My, it has been a very long time since I have written a post here. The winter has been especially busy, with extra shifts, December events, and the inevitable family and friends taking time away from work. As such, this post has been much delayed. I believe I intended to write it sometime in November.
In my last post I discussed the importance of analogies in puzzle designs, at least within the context of Puzzle Pirates. This time I will attempt to wrestle with the more important side of design: the mechanics. The mechanics are everything when it comes to playing the game. The analogy may help set the tone, but the mechanics are how the player interacts and will ultimately determine if the puzzle is good in keeping the player interested over multiple sessions.
Because there are a number of different types of puzzles within the overall game, the mechanical decisions are going to differ. Ship puzzles have a different set of expectations and requirements than competitive puzzles which are likewise different from crafting puzzles.
For a number of reasons, there is a specific time limit expectation for a single game in a crafting puzzle. Ideally, this is somewhere between two five minutes, but is not firm. A player should be able to complete a puzzle in less or more time, if desired, but the average time should be in that range. The reasons for this are partially economic - the crafting sessions should retain approximate parity with time spent elsewhere in the game - and partially interest. If a session is too long, the player may feel like the game is not proceeding in a progressive direction. If it is too short, the player may feel rushed and unable to enjoy a more laid-back puzzle atmosphere.
However, somewhat critically, a player should be able to do it faster or slower. Consider Alchemistry, which has no specific time limit. When it first came out, I would literally spend an hour or more on a single board, studying it to get the perfect fills. From conversations with others at the time (in my player days), others were much the same. More recently, in my observation of the crafting bake-offs, I have noticed that players will be able to complete multiple puzzle boards in five minutes.
The second facet of design is the action limit. How many different things can a player do in the puzzle? In most cases, one or two distinct actions is usually sufficient. Three is also a possibility, but we do not currently have a crafting puzzle that does.
To see what I mean, look at each of the current crafting puzzles. Distilling has one major action to swap one piece with another, and one minor action to send up a row early. Alchemistry has two actions: rotate a piece and choose to fill. Shipwrightery likewise has two actions: swap two pieces and match a pattern. Blacksmithing actually only has one action: to pound on a piece.
The limit on actions is fairly critical because if you have too many, the player is likely to get confused or overwhelmed by the options. It creates a situation where the decision tree is likely to become too complex for the player to adequately plan ahead. If that happens, the outcome of the game begins to feel more luck-based than skill-based.
That is not to say that all crafting puzzles must have just one or two action choices. More are certainly possible, but the actions do need to be considered carefully within the game balance.
Third, the designer needs to consider the ability to forecast the effect of specific actions. When the player is presented a choice between one of two things can the player see what further choices she will have?
Note that the choice need not be between two different actions. It is not just "swap a piece" and "match a pattern" in Shipwrightery, but also a decision between which pieces to swap. As designed, what the player is looking for and forecasting is the order of matches to make in a row without swapping pieces. Part of the puzzle is fitting all the patterns into the available space.
This ability to forecast ties into the different actions a player may choose. As noted above, if there are too many choices, the player will have an increasingly difficult time attempting to see ahead in the puzzle. If there is no ability to see a series of moves ahead, the player cannot develop a strategy.
However, there is a flip-side. The player needs some ability to forecast, not a complete ability. Which brings us to the fourth point. There must be a degree of randomness in the puzzle.
This is necessary for a number of reasons. First, a bit of luck in a game keeps the outcome somewhat uncertain, which is helpful since all of our standings measure relative performance. Second, randomness encourages players to consider different strategies. One decision may work well in one situation but not in another. Third, randomness prevents perfect play. If there was one perfect way to play the puzzle, we would eventually see play for that puzzle stop when players had solved it. Worse, it would be ridiculously easy to program the strategy into a computer to play instead.
I remember discussion in the design of GCPP Knightfish, before it was chosen as Blacksmithing, there was a fair degree of concern that the design could be solved for perfect play. However, upon deeper consideration, the fact that the board is essentially three layers with only the topmost layer being known until a piece is struck mean that any strategy could not be perfect.