Actually it's W.E.L.D.E.R., if you want to get technical about it, which stands for Word Examination Laboratory for Dynamic Extraction and Reassessment. It's an iPhone and iPad game debuted this month by Ayopa Games and Highline Games, a startup from some of the Rockstar NYC people. And it has been the largest single time-suck in my life for about three weeks now. Gameplay combines elements of Scrabble, Tetris and an old-school Jumble. And the touch-screen interface is so well-designed that it's just about impossible to put down. All the uncool kids are doing it.
When you start playing, you face a 64-tile board, much like Scrabble, only it's filled with random letters and a few blank tiles. Tap one letter, then another, and they swap places. The idea is to move them around to make a four-letter or longer word, generally using as few swaps as possible. Double-tap a blank tile and a virtual keyboard appears so you can chose a letter to fill it.
In the first round, it's only adjacent tiles that you can swap, but in subsequent rounds more complicated parlays are available. Each word you make disappears from the board, and random letters slide down to fill in, sometimes forming words on their own, like a Webster's pachinko machine.
Each round you get only so many swaps to make so many words, and the more creative you are in your choices, using rarer letters, the higher you score. More scoring buys you more swaps...
Non-word people are glazing over about now. But what's really addicting about this game - what's making it spread like wildfire, at least among my Bay State tribe - is the interface. The skin is a subtle mid-century Cold War modern, with peeling paint and big red and green buttons, like a word game in a missile silo. Here and there are touches of steampunk, like the brass-framed ticker scoring your words across the bottom of the game board. (Tap a word there, and you get a definition.)
And the sound design features two tracks. While you're thinking, there's an ominous ambient hiss and flutter, like the sound of slow decay in that missile silo or on early first-person shooter games. Feedback arrives as a clanging, dinging clamor when you make a word, reminiscent of the doors and gates sliding down on the opening credits of "Get Smart" or "MST3K." Over all the sense is of being a cog in a machine, combined with a meaningless Pavlovian payout each time you score. Why this is so appealing, I can't say. The sounds also annoy the crap out of anyone in the room with you, which may or may not be desirable.
The game's only real flaw is the dictionary, which misses some obvious words and includes others, while mostly skipping swears that would really come in handy sometimes. But they're taking dictionary suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last I looked, WELDER was $1.99 on the App Store, but it's sometimes discounted to 99 cents. My phone is an Android so I can't say how it would play on that smaller screen, but on iPad it's an addictive joy. I'm stuck on Level 8 at the moment, and my wife greeted the news that I'd scored 670 for PURRS thanks to bonus tiles with the same kind of cheerful but not actually excited "awesome" that she gives when I call her in to see a sports highlight on the news. But by then I was already on to the next word...