A Night on the Tiles

In which The Author develops a new addiction

As I’ve mentioned before, my non-prescribed drug of choice comes in a pint glass, sometimes a can, or (very occasionally) an optic. Mind you, after a totally lost weekend last November involving a bottle of white wine, a fair amount of vodka, twenty-four hours of sickness, and numerous Unexplained Drunken Injuries, I think I’ll stick to pints from now on.
A great many of my friends are smokers, and a fair number of them have tried giving up (with mixed results) over the years. Jason D., my old work pal, is on the nicotine wagon again – possibly his fifth or sixth attempt at kicking the habit. He seems to be doing okay this time around, but he’s a long way behind Mark Twain. That legendary cigar-chomping wit once said, ‘Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I’ve done it thousands of times.’ I know a fair number of dope smokers as well, and very few of them have ever talked about giving up. Draw your own conclusions, folks…
Meanwhile, judging from what I see, hear and read in the local papers, it’s pretty easy to get hold of just about any substance you like if you know the wrong people. I know a number of people who’ve gone down the heroin route over the years, and I’ve been offered pretty much everything over the years. Those drugs have never interested me. Considering that a fair proportion of the music I listen to, the books I read and the films I watch could be considered as drug-inspired, it’s odd that I’ve never gone down that road. Maybe I’m content to just get passively wasted and let other people suffer the ill effects.
Mind you, the dreams I’ve had since switching to my new medication have been quite spectacularly weird. About a fortnight ago I dreamt that an unknown woman and I were assigned to steal secrets from a shadowy corporate building in London. It was like a surreal episode of Spooks – and yes, before you ask, my mystery accomplice was wearing a black poloneck sweater. Their security people pursued us to the rooftop, where we were caught up in a gun battle with them, the police, and two chavvy girls who were just there to score drugs. It segued seamlessly into a branch of Iceland, where the manager had gone berserk and smashed up all the freezers and fridges. Who needs LSD when you can take Mirtazepine, eh?
No, my addiction is much more in keeping with my general lifestyle. I’ve been a cryptic crossword enthusiast for years, starting with The Guardian and working my way up to the weird ones, as I related in A Turn-out For the Books.
I never jumped on the Sudoku bandwagon, though. It’s a good logic puzzle, I suppose, but people who claim that it exercises your mathematical faculties are way wide of the mark. You don’t actually need any mathematical knowledge to do Sudoku – any random assortment of nine arbitrary symbols would do just as well, whether you chose letters of the alphabet, the names of different fruits, or even symbols from the Wingdings font.
[A digression: When the 11th edition of The Chambers Dictionary came out, I thought it would be a nice idea to make a display near the Games and Pastimes section in Waterstone’s. I highlighted the new edition, surrounded it with cryptic crossword books from The Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times stables, and made a header on the computer in the office. It read:
Su Doku is Japanese for ‘Just for little girls’ – are you ready for a real challenge?
All was well and good until Yasmine, who was a huge Sudoku fan, spotted it on her way to the staff room. I swear it’s the only time I’ve seem someone completely incandescent with rage, with steam coming from her ears.]
In terms of Japanese logic puzzles, the next step up is Kakuro, where you do need to be able to add up – as far as 45, anyway. They look like crosswords, only with numbers instead of letters, like this:


That was far more to my taste, and I bought every book of puzzles I could get my hands on before I finished work. I’ve only come across one subsequently, in a charity shop in Pontypridd. My initial confidence was soon dashed when I learned that even the ‘easy’ puzzles are much harder than they look. The Guardian publishes one kakuro a week, but I usually fail to finish even their ‘medium’ puzzles. The problem with Kakuro is that, just when everything seems to be falling into place, you cross-check your sums and find out that you’ve buggered it up somewhere. And by ‘somewhere’, I mean just that! It’s virtually impossible to retrace your steps to see where you’ve gone wrong. My books at home are filled in at least three different colours of ink, where I’ve restarted the same puzzle and tried a different route to reach the solution.
Since the initial Sudoku explosion, these Japanese puzzles and others like them have spread like wildfire across our newspapers and bookshelves. The Guardian even ran a wonderful story about the latest sensation – Maru-batsu. It was only when you were halfway through the piece that you realised they were describing good old Noughts and Crosses (or Tic Tac Toe, as my US readers would call it.) I don’t know why they didn’t sit on it until April Fool’s Day.
I never got into Hitori or any of the others, in spite of trying to get to grips with them. Maybe my logical faculties aren’t as well-developed as I thought. Even so, Kakuro is incredibly addictive. You work your way through one, (possibly) get a result, and turn to the next one. Before you know it, several hours have gone by and you’re hacking away at the top left-corner of the twentieth puzzle in a row.
This brings us to the next bit of my own personal puzzle. Apart from as part of a gang playing the quiz machine in the pub, the last time I’d played a computer game until very recently was about thirty years ago. Keith E. and I were sitting in Frank’s Café on the Gadlys, playing tabletop Space Invaders on a wet Sunday afternoon, because there was nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. In some respects, Aberdare hasn’t changed much. Frank retired to Italy many years ago, and the machine is long gone. However, there’s still nothing much to do and nowhere to go. At least the rain’s holding off (for now…)
At about the same time my brother had a Vectrex, which by today’s standards would look extremely primitive retro, an all-in-one games machine/ monitor/ joystick set-up, complete with games which loaded from cartridges like cassette tapes. (In fact, it bore a passing resemblance to the Apple IIe computer, which I once described as ‘the thinking man’s Vectrex.’) The default game was Minestorm, in which a spaceship came under attack from extraterrestrials. Unlike the orderly rows one was up against in Space Invaders, these alien invaders came from all directions. As you progressed from level to level the numbers increased and the weaponry became more sophisticated. Over time I developed a technique which a military shooting instructor might charitably describe as a ‘turkey shoot in a locked barn’ at best. I just held down the ‘fire’ button, spun my craft in continuous circles, and shot off to another part of the screen whenever I was hemmed in. One afternoon I reached Level 71 of the game, our all-time best at home, but there was nobody else to witness it. Honour was extremely satisfied, and I resigned my commission from Starfleet Command that afternoon. (I’d much rather join the Time Agency anyway.)
In the thirty years since then, games technology has advanced to such a degree that it’s very difficult to tell computer graphics from high-end animation. I’ve heard of the popular games, of course, like Halo, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, but I’ve never been remotely interested in playing any of them. In that regard, at least, I’m saved from total Geekdom.
When I was visiting Helen R. last summer, Thomas was glued to Call of Duty: Black Ops on his XBox 360. He called me in to have a look at it, and I admit that I was blown away by the sophistication of the whole system. I’m still not sure whether I’d have let him play it if he was my son, to be honest, but I suppose it’s no worse than news coverage of the civil war in Syria. The only difference is that, on TV, the rebels don’t get back and carry on once they’re blown to pieces by a jet fighter.
When I first put Ubuntu Linux on my Netbook, I uninstalled the games without a second thought. I wasn’t going to use them, after all. Why would I break the habit of an adult lifetime? This time around I must have missed a bit while I was setting my system up. I came across the discrepancy last night. I might live to regret it.
I’d listened to the Radio 4 documentary and the repeat of J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, and I didn’t fancy sitting through The Moral Maze. After the ten o’clock news I switched the radio off and put a CD on instead. It was Torment and Toreros by Marc [Almond] and the Mambas. I’d had a copy on cassette, dating back to the time when I saw Marc with The Willing Sinners in 1985, but my machine ate it years ago. I bought the CD when I wasn’t going out with Jenny, as I thought it would appeal to her sensibilities. She never got to listen to it – not in my company, anyway. Emma J. and I had been chatting on Facebook during the afternoon, and she reminded me of the great Soft Cell song Torch. I felt like a nostalgia trip (see Zigzagging Down Memory Lane), so I listened to the whole of Torment, then put on three Throbbing Gristle CDs back to back.
At some point I scrolled down the installed applications on the Netbook, and came across a game called Mahjong. I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never played it in my life. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has played it, apart from the odd customer who wanted to buy the Know the Game book. Out of curiosity, I opened it up. I was presented by a screen which looked something like this:

Screenshot from 2013-06-30 16:32:47

I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do next, so I clicked the ‘hint’ button a few times. After watching several pairs of matching tiles disappear in short order, I thought I had the general idea. I clicked a few pairs of tiles myself. Some of them vanished, and others stayed stubbornly put. There didn’t seem to be any underlying reason for this difference in behaviour. I could have given up there and then, but I have to admit that I was intrigued.
I hunted around until I found a pull-down menu with an outline of the game. It turns out that you can remove a matching pair if, and only if, at least one long side of each tile is not touching another. For example, I could get rid of the blue blocks at the left-hand side and in the bottom-but-last row, but not the one in the bottom row (because it’s hemmed in by its neighbours.) The pair of tiles with the two blue coins can go as well; so can the pair with the four blue coins, and so forth. After removing a few pairs, the picture becomes a bit clearer.

Screenshot from 2013-06-30 16:42:06

The tricky part comes about because the tiles aren’t on a two-dimensional surface. They’re actually built up in layers, like a little ziggurat, so that the tiles in the centre conceal the ones beneath. As you whittle away at the structure, the hidden tiles are exposed, and matching pairs become harder to find.

Screenshot from 2013-06-30 16:53:06

It doesn’t surprise me that this game originated in China, with variations found in Japan and Korea. There’s a certain Zen simplicity to it, coupled with a fiendish logical structure which also characterises the popular newspaper games like Kakuro. I imagine that competitive Mahjong would be as mind-stretching as chess, as many various possibilities unfold with each move.
Well, I persevered with the Easy game, averaging ten minutes or so before I completed the clearance about half the time. The rest of the time (as with Kakuro), I got hopelessly sidetracked and abandoned the game. The program allows you to retrace your steps and try a different tack, but (like Kakuro) it’s very difficult to pinpoint the move where everything went supine.
The music played on, and I played on, and before I realised where the time had gone it was five a.m. I switched the Netbook off and went to bed for a few hours. I think I must have almost reached the point where my body clock will reset itself; I woke up at about half past nine feeling as though I’d had a decent few hours’ sleep for a change. I played a few more games before I came out this afternoon, just to check that last night wasn’t a fluke. I’ve also got the weekend’s selection of crosswords (and the Kakuro) to look at when I get home.
So, I’m going to stand up before my readers and make the following declaration: My name is Steve and I’m a puzzle-a-holic. Wow, I feel much better for just admitting it!
Now, I’m wondering whether I can combine my penchant for Japanese-style puzzles with another imported pastime which is catching on in certain circles: Shibari, the art of Japanese rope bondage. I bet nobody’s come up with that idea before. If any young women would be interested in solving logic puzzles while secured to various fixtures and fittings with yards and yards of soft rope, you know where to contact me…