I used to be a huge Scrabble fan.  My parents and I used to play a lot when I was growing up, and we were hardcore.  We had the official Scrabble dictionary, we knew all the obscure two-letter words (like xi, aa, oe, mm, etc.), and we knew that is was a cardinal sin to set someone up for a triple word score.  (I usually sat to the right of my dad, who would accuse my mom of setting me up for a big score at least once a game.)

The only problem with Scrabble is that it would invariably take over an hour to play, with most of that time spent just waiting for your turn.  It’s a fun game to play, but there’s just too much downtime.

This is where Bananagrams fits in.  As you can see from the picture above, Bananagrams looks a lot like Scrabble without a board.  It’s really just a bunch of letter tiles in a banana-shaped carrying case.  But while it looks a lot like Scrabble, and the goals are similar, the game plays very differently.

Basic Rules

Here’s how the game goes.  To set up, all of the tiles go to the middle of the table face down, and each player takes some tiles at random to start off.  (The number of tiles depends on the number of players; with more players, each person starts with fewer tiles.)

Once everybody has their tiles, one person says “Split!” (or “Go!” if you’re not feeling the banana theme), and everyone flips over their tiles.  At this point, everybody tries to arrange their tiles into a Scrabble-like grid made up of words going vertically or horizontally.  No one is taking turns; everyone tries to make their grid at the same time.  No down time!

If someone has a tile they can’t use, they can say “Dump.”  If they do this, they put the tile pack in the middle of the pile and take three more in its place.  So players are able to get rid of problematic tiles, but the downside is that they end up with more tiles they have to place in the grid.  Whenever players get more tiles, they are free to rearrange their grids however they want; the grids are never locked down until the end of the game.

Whenever a player has used all of their tiles, that player says “Peel!”  This means that everybody — not just the player that said it — takes a new tile from the middle, which will have to be included in the grid with all of the others.

The game ends when someone calls “peel” and there are not enough tiles left for all players to take one.  All other players check the calling player’s grid to make sure it’s made up of valid words.  If not, then that player has scored a “rotten banana”; all his tiles go back to the middle and the rest of the players continue the game.  If all of the calling player’s words are valid, then that player wins.

Who will like it?

From my experience, people who like word games — even a little bit — will like Bananagrams.  Of course, if you don’t like word games in general, then you’re probably not going to like this one either.

People like myself who like Scrabble but hate the downtime will particularly enjoy the familiar puzzle of creating a crossword from random letters, combined with the fast pace of the game.  Scrabble players often tend to have a distinct advantage with this game, mainly because they know the two-letter words I mentioned at the top of the review.  That makes it very easy to start a chain of “peels”, because they can easily add each new letter to the grid by making another two-letter word.  (One variant I’ve seen is to only allow words of three or more letters.  This tends to even the playing field a good bit.)

Is it good for two players?

As I mention on the About page, I like to mention how well a game scales to two players.  One of the things I like about Bananagrams is that it supports just about any number of players; the rules include a solo variant for one player, and make mention of supporting more than eight players!

As a two-player game, Bananagrams is fun, although it does lack some of the chaos that’s present in a game with more people.  Part of the fun of Bananagrams is its fast pace, and the more people there are, the more frenzied the game can be.  In the two-player game, there tends to be a little more time to think about where to put your tiles.

That said, it’s still a great experience.  It just depends on how much pressure you want to be under while you’re making your grid.

So, what’s the verdict?

It’s simple to teach, fun to play, and each game averages just about fifteen minutes with no downtime.  While it’s a good two-player game, it really shines when you have a large group all playing at the same time.  Overall, if you like word games, and especially if you like Scrabble, then you will definitely enjoy Bananagrams.