I do the daily puzzle known as Wordle. For the three people in the country who have never heard of it, it consists of a hidden five letter word and one tries to guess the word in as few tries as possible, with a maximum set at six. After each guess, you get three kinds of feedback: a letter is highlighted green if it is the right letter in the right location; yellow if it is a letter that is used in the word but appears in the wrong location, and grey if the letter is not used at all. The puzzle is similar to the game Master Mind. The answer is from a list of 2309 common words but guesses allow from a pool of about 15,000 words (fewer than the average vocabulary which is estimated to be between 20,000-35,000 words), many of which can be quite obscure.
The puzzle is a little diversion during the day that takes about 10 minutes at the most. But it has attracted an enormous amount of interest and this article looks at the strategies that computers and expert players use to try and get the word in the least number of tries. Computers take an average of 3.41 tries to get the word while expert players average slightly less than four.
This article points out a shortcoming.
However, one aspect of Wordle is poorly designed and will need to be changed soon to avoid compromising the game. The problem is the way that solutions are picked. A well-designed system would pick a random word from the list, with an equal probability of any word being picked on any day. The Wordle answers, however, come from a predetermined list set in a fixed order. The current list will run out sometime in October 2027.
This means that once a word is used, it will not appear again for five years! So when the words “theme” and “thyme” came up within a few days of each other, players who were just missing the middle letter in TH_ME in the later Wordle knew exactly what the answer was. And if you keep track of which words have been used, the list of potential future solutions will shrink with every passing day.
What surprised me is that apparently some people cheat at it.
Wordle makes it easy to share and compare your scores with friends. It helps that the scores have an almost perfect correspondence to golf’s. Good human players can solve most Wordles in four tries, so four can be treated as par. Therefore, three is a birdie, two is an eagle and the miraculous one would be a hole-in-one. A very good human player would average a little below par over the long term, just like a very good golf player.
This ease of sharing makes for good group fun, but it can also lead to angst and envy. In a survey of Wordle users conducted by Solitaired, about 10% of Wordle players admitted to cheating, most of them doing so strategically once or twice a week. It is very easy to cheat — spoilers abound on the internet, and you can solve the day’s Wordle first on another device or in private mode. Given all this, it is quite possible that the actual incidence of cheating is even higher.
Why cheat at a game that you play by yourself? What is the fun in that? Surely the pleasure of such puzzles is what one gets by getting a low score using just your own ingenuity? I suppose that the desire to impress one’s friends is great enough to want to cheat, even if it is totally unearned.
For those who like these kinds of word puzzles, there is a similar game called Quordle where you have to guess four words in nine or fewer attempts, where each guess is applied to all four words so that you get feedback for each one.