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Word Game Mechanics

Several weeks ago we began building a word game tool. We played and analyzed many word games to deconstruct their mechanics. In this article we share our findings.

Jonathan Bailey, Blogger

May 7, 2015

10 Min Read

We could not find digital implementations of all of the games listed in this article. If you know of one, please post a link in the comments section. Otherwise you can find a description of each of the games in The Oxford A-Z of Word Games.

Words were invented for communication, but humans are constantly finding new and frivolous uses for them. People slot words into inappropriate places, search for similarities between entirely different words and delight in finding words that sound the same. (The Oxford Guide to Word Games, T.Augarde). Words are assembled, broken down and rebuilt again, all for the fun of it. Simply put, people like playing games with words.

Word games appear in every period of history, in every part of the world. The oldest recorded word game is a riddle found in Babylonian school texts. (The Oxford Guide to Word Games, T.Augarde).Thousands of years later, The Oxford A-Z of Word Games lists 250 games that can be played with words.

Word games are often simple and require minimal equipment. They can be played with paper and pencil, voice and even physical actions. More recently they have been played on game boards and digital devices.

We at Plinq are obsessed with words. Words have many characteristics and for each characteristic, there is a game! There are games that play with the meaning (Homonym Game), sound (Crambo), and spelling (Backenforth) of words. There are games that shuffle and rearrange letters (Anagrams), games of interlocking words (Scrabble), and even games that avoid making words (Ghost).  


We are particularly interested in word games that are suitable for digital devices. Unlike most other video games, word games rely on outside knowledge; a link must be made between the game and a large body of agreed upon knowledge (vocabulary, meaning, and so on). While computers can deal well with the structural components of words (letters), they don't do so well with other aspects, such as meaning (synonyms, definitions) or sound (puns or rhyming).

Because we are interested in games suitable for computer implementation, we only considered games that are one of these:

  • already single-player

  • able to be turned into single-player

  • have AI that can be made for multiplayer

The mechanics of word games are based on the language they are made with. A clear way in which languages differ (that are applicable to games) is how words are constructed. English uses an alphabet and has words that are relatively difficult to spell, thus games that use spelling are popular. Spelling in Spanish is typically easier, but adding accents to certain letters creates entirely new letters.

The basic units of the Japanese writing system are syllables, while Chinese uses a logographic system. To maintain a workable scope for our research, we only considered games made in English. Of course, some of our findings are also relevant to other languages.

Many word games share mechanics with other types of games such as match games (see Match Game Mechanics: An Exhaustive Survey). This includes the use of grids, tiles and user actions. Many of these mechanics are necessary to make a word game, but we decided not to include them in this article. Instead, we list the game mechanics specific to word games, within the constraints outlined above.

(Word Craft)



A pattern is a way of expressing some aspects of a word, without giving the word. One example of a pattern is regular expressions. A simpler example is specifying a word using wildcards where a wild card can be any letter in the alphabet and is represented as a question mark (?). For example G??E would be the pattern for GAME.


A group of characters treated as a unit. For example, the character pair QU may be treated as a letter in this sense.


A random shuffle of a words letters that guarantees a minimum distance between the original and the muddled word.


A word, phrase, or name formed by rearranging the letters of another word.


A change to a word that includes inserting, removing, substituting or re-arranging letters.  

Edit Distance

The (minimum) number of edits necessary to transform one word into the other. The types of edits allowed gives slightly different values. When letter insertions, letter removals, and letter substitutions are allowed, it’s called the Levenstein distance. If only substitutions are allowed, it’s called the Hamming distance. In word games, these metrics are sometimes used to ensure words are unrecognizable when the letters are shuffled, or in rules for constructing sequences of words.

Partial Word

A string of letters that is not a word, but could be a word if more letters are added.


Two words overlap when a part of the end of one word is the beginning of the other. For example why and hybrid. 

Game Classification

Word Forming

In these games, the player has to form words from a set of letters.  Letters can be arranged and displayed in various ways, often in a row or on a grid (Boggle, Words with Friends, Anagrams).  

(Words With Friends)

Word Solving

In these games, the player has to solve a puzzle (by means of logic) to obtain one or more words that are hidden from them (Hangman, Crossword, Quizl).

(Hidden Object Crosswords)

Word Searching

In these games, the player has to identify words that are visible but are surrounded by other letters that may or may not form other words (Word Search, Words within Words).

(The Great International Word Search)

Game environment

Word generation  

Words are generated so that they can be found or obtained by the player. The type and number of words generated are dependent on the game and its rules. 

Words can be generated

  • randomly from a dictionary

  • randomly from subsets of a dictionary i.e. categories (Crossword)

  • randomly with constraints such as

    • patterns, including partial words (Missing Vowels, Missing letters)

    • the number of letters (Hangman)

Words can be generated one at a time (Hangman) or more than one at a time (Word Search)

Word shuffling

A simple way of making puzzles, is to generate a word and then change the position of each letter to hide the word. This is known as shuffling. Words can be randomly shuffled or muddled (Anagrams).

(Anagram Magic)

Letter generation

Letters are generated for the player to form words (Boggle), or to distract the player from finding words (Word Search). The number of letters generated is dependent on the game rules and/or the board size.

The type of letters can be generated

  • randomly (Countdown)

  • by frequency (Scrabble), for example, according to the frequency that each letter appears in a dictionary

  • according to letter categories, for example X number of vowels and Y number of consonants (Words!!)

Information revelation

In word solving games, the player is given information to help them to find the word. This information can be unchanging and revealed at the beginning of the game (static revelation) or as feedback during the game, in response to the player’s actions (dynamic revelation).

Static revelations include providing the player with

  • word patterns

    • that shows some of the letters contained in the word (Missing Letters)

    • that shows the number of letters the word has (Abbreviations, Hangman)

  • definitions or descriptions (Crossword)

  • categories (Word Search)

  • related words (Password, Fill-ins)

  • reversed words (Brakenforth)

  • anagrams (Clue Words)

  • the number of possible words using that set of letters (Wordster)

Dynamic revelations include  

  • increasing the specificity of patterns (Hangman)

  • the number of correct letters in an attempted solution (Crash)


Player actions

Form a word

The aim of word forming games is to make words using a set of available letters. Words can either be freeform or formed using constraints. Examples are when the player must make words

  • using a given number of letters (Sinks, Inflation)

  • using each letter in a set only once

    • for each word made (Boggle)

    • for all words made (Words!!)

  • using all of the letters in a set (Unscramble, Anagrams)

  • using letters in a specific order (Word Portal)

  • according to a pattern that

    • contains a letter/s (Polygon, Catchword, Diagrams, Mischmasch)

    • starts with a letter (AA)

    • ends with a letter (Endings)

    • starts and ends with a letter (Tops and Tails)

    • starts with a particular prefix (Prefixes) or ends with a particular suffix (Suffixes)

  • that starts and ends with the same letter (Alpha)

  • that contains a letter of an already played word (Scrabble, Crossword, Triwordz)

  • that overlaps with another word (Word Chain, Geography)

  • that includes at least one letter from multiple sets of letters (QuadWord)

  • that contains consecutive letters of the alphabet (Sequences)

  • that don’t share letters with previous words (Uncrash)

  • which haven’t been used before (Boggle)


Avoid making a word

The player must add letters one by one such that the letters added so far are always the beginning of a word but never a full word. (Ghost, Super Ghost)

Find a word

The player must identify a word/s among a set of letters, often in a grid (Word Search, Hex Words) or within another word (Kangaroo Words).

Fill an empty grid

Many word games use grids where the player must fill a grid with words according to rules. The rules determine how many letters the words must have and where words can be placed on the grid and in relation to other words.  Examples include

Transform a word

There are two types of goals for games that involve transforming words.

In the first, the player must transform a starting word into a target word, where each transformation must result in a valid word. The number of transformations needed will depend on the edit distance. Example rules for a transformation include

  • substituting one letter at a time (Doublets, Word Ping Pong)

  • adding or removing one letter at a time (Triplets)

  • removing and adding multiple letters at time while always leaving a consecutive set of letters (Syzygies)

In the second, the player must continue to make transformation to a starting word, until a valid word cannot be formed. Example rules for a mutation include

  • deleting one letter at a time (Shrink Words)

  • adding one letter at a time and then re-arranging the letters (Transaddtions)

  • removing one letter at a time and then re-arranging the letters (Transdeletions),

  • alternatively adding and removing one letter at a time (Insertion-Deletion Network)

  • adding one letter at a time to form interlocking words on a grid (Ragaman)

End game conditions

Like all games, there are conditions that end word games, with the player winning or losing the game. Word games end when the player has

  • found all words (Word Search)

  • obtained all words (Crossword, Hangman)

  • formed all words (Jarnac)

  • used all letters (Alphacross)

  • Reach or use a specific letter *Thanks to Matt Ham

  • no more moves

    • no remaining letters (Hangman, Scrabble)

    • no more possible words (Sinks)

  • given up, run out of time up or reached a points target

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