Life lessons from Triple Town

These are lessons learned and observations made over my long, long time playing Triple Town, a little puzzle game available on several platforms and that can be played for free with minor limitations. I wanted to share and elaborate my thoughts with the nether that is the Internet. If you haven’t played it at least for five minutes, it may be slightly nonsensical for you. Go give it a 5-minute whirl.

Planning, planning, planning. You place your Grass with the intention of building a Bush. But you only build Bushes with the intention of building a Tree. But you only build Trees with the intention of building a Hut. And so on. When you first learn to play Triple Town, you keep discovering the next level (remember when you made your first Floating Castle and said “whoa!”). But when you try to plan for the next stage, you realize that this particular Castle should have been over there, not over here. Your lack of planning at an intermediate stage is going to affect every future plan. If only you had planned for what came after the Castle…So it is with life. If you plan for your intermediate goal without thinking of what comes next, you’ll have to taint the joy of accomplishment with the discovery that maybe this isn’t the goal you wanted after all. Maybe when you finally get that Advanced Degree you’ll realize that what comes after is a career in academic research. Maybe once you finally get a Cushy Programming Job you realize that you have no passion for programming. Maybe when you finally get her to say “yes” you realize that living with this kind of person is going to be a constant headache, or worse.

To avoid such situations, at least in Triple Town, you not only plan for your immediate goals, but for the next, and then the next, and then the next, before you ever make your first move. Yes, this is harsh. Thankfully, both Triple Town and Life are not so unforgiving as I’ve made it seem. You can repurpose those Bushes to make a Tree elsewhere. That house over there can be used for the next Mansion instead of the current one. Your advanced degree can give a real competitive advantage against a competitor who would otherwise do no worse a job than you would. Your programming experience can help you perform a lateral transition into the job that, until now, you never knew you wanted. You can learn to want and to enjoy a different kind of married life than you initially planned. Nevertheless, thorough planning is paramount to ultimate success in Triple Town. Do you want ultimate success in life? Plan for every step from here to there. But your plans have to be flexible, because of…

The unforeseen. How are you supposed to plan anything like this?! Live gives you semi-random, difficult-to-predict events in the same way that you might get several pieces of Grass, then a Bush, then a Crystal, then some more Grass and then a Tree. Frequently it throws pesky Bears that just get in your way. Sometimes it throws a nigh-impossible Ninja situation that may take nothing short of outside Bot intervention or drastic action to solve. Family and relationship problems. Getting laid off. Car accident. Canceled flights.

Sometimes you have everything in place to form a tree in a little corner of the board, and all you need is two plain ol’ grass. Then BAM, you get a bush instead, and suddenly your previous Grass-based work is actually hindering you rather than helping. You knew it wasn’t guaranteed that you’d get Grasses, only probable, and probability failed you. Sometimes you have no use for a Crystal but you get two almost back to back, and you waste them on Bushes because there’s nothing else on the board to combine. You thought that particular college degree would be phenomenal in the near future, just when a recession hits and not many people have the disposable income to bother with your services. You were learning so much about raising a family when the doctor informs you of your infertility. And you just never expected a mailbox to be right there at that spot, the single, microscopic blind spot in your car’s rear view mirrors.

Maybe you were planning to X, then Y, then Z, but life throws its curve balls (to borrow from an entirely different game with all sorts of different life analogies) and you have to deal with it somehow, instead doing R, then S, then way back to P. Maybe a little wise preparation just pulled you out of your pinch, proving that you had made the wisest decision by saving that Tree for just when you’d need it most. Or sometimes the unforeseen event disrupts both your current scheme and your backup preparations, making the storehouse item ineffective and unhelpful. The point of the Unforeseen is that you never know what you’re gonna get.

You need options. Ever played on a full board? There are the Peaceful Valley or Island boards, which are 5×5 and 4×4, respectively, which provide 30-45% less space than a standard board. You can barely guide your own direction if you have only one possibility in front of you. And, flowing from the above point, you need space to maneuver if the unexpected comes up and you need to navigate to your goal via an alternate path. Not having options is like getting stuck behind a slow driver on a single-lane road. Given another lane, you could solve your problem.

From this point and the one above I have learned to keep useful items in the Storehouse for when the best next action suddenly changes due to circumstances outside my foresight or control. Financially, this means keeping a rather large emergency fund available at all times, and not “borrowing” from it when you want to buy some gadget. We hope that it will never be useful, but from my experience in Triple Town and observing other peoples’ lives, emergencies occur with more frequency that we like to admit. Having the safety cushion of an emergency fund gives you permanent peace of mind knowing that, in the highly probable event of a minor crisis or unexpected expenses, you’ve safe (knowing that you covered yourself instead of relying on an outside entity is a bonus source of satisfaction).

The Justification. If you pay attention to the scraps of “setting” that are given, you come to realize that you’re in charge of colonizing the “new world” with the available local resources. You’ll note that Bears are like natives, and particularly peaceful ones at that. They never destroy, merely get in your way. The worst of the lot are extreme nuisances, but even at their worst cannot inflict real harm on what you’ve built; they merely get in the way of your development. As the superior power, you have the right to push them aside, block them off, and even use extreme force against the most egregious offenders. They’re not human, at least not on our cultured level, so it’s perfectly justified. But in the end, we’re just invaders, and what we’re doing is genocide in the name of progress. We’ll build cathedrals and honor their memory on one plot of the board even as we continue to destroy living Bears on five other plots. Pretty heavy stuff for a puzzle game.

How often in our lives do we find justification for the truly unacceptable? It’s mind-boggling, from an objective and just point of view, how we can turn off the part of our brain that tells us the wicked is permissible for some reason that we believe desperately. It’s not OK to upgrade your smartphone and reduce your charity because of a “tight budget.” It’s not OK to flirt a bit with that guy at the office, even though your husband has been emotionally disconnected lately. It’s not OK to “nudge” the numbers on your tax forms, even if you had legitimate unforeseen financial burdens last year. How easily we’ll rationalize and justify lies, cheating and stealing. The lesson learned is that we believe desperately in our justifications for it. You really do need that money this year, and it’s perfectly normal for a person of your status to have the latest in premium handheld computing. And you really do need to get rid of those Bears in order to continue your expansion.

You can learn a lot from a little puzzle game, it seems. Enough for a 1300-word essay. I wish my university professors had assigned interesting topics like “play a game of your choosing and extrapolate its philosophy into real life.” He’d probably get sick of reading about Minecraft, though, and with all the “research” that would take place during class.


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