Back to index of Scrabble pages by Donald Sauter.
Please visit the Scrabble For Word Lovers introduction page.

Keyword -

Parker Brothers' answer to Scrabble

For your internal navigation convenience:


*** Background ***

Maybe you've noticed I'm a Scrabble fan? My main bag is generating interest in Scrabble rehabilitated as the world's most intelligent and exciting, vocabulary-based, big, healthy word game, as opposed to the modern "strategy" game based on the smallest, strangest words in the language. See the links at the very top of this page.

But I've also gotten caught up in the exciting early history of Scrabble. This led me to Anex-A-Gram, a Scrabble-like game predating Scrabble by ten years(!), and Crossword Anagrams, which was Anex-A-Gram slightly modified by its makers to make it even more Scrabble-like in the hopes of cashing in on Scrabble's phenomenal success in 1953.

Anex-A-Gram and Crossword Anagrams seem to have had very limited success, based on their scanty mentions on the internet and rare appearances on ebay. On the other hand, Parker Brothers' rival to Scrabble, called Keyword, is all over the place.

Which isn't to say that anyone has written up any expansive thoughts on the game.

Hey, while you're here, maybe I'll give it a go!

Scrabble's success must have galvanized Parker Brothers into immediate action; Keyword shows a 1953 copyright. It seems to have been quite popular, in both the U.S. and U.K., lasting at least through the 1950s. Parker Brothers changed the graphic artwork several times, and went through a variety of tile and rack designs. They offered basic and deluxe editions. LIFE Magazine showed my set in an edition around Christmastime 1955.

Keyword box top.
A Crossword Game


*** Game Components ***

Here's the 19x19 Keyword board. That's like a Scrabble board with two extra rows all around. (Very nice for big word lovers!) The fine print on each Key Square says "+ 20".

Keyword board.
Keyword board

Don't let the board intimidate you; the rules and strategy are instantly graspable, as we'll see below. But if you're wondering about the four quadrants of different colors, I'll say that a color square acts as a "double letter score" for the player of that color. So in Keyword every player has his own great, big pool of double letter scores! A Scrabble player might wonder, "How on earth could that work???" Perfectly well, you'll see.

Here are the 96 Keyword letter tiles. I've laid them out intertwined with a standard set of Scrabble tiles so you can compare the frequency of each letter at a glance.

Keyword letter frequency.
Keyword letter frequency -
as compared to the standard Scrabble set.

Sorry about the upside-down H.

I hope the non-alphabetic layout doesn't throw you for a loop. I think of Scrabble tiles in families: the vowels; the nice quadruplets spelling SLeD; the nicer sextuplets spelling TRaiN; the spunky 3-point twins spelling CaMPBeLL(using the bLLanks); the grouchy 4-point twins spelling FHVWY (huh?); the big gun singletons (JKQXZ); and the only triplet (G). For fun, visit my Counting Scrabble Tiles page sometime.

Here are the precise numbers.

      Letter Frequency 
    A   9     6     -3 
    B   2     1     -1 
    C   2     3      1 
    D   4     4        
    E  12    11     -1 
    F   2     3      1 
    G   3     2     -1 
    H   2     3      1 
    I   9     7     -2 
    J   1     1        
    K   1     1        
    L   4     3     -1 
    M   2     2        
    N   6     7      1 
    O   8     6     -2 
    P   2     2        
    Q   1     1        
    R   6     7      1 
    S   4     6      2 
    T   6     8      2 
    U   4     3     -1 
    V   2     1     -1 
    W   2     2        
    X   1     1        
    Y   2     2        
    Z   1     1        
    _   2     2        
      ---   ---    --  
      100    96    -4 Totals

I've always maintained that Scrabble is a little vowel heavy. Keyword goes maybe a tad overboard with the consonants. Ignoring the Y and blank, Scrabble is 44% vowels; while Keyword takes that percentage down to 36% vowels. (Pardon me for viewing Keyword as a modified Scrabble, but it can't possibly be otherwise.)

Regarding some of the specific letter adjustments, I question chunking the B and V down to one each while upping the F and H to three. But I guess the designers had to do something; if they left it at BB FF HH VV WW YY, it would have smelled just like Scrabble. When you think about it, Alfred Butts's letter distribution for 100 tiles is pretty darn hard to beat. (If only Alfred had swapped out an I for a third blank -- and made the blanks reusable. Sigh...)

It seems that the British edition had a slightly different letter distribution. Someone reported seeing sets with 2B and 2C (not 3C); I've seen a set with 2B and 5S (not 6S).


Keyword racks.
Keyword racks

Notice the color coordination with the board. If you are Yellow, say, it will be good to land on yellow squares. This rack design is annoyingly insubstantial, three of them weighing little more than one Scrabble rack, and barely long enough to hold the 10 Keyword tiles, never mind provide room for shuffling.


Keyword cards.
Keyword cards

And there's a hefty reward for putting aside your quest for big, satisfying words, if you can, to play the little 3-letter "keyword" currently showing. For the record, the 12 keywords in my set are: AGE CAT DIG FOX MAP PIN RUN SHE TEN THE TOP YOU. Deviations have been reported.


*** Keyword Rules ***

Keyword is just a Scrabble variant, so if you're familiar with Scrabble word formation and scoring, you're almost ready to go.

In Keyword, you only score for the tiles you play; that is, there is no scoring for words incidently formed crosswise to your main word. (Good rule for big word lovers!)

There are four colors, Red Yellow Green Blue, and each player chooses a color. We'll use Green as our example. Suppose you're Green and you play your word.

A tile that falls on a plain, non-green square scores 5 points. ("Plain" means any square without a key, including the gray squares in the middle.)

A tile that falls on a plain green square scores 10 points.

A tile that falls on a non-green Key Square scores 25 points.

A tile that falls on a green Key Square scores 50 points.

And that covers it.

Keyword also has an extra twist -- from which it gets its name -- where a 3-letter "keyword" card is turned face up, and a player who forms that word gets a 50-point bonus.

If you go out, you are rewarded with 5 points for each tile left in the other players' racks. On top of that, you get 50 points.

Not now, but for reference, here are the complete 1954 Keyword rules in pdf.

You'll find severe constraints on the use of the S. You CANNOT tack an S on the end of a word (noun or verb) on the board, even in the service of hooking your own word across the end of it. The word you play CANNOT be a plural noun or "third person singular" verb ending in -S or -ES. The rules DO allow you to plunk your noun or verb in front of an S already on the board. (I'm not sure I see the necessity of these restrictions on the use of the S. And I'm afraid we didn't fully grasp them in our first games, below.)


*** Our first four Keyword games ***

Here are our first four, 4-person Keyword games. They were played totally honestly, meaning, each "color" doing his darndest to win.

Game 1
Keyword game 1.

    Game 1
    Red           Yellow        Green         Blue
    ---           ------        -----         ----
     35 untrue      - yearnful   55 rainier    45 thrives
     60 welkin     85 fatherly   55 sociable   40 poxes
     95            85           110            85
     30 wadding    65 conquests  35 eateries   50 potters 
    125           150           145           135 
     80 election   55 corny      30 path
    205           205           175+50+60=285 (1st)

Game 2
Keyword game 2.

    Game 2
    Red           Yellow        Green         Blue
    ---           ------        -----         ----
     45 accepted   80 spinners   85 steadiest  75 blocked
     55 tar        25 watery     60 fail       30 foxier
    100           105           145           105
     70 orifice    30 failURE    30 squints    85 untimed
    170           135           175           190
     75 stagger    65 stoney     20 hoops      25 need
    245           200           195           215+50+55=320 (1st)

Game 3
Keyword game 3.

    Game 3
    Red           Yellow        Green         Blue
    ---           ------        -----         ----
     40 cottage    95 fattest    55 worth      65 worthINESS
     65 plead      50 frigid     95 insulation 40 swank
    105           145           150           105
     60 huffily    45 churls     50 vexer      35 tempting
    165           190           200           140
     40 frozen     70 somberly   50 decor      30 kite
    205           260           250           170
     70 dosage
    275+50+20=345 (1st)

Game 4
Keyword game 4.

    Game 4
    Red           Yellow        Green         Blue
    ---           ------        -----         ----
     25 baize      85 chats      25 waxen      60 grottiest
     55 helping    30 afoot      60 statement  75 indicia
     80           115            85           135
     30 joy        55 coyness     - unspaced   55 emigrate
    110           170            85           190
     60 fronds     70 deckle     80 sprouted   30 rush
    170           240           165           220+50+60=330 (1st)


*** Thoughts on Keyword ***

Great game! The bonus system works!

Look at those nice, big, healthy words, and consider that they were played in the service of racking up filthy, vulgar, arbitrary points. Almost every play (call it 48 out of 58) cashed in on a Keyword bonus, meaning the word landed mostly on squares of the desired color, and/or hit a Key Square. That can't be obvious looking at the Keyword board, with not even a quarter devoted to any color, and with its paucity of Key Squares -- just 16 out of 361 squares.

In a nutshell, Keyword is a word game and a strategy game all rolled into one. I tip my hat to the Parker Brothers team. It's kind of funny to imagine the scene in the Parker Brothers war room back in 1953. "All right, men, your mission is to come up with a Scrabble that's not a Scrabble. NOW!"

A minor concern is that the player who went out won every time, coming from 2nd, 3rd or 4th place to blow-out wins of 80, 75, 85, and 90 points.

And it looks as if there's a slight disadvantage to going first. Player 1 doesn't really have anything to shoot for, while opening up the floodgates for everybody who follows. And if he plays more than 3 tiles, he sets up an easy shot at two Key Squares, which would yield 50 or 75 bonus points right there. That explains the walloping plays, FATTEST=95, CHATS=85 and FATHERLY=85, you see above.

No player capitalized on the keyword card in any of the four games. (Do you see how sickly FOX, MAP, SHE and TEN would look on those boards?) I remember one situation where I could have scored about 15 points more for playing a keyword and taking the 50 point bonus, but I went with a bigger word for greater tile turnover in my rack. (Honest, it had nothing to do with self respect!)

I mentioned the heavy shift towards consonants in Keyword, as compared with the Scrabble letter distribution. Consonants are much more fun to work with, so I'm happy with that. But you can see the consonant heaviness in the leftover tiles: 34 unplayed consonants to just 4 vowels!

Which reminds me, in Keyword, the JQXZ are inveterate baddies. (And lookie there, just three U's for the Q now!) So modern Scrabble players be forewarned, no buckets of mindless JQXZ points showering down like manna from heaven!

Finally, let me apologize for GROTTIEST in Game 3 -- a word that wasn't even born until 1964. When I play a nice, moldy, old word game, I insist on an even more conservative word set than I use in Scrabble. Sorry folks, but I couldn't resist. (I'm a grotty person...)


*** Some House Rules and Fixes? ***

Without a moment of hesitation or indecision: SWAP FOR THE BLANK if you have a letter in your rack for which a blank on the board is standing. I say it loud, I say it proud: We played all the games you see here with "swap for the blank!"

You score for all the letters in your main word, not just the letters you played. Each letter that was already in place scores its base 5 points. This isn't simply a nod to Scrabble; it's only proper that you be rewarded for the whole of the word you came up with, no matter where the tiles came from. It also makes "stretch plays" (such as worthINESS and failURE in the games here) more worth considering.

I don't see any reason why the first word must be played with the first 3 letters covering the YWO spaces. (You'll notice we were ignorant of that in our games.) Maybe Player 1 wants to get "good" letters on the border of his own quadrant; or "bad" letters on the boundary line of his opponents' quadrants.

And I really, really don't see any reason for the constraints on using the S. I say, anything goeS!

A brainstorm regarding the 3-letter keyword! If you can form the keyword, you may make any other play and receive either the score of that play, or the score of the keyword play, whichever is greater. Now you don't have to throw strategy (and self respect) out the window, or mess up the board, to collect your reward. You might use such a turn to play off some troublesome letters, for example.

These games were all 4-person games. But what about two- or three-person games, with whole quadrants sitting there with no mommy or daddy? My idea is that on every turn, after replenishing your rack, you also randomly draw your assigned color for your next turn. You can figure out a way to do that with cards, chips, or rolling a die, say, but I found a friendly, fitting solution: Sorry pieces (red! yellow! green! blue!) in a bag. You will draw a color after every turn, even after the tile bag is empty.

Sorry pieces for Keyword.
Sorry, men -
not included.

Ditch the 50-point going out bonus? Certainly in Keyword tournament play (haha). But I've noticed that for a lot of recreational Scrabble players, the thrill of going out is almost the main thing, and I have no objection to a game where going out gives a major final boost to the happy player who manages it.


*** Keyword vs. Scrabble ***

Do you see what I see? Big words! If Keyword had won out over Scrabble, I'd have been spared a 30-year (and counting) crusade on behalf of the world's word lovers.

The average length of all 68 words you see on the final boards is 6.0 letters. Ignoring the 10 short connector words (which don't count in scoring), the average length is 6.6 letters. In comparison, the words on the boards of the 5-game playoff at the 2015 North American Scrabble Championship averaged a mere 3.7 letters.

How can that be, ordinary brains leaving the best Scrabble brains on earth in the dust in word formation? There are reasons, of course.

1. Keyword has a 10-tile rack versus Scrabble's 7-tile rack.

2. Keyword has an enlarged, 19x19 board. Look back at the 4 games; any word reaching into the outer two rows would have smashed into Scrabble's 15x15 wall.

3. But those are just little boosts. The fundamental difference is that, in Keyword, you only score points for the main word you form.

It's because Scrabble scores all the words formed in a play that Scrabble became an eensy-weensy-word game. Everyone sooner or later realizes you can make more points playing HO/HA on triple letter score than by stretching out HALOES, say, almost anywhere on the board. (And because HO/HA isn't any fun as far as words are concerned, Scrabble convinced itself that it's really a "strategy game" -- as if there isn't the same "strategy" involved whenever you are faced with a choice between big words, such as HALOES up here versus SHACKLE down there.)

The crazy irony for me is that, over the years and years of rehabilitating Scrabble as a big, healthy word game (which I call Scrabble For Word Lovers, did I mention?), the thought often crossed my mind, "What about just doing away with the scoring of the secondary, connector words???" But I would reject the notion as soon as it came to me, knowing I'd get my face scratched off. I'd do better asking a Scrabble player to play blindfolded. In a bees' nest. But if the rule was laid down by some unknown wizard behind a curtain at a real game company, then that's ok! "Sure, I'll sit down and have a game of Keyword with you!" Funny, funny world... Anyhow, rest assured, Scrabble fans, Scrabble For Word Lovers retains scoring for all your "clever" little connector words. (Just don't expect to win with them.)

Ending on a bit of fluff, do you know how the 5-point Keyword tile came about? I wasn't there, but I'll bet I can tell you. Because if Parker Brothers had gone with the simple and obvious 1 point per tile (scoring 2, 5 and 10 on the premium squares) the puny, double-digit game scores would look so pathetic compared to Scrabble that nobody would play it. And no amount of explaining that points are arbitrary, and it's the relative score that matters, would do the trick. In an early experiment with a 1-point-per-tile Scrabble variant, trying to get Scrabble off the little words, you never heard such moaning and groaning! And even a promise to multiply all the final scores by 10 didn't help!


*** Appendix - all the words in our First Four ***

The 68 words from our first four Keyword games average about 6.0 letters in length. In four Scrabble games, you would expect about 160 words averaging about 3.5 letters.

KITE (4)
JOY (3)
DO (2)

Bum words kicked off the board:



Contact Donald Sauter: send an email; view guestbook; sign guestbook.
Back to Donald Sauter's main page.
Back to the top of this page.