Finally, someone has taken the tried-and-true format of Scrabble/Words with Friends and made a game for learners of Chinese. It’s called PinYinPal and was developed by Adeline Yeh Mah, who runs the website chinesecharacteraday.com.
The basic gameplay should be familiar to anyone who has played Scrabble-like games; as you can see in the image above, I’ve just placed the tiles C, U, and N, which not only form the word cun, but in combination with the letters already on the board, also form the words lu and gan (tones don’t come into it). But this isn’t a simple knock-off; the developer has done an admirable job adapting the game to Chinese. First of all, since pinyin syllables are mostly 2-5 letters long, it can be difficult to get enough “clearance” on the board. To solve this, each player has three “spacer” tiles that can be used to let you play a new word one square away from an existing word (see image).
I really like how the game is not all about pinyin. Once you play your word(s) in pinyin, you can earn extra points by recognizing a character for each word. For each of your pinyin words, you are offered a number of characters that could be transliterated that way. You get to choose one character whose meaning you think you know. Then you are presented with several meanings from which to choose the correct one. If you choose correctly within five seconds, you earn ten extra points; between six and thirty seconds will earn you five extra points. Incorrect answers will cost you two points (notice the timer in the second image below).
PinYinPal maintains a running list of the characters chosen (along with their pinyin and English definition) and an indication whether the player chose the right meaning or not. This lets you go back and review afterward, which adds to the educational value of the game.
If your Chinese isn’t very good, you can use the built-in Word Finder function, which will show you what words can be built with the letters that you have (you can also specify what letters are already on the board). The Word Finder also shows you possible characters for the words that you can make. Paying attention to these will help you with the character bonus round described above.
The app has other nifty little features, such as the option to display on the board next to each pinyin word a little bubble containing the character that was chosen for that word.
The app also includes a dictionary, which you can search by pinyin or English. The dictionary and the Word Finder provide audio for all the syllables, which is a nice touch.
PinYinPal is a pleasant educational diversion. Given the limited character set, more advanced students may not learn very much new from it, but it could be quite beneficial for beginning to intermediate students.
So far the game is iPad-only.