Video Games

Should You Be Playing Wordle on “Hard Mode”?

A debate.

A Wordle grid.

Line 1: TOUGH. The letter O has a green background, the other letters gray.

Line 2: HEAVY. The letter E has a yellow background, the other letters gray.

Line 3: BEAST. The letters E and S have a yellow background, the other letters gray.

Line 4: MODES. All the letters have a green background.
Illustration by Slate.

Marissa Martinelli: So, Lili. You’re playing Wordle. I’m playing Wordle. At times it feels as though the entire internet is playing Wordle, a game so popular that the New York Times paid seven figures to acquire it.

But we’re not all playing the same Wordle, it seems. Lately I’ve been playing the word-guessing game in “Hard Mode,” which you can toggle on by going into the settings in the top right of the Wordle screen. Hard Mode stipulates that “Any revealed hints must be used in subsequent guesses”—that is, if your first guess contains a K and it’s yellow (meaning it’s the correct letter, but in the wrong spot), you must use a K in any subsequent guesses. If your first guess contains a K and it’s green (meaning it’s the correct letter in the correct spot), it’s locked in for the rest of the game: All your future guesses in that game must use a K in that spot.

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That’s pretty different from regular Wordle, where you can guess any five-letter word you want at any time to help you arrive at the correct answer. I’ve found that plenty of people I know don’t play Wordle on Hard Mode but still play by Hard Mode rules anyway, repeating the same letters from guess to guess. But Hard Mode eliminates the possibility of a Hail Mary if you’re stumped! After the first round, you can’t throw out just any word to try to narrow down your options.

Lili, tell me: How does this experience compare to playing classic Wordle? Am I masochist for finding this way more fun?

Lili Loofbourow: You’re not! Or maybe you are, but for good reasons. The pleasure of Wordle is—it seems to me—the joy of mild but unrelenting constraints. (Constraints that you can seamlessly brag about your particular approach to solving by publishing your results as an emoji grid.) That you can only play once a day, that it’s only five letters, that you only get six tries—these facts are foundational. But so is the fact that Wordle doesn’t ask much of you: It’s a small but manageable daily challenge that will not try to suck you in (like social media) or stump you or eat up your time (like a crossword). I don’t think I understood this at first. Being more of a binger myself, I found a Wordle knockoff that lets you play as many times as you want and sort of preferred it. When I sent it to a friend who’s a Wordle devotee, she refused to even open it. The fact that you could play as many times as you wanted to seriously dented the pleasure she took in it.

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[Read: Before You Share Your Wordle Results, Read This]

All that said—Marissa, I didn’t even know there WAS a Hard Mode, and when you explained the Hard Mode rules to me, I realized I’d basically been playing that way myself without realizing it. Not out of any sense of badassery, mind you—but out of a conservative gambler’s approach to the thing. I thought (wrongly, I see now) that Hard Mode was easier and less risky! I cling to the possibility of solving a Wordle as quickly as possible, so the speculator in me couldn’t bear the idea of making a wrong guess on purpose.

So when you explained Hard Mode to me, I decided to try it the “easy” way and wow! Yes it’s more workmanlike, but it really does make a difference.

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Martinelli: You’re right about the constraints: I started to enjoy Wordle much more when I stopped trying to game the system or optimize anything. I used to play in regular mode and had two go-to words to start—ADIEU and then SPORT—to knock out all the vowels and some of the more common consonants right away. I’ve found hard mode, paradoxically, more freeing in its imposed limitations: I use whatever word comes to mind for the first guess, and then whatever luck I have at first I’m stuck with for subsequent rounds.

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I was all ready to come in here and say that Hard Mode isn’t actually that much harder, just a different way to play. But then Friday’s puzzle really was hard in hard mode!

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A Wordle grid.

Line 1: SPEND. The letters E and D have a yellow background, the other letters gray.

Line 2: CODER. The letters O and D have a green background, E a yellow background, the other letters gray.

Line 3: MODEL. The letters O and D have a green background, E a yellow background, the other letters gray.

Line 4: DODGE. All the letters have a green background.
New York Times
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After the second or third guess, I would’ve liked to use FIGHT just to eliminate or confirm some letters, but because I had to stick with my E, O, and D, I was much more limited in my guesses. And I knew after the second guess that E had to go in the fifth slot, but I could not for the life of me think of a word that fit the criteria while preserving the O and the D in their required positions. (I was extremely disappointed to find out that OODLE, singular, is not a word.)

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In the end I did manage to win in 4 out of 6 guesses, which is perfectly respectable, but the length of time between guesses 3 and 4 was at least 20 minutes, all spent squinting at the screen, convinced that Wordle was broken, that no word in the English language could possibly contain these particular letters in this particular order. And then, finally: Oh.

How did you fare with DODGE?

Loofbourow: Wow, it hadn’t occurred to me how hard this one was in Hard Mode but I just checked Twitter and people playing that way seem to have had a really rough time! It’s a testament to your skills that it took me the same number of guesses as you even though I was in Easy Mode:

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A Wordle grid.

Line 1: CRATE. The letter E has a green background, the other letters gray.

Line 2: WINDS. The letter D has a yellow background, the other letters gray.

Line 3: BOUGH. The letters O and G have a green background, the other letters gray.   

Line 4: DODGE. All the letters have a green background.
New York Times
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Martinelli: Winds! Bough! Such poetic guesses.

Loofbourow: Ha! One does what one can with the hodgepodge of letters that were left. (For whatever it’s worth, the game accepts PODGE—but not HODGE—as a guess.) So. Marissa. Are you still committed to the Hard Mode life?

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Martinelli: I am! Freed from the tyranny of worrying about guessing the answer in the most efficient way possible, I find victory all the sweeter when I am forced to build on the foundation of my own past guesses, even if there’s plenty of agonizing in the interim. What about you? Have I converted you? Will you flip the Hard Mode switch before your next round—and be granted a little asterisk next to your results, should you choose to share them—or are you content with Wordle Classic?

[Read: Meet the Guy Whose Wordle Streak You Will Never Beat]

Loofbourow: I’ve had my hands frozen over my keyboard for a good two minutes trying to answer this. I think … I’m gonna have to experiment. It’s lucky that the day I tried Easy Mode—thanks to you—is the day I think it really, really paid off. (Not sure I’d have gotten DODGE without it.) I’ll try that a few more times to see if I can tolerate it. But the truth is, I really found it psychically challenging to throw away a guess on purpose, knowing it was wrong!

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I feel like whole personality types could probably be deduced from Wordle strategies. I bet there are anxious avoidant Wordlers, whimsical Wordlers, secure Wordlers, and hardcore strategic Wordlers like you used to be, with words they always use to maximize the intel they get from every guess. I don’t know what it says about me that if I’m honest, I’m probably gonna go back to Hard Mode—marked officially now—because it feels like the safer approach to me. If you’re a masochist, I guess I’ve decided to be knowingly irrational because that’s what feels best?

Martinelli: I’m just HAPPY to have been involved in your Wordle journey.

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