Think Hard About What You Want to Say In a Lovely Letter By Letter

My apologies to the guy I was playing this morning in Letter by Letter. You were assigned to me at random by the game's server. You played "bole," (a synonym for "trunk") which was a very good choice. I didn't have an S to tack onto the end of that and steal the whole thing. I countered with OOZE, you with POOL as we warred over those two Os. Then, snickering like a fifth-grader, I played BOOB.

Letter By Letter, for iOS and Android devices, can be a light-hearted timekiller with a friend or a wickedly strategic tug of war. The game, played between human players only, gives you a grid of 49 squares and a tray of eight letters that constantly replenish as you use them. The goal is to have the most letters on the board once it is filled or no more moves can be made.

Words can be arranged backward, forward, up-and-down, down-and-up. All that matters is that the letters are touching. Because being diagonal to a letter counts as touching, you can, with shrewd placement, skip over a problematic tile to the letters you need to make your play. The wide open nature of forming words is what makes a turn in Letter by Letter either easy or mind-wracking, depending on what you have in your tray.

The key strategy in Letter by Letter is to steal as much of a word as possible using as few of your own letters in the process. This both cuts down on your opponent's score while leaving him little to exploit in his turn. But you have to play at least one of your letters to spell a word.

In match against one of the game's creators, (it's made by Row Sham Bow, a studio founded by EA Sports alumni) it was not uncommon for me to see him to play the same word I'd just spelled, only using another letter or two or a different path to recreate it on the board. VAPOR was spelled different ways on three consecutive turns, for example. As the developer himself was doing this constantly, I deduced that it must be fundamental to winning.

Word-stealing is so critical because getting too far behind in the score as the tiles fill the board can leave you feeling mathematically eliminated. I dropped a couple of games for that reason, but I'm still competitive in the ones I have active. Letter by Letter allows you to connect to random players who have started games, or find opponents either through Facebook or by the account name they've created. (I'm dudemanbestbro1, if someone wants to go at it.)

There is always the option to create a new game, and if you get five or six going with people who are diligent about making moves, you can have some really extended play time, moving from match to match.

The game offers some wildcard choices other than playing a word. You can pass the turn, though I'm not sure why you would do that, because if you don't like your letters, you can either shuffle your tray (trade out all of them, but be unable to play a word after doing so) or throw a bomb, which blows up both your tray and your opponent's. Bombs cost coins, which you'll receive if someone bombs you. You may only play three bombs in a game.

You may earn coins through gameplay, or buy them outright in-app. Bombs were so last-resort optional to me I didn't feel like the game pushed me to spend extra money just to have a good time. The free version of the game is ad-supported, and will serve you offers of coin awards to take a survey or enroll in something. The ads are not obnoxiously intrusive, but if you don't want to see them, the non-ad version of Letter by Letter is $2.99. Kudos to Row Sham Bow for having the guts to price this at what they think it is really worth, instead of scheming up a way to sell it for a buck and squeeze money from the customer later.

Letter by Letter's pick-up-and-play availability—remarkable for a game with no CPU opponents—coupled with its simple premise and strategic demand, makes it easily recommendable as either the free, ad-supported app or the $2.99 version.

Letter by Letter [Row Sham Bow, for iOS and Android. Free/$2.99]