Forget 2048, Threes! the charm

When friends ask me for a mobile game recommendation, I’ve been answering with a number: Threes! You’ve probably heard of 2048; well, this is the original that sparked the copycat and all the other clones.

The similarities are undeniable. The makers of Threes! posted an open letter about it and the media has talked widely about the cloning phenomenon.

But that’s not the focus of this post. Here I want to talk about why Threes! is superior.

(Note: I’m not going to type that exclamation mark any more.  Officially, the game is titled Threes! but let’s just go with Threes the rest of the way.  Quieter.)

The main reason you’ve heard of 2048 is because it’s free and it’s fun, whereas Threes costs $2 in the US store and has a steeper learning curve.

2048 is fun because it’s simple yet on first impression appears complex.  There’s a key to that complexity and when you figure it out it is exhilarating, but once you do the game starts to feel automatic — almost like you’ve beaten it.  From there, whether or not you set a high score is down to chance.


The above is an example of such a situation.  (I assume you know how to play the game.)  In the first panel, you have the corner strategy in place but oops, you have a solid block of tiles so you have no choice but to slide down.  Ideally, you want the new tile to appear as far away from your highest number tile (512) as possible.

Unfortunately, in the example above, the new tile appeared above your highest number tile.  There was a 25% chance of it happening, so it’s down to bad luck. Now the player has to deal with the highest number tile not being in the corner.  Once you know the corner strategy, this is about as dramatic as the game gets.

When you’ve figured out a formula that works all the time, the game feels less like one.  This can be a good thing, as sliding numbers around without thinking can feel relaxing and zen-like at times.  But it also get boring.  For me it was an excuse to put the game away and try something else.

If 2048 feels like checkers, Threes feels like chess.  It’s a deeper game and requires you to consider each move more carefully.  The corner strategy still applies, but it’s much harder to execute in Threes.  The game achieves this with just — wait for it — three! seemingly small differences.

Instead of 2 as the lowest tile, in Threes it’s 1s and 2s.  1s can’t combine with other 1s; 2s can’t combine with other 2s; instead, 1s must pair with 2s to form the 3s.  This small tweak has a huge impact, because now it’s much harder to keep the board organized.  Having a bunch of 1s on one side and 2s on the other will likely kill you.

With 1s and 2s all over the place in the above board, it’s easy to see how the player ran out of moves.  This change alone makes Threes exponentially harder, but in turn is ameliorated by two key game mechanics.

The first is that Threes shows you the next tile that will appear, whether it’s red, blue, a 3 or a larger number tile.  The second is that tiles don’t slide all the way to the edge like in 2048; rather they move one space at a time.  These two in combination makes it easier to plan how the pieces can fit together.

And that’s basically it.  Three seemingly small changes with everything else the same — but they amount to a world of difference.  You cannot blindly apply a formula to Threes and win or win big on the basis of luck; it’s a game where you might score 23,000 points in one game and 3,000 the next.  This gives it much more re-playability than 2048, and why I recommend it to anyone who asks.


Yes, it costs money to get this game.  But it’s only two bucks.  Think how many hours of entertainment it can bring you for less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks!

And if you don’t believe me, believe Touch Arcade, who reviewed Threes and concluded the following:

Threes! is about as close as it gets to a perfect mobile game. Threes! is a game you need on every iOS device you own. Threes! is a game you need to tell your iPhone owning non-gamer-but-plays-some-games friends about.

High praise indeed from the web’s most well-known, iOS game review site.

One thought on “Forget 2048, Threes! the charm

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