Minesweeper is one of those games that you might forget about, especially since it was given away for free in the 90s. If you bought a computer with Windows, you would get a copy of the game.
This is a game that I didn’t know much about the history behind it. It was a version of several other older games. The origins of Minesweeper and the history of the competitive scene were my favorite parts, but there are many fun stories in there.
I never learned how to play Minesweeper. Like many people, I would click randomly, and maybe I would win. I thought the numbers had something to do with the score. I was also nine when I first played it, and there were other games I found more interesting, like Rattler Race, which, like Minesweeper, is a clone of another game.
The Origins of Minesweeper
Ian Andrew created a game called Mined-Out for the ZX Spectrum in the early 80s. He is one of the many UK developers that got their start in the cottage industry of computer games in the 80s. The larger story of these games is amazing, but the book focuses on this one game. Kyle didn’t need all of the history to tell this story.
Mined-out has many similarities to Minesweeper, and Kyle points to it as one of the numerous games that could have inspired Minesweeper. There is a lot of evidence to say that Minesweeper is a clone of Mined-out. However, Minesweeper separates itself by not having the player move an avatar through a minefield.
Relentless Logic is another game that could have inspired Minesweeper. Like Mine-out, the player would move an avatar through a minefield. You would get some indication of where the mines were located, and the goal was to move from one end of the screen to another.
Kyle does an excellent job of detailing this game genre that was like playing hide and seek but with bombs. It was like a mini-genre of games about avoiding mines on a grid. In some ways, it was like the board game Battleship if you didn’t have to play with your jerk of a friend who kept moving his ships around.
Creating Games at a Serious Company
The games on the Windows Entertainment Pack are talked about. This was something that I didn’t know existed. I remember these games as being built into Windows. You would go to the start menu, and they were in a preinstalled folder.
These were the games that I first played on my family’s computer. This is an experience that I’m sure many other people had. Kyle points out how the games were used to teach people how to use a computer.
In many ways, this is similar to how Minesweeper was made. Many simple video games were made at Microsoft during the 80s and 90s. These games helped programmers learn how to write programs for Windows. It reminded me of other stories that I read of people working on computers and other tech companies.
Kyle also points out how there was pushback to making a commercial product of these simple games. The management at Microsoft saw themselves as a “serious company” that was above making kid’s games. The department working on the Windows Entertainment Pack wasn’t getting the support other parts of the company got.
Fortunately, the pack was pushed through. There are some amazing stories about what needed to be done to release the games. Like how little money was allocated to production. It was fascinating to read about how they needed to write a manual, and the department manager had the manual printed on the cheapest paper, paid for it himself, and brought it to the packaging list.
Kyle also gets into the minor moral panic that Minesweeper created. People were playing the game a lot. It became the source of some commentators complaining that it was lowering worker productivity. A few editorials are pointed to as examples of this criticism, along with State and Federal governments trying to ban the game from office computers.
This came after the concerns about video game violence that resulted in the creation of the ESRB in the mid-90s. The moral panic around Minesweeper, and also Solitaire, eventually gave way to a continuation of video game violence being the biggest issue concerning video games.
The way these people talk about playing games and how the game wastes people’s time reminds me of the nonsense you hear from people talking about Play-to-Earn games. Playing games is seen as unproductive, and people should be earning money instead of relaxing for a few minutes or hours.
The funny story about Minesweeper’s impact on worker productivity concerns Bill Gates. He became obsessed with the game! As the story goes, Bill Gates wanted to set the fastest time on the beginner difficulty. It got to the point where the game was removed from his computer, and he would break into other executives’ offices to play the game.
Finally, a program was made to play the game automatically, and it set an unbeatable time. Gates then emailed about this and suggested he might try intermediate difficulty. This is a case where video games have a negative impact on someone’s life.
More stories could fit in here, but I don’t want to create a summary of the entire book. This is just part of the story of a very simple game. The story of Minesweeper is much more fascinating than I initially thought.
The Competitive Scene and Experiments in Bureaucracy
Did you know that a competitive scene was created around Minesweeper? I had no idea before reading this book, but once I took a step back, I realized it was just another example of a fanbase creating a place for themselves.
Damian Moore started to track high scores for Minesweeper in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This was during the internet’s infancy. Many video games would eventually have fan sites created for them. Minesweeper is a game I wouldn’t have thought about having one of these sites.
Because this was the early internet, there wasn’t a forum; it had a guestbook. This was how visitors to a website would communicate. Kyle does a better job describing guestbooks than I did here.
As the community grew, we hear how people tried to fake scores. This reminded me of Twin Galaxies and how many of their early scores were fabricated. Unlike the arcade high scores, the Minesweeper community found ways to check to see if the high scores were even possible.
It is fascinating to see how they used a method to count clicks. This was very interesting to read about. The community would also get into the game. They found out that there was some repetition to the different boards that would appear in the game.
This is where Kyle gets into the Dreamboard and how Minesweeper wasn’t as random as they first thought. The Dreamboard is a board on intermediate difficulty that is easier to solve than the others. Kyle does a better job of explaining this, and I like how he breaks down the frequency of this board.
This brought up an issue with the high score community. Some members thought that level memorization was a form of cheating. It became an issue between the two sides, and eventually, a committee was created to settle this debate. It didn’t settle the issue and was dissolved after a year.
Instead of creating rules for this perceived cheating, the community set about fixing the bug that caused the repeating pattern of boards. This led to my next favorite part of the book, the different revisions and clones of Minesweeper.
Updates and Missteps
Minesweeper and Microsoft’s other classic casual games would move to the app store instead of being on the start menu. As Windows updated itself to stay with the times, things had to change, and the pre-installed games would change with them. Only some changes were for the better, and to their credit, Microsoft would change direction after making an unpopular decision.
When Windows 8 was released, the pre-installed games were removed from the operating system and placed in the Windows App Store. Minesweeper and other pre-installed games were free downloads, but you had to know where they were and how to get them. Yet another reason why Windows 8 sucked.
When Windows 10 was released, the pre-installed games were brought back. However, Minesweeper wasn’t one of the games that were pre-installed and remained a free download.
Minesweeper was returned to the start menu with Windows 11. This helped to bring Minesweeper back to people’s attention. I wonder how many people still play Minesweeper, but it has to be enough to keep the game popular.
In 2011, Microsoft’s Casual Games Division started updating their games like Minesweeper. An adventure mode that was similar to the games released in the 80s was added. Advertisements were also added to the game.
This change brought Minesweeper in line with other mobile games. You can make these advertisements go away by paying for a premium subscription because, of course, you could. It is one of the things I dislike about casual and mobile games.
When I checked out Microsoft’s version of Minesweeper, I didn’t find it as predatory as other mobile games. However, I’m not a big enough fan of Minesweeper to sit through advertisements to play it. Thankfully, there are plenty of other ways to play the game.
This is one of the more investigative and historical books in the Boss Fight Books library. The personal stories about games are my favorite, but this historical look at a game that I didn’t know the history of was great to read.
Putting the reach of Minesweeper in perspective regarding an install base was highly informative. Because it was a free game that Microsoft gave away, it can take be difficult to compare to other games sold in stores. Minesweeper was sold alongside millions of computers until Microsoft removed it from the start menu.
The story of Minesweeper is one of those parts of video game history that touches on other stories. There are so many smaller stories tied to Minesweeper, and each of them is fascinating in its own right. Kyle does an excellent job of bringing all of the parts of this story together to tell a compelling story about a simple game.