New puzzles reach out to wordplay game fans

The worldwide sudoku craze appears to be fading -- if electronic versions of the number-logic game are any indication. Since 2005, I've seen dozens of sudoku games for consoles, handhelds, computers and cell phones. On the schedule for 2008 are ... none.

I gave in to the fad for a while, in much the same way I got hooked on Tetris , Minesweeper or Bejeweled. Now that I've achieved a reasonable skill level, though, there's not much more to see. I've put aside sudoku and returned to my old two-crosswords-a-day puzzle regimen.

I'd love to see more video games based on word puzzles, and I think there's an audience out there. Casual gamers have made modest hits of PC games such as Bookworm and Text Twist , while the Facebook crowd has turned Scrabulous, a Scrabble knockoff, into a phenomenon.

Majesco did a terrific job last year translating The New York Times Crosswords to the Nintendo DS. And a handful of publishers are taking chances on new games that appeal to word mavens.

WORDJONG (DESTINEER, FOR THE NINTENDO DS, $19.99): Like last year's Puzzle Quest , which deftly combined Bejeweled and role-playing, WordJong mixes two old favorites: Scrabble and mah-jongg. It isn't as satisfyingly deep as Puzzle Quest , but makes for a nice 10-minute diversion.

Each screen presents a pile of mah-jongg tiles, now decorated with letters instead of symbols. You can use any tiles that are unblocked on the left or right, but instead of matching images you're forming words. You get bonus points for words that are longer than five letters or use less common letters like Z and X.

To complete a puzzle you need to remove all the tiles -- which often means settling for shorter words to balance your remaining letters.

WordJong serves up one fresh puzzle every day, or you can take on the "Temple Challenge," a series of increasingly difficult layouts. You can also play in turns versus a computer player or another human. WordJong has been available for computers and cell phones, but the DS stylus, an ideal controller for clicking tiles, makes this version the best.

THE VERDICT: *** out of ****

MY WORD COACH (UBISOFT, FOR THE WII, DS, $29.99): The Coach series (which also comes in French and Spanish versions) is closer in spirit to Nintendo's Brain Age titles. Bearing the imprimatur of a Canadian linguistics professor, it's designed to improve your vocabulary through a series of simple yet amusing exercises.

Some of the games involve spelling: You may be asked to fill in one missing letter or unscramble an anagram. Others involve matching words to their definitions. In the most pointless exercise, you're given a list of words you have to duplicate by clicking on blocks.

Your speed and accuracy determines your "expression potential," which suggests a career path, and I found it amusing that "journalist" ranks below "motivational speaker." I wish My Word Coach was more challenging and had a wider variety of games; you can learn a lot more by doing a newspaper crossword.

THE VERDICT: ** of ****

WORD PUZZLE (MICROSOFT, FOR THE XBOX 360, $10): The word search (or word seek, or word find, whatever you prefer) is kind of the slack-jawed cousin of the crossword, but this Xbox Live Arcade game livens it up a little by adding time limits and competitive play.

As with the pencil-and-paper version, you're given a list of words and a grid in which the words are hidden, running in all directions. Some of the puzzles give you extra points for finding a theme that matches all the hidden words; you can also score bonuses by matching opposites or finding a series of answers before a timer ticks down.

Competitive play can be pretty lively, although a game rarely takes longer than a minute. Lately, however, it's been hard to find any online challengers; I don't know if that's because of Xbox Live's recent technical issues or because players have gotten bored.

Word Puzzle could have been a nice change of pace for Microsoft's online service, but it's just too simple to recommend.

THE VERDICT: * 1/2 of ****