Formats Unpacked: Wordle

How a simple game format captured the world's imagination in the first weeks 2022

Hi All,

This week’s format is one that I had to get out into the world whilst it was still hot. As I write, everyone is playing it. The Guardian has written about it 4 times in the last 24 hours alone. However, as we know, things have a habit of moving pretty fast these days and by this time next week it could be a distant memory - like Draw Something.

But that’s not to say it’s not a great format. So enjoy the unpacking…

What’s it called?

Wordle (word quiz)

What’s the format?

Players are presented with a blank 6x5 grid and must guess a 5 letter word in 6 goes or less. To begin with there are no clues but after the first go players are told whether they have got a letter right. Letters in the right place are represented by a green square. If they get a letter right but it is in the wrong place it is represented by an amber square. Letters that are not in the word are represented by a grey square. There is only one word per day. That’s it. Game over. See you tomorrow. It’s very addictive but as Carl Kinsella said on Twitter, in a couple of months it will probably be remembered as the banana bread of Omicron.

What’s the magic that makes it special? 

One of the great things about curating Formats Unpacked is getting to see how we all love the same format but for different reasons. A lot has been written about Wordle since it blew up in December, with much of the writing focussing on scarcity. Rightly so. Restricting it to one word a day is genius. 

According to this interview in the New York Times, the designer, Josh Wardle, was quite purposeful in choosing words that aren't too obscure. He did this by making a list of the 12,000 5-letter words in the English language and asking his puzzle-loving partner to designate which ones she knew. Anything she didn’t know was out (which is only fair as he did design the game as a gift for her). He ended up with around 2500 words. Enough to last 5 years. 

For me, the joy of the scarcity isn’t just that you only get one word per day. It’s that the whole world gets the same word, at the same time, each day. Everyone is trying to solve the same problem at roughly the same time. And this has created something really nice. It’s created conversations about a nice thing, done in a nice way, in a space (Twitter) that used to be nice but forgot how to be nice. You can share your result without giving the game away. And people are doing a great job of talking about their game, their tactics, and their joy or frustration, without being killjoys. 

The no-frills design is also a real bonus. I LOVE the fact that it’s not desperately trying to get you to do anything other than play the thing. It’s doesn’t want to be your needy new friend. It doesn’t try to sell you anything and it doesn’t want to know a single thing about you. This, again, makes it feel like a throwback to a more innocent and joyful time messing around on the internet. You can share your results, but it doesn’t try to get you to do this. It just knows you probably will.

The growth of the game owes a lot to the sharing mechanism. The green, amber and grey squared grids are all over Twitter. They’re really smart and go against all the commonly held rules of what makes something viral. They don’t evoke a strong emotion - just a gentle curiosity instead. They don’t include a link back to the site - just the name 'Wordle' - enough to make people visit the site.

A sharing mechanic that keeps a secret reminds me of something Danny Boyle did during rehearsals for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony. Danny knew that the hundreds of performers and volunteers taking part in the rehearsals would want to share images before the event. It was inevitable. So, in order to keep the surprise element, Danny addressed everyone involved and asked them not to share pictures. If they were to share anything they should share the #savethesurprise hashtag. This gave everyone involved a way to talk about it without talking about it. Brilliant!

How long we’ll be playing Wordle is anyone’s guess. Speaking to the Guardian about the pressure of going viral, Josh Wardle said that he needs to be “really thoughtful” about the next steps for the game. Here’s a thought. You’re good for words for at least another 5 years. Perhaps leave it alone. I’d like to see if not messing with it increases or decreases the chance of it becoming the banana bread of Omicron. 

Similar Formats

The classics Battleship and Mastermind spring to mind. Lingo - a UK and US TV game show that uses a very similar game mechanic, as does Jotto, a US board game invented in 1955.

Thanks for reading.

We’ve got some great formats lined up for the next few weeks. I’ll do my best to keep a weekly publishing rhythm. Thanks to everyone who has offered to write one recently. It’s always appreciated. Feel free to send me your thoughts, suggestions for formats, or tips for getting better at Wordle.

See you all next week.

Hugh

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