Ben Fiedler

Why Wordle is so successful

The game Wordle exploded in popularity recently, to the point that it was bought by the New York Times because of its popularity. But why is Wordle such a resounding success? I will take a swing at an explanation in this post.

Simple rules with a clever twist

Wordle is a modified variant of the board game Mastermind. In Mastermind, in which one player constructs a code word consisting of four colored pegs, while the other player’s objective is to determine said code word in a limited number of tries. Any combination of pegs is admissible, making it mostly a game of deduction1.

The cleverness of Wordle is the fact that, instead of colored pegs, the game uses the letters A through Z and a restricted set of admissible code words2. Instead of requiring the player to reason about code words in abstract terms, five-letter English words are much more familiar to the player. This gives Wordle a tangibility that Mastermind cannot quite achieve.

Perfect game length

Another important factor to Wordle’s success lies in its format: a single Wordle can be played per day, and everybody guesses the same code word. Playing a round of Wordle takes a few minutes at most, and can be played anywhere: in bed after waking up, on the way to work, during a work break or in the evening to relax. There is no endless optimization or retrying for a better score. Once a game is done it is done, and the next game can only be played the next morning. This prevents people from burning out on Wordle after playing too much, and leaves us excited for the next day’s Wordle.

Casual and competitive, with just the right amount of luck

Wordle has two competitive aspects: correctly guessing the word, and doing it in fewer guesses than your friends and family. I wager most English-speaking people can guess almost every code word in the alotted six tries, but it isn’t a trivial task: finding a good guess feels very rewarding. With sufficient skill the game’s code word choice is insignificant, thus ensuring that good players don’t feel punished by unfair word choices3.

Competing with other players is very simple: the player to guess the word in fewer tries wins, and if both players require the same amount of tries, a draw is declared. This competition is interesting in the sense that it is possible to avoid bad scores with sufficient skill, but a player’s initial guess plays an important role in a day’s score: there is a fair amount of random chance and/or luck involved in getting very good scores. Thus, it is impossible for a player to consistently dominate the game. I would describe Wordle as similar to Mario Kart in this instance: in Mario Kart, skill is an important factor to not lose, but in the end it comes down to luck and chance who places first.

The perfect package

Wordle has it all: a solid foundation, the perfect length to keep up engagement over a longer time frame, both for casual and more competitive gamers. Coupled with a very clean user interface and a satisfying guess revelation animation it is not surprising that it has become as successful as it has. It is an instant classic, on par with other puzzle-type games such as crosswords and sudokus.

I’ve spent some time thinking about which other games I can think of that fit in the above category, but I could not come up with a comparable game. There’s always something odd to it such that doesn’t quite measure up to Wordle. If you have an idea, let me know!

  1. It has been shown that the classic Mastermind can always be solved in five tries↩︎

  2. The full list of admissible guesses and possible code words is directly exposed in the game’s JavaScript code↩︎

  3. The only way to ensure that every word is fair is by hand-picking the entire word list. ↩︎

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