What Makes Wordle So Satisfying to Play?
Unlike the crossword or other word games, Wordle is about eliminating possibilities
In what I guess you’d have to call a predictable turn of events, Wordle — the free online game that asks you to guess a 5-letter word by process of elimination — has been sold to The New York Times just a couple of months after it launched. Which makes this a good occasion to think about why Wordle has become so enormously popular (at least among very online people) so quickly.
What makes the question interesting is that Wordle is not like a crossword puzzle or its predecessor in buzziness, the Times’ Spelling Bee. Those are word games where the challenge, and the enjoyment, is in what you know (in the case of a crossword) or what you see (in the case of Spelling Bee). They’re games you solve mostly by filling in gaps., where the goal is to make yourself see what the word (or words) you’re missing is.
Wordle, though, is the opposite. It’s about eliminating possibilities, about recognizing what the word you’re looking for is not. It’s like the embodiment of Sherlock Holmes’ famous line: “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” To be sure, the words in Wordle are rarely improbable, which is one of the things that makes the game work. But the essence of it is the elimination of possibility until no other options remain. The quintessential feeling of accomplishment in the game occurs when you realize that the answer must be this because it can’t be anything else.
One consequence of this is that certain Wordle games are a lot more satisfying than others, independent of how many turns it takes you to find the word. The default score in the game is 4, and a good player should have more 3s than 5s or 6s. But the difference between 3 and 4 is often a matter of luck in terms of the words you chose on your first two turns, and there are certainly puzzles I’ve solved in four turns that felt more satisfying than ones I solved in three. Indeed, my all-time favorite puzzle is below.
Now, as you’ll see, it took me four turns to get “knoll,” which is pedestrian. But it was incredibly satisfying to be able to start with N, O, and L after my third guess and get to…