Unless you’ve been hiking through the Himalayas for the last few months, you’ve probably encountered a fascinating new online game called Wordle…
Originally invented by software engineer Josh Wardle for his puzzle-loving partner, before they shared it with the wider world, the game has taken the internet by storm. Launched in October 2021, it now has over 2 million players.
The secret of its success lies in a combination of its simplicity, the well-balanced mixture of skill and luck, and the feeling of accomplishment you get when you win a game.
You’re only allowed to play one game a day (and they don’t usually take very long). It’s free to play. And, praise be the Lord, there are no adverts or push notifications. It’s almost like a trip back in time to the less exploitative, early days of the internet.
How does it work?
Your challenge is to identify a five-letter word in just six attempts. After each guess, green, yellow and grey colours indicate which letters are correct and whether they’re in the right or wrong place. See the image below for a full description.
On the face of it, it’s quite straightforward. But, as ever with these things, it pays to take a structured approach to the game.
The New York Times reported Josh Wardle as saying that he started out with a set of 12,000 words, which he then whittled down to 2,500 for the Wordle ‘dictionary’. On the face of it, this suggests that the odds against guessing the correct word on the first go are fairly long, though not impossible.
But that’s not the whole story. It’s still a lot of words, and just going at it randomly isn’t usually going to work.
It’s a bit like doing a crossword puzzle. If you can get into the mindset of the compiler, then you stand a much better chance of getting the right solution. If you can think tactically, then you minimise the chance of going down blind alleys.
Some people advise going for more common words. But then words like ‘rebus’ and ‘tapir’ cropped up, much to the annoyance of some!
So, the best advice is to play around with it, get under the skin of the game and find out what works for you.
Take a look at these tips to get you started.
The first word is crucial
The key thing to do is ensure that your first word includes a representative sample of the most common letters in the English alphabet. According to Wikipedia, an analysis of entries in the Concise Oxford dictionary, orders the alphabet by frequency of use as: EARIOTNSLCUDPMHGBFYWKVXZJQ.
There are obviously different ways of cutting this. But the main thing is to ensure that the first word is based on (preferably) three vowels plus two consonants. Possible choices include ‘atone’, ‘orate’ and ‘tears’.
But using the most common letters really only applies to the first row (and to some extent the second row). After that it becomes a combination of vocabulary (you’re not allowed random collections of letters) and logic that will secure the right answer. Along with a healthy dose of luck!
Do use the same letter twice
It must be an unconscious bias on my part, but I found myself assuming in the early days that I wouldn’t be able to use the same letters more than once in a row.
Why ever not?!
You’d want to avoid using the same letter twice on your first guess as that slows down the process of elimination. But as you proceed into the game, don’t lose sight of the possibility that the answer might well use a letter more than once. Keep an open mind.
Beware American English spellings
Wardle is himself Welsh, though he now lives in New York. And the game is hosted on a British website. But it appears to follow American spelling rules.
So, keep an eye out for things like ‘favour’ spelled as ‘favor’. Which caught this writer out the other day!
Don’t reuse letters declared incorrect
You’d be surprised how many players reuse a letter that has already been deemed invalid.
Whether this is down to a lack of attention or the (perverse) temptation to try it again in a different place, just don’t do it. Ever!
Drill down into the detail
If you’re interested in the computing science behind all this, dive down into this interesting analysis of letter frequencies for five letter words in Wordle.
The frequency is noticeably different from the Concise Oxford dictionary list referenced above, with the letter ‘s’ coming out on top!
Think about how words are formed
Wordle isn’t just testing your knowledge of the frequency with which individual letters occur. It also explores your understanding of how words are put together and why some letter combinations are more common than others.
Take a look at this intriguing article by writer, editor and language fan David Shariatmadari about how linguistic theory can help us raise our Wordle game.
The importance of sharing things
One of the nice things about Wordle is the opportunity to share your results with others. Wardle spotted that people were talking about how well (or badly) they’d done on social media and added a function allowing you to share your colour grids (without revealing the answer).
Wordle has become a re-affirmation of the joy we get from sharing things with friends and family, particularly as we continue to wrestle with the fallout from the pandemic.
And this is one of the beauties of the game. It represents a rejection of the individualistic, monetised and hyper-competitive values that mar many online games. All hail Wordle!
Have you tried Wordle yet? What do you think of the game? Share your opinion in the comments section below!
Chris is a writer based in Crowborough, East Sussex who loves working with words. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, listening to music and hiking, as well as having a chat with friends over a pint of Harvey’s Best Bitter. He can be contacted at www.wealdenwordsmith.co.uk or you can write a comment to him below!