Wordle is a web-based word game created and developed by Josh Wardle. It became publicly available in October 2021. Its popularity exploded quickly and by December of the same year, there were dozens of clones and Android and iPhone apps providing puzzles for their users.
In January 2022, the New York Times purchased the game in its original, 1 puzzle per day, web-based format from the original developer, Josh Wardle. It is rumored to have been a seven-figure purchase price.
The concept is simple. Guess the five-letter English word in 6 tries. The concept is similar to an old board game called Mastermind, which in one form or another dates back to the early to mid-1800s. The board game was for two players. One player was the code maker and the other was the code breaker. The two players would alternate who was the code breaker and who was the code maker. They would score points based on their ability to break the codes. A code would be four colors in a row, where each color could be any of six different colors. The code maker would select the four colors — red – yellow – orange – blue for example — and not tell anyone. It was up to the code breaker to come up with the same code. For each guess, the code breaker would place four colored wooden pegs in four holes on the game board. The code maker would respond with up to four black or white pegs where a black peg indicated that a peg was of the correct color and in the correct location and a white peg indicated that a peg was of the correct color but in the wrong location. Using those clues and their previous guesses, the code breaker would solve the puzzle.
I was introduced to Mastermind in the late 1970s as a single-player computer game on the original Apple II home computer. For a long time, it was one of my favorite games. Although when Wordle burst onto the scene, I hadn’t played Mastermind in more than a decade. Wikipedia has a nice entry for the Mastermind (board game), including pictures of the board, pegs, etc.
Wordle has the same basic rules with a few differences.
|Uses colored placeholders||Uses letters of the alphabet|
|4 positions make up the code||5 letters make up the code.|
Guesses must be valid 5-letter English words.
|Responses are black or white||Responses are green or yellow, but green means the same as black and yellow means the same as white.|
The one-puzzle-per-day, New York Times Wordle application, hereinafter just Wordle, provides clues to the success or failure of each of your guesses. Correct letters in the correct position are shown in green. Correct letters in the wrong position are shown in yellow. Incorrect letters are shown in dark gray. At the bottom of the puzzle page, is a keyboard layout. It reflects the letter status of the last or most recent guess. Letters in green in the most recent guess will show in green on the keyboard. Letters in yellow in the most recent guess will show in yellow on the keyboard. Dark gray letters have been used in guesses, but do not appear in the solution. Light gray or white letters haven’t been used yet. I find the display of letters that can still be used to be really helpful by the 4th or 5th guess.
This is the solved puzzle from Oct 3rd, 2022. The background is black because I use my browser in dark mode.
The puzzle guesses are at the top. The letters in green are correct and in the right place. The letters in yellow are correct but in the wrong place. Dark letters are incorrect.
The keyboard at the bottom shows which letters have been used and which letters haven’t been used yet. It also reflects the coloring of the letters in the most recent guess.
Wordle is a lot easier than Mastermind ever was, especially if you play word games often. Unlike Mastermind, whose codes were completely abstract, Wordle’s code words have relationships between the positions/letters, which give you clues toward future guesses. For example, if you’re trying to guess the word ‘SNARE’ and you’ve correctly guessed ‘S??RE’ where ‘S’, ‘R’, and ‘E’ are green and the two ‘?’s ( shown here as ‘?’ but are incorrect letters in the puzzle ) are black, then you know that the first ‘?’ cannot be a ‘B’, or ‘D’, or ‘F’, etc. No 5-letter English words begin with ‘SB’ or ‘SD’ or ‘SF’, etc. In Mastermind, there were no such relationships between the positions to help you resolve the code.
In Wordle, it helps to know the English language. In English, there are approximately 9,000 five-letter words. Remember, ‘words’ from the perspective of the dictionary, do not include proper nouns. ‘Satan’, ‘Sally’, and ‘Sammy’ are names and thus proper nouns. As such, they do not count as words. Wordle recognizes 2,315 solution words and another 10,000+ words that are acceptable guesses.
Wordle also requires a certain amount of luck. Guessing the solution in one or two guesses is pure luck. Guessing the right word when 4 words differ from the solution by 1 letter requires luck. Look at the puzzle shown above. I was really lucky to identify 4 correct letters in my second guess. If I’d chosen STING instead of STINK, I would have won in 2 guesses. However, three 5-letter English words begin with ‘STIN’ (Stink, Stint, Sting.) By adhering to my rules of play, detailed below, I managed to identify the letters ‘STIN’ on my second guess.
What if it had taken me five guesses to identify ‘STIN’? With one guess left and two possible words, all the skill in the world wouldn’t have helped. Winning would be based solely on luck.
A lot has been written about Wordle strategies. You only have to search for ‘Wordle Strategies’ to come up with volumes of information. Statistically, the #1 best word to use for your first guess, is ‘CRANE’. A computer crunched the letters and based on the relative letter frequencies in 5-letter words, ‘CRANE’ covers the most common ones. ‘CRANE’? Really? Nope. I’m not going to use it.
Like probably every player, I have a strategy of my own. I have eight rules that govern my Wordle gameplay. Using these rules, I find the right answer in 3 or 4 guesses more often than I find the answer in 5 or 6 guesses or not at all.
I would never use ‘CRANE’ as my first guess. In fact, because of my rules, it is unlikely that any of my first-guess choices will net me a first-guess win. It is far more likely that the game’s creators excluded the kind of words that I use as a first guess from being potential solutions.
Okay, that’s enough background. I wrote this article to share my strategy with the public. My strategy seems to work well for me. I guess the correct word in 3 or 4 guesses with the occasional 2 guess win, more often than it takes 5 or 6 guesses or I lose completely.
Avoid Obscure Words
The first thing you need to understand is that the creators wanted a game for everyone. Unusual or obscure words like ‘ALACK’ or ‘SOARE’ are unlikely to ever be the answer. Use them if you must as a guess, but recognize that they probably won’t be the answer. In other words, when faced with ‘S?ARE’, guess SCARE or SNARE or SPARE before guessing SOARE. When faced with ‘?LACK’ guess BLACK, CLACK, FLACK, or SLACK before guessing ALACK, or PLACK. Both ALACK and PLACK could be valid solutions in Wordle. But when faced with 6 possible solutions to ‘?LACK’, and three remaining guesses, I always go with the less obscure words first.
For those of you who are saying that PLACK is not an obscure word, I should remind you that the word that sounds the same, which we all know, is PLAQUE. Plack is a small Scottish alloy or copper coin.
Wheel of Fortune
Raise your hand if you watched Wheel of Fortune in the 1980s or earlier. In the bonus round, the winner of the regular game would be given a chance to guess a puzzle. They were asked for 5 consonants and 1 vowel. Nearly everybody said ‘RSTNL’ and ‘E’. In more recent years, they gave you those 6 letters and ask the player for 3 additional consonants and 1 additional vowel. I paid attention. I understood the assignment. I try to use those 6 letters (R, S, T, N, L, E) in my first three guesses. In the puzzle shown above, this rule netted me ‘STIN’ in green after 2 guesses.
Vowels are Key
I want to try all 5 vowels, and maybe a ‘Y’ in the first two guesses. Twelve 5-letter English words contain 4 vowels. Three of those twelve words also contain a Wheel of Fortune consonant.
My most common first guess words are ‘ADIEU’, ‘AUDIO’, ‘AUREI’, ‘LOUIE’, and ‘BEAUS’. Aurei, Louie, and Beaus all contain Wheel of Fortune consonants. It takes a bit of luck to pick the right starting word that will give me enough feedback. The second guess also depends on the feedback from the first word.
NEVER Use the Same Incorrect Letter Twice
As you make guesses, Wordle identifies the letters that you’ve guessed correctly in the correct position in the word, the letters you’ve guessed correctly in the wrong position in the word, and the letters that do not appear in the solution. This rule applies to those letters that Wordle identified as not appearing in the solution. Never use these incorrect letters in new guesses. The requirement that each guess must be a valid 5-letter English word, makes coming up with new guesses difficult and makes it tempting to reuse some identified incorrect letters. Don’t do it. Avoid the temptation.
Off the top of your head, how many 5-letter words can you name in 10 seconds, which have an ‘A’ or ‘E’ in them, but no other vowel?
Off the top of your head, how many 5-letter words can you name in 10 seconds, which have an ‘I’ or ‘O’ in them, but no other vowel?
I’ll bet that you came up with more ‘E’ / ‘A’ words than ‘I’ / ‘O’ words. The temptation to reuse letters like ‘E’, ‘A’, ‘R’, ‘S’, ‘T’, etc., is very real. There are several thoughts here.
- You only have six guesses. Each time you reuse an incorrect letter, you waste one of your six guesses. Each time you reuse an incorrect letter you positively guarantee that your next guess is not the solution.
- Spending the time to figure out and guess a word that matches what you know so far, could very well be the solution word for your next guess.
- As letters are eliminated, fewer and fewer 5-letter words are possible. Before the first guess, there are 2,315 possible answers, and another 10,000+ five-letter words are acceptable guesses. Each time a letter is eliminated the number of remaining five-letter words that only contain identified letters and unused letters drops dramatically. If you never reused any letter, then after five guesses you would have tried 25 of the 26 letters in the alphabet. You will have identified most or all of the letters in the solution with one guess left. Modifying your guesses because some were returned as yellow or green would get you to a solution much faster.
As an example, I found ‘GYPSY’ because I moved through the alphabet. In the first two guesses, I had tried all 5 vowels and none were returned as yellow or green, meaning that the word HAD to have a ‘Y’ in it as a substitute for a vowel. After the 3rd guess, I had finished the ‘RSTNL’ consonants and only ‘S’ was yellow. I had guessed and dismissed 15 of the 26 letters in the alphabet. By my fourth guess, GYPSY was the only logical choice. As it turned out, it was the solution.
Move Letters Around
Any letters identified as yellow — correct letter, wrong position — should never be placed in the same position again. You should identify words with that letter in a different position. Can’t think of any? Read the next rule, and then choose wisely. Your next guess might be the answer.
Don’t Skip Known Letters
Sometimes it’s difficult to come up with new guesses that contain all of the identified letters that were either green or yellow. Resist the temptation to ignore a letter to get a new guess. That guarantees the next guess is not the answer.
For example, if your first word is ADIEU and you get a yellow ‘U’, a green ‘D’, and everything else is black, then your second guess should have the correctly placed ‘D’ and a ‘U’ in a different position. Otherwise, you’re just wasting a guess. There are only two 5-letter English words that are possible solutions, one fairly common, and one fairly obscure (I’d never heard of it before).
Take the time to find a guess that takes everything you know so far into account and your next guess could very well be the solution.
Pay Attention to Letters That Go Together……
…and those that don’t. This is an idea that you learn when playing word games. For example, if you have a green ‘H’ on the end, like ‘????H’, then the fourth ‘?’ is limited to ‘C’, ‘G’, ‘P’, ‘S’, ‘T’, or a vowel. An ‘H’ in the second letter position could mean the first letter is a ‘C’, ‘P’, ‘S’, ‘T’, ‘W’, or a vowel. English is loaded with examples:
- ‘RK’ but not ‘RL’ on the end,
- ‘TR’ at the beginning but not at the end,
- ‘TR’, ‘TH’, or ‘TW’ at the beginning, but not ‘TL’, ‘TC’, or ‘TM’,
- ‘ND’ at the end, but not at the beginning,
- ‘SC’, ‘SH’, ‘SK’, ‘SL’, ‘SM’, ‘SN’, ‘SP’, ‘SQ’, ‘ST’, ‘SV’, ‘SW’ but not ‘SB’, ‘SD’, ‘SF’, ‘SG’, ‘SJ’, ‘SR’, ‘SS’, ‘SX’, or ‘SZ’,
- and hundreds, perhaps thousands, more examples.
Being aware of typical letter combinations can take you cautiously into the less common letters when it becomes obvious that the solution will not be limited to common letters.
Be a Rulebreaker When it’s Time
Don’t be rigid with the rules. GYPSY, USURP, and DOUBT (all answers to previous puzzles) took me outside my rules. Know when it’s time to break the rules and do it with confidence.
A Wordle Example, using my rules
Let’s try ‘LOUIE’ for the first guess. Wordle responds with 5 black letters. None of the letters ‘L’, ‘O’, ‘U’, ‘I’, or ‘E’ appear in the solution.
At this point, you’ve guessed 4 of the 5 vowels and an ‘L’ from ‘RSTNL’ and ‘E’ fame. You need to pick a new word with an ‘A’, and at least a couple of letters from among ‘R’, ‘S’, ‘T’, and ‘N’. And none of the original 5 letters.
Let’s choose ‘STRAY’ as the second guess. Wordle responds with a green ‘S’, a green ‘Y’, a yellow ‘A’, and a dark gray ‘T’, and ‘R’.
What do we know? You’ve tried and ruled out ‘RTL-EIOU’, so none of the letters in the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th positions are ‘R’, ‘T’, ‘L’, ‘E’, ‘I’, ‘O’, or ‘U’. The solution starts with an ‘S’, ends with a ‘Y’, and the second or third letter is an ‘A’. After 2 guesses, the 4th letter is still a mystery.
What else do we know? We know that the 4th letter cannot be a ‘Y’ because no 5-letter-English-word ends in ‘YY’. We know that the second letter cannot be an ‘S’ because no 5-letter-English-word starts with ‘SS’. Further, of the fifteen 5-letter-English-words that begin with ‘SY’, only ‘SYNCS’ doesn’t contain any of the letters we’ve already ruled out. And ‘SYNCS’ doesn’t contain an ‘A’, so that’s not the solution either. So the second letter cannot be a ‘Y’.
‘A’ could be the 2nd letter or 3rd letter. The last guess, with ‘A’ as the 4th letter, returned it as yellow — right letter, wrong position — so the 4th letter is not an ‘A’. The puzzle solution is guaranteed to match either ‘SA??Y’ or ‘S?A?Y’.
|Pattern||All Possible Matching Words|
|SA??Y||Saggy, Sandy, Sappy, Sassy, Savvy|
|SxA?Y||Shady, Shaky, Snaky, Spacy, Swamy|
We have 4 guesses remaining and we’ve narrowed the list of possible answers from 2,315 to just 9. We have just a 44% chance of winning. Keeping with my rules, ‘RSTL’ have each been tried, and ‘N’ remains. Make the third guess as ‘SANDY’. Wordle responds with a green ‘S’, a yellow ‘A’, a dark gray ‘ND’, and a green ‘Y’.
‘A’ MUST be the 3rd letter. ‘N’ is ruled out. So is ‘D’. The solution will match ‘SxAxY’ leaving, only, Shaky, Spacy, and Swamy. You have 3 guesses remaining and 3 possible answers. Your chance of solving the puzzle in six guesses or less is now 100%. Guess Spacy, Shaky, and Swamy (or Shaky, Spacy, and Swamy) in that order for the win in 4, 5, or 6 guesses.
I love games that make me think. That’s one reason I like word games. With most word games, you either know the answers or you can figure them out. If you aren’t able to figure it out, you lose. I don’t mind losing because I was unable to figure out the right answer. But I hate losing because I figured everything out and then the win came down to a lucky guess. That’s one reason why Mastermind was one of my favorite games. It never came down to a guess. You were either successful in figuring out the answer or you weren’t. Luck had almost nothing to do with winning or losing. To keep Wordle interesting, even for those people who don’t regularly play word games, there has to be a certain amount of luck.
© 2022, PaulSwarthout. All rights reserved.