Do you have any tips for designing great puzzles?

Sure. When designing a puzzle, a designer must think of the process by which the player interacts with them. Specifically, there are four steps:

  1. The player sees and recognizes the puzzle goal
  2. The player discovers the clues/objects needed to solve the goal
  3. The player associates the relationship of the clues with the puzzle and each other and works out potential solutions
  4. The player solves the puzzle with the proper solution

The designer must make it clear to the player what is happening and what to look for each step of the way. This means that the designer needs to clearly establish context for all four of the elements above. More specifically:

  1. Show the player the goal - a locked door, a treasure chest, an object they want, etc. - but also clearly show that it is not immediately attainable.
  2. Place and advertise the clues to the puzzle goal within the environment. This can be subtle or it can be obvious, depending on whether the puzzle is optional or part of the critical path. 
  3. Provide a way for the player to experiment and learn how the clues interact and behave. This doesn’t have to mean that the player can make attempts until they succeed, but it does mean that they get enough tries with the puzzle to learn the rules.
  4. Create a solution for the puzzle that isn’t too difficult or too easy for the challenge level the designer has chosen.

These are the basic elements that a designer must create in order to make a good puzzle. Missing one of these elements is a recipe for player frustration, and that is something we always want to avoid.

The second layer of designing a puzzle is deciding on the distribution. Puzzles have two primary elements to them - discovering the clues, then using clues to solve some sort of pattern. Some puzzles are 100% clue-finding, such as “find the key to unlock this door”. Some are 100% pattern-solving, such as the Tower of Hanoi. Many are a combination of the two - e.g. the player can play around with this pattern, but is missing a critical piece to finish it.

When designing the pattern, make sure that the pattern is clear and makes sense once all of the pieces are known. If the designer presents a pattern or set of rules to the player for a puzzle, it’s a promise that those rules will be followed. A good puzzle design will let the player make certain assumptions and have a way to test those assumptions. The solution should require some kind of non-obvious, lateral thinking that still satisfies the rules that the designer has set. If the solution breaks the rules or pattern, it will be extremely frustrating to the player.

A good designer will also use multiple solutions to the same puzzle judiciously. Under such circumstances, it’s important to communicate to the player that there are more than one solution and which solution each clue belongs to. Otherwise, the puzzle can cause frustration by making players think that they are missing something when they aren’t, like the nagging feeling one gets when there are leftover parts when building something. One good strategy in puzzle design, in my experience, is to provide a secondary optional bonus puzzle that uses the same rules as the puzzle on the critical path, but provides some additional content or reward to the player for completing it. 

Remember the fundamentals of puzzle design when constructing them. They might seem obvious, but it can be extremely easy to skimp or skip in the creation of one or more of those basic elements. It’s important to get playtesters who aren’t familiar with the puzzle to test it, especially noting any frustration points. Show the player the way first, point out the necessary elements to complete it, and then let the player make those connections and solve it.

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