Developer: Newtoy
Price: $2.99
Version Reviewed: 3.05

Graphics / Sound Rating: ★★★★½
Game Controls Rating: ★★★★☆
Gameplay Rating: ★★★★½

iPhone Integration Rating: ★★★½☆
User Interface Rating: ★★★★☆

Re-use / Replay Value Rating: ★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

Scrabble is bloated and slow-loading. Lexulous, my previous online Scrabble application of choice, has recently been plagued by bugs. Enter Words With Friends: a shiny, nimble Scrabble clone complete with Push notifications (hallelujah!) and blazing-fast speeds. Compared to its competition, Words With Friends offers fewer features; however, the speed of the app and the eager player pool are enough to have me hooked.

IMG_0109One of the most notable features absent from Words With Friends: ranking systems. You’re matched with a random opponent, unless—as the title suggests—you have a specific friend you want to play with. You do have to register, which is annoying; I wish that the game used Facebook Connect, OpenFeint, or Plus+, though that could impact the speed. Either way, once registered, it’s easy to find your friends; I’ve already played games with Jeff and Chris!

Once you start playing, you’ll quickly notice differences from standard Scrabble, which are presumably there to prevent lawsuits. You’ve still got seven letters, but the board layout is different, with eight triple-word spaces instead of four and a different scattering of bonus tiles in general. The dictionary also appears to be different, but I can’t be sure: an in-game dictionary is yet another absent feature. Other absent features include a moves history, a Facebook counerpart, and a preview of what your score will be. Let me restate that: you’re not told your score until after you move. So, yes, you’ll need mental math skills if you want to nitpick over points. Not such a bad thing, in my opinion; God knows I need the practice.

IMG_0110But Words With Friends still shines, in part because of its simplicity. The streamlined app loads quickly, and everything is easily accessible. The user interface is extremely well designed, with clever details that show a high level of polish; animations are smooth and snappy. “Last moved” timers are updated almost in real-time, so you can be immediately appraised of when it’s your turn if you leave the app open. If you’re occupied elsewhere, Push notifications prompt you to move, though these are often delayed by a few minutes and Apple’s system for missed Push notifications is less than optimal. At least there are badge alerts on the app’s icon!

I think it’s the Push notifications that contribute to the active nature of the app’s user base. You’re compelled to move quickly, though there’s no formal time limit. On average, it took me about a day to finish a game. Compared to my other online Scrabble games, which often last a week or more, that’s great, and it’s the main reason why I love Words With Friends. The Push notifications and quick plays make it addicting, and more sedate user pools can’t beat it.

The one exception to the app’s well-thought-out execution is the Pass ‘n’ Play feature, which lets two players play on one device. My questions: why can’t I play with three or four people? Why can’t I name the other player? Why isn’t there some sort of pause screen, as in Scrabble? (As it is, as soon as you move you can see your opponent’s tiles.) The Pass ‘n’ Play mode is tacked on as an afterthought, a notable exception to the consistent quality of the rest.

The game does have its quirks. But it’s clear that the developers intended for it be a simple, speedy application that didn’t waste time with superfluous features. The game is there, the player base is engaged and everything just works. (Well, the online mode, at least.) If you’re a Scrabble fan, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be playing Words With Friends.

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