I don’t think I’d ever been that happy to see the letter “L”, and so upset not to have an “E”. After being brought to a horrible defeat because I was missing the third “E” to spell what would have been a victorious “Beelzebub”, it sucked. But I jumped right back in because I knew I would have another golden opportunity with “zoology” or maybe something even better soon enough. Welcome to Letterpress, one of the most interesting word games I’ve come across all year.
If you’ve paid any amount of attention to this website, you might have noticed that I like to write words. A lot of words sometimes. I have sort of a fascination with finding the right word to place in a sentence given the limitations on the structure surrounding it. Puzzling out how a sentence should flow sometimes involves wrecking one’s brain to find the perfect solution. Looking for a word based on a limited number of decisions is what drives Letterpress at its core. This paragraph isn’t meant to be entirely self-indulgent, however; if any of this feels familiar to you, you may have an even stronger fondness for what Letterpress accomplishes than someone who doesn’t connect in this way.
Letterpress is a game about having a set problem in front of you that you must solve in a more efficient way than your opponent to succeed. You are limited to the set 5×5 grid of letter from the moment you start a game with someone; the letters never change, and it’s up to you to figure out how you’re going to win. You’ll never end up with every letter you want; such as a full set of vowels. Just when you think you’ve found the perfect word to spell, you’ll realize you don’t have that precious “A” you thought you had all along. Each of the two players take turns sending a word they can create out of any combination of letters on the grid. It’s totally asynchronous, so you have as much time as you need to create your word. With each word you make, the letters you used to create it change to blue; your opponent’s letters turn red. As soon as the last uncolored letter on the cube is changed to either red or blue, the game is over, and the player with the most of their own color on the grid wins the game.
Unlike Scrabble (or as every person under the age of 12 knows it, Words With Friends) you are given everything you need to know at the very beginning of the game. There are no variables of where to place a block on giant 25×25 grid, no huge mazes of tiles being created, and there aren’t seemingly infinite solutions to find by scouring the board for 20 minutes. It’s just you, 25 letters, and your brain working on overdrive.
In the beginning of the game, it seems pretty simple. You spell a word from a bunch of letters and get another one back when your friend makes a move. But every turn you make is another layer of difficulty being added to the game. Once a word is used, it can never be repeated, nor can any version of the word: ex. fast, faster, fastest. Once one of those is played, it’s out of the game for good. Each letter you can squeeze into a word equals one point for you, meaning another letter on the grid is changed to your color. You’ll end up kicking yourself after squandering the potential of extra points after using “silence” for 7 points when you could have played “silently” for 8.
Adding to the difficulty, the other player can steal back letters you’ve played and change them to their color. What eventually happens is a ping pong match of who can play a word just one or two more letters better than the last word played in order to stay a few points ahead without using the final letter which will finish the game. Letterpress works as a continuous push and pull, with the winner being the person who managed to push a fraction of a bit harder.
By the end of a long enough game, the two of you could end up grasping at straws, hoping that your four letter word will be more strategically used than their three letter word. When you end up getting close to the end of the game, most of the letters on the board will have changed to your color. This is where another layer of strategy comes in; using letters that already belong to you will not net you any points, only uncolored letters and your opponent’s letters will benefit your score. You are still allowed to use some of your own letters to form a word, but to gain the most advantage possible, you limit yourself to only a few of the letters on the board and work from there. The game’s brilliant design allows its difficulty curve to come from the player’s actions, and their willingness to find the most optimal solution at any given moment.
Aside from the actual word game itself, the UI is pretty wonderful in how minimalistic it is. You have a blank white screen, your list of every game ever played (along with a colorful end grid from each match) and two big buttons that allow you to create a new game and mess with the options. It sounds silly, but the sounds are really satisfying too. Clicking on the grid of the game you want to play makes a “swoosh” as it zooms into your game. Once you’re in, the letters happily dance around for a second, and the game begins again. Everything you click on makes a satisfying “bloop” sound, and gives the game a little more personality. I feel like I’ve lost my damn mind trying to convince anyone that bloops and swooshes are a valid element to discuss, but they make me feel special in my heart, so deal with it.
There really isn’t much negative to say about Letterpress. As with many games, if you blast through 4 straight games in an hour you’re asking to burn yourself out. I did this, and I needed a solid couple weeks before I felt like playing it again. So maybe some of us need to enjoy it sparingly, if you don’t, may the letters be with you. Another knock against it that doesn’t really determine the quality of the experience- The icon kind of sucks. Seriously, whenever I click on it I feel like I’m about to print out a Word document. I guess it does fit into the minimalistic setting of the rest of the game, but give it some life, please. It’s probably the most boring icon ever created for anything ever. That, friends, is what we call a “hyperbole”, which is worth 9 points, like Beelzebub. Yes, I’m still reeling from that one. Yes, I’ve probably played better words since then. No, I’m not going to give up until I play Beelzebub on someone; after that I’ll probably throw my phone out a window.
Just go get Letterpress now. It’s free, you’ll feel smart, and you might even learn something. And that’s all that really matters, right? That and sweet sound effects.
SWOOOSH. BLOOP BLOOP.