NYT Connections: Seven Hints and Tips For Winning Every Game

Wordle is great and all, but Connections plays on a different part of your brain.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Expertise Breaking news, entertainment, lifestyle, travel, food, shopping and deals, product reviews, money and finance, video games, pets, history, books, technology history, and generational studies Credentials
  • Co-author of two Gen X pop-culture encyclopedia for Penguin Books. Won "Headline Writer of the Year"​ award for 2017, 2014 and 2013 from the American Copy Editors Society. Won first place in headline writing from the 2013 Society for Features Journalism.
Gael Cooper
5 min read

Connections may not be as well-known as Wordle, but it will test your brain.

Screenshot by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper/CNET

Wordle, which celebrated its 1,000th puzzle in March, might be the headline-grabbing star of The New York Times' online game stable, but Connections, released last June, is its dark horse. Lately, I've been finding myself much more thrilled when I finish a Connections puzzle without making any mistakes than when I solve Wordle in just a few guesses.

Read more: Wordle Player Cheat Sheet: Here Are the Most Popular Letters Used in the English Language

The name describes the game well. Connections is a game where you look at a grid of 16 words and pick four words that have a connection to each other. You do this four times, until all 16 words in the puzzle are grouped. The tough part is that Times associate puzzle editor Wyna Liu chooses words that could fit in multiple groups. The obvious guess -- hey! those are four animals! -- is almost always going to be wrong. 

There are four different difficulty levels in each game -- each group of four fits in one. Yellow is the easiest, then green, then blue, and the hardest is purple, smugly labeled "tricky" by the NYT gamesters. If you make four mistakes, you lose, and the game shows you the answers.

And Connections indeed loves to trick you. One puzzle included the words "Sponge," "Bob," "Square" and "Pants," but those words didn't fit in the same category. All of them went in separate groups. Another wanted you to group together the words "Expose," "Rose," "Pate," and "Resume," as four words that are pronounced differently with accent marks. If you saw that one coming, you're a better Connections player than I.

One of my favorite jokes about Connections comes from a tweet by Jelisa Castrodale, who wrote, "I do the NYT's Connections every morning and then spend the rest of the day hating myself because I didn't realize those four names were all doomed whaling ships built in 1832." Yep, that's pretty much my life.

Note that Connections is pretty much the same game as Connecting Wall from the BBC quiz show Only Connect. Even the show's host pointed that out on X

"Grouped words is a common theme of games," a representative for The New York Times told me in an email. "The content of Connections is unique, handcrafted and has a distinctive style synonymous with New York Times Games."

I've written a lot about Wordle -- from best starter words to a helpful two-step strategy to controversial word changes. I've even rounded up what I learned playing the hit online word puzzle for a full year

But Connections plays on a different part of your brain. Wordle pits you against the dictionary. Connections pits you against your ability to see possible relationships. I still call Wordle my favorite of The New York Times' many online puzzles, but Connections is rising.

Here are my six top tips for how to win at Connections.

Shuffle before you start...

This game wants to fool you -- as when "Sponge," "Bob," "Square" and "Pants" were all in the same game, but not meant for the same group. Connections wants to draw your eyes to easy matches. Hit the "Shuffle" button a few times before you try to group the words. You might get a little mental jog if you see that the words you mentally put in one category end up sitting next to another word they match up with in some way.

...or don't shuffle before you start

I have to note that a friend vehemently disagrees with this tip. He writes, "almost always, there is at least one, and sometimes two groups with one entry in each row. Shuffling kills that soft hint and makes you solve from a chaos board." His preference? Leave the starting board unshuffled, then look at the bottom right immediately. Then, he looks up row by row, to see if any groupings make sense. So if that seems to work for you, it's another option.

If it seems too easy, it probably is

In a related tip, never go for the obvious grouping. Basic categories such as colors or numbers or parts of a car might seem evident, but the minute you see an easy group, rethink it. There's a good chance the game is trying to trick you.

Visualize phrases and compound words

When you see a word, realize that its connection could be a missing word -- or part of them. "Butter" might not just be a dairy product. It might be one of four words that goes with "fly," matching up with "dragon," "house," and "fire." Test out the words and see what other words or phrases you can put in front of or behind them, then see if other words in the game also share that similarity. 

Break down big words

Here's a companion tip to the compound-word advice. If the puzzle has a lot of long words, look for a connection between parts of the word. A recent purple category featured words like "Journeyman" and "Rushmore," and the connection was that each word started with the name of a rock band.

Learn from past games

Connections games can really get creative. The more you play, the more you learn how the editor thinks. You'll start looking at words to see if they have a strange spelling connection, or something like the four words pronounced differently with accent marks. One purple group (it's always the purple group that gets weird) was four words that could be spelled out on an upside-down calculator. ("Eggshell," "giggle," "hello," and that Gen X calculator classic, "boob.") Once you've played enough, you start seeing really oddball connections between the words, even if they seem too strange to be real.

When you're one away, rethink

If you select three of the four words in a group, the game lets you know you were close, messaging that you were "One away!" It's super tempting to just eliminate one of those four and grab another one. But because of how the game sets up similar words, you're likely as not to take away the wrong one. If I get a "one away" message, I cancel out all four of the words I just guessed and try for a different bunch of words. That usually helps me eliminate one of the words I had in my original group.