One wonders whether Threes was conceived as a deliberate subversion of ‘match-three’. Rather than linking three like-coloured tiles, the latest iOS game from Puzzlejuice creator Asher Vollmer asks you to pair up the titular threes. If it owes something of a debt to Spry Fox’s Triple Town – both ask you to match smaller objects to form increasingly valuable ones within a limited space – its mechanics and personality give it a feel that’s entirely its own.
Nine of the 16 spaces on the field of play are filled when you start, your first priority being to pair up the turquoise ones and red twos to make white threes. Any number of three and above has to be combined with another of the same value: slide two matching adjacent digits together and you’ll not only make a higher number – two threes make a six, two sixes a 12, and so on – you’ll clear some space for the next tile to drop in. The process is repeated until the board is filled and there are no available moves.
Most games finish with one high number on the grid and 15 much lower ones. With each successive integer having a score value of three times the next highest number, it’s tempting to focus exclusively on getting a 96, then a 192, then a 384. Yet even attaining a single big-scoring tile requires effective space management. While it’s instantly tempting to pair up two numbers – not least because sliding them into one another is so wonderfully tactile – it’s always wise to keep an eye on the next tile preview. If you’ve got a one coming up, for example, it’s advisable to shift a row or column with a two at the side to keep them close, even if that means delaying the union of two 48s.
The most obvious move isn’t often the best, and you’ll soon find yourself planning ahead, lining up several matches in advance to clear several spaces in one move. You needn’t commit to a move until you release your finger; sliding without releasing allows you to preview the results of your actions, though where the next tile will drop isn’t always apparent if you’ve got a handful of spaces free. As is the way of things, the more you silently plead for the new arrival to fall in a particular spot, the less likely it is to do so.
Unfortunate drops can stymie even the smartest strategies, yet otherwise this is supremely elegant design, much deeper than it first seems. Three ones in a row can seem unfair, yet adaptable players will learn to prepare for such eventualities, ensuring they capitalise on the inevitable arrival of a spate of twos. It forces you to adjust your tactics on the fly: quickly removing those awkward, unyielding small numbers seems to be the smartest strategy at first, but your focus will soon shift to making multiple pairings in one swipe. It has a similar tension and dynamism to fellow iOS puzzler Stickets, the ever-shifting challenge ensuring that two successive games can play out in radically different ways.
It’s certainly the more instantly welcoming game of the two. Some found Wanderlands’ excellent game rather chilly and austere, but there’s real character in Threes. These aren’t just numbers, but personalities: make a six and you’ll hear a lazy but genial “’Sup”; pair two twelves and the result is a sleepy, timorous “Hi”. At times, it feels more like you’re matchmaking than matching numbers, your swipes prompting a meet-cute between these anthropomorphic tiles. Jimmy Hinson’s gently upbeat theme continues the indie romcom feel, a cheerful soundtrack that at once fades into the background but catchy enough to suddenly find yourself humming along to it.
Threes is uncommonly sweet, though it can feel a little insubstantial. Even given that each new game can throw up fresh challenges, its single mode means there’s not quite enough variety to hold the attention over longer play sessions. Having to enter your name after each completed game rather than being able to instantly restart is perhaps the most glaring misstep. At the same time, its combination of charm and craft will keep tempting you back for another shot; all but the most demanding of puzzle fans will surely find a permanent slot on their home screen for a game as laid-back and likeable as this.