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AlphaJax Lead
48

AlphaJax Review: Spell it like you mean it

New Zealish developer Marker Metro hopped onboard the WP7 bandwagon prior to that platform’s launch; their indie project AlphaJax followed the platform’s debut a few months later. We’ve long considered it one of the most polished crossword games available, despite the lack of cross-platform support. Perhaps that polish and Windows Phone exclusivity are what caused Microsoft to pick up full publishing rights from the developer this year.

AlphaJax is now a free ad-supported Xbox title, with the previous free and paid versions set to go defunct at the end of the year. We’ve spent ample time with the new version in order to give you this extremely thorough review.

Gameplay

AlphaJax Leaderboard

As with other games of this type, each player starts with seven random letter tiles. Each letter has its own point value based on its rarity in English words. There is also an uncommon blank tile which can be used as any letter, but it doesn’t add points to the overall word. Both people take turns creating new words on the board, all of which must be built off of an existing word.

Just making the longest word you can each turn won’t be enough to win against skilled players. That’s where special squares come in. These tiles double or triple the value of either an individual letter or the entire word. Their payout is so high (particularly the triple scoring squares) that building a shorter word across a special square often results in more points than a longer word without scoring bonuses.

Because of this, skilled players usually try to take as many special squares for themselves as possible while avoiding moves that set up those spaces for their opponents. It’s a clever and chess-like system in which you must consider not only the immediate benefits of a move but also the potential consequences during the following turn.

If you don’t see a good move, you can always opt to swap individual letters for new ones or just pass your turn. The game’s actual randomizer can be pretty cruel; it’s not unusual to end up with nearly all consonants or vowels on your rack, even after swapping a few out. I haven’t played other Scrabble clones enough to know whether that’s common to the genre or not, but it can certainly frustrate.

Endgame

AlphaJax Pass and Play

The virtual bag of tiles that players draw from every turn is not endless; you can see how many tiles remain in the bag icon just above the board. Once the tiles have depleted, the game ends when either player uses his or her final tile(s). At that point, whoever played the last tile gets points for the other person's remaining tiles. The player with the higher score then wins the game.

This conclusion is one area where AlphaJax has much room for improvement. Earlier today, I started a second game with one of our dedicated readers. He asked me if we shouldn’t finish our first game up before starting a new one. Clearly he didn’t know the game had ended, and I don’t blame him.

If you play the winning move, you’ll see a tiny “Winner” message above your name. But it’s very easy to miss. And if you don’t play the winning move, the game simply shifts from your in progress list (Their Turns) to Played Games with no real notification. Considering how we’re encouraged to have multiple games going at once (the maximum is 30), it’s all too easy to overlook that a game has ended.

The solution is to add a proper win/lose notification of some type. Push notifications would work, though some users turn those off (or can’t see them due to WP issues) and would miss them. I’m thinking a win/lose screen that pops up when you start the game or between moves/games would be the best answer. Not only would it drive home the results, it would also offer a fine chance to further integrate the game’s Avatar support by showing a jubilant or crushed character.

Online Performance

AlphaJax Stats

When Marker Metro announced the Xbox Live version of AlphaJax, my greatest fear was server issues or some other drop in performance. Of all the Xbox Windows Phone games with online multiplayer features, more of them have suffered from crippling server issues than not (which we’ll explore in a future article). Thankfully, the new AlphaJax works almost as well as the old one. The start-up time is sometimes slow (accompanied by a cryptic “Shuffling tiles” message), but seldom often enough to annoy. I have encountered error messages when playing a move, though not frequently enough to spoil the fun.

Xbox integration means that you can easily play with your existing Xbox Live friends – a huge plus for most of us. Besides inviting from the Friends menu, you can also manually enter Gamertags to challenge from the Invite screen. If the user hasn’t installed the game yet, you’ll be prompted to email that person which involves the slight nuisance of typing out his or her email address. Most Windows Phone users should have the game though, in which case the invite will likely go through without trouble. That said, I sometimes enter a Gamertag perfectly and get a “Gamertag not found” message, which should never happen.

One option the game badly needs is a way to restrict invites from random players. At present, if you get three invites during the night, you’ll also hear three push notifications that you might not want to hear. And some people consider invites from random players to be spam anyway. Sure, if everyone turned off matchmaking, nobody could ever meet new players. But an option to toggle between “Invites from everyone” or “Invites from friends only” just makes sense.

AlphaJax is one of the few online Xbox WP games with proper chat support, a feature that every single online game needs. Still, if you've already engaged in chat during a game, there's no visual way to tell if the other player sends a new message without manually checking that game's chat session. Perhaps the chat icon could change color for new messages?

Cheating

AlphaJax Chat

My other concern prior to this version’s release has existed since the first iteration of AlphaJax began two years ago: cheating. Let’s face it, there are dozens of Scrabble solver websites out there, and there’s nothing to stop a random opponent from using one. I’ve mostly played against people on my friends list, but even a few of them have used long words that nobody could possibly know or guess on their own. It spoils the fun and once I detect someone doing it, I want the game to end as soon as possible. But resigning a game hurts your rank, so you have to go through with it and hope their solver will fail them somehow.

Cheating is a problem in any online Scrabble game, so it’s not unique to AlphaJax. But the developers should account for it somehow. Microsoft’s other online word game Wordament certainly does. Ideally, we could report people for cheating, and when a user gets enough reports, he would be investigated. But even if that’s too much trouble, at least let us avoid the player as we can do on Xbox 360. It doesn’t amount to much, but still feels better than having no recourse.

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AlphaJax Help and Options

While AlphaJax does offer Pass-and-Play multiplayer in addition to asynchronous online multiplayer, you can’t play either way without an internet connection due to the game’s reliance on ads. It’s a shame that Microsoft doesn’t offer a paid ad-free version as the indie game did. After all, some people will simply never touch an ad and those people don’t bring in revenue.

Still, the only time the ads really become a problem is when you take a phone call while playing. As you probably know, a ‘minimized’ call basically takes up a small piece of real estate at the top of the screen. But AlphaJax also displays ads at the top during gameplay. Instead of covering up those ads for the duration of the phone call, the game’s entire display shifts downward, moving the player’s tiles off-screen and making it impossible to play a move while talking. Whoever thought of that idea needs to drop a hammer on both of his feet.

Achievements

Many of AlphaJax’s Achievements would be difficult or impossible to get without cheating. Thankfully, all but one can be unlocked in Pass-and-Play multiplayer, where a little cheating won’t negatively affect other players. That’s about the only way most of us will ever get the Achievement for scoring two word multipliers with a single word.

The more problematic Achievement 'Lexicographer' requires players to earn a super high rating from winning countless online games. I can see it inspiring a lot of Achievement hungry gamers to cheat against innocent players. Again though, a TrueAchievements user has discovered a harmless way to boost 'Lexicographer.' It requires two phones, but thanks to WP8 many of us have a handset to spare for such an occasion.

Overall Impression

The choice of which online crossword game to play comes down to what you care about in a game. If you’re an Xbox Live enthusiast, it goes without saying that AlphaJax is a must-have game. Even if you don’t dig Achievements, AlphaJax still offers a massive Windows Phone-specific userbase at no cost to players. The game definitely has room for improvement despite its years of updates; hopefully its newfound Xbox Live status won’t slow down future improvements. In any case, AlphaJax is one of the most addictive Xbox WP games I’ve played and well worth your time.

AlphaJax works great on WP7 and WP8. Get it here on the Windows Phone Store.

QR: AlphaJax

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Comments

There are 48 comments. Sign in to comment

Dusteater says:

This game has potential, but the annoying random games that keep popping up drive me and my family insane. So much that everyone I know uninstalled it after one day. They need to allow you to accept games only from friends.

nablor says:

Same here uninstalled after a day notifications get on your wick and still getting then even after uinstalling it.

CommonBlob says:

Exactly, i turned the notifications off on xbox live as i was getting challenged at 3 in the morning! Not good.
 
Overall, a fun game though

willied says:

I had the same problem.

AriesDog says:

This drove me nuts too. You should ask for one random challenge and be matched one time. That's it. I consider this game horribly broken and should be pulled from the marketplace for that reason. The developer is a nice guy and replied to several of my posts about this problem but his solution to turn off features is ridiculous. By the way, he told me that after two weeks of inactivity after uninstalling the app the system should stop sending you requests.

RepoUK says:

The real problem here isn't the game but the lack of a time based profile app.  I used SBSH PhoneWeaver on my WM6.5 device and it was a God send.  Come midnight, all coms and sound was turned off, 8am everything back on again; all automatic, no user intervention, perfect! Unfortunately M$ pissed off a lot of small developers with it's insanely closed platform so now it's Android only.

ZuNuKoo says:

Didn't play this until it was an Xbox live game. Now I can't stop playing it. First day I got 9 invites to games. And I'm currently playing 12 games at once. I enjoy it. Actually hate to say it but with the achievements, it's slightly better then words by post for me. And I love that game. Anyone wants to play me, my live name is same as username.

Metaru says:

The only problem is people not finishing their games, they should have a force resign after like three days so you can quit and not hurt your rank.

Banstyle says:

You can force resign at seven days. It's always been that way, in the previous Alphajax too.

Banstyle says:

(Double post sorry)

yosagojimbo says:

In the pre live version if a player did not respond for over a week you could force them to resign (I'd be surprised if that wasn't still here)

kiddj55 says:

Is there going to be a Xbox title this week?

Jf.Vigor says:

I uninstalled this game a week ago and im STILL getting invites... ¬_¬

Banstyle says:

Yay I'm in a screenshot and now the world can see my total domination of EastX (three points up yo!).

tylerh1701 says:

The game is alright.  It is just Scrabble with achievements.  I've played 3 or 4 online games, and when I wrap up my last 2 I'll probably be done.  Maybe I'll grind out a few achievements in the local.
 
My biggest gripe with the game is that there is no penalty for guessing words, so I end up with stupid 2 and 3 letter words all over my board that shouldn't really count.
 
Paul - As for the end game, I don't think the other player is penalized if they still have letters remaining.  Rather, if you play your last letter, you get the sum of the points in the other player's hand.  So it basically has the same effect, but it actually increases your score rather than decreases the other players score (assuming you finish first).  
 
Also, you have a typo in the 2nd to last sentence, you spelled it "AphaJax"
 
Good review.

Paul Acevedo says:

Don't know why you didn't enjoy the game more, Tyler... I guess the genre's not for everybody.

Thanks for the corrections though. Updated the review. :)

tylerh1701 says:

I really enjoy a lot of word and puzzle games, had a great time with Wordament.  For some reason Scrabble has never clicked with me.  

Arsenic17 says:

I gave up Words With Friends for this game. It is much smoother and the interface is just better overall. I couldnt take WWF freezing my phone anymore (Lumia 920). Everytime it did I had some serious problems getting all my live tiles to update for some reason. I do miss my facebook friends base for WWF though with this game, but I do gain my XBL friends. It is a shame only like 3 of my FB friends have a WP.  :(
I hate running into cheaters all the time. I already got the ranking achievement so I dont care about rank. If I suspect cheating I just wont make a move ever again for that game unitl they resign.

Banstyle says:

If you resign a game against a freind or a random, rather than a Skill invite, does that hurt your rank?

Arsenic17 says:

Yes all games affect your rank equally. Random, friend, and skill. Makes no sense but that is how it is. Makes boosting possible because you can resign against your friends and such. If the rank was only based on the random game mode, would be better IMO.

Banstyle says:

Wow, such nonsense. I'll just play randoms now to make it easier on myself.

Bought a Surface RT! Sorry..., that was too juvenile. Excited.

Paul Acevedo says:

Congrats, Slayer! Let's hope AlphaJax comes to RT and Windows 8 soon with cross-platform multiplayer. :)

Thanks you and sorry for the blatant off-topic!

Yakko Warner says:

I haven't been able to play it yet. Keeps telling me the server is offline when I try to start the game.
I hate Scrabble anyway, but I'm a sucker for achievements.

I like Scrabble, but English is not my 1st language and I never cheat, so I probably couldn't win a 6 yo.

Paul Acevedo says:

Yes, alternate languages would be a great feature. Ran out of space in the review or I'd have mentioned that and compared it to Wordament.

ExcaliburII says:

not cheating at this but can come up with some words I would have never thought of just by continuing to scramble them around on the board...FICO, punny, packly.  Where does this game get's it's words from?

schlubadub says:

A dictionary? :P

avooca says:

I have yet to make this game work... every time I try to start a new game i get an error "Please adjust your Xbox live communication settings to send and receive communcations using voice, test, messaging, or game invites."  However, my settings in the games hub has everything turned on.  Also in game I've turned everyone on ... any hints?

bgravesen says:

Excaliburll you need to go to your Privacy Settings on xbox.com and make sure they are not locked down to friends only or nobody at all.  I had the same problem, and changed my settings from Custom to Adult.  After a couple of hours everything started working.

ExcaliburII says:

I'm thinking you meant avooca?

wpguy says:

I think you only need to adjust the setting in your Xbox account that has "send and receive communcations using voice, test, messaging, or game invites" in its description. I think that was the only setting I opened up to everyone. I try to keep my account pretty locked down to viewable by friends or self. Try adjusting only that setting and waiting maybe a day before adjusting others if that alone doesn't work.

Kilmster says:

I have the same problem.  Did you ever figure out what it was?

dkp23 says:

I uninstalled this about 20 minutes after downloading, the load times were so bad and then somehow i entered into like 5 random games and got like 20 notifications.  I said, im out ...

Paul Acevedo says:

Way to give the game a chance, dude.

dkp23 says:

So five random games entered when i didn't enter them, 20+ notifications, and 10-20+ seconds to load into the game, make your turn and then it loads again, and then wait for the next person to go, he goes, then you go back into the game another long loading time to open app, then load again to enter into the game and rinse and repeat.  This is all in 20 minutes, if this happened in the first 20 minutes i played, i can't imagine giong through this even longer. 
If you are going to call out taking wasting minutes of my life for just a game, that is fine, it is only a few minutes, sure.  But if i can get 5 moves on words with friends or words with post or word fued or whatever those games are in the time i can make one move on alphajax, why would i need alphajax?
 

Paul Acevedo says:

Maybe the server was just experiencing some issues that day. I've played a lot and rarely encounter lengthy loads, though the issue could have to do with your location too. The vast majority of players agree that AlphaJax runs better than Words With Friends on Windows Phone.

As for the invites from other players, that's not such a big fault. You can just reject the invites with no impact to your rating. Also, you can turn off Push notifications in the Help & Options screen.

Tomasz S. says:

The load times are humongous today. It's sad, as the game has worked lightning fast until yesterday.

Paul Acevedo says:

True, today really is worse for some reason.

cyber_k9 says:

It's got some rough edges, but overall it's not bad. I'd like to see:

* ability to place tiles on board when it's not your turn, for planning ahead
* some visual distinction between "placed" tiles and "active" (ie. currently placing, but not finalized) tiles.
* an in-app purchase option to remove ads
* opt-out of random (non-friend) invites
* option to have a game where trying words just to see if they'll work is limited somehow. Like, 5 incorrect words forces a pass.
* fix the Achievement it says I got but XBox Live says I don't. ;^) ("Unpredictable")

Not sure how you could stop cheaters. Some people may just have an amazing vocabulary and be skilled at seeing those words become playable. But perhaps if a player consistantly plays particularly obscure words, he could be flagged...?

Anyway, thank you for the game, Paul. :)

gbbg says:

Is it just me or does the board doesn't look all that well designed? On my 920, the special tile colors seem to be spreading into adjoining squares giving a blurry feeling. Its slow too. I hope they improve it further.

Fenrir26 says:

Its not bad so far but I've only played a couple games. I still prefer Words by Post. Its cross platform and has a good word set on it which if find Alpha lacks.

Paul Acevedo says:

Are there any specific words you know AlphaJax is missing? I'll be reporting a few words of my own to the devs soon, like 'afro' and 'vias.'

AriesDog says:

I prefer how Words By Posts handles matchmaking too.

kittshelby says:

I prefer Wordfeud since it also has a Windows 8 version.  Also, I like the clean and neutral design on Wordfeud better.  It is paid but also has an unlimited trial with ads.

ejlee072006 says:

I don't like this game.. Its hard to see,letters too small,the Xbox app notification doesn't sync correctly.. Words by post should've been Xbox.. Not this crappy game

erobillard says:

Good game but buggy for WP8. Can't acknowledge an invalid word with the button, need to "back out" instead. Notifications sometimes inconsistent. And while its no bug, 7 days is too brief for me to require a move, oh say, when heading home for a week for a friends funeral. Lost three games I was winning (by a wide margin that way). Not scored as a push or tie, when the other player ends it that way its a loss.