Among the few good things that happened during the pandemic, one involves spending a few hundred bucks on an activity my 10-year-old is glued to — Spelling Bee from The New York Times. It’s an expenditure I don’t grudge because the game improves one’s vocabulary and ensures family members sit around the phone every night for at least 45 minutes to do something beyond watching mindless short videos or doomscrolling.
The year has started on a good note for anybody who loves words, thanks to Wordle, a game like no other we have played. Qualities of a good game involve simplicity, accessibility, involvement and variation, all of which are here. Though a few months old, the game has gone from being played by 90 people on November 1 to over 300,000 by January 3.
Not an app, there are no advertisements and there is definitely no data collection involved. Just a simple web-based game, you key in “Wordle” in the search bar and voila. There is a 5x6 grid. Type in a five letter word — any word — in the first row. In case a box turns green, it means that not only is the alphabet present in the final word, you have also got the placement of the alphabet correct. In case you are faced with a box that’s shaded yellow, it means the alphabet is present but not in the correct place. And a grey cell means the alphabet is missing. You have five more chances to solve the puzzle, meaning you can try out (in total) six different five-letter words to solve the puzzle.
Here’s where the competitive factor kicks in. The game can be played once a day, meaning if you play the game today, you have to wait for a few hours to get to the next round. Wordle has turned out so addictive that people are logging in day after day to solve a simple puzzle. Whatever the result, you can also share the same.
Obviously, this brings up the issue of variation. There are around 12,000 five-letter words, including many that are obscure. The list was then chopped down to around 2,500, which is enough to ensure that Wordle lasts a few years.
A gift of love
Behind the game is Josh Wardle, a software engineer in Brooklyn. The former software engineer for Reddit had created two collaborative social experiments on the site, called The Button and Place. For Wordle, he worked on his own during the pandemic, and had received help from his partner, Palak Shah. According to reports, Wardle had created a similar prototype in 2013 but his friends were unimpressed. In 2020, the couple got interested in The New York Times Spelling Bee and its daily crossword, ultimately wanting to come up with a game that his partner would enjoy.
Early version of the game didn’t have the features that make a game virtually popular, like the ability to share. It was after all a game that was built for two people. After noticing that people were sharing their results by “typing out a grid of green, yellow and black emojis” he built an automated way for players to brag about their successes in a spoiler-free way. Palak’s contribution to the game has been immense. She went through a database of 12,000-odd words and then helped narrow down the list to about 2,500.
However, players have complained about some words, which are not familiar enough, like ‘rebus’ and ‘tapir’.
There are other games
The simplicity of the game keeps bring back people day after day to spend five to 10 minutes, which is helpful if you want to free the mind of worries. You can also try out other games, like Spelling Bee from NYT, which takes quite a few minutes to solve but the end result is immensely satisfying.
There is also Lingo in which you have to guess words. Or the old game of Mastermind in which you have to guess the letters you got correct from a set of plastic pegs placed on the board. A different game would be Bulls and Cows. And there’s, of course, the popular word-game of Scrabble.
What’s interesting about Wordle is the timing, which has been during the pandemic. Shortly after the start of the First World War, British-born New Yorker Arthur Wynne drew up a blank word search grid and came up with something called “Word-Cross Puzzle”, which ultimately became the Crossword. As for Scrabble, it was the brainchild of New Yorker Alfred Mosher Butts, an architect who had lost his job in the Great Depression. His first opponent was his wife, Nina, who beat him by playing ‘quixotic’ across two triple-word scores. Alfred’s neighbours joined in to play the game. But it took many years before the game became widely popular.
However Wordle plays out in the coming months, the game will always remain for Shah a special gift. She has told NYT “It’s really sweet. This is definitely how Josh shows his love.” It proves that love can be expressed anytime of the year and there’s no requirement for a marketing gimmick like Valentine’s Day.
How to play Wordle
Visit: www.powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle (it’s a free game)
Rules: You have six tries. After each guess, the colour of the tiles will change to show how close your guess was to the word. A green tile signifies that the alphabet you chose is correct and is in the right place. A yellow tile signifies that the alphabet is correct but not the placement. A grey tile means it’s not the correct alphabet.
Frequency: A new puzzle appears each day.