands for, either 1 or 2 points.

I implore you to not use the ridiculous Scrabble 2-letter word list with such a warm and friendly, old word game. Here's a suggested list of down-to-earth 2-letter words. Who needs to go any farther out in the language than "id", whatever they might be?

  AD   GO   MA   RE  
  AH        ME       
  AM   HA   MY   SO  
  AN   HE            
  AS   HI   NO   TO  
  AX   ID   OF   UP  
  AY   IF   OH   US  
       IN   ON       
  BE   IS   OR   WE  
  BY   IT   OX       
  DO   LO   PA       

In any case, the 2-letter words play a much lesser role here in Crossword Anagrams, which is more of a cross-word game, than in Scrabble, with its rewards for plunking small, complete words from your rack alongside a word on the board.


*** Rules (text) ***

Here are the Crossword Anagrams rules again in text format. The differences with the Anex-A-Gram rules, from 1938, are seen at a glance in red. The differences really boil down to the new scoring for each word played; the 10-point bonus for going out; and the penalty for leftover tiles converted into a reward for the player who went out. Otherwise, the games have the same tile set, the same discard pile, the same flow of game play, the same criteria for acceptable words, and the same rules for valid word formation.

A Word Building Game for 2 to 4 Players

Place the Board in the center of the table, and the letters on one side of it. Turn the letters face down, thus forming the Draw Pile. Draw one apiece. Player whose letter is nearest "A" starts the game. Put these letters back and shuffle the pile. Draw 9 tiles, when 3 or 4 play. When 2 play, draw 12 and use 2 racks each.
Put your letters in your rack so no one else can see them.

Be the first to get rid of your tiles . . . and score the most points.

Each time you lay a word down on the Board, you score for each letter laid down.

2 points for each vowel (a, e, i, o, u).
1 for each consonant (the remaining letters in the alphabet)
5 extra points for each letter that covers a red square.

1. First player draws one tile (The Discarded Letter) from the Draw Pile and places it, face up, on the opposite side of the board to start the Discard Pile. Now, studying his rack, he selects any 2, 3, or 4 of his letters (never more than 4) that spell a word and places that word in the middle of the board.
2. Next player to the left tries to make another word by adding from 1 to 4 letters (never more than 4) to the first word. Suppose the second player has "C", "L" and "M", and the first word is "LAMP." He can get rid of his "C" this way:


Better yet, he can use all three (3) letters thus:


3. If the third player has "A", "D" and "I", he can play:

     Correctly              Incorrectly
     C                      C   
     L                      LAID
    LAMP                   LAMP 
     MAID                   M   

In the correct example, he has spelt in addition to the word "MAID", the words "MA" and "PI". In the incorrect example, in forming the horizontal word "LAID", he has made the vertical letters "IP" which do not form a word. As in crosswords, all words must read from top to bottom and from left to right. No unfinished word can ever be left on the board.

Whenever a player can't make a word with the letters in his own rack, he discards one tile, face up, along side of the Discard Letter. He then can draw either the Discard Letter, or turn it down and take a tile from the Draw Pile. In either case, he loses his turn until the play comes around again.
If the Draw Pile gets used up, give the Discard Pile a good shuffling and use it for drawing. Then turn up a letter to start your new Discard Pile.

Proper names, words not in a dictionary, abbreviations, and plurals are not permissible. Exceptions:--
1. You can't add "S" or "ES" to any word on the board unless you're spelling a word that begins with "S" in the opposite direction.


(The word "shoe" was played last.)

2. If "S" is already on the board as in the "MAST", it's O.K. to form the word "CATS".


You're in luck if you draw a tile with a plus sign (+) because at any point in the game it can be played as any letter. Once played, however, the Plus Tile is always considered the letter for which it was played.

If you're the first to get rid of your Tiles, you score 10. You also get:

1 for each consonant
2 for each vowel
5 for each Plus Tile remaining in your opponents' hands.

The first player to score 200 points wins the game.

Example of completed crossword:

     O  VEIN
     PANE  ODE
    HEN N  TO
      YES   NINE


*** Afterword ***

When I first heard of Crossword Anagrams, I set up a running search on eBay. It took more than 3 years for one of these babies to come up (October 2017). As was the case with my Anex-A-Gram, I was the only bidder. (As was the case with my Anex-A-Gram, one tile was missing and I could make a neat replacement from a corner of a folded Scrabble board -- how ironic!)

You know from my Anex-A-Gram page that I found that game somewhat unsatisfying due to its lack of a reward for making the plays you put so much effort into. I bent over backwards trying to save it, but I'm afraid "Anex-A-Gram II" ended up feeling like a sort of crippled Scrabble. And here comes Crossword Anagrams with its goofy little scoring system which would never have occurred to me in a million years--and it makes a pretty good game. Who can figure?

I don't kid myself that it will happen, but I'm sure Crossword Anagrams would be a much better game for school students than Scrabble. No, no, I'm not calling for the Embossing Company to dust off and oil up ye olde Crossword Anagrams assembly line; we can use a Scrabble set with Crossword Anagrams rules.

All you have to do is mark out, or color over, alternate premium squares along the diagonals, and treat the remaining ones (except for the middle star square) like "+" squares. Here's a Scrabble board modified for Crossword Anagrams (click to enlarge):

Scrabble board modified 
for Crossword Anagrams (Click to enlarge.)

If you want to closely mimic Crossword Anagrams' 70-tile set (see letter distribution at very bottom), remove 4A, 7E, 5I, 4O, 1D, 1L, 3N, 3R, 1S, and 2T from the Scrabble set. (Hey, those are my favorite ones!) I suppose the Scrabble letter distribution would work just fine directly, but maybe Crossword Anagrams derives some of its charm from its severely consonant-heavy letter distribution.

Of course, Crossword Anagrams will be played with a more natural word set, maybe even a student dictionary. (Horrors!)

Just think... schoolkids playing words as big as the Scrabble champions do!

Thanks to Maggie Johnson and Amanda Dash for joining me in the delightful and historic Crossword Anagrams game documented here, and to Amanda for the photos of our game board after each round.


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Here's the 70-tile Crossword Anagrams letter distribution:

Vowels: 5A 5E 4I 4O 4U.
Nice consonants: 3D 3L 3N 3R 3S 4T.
Not-so-nice consonants: 2B 2C 2F 2G 3H 2K 2M 2P 2V 2W 2Y.
Bummer consonants: 1J 1Q 1X 1Z.
And 2 Plus (+) Tiles.