Wednesday, November 29, 2023

[Microreview]: Minesweeper by Kyle Orland

A little gaming history in a small paperback

Most people born in the 90s (and earlier) can remember the ups and downs of playing a game of Minesweeper. There was the satisfaction of finding a massive, deserted area of the board clearing the way to a better record. Then there was the anxiety of the end game, forcing a cross between skill and luck to choose the right square. Some people knew there was a strategy to it, while others thought the entire thing was just dumb luck (slowly raising a hand). Throughout Kyle Orland’s Minesweeper, some light is shed not only on the game itself but on the history that revolves around it and the competitive scene that grew from a free-to-play game bundled with Microsoft Windows.

I won’t lie: as soon as I finished the book, I booted up Minesweeper to apply the knowledge I gained from the book and won (perhaps my first) intermediate board. Those colorful numbers really do mean something after all. The book begins by explaining the game’s rules, and from there, the history surrounding it. This is done in a way that engages the reader and brings them into the early days of Microsoft (when they were a serious software company and games were just a distraction). From Bill Gates's mild obsession with chasing the high score to the International Minesweeper Committee, the book covers all eras of this addictive game’s adventure throughout the world.

Orland’s blend of primary and secondary sources helps paint a picture of a technological landscape that, up until the 2000s, was a bit of a Wild West. Convincing Microsoft head honchos to include a free game as part of their OS seemed a massive hurdle. Yet the inclusion of games like Solitaire and Minesweeper was the Trojan horse that led to today’s casual game ubiquity. This book covers everything from investor pitches to day-to-day occurrences and exchanges between developers (some of whom don’t seem to remember the actual events, so don't hold them to it).

Occasionally Orland gets a bit technical, bringing the pace of the book to a crawl. There were quite a few moments where the book felt like a manual, and my eyes, already drowsy from a long day of work, had a difficult time remaining open. Despite these moments, I found Orland didn’t linger on them for quite too long, allowing the flow to return to the book, and the pace to resume.

It's easy to get caught up in a simple game like Minesweeper. One game turns into two, and two into two hundred, but despite this, it never occurs to someone that something so simple could have such an impact on a generation. Who would have thought that one freemium game—included to help users become acquainted with a two-buttoned mouse—would be brought before Congress because of its potential deficit in work productivity? Many fun historical tidbits and more are woven into this short book.

If you were an 80s/90s kid with some spare time and a computer to boot, there is a chance you played Minesweeper. Even if you didn’t become obsessed with it, at some point in your life, this game had you in its grasp for a moment. While it’s not a necessary read, Kyle Orland’s Minesweeper is a great example of how everything we listen to, watch, and play has a story behind it regardless of whether we look into it. If you’re looking for some light reading on one of the world’s first major casual games, or just a bit about the early days of Microsoft game development, you could do a lot worse than Minesweeper.

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.