Saturday, April 10, 2010

Puzzles as games

I just posted a review of Ricochet Robots, and as I was writing it, I was thinking about the kind of game that's really just a competitive mental puzzle. Ricochet Robots is definitely an example of this, and so is Set. I think good games scratch an itch, and these games scratch a couple of them at once. The games are designed to create a random series of logic puzzles, and its fun not only to solve the mental puzzles involved, but also to compete against others to find the solution first.

There are plenty of computer games that have the first part of that. Hardcore players of my game, Snood, mostly wind up playing the Evil level, which is essentially randomly generated, over and over. The same goes for the other popular puzzle games (e.g. Minesweeper, various solitaire games). Whenever I make a puzzle game (others of mine include Snoodoku and Snood Towers), I always try to make at least part of the puzzles randomized to give the game some replay value. As long as the puzzle part is difficult enough to provide a challenge but also able to be solved, and the solving process is fun, then people will enjoy the game, and often be willing to play over and over.

This is harder to do in a board game. It's difficult with simple components to create randomized puzzles that hit that sweet spot (possible to solve, hard enough to be challenging, and fun to solve). That's part of where Ricochet Robots and Set are so clever - the design is simple, but the game is fun because the puzzles usually work. Both can produce trivial results (easy to spot, or very simple to solve) or impossible or nearly-impossible results, but generally, they work.

If you've got a fun puzzle like this, then it's easy to turn it into a game - just have players race for the solution. The good thing about this model is that it supports multiple players (and sometimes a LOT of players) very easily. One bad thing is that they're often very skill-based, so it's sometimes difficult for new players (or players who just aren't very good at them) to enjoy them or feel like they're accomplishing anything.

I'd love to do a boardgame like this - the puzzle games I've written are really fun to design and tweak. I had a great time writing code to generate sudoku puzzles (and two different versions of a sudoku solving algorithm) when writing Snoodoku. When you don't have computing power behind you, it's a good deal harder to come up with varied, interesting puzzles that hold players' attention, but when it works, it's a lot of fun.

So, here's to puzzle games - once I get up and running with my other more traditional games, maybe I can try my hand at one of those.

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