I don't even know where to start. Threes is an app, for iPhones. It's a game, actually. You swipe it a lot. When you swipe, you merge numbers together and a new number emerges. Your goal is to get a really big number. Eventually the game board fills up, and then the game is over. Tap retry. Keep swiping.

Let's start with strategy, I guess. That's one of the first things I learned. After a few weeks of everyone swiping aimlessly, some guides emerged promising to help you nab those big scores. "Strategy" is a loose term, though. Think of it like Tetris: you're trying to create a structure to facilitate incoming pieces, whatever they might be. In Threes, that usually means putting your big number in a corner, and channeling everything toward there. But you still lose eventually. Like Tetris, Threes is hard to "solve."

Working on some ThreesWorking on some Threes

The depth of Threes is a product of its intense, prolonged development, which was chronicled at length after the game's launch. There are literally 42,500 words you can read about the Threes development process, a must-read document for any software developer or designer interested in what "iteration," "collaboration," and "perfectionism" really look like.

Of course, there's another, juicier reason the Threes team wrote a book-length explainer: drama. Threes is often mistaken for its more popular copy-cat, dubbed 2048. 2048 was released a month after Threes, is a free download for iOS or Android, and eats Threes's mindshare for breakfast. The Threes team is really sore about this, but in the nicest, most verbose way possible.

One swipe, one move.

In my opinion, 2048 is a pile of garbage, and I'll tell you why: in Threes, when you swipe the screen, the tiles shift one space over. In 2048, they fly across the screen. I don't know what this does to strategy, other than make 2048 stupid and easy, but more importantly it breaks my sense of connection to the game. One swipe, one move.

Because, ultimately, my addiction to Threes is purely tactile at this point. I've played 4,298 rounds since the app started keeping track (probably only half my total), but the last time I beat my high score was a few thousand rounds ago. I play Threes because it feels good to slide tiles, it feels good merge tiles, it feels great to merge multiple tiles at once, or hit a big score, but it feels just as good to tap retry and get a new board with its own promise of now and future swipes.

I play Threes while listening to audiobooks and podcasts. I play Threes while watching low-interest movies. Sometimes I play Threes when I want to actually focus on a conversation instead of getting distracted by my surroundings. If I could write blog posts while playing Threes, I would. You don't need to pause Threes because it's always paused, waiting for the next swipe — mobile gaming perfection. There's a low power mode so I don't destroy my battery life. There's supposedly a good soundtrack to the game, but I've never heard it.

Just to throw out one more example of attention to detail: the Threes tiles are actually tiny animated monsters that eat each other. I didn't even notice this until I read the design chronicles. My 6-year-old niece noticed it on her first playthrough. She's one of those weirdos who asks if you can "play as a girl" in Minecraft, so I guess Threes appeals to all types.

Is there a mobile game more thoughtful, more well designed, more replayable, more perfected? I'd love to find it. Seriously, sometimes my thumb gets a little worn out. I'm actually irritated by the minuscule scratches on my iPhone's screen after brushing past them half a million times. But in lieu of a more perfect alternative, I'll keep playing Threes until my thumb falls off.


About Paul Miller

That guy who left the internet for a year