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Anex-A-Gram

Scrabble 10 years before Scrabble?

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*** Anex-A-Gram ***

Anex-A-Gram box top.
Anex-A-Gram box top

Scrabble took its final shape in 1948. The first set of rules were copyright in December of that year. As you see on the box top, Anex-A-Gram has a 1938 copyright date. As far as I know, no one has found any reason to suspect that Scrabble didn't come out of Alfred Butts' head, and I don't mean to raise a suspicion here. I still think Alfred was the man.

But there are very interesting similarities between Anex-A-Gram and Scrabble. The rules for word placement on the board--forming a valid crossword puzzle--are the same. Only non-proper, dictionary-type words are allowed. The Anex-A-Gram board is 13x13 while the Scrabble board is 15x15. The letter distributions are quite similar (see further down.) There are two "wild cards" in each game.

On top of this is the coincidence of Alfred Butts putting down in a letter in 1938 that he was was starting to work on the game that would eventually become Scrabble. (Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis, page 96.)

The most fundamental difference between Anex-A-Gram and Scrabble is the Object. In Scrabble, you know it's to score the most points making use of the points assigned to the letters and the premium squares on the board. In Anex-A-Gram, no points are tallied for playing a word; the object is simply to be the first player to empty your rack, whereupon the other players are penalized for the tiles left in their racks.

Now that might sound like a big difference, but the two games really have a very similar feel. You know when you've found your play in Anex-A-Gram, just as you know when you've found your play in Scrabble even before totting up the score. In fact, many people may find this freedom from Scrabble's running stream of arithmetic a welcome relief. (I make the claim that probably not a Scrabble game in a hundred played in the home is scored completely correctly.)

Before we leave the box top, here's a little puzzle for you. Based on the box top graphic, what word familiar to everyone nowadays was missing from the 1936 Webster's Collegiate Dictionary? Now don't anyone give me a heart attack by actually reading my web page and responding to my brain teaser.

Also notice that the 1936 Webster's Collegiate included the two-letter plurals of the letters of the alphabet: AS, BS, CS . . . XS, YS, ZS. You'll also find them in almost any current dictionary you check. How it is that they've never made the official Scrabble dictionaries certainly ranks as one of the great mysteries of the universe.

Here are the Anex-A-Gram rules printed in the inner lid:
 

Anex-A-Gram rules.
Anex-A-Gram rules in inner lid

Or, you can examine the rules in plain text further down this page. I can't believe they really meant that, when you have an S and want to hook across the end of a word on the board, your S has to be the beginning letter of your word.

The Discard pile works like a discard pile in some rummy games, where the only card available for drawing from the pile is the one on top, that is, the most recent, previous discard.

Here are the racks and tiles:
 

Anex-A-Gram tiles and racks.
Anex-A-Gram tiles and racks in box

Looks sharp, eh? By the way, this set was originally owned by a Hollywood director named Bernard B. Ray who did a lot of B westerns. Ray's brother Leon Shamroy directed and produced some major films including Cleopatra and Planet of the Apes. When Ray's grandson put Anex-A-Gram up on eBay, I was the only bidder, which is all the evidence you need that civilization is in an unrecoverable nosedive.

The board is like a deluxe Scrabble board, but instead of a "raised grid", it has sunken holes which receive protruding disks on the back of the tiles. John Lennon played Scrabble on several occasions. If he played Anex-A-Gram, he could swing the board around with wild abdomen. (Very obscure joke for Beatle fans.)
 

Anex-A-Gram tiles.
Anex-A-Gram board with complete tile set

I'm pretty sure these 70 tiles represent the complete set. I made up a missing F. Ironically, I cut out a corner of a folded Scrabble board, which had just the right thickness, color, and texture.

The 22 "true vowels" (AEIOU) account for about 31% of the Anex-A-Gram tile set. The Scrabble tile set is 42% true vowels. I maintain the correct proportion should be about 39% to 40%, making Scrabble somewhat vowel heavy and Anex-A-Gram very consonant heavy. It really doesn't cause hardship, though, in games based on small words since there are tons of short words to get you out of any lopsided vowel-consonant jam. Still, I might have added two more E's plus an I and O to the Anex-A-Gram set.

The Anex-A-Gram letter distribution is very much in line with Scrabble's letter distribution. The extra K and the extra H throw them out of their familiar places in the lineup. Had Anex-A-Gram tripled the G (a "better" letter than H) and left the H a pair, the similarity would have been too eerie.

Now, take another look at the "Example of completed crossword" in the inner lid.

     HOME
     O  VEIN
     PANE  ODE
    HEN N  TO
      YES   NINE
          SUET

It could not have been formed with the provided tile set, since it has 8 E's and 6 N's. Did they mix in the "ACCESSORY SET full of extra letters" touted at the bottom of the lid? I doubt it; I think the rules writer just concocted the "completed crossword" out of her head.

Here's a very unlikely draw of Anex-A-Gram tiles. Then again, every draw is very unlikely...
 

Anex-A-Gram rack in action (Click to enlarge.)
Anex-A-Gram rack in action. (Click for max resolution.)

Here are the first couple of rounds of Anex-A-Gram played by me and my Dover Scrabble friends in February 2014. Might this be the first Anex-A-Gram played since the 1930s? In spite of my inclination to fix up game rules right from the outset, we followed the box top rules rigorously for this historic first session. Thus you will see a few plays consisting of nothing but two-letter words (OF/IF, MU, AH/OH), which, as you may know, I haven't tolerated in Scrabble since the latter 1980s.

Completed Anex-A-Gram round.

Completed Anex-A-Gram round.
First Anex-A-Gram rounds in a lifetime!

The tiles off the top of the board are the Discard Piles, which, in these rounds, didn't get used. The tiles off to the right are what players were caught with when the other player went out. (Judy was stuck with a +, which is worth 5 points, oh my!)

 

*** Anex-A-Gram II ***

After the first session, it was upward and onward to Anex-A-Gram II -- which you can play with a standard Scrabble set!

Since Anex-A-Gram II is a nice, old-fashioned word game, it is built on the same foundation as Scrabble For Word Lovers. You can find discussion of the basic rules in the rules page for Scrabble O For Word Lovers, but here they are in a nutshell:

Regular Dictionary - NOT a Scrabble dictionary!

Good Words Only - if you make an invalid word, the tiles go back in your rack and your turn is done.

Three Letter Minimum - the main word of your play must be at least 3 letters long. This says nothing about tiles played; it could be one or two.

Letter Distribution - corrected as in Scrabble O. Replace one "I" with a Blank.

Swap For The Blank - if there's a blank on the board standing for a letter that's in your rack, you may swap for the blank on your turn. This does not count as a turn; you will then play, pass, or trade.

Board - Cover up or mark out the outer rows to make a 13x13 Anex-A-Gram board. If the Scrabble premium squares are distracting, paint or mark them out.

Racks - Use two Scrabble racks to hold the 8, 10, or 12 initial draws, or just let the overflow tiles sit on the table.

Valid word formation is the same as in Scrabble. The Anex-A-Gram box top rule against just adding an -S or -ES is dropped. A player can decide for himself if that's the thing to do. Likewise, the box top rule of "never more than 4 letters at a time" gets the boot. Nobody tells me I can't make big words!

In fact, Anex-A-Gram II rewards you with 1 point for every tile played. Since the Played Tiles points are positive, the Leftover Tile points are now negative. Notice that with an incentive for Going Out and an incentive for playing lots of tiles, you are pulled in two directions. Now you've got decisions; now we have a game!

The main problem with box top Anex-A-Gram, as I see it, is that it is just too darn easy to go out -- which, in the original rules, was the whole point. To help counteract this, Anex-A-Gram II requires you to Draw Tile(s) (at least one) at the end of your turn. This adds a further element of uncertainty to the game. You are no longer in complete control of your destiny; you can't divide up your tiles to "go out in two" with assurance, for example.

The original Anex-A-Gram rules include a Discard Pile. I tried mightily, but I just could not make the Discard Pile a fun or interesting, never mind significant, element of the game. So I finally discarded it. Thus, all drawing is done from the tile bag.

You will Draw Tile(s) after every Play or Pass. (A Pass is where you choose to stick with the tiles in your rack instead of playing or trading.) Drawing tile(s) is done in one grab, not one tile after another. You must grab at least one tile, and may grab as many as you want, the limit being that your rack cannot grow beyond the original number of tiles. If you overdraw, the excess tiles stay on your rack and you are penalized 1 point for each of them.

The box top rules only allow you to discard a single tile when "You're Stuck!" with a bum rack. In Anex-A-Gram II, as in Scrabble, you are free to Trade as many tiles as you want. Set the undesired tiles aside; draw the exact same number of tiles from the bag; place them on your rack; and return the discards to the bag. So in the case of a Trade, your rack size will stay the same.

A further challenge comes from a 4-letter/2-tile minimum requirement on the Going Out play. This means the main word must be at least 4 letters long, and you must play at least 2 tiles in going out. If you empty your rack without meeting these requirements, you Draw Tile(s) and play continues. A very nice house rule softens the Going Out requirement to a 3-letter/2-tile minimum for a player in sole possession of last place at the start of the board in progress.

When a player Goes Out in an Anex-A-Gram round, the other players are penalized for the unplayed tiles left on their racks. In Anex-A-Gram II, that is simply 1 point per letter, whether vowel or consonant, since that is what they are worth if you play them, and 5 points for the blank.

The Order Of Play for starting a new board is the reverse order of the current standings at that point. That is, the player in last place goes first, and then up the line ending with the player in first place. But if anyone becomes homicidal on being asked to switch seats, you can just drop it. Remember that in Anex-A-Gram, there is NO requirement placed on where the First Word goes.

The Game is Over when... well, gee, your guess is as good as mine. When a big final score is reached? or a time limit? or a certain number of rounds? If you go with the latter, I suggest a multiple of the number of players, such as 4 rounds for 4 players, 3 or 6 rounds for 3 players, and 4 or 6 rounds for 2 players.

Here is Anex-A-Gram II on a Slip to keep by your rack during play:

           ANEX-A-GRAM II              

  MAIN WORD: 3-letter min. 
  SCORE: 1 point per tile played.
  AFTER PLAY or PASS: Draw at least 
    1 tile in one grab.
  TRADE: handled as in Scrabble. 
  GOING OUT: 4-letter/2-tile min.
  LEFTOVER TILES: Letter -1; Blank -5. 

  "Honest-to-gosh" Two-Letter Words    
          AD   GO   MA   RE            
          AH        ME          
          AM   HA   MY   SO     
          AN   HE               
          AS   HI   NO   TO     
          AT                    
          AX   ID   OF   UP     
          AY   IF   OH   US     
               IN   ON          
          BE   IS   OR   WE     
          BY   IT   OX          
                         YE     
          DO   LO   PA          

 
No, the list of "honest-to-gosh" Two-Letter Words is not a misprint. In the spirit of a nice, homey, old-fashioned word game, I've weeded out the junky stuff from the Scrabble list: no letters, notes of the scale, grunts and groans, informal clips, and really uncommon words. I might let you restore the notes of the scale, but if you go beyond that, watch out!

Here's a suggestion for keeping score. Just string out the running scores horizontally. Notice that Bruno went out every time in this 4-board game.

Steven  5+4-5= 4  +3+3+4+0-4=10  +6+3+2-4=17  +4+3-5=19
Doug    0+4-7=-3  +5+0+3+3-2= 6  +4+2+2-9= 5  +7  -4= 8
Bruno   8+3  =11  +7+3+3+4  =28  +5+4+3  =40  +6+5  =51
Maggie  4  -7=-3  +4+3+0+2-5= 1  +3+3+3-4= 6  +3  -9= 0

Here are the first ever Anex-A-Gram II rounds played according to the finalized rules (Sep 2016). The first four boards below correspond to the 4-person game recorded in the score sheet above. The final three boards show a 3-person game. (Steven left.)

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.

 

*** Typ-Dom ***

There was also a German game combining anagrams and crosswords from a couple of years earlier, in fact. It was called Typ-Dom and it has a 1936 patent. The pictures below should give you a fair idea of the game.

Typ-Dom box
Typ-Dom box.

Typ-Dom intro
Typ-Dom intro.

The title shows us that "Typ-Dom" comes from combining "type", as in printing blocks (German plural, Typen), and "domino". There are 50 black consonants (Mitlauten) and 30 red vowels (Selbstlauten). This yields a mix with about 37% vowels. (Remember that Anex-A-Gram has 31% vowels,and Scrabble has 42% vowels.)

Typ-Dom Spielsteinen (tiles)
Typ-Dom tiles.

Typ-Dom sample plays
Typ-Dom sample plays.

Notice the acceptance of proper nouns, such as HONDURAS, ANNA, und UTE. Also note Fig. 4 with its example of an illegal ("falsch", or false) play. STERN (star) forms the invalid word RW. And notice the wild card * tile in Fig. 7. It probably stands for E, forming SPIEL (play or game). Why do I have a suspicion there's another * in the tile set?

I think the pep talk says, "In der Kombination liegt die Würze!" ("The spice lies in the combinations!"), but, if you ask me, those final plays sure do look jerry-rigged - no pun or insult intended! (Well, maybe the pun.) I think the order had to be, HONDURAS, AN, and NOT, forming ANNA and UTE, since NO and OT aren't German words. As with the completed crossword example in Anex-A-Gram, this degree of interconnectivity in a Scrabble-like game is extremely unlikely. Yes, crossword puzzles are very dense, but the makers aren't picking the next letters to add at random!

 
So, Typ-Dom, Anex-A-Gram, and Scrabble - what do you think? A bit of snitching? Or something in the air that gave rise to completely independent brainstorms?

 

*** Anex-A-Gram rules (the inner lid) ***

ANEX-A-GRAM

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
A GAME OF CROSSWORDS FOR 2 TO 6 PLAYERS
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Before Starting:

Place the Anex-A-Gram Board in the center of the table, and the letters face down, thus forming the Draw Pile. Draw one apiece. Player whose letter is nearest "A" starts the game. Put these letters back and shuffle the pile. Each player now gets a rack, and draws accordingly:--

    12 letters, if only 2 or 3 are playing.
    10 letters for 4 or 5 players.
     8 letters for 6 players. 
Put your letters in your rack so no one else can see them.

Object of the Game:

Be the first to get rid of your tiles.

We're Off!

1. First player draws one tile (The Discard Letter) from the Draw Pile and places it, face up, on the opposite side of the board to start the Discard Pile. Now, studying his rack, he selects any 2, 3, or 4 of his letters (never more than 4) that spell a word and places that word on the board.

2. Next player to the left tries to make another word by adding from 1 to 4 letters to the first word. Suppose the second player has "C," "L" and "M," and the first word is "LAMP." He can get rid of his "C" this way:

    CLAMP

Better yet, he can use all three (3) letters thus:

     C
     L
    LAMP
     M

3. If the third player has "A," "D" and "I," he could play:

     Correctly              Incorrectly
    
     C                      C   
     L                      LAID
    LAMP                   LAMP 
     MAID                   M   

In the correct example, he has spelt in addition to the word "MAID," the words "MA" and "PI." In the incorrect example, in forming the horizontal word "LAID," he has made the vertical letters "I P" which do not form a word. As in crosswords, all words must read from top to bottom and from left to right. No unfinished word can ever be left on the board.

You're Stuck!

Whenever a player can't make a word with the letters in his own rack, he discards one tile, face up, along side of the Discard Letter. He then can draw either the Discard Letter, or turn it down and take a tile from the Draw Pile. In either case, he loses his turn until the play comes around again.

If the Draw Pile gets used up, give the Discard Pile a good shuffling and use it for drawing. Then turn up a letter to start your new Discard Pile.

Taboo:

Proper names, words not in a dictionary and plurals are not permissible. Exceptions:--

1. You can't add "S" or "ES" to any word on the board unless you're spelling a word that begins with "S" in the opposite direction.

    LAMPS
        H
        O
        E

(The word "shoe" was played last.)

2. If "S" is already on the board as in the "MAST," it's O.K. to form the word "CATS."

      C
      A
      T
    MAST

Plus Tiles!

You're in luck if you draw a tile with a plus sign (+) because at any point in the game it can be played as any letter. Once played, however, the Plus Tile is always considered the letter for which it was played.

The Winner:

The first to get rid of his letters wins the round. He scores 0. The others are charged for the letters still in their hands as follows:

    1 point for each consonant
    2 for each vowel (A, E, I, O, U)
    5 for each Plus Tile

As soon as any player gets a score of 10 or more the game is over, and the player with lowest score wins the game.

Example of completed crossword:

     HOME
     O  VEIN
     PANE  ODE
    HEN N  TO
      YES   NINE
          SUET

Another Game by THE EMBOSSING COMPANY
ALBANY, NEW YORK, U. S. A.

P.S.--Your dealer's got an ACCESSORY SET full of extra letters--same price as ANEX-A-GRAM.
Additional Boards--around 15¢ a throw!

 

*** More Anex-A-Gram Boards ***

Since you can't find these things just anywhere, I thought I'd show you some of the Anex-A-Gram boards created in the experimentation that finally led to Anex-A-Gram II.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.
First play INERTLY.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.
First play READILY.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.
First play OFF.
And that's UNDERSIZE, not -SIDE.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.
First play CUBIC.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.
First play VIZOR.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.
First play OUTSIDE.

Sample Anex-A-Gram II round.
First play EXEGESIS.
And the mystery word is... HAT!

 


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