With ‘Strands,’ the New York Times has found its next hit game (2024)

New York (CNN) — Following the success of Connections and Wordle, the pressure was on for the New York Times to find its next hit game. It didn’t have to look far.

Strands, a word search game, is officially joining the newspaper’s portfolio of games Friday following a four-month testing phase in which it garnered millions of players despite being practically hidden. The puzzle marks the latest in a string of successes for Times’ Games section, which has helped grow the paper’s subscription business and bolster its bottom line in an era of declining advertising revenue.

During the testing phase, Strands was only playable on the web or via links from its other games. Now that it’s exiting beta testing, it will soon be added to the Times’ Games app, exposing it to millions of new players and joining the app’s collection of ten games, which also includes the Crossword, Spelling Bee and Soduku.

“Strands got very big, very quickly. It was a little bigger than we were ready for in the first few days,” admitted Jonathan Knight, head of Games at the Times. That’s partly because of the sustaining popularity of Connections, which was the second-biggest referrer to Strands behind people searching for it, and still has millions of players.

“We’re seeing the new games build on each other, so that’s really exciting as our audience has grown pretty significantly over the past couple of few years,” he told CNN.

What is Strands?

Strands, like Connections, was recently hatched at a “Game Jam”(think: a hackathon, but for games) and filled the need for a word search-type of game in the app. It “bubbled up as a version of a word search that was true to the New York Times’ games,” Knight said.

The Times’ research of its subscribers found that Wordle players also solve word search games, making Strands a natural addition to its lineup. Notably, Strands also shares the same editor of Wordle — Tracy Bennett — who, along with her team of editors and testers, craft the daily puzzles.

Strands is organized by a 6-by-8 grid of seemingly random letters with a category hint on the top. Players have to find several words relating to the theme. However, the Times’ twist is that they also have to find the “spanagram,” which describes what all the words have in common.

Knight suggests players to start at the corners of the puzzle and look for obvious words there. “If you get a toehold in the corner, you begin the process of filling out the whole board and it flows from there,” he said. “There’s a rush of accomplishment at the end.”

The solve rate is “fairly high” at 81% for Strands because of the hints that players get if they guess three words with at least four letters that aren’t part of the theme. That’s another part of the game, Knight said, because it challenges some people not to use the hints.

“It should be really solvable for most people on most days,” he said, especially compared to Connections, which is “deliberately a lot trickier.”

The easiness of Strands is part of the Games’ strategy to have an “overall range of puzzles for people to choose from that can be easier on one end and trickier on the other end,” Knight added. He noted that Wordle still remains its most popular game and was played 4.8 billion times last year.

Growth of games

Games and Times’ other apps like Cooking have been an essential part of the Times’ strategy to boost revenue beyond advertising. Revenue from digital subscriptions crossed $1 billion for the first time in 2023. The Times currently has 9.7 million digital-only subscribers and its games have been played more than 8 billion times last year, according to its annual report.

Games has helped the Times grow because news is a “crowded category and the market for subscriptions is limited, largely by ideology, and advertising against news is a declining market,” Brian Morrissey, author of the Rebooting, a media newsletter, previously told CNN.

The Times’ success has prompted other companies, such as LinkedIn and Hearst, to take notice and start creating their own games.

“Games have proven a powerful way to acquire new customers that might be open to a bundle with news but who otherwise wouldn’t subscribe to just news,” Morrissey added.

Times’ Games app lets people play some puzzles, like Wordle and Strands, for free. Full access, which includes the Crossword, a few other games and archives, costs $6 per month. The recently redesigned app has been downloaded 21 million times globally since 2019, according to Sensor Tower data, with the number of downloads soaring 113% last year.

Growth continued in 2024, with the number of downloads growing 165% in the first quarter of the year compared to the same time period a year prior, the market intelligence firm told CNN.

But with that success does come with some stress for Knight and his team to find the next, Wordle, Connections or even Strands.

“The bar is high now,” he said. “We’ve got a number of high-quality games in the app. As we go forward, we’re certainly not done and we think there’s room for more games, but we’re being even more thoughtful than ever.”

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With ‘Strands,’ the New York Times has found its next hit game (2024)
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