Sudoku is the game where you have to be certain about things. Your job is to put the numbers from 1-9 into each and every row, column, and 3×3 “house” of a 9×9 grid, and you do this by using the scattering of numbers that are already there. You only write a number down when you are absolutely certain it’s right, and you trust the game to parcel out this certainty so there is always progress to be made.
For years I have been stuck at the very base of the great Sudoku tree. I know how to slice and dice, but this only sees me through the very basic puzzles. Now Zach Gage and Jack Schlesigner have created Good Sudoku. It’s another Sudoku app for smartphones, of which there are many, but this one is different. It wants to teach you how to get better at Sudoku. It’s a sort of Sudoku academy.
I have been playing this for the last few weeks, and it’s taken a while for it to click. A central idea here is that you can get hints when you’re stuck: the program that made each Sudoku can point out where you should turn your attention to next when you can’t see the way ahead. This is neat stuff, but along with auto-noting – the ability to automatically keep track of the possible number options for each square – and a neat thing that lets you highlight a number and see all possible spaces where that number might go, Good Sudoku seemed… well, it seemed to automate a little too much. How could I learn Sudoku from this game that seemed to be able to play Sudoku so well without me? And these handy helpers seemed to enforce their own bad habits – their own reliances – which made me feel that the lessons I learned in the app would not really come across to Sudoku on paper.
The trick, for me at least, was to find the right mode. And that turned out to be Arcade mode, which sounds like a sort of frivolous high-sugar additional option rather than the mode where the real learning gets done. But it’s been perfect for the way I learn. Arcade mode gives you three hearts, and you lose one whenever you make a mistake. This turns out to be crucial, because it means that I can see where I’m going wrong the absolute second I start to go wrong. Other modes let you make mistakes and then keep going, until you eventually have to recover the board, by which point I have lost my thread. In a game of certainties, Arcade mode gives me the crucial certainty that every number I have down on the grid is correct. It’s the toe-hold I need.
You can still use hints, but each hint now takes away a quarter of your heart. I’m on Expert now, and I generally need a hint or two to see me through, although yesterday I completed a Pro without using any. Progress! And I know it’s progress because after each game, Good Sudoku tells me which high-level techniques I used without asking for hints. (If I can just get my head around X-Wing I’ll really be getting somewhere.)
So I’m not just playing, I’m actually learning. Which means I am going to sleep each night and seeing numbers in little boxes and waking up in the morning and diving right back into the last game I had going. Sudoku had always struck me as a refined kind of pleasure – and now I am really getting to experience it for myself.