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How ‘Threes’ got my number

For a long time (like, a solid two or three weeks in April), “2048”and I were practically inseparable — always taking long lunches, riding the train, and furtively canoodling in darkened theaters during dull movies. I spent years refusing to play these kind of games (that is, smartphone puzzles), so it came as both a shock and a relief to find myself giving in with such abandon. I’d been swiped off my feet.

On the surface, the attraction made no sense. For one thing, I’m lousy at math. And “2048” presents nothing more than a grid of numbered tiles that can be swiped around to combine ones with the same number, progressively doubling their values toward the titular score.

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But I took its effortless minimalist design to be an assuring extension of an underlying ethos of growth and efficiency. And even then, I could sense that “2048”’s mission-oriented air of practicality was a front. I knew that under its modest neat-freak math-nerd exterior lurked something wild, unstoppable, and potentially addictive. I knew I’d give it my time and get nowhere, and it only made it harder to resist. Once I downloaded it, it was all over. We were fooling around in the taxi before we even got to my place.

Long were our days together, swiping away the hours of spring’s early chill, “2048” bleeping sweet nothings into my earbuds. Our relationship was predicated on an exciting tension, but it often drifted into something like an unconscious state. We’d sit so long, my food would grow cold and the room dark. I started caring less and less if I was ultimately winning or losing, and increasingly, I couldn’t tell the difference. Sure, I’d get the same token thrills from working my way up to a “2048” tile, but it startled me how easy it was to disappear into the pursuit. Awake in the dead of night, I’d become a shadow of myself — an apparition lit only by the game’s steady beige glow.

While I maintain that what “2048” and I shared was special — because your first time always is — I knew the whole time that we weren’t exclusive. I just convinced myself it was easier not to consider all those other people putting their hands on “2048” — via iPhones, Android devices, or the desktop version. First I heard it was thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions (Xyo estimates 21 million iPhone downloads alone). I had always thought myself the player, but “2048” was getting around. And here I was, a month deep and only now thinking to Google it? I know. Such an airhead sometimes.

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It turns out its history had some history. First uploaded in March, the game was “based on” (i.e. cribbed from) an appropriately half-as-exciting game called “1024,” which itself was suspiciously similar to the critically lauded game “Threes.” Once coded, the game was uploaded to GitHub, wherefrom it was taken and tinkered with, producing more than 150 hack versions (see the Shiba Inu heavy “Doge 2048,” the Brit-TV inspired and mathematically unsound “Numberwang 2048,” the infuriatingly impossible “Flappy Bird”-based “Flappy 2048,” and all the rest) and clones – like the one I discovered I’d been playing on my desktop all along. (Felt so ... dirty.)

Gabriele Cirulli, the 19-year-old creator of “2048,” was as taken aback as anyone by the rush of attention. Cirulli kept the game free and the code open out of respect for his inspirations. This flexibility gave its legacy promise, but also made the phenomenon more pernicious. “2048” was only trying to be true to what it was, but it had no real claim on itself to begin with.

Confused, dejected, uncertain as to just what/who I had been playing around with this whole time, I broke things off from “2048” and opted to go to the source: I would track down “Threes” (App Store) and do whatever it took ($1.99) to get to the truth. And I’m so glad I did.

What can I say? “Threes” is just . . . different. For one thing, you combine 1 and 2 tiles to make 3’s, which you then combine into increasing multiples of three. So, you know, a little mathier.

But “Threes” also has a much more developed sense of design — fun, bright, modern, unafraid of a little color. (And to think I’d mistaken “2048”’s spartan emptiness for a sense of style!) And while we clicked after just a short time — the motions already felt so natural — I learned quickly that you can’t play “Threes” like “2048” and expect to win. You need to treat it like “Threes.”

Created by designer Asher Vollmer and illustrator Greg Wohlwend, “Threes” is precise and measured, mature and strategic. There’s more to think about, so it’s naturally less popular. A few games of “Threes” showed me that “2048” demanded little finesse of me; I thought back to those hours with “2048,” reckless, breathless, and haphazard, always anticipating the next Game Over and knowing I’d answer with another Try Again. What a fool I’d been!

“Threes,” meanwhile, lets me stop and think, consider the immediate future (by telling the color of the next tile), and strategize a long term plan. I might not win (no one actually has), but “Threes” expects and encourages me to try (as does its cheery menagerie of animated numerical critters).

Over one magical weekend, I got a different kind of lost, swooning to its music (literally, it’s quite jaunty) and feeling my confidence rise as my score nudged upward as if I had developed some relevant skill. I even learned about the colorful past lives and iterations of “Threes” (which long included a cast of monsters called Argoyles) and saw its baby pictures (Vollmer and Wohlwend have posted over 500 e-mails documenting the game’s creation). No shifty backstories there; unlike with some games I know.

The way “Threes” tempers its beckoning cuteness with reliable difficulty gives it an elusive quality the creators call “foreverplay,” which sounds serious and of course made me nervous at first. But it’s that little push back that makes me feel like “Threes” cares — like I’m worth challenging. I’ll never lose myself in “Threes” the way I would playing with the silly toy of “2048,” because it constantly reminds me of who I am: someone who cannot beat “Threes.”

If anything, this whole episode has helped me realize that I needn’t settle for the first game that comes along. In fact, I’m a modern enough guy that I can have both: “2048” for when I just need to get sum (pun sincerely intended), and “Threes” for when I require a more substantial engagement to pass my morning commute. And why not? I can’t think of a deeper regret than looking back and realizing that all this wasted time was time wasted.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.
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