The New York Times has bought Wordle for more than $10 million. The game was created by Josh Wardle, a software engineer in Brooklyn, last October, though like most people I became aware of it in January when I saw things like this appearing on Twitter:
Wordle 228 3/6
The rules are simple. You have six attempts to guess the day’s five-letter word. Every attempt must be a real word. After you type in your guess and hit enter, letters turn green if they’re in the right place, yellow if they’re in the word but in a different position, and grey if they’re not in the word at all. (There’s a ‘hard’ version where ‘any revealed hints must be used in subsequent guesses’.) The matrix of coloured squares that you can share on social media shows your friends and followers how you did without giving the game away.
It went from ninety players on 1 November to two million in the middle of January – the number of users doubling, on average, every five or six days – to many millions today: as good an example of something ‘going viral’, with accelerating exponential growth, as you could ask for.
One of the nice things about it is that you know everyone’s playing the same game, and no one’s enough of a jerk to spoil it for everyone else. Everyone gets a new game at midnight in their time zone (there have been times that I have played – desperately sad admission here – at 12:01 a.m.). There were mild controversies when people weren’t sure if the same letter could appear more than once (GORGE, KNOLL) or were wrong-footed by an American spelling (COLOR), despite the game’s co.uk web address (though there’s a big hint if you take another look at the instructions).
Other people share their strategies for winning, and argue about whether or not ADIEU is the best word to start with. I think it isn’t – here comes my strategy; sorry – because I’ve been working on the assumption that it’s wiser to make the first two words out of the ten letters that score only one point in Scrabble: A, E, I, L, N, O, R, S, T, U. They can be arranged in various combinations, some less attractive than others, such as ALTOS URINE or STONE URIAL. This method has been pretty reliable, though it turns out there are far more systematic approaches, and Scrabble scores don’t map exactly onto letter frequency.
As well as the simplicity of the gameplay, part of Wordle’s appeal must be the simplicity of the design: the muted colours, the gentleness of the minimal animation, the relative emptiness of the page, like Google when it launched 25 years ago. And since you only get to play once a day, and a game takes only a minute or two (though there’s no time limit, no stressful countdown), it’s the antithesis of the time-sapping infinite scroll of social media, even if it owes its massive popularity to people spreading the word (though not literally) by sharing their scores on those sites. That both the Telegraph and the head of MI6 have complained about it only adds to its lustre.
I wondered if another part of the appeal was that everyone always wins – six attempts is quite a generous allowance – though when I asked on Twitter a few honest souls (or their friends and followers) came forward with examples of failure, including this devastating array:
Wordle 226 X/6
The answer was LIGHT; the mistake was to keep trying variations of *ight, rather than words that included as many potential first letters as possible (SMELT, say, or PRAWN). Easy to say with hindsight, of course. And, inevitably, no sooner had I written this paragraph than my failsafe system failed, or I failed to follow it, with this splintered pattern to show for today’s unsuccessful effort:
Wordle 229 X/6
There was some dismay at the news of the New York Times takeover. Is there nothing they won’t commodify? ‘The purchase,’ according to the newspaper’s own story about it, ‘reflects the growing importance of games, like crosswords and Spelling Bee, in the company’s quest to increase digital subscriptions to 10 million by 2025.’ So much for all the news that’s fit to print.
Wordle will ‘initially remain free’, the Times says. An editor at Wired suggested they keep it ‘free to play but charge 99 cents to post your score on Twitter’. Once they start charging for it, or even before then, you can console yourself with one of the many spin-offs, if not the imaginary NLR version: Absurdle (which changes the answer as you go along, though it always has to conform to your guesses; a neat idea but it gets tired quite quickly), Sweardle (four letter words; ditto), or the dastardly Dordle, where you have to guess two five-letter words simultaneously – and, even worse, there’s an option for limitless play. Or go offline and play hangman.