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Why Wordfeud worked.

Wordfeud took the world by storm, returning the ancient game of scrabble to modern time. In this blog, I'll give my view on what the game has that made this hype possible.

Introduction

So most people have probably heard about Wordfeud. With millions of users and countless spin-offs, it's probably fair to say that it was a success. But why? Why did an old game that everybody already knows like Scrabble suddenly come back as such a major hit, while others games in that category like Chess never got that mainstream?

I think I've founds a few of the things that made Wordfeud work where other games failed. These four elements listed below are what allows Wordfeud to be so much fun. And I think that other games that want  to play out the way Wordfeud does should have a good look and see if these things are true for their games.

1) No direct interaction

The first thing that Wordfeud has, is no direct interaction between players. While it is possible to chat or poke each other about playing, the game does not require its players to interact. This is important, because two players might not be online at the same time, which means that any action that requires a response or approval from another player has to be delayed until the other player comes online.

If you would take a game such as Magic the Gathering, where players can respond to each other's actions, and then respond to each others reponses, etc. then the game would slow to a crawl. After each attempt to play a card, the other player would need to log in to give his approval, before the first player could resume his turn.

By having no interaction or approval, the game can keep running. When you take your turn, you can take your whole turn. And when the other player logs in, he can immediately take his turn, rather then having to give an approval and wait for the other player to end his turn.

2) Limited number of turns

A second reason that the game stays running is that the game only has a limited number of turns. While the actual running time of a game varies greatly depending on when players log in, the actual number of discrete turns in a game is fairly low. People will only keep playing in a game for so long. If scrabble had 100 turns to run, many players would have given up on their running games after a while. But by only having limited discrete turns, games can be finished up before players grow tired of them.

This, combined with no direct interaction and a time limit per turn, allows games to be completed in a reasonable amount of time.

3) Long thinking time per turn, but limited moves

In order to keep people engaged, the game needs to provide at least a base level of thought. Scrabble lets people think about each turn for as long as they need, but it also provides them an incentive to do so. There can be dozens of points earned by not grabbing the first word you find and playing it. Unlike real life scrabble, nobody will be bothered if you take an hour to think about the word you are going to play.

This will keep the game in a player's mind. A game such as snakes and ladders, with its extremely short and simple turns, would not be able to hold attention. A player would log in, tap a die, move a piece, and leave. There is no incentive to think about the game.

4) No hidden plans

Perhaps the most critical of the things identified is the last one. I think this is why Chess failed to be the hit that Wordfeud is, despite matching the first 3 criteria. It is also the hardest to combine with 3), and that is perhaps why we have not seen many of these kind of boardgames become big hits.

Scrabble, while letting you think long, does not make you plan ahead. The player is always concerned with the current move, hardly ever with the next, let alone planning what to do ten moves from now. This is important, because players will open many games at the same time and compete in all of them. If the game required you to plan ahead, you would need to formulate and remember a gameplan for each.

Chess requires you to think ahead. To play five games of chess simultaneously is hard. Let alone twenty. But Scrabble mostly only worries about your next move. And that means you can run all games at the same time, because when you log in, you only have to think about the current turn.

Likewise, it doesn't require you to think back either. There is no relevant information held in previous turns that is no longer visible. Playing Poker in this format for example (in addition to probably failing 1) and 2) anyway) would be an issue, because one of the things you will want to know is what players did in previous turns. That would require a lot of backreading at best, or would simply be impossible at worst. This makes the player unable to get a profile on their opponent, making the whole game more shallow.

Not having any hidden information, not removing anything that happened in the history of the game, and not requiring the player to form a hidden strategy allow him to log in to any of his many games, glance at the board, deduce the current  gamestate, and make his move. But at the same time, the complexity of the move means he won't just quickly click something and leave. He'll actually have time to bond with the game, without getting overwhelmed by its complexity.

Conclusion

There is more to converting an existing boardgame to an non-synchronous multiplayer format then just grabbing a game and hoping for the best. Hopefully this article gives some insight into what you should think about when attempting to port (or build) a boardgame designed to run as an app.

Wordfeud has shown that it could be a smash hit. Chess has shown that it can exist for decades and never rise above obscurity. So any information on how to best guide the process is valuable, I would think.

If there are any questions, comments or criticism, I'd love to hear.

- Erik

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