Threes! is at once nicotine and soul food, magnificent and deadly, a machine for playing.
Like so many of the things installed on your iPhone, Threes! is a game of pattern-matching. A one and a two make a three. Threes and up can be matched only with identical tiles. 'Swipe to combine tiles' is all the instruction you really need to get started, and indeed the game offers little more than that as you complete its wonderfully light-touch tutorial sequence. Of course, by then it's too late. It's much too late.
Threes' best joke is that it's a match-two puzzler. It's not a maths game, and despite having numbers everywhere you look, it involves none of that tricky adding-up or taking-away. These numbers are used merely as identifiers. The game could equally have employed colours, or pictures of cats, or smells to identify its pieces. Do not be put off by the pictures of numbers, it is not they that will be making you feel a bit thick.
From the team responsible for the pain-is-pleasure sado-ludism of Puzzlejuice, Threes! is the video game equivalent of one of those hipster restaurants that serves unconscionably delightful food, but insists on doing so in the most terrifyingly smug surroundings imaginable. The brutalist mechanical simplicity of the gameplay is bonded to an audio landscape of shameless hipster whimsy - and if the graphic design loves Letterpress so much, why doesn't it just marry it?
You might find a way to enjoy this inevitable aesthetic, which seems to be the result of some kind of game-developer flocking instinct. Hopefully, you'll find it profoundly and offensively banal. Not that it matters either way, because after a few seconds of play, the mechanics will effortlessly shrug off any and all aesthetic concerns and the barbaric force of addiction will set about you with bullying glee. Then the sun will come up, you will be late for work, and yes, that smell probably is you.
Threes! owes a lot of its design to Triple Town. The 'match-by-combining' root is clear to see. But Threes! is to Triple Town what Clash of Clans is to starting a land war in Asia. An average game of Threes! lasts only a handful of minutes and at no point will you put the game down and pace up and down the carpet with your fingers steepled, muttering to yourself. That's not to say that it isn't a perplexingly deep experience, or that it won't allow for this kind of highly considered play. It will. It's just that it mostly manages to contain its machinations, and yours, into more pleasingly and usefully discrete chunks than its unceasingly demanding inspiration. It's a game for iPhones more than iPads.
There's no time limit to force the issue, but that doesn't matter, because it's so damnably slick to both the touch and the brain that you'll throw moves out with the same speed and grace that climbing into a tiny boat forbids. You shouldn't really play the game at machine-gun pace, but you will, because to do so feels so terribly pleasing.
And then you'll do it again. And again and again. Playing Threes! is a process of magnificent monotony, of iterative interrogation. Swipe after swipe prioritises right and left and right and wrong. You anxiously, tentatively, rapidly bang your head against the wall and slip between glorious smugness and gaping stupidity. Up and down and down and out.
You'll get a few hundred points. Then you'll concentrate on the ones and twos and get a thousand points. You'll deprogram yourself into using only three rather than all four directions. You won't believe how one woman scored several thousand points with this one weird trick. Sticking to a corner? Twenty thousand? Keep the big numbers in the middle of the board perhaps? How far, how deep, how high, how long can you go?
The end of your attempt - assuredly but one attempt in a chain of many - contains some of the game's deftest touches. Your score is not revealed until you finally succumb, at which point your ultimate failure is rewarded by a lugubrious totting up of your many deeds. Your greatest failures are immortalised in the high score table, each score accompanied by a snapshot of the moment of death. Threes! is a game in which you are, after all, guaranteed to lose. A game where reward and punishment intertwine in your permanent record. A death cult of a game.
"Threes! is at once nicotine and soul food, magnificent and deadly, a machine for playing."
Of course, Threes! invites comparison with Drop7. I played Drop7 until the idea of ever playing Drop7 again, even for a moment, made me feel physically sick. I got a huge score one day and I knew that was it, my Drop7 career was over. Drop7 is, at the end of the day, random. It is a scratch card with a grotesque, wonderful interface. In the final reckoning, it owes more to the luck of Bingo than the dexterity of Tetris, and as such, it eventually it becomes a waiting game. Is this the time that the new high score is possible? Only by playing can you find that out! Playing longer than last time, always longer. Eventually, Drop7 is broken.
Oh and wait, Stickets, right? I played Stickets for an age, and it was meet and right so to do, but then a guy I know got the highest score in the entire world, and in doing so proved that the game was fundamentally solvable. There is always a correct move and if you work out what it is, you can play forever. Doing so is boring - like a long-haul flight from Heathrow to Heathrow, with a stop-over in Heathrow - but it can be done. Eventually, Stickets is broken.
The break points Drop7 and Stickets represent are the rock and hard place between which all puzzle games sit. Drop7 is luck and Stickets is solvability. Because Threes! is uncommonly brilliant, a community immediately grew up around it and that community has already proved that any Threes! game will eventually come down to luck. Eventually, Threes! is broken too.
But that doesn't matter. If you love the colours red and blue, it doesn't matter. If you hate the anthropomorphisation of numbers, it doesn't matter. If you can't count, it doesn't matter. Threes! is at once nicotine and soul food, magnificent and deadly, a machine for playing. It is flawed and broken and perfect and you must start playing it today.