Game designer Sam Von Ehren has a problem: He knows he’s always going to play second fiddle.
“We live in the shadow of the crossword,” Von Ehren told Polygon in a recent phone interview.
The crossword in question isn’t any old crossword; it’s the New York Times crossword puzzle, which is an institution so renowned and revered that its longtime editor is a minor celebrity who was the focus of a 2006 documentary. In addition to the daily puzzle, and a crossword archive that goes back to 1993, the Times’ crossword section offers three daily logic puzzles — sudoku, KenKen, and Set — that are free for everyone.
In May 2018, the Times expanded the section — which requires a fee separate from that of a subscription to the newspaper itself, and is available on the web as well as on Android and iOS devices — with a subscriber-exclusive word game, Spelling Bee. The company soft-launched another one, Letter Boxed, in mid-January. Von Ehren said it is currently doing “better than we had hoped,” especially considering that so far, people have heard of the game primarily through word of mouth.
At the same time, putting something on the Times’ crossword page means it will get plenty of eyeballs. A month after debuting Spelling Bee, the company announced that it had topped 400,000 subscribers to the crossword section — twice as many as there were two years prior. (A crossword subscription costs $6.95 per month or $39.95 annually; there’s a half-price discount for people who are already print or digital Times subscribers.)
Spelling Bee and Letter Boxed are part of an effort to attract more crossword subscribers. A Times representative did not specifically respond to a question about whether any complaints about the subscription cost led the company to introduce games to the package. And in fairness, the aforementioned subscribership figure indicates that a lot of people were willing to pay for the crosswords alone. Instead, the digital games are meant to bring in a different audience by being more accessible than the crossword.
“We’re trying to make these new games that anyone can kind of come in and really get their feet wet [with], and then maybe they’ll also migrate to the crossword as they go,” said Von Ehren, who leads the Times’ internal Games Expansion team, which numbers about 30, as its only designer.
The two games feel like a good fit for the crossword section, which attracts a particular type of player: a well-read person looking for a mental challenge. Yet it’s mostly a coincidence that the Times’ first two games are both word games — that wasn’t the plan, according to Von Ehren. The gaming team spent most of last year prototyping approximately one new title every month, including a physics puzzler featuring a golf ball, but has found that language and logic games are the ones that tend to resonate with the Times’ audience.
It’s important, then, that while Spelling Bee and Letter Boxed are both word games, they each offer a different kind of experience and a unique challenge.
Spelling Bee features a seven-cell honeycomb — one in the center and six around it, each with a letter inside — and asks players to make as many words as they can with those seven letters. Every word must be at least four letters long, and must use the center letter. Von Ehren described it as “kind of an all-day thing that you come back to maybe three or four or five times in a day, when you think of more words.”
Letter Boxed takes place around, well, a box. There are three letters on each side, and players must connect them to make words at least three letters long. Letters on the same side cannot be used consecutively, and the final letter of each word becomes the first letter of the next word. The goal is to use all 12 letters in as few words as possible. “It’s a lot faster, it’s a much quicker hit, but you can kind of keep playing that too forever,” said Von Ehren.
Unlike the crossword, which has specific conventions and language quirks that may frustrate newcomers, the Times’ digital games rely only on the breadth of a player’s vocabulary. And Letter Boxed, in particular, is the antithesis of a crossword puzzle in terms of its openness: There’s only one correct letter for each box in a crossword, but the ingenious design of Letter Boxed allows for an endless variety of solutions that touch all 12 letters. Clicking on “Yesterday’s Answers” reveals a box that the game pointedly calls “Our Solution,” not the solution.
That said, there’s one element of all this that doesn’t quite add up. The Times wants to bring in new crossword subscribers by expanding the section with games that appeal to people who might not be interested in crosswords, which makes sense. But how can those people give Letter Boxed and Spelling Bee a shot if the games are locked behind the subscription?
This isn’t lost on the gaming team. “There’s definitely different avenues we’ve been pursuing,” said Von Ehren, noting that the Times offered Spelling Bee to non-subscribers during the holiday season.
“As the future goes and we unveil more and more games, we’ll probably be a little bit more explicit in our efforts to do that kind of thing,” he continued. “But I think for now, we’re kind of just taking it slow and steady, and getting everything in place.”
Sure, the titular puzzle will always overshadow everything else in the Times’ crossword section. But Spelling Bee and Letter Boxed are fantastic word games, and they won’t be able to woo new players unless they get a chance to shine in the sun. Speaking of which: We solved the Letter Boxed puzzle above within four words — how about you?