I like puzzle games. I have aesthetic opinions about puzzle games. This post is meant to be a resource for people whose preferences about puzzle games have a lot in common with mine. It includes a list of game recommendations.

Rules about Spoilers

This post will be very spoiler-free. The only things information in this post about individual games will be about how much I like them. Exceptions to this rule are Tetris, Sudoku, and Sokoban. I also combine puzzle games with sequels/downloadable content/other games by the same developer, only if I think the sequels are similar, so I might spoil what games have sequels, and whether sequels are similar to the originals. Additionally one game in the list is a physical book, and one game is not primarily a puzzle game, but has a puzzle mode, and I say that in the list. 

I also intend to enforce comments avoiding spoilers. The things you can say about individual games without spoiler tags are:

  • How much you like the game
  • Who developed it/What other things they developed
  • What platforms it is on/When it came out
  • If there are (good) Sequels/Prequels/DLC
  • If you believe you finished it
  • If you believe you reached the end of the main part of the game (e.g. the credits screen)
  • How long is the game (how long it took you, NOT the number of puzzles)
  • How difficult is the game, in general (you can compare to other games)
  • How the puzzles fit into the Deduction/Efficiency/Technical/Linchpin categories

Everything else about individual games should use the spoiler black boxes. You may NOT say specifics about whether a specific game violates the rules of the genre I outline, unless you use spoiler box. For spoilers about individual games, please list what games might be spoiled outside of the spoiler box.

I encourage mods to help me enforce spoiler rules, and encourage others to send me a message if they think a comment violates the rules and should be deleted.

Defining the Genre

I will define the genre of games I am pointing to in a way similar to Berlin interpretation of the roguelike genre. There will be a list of properties of the pure form of the puzzle game. Many great puzzle games will violate some of these properties. We can use this list to measure how close a game is to a pure puzzle game.

Puzzle games under my definition usually: are deterministic, are self-contained, have a clear end, have no time elements, have simple rules, give complete information, and are factored into puzzles.

Deterministic

Puzzle Games are deterministic. Tetris (which is often called a puzzle game) is therefore not a puzzle game by my definition. This property of puzzle games is pretty important. Non-determism in a game might be forgivable if it is only in a small part of the game, or is not central to the main puzzle solving. 

Self-Contained

Puzzle Games should have a clear boundary, and should not require information outside of that boundary. Any puzzle that requires you to know some piece of trivia such that it is conceivable that someone starts playing the game without that trivia is pretty strongly violating my definition. Part of the reason this rule is important is because it creates a clear line that allows players to simultaneously know that the puzzles are solvable and know that they are not cheating. If a puzzle game requires trivia, then you might have to look things up, but it is hard to draw a clear line between looking up trivia and looking up the solutions to the puzzle. 

Some of my favorite puzzle-like-things that include trivia get around this rule by declaring the internet to be inside the boundaries of the puzzle, and then release the puzzle as a one time competition, so the solution to the puzzle can be known to not exist on the internet.

A very forgivable violation of this rule is when games have rules written in english (or another common language). This is forgivable because people tend to recognize english and know that they do not know it. A violation of being self-contained can be made more forgivable if the trivia it uses really is very close to being known by everyone, or if it is very clear that this specific part of the puzzle game is not self-contained.

Clear End

Puzzle games should have a clear end. The reason for this is similar to the reason that puzzle games should be self-contained. The player should have an algorithm they can follow that allows them to play through the game without cheating. If the game does not have a clear end, then the player has to avoid spoilers for the game forever, because there might be more hidden content they do not know about. 

Many games insufficiently signal the true end of the game, and violate this rule. I get around this by considering the steam achievements to be part of the game's canon. There are usually achievements for completing all of the bonus content of the game. Unfortunately, there are also sometimes achievements for basically guessing the developer's password.

No Time Elements

Puzzle games should not require the player to perform any actions quickly. Whether or not a sequence of button presses causes the player to solve the puzzle should be independent of the time between presses. 

Some games violate this rule for a good reason. They explore a space of puzzles that really needed time-sensitive mechanics to be convenient. A violation of this rule is very forgivable when performing time sensitive actions is sufficiently easy.

Simple Rules

Puzzle games should have simple rules. Sometimes this is forgivably violated because more complex rules open up a design space that could not have been reached otherwise, and very good puzzles can be found in this design space.

Complete Information

Puzzle games should have rules that are fully understood by the player. This means that the player should (after they understand the rules of the puzzle) be able to make a plan, and verify that their plan works without actually interacting with the game. 

There are two ways that this can be violated in a forgivable way. 

First, the game can have places where the player knows that they do not know what will happen. Maybe the player has been mixing various colors of potions, which have various effects, but has never managed to mix a red and blue potion. The player can then have flagged uncertainty, and maybe go out of his way to figure out how to get a red and blue potion together. However, there should still be large (and growing) domains in which the player does know what will happen, and can make plans.

Second, the game can have simple rules, but not tell them directly to the player. This can make it such that the player has to simulate science to figure out what the rules might be. 

Both of these forgivable violations can add a lot to the game that you cannot get otherwise, so I really do not think of it as a point against the game when done well (Although it still feels like a point against being a pure puzzle game). If you have to search a large dungeon to find a key that was hidden under a slightly different colored rock, I consider this rule to be violated in a bad way.

Factored into Puzzles

Puzzle games should be factored into individual puzzles that do not interact. You can learn things from solving one puzzle that help you solve others, but you should not have to use the extra literal key that you have because you solved the previous puzzle especially efficiently.

This rule again can be violated in a very good way to reach a new design space of puzzles, and violating this rule is not necessarily a point of the game in my opinion. 

As a weaker version of this rule, progress through the game should be factored. If a player solves a puzzle, they should be further through the game. If a player can solve a puzzle that will make a future puzzle impossible unless they start the entire game over, this is bad. If they can reset the first puzzle, and then do the second puzzle, this is more forgivable.

Categories of Puzzles

Now I want to talk about four different categories of puzzles. These are categories of puzzles, rather than categories of puzzle games, although games often have puzzles that fall into the same category or pair of categories.

Deduction Puzzles

Deduction puzzles are like Sudoku, in that you can collect information about the solution to the puzzle, and use that to deduce more information, in a way that combines and can be tracked. Not many puzzle games have puzzles that fall into this category, as these are more often thought about as individual puzzles, rather than games. 

Efficiency Puzzles

Efficiency puzzles have some function, like a spent resource, which you are trying to minimize. Maybe you are trying to complete a task in a small number of steps, maybe you are trying to design a machine using a small amount of space, or maybe you are trying to build something spending a small amount of money. You might have a concrete goal to get the function below a specific value to solve the puzzle, or it might be more open-ended.

Technical Puzzles

Technical puzzles is the name I am giving to the default type of puzzle you see in puzzle games. For example, most puzzles in sokoban-like games fall in this category. You are trying to accomplish some task using some limited set of things you can do, and you have to figure out how to do them in exactly the right way to get the task done. Most puzzle games are filled with games like this.

Linchpin Puzzles

Linchpin puzzles often cause the player to struggle with a puzzle that might feel impossible, until they have one key realization that makes the puzzle easy, or at least feel possible. Linchpin puzzles are hard to design, especially with very simple rules. When a puzzle game has complicated rules that feel justified to me, it is usually because it enables them to build linchpin puzzles.

Partial Progress

These four classes of puzzles can be thought of as tracking the sense in which partial progress is possible. In deduction puzzles, you are building up a bunch of partial progress. In efficiency puzzles, you can often determine that one way to solve part of the puzzle dominates another because it uses less of the resource. In technical puzzles, you can collect more and more types of things that you can do that might be helpful. In linchpin puzzles, you usually go from feeling like you have made no progress to the puzzle being practically solved. 

A List of Games

Here is a list of some puzzle games that I like, divided into tiers (and alphabetical within tiers). I might come back and modify or add to this list later. Some of these games may (or may not) violate some of the rules in the definition of puzzle game above. I group puzzles together with their sequels (assuming the sequels are similar).

Tier 1:

Tier 2:

Tier 3:

Tier 4:

Please let me know if there are some other great puzzle games I am missing out on.

44

65 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:22 PM
New Comment

This list is almost the same as mine. I would include Hanano Puzzle 2 at tier 2 and Cosmic Express at tier 3. I haven't played Twisty Little Passages or Kine though I'll try them on this recommendation.

We're putting together a self-contained campaign for engine-game.com which is aiming to be Tier-2-according-to-Paul. We'll see if other folks agree when it's done. It has a very different flavor from the other games on the list.

I've only played it for a few hours, but I think it is also Tier-2-according-to-Scott.

You're going to want a fine tip dry erase pen to play TLP. (or you could get the PDF version and use annotations, but a major selling point for me was the lack of screen time.)

A Monster's Expedition came out a couple weeks ago, and letting people know about that game is part of what inspired me to make this post.

I have now beaten A Monster's Expedition. Here are some extra challenges:

  1. It is possible to ride a raft off of the map.
  2. It is possible (at least at the time I did it) to put logs in a configuration that the game does not know how to handle and crash the game. This will also make the game unplayable (even for other save files) unless you go in and edit your save file.

Question about Monster's Expedition:

The reset mechanic seems necessary to make the game playable in practice, but it seems very unsatisfying. It is unclear how you'd make it work in a principled way; the actual implementation seems extremely confusing, seems to depend on invisible information about the environment, and has some weird behaviors that I think are probably bugs. Unfortunately, it currently seems possible that probing the weirdest behaviors of resetting (e.g. breaking conservation-of-trees) could be the only way to access some places. It's also possible that mundane applications of resetting are essential but you aren't intended to explore weird edge cases, which would be the least satisfying outcome of all.

So two questions:

1. Is it possible to beat the game without resetting? Can I safely ignore it as a mechanic? This is my current default assumption and it's working fine so far.

2. Is the reset mechanic actually lawful/reasonable and I just need to think harder?

(Given the quality of the game I'm hoping that at least one of those is "yes." If "no answer" seems like the best way to enjoy the game I'm open to that as well.)

My brother is the developer, so I passed this on to him. More spoilers:

Most of the inconsistencies in the reset behaviour are to prevent players getting stuck in a fail state with no way to escape (especially players who aren't trying to break things).

  1. You can get to the ending without resetting. You cannot hit 100% without resetting.
  2. This depends on where you draw the line between reasonable/unreasonable. If I've done my job right, you shouldn't need to do anything that feels like a bug.

Thanks! Reply:

I totally understand why resetting had to be kind of complicated / ad hoc, and I think that this was a reasonable compromise. I don't think uncertainty about resetting matters much in the scheme of things, it's a great game.

Very cool that your brother is the developer. It’s a great game.

Meta for people: the comment above primarily discusses game mechanics, which lets you know about the genre of game and some little bits of the mechanics. It does not contain spoilers for any particular things in the game.

Follow-up now that I've finished.

(This is spoiler'ed as per this post's spoiler policy, but it's designed to provide a rules clarification relevant to the parent and to be read before finishing the game.)

Here's a simplified model of resetting: the game tracks the most recent landmass you've stepped on. When you reset, all trees from that landmass are returned to their initial state. You are moved to the location where you first stepped foot on that landmass.

That model isn't exactly right (since it would make it way too easy for the player to get stuck), but every puzzle is solvable under that model. I had a single solution that would have worked under that model but didn't work under the actual behavior of resetting, which was a tiny bit frustrating but not a big deal.

If you reset half of a raft then it becomes a lone log (this makes it possible to split a long log in two or to rotate a log by integrating it into a raft then resetting). If you reset something that's holding another log up, the other log will fall down. I think there are some tricky corner cases but you never need to deal with any more complicated than those two basics and you can just pretend that you automatically lose if you create a tricky situation (e.g. if you reset when a tree's starting position is occupied).

Brief reply. I have reach the end of the main game. No need to read my comment before finishing the game.

This is roughly the same model as my own. I assumed this was mostly true and should probably ignore weird edge cases.

I have also had a single puzzle that would've worked had this rule been correct, but what actually happened is that sometimes when a log is part of a raft in water, and that log did not come from the island where it turned into a raft, sometimes it moved in slightly unusual ways to where I think the game 'expected' it had entered the water. (This ended up being for me the single most complicated puzzle in the game, involving about three wholly separate insights to complete.)

So tempted to read this, but I will finish first myself.

It's meant to be read before playing, added a comment clarifying.

Partial answer to my question (significantly more spoilers):

You can get to the credits without resetting. Extra puzzles appear to require resetting but maybe not in a very subtle way. I don't know if resetting has a simple description. It definitely depends on invisible facts about the map.

Your Tier 1 list looks basically right to me, I've played all of those games some amount and would put them in that tier. Am excited to try out one or two of the Tier 2 games I've not played.

I looked through my games notes, here's a couple that are in or near this genre. Note that these Tiers aren't my overall score for the game, just within this genre. 

Tier 2: World of Goo, Return of the Obra Dinn.

Tier 3: Gorogoa, Junkbot (+Junkbot Undercover), Quadrilateral Cowboy, Antichamber.

Tier 4: Monument Valley, Super Mario Maker (puzzle levels), Toki Tori.

To my taste they are all puzzle games, but some of the above do not match central examples of puzzle games that you give in the post, so if you go in blind you may get a substantially different experience than you expect.

Junkbot is an efficiency game, and a great one at that. Alas, is hard to find, it's an old flash game that the internet no longer support.

I have played a very small amount of Antichamber.

Very minor spoilers for Anti-chamber: 

I haven't played much of Antichamber, but I have seen it recommended a bunch. I think that this is a place where my aesthetic differs from others. I dont think I like this kind of game nearly as much, because (I believe) there is a lot of stuff that I would call guessing the developer's password. It is something like I feel like I have to try things without knowing whether it would work, and have the game tell me whether they work in a way I could not deduce myself.

I have played through Gorogoa

Minor spoilers for Gorogoa:

I think Gorogoa made me feel like I had to try things without knowing whether they would work, and let the game tell me whether or not they worked, in a way I could not deduce myself (even with enough time to consider all the options). This seems pretty bad according to my aesthetics. I feel like I have not pin-pointed the thing, because a lot of good games could also be described this way, but in a way that is good. I think it feels good when it feels like I am doing science, and Gorogoa did not feel like science. It felt like in Gorogoa I was exploring a space made by man rather than by nature? IDK

I'll just say whitelisted things on the first subject: I had a blast playing Antichamber. I played it for 3.9 hours, I believe I finished it, and it was hard but I completed everything myself (I never googled for hints).

I have played through Gorogoa. Minor-to-Medium spoilers:

I think it's a charming game. It feels like exploring someone else's world and aesthetic. I thought it was very beautiful, and after a while I started being able to predict how a couple of scenes in a row should go. But I could not tell you the rules by which the game works, in any concise and complete way, which is probably a large part of why you did not enjoy it.

If I've given away too much info Scott, let me know and I'll remove / edit it.

Actually, on second thought, I don't like you named a game in the parenthetical about Tier 1 and Tier 2

It doesn't feel much like a spoiler, but I want the spoiler policy to feel like a white list.

 Understood, removed.

I think this is okay. 

"some of the above do not match central examples of puzzle games that you give in the post" made me pause and think about whether it follows the spoiler rules, but I think it is okay, since you are averaging over 9 games.

You can right now (I believe until Jan 5, 2021) get all five of the tier 1 games in this list on Steam for a total of $34.30.

https://store.steampowered.com/bundle/16473/Babas_Sausage_Expedition__Puzzle_Game_Masterpieces/

https://store.steampowered.com/app/26800/Braid/

https://store.steampowered.com/app/497780/Recursed/

Note that in my experience, Recursed works easily on MacOS 10.15, in spite of the warning, but Braid does not.

I think you might like SpaceChem, by Zachtronics. It fits into your Technical + Efficiency categories. It's superficially chemistry-themed, but effectively a programming game with physical constraints (i.e. the need to fit everything into a finite 2D grid and avoid unwanted collisions) contributing to the challenge. It's generally considered difficult, to the point that Zachtronics regretted making it so hard to beat. It can't be that hard, because I beat it, but it was a very satisfying challenge.

It violates No Time Elements, but only in the final puzzle (IIRC), and in practice the real-time element is more a constraint on the minimum efficiency of your solution than a reflex/coordination test. It violates Factored into Puzzles in that some puzzles are physically connected to each other, so that outputs from one become inputs to another. I think it meets your other criteria very well. I suppose Clear End was debatable, because (again IIRC) there were extra optional puzzles meted out gradually after release, but I presume they have come to a definite end by now, and anyway they were always clearly distinct from the main story missions.

Tier 2: Into the Breach

Tier 3: Monument Valley; Infinifactory (Zachtronics)

Tier 4: The Pedestrian; klocki; Bridge Construtor (series); Neverout (VR)

Not recommended: The Ball; Four Ways; Colorgrid

This is a surprisingly interesting genre of comment section, and I feel like it works surprisingly well as a reading experience.

One of latest games I am really-really fond of, is QED (though it was just me, my friend didn't enjoy it). From OPs list I've played Portal and Braid, and while those are visually interesting, they weren't enough hard to make me happy. But QED had.

> Who developed it/What other things they developed
It was written by Terrence Tao, a brilliant modern mathematician, exactly to explain math logic to layman.

> What platforms it is on/When it came out
Purely web-based, completely free.

> If there are (good) Sequels/Prequels/DLC
It had one sequel (FOL and predicates), which is now combined with main game.

> If you believe you finished it
Hell yes! I finished it, and I liked that nowhere I had to lookup for solutions.

> How long is the game (how long it took you, NOT the number of puzzles)
It took me two weeks, and quite a bit of thought.

> How difficult is the game, in general (you can compare to other games)
It is of mixed difficulty. Overall it is hard, but doable. If you are a math student and it seems easy, then you may try to find optimal solutions. I think some optimal solutions were obtained with computer brute-force.

> How the puzzles fit into the Deduction/Efficiency/Technical/Linchpin categories
All of these! The efficiency though is optional, personally I stopped searching optimal solutions after some time.

[+][comment deleted]1y 1

I’m assuming Tier 1 is the best?

I really loved The Swapper.[explanation due to fear of spoilers]

Space Chem is a work of art in the amount of gameplay it gets out of a ridiculously simple mechanic (it is also fun).

QUBE is a totally adequate member of the genre.

Mild spoilers for The Swapper:

I also highly enjoyed The Swapper, but I'd make a warning: dark mood, do not play when feeling low.

I added spoiler tags. 

I'll repeat the moderation norms in this thread because they're nonstandard: if your comment about a game is not in the whitelisted set of things in Scott's post, then it should be spoilered, and whitelisted metadata should be given.

The Swapper section violates spoiler policy

Added a spoiler block

marblespuzzle.com (dead link) is the most simple and pure example of a puzzle game I know of, and is one of my favorites.
Playable in the time machine:
https://web.archive.org/web/20190909085700/http://marblespuzzle.com/

Baba is top tier, but in some levels the character movement eats much more time than the puzzle solving; the idea of blocks or tokens that predictably change things based on which other blocks are nearby can be taken much, _much_ further.

I took a look at marbles puzzle, and it seems really good

Your comments on Baba violate spoiler policy

I added a spoiler block

I remember enjoying Fez when I was in college. Past-me would probably put it at Tier 2.

I had fun for as long as I played it (to maybe 70%?), then found out 

 

:: it went to 200% and the higher level puzzles were not the kind that appealed to me, so I stopped there.

This comment appears to violate spoiler policy on my understanding.

I added a spoiler block.

I played Fez for about 2 hours. I mostly enjoyed the two hours then felt entirely unmotivated to continue. Here's my experience of it (full spoilers for the first 2 hours):

It seems there's a simple rule, whereby when you rotate from one 2d axis to another 2d axis, the things that look like they should hold do (e.g. things being on top of each other / next to each other), and whatever 3d movements that need to happen to ensure that, do. Once I got this, most of the game felt very repetitive, and like there was a lot of noise (talking to people, learning how the map worked, etc) that I wasn't invested in, to get to more puzzles. 

Once I got to a really difficult puzzle, and mapped it out in 3d with things on my desk. I spent over an hour solving it. Then, when I was done, I felt like I'd gotten all out of this mechanic, and wasn't interested to keep going. I did not expect the game would get much more out of the mechanic, unlike what is represented in the Tier 1 games that Scott wrote about, so I didn't play any more.

I am interested to know if I was wrong...

I think you missed out on most of the game. (Spoilers as to the nature of the game's deeper puzzles)

Thx, will look into it some more.

That's the reason I don't like it.

The game changes the nature of its puzzles abruptly. The players come for a kind of puzzle, the one they see on the trailers. They (and I) are not prepared or interested in the second kind. That's bad game design.

FWIW I am now much more excited to play it!

(Vague spoilers about non-obvious puzzles in Fez)

I don't remember there being an abrupt change; it felt like there were secrets under the surface. I didn't have to read around to figure out that the game brims with coded messages, it felt like a natural part of exploring the world and understanding what happened to it. But perhaps it's in the eye of the beholder.

There are not many good deduction puzzle games, partially because deduction puzzles are often individual puzzles, rather than collections into games. 

One type of deduction puzzle I especially like is slitherlink.

gmpuzzles.com is a great source for high quality deduction puzzles

puzz.link has a database of many free puzzles.

Simon Tantham's Puzzles is another source to look at. (This one also has a mobile app)

Tier 3, I think: Hoplite, on Android. 

The free game is basically a roguelike, but it's full information on each level, with only a little bit of strategy for which abilities to pick, and the Challenge mode available in the paid version, for $3, has a lot more straight puzzles.

Broad spoilers for The Talos Principle:

The Talos Principle is in the same class of puzzle games and of the same quality as Portal and Portal 2. You are given some simple reusable tools and explore a large space needing to use your tools to open doors and disable traps.

This comment violates spoiler policy

Added spoiler tags, and the opening phrase "Broad spoilers for The Talos Principle:" so that people had any idea what was being discussed. (Naturally Chris, feel free to edit/remove that first line, I just thought it was better than just spoilering the whole comment.)

Edit: Oops, I copied the link but failed to paste it. It's https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/puzzle-game-index Caution: spoilers!

There’s an old wiki page on puzzle games, I think similar to this. I haven’t read through it, so don’t know if it’s any good. Conceivably this post could be combined with it, or replace it. I dunno.

Ach, I should have said "there's an old wiki page that we imported" Here's the link nice and new and integrated page :D https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/puzzle-game-index

Although it's not the case that linking to the old url will matter for long as shortly we'll have all the old links redirect to the new location.

I would add the Talos Principle, which is I think my second favorite puzzle game, after Baba Is You. IIRC, the length and difficulty were on par with The Witness (i.e., long and hard).

I recall many of its puzzles being blindingly obvious in retrospect, after an hour of banging my head on a wall.

Free:

  • Hana no puzzle 1&2 (same vein as Jelly no puzzle)
  • Teleportower Plus (short, refreshing)
  • NAWNCO (browser-based, very short, flash has become obsolete and might not work on most browsers)
  • Illiteracy (browser-based, very short, by Le Slo)

Not free:

  • Into the Breach (by the creators of FTL)
  • The Bridge
  • Mushroom 11

I checked the "completed" section of my Steam library, and the only one worth adding is The Pedestrian, which came out earlier this year. It's not quite as deep as some others, but the presentation is gorgeous.

Hexcells and its sequels, Hexcells Plus and Hexcells Infinite, are good examples in the deduction category.

The rules are vaguely akin to the classic Minesweeper (use the visible information to determine which cell is safe to click on, safe clicks uncover more information, rinse repeat) except that it's played on a hex grid and adds more variety to the clues.

Every puzzle can be solved by strict deduction (no guessing is ever required) but they often involve a long chain of reasoning integrating information from all over the grid, just to make the next small increment of progress. So at times it may feel like there's no possible way to advance further, until you have the necessary flash of insight.

Infinite adds a procedural generator for theoretically nigh-unlimited puzzles, but the designed levels are generally superior.

I think everything but the first sentence here should be in a spoiler box, which you can make by typing ">!" at the start of a line.

I fixed noggin-scratcher's comment. For markdown users like noggin-scratcher, it's the following:

:::spoiler 

This text is spoilered

::: 

This is no longer spoilered.

I thought most of it fell under "How difficult is the game, in general", "How the puzzles fit into the Deduction category", and "If there are (good) sequels" but evidently my interpretation was looser than your intent.