Word Chums is a new iOS game from PeopleFun, a company whose CEO is Tony Goodman, founder of several well-known development studios including defunct Age of Empires developer Ensemble Studios and the team behind mobile hit Hero Academy. The new title aims to take on Zynga’s supremacy in the casual word game market, and is available now from the App Store in both free and ad-free paid editions.
Word Chums is, at its core, a Scrabble clone, much like Words With Friends. Players take it in turns to lay up to seven letters from their hand to make words, at which point they score points according to the individual letter values of the words, bonus spaces that words and/or letters overlap and whether or not all seven letters were used in one turn (also known as a “Bingo”). Play proceeds until there are no more virtual letter tiles left, or until there are no more valid moves on the board, at which point whoever has the most points is declared the winner. Players are able to chat with one another during play, and the asynchronous nature of the game means that it’s possible to have multiple games on the go at once.
So far, so Words With Friends. But Word Chums adds a significant layer of additional incentives to keep playing atop the basic formula, mostly revolving around an experience point-based advancement system. Players earn XP with every completed turn, and leveling up unlocks access to additional avatar customization options. These must be purchased with in-game currency, earned through completing achievements and normal play, and are used for two purposes: visual customization of the player’s avatar, and boosting the rate at which experience points are earned. There is no in-game advantage to the purchasable items — they simply allow for visual customization and self-expression.
Word Chums also adds a number of gameplay elements to the basic Words With Friends formula. It’s possible to play games with up to four players, for example, either in a “free for all” match or in two teams of two players. Alongside this, the addition of “booster” items allows for faster turns and for players to get themselves out of a pinch — “hint” items suggest a location on the board where a good word can be created (but not what the word is) while “bomb” items allow the player to draw a new hand of seven tiles without sacrificing their turn. These items, costing a little more in soft currency than is practical to earn through play alone, form the main basis of the game’s monetization strategy, but thankfully don’t unbalance the game to such a degree that paying players are guaranteed victory. Players are provided with some free booster items to try out when they first start playing, and those who purchase the paid version of the app automatically gain a 1,000 coin bonus on first login.
A few slight tweaks to Words With Friends’ interface are to the game’s benefit, too. Rather than having to submit a word to see whether or not it is valid, Word Chums highlights valid moves in green as tiles are laid. Moreover, a small bubble displays the number of points the word the player has laid will make without them having to submit the word — and this bubble turns green if the tiles laid have earned more than half of the best possible score attainable on this turn with the letters the player has available. This offers a good balance between allowing casual, inexperienced players to learn the game and spot where the good moves are without spoiling the experience or making it unnecessarily easy for those with strong vocabularies and experience in this type of competition.
At present, Word Chums is a good word game with some interesting tweaks to the Words With Friends formula, but it’s questionable as to whether these tweaks are enough to successfully distinguish it from Zynga’s runaway success. Apparently the near future for the game includes Android and Facebook versions as well as a “lightning” mode with time-limited turns. When these facilities are added, the game will be a true, distinctive competitor with its own identity, but as it stands, it’s a little too similar to Zynga’s title to recommend without hesitation.
Word Chums Free is currently ranked at No. 329 in Top Free Games and No. 316 in Top Free iPad Games. Its paid counterpart is ranked at No. 249 in Top Paid iPad Apps, No. 110 in Top Paid iPad Games and No. 361 in Top Grossing iPad Games. Follow the two versions’ progress through the App Store charts with AppData, our tracking service for mobile and social apps and developers.
It’s good — but it’s not quite enough to distinguish itself from Zynga’s well-established dominance on the word game market. Yet.