April 23, 2012

How I Scored A Million Points In SpellTower [Guest Post]


SpellTower Champ Jerry
My father-in-law Jerry is great at word puzzles. He’s a retired economist for the FTC with a passion for music and a life-long interest in math and science. He says he dabbles in games and puzzles “occasionally for relaxation,” but that understates his skill. At family gatherings, he wins practically every game of Scrabble, Boggle, Bridge, you name it.

Over the holidays, I showed him SpellTower on my iPad. The game combines elements of Boggle and Tetris, and I thought he would enjoy it. By the time I took my iPad back at the end of the trip, he had already broken the SpellTower “Puzzle Mode” record on the Game Center leader board by almost 100,000 points (and shattered my high score of 17,876 which I thought was pretty good). He still has the high score on the leader board with 167,275 points.

Like most people who play the game once, he was hooked, so he bought SpellTower for his own iPad. The other day he told me that he’s been playing the same continuous game for over a month now and has obliterated his own high score. He has passed 1,000,000 points, adding about 20,000 points a day. He’s confident he can keep playing as long as he wants. (His score won’t show up in Game Center until he ends the game).

On Jerry’s behalf, I bragged to SpellTower creator Zach Gage via Twitter. Zach replied, “Holy [expletive]. He is a beast. I want to know his strategy.”

So I asked Jerry if he would share his strategy. Some of it may seem obvious, and some of it you may not have considered, but here it is in full, explained in his own words in this blog’s very first Guest Post:

How I Scored A Million Points In SpellTower

The key to getting a high score is patience. Don’t play too fast, and don’t feel that you have to enter a word just because you found it. There is no problem in letting several turns go by without making any words at all — that just gives you a bigger collection of letters and more choices.

Approaching one million points
The main strategic principle is to avoid developing towers on the sides of the board. Instead, try to cultivate a shape in which the board is even, or better yet, shaped like an upside down U where the middle columns are higher than the sides. The reason for this is simple: the side rows are the hardest to clear because there are fewer possible words to make when you can connect to letters on just one side. So always look first for words that use letters in the extreme side columns. If you can’t find any, just add another row until you can. Always enter the letters one by one until the board displays exactly which letters will be removed. Then examine the effect it will have on your shape before you hit the last letter a second time to enter the word. Look before you leap.

The next principle is to make long words rather than short ones. The obvious advantage is that you clear more letters, since five (or more) letter words clear all adjoining squares. You also avoid selectively removing the letters with no nasty little 6’s in the corners, creating a board in which most of the remaining letters do have these nasty 6’s. Yet another advantage is that you save the short, common words for an emergency. If you quickly use up many of the three letter words, you won’t have those words left to help you when they are the only way to save you from death. So again, if you can’t find a long word, it is usually better to add a row of letters than to make a 3 or 4 letter word. Save the short ones for emergencies and to help cut down pesky little towers or accumulations of black spaces before they get out of control. Even more important: save up the short J, X, Q, and Z words, because they are really helpful in a jam.

There is one more special technique that is handy when you really need it. Sometimes you just can’t find any word, and you are close to death. Rather than taking a chance with getting good letters in your next row, you can sometimes find a word which is almost connected, but not quite. By making a short word that removes a letter or two that is in the way, you can sometimes connect the word and use it in your next turn to clear out a critical column.

I haven’t said anything about how to find words — this is an issue common to all of these words games, most notably Boggle. Just use the same strategies, such as keeping an eye out for common sequences such as ER, ING, ION, etc., and keep trying different shapes and possibilities.

And one more thing — don’t be afraid to guess. No matter how many words you know, there are thousands of other words that SpellTower recognizes that you have never heard of before. So if you are in a jam, just press in any plausible sequence of letters, and you will find that a surprising number of them are accepted as words.

It really all comes down to patience. Never make a word just because the word has a high score. One word is worth nothing. Staying alive is everything. If adding an S to your word gives you another 100 points but makes your shape worse, leave out the S! If you find a 6 letter word that increases the size of a side tower by 1, spend a little more time and try to find a different one that has a better effect on your shape. If you find a great word that gives you 1000 points but eats up the middle of the board, you are just tempting fate. In fact, if you are playing the regular puzzle mode, there is no need to die. The only thing that would be guaranteed to do you in is that eventually you will use up so many words that there won’t be enough left. But even that is not a problem, because I have discovered that the memory cache for the words already used is too small, so that if you play long enough, you can start using the same words a second or third time. This starts kicking in after you have amassed about 600,000 points. But to get there, you really need patience!


I… I want to play this man at Boggle. Or Scrabble. Or… any word game ever created by the hands of humankind.

I got insanely hooked on Tower Mode when the game first came out. I think I was the first person to get over 2000 for a single word (EXPERIMENTALIZES). I haven’t played for months and am still in the top ten for Best Word and Tower Mode (although I see Jerry is a little higher than me in the latter!).

I never really got into Puzzle Mode but might just go back and have a look now. Thanks for a great article!

Glenn (Glum)