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Scrabble -
Changes to the Box Top Rules,
1949 - 1989

Nothing too weighty here, but I've enjoyed comparing Scrabble rules from the different copyright periods, and when I lucked onto an old set from the 1949 era (at Spence's Auction, Dover, Delaware, Jan 2008), I figured it was time for a web page. After all, how many people do I know personally who I can run up to and gush, "Oo, ooh! Look! Here it says 'light red' - and then, and then . . . they changed it to pink!!!"

Now I have regular Scrabble games showing latest copyright dates of 1949, 1953, 1976, and 1989. At each of those year boundaries, the rules were changed to some extent or another, or at least reworded slightly. I present all of the most interesting changes here.

To provide a bit of a framework, here is a thumbnail history of Scrabble, extracted from Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis.

       1937-1947:  Alfred Butts finalizes Criss-Cross Words. He sells about 100 sets.
            1947:  Butts turns the game over to James Brunot. Brunot weeds out a few 
                   premium squares around the middle of the board; adds 50-point 
                   bingo bonus; renames it Scrabble!
     Summer 1948:  Brunot starts production. He orders the gameboards from Selchow & Righter.
            1949:  1949 SCRABBLE RULES.
            1949:  2413 games sold.
            1950:  1632 games sold.
            1951:  4859 games sold.
     Summer 1952:  200 games/week. Brunot returns from vacation to find 2500 orders! 
3rd Quarter 1952:  500+ games/week. 
4th Quarter 1952:  2000 games/week.
      Early 1953:  6000 games/week; but orders arriving by tens of thousands! 
      March 1953:  Brunot licenses production and marketing to Selchow & Righter.  
      later 1953:  1953 SCRABBLE RULES. 
            1953:  800,000 games sold, regular and cardboard.
            1954:  3,798,555 games sold.
      Jan 1 1971:  Brunot sells Scrabble outright to Selchow & Righter.
            1976:  1976 SCRABBLE RULES.
            1986:  Selchow & Righter sold to Coleco.
            1989:  Hasbro acquires assets of bankrupt Coleco.
            1989:  1989 SCRABBLE RULES. 

If you stew over that chronology a while, you'll see that changes to the Scrabble box top rules generally did not happen simultaneously with business shakeups. For instance, the "1949" rules continued for some time after Selchow & Righter took over production and marketing (but not ownership) in March 1953. And the "1953" rules remained unchanged when Selchow & Righter bought Scrabble outright in 1971. The "1976" rules remained unchanged when Coleco bought Selchow & Righter in 1986. (This is a presumption based on there being no mention of "1986" rules. I don't have a Coleco set.)

The following side-by-side comparisons show the changes from one period to the next. I've added italics here and there to highlight changes, but not in any particularly consistent or rigorous way. If the box top used italics to emphasize a word, I write that WORD in all capitals to distinguish it from my own italics. [My commentary is in brackets to set it apart from quoted rules.]

 

Changes from the 1949 Scrabble rules to the 1953 Scrabble rules

***

1949: He may add to the beginning, the end or both of a word already played.

1953: New words may be formed by: a. Adding one or more letters to a word or letters already on the board.

[The 1953 rule makes clear that you can play around and off of single letters on the board, which wasn't obvious from the 1949 rules.]

***

1949: All letters played in any one turn must be placed in a row across or down the board.

1953: All letters played in any one turn must be placed in one row across or down the board.

[The 1953 rules goes a little further in clarifying that all the tiles played in one turn are confined to the same row. No matter how you scatter your tiles around the board, each one would still be in "a row".]

***

1949: They [the tiles] must form one complete word in that row and, at the same time, form complete words, cross-word fashion, with all letters they touch in rows at right angles.

1953: They [the tiles] must form one complete word and if, at the same time, they touch other letters in adjacent rows, they must form complete words, cross-word fashion, with all such letters.

[The confusion of "right angles" in the 1949 rule is dropped. I see what they were getting at, about the two rows of letters being at right angles, but it could also sound like they're saying something about individual letters touching at right angles, whatever that means.]

***

1949: Or he may form a word at right angles to a previous word but joining with it or incorporating one of its letters.

1953: New words may be formed by: b. Placing a word at right angles to a word already on the board. The new word must use one of the letters of the word already on the board or must add a letter to it. (Turns 2, 3, and 4 below.)

[The 1949 rule only describes the new word starting, stopping, or passing through the existing word. Although the 1953 rule might be clearer, it's trying to say you may place the new word across one of the ends of the existing word. This is shown in the Turn 3 example where PASTE is placed across the bottom of FARM, forming FARMS.]

***

1949: Only one new word is added to the playing board at a time although it may be so placed as to form other words in adjoining rows, for which the player also gets credit.

1953: The player gets full credit for all the words formed or modified by his play.

[I like the elegance of the 1953 statement. In fact, I think of "all the words formed or modified" as simply all the new words on the board. I maintain that not only is it not necessary or useful to think in terms of a main or primary word for each Scrabble play, but, when it comes to calculating the score, it is actually unhelpful.]

***

1949: [No counterpart.]

1953: New words may be formed by: c. Placing a complete word parallel to a word already played so that adjoining letters also form complete words. (Turn 5 below.)

[This is the biggest addition to the 1953 rules. The 1949 rules had just the first four Examples of Word Formation and Scoring you are familiar with pictured at the bottom of the rules. The 1953 rules added the BIT play:

      Turn 5: Score 16

           F
           A
         HORN
           MOB
         PASTE
        BIT

[Since none of the 1949 rules explicitly said you could place a fully-formed word from your rack alongside an existing word on the board, and none of the examples quite showed it, there must have been Scrabble players uncertain about it.]

***

Regarding exchanging tiles:

1949: He does so by discarding them face down and drawing the same number of new letters. He then waits his next turn to play.

1953: He does so by discarding them face down and drawing the same number of new letters, then mixing the discarded letters with those remaining in the pool. He then awaits his next turn to play.

[Of course, we know how to exchange tiles, but if the early rules didn't say what to do with the discards, how were the players to know for sure?]

***

Regarding challenges:

1949: Any word may be challenged before the player has drawn his new letters.

1953: Any word may be challenged before the next player starts his turn.

[I'm not sure what "starting a turn" is in Scrabble.]

1949: [No counterpart.]

1953: If the word challenged is unacceptable, the player takes back his tiles and loses his turn.

[The 1949 rules didn't say what happened in the case of an unacceptable word. Was the player thrown out of the game? Was his score decremented by the value of the play? Could he keep trying until he got it right?]

***

1949: [No counterpart.]

1953: If a word is formed that covers two premium WORD squares, the score is doubled and then re-doubled (4 times letter count), or tripled and then re-tripled (9 times letter count) as the case may be.

[This would seem to follow from the instructions for applying a premium to a letter and then doubling or tripling the word, but it's not as obvious as you might think. What happens in real life when you receive the same command twice? When you come up to an intersection with a stop sign and a blinking red light, do you have to stop twice?]

***

1949: Any player who plays all seven of his letters in a single turn ...

1953: Any player who plays all seven of his tiles in a single turn ...

[Maybe the word "tile" was considered safer, since a blank does not show a letter.]

 

Changes from the 1953 Scrabble rules to the 1976 Scrabble rules

***

1953: RULES FOR PLAYING SCRABBLE

1976: RULES FOR PLAYING SCRABBLE(R) BRAND CROSSWORD GAME

***

1953: SCRABBLE is a word game for 2, 3, or 4 players.

1976: Scrabble Crossword Game is a word game for 2, 3, or 4 players.

[Don't ask me who benefits from this confused mess of Scrabble vs. Scrabble Crossword Game vs. Scrabble(R) Brand Crossword Game. Lawyers?]

***

1953: The play consists of forming interlocking words ... using letter tiles with various score values.

1976: The play consists of forming interlocking words ... using letter tiles of different values.

***

1953: The combined total score for a game may range from about 500 points to 700 or more depending on the skill of the players.

1976: In a two-handed game, a good player scores in the 300-400 point range.

[Me, I like the points per game benchmark better. I suppose I'm a little funny in that I view the finished game as a team effort of all the players.]

***

1953: Turn all letters face down at the side of the board and shuffle.

1976: Turn all letters face down at the side of the board or pour them into a bag or other container, and shuffle.

[Good idea!]

***

1953: Draw for the first play.

1976: Draw for the first play. ... A blank supercedes all other tiles.

***

1953: Any player may use his turn to replace any or all of the letters in his rack.

1976: A player may use his turn to exchange all, some, or none of the letters in his rack.

***

1953: [No counterpart.]

1976: Before the game begins, the players should agree upon the dictionary they will use.

***

1953: Any words found in a standard dictionary are permitted except those capitalized, those designated as foreign words, abbreviations and words requiring apostrophes or hyphens.

1976: All words labeled as a part of speech (including those listed of foreign origin, and as archaic, colloquial, slang, etc.) are permitted with the exception of the following: words always capitalized, abbreviations, prefixes and suffixes standing alone, words requiring a hyphen or an apostrophe.

***

1953: Consult a dictionary only to check spelling or usage.

1976: A dictionary should be consulted for challenges only.

***

1953: [No counterpart.]

1976: If the word challenged is acceptable, the challenger loses his turn.

[There's the rule that turned Scrabble into a bluff game. Does anyone know who was responsible?]

***

1953: The score for each turn is the sum of the score values of all the letters in each word formed ...

1976: The score for each turn is the sum of the letter values in each word formed ...

***

1953: The score for the entire word is doubled when one of its letters is placed on a light red square ...

1976: The score for the entire word is doubled when one of its letters is placed on a pink square ...

***

1953: In subsequent turns letters count at face value.

1976: In subsequent turns, letters previously played on premium squares count at face value.

***

1953: When a blank tile falls on a light red or a dark red square, the sum of the letters in the word is doubled or tripled ...

1976: When a blank tile falls on a pink or red square, the value of the WORD is doubled or tripled ...

***

1953: At the end of the game each player's score is reduced ...

1976: At the end of the game when there are no tiles to draw, each player's score is reduced ...

[It's not clear to me that the added condition about "no tiles to draw" is helpful. It almost makes it sound like the game is over when the bag is empty.]

***

1953: If one player has used all of his letters, his score is increased by the sum of the unplayed letters of all the other players.

1976: If one player has used all of his letters, the above procedure applies to the other players; in addition, the player who used all his letters receives the sum of the unplayed letters of all the other players.

[Is that clearer???]

***

1953: [No counterpart.]

1976: The player with the HIGHEST SCORE wins the game.

[Definitely worth saying in a set of rules . . . ]

***

1953: [No counterpart.]

1976: In the event of a tie, the player with the highest score before tallying the value of unplayed letters is the winner.

[As far as I can tell, most people do not like ties in any sort of competition. I think ties are great; both sides go away a winner. If Player B battled back using shrewd rack management and keeping the leftover tile adjustment in sight to catch up with Player A, why should that be yanked away from him?]

***

1953: [No counterpart.]

1976: SCRABBLE(R) is a registered trademark of Selchow & Righter Company.

 

Changes from the 1976 Scrabble rules to the 1989 Scrabble rules

There were no changes of any substance to the 1989 rules. The 18 rules of 1976 were retained, with the same numbering, even. They did break the rules into sections: Contents (of the game set), Setup, Game Play, Scoring, and How To Win.

The changes in the wording of the 1989 rules were numerous but, I repeat, of virtually no significance. Wherever masculine pronouns had been used, they were worked around or simply deleted. "He" became "the player" or "you". "His" became "his or her" or "a" or "that". The comparisons below show a few of those. You'll agree that, if the following are the biggest changes, which they are, we can safely ignore the small ones.

***

1976: In a two-handed game, a good player scores ...

1989: In a 2-player game, a good player scores ...

***

1976: The two blank tiles may be used as any letter desired.

1989: The two blank tiles may be used as any letters.

[Hmmm, I do see how the 1976 statement could be misinterpreted if you really tried.]

***

1976: ... the player must state what letter it represents, after which it cannot be changed during the game.

1989: ... the player must state which letter it represents. It remains that letter for the rest of the game.

***

1976: A player may use his turn to exchange all, some, or none of the letters in his rack.

1989: A player may use a turn to exchange all, some, or none of the letters in his or her rack.

***

1976: He does so by discarding them face down ...

1989: To do this, place your discarded letter(s) facedown [sic] ...

***

1976: He then awaits his next turn to play.

1989: This ends your turn.

***

1976: Before the game begins, the players should agree upon the dictionary they will use.

1989: Before the game begins, the players should agree upon the dictionary they will use, in case of a challenge.

***

1976: The letter and word premiums apply only in the turn in which they are first played. In subsequent turns, letters previously played on premium squares ...

1989: Letter and word premiums count only on the turn in which they are played. On later turns, letters already played on premium squares ...

***

1976: When a blank tile falls on a pink or red square ...

1989: When a blank tile is played on a pink or red square ...

***

1976: Any player who plays all seven of his tiles in a single turn ...

1989: Any player who plays seven tiles on a turn ...

***

1976: ... scores a premium of 50 points in addition to his regular score for the play.

1989: ... scores a premium of 50 points AFTER totaling his or her score for the turn.

***

[For the Unplayed Letters rule, the clumsy verbiage added to the 1976 version was yanked, bringing it back to just about what it was in 1949.]

1949: At the end of the game each player's score is reduced by the sum of his unplayed letters.

1989: When the game ends, each player's score is REDUCED by the sum of his or her unplayed letters.

1949: If one player has used all of his letters his score is increased by the sum of the unplayed letters of all the other players.

1989: In addition, if one player used all letters, the sum of the other players' unplayed letters is ADDED to that player's score.

*** The End ***

 

Please visit the companion page on rough dating of your Scrabble set.

 


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