Rumbles in an Unknown Language

The other iOS game I’ve been playing quite a lot of lately is Rumble, one of those “word swiping” games that are all over Facebook and so on as well. In short, a 4×4 grid of letters, you swipe over words, and you get points scrabble style (completely with letter and word multipliers), all within a time limit, and played asynchronously (my new favourite thing!) against a friend or internet stranger. It works very well and is fun to play, has good sound effects, blah blah blah. Then I played it in Danish.

Playing in Danish just happened by mistake. A Danish friend started a game with me and forgot to change his default setting. We started an English game in parallel, but my interest was piqued enough to carry on with the Danish game too. I don’t speak more than about ten words of Danish. I won. Then I played in Swedish against a Swedish friend. I speak zero words of Swedish. I only lost by 300 points. Game design, we have a problem…

It turns out that actually knowing the language of play in Rumble isn’t especially relevant. It’s kind of shocking when you come to realise this, but it’s true nonetheless. What is actually rewarded by the game is feverish swiping with some vague attention played to simple heuristics like the placement of vowels or common word endings (if you can figure them out – I didn’t know them in Swedish which I partly blame for my defeat!). The game is especially out of balance when it comes to word lengths. While it does reward longer words with more points, it’s vastly more efficient to find lots of tiny (e.g. two-letter) words, often by swiping at random, because they are (if you ask me) overvalued by the system.

Your strategy is therefore entirely premised on speed. Even in English it’s easy to get into a zone where you swipe first and consider language second (or not at all). It reminds me vaguely of games like League of Legends whose players talk proudly of their click rates in terms of just how many clicks they make per minutes – same thing with swipes here. If you simply swipe fast enough, the minor disadvantage of not knowing any of the words that might be in the grid is erased and you may even have an advantage over an opponent who doesn’t know the strategy.

We’ve moved from Swedish to Dutch now, a neutral language that neither of us knows. In the first round I scored just as well in Dutch as I generally do in English.

What does it mean?

20 April 2012
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