Nerding Out With the Wordle for Math Lovers: Nerdle

Published Mar 5, 2024

Richard Mann of Nerdle
Richard Mann of Nerdle
Richard Mann of Nerdle

Hi! Can you tell us who you are and about your work?

Good day, everyone! I’m Richard Mann, the CEO of Nerdle—a Math puzzle game inspired by Wordle! I have a lot of experience under my belt, and I’m a data scientist, physicist, accountant, financier, business executive, startup proponent and avid puzzle solver. I currently hold multiple positions at different companies, but for today, I’ll be talking primarily about the game company I founded, Nerdle.

Nerdle is a game that you play with a little bit of arithmetic and logic, and to solve it is to arrive at the correct calculation. The calculations are inputted using each cell, and these cells change color depending on your answer. You have several chances to work out the right calculations, and making educated and logical guesses depending on the color of the cells will lead you straight to the answer. Try it for yourself and solve it in the least amount of attempts possible!

You said you’re a physicist, why didn’t you pursue a career in that field?

I think the UK is a little unusual in that people who come out of universities tend to not have an idea of what career or industry they want to go into. To be honest, it’s quite common to find someone here, who, let’s say, finished a degree in Physics then ended up doing accounting, then a few years down the line, would be doing something completely unrelated.

In fact, I joined one of the big accounting firms very early on in my career, and I had no idea I’d spend three years of my life becoming an expert photocopier. But I was surrounded by a lot of bright people, and we considered joining that company as a mini MBA of sorts and got a bit of money out of it. Then technology came into my view, and I very quickly realized that I just loved tech.

I was working with all sorts of clients but I really liked working with smaller firms. The company I worked for before was huge, and I also realized that I just wasn’t cut out for the corporate world that well.  Then in 1999, I did my first startup with a very good friend of mine, a literal bedroom startup! We started working on things in his bedroom, then from that point on I just got a bug and the rest is history.

My career is a mishmash of everything, and I like to think of myself as a jack of all trades. I dabble in all sorts of things, so there’s still a bit of a passion for the sciences and Maths and education, and really, I think that’s also why ended up creating Nerdle.

How did Nerdle come to be?

To be honest, I’ve done a lot of startup work, and Nerdle is a random one. It was just out of the blue, really. I’ve never even created a game before it! Sure, I’ve played some made-up games with my kids before, but I’ve never created a digital game before. I’ve got two wonderful, very wonderful children, by the way! One son and one daughter. And the story starts with me and my daughter in a traffic jam.

Me and my daughter were in the car, talking about Wordle. We both loved Maths and it took a couple of minutes before that kind of train of thought went into the deep end and we thought whether a Wordle-like Math game would work. We did a back-and-forth, thought roughly about how it would work, tried it that evening and ended up launching it two days later!

And, really, I think this may be the only big game that I can create. Sure, we’ve made some spin-offs with it, but I’m really not sure it gives me any guarantee of being successful with any other game, ever. I can give a few more tries at making a digital game, yes, but I’m not really confident I’d reach the same level of success as I did with Nerdle.

What are the major differences between handling a B2B venture and Nerdle?

Well, I wouldn’t say with full certainty that my experience reflects every B2B business, but there are definitely a couple of stark contrasts between Nerdle and the businesses I’ve worked with before. 

So the first one is that absolutely everything is automated. It’s a true pleasure to run a business that generates its revenue through advertising, which in turn, runs itself and scales itself. And all I’ll have to worry about is a few ideas for new games and making sure that nothing falls over. But that in itself also poses a unique challenge, as you have to make sure you’re in a situation where you can scale as fast as the market wants, but you don’t have control over it. However if you get it just right, it becomes very rewarding in terms of just letting things evolve in their own way.

Unlike with normal B2B scenarios, I’m not trying to hire staff to do everything, nor am I trying to negotiate contracts with customers every time there’s something that I want to sell. So in that perspective, it’s really refreshing to have a business that effectively runs itself. 

Speaking of personnel, I don’t work with a big team. It’s like, what was the saying? One and a half people and a dog. There’s not much to it when it comes to Nerdle, but that also has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. There are not many people to work with in Nerdle, which means things get done quicker, but it also gets quite lonely at times. In a normal business setting, everyone interacts with everyone at some point, but for me, I have to go out of my way just to have reasons to talk to people about the business.

Business Relationship

There’s also the unique relationship between me and the end customer. In a normal B2B setting, the customer is always right and you’d almost always end up being kind of subservient to them. You have to keep them happy, as they are the ones you need to sell your product to. 

In contrast to a consumer business, that may have hundreds of thousands or even millions of users, you want to make sure that you can keep a majority of your customers happy. Keyword, majority. Unlike with a B2B, you can have disagreements with your customers there and not get crippled by it. You can decide which customers you want to look after and keep and which ones you don’t.

Here at Nerdle, they don’t have any obligation to tell you what’s on their mind regarding the games. They don’t have to, they’re not paying you or anything, but they’ll still reach out to you and show their appreciation. And it’s extremely rewarding to hear from the users, and know that they go out of their way to tell me how amazing Nerdle is and Math isn’t scary and all that… It’s an experience that I’ve never seen before in business, and the feeling is just unmatched.

Can you tell us about your thought process for creating variations of the classic Nerdle?

Okay, so obviously we’re inspired by Wordle, and it’s a daily game—meaning you can’t go more than one game a day. So even if you wanted to play some more, you had no choice but to wait or go to another place that was a copy of some sort of Wordle. So we had an interesting debate about whether we’d do it like Wordle or go all out from the get-go. See, the benefits of one game a day are like… it’s a little snack, you don’t want to eat too many things at once. With daily games of that kind, you settle on a routine that may be insufficient for you, but it does give you something to look forward to every day, and that’s a good thing!

We had that in mind, but we also weren’t sure what would happen if we went, okay, all bets are off and everyone can just keep playing puzzles as much as they want. So we settled on a hybrid setup, where players could solve different variants of the classic Nerdle. It scratched the itch of wanting more but at the same time kept you from getting sick of playing the same thing over and over again.

And the first one we did was the Mini Nerdle; a smaller and easier version of the classic one that’s intended for younger audiences, but even if you weren’t a kid, it was still fun to play! Then there was the other way around for the more passionate Math players, the Maxi Nerdle. It’s the harder version that’s meant for older audiences, and believe me, most of the players on the site are my kind of age.

So with all these variations we made, we had many things in mind on what to target. The easier ones like the Mini and Micro Nerdle were designed with schools in mind. We made it as fun and accessible as possible so that if teachers thought that this was fun, then it would be easier for kids to pick up on it and enjoy it as well. However, it’s important to know that Nerdle isn’t a replacement for actual education. It’s more of a tool that will help teachers improve the learning experience and show that Math isn’t as scary as it looks.

How about the branding of Nerdle, can you tell us more about it?

Oh, that’s partly the excellent work of my daughter, Imogen. Remember when I said that we’d created the concept of Nerdle in a car together? Yeah, she helped me a lot with Nerdle in general. She’s sixteen now, and loves computer science, and now she’s doing all these subjects in school and university, but even before all that, she had a better eye for design than I did! Yeah, she’d look at the ideas I’d show and she’d say they were awful then put me straight on what things should look like.

So we’ve tried to come up with color schemes that were both aesthetically pleasing and nerdy. It had to be nerdy because, well, it’s Nerdle! So the three hex values for our color scheme come from the magic number; the number that you find in nature and all over the place. So the values literally come from the first 18 digits of the magic number. We went through all the others like pi, square root of two, square root of three… but their color schemes looked awful. But with the magic number, it doesn’t look too bad, and that’s the nerdy little secret behind our colors.

As for the characters, they came in a bit later. So less than a year ago, I wanted to give Nerdle a bit more personality, and I’ve worked with a wonderful creative designer over the years who’s done t-shirts and all sorts of things for the businesses I’ve been involved with before. And for the life of me, I don’t know why I didn’t do it before, but I asked him to create a toolkit of things for me to use. I’m not a great designer, never was. So with that toolkit, I could create things out of components, and we settled on a robot. For different things, I’d just have to replace its head and arms and stuff and I’d end up with a character full of charm and personality, and the audience have affectionately dubbed them as “Numbots”.

Do you have a set schedule on when you’re going to release games or is it more of a spontaneous action?

It’s probably more of both things. We’ve dabbled with marketing and advertising strategies to try and get new users, and I find it a little unpredictable and not as effective compared to giving the audience we have right now something new to talk to their friends about. They are always looking for something fresh and new, and it’s great to get feedback from the Nerdle audience themselves on new games before we release them for the public.

And for that, we have quite a large email list. We can do push notifications to ask people to test a new game and give us feedback regarding difficulty and fun levels before it goes out. But probably 50% of this whole action is to create content for our long-standing audience and give them something to talk about and share. And the other 50% is, you know, the business aspect. Nerdle is still a business, and I had an amazing start. Imagine, we spent $250 in four weeks and we had a million plus people playing Nerdle! But on the flip side, we know that it can’t carry on forever, interest will eventually die down at some point. People stopped talking about Wordle and sharing scores on social media, and I knew that too would happen to Nerdle.

So now, I’m mostly focused on creating games for the audience that do want more and try not to pander to risky actions that won’t bear fruit in terms of interest and traffic.

Speaking of traffic, can you tell us more about that?

Roughly speaking, 75% of our overall traffic comes from the classic Nerdle and its immediately similar spin-offs, and the rest of the 25% comes from the other Math games we have on the site, like CrossNerdle and Nanagrams. They look hard, but I promise you all they’re all worth giving a try, and Maths isn’t as scary as you think it is. But yeah, we have a lot of people coming to play the classic games, but we won’t stop creating new games to freshen everything up and attract more interest from our dedicated audience.

How do you validate the games you push out on Nerdle?

Well, I’m lucky enough to have enough involvement from my family, and they are the first line of QA testing, which can be pretty ruthless, to be honest. I have tons of ideas for Nerdle, but like, only 10% get through that first screening. So yeah, I’m often told at the breakfast table that I shouldn’t be ridiculous or that this idea’s rubbish.

But beyond that, it’s not like running a business where it takes a lot of money to develop a new game once you’ve got an idea. It’s actually quite easy to test some things by making them myself and testing them myself. I’m very involved in the development process, and I can do much more coding than I could two years ago.

And I actually find that once you start to put a game on the screen, you can quickly realize that some things you thought would work don’t and some things you thought were ridiculous actually end up functioning well. But I tend to play with a small number of friends and we all try it out and see how things go, then once that goes through, I move forward with the Nerdle audience as a bigger test group, and they’re generally very willing to help.

We heard that Bill Gates played Nerdle at some point, how’d that go?

Oh, that’s great! This has to be one of my absolute highlights in handling Nerdle, in like, at any point in time! So I’ll be telling you what I know happened, and what I think happened.

I have a Google News alert set up for things relating to Nerdle. And I think it was on a Friday evening, I was sitting at home on the sofa and it gave off a notification saying something about Bill Gates. Of course, I wondered what that is, and I looked into it and there was a video a couple minutes long, which I immediately assumed was a hoax.

Because, really, why would Bill Gates of all people be playing Nerdle and telling the world how to solve it?! Then I watched it. I watched it again. And again. Then it settled. Bill Gates was actually playing Nerdle and told everybody about it. It generated a lot of excitement on Instagram and suddenly I was getting all these messages saying another person was following me and all that. That’s what I know actually happened.

And this is what I think happened on the Bill Gates side. I’m not entirely sure, but I have a feeling. So Bill Gates is often writing content about extremely worthy causes like child famine, education, conflict and all that, and I think his team decided that they should do some nice content this time and do something more casual. Something more fun and away from all the craze and serious stuff.

And so I think his team suggested that they do a vlog about that, and I can just imagine at the end of that session: he’d got the recording in the can and then written the article, and he probably turned around and said, “Actually, my favorite game isn’t Wordle, it’s Nerdle.” And the rest of the team probably went and said that they’d never heard of it! And then they just recorded a video of Bill Gates telling the world how he likes playing Nerdle and how to play it, and it’s one of the best demo videos I could ever imagine.

So yeah, after all that hit, I fell off of my sofa and had to get up! I picked myself up and thought, “How on Earth do I get Bill Gates to respond to something?!” So I decided that my best bet was to create a Nerdle puzzle generator using Excel and I posted that on Twitter. I got a response from the Bill Gates account, and I have no idea if it’s actually him, but the account said that it made his day, and I was just ecstatic about the whole affair. And if it wasn’t obvious with how I delivered it to you right now, I still am, and always will be, excited to talk about this event in my life.

One of Nerdle’s missions is to make Math more fun and interesting for kids, how is that going?

That’s a tricky one because there are a lot of factors that are in play. Personally, I think Maths is fun, sorry, we call it Maths here in the UK. But honestly, I think part of the barrier that restricts someone from enjoying the fun part of Maths is attitude. For example, if your parents had a bad time with Maths and don’t like it, then you’d obviously end up not liking Maths as well. Nerdle is simple arithmetic, there’s nothing complicated in there, but if you just don’t like Maths and view it in the same light as the stuff you dread doing in school, then it’ll just end up looking difficult and boring to you.

But I also have to say that while Nerdle isn’t complicated, it doesn’t mean that it will be easy for someone that already doesn’t like Maths or is adverse to it. For a person who doesn’t like Maths in general, it would look like a challenge not worth taking on, but for people like me who grew up well with Maths, it’s more of a puzzle than something I have to push myself to finish, you know?

So the trick with Nerdle is that it makes everyone perceive it as not necessarily Maths, it’s just something with numbers but it’s not the difficult and boring things most people dread taking on. Once that perception changes, the overall attitude towards Maths changes, and people, especially kids, start enjoying it for what it is.

Nerdle as a Cause

Nerdle was being played quite a lot in schools very early on and that was really encouraging. We’re keen on doing our part in improving child numeracy, but we know we can’t solve it on a worldwide scale. But with Nerdle, we can make a little bit of a difference by giving teachers something fun to use and improving the reception of Maths as a whole.

We’ve also been lucky enough to have an audience that is happy to support some charitable initiatives that we’ve done. We’ve raised some money for Save the Children, a UK charity that sponsors kids in developing countries, and we’ve found things like advent calendars involving different Maths questions every day. All these have raised a few thousand dollars along the way, but it’s not massive in the grand scheme of things. Even so, we want to help improve things even just a bit and assist in our own way.

What’s the most common feedback you’ve received for Nerdle?

We have two main sources of feedback for Nerdle: solicited and unsolicited. It also helps that we have made it easy for anyone to contact us regarding the game. We have lots of unsolicited feedback from emails, and the most common one is stating that the game doesn’t work. This is a common misunderstanding of the operations involved in the arithmetic part of the game, primarily because multiplication and division come first.

Beyond that is the solicited feedback, and they’re usually in the form of emails, surveys and social media. And they’re the more constructive ones, especially the ones from our registered users, but some of them we take with a pinch of salt as we do want to create games that can attract a wider audience.

And right now, I think we have less than 5% of our overall audience as registered users. Nerdle doesn’t require you to register in order to play, but signing up opens up several features that are exclusive to registered users, like stat tracking and such.

What’s your stance on game ads and your current monetization scheme?

As you can already guess, we primarily monetize through ads. And I’m going to say this upfront, I’ve never handled a consumer business before, so I had to make this up as I went on. Our ads, if you don’t like them, you can turn off ads for three days. We don’t have a paid subscription service, but we do offer cloud storage where you can store your info like stats and stuff so it wouldn’t get lost.

For the monetization through ads, we were lucky that we got traction right off the bat, and I got approached for a sponsorship deal and that was the first piece of revenue that we did. It lasted for a few weeks then we switched it out for Google AdSense, which was quick but didn’t have anything else going for it.

So everyone I consulted with told me that I should talk to a good agency to get quality ads and better revenue. And we did, now someone else handles the ads for us, and it’s the best decision to make operation-wise.

We can’t please everybody, of course, but we did put in something that can improve the experience enough to retain them while also getting us the revenue we needed. Win-win for everyone.

Is there any advice you’d like to offer game startups?

It’s my first time handling a consumer business, but I’ve got tons of experience in multiple fields that provide me with more than enough knowledge. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Take all the inspiration you can get

Nerdle, the game that it is, was conjured up in the middle of a traffic jam. If that can spark inspiration for creating something, anything and any situation can. Draw inspiration from everything around you, and you’d be surprised to arrive at something completely unexpected.

2. QA is crucial

In every operation and business, QA is very important, especially if you’re going to cater to a lot of people with different backgrounds and preferences. With Nerdle, my family is the first line of testing, then my friends, then our fans, then it goes to the general public. While going for a mass audience from the get-go has its own appeal for a major overhaul of something, it puts the name of the product, and in this case, the game, at very high risk with middling results.

What is your preferred game?

Aside from Nerdle, which I play a lot, I enjoy solving puzzles the most. I start my day off by playing with the various Math games we’ve created—both because they’re fun and also for QA purposes. If I’m not playing our own games, I do play all kinds of puzzles, especially, of course, Wordle.

Waffle is another word game I play extensively, and I’m proud to say a fellow Brit created it, James is a lovely guy and is very pleasant to talk with.

What’s your plan for the future?

I think we’ll just keep going at the pace we’re in. We make our primary audience happy, we get enough revenue and we’re continuing our own internal development as well. We’ve just launched our new game, 2D Nerdle, and it’s out for everyone to play, but we’ll continue making more Nerdle games for everyone to enjoy and share.

Where can we learn more about you and your game?

I don’t know why you’d be looking for me, but you can definitely search and learn about me on social media and in the About section of nerdlegame.com! You can also follow us on the social media links below the homepage of our website, and we highly encourage that you try out the fun of Maths through Nerdle and share it with your friends!

Have a game to sell?

Let’s find out if we play well together.