2048 starts easy; gets hard. Here's how to make it easy again

The Threes-like puzzle game sucks you in by making it seem easy to hit the magic number. Turns out, though, that it actually is easy -- if you understand the game's logic.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
6 min read

Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

Like the popular iOS and Android puzzler Threes from which it borrows its core concept, 2048 is a game as much about numbers as it is about space.

You have a limited number of free squares, and each move introduces another tile into the mix. But combine like numbers into their sum and you've opened up the board for the new tile and simultaneously progressed a little further toward your goal of making a magic 2048 one, a feat accomplished by combining two 128's into a 256 and two 256's into a 512 and so on.

The HTML5 game, which can be played in a mobile or desktop browser for free, took off earlier this month when 19-year-old Italian programmer Gabriele Cirulli published it on GitHub, playable on a standalone site for mobile and desktop. He claims it's borrowed from the iOS app 1024, yet that game itself is a self-described free version of Asher Vollmer's Threes, so all three exist in a similar family of addictive, math-based puzzlers.

But where 2048 differs substantially from Threes, an admittedly far more difficult game with a steeper learning curve, is in its addictive conceit. 2048 is difficult -- and you don't realize that until you first progress far into the game; whereas Threes will aggressively remind you that you must keep the board from clutter. In fact, I've gone one game in Threes earning as much as 10,000 points to my next where I earn in the low triple-digits, moving too quickly and mindlessly to realize I'd made fatal mistakes so early on.

It's that antithetical challenge curve of 2048 that keeps you coming back. For one, it's actually difficult to lose for the first few minutes of play unless you have absolutely zero strategy. Not only does that let you progress far into the game very early on -- a 512 tile can be unlocked in under a minute if you move fast enough -- but it instills in you, like the infamous Flappy Bird, a notion that this game can't be that hard. Yet, get far enough and everything seems to fall apart before your eyes, possibly with an elusive 1024 tile onboard that makes you kick yourself and start again.

So how exactly does one succeed at 2048? It's fairly easy in fact to reach the end the same day you pick up the game. It takes simple strategy, a knowledge of when to alter that strategy, and, unlike Threes, requires almost no luck whatsoever.

Build into a corner

The first step with all these Candy Crush-meets-Sudoku number games is to understand that the corner is your best friend. For me, it's the upper left. It's just how I play, and any of the corners will do. That strategy lets you build toward a singular tile without moving it around and disrupting your ability to merge it with other large tiles when the time comes.

The key, however, is to understand that this limits your movements. In my case, that means I should only be swiping to the direction of my corner -- that is, left and upward -- to merge tiles. Never pull in the opposite direction of your largest tile -- meaning down for an upper left or right tile and up for lower left or right tile -- unless you absolutely have to. In most cases, that's never needed.

This strategy hits a snag early on though when you discover that using two directions exclusively reaches gridlock pretty fast.

A gridlock position people hit early in 2048 if they employ the necessary corner strategy of moving in only two directions. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

The solution here is to move in the opposite direction of your largest tile one space and then up one space. Then you can resume the two-direction strategy.

The pivotal point is to make sure that you have four tiles in the row containing your highest multiple. Without that, you run the risk of having a low two tile take up the space next to your largest one, a chance occurrence that proves near fatal to a play-through. If you have only three tiles in the row of your highest multiple, the best way to avoid a disaster is to pull tiles towards your preferred corner until it has filled vertically, pull downwards to generate a new tile, and then immediately push back up. Repeat until you have four tiles in your top row.

This is because in 2048, as opposed to Threes, a new tile will show up in a random spot but is exclusively a two or four tile, making building new multiples extremely easy once you have the space to do so, but awful if it shows up next to larger ones in your top row.

There are exceptions to this where you'll see that it's evident you have an opportunity to combine tiles and move things around a little more deliberately for a more efficient progression. Meaning, the over-once-up-once strategy can be modified for moving to the right twice, or up twice, or any combination of those alternative moves to achieve a more compact board. However, early on you shouldn't have the need to do that as long as you keep aggressively pushing toward the corner, moving right and then up when necessary.

The automatic beginning

This introduces an interesting aspect to 2048. If you can just abide by a simple directional strategy almost without thinking what numbers are involved, that means you can practically automate the first 25 percent to 40 percent of a winning play-through without running the risk of messing up your game at all.

It's more difficult to do on mobile, given that you're swiping your finger, but on the desktop version you can literally mash buttons and watch as 2048 practically solves itself, making you look a bit like a numerical wizard in the process.

You do of course have to be careful when you solve the gridlock problem that you don't overdo the directional movements opposite your largest multiple. Still, it's a surefire way to get past the drudgery of the early game and onto the challenging parts that arise after you get a 512 tile and start attempting to build a second one.

Late-game hurdles

On your way toward a 1024 tile and beyond, the game will begin to require a different, more-risky strategy. It's recognizing that shift, noted by the fact that your board may begin to fill up less like an arrow and more like a two-row rectangle, that will help you maximize space and achieve a 2048.

For instance, if you're dealing with the unfortunate circumstance of a rectangular block and you can't move left or right or even up, there are ways to get out that involve breaking the above mentioned rule of never moving opposite the location of your largest tile.

In this scenario, a three-row block can be solved by making the otherwise ill-advised decision to pull downward, but quickly creating an opportunity to put the two highest tiles back in the corner. Screenshots by Nick Statt/CNET

There are issues you'll encounter late in the game that have to approached on a case-by-case basis, but they can be boiled down to a few simple rules. Never let the 2s build up, and do your best to turn them into 4s and 8s by moving only upward. If you're running into gridlock issues an small number of large-numbered tiles, try going from right to left and back again to quickly build 8s and 16s. The tactic is also great for placing a number in a certain position by crowding it on the right and left with 2s and 4s so that you can then combine it upward.

Most importantly, never compromise your position on the board to combine tiles, as they will combine naturally if you move toward your highest-numbered tile. Only actively attempt to combine tiles by moving away from the direction of your corner when you know the corner tile can be kept in place.

When you do finish the game, you're given the opportunity to continue on and keep scoring, perhaps even earning a second 2048 and creating a 4096. But for most of us, finally reaching the titular tile is enough to put this game to rest, especially so in a year when addictive mobile titles have been ravaging the psyche. So use these tips, and may you hopefully find solace, through victory, from the grip of 2048.

Update at 9:40 a.m. PT, Monday, March 24: Clarified strategy under 'Build into a corner' section.