What happened next: Wordle, the five-letter, five-minute festival of fun

Remember last winter? It was cold, dark and all of your Christmas plans were cancelled because of the Omicron wave. But there was a silver lining: it was the winter of Wordle.

Every day, there was a new word to guess, and players got just six chances. At a time when many people were still self-isolating, sharing the cute Rubik’s cube-style grid of your results was a way to connect with friends and family. Players also appreciated the fact that – unlike most other online games – it encouraged restraint.

For Josh Wardle, who originally wrote the game to amuse his girlfriend, Wordle’s meteoric rise was all a bit much. The Welsh software engineer, who is based in Brooklyn, said it didn’t “feel great” that the game had gone viral. But, inevitably perhaps, it was acquired at the end of January by the New York Times for an undisclosed seven-figure sum.

In the 11 months since, the New York Times says “tens of millions” of people have played the game. After using Wardle’s original list of five-letter words for most of the year, in November, the Times announced it had appointed a dedicated editor, Tracy Bennett, to make the game harder. Bennett, who started out writing puzzles for an online knitting magazine, is a self-described puzzle fanatic who says she once begged her schoolteachers to give extra spelling tests, and who dreams about “matching, sorting and arranging … small insignificant things”. She is curating the wordlist using “fun, accessible, lively and varied” vocabulary, but the biggest change is a ban on the plural forms of three- or four-letter words that end in “es” or “s”.

The game has garnered a number of celebrity fans, from Kamala Harris to Camilla, the Queen Consort

In its brief lifespan, the game has garnered a number of celebrity fans, from the US vice-president, Kamala Harris – who described it as a “brain cleanser” and revealed she starts with the word “notes” – to Camilla, the Queen Consort, who told British Vogue that she plays it with her granddaughter. It even earned a comparison to James Joyce from Ireland’s ambassador to the US: he described Ulysses as “Wordle for serious readers”.

The game has also spawned countless imitators, from Nerdle (using numbers) to Worldle (countries) to Heardle (snippets of popular music); games that offer a spin on the original format, such as Wordl (which you can play more than once a day) and Quordle (which asks you to guess four words at once); and niche options such as Taylordle (Taylor Swift trivia), Gymdle (gymnastics-themed words) and Lewdle (swear words).

Wardle was included on Time magazine’s list of 100 influential people in the summer, but has otherwise deliberately faded from view. He refuses interviews and posts rarely on social media; you’ll barely find a picture of him on the internet. His father has described him as “a very private kind of person”. He remains a software engineer at MSCHF, a Brooklyn-based art collective, which he joined at the start of 2022.

Wordle started 2022 as a grassroots game hosted on a free website and shared by word of mouth. It ends the year a global staple – as familiar and every day a puzzle as the crossword or sudoku.