Letterpress by Atebits review

"Letterpress is a painfully addictive word game, earning its place on my home screen and sure to win the hearts of people in bathrooms everywhere. I give it five Magic Trackpads."

Imagine yourself drawing a bath. The water runs over the sound of light jazz as you slide your robe off, lit by the scented candles scattered around the room. You check the temperature—just a toe at first. The heat startles, then invites. Your body slides in, displacing the mountainous landscape of bubbles and finally settling with just enough room for you to watch the steam rise from your skin. You reach for your glass and take a sip of merlot. Your head tilted back, you feel it sliding down your throat. Eyes closed, you pick your iPhone up from the table next to you. The welcome vibration causes your skin to tremble, and as you open your eyes to look at the screen, you see it…

"reneritchie played PACKAGES"

"Now", you think, "I'm ready to play."

Asynchronous iOS games have long been a favorite of iPhone users in the bathroom. Words With Friends—another word game—introduced me to the idea, and Draw Something proved that it could also be done so poorly that an otherwise good idea would be abandoned by its users just slightly less quickly than the company who purchased its creators could realize their mistake. Honorable mention: Let's Sing. But where Draw Something and Let's Sing use pictures and sounds, word games in particular seem well-suited to asynchronous play.

Enter Letterpress, the new iPhone game from Atebits. You remember Atebits, right? Started by Loren Brichter in 2007, Atebits was the one-man powerhouse that gave us Tweetie. And Tweetie 2. And Tweetie for Mac. As if winning an Apple Design Award and inventing pull-to-refresh weren't enough, Loren then sold his company to Twitter in 2010, where he continued work on his apps under the banner of being the official platform Twitter clients.

At least, until Twitter decided they hated their users, ruined the iPhone app with the infamous Dickbar, threw away everything that made the iPad client great, and took a massive dump on the Mac client. Inexplicably, Loren decided to leave.

It seems weird to relaunch Atebits with a word game. Back in May, I asked Loren what he was working on next, and he said he wanted to start off small in order to "reset expectations". This turns out to be a brilliant move: more work on a social network of any kind would seem obvious and risk painting the man as a one-trick pony. However, a game helps to shift the focus back to the product. (For more, see our interview with Loren Brichter.)

So, about that product.

Letterpress is deceptively simple. A five-by-five grid of letters is laid out on the screen. You and your opponent have full visibility to the board, and must make words out of the letters provided. As you do, those letters are colored in—blue for your letters, red for theirs—and each move steals letters back, affecting the letter-count score at the top of the screen. Things get slightly trickier when the letters on the four sides of a played letter are also played in the same color, when the lock-in effect causes the center to go darker. In this case, the letter can still be played, but no points transfer. Each word must consist of at least two letters, and no word can be re-played.

It's interesting to see the word choices your opponents make, and during the beta period it became clear that different people have very different styles of play. During a recent conference, a friendly rivalry with another tester turned into a passionate conversation about strategy and how to dominate the board. Arguments were made for word-based play, and arguments were made for tile-and-location-based approaches. Where we definitely agreed was that it's totally worth risking a lead to play a really funny word.

While the game itself is asynchronous, I often find myself in prolonged sessions with other players, where we'll begin and end a game (or two) in a single sitting. This works less well for bathroom play, since those longer sessions could mean pruney skin. But the difference is that the rapid-fire approach can get heated quickly, leading to more moves based on gut feeling and less on calculated strategy. I find it interesting that this is a natural diversion in the gameplay itself, and not a "mode" designed to needlessly split the game into extra features.

Matching up to other players is straightforward enough, either by picking from your Game Center friends or letting the game find someone for you at random. But the lack of in-game chat means that trash-talking and congratulations must be done outside the game, which in turn means the less connected you are to the person you're playing, the less you'll get out of the experience. I've enjoyed many rounds of trash-talking and congratulations via iMessage, and that's a huge part of what makes the game fun.

Similarly, once a game as ended you have to go in and invite your opponent to play again. This would be fine, except that it's not clear who should be in charge of creating the new game, so you end up in a lot of situations where both sides take the initiative and you're now juggling two sessions. A simple "rematch" button would take all of the pain out of this and probably keep me in the app longer.

Both of these complaints, I'm told, are Game Center's fault. And since they're relatively minor, I won't hold it against the game. That said, I really hope they get fixed quickly.

Taking the sting out of the Game Center problems is the gorgeous visual design. A game should be immersive, and Letterpress does a wonderful job of creating a light, fun world for the letters to populate. The colors and typography are clean and clear, and the overall treatment feels bright and minimalist without coming off as sterile. A few small touches really shine, though, like the way the newly-played letters shake when you re-enter a game after your opponent has played, the welcomed clever branding of the refresh indicator, or the game-remove animation that really has to be seen to be appreciated.

You can tell that Loren has put a lot of love and care into his latest app. It's genuinely fun.

Letterpress is a universal app for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, and is available for free on the App Store, but by default you can only have two concurrent games running. A single $0.99 in-app purchase will remove this limitation, enable a previously played words list, and give you access to visual themes (spoiler: some of them are pink). I can't imagine anyone playing this game and not spending the $0.99.

My prediction is that this game is going to be wildly successful, and not because of the history or pedigree of its developer. Letterpress is painfully addictive, earning its place on my home screen and sure to win the hearts of people in bathrooms everywhere. I give it five Magic Trackpads.

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Dave Wiskus

Dave Wiskus is the lead singer and guitarist for Airplane Mode, an indie rock band from New York City. You can find them on iTunes, Spotify, and Twitter