Beyond Wordle: The New York Times Games Section, Explained
Wordle joins an impressive roster of brain bafflers including Spelling Bee and the New York Times crossword.
Dan is a writer on CNET's How-To team. His byline has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, NBC News, Architectural Digest and elsewhere. He is a crossword junkie and is interested in the intersection of tech and marginalized communities.
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"If you've followed along with the story of Wordle, you'll know that New York Times Games play a big part in its origins, and so this step feels very natural to me," Worlde creator Josh Wardle tweeted.
"Nothing has changed about the gameplay," Times' communications director Jordan Cohen told CNET in an email. In fact, all the words in Wordle for the next five years were written into a script before the game launched in October 2021. (Spoiler: You can view that script on Medium.)
Outside of the daily crossword puzzle, Spelling Bee has the most devout following, with a daily column by Isaac Aronow and more than 600 comments a day on average.
It's easy to learn the game but tough to master it: Each puzzle features a seven-cell honeycomb, with six letters arranged around a seventh in the center.
Players simply come up with as many words containing at least four letters as they can. You can reuse letters as often as you want, but each word must contain the center letter.
Words with four letters are worth one point, while longer words receive more. (A "pangram" uses all seven letters at least once. )
Proper nouns aren't recognized, nor are obscure or obscene words -- but exactly what qualifies as obscure is hotly debated through multiple threads.
"Of course, everyone has a different opinion about whether a clue or word is 'fair,' and solvers are not afraid to express that," Wordplay columnist Deb Amlen told CNET. "But don't all families disagree sometimes?"
The Spelling Bee comment section is filled with gripes and brags, peppered between clues to help struggling members of the Hivemind figure out all the possible words and achieve "Queen Bee" status.
"What comes to mind when I think about our solvers is 'community,' in the best meaning of the word," Amlen said.
"I can't think of any other newspaper games section that draws such a devoted and enthusiastic audience," she said. "Wordplay commenters have helped and supported each other when personal problems arise. There are local Wordplay groups that meet up in real life to get to know each other. Our games act as a kind of social outlet for like-minded puzzle lovers."
The game launched as a weekly feature in The New York Times Magazine in 2014 and a daily digital edition debuted four years later.
As of August last year, Spelling Bee has been maintained by Sam Ezersky, who constructs the puzzles, decides what words are acceptable and posts the new game at midnight PT (3 a.m. ET).
And, yes, there are people up at 3 a.m. waiting for the new Bee.
Sometimes you don't have the time, energy or gray matter to work on a full-blown New York Times crossword puzzle. Since 2014, the Times has offered an easier, smaller puzzle, designed by cruciverbalist Joel Fagliano, now digital puzzle editor at the Times.
The Mini is an amuse-bouche of a crossword, with a simple five-by-five grid Sunday through Friday and a seven-by-seven layout on Saturday. (Occasionally larger "midi" puzzles with 11-by-11 layouts pop up, too.)
Even within that limited space, Fagliano has devised something of a formula, as he told the Poynter Institute for Media Studies: "Six or seven clues that are pretty easy, two that are trivia and two that are a bit more cryptic."
If you've been too intimidated to try your hand at a Times crossword, a Mini is definitely a good place to start.
Launched in 2019, Letter Boxed, like Spelling Bee, relies more on vocabulary than knowledge of trivia: Three letters are featured on each side of a square and players must connect the letters to make words that are at least three letters long. The final letter of one word becomes the first letter of the next.
The catch, though, is that letters on the same side of the "box" can't be used consecutively.
The aim is to use all 12 letters by making as few words as possible. But, unlike a crossword, there's no one route to success. (The Times' answer to yesterday's puzzle, as a result, is just labeled "Our Solution.")
Eschewing words altogether, Vertex is an interactive version of a tangram, a Chinese geometric puzzle, that allows users to connect dots to create triangles that ultimately form a larger image.
"At its core, a vertex puzzle is a drawing game with a logic component," according to an article on the Times website.
The number on a dot indicates how many connections it has to other dots. If you link vertices correctly, the triangle they form will be filled in a specific color.
The Times debuted Tiles, its first nonword game, in June 2019. It's a high-concept, artfully designed take on the classic tile game Mahjong solitaire.
Instead of Chinese characters and symbols, though, users try to match squares featuring intricate patterns -- some are inspired by hand-painted Portuguese Azulejo tiles, others by the work of 1970s Op artist Bridget Riley and German color theorist Josef Albers.
Players click on matching pairs to make them disappear until they've cleared the entire board. But the variations in the tile patterns are far more subtle than in traditional Chinese mahjong tiles, making the game significantly more difficult.
Unlike crosswords, which appeal to completists, Tiles is aimed at a more meditative player. In fact, there's even a "zen mode" that goes on forever without clearing the board.
"One additional strategy around launching Tiles is to reach users who may not be native English-language speakers," The Times wrote a release announcing the game.
The New York Times crossword puzzle
The main draw for Games subscribers is online access to the venerable New York Times crossword puzzle that you can solve on your phone. Not just the current puzzle, but the daily archives going back to November 1993. Subscribers also get access to the new crossword the evening before it appears in print.
The app version of the Times puzzle has an autocheck feature that immediately tells you if you've entered the wrong letter. If you're stuck, you can also have the app "reveal" a square, word or the remainder of the puzzle.
More competitive players can track their solve rate and stats and see how they compare to other players on a leaderboard.
How much is a New York Times Games subscription?
Distinct from the main Times subscription, a New York Times Games digital subscription costs $5 a month or $40 for a year, and includes Spelling Bee, Letter Boxed, Tiles, Vertex and the daily crossword puzzle.
The Times offers the Mini and the logic puzzle Sudoku for free to nonsubscribers. For now, Wordle will also be free for nonsubscribers.