In the early years of the 2600, Atari attempted to appeal to a wide range of people by creating games from many different genres. One of these genres was board games, which was fertile ground for many beginning programmers. In addition to Checkers, Backgammon, 3-D Tic Tac Toe, and Chess, it appears that Atari was also toying around with releasing a game based on the then best selling word game Boggle. Although a complex word game may have seemed beyond the 2600's abilities, programmer David Crane proved that it was indeed possible.
For those of you not familiar with Boggle, the rules are quite simple. At the start of each game, a 4x4 grid of letters is randomized by a player shaking a domed container of cubes with letters on them. Then each player attempts to see how many words they can make out of the letters that are displayed. You can start a word from any tile on the board, and as long as the next tile in the word is adjacent to that tile. You can move forwards, backwards, or diagonally, but cannot use the same tile twice in a word. You also cannot cross over the edge of the board (for example, moving from the top of the board to the bottom).
After each player has formed eight words, the game is over. Now players read off each word on their list and vote on whether they are accepted or not. The scoring in Boggle is based off the length of the word, three letter words are worth 1 point, four letter words are worth 2 points, and so on. The player who scores the most points wins. The loser may now throw the Boggle board at the winner's head.
The 2600 does a fairly decent job at creating a presentable game of Boggle. The letters are displayed using the then popular Venetian Blinds technique, which allowed the 2600 to appear to display twice the normal amount of objects on a line (see Video Chess for more details). However other than the grid and letters, there really isn't much going on graphically (which was normal for early 2600 games). Each player takes turns selecting the letters they want to use to form the word using the joystick, when the player is done they simply need to press the fire button again (a dot will appear at the end of the word). After which, the the other player will begin his turn (indicated by the word GO below the players score). Each player has 99 seconds to form as many words as they can.
Unfortunately due to the limitations of the 2600, it is unable to check if the word you just selected is an actual word. This means the player can cheat by simply selecting random strings of letters and tell the 2600 that it's a word. However since this game is two players only, your opponent will more than likely take issue with your creative spelling. Other issues include being able to reuse the same word over and over again, and being able to use your opponents words. It would have been nice if there was some sort of basic spell checking, but this would have been impossible to implement with only 2K of ROM available. It is assumed that the 2K ROM also prevented the implementation of a computer opponent, which would have made the game much more interesting.
This prototype seems fairly far along, but still has some issues that need to be addressed. One such bug is that when the game starts all the letters do not show up on the screen, it takes a few presses of the reset button to get them all to appear. Other than some minor bug fixing and polishing, Boggle seems ready for release. It is unknown why Atari decided not to release Boggle, but it may have been due to the two player only aspect of the game. Other possibilities include poor customer acceptance testing or licensing issues. Whatever the reason, Boggle is an interesting glimpse into the early years of the 2600 and the games that could have been.