Words with Friends for Android review.

The immensely popular iPhone game Words with Friends was released for the Android OS this past week. Zynga, which purhcased the game’s developers Newtoy back in the end of 2010, had committed to creating an Android version of the game that would allow players of both versions of the game, iPhone and Android, compete against each other head to head from day one.

If you’re not familiar with Words with Friends, it is essentially a Scrabble clone. The game is played by two players each starting with a set of 7 lettered tiles that are automatically and randomly drawn. Each tile is assigned a point value from 1 through 10 (higher points for less commonly used letters like Z,Q,J,K less points for the more commonly used such as E,A,S,T), words are formed by placing tiles on the board, either from left to right, or from top to bottom. In addition to the values of each individual tile, there are bonus spaces on the board (which is a grid of 15×15) that increase the value of specific letters (either 2x or 3x) if the tiles are place on that spot on the grid and there are spots that increase the value of the entire word if just one of the letters from that word falls on one of these spots (either 2x or 3x). Points are assigned to each word based upon the sum of their individual tile points and account for any tiles placed on any of the multiplier locations. The rules are simple, more points wins the game. Oh, and they have to be real words based upon a dictionary called the Enhanced North American Benchmark Lexicon (ENABLE). This dictionary is the basis for their list of accepted words, Newtoy has gone and added some of their own words that are commonly used today, but are not part of this dictionary.

Once I had heard that the game was going to be available for the Android OS, I started checking the Android Market regularly to see if it was available. On Wednesday evening, I had checked and saw that it was finally available for download. I had gone ahead and installed the free ad supported version and within a few minutes I had started my first game with a random opponent. Gameplay does permit up to 20 simultaneous games going at once.

During this first game, my first thought was this game board is visually busy. I think it’s the detailed graphics used to outline the tile spaces on the board, the graphics detail used in the tiles, in addition to the color scheme used; in my opinion this game is not friendly on the eyes. In addition to the busyness of the game board, after each move you are presented with an ad that you must manually cancel out of, or press the back button. Currently, there’s no paid version available for Android just yet that omits the ads as there is for iOS. While the ads are not “that” intrusive, you do see a lot of them over the course of a game.

Having played other Scrabble clones for quite a while, I found the actual game play to be very similar. When it’s your turn, or during your opponents turn, you have the ability to move the tiles around to try and find or form words. This is done by the simple sliding of the tiles either left or right, or the game can take advantage of your devices accelerometer by shaking your device. While the shaking is a neat idea, it’s not very conducive to fluid game play, and just does more of a random shuffle of your tiles. There’s a nice zoom feature that is activated by double tapping on the game board. Depending on where you double tap, that is the area that becomes the center of focus. Double tap a second time, and the board zooms out so that you can view the entire board. Placement of letters on the board, will automatically zoom into that area so that tile placement is more accurate. This is a nice feature and I have found the zoom animation to be very smooth and fluid. Other options when it’s your turn are to swap tiles, or pass on a turn, or simply resign the game. If you placed tiles on the board that do not allow for a proper word, you can easily recall them all by pressing the Recall button. The game also provides an in game chat feature, allowing you to converse in an SMS style chat session. This is also a nice feature, although I have found that I don’t use it too much.

I have found the initial release a little buggy. Playing a game with my wife, she could not join the game despite sending an invitation to her user-name. I was seeing that she was in the game, however, she could not see the game. It was not until I sent her an in game chat message was she finally able to see the board and her tiles. Another issue I noticed is that if I want to swap tiles I don not see the tile from the swap screen unless I cancel out if the swap and attempt it again. Another minor annoyance, is that I keep getting notified that there is an update to the game, however, when I tap the update button I am taken to the Android market page only to find out that I already have the update applied. The update allowed for a few sound options, allowing me to turn off the sound completely and customizing the notification time frame. When it comes to game settings, that’s pretty much it; two settings. I had the notifications set to a 5 minute interval, which may have caused excess battery drain. When I check battery usage within the Android OS, it will show Words with Friends as being one of the bigger offenders of battery usage. I find this rather odd given the frequency that I play the game, again i think this goes back to the polling interval being a little to frequent. We’ll see if changing that to 30 minutes makes a difference.

In summary, over the last few days, I’ve found Words with Friends to be a suitable Scrabble clone. While I don’t feel it’s the best one available for the Android platform, it is also not the worst. When compared to games like Wordfeud, it pales in comparison. The game in it’s early releases is a little buggy, I don’t find it visually pleasing, and there are too many adds with no current option to purchase an ad free version. The biggest benefit is the ability to play head to head along with your iOS toting friends, as well as options for several million opponents. If you’ve installed this game, either in Android or iOS, send me an invite to play. My username is CRG625.

UPDATE: Changing the update notification time frame did not change battery drain. I had even gone so far as to set the notification interval to 60 minutes, and it doesn’t appear to be any better.  This application is a battery hog.

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