Zoe Bell from NYT Games: All about Connections

As an executive producer at The New York Times (NYT) Games, Zoe Bell helped create Connections, a word game that’s become a smashing success. In each day’s puzzle, players must sort a set of words into four categories, determining the hidden associations between them. We talked with Bell about how Connections was made – she’s even shared her winning tips.
NYT Games: Word Games & Sudoku
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Play: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and journey?
Zoe Bell: I’ve been in game development for almost 15 years. I started my career in Facebook games, working at Zynga. I was a producer on FrontierVille, which was a hit at the height of Facebook games. Then I moved into mobile games, eventually ending up at Kongregate, where I helped publish mobile games from developers all over the world.

After that, I went back into first-party development at Big Huge Games, working on a mobile free-to-play strategy game. When I saw this job posting at The New York Times, I knew that it was the perfect fit for me. Making games I love to play with the higher purpose of supporting journalism – sign me up!
How do you create each day’s game?
Wyna Liu, the puzzle editor for Connections, brainstorms the categories first and makes sets of four words. Then she looks back over that and makes boards with some overlap, so it’s not just four distinct sets [of words]. We have an editing and testing process where other people read the boards and provide feedback.

In every board, there’s one category that’s a lot harder than the others: the purple category. Those words might have a more complex connection than the other sets. For instance, the purple category might be “Red ____” and the answers are things like “Red Herring” and “Red Sox.” So, at a first pass, “herring” and “sox” wouldn’t appear to have anything in common, but you have to make that harder, next-level connection.
Step 1: You’ll see all 16 words to choose from
We’re seeing words from Connections and Wordle show up in top search terms (like “capybara” and “gnash”). What do you think of that?
As a game maker, it’s so rewarding to have so many people playing a game that I work on. Wordle was the most searched term of 2022, bigger than the Queen [Elizabeth II] even. It’s a surreal experience to have your game be mentioned on talk shows and Saturday Night Live. Like Animal Crossing, Wordle was a part of our collective pandemic experience. It brings us together, challenges our minds, and is a daily dose of fun. Seeing Connections start to do the same thing is equally amazing.
Step 2: Select four words you think have something in common
What have been some of your favorite categories?
I loved the board that was all 2-letter words. It was so clever and showed how you can be creative even within the constraints of a Connections board.

I generally do love the purple [most difficult] categories. I don’t always get them [right], but seeing the reveal and what Wyna was going for is fun.
Step 3: As you correctly group the words, their categories will be revealed
What tips do you have for players?
Don’t just select the first four connected words you see and press “Submit.” If you do that, you’re likely overlooking another word that could be part of the category you’re going for.

I always try to have two complete categories in mind before I make my first guess. Otherwise I find that I end up using an attempt on something that, in retrospect, is clearly not going to work.
Step 4: Keep playing until you’ve successfully grouped all the words!
What’s next for the NYT Games app?
This year, we've expanded the variety and breadth of puzzles offered in the app. In addition to adding Connections, we also added Sudoku, Tiles, and Letter Boxed. With this update, we rebranded the app from The Crossword to NYT Games.

With the additional games added to the app, we’re working to make it easier for users to find all of the games and features offered, including archives and the leaderboard for The Mini [short crosswords].
What other games do you play?
I love playing board games. I play less than I used to because I’ve got little kids, but we’re starting to get them into board games now too – Outfoxed is a favorite.

On the mobile side, I’ve been playing Words with Friends with my dad for about 8 years. We go back and forth each morning and evening. I love word games and puzzles, so I usually try new games as they come out and see what sticks.

For me, games are a way to connect with other people, whether it’s my kids, family, or friends. That’s why it’s so rewarding to be a part of Connections: I’m helping people have fun and have moments of joy with others.

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