Qwirkle - Play Scrabble before you can read!

Players: 2-4
Ages: 5 and up
Cost: ~$25 (Buy on Amazon)
Math Ideas: Spatial reasoning, addition, categorization
Questions to Ask
    Where can you build a Qwirkle on this board?
    How can one tile score two points?
    What is the most points you can score with a single tile? How?

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Have you ever played one of those people in Scrabble who knows all the two-letter words?

I'm not talking about "it" and "he." I mean someone who confidently plays "qi" and then dares you to Google it. 

My friend Robin is one of those people. I have played her in Scrabble since high school, and I have no idea how many times I've lost to her. But I definitely remember how many times I've won: zero.

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Don't get me wrong, Scrabble is a fantastic game. Someday I'll probably write a newsletter (or three) about it. But it does pose a problem, especially for parents: How do you play a word-based game with a kid (or friend) with a much lower vocabulary than you? What if your kid can't even read or spell yet?

Fortunately, I have found the perfect introductory game to the fun and strategy of Scrabble: Qwirkle. If you play Qwirkle with your five-, six-, and seven-year-olds, they'll be totally ready to dive into Scrabble as older kids.

How to Play

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Each player starts the game by drawing six tiles which come in six shapes and colors. There is no game board in Qwirkle; instead, players take turns laying tiles on a blank table.

Instead of making words, as in Scrabble, players play sets of tiles that either share the same color or the same shape. Longtime readers know I am a sucker for games that involve attributes and classification, and this game is no exception.

After the first player goes, the next player must build on their work, either expanding their set of tiles or using one of their tiles to move off in a different direction.

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Again, the playing and scoring mechanic is very similar to Scrabble. You place your tiles in a row, then count all the new or extended "words' you made. Instead of point values based on the letter, you get a single point for every tile in each "word" you create or extend.

All players are angling to make a Qwirkle, which is a set of six tiles that all share the same color or the same shape. Whenever you get a Qwirkle, you earn 6 bonus points on top of whatever points you earn for your play. 

Add up your score each turn and see who has the highest point total when you run out of tiles!

Where's the Math?

The math in Qwirkle is a wonderful staircase of complexity - your child will feel comfortable with the first level, only to begin to notice the next level of interesting math.

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On the most basic level is the scoring system. You gain points for each tile in each set you create or extend. So let's say you just played the four diamonds in the bottom right section of this image. You get four points for the four diamond tiles you placed, plus four additional points for the extended set of four green pieces in a row.

If your child has the handwriting for it, you can assign them to be the scorekeeper, doing simple addition practice with each turn. And as they tabulate scores, they might begin to notice that the scores are higher when you can string together two or three different "words" on the same move. And here opens up the second layer of math - strategic tile placement.

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Just like in Scrabble, the real points are in those dense, efficient moves that pack a lot of words into just a couple of spaces. But unlike Scrabble, your child doesn't need to know "ej" or "fe." They just need to know that two clovers fit together.

Once they get more strategic with the placement of their own pieces, your child might start to wonder how to thwart their opponents' plans. Are you close to getting a Qwirkle? Can they stop you somehow? A carefully placed piece can completely wreck your best-laid plans. This is the third layer of math, where your child begins to play defense as well as offense in an attempt to maximize their own score and minimize yours.

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There was a point when I realized that Scrabble wasn't a word game - it's a territory-based game that used words as its mechanic for gaining territory. Well, Qwirkle brings all that fun and strategy down to an accessible level for my kids.

Questions to Ask

When I first played the game, my son and his friend T insisted that we play face-up. It turned out to be a great idea: I could gently hint at moves they could make, and they could see my pieces and try to thwart my intentions. They even ganged up on me in order to win, which I pretended to hate.

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One great question while your kids are still learning the game is "Where could you build a Qwirkle on this board?" This question gets your child to step back from their own pieces and look at the board as a whole. Are there any sets with five out of the six required pieces? What about sets with four pieces, but you hold the fifth? Maybe you should keep holding onto that tile, just in case.

If your kids are having trouble placing their tiles strategically, you could ask them "How can a single tile score two points in this game?" The answer, which is to use that tile to extend one set while creating another set, might get them hunting for moves in places they hadn't previously considered. Their spatial reasoning will develop further as they prioritize certain types of plays over others.

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Another question that can be played straight or as a joke is "Can I put this tile here?" By placing tiles in incorrect (and occasionally correct) places, you put your child in the role of the teacher, explaining to their student why a blue star doesn't go with the orange and green circles. Kids love nothing more than correcting their parents, and they build up an ability to put their mathematical justifications into words.

I always try to find a way to make a game into a puzzle, so I like this one: What is the maximum possible score in this game, and can you construct a game board that would allow it to happen? Hint: You've seen it in this email already!

Qwirkle is a huge hit for a reason - the game pairs the classic strategy of Scrabble with a clever and accessible set of tiles that make the game easy enough for young kids but challenging enough to be enjoyed entirely by adults. I highly, highly recommend this game.

Click here to buy Qwirkle on Amazon