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Habits of highly effective puzzle games


I can’t believe I haven’t been here since March!

Most of the puzzle games I’ve been playing recently, I suppose, are physical games (like the board games by Thinkfun, or the Perplexus mazes).

I just thought of this thread because my 7-year-old wanted to play Fez, suddenly, for reasons I’ll probably never know (it’s too heavy for him, but he solved more than a few puzzles, despite how he’s still not quite getting the platforming timing elements and falling to his doom, but anything to get him off of his Mincraft obsession every once in a while).

I also can’t believe I missed that Mark Brown video, somehow! I love Game Maker’s Toolkit.


I want to give a shoutout to the works of Zachtronics games. They are typically puzzle games that operate off the basis of giving you a bunch of tools to work with, and then asking you to make specific outputs. For example, in Opus Magnum, you create alchemical machines that create different outputs from the same few base elements.

The trick to these games is that there are vast numbers of valid solutions. Once you have a grasp of the mechanics you can do a lot. The trick is that these games also typically have a number of measurements to rate performance that speak to real world considerations. For Opus Magnum, this is your machine’s cost, speed, and size. They don’t prevent you from continuing ever, but there’s always a chance to feel smart with these puzzles because there is usually more to optimize. Three solutions with three different goals. Each made me feel great.

For example, here was an example of a first attempt waterproof sealant (because Opus Magnum lets you export gifs, which is great). It’s this odd contraption that gets the job done:

But we can do better. This machine uses a wacky extending arm to function, but maybe we can get it to a place where we don’t need the extending arm:

Success! And cheaper too! I felt really smart about this, but then wondered…how fast can I get the machine if I just throw cash at it:

Huzzah! It finishes its work five times faster than the other two machines! None of this is necessary to do, but you can really get a lot of triumph and mileage out of a single puzzle by opening up the possibility space and then adding a score to it.


I love Opus Magnum! I think Space Chem is still my favourite in terms of aesthetics and for stitching multiple puzzles together into an ur-puzzle, but OM is wonderfully compulsive and the tools and freedom it gives you blows SC out of the water!

Personally I always aim for the fastest solution, cost be damned! (yep, I’m a Perl programmer…)


I recently purchased Puzzlecraft by Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder. The introduction has some words of wisdom relevant to this topic:

What is a puzzle?

This is not the case in puzzles. The field of play is horribly imbalanced. The puzzlemaker has as much time as desired to prepare, a totally different set of skills,1 and knowledge of the answer. The puzzle solver has none of these things. She is expected to solve on the spot with no understanding of how the puzzle came together or what its solution is. The puzzlemaker would, in a game situation, be favored to triumph every single time.

But it doesn’t work that way. The puzzlemaker isn’t looking to beat the solver. That’s like taking candy from a baby. Instead, the puzzlemaker gives the solver all the tools to beat him. The puzzle’s clues and hints are designed to be fair and accessible at the solver’s level of ability. If the solver attacks the puzzle in the right way, she will defeat the challenge at a satisfying progress rate.

What makes a puzzle solvable?

The central skill of a puzzlemaker is not the mastery of wordplay or logic or math. The puzzlemaker’s most important skill is the mastery of frustration.

Because the solver doesn’t want to know the answer. People solve puzzles because they like pain, and they like being released from pain, and they like most of all that they find within themselves the power to release themselves from their own pain.

What the solver wants from you is acknowledgment that she is not wasting her time. Progress begets desire for more progress, but lack of progress begets abandonment. So the frustration a solver feels while not getting the answer is tolerable if there appears to be a direction toward which the solver can apply that frustration.

What makes a puzzle difficult?

Difficulty is relative from solver to solver, and from puzzle to puzzle. This is why puzzles often come with difficulty ratings. I know from experience not to waste my time with a one-star word search, and I know from repeated defeats not to tackle the highest-difficulty abstract logic puzzles. I know what my solving skills are, and how much effort I can expect to expend before I either destroy the puzzle or give up from utter bewilderment.

When this turns out not to be the case—say, if the editor has put a Thursday-difficulty puzzle into
the Tuesday slot—solvers get cranky. They would be hard-pressed to articulate why, of course. Certainly a Thursday-difficulty puzzle on Thursday is fine. But not on Tuesday. It’s about management of expectations

Trickiness is another important aspect to difficulty. Unless it is entirely procedural, a puzzle must have something tricky going on. In some sense, that’s what the customer is paying for. A flat roller coaster is no fun. You need some ups and downs to call it a thrill ride

What makes a puzzle elegant?

One way to tell that the puzzlemaker cares is if a puzzle demands a healthy balance of effort and inspiration. Too much effort, and the puzzle is busywork. Too much inspiration, and the puzzle is a guessing game. Right in the middle, and the puzzle is worth my time.

The aha moment is crucial for the solver. It is this moment that justifies the opportunity cost of solving the puzzle, as opposed to doing the dishes or finishing her master’s thesis. She gets to say, “And then I noticed that the bridge cards formed a bridges puzzle!”5 and everyone slaps her on the back for her brilliance, and congratulates the puzzlemaker for his brilliance. That’s the moment everyone wants, every day of their lives.


Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder are both designers who do what they do on a different level than most designers. It’s not an art, a craft, or a science to these guys, it’s something entirely different (actually, “an art” probably comes closest, but there’s something about what these guys do that’s very hard to define. A “philosophy?”).

Thanks for posting that @jgf1123, I would have probably missed it otherwise.


Funnily enough, Mike Selinker also talks about the science / art of puzzle crafting in the introduction :slight_smile: :

The question you’ll get asked second-most often is, “How on earth do you think of those?” That will also make you feel good inside. It may be coupled with a sentence like, “You must be some sort of genius!” Sorry, but being a puzzlemaker doesn’t make you a genius. I, for example, have no idea how to fix my dishwasher. I barely know how to run it. You would think a genius would know things like that.

But I can say that being a puzzlemaker makes your brain go places you’d never imagine it would. You learn to think in three dimensions at once, to catalog long lists of trivia in your head, to bend words in all sorts of directions. You understand logic and word construction better than anyone you know. Your mind deconstructs the universe in fascinating and completely meaningless ways.

I’ve been doing that for a while. In the three decades I’ve been making puzzles for publication, I’ve figured out how to construct hundreds of puzzle types. I’ve made some up along the way, when I couldn’t find a puzzle type that did what I wanted. Through trial and error, I began to master the science of making puzzles into art. My coauthor, Thomas Snyder, and I have spent years explaining that combination of science and art in the pages of Games magazine, and now here.

I forgot where I heard it, but someone described getting started in a creative field like this: a lot of novice creators hate their early work – and sometimes end up quitting – because what they have is taste and what they don’t have yet is the talent to create something up to their standards. Honing their craft through experience and practice it what allows their voice to fully express itself.


I really enjoyed The Witness. It has exactly that sense of discovery and building on previous knowledge by making leaps that feel like your own - not leading you by the nose, but not leaving you lost either. A credible attempt at worldbuilding and the lovely environment really helped too.

As with all such games, watching solutions and playthroughs completely destroys the experience.

Desktop Dungeons was fun, albeit a bit too rooted in simple, but somewhat laborious, math. Works because it’s random, there are so many solutions, and it’s not too hard to find one. Very different genre to the Witness.

SpaceChem was another favourite of mine, but it got hard about 3/4 of the way through, life intervened, and now I have no way back in. I’ve lost the skills I learned, and re-learning them by re-playing all(?) the intervening levels doesn’t appeal. Again, I’d say that this feels like a very different type of game again to The Witness and Desktop Dungeons, in that is has crafted puzzles, like the Witness, but allows “bad” and “better” solutions and the freedom to make them, like Desktop Dungeons.

I’m sure Zachtronics subsequent games are just as good, but I seem to need a specific set of circumstances to really get into a puzzle game, and I can’t see myself having the time and clarity necessary for the forseeable future.