Eating Your Own Dog Food (How Can I Get Better at Words with Friends?)Posted: June 4, 2012
I am currently being simultaneously beaten in four games of Words with Friends. This amuses me far more than it bugs me because it appears that, despite having a large vocabulary, a (I’m told) quick wit and being relatively skilled in the right word in the right place – I am rather bad at a game that should reward at least some of these skills.
One of the things that I dislike, and I know that my students dislike, is when someone stands up and says “To solve problem X, you need to take set of actions S.” Then, when you come to X, or you find that person’s version of a solution to X, it’s not actually S that is used. It’s “S-like” or “S-lite” or “Z, which looks like an S backwards and sounds like it if you’re an American with a lisp.”
There’s a term I love called “eating your own dog food” (Wikipedia link) that means that a company uses the products that it creates in order to solve the problems for which a customer would buy their products. It’s a fairly simple mantra: if you’re making the best thing to solve Problem X, then you should be using it yourself when you run across Problem X. Now,of course, a company can do this by banning or proscribing any other products but this misses the point. At it’s heart, dogfooding means that, in a situation where you are free to choose, you make a product so good that you would choose it anyway.
It speaks to authenticity when you talk about your product and it provides both goals and thinking framework. The same thing works for education – if I tell someone to take a certain approach to solve a problem, then it should be one that I would use as well.
So, if a student said to me “I am bad at this type of problem,” I’d start talking to them to find out exactly what they’re good and bad at, get them to analyse their own process, get them to identify some improvement strategies (with my guidance and suggestions) and then put something together to get it going. Then we’d follow up, discuss what happened, and (with some careful scaffolding) we’d iteratively improve this as far as we could. I’d also be open to the student working out whether the problem is actually one that they need to solve – although it’s a given that I’ll have a strong opinion if it’s something important.
So, let me eat my own dog food for this post, to help me get better at Words with Friends, to again expose my thinking processes but also to demonstrate the efficacy of doing this!
Step 1: What’s the problem?
So, I can get reasonable scores at Words with Friends but I don’t seem to be winning. Words with Friends is a game that rewards you for playing words with “high value” tiles on key positions that add score multipliers. The words QATS can be worth 13 or 99 depending on where it is placed. You have 7 randomly selected tiles with different letters, and a range of values for letters in a 1:1 association, but must follow strict placement and connection rules. In summary, a Words with Friends game is a connected set of tiles, where each set of tiles placed must form a valid word once set placement is complete, and points are calculated from the composition and placement of the tiles, but bonus spaces on the board only count once. The random allocation of letters means that you have to have a set of strategies to minimise the negative impact of a bad draw and to maximise the benefit of a good draw. So you need a way of determining the possible moves and then picking the best one.
Some simple guidelines that help you to choose words can be formed along the lines of the number of base points by letter (so words featuring Q, X or J will be worth more because these are high value letters), the values of words will tend to increase as the word length increases as there are more letters with values to count (although certain high value letters cannot be juxtaposed – QXJJXWY is not a word, sadly), but both of these metrics are overshadowed by the strategic placement of letters to either extend existing words (allowing you to recount existing tiles and extending point 2) or to access the bonus spaces. Given that QATS can be worth 99 points as a four-letter word if played in the right place, it might be worth ignoring QUEUES earlier if think you can reach that spot.
Step 2: So where is my problem?
After thinking about my game, I realised that I wasn’t playing Words with Friends properly, because I wasn’t giving enough thought to the adversarial nature of the occupancy of the bonus spaces. My original game was more along the lines of “look at letters, look at board, find a good word, play it.” As a result, any occupancy of the bonus spaces was a nice-to-have, rather than a must-have. I also didn’t target placement that allowed me to count tiles already on the board and, looking at other games, my game is a loose grid compared to the tight mesh that can earn very large points.
I’m also wasn’t thinking about the problem space correctly. There are a fixed number of tiles in the game, with known distribution. As tiles are played, I know how many tiles are left and that up to 14 of them are in my and my opponent’s hand. If I know how many tiles there are of each letter, I can play with a reasonable idea of the likelihood of my opponent’s best move. Early on, this is hard, but that’s ok, because we can both play in a way that doesn’t give a bonus tile advantage. Later on, it’s probably more useful.
Finally, I was trying to use words that I knew, rather than words that are legal in Words with Friends. I had no idea that the following were acceptable until (at least once out of desperation) I tried them. Here are some you might (nor might now) know: AA, QAT, ZEE, ZAS, SCARP, DYNE. The last one is interesting, because it’s a unit of force, but BRIX, a unit used to measure concentration (often of sugar) isn’t a legal word.
So, I had three problems, most of which relate to the fact that I’m more used to playing “Take 2” (a game played with Scrabble tiles but no bonus spaces) than “Scrabble” itself, where the bonus spaces are crucial.
Step 3: What are the strategies for improvements?
The first, and most obvious, strategy is to get used to playing in the adversarial space and pay much closer attention to which bonus spaces I leave open in my play and to increase my recounting of existing tiles. The second is to start keeping track of tiles that are out and play to the more likely outcome. Finally, I need to get a list of which words are legal in Words with Friends and, basically, learn them.
Step 4: Early outcomes
After getting thrashed in my first games, I started applying the first strategy. I have since achieved words worth over 100 points and, despite not winning, the gap is diminishing. So this appears to be working.
The second and the third… look, it’s going to sound funny but this seems like a lot of work for a game. I quite like playing the best word I can think of without having to constrain myself to play some word I’m never going to actually use (when we’re up to our elbows in aa, I will accept your criticism then) or sit there eliminating tiles one-by-one (or using an assistant to do it). Given that I’m not even sure that this is the way people actually play, I’m probably better off playing a lot of games and naturally picking up words that occur, rather than trying to learn them all in one go.
Of course, if a student said something along the last lines to me, then they’re saying that they don’t mind not succeeding. In this case, it’s perfectly true. I enjoy playing and, right now, I don’t need to win to enjoy the game.
Just as well really, I think I’m about to lose four games within a minute of each other. That’s four in a row – pity, if there were three of them I could do a syzygy joke.
Step 5: Discussion and Iteration
So, here’s the discussion and my chance to think about whether my strategies need modification to achieve my original goal. Now, if I keep that goal at winning, then I do need to keep iterating but I have noticed that with a simple change of aiming more a the bonuses, I get a good “Yeah” from a high points word that probably won’t be matched by winning a game.
To wrap up, having looked at the problem, thought through it and make some constructive suggestions regarding improvement, I’ve not only improved my game but I’ve improved my understanding and enjoyment of the activity. I feel far more in control of my hideous performance and can now talk to more people about other ways to improve that maintain that enjoyment.
Now, of course, I imagine that a million WwF players are going to jump in and say “nooooo! here’s how you do it.” Please do so! Right now I’m talking to myself but I’d love some guidance for iterative improvement.