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Habits of highly effective puzzle games


Name your favorite puzzle game(s). Why are they your favorite? What do they do well? What makes them fun? What makes them engaging?

To get the ball rolling, I’m not sure what my favorite puzzle game is, but I will say that it’s tricky to walk the line between challenging puzzles and frustrating puzzles. Imagine a graph of enjoyment versus difficulty:

  • If the puzzle is too easy, and I’m just going through the motions, and the puzzles feel tedious instead of fun.
  • If the puzzle is too hard, I get frustrated making little progress.
  • Somewhere in between is a sweet spot where there is satisfaction from finally solving the puzzle.

In particular, I enjoy puzzles where I can’t rely on the same old tricks but have find a new way forward. So I think part of a good puzzle game is ordering/gating/unlocking the puzzles so that players can learn the ropes and are not too far over their heads.


Puzzles that make you feel smart.

It doesn’t have to be particularly difficult. you don’t have to be all that smart to solve them, in fact. But, if when you do, you suddenly feel like a genius… that’s what hits it.

Fez has a lot of that, but it has a lot of insane puzzly bits for super hardcore people too. A mobile word game called Bonza has a lot of that too; I can be stuck on something that I think should be easy, but when I crack it, I feel like a million bucks. Another great one is Puzzle Retreat. A few simple rules combined can make something seem impossible, but when you figure it out, you’re the smartest person on earth.

The “same old tricks” really just boils down to simple rules often seeming immediately familiar, but simple rules can be combined in deceptively complex ways.

I’m going to just put the Captain Toad minigames from Mario 3D World here too (the standalone Captain Toad game got a little too platformy at times, imho).

I really liked Hunger Quest on mobile, too, for what it’s worth. May it rest in peace.


The Hexcells Trilogy. It starts simple but it gets challenging after you learned all the mechanisms. And the difficulty curve is rising with the games too. And the levels are so beautifully designed… Awesome, love them :slight_smile:


I think the trait I’m looking for in a puzzle game is something where the difficulty is all about understanding how the mechanics interlock as opposed to trying to memorize a sequence of actions. As well, mechanics that grow in complexity over time (as opposed to games like Puzzle Quest, etc where the mechanics are relatively static) but in a curated way, as @jgf1123 mentions .

Definitely +1 vote to the Hexcells trilogy!
I’ve sunk way too much time in those games. It’s minesweeper meets picross with elegant UI. And there’s actually replay value in them – I recently went back and replayed through Infinite after 6+ months away and it’s just as challenging.

Mini Metro is another elegant timesink. It’s got a great balance between having your actions feel like they have immediate effects but also ratcheting up the difficulty in a smooth correlation, so you’re constantly having to make terrible decisions. And the achievements actually encourage you to change up your playstyle to help mitigate some stagnation.

I’m also partial to hook, which I think is $1 on steam. It’s a streamlined chain reaction kind of puzzler where you pull levers and rotate connections to clear the board. Takes about 30/40 minutes to finish :slight_smile:


At the risk of sounding arrogant, after playing a lot Minesweeper and Picross, Hexcells is a game that falls in my too easy category, though I have not played the last two games (someone told me they are more challenging but not that much more challenging). So it illustrates my point that finding the right level of challenge is difficult.


In that case I’d say skip over Plus, but I found Infinite a good slide up in difficulty level (so maybe still on the easy side for you!) The randomly generated levels are not nearly as great as the crafted ones, though, so take the “infinite” part with a grain of salt.

If you’re good at visualizing the board state several steps ahead, Sokobond is moving-tile style puzzle game loosely based on atomic bonding. I enjoyed the chemistry theme, but found it on the obtuser side of too difficult to anticipate the board state (I can’t visualize, so that doesn’t help, haha). Maybe it’ll be a good fit for you?


I love puzzles when the solution is beautiful. Not in a metaphorical sense (though that too) but in a very literal, oh wow that looks amazing sense. SpaceChem was a joy to play for this reason - not only did you get the buzz from solving a particular puzzle, you got the delight of seeing your solution play out in front of you. Then paring your initial solution down to something even more elegant and captivating, shaving off a cycle here, a component there. God damn I loved that game.


@Plum Much joy for Space Chem :heart:

Has anyone played the GO puzzle games? Hitman GO or Lara Croft GO?


I got Sokobond in a Humble Bundle. I should give it another spin.

SpaceChem is beautiful. In additional to watching my solution play out, I really like that you were given a blank slate and a pile of toys building blocks and told to build something. I didn’t do a lot of tweaking myself (my solution tended to rely on gates for synchronization), but I appreciated elegant solutions I saw on YouTube.

I’ve played Hitman GO, Lara Croft GO, and have started Deus Ex GO. RPS recently reviewed Lara Croft GO, which is one of the things that got me thinking about puzzle games recently. The games do a good job of teaching players new mechanisms then incorporating them into puzzles in more complex ways.


Desktop Dungeons is one of my favourite puzzle type games. You have to carefully choose the right time/ how to defeat the various monsters to maximise your levelling in order to defeat the boss in each dungeon. Health regeneration is linked to exploration, so you have to carefully balance opening up the map versus hampering your potential recovery. Throw in a bunch of different classes that all play in different ways, and there’s a lot of game here to challenge you.


Yeah I love Desktop Dungeons, it is so good and has such depths!

SpaceChem was awesome too but I sucked at it. But I really liked it, maybe I should revisit it. On the other hand I always felt pretty stupid when I watched other people’s elegant solutions :wink:


Yeah, but I found them only so-so. I think I’m in the minority though, they’ve received a lot of positive reviews.

Desktop Dungeons :heart: I’d totally forgotten about that but oh man I loved that game!

I had a Japanese copy of Slitherlink on my DS as well back in the day and that was my go-to game for a long long time. I don’t speak a word of Japanese but it didn’t matter, I knew which menu to click on to get into the puzzles and that was more than enough :smiley:


I poured countless hours into Desktop Dungeons, mostly in the earlier free version, and I wrote up a strategy guide on Video Game Geek. I backed (pre-ordered? it’s been so long) the paid version as soon as it was announced but have only put in a couple dozen hours. All the classes, glyphs, gods, and monsters have been tweaked for the better, but it hard for me to keep the details straight, and little details matter in Desktop Dungeon.

There are two things I like in particular about Desktop Dungeons: (1) Figuring out how to defeat a monster is a little mathematical problem, trying to figure out how to best use your HP, MP, and glyphs. I often used a spreadsheet to help me figure out exactly how many squares I need to reveal to defeat a monster. (2) Exploring makes you continually reevaluate your current plans. Maybe fight the new monster you just found instead? Maybe this new equipment will change calculations? Desktop Dunegons is a brilliant little game of adaption and making the most of what you have.

If you like Slitherlink, check out Simon Tatham’s Puzzles. It’s a collection of popular puzzle types, including Slitherlink. All of the puzzles are randomly generated, not curated or human-designed, so the puzzles aren’t high quality for the same reason that randomly generated Hexcells Infinite puzzles aren’t.

Or if you really want to feel dumb, try GM Puzzles (not a video game). This site contains logic puzzles contributed by people who compete and national and world puzzle championships.


Are we counting room escapes as puzzle games?

I’ve been enjoying Rusty Lake Hotel, a point’n’click room-escape-styled game in which you must figure out how to first appease the animal guests at your hotel and then serve them for dinner. The puzzles aren’t super-obtuse, which I appreciate, although I’ve been foiled a couple times by not interacting with objects I didn’t realize were interactable, which reinforces the adventure game mantra of yore: click on all the things.

The developer also has a large collection of other Rusty Lake and Cube Escape games as well. :slight_smile:


My favorite puzzle game is Catherine.

I don’t really get frustrated by challenging puzzles. As long as I am given all the information and tools to solve it, more challenging can be better. If I cannot solve it initially, I will come back to it later. Catherine is particularly challenging because of it’s timer. It forces you to be a slightly less considered, and instead react. The difficulty can be eased with an undo button, but it’s optional, and not in the harder difficulties (I think just hard mode, but I’ve forgotten).

Moreover, there are usually multiple solutions to Catherine’s puzzles. I’m just speculating, but I would imagine that allows a greater variety of people to solve the puzzles. You are not railroaded into a particular line of thought. However! This might actually be a detriment. If you are not railroaded into that way of thinking, some puzzles that expect you to have specific mechanical knowledge might be more difficult. I haven’t looked at the puzzles closely enough to know if that could be a problem- it might not even be a bad thing.

All this is reversed in the Rapunzel mini-game within Catherine. There is no timer, and usually just one solution. Personally, I found Rapunzel a bit annoying, but I could picture some people preferring the mini-game.

A few other thoughts: I love Braid for how thoroughly the mechanics are explored, and the step-wise difficulty curve/process of learning the mechanics. I felt similarly about The Swapper, and Portal.

On the otherhand, I felt The Talos Principle, had some fairly weak puzzles. It is hard for me to say why I felt this way. I think it is because the mechanics did not feel novel. I rarely felt like I learned anything new solving a puzzle. This goes for Limbo as well. The mechanics lacked depth and innovation for me.

The Talos Principle is also in 3-D space, and in first person (by default). Solutions would sometimes just appear from looking at different angles, which I find boring. Two-dimensional games tend to present you with all relevant info at once. Portal was in 3D space, but because the entire puzzle was manipulating your way across space, it gets away with it.


Did anyone enjoy The Witness?

Having watched a friend play through, I think it might fall more into @dreaminsong’s feelings about the Talos Principle puzzles – mostly logical/visual without as much novelty? Although part of the fun was zooming out and finding the “macro” level puzzles in the greater world.

I forgot about The Swapper! I thoroughly enjoyed how the narrative built up in that game and the puzzles are very elegant/streamlined.


I played for probably 8 hours but did eventually move on. What I played though was excellent and the first few hours of exploration and stumbling onto puzzles was excellent.

There was a big range in puzzle difficulty and quality - some were excellent, forcing you to think laterally and making you feel like a mad genius when you realize how to solve them. Some were less interesting and I once I’d figured out the first couple in a series, i lost interest and just Googled my way through the rest. On the whole though it was very worthwhile, especially if you can pick it up on sale


I’m sorry to keep banging on about this, but that is the #1 thing that makes a good puzzle game. The single most effective puzzle game habit.


I second the “Puzzles that make you feel smart”. My favourite isn’t even really a puzzle at all. Its a moment in the Stanley Parable, where the narrator gets annoyed at you constantly walking through the wrong door. When he puts only one “correct” door in front of you, you are still able to turn around and go back the way you came.

You feel like such a smart alec for doing it.

The other thing I like is puzzles with multiple solutions. I hate it when you are given a bunch of inventory items that look like you could solve lots of practical with them, but the game refuses to let you use them except for one prescribed task. The game Stacking let you find multiple routes, and though that made puzzles easier, it also would also challenge you to find all the solutions.


Mark Brown just released a video about what he thinks makes a good puzzle, and he echoes many of the points people have brought up.