If I had to pick one thing that immediately makes me feel conflicted, it’s patents.
There are serious problems with the United States’ patent system, from overwhelming litigation costs to overbroad patents. Take software patents, for example. One main thing you learn from studying computer science is that all software programs are fundamentally mathematical formulas. And one main thing you learn from studying patent law is that mathematical formulas are not patentable. And yet, in the United States, software programs are patentable. It requires a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance to think that makes any sense. Not to mention that the whole purpose of patent law is to promote innovation, and software patents hinder it more than they promote it.
On the other hand, at its heart, the patent system is a noble idea. I’ve seen what it means to people. The first time I went to my wife’s grandparents house, her grandfather started showing me around. Knowing that I had studied patent law, he pointed out copies of patents hanging on the wall. I don’t really know anything about laminating wood products, but I could tell how proud he was. For inventors, patents are the embodiment of their work—not just a legal document that grants protection, but a symbol of affirmation and accomplishment.
Now, aside from patents, if I had to pick a second thing that immediately makes me feel conflicted, it’s word games.
I realized the other day that my wife and I didn’t own any word games. I mean, technically, almost every game involves words in some way (rulebooks are typically full of them). But you know what I mean. We didn’t own any games like Scrabble, Bananagrams, Boggle, or Quiddler—games that involve constructing words.
Scrabble is by far the most popular word game, right? But we don’t own it because neither one of us really likes it. Just like living next door to the circus, Scrabble sounds fun in theory but is actually depressingly aggravating in practice. Between triple letter scores, getting stuck with a trayful of consonants, and other people playing words like “isogriv” and “paxwax” that (no matter what the Scrabble dictionary says) are obviously not real words, it can be an extremely frustrating experience.
I mean, Scrabble is a fun game—its popularity is proof enough of that. In small doses, it’s a satisfying treat for your inner polyglot anagrammist. But if you want a game you can pull out with friends or family, a game that everyone can enjoy without the risk of destroying friendships or marriages, it’s probably not the best option. Scrabble is harsh enough that it’s made me very skeptical of all word games.
Anyways, you can probably guess where this is going: it turns out that there’s a word game that involves patenting letters. When I heard about it, I was immediately conflicted: it sounded very intriguing, but it’s hard to put aside my feelings about both word games and patents. Could Letter Tycoon actually be fun?
Letter Tycoon is a game from Breaking Games where two to five players take on the role of alphabetic business moguls—instead of building factories or skyscrapers, you are building words. Each player has a hand of seven letter cards, plus there are three letter cards in the middle of the table. On your turn, you create a word using any of the cards in your hand or in the middle of the table. The longer your word is, the more money—in the form of cash and stock—you get for it. Stock adds to your score at the end of the game. Cash can be used to buy letter patents. Letter patents allow you to “own” a letter: you get a dollar in cash from the bank any time someone else uses that letter in one of their words. At the end of the game, the player with the most money (in cash, stock, and patents) is the winner.
Just like the American pharmaceutical industry, Letter Tycoon is all about the patents. Patents on more common letters are more desirable (because other people will be using those letters more), but they are also more expensive. On the other hand, patents on the least common letters are less expensive and grant special powers (for example, the ability to use a letter card twice or get double points for words that are at least half vowels).
At the beginning of the game, you probably cannot afford patents on the more expensive letters, so it is generally a bit of a race to buy the less expensive patents with the special powers. However, by the end of the game you feel like a patent troll as you are raking in more and more money each turn from your burgeoning patent portfolio, enabling you to afford ever more expensive letters.
All of the patent powers are quite interesting. I’ve seen a few reviews suggesting that some of powers might be stronger than others. I don’t think that’s accurate. For instance, the ability to make two words per turn appears extremely powerful at first glance, but because you get considerably more points for longer words, making two short words each turn is not actually going to get you the most amount of money possible. A six letter word is worth more than twice the value of two three letter words, for example. Similarly, one of the powers allows you to double your score if your word only has one vowel—but it’s difficult exploit that kind of power too much because it’s difficult to make a long word that only has one vowel.
Letter Tycoon vs. Scrabble
It turns out that Letter Tycoon is actually extremely fun. Going back to Scrabble for a minute, Letter Tycoon has a number of features that, in my opinion, make it more enjoyable than Scrabble.
First off, the main way to get more points for a word is to make it longer. Unlike Scrabble, where you are strongly incentivized to use rare letters and put them at certain positions in your word, your main incentive in Letter Tycoon is just to make words longer. It is better to include letters that your opponents haven’t patented so they don’t get any money, but the points you get are based on the length of the word. This means you don’t need to be a savant who’s memorized every word with the letter X; you just need to be able to make any word that has a lot of letters.
Additionally, all words must be at least three letters. So you don’t have to worry about all of those questionable two letter Scrabble words like “fa” and “um.”
Also, there isn’t a board where you have to play off of existing words, so you aren’t limited by the available locations on the board, nor do you have to consider every location on the board to figure out how to maximize your points. The only letters you have to worry about are on the ten cards in front of you.
Plus, at the end of your turn, you get to discard as many cards as you want if you don’t like what’s left in your hand. You don’t have to choose between discarding and playing.
Lastly, you don’t need a pencil and paper to keep track of the score. I always appreciate that in a game.
Beyond how fun it is to play, the production and graphic design of Letter Tycoon game are show-stopping. The coins are wooden. The stock tiles are extremely thick cardboard. There is an enormous amount of detail on every linen-finished card. I love the steampunk-ish, Metropolis-ish, Art Deco-ish look of the game.
I have a few minor complaints. One is about the rulebook. The very first thing it tells you about how to play is that you have two options on your turn: discarding cards, or playing a word. This is a bit misleading. There’s almost no situation where you would want to discard instead of playing a word (maybe if the other player had a patent on every letter in your hand, or if you absolutely couldn’t think of a word). Also, even when you do play a word, you can still discard as many cards as you want. I think it might have been better to phrase the rulebook slightly differently and classify not playing a word as an exception.
Another complaint has to do with the box. I’ve discussed this kind of thing before, but the lid of the Letter Tycoon box fits so tightly that it’s a serious chore to remove. When I first got the game, it took me a couple minutes just to cajole it open and it hasn’t really loosened up much since then. After you’re done playing, it’s like, please don’t put the lid back on, we might want to play again tomorrow. Also, whatever you do, don’t even think about sitting the bottom of the box in the upside down lid.
Sometimes, when you see a jumble of letter cards, a word jumps out at you right away. Other times, it doesn’t. To get your thoughts into gear, it’s helpful to be able to rearrange your cards to see if there are any words in there that you didn’t notice immediately. In Letter Tycoon, your ability to move all of the letters around and see what pops out is slightly hampered because three of the cards you can use are community cards. You can’t just pick those up and mix them around with the cards in your hand. Mentally accounting for the community cards can be a bit confusing and adds some time to the game.
Admirably, the rulebook accounts for this by instructing players to refill the community cards first, giving the next player the maximum amount of time to think. This helps, but the act of searching for a word in a mess of letters is never going to be instantaneous—the whole reason it’s fun is because it’s fundamentally difficult for the human brain. Like most word games, Letter Tycoon is susceptible to bogging down if players want to be certain they’ve exhausted every possibility before they settle on a word.
When I bought Letter Tycoon, I knew it had amazing graphic design and I was hoping it would be enjoyable. However, I would’ve never predicted that I’d find myself playing it late into the night.
But that’s happened.
It turns out that Letter Tycoon is a little bit addictive.
When I first told my wife I was going to buy this game, I mentioned that it was a word game and she sounded pretty skeptical. However, after playing it two or three times, she said, “I like this and I don’t even like word games.”
Letter Tycoon takes the core part of Scrabble—combining random letters into words—and it makes it fun again.