Sheep a Sheep is the new viral game that WeChat is going bonkers over

Society & Culture

A nearly impossible mobile game that only took a team of three to make is making millions of people in China lose their minds.

Remember Jump and Jump (跳一跳 tiàoyītiào)? The one-touch mini game within the Chinese ubiquitous social app WeChat that was a cultural phenomenon in 2018? Neither do we. Because now there’s a new mobile game that has taken China by storm, one satisfying tile merge at a time. 

Enter yánglegèyáng 羊了个羊, which, loosely translated into English, means “Sheep a Sheep.” Accessed via WeChat’s mini program platform, the ridiculously addictive game was released in early September, but it wasn’t until this week that its popularity exploded. As of this morning, Sheep a Sheep has amassed over 60 million players. For comparison, Genshin Impact (原神 yuánshén), the popular action role-playing game that was developed and published by Shanghai-based developer miHoYo in September 2020, currently enjoys an international player base of approximately 60 million users, a number that Sheep a Sheep achieved in just a few weeks.

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Elsewhere on the Chinese internet, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the game. On Weibo, Sheep a Sheep has spurred nearly 20 trending hashtags, with the most popular one generating more than 2.6 billion views. On short-video app Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese twin, videos about the title have racked up north of 3.7 billion plays. At multiple points in the past few days, the game crashed as it was overwhelmed by an excessive number of players. 

Passengers play the game on the subway. Image from Weibo.

Featuring a comic-like art design and catchy background music, the game is a lot like other tile-matching puzzle games and only has two levels. The first challenge, which serves as a tutorial, explains the game’s mechanism to players: The goal is to eliminate a group of stacked tiles by moving three of them with the same image to a board so they can match and disappear. Every turn a player takes increases the amount of clutter on the board, forcing them to carefully consider their next move. Once the seven slots on the board are all occupied but there’s no merge, the game is over.

In its purest form, Sheep a Sheep is very simple. But the catch comes when players advance to the second puzzle, which is designed to be incredibly difficult to solve. While the game provides several cheating tools, such as reshuffling or canceling the previous move, which can be obtained by watching ads, the game makers say that only about 0.1% of its players have beaten the game. 

The game’s brutal difficulty is what initially made it blow up on the internet, as frustrated players took to social media to complain and exchange tips. Part of the game’s appeal also lies in the community aspect surrounding it. Players are encouraged to post their scores to social media, letting them compare their attempts with friends — even if they come up frustratingly short. Because WeChat users are required to disclose their locations when they sign up, Sheep a Sheep has the ability to create a daily national ranking, which shows the cities that have the most players who have finished the game. Each day, the game also initiates a debate about a random, inconsequential topic. By choosing one of the two answers, players identify themselves as members of one camp and compete for their team’s glory with strangers on the internet. 

The developer behind the smash hit, Beijing Jianyou Technology, is a startup that only had seven employees when formed in 2021. According to its founder, Zhāng Jiāxù 张佳旭, it only took three months and a team of three people to build Sheep a Sheep, and he didn’t expect the game to take off before its release. Prior to the animal-themed smash hit, Jianyou had created several WeChat-based puzzle games, but none of them made a big splash. 

Analysts interviewed by domestic media say that Jianyou has already made a few million from in-game ad placements in Sheep a Sheep. A spokesperson from the company said that Sheep a Sheep will soon have a mobile app independent of WeChat, and that a line of themed merchandise is already in development.