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Mobile puzzle game Threes is a design marvel worth your time

Slightly sick of Flappy Bird? Try the beautiful Threes and you may find your faith in the smartphone game surge back to life.

Asher Vollmer

The image of the emblematic smartphone game has not been held in high regard of late. Certainly not with titles like Flappy Bird seemingly taking over the world, earning $50,000 a day off our meaningless compulsions and further cementing the well of condescension "hardcore" gamers have for the mobile platform and its capacity.

That's where Threes comes in. Released Wednesday as a universal iPhone and iPad app, the $1.99 title -- a simple math-based puzzler with gorgeous design and catchy music -- is what an overtly refreshing, downright fantastic mobile game should be.

It's captivating, full of surprises both in design and mechanics, and -- most importantly -- you actually want to play it more each time without regret. Not because you're shamefully addicted or intent on wasting free time, but because the creators -- Asher Vollmer, who wrote the game, illustrator Greg Wohlwend, and composer Jimmy Hinson -- so obviously care deeply about the player experience that they made something overwhelmingly pleasant to spend time within.

The mechanics are simple enough for a puzzle game. Swipe left, right, down, and up to merge cards into multiples of three in an effort to create the highest multiple, which exponentially increases your score when it's tallied after you hit gridlock and can't move the board around any longer. Each game starts without clutter: a mix of three's, two's, and one's are pre-placed that you can use to begin building a board of six's, twelve's, and twenty-four's through appropriate addition. But it gets increasingly complicated as the board crowds, and you start to quickly realize the difference between a hapless move and a thoughtful one.

Threes -- reminiscent of the beauty of Tetris and the design appeal of the more recent and relevant Dots -- is the perfect kind of puzzle game, an experience where the core conceit is the smooth grace with which one can grasp the concept without fully realizing its depth.

Asher Vollmer

Play once and find your score a meager three or four hundred. Play a second time and watch as your brain starts to subconsciously map out a strategy, foresee how each swipe affects the greater board and -- seemingly like magic flowing from your firing neurons -- your score breaks 1,000. A third time and you've managed to manifest a 192 card, but check the high score board and see scores upwards of 20,000. Then try again.

It's an experience that is both inspiring in its ability to simultaneously make you think and enjoy that act of thinking and aesthetically wonderful in its design. Threes is full of quirky visual and audio elements that make you smile, from the Ben Folds-esque, a cappella music down to the alarming number of neat intricacies you notice on each play through. For instance, each multiple of three has a unique anthropomorphic quality and an accompanying name like "Tristine," "Torbus," and "Traven." And creating higher multiples prompts enthusiastic rejoicing from the numbered characters, phrases like "Hey guys" and "What's up?" when you swipe and merge them into existence.

Threes is not a total surprise given the combined expertise of the designers behind it. Vollmer is a former designer of indie game studio thatgamecompany, which made the startling successes Flower and Journey, and Wohlwend illustrated the equally satisfying mobile hit Ridiculous Fishing. Hinson has scored titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Mass Effect 2. All three had previously collaborated on Puzzlejuice in 2012, giving them experience in making a finely crafted mobile game.

At a time when mobile gaming seems to be descending deeper into the dark depths of gambling-style exploitation and mental anguish, Threes is a reminder that something as simple as a puzzler, done smartly and crafted with ingenuity, can not only delight us, but reinvigorate the perceived potential of its platform.

"I'm happy to develop for any platform, but currently I find mobile games the most interesting. They're so fresh and different and unsolved. Also there's a lot of crap out there and my goal right now is to prove that quality and mobile are not mutually exclusive," Vollmer told Joystiq in a recent interview. "I don't really have a dream game because I just enjoy solving interesting problems. Currently the next big problem I've been dwelling on is about the question of how to tell a good story on mobile. So there's that."

While a puzzle game you'll have trouble putting down is certainly an achievement worth celebrating, aspiring to create a mobile game that could captivate, inspire awe, and influence the medium like Journey did is a worthwhile pursuit. While Vollmer chases after that complex creation, I'll be playing Threes. You should too.