Words with Strangers

It has come to this.  It is 2021 and I am writing a blog post about a Zynga game.  This time it is Words with Friends.  Though I guess I do have a Zynga category on the blog, so at least there is some history there.

Happy FarmVille Memories

Stranger still is that this is my third attempt at a post about the game since 2019, at least one of which got bogged down in a 750 word aside about Zynga, Mark Pincus, and that time Richard Garriott thought it would be a great idea to get in bed with the company, which all took on a life of its own and had to be abandoned.  I’ve written about all of that before.

Time to start with a fresh page.

So what is Words with Friends?

It is a blatant rip-off of Scrabble, but in this day everything is a blatant rip-off of something else, so it is hard to hold that against it.  If we turned our collective noses up at that sort of thing there would be little new to play.

And I like Scrabble.  We used to play it after dinner at Thanksgiving until it began to turn into a blood sport and we had to stop to maintain family unity.  Unfortunately, on mobile, EA holds the rights to Scrabble and have produced a monstrosity that is both buy to play AND littered with ads AND is broken every other build according to a friend who persists in trying to play it, having spent the money.

Instead I play Words with Friends because at least you don’t have to buy it up front.  Also, my daughter started playing it and asked my wife and I to play and then they both stopped after two weeks and I kept on going.

At its simplest it is an only rip-off of Scrabble, so the board will look familiar to any who have played the old staple.  And all the usual moves are there.  You can play a word, pass, swap out tiles, forfeit, or piss off the other person who is winning by taking your damn time to play.

The Words with Friends screen

I play on the iPad in landscape mode, which I find optimal, but you can play on your phone if you so desire.  Just make sure you have unlimited data or a WiFi hot spot nearby.

However, this being the online version of a board game, there are some differences and quirks.

To start with, you can only play against a single opponent.  That keeps everything simple, keeps one slug from holding up a whole group, and all that, but it does cut out some of the interesting flavor that a multi-sided game can bring.  I have been known to feed the person to my left big scoring opportunities just to be sure the person to my right… usually my mother-in-law…. won’t win. (She is a bad winner and a worse loser… but more entertaining and less insufferable as a loser.)

And then there is the fact that you can only play valid words.

This might seem like a “well, duh” to the uninitiated, but there is a whole dynamic to words and bluffing that comes into the live board game.  I once played the word “ponys,” declaring it to be the plural of “pony” in a game and, because nobody had successfully challenged one of my words up to that point, the rest of the table let it pass fearing I might pull some sort of Old English variation out of the Official Scrabble Dictionary sitting there on the corner of the table. (I was bluffing.)

So there is no bluffing in WWF.  But, beyond that, there is the opportunity for what I call the “brute force” play, where you just shove letters at the board where you have something like a triple word score hoping you’ll find something that sticks.  And since WWF uses a combined US/UK dictionary, and the two countries divided by a common language can’t agree on how to spell anything more complex than “cat,” brute force opportunities abound.

And then there is cheating.

It is certainly easy enough to put your letters into Google and see what words will show up.  And I am sure if you Google “Scrabble cheat” you will find sites to help you, or lists of words that have a “Q” and no “U,” or even apps that will help you find the optimum word.

Top of the results in the App Store

I am always mildly suspicious of people who never have a turn where they end up playing that 5 point, two letter word.  But they can be hard to suss out because the game has its own, built-in, monetized cheating as well.

Up at the top of the board you may have seen these three tokens.

The Three Sanctioned Cheats

Those three are, from left to right, Word Radar, Swap+, and Word Clue.

Word Radar shows shows you all the possible places you can play one of your tiles based on the in-game dictionary.

Word Radar in Action

It will also sell you the best scoring moves for 30 coins, coins being the primary in-game currency, which I will get to in a bit.

Word Clue will offer you a moderate good word to play, highlighting the spot on the board and the letters in your hand.

And then there is Swap+, which lets you swap tiles without losing your turn.

As you can see, I have 99+ Word Radar tokens, 99+ Word Clue tokens, and 30 Swap+ tokens, so you can probably figure out what I use the most.

There is also one more token, Hindsight, which will tell you what the best move was after you have played.  I have 99+ of those as, in most cases it isn’t much use.

Which brings us to how the game earns money.

Ads.  The game is mostly about serving up ads.  When playing against another player, after each move, you get an ad.  I may write a post about the wide variety of ads that come up, the ones that are good, the ones that are bad, the ones that are broken, the devious and downright shitty things they do with the dismiss button, and how I can tell when my wife is looking at the Macy’s web site on her computer because I start getting Macy’s ads for the things she is searching on.

The ads are a deal breaker for some.  For me they are part of the challenge, and I am well practiced in spotting how to dismiss ads in the quickest possible fashion.  The biggest downside of the ads is that they require constant network traffic to load them up which will eat into your battery run time.  Not as bad as Pokemon Go, but it is noticeable.

Ads are the baseline revenue stream, but Zynga will also happily sell you things.  Coins, for example, to buy those sanctioned cheats.

Fortunately you can also earn coins by completing daily and weekly tasks, which I always go out of my way to do.  I save up my coins and spend them on Swap+ tokens.  You can also earn the tokens themselves, which is why I have 99+ of the other three tokens I so rarely use.

And then there are whole packages you can buy with special portrait frames, colorful tile sets, emojis that you can send to your opponent with your play (which I have never seen anybody use ever), and even some ad free time, though the prices are ludicrously high.  I think the last time I saw an ad free package it was $39.99, which is a screw job level of price.

But that is all there to harvest whales.  The ads are where the steady income flows.  And you can tell that they worry about that.  Apple’s new opt-in requirement for ad tracking has them fretting a bit.

If you have 82% then you don’t need me, right?

Anyway, with all of that I still play daily.  You can find me using my usual handle, Wilhelm Acturus, if you are just dying to beat me in Scrabble.

Now that we’re here at the end of the post, I realize that I have left the title somewhat unexplained, though I imaging that you can probably guess the meaning.  Since my wife and daughter stopped playing I have ended up in matches against a host of random strangers.  There is a whole match making mechanic and it pushes likely opponents at you, so I have ended up playing against a regular group of people who are mostly women whom I tend to think of as being my grandmother’s age.

And then I remember my grandmother would have been 102 last week and has been dead for 25 years and that I am now the age I remember her being, so perhaps I have found my demographic.

3 thoughts on “Words with Strangers

  1. bhagpuss

    My mother is 89 and she and her friends love Scrabble. They play every week (or did before the pandemic – a little less now but they’re getting back into it). Every time I go to visit her we play a game. She’s won twice, ever.

    I don’t think I’d play on a screen. I like the tactility of the tiles to much. Also, one game every two or three weeks is about enough for me. I find it quite tiring, as in enervating. All that thinking and even worse all that waiting while someone else thinks.


  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – I am not sure I would play this on the computer and I wouldn’t bother loading it on my phone, but the iPad is big enough that board games feel somewhat more natural on them then on other devices. You can’t feel the tiles, but you can still move them around, re-arrange them in your view, and otherwise fiddle with them in a way.

    There is a button to randomly re-order your tiles, which I will keep pressing when I am stuck for a word until something likely shows up… or until I decide to use that Swap+ token because my letters suck.

    @Tipa – That was me and solitaire using a real deck of cards. I’d get stuck and then say, “Well, what if I had that card I needed right here…” and then I’d carry on. I’d win every game.

    For Words with Friends I mostly play on the couch while we’re watching TV and can’t be bothered to cheat. I just play words and move on. That is probably why people keep playing me.


Voice your opinion... but be nice about it...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s