A Boom of Nostalgia With minesweepergame.com

Published Apr 2, 2024

Hi! Can you tell us who you are and what you do?

Hi everyone. I’m Damien Moore, also known as thefinerminer, and I’m the creator and long-time curator of minesweepergame.com—everyone’s go-to website for everything and anything about Minesweeper! I’m currently in Edinburgh, Scotland, but I’m originally from Vancouver, Canada, and I’m excited to talk to all of you, wherever you are in the world.

Minesweepergame.com is also known as Authoritative Minesweeper in Minesweeper community, and I curate and record as many submissions and games as I can. It’s a non-profit website that contains almost everything a beginner or experienced player needs. From global records, strategy guides, nifty facts and history and even news articles about Minesweeper, it’s all here on the website.

Why is your website called Authoritative Minesweeper?

There’s a short story behind it. Back in the day, like, pre-Yahoo! time, directories were curated by humans, unlike how it has massively changed to what it is today. Anyhow, the directories back then were in alphabetical order, and I chose this horrible title that no one could even spell so that I would be at the top of the directories. Then Yahoo stepped in, then Lycos, then finally Google killed the whole directory-style thing.

So yeah, Authoritative Minesweeper. Just to be on top of the list.

Can you tell us about your origin story and minesweepergame.com?

The origin story is all Canadian. Back then, we had a computer and it was running Windows 3.1, and I saw my dad and brother playing and I thought it looked kind of cool. Clicked around a few times, blew up and thought to myself that maybe even Solitaire is a bit better than this. But I eventually got around to reading the instructions, which very few people actually ever did, and realized that those numbers were just clues for where the mines were.

And there was a high score list, so I started competing against myself. But I only played a little bit as a kid. It really just went off when I was 16. I lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road, and my entire family was homeschooled. We had a single shared computer with a 28k dial-up modem, and my dad went on this really dodgy website no one had heard of called eBay. And he bought a secondhand computer and gave it to me as a present. It had Windows 95 in it, and the OS didn’t fit the specs of the computer itself.

I finished homeschooling early that summer and I had four months where I had to entertain myself. I was too young to drive, no public transportation, no internet, so I went searching through the games folder. And Solitaire gets boring after a while, Free Cell… Hearts is extremely boring, especially when you have no networking to play with anyone. So I settled on Minesweeper and I just played like crazy all summer. And I mean, really crazy, to the point that I played like four to five hours a day by the end of summer. That many hours of Minesweeper, yes. And I thought to myself that I’ve gotten pretty good at it, and like most people do, got a little bit of hubris.

Then schoolwork started again in September, so I quit for a while and then didn’t think about it till Christmas of the following year. At that point, we had internet connection, and records could be viewed. So at Christmas, I logged back on and was shocked to find out that the world record was nearly three times as fast as my best score!

But then I looked some more, and all the websites that were around at the time were dead. There was this guy who’d been studying Math in the United States, and in 1998, he created the expert world records. But most people just submitted scores with no evidence, so you couldn’t trust anything, and he eventually quit because so many people kept sending fake scores. Then a guy who was studying chemistry at Harvard created an intermediate world record webpage and ran into the same problem; collected a few scores then gave up over time as well.

Creating the website

So when I logged on in the year 2000, there were no rankings. Well, there were ranking websites, but they were outdated and basically dead. And I thought to myself, “Why don’t I start a ranking website?” My brother, at the time, was programming websites for punk rock bands in exchange for free merchant tickets, so he helped me set up a really basic HTML website with Iframes. It was horrible, really embarrassing! I just emailed everyone I could find on the internet who had talked about Minesweeper and asked them to send me their scores.

Those were the days when everything was really innocent, so if you posted in a guestbook, you’d say how old you were, what your job was and you’d give your email address. With that, I was able to contact hundreds of people. In April 2000, I launched the website and haven’t really looked back. The main thing at the time was… I don’t know if you could call it an innovation, but I came up with the idea of just ranking you based on the total sum of your best beginner, intermediate and expert scores. Then I set a bar or standard that your total had to be less than 100 seconds or you didn’t get on the rankings.

So a lot of people, when they started logging onto the internet in the early 2000s, would see this world ranking. You’d just have to complete all three levels in less than 100 seconds and you can get on the world ranking. So that’s kind of where it all started. I don’t know how many viewers know that there are different difficulty levels with different numbers of mines, but that’s how it was back then.

Minesweeper ranking system

I created a ranking system based on the speed of the completion of the three levels. Initially, they were integer scores, but around 2004 or 2005, we created a Minesweeper clone that had decimal timers and built-in video recording. So the system has changed over the years. The initial Windows version only started the timer after your first click, but the later version started at zero. The earlier versions of the game also had clock skipping problems, and then Windows XP came out with a 9x9 grid instead of an 8x8. So all of a sudden, you had to find ways to compare the different levels accurately so no one complained. By the time 2006 or 2007 rolled in, videos became mandatory for ranked record submissions, especially on the scores that we settled on.

Could you explain Minesweeper to us?

Well, it’s a game that naturally attracts nerds as it scares a lot of people away when they see numbers appearing. But the Math behind it isn’t too complicated, even if there are over 70 peer-reviewed published papers on the Math behind Minesweeper in various journals you can find on the website.

But really, it’s as simple as clicking on a square. If there’s no mine, then the cell opens and it’s empty and it spreads in all directions until it hits cells that have numbers in them. The numbers in the cells just tell you the number of mines that the cells are touching. For example, if the cell you click says “1”, then it’s in the vicinity of one mine. If it’s “2”, then there are two mines in the area. If a bunch of 1 cells are surrounding a single cell, then that’s a mine, and you can mark it by right-clicking that cell with a flag.

It all becomes intuitive over time, and you’ll definitely figure it out. As you continue, it gets into really basic pattern recognition. So for example, you might have a wall where you have a pattern like a 1 2 1, and from the first 1, there’s one mine in the cells it’s touching. From the 2, there’s there’s two in the three it’s touching, and so on. And you work out through multiple numbers that it has to be a mine, safe cell, mine.

There are other common patterns as well, like 1 2 2 1. Most patterns actually reduce down to some really basic patterns when you think about them enough. I wrote a five thousand-word strategy article with pictures on it. You can go look it up, it has a lot of screenshots and examples, but it pretty much just breaks down to pattern recognition. And the quicker you recognize patterns, the more it becomes automated and you enter a kind of flow state. When you get good enough on Minesweeper, you start solving faster than you can even react, and you end up solving three to five moves ahead of where your hand is on the mouse.

And when you get to the elite levels of skill, you might be solving multiple places on the grid simultaneously in your head. You’ll end up intentionally moving the mouse on the shortest path through the board and areas you’re solving to minimize the time you’re wasting on moving. Ultimately, it comes down to how efficient and accurate you are.

The top players are willing to lose 99.9% of their games to get that perfect game where they have that perfect mixture of efficiency, speed and luck. Yes, really. Luck. There’s still an element of luck that determines the result of that attempt.

How luck works in Minesweeper

Since it is a logic game that relies heavily on pattern recognition, several people have tried building solvers. There are about 30 published papers on different ways to build really great solvers for Minesweeper. And, generally speaking, beginners are almost always solvable without luck, intermediates as high as 80%, and experts around 36% solvable without any luck whatsoever.

But I think the luck aspect introduced a slight bit of addictiveness. Like I’ve had games before where I was about to break my record, and the last click of the entire game was a genuine 50/50, and you get it wrong. And then, of course, you go online and complain to all your friends. And that’s just the way gaming works. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and that uncertainty adds a tiny bit of thrill to the game.

There are versions that people gave written specifically to make them 100% solvable, but as I said, expert difficulty is only solvable about 36% of the time without making at least one guess. That confuses a lot of people because most of them who have just started playing think that there’s far more luck involved. But if you sit there patiently with them and explain that there’s a certain logic to it all, they gradually realize that it is possible to solve most games without relying on pure, dumb luck.

The top percentile of MInesweeper players

The top players can intentionally click on squares about six and a half times a second, and that level of skill takes a lot of time to hone. I myself am now retired for the last few years and am really now like the curator for the history of the game. 

Now, the elite group of players is essentially in Poland and China, and they’re all constantly competing for world records. And there’s about five of them that play faster than I can think, and remember, I also play at the top percentile of players.

The newer generation of players also take advantage of technological advancements, like cutting-edge mice that significantly affect the speed of their attempts. I consider myself a really old-school type of Minesweeper player, and I don’t have a fancy mouse. The new generation of record players actually modify their stuff to suit their needs and preferences and ultimately get better times. But honestly, that’s out of my league. I’m just too old for that. And by the time those high-end mice entered the scene, I was already retired.

This technological advancement also had effects on how tournaments went. In the early days, live tournaments were common, but they started petering out around 2016.  The most common problems were lag and setup differences. There would be problems with network and input lag, or the hardware of the computer, or the seat height or the angles of reaching… we all had our own playstyles that made us reach the top percentile, and all these unknown factors affected how well someone performed on a live tournament. That’s why around 2016, live events started to die out in favor of an online setup. You’d be at home, comfortable and able to do your best with all the factors in your control, and the videos would just be taken and uploaded to the leaderboard.

Holding a world record using his right foot

When you reach the top group of elites, there comes a time when you’ll end up plateauing. And even now, as I’m retired, I’m still in the top ranks when it comes to efficiency, but I’m no longer in the top 20 on any of the speed rankings. There was a stage where people got bored because you don’t often break your record that easily. At our level, it was common to see someone not being able to break a record for like, twelve to eighteen months.

So what do you do to mix things up? Well, we’d end up doing handicap challenges, and we ended up competing with non-dominant hands and even with our feet. So I briefly held the world record for playing Minesweeper with my right foot, but I got beaten by a guy from Germany. That’s how bored we were as teenagers.

The objective behind playing competitively

You might have guessed at this point, but the objective of competitive Minesweeper isn’t to rack up wins—it’s to be the fastest. The community was quite annoyed when Windows Vista came out because they added a win percentage to the stats. And we’re like, “You guys don’t understand the purpose of this game.”

I mean, I don’t blame Microsoft, because, with Windows Vista, they outsourced it to a third-party company who tried to gamify it and make it cooler. And then with Windows 8, they outsourced it to another company called Arcadia, who completely redesigned the game and added something different. You’ve probably seen that adventure mode where you’re a miner running through hundreds and hundreds of levels, collecting gold. That’s not Minesweeper at all. No offense to Microsoft, and I have no intention of pissing them off.

Is there any preferred version of Minesweeper, competitive-wise?

Well, for the world rankings, there are three official—community-decided and agreed upon—versions that we use. The Guinness Book of World Records also accepts these three clones of Minesweeper as official. So as long as you submit your scores on Minesweeper X, Minesweeper Arbiter or Viennasweeper, it’s valid. It’s called Viennasweeper because it was made for the tournament in Vienna and it’s still maintained.

Those three versions are the most faithful replications of the original Windows 3.1 version, minus the problems that were found, of course. And really, I don’t play on anything else except pretty much Arbiter or X at the moment.

The Complex History of Minesweeper

Minesweeper has a long history, but I’ll try to summarize it as best as I can. Basically, the Windows version is what made the MInesweeper genre a global phenomenon. And that was the case when Robert Donner got hired in 1989 to work on Word at Microsoft. One of his colleagues had written a game called Mine because Microsoft, at the time, was working on an operating system called OS/2 for IBM. So he asked Kurt Johnson if he could borrow his code, have a look at it, and then he completely rewrote that game for Windows 3.0—which was just being released at that time.

Donner spent most of May and June of 1990 writing Windows Mine based on Presentation Manager Mine. “PM” was the name of the windowing system in OS/2. But that 1989 PM Mine game was actually based on a 1988 Macintosh game by Daniel Grizzcom called Mine, unsurprisingly. And Grizzcom’s game was based on a 1987 game that was also called Mine, and that was written for a Sun Microsystems workstation by Tom Anderson. And Anderson wrote that game after seeing a person playing a DOS game called Relentless Logic in the office. Relentless Logic was written in 1984 by three anonymous authors.

That 1984 version was just a variant of earlier “Cross the Minefield”-type of game where you tried to get from the bottom corner to the top right corner. In Relentless Logic, you were a US Marine who had to get home and it would beep to tell you there are one or more mines nearby, and your score was the fewest number of steps to get across the grid. And Relentless Logic itself was based on an earlier minefield-type of game dating all the way back to a game that was submitted to a magazine in England in 1979 by a guy who apprenticed at British Steel and he had access to a mainframe computer.

That mainframe computer, PDP-11, didn’t even have a screen. It just printed everything out on paper. But he, the apprentice guy, was inspired by a variant of Star Trek with this little grid pattern. And there were already some games where you used logic to cross a grid because mainframe games were extremely basic in the seventies. So he had a copy of the 1978 book “101 Basic Computer Games”, and which included a Star Trek game, a couple of hide-and-seek games where you tried to find hidden objects in grids. It also had a chess game where you had to move your character from one corner to another corner. And just by using that as inspiration, he came up with this idea.

Let’s say you’re a soldier trying to cross a field of mines, and you have a mine detector that beeps when you’re near a mine. And they scattered some rocks in as well to make it a proper minefield. But after it was published in March 1979, it took off. And for the next year, there were dozens of clones in other magazines and books.

Then in 1983, Sinclair released the ZX Spectrum, which was one of the first color computers. And someone wrote a version of the minefield-type of game called “Mind Out” where instead of trying to get home, you were trying to rescue Bill the Galactic Worm and save damsels, all the while avoiding being chased by a mine spreader and a spider. So it kind of turned into a multi-level arcade game, and that also went crazy for about two years, then died down.

But then it was that Relentless Logic game in the US in 84 that really spread the genre, as IBM PCs were becoming affordable in offices and homes. So yeah, to really dumb it down, the Windows version was what spread it, and it was the first version with the explicit goal of opening every single safe cell. But some of those earlier versions had introduced the ability to flag mines or flag safe spaces. The original ones were literally just walking one step at a time across a minefield with a beeper going off indicating you were near mine.

So, yeah. From traversing minefields to identifying mines. Minesweeping.

The Dream Board

Ah, the Dream Board is very central to the history of the game and how the entire modern community evolved. The early rankings were 100% trust-based, and very few people provided evidence, if any. And when I started the rankings, some people started taking screenshots of the game for the first time to prove that they weren’t just making it up. And there wasn’t really a way to detect if they were fake or not unless it was a really obvious photoshop.

But as these pictures started being submitted to the site, this guy in Germany broke the intermediate world record with fifteen seconds. And of course, everyone wanted to see the picture of the game. Then a guy from Denmark noticed and said that it was the same game I played a few months ago. And we were shocked, like, that shouldn’t have happened.

We thought these games were completely random, which was kind of naive in retrospect, given how bad random number generators were back at the time. But then a few months later, the same guy set a new world record. And to make things worse, it was on the board he’d made his previous record on.

So everyone went a little bit crazy going, “Okay, so obviously if the same person could get the same board more than once, something’s going on here.” But that led to a whole exploration where people started discovering that the boards on the beginner and intermediate levels actually cycle. If you look at it from a purely random perspective, on intermediate, there are billions of possible board combinations. But in reality, it turns out that it was just over 24,000.

And they repeat in two cycles, a 12,000 cycle if the initial random seed is an odd number, and another 12,000 cycle if the seed is even. And those cycles are then each made up of eight smaller subcycles of about 1,500 boards.

Then what happened is, around 2002, people also started recording their games on video for the first time. And people noticed that the game before the Dream Board was always the same in every video. So people started clicking like, 10,000 times, looking for the game before the dream board. And they would sit, relax, take a sip of something strong, and then play the Dream Board by memory, having watched other people’s videos of how they played the game. One guy even built a Dream Board generator so that he could practice.

So the world record went from twelve, eleven, ten, nine and all the way down to six. And then people started spotting other boards that were almost as easy as the Dream Board. And they started memorizing those boards as well. It got to the point where all the top intermediate records were memorized games by people who were manipulating the board cycles.

And then the same thing started happening for beginner. People would see really lucky games that could be solved in three clicks. And they would play 10,000 games clicking on those three spots until they hit the opening perfectly and got a one-second beginner game. A lot of top players got really depressed and a whole slew of them retired around 2003 and 2004, because what was the point of playing the game anymore? It was no longer pure.

But then what happened is a group of guys got together and started what they call Project Utopia. The goal was to build the perfect clone of Windows Minesweeper that had truly random boards and a few cheap protections built into it. So starting in 2004, a game called Minesweeper Clone was written and that was the first. Then came Minesweeper X, then Arbiter. After that, all these official clones ultimately replaced Windows Minesweeper in the community. And they all had detailed statistics, anti-hacking features and built-in video recording.

So nowadays, if you come to the world rankings, you can submit your individual video, but you could also upload your entire history file with your entire gaming history. And when you submit it to the website, I have a script that runs and looks at every one of your mouse clicks and charts it, looking for different types of cheats or attacks.

With that, the level of trust has gone back up again. And if it wasn’t for the board cycles in Dream Board, none of that would’ve happened. Minesweeper is great in that aspect, bringing people together.

Bill Gates and Minesweeper

Even Bill Gates got addicted to it. You might have seen a few of those stories about him playing. He played it a lot before it got released, and he got so addicted that he had to delete it off his computer at work. But then one day, some people got a phone call saying he’d snuck into someone else’s office and got five seconds on Beginner. He didn’t think people would believe him, so he called people to come and witness it because there was a little thing going on in their office that your score didn’t count unless someone acted as a witness. They also did this because it was actually quite easy to edit and alter your score in the history file.

If you want to know more about it, Kyle Orland, a reporter for Ars Technica, published a book called Minesweeper. They did some really great interviews with the people involved in the Windows Entertainment Pack. I helped him proofread a few of those stories, and it’s a really good back and I highly recommend it.

Did Microsoft ever reach out to you and your community?

They did ask us a few years ago when Windows 8 came out, if some of the top players wanted to be on their Twitch channel. The only problem is that none of the top players wanted to spend time on that version of the game because it doesn’t count for world records. Actually, no Microsoft versions qualify for world records anymore because of some early bugs, cheats, and the fact that the original version had board cycles where the games repeat.

Do you know of other notable people who entered the realm of Minesweeper?

J.K. Rowling. She posted a few things on her blog about how addicted she was getting, and basically just how, instead of fidgeting, she managed to use Minesweeper to cure her smoking addiction. 

That obviously led to some confusion because someone read her post, went to my website, and then a whole bunch of articles appeared in Scottish newspapers saying, “J.K. Rowling is one of the best 100 Minesweeper players in the world”, which is not the case at all. She barely cracked 100 seconds on the hard level, so at the time, she wouldn’t have even qualified for the world ranking.

But hey, any publicity is good publicity, right?

Why doesn’t minesweepergame.com have the game playable in there?

That’s a good question. And it boils down to the fact that I’ve always been a need-to-know basis kind of programmer. There’s another really good website called Minesweeper Online, and that person’s built an in-browser game. There’s another Java version that’s been around for about twenty-five years and hasn’t changed for the last twenty years. Just log into your browser and play.

And if I was concerned about monetization, that’s probably the route I would’ve taken. However, the main focus of my website has always been around gathering the history of the game and providing rankings. So most of my time is spent reviewing scores submitted to the website.

As for the older downloads on the site, I spent the last three years tracking down hundreds of versions of games that are variants of Minesweeper that date back to the early seventies, and I’ve been interviewing authors and cataloging those games. I haven’t published it on my website yet, but hopefully, that’ll be coming in a few months.

What keeps you going in keeping the website alive and continuing your curation?

I just love everything about Minesweeper, and my wife is also very kind and respectful and knows this is my hobby. It’s harmless and I find it quite productive. And actually, if I hadn’t gotten into Minesweeper and built the website and learned about cheat detection and all those other kinds of things, I wouldn’t have ended up in my current job. 

Right now, I work for a bank in an internal audit team that specializes in data management. So all of that kind of nerdy, obsessive attention to detail, writing audit reports where you have to prove everything… all my involvement in Minesweeper has helped mold me into what I am now.

As for the website, I made a decision about ten years ago to have no ads on the website. I just thought it was a cleaner experience for users, and at the time I was hesitating as it would’ve been nice to monetize it, but ultimately, I wouldn’t even call it a sacrifice. I just enjoy it too much. I don’t need income from it.

Obviously, if there was a way for me to earn an amazing income from playing competitive Minesweeper, I would’ve done so years ago. Unfortunately, it isn’t a spectator sport, unlike modern video games. If you stood in the middle of a live competition and watched top-ranked Minesweeper players go at it, you wouldn’t get it as they’re just clicking cells. But if you watched a modern game tournament, you’d be attracted to all the graphics, explosions and sounds.

It’s a very difficult thing to monetize anyway, but that’s not what I’m really after in this case. When you see people improving, you give them tips. Sometimes if I see a promising player, I’ll write them back when they submit their scores and tell them how to further improve their playstyle. It’s just so nice on its own. It’s enough for me. 

At the moment, the thing that's keeping me going is just adding more games a week to that database until I can eventually publish that entire history.

How hard would it be for a beginner to learn competitive Minesweeper?

I did a graph a few years ago, and in the olden days, as in 20 years ago, it could take a year and a half to go from an amateur to get less than 50 seconds on the hard level. Nowadays, if you join the community, you can do it in under three months just by training, using metrics and watching videos.

Is there any advice you’d like to offer passionate people who want to enter the world of Minesweeper?

1. Learn the patterns

Like I said, it boils down to memorizing the most obvious patterns. You can solve almost all beginner and intermediate games just off of two really common patterns. And then if you start realizing those patterns, you become faster and more efficient. We call it Pattern Reduction. 

So if you get a really complicated situation of numbers, and you know where some of the mines are, you can reduce those numbers to what they would be if you subtract the mines from the numbers. That quite often reduces numbers into lower numbers that then are aggregations of patterns you recognize.

2. Focus on efficiency, not number of wins

If you want to make a record that will enter the world rankings, don’t be afraid to lose. As I said, everyone in the top ranks is very willing to lose a lot of their games as long as they get that one perfect game where speed, efficiency and accuracy hit the fastest time. World rankers think fast and click even faster, and you can do it as long as you practice and study patterns and develop your playstyle.

What’s next for thefinerminer?

Well, it’s definitely going to be researching and publishing the comprehensive history of Minesweeper. It’ll probably end up being too boring and too long for anyone to read with too many cross references. But I’ve started feeding little bits out here and there, but that’s pretty much my goal. I’d like to eventually catalog every variant of Minesweeper pre-1995 and continue contacting authors of lost games, trying to see if they have a cassette tape in their basement that they’re willing to send me so I can save the game.

So yeah, I’d like to keep on archiving the history of something that was a passion for hundreds of millions of people.

Where can we learn more about you and your passion?

The easiest way to find me is to go to minesweepergame.com, click on About and I give a few of my online handles. And you should be able to find me like the Hey, Good Game team did through Discord, or just write admin@minesweepergame.com and you’ll get me.

Have a game to sell?

Let’s find out if we play well together.