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As far as word puzzle games go, there’s no doubt that Scrabble remains the genre’s primary influence. Might as well call the genre “Scrabblevania”, if Konami ever made a Castlevania about spelling words. Games like Words With Friends have gotten a lot of things right in bringing the genre to mobile devices—most importantly, the turn-taking, asynchronous, “play when you have time” model. But at its core, Words With Friends still gives its yellow tiles numeric values and asks players to jumble them into words on the board. It’s still Scrabble. But newcomer Letterpress has come to free the genre of Scrabble’s stranglehold. If that sounds a bit audacious, don’t be intimidated. The outcome is an incredible achievement in minimalist design and multiplayer mechanics—a free game that is sure to be the next big thing in multiplayer iOS games.
The second I booted up Letterpress I could tell that it was designed by someone with some experience in App development. Letterpress is the creation of developer Loren Brichter, the man behind Tweetie and the father of the “drag to reload” feature that has found its way into just about every app in the app store. In Letterpress, Brichter’s work is equally brilliant, and he puts his mind into making a user interface so smooth and responsive, you’ll wish your productivity apps were this polished. But it’s not just the menus that are intuitive and easy to use.
Beyond the pretty menus and smart aesthetic choices, Letterpress is a shining example of minimalist game design that is incredibly easy to pick up, but deeply layered in strategy. Players take turns choosing from the group of 25 randomly-generated letters to create words—each attempting to create longer and more strategically selected words than the other. When you make a word, the tiles you use turn light blue, adding points to your score. As players claim the board for their own, deeper levels of strategy arise. Resources become increasingly scarce and competitors are forced to become more and more creative in their word-making. It’s as different from Scrabble or any word puzzle game as could be, while still keeping the knowledge of a large vocabulary at the center of the game’s required skillset.
When you run up against a competitor of equal skill, the game becomes an interesting back-and-forth duel of wits. It’s the kind of game that would be as fun to play against your young relatives as it is to play against your best friend or colleague.
The game’s greatest and perhaps only major fault is its heavy reliance on Apple’s clunky GameCenter app as a means of competing with others online. There is very little information given in terms of stat-keeping and even less about how matchmaking or setting up games with friends works. Even so, games are incredibly quick and relatively straightforward to jump into. The word is that Brichter is looking into moving the game’s matchmaking to an alternative service, but at this point I’m convinced that it would be better for everyone if Apple just hired Brichter to redesign GameCenter altogether.
In the meantime, Letterpress is fun enough that I’ll be sinking hours into it anyway.