Rob Streeting

Blog | About me | Curiosity | Game Jams


What can puzzle games learn from pen and paper?

March 2021

I've taken more of an interest recently in traditional pen and paper logic puzzles, and I think there are some interesting comparisons to be made with certain types of puzzle video games. The types of games I'm thinking about mainly here are games that usually take place on a grid or discrete space of some description and generally have only one, or at least a very limited set of possible solutions. Some examples include The Witness, Sokoban, Cosmic Express and more recently, A Monster's Expedition. I think these puzzle games are particularly interesting to think about in this context, because they look so similar to their pen-and-paper counterparts. However, what may be considered good design in one is considered the opposite for the other.

Bifurcation

Firstly, let's talk about bifurcation. The dictionary definition of the word 'bifurcate' is 'to split into two parts or branches', and in the context of puzzles it refers to splitting your solving path in to two. In real terms, imagine solving a sudoku puzzle. If you've ever attempted a Sudoku puzzle before, you will inevitably have come to a point at which you have two possible candidates for a particular square. You might be hopelessly stuck at this point, unable to progress anywhere else on the grid using your usual techniques, and therefore may be tempted to guess which digit goes into the square. This is particularly tempting because even if you guess wrong and find a contradiction in your grid later on, assuming you've made no mistakes you can erase everything you did back to when you made your guess and be certain that the square must contain the candidate you didn't originally pick. This kind of logical reasoning is bifurcation, because it involves branching your solving path off in one direction, then branching in the other direction if that direction doesn't work out.

If a pen-and-paper logic puzzle requires bifurcation, that's generally seen as bad (or at the very least, inelegant) puzzle design. Why is that? Perhaps it's because guessing feels a bit like cheating - you don't get quite the same buzz from solving a puzzle through bifurcation as you do through pure clever logical steps. It feels like the 'brute force' approach to solving a puzzle. Perhaps it's also down to the format; it's not very pleasant to have to erase progress on paper, even with the lightest pencil marking and the most effective eraser. You'd need some kind of notation to even remember what to erase, unless your memory is (a lot) better than mine.

Sokoban

Sokoban on mathsisfun.com https://www.mathsisfun.com/games/sokoban.html

Now let's consider Sokoban. Sokoban takes place on a grid, and the aim is to move all the crates in the grid onto designated goal spaces. You can move crates by moving your character into them, but they stop if they hit a wall and you can't move over or through blocks. Sokoban is really the archetypical puzzle game in this particular genre - games like Stephen's Sausage Roll, A Monster's Expedition, and Baba Is You all trace their lineage back to Sokoban. Even in games of entirely different genres, one of the most common types of puzzle that might appear, love it or hate it, is the prolific block puzzle.

Now, imagine trying to play Sokoban without bifurcation. With every single move you made, you'd need to logically prove that that's the only possibility, just like you have to logically prove that a number goes in a particular cell before writing it in to a Sudoku grid (remember, we're strictly not bifurcating here). This might start off easy enough, especially if you find your character in a narrow corridor where there is only one obvious move to progress. However, I wager that in some situations you aren't going to be able to progress at all without thinking out at least 3 or 4 moves ahead, and at that point you may as well just be trying the actual moves out, right? Especially if you have an undo function!

Taking Notes

Cosmic Express

There are a few things to note here that distinguish the pen-and-paper puzzle from the digital one. Firstly, a digital game can remember your solving path for you, so if you reach a contradiction you can just back up a few steps effortlessly until you reach the point at which you had to make a guess at what to do next. That means that the format argument against bifurcation earlier on is easily mitigated. Secondly, there's very rarely facility in digital games for making notes, and it's difficult to even think of a way to make notes that makes sense. Sokoban has an additional hidden dimension over Sudoku, even though it's a 2D game - time. Blocks move around the grid and the state changes, but a sudoku puzzle is static. It's difficult to reason several moves ahead because the state changes with each move, almost like a game of Chess but more predicable.

I suppose that a note I might want to take in Sokoban is something along the lines of 'if the player character is here, and a crate is here, then logically they have to move here'. Doing that would allow you to logically determine the necessary events out-of-order, and then piece them together into a set of logical steps that arrives at the solution. This is what the act of note-taking in pen-and-paper puzzles gives you - the ability to piece together a solution from several solved segments. I think this is most apparent in loop-style logic puzzles - puzzles that require the solver to draw a path through a grid that satisfies some amount of constraints. You don't solve these puzzles by drawing the entire path from start to finish - you place pieces of the loop and then join them together later. This sort of approach to solving would feel unusual in a video game with a time dimension, which the majority of puzzle games have.

Not all puzzle games have a time dimension, but often they don't have the facility to make notes anyway. Cosmic Express is a game about laying down track for a train that will only navigate the track when you're done, so in reality it's actually very close to a loop logic puzzle. However, while you can lay down disconnected track segments, you can't make any other notes on the grid, for example noting grid squares that cannot logically contain track. Even The Witness, a (nonetheless brilliant) game about solving grid puzzles by drawing lines through grids with various constraints that must be met, won't allow you to draw segments of the line and then join them up at the end - you have to draw the line all in one go. This encourages the player to either play with the grid, trying out several solutions until you find the one that works, or think out the entire solution in their head before transferring it to the grid. Interestingly, many players (including myself) transferred some of the puzzles to pen and paper and solved them there before going back to the game to enter the solution!

Games Are Supposed To Be Played With

Stephen's Sausage Roll

So far then, we've seen that bifurcation is often essential to solving puzzle games. In fact, it's actively encouraged by the lack of note-taking support, the inability to join together partial solutions, and the existence of undo/reset tools. So does this make them bad? In some ways. I can definitely remember several times feeling unsatisfied after finding a solution in a puzzle game because I felt like I stumbled across the answer without really understanding why it worked, and I believe that this is a consequence of the encouragement of solving by bifurcation. This happens even in other sorts of puzzle games - I'm sure anyone who's played a LucasArts adventure game will have been in a situation at some point where you have no idea what to do next, so you just try every object in your inventory on everything you can interact with. It's never a satisfying way to solve a puzzle, so why is it often actively encouraged?

I think the answer to this is that a game is simultaneously a puzzle and a toy. A toy is something that is fun to interact with, explore, and experiment with. While it is possible to derive joy from finding unexpected consequences of the starting puzzle rules if you're really clever, a toy can provide additional unexpected consequences of interaction that couldn't possibly be known from the outset. The moments that elevate a good puzzle game above everything else are the moments where you are playing around with it and then something unexpected and surprising happens. Stephen's Sausage Roll and A Monster's Expedition are filled with these moments, and that's for me what makes them a cut above the others. These moments are impossible without encouraging exploration and experimentation with the mechanics. Encouraging bifurcation is an unfortunate side effect of this, but not a reason to avoid it entirely.

The trick when building a puzzle game then is to provide the ability to experiment and play with the mechanics while trying its best not to lead the player towards a state where they are just exhaustively trying every possible set of moves until they reach a solution. I do think that allowing players better planning tools, maybe even the ability to work backwards from a goal state, could potentially give players more avenues to a solution before they are brute forcing the puzzle. Perhaps digital puzzle games should lean much more heavily towards being a toy than a logic puzzle; defining a goal state but allowing several different possible solutions. Games such as Infinifactory and Opus Magnum take this kind of approach, allowing much more freedom and creativity to the player than a traditional puzzle game by asking the player to engineer a solution rather than find a predetermined one. These games could be even better in my opinion by rewarding experimentation with more surprising consequences to actions, although perhaps they already do and I just didn't experiment enough!

Conclusion

The bottom line is, games have the advantage over pen-and-paper logic puzzles that they can also be a toy that rewards experimentation. Leaning into this is what makes them great, but if there is a small number of possible solutions then this can be a double-edged sword, leading players to solve puzzles using brute force. I think that sometimes perhaps we can draw from pen-and-paper puzzles to remedy this - providing tools for partial solving could be a good way to do so if it's possible for the particular game. On the other hand, making the game even more fun to experiment with by adding more surprising interactions or opening up the potential paths to a solution could counteract the frustration and tedium of brute forcing a solution when a player feels they have no other choice.


(Almost) All Games Can Benefit From a Role-Play Attitude

February 2019

From a young age, I always played as myself in any games (video games or board games) I played. I’d create a character that often looked nothing like me in some of them, only to then make all decisions as if it were me making them. Either that, or I’d be making the decision that I felt would put me in the best position for succeeding in the game. It’s not until relatively recently that I realised that I was missing a very enjoyable facet of most of these games, and in some cases more or less completely missing the point of the game.

I’m talking here about role-play. More specifically, putting yourself in the shoes of a fictional character and considering their motivations, flaws and experience in the decisions that you make, rather than considering your own. It means sometimes making bad decisions because that’s what your character would do in that situation (or even just because it might be funny or interesting), rather than what’s most likely to make you succeed.

I think that generally, games tend to fall roughly on a triangle, where the bottom of the diagram represents mechanics-focused games and the top represents story-focused games. The top is a spectrum between prescribed storytelling and more free-form role-play style storytelling. I’ve tried to make this diagram and position some games on it to try and demonstrate what I am talking about:

I think most games boil down to more or less the following categories:

  • Pure Mechanical (Blue): Pure mechanical or abstract games that forsake story for focus on mechanics.
  • Thinly Themed Mechanical (Yellow): There’s a loose theme to provide some context to your actions, but it isn’t the focus and generally won’t affect your decisions.
  • Strongly Themed Mechanical (Green): The main story is prescribed, but there is room for role play and more story-impacting decisions.
  • Structured Role-play (Purple): There is some loose structure to the story and some prompts or mechanics but the story is mostly down to you.
  • Structured Storytelling (Red): You make some decisions and have control, but this doesn’t really affect the overall story.

All this is really just context for what I want to say though, which is that I think that a lot of games can be improved by playing them with a more role-play type mindset. I think this is most powerful for the games in the “Strongly Themed” category above, since for these ones it’s easiest to fall into the trap of playing them as purely mechanical games and missing out on a whole avenue of enjoyment.

Benefits of Role-Play

The key point I think is that role-playing makes a game enjoyable regardless of whether you are winning or losing. If your character fails to accomplish something, rather than being frustrating it can be hilarious. While still getting to share in your character’s successes, you get to enjoy their failures as well. I think that the reason for this is that role-playing games seem more focused on the experience itself, rather than whether you are winning or losing. Both successes and failures are contributing to the experience and the story, whereas failures in an abstract game definitely don’t contribute to winning.

A consequence of both successes and failures being “successes” in the context of contributing to the experience means that you are granted freedom from having to take the optimal decisions. In fact, you can take bad decisions on purpose because it makes the story more interesting or just to see what will happen. You can play an evil character, or even a completely incompetent character even if you know they won’t win, just because it will be fun to see them interact with others and the game. It even means the game can be unbalanced or unfair and still fun.

Applying a Role-Play Mindset

So, when it comes to games that fall in that “Strongly Themed” category, we can benefit from these traits by simply approaching the game with a role-play mindset. A game like Betrayal on the House on the Hill can be totally unfair against one player in the group, but by treating it as a role-playing game rather than focusing entirely on the mechanics you can enjoy the story woven throughout the course of the game even if you aren’t winning. By approaching a cooperative game like Pandemic or Zombicide as a story-telling experience rather than a win-or-lose, it makes a loss feel less like a waste of time.

Even the games outside of that category can benefit somewhat from this mindset. Story-focused but less decision-oriented games like Tacoma or Hellblade mean that you have less control over the experience but it can still be a fun exercise to try and act as you would believe the character would. Even though these games limit decisions, there’s usually still some room to role-play on occasion.

Abstract games or thinly themed games have less enjoyment to be gained from the storytelling experience, but approaching them with more of an experimental/exploratory attitude than an attitude simply to win can still be liberating. Rather than stressing over making the optimal move at every stage, it can be fun (and educational) to experiment with the mechanics instead. In a game like Dominion, while there’s not much of a theme to latch on to there’s still plenty of room for experimentation and creative expression with strategy. Picking a crazy strategy and following it through can be fun even if it doesn’t work out. And of course, hilarious or impressive if it does work out.

(Almost)

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everything. I don’t think a game of Scrabble or Codenames would be much helped by taking a more experimental attitude. The game needs to have a complex enough system at it’s core that is fun to play with beyond the act of trying to win the game itself. Similarly, most party games or dexterity games (Jenga for instance) don’t really fall anywhere on the chart so wouldn’t benefit much from this mindset. Of course, something like Jenga doesn’t need much help making failures enjoyable!


Every Card a Mechanic

January 2019

Playing Tiny Epic Galaxies and The Bloody Inn with my usual board gaming group recently, along with our regular games like Dominion, it occurred to me that there is this specific mechanic in board/card games that leads to excessive “analysis paralysis”. Having a large deck of cards, all with unique abilities can add a lot of variety to repeat plays of a game, but it has the side effect of completely stalling the game while a player tries to 1) understand what the card does, 2) think of all the possible strategies that could incorporate that card and 3) what the consequences of that card existing in the game might be.

I feel like the intention with these types of games is for players not to try to always go for the optimum turn, but to try out cards that seem interesting or fun and sort of “feel” their way through the game. However, inevitably players spend a long time on their turn trying to optimize because ultimately they want to win. The fact that these games commonly have an estimated playtime of 30-60 mins on the box, but in reality seem to take at least twice that amount of time to play, is evidence that we are not playing these games as the designers intended or indeed play-tested, at least in my group. I’m sure we aren’t the only ones experiencing this.

So is there a way to keep the same level of variety and replay-ability without introducing analysis paralysis? The answer is yes, and there are two main board/card games I can think of that are able to achieve both of these goals in different ways, whether they intentionally tried to avoid this problem or not.

Dominion

Dominion is probably my favourite board or card game of all time, and a large part of that is because of the huge variety in cards and strategies that can be found in each game, especially including expansions. Some cards have fairly standard, easy to understand benefits, but a lot of the cards have a not-insignificant amount of text explaining what they do. However, nobody ever seems to be dithering over their turn for too long. There are a few reasons for this. First of all, while there is a very large variety of cards from game to game, you only ever need to worry about a small subset of them for one particular game. This reduces the choices available on each turn, hence reducing the necessary time you need to figure out what to do, while still providing great replay value. Secondly, as it’s a deck building game, you are going to be using the cards you choose over and over again, building familiarity with them over the course of the game. The only real choice you may need to ponder over in the game is what to buy to put in your deck, because generally a given hand of cards has a fairly obvious optimal order in which to play them before long.

King of Tokyo

For the dice game King of Tokyo, the core mechanics of the game are rolling the dice, deciding what to re-roll and then executing the actions you’ve ended up with in the best order you can see. Since the possible actions are few and the choices are simple, they don’t tend to take long, but since this is the same from game to game, this doesn’t offer much variety in game-play. King of Tokyo introduces variety by having three random cards available to buy at any one time, for which players must spend energy (collected by rolling a lightning bolt on the dice) to obtain. Some of these cards have fairly simple abilities, but others can be quite complex and require a few moments to understand. These cards don’t cause anybody to stall and think too long though because they are not a part of the “core” of the game – these cards tend to offer bonuses that complement an existing strategy rather than something you can base an entire strategy around. The fact that these cards can be cleared and randomized again by any player by paying a small amount of energy means that it would be too risky to base an entire strategy on buying a powerful but expensive card. Therefore, these cards are almost always “nice to have” rather than central to the game. While I don’t think that the variety offered is quite as satisfying as that offered by Dominion, (probably another side-effect of the fact that the cards do not have a deep impact on the game), it does undeniably result in shorter turns and hence shorter games.

Conclusion

I think that my main take-away from thinking about this is that generally games should aim for a large amount of potential variety between separate plays, but keep the amount of new concepts introduced within one play reduced to a minimum, or at least reduce the impact of those new concepts. The reason games like Tiny Epic Galaxies took us so long to finish is because new concepts are continuously being introduced over the course of the game, and all players must then incorporate those concepts into their strategies because these cards are core to the game. Either reducing the amount of new concepts introduced in a single game (Dominion) or reducing the impact of the new concepts to bonuses rather than central core mechanics of the game (King of Tokyo) seems to result in games with great variety but reduced analysis paralysis.

About me

Hi, I’m Rob Streeting and I’m a software developer based in London. I currently work for Factset as a software developer and I studied Computer Science at the University of Southampton for four years prior to that.

My greatest passion is programming. Aside from developing software at work, I love tinkering with code in my spare time. I recently released a game called Curiosity using the PICO-8 engine, which you can play by clicking the link in the menu bar.

My second biggest interest is game design and game development. I am fascinated by the work that goes into both the technology and the design behind games, from the implementation details of graphics engines to the subtle ways that games present the illusion of choice by subconsciously influencing your decisions. I spend a lot of my time reading articles and watching documentaries on this topic (and of course playing games!).

Curiosity

I developed this game between June 2018 and June 2020 in my spare time. My idea was to apply the recent trend for games with minimal hand-holding to a small self-contained puzzle game, where progress must be made by learning more about the rules of the world. People who liked the Cyan Myst games and The Witness might enjoy this.

Driving down the highway, long past midnight in the uncanny timeless hours of the morning, a peculiar landmark catches your eye. You park up and walk closer, ignoring the old decrepit signs telling you to stay away. You climb through a wire fence and walk inside a mysterious structure, only for the door to close unexpectedly behind you.

If you are to survive, you must escape this structure, but first you must understand it.

Use arrow keys to move. Up to jump.

Use Z to interact.

Keep pen and paper handy. Make sure sound is on.

Experiment.

Game Jams

I have entered several game jams over the past few years. Since I really like short experimental games, it follows that I love both developing and playing game jam games since they often meet both of these criteria. I think game jams are also a great way to practice project scoping, since they force you to be ruthless with what features you decide to include or exclude.

Below are links to some of my game jam games from previous years on itch.io.