This Brilliantly Designed iPhone Game Could Unseat "Words With Friends"

Letterpress, a new iOS game from Loren Brichter’s Atebits (creators of Tweetie), mixes Boggle with the ancient Chinese game Go.

In 2008, Loren Brichter released Tweetie, a beautiful Twitter app for the iPhone. It would have been noteworthy if only for introducing "pull to refresh" to the world, the widely copied UI feature that’s equal parts functional and addicting and now standard in iOS’s default Mail app. But Tweetie’s story didn’t end there. In fact, the people at Twitter thought Brichter’s app was so good that they didn’t even bother trying to best it; in 2010, Twitter acquired Tweetie, gave it the new name "Twitter for iPhone," and re-released it as the official client for iOS—a pretty good testament to Brichter’s chops. Now, a year after leaving Twitter, the developer’s back with a new offering, something totally different from Tweetie but just as thoughtfully crafted. It’s a little game called Letterpress.

The game itself, currently available for the iPad and iPhone, is almost a combination between Boggle and Go. You play against a friend or a random Game Center-assigned opponent, taking turns spelling words on a 5x5 grid of letters. When you use a letter, you claim its tile as your own, but if your opponent uses the letter in his word, he can steal the tile back. The fundamentals come quickly, but it’s easy to see how it’s possible to develop increasingly sophisticated strategies the more you play.

As Brichter tells it, the new project had the same humble beginnings as his first app. "Like Tweetie, it was a way to scratch an itch. I just wanted a game I could play with my wife, and we were both pretty drained from Words With Friends." I think that goes for most of us. But while both apps are built on a sort of pick-up-and-go "obviousness," Brichter says, taking on a game afforded him a little more creative latitude. "The one thing I loved about making a game," he told me, "is that you have much more freedom to have fun and experiment. Apps like utilities are meant to get a job done, so I much prefer the get-out-of-my-way approach. Something like a game lets you go nuts."

Still, compared to most of the games you’ll find in the App Store Top 10, Letterpress is a model of understatement. The gameplay’s simplicity is reflected in its visual presentation, a restrained, straightforward aesthetic that’s almost Windows Phone-like in its reliance on a flat geometry of squares.

Its unadorned clarity becomes immediately apparent every time the gaudy faux-felt of Apple’s Game Center pops up, which Letterpress uses to set up new games.

Brichter says the style is something of a compromise between those typified by the competing platforms: "It’s a bit more human than the totally stark Windows Phone—there are subtle shadows, and a few elements have rounded corners. I see it a bit like 'as simple as possible, but not simpler.'" Basically, that philosophy means balancing pure minimalism with some of the UI flourishes we’ve grown accustomed to. "The human eye has evolved to notice details like shadows," he says. "It’s silly to ignore that for the sake of aesthetic purity."

The result is a very nice-looking game indeed. Whether or not it’ll truly take up the iPhone word-game mantle, we’ll have to wait and see. When I start getting Letterpress challenges from my fiercest Words With Friends foes—my Mom, a former high school English teacher, my Grandma, etc—then we’ll know Brichter’s really got another hit on his hands.

You can grab the game for free in the App Store. $1 unlocks the full version, which allows for more than two simultaneous games and adds additional graphic themes.

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1 Comments

  • gengun

    It is a visually brilliant app, easily makes it to the short list of beautiful and minimally-designed game interfaces for iOS. Unfortunately, the transition into Game Center land is highly disruptive and jarring (visually and sequentially). If connection-making were integrated into the game and there were a friends list, this would be a Words With Friends killer. As it stands, the experience is not a social one. I play with around 25 people from my Facebook friends list on wwf– of those, only one had ever setup and used Game Center. Additionally, the there is no opportunity to rematch an opponent, one must create a new Game Center invitation every time.