Prolix 101

by Gil Hova

My baby

My incredibly artistic game cover

Prolix is my baby.

I’m a fairly literate guy.  I’m not afraid of multisyllaballatic words, I have a decent vocabulary, and I can write fairly well.

So why have I never gotten into word games?

I don’t enjoy Scrabble.  Never have.  The closest I came to was when my college buddy Jones and I played “Sounds Like” Scrabble, where you have to come up with not-words.  Scoring was crazy high with bingos left and right, as the only restriction on a word was that a) it couldn’t be real, and b) you had to come up with a definition.

But real Scrabble?  Where turns take 30 minutes, the slightest skill discrepancy results in a blowout obvious after the first three turns, and a prerequisite for success is memorization of obscure two- and three-letter words?  Where you’re always one tile away from that awesome word?

Nope, don’t enjoy it.  Not for me.  And that was that, for awhile.

I guess it was at a con in November of 2005, when I played a card game that was significantly influenced by Scrabble.  I’ll withhold the name to protect the guilty, but I’ll say this: it’s awful.  It has all the problems of Scrabble, plus arcane, counterintuitive rules, and the “feature” that someone else can play a card to cancel out one of your words.  Ack!

So an amusing thought came to mind: couldn’t I do better?  People played this card game like crazy.  Okay, maybe they saw something in it that I didn’t, but still, was this the best of all possible word games?

As a lark, I threw together some rules and ran them by some players.  Slowly but surely, I started realizing that I had an honest-to-goodness good game.  I’ve designed 3 games that are done or close-to-done, and of them, Prolix is my favorite.

The main feature of Prolix, and the first thing I put in the game, was the idea that you don’t need all letters present in order to score a word.  So there are a bunch of tiles out on a central board, and on your turn, you say a word.  Any word.  Okay, nothing capitalized, apostrophed, or hyphenated, but it’s so much less restrictive.

And the words people come up with!  Bacchalaureate.  Ornithicopter.  Words that you’d never see in Scrabble, or any other word game.

This isn’t to say that the game was easy to design.  On the contrary, it’s been a real pain in the tuckus.  It’s an incredibly elegant game, which sounds like a boast, until you playtest the damn thing, and realize that anytime someone makes a suggestion, no matter how good, there’s no leeway in the ruleset to slide it in!

I mean, if you’re designing a game that’s about the battle of the 5th Cavalry of Foontcawcil charging into the fray of savage Hoodkivliar barbains, and you feel that the Hoodkivliarians’ ranged attacks are a little underpowered, you can toss in a whole lot of rules to fix that imbalance.  But in a simple word game, the slightest change, the slightest tweak, messes up the whole works.

For example, one problem I had was that the game kept locking up.  People would take forever on their turns, and it would drive me crazy that a game meant to be played in 45 minutes would take two hours.  There were a bunch of ways I addressed this, but one of the easiest?  I changed the number of letters out on the board.

But wait!  I quickly found out that if I had too many letters on the board, a player could immediately shout out “antidisestablishmentarianism” and get a decent score.  There had to be enough letters so that there was at least one good word out there, but not so many letters that any stock big word would earn a respectful score.

So tweaking the game has been a lesson in emergent complexity for me.  Slight changes over here would result in massive changes over there.  I’ve gained a huge respect for those simple games like Lost Cities and 6 Nimmt! that just seem to design themselves.

There are a bunch of other features the game has that I haven’t even gotten to yet, but I’ll save that for later.  Suffice it to say: I’m pretty proud of this game.  It’s a game where a player says a word, and then everyone makes a hushed, respectful “Ooooh.”  There’s a real skill to playing it, and with all due respect to all you Scrabble pros, it feels much better to score big points from the word “bicentennial” than it does from the word “xi.”

So when will it be published?  Who knows?  I’ve had it at one publisher for a surprisingly long time, but I’ve already given them a November date as to when I’ll start shopping it to other publishers.

Prolix will be one of those things I’ll keep mentioning in this blog, so stay tuned…