Scrabble in Latin

For years, there has been a set of rules available from the Center for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, where they have actually been holding competitions, and an online setup for play at a distance, but recently I noticed that an officially licensed version has come out from a company called Tinderbox, with instructions in Latin. I spent some $55 to have a copy of the official game sent to me from England.

Now, I am happy with my purchase, but I happen to be a collector of games in addition to being a Latin enthusiast. But I thought I would make a few remarks that might be useful for others of a different bent but who might like to posses such a game for one reason or another.

First, the box is solid and looks good. The board is solid and looks very nice. The letter trays are as you might expect, and then there are the tiles. I had hoped that they would be interchangeable with the cheaply available tiles from an English-language set, but these seem to be where some cost-cutting was done. I don’t have an English set with me, but these for Latin seem to be cheaper in manufacture. Most of the individual tiles that don’t have actual defects seem fine, though thicker than what I’m used to. All of them are clearly stamped and appropriately glazed. But they’re not quite uniform in dimension. It’s not a big deal, except that I did expect that an officially licensed version that cost a lot of money would be at least comparable in quality to the version I can buy for ten bucks at my grocery store. Again, not a big deal in play unless you have the kind of friend who can not only play Scrabble in Latin, but can actually take advantage of data gathered from looking at the uneven-ness of the tiles on your bench. The person who can do all that will have other advantages in preparedness that will make this trivial.

The board itself is in Latin:

[li]Double Letter Score = Pretium Duplex Litterae[/li][li]Triple Letter Score = Pretium Triplex Litterae[/li][li]Double Word Score = Pretium Duplex Verbī[/li][li]Triple Word Score = Pretium Triplex Verbī[/li][/ul]

The officially licensed version has a different letter distribution from the University of Toronto version.

The University of Toronto Lūdus Scrabulārum, based on the first book of the Aeneid:
[li]0 points: Blank x2[/li][li]1 point: E ×12, A ×9, I ×9, V ×9, S ×8, T ×8, R ×7, O ×5[/li][li]2 points: C ×4, M ×4, N ×4, D ×3, L ×3[/li][li]3 points: Q ×3[/li][li]4 points: B ×2, G ×2, P ×2, X ×2[/li][li]8 points: F ×1, H ×1[/li][/ul]

Scrabble in Linguā Latīnā, made “in conjunction with scholars from the University of Cambridge and elsewhere, together with the Cambridge Schools Classics Project”.
[li]0 points: Blank x2[/li][li]1 point: E ×11, A ×9, I ×11, N ×6, R ×9, S ×8, T ×7, U ×7[/li][li]2 points: C ×4, M ×5, O ×5[/li][li]3 points: D ×3[/li][li]4 points: L ×2, P ×2[/li][li]5 points: B ×2, V ×2[/li][li]6 points: F ×1, G ×1, X x1[/li][li]10 points: H ×1, Q ×1[/li][/ul]

For the sake of comparison, here is the English distribution:
[li]0 points: Blank x2[/li][li]1 point: E ×12, A ×9, I ×9, O ×8, N ×6, R ×6, T ×6, L ×4, S ×4, U ×4[/li][li]2 points: D ×4, G ×3[/li][li]3 points: B ×2, C ×2, M ×2, P ×2[/li][li]4 points: F ×2, H ×2, V ×2, W ×2, Y ×2[/li][li]5 points: K ×1[/li][li]8 points: J ×1, X ×1[/li][li]10 points: Q ×1, Z ×1[/li][/ul]

I’m not an expert on the game, but a couple of things I note:
[li]The Tinderbox distribution distinguishes U from V, with the semi-vocalic V scoring five times the points. This could be interesting in play, but I have my suspicions that this distribution has not actually been playtested, because of my next point:[/li][li]Ten points for Q! Merry Christmas to you, too, Tinderbox. Granted, Q in latin is still yoked to U as in English – but there are so many more ways to use QU in Latin than in English. Even if you disallow Latin’s vast number of QU-pronouns, which the rules do not, whoever picks out the one Q from the bag can pretty much sit on it without risking much, confident that it will pay off big later on. Am I wrong?[/li][li]And of course, the University of Toronto does in fact run Latin Scrabble tournaments, so I think that distribution at least is getting plenty of play-testing.[/li][li]The letter values are given in Roman numerals on the Tinderbox tiles. I myself don’t set a lot of store by Roman numerals, but it’s a cute touch.[/li][/ul]

I myself take an interest in how to render modern gaming terms in Latin, though here there are no surprises in terminology:
[li]Alveolus - board[/li][li]Tesseris - tile (a bit of a problem if you have a game that uses both tiles and dice, but here quite appropriate)[/li][li]Pretia - point value of a letter[/li][li]Summa - player’s total score[/li][li]Summās subdūcere - to figure out the scores (subdūcere can be used for “balancing the books”)[/li][li]Loculamentum - a letter rack (literally “that which functions as a little location”)[/li][li]Quadrata - square[/li][/ul]

The Toronto version treats Lewis & Short as its official dictionary. The Tinderbox version has an online word checker which can also be loaded onto a portable device. Neither allows for enclitics except for those combinations that are common enough to merit their own dictionary entries.

Overall, while it’s nice to have the board and box for the licensed version of Latin Scrabble, it’s probably not worth half a century if you’re just interested in actually playing. If you wanted to just buy cheap English copies of the game and cobble the tiles together into one of the given distributions, you’d have to buy two copies for the Tinderbox distribution. For the Toronto version you’d need three copies just to get enough Q’s, or 4 to get enough V’s, though of course if you’re willing to treat V and U as interchangable, and convert a blank tile to a Q, then you could get by with 2 sets. In either case, there’s no way around having to re-score most of the tiles using a fine-point marker.

The guy running the program at the University of Toronto sells nice looking plastic sets with their distribution for $25 (Canadian?).

Interesting. We used to play Scrabble in Latin at school. The lack of Qs was noticeable, but having the option of declensions and conjugations more than made up for it.

Most of the Latin Q words (aside from the pronouns) also show up in some form in English. Yeah, the pronouns are much more common than English Q words, but how common a word is has no relevance to Scrabble, and in absolute terms, there aren’t all that many of them.

The Toronto rules probably just looked at the frequency of the letters in the entire text of the Aenead, and based the scores on that, but that’s not the proper way to go about it. What you really should do is take a text (the Aenead or whatever), remove all duplicate words, and then count up the letters. Like, the original text probably contains the word “quid” thousands of times, but that should only contribute one Q (and one U, and one I, and one D) to your count.

According to Wikipedia, the distribution of the letters still used in English was based on frequency analysis. I can sort of see how in even in English including a lot of articles and non-content words would skew the results in ways that are relevant to gameplay, but having at most four morphs of given a given Q-word in English is different from having possibly over a hundred possible morphs for one in Latin. And I’m pretty sure the number of Latin Q-words that appear in English is no where near “most”.

OK, other than the pronouns, name one Latin Q word that doesn’t have an analogue in English. And all of the declensions and conjugations will increase the number of Q words available in Latin, but it’ll also increase the number of non-Q words by about the same proportion.

Well, that’s kind of a trick question, because there is quite number of Q-adverbs, but these are mostly etymologically related to Q-pronouns. In any case, I’m thinking in terms of having a Q be worth 10 points, which if you get it makes it more important how versatile it is. Just spitballing here, but the combinations seem much more varried. If you have QU, 3/5 vowels make a word:


If you have one of these, several consonants can make a longer word:


That’s just a quick-and-dirty survey of possible three-and-four word combinations, but doesn’t that seem like it means that Q’s will be easier to get rid of in Latin than in English?

Oh, and as for the name-a-word challenge, artificially limiting myself to words not obviously derived from pronouns, how about QUR?

“Qur” is a Latin word? I’ve never encountered that one before.

I suppose that you raise a good point about the availability of short words containing Q (though English Scrabble does recognize “qi”). And come to think of it, the Latin game’s Q would also benefit from the greater preponderance of U in Latin (both in the vocabulary and in the set’s tiles). So I guess I agree that 10 points for Q does overvalue it (though 3 points is probably still too cheap).

One other non-Q point of interest is that the root form of a word in Latin is not generally a word in itself. In English, most nouns and verbs can be turned into another valid noun or verb by adding an S onto the end, which is a very significant part of the game. I don’t think there’s any real analogue to this in Latin, though: The closest I can think of is turning a first-declension noun from -a to -ae.

It’s an alternate spelling of CUR. In the OLD and everything. Also, QUUR.

The Toronto rules do forbid enclitics that are not normally part of a word with its own entry. Presumably, you also can’t just slap “per” at the beginning of a word that doesn’t have it’s own attested per- variant. But whereas in English, you can slap an S or ED on nearly anything, that’s probably less promising than in Latin. Again, off the cuff:

LAUDAS → LAUDASTI (I see no rule against syncopated perfects)
ILLUC → ILLUCE (the archaic form of illūc)

And anybody dropping any form of esse, īre, dūcere facere, etc, is pretty much asking to get their word modded with a letter of two. How this compares to how easy adding Englishes easy-to-make morphs, I don’t know. There are many more types of mods to make, but they’re all much more circumstantial.

I guess I’ll have to get the board out and playtest.

You rang?

Does Scrabble allow plurals? The knock off computer game I used didn’t. If it doesn’t, I think it’s still okay to allow declensions and conjugations in Latin, as you’ve also got to consider the smaller vocabulary.

At least, I am under the impression that English has more unique words. I can’t find a citation. BTW, if so, that would makes Chronos’s claim pointless, in my opinion, as one word in Latin is “worth more” than one in English, if you catch my meaning.

Scrabble does allow plurals and other declined forms. And you really have to allow declined forms in Latin, since Latin doesn’t have any undeclined forms.

How does it render “Bingo”?

According to my wife, this is the bonus you get for clearing the bench. But I don’t see this term in the instructions either in English or Latin. It just describes the situation.

I ran a bit of a playtest, against myself as the second player. It certainly did highlight one particular aspect of how inflections affect the game. I laid down IMITARES, which with triple word score, clearing the bench and turning VIDI into VIDIT, scored a total of 91 points. However, I later modified it to IMITAREST, which really didn’t score enough more points to seem abusable. But you can see a whole progression possible here: imperative singular → infinitive → imperfect subjunctive 2nd person singular → imperfect subjunctive 3rd person singular → imperfect subjunctive 2nd person plural. Not a lot of extra points at each step, but the whole progression involves adding commonly found letters:


You could conceivably nickel-and-dime your way to victory this way, though perhaps an opportunity to reach a triple word score will arise.

And of course, your opponent has the opportunity to make those plays, too. I think in English Scrabble, the general assumption is that if your opponent can add an S to your word, e will, and to therefore make sure that that does not give any big-scoring possibilities (triple-wording the word added to, or building sideways off of it to a big bonus tile, or whatever).

Hi Johnny
I am glad you like the Scrabble game, despite the variation in tile size. It is in the nature of the material that there will be some small differences with wooden tiles, compared to the more conventional plastic alternative, but we like the feel of the natural beech!

Just to reassure you that we did a very thorough analysis of the letter frequency, using a large number of texts and word lists, and this was then tested, revised and retested over many games. Although there are a few more common QU- words in Latin than in English, the overall frequency of the letter is still very low, and does not (in our opinion) justify the inclusion of more than one tile of high value.

You are right that we didn’t translate the term ‘BINGO’ as it is not so commonly used over here … however, if members want to make suggestions, I am happy to consider them for the next edition! (Editor’s decision will be final :))

Jim Harrison - Tinderbox Games

Well, it wasn’t just a matter of size. There was also some slight variation in rectangularity, and some chipping along wood-grain lines. Again, not a big deal in play, but it limits the salvagability of the game if I lose pieces. I want to play the game, but I fret about losing pieces. I suspect for your company it’s just not going to be cost-effective to make replacement tile sets available for a niche edition of the game.

On the issues of price and availability I presume your hands are tied. It’s expensive because the market for it is limited, and it’s a pain to get a hold of in the U.S. because you’re licensed for the European market. But what’s a gamer to do? If you don’t support companies that produce things like Latin Scrabble, then how can you ever expect to see Latin Settlers of Catan?

I hadn’t heard it before. Is it in the official rules?

The Romans would refer to the most fortunate throw of the dice as Venus, but I don’t imagine that’s as much fun to say as Bingo. Bombax – an exclamation of surprise and wonder, might serve, but I’m not sure it needs to be in the instructions themselves.