I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Aryeh D, a fellow Dartmouth student, on the topic of his particular expertise: competitive Minesweeper. Over the years, Minesweeper has birthed its own online competitive community– one very different from the competitive gaming communities we’re used to reading about on the internet today. It’s centered around a single website, communicates chiefly through a carefully-preserved, late-nineties-style website guestbook, and has weathered a number of disasters and controversies on par with those generated by any more-popular e-sport community.
This interview has been edited for length. I have also taken the liberty of linking some of Aryeh’s comments to relevant articles in the definitive Minesweeper wiki. But first: a video compilation of his best recorded times.
Laura: So. Competitive Minesweeper! My first question: how did you get into competitive Minesweeper? How did you discover this was a thing you liked and were good at?
Aryeh: Well, I first played Minesweeper in the late ninties on my dad’s old Windows 3.1 computer. And I enjoyed playing it from time to time as an alternative to, like, Solitaire. But then, in freshman year of high school, I started to play it a bit more, and went online and found that there was a whole Minesweeper-centered community! And at the same time I had a friend who was pretty decent at Minesweeper, and I wanted to improve my times to simply beat him. So that’s kind of how I got into the community aspect of Minesweeper, just being able to compare scores. And then by the end of my freshman year of high school I was participating in the Minesweeper community and that continued through my sophomore and junior years of high school especially.
Laura: What is your current ranking?
Aryeh: My current ranking? Let me check, because these days, it changes way too often! People keep passing me! It’s not good. Right now I’m going to minesweeper.info, which is the main hub of the community and contains the world ranking. And… I am currently ranked 31st. I’m 4th in the US.
Laura: Would competitive Minesweeper exist without this site?
Aryeh: This site pretty much holds the entire community together. But If this site were to die, I think that the community would be able to reassemble itself elsewhere. One example of this was back around the time when I was most active, around 2005-2006, there was a site called Planet-Minesweeper.com, and that was actually where the world ranking was held for a time, and there was a really active forum there. But then it was hacked by people from Algeria, or Albania, or something, and it died. And then the official world rankings were moved back to minesweeper.info.
Laura: How central is minesweeper.info to Minesweeper competition?
Aryeh: So this website is pretty much where everyone interacts. There have been other sites that existed in the past, but this is the website that has been maintained. The site minesweeper.info was originally at metanoodle.com/minesweeper, and it was created by a Canadian guy named Damien Moore.
There’s actually several different ways players interact with each other. The oldest way is through the Guestbook for minesweeper.info. It has existed since like 2000, pretty much nonstop, and you can actually download the Guestbook archive of the conversations, which are really interesting. And it doesn’t really function as a guestbook, more as a forum with a single thread that just… continues. In addition to random people coming by and posting their best scores and moving on with their lives, there are conversations. There’s also now a forum at minesweeper.info. There’s also an IRC channel, and usually there will be half a dozen people in there, just discussing the game with each other and playing.
Now, one thing that the community has done is that it has created its own clones of Minesweeper, since there were several problems with the original program, one of which was that there were what’s known as Board Cycles. The pseudo-random number generators that created the boards would only come up with 12,000 or so, maybe like 30,000 boards on the intermediate level, which is kind of a problem, considering that in maybe an hour of playing, I estimate that I’d go through like 500 to 1000 boards. So there were some specific boards that would come up over and over again, and different players would all get their records on the same board, which is termed the ‘Dreamboard.’ And then people started to exploit that—taking videos of it, training themselves to really well on the Dreamboard once it came up, and then getting insanely good times.
Laura: What’s so special about this Dreamboard?
Aryeh: You do a single click and nearly the entire board opens up! There are some really great boards on the beginner level, too, where you do a single click and the board solves itself immediately, or maybe you need like one additional click. So in order to raise standards and to allow things such as recording videos automatically and timing games to hundredths of a second or thousandths of a second, the community created clones such as Minesweeper Clone, Minesweeper Arbiter, ViennaSweeper, and Minesweeper X. And these clones can also integrate themselves into IRC chat. On Minesweeper Arbiter, if you’re playing, and you blast a board and had a really good time almost, or you win a game, all of the information for the game is automatically copied to your clipboard and you can just do ctrl-v and share the amazing score you just got, or the horrible blast that you just suffered. And that helps contribute to a sense of community, and it turns a solitary activity into a something that is actually social.
Laura: So, how are competitive Minesweeper games actually scored? How does the community establish rankings?
Aryeh: Rankings are established by individual players’ personal bests over thousands of games on each level. So there isn’t something like, everyone is given the same board, and they play against each other, and whoever finishes fastest is ranked the highest. It would just be impractical to do that—if you give the same board to tons of players, I estimate that 95% of them would end up blasting the board rather than finishing it, so you don’t get a basis for a ranking that way.
Laura: How do Minesweeper tournaments work, then?
Aryeh: Minesweeper tournaments—which have so far been held in Moscow, Vienna, and maybe there was one in Budapest—consist of a bunch of Minesweeper players sitting in a computer lab, and they’re given a certain amount of time to win a certain number of games. I have considered participating in a Minesweeper tournament, and my considerations have always been kind of killed by, you know, I don’t really want to pay to fly out to Vienna. I’ve thought about trying to set something up here, but academics take priority, and I’m not as active in the community now as I once was.
Laura: How do you think Minesweeper compares to other competitive game communities?
Aryeh: Because of its solitary nature, and the fact that each player is simply trying to improve his or her own score, it’s in a way a lot more similar to sports communities. There are tons of parallels between the community of competitive Rubik’s Cube solvers and the community of competitive Minesweeper board solvers, in that you’re performing an activity that seems like it’s difficult to an outsider, and eventually you learn a lot of patterns and you try to get really fast. And it’s each person individually trying to improve. And there are actually several Minesweeper players who are also competitive Rubik’s Cube solvers. I think Minesweeper is attractive to people with certain types of personalities, and I think that the appeal of Rubik’s Cube is very similar to the appeal of Minesweeper.
Laura: Are there any other comments you’d like to make about the Minesweeper community?
Aryeh: I guess the structure of the community has kind of changed over time, and I think that’s kind of interesting. At one point there was an International Minesweeper Committee that defined certain standards for appearing on the world ranking, and created limits on how easy a board could really be.
Laura: How were the standards established? Is it a mathematical formula?
Aryeh: It’s known as Bechtel’s Benchmark Board Value, also known as 3BV. If you have a board and know exactly where the mines are, and were only using your left mouseclick, it’s the minimum number of clicks it would take to open up the board. And in order to be put onto the world ranking, the beginner board must have a 3BV of at least two, so you can’t do a single click and finish it. And usually that second click would involve some amount of skill, but not necessarily. My beginner record was a 3BV of two but it was completely lucky. On intermediate the minimum accepted 3BV is thirty, and on expert the minimum accepted 3BV is 99, I think.
Laura: Do you think the community is better off for establishing guidelines like these?
Aryeh: Yes and no. No in that it might tend to alienate Windows Minesweeper traditionalists, because it automatically would eliminate the Dreamboard I was talking about earlier, which has a 3BV of 25. But I think in the community overall it creates some structure—the International Minesweeper Committee has kind of evaporated, but now Damien Moore runs minesweeper.info and pretty much has the say over everything since he’s the one who updates all the rankings and such. I think people are generally satisfied with his decisions as emperor of the community.
Laura: Have you ever met any other Minesweeper competitors in person?
Aryeh: Yes. The first I met was a sweeper by the name of Jake Warner. I was on vacation in Florida, and he happed to be living in Florida at the time. And we got together and played a little Minesweeper. Another Minesweeper that I’ve met is Kenny Baclawski—we met because we were both coming to Dartmouth, and I stalked his profile on Facebook and saw that he was best in Massachusetts at Minesweeper.
Laura: And you were best in Connecticut at that time, right?
Aryeh: I was best in ALL of New England at the time! He’s like, second in New England. And I think the only other minesweeper player I’ve met in real life was Daniel Brim. And I met him with Kenny, last summer. He goes to college at Northeastern, so we went up to Boston to meet him.
Laura: It sounds like all these top minesweeper players are fairly young!
Aryeh: I think most people tend to retire by the time they’re thirty. Pretty much, all players are twenty-somethings, or teenagers. I think going pro means you’ve reached the level where you can be put on the world ranking—you’ve reached a certain sum on beginner, intermediate, and expert, I think it’s below 100 seconds. And it took me about a year to get to that level.
Laura: How did you train yourself to get there?
Aryeh: You just play over and over again, and eventually you improve your pattern recognition, and you go faster! You can also learn techniques—there are some strategy pages on the internet that are somewhat helpful. Minesweeper is at its core a logic game, but at the same time there are patterns that come up very often, and by the time you get to my level, you’re operating almost completely on pattern recognition, because you can’t really do that many logic calculations in your head in the amount of time it takes to play at a really high level. And there have been several stories of players who got their best times while drunk! And clearly you’re not really thinking straight while you’re drunk.
Laura: So, if the game is partially logic, partially pattern recognition, and partially dexterousness, what do you think matters most by the time you’re playing at a pro level?
Aryeh: I think all three are important, but the one that matters most is your pattern recognition. You need logic to come up with the pattern recognition in the first place. And physical ability. I average about 4.5 clicks per second on Intermediate, though it’s certainly possible to get really good scores with as few as three clicks per second, if you’re really efficient. But for many players, that’s really low. For instance, Jake Warner, the guy I met in Florida, would usually click at like 7 clicks per second. And he’d be wildly inefficient but he’d still be really good.
Laura: You mentioned earlier that you’re going through a thousand boards an hour. Is this because you sit down and wail away at boards and expect to get a certain number of failures?
Aryeh: I win very few games. If I’m playing Intermediate for an hour, if I have a particularly good completion rate for the day, or if I’m in the particular mindset of wanting to finish a lot of boards, I might finish maybe twenty or thirty in an hour, but usually I finish maybe five in an hour, and at worst I could finish none. It depends a lot on mindset. If I were playing just based on wanting to finish as many boards as possible, I would not be playing up to full speed. And that would kind of defeat the purpose of wanting to improve my ranking. I also will purposely blast boards that I can tell are not going to give me a good time. You get a feel for the types of boards that’ll be quick and the types of boards that will be slow, so just in the first few seconds of the game I can usually tell whether the game is worth trying to finish. And if you’re trying to get a record—and a record-worthy board comes up maybe once out of every thousand to ten-thousand boards—you tend to just throw away tons of boards that you could finish but won’t really give you anything useful.
Laura: Do you think that you will stop playing as you get older? Or do you think that this is a passion you’ll keep throughout your life?
Aryeh: Lots of people get carpal tunnel syndrome from playing Minesweeper. My hand will tend to get really sore after I play, and I don’t know whether that’s carpal tunnel related or who knows what, but it certainly has hurt my wrist a little bit, playing at 4 or 5 clicks a second for hours on end. But probably I’ll retire someday. I don’t know. I don’t really see a definite end in sight.
Laura: Well, thank you for sharing this little-known PC Gaming community!
Aryeh: You’re very much welcome!