Puzzle Solving

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Activities that can primarily be solved through reasoning.

It is not always apparent what actions one should try to perform to overcome challenges in games. This may be because players do not have all the game elements or information required, but can also be because the solutions require multiple actions performed consecutively and in an order that is not intuitive. In both cases, the activity players need to perform to find the solution is a Puzzle Solving. In some cases, the solutions may be drawing conclusions from the available information and, in others, testing hypotheses and rejecting impossible ones.


Jigsaw Puzzles and the Tangram are early examples of artifacts requiring Puzzle Solving and are in fact more often called puzzles and games.

Cluedo, Mastermind, and Ricochet Robots are examples of ordinary Board Games that require extensive Puzzle Solving but puzzles have also been constructed based on Chess, Go, and the card game Contract Bridge. Mansions of Madness is a board game that uses Puzzle Solving as small challenges interjected into the main gameplay.

Bejeweled, Cogs, Minesweeper, and Sokoban are all examples of computer-based Puzzle Games but Adventure Games such as The Dig, the King's Quest series, the Myst series, and the Zork series also require extensive amounts of Puzzle Solving.

Using the pattern

The prime challenge to require Puzzle Solving is to figure out some information (e.g., facts, phrases, a sequence of actions) that players should in turn figure out, and make this not to easy or difficult to do. This means that a Gain Information goal is the core of Puzzle Solving activities.

Solution Uncertainty makes it possible to engage in Puzzle Solving but there are examples of patterns that can be used to create puzzles that explicitly need to be dealt with. Movement in Turn-Based Games can easily require thinking before they are done, especially if Diegetically Tangible Game Items, Obstacles, or Warp Zones exist (Sokoban have all of these except Warp Zones). Related to this is the task of achieving Alignment (e.g. Zoo Keeper and the Bejeweled series), and in general can any type of Game World Navigation require some level of Puzzle Solving. Puzzles can also be more related to Combat, e.g. when Capture is combined with Bidding, Movement, or Investments (Poker and Chess are examples of the two first) but here there may not exist a perfect solution so the Puzzle Solving may be to find the best solution which may be the one with the least Penalties involved. Other examples of Combat-oriented Puzzle Solving include having to do Aim & Shoot without using direct Line of Sight, finding the Achilles' Heels of Enemies or Boss Monsters (or more generally to identify and find workarounds to Invulnerabilities or Boss Monsters with Privileged Abilities). Quite naturally, the opponents in Combat situations also are likely to engage in Puzzle Solving to Evade attacks. Many types of Social Interaction, diegetic or real, can be the base for Puzzle Solving as well. One example of this is handling Internal Rivalry in groups with Non-Player Characters. Environmental Storytelling and Red Herrings are ways of introducing Puzzle Solving that do not need to be engaged in (i.e. they can be considered Optional Goals) or is misleading to begin to study.

The difficulty of Puzzle Solving is often related to number of events needed, number of game elements involved, and if players have access to all information needed at all time. Varying these can effectively be used to control the difficult, see for example the difference in difficulty between different Levels of Sokoban. Time Limits can be used to give players a hard deadline before which the puzzle must be solved (e.g., Ricochet Robots, but this requires that the games are Real-Time Games (or makes them into this). Clues (perhaps in the form of Player Aids) and Traces can quite obviously make the Puzzle Solving easier by giving partial answers or pointing players in the right direction for finding these. Depending on the size of the puzzle, Game State Overviews can also provide help. Besides these possibilities, Reversibility makes Puzzle Solving easier since players can experiment with solutions while the presences of Irreversible Events makes the activities more difficult. Many types of Puzzle Solving can be designed to allow Trial and Error Solutions, including Lucky Guess Solutions.

Games that do not change puzzles between game sessions have problems with providing Replayability and Further Player Improvement Potential (but this may not be a concrete problem if large number of Levels can instead be provided). This can often be avoided through the use of Randomness, but this requires that the Randomness used can guarantee that at least one solution exists. The existence of several solutions in general can add some Replayability to games but do so only primarily if they offer alternative developments of Predetermined Story Structures or if they have Perceivable Margins compared to each other.

Puzzle Solving is often the core activity in Alternate Reality Gameplay due to the possibility of spreading Clues over large areas and the possibility for many players to work together on solving puzzles. Even the invitations to these games, which are usually Rabbit Hole Invitations, require players to engage in Puzzle Solving to be able to even start playing them.

Quizzes do not require Puzzle Solving but can be seen as an alternative that relies on memory rather than reasoning. However, guessing the answers to Quizzes can be seen as a form Puzzle Solving.


Completing Puzzle Solving goals is a form of Stimulated Planning, as the challenge lies in finding the right combination of actions rather than performing the actions. This planning is typically a form of Tactical Planning, and is more or less incompatible with Limited Planning Abilities. Puzzle Solving requires Memorizing if players do not have perceptual access to all the needed game elements all the time. Whatever the exact type of activity required to do the Puzzle Solving, it provides opportunity for Cognitive Engrossment, and being skillful in solving puzzles is a form of Gameplay Mastery. Puzzle Solving encourages Experimenting if contained in games that support Reversibility.

Puzzles that can be solved through manipulation of the game environment provide PvE gameplay and instantiate Configuration goals based upon Movement. These can actually be solved by simply trying all combinations although this requires players to do repetitious actions (i.e. Excise). This possibility can be difficult to design away; it cannot be avoided even with Irreversible Events or depletion of Non-Renewable Resources if players can perform Save-Load Cycles or the games are Quick Games.

Gameplay based on Puzzle Solving does not in itself introduce Tension or the need to act before one wants to, and this makes the pattern a suitable candidate to create Casual Gameplay but since game designers can have precise control over the number of events and game elements involved the pattern can also support Challenging Gameplay or Complex Gameplay. This also makes the pattern more common for Single-Player Games and Turn-Based Games compared to Multiplayer Games and Real-Time Games even if numerous exception exist. Zero-Player Games are in many cases built around some form of Puzzle Solving in the sense that players of these games have to plan in advance what actions their agents should perform.

Puzzle Solving combined with Levels that contain a puzzle each provide a form of Meta Games. These in turn provide Negotiable Game Sessions for the individual puzzles if they require varying amount time to complete.


Can Instantiate

Casual Gameplay, Challenging Gameplay, Cognitive Engrossment, Complex Gameplay, Configuration, Excise, Gameplay Mastery, Memorizing, PvE, Stimulated Planning, Tactical Planning

with Levels

Meta Games, Negotiable Game Sessions

with Reversibility


Can Modulate

Alternate Reality Gameplay, Predetermined Story Structures, Single-Player Games, Turn-Based Games, Zero-Player Games

Can Be Instantiated By

Alignment, Diegetically Tangible Game Items, Environmental Storytelling, Evade, Gain Information, Game World Navigation, Invulnerabilities, Obstacles, Quizzes, Rabbit Hole Invitations, Red Herrings, Solution Uncertainty, Warp Zones

Achilles' Heels together with Enemies or Boss Monsters

Aim & Shoot when not Line of Sight is sufficient

Boss Monsters together with Privileged Abilities

Capture together with Bidding, Movement, or Investments

Internal Rivalry together with Non-Player Characters

Movement together with Turn-Based Games

Can Be Modulated By

Clues, Further Player Improvement Potential, Game State Overviews, Irreversible Events, Lucky Guess Solutions, Perceivable Margins, Player Aids, Randomness, Red Herrings, Reversibility, Time Limits, Traces, Trial and Error Solutions

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Limited Planning Ability, Replayability


An updated version of the pattern Puzzle Solving that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[1].


  1. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.