Wordle took an express ride from a breezy daily distraction to a seven-figure payday for its creator. No wonder everyone is copying it. But many—and there are so many—of its variants are similar exercises in wordplay. Far rarer is the Wordle clone that doesn’t feature any words at all.
Enter Subwaydle, a Wordle-inspired browser game based on the maddeningly byzantine New York City subway system. It’s the brainchild of Sunny Ng, a software engineer who’s previously created other transit-themed projects, including a real-time map of the subway replete with indicators about every line’s current quality of service. (The most common one these days? “Not good.”) Subwaydle isn’t the first non-word Wordle variant, but it has quickly garnered a lot of buzz, particularly among a certain subset of extremely plugged-in transit fans. It even received a nod from the popular transit blog Second Ave. Sagas.
“I came across a few fun Wordle variants last week, like Chengyu Wordle, which by the way made me realize how bad I am in regurgitating Chinese idioms, and Nerdle, a variant that requires you to come up with math equations, and I wanted to make something transit-related,” Ng told Kotaku.
Subwaydle is in part inspired by the trivia nights, held before the covid-19 pandemic ruined everything, at the New York City Transit Museum. Most nights would conclude with participants conjuring a hypothetical train ride through the city, taking turns rattling off the next station the train would hit. When the train hit interchange stations, players would have the option to hop onto a different train from a connecting line.
“It was so much fun and it’s probably one of the things I miss the most from before the pandemic,” Ng said.
Subwaydle came together faster than an A train ride from Columbus Circle to 125th St. Ng told Kotaku he started the project on Friday evening. It was live by Sunday.
Subwaydle shares a lot of its ruleset with Wordle. Every day, there’s a specific route connecting two of the subway’s 472 stations. Using two transfers, you have to design a three-train ride that would get you from one to the next. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the most efficient route, but it does have to physically work within the confines of the subway system—no out-of-station transfers or bus connections or anything like that. Lines that aren’t part of the route are reflected in gray, so you can rule those out. Lines that show up as yellow are part of the route but in the wrong spot, so you know they’re part of the solution. Those that show up as green are both part of the route and in the correct place. You get six tries.
During the week, Subwaydle can feature one of 6,835 possible combinations, Ng said. On weekends, there are 4,188 combos, because Subwaydle makes use of the city’s uniquely fucked up weekend scheduling. (Yes, the NYC subway switches up its service on weekends. It’s not always predictable, and is certainly not the sort of service you’d regularly see in other supposedly world-class subway systems.) Flying blind is tough, so Subwaydle features a hint button that’ll tell you where to start and where to end without actually giving away any of the lines involved in the day’s route. Still, pinpointing a solution can be bracingly difficult.
Take today’s challenge. After clocking three gray squares right out of the gate, I—a proud NUMTOT—caved and opened the hint. I learned that I’d need to create a route from Borough Hall, in downtown Brooklyn, to Grand Central–42nd St., in midtown Manhattan. Okay, so…I could start with the 2, 3, 4, or 5 trains. My second guess ruled out the 3 and the 5 trains, and my third guess correctly placed the 4 trains and the 42nd St. shuttle as the first and third rides, so all I’d need to do is figure out a transfer between those. Easy, right?
I failed three times in a row. The correct solution? 4 to the A to the shuttle. (In life and in Subwaydle, I constantly forget about the underground walking transfer between Port Authority and Times Square–42nd St.!)
Even Ng, who admittedly doesn’t use the hint system, is sometimes stumped. “I have done these every day, and I haven’t even been able to get the puzzles of the last 2 days,” he said
Ng recognizes the geographical limit of Subwaydle, that it may only appeal to those who live in the New York City metropolitan area, currently home to 20.1 million citizens, according to the latest census data. But he’s received a wave of positive feedback from folks who don’t live in the region: tourists, global transit fans, and, of course, those of the “why I left New York” set.
“It reminded them of New York,” he said.