Unless you’ve been without internet access for the past three months, there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled upon Wordle, the addictive, once-a-day word puzzle game that is one part Mastermind, one part Hangman. Although Wordle itself is not a new game concept per se, what makes it so unique is how it is collectively experienced, shared, and discussed online by so many people.
While I enjoy playing Wordle, what I’ve really appreciated is the lessons we can learn from the game and how it can be applied to so many different fields. I’ll share a few of my big takeaways from Wordle below, and how I’ve applied it to my development of Gamestormers and other future games!
1. Remix Existing Games and Experiences for Your Audience
What’s really interesting about Wordle is that it is not a new idea, but rather an update on a word game that has been around for quite awhile. My earliest experience with this game was the game show Lingo, which gave participants a letter and then used the similar “right letter, wrong place” or “right letter, right place” system to help them solve the word.
Wordle’s designer, Josh Wardle, took that concept and customized it for their partner, creating a single word to solve each day and also adding a letter elimination component similar to the Hangman game. By tweaking a few of the main components of Lingo, Wardle created an addictive, yet fair daily game that is ultimately a remix at heart. The best part? He designed it for his audience – a partner who loved word games and wanted a daily brainteaser.
The lesson? What existing game or experience could work for your role? Are you a trainer? Educator? Leader? What games lend themselves to a remix in order to reach a goal you have? Wordle is the perfect example of a remix that works for the audience, and it’s main design approach can be replicated in your field.
Gamestormers, our board game where you design a game, definitely is a remix at heart. It is inspired by “pitch” games such as Snake Oil and Silicon Valley Startups. It is inspired by trading card games like Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon. It is inspired by the storytelling of Untold and Fiasco. Never be afraid to take inspiration from the mediums in your life – they might be a remix waiting to happen… just like Wordle!
2. Simple to Learn, but Many Ways to Play
At first, this particular lesson from Wordle might not sound accurate. What do you mean there are many ways to play Wordle? You just… guess words, right? Not so fast. Are you a “same starting word every day” player? Do you have that one word that crams every single possible vowel to eliminate options? Or are you the “new word each day” player who wants the thrill of nailing down the word early OR struggling until the end.
What about difficulty level? Are you playing Wordle on “hard mode?” If you’re not familiar, hard mode demands that you ONLY guess words that match the current information you have – in other words, you cannot guess a word that cannot logically be the correct answer just to eliminate letters and placements.
For all of us, Wordle’s approach is a great model – distill your experience down to its simplest parts, and make those parameters your concept. If you’re designing a game or an experience, keep it easy to learn and with as few rules as possible, but give your participants agency and choices.
In Gamestormers, I attempted to keep the premise simple – make a five-card game narrative. However, creating the game is up to you. Do you want to search out your own cards? Make your own cards? Focus on practicing your pitch by squaring off against others during the game in the Arena? All of these routes are opportunities to customize your approach to the game’s central premise. In addition, there are TWO ways to win – have the most popular game design by player vote, OR earn the most victory points for your game and gameplay. Which route will you go? Can you do both? These choices are central to Gamestormers.
3. Create a Shared Experience for Everyone
The reason everyone is talking about Wordle and NOT the hundreds of iterations that came before it is the nature of a shared experience. When Wordle first started appearing on media feeds, people were intrigued by its novelty. Much like the “high score” screen on a local pizzeria arcade, we all have the immediate satisfaction of knowing where we stand against our friends, colleagues, and relatives with the daily Wordle. And the best part? We’re all on equal footing – the same word, the same day, with the same parameters.
For all of us, designing trainings, experiences, and lessons can have this same element. How do our participants get that same sense of shared experience? Is it an engaging digital game like Gimkit, Kahoot, or Quizlet Live to review a concept? Is it all of us creating and pitching in real time with each other to simulate that “Shark Tank” thrill? Shared experiences like the ones mentioned above make us feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.
In Gamestormers, there is a shared experience going on – parallel game creation. Each person builds their main game at the same pace, and all players will have a chance to share their game with the rest of the group. In addition, the Arena pitch contests turn all players into either contestants or judges – you get that shared experience of weighing options and creatively persuading others to give you a vote. These shared experiences make for memories, stories, and laughs – everything we should strive to create as designers.
4. Innovative Marketing Approach
For a game to catch fire like Wordle, you need two elements – a genius concept and a clever marketing strategy. Wordle truly has both, and the game really did not launch into the stratosphere until the social media sharing feature was introduced. If you’re not familiar, Wordle allows you to immediately share your results to Twitter, Facebook, etc as a series of colored blocks that denote what was correct on each of your guesses, what was almost correct, and when you nailed the word (or didn’t, heh). This colorful matrix of boxes had the name of the game as a hashtag, your score (4/6 for example, meant you got it on guess four), and the visual of your process.
What’s genius about this marketing ploy? When people first see it, they have that moment of “what is this…?” Then, they naturally ask the person about the post. Now there’s a conversation about what Wordle is, what the post means, and how addicting it is. In addition, the post itself is relatively spoiler-free, depending on how cruel your early-bird friends want to be. You can see results without having the game ruined, yet still engage in discussions about where you struggled, what worked, and what didn’t.
The lesson here is simple, yet so very complicated – what NEW marketing approach will you take with your service, product, or organization? Think about what you do well or what is unique about what you offer, and accentuate it. Wordle prides itself in being deceptively simple and visually recognizable, so it capitalized on those features in social marketing.
For Gamestormers, we pride ourselves on making EVERYONE feel like a game designer. So, to send that message home, we’ve been allowing people to be a character card in the game! When I go to a conference to share Gamestormers, I select some attendees and make cards of them ahead of time. In addition, I bring an iPad and a photo printer to the conference so I can take people’s pictures and add them to the card on the spot (with their permission of course). Now people around the conference are wearing their Gamestormer cards. Naturally, people ask where they got them, what they are, etc. Suddenly I’ve got word-of-mouth people coming to the Gamestormers booth, where they hear about the game while I make them a card!