It probably seemed like a good idea at the time to produce a local version of beloved board game Scrabble, featuring Kiwi slang and te reo words. But then the Scrabble diehards played it.
New Zealand is a country with a proud history in competitive Scrabble. At this year’s Alchemist Cup, the world’s richest, most prestigious teams Scrabble tournament, New Zealand enters as the fourth seeded country.
Anchoring the side will be Christchurch’s Nigel Richards, widely considered to be the greatest Scrabble player of all time. He’s a three-time World Champion (the only person to win more than once), and famously won the French-language World Championships despite not speaking French (he memorised every word in the French Scrabble dictionary in nine weeks).
So it seems only appropriate that the current flagship product of The Warehouse would be Kiwi Scrabble, a fitting homage to our nation’s success in what players call the “mindsport”.
But all is not well in the Scrabble world. Competitive players are furious with the new version, and with its creator, Mattel, who they see as a money-grubbing, heartless machine with no appreciation for our country, te reo, or the people who love the game.
Kiwi Scrabble was launched in September with a huge marketing push across TV, radio and online.
Facebook and Youtube have been plastered with ads starring an annoyingly cheerful grandmother (played by celebrity chef Jo Seagar), who beams about it being “Chockablock full of Kiwi-isms”, while an eerily quiet David Tua plays the word OWESOME on two double letter spaces for 19 points.
To celebrate the launch, the Manakau branch of The Warehouse changed its storefront signage to spell out ‘The Warewhare’ in Scrabble tiles, and stores across the country now feature cardboard signs in random aisles which all point you in the direction of the board game.
The Warehouse head of marketing Becki Butler said the new version of the game “gives us a chance to shine a light on our inimitable language, and do it with purpose and reason.”
But to Howard Warner, president of the New Zealand Scrabble Players Association, and the #2 ranked Scrabble player in New Zealand, it’s an atrocity.
“It’s a very cynical ploy to sell more sets in a saturated market. It’s not a new game, no one who plays the game seriously would want it” he said. “The words you use are irrelevant, it doesn’t alter the game. It’s a con.”
There’s serious bad blood between Mattel, which owns the licence to the game outside of the North American market, and the competitive Scrabblers who devote their lives to the sport.
“They hold our sport back a lot,” said Warner. “We consider the players to really own the sport; Mattel just sells the equipment. It’s like if Nike owned the rights to all of world tennis.
“[Mattel] does nothing for the sport. They used to sponsor the world champs, but now they don’t even do that. We have a players’ body, but Mattel are constantly putting up barriers, it’s awful.”
The new Kiwi Scrabble is clearly aimed at the regular kitchen table Scrabbler, not experts, but for some it’s a matter of principle.
Anderina McLean, the editor of Forwords, a quarterly NZ Scrabble magazine, and herself a Scrabble Grandmaster who represented New Zealand at last year’s world champs in Nairobi, Kenya, said the game is “fine as it is”.
“I’m in favour of anything at encourages new people, but if you’ve already got the game then there’s not a lot of point,” she said. “Scrabble already exists, we don’t need to keep reinventing it. The game hasn’t been changed since it was patented 70 years ago, it works fine.”
Warner agreed. “It’s fabulous as it is. Nothing needs changing except to get the malicious influence of Mattel out of it.”
But The Warehouse and Mattel clearly think there’s a market for a ‘Kiwi-fied’ version of the game.
They’ve added some cards to spice things up. Each player gets one ‘Kia Ora’ card, which they can play at any time, and certain tiles give you the right to pick up a ‘Yeah Nah’ card. The cards give you certain bonuses like extra points, the ability to steal other players tiles, and the chance to change tiles without skipping a turn.
The cards are the aspect that pisses McLean off the most. “I’m going to be scathing about that. It’s not Monopoly, you don’t need a community chest. Scrabble has enough going for it, it’s not a card game. I’ve got card games, Scrabble isn’t one of them.”
You also get 10 bonus points for playing any word from their ‘Kiwi Words List’, an idea that garnered a derisive laugh from Warner. “Big deal. Ten points is nothing. There’s no way any serious player would go out of their way for that.”
The ‘Kiwi Words List’ provided in Kiwi Scrabble features 300 words including slang, te reo, and words that are just particularly common in New Zealand, such as MATE, BRO, and MULLET.
But according to a quick cross-reference I did, 251 of the 300 words are already in the Collins Official Scrabble Words list, including CHOCKABLOCK, which Seager emphasises in the ads, and all five of the words featured on the front of the box (CHOICE, DAIRY, TA, BACH, and HONGI).
And of the 49 new words added, many of them are controversial among purists because, well, they’re not words. Fourteen of the ‘words’ on the list are actually phrases, including SWEETAS, BILLYT, ONIT, and THEWAREWHARE, all of which anyone with a grasp of the English language will notice normally require a space in the middle of them, and therefore are two words, not one.
“There’s no way in the world that any form of Scrabble should have phrases. It’s stupid, it’s just plain dumb.” says Warner.
Also, CUZZY is on the list, despite there being only one Z tile in a pack.
But it’s the half-hearted attempt at incorporating te reo that grinds the experts’ gears most of all. There are 50-odd te reo or te reo-influenced words in the Kiwi Scrabble word list, but no change in tile design or letter distribution to reflect that.
For example, there is only one K tile in a standard English Scrabble set, and it is worth five points. But considering K is a very common letter in te reo, a genuine attempt at encouraging te reo words would need to adjust the set to include around six tiles, each worth two points each.
“It’s a bit of an insult. I care about New Zealand’s official languages, and they’ve imposed themselves upon the language in kind of a colonial way,” said Warner.
‘Ng’ and ‘Wh’ would also need to be their own separate tiles, because in te reo they are considered to be one letter, and a,e,i,o,u would need tiles with and without macrons.
As McLean points out, “You could argue that a word like KORERO should have a macron, so if you play it without, are you spelling it wrong?”
And while the addition of some te reo into the game may seem innovative, it’s not. Several hundred te reo words are already considered official Scrabble words, mostly place names, animals, and very common terms such as POI, HAKA, and HANGI.
It’s a nice advantage for New Zealanders in international competition, because it means they have access to a few more words that they know from everyday life. Aderina remembers a game in her first international tournament where KETE was on the board, and she was able to rack up big points by simply turning it into KETES, because her Australian opponent didn’t know it was a legitimate option.
A particularly popular te reo word in Scrabble (McLean and Warner both mentioned it independently without being asked), is the fish WAREHOU, which was first made an official word in 2012. It’s valuable because you can tack an S on and make the plural WAREHOUS (officially sanctioned by the word list, despite te reo not using ‘s’ to designate plurals), and then tack on an E and turn it into WAREHOUSE, creating three distinct scoring opportunities.
But there are some frustrations among players with the current te reo and kiwiana words available, and Kiwi Scrabble does actually offer some improvement.
There are several te reo words which are still not official Scrabble words, despite being a big part of the Kiwi vernacular – mahi, wharepaku, pukana and patero are a few. They can all be found in the Kiwi Scrabble word list.
And there are two Kiwi words that are currently allowed in Scrabble that some argue really shouldn’t be: JAFA (Just Another Fucking Aucklander) is one. “Acronyms shouldn’t be allowed, it’s just incorrect” said Aderina. The other is RONZER, (Rest of New Zealand-er), which is doubly blashphemic because it both an acronym and a term that no one has ever used, ever. They are not included in Kiwi Scrabble’s list.
So it’s not all bad, Kiwi Scrabble has added quite a few essential new words to the Scrabble universe. We can now go about our lives peacefully knowing that we are allowed to play JANDALS (15 points) or PINGAS (9) or CHEEYAH (18).
And McLean does admit the new black and white design isn’t too bad. “I suppose the silver fern packaging is alright, it might make a nice Christmas present or souvenir.”
Despite her issues with the game, she hopes it is a big seller, because at the end of the day more people buying Scrabble sets has to mean more people playing Scrabble, although “if someone went to the Warehouse to buy it I would still say buy the green one, not the black.”
The Full List of Words in Kiwi Scrabble That Aren’t Already Scrabble Words
Controversial words are marked with an * for phrases, + for brand names, and ^ for acronyms.
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