Millions have played Wordle, but there’s more to the game than you’d expect

Mar 15, 2024, 6:40 AM

A woman plays Wordle on her phone in 2022. (Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)...

A woman plays Wordle on her phone in 2022. (Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

(Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

One word. Five letters. Six tries. Countless moments of triumph and dismay.

Wordle — the daily word game that became a cultural phenomenon during the pandemic — will release its 1,000th puzzle on Friday, March 15. 

For some, Wordle is a fun way to pass the time. For others, it requires rigorous thought and strategy. The premise is simple (guess the word) and yet can be highly competitive. How many tries did it take you? Have you optimized your starting word for maximum impact? Do you play in Hard Mode, where you need to use the letters you’ve already found in each subsequent guess?

Wordle’s balance of simple, fun competition quickly resonated with players. Within two months of its public release in October 2021, the number of daily users shot from 90 to around 300,000. After the New York Times acquired Wordle from its creator, software engineer Josh Wardle, in January 2022, its player base grew to tens of millions.

There’s a lot of strategy behind the puzzle, as well. From the words the Times picks to Wordle’s place in the publication’s business model, everything has its purpose.

(Illustration by CNN via CNN Newsource)

What happens behind the scenes on the Wordle team

For players, the Wordle experience is fairly simple. You navigate to the web page or open the NYT Games app, and plug in your starter word. On the back end, it’s far more complicated.

Initially, the game’s creator Josh Wardle curated a list of words that would run in order. While the Times still uses that list for the most part, it has since been adjusted to ensure each word meets the Times’ standards and is in North American spelling — something that won’t be changing anytime soon, according to Everdeen Mason, the editorial director for NYT Games.

“I know some of our international audience hates that,” she admitted to CNN.

Even having a set list of words isn’t enough. The New York Times assigned a dedicated editor for Wordle, Tracy Bennett, in November 2022.

“Wardle’s original word list forms the bulk of the database of words we’re accessing, though we’re not running them in the order he had originally arranged them,” Bennett told CNN. “I’ve removed a handful of words that felt too obscure or vulgar, or that had derogatory secondary meanings, but those have been few and far between.”

Then, the strategy comes in.

Bennett works in week-long batches, about a month in advance. She spends around two hours a week setting up the seven words that will run.

To start, Bennett randomly selects words from the database using “a variety of methods.” She then researches each word for its current and historical meanings before mentally running through each word’s letter combinations “to identify any that are ‘lucky guess’ words that defy strategy.”

These lucky guess words include things like _OUND, where there are more than six letters that could occupy the first slot, Bennett said.

Once she has the words for that week, Bennett checks them again to make sure that the order of the puzzles makes sense. This includes ensuring that there aren’t too many hard words or similar words in a row.

“That’s how we think about it,” said Mason. “As a solver playing every single day for a week period, how does that feel? Is it fun? Is it challenging enough?”

Yes, player feedback makes a difference

Wordle’s 1,000th puzzle was one of the words switched out from Wardle’s original lineup, but more because the original was “a little boring,” Mason said.

The Times didn’t theme the new word either after Bennett experimented with a themed Wordle related to Thanksgiving — FEAST — in her first month on the job.

“We got a resounding response from the audience that they did not like that at all,” said Mason. “I think it just made it too easy.”

Bennett said that some solvers enjoyed the thematic nod, but others felt it broke the rules of Wordle because it added an element of guessing what the editor might pick.

While the Times sometimes has a nod to current events in its other games, such as the crossword, there’s more context overall. “With Wordle, it’s just one word,” Mason said. “We were actually surprised that people were so mad about it.”

Player feedback is an integral part of the Times’ process for Wordle. The team collects this information from its community forums, social media, and direct emails. They go through this feedback roughly every week to see if things are being mentioned repeatedly — Bennett said she got a lot of comments about the words GUANO and SNAFU, for example.

Last Spring, the Times also implemented an external testing process for Wordle so the team can get feedback from a small group of people before the puzzles go public — there are around 35 testers for all NYT Games. The testers get the puzzles about three to four weeks in advance. This helps with the calibration process, making sure there aren’t too many hard words in a row.

“Data is very important in what we do,” said Mason, explaining that they look at solve rates and other analytics alongside the feedback. “But I really want them [the editors] to have a lot of creative freedom and passion, because I think it does make the puzzles better.”

For her part, Bennett aims to “provide variety in solving difficulty, parts of speech and letter combinations while keeping things mostly random.”

The game’s core experience — six tries to guess a five-letter word — is something that users don’t want the Times to mess with, Jonathan Knight, the business head for NYT Games, told CNN.

“The most requested feature for Wordle is don’t do anything,” he said.

The second most requested feature is an archive, so players can go back and try puzzles that they missed or didn’t solve the first time around. This is in the works, Knight said. While the Times doesn’t have a date for the rollout, it plans to release the Wordle archive this year.

“You’re even going to be able to play Wordles that predate the New York Times acquisition, which is really fun,” Knight told CNN.

What Wordle has done for the New York Times

Aside from the editorial strategy, Wordle fits perfectly into the Times’ business plans. “Our lifestyle products are really a key part of that strategy,” said Knight.

For online games like Wordle, which is available for free — on purpose — it’s an opportunity to funnel players to a paid subscription, either to access more of the Times’ games or convert them to news readers.

“Subscribers who engage with both news and games together on any given week have the strongest long-term subscriber retention profile of any at the Times,” Knight told CNN. “We’re really excited about that combination of games and news, and I think that’s pretty unique to what we’re doing.”

Every game in the Times’ portfolio has its role to play. Wordle was a massive accelerator and turning point for the strategy overall, said Knight. Last week, in a continued effort to “protect our rights around Wordle,” the Times issued DMCA notices to many of the variants that have popped up over the years.

“We always knew we wanted to be the premier subscription destination for digital puzzles,” Knight told CNN. “We wanted a collection of human-made puzzles that were for everyone — Wordle was sort of the perfect game.”

How a simple word puzzle has fostered connections — and competition

Sometimes, a word is more than just a word. It can evoke connection, vulnerability or challenge.

People connect over Wordle, from commiserating over how hard the day’s word was to sharing how many tries it took to solve it.

“I have learned that, for a lot of people, it’s given them something to do with their families every day,” Mason said. “I find it really heartwarming that people are able to use this as a kickstarter for their relationships and their day. There’s a comfort to being like ‘We did this together.’”

The most common time to play Wordle in the US is 9 a.m., according to the Times.

For Donna Cona, who has played it since before the Times acquisition, Wordle has become her go-to thing each morning. Although she admits that it “drives me crazy when I’m stumped … and it’s usually because I’m always suspect of using the same letter twice in a word.”

“I’ve rarely missed a day,” said Cona, who still looks forward to her “every morning Wordle ritual,” and whose friends and family share photos of their completed Wordles as a way to stay connected.

For some families, Wordle is a blend of connection and competition.

In Malia Griggs’ case, it’s a way to stay in touch with her father, even though they’re physically apart — she lives in New York City, he in Columbia, South Carolina. [Editor’s Note: Malia is a friend of this story’s author.]

Her father, Jerrold Griggs — who has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics — takes Wordle seriously. He created a spreadsheet in January 2023 to track each of their stats.

“He tracks both of our scores (so, the amount of tries it took for each of us to solve the Wordle),” Malia told CNN via email. The sheet also includes data like how many vowels the day’s word had. “And he keeps notes, such as when our streaks end, when we solve in two guesses, or when we have a streak of solving in three tries or less.”

The Griggs’ started playing Wordle together around December 2022, and for Malia it’s been a nice way to share interest. “We don’t talk every day, but playing the game together is how we show that we’re thinking of each other.”

“I like how this very simple game has become this mental exercise for people to not just guess the word of the day but put a lot of meaning into it,” said Mason.

This shows the imagination, creativity and collaboration of the NYT Games audience, Mason said.

“There’s lots of people like me who sort of change their starting word all the time based on how they’re feeling,” Mason said. “It just feels more fun that way.”

Others have superstitions or statistics-based approaches that they abide by, such as using the word ADIEU as their starter because it includes the majority of the vowels — although the Times said in December that ADIEU is the least efficient of the top 30 starting words. SLATE, CRANE and TRACE are the best, according to WordleBot, the Times’ tool that analyzes players’ completed Wordles.

While breaking a long streak can be disheartening and frustrating — the current longest streak is 968 days, held by multiple people in Hoquiam, Washington and Willowbrook, Illinois — it’s an inevitability.

This is part of the game, too, said Mason. “It wakes you up.”

Recently, Malia Griggs broke her 283-day streak because her first guesses didn’t reveal any letters, and the remaining ones had multiple options. Although, she said she played “before I was fully awake,” which she noted was a rookie mistake.

“I’m still bitter about losing,” Malia said. “It’s more disappointing than I’d like to admit.”

Breaking a streak hasn’t really impacted people’s desire to continue playing Wordle, according to Mason. Instead, it spurs them on further.

Wordle “has to be a little spicy,” Mason told CNN. “It has to be a little bit challenging — because if it wasn’t, it would be less satisfying to win.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: All Wordle player data was provided exclusively to CNN by the New York Times and is accurate as of March 11, 2024.]

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Millions have played Wordle, but there’s more to the game than you’d expect