As 2021 came to a close and I bundled up beneath blankets due to an apparent omicron infection, I sought out simple entertainment that I could share with friends. Because of my fatigue and unease, breaking down plot threads in TV series like The Book of Boba Fett or Succession felt like too much.
An outburst of green, yellow, and gray squares on friends’ daily feeds got what little attention I could spare. What were these patterns? Why were fewer rows of boxes apparently better? And how come my favorite smart people were obsessed with it?
I can name that Wordle in three guesses
The game in question, Wordle, is a relatively basic word-guessing affair. Every day, its site refreshes with a single five-letter word, and players get six chances to guess it.
Type five letters into the blank guessing box to start, then hit “enter,” and the grid will respond with a Wheel of Fortune-like flip of each letter’s background. A green box means you guessed the correct letter and the correct spot in the final five-letter word. Yellow means the letter is correct, but the placement is wrong. And gray means that letter isn’t in the word at all. Now, try again.
This is where the game’s first subtle genius emerges. Wordle shows you an on-screen keyboard, whether you’re playing on a desktop or mobile browser. With your first five letters entered, Wordle‘s keyboard lights up in kind, graying out wrong letters while adding green and yellow boxes to the ones you’ll want to keep. After two guesses, you’ll likely disqualify a few key letters, particularly vowels, and the keyboard’s visual alignment really helps with follow-up guesses.
There’s nothing else on Wordle‘s site. No ads, no memberships—not even a way to sign in or access older puzzles. Instead, its cookies keep track of your daily progress, particularly how many guesses it took you to solve each day’s puzzle. If you’ve been good at naming that Wordle in three guesses, the site will tell you so with a handy chart of your lifetime progress in a format that’s easy to share with other Wordle junkies.
Hip to be (green) square
This is how I saw the game before I ever played it: as a grid of green, yellow, and gray square emojis. As it turns out, hand-coding a letter-less Wordle grid is a nifty, spoiler-free way to showcase your path to a puzzle’s conclusion. Did you get a freakishly good first try? Did you get stuck on the second letter until a tenuous sixth guess?
Wordle’s simple defaults help even the most fatigued brains feel a bit smarter.
Wordle‘s clean design and simple color palette translate well to this emoji-fied interpretation in a way that’s easy to pass to players of any age. (The site didn’t launch with this unique solution-sharing feature but was later updated with an easy way to copy and paste a perfect Wordle-moji grid of your results.) And the game is arguably a lot less intimidating to parse and jump into than The New York Times’ popular Spelling Bee game—which originally required downloading an iOS-exclusive app, thus limiting its shareable potential compared to Wordle‘s open, uncluttered, free-as-in-beer website. The NYT has since launched a free, limited web version of Spelling Bee.
Ars Technica staffers have already taken up daily Wordle play en masse. For some, it’s become a fun daily ritual to tap at before sharing on social media and discussing brain-tumbling results with fellow players. For others, it’s a simple virtual gathering point for parents and kids alike, who are all able to load their own instances and then discuss their solutions over a kitchen countertop. Its inherent limits—five-letter words with a healthy six-try default—make it approachable, as its mathematical odds err in novice players’ favor. More letters or fewer guesses could lead to far more brick walls of frustration for younger players, and Wordle‘s simple defaults help even the most fatigued brains feel a bit smarter each day.
For the full skinny on Wordle‘s genesis and design process, check out a New York Times interview with its creator—whose name, no lie, is Josh Wardle. He speaks about the game’s one-puzzle-a-day philosophy as a way to spark conversations between players. Wardle’s engineering chops have previously graced the pages of Ars Technica, particularly his work on Reddit’s wacky “Place” experiment from 2017, and his comments point to Wordle remaining a free-for-everyone lark for the foreseeable future (though I wouldn’t blame Wardle if he rolled out a merchandise line of shirts with telltale gray, green, and yellow box arrangements).
Babble Royale: Scrabble-rousing in a fun, free multiplayer format
If you’re eager for more completely free word-gaming options, load up Steam on either Windows or MacOS and try out the relatively new game Babble Royale, which is basically a fusion of Fortnite and Scrabble.
Instead of parachuting onto an island as a dancing, gun-toting warrior, Babble Royale players skydive as a single letter tile onto a grid of squares. Upon landing, a Scrabble-like tray fills up with letters on each player’s screen, and you use those letters to play off your landing point.
This is a fully online game, by the way, and the opening parachute sequence includes other players’ opening tiles falling alongside yours (which, yes, is as hilarious in action as it sounds). You survive by spelling words either horizontally or vertically, though unlike in Scrabble, you must always play off the last word you put down. Additionally, if you’re able to both play off your last word and use another active player’s existing letters to arrange and spell a valid word, you will eliminate that player. You get points for killing other players, and you can spend them on either expanding your personal letter tray or getting new letters to continue spelling with.
The last player standing wins, and if you die, you can immediately launch a new session and try again. Since Babble Royale is entirely free to play, new game sessions refill quickly with real-life players—though paying real-world cash unlocks silly cosmetics like hats for your letter tiles. I wholeheartedly recommend the game to anyone who likes Scrabble (and can shrug off the game’s initial learning curve of online, letter-driven murder).