Wordle was a gift. Released quietly near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the free-to-play word game that offered just one puzzle per day took some 200 days to gather critical mass. In December 2021, it hit the mainstream, with players coating social media and shared text threads in tiles of green and gold. The game’s simplicity, and its subtle yet compelling challenge, granted us a much-needed shared cultural experience. We might not have all agreed on when or how to reopen our public schools, but at least we could admit that Wednesday’s double-L word puzzle was a real pain in the ass.
Wordle: The Party Game takes that tiny sliver of joy, hammers it out into a roughly 8-by-10-inch cardboard box, slaps a barcode onto the back, and sends it out to retail shelves around the world. It is a direct translation of the digital experience for two to four players, just without the privacy of hiding your blunders from the world. It is hangman with a bag of colored tiles and a “host” who wanders the room passing judgment on your guesses in real time. To call it a party game is laughable. It’s about as much fun as taking a standardized test.
There is nothing functionally wrong with this game, mind you. It re-creates the experience of playing the original game perfectly, right down to the kerning between the letters of its font. It includes robust little tablet-like sideboards, decent dry-erase markers, and a paper shield to hide your work. There’s even a handy list of words, from ABATE to YEARN, to help hosts who lack inspiration when the time comes for them to guide the group into the next round of guesses.
But the design adds almost nothing to the experience. I had hoped that the much-ballyhooed team-play variant would spice things up, at least, but its team-based elements are functionally nonexistent. “Team up!” if you have more than four players, it says, seemingly making a concession to the dearth of components in the box. The “fast” mode and the “timed” mode are only just barely supported by the design or the bits. Just go faster, the manual says, offering up a winner-takes-all point system for the former and the suggestion of a 60- or 90-second timed round for the latter. They don’t even bother to toss in a sand timer.
Overall, the $19.99 product just feels lazy. Maybe that’s why no individual designer has taken credit for its creation. It’s a cut-and-paste job, start to finish.
Guessing games are not new, of course. In July, Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland made that painfully clear by tracing the genre’s origins back more than a century to Bulls and Cows, a number-guessing game so old that it is now officially part of the public domain. In 1955, Jotto innovated on the format by switching from numbers to words, creating what is — in retrospect — a head-to-head version of Wordle for two players.
But the reason that guessing games have been around for more than a century is because they are a fertile ground for innovation. Modern classics in the genre include Codenames (currently on sale for $12.99), an evocative guessing game that encourages parallel thinking and scales well — even with groups of eight or more. Decrypto (currently $24.99), one of Polygon’s 22 best modern board games, takes things a step further by adding multiple associated words to the mix. It also throws in a fun standee that uses a red filter to hide words from the opposing team. The Mind (currently $9.74), on the other hand, distills the guessing game genre down to its barest essentials, somehow straddling the line between a Ghostbusters-style electroshock therapy session and a tarot reading. Hell, search your grandparents’ house long enough and I assure you that a copy of Mastermind is sitting in there somewhere, with all its glorious chunky plastic bits to lay out on the table.
I’m not upset, but I am disappointed.
This could have been an opportunity to use the guts of Wordle to create something special, a tabletop experience that makes sense only on the tabletop — an experience that uses the mechanics of a game that everyone knows as a springboard to make something even more rich and exciting. Instead, we have this lost opportunity that is, nonetheless, currently wedged into the top slot on Amazon’s board game section.
Somewhere in a board room — maybe in a shared text message thread — you can almost hear the echoes of a struggle between the designers and the marketers at Hasbro. “We could use this to make something special,” someone says. “No,” says the marketing team, tossing in a thumbs-down emoji. “Just put the game in a box and get it on the shelves in time for next Christmas.”
Wordle: The Party Game is here. It sucks. And it’s selling like hotcakes. Happy New Year.
Wordle: The Party Game was reviewed using a retail copy provided by Hasbro and New York Times Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.