‘Sproutword’: Where Horse Beats Equestrian in a Game of Words

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All game play images: Sarah Pinault

Sproutword is a word strategy game for 2-4 players. It was invented by Ian “Sprout” Neville and Dan “Gherkin” Richter, in Devon, England. Over lunch at the office one day, they experimented with bits of paper and an idea, and Sproutword was born. The game is not just about wordplay, it is heavy on strategy; you don’t need the “best” word to win, you just need to play the game better than everyone else. Thus “Horse” can beat “Equestrian” and my son can beat my excellent words like “superfluous” with a strategically placed “farting.” It combines the word play of Scrabble, the strategy of Chess, and the fun of Upwords. If you are my daughter, it also combines your love of pink with your love of messing with Mama’s word games. 

The object of the game is not to have the longest word, but to have more of your color in the longest word than any other player. The longest word where one player has a majority is called the Sproutword, and whoever controls this word at the end of the game is the winner.

Setup

Each player chooses a color and selects one tile from their bag. Each bag has fifty letters, distributed based on frequency of use in the English language. The person who draws the lowest letter in the alphabet starts the game. You must draw again if there is a tie. Once direction of game play is decided, each player draws random tiles from their bag and places them face up, eight letters in a two-player game, seven letters in a three-player game, and six letters in a four-player game. You are now ready to begin.

Game Play

The first player plays a word using letters from their own pile, but also from the other players’ piles, any of them. On subsequent turns players will put down new words that link to the existing words, or change existing words. On your turn you may use any unplaced letters from any player, but if someone steals a tile from you, you may not replenish until the end of your next turn.

Changed words cannot be shortened; that is, the words must be at least as long as the existing word. You can also not displace another word; much like in Scrabble, anything you butt up against needs to make sense. You may only change the color of a tile when playing a new word or changing one. So is someone plays “banana” in all green, and you can also spell “banana” in all pink, you can build down from any of the letters, but you can’t simply remove the green banana and replace it with a pink one. Any letters removed from play, go back into the bag of their color; they do not get taken out of play.

In some ways, Sproutword follows traditional word games, such as that words cannot be placed diagonally or backwards, and you cannot use proper nouns or hyphenated words. In other ways it is novel; you are not allowed to skip a turn or exchange tiles. You get what you get. The game ends when any player has no letters to replenish with.

Determining the Sproutword

This is where the game takes some getting used to, and where I find myself enjoying it the most. The Sproutword is not always the longest word. If the longest word is made up of equal parts pink and blue tiles for example, the word is tied for control and cannot be a Sproutword. So a five-letter word made up of all pink tiles would be the Sproutword and beat out an eight-letter word composed of four pink and four blue. The longer word has been neutralized. There can be more than one Sproutword but only if a word of similar length and tile control, is held by the same color that controls the Sproutword.

It has a hint of Bananagrams about it, but there are a couple of dynamics at (word) play in this game that you will need to master to become a Sproutword champion.

  1. Protect your Sproutword. Since tiles can change color, and words can change completely, the more words you play off a Sproutword you possess, the more likely you are to hang on to your lead. 
  2. Ignore your Scrabble instincts. A few key placements of words like cat and dog can be more useful than placing words like council or queuing, especially when you are trying to protect your Sproutword.
  3. Steal, steal, steal. Sometimes strategy involves placing simple word, sometimes it involves using an opponents tiles to give them fewer choices on their turn. I can protect my Sproutword by playing the word cats, and using up an opponent’s three tiles. This reduces their choices, and reduces their chance of making a longer Sproutword on their turn.

Winning the Game

You keep track of the Sproutword by listing the words as they are played. Whoever controls the Sproutword at the end of the game is the winner.

Added Bonus

Sproutword is as green as it sounds. Artisans craft the wooden letters in small batches in Devon, and Ian and Dan then pack and ship them from Dorset. The tiles are crafted from sustainable wood, with a core certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and an oak veneer from managed forest plantations in Europe. The ink used to die the tiles is UV cured, making them more energy efficient, but also less harmful than solvent-based inks. The natural surroundings where the game is made inspired the color palette—Western Sunset Pink, Salcombe Sand Yellow, Chalk Meadow Green, and Dorset Sky Blue.

Should I Buy Sproutword?

To put it simply, absolutely. The game is exceptionally fun. Easy enough to learn, tricky enough to be continually interesting. As we face more distance learning this fall, it’s a great word game to add into your family’s repertoire. Currently you can only purchase Sproutword directly from Ian and Dan. Taking proper caution given the current circumstances, copies are dispatched within 24 hours, and overseas copies are sent using Royal Mail International Track & Trace. Shipping may take several days longer than normal due to the COVID-19 situation. Your copy will come with a personalized numbered certificate. I sincerely hope this game takes off and becomes more generally available.

GeekMom received a copy of this game for review purposes.

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