Rules of Threes

“If [puzzle game] Threes was an animal, creationists would use it as evidence of the divine hand at work because its pieces fit together too perfectly.”

Kevin: I downloaded Threes last week. I’m not sure I’ve been this addicted to a puzzle game for iOS since Spelltower. Hell, it even makes a strong run at my all-time favorite, Drop 7.

But here’s the thing: no matter how much time I spend playing it — waiting for the subway, on the subway, in bed when I should be sleeping — I feel like I’m not getting any better. The game’s mechanics are stupidly simple: you add numbers together in multiples of three, based on four easy directional movements. And still I don’t know what I’m doing! I think this tweet from Gabriel Roth puts it best:

I looked at Game Center and saw that out of my twelve friends that play the game, I am ranked eleventh with only 3,420 points. At the top is you, with 27,762 points. Why is this game so much fun even though I don’t know what I’m doing? And how the hell did you accumulate so many goddamn points?


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Nick: Man, this game. I wanted to sneak in a quick round to get in the right mindset before responding, and I ended up playing for like an hour. So yeah, it’s definitely up there with the best/most addicting/most infuriating iPhone games I’ve played.

I could point to a couple things that make it so compelling, but they all come back to the game’s brilliant, deceptive simplicity. All you really do is combine numbers, but because of smart touches like how all the tiles move at once and the semi-random placement of new tiles, a ridiculous depth of strategy emerges. If Threes was an animal, creationists would use it as evidence of the divine hand at work because its pieces fit together too perfectly.

I try to keep my strategy pretty simple too. While I’ve seen a few people discuss managing the placement of tiles across the whole game, that sort of macro approach doesn’t work for me. Instead, I think of Threes as a “process game,” where I try to come up with some low-level principles and apply them scrupulously to every decision I make and trust that good results will emerge in the long term. So, my first priority is always to combine the pink and blue tiles. Even if I really want the satisfaction of mashing two big numbers together, I won’t do it if it screws up the balance of pinks and blues. That’s really important because a low-number tile in the wrong place can basically fuck up your whole game. Get rid of them.

When pinks and blues aren’t a concern, I just look for moves the ensure future moves. Generally, this means favoring moves that combine multiple numbers, since that frees up space on the board and provides more flexibility. I really try to avoid going multiple turns without any combinations because that can clog your board really quickly. (Remember, A-B-C: Always. Be. Combining.) And finally, I just try to get lucky. That big score happened when I got a 48 added to the board at just the right time, which is super rare.

I’m curious though, if you don’t feel like you’re making progress, what keeps you playing the game? The style? The music? The fascinating backstories of the anthropomorphized tiles?

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Kevin: OK, so I took your advice and prioritized combining the 1s and 2s as frequently as I could (and you’re right, not combining big tiles immediately was absolutely painful). I also followed some of the tips from the two links you sent and attempted building into one corner, reducing the number of movements I could make from four to three. After a few tries, I doubled my best score. It’s still a far cry from your 27,000-whatever, but it definitely worked.

I think your Threes philosophy highlights something that makes the game so appealing. Since Threes isn’t timed, it allows the player to move at his/her own pace. On top of that, since the actions you can take are limited to four directions (and as you noted, movements that can be previewed), you’re not crippled by unlimited time and overwhelming options (the biggest shortcoming of Spelltower). The leisurely speed Threes operates at makes it the perfect game for any moment that you want to distract yourself with an iPhone game; the depth of the mechanics suck you in for longer than you intended to play.

Adhering to the process you defined actually made the experience even more Zen-like. In some ways, it reduced my decision making into something more automatic. I actually played more quickly, but I also felt like since my choices needed to abide by the rigidity of your Glengarry Glen Ross philosophy, it took a lot of the thinking out the game. I’ve reduced a simple game into an even simpler set of actions. Threes was never a game about reflex, and now it’s not really a game of strategy. Strangely, I find this kind of mesmerizing, almost in the same way Flappy Bird is (but like four thousand times less annoying), but am I really playing Threes anymore?

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Nick: You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve actually put a ton of thought into that question over the last few years of my iPhone gaming habit. I gravitate toward turn-based puzzle games that only require a narrow part of my focus; last year’s under-appreciated Stickets is a perfect example. My approach to that game was just like it was for Threes: I came up with a basic strategy and applied it almost automatically so I could tune out while playing. And you’re right, at that point interacting with the game feels very little like “play.” There are few decisions to make and almost nothing to react to.

Why do so many of us find games like this so appealing? In an old Businessweek profile of Jonathan Ive, there’s this tidbit on his design philosophy:

[Ive] created a pen that had a ball and clip mechanism on top, for no purpose other than to give the owner something to fiddle with…”We began to call it ‘having Jony-ness,’ an extra something that would tap into the product’s underlying emotion.”

Because of the fully analog, semi-tactile nature of a touchscreen, iPhone games are overflowing with Jony-ness, and perhaps none more so than Threes. Just sliding blocks around feels great because the animation is so well done, but when they slot perfectly into place during a big combination, it’s so satisfying.

And these sorts of games offer a tiny but pure sense of completion. In Threes, you’re literally building a bigger number, and when you finish, you get the positive reinforcement of a score. Your scores will likely increase over time too, and that feels like progress. We tend to fit these games into little pockets of our lives when we’re either bored or stressed and we need a distraction. The psychological reward structure of games like Threes is incredibly soothing, which makes it the perfect diversion. Whether you’re putting in overtime on the toilet or taking a five minute break from staring at some foul Excel file, playing Threes will feel pleasant.

Well, until you accidentally put a 1 in the wrong goddamn place.