Boggle vs. Ruzzle

December 14, 2020

Boggle and Ruzzle are two word games I love that seem very similar on the surface but turn out to be quite different.

Boggle is played with 16 die with random letters laid out on a 4x4 grid and an hourglass timer. In two minutes, each player writes down as many 3-letter or longer words as possible. If two players get the same word, neither gets any points. Longer words mean more points (but also more writing time).

Ruzzle is played online against a random player and the goal is to find as many words as possible on a 4x4 grid of letters in 2 minute rounds. Longer words have more points and “harder” letters have a higher point value if you use them, kind of like Scrabble.

Have you seen the main difference yet? In Ruzzle, you use the built-in dictionary. In Boggle, you use the dictionary in your head. When you play Boggle, you need to know the words or you get called out by the other plays (kon is not a word!) When you play Ruzzle, it becomes much more of a speed and pattern-matching game. Your hand-eye coordination has to be high to keep up with what you see and you need to build a rhythm. At the extreme level, it looks like this.

We’ve started playing Boggle with our kids, which has been an amazing experience. The 8 year old regularly gets a few words - some of which always surprise us - but also has a smattering of meaningless words she isn’t sure about. The 6 year old has a higher ratio of meaningless words, but still finds some. The 4 year old writes down some letters she sees and has a blast.

In other words, as kids, their dictionaries aren’t sufficiently constructed and they have to do a bunch of guessing. They play Boggle more like you’re supposed to play Ruzzle. On the other hand, as an adult I have a larger built-in dictionary than my kids. So when I play a word like “koan”, they (and some adults!) will question it.

Ever since the invention of the internet, there’s been a raging debate about how it will change education and what people actually need to learn. They don’t need to memorize math facts and multiplication tables, some say, because calculators are ubiquitous. Or kids don’t need to learn a foreign language now because automatic translation is right around the corner. I understand the argument; as a lazy kid I used to exclaim the very same.

This is exactly the tradeoff between Boggle and Ruzzle. One isn’t necessarily better than the other; they’re different strategies to apply in different situations. The trick is knowing when to use them. My kids are playing Boggle in a way that’s better suited to Ruzzle. It’s not their fault - they haven’t had enough time to build up their own dictionaries yet. But relying on all the built-in dictionaries and calculators of the world all the time can make for a lot of Expert Beginners. You gain a perceived expertise that doesn’t always exist without the helpers and you never really gain the competence you seek.

Going through the motions to practice simple skills or memorize small pieces of knowledge like, a times table, a new language, or reading a lot and learning a lot of words gives you more building blocks to play with. When the time comes to accomplish more advanced problems, you need those smaller building blocks. Imagine having to lookup 2x3 and 4x8 to get the proper coefficients every single time you do an algebra problem. Or do you remember constantly looking up better synonyms when you wrote your school papers as a kid? I do. It took twice as long because I wanted better words and I didn’t know them. I rarely do that now, and when I do, it’s because I’ve forgotten a word not because I don’t know the right one.

Mental models are the most important part of learning and understanding the world, and they are undervalued and undertaught. In the grander arc of history, the internet and the capacity for immediate knowledge lookup tables is novel and so most of our society still overvalues the Ruzzle strategy right now. But if you take a closer look at very intelligent and successful people, you’ll see that they always have a large set of mental models and built-in dictionaries in their brain.

Boggle and Ruzzle. Learn how and when to use both strategies.

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