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THE ART OF Puzzle Game Design Scott Kim & Alexey Pajitnov March 15, 1999 Game Developers Conference

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the art of puzzle game design

THE ART OFPuzzle Game Design

Scott Kim & Alexey Pajitnov

March 15, 1999

Game Developers Conference

These are presentation slides from an all-day tutorial given at the 1999 Game Developers Conference</A> in San Jose. This copy of the slides was taken from All screen shots are copyrighted by the respective game publishers.

  • Part of many games.
  • Adventure, education, action, web
  • But how do you create them?

Whether you are designing levels for an cartridge-based action puzzle game, creating puzzle templates for a CD-ROM puzzle anthology, adding puzzles to an adventure game, or designing an educational game, you need to know how to design good puzzles.

good news bad news
Good News / Bad News

Mental challenge Marketable?

Nonviolent Dramatic?

Easy to program Hard to invent?

Growing market Small market?

The good news is that puzzles appeal widely to both males and females of all ages. Although the current market is small, it is rapidly expanding, as computers become a mass market commodity and players demand familiar family games.

Types of Puzzle Games

Examples: Pipe Dream, Honey Way, Lineman

Examples: Fool, Incred Machine, Puzzle Zone

Case Study: Jesse’s Strips

Case Study: Charlie Blast’s Territory

Case Study: Scott Kim’s Puzzle Box

Exercises: Idea Invention, Word Sokoban


We’ll start by surveying examples of outstanding puzzle games. Then Alexey and I will go into detail about some of our current projects. I’ll describe the eight steps in the puzzle design process. Finally we’ll split into groups of five people each and do projects.

types of puzzle games

Types of Puzzle Games

What every puzzle designer should know

Here are four basic ways to categorize the types of possible puzzle games.

Scott Kim

varieties of play activity
Varieties of Play Activity

There are four types of play. Noninteractive experiences include books and movies. A Toy has no set goal. A Puzzle has a goal: find the solution. The goal of a Game is to beat another player. Each type of play builds on the previous type: a puzzle should first be a good toy.

genres of puzzle games
Genres of Puzzle Games

Action puzzle games have time pressure and a way to fix mistakes. Story puzzle games have puzzles that advance the plot. Strategy puzzle games are based on multiplayer games. Construction puzzle games let you build something. Pure puzzle games are just puzzles.

player motivation
Player Motivation

Different people play puzzls for different reasons. Some see puzzles as metaphors for spiritual journeys. Puzzle fans like the challenge of finding the answer. Tetris and Solitaire players use puzzles as light distractions. People buy Disney titles for the familiar characters.


People who play puzzles tend to prefer one of three basic types: Word, Image or Logic puzzles. Each of these types of puzzle uses a different mode of thought. Of course some puzzles combine more than one mode. For instance, Hangman is a logical word game.

examples pipe dream


One concept,

Three designs

Here are some of our favorite puzzle games (other than ones we have designed). We chose examples that cover the full range of issues that arise in designing puzzle games.

Alexey Pajitnov

pipe dream
Pipe Dream
  • The simplest construction on the regular grid is the path from one cell to another

Although Pipe Dream could be classified as an action puzzle game, at its heart it is a construction game. Other examples of constructive puzzles are: Lemmings, The Incredible Machine, Puyo-Puyo.

pipe dream12
Pipe Dream
  • After obvious straightening of the path we realize that we need a very simple set of pieces:

To make the concept of constructing a path more suitable for a computer game we restrict lines to a square grid.

pipe dream13
Pipe Dream
  • 4 corners
  • 2 two lines
  • 1 cross

Seven pieces is a magic number. Tetris has seven pieces. Psychologists have found the human short term memory can hold about seven things (plus or minus two). That is why 7-digit telephone numbers are so much easier to remember than 10-digit numbers.

pipe dream14
Pipe Dream


  • Build a path from one cell to another using one-cell elements

So this is the concept.

pipe dream15
Pipe Dream


  • Playing field Regular grid 7x10
  • Objects 4 corners, 2 lines, 1 cross
  • Rules Source of pieces: 5-cell stack
  • User interface Click to place; replace takes time
  • Scoring, levels Nothing special

To make a game, we need to specify these design elements.

pipe dream original concept build a path from one cell to another using one cell elements
Playing field Regular grid 7x10

Objects 4 corners, 2 lines, 1 cross

Rules Source of pieces: 5-cell stack

User interface Click to place; replace takes time

Scoring, levels Nothing special

Pipe Dream (original)CONCEPT: Build a path from one cell to another using one-cell elements

For the original Pipe Dream, published by LucasFilm Games, these were the design decisions.

Playing field Regular grid 7x10

Objects 4 corners, 2 lines, 1 cross

Rules Sliding tiles

User interface Click to slide, restriction on drawn path

Scoring, levels Nothing special

Pipe Dream (Microsoft bonus level) CONCEPT: Build a path from one cell to another using one-cell elements

But other games can be built based on the same concept. The Microsoft Entertainment Pack version of Pipe Dream includes a sliding tile variation as its bonus level. Quite a good game.


Pipe Dream (Lucasfilm bonus level)CONCEPT: Build a path from one cell to another using one-cell elements

  • Playing field Regular grid 7x10
  • Objects 4 corners, 2 lines, 1 cross
  • Rules Falling tiles (like Tetris)
  • User interface Control while falling
  • Scoring, levels Nothing special

The original Lucasfilm version includes a Tetris-like variation of Pipe Dream as its bonus level. Very hard game; it is almost impossible to construct paths of more than about five tiles.


Honey WayCONCEPT: Build a path from one cell to another using one-cell elements

  • Playing field Variable hexagonal grid
  • Objects All corners and lines, 3 crosses
  • Rules Preset sources, crosses and obstacles
  • User interface Drawing the path as freehand
  • Scoring, levels Nothing special

For the Mind Aerobics daily puzzle on the Internet Gaming Zone, Alexey created a simpler game based on the same concept. The grid was changed from square to hexagonal, the player could build paths freely by drawing lines, and sources, crosses and obstacles were given.

honey way
Honey Way

The hexagonal grid suggested the theme: bees and honey.

honey way21
Honey Way

The player tries to construct a line of honey from one honey blob to another by drawing lines from one cell to another.

honey way22
Honey Way

The path must pass through every cell of the grid once, crossing over itself at the flowers in the directions indicated by the petals. Here is a complete solution. It looks complicated, but the hexagonal grid is actually more forgiving for path construction than a square grid.

honey way23
Honey Way

Dangerous bees complicate some of the puzzles.


LinemanCONCEPT: Build any cyclic pathusing one-cell elements

  • Playing field Regular grid 10x10
  • Objects 4 corners, 2 lines, 1 cross
  • Rules Pieces appear on field; loops collapse
  • User interface Click to rotate pieces in place
  • Scoring, levels Nothing special

Lineman, from the Russian Six Pack (Interplay) uses the same seven objects but different rules. Pieces appear directly on the playing field and can only be rotated, not moved. The goal is construct loops, which collapse, not paths from one place to another. Excellent game.

examples fool s errand incredible machine puzzle zone

EXAMPLESFool’s Errand, Incredible Machine, Puzzle Zone

Three games, Three genres

Here are other puzzle games that demonstrate some of the design challenges in other puzzle game genres.

Scott Kim

the fool s errand
The Fool’s Errand
  • Integrated story, puzzles, art
  • Idiomatic puzzles
  • Metapuzzle

Created solely by Cliff Johnson in the 80s, The Fool’s Errand is an integrated work of art. Each puzzle links with a tarot card and story segment. The bold silhouette art style looks good on a small screen. Each puzzle unlocks part of a larger unifying “meta-puzzle”.

the incredible machine
The Incredible Machine

The Incredible Machine (TIM) is the best construction puzzle game. There are three important design decisions. Decision 1: allow the player to build things. SimCity, shown above, allows construction, but does not give the player a fixed goal and is thus a toy, not a puzzle.

the incredible machine28
The Incredible Machine

Decision 2. No realtime decision making. In contrast, Lemmings, shown above, requires players to solve the puzzle by repositioning lemmings while they are walking around. In The Incredible Machine, building and running machines happen in separate modes.

the incredible machine29
The Incredible Machine

Decision 3: Player authoring. In contrast, Marble Drop, shown here, has separate build and run modes, but does not allow the player to construct original puzzles. Instead, all the puzzles come preconstructed, which allows Marble Drop to have beautifully rendered screens.

the incredible machine30
The Incredible Machine

In The Incredible Machine, players can build their own puzzles in a separate freeform construction mode, separate from puzzle mode. The goal of this particular puzzle is to get all balls into all the aquariums using a motley collection of ropes, pulleys, ramps and other devices.

the incredible machine31
The Incredible Machine
  • Physical simulation
  • Player authoring
  • Integrated controls

The designers of TIM did a brilliant job of including a broad range of play elements that all interact with one another within a rich physics model, while keeping the user interface simple and obvious.

puzzle zone
Puzzle Zone

The Puzzle Zone on America Online [editor’s note: now on] is a good example of an online puzzle. Following the model of newspaper puzzles, Puzzle Zone delivers four new puzzles every day. The puzzles add new twists to familiar word games.

puzzle zone33
Puzzle Zone

Flexicon, shown above, is a twist on a crossword puzzle. The problem with crossword puzzles on computer is that the screen is too small to hold a large puzzle. The solution here is to save space by overlapping four rectangular regions, only one of which is visible at a time.

puzzle zone34
Puzzle Zone

Strip Search adds new twists to the familiar word search.: The theme here — Joes — was inspired by the topical event of Joe Dimaggio’s death. Found words appear in order of length, giving the player a hint. When all words are found, the leftover letters form a witty phrase.

puzzle zone35
Puzzle Zone

Finally, the Puzzle Zone also includes elements that build community and encourage players to keep coming back: message boards, high score boards, and a place to buy branded merchandise.

puzzle zone36
Puzzle Zone
  • Familiar puzzles
  • Daily editions
  • Online community

The puzzles in Puzzle Zone are somewhat mundane and obvious, but that is not a bad thing. By using familiar puzzle types, the Puzzle Zone lowers the barrier to entry. Furthermore, word games require very little data to be downloaded, so play is snappy.

case study jesse s strips

CASE STUDYJesse’s Strips

Recent design experience with 3 aha’s

Jesse’s Strips, designed by Alexey Pajitnov, is one of a number of image-based puzzles from Pandora’s Box, a forthcoming title from Microsoft.

Alexey Pajitnov

jesse s strips
Jesse’s Strips


  • To make jigsaw puzzle using long narrow pieces (strips)

One of the members of the Pandora’s Box team suggested the concept.

jesse s strips39
Jesse’s Strips


  • The playing field is too messy

The problem with long skinny pieces, however...







Jesse’s Strips


The playing field is too messy


  • Stack the pieces
  • Separate picture and pieces in different windows
  • Enlarge the space for more than one screen
  • Scroll the playing field
  • Paginate the playing field

I considered many possible solutions before hitting on the idea of spreading the pieces across several different pages.


Jesse’s Strips

First AHA:

To make multiple pages and repeat the picture in progress on each of them, distributing the pieces.

This was the first Aha.






Jesse’s Strips


Player does not understand what happens when the pages switch


  • Change picture position
  • Change background look (color, texture)
  • Use animation for changing pages
  • Change the picture in progress.

But this insight raised another problem...


Jesse’s Strips

Second AHA:

To emphasize certain color for the picture on each page; to do the same with the pieces on the page.

Which in turn required a second Aha.




Jesse’s Strips


We need to move the pieces from page to page now and User Interface become too complicated


  • Work on UI
  • Connect the piece movements with rotations

The final insight was motivated by wanting to keep the user interface simple. Instead of separate commands to rotate pieces and changes pages...


Jesse’s Strips

Third AHA:

To move the piece to the next page together with the 90 degrees rotation.

The two things happen together. This is a good example of how the difficulties in realizing a particular puzzle concept can guide the designer toward novel solutions. [Editor’s note: the final published version in Pandora’s Box works differently.]

case study charlie blast s territory

CASE STUDYCharlie Blast’s Territory

Adding action to a classic computer puzzle game

Charlie Blast’s Territory is a game for the Nintendo 64 published by Kemco. Kemco hired Realtime Associates to develop the game; they in turn hired Scott to assist in game design and level design for the puzzles. This example highlights some of the techniques he used in level design.

Scott Kim

  • Classic, widely copied
  • Simple rules
  • Deep puzzles
  • Fits the medium

Charlie Blast is based on the classic puzzle game Sokoban, which is one of the most widely copied computer games. It has simple rules that are easy to program, yet has deep gameplay. It works well on low-resolution displays with simple arrow controls, such as GameBoy.

changing sokoban
Changing Sokoban
  • Pieces: Bombs, shapes, pictures
  • Board: Breakaway, ice, bumper
  • Moves: Push two, pull not push
  • Goal: Push to hole, arrange bombs
  • Play mode: Multiplayer, action

One of the most common ways to create a new game is to change an existing game. Here are some ways to change Sokoban.

charlie blast s territory
Charlie Blast’s Territory
  • Based on Sokoban
  • For N64, American audience
  • Uses 3D graphics
  • Adds action elements

For Charlie Blast’s Territory Kemco decided to pump up the 3D action elements of the game by using 3D perspective, moving camera, animated main character (Charlie Blast), and adding action elements.

challenge add action features
Challenge: Add Action Features
  • Jumping
  • Autodetonator
  • Moving platforms, spikes
  • Multiplayer competitive mode
  • Not included:damage

We added common action game features like jumping, moving platforms, moving spikes, and a multiplayer competitive mode. We did not include damage points, because that would have shifted the emphasis of gameplay too far in the direction of dexterity, not puzzle solving.

challenge add other features
Challenge: Add Other Features
  • Bombs & Detonator
  • Objects: TNT crates, blocks
  • Tiles: breakaway, ice, trampolines
  • Not included:enemy characters

Features like bombs, blocks and breakaway tiles add depth and variety to the underlying Sokoban game. Of course features interact with each other. TNT crates and blocks were introduced specifically to complement the jumping ability.


Here’s how bombs work. A 1 bomb blows up itself. A 2 bomb also blows up the four adjacent squares. A 3 bomb blows up a larger diamond region. The detonator and TNT act like a 2 bomb. You can light pm;u a detonator, and you can jump only over TNT.


The goal of every puzzle is to arrange the bombs so that when Charlie lights the detonator, it triggers a chain reaction that blows up all the bombs. Suppose Charlie lights the detonator in this configuration. Which bombs will not blow up?


Here’s the answer. The only bombs that don’t blow up are the 1 bomb at right, which is too far away from a 2 bomb, and the 2 and TNT bombs in the lower left, which touch another 2 bomb diagonally.

challenge design levels
Challenge: Design Levels
  • 60 levels = 6 groups of 10
  • Easy to hard within a group
  • Each group features different devices

The bulk of my time was spent designing the 60 levels, structured as 6 ramps of 10 puzzles each. Puzzles within a ramp start easy and get harder. Each ramp has a different visual theme and emphasizes a different mix of features, to keep the game from getting too repetitive.

building levels
Building Levels
  • Tell a Story
  • Paint a Picture
  • Create a Mood
  • Use Math
  • Exploit features
  • Lay a Trap

I used many different strategies for coming up with ideas for levels, so that there would be a wide variety of puzzle types. Here are six of my strategies. Following are examples of how I used each strategy to design a particular level.

building levels tell a story
Building Levels: Tell a Story

#17 Run Like Crazy

Some puzzles are structured as a linear sequence of events. For this puzzle, Î started by drawing a board that wraps a long narrow corridor into a small space.

building levels tell a story59
Building Levels: Tell a Story

#17 Run Like Crazy

This puzzle features an autodetonator, shown in red here, which blows up automatically in a preset amount of time unless you touch it to reset it. The basic drama of this puzzle is that you must run to the autodetonator, then push it back a long way so it blows up a bomb.

building levels tell a story60
Building Levels: Tell a Story

#17 Run Like Crazy

I then compounded the puzzle by adding obstacles along the three legs of the journey. Moving spikes that raise and lower out of the game cause you to have to wait a bit before you can get to the autodetonator -- frustrating when you have to get there quickly.

building levels tell a story61
Building Levels: Tell a Story

#17 Run Like Crazy

Next you must push the autodetonator onto a moving platform that travels slowly to the right, then push it off. Again, timing is critical if you are to execute this move before the autodetonator blows up.

building levels tell a story62
Building Levels: Tell a Story

#17 Run Like Crazy

I added one more spike in the right leg of the journey..

building levels tell a story63
Building Levels: Tell a Story

#17 Run Like Crazy

Finally there is the end game. One bombs only blow up themselves, so the ending position must be an autodetonator surrounded by one bombs. Because two of the 1 bombs are against walls they cannot be pushed away from, there is only one possible ending position.

building levels paint a picture
Building Levels: Paint a Picture

#48 Ice Rink. Initial pattern.

Another way to invent a puzzle is to start with a pretty pattern, then try playing it. Here are three opening positions I considered for the puzzle Ice Rink. They look similar, but behave very differently. You cannot stop moving on ice until you hit a wall or reach solid ground.

building levels paint a picture65
Building Levels: Paint a Picture

#49 Diamond. Initial pattern.

Here are three patterns I considered for a puzzle called Diamond, which features a patch of ice surrounded by solid ground. After drawing the opening patterns I played them to see if they could be solved. If they were not solvable, I then had to decide how to modify the pattern.

building levels paint a picture66
Building Levels: Paint a Picture

#60 The… Final pattern.

For the final puzzle I decided to aim for a pretty final position that would spell the word “End”. This is what I originally hoped for..

building levels paint a picture67
Building Levels: Paint a Picture

#60 The… Initial pattern.

The actual final puzzle required many modifications to the boards and pieces to make sure that the puzzle only had one solution. Shown here is the final beginning position.

building levels paint a picture68
Building Levels: Paint a Picture

#57 Pinball. Overall picture.

One of the features of Charlie Blast is bumpers, which rebound bombs pushed into them. Bumpers reminded me of pinball bumpers, so I built this puzzle to look like a pinball machine, complete with a moving beltway for returning a queue of balls into play.

building levels create a mood
Building Levels: Create a Mood

#16 Long Haul

Some puzzles create distinct moods. Long haul, for instance, creates a frantic suspenseful mood as you must run further and further away from an autodetonator with a very short fuse in order to reposition bombs that are further and further away.

building levels create a mood70
Building Levels: Create a Mood

#16 Long Haul

It is easy to see that the autodetonator and 1 bomb cannot move, so the solution must be to create a chain of 3 bombs reaching from one end to the other.

building levels create a mood71
Building Levels: Create a Mood

#16 Long Haul

Or is it really that easy? A bit of analysis will show that the previous solution cannot be achieved, so a modified chain like this is necessary.

building levels use math
Building Levels: Use Math

#39 Peninsula

Puzzle designers often mine mathematics for ideas. Shown above is a puzzle based on the mathematical idea of a tour. The goal is to draw a closed path that visits every square once, using all the red lines. The unique solution is shown at right.

building levels use math73
Building Levels: Use Math

#39 Peninsula

I decided to make a puzzle for Charlie Blast that used the idea of a tour. Suppose the tiles above are all breakaway tiles, which means you can only step on them once. How would you push all three one bombs off the bottom edge of the square? One solution is shown at right.

building levels use math74
Building Levels: Use Math

#39 Peninsula

After a bit of work I came up with this more difficult tour puzzle. The goal is to push all three 1 bombs off the bottom edge of the square by walking a single path. The unique solution requires that you visit every square exactly once.

building levels use math75
Building Levels: Use Math

#39 Peninsula

Here’s the final puzzle. The purple electric bombs act like 2 bombs, except if one electric bomb blows up, the other also blows up. Since the electric bomb along the bottom edge cannot be pushed up toward the 1 bombs, the three 1 bombs must be pushed down to surround it.

building levels exploit features
Building Levels: Exploit Features

#30 Moving Ground

Another strategy is to exploit a feature. Shown above are two states of the same board, built entirely of moving platforms. The tall rectangles move left and right, while the wide rectangles move up and down. The green arrows show how the 2 bomb could be pushed.

building levels exploit features77
Building Levels: Exploit Features

#30 Moving Ground

Here is the final puzzle. The ground at the bottom is stable, while the ground at the top is moving. The goal is clear: build a chain of bombs between the immovable detonator at left and 1 bomb at right. But getting there requires a hair-raising ride around the platforms.

building levels exploit features78
Building Levels: Exploit Features

#30 Moving Ground

This puzzle is easier to analyze if we collapse time and push all the platforms together so all adjacencies are present at the once. The green arrows show all paths that bombs can follow as they move around the platforms. Removing the dead ends, we discover the loop at right.

building levels lay a trap
Building Levels: Lay a Trap

#58 Tadpole

Finally, puzzles can trick you into pursuing the wrong line of reasoning. For the puzzle Tadpole, I started by observing that a puzzle involving a 2 bomb, detonator and six 1 bombs must end with the 2 bomb and detonator surrounded by the 1 bombs.

building levels lay a trap80
Building Levels: Lay a Trap

#58 Tadpole

With that analysis in mind, this puzzle appears to be simple: push the autodetonator into the pocket, seal the opening with a 1 bomb, then sit back and watch the fireworks.

building levels lay a trap81
Building Levels: Lay a Trap

#58 Tadpole

By adding a couple of spikes I gave the puzzle a new wrinkle.

building levels lay a trap82
Building Levels: Lay a Trap

#58 Tadpole

Now you can only push the autodetonator as far as shown above by the green line. You cannot push the autodetonator any further because the spikes prevent you from getting to the square to the right of the final position of the autodetonator.

building levels lay a trap83
Building Levels: Lay a Trap

#58 Tadpole

The real solution requires that you rebuild the entire hexagonal pattern of 1 bombs up and to the right one square.

building levels lay a trap84
Building Levels: Lay a Trap

#58 Tadpole

To complete the puzzle, I added some blocks and breakaway tiles.. These complications add difficulty to the puzzle, but are not integral to the central theme of the puzzle.

case study scott kim s puzzle box

CASE STUDYScott Kim’s Puzzle Box

Creating a monthly puzzle for a children’s web site

The second case studies a monthly puzzle called Scott Kim’s Puzzle Box, which Scott created for the kid’s online service Juniornet. This example highlights issues in designing puzzles for the web.

Scott Kim

  • Safe online place
  • For kids 3-12
  • Content partners
  • Subscription
  • CD-ROM

Juniornet is an online service that gives kids a safe, fun, rewarding, and ad-free experience. Content comes from such well known brands as Highlights and Weekly Reader. Subscribers receive a CD-ROM, with more frequently updated content streamed across the internet.

scott kim s puzzle box
Scott Kim’s Puzzle Box
  • Monthly, weekly
  • Player authoring
  • Fun, educational
  • Learning styles
  • Branded

My feature on Juniornet is an original content area called Scott Kim’s Puzzle Box, which delivers.a new collection of puzzles every month. The type of puzzle changes from month to month. Players can create their own puzzles, some of which are posted on the site.

design challenges
Design Challenges
  • Adapt existing physical puzzle
  • Structure for efficient production
  • Player authoring

Producing a rich puzzle experience on a monthly schedule posed several design challenges..

challenge adapt hiroimono
Challenge: Adapt Hiroimono
  • Hiroimono =

“Things Picked Up”

  • 500 years old
  • From Japan

The puzzles are adapted from existing puzzles. For instance, the April puzzle is based on Hiroimono, a popular puzzle from Japan traditionally played with Go stones.

changes to hiroimono
Changes to Hiroimono
  • Animated characters
  • Specify beginning
  • Clear motivation
  • Embody the rules

To make Hiroimono friendlier to kids I embodied the rules in the characters of a dog that is eating pet treats, and a cat that prevents the dog from backing up in the direction it came. Even with words, kids could be attracted to the game and have a sense of what it is about.

challenge efficient structure
Challenge: Efficient Structure


  • Monthly puzzles
  • Kid’s puzzles
  • Letters
  • Puzzling Times
  • My Puzzles

In order to keep production costs reasonable, I planned a modular structure that would allow most of the site to stay the same from month to month. These basic features are always the same.


Pet Tricks

High Flyer

House Painter



Patchwork T.

Glass Tan.

Arrow Maze

Number Maze

Shape Maze

Drum Circle

Bell Circle

Rap Circle

The type of puzzle changes every month. But instead of creating 12 different puzzle engines, I create only 4 engines for the year, then reuse each engine 3 times with minor variations.



Every month I deliver 15 puzzles that I created, and 24 puzzles that kids create.


Fixed Format

Puzzle engines


Month puzzles

Kid’s Puzzles

Production is structured so that the most difficult pieces to build change the least often. Templates change only once every three months. The monthly template variations require only art changes. Finally, puzzle specification requires only compact text files.

challenge player authoring
Challenge: Player Authoring
  • Simple pieces
  • No interdependence
  • Random puzzles OK
  • Solve before submit

Players can create and submit their own puzzles. In order to keep puzzle creation kid friendly, I chose puzzles that are relatively easy to author. And I require that players solve their puzzles before submitting them, so I don’t receive puzzles that don’t work.

technique puzzle game design

TECHNIQUEPuzzle Game Design

In eight easy steps

Now that we’ve seen two very different examples, what can we say about puzzle design in general?

Scott Kim

the eight steps
The Eight Steps

1. Inspiration

2. Simplification

3. Construction Set

4. Rules

5. Puzzles

6. Testing

7. Sequence

8. Presentation

Here are the steps in designing any puzzle game. The first four steps sharpen the concept into a design specification; the last four steps bring the concept into reality.

1 inspiration previous game
1. Inspiration: Previous Game

Where do ideas come from? Here are six ways to get inspired. First, you can look to a previous game. Tetris was inspired by a noncomputer game called pentaminoes, and in turn inspired Welltris and other Tetris spinoffs.

1 inspiration technology
1. Inspiration: Technology

1. Enable nonphysical moves (Tetris)

2. Algorithmic hint, create, analyze, enemy

3. Enforce the rules (Sokoban)

4. Undo, record moves (Solitaire)

5. Structure the experience (Lemmings)

6. Instruction (Chess)

7. Bells and whistles (Battle Chess)

8. Online play (NY Times crossword)

If you are going to put a puzzle on computer, there should be some gain. Many computer puzzle games do things that could never be done in a physical puzzle. But even if the puzzle is physically possible, there are many other ways the computer can enhance gameplay.

1 inspiration play mechanic
1. Inspiration: Play Mechanic

Endorfun was inspired by the play mechanism of a colored cube rolling on a square grid.

1 inspiration subject matter
1. Inspiration: Subject matter
  • Start with something you love
  • Express it as if it mattered
  • Give each puzzle a memorable identity
  • Like a good song, a good puzzle has soul

Like songs, puzzles can be inspired by real life. Stephen Sondheim: A good clue can give you all the pleasures of being duped that a mystery story can. It has surface innocence, surprise, the revelation of a concealed meaning, and the catharsis of solution.

1 inspiration story
1. Inspiration: Story

Story puzzle games like Myst are built around story line, character, setting, and mood.

1 inspiration art
1. Inspiration: Art

The story game Obsidian started as a series of concept sketches for characters and environments. Story and puzzles came later.

2 simplification
2. Simplification

The second step is to whittle the concept down to manageable size. Say we wanted to make a puzzle based on the tricky core skill of parking a car in a crowded lot. We eliminate irrelevant details and make pieces uniform by conforming them to a square grid.

3 construction set
Programmer: reusable code

Rule designer: tweak rules

Level designer: build levels

Player: build levels

3. Construction Set

The only way to test a puzzle concept works is to play it. So the next step is to build a construction set that makes it easy to build puzzles of a certain type. Sometimes a paper prototype is adequate. Once the rules are set, other people can use the construction set to build levels.

4 rules
4. Rules
  • Board — grid, network, irregular, none
  • Pieces — shape, image, attribute, supply
  • Moves — sequential, side effect, primary
  • Goal — exact match, partial, condition

Now it is time to write a detailed design specification. Most puzzle game specs will describe puzzles in terms of board, pieces, moves and goals. In addition a design spec may also cover the user interface, scoring, story, art, sound and other aspects of production.

5 puzzles
5. Puzzles

Schematically, a puzzle challenges the player to get from a problem to a solution.

5 puzzles108
5. Puzzles

But of course the path is never simple. Every puzzle requires that the player make choices, some of which lead to dead ends.

5 puzzles109
5. Puzzles

Puzzles in a game have a larger situation that gives the puzzle meaning. Applying the solution lets you move forward in the game.

5 puzzles110
5. Puzzles

Good puzzles have require insight. The insight above is to walk around the outside of the maze. Obscure insights, however, feel unfair.

6 testing
6. Testing
  • Is it fun?
  • How hard is it?
  • Are there simpler solutions?
  • Can it be improved?

The only way to find out whether a puzzle is fun is to watch someone play it. Often a puzzle you think is easy will turn out to be hard, or vice versa. Sometimes players will find simpler solutions. Or you will realize that the puzzle needs some other improvement.

7 sequence




Ordered collection


7. Sequence

Next you must put the levels into sequence. Linear is simplest, but can get tiring. A better organization is the sawtooth, which keeps going back to easy puzzles, or to give players freedom to play puzzles out of order. Metapuzzles motivate players to complete the whole game.

7 sequence transitions
7. Sequence: Transitions
  • Learning rules
  • Within a puzzle: hints
  • From one puzzle to next
  • From one section to next
  • Ending

You also need to think about the transitions between puzzles. Whenever the player moves from one place to another in your game, there is an opportunity to lose the player’s interest. How can you bridge these gaps?

8 presentation
8. Presentation

Finally there are all the matters of presentation that turn an abstract puzzle into something people can see, hear and touch. I won’t go into detail on production for puzzle games.

project inventing ideas

PROJECTInventing Ideas

Inventing ideas for puzzles based on today’s headlines

The class divided up into teams of people each. Each team invented an idea for a puzzle game based on a story or ad in today’s San Jose Mercury News. Finally the groups pitched their ideas to the whole class.

Scott Kim

termite control
Termite Control
  • You are a termite
  • Goal: eat a floor
  • Obstacle: humans

Like most of the puzzles this is a character-driven action game that has been turned into a puzzle game by putting it onto a grid and turning real time action into turn based strategy.

prison shuffle
Prison Shuffle
  • Put prisoners in cells
  • Avoid bad combos
  • Can shuffle cells

A dynamic allocation puzzle. Prisoners are arriving at a jail. Allocate them to cells while avoiding certain bad combinations, such as an escape artist plus someone who has a key. Shuffling prisoners between cells takes time.

  • Fit cubicles in floor
  • Leave path to doors
  • Dilbert license?

A clever idea that falls naturally out of a real situation. Irregularly shaped cubicles made of square modules are to be fit within a floor of a building. Additionally, every cubicle must have a clear path from its door to a building entrance.

get barbie home
Get Barbie Home
  • Bust Out Barbie
  • Barbie Queue
  • Ken’s Magnetic Personality

A story about homeless Barbie inspired the most ideas. Get Barbie Home had Barbie wandering through the back streets of a city. Bust Out Barbie required chain smoking Malibu Barbie use Fashion Barbie’s hairspray to fashion a homemade bomb and stage a jail break.

project rule design

PROJECTRule Design

Turn Sokoban

into a word game

Next, groups were asked to invent a game that combined Sokoban with some sort of word game, then pitch the game to the group. The ideas were surprisingly varied, and several were sufficiently developed to be implementable.

Alexey Pajitnov

project level design

PROJECTLevel Design

Creating levels for a new variation of Sokoban

As part of the Sokoban Word Game exercise, groups invented three levels of their games. Some of the levels were completely drawn out, others were just titles or concepts.