Upwords: Build Your Tower of Babel

There’s a huge market for word games on iOS. My family is addicted to Letterpress, and my mother is having a not-so-secret-anymore affair with Words With Friends (sorry Mom!). That being said, despite its excellence, Letterpress and I aren’t exactly mutually exclusive, and if I see another hot word game app whilst I’m goofing around in a coffee shop, I might give her a shot.

And I can’t lie to you guys: Upwords has caught my eye. I’m a big Scrabble fan (disclaimer: I’ve never played the traditional Upwords game). I love the board game but have yet to play a Scrabble-like word game on iOS that I think works well. After all, the trappings of Scrabble are the trappings of a board game and I see no reason a digital display should be bound by the same rules. But I loved the twist Upwords brings to the classic game of stackable letters.

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How To Play

Scrabble. With stacks.

Scrabble. With stacks.

Upwords is reminiscent of Scrabble. Place letters vertically or horizontally along a board and make sure they intersect with other words on the way. When one letter touches multiple others vertically or horizontally, you’ll need to have words branching off in every direction. We all know how this works. You collect points for each letter you play and unlike Scrabble, you don’t get a set amount of points based on the vowel or consonant you use. You don’t get any more points for a “z” then you do for an “a”. Points are consistent.

Once you stack new letters on top of played letters, you start getting points. A regular letter is worth two points but a stacked letter can be worth much more. You can stack letters five times, and each stack brings additional points. The game ends when all the letters have been played or when three turns are passed (you can also forfeit mid-game if you’re one of those people). The winner is obviously the one with the most points.

The instructions are very clear.

The instructions are very clear.

The question I’m sure you have is whether or not this game is any fun. Let me be clear: Upwords is a lot of fun. I enjoy playing it. If you’re into word games or you like Scrabble, I can safely say you’re going to dig Upwords. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think the developers have any work to do. As an app, I really do think that Upwords needs some tweaking here and there.

Going Digital

Board games have, in my opinion, a tough time making the transition from their real-life counterparts to the digital realm. Screens don’t function the way that the world does. I’ve written about it before and probably will again, but the way we interact with touch-screen devices has been written about by many people who are much smarter than me a whole lot of times. To sum it up: we don’t interact with our iPhones the same way we do with a board game. So why does Upwords feel this much like a board game?

Just like Scrabble. Cheating is way harder on iPad.

Just like Scrabble, cheating is way harder on iPad.

Putting a letter on the board means I have to put my finger on a letter and slide it across the board until I get it in the tile I want it in. And replacing a letter requires grabbing the original from the board and sliding it back into the tray. All this tile manipulation is kind of monotonous.

And the board is huge. It’s fine on an iPad or iPad mini but on an iPhone, the game zooms in whenever you start making a move. Despite the screen’s Retina resolution, there’s just too many tiles to make out on a 3.5″ or 4″ screen. Again, the problem goes back to the game’s ties to its non-digital past. It’s hard to slide letters onto tiles when there’s 100 tiles on the screen; zooming it in alleviates that issue a little bit but it unfortunately doesn’t address the core problem.

You can thankfully turn the Vista-like warnings off.

You can thankfully turn the Vista-like warnings off.

Fixing this requires going all the way back to the drawing board and ditching pretty much every part of the game’s current design except the concept — which, to reiterate, is a lot of fun and a good brain-tease. Just because it’s a board game, it doesn’t have to look like its real-life counterpart. Again, look at Letterpress as a great example of digital letter games done right. I’m not saying Upwords should look like Letterpress, but that the developer should take some notes. Instead of wasting so much of the screen on graphically representing a real board, focus only on the letters. Let us tap on letters to manipulate them.

Undoubtedly, it’s easier to go this route with design. It’s easy for most people to pick up Upwords and know how to play because it’s “like” the real thing. That benefit quickly outweighs the fact that it’s just not an optimal experience for anybody.

Pass It Along

The menus are just bizarre to me.

The menus are just bizarre to me.

Let’s talk about the rest of the app. Upwords is really easy to set up: I logged in with my Facebook account on my iPad mini, and when I set it up on my iPhone I was notified (thanks to iCloud) that I had already set up an account on another device. This is how games should handle logging in across multiple devices (if they require it).

The menus are a little odd to me. If it were up to me, there would be one button to start a new game, followed by a choice to play locally or online, with the details (such as “How many local players?” and “Do you want to play against a random online opponent or a friend?”) handled from there. Beneath the new game button should be a list of current games (both local and online).

That’s not exactly how it’s handled by Upwords. There are separate menus for local games and online games. To see what games you are currently playing online, you have to go into that menu (same with local games). So your list of current games are segregated into two different menus, which makes navigation more complicated than it needs to be. Beyond that, although I’m not sure why, you can also choose to play a one-player game in the menus as well.

Upwords and Out

I have to admit, I’ve been spoiled by better word games than Upwords. The concept for this is great, but the design and the interface frankly need some work. The potential is huge, and with a redesign, I think this game could be one of the best word games on iOS. Stacking letters is frankly addicting and a great twist on the classic Scrabble game that we all know and love.

That being said, there is a group of users that will appreciate a traditional experience like this. And beyond that, it’s really nice to play a game with friends and pass an iPad around. This is the only word game on iOS that I’ve played that lets you play with friends like that, and for a non-traditional games night, this is an easy and useful game for many.


Summary

Upwords is a great twist on Scrabble. Fans of the board game will enjoy this, but the app suffers from being a little too close to its traditional brethren.

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