What in the Wordle?
How an online game catches fire one green tile at a time
By Maria Johnson
I start with goodbye.
It’s a good opener because it contains so many vowels.
Yes, I’m talking about the web-based game Wordle, which gives you six chances to guess a five-letter word.
And yes, I’m hooked, just like the many millions of people who’ve glommed onto the game since it appeared online last fall and became a viral sensation over the winter.
I heard about the puzzle from my elder son’s girlfriend, who made a custom Wordle-like game for them to play virtually on his birthday as they sat on different coasts.
Each of them supplied five words for the other to guess.
I was charmed that she would, and could, create such a smart and intimate gift.
I wanted to know more. So I sniffed out the real Wordle and gave it a try.
I couldn’t get the hang of it.
Then some friends brought up the puzzle in a group text. One pal compared it to the 1970s board game Mastermind, a code-breaking challenge based on colors.
“It’s the same concept, but with letters,” she wrote.
Now I was intrigued.
The next time my younger son was home, I cornered him.
“Do you Wordle?”
“Will you show me how?”
A couple of days later, I texted him.
“I got Wordle in two tries.”
“Two?! That’s the white whale.”
Welp, there’s nothing like a little success to spark an obsession.
I dived into the history of the game and found out it was invented by a Brooklyn software engineer named Josh Wardle. Get it? Wordle. Wardle.
Anyway, Wardle, who’s originally from Wales and used to work for the social-news aggregator Reddit, had been noodling with game-making for about 10 years. During COVID, he decided to create a game that he and his partner could play together.
God bless the game-loving lovers of the world.
Eventually, after refining the game with family and friends, the couple decided to put Wordle on their own website with no pay walls and no ads because as Josh Wardle has told several interviewers, they wanted to give people a simple, fun, relatively quick game to play for free.
Do you love these folks or what?
The first Wordle appeared in October 2021.
The number of players grew exponentially. In January of this year, The New York Times Company bought the game for a sum “in the low seven figures.”
For now, Wordle is still available for free, and it has spawned spin-offs galore. Wardle, the inventor, hosted an in-person competition of Wordle, the game, at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, in April.
Every day, players share their Wordle triumphs and defeats on social media, often with green-and-gray grids representing their attempts in a non-spoiler way.
A player who goes by @iSlutsky recently tweeted, “It’s with great disappointment & sorrow that I inform you of my loss in todays [sic] Wordle. I am heartbroken to have my streak broken and [am] currently entering a dark period of the day. Please send cookies.”
I get it. I have a streak going myself. Twenty-seven games.
I take a sip of coffee and a deep breath.
The “A” turns olive green, meaning it’s in the word somewhere, but not in the first slot.
I go to the second line, where I’ll get another chance, planning to use the “A” in a different place while trying new letters and fishing for an “O.”
The “F” and the “A” turn bright green. Yay. They’re in the right spot. The “O” is olive green, so I need to move it.
On my third opportunity to nail it, I type “X’s” to visualize possibilities.
You could say it’s a toss up. But I’m guessing that “R” is more common in the English language than “C.”
Bingo! With three tries to spare.
I wallow in a squirt of self-esteem and a sliver of hope that some mysteries are solvable.
And for those that aren’t, there’s always tomorrow.
According to the website, the next Wordle drops in 18 hours, 13 minutes and 24 seconds. OH
To play today’s Wordle, go to nytimes.com/games/wordle/index.html.
Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.