Like many longtime iPhone owners and game aficionados, I had a healthy obsession with Words With Friends years back. When it was still fresh and new—well, as fresh and new as an obvious Scrabble knock-off can be—I juggled several games at all times, savoring each close victory over a colleague or pal and simmering over the constant losses to my wife. I even happily bought the game again on iPad simply for the privilege of a larger board view.
But like most gaming addictions, especially those with unoriginal origins, the spark faded. I pared down my active matches, started ignoring invitations, and eventually deleted the app entirely. That was back in 2011, and I’m surely not alone in losing the thrill over time. More than 100 of my Facebook friends have played Words With Friends, and all but a few of them last competed “over two weeks ago,” says the app—which in many cases likely means months or years.
But there’s a new Words With Friends in town. No, really: It’s called “New Words With Friends,” and it launched on October 9 on the App Store, replacing the previous version and putting a fresh face on the experience with added features. Is it compelling enough to pull a long-lapsed player back into the word-building fray, or is it really just more of the same?
New Words With Friends isn’t like New Coke: This isn’t a dramatic shift in approach, but rather the same core formula with a fresh coat of paint. The UI is much sleeker than the years-old one that I recall, and anyone who’s played Draw Something 2 or other competitive Zynga games of late will get a familiar feel from the menus. Irritatingly, the game isn’t optimized for the iPhone 6, despite launching weeks after its release, so everything looks a little fuzzy on Apple’s new hardware.
Beyond that, however, the actual game experience remains unchanged. It’s still a slightly rejiggered version of Scrabble played asynchronously with online pals, challenging you to place your letter tiles strategically on the board to make words and maximize your points tally. Finding your friends is easier than it was way back in the day, thanks to the aforementioned Facebook integration, plus you can still match up with random players when active pals are in short supply.
Interestingly, New Words With Friends adds a new Community Match feature, which lets you flip through player listings to pick your opponents. You’ll see a profile image, username, and skill ranking, and you can even use location services to try and pinpoint nearby players, as well as sort by gender. The latter features almost give this version a Tinder-like appeal, and the possibility of that getting really creepy really quickly seems inevitable. Luckily, you can turn the feature off so you don’t turn up in others’ results. (I did. Quickly.)
And if you really don’t want to mingle with random word fiends, New Words With Friends adds one other crucial new feature: The ability to play computer-controlled opponents, even while offline. To better simulate the sensation of playing a real-life foe, the computer takes a couple of minutes to execute its turn—and each match seems to pit you against a differently-skilled A.I. player, as I found myself quickly dominated in one match and comfortably ahead in another.
New? Not really
All told, New Words With Friends is much like old Words With Friends, albeit shinier and with a couple added options. But did we really need a new app for this? You get the sense that Zynga is running out of ideas after spinning the “With Friends” brand into a few other avenues in recent areas—including Hanging, Scramble, Gems, and Running—with none matching Words’ phenomenal success.
Also, there is one negative takeaway to the New version: It’s a free, ad-supported app that replaces the previous versions, and anyone who owned the earlier premium release is supposed to have ads disabled in the current app. That’s been the case for many folks I’ve seen comment online, but not for me—obnoxious full-screen ads appear after each turn, and there’s currently no option to pay a fee to kill the ads. Perhaps it’s because I hadn’t played for so long that I didn’t have a Zynga account synced up anymore, but that rubbed me the wrong way, having paid back when.
Does New Words With Friends have the power to reignite the letter-pairing passion of old fans? Possibly. It’s the same game, albeit in a much glossier package, with more ways to find opponents (either real or fake). It was nice to jump back in for a bit, like meeting an old friend for drinks and reminiscing about the glory days, but I didn’t feel the strong desire to stick with it for long. Luckily, it’s a free download, so you have little to lose—aside from brainy battles with your buddies—by trying to restart your own Words fixation.