I've been greatly enjoying Letterpress on the iPad lately.  It's a word game where the goal isn't just to make long words, but to make strategic words that capture territory.  Played asynchronously on a 5x5 letter grid, two players take turns making words and claiming the letters in that word, turning them into their color.  Using an opponent's claimed letter in your own word claims that letter for yourself instead, changing it from your opponent's color to your own-- unless that letter is locked.  A letter gets locked if it's completely surrounded by other letters of the same color, and unlocked if any of those surrounding letters gets stolen.  The first controlling the most letters when all of them have been claimed wins the game.

Wired published a story today discussing whether or not Letterpress has been solved.  Of course it hasn't, because the letters are random every game which completely changes the set of legal moves.  But a noted game designer has tweeted the "strategies" he's discovered that have turned him off the game:

"play territory not words.  Expand out.  Lock vowels, extenders (ER,ED,ES,LY).  Kill when few grays left & winning"

This is not rocket science.  These are, in fact, the same strategies I adopted independently.  They're obvious.  Using them doesn't make the game any less entertaining.  There are two bigger problems, however.

1. The board is truly random.  This means you can have a Q with no U, or a board with 4 Xs.  These make for less interesting games.  The former is a particular problem because it makes ending the game through anything but a forfeit almost impossible.  If I could ask for one improvement from the designer, it would be to enforce some heuristics about what makes for the best letter grids.

2. The looming specter of cheating.  It would be trivial, for instance, to use a program like TEA to generate a list of all possible words on a Letterpress grid.  The longest possible word isn't necessarily the best play, but having all possible moves at your disposal would create a significant advantage.  If you're playing against friends, this is easily solved by the implied social contract not to cheat.  But God help you if you accept random partners.

Letterpress is fast, tactical, aesthetically pleasing, and fun.  Recommended!


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