The Rise and Rise of Wordle

You can’t have failed to notice the recent meteoric rise of Wordle. From November 2021, when its creator Josh Wardle first shared it on Twitter and it had 90 players, to 2 million players in the second week of January 2022, it has certainly caught the public consciousness. But why is that? And what makes a good Wordle player? Philip Fine investigates.

Sample Wordle game

What is Wordle?

Wordle is a word-guessing game. The classic game asks puzzlers to solve a 5-letter word by guessing a word each turn. In the style of the 1980s peg game Mastermind, but with letters instead of colours, each guessed letter is either shown as correct and in the right place, correct but in the wrong place, or not in the target word at all. Solvers have six guesses, and there’s only one word a day. It’s very similar to the TV quiz show Lingo, which currently airs in 5 countries. And that’s all there is to it. 

Mastermind peg game

But what is actually involved? Well, to solve a Wordle requires several puzzle-solving skills. True, you need to be familiar with the hidden word, so a minimum level of vocabulary is a must, and indeed some people have complained about obscure target words and American spellings (at least in the UK). But it is also very much about pattern recognition and strategy. Pattern-matching relates to spotting typical sets of letters that sit well together – ‘ght’ or ‘ing’ or ‘ch’ for instance. Strategy relates to how you approach the puzzle: do you try three words covering 15 letters first (e.g. ‘hoist’, ‘ready’, ‘pluck’) or use the response to the first word to help choose the second?

Does it help to be good at crosswords?

Together with my colleague Kathryn Friedlander, I have been investigating another type of word puzzle – cryptic crosswords – for over a decade. Again the task is to find the target word(s), but now the clues provided a coded set of instructions rather than feedback about the position of correct letters. We have demonstrated that expert cryptic crossword solvers seem to be a particularly well-educated group of people, and also that they excel at code-cracking and problem-solving skills. This type of skill is referred to as fluid intelligence and it’s very important for thinking on the fly and adaptive problem-solving.

Newspaper crosswords, glasses and pen

Indeed, cryptic crossword solvers as a group have a much higher than average fluid intelligence. This isn’t that surprising, as cryptic crossword solving involves far more than just a good vocabulary, but an ability to ‘crack the code’ of the clue, ignoring the surface reading to get at the mechanism underneath. This doesn’t mean that anyone can’t learn to solve cryptic crosswords, but to be really top-flight, a high fluid intelligence is very helpful.

For Wordle, a knowledge of candidate words is clearly important, such as all 5-letter words with G in third place and E in fifth, or words containing B and L somewhere. This relates to crystallised intelligence, which is our storehouse of knowledge, including vocabulary and word definitions as well as facts. This may mean that some Wordle skills are closer to those required for non-cryptic, synonym-only crosswords where answers must be deduced from cross-checking letters and a definition word. But pattern-matching, anagramming and strategic decisions about what to guess are more likely to involve fluid intelligence.

Oodles of Wordles

Indeed Wordle itself was so successful that less than 2 months after its creator Josh Wardle shared it on Twitter, it was purchased by the New York Times. It has been adapted into almost 100 languages and also spawned a large number of derivative games, including multi-word versions (such as Quordle and Octordle), and topic-specific games, such as Byrdle (an English choral music specific version), Lordle of the Rings (for JRR Tolkien lovers) and Pawrdle (for pet lovers).

Again the strategy differs for some of these other games. I particularly enjoy Squardle, in which a crossword-style grid of 6 words has to be guessed, but now letters can be correct but in the wrong position horizontally, vertically, or both. This makes it a very different beast from Wordle, given the much greater amount of information to be kept in mind at a time. Squardle almost certainly involves a greater degree of fluid intelligence.

Words Scrabble tiles

Are you a Wordler or a Wordlist?

Although there doesn’t seem to be an agreed term for a Wordle player – Wordler? Wordlist? – it is clear that millions are playing on a daily basis across the globe. I think it has really taken over public consciousness recently for a number of reasons. It is restricted to one game a day, so doesn’t take over as many addictive games do. Everyone solves the same word on a particular day (although this wasn’t always the case), so it is easy to share one’s performance on social media and compare with friends, which I’m sure has been one reason for its success. It also keeps records of solvers’ performance over time, which for many people is important. 

Indeed, Mark Goodliffe of the YouTube video channel Cracking the Cryptic (which normally concentrates on sudoku variants) is now posting short videos of him solving both Wordle and related puzzles. Anyone with a reasonable vocabulary can have a go, and your strategy is likely to develop over time. It may be the case that those with a higher fluid intelligence are slightly better at Wordle and find some of the more complex spin-offs such as Squardle more approachable, but there’s no reason why everyone can’t have a go. Who knows, it might even lead people to other word games, and eventually cryptic crosswords!


Games tiles:



Glasses on a crossword:

Letter tiles:

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