Stranger than Documentary

Do the pips mean something? Are they, like, Hebrew niqqudim?

Wordle. If you haven’t played it, you’ve definitely been irritated by its scoring rubrics cluttering up your social media pages. Josh Wardle sold his original game to the New York Times for about a billion dollars, but not before it spawned even more imitators. There was even a board game adaptation. It was garbage.

Peter C. Hayward’s version is not garbage. When last we saw Hayward, he was helping us kill our alternate selves via That Time You Killed Me. Now he’s back with Fiction, a version of Wordle that captures the spirit of the original. Rather than slavishly reproducing the thing, he’s transformed it into a game of panicked guesswork, dueling wordsmiths, and some well-placed lies.

THE WORD WAS GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD... that's "God," not "good," oh no, maybe it should be GAWWWWWWWD but then it looks trashy

It begins with a word.

Look, do we really need to do the rules thing? We don’t tend to regurgitate rulebooks around these parts anyway, but I have a feeling you know the gist. Five-letter word. A guess. Clues that let you know whether each letter is in the right slot, another slot, or not in the word at all. It’s Wordle, all right?

What makes Fiction interesting is where it departs from the original. First of all, one player is basically the computer. This is the librarian, the one who picks a word at the outset, a simple task made even easier thanks to a tidy deck of pages from books in the public domain. It’s as straightforward as drawing a card and selecting a highlighted word. Yellow words are a little easier than red words in that they don’t have any repeat letters. Voila.

But the librarian’s role isn’t quite as bland as you might expect. Sure, they take the group’s guess and spit it back out with clues. That’s the easy part. The tough part is coming up with a lie. Lie. Librarian. Lie-brarian. Good one. Out of the five clues the lie-brarian passes back to the guessers, they’re required to make a single alteration. An R that isn’t in the word is suddenly marked as present, but in another slot. A critical L is dropped altogether. The essential Q is… okay, you get it.

There’s an art to playing the lie-brarian. Or perhaps it’s only a technique. After a few guesses, the lie-brarian’s deceptions begin to compound. If this weren’t such a devoted adaptation of Wordle, I might even call it an illustration of the liar’s quandary. Keeping everything straight becomes truly difficult, especially since the guessers are aware that they’re being fed the occasional snippet of fiction. Their main tool is their extra guesses. They have ten in all, made under time pressure so they can’t spend the next eight hours mulling over every possibility, but it’s enough to check previous answers against new information.

If that isn’t enough, they also have fact/fiction tokens. These let the guessers check a single letter and its attendant clue to determine whether that pairing is accurate or not. There are only three of the things, so it’s best to not waste them, and they can only be used on the most recent word. The result is rather clever, a mix of deduction and calling bluffs.

Somebody can correct me if I'm wrong, but blue/yellow is better than green/yellow for color-blindness, right?

Clues. Including false leads.

I’m not actually sure the lie-brarian can win, at least not with a group of devoted Wordlers. Nor, really, are there any other wrinkles to consider. Fiction is a slight game, a trifle, the sort of thing you pull out to please those who are still maintaining their daily Wordle messages and cheering each other on. Those who aren’t still enmeshed in the craze will likely find it as disposable as Wordle’s trillion other spin-offs.

For all that, it isn’t a knockoff. I’ve written previously about adaptation, and how board games often stumble in the process of transferring a video game to tabletop. Too often, they get hung up on what made the video game work mechanically and forget why people play board games. That’s what happened with Hasbro’s iteration of Wordle. It was Wordle. Just Wordle. Wordle, full stop. But nobody plays Wordle as a party game. They play it as multiplayer solitaire, a shared activity where they later compare scores, taken at their own pace. That’s the beautiful simplicity of Wordle. It doesn’t need to be a board game.

Fiction, on the other hand, needs to be a board game. It requires the agency and tricksiness of a human mind to bend its clues. By making that alteration, it becomes the shared experience that Wordle: Except A Board Game could never be. It allows its guessers to bounce ideas off each other, to scramble words out of their constituent parts, to point out a mistake right before a word is turned in. There are plenty of little details that make it work, right down to the time limit. The result, paradoxically, is a game that feels like Wordle despite not being Wordle, because it reframes what made Wordle interesting. Now, though, you’re working with your friends to defeat an antagonistic force that doesn’t much like it when you figure out the correct vowels too early. By raising the ceiling on its bandwidth, it allows a group of word lovers to work together and still struggle to solve the puzzle. It allows Wordle to be collaborative and exciting.

or, a crazy person's dream journal

Ah, a cipher.

Like I said earlier, it’s a trifle. But it is a good one. It’s easy enough to play with grandma, at least if grandma does crosswords, but tricky enough to occupy a group for twenty minutes. That’s all it needs to be. Like Wordle, Fiction is, above all else, digestible.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on May 10, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hey Dan, a minor addition: Peter Haywood cited a more direct predecessor than Wordle in his BGG design diary – Fibble ( by Koni and Richard Garfield. I was very glad to learn about Fibble from the diary. It introduced the invalid clue for each guess which adds a logic puzzle to the word puzzle. In Fibble invalid clue the is randomly rather than maliciously chosen, and I expect the time limit also has a big effect on the feel of playing Fiction.

    Thank you for all your great game criticism!

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