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Illustration of Scrabble tiles spelling out NOPE.

Illustration by Lyndsay Henn

Creative Briefs #5: Four-Letter Words

Written By William Reagan | Aug 1, 2018

Calling the office Pictionary games “team-building exercises” was akin to referring to carpet-bombing as “delivering new landscaping opportunities.” The games might have increased camaraderie if they occasionally resembled a scene from a Milton-Bradley TV spot, full of laughter and lightness, but this was never the scene in Marketing.

The matches always began with earnest intentions, even assurances of civility, but once the timer was running, some procedural violation or All Play-inspired argument would fracture the team and drain any levity from the game. Even the strongest work alliances were tested, and by the time one of the binder clips that served as playing pieces mercifully made it to the finish line, everyone was thinking of where they could go to get a stiff drink — alone.

The aftermath of these lunchtime skirmishes was tense, interminable afternoons, everyone fishing headphones from desk drawers to advertise their disinterest in further interaction. “But come on,” Linda would later insist when she sensed, always incorrectly, that it was okay to broach the subject. “Most of the time, the games are still kind of fun.” It was rare when anyone agreed with her.

The matches always began with earnest intentions, even assurances of civility, but once the timer was running, even the strongest work alliances were tested.

Concerned that one of these contentious battles was approaching and hoping to avoid another interdepartmental meltdown, Haley brought her well-worn Scrabble game to the office. It seemed a more civilized way to spend their playtime together: no caustic accusations that someone had yelled the wrong verb syntax, no move that couldn’t be confirmed with a nearby dictionary. It was certainly worth a try.

“I’m not playing Scrabble with a copywriter,” Lois declared when she saw the maroon box on the conference room table.

The irony of this decline was obvious to Haley, and she was disappointed Lois didn’t see it herself. “Why won’t you play Scrabble with a copywriter?”

“Because you’ll be dropping juxtapose while I’m playing dogs.” Lois shook her head. “No thanks.”

This irked Haley because Pictionary is a purely visual game, which gave Lois a distinct advantage. Despite Haley’s own art skills routinely earning compliments such as “Nice, how old is your child?” she had never declined playing Pictionary. Yet now that a game might favor someone else’s professional strengths, Lois refused?

Besides, being a copywriter wasn’t a real advantage. Scrabble isn’t like Boggle, where you’re listing every word you can pick from a grid of letters. It doesn’t matter how big your vocabulary is if you keep drawing 1-point letters or your rack is A-A-C-I-I-U-U. Luck levels the playing field, and victory depends on strategy: don’t give your opponent access to triple letters; anticipate their options by assessing what letters have been played. The Venn diagram of strong Scrabble players and logophiles had a surprisingly small overlap.

“I think you’re missing the primary selling point, Lo. I’ve never seen anyone scream across a Scrabble board. No one declares they’d played a particular word first and no one had seen it. No one spends half the game in bitter silence because of a perceived breach of ethics. Can any of these things be said about Pictionary?”

“You could say the same thing about Tic-Tac-Toe, so why don’t we just play that?”

“Because it’s boring, and has no strategy, and it’s hard for six people to play it.” Haley could feel her pulse quickening. “And to your earlier point, juxtapose is an extremely unlikely play. Even if tap or pose has already been played, having the J, X, and other necessary letters, with no other obstacles on the board, would be like winning the lottery.”

Lois smiled. “You’re making a poor case for it not being boring, Hale-storm.”

Haley wasn’t smiling. “I never realized you were such a chickenshit, Lois.”

“I’m not. I’m just smart enough to not let my opponent pick the weapons in a duel.”

“Listen to you two,” Paul chimed in. “We haven’t even opened the box and you guys are already battling. It makes me wonder if the problem isn’t actually Pictionary.”

Neither Haley nor Lois replied. They were both putting on their headphones.

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