October 18, 2009

Minesweeper Tutorial

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We’re having trouble with our Internet at the moment. It was finally set up on Tuesday, but no later than Wednesday evening did it stop working. We had already had trouble before the setup, so I’ve spent a painful amount of time on the phone with them. Or rather, waiting for them to pick up. I made the mistake of entering a mobile phone number instead of the newly installed landline, causing me to wait for at least quarter of an hour every time I had an inquiry. So I’ve had my fair share of repetitive pop songs they play for you to “ease the pain of waiting”. As if it wasn’t bad enough.

The question is, what do you do when you have an indefinite amount of time to kill, and you only have one hand available? I think we can all agree that sitting down and staring into space while waiting, is not a good option. Some people I know would set the phone on Hands-free, put it down, and start doing something else that they were going to do anyway. I personally find that I can’t properly get started with any other the task if I have to be constantly aware of any changes to the sound coming from the phone, knowing that at any time I may have to drop everything I have in my hands, get quickly back to the phone and start talking. I need something that doesn’t require a lot of commitment, and that I can do while holding the phone close to my ear.

Which is where Minesweeper comes into play.

Quick recap for those who have forgotten what Minesweeper is, or – God forbid – have never heard of or played it. Minesweeper originally appeared on Windows 95, and has to my knowledge been on all Windows operating systems ever since (just like MS-Paint). The rules are straightforward: a certain number of mines are hidden at random on a grid; if you click on a mine the game is over; if you click on a square that’s not a mine, a number will appear on that square, telling you how many mines in total are in the 8 surrounding squares. The goal is to clear the grid of mines by locating all mines. It is possible to guess your way through a grid, but the beauty of Minesweeper is that a grid can almost always be solved through logical reasoning alone (except of course for the very first click(s)). There is no time limit, but a clock in the upper right corner keeps track of long the grid is taking you to solve, for record purposes.

The game satisfies 3 criteria that I like about a game:

  • The rules and controls are simple. The above paragraph should be enough to make anyone understand how the game works, and even without being informed of the rules one can easily deduce them by trial and error. The game is technically a one-button game, since it enough to left-click on all the non-mines to complete a grid.
  • The game itself is very complex. The number of different grids possible is mind-boggling, so the chances of getting the same grid twice is, for all intents and purposes, zero (Mathematically it isn’t, but it’s damn close). Even for experienced players, a certain amount of brain-power is required, as the positions of the mines are not always obvious from the numbers displayed on the grid. Also, the player may regularly discover new tricks and patterns to increase his/her speed, so it’s a game that can take years to fully master.
  • It’s fun and addictive. Once you get the hang of it, solving a grid provides you with both entertainment and a sense of accomplishment. It takes no more than a second to start a new game, so if you hit a mine, there’s nothing to stop you from trying again (I think this aspect is partly what made the Thopter game so popular). Likewise when you have completed a grid, it’s often tempting to start a new one because you feel you’re on a roll. Furthermore, the record times stored on the computer are taunting, daring you to prove that it is possible to complete a grid even faster.

Another positive aspect of Minesweeper is that it is playable with a single hand and can be stopped at any time, making it the ideal game for those moments spent waiting on the phone.

What I don’t understand, however, is how little credit the game has been given. It seems to me that more people are playing Solitaire than Minesweeper, for example. Everyone knows Minesweeper, but very few actually play it. You may say that this is because it is a puzzle game, and people want something less abstract and more skill/reflex based. I will give a one-word answer: Sudoku. Sudoku has had a massive success even though it is an abstract, solitary puzzle game involving numbers. It has simple rules but complex dynamics. There is absolutely no reason Minesweeper should be branded “inherently unpopular”, when a game like Sudoku can achieve mainstream popularity. All that would be needed is that people give a try. Incidentally I also think that, just like Sudoku and crosswords, Minesweeper could help prevent age-related syndromes, such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia.

So, as an introduction to the this neat little game, here’s a step-by-step breakdown of a beginner’s grid being solved. (NB: If you’re using Vista, the layout will look different. I’m using Minesweeper X, a freely downloadable version which preserves the graphics I’m used to, and which doesn’t interrupt you at the end of each game, like Vista does.)


Minesweeper - 1

People have a general tendency to start in the corners. But there’s really no point in wasting time finding and clicking on all four corners. Go for some random points in the middle and stop when you hit something good. If you hit a mine, there’s no shame in starting again.

We hit a blank space! Blank spaces are equivalent to 0’s, and when you click them the game automatically clears the surrounding squares for you. These in turn may be blank spaces, so their surroundings are also cleared, and we get a “chain reaction” as above.


Minesweeper

It is clear that there must be a mine in the hole on the left. Also, the ‘1’ with the red circle in the first diagram has only one available space left, so its mine must be there. The same thing applies to the circled ‘1’s in the second diagram. (A red circle will signal that all the remaining surrounding squares must be mines)


Minesweeper 3

Left diagram: The ‘1’ with the green circle already has 1 mine in its surroundings, so we can safely click where the arrow is pointing. Likewise, the ‘2’ at the bottom already has 2 mines, so the two remaining squares in its surroundings are also “safe”. (A green circle will signal that all the remaining surrounding squares are safe)

Right diagram: The bottom-green-circle-1 already has a mine at it left, so we can click on the square to its right. We get a blank space and several new numbers appear. The top-green-circle-1 also has a mine, so the three squares on its right side are all safe. We now have a ‘1’ (red circle) with only 1 space left for a mine, so we can mark that one. Finally, we also see that there must be a mine in the top left corner.


Minesweeper 4

Left diagram: The red-circle-3 has three spaces left, so those must be the locations of its mines. The green-circle-1 already touches a mine, so the square to its right is safe.

Right diagram: The bottom-green-circle-1 already touches a mine, so we can click the square above it. We get another ‘1’, so we do the same thing.


Minesweeper 5

Left diagram: The red-circle-2 allows us to place a second mine above it. Thanks to this, the green-circle-2 now has 2 mines, so we find another safe square.

Right diagram: The green-circle 2 cannot have any more mines in its surroundings, so we click above it… And voila! Grid completed!

Go ahead, try one for yourself. Don’t worry if it takes you a lot of time in the beginning, you will find that you quickly improve. If you are frustrated by Windows Vista's strange sking and its constant interruptions when you just want to start a new game, I recommend downloading Minesweeper X. For the ones too lazy to do any work by themselves, click here for a video of me completing a grid on Intermediate.


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