Puzzle Games

by Scott Garrabrant6 min read27th Sep 202062 comments

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Gaming (videogames/tabletop)Practical
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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.

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