The ancestry of the hit game Wordle

A modern edition of the game Mastermind, a board-and-peg version of the word game craze.

A modern edition of the game Mastermind, a board-and-peg version of the word game craze.

Ella Whalen, Staff Writer

The word guessing game Wordle, named after its creator Josh Wardle, swept across social media starting in December 2021, receiving over 1.2 million daily players merely a month after it first enabled sharing to Twitter. For the uninitiated, each player receives the same five-letter word to guess each day, and six guesses to get it right. After each guess, letters that appear in the word but in a different place are highlighted yellow, while those in the right place are highlighted green. Josh Wardle was not the first to create such a puzzle, however, with such guessing games having a lengthy history.

The earliest record I could find of such a guessing game dates to the 19th century with Bulls and Cows, a game on pencil and paper for two or more players. The gameplay is largely similar, with each player choosing a word for the other(s) to guess. A ‘cow’ is the same as a yellow highlight, while a ‘bull’ is the same as a green one. Notably, the traditional way to play is with four-letter words, or even with four-digit numbers, though players are free to choose any length of word or number so long as the rest agree to it. The opponent doesn’t tell you which letters are correct, either, so the game often needs more than six guesses to solve.

Bulls and Cows was later popularized in the 1970s by the board game Mastermind, using the same concept with six colors of pegs in a pegboard. This version is strict about having four pegs per code, but nothing against the same color showing up more than once—other versions tend to restrict codes to isograms, or codes where each number/letter only appears once. 

A game show also aired with a similar concept starting in 1987, under the name Lingo. The two teams on the show played the same word at the same time (randomly drawn by a computer, which was notable for the time), but also received the first letter of said word. This was the first version to have a gold standard of five-letter words, but interestingly, amid the other rules against guessing words not in the dictionary or words not matching the letters given, if a word longer than five letters was guessed but the first five letters still made a word (like ‘comma’ in ‘command’), that shorter word was still a valid guess.

Even Wordle itself is older than its viralization. Wardle originally prototyped the game in 2013, with its main difference to the current version being its lack of daily puzzles, instead letting players continuously receive new words. The current version was published in October 2021, with its only change before its spread being its ability to share one’s score directly to Twitter. With its recent purchase by The New York Times, future changes may be in order, but likely only to adapt it to the paper’s existing digital word game system, as its sweet and simple gameplay is a pleasure for the word game players of the world.