Covid, party and Boris are all five-letter words. But none of them has got the nation talking more than the five-letter words that make up the hit online puzzle Wordle. Don’t worry, there are no spoilers here.
The game, which is free and was launched in October, looks simple and friendly. You have six attempts in which to guess a five-letter word, putting letters into a grid. If the box turns gray it means the letter isn’t in the answer, yellow means it is but you’ve put it in the wrong spot, and green means it’s in the correct place.
If you succeed your final grid is a sort of trophy — but just as you thought it all sounded wholesome, there is a share to Twitter button. Only one round of the game is released each day — so in theory it’s not addictive. But don’t be deceived. Wordle has a strange power (yes, that’s a five-letter word). Playing the game releases dopamine, the psychologist Lee Chambers says, which while making us feel happy and satisfied is easy to get hooked on. Wordle has in only two months grown from a niche Internet craze played by 90 people to having two million daily players.
People have been timing their days around it, counting down the hours until they can get their next hit. From November to January there were more than 1.3 million tweets about Wordle and there are even TikTok accounts that fans have set up to document their Wordling.
“The sharing option seemed to be what pushed Wordle to new heights,” says David Parfitt, puzzles editor at The Times. “Guessing the correct answer in two or three attempts is something that people wanted to boast about.”
Wordle’s origins, however, are pure — Josh Wardle, a New York-based software developer for Reddit and originally from Wales, created it for his partner, who loves word games. Since then Lego has created a green and yellow grid in tribute and the Smithsonian joined in with the hype, tweeting a picture of a tablecloth that looked just like a Wordle grid. What, though, is the point of the game? Is it luck or a test of your linguistic skills? There are a few basic principles — the game rests on your knowledge of how frequently letters come up in five-letter games and which letters are most likely to appear together.
Wordle is a way of making sense of things. “The world is messy and complicated and doesn’t have clear answers,” says Alex Bellos, the author of The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book. “When you do a puzzle you forget the outside world and everything makes sense.”
“Different parts of our brain are stimulated as we delve into solving something,” Chambers adds. “We’re tackling a problem in a way not dissimilar to how we have evolved as a species, on the hunt to solve mysteries.”
Yet as anyone who has played it will know, Wordle goes deeper than simply choosing the right word. Reputations and relationships hang in the balance. What do your tactics say about you?
The Glory Hunter
They have one goal, they want to get the word in as few goes as possible. It’s not about the linguistic theory, although they have trawled the Internet for tactics; it’s about winning. How do you know a Glory Hunter? They will tell you their score before they’ve even said hi. And once they have bored their friends, they will post it on Twitter. Sure, their boss is wondering why they haven’t done any work, but who cares, they’ve solved a Wordle in two. While they want to revel in glory, they aren’t so keen to share how they got there. The puzzle expert Alex Bellos told us he always starts with the same word, which has three vowels and two consonants. But what is it? He won’t say.
This tribe takes the game at face value. The aim is not to take risks in pursuit of the lowest possible score, but to avoid losing by not running out of goes. They try one word and if it isn’t right they try a completely different one on the second attempt. It’s not about speed or glory, it’s about enjoying a game and getting the answer right in the end — just like a crossword puzzle.
The Master Strategist
Since they started playing Wordle they have become experts in linguistic theory. They can hold forth about which letters appear most frequently in five-letter words (S and E). But they know it’s not just frequency of letters that matters; it’s where they appear too. This is where something called sonority sequencing comes into play (words they wouldn’t have thought of saying a few months ago). In a syllable with clusters of consonants in it, the less sonorant sounds (hard consonants such as T) tend to appear at the start. Real pros think in terms of combinations of sounds — TR and PR are common but DW is unusual. It’s exhausting being a master strategist.
The Team Players
Who says Wordle is a one-player game? The Team Player believes that many brains are better than one and takes a collaborative approach. Why should they keep their knowledge of where the E is today to themselves? Sharing is caring. There’s no agenda, they genuinely want to help. But others suspect something else is afoot; can they really be that nice?
The Competitive Couple
Every game is a race for these two. Wordle has become the third party in their relationship. Warning signs include setting an alarm to wake up before your partner and guess the Wordle before they are conscious, and suggesting you do the Wordle against the clock to really test your mettle. Those in competitive Wordle relationships may also practice on fake sites and trawl Twitter for tactics — just don’t accidentally share your partner’s starter word. They are the opposite of the Plodders — and to make matters worse their relationship hangs on the back of a five-letter word.
The Creature of Habit
Undoubtedly some starting words are better than others, but do you use the same one each time? AUDIO includes most of the vowels; TEARS has some common consonants. The Times’s puzzles editor says SANER, SARED (a Scottish word meaning “savored”) and SALET (a light helmet) are his chosen Wordle starters. Creatures of habit don’t believe that variety is the spice of life, they like to stick with what they know works. They are the sort of person who has socks with days of the week on them.
Rumor has it that the Wordle website’s code contains each day’s answer, and if you unravel it you have a daily guaranteed win. Even our limited IT skills can confirm this, but if you’re spending your time coding rather than playing you have missed the spirit of the game entirely. You are probably emotionally stunted and are always the banker when playing Monopoly.
Copycat games have been set up for those who can’t bear to wait 24 hours for their next hit. On Absurdle there’s no limit to how many stabs at guessing the word you can have, but the twist is that the word can change mid-game. Wordmaster has mined the Wordle archive so you can play old games. Similar games have been set up as apps, some with in-app charges — there’s PuzzWord, Wordie, Word Guess and many more. The addicts laugh about the spoof Wordle sites — Sweardle and Lewdle being the latest — but really they want to get on with the real challenge, guessing today’s word.
It’s every Wordle player’s worst nightmare — being told about today’s word before you’ve figured it out. If you’re a Saboteur and find enjoyment in ruining someone’s day, you almost certainly spent your childhood killing ants with magnifying glasses.
Plodders hate them. Glory Hunters call them fluky. There’s no skill to getting a hole-in-one, but maybe it is a sign that you live a charmed life. Getting a Wordle in one go has odds of 3,250 to 1, Parfitt says, because that is how many potential five-letter words there are (although it goes down each day) — so if you’re a hole-in-oner, buy a scratch card ASAP to capitalize on your lucky day.
Laura Hackett is an assistant books editor at The Times of London. Jake Helm is an editorial assistant at The Sunday Times