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Another Thought on Game Design Theory and Puzzles
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Another Thought on Game Design Theory and Puzzles
by Matthew Yeoman on 02/13/14 08:16:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I recently read an excellent post by Toni Sala titled “Game Design Theory Applied: the puzzle of designing a puzzle game.” You can click on over if you want, but the summary is that puzzles are not considered to be games, at least by some folks, due to four main issues.

This struck a bit of a chord with me as I work from outside of the typical industry of people here. I work for Puzumi Puzzles, we make those puzzles that you have to move with your hands. We consider ourselves to be creative puzzle distributors - we have little in common with jigsaw puzzles.

The four proposed problems with puzzles as games

The problems posed in the article are that puzzles have four main issues:


  • They follow a dominant strategy - something game developers avoid

  • They do not follow typical game mechanics - you have to change your perception to solve them

  • They only have one solution - they lack multiple pathways towards success

  • They are not replayable - the desire to replay leaves once you know how to solve it

You can read this in more detail in the post itself, but that is the summary. Toni comes up with a number of different ways to get around these issues while still staying within the typical puzzler paradigm. What I’d like to offer up for discussion, I’m no expert when it comes to game design as I am but a humble puzzler, is a bit of lateral thinking on the puzzle genre.

How to get around the four issues of using puzzles in games

Toni brings up a number of ways to get around the four points above by creating new and interesting ways to use puzzles, introducing a bonus system, and making for a better overall experience by changing the difficulty curve.

What I’m proposing from what I’ve learned from researching our puzzles, and playing with our puzzles, is that you can create a puzzle that doesn’t have one solution and that is replayable by stepping outside of the traditional puzzle idea.

The problem, I find, with traditional puzzles is that they are designed to have only one solution. The jigsaw puzzle is what has caused this - nearly everyone think of jigsaws when they think of a physical puzzle.


Our puzzles do not follow the typical puzzle formula of only having one solution, this varies game play and increases replayability. This is possible due to how our puzzles are designed - they have many interchangeable polyforms that lend themselves to having many different solutions.

Let’s try and make sense of this puzzling proposal

What I’d like to offer is that puzzles within games, or puzzles that are games, can have this same feature with the right kind of design. Again, I’m not a game design expert, but couldn’t a game with a design similar to New Sokoban have multiple polyform pieces in play at once, that can fit together in different configurations, and that are interchangeable across the game board? This would offer multiple solutions as to how the puzzle is solved, increase replayability and maybe even break up the dominant strategy problem.


Basically, what I’m proposing is that we stop looking at puzzles as 2D constructions with one solution within a square game board, and look at puzzles as something more dynamic with multiple solutions built in to it by using interchangeable polyforms.

I’d like to hear from the rest of the community. Maybe such a game already exists and I don’t know it, maybe my concept is completely flawed, or maybe you’re working on a similar game! I turn it over to your eternal wisdom...

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Dusty Hunsaker
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I tend to agree that puzzles aren't really games by themselves. It's sort of a rectangle isn't a square, but a square is a rectangle type of problem. A puzzle can be made into a game with few modifications. Look at a Rubik's Cube. I think many people would agree that it isn't a game by itself. Now if two people were to have Rubik's Cubes, and they raced to see who could finish first, then I think that would be considered a game. I think that basic concept applies to the majority of games. I also think that Rubik's Cubes have multiple solutions, but there ARE dominant strategies out there. It just depends on what you are trying to do. If you are trying to solve in under 10 seconds, you would use different algorithms and strategies than if you were trying to solve 20 Rubik's Cubes while blindfolded.

Is Halo a puzzle game? Most people would say no. But I'm of the opinion that it is a puzzle to figure out how to get from point A to point B, without getting killed by some alien on a turret. Perhaps the dominant strategy is to throw a grenade to knock it off, because running out in the open won't work very well. But that's just one example of a single puzzle in the entire game.

I guess my main point is, I feel that most games have puzzles in them, but puzzles by themselves are not really games. I think they are a very important component to make a game, but not really a game by themselves, in much the same way that the art for the game isn't a game, and the programming for the game isn't a game.