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How to beat the maddening, wonderful game Two Dots

I hate you fire dots. I hate you so, so much

Two Dots, the puzzle game for iOS, has been out for about a year now. It just got updated this weekend, in fact, with some new levels and a couple new features. It's a great game.

It's the kind of game that fires a tiny explosion of serotonin directly into the deepest part of my brain: it's simple but crafted. Instead of randomly-generated, endless levels you get in games like Candy Crush and the original Dots, Two Dots has levels specifically made by humans. There's an element of luck, but there's also a chance to you'll figure out the secret trick to beating a certain level.

There are a lot of ways to spend money in Two Dots

There's also, I should say up top, a lot of opportunities to spend money in an otherwise free game — you only get five lives and they regenerate every 20 minutes. There are boosters and regular pop-ups to spend a buck or two. You can do well at the game without spending a dime, but it will mean your pace will be slower.

Apparently I have a reputation for being pretty good at these kinds of games (same thing with Threes). It's something I've cultivated because I like talking trash, but the truth is that I didn't think I was doing anything special. But maybe I was, because with Two Dots especially, there are some basic strategies for climbing through the levels that I've developed over time.

So here are a few tips and tricks I've learned over the past year or so that have let me climb the levels in Two Dots.

Make squares

squares

This is the most basic strategy in Two Dots. When you connect a square of dots, it clears out all of that color from the board. It can create a virtuous cycle where every new set of dots that drops down reveals another square you can hit.

But "just make squares" isn't the whole story. You want to look ahead, making squares on the board in strategic spots so the next move can also be a square. Looking about one move ahead is about as good as you can do in Two Dots, since the colors that come down from the top are random, so the composition of colors you have to work with changes from turn to turn.

Look at least one move ahead

You really want to look at least one move ahead all the time. You'll begin to see patterns that could become squares if you just clear out the right number of dots underneath them.

And squares have one additional benefit that you can use to your advantage. If you clear purple squares, for example, then the dots that cascade in from the top won't be purple. It means you'll end up alternating the colors you clear.

One last note: there's a "great square" where you connect a bunch of dots with other dots inside your square. That turns the dots inside into a bomb that blows up adjacent dots. Good fun, but sometimes it can kill your next planned move. Use them, but with caution.

Know your obstacles

Two Dots almost never just gives you a big, open board of colored dots to drag your finger on. There are usually obstacles, and you need to know where on the board the squares are even possible. Focus on those and, more to the point, focus on clearing obstacles so that you have as many square-friendly zones as possible.

The obstacles range from simple to infuriating (dear fire dots: I hate you with the heat of a thousand suns). Some of them, like the sandblocks or directional blocks, just sit there taking up precious space that you want to clear up so you can make more squares. Others, like the circuit blocks or fire dots (see hatred, above), can change the board radically.

Here's a brief overview of the obstacles you'll find. I don't know exactly what Two Dots terminology I'm supposed to use here. This is what I call these things.

Ice blocks don't stop anything, but you need to clear a few dots within them to break them. Especially as you get towards the end of your level, worry less about making squares and more about doing whatever it takes to pop the last few stragglers.

fire

Fire dots burn up the dots next to them. But you can stop their spread: whenever you clear a dot next to a fire dot, it eliminates that fire dot. It also keeps the fire dots connected to it from spreading. So basically: focus on clearing dots next to fire dots and if you have a choice, don't split a grouping of fire dots up. Also recommended: buy a small tether for your phone so that when you're tempted to chuck the damn thing because of fire dots, you won't damage it.

Sand blocks clear when you clear a dot next to them. They keep dots from cascading below them, so make sure you get the ones at the top early, and make sure you're opening up space to make squares.

Directional blocks only clear when you clear a dot on the correct side of them. Highly annoying, but follow the same strategy as with the sand blocks. Make sure they're not preventing you from making squares. Also note they're destroyed by explosions (circuit blocks, exploding middle dots from a great square), so use that to your advantage if you can.

directional

Transporters take a column of dots as they fall through the bottom and move them up to another column somewhere else on the board. They basically give you a shot at doing better prediction, and you'll want to pay close attention to how they change the way dots fall.

Anchors fall to the bottom, and you need to clear the dots underneath them to get rid of them.

Circle dots are probably the best kind of "obstacle." They can be combined with any color dot to make squares. As you're looking ahead, look for patterns of two or three dots that can be combined with a circle dot. Keep an eye out for them at the bottom, because they can block anchors and don't clear. Drawing a square with four or more circle dots clears the entire board. It seems like a great idea, but it's usually not: random dots are worse than whatever your planned next move is.

Monster dots eat the dots next to them, turning them another color. They're annoying. They have little numbers inside them, which is the number of dots you need to connect to them to clear them. Sometimes you want to kill them early and sometimes you want to let them roam around the board making more of their color. If Two Dots ever combines a fire dot with a monster dot, I will probably have to go protest outside the company's headquarters. (Oh god what if the developers hadn't thought of making fire dot monsters and I just gave them the idea just now? I'm so sorry.)

Circuit squares are a group of blocks that all get toggled off or on as you clear the dots inside them. You have to set the entire group to on to clear them, triggering a bomb. If you see circuit squares on the board, you probably want to think twice about making squares.

Flower dots automatically connect and clear dots of the same color next to them (though they don't make squares. Stupid jerk flowers). Just kind of work at clearing the board so that like colors fall next to them.

Know your goals

Each level starts with an splash screen that tells you what you need to clear from the board in order to win. It's usually some combination of a few obstacles. As you play, make sure you're doing more than just clearing squares — focus on hitting those goals.

Most of the time, you're going to want to adjust how and where you make your squares so that you can deal with these obstacles — but don't get too focused on it. Sometimes they're just there to vex you, and what you really should be doing is watching your progress towards your level-specific goals. Actually, that's all you should be doing, all the time.

Most levels start with a random placement of dots, but not all! Pay close attention to the starting setup of each board and if you start to see the same dots in the same place, that's a big hint from the level designer. Sometimes there's a clever starting strategy that can make your life a lot easer if you can figure it out at the onset.

Get booster packs

There are a bunch of boosters that you can buy which do various, random things to the board at the beginning. Sometimes it's giving you more like-colored dots so you can make squares. Sometimes it's freezing fire. Sometimes it's blowing up a bunch of random dots. The game also just added two in-level buttons for shuffling dots and erasing them.

Somebody will tell you that's it's possible to beat any level without boosters. That somebody is technically telling the truth, but it's also technically possible to climb Mount Everest without any special equipment. Some levels just require it. But don't over-use them — because a booster isn't a guarantee of success.

Use boosters sparingly

My advice is to only use a booster on your last life, after you've spent the first four sussing out the level and getting infuriated by its maker. Also, you should save booster packs for the higher levels — whenever Two Dots introduces a new section with new obstacles, the levels are generally easier.

Yes, you can buy more of them, but that can get very expensive very quickly. Instead, just make sure you play once a day. Every 24 hours, Two Dots gives you a booster challenge which will net you a free box. The nice thing about these challenges is you don't need to worry about beating a level, just hitting those goals. So keep hitting the "find level" button until you get some lower level that makes it easier to hit the daily goal.

Stay calm

Look, Two Dots can be infuriating. There are levels that seem like they're custom-designed to drive you crazy and entice you to spend a buck on getting five more moves just to beat the damn thing. And if you were to give in and do that, I wouldn't judge. Nor would I judge if you spent a little money to get the "infinite lives for X hours" that the game sometimes offers you. These are choices that each person must make alone, decisions between you and your god.

I won't pretend that I haven't done any (or, ahem, all) of the above. But mostly I just accept that the game is good for fifteen minutes of zoning out on the subway. There's enough randomness in the system to make me believe that I might get lucky tomorrow and enough design in the levels that I only sometimes feel like its true purpose is to enrage me.

It's just a game, after all. A game that I'm better at than my friend Creighton. Hi Creighton!