Palabra is a card-based word game. Think Scrabble, with cards instead of a board and tiles.

The cards (120 in all) in the deck have letters on them, along with point values similar to those in Scrabble. They come in four colors: red, green, blue and yellow. Some cards are two-colored. Some also have two or three stars on them. There are also three wild cards (can be any letter AND any color) and two jokers (explained later). Every player has seven cards in his/her hand, and uses them to build words. Unlike Scrabble, you don't have to build on an opponent's word, and if you do, it can only be by adding letters to the beginning or the end, not by building crosswise. Words only stick around for one turn; whether or not anyone's built on it, your word is scrapped at the beginning of your next turn.

Here's how you score points (copied from the instruction booklet):

• By making a word from cards of mixed colors.
• By making a word from cards all the same color: scores double.
• With a "straight" consisting of there or more consecutive letters. (Example: ABC)
• Cards marked with two stars (**) or three stars (***) double or triple the value of the word with which they are played.
• With a flush. (Five cards, all the same color, no word necessary. Starred letters lose their double or triple value when played as part of a flush)
• With six vowels (20 points) or seven vowels (40 points).
• By using all 7 cards to build a word. Called a "Palabra" this play scores a bonus of 70 points.
• By building on the front or back of a word already played. If the word is all one color, you can only add cards of the same color. Stars on the cards already there don't count, but stars on the cards added do.
• Last play of the game scores triple if it uses all remaining cards in the player's hand.

There are two ways of taking points away from your opponent's. One is by "point shaving." When the player immediately preceeding you plays a word, if you have any of the same letters in your hand, you can play them to steal the points for those cards from the opponent (e.g., if someone spells "moo" with a two-starred O, for 10 points (M = 3, O = 1. (3 + 1 + 1) x 2 = 10), and you have an M in your hand, you could play it to steal 3 x 2 = 6 points from the opponent; they would get only 4 points, and you would get 6. You could then carry on with your regular turn, although you wouldn't replace your M until the end of your turn. If someone's word is all one color, you can only point shave with cards of that color.

The other way to take points away is to play a joker. Anyone can play a joker on their turn, on any word that's been played since their last turn. A joker simply removes the word from existence. The player who played the word loses all the points they got from it, and the word is removed from play (no one can build on it).

But is it fun?

Well, it's no Scrabble, but it's fun nonetheless. The biggest problem I find with the game is the starred cards. They're very prolific, and their value is cumulative, so if you play a word with a 3-starred letter and two 2-starred letters, the word will be worth 3 x 2 x 2 = 12 times its normal value. Yesterday, I played with one of my students, and I spelled WORK with a three-starred O and two-starred W, R and K. 5 + 1 + 1 + 6 = 12. 3 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 24. 24 x 12 = 288 points for one word. Considering her total score at the end of the game was 155, this is hardly fair.

I suppose that the jokers are meant to compensate for this, but they just unbalance the game further, especially in a two-player game. If one player were to get both jokers (a 50% chance, 25% for each player), they are essentially getting two free turns, even if they play the joker on whatever the opponent's next word is, regardless of the points. Considering that they will probably hang on to them until the opponent plays something like the aforementioned 288 point WORK, the effects are much more serious.

Balance issues aside, the game is enjoyable, and a bit more fast-paced than Scrabble. It's also recommended for up to 6 players, whereas Scrabble suggests no more than 4. If you love word games, and don't mind someone occasionally getting a lucky break and getting 200+ points on a four-letter word, it might be worth it to add it to your collection.

C-Dawg has just informed me that "Palabra" is the Spanish word for "word." And here I was thinking it was just a nonsense word.