Game Theory: Minesweeper

At a job early in my career I had the wonderful confluence of circumstances which allowed me to a) learn quite a bit and b) a corporate network that hadn’t yet been fully locked down which provided for c) an the opportunity to play hours upon hours of Minesweeper. [1], [2] Therefore, I have something of note to share with you from that 16 x 16 set of squares.

1. You must take leaps – risk-taking is a fundamental and inaction is an action

The first move you make in Minesweeper is always a guess. If that move doesn’t open up enough real estate for you to do any real “sweeping” then you know what? You have to take that leap of faith and make another guess. Sometimes it blows you up, sometimes it doesn’t, but inaction is an action: if you do not take a risk you will not progress in the game.

It’s as simple as that. Risks are fundamental to playing the game; risks are fundamental to doing work at work; risks are fundamental to life and living.

2. Learn the rules, figure out the process – it’s not called minesweeper for nothing

This is not a willy-nilly, pick-any-square game (at least not after the initial moves, see above). The game gives you clues with numbers: 1 means one square touching that open square has a mine. If there is only one square touching that open space, then you know that’s the square with the mine! 2 means two squares; 3 means three squares, and so on and so forth.

Once you know the rules you can come up with a process for how you will “sweep” the board. If your engineering team likes to leave “undisclosed” 2-week buffers on their estimates, then you know potential areas for tightening up a plan if necessary. If your manager says “maybe” and always means “no”, then you know that maybe = no. Proceed with that knowledge in mind.

3. Once you know, and adhere to, the patterns your chances of success go up significantly

So you’ve taken a risk, you have some open spaces to work with, you understand the rules, and you’ve discerned your process for getting through, and there are some “patterns of mine behavior” that are now evident. In other words, the board has been made clear and you know how to navigate it.

I’ve seen this pattern constantly in Minesweeper:

Minesweeper Pattern 1

Let’s assume there is gray-space/open space all around it. The mines are always at the ends. Always. No amount of wishing, planning, praying, or hoping will change that.

Now, let’s transfer that pattern to real life. As an example: you have a coworker from whom you need to ask a favor or make a request. You know that this coworker is cranky and temperamental before he’s had his first cup of coffee in the morning. Would you walk up to him the moment he sits down at his chair, coat still on, and make that request?

No! Either you wait until the caffeine has done its work or you go get him that cup of coffee first.

You cannot ignore the rules once you’ve figured out what they are. It can be slow (waiting for the caffeine), and it can feel like two steps forward, three steps back, and one to the side all to move forward four steps. But, that’s okay: practice makes perfect, and you get better at the dance (he arrives at 7:05 every morning, have a cup of coffee waiting for him).

4. Sometimes at the end you just have to go with your gut

If you have played as many games of Minesweeper as I have (I will not admit to the number) then you will know that despite all of your skills, sometimes you will get to this:


This is an impossible position. It’s 50/50; it’s one or the other. You don’t know. You can’t know. But remember: inaction is an action and so you can’t dawdle on this forever (seconds are ticking!) and you can’t win if you don’t make a move.

Go with your gut.



So, if you happen to have a few moments available and your computer still has Minesweeper, I’d encourage you to play a round. In fact, I’d encourage you to play a few rounds; it’s a simple game, sure, but you can learn a lot:

Take risks because nothing can ever start or continue with inaction. Learn the rules by listening, by paying attention, by doing, and yes, even by failing. Trust the process after you have discerned it because certain patterns do repeat and if you learn how to work them your chances of success get much, much better. And, last but not least, go with your gut, because sometimes there is no clear right or wrong answer.

If you get it right, fantastic! You deserve the accolades that come with clean, clear success.

And if you get it wrong, don’t let it break you: it’s just a game. And while work and life are not “just games” they are also not single-chance, zero-sum absolutes. If you get it wrong partially or even completely, I promise you, there will be other chances and other opportunities, and what you’ve learned will remain useful.

Happy Minesweeping!

[1] Note, I am not advocating the playing of games at work; I worked far too many hours and I had far too many conference calls. And I was 19.

[2] That said, I am also not poo-pooing the idea that play has a place in the work environment at least in the sense that the time I spent minesweeping allowed me a mindless activity that allowed my creative side to engage. Too many “ah-ha” moments occurred, too many elegant solutions “appeared” for it to have been merely accidental.

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