Okay, I confess (7 letters). I’m a Countdown nut. I record the show every day, watching episodes in lumps of two or three when I have a spare moment. I still miss Richard Whiteley. I silently count how many letters there are in words I think of. And yet, somehow, I only recently discovered that I could play my beloved game whenever (8 letters) I want on my phone. The question is, does the game live up to my high expectations?
Countdown: What is it?
For strange people who haven’t spent their lives watching afternoon TV, a brief word on Countdown itself. It’s the longest-running show on Channel 4 (indeed, launching the channel back in 1982), and now consists of 15 rounds – a mix of words, numbers and, to end it all, a conundrum (a nine-letter anagram).
The word round involves drawing a random mix of vowels and consonants. So, a contestant might choose four vowels (EAAE in my example here) and five consonants (CLXDR). You then find the longest word you can out of those nine letters within 30 seconds. In this example, I spotted RELAXED for seven. I could also have had DECLARE. Either of those would score me 7 points, assuming my opponent didn’t find a longer word.
Then there’s the numbers game. Here, you can choose up to four “big numbers” (25, 50, 75 or 100) and up to six “small numbers” (1 to 10). In total, you choose six numbers. Then the computer generates a random number between 100 and 999. In the example below, I’ve chosen one big number and five small numbers.
Those turned out to be 100, 10, 4, 9, 10 and 7. And the number generated was 723. The idea is to use basic algebra (addition, division etc) to hit that number. In the 30 seconds available, I only got to 723 (7 x 100, then add 10, 10 and 4) but that could have been solved by adding the 10, 9 and 4 together (I know, I’m a fool).
The game ends with the Conundrum. Again, you get 30 seconds to solve a nine-letter anagram. Here, the nine letters are arranged into the nonsense phrase SAD BEREFT. Can you solve it?
If you did, you’re a better person than I. The answer was Breastfed.
Countdown review: What is the game?
There are three main things you can do in the Countdown game, most of which will depend on how much time you have.
First, there’s Practice (8 letters). This gives you a chance to get to grips with the three elements of Countdown (numbers game, letters game, conundrum) without the pressure of playing against the computer (well, the phone, but you know what I mean).
Then we have Quick Play. Here, you can play the computer, a second player, or just play on your own – this is much like Practice, but your stats are recorded and you play out the pre-defined rounds. Unlike the full game, it only consists of five rounds: two words, two numbers and a conundrum.
Pressing Play takes you to a replica of the full Countdown experience. That’s 15 rounds, ten of which are words, four numbers and the final and possibly decisive conundrum.
In both the Play and the Quick Play, you have the choice of playing on your own (so you’re just shooting for the highest possible score), against the computer or against another player. The latter mode involves you passing the phone between you, with no sneaky looking to see what your opponent picks out.
Countdown review: What’s to love?
While I still watch Countdown religiously (11 letters, so of no use to me), in some ways I prefer the app. Of course you miss the human interaction, but you can pick the game up whenever you want – and it’s an amazing way to improve your vocabulary. At the end of each letters round, the computer will reveal the longest word available, and what it means.
Likewise, you know that if a numbers problem can be solved, then the computer will solve it. Although, to be fair to the algebraically brilliant Rachel Riley, I suspect this is equally true of her.
While some may criticise the fact you need to pay for the app, that does mean zero ads. And, you don’t need an internet connection. Inter-continental flights with my co-editor Barry will never be the same again.
Countdown review: What’s to hate?
It took me quite a while to get to grips with the numbers game. Not only do you need to work out how to solve the problem, but you also have to work out how to press all the on-screen symbols in exactly the right sequence to show the computer you’ve done it. That’s no easy task in 30 seconds, because it’s so easy to press 70 + 3 when you meant 70 x 3, or to press numbers in the wrong sequence. I’ve got better over time, but it’s an annoying learning curve.
Countdown review: How good is the computer?
You have a generous choice of four modes: Easy, Normal, Hard and Expert. Most ten-year-olds will be able to beat the Easy mode in the word games, the Normal is a decent standard, the Expert is incredibly tough to beat. If you’re a Countdown nerd myself, you’ll probably gravitate to the Hard option most of the time.
In the word game, the AI is pretty accurate. It’s numbers where the algorithm shows its quirks. Whereas we humans are programmed to understand the ten times table pretty darn well, it seems the computer is just as adept with multiplying 9 by 76 as it is 10 x 76. That means it’s weirdly good at solving the numbers game when you have six small numbers to choose from, although it will then muck up what a human could spot quite easily.
Still, overall, choosing one of those options is likely to give you a good game.
Countdown review: Are there any social extras?
If you’re the type of person who loves to share, then you’ll be delighted to know Countdown ties in with Google’s Play Games platform. You can then battle with others for top numbers of Play, Quick Play and Conundrum wins.
There are also 24 achievements to unlock, from beating the Expert AI to playing a single-letter word. They aren’t too hard to unlock, and it’s a bit disappointing that more achievements aren’t automatically made available once you’ve done so.
Also note you can’t play opponents across the internet, so it isn’t a true rival to Words for Friends.
Countdown review: How much does it cost and should I buy it?
At £1.99, Countdown is assuredly (9 letters) the best-value item I’ve ever bought from an app store. It’s now my go-to game when I have a few minutes to while away, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got better at the game due to the regular practice. I’ve toyed with loads of other word games, from Scrabble to WordBrain and dozens in between, but this is the best of the lot.