I've designed more than a few games over the past 13 years, but I've never released something which I would call "a puzzle game." That's set to change soon, (in the next month or two) and as a result I've spent the last few months immersing myself in puzzle game designs. As a card-carrying geek I have, of course, done my share of puzzles in my time. When I play a professor Layton game, I'm happy if 30% of the puzzles are novel. (Curious Village: 22%, Diabolical Box: 34%, Unwound Future: 28% thus far...) So I thought I'd dip into two puzzle-related themes: a discussion of what elements make a puzzle game really shine for me, and a list of my favorite puzzle games.
Clear Actions or Clear Goals... Not Both
Here's an interesting first premise: a compelling puzzle game should have either a clear goal (Tetris) or a clear action to take (Triple Town) but NOT both. This comes from something I heard a few years back which really resonated with me
"there are only two questions man can asks himself that mean anything. Why did God create the world? And what do I do next?"
(This particular phrasing comes from Uncanny X-Men #45, but I believe I first heard it elsewhere... not sure where.)
We (players) need motivation to take action, and motivation comes in two broad flavors: to advance a goal, or to fulfill an immediate need. Both types of motivation are powerful, and lots of games employ them both. Combat-based RPGs, for example, do a great job of blending world-saving ambition with a need to horde health potions and upgrade armor. But puzzle games are different, because of the way they manipulate uncertainty and the unknown.
Puzzles are all about illuminating hidden information, and therefore you cannot build a puzzle without creating something which is initially obfuscated. Consider a classic wood-block puzzle, in which some pieces, but not all, can be initially removed. The end goal is clear (disassemble the puzzle) but exactly how that goal is achieved is unclear. Conversely, some puzzles give you very clear methods for advancing (any Tower Defense Game) but obscure what, exactly, you should be doing with those methods (since the composition, timing, abilities of each creep wave is a surprise.)
Content which grows Geometrically
If a puzzle game doesn't get too hard for me to beat - then it probably won't hold my attention. But if I can't beat the game I'll stop playing. So for a game to really hold my attention, it has to show me challenges I can't beat (yet), and then give me choices about which challenges to tackle next. I'll keep trying the "too hard" bits every so often, and then eventually I'll master them. That's an awesome feeling, but it doesn't come unless a game offers both puzzles of wildly varying difficulty & non-linear progression through those puzzles.
Situations which Encourage Community
A game like Loops of Zen is pretty awesome, but it doesn't give you any situations which can be expressed in words to other human beings. To really ignite my puzzle-game fires, a game needs to have something about it which can be expressed in words, so that I can talk about it with my friends. Sometimes this takes the form of a strategy-swapping session, and sometimes it's all about me expressing how awesome the game is to people who haven't played it yet. I'm a firm believer in the idea that video games should encourage interactions between people, and so this is a key concern for me when exploring a fundamentally solo activity like a puzzle game.
My Favorite Puzzle Games
Heaven & Earth. This is one of the most amazing, most pure puzzle games ever. EVER. The slightly date graphics can be hard to push through for some people - for an updated taste check out the lovely Figure Ground web version. Play through the first 12 puzzles, and feel your mind expand. Then your head spins at puzzles 13, 25, and 37 - when new mechanics emerge. So, SO worth your time. Then grab the full download for the other 95% of the game.
Adventures of Lolo (1,2 &3) Some classic puzzle games on the NES. Dexterity played a small part in the solutions, but the real challenges were all mental. Some surprising and unexpected depth comes to the fore as you play these games. I occasionally got stuck for days on a particular puzzle, before I could wrap my head around the mechanics of the solution.
Lode Runner There have been many versions of this game - the one I played to death back in 1985 was Lode Runner II on my Apple IIe. I started at level 1, and played as far as I could before running out of lives. My personal best was somewhere in the mid-80s (I can't recall the level number exactly, much to my chagrin.) If the iOS version is anywhere as faithful to the original as the video makes it appear, I'll be all over it. (Note - I was unable to find a link to a real, classic version of Lode Runner to play. I found literally hundreds of remakes, youtube videos, etc - but I would appreciate a link to something I could actually pass around.)
The Lost Vikings 2 An early game by Blizzard, The Lost Vikings 2 was an amazing action-puzzle game, in which you asynchronously controlled 3 characters with orthogonal abilities to navigate increasingly complex spaces. This game beats out the Gobliiins franchise, in my opinion, though both games have significant merit.
Picross 3D Did you know they are still supporting this DSi-era gem? All the fun of classic picross puzzles, plus sweet, sweet victory animations. My girlfriend played all the way through this one, and monopolized my DS for months in the process.
Pandora's Box This game doesn't seem to be playable in any form now, which is a shame. It's designed by Alexi Pajitnov, who also created Tetris. This was Microsoft's first attempt to take control of his talents - Hexic HD was the second.
Plants vs. Zombies This game is not only fantastic fun, it's a joy to play. My favorite tower defense-style game by far (though I like Vector TDX for a more "pure" TD experience). This is also one of only two "modern" games on my puzzle game list, which means you probably have several ways you could buy yourself a copy right now.