Puzzle Design


Puzzle and Puzzle Game Classification

Classification by domain and gameplay

We can classify puzzle games by the skills that players need to solve them:
mathematics (arithmetic, logic, space) (sudoku, chess puzzles, tangrams, Clue,Minesweeper, mazes, Rubik’s Cube),

  • physics (Greek puzzle mugs, The Incredible Machine, Angry Birds, Bridge Builder), 
  • visual field (spot-the-difference and hidden-object puzzles), 
  • language (crossword puzzles, word-search puzzles, Scrabble, Hang Man), 
  • common sense and situations (riddles, adventure games, treasure hunts, Twenty Questions). 

The domains above are so broad that we can subdivide each one even further by the type of play they allow. In fact, there are so many categories that it’s impossible to list them all in such a short introduction as this. You can find a good classification of puzzles (excluding puzzles in video games) on the Puzzle Museum site. For video games, see the Wikipedia entry Puzzle Video Game (unfortunately, a rather poor article).

Classification by design

If we strip away what the puzzles are about, we are left with how the designers put together the core mechanics to create a game. The way I see it, there are three basic groups:

At the one extreme we have procedural puzzle games. The designer designs the core mechanics and then allows the computer to put them together to create puzzles for the player – often randomly. Examples include Tetris and Minesweeper. The designer can control the difficulty by limiting the elements that the computer may use and by scaling the puzzle (making it bigger or faster). There is no level design in these games.

At the other extreme, in heterogeneous puzzle games, the designer designs mechanics foreach puzzle. Adventure games are typical examples of this type of puzzle game, and typical puzzles require a combination of common sense and lateral thinking to solve. The designer can increase the difficulty by making the solutions to the puzzles more obscure, or stringing them together into more complicated goal-subgoal systems.

Between these extremes, there are combinatorial puzzle games, where the core mechanics are reused often, and in many combinations. Levels are carefully designed, and not created procedurally. Games like Portal and Braid fall into this category. Difficulty increases when the designer introduces more mechanics, use mechanics more cleverly, and combine more mechanics into each next puzzle.

All the games we chose for this series of interviews are of the last type: combinatorial puzzle games.

What can other games benefit from combinatorial puzzle design principles?

The design principles behind this type of puzzle game apply to all games and help designers to focus on the mechanical and structural aspects of a game. In particular, these puzzle games help designers to zero in on
level design;
teaching mechanics and gameplay principles to the player;
revealing information and content;
complexity of combining mechanics;
difficulty and progression;
perception shifts (using mechanics in unusual ways).

By looking at how designers approach puzzle games, we can also get hints about approaching game design in general.


The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Jesse Schnell (p. 209).
On Game Design. Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams (p. 490).
Video Game Explosion. A Hisotry from PONG to Playstation (R) and beyond (p. xvii-xxi).
Wikipedia: Dates of games not found in Video Game Explosion were taken from their entries in Wikipedia. 

Other Resources

The Art of Puzzle Game Design


Scott Kim provides a tonne of useful information on his site, with many case studies and handy breakdowns of key issues.

The Game Prodigy on Puzzle Design


A variety of puzzle game design articles.

Tony Delgado : Beyond Tetris


A puzzle-game column that ran during 2006 and 2007.

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