Puzzle Game Categorization, Definitions

Yesterday I thought up a new phrase to describe the kinds of puzzle games I’m referring to when I say “action puzzle games”: recursive puzzle games. Read on for a lengthy discussion about puzzle games, naming conventions, and board game inspirations.

Recursion isn’t a concept well known outside of computer programming, but essentially it means to apply the same logic to a problem repeatedly. I guess that’s not quite all the way right, because it’s not the same problem after you’ve applied the logic the first time.

This defines Tetris pretty well, (what I consider to be the quintessential action puzzle game), because you’re basically just trying to fit the piece along the bottom of the column in such a way that it doesn’t leave any gaps, and has potential to “break a row”. Then you get another piece, and solve the problem again, this time with the results of the last problem.

That “solving the problem” recursively is the action part of action puzzle games. It doesn’t necessarily matter how fast the action is (although many of these types of games speed up), but in say, Bejeweled, you don’t really “speed up” so much as just have a timer that counts down the time until game over. But you’re still solving a puzzle the whole time, and thinking ahead to the next puzzle you’re going to solve after this one.

There are a couple of other definitions of “puzzle game” that always frustrate me because they’re not recursive enough. For instance, games like Sokoban are also puzzle games, but the puzzle is set. You solve it once, and then you get another puzzle, possibly completely unrelated to the one you’ve just solved. These don’t interest me nearly as much as the games where the puzzle just keeps on going.

This segues nicely into why I think action or recursive puzzle games have a similar feel to abstract strategy board games than to anything else. In an abstract strategy game, like Chess or Go, you are basically doing all the same kinds of thinking you do in an action puzzle game. You’re thinking about the board and pieces, imagining what it might look like after you move, (and then your opponent moves,) and so on, until you think you see a way to end the game in a way that turns out favorably for you. Action puzzle games will often have a winning condition, but just as importantly they usually have much more easily attainable losing conditions, and the goal is less often achieving that “win” as it is optimizing your play so as to achieve the highest score before losing.

I wonder how many abstract strategy games also require you to keep score? Now that I think about it, I just played one for the first time the other day that I’ve had sitting on my shelf for a while, called Cabale. What attracted me to it initially is that it’s a pretty strict abstract game (no luck involved, everyone has the same chance of winning according to their skill) but it’s also up to four players. Of course, I’ve only had a chance to play it so far with two.

Anyway, I think Action Puzzle Games are really having a renaissance right now, what with the proliferation of a) web-based games, (usually in flash), and b) the iPhone/iPod Touch as a gaming platform. There are literally so many Action Puzzle Games for the iPhone that when I searched google just now for the definition of “action puzzle game”, I found a new one I hadn’t yet downloaded or heard about before.

I’m late to work now for having written this, but these concepts are really never far from the top of my mind lately, and when I did that google searching, I didn’t find anyone talking in any sort of abstract way about (ha!) about action puzzle games, or the definition of the phrase “action puzzle game”.

Note: This post was originally posted from my personal blog at http://livingtech.net/, but I feel this is a more appropriate venue, so I cross-posted it here.