Letterpress (iPhone Game Review)

Letterpress in playThe new iPhone game Letterpress was just released last weekend, but it attracted enough players so quickly that people are wondering if it’s responsible for overloading Game Center. I wouldn’t be surprised: Game Center never gets much attention, and it’s an easily-ignored option in most apps that use it, so one big push may overload it. Personally, I think the fact that Letterpress requires Game Center is a major strike against it: The system feels a little sloppy, I didn’t like agreeing to the EULA for yet another information-gathering service, and as we just saw, the game is now at the mercy of hiccups in a service it doesn’t control.

Despite all that, Letterpress is worth checking out for its clever approach to word games. Players make words from the letters of a 5×5 grid, and each tile becomes “owned” by whoever used it last. But if a player manages to own a tile and every one it touches, it cannot be captured even if their opponent uses it. The unique thing about this system is that letters can be used without being adjacent, but the system of ownership and protection creates a map of shifting territories. You need to create a word not just from the 25 letters available, but using the specific letters that will most help your position. Another thing I appreciate is that the game rewards long words, which means that they’re almost always familiar to the players. It feels like a more natural use of language than word games that require you to memorize words like “QAT” and “XU” in order to be competitive.

The dark blue tiles are protected, as they are surrounded by light blue ones. The blue player is close to victory.

Also, of course, the quantity and positions of the letters change from game to game. A game with multiple ‘E’s, ‘R’s, and ‘S’s available plays very different from one with lots of ‘Q’s and ‘Z’s.  You’re never allowed to play a word if it has been used before, or if it is entirely contained within a previous word. This means that variations of words might come up repeatedly, but you’re forced to move forward without getting stuck in a repeating loop.

The app is well designed, but bare bones. That Game Center integration, for example, lets the game match you up to network opponents with little effort on the developers’ part, but adds a few seconds of delay every time you launch the app to play your next move. It has a clean interface that makes it easy to play, though I miss features like chatting. And given that this game works best when played quickly back and forth, this game screams out for options such as time limits and in-person games shared on one phone. (The app itself is free to try, and 99 cents for the “full” version which allows multiple games at once. The first time your game gets hung up because an opponent stopped responding for a while, you’ll realize how vital that multiple-game option is.)

I haven’t had any issues like the network trouble other people allege, but I have run into one annoying bug: Ever since a player resigned against me, the Letterpress icon on my home screen has told me I have one game waiting for my move. Even turning the phone off doesn’t make that go away.

As for the game itself, the beginning and middle are great (other than my aforementioned wish for time limits – this really is a game that demands to be played quickly). The endgame can be frustrating, though. Whenever all tiles are claimed, whichever player owns the most has won. Since the score tends to seesaw back and forth with every move, you’ll want to make sure you leave enough tiles neutral to keep your opponent from ending it. This is clever in theory, since your territorial considerations now include which tiles you need to leave untouched. In practice, though, that means that if players are fairly evenly matched, neither dares open an endgame opportunity for the other. It can be obvious who is going to win long before it becomes viable for that player to claim a victory.

Letterpress has the potential to become a great game, but it isn’t there yet. I’m not sure if the developers plan to keep adding to it, or if they consider it to be complete. Either way, though, it’s fast and free to try out, so it’s easy to recommend that you give it a chance. As long as you’re willing to give Game Center a chance, too.

Grade: B


Quick Update:One week later, I am still enjoying this, and have learned to play so that my issues with the endgame aren’t as significant. I also managed to get rid of that extraneous notification about a waiting game by deleting that one from the history of played games. I’ve run into enough other issues to reaffirm my belief that this feels rushed and incomplete: After the multi-second delay for the app to log you in to Game Center, there is another pause before your games are updated. Since there is no visual clue as to whether this is still loading, and also no hint about whether it is your turn in games other than the one you’re currently looking at, playing multiple games is frustrating. When a game ends due to my opponent’s move, it is moved immediately into the app’s list of my previously played games, and I won’t notice it ended unless I think to look for it. And this morning, I finally did experience several hours in which my games wouldn’t update even though I knew one of my opponents had moved.

My basic conclusion is unchanged: This is an addictive but clunky implementation of a clever game that would be best played in person.

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  1. Check out “SpeedWords Arena” for the iPad. It’s the first massively multiplayer word game on iOS, and you never have to wait for your turn to move (or sign up with Game Center).

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