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Double Designer Diary: Word Games for Different Playstyles

by Paul Schulz

I designed two word games four years apart from each other. I found publishers years apart from each other. Both games hit the shelves within the same week of March 2023:

Worte Querbeet (1-6 players, 15 min) from TOPP/frechverlag

Wömmeln (1-8 players, 20 min) from KOSMOS

But that’s not a problem because while they are both word games, they focus on very different playstyles. Worte Querbeet is a contemplative plan-ahead game, while Wömmeln is fast and creative…and still a bit thinky — it is a word game, after all…

Worte Querbeet: A Challenge for Puzzlers

I love word puzzles. For example, I regularly do the German version of the Times Cryptic Crossword (“Um die Ecke gedacht” von der Zeit). That said, I almost never solve it. In fact, when trying alone I’m happy to understand half of the clues and know a third of the solutions, but I enjoy the challenge precisely because of failing so often. That makes every win much better.

Most word games that I know do not allow for you to fail completely. Of course it’s better to make a long word in Scrabble, but you’ll almost always find a short one. Getting a three-letter word feels unsatisfying, sure; it’s not a complete failure, no, but it’s definitely no win either. In that aspect, crosswords are better because they are very clear: either you solve the clue or not. There is still a gradient of how well you did when looking at the whole puzzle, but each singular clue is win or fail. That’s what I missed in word games, so I decided to make Worte Querbeet.

How Does It Work?

You roll three letter dice, then have to use at least one of them to fill your grid with letters. The columns and rows have different lengths, and you have to fill them with a word of this exact length to score points. Since the words overlap in classic crossword fashion, it gets harder and harder to find correct words — but you absolutely must cross some words because row and column points will be multiplied with each other. You need to plan ahead, have different options in place, and sometimes be ready to sacrifice one row in order to wait for better dice results elsewhere. There are also a few lifelines and wild dice sides to help you.

The game ends when a player fills their grid. The scores range between 0 and 100 points, with 100 being a perfect game. You can play competitively or solo, pursuing the 100 points.

Design and Development

Two ideas were set in stone from the start: 1. You need to find words of the right length. That’s the win or fail situation. 2. In order to get a good score, you have to find words in rows AND columns.

In the beginning scoring was straightforward: Each letter that was used in both directions scored 1 point. However, that wasn’t easy to see in the filled-out grid, so I came up with the predefined point values and the idea of adding up rows and columns separately before multiplying them. That means you can’t concentrate on only one of them because multiplication by zero means 0 points for you.

The dice were a challenge, too. I tried to reproduce the letter frequency of German. That means 17.4% of letters should be an “E” and only 1.7% are an “F”. For the first attempt, I distributed all letters according to their frequency on nine dice, and each turn you would randomly draw three of them out of a bag. In hindsight, that was way too complicated and would have been very costly. Today with five years more game design experience, I would not even try that.

I reduced the number of dice over several iterations by combining less-used letters on one side. Eventually that became a wild side. When I settled on three dice, one of the dice had a completely wild side, one die had a wild side only for consonants, and one was wild only for vowels — but people mixed them up, so according to the principle “Usability comes first”, now it’s just a wild side on each die. That also made the game a bit more forgiving.

The last change was to come up with three one-time abilities/lifelines. Players can use them each once during the game in order to mitigate bad luck. After all, bad luck is always possible in a dice game, but it doesn’t go well with strategic planning, so players need a way to counteract bad luck (as well as bad decisions). The abilities allow players to write two letters in one field, use a die twice, or color in one field, which changes the length of this row and column.

Playtests and the first games with my own copy

From the beginning, the game had huge fans among my playtesters, especially crossword lovers who were not necessarily gamers. At public playtesting at Berlin Con 2017, a stranger wanted to buy the prototype from me. (He got one, but he didn’t need to pay for it.) And at a Berlin game design meeting, designer Jeffrey Allers and his dad, who was visiting at the time, liked the English version of the game so much that they built their own.

Publishers, however…that’s a different story. I looked for a long time. Often the developers liked it, but the bosses didn’t quite. The game was three times in a program planning meeting. (That is the last step before getting a contract offer.) But most of the time the game was considered a bit too difficult — which I refused to change because that was the point of it! However, because of the many “almost” decisions and because I myself still liked to play the solo game, even after so many hundreds of playtests, I did not give up. Luckily TOPP/frechverlag, a German book publisher, decided to get into games as well, and they signed my game. They aren’t well known among gamers yet, but they are present in the bookshops, which is exactly where I think this kind of game needs to be.

My developer, Marie, also found a great theme for the game: gardening letters so that the words can grow. The letters are word seeds, the abilities are now fertilizers. She encouraged me to create different grids (or flower beds) for more variety, so now you can play with four different grids.

Grids I tried during development

Final grids of the prototype and the produced game


Wömmeln: Be Creative in a Word Search

Long after I was already happy with my last word game design, I got inspired by Jeffery AllersHashi. As Allers explained in a 2021 designer diary, he was inspired to create this game after discovering a logic puzzle. I thought about other puzzles that could be turned into a game, and naturally, I looked into word puzzles. While I must admit that I wasn’t the first to make a crossword game (by far), I didn’t know of any game based on a word search puzzle.

How Does It Work?

In Wömmeln, each player gets a grid of randomized letters, then a category card is flipped, and everyone has to find a word that fits the category. Unlike in normal word searches, the letters do not have to be next to each other; in fact, they can be anywhere. You circle the letters you need, then connect them in the right order by drawing a line from letter to letter, crossing out any letters in between. (See the example on the right, from an actual play, where I used different colors each round.)

After the first player finishes their word, they set a timer for 45 seconds. After that time, everyone has to have circled all the letters they need. Every word scores one point for each letter. You then repeat this process for nine more rounds, but you are NOT allowed to use or draw a line through any circled or crossed-out letter. You can make a 14-letter word in the first round, but that might become a problem later. Wömmeln requires you to be more creative then Worte Querbeet when finding your answer to the categories, but it might also be a tiny bit stressful sometimes.

Design and Development

Wömmeln came to me as one complete thought. The rulebook never changed. However, explicit rules are just a part of the design. A whole lot of work is implicit; in this case, it’s hidden in the grids and the category cards.

I wanted the grid to feel completely filled after the last round. To reach this state, I could use two levers: letter frequency and grid size. Also, there needs to be progression: You should be able to make long words, but they also need to take up space. First, I compiled grids completely based on the actual letter frequency in German. It was too easy to find long words in a small space. Also, the grids looked strange with a sixth of it being “E”!

The solution I found: Two-thirds of the letters in a grid appear according to their frequency in German; for the other third, every letter has an equal chance of showing up, so all the “X”s and “Q”s have a chance of being in your way.

For the grid size, I experimented a little up and down, and I found two answers: 15×15 for the standard game, and 11×11 for the intense variant, which lasts only six rounds. The game includes twenty different grids, so opponents can play with different orders of letters. The letter order is almost randomized. In fact, we had to repeatedly read all of those lines back and forth, up and down and diagonally, to make sure they didn’t randomly say any slurs, insults, or obscenities.

Example sheets from the standard game and the intense variant

The categories range from straightforward “Name an animal” ones to more creative ones like “Something that makes the room more comfortable” or “Complete the sentence: Tomorrow the weather will be…”. The published game includes 120 categories, but we had come up with many more than that.

The game is challenging. You have to think of a word AND find it in a constantly shrinking array of letters, so you better think of two or more words in case you don’t find your first idea. Because of this, we culled every category in which we couldn’t immediately think of five different answers.

Also, other tiny rules prevent too much stress: The first player to finish has to circle the letters AND connect them before starting the timer, while everyone else just needs to circle the letters before it runs out. If you don’t find a word, there are no minus points. Basically, you just save space so that you can come up with a bigger word in the next round. In the final round, the timer is twice as long, so everyone has enough time to find the best option in their remaining grid.

Many, many playtests

Still, I know from the reviews that for a minority of players the game is a bit too stressful. For another minority, the timer is by far long enough…so maybe 45 seconds is actually the sweet spot, giving just the right amount of stress to most players. Obviously, that was also tested a lot with different times, but if I could change one thing now, I would add a sentence to the rules: “Of course you can change the timer setting according to your preferences.”

I personally would house rule these things immediately, but I feel a lot of people don’t feel comfortable changing the rules if they aren’t allowed to. Maybe that’s only a German thing, though…

I love the art direction of Wömmeln

Finding a publisher for Wömmeln was no problem at all. I showed it to only two, and KOSMOS was the faster one — and I’m thankful for that. Working with my developer, Tobias, was great, and the vintage art by Daniel Bahr is amazing.

Also they came up with the name, which was a stroke of genius. Wömmeln is a portmanteau of Wörter/words and sammeln/collect. This name has two great characteristics: First, it sounds like a verb, so you can use it like “Let’s wömmel” instead of “Let’s play Wömmeln”. This is reminiscent of verbs for very well-known games, like “siedeln” for playing CATAN (formerly Siedler von Catan) oder “kniffeln” for playing Yahtzee (which in Germany is Kniffel). Second, the word itself sounds funny. It is a completely innocent word, but it sounds like it might be an innuendo. That gets attention and has been used for a good joke in more than one review.

With the reviews by the way, I’m quite happy. Of course no game is loved by all, especially word games, but reviews have been positive and there have been reports of “Wömmel-fever” and similiar things.


What’s Next?

For Worte Querbeet and Wömmeln, I hope to see them in more languages. I think every language that knows crosswords and word searches works — every European language for sure. In fact, I might already have the prototypes for them. If YOU are interested, let me know, and I’ll make the contact with my publishers.

For other news, if you like, follow me @paulschulzgames on Instagram to be up-to-date with what I’m playing and designing. For now, I can announce the Color Carpet logic puzzle that is being produced by HUCH! right now, and a dexterity game is coming out from one of my all-time favorite publishers by the end of 2023. More about 2024 later…

Paul Schulz


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