The Party Game With a Built-In Swear Filter

Pictured above is Boggle, a game that technically isn’t a board game as it doesn’t have a board. What it had instead, pre-2008, is a tray and 16 lettered dice. Players put the dice inside a 4×4 tray, cover the tray up with a plastic lid, and in the grand style of the Hokey Pokey, shake it all about. The dice fall into 16 divets in the tray, and the result is a randomized set of letters arranged in a 4×4 grid. (In the 2008-present version, the dice are sealed in the case.) Players then have three minutes — as measured by an included sand timer — to find as many words as possible. A word is valid if it has three or more letters, is a word you’d find in a dictionary, is not a proper noun nor hyphenated, and as Wikipedia’s editors summarize, “each letter after the first [is] a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal neighbor of the one before it.”

As you could imagine, you can spell all sorts of words while playing Boggle, including a few that you probably do not want to explain if you’re playing with a young child. For example, “CLASS” and “TITLE” are perfectly cromulent words for mixed company and children alike, but each contains a three-letter word that is not quite as appropriate. The game design, however, makes situations like this unavoidable.

In most cases, that is. But oddly enough, that wasn’t always the case.

Boggle was created in the early 1970s by a guy named Allan Turoff and quickly caught the eye of board game powerhouse Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers first published a commercially-available version of the game in 1974, making slight changes to the game over the next decade or so. For example, a very early version of the game have the letter Q on a cube face by itself, but as only a few English words contain a Q without a U immediately thereafter, Parker Brothers quickly changed the Q dice faces to read “Qu.” Beyond that, at first blush, the dice haven’t seemed to change much over the years.

But, in fact, they have — and dramatically so. In 1987, Parker Brothers revised the game in a major but subtle way. The packaging looked mostly the same and the parts didn’t appear to look any different, either — there were 16 dice, one tray, a tray lid, and the timer, just like before. But the dice themselves were all re-lettered. 

Via a blog dedicated to Bananagrams and other word games, here’s the list of the letter combinations on each of the 16 dice from the pre-1987 game. (I verified the letter combinations for the dice on the pre-1987 set; it turns out that my brother owns one.)


And here’s the list from the 1987 and beyond version:


They’re clearly different — very different. And that seems weird. The pre-1987 version of Boggle is perfectly playable; why update the letters on the dice?

Officially, we don’t know — Parker Brothers has never made an official statement on the matter (or I missed it). Unofficially, there’s probably a very good reason for the change: the newer version has more common letters and fewer uncommon letters, and it’s likely that you can make more words using the newer dice set. Or, in other words, it’s easier to find more words in the new version, so it’s a more accessible game than its pre-1987 predecessor, especially if you’re playing with younger kids and their limited vocabulary. 

But there’s another reason why this change may have happened — and again, this is pure speculation (but I think you’ll agree): there are a few words you simply can’t spell out in the newer version of Boggle. The reason why? The AFFKPS cube.

Pre-1987, the game had two Ks and two Fs. Those letters appeared on four different dice, as listed above: BIFORX and EEFHIY contained the Fs, while DKNOUT and EGKLUY contained the Ks. As a result, you could spell words like “FORK,” or, as seen above, “KNIFE,” provided that the cubes fell in a manner that made those words available. 

The 1987 revision, though, removed the ability for players to discover those cutlery-related words. To spell either “FORK” or “KNIFE,” you need to roll the dice in such a way that both an F and a K are present on the 4×4 board. But the only Fs and Ks available in the revised version of the game are on the same cube — the AFFKPS one. It is impossible, therefore, to spell any word that requires both an F and a K, such as fork, knife, or… 

Well, please use your imagination here.  This newsletter — and apparently, the brains behind Boggle — would prefer to not have to spell it out.

Bonus fact: The board game Monopoly is not a good game, as previously explained on these pages. But it also would be bad at Boggle, too, because Monopoly can’t spell. (I’m sure I have a typo somewhere in today’s email, and I guess people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, but whatever.) All of the properties in Monopoly are named after locations in Atlantic City, New Jersey — kind of. Marvin Gardens, one of the yellow properties, can’t be found on a map of the Jersey casino town, but “Marven Gardens” can. The mistake has been around since the game’s initial commercial release, and as NPR reports, “In 1995, Parker Brothers formally acknowledged the original misspelling of ‘Marvin Gardens’ and apologized to the residents of the neighborhood of Marven Gardens in Atlantic City..” They have not corrected the spelling on the game board, but they have raised the rent.

From the Archives: Why You Shouldn’t Take Advice From a Board Game: This story actually has very little to do with board games.