A word game that takes minimalism to the extreme
The name Loren Brichter probably doesn't ring a bell but you definitely know his work. Even if you never had the chance to try his original Twitter client Tweetie, his influence is strong in the iOS community. Find yourself refreshing your Mail inbox compulsively? The gesture known as 'pull to refresh' was first introduced by him.
To make the story short, Brichter's talents and successful sequel to his iOS client Tweetie 2 got the attention of Twitter. The company was looking to strengthen its position in mobile platforms and deployed his app as the official one. Eventually, he left and after some silence we heard he was working on an iPhone game. Despite his credentials, the App Store has changed so much in the last years that his previous success experience can be rendered irrelevant — free-to-play, copycats and services altering the charts are all new players to take into consideration.
Atebits' new app is called Letterpress. At first, it's clear Loren didn't study the current App Store environment very well: such a bland name and uninspired icon would be catastrophic for any other indie developer without his cache. Very poor visibility in the new App Store search indeed. Since the app is free (lesson learned here) you can always give him the benefit of the doubt.
Letterpress has nothing to do with printing — that one from Kickstarter is called LetterMpress. This is an online-only asynchronous word game in the vein of Words with Friends and Boggle.
You're presented with a five by five board where every tile represents a letter. The goal is to turn the board to your colour by using, protecting a locking. Let me explain. Each of the two players can select any of letters to create a word. Once you use a certain letter it turns to your colour. The other player will do the same, eventually fighting for the same important tiles on the board. The game ends when all the tiles on the board have a colour or both players pass a turn. There's no score or points, other that the total count of tiles of your colour.
Unlike Scrabble, every letter can be used by the other player in the next turn. There's no emphasis in creating long words, although there's an obvious advantage using a lot of the tiles. The key strategy is block tiles to your own colour by surrounding them by other other letters you've used. Once this happens, the tile turns to a darker shade and the other player may use it to create a word but won't be able to flip it to their side.
As you can imagine, there's more than assembling words with a limited selection of letters. The asynchronous online play gives you enough time to strategise and plan ahead your next move even when your waiting for the opponent's next move.
The small details make the difference
The description you've just read could be for the Zynga's next 'Protect the Letter with Friends' title. Letterpress is a fun little game but there's no revolutionary game mechanics. What makes it so enjoyable are the finishing touches. Every time you launch the app, perhaps directly from a push notification, Letterpress shows you the last word played by the opponent jiggling the used tiles for a couple of seconds. When you select your letters to create a word, the information of the top slides upwards to make room with a jelly-like bounce effect.
Every tiny detail is there. When you tap on a letter, the tile flies to the top and becomes narrower. This is for the word to fit in comfortably there. The slimming down process is part of the animation. If you'd rather drag and drop the tiles, they remain fat and square, tilting ever so slightly to give the impression that one of the bottom corners is heavier than the other.
The interface departs from that elaborate gradients and texturing you could see in his previous work to simpler plain colour squares. This is somehow reminiscent of Windows 8 Metro visual language and some experimental apps like Clear by RealMacSoftware. Loren Brichter demonstrates that minimalism, animation and sound effects play an important role in the user experience. This is the heritage of that original Tweetie from Atebits that encouraged the user to explore using gestures rather than tapping.
Letterpress is free to try but there's an honest single in-app-purchase that unlocks extra slots to play more than two games at a time, additional themes and the ability to see previously played words. It's a no brainer.
There are some minor caveats, mostly to do with relying on Game Center as a match-making tool. I wouldn't mind an offline mode to show others how to play for example, the ability to rematch an adversary and some type of communication between players — all you can do now is taunt spelling offensive words on the dictionary.
After all this time I was sceptic this developer could bring something relevant to iOS, let alone to iOS gaming. Something as unexciting as word games are slowly developing something like a cult following on the App Store. Titles like Puzzlejuice, SpellTower and W.E.L.D.E.R. are redefining a genre traditionally dominated by big brands from physical board games. You may think his CV helps to get the name of the app out there, it's a bit like cheating. I will only say Letterpress deserves to join the lot of the more intellectually challenging word games you need to have on your iPhone and iPad.