Game designer and conceptual artist Zach Gage loves nothing more than fiddling around with, or trying to optimize, the oldest, most popular, and most ubiquitous games in the world. Previous targets of his tinkering include solitaire, chess, pool, and sudoku. Now he and his co-developer Jack Schlesinger are back, and this time they’re tackling crossword puzzles.
Knotwords — which is out now on Android, iOS, Mac, and Windows PC — is a crossword for people who don’t like solving clues, cryptic or otherwise. In fact, it’s a mash-up of crosswords and killer sudoku. Killer sudoku, and the similar math game KenKen, guide players by boxing out portions of the grid and indicating what the sum of the numbers contained within each “cage” should be. Knotwords uses similar cages and tells you what the letters within each cage are, but not where to place them.
In crosswords, you use a clue to guess a word, then combine clues and placed letters to fill out the rest of the puzzle in a snowball of erudition. In Knotwords, you are assembling words from their raw materials, in a process not entirely dissimilar from the way you narrow down your options after the first guess or two in Wordle.
Playing Knotwords does depend on a decent grounding in vocabulary and the arcane rules and tendencies of English spelling, as Wordle does. But less so. These are really just the foundation for what becomes a pure game of logic and tactics. The way to break into a puzzle is usually via two- or three-letter words, where options are limited. Further solutions will start to cascade from there. If you ever do get stuck, you can ask for a hint, which gives you a dictionary definition for a word you’re stumped on. It’s odd how much this feels like cheating, when it’s the core gameplay of non-cryptic crosswords like the wonderful New York Times mini crossword.
It’s more helpful, really, to think of Knotwords as sudoku with letters, rather than as a crossword variant. As Gage told The Verge, he found the complex grid of letters more interesting than the clues crossword players would focus on. While he and Schlesinger were working on their sudoku app Good Sudoku, Gage’s mother tried to persuade him to make a KenKen game instead — and when he applied the grouped-cells mechanic to a crossword grid, “it worked instantly.” Wordle creator Josh Wardle has called Knotwords “an incredibly elegant daily word game.”
Elegance is kind of Gage’s thing. This partly manifests in the pristine graphic design and snappy interfaces of the apps he and Schlesinger build. He also prides himself on stripping a game’s design down to its purest elements, shining a bright light on anything obscure or unreadable about it, and smoothing away elements of risk and randomness.
The results are often objectively beautiful systems and satisfying to play. But they can feel sterile, too, and optimized to the point of alienation. Good Sudoku seeks to train and assist the player in the art of the number puzzle to such an extent that it can often feel like the game is playing itself, and you are just a cog in its mechanism. Sage Solitaire blends solitaire and poker in a way that is undeniably clever but academically dry, and loses sight of what makes solitaire such a compelling and capricious way to spend your time. (The simple, freeform Flipflop Solitaire is more like it.) Card of Darkness, a sort of math-solitaire-roguelite game with gloriously surreal art by Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, is just coldly brutal to play.
Gage’s purist interest in game systems often leads him to design out the soul of the game, or to ignore the player’s emotional, as opposed to intellectual, investment. Knotwords is no different. It’s a clever word game that’s a pleasure to play, and I do recommend downloading it — the basic daily puzzle and 10 monthly puzzles are free, while a one-off or subscription payment gives you access to the full archive, a daily variant, and extra monthly puzzle books. It’s absorbing, but detached. A game of Wordle feels like a thrilling, emotional journey. A game of Knotwords feels like you’re just filling in boxes.