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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 game’s 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…)