Often, you won’t have much choice in which corner to take, but, if you can, defend the one with the highest-value letter — either a letter that occurs but once on the board or a vowel. Even if you can’t take a whole corner, try to take as much of one as you can. You might be able to claim it in the next round.
Beyond corner conquests, occupy as much of the board as you can in the first rounds. Each time, play as long a word as you can muster — at least 6 letters. Your opponent will surely steal many of those letters back the next turn, but don’t make it easy.
Before playing your first word, study the board carefully. See what letters lie in the corners and where the vowels and most-used consonants are. Think about some of the words that might be played in the match. Visualize the possibilities by testing out words, even for future rounds, before acting on the current turn.
Also think carefully about not just the words you can play, but how your opponent could turn them against you. Choose poorly, and even the best of openers will be for naught. For example, an opponent of mine opened with AWARES, defending a corner E. Unfortunately, he didn’t anticipate I could play UNAWARES on my turn, depriving him of all but his now-undefended corner E.
Awareness of the board, and all possible permutations of a word, is critical in Letterpress. If I play POOLED, my opponent can’t play POOL, because that’s a prefix of POOLED; but if there’s an S on the board, he can play POOLS. That’s okay, because I can strike back with LOOPS. If he plays LOOPED, I can counter with SPOOLED, and so on.
While all of that is going on, the point advantage is flipping back and forth between my opponent and myself. I call this back and forth “tick-tock.” As I’ll demonstrate later, understanding the tick-tock rhythm is essential to winning at Letterpress.
If you play following an opponent’s really great opening, you’re at a disadvantage, but not an insurmountable one. Like Microsoft in the ’90s, you want to “embrace and extend.” “Embrace” the opponent’s letters by using as many as possible, and “extend” by using unclaimed letters, preferably taking another corner as you do so.
However, the current first-mover advantage might be short lived. Developer Loren Brichter told me that he’s considering adding a “pie rule,” which would allow the second player to veto the opening move. If that happens, this section will still apply, but you’ll probably want to make less aggressive openers.
Once the game is underway, Letterpress becomes an all-out war. Like any good general, you want to keep your troops in a tight formation. Spread your letters out willy-nilly around the board and the enemy will easily pick them off. Keep them close together to make them easier to defend.
Ideally, you want to “march” across the board, claiming and defending letters line by line, building a wall as you go. If you’re able to start from a corner, you can build either horizontally or vertically — maybe both. And if your opponent gives you the opportunity to take more corners, by all means do so; just don’t spread yourself thin.
As you make your way across the board, you want to defend as many vowels as you can. According to Brichter, there are at least three vowels (excluding Y) on every board, but never more than seven. Other than ZZZ (yes, it’s legal, according to Brichter), vowel-less words are few and far between. Block them off and your opponent is cut off at the knees.
Of course, the path of glory is never an easy one. The score in a well-matched game will be a constant tick-tock between you and your opponent. For that reason, you almost never want to play a word that would leave you even or at a point disadvantage to your opponent, because he or she can then steal your letters and put you in a hole that will be hard to climb out of.
In order of priority, you want to use your opponent’s letters, unclaimed letters, and your own letters (as you get no points for reusing your own). Also, don’t fall into the trap of just stealing letters, or you’re spinning your wheels. Try to make every word a mix of stolen and fresh letters, so you can hamper your opponent as you expand. Embrace, extend, and extinguish.
Speaking of unclaimed letters, they act as something of a clock for the game. As each one is captured, the end draws closer. If you have a significant advantage, use them as fast as you can, but if you’re behind, avoid them to give yourself time to catch up. Tick, tock.
With only a few unclaimed letters left, the end is nigh. More often than not, the decisions you make here will decide your fate.
The “tick-tock” concept becomes crucial at this point, because, in a close game, the player who ends the game usually wins. When only a handful of letters remain, ask yourself before every play, “If I do this, can my opponent finish the game?” If the answer is yes, don’t do it.