War with Friends

As anyone who has spent any time on Facebook — a cohort that, at last count, includes 92% of the human population of Earth, including pre-technological hunter-gatherer tribes in central Africa and your mom — knows, Words With Friends is one of the most popular games in the history of the Internet.  And, like most great success stories, around it is an undying mystery.

No, not “How did they manage to blatantly rip off Scrabble and not get sued into a debtor’s prison?”. The answer to that question is not the solution to a mystery, but rather the result of a complicated series of legal maneuverings designed to favor start-up technology over old people who own factories. The enigma that I’m discussing here is “Why am I so bad at Words with Friends when I am a self-described ‘word nerd’ and am forever correcting peoples’ grammar on social media?”  (Please note that the ‘I’ in this sentence actually refers to you.  I would rather have a hot poker applied to my gizzard than to describe myself as a ‘word nerd’, and I think people who correct grammar on social media are the moral equivalent of Klansmen.)

As readers of this website, all six of them, are well aware, I am in the business of writing ironic humor and offering to make spice mixes for people.  That business is not profitable, however, so I have recently switched to the business of helping others.  You, for example, depressingly self-described ‘word nerd’:  you are bad at Words with Friends while I, a man who has come to believe that being proud of your good vocabulary is an affectation largely confined to libertarians and evangelical atheists, am extraordinarily good at it.  Based on a survey conducted by my attorneys, Raffler-Stinthobbler Partners of East Chicago, I am currently ranked the 215th best player in the history of eternity, ranking behind only Yoon Sang-Ho of South Korea, Hermanetta DeCarsons of Greers Ferry, Arkansas, the pitching staff of the Milwaukee Brewers, and 200 other people.  My Words With Friends skills far exceed those of Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus Christ, and Adolf Hitler, to name but three people I have defeated in multiple games.  How, you may ask, is this possible?  Why am I so great and you so puny?

Since I want to help you, I will tell you the answer.  It is an answer so obvious that once you hear it, you will probably kill yourself by jumping in front of a commuter rail train in shame, which will not only make my telling you the secret rather pointless since you will be too dead to employ it, but will also inconvenience any number of innocent office workers, so please don’t.  The answer is that you are playing Words with Friends all wrong.  You think it is a word game.  And it is not.  It is a war game.

That’s right!  Here you are, Mr. and/or Ms. Clever Dick Who Was A Better Speller Than Anyone In Fifth Grade.  Winning at Words with Friends has very little to do with one’s vocabulary; in fact, that can actually be a detriment.  One could be a great WwF player and not even have a particularly strong grasp of the English language.  There are a lot of actual word games you could play to show off your bolshy word skillz, but this is not one of them.  Structurally, the mechanic of WwF — going all the way back to the mathematical analysis done by the original creators of Scrabble — resembles that of a war game much more than a world game.  The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can start emulating Yoon Sang-Ho, the pride of Dangjin!  Think about it:

  • AREA CONTROL.  The key to a successful game of Words with Friends is not offense, but defense.  It’s about limiting your opponent’s access to the high-point-total areas of the board, even if that means sacrificing it with a low-scoring word yourself.   In other words, it’s about seizing the high ground.  If you can restrict the number of places your opponent can move, you can win the game, regardless of the words you can make out of your hand.
  • DEPLOYMENT OF FORCES.  Letters aren’t letters.  They’re essential resource management and force deployment.  Thinking of the letters are elements of words can be restrictive, as you begin to think along the lines of word-building.  But making a long word only pays off if you make it long enough for area control (above) or if you use your whole rack; otherwise, it’s just spreading your troops along a thin line with no support and plenty of chances for your opponent to break through.  A clustered block of high-scoring letters — in other words, a deployment of a small number of high-powered elite troops instead of a long line of infantry — not only pays off in points scored, but also in restricting your opponent’s ability to maneuver.
  • TROOP STRENGTH.  The letters are soldiers, see?  Have we established that?  The one-point letters are your pawns, your scrub-ass cannon-fodder, your infantry grunts.  The 3-point letters are cavalry or tanks or helicopters.  Qs, Zs and Xs are, I dunno, jet fighters.  Or OGREs.  Whatever you like.  But you’re not just using your own as troops to deploy; you’re considering them in a resource management sense, with intelligence being critical — you keep track of how many of these high-ranking units have been used so far, so that you’ll have a better idea of what the enemy is capable of.

So, there you have it!  I hope that this simple trick will help you become a big winner at Words with Friends, all at the low, low cost of reframing one of the most beloved, family-friendly, non-confrontational board games in history as a violent, brutal military confrontation.  In future columns, I will teach you how to make Monopoly more enjoyable by literally impoverishing your opponents and reducing them to homelessness, and how to win easily at chess by jamming the king in your opponent’s eye.


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