Consider the grid; despite being nothing more than a two-dimensional stack of squares, it is simple, elegant, and the perfect canvas for puzzles. There lies endless potential and depth in the different ways which objects upon a grid may move, touch, and relate to one another, a potential which video games, not to mention humanity itself, has not even begun to explore. Yet, in this eternal quest to uncover the hidden depths and meanings of the Cartesian coordinate plane, many timeless ideas and puzzle mechanics have arisen, putting our brains to the test finding many ways to make us think in two dimensions. Today, I'm counting down the top ten grid-based games that have broken down our brains into tiny blocks and rebuilt them into something new, something more intelligent.

Conditions for this list:
On this list, I'm focusing on the thinking games; they're all about visualizing and planning before you make your move. Reflex and timing should hold no bearing on the outcome of the game (unless, of course, playing competitively); like crossword puzzles in newspapers, these games let the player think for as long as they want before continuing. The following two types of games will not appear on this list:

- No "action-puzzle" games; that is, no games with falling blocks, moving walls, enemies to chase you, or intense time limits.
- No "board games"; that is, no games where you take turns with an opponent player.

If you don't know what Minesweeper is, you've likely never used a computer. While this simple game concept can be traced back to the 1960s and has been ported to run on every major operating system since, the game probably became popular due to the version which has come packaged with Microsoft Windows since version 3.1. Many people have fond memories of Minesweeper vying with Solitaire for the distinction of "worst time-wasting application ever"; sometimes the only way to be productive on your computer was to delete both shortcuts from your desktop.

How to Play:
A game of Minesweeper presents you with a grid of covered-up tiles, and hides some landmines upon random tiles. You may click any tile to uncover its contents, but if you click on a tile with a hidden landmine underneath, you lose the game. The tiles without mines are either blank, or contain a number from 1 to 8 which represents how many hidden mines are adjacent to that square. The object of the game is to use these numbers to locate all of the mines without actually uncovering a single one. To help keep track of mine locations, you may "flag" squares which you deem to have a mine under them, but the game will not tell you if you flag a safe square.

Analysis:
While Minesweeper is a free, favorite pastime to many computer users and a timeless classic, it is low on this list because it is lacking in depth. To play the game, you must learn to spot situations where a mine is for certain (Such as a "2" which is only touching two covered squares), mark them, then clear away any squares touching the numbers which refer to the mines you just marked. The situational puzzles are quite limited; once you learn the basic patterns of the game, you can almost always win if you can keep from making clumsy decisions. The hardest puzzles always came when you incorrectly marked a tile and had to figure out what you did wrong! A little bit of luck is sometimes required, too: rarely, the numbers will create "forks" so that it is impossible to logically determine which has a mine and which is clear, and you must guess. Most of the fun of Minesweeper comes from beating your times, as the game becomes much more intense as you force yourself to move and observe quickly. Of course, the scoreboards were always ruined by those stupid leaderboard hackers (yeah, you people using the "timer freeze" cheat or the "pixel at the corner of the screen" cheat. Yeah, I'm looking at you!)

Alas, there came a day when Minesweeper had to step aside and make room for a new generation of hopelessly addicting drugs disguised as video games.

The year is 2001. Enter Diamond Mine, a simple game about matching colored gemstones, and a remake of a 1994 DOS game called Shariki. Published as an online Flash game by relative newcomer PopCap Games (Now of Bookworm, Zuma, Plants vs. Zombies fame, and an all-around casual gaming overlord), the game exploded in popularity among procrastinators and time-wasters everywhere. After getting a name-change to Bejeweled, it spawned, not just an entire series with three main entries, a host of spin-offs, and an endless procession of clones and copycats, but an entire new culture of "casual gaming" in a way the world had never known before. Bejeweled is arguably the reason people play games on iThings today.

How to Play:
Though there are many variations, the basic game remains consistent. You are presented with a screen full of colored jewels. You play by finding jewels that can switch places with adjacent jewels to create 3 in a row of the same color, horizontally or vertically. Only moves which create these matches are valid. Any matched jewels will disappear and score points, and jewels from above will fall into the empty spaces they've left, setting off chains if they create new matches. Additional new jewels will fall from the top of the screen so that the entire screen always remains full. The game ends when you cannot make a match. Since score is the name of the game, it is ideal to set up combos and chains, and to use to your advantage whatever gimmicks or powerups the version of the game affords you.

Analysis:
While Bejeweled retains the same obsessive-compulsive quality which Minesweeper plagued the world with, it is a bit more strategically interesting. Chains are important, but your options for moves are always very limited to the possible matches on the board, and so it is difficult and sometimes impossible to queue up these chains. However, the strategy is still very much there, if not a bit luck-based. It lies in knowing which matches to withhold if you are trying for something bigger than a mere match of 3, and in spotting the matches most likely to help particular jewels fall into place. Sometimes it lies in knowing how to survive; although the entire board is filled, if the bottom of the screen is devoid of matches, you may have to focus on "digging down" to regain lost space, as you would in a game of Columns. Then there are the powerups, which add some additional levels of thought to the gameplay; for example, the Hyper Cubes in Bejeweled 2 which appear when you match a row of 5 or more, and when used, eliminate all jewels of a certain color from the board. They can be used as safety nets when you can't find any matches, or they can be used to trigger huge cascades if you first line up other jewels on the board.

Strategy aside, it's also quite fun to play the game by just mindlessly matching jewels... and you can always count on the occasional mega-combo to just fall from the sky for no reason.

Bejeweled is just a solid, fun, classic, addicting game. Play with strategy, or just play mindlessly... it's all good. Plus, once those sound effects become engrained in your mind, they will never leave...

In 1995, Panel de Pon, known as Tetris Attack in the USA, began the long-running Puzzle League series. The gameplay is similar to Bejeweled in many ways, but is more action-oriented...

...What did you say? I'm putting an action game on this list when I said I wouldn't?

Well, let me explain. Tetris Attack, in addition to having a pretty fun action-based mode where you must match blocks before they hit the top of the screen, also had a "puzzle mode" which presented you with several setups of blocks and tasked you with clearing them all with limited moves. Those puzzles, and the puzzle modes of every game in this series, are what I am putting on this list. Of course, my favorite Puzzle League clone will always be a silly little app called Puzzle Frenzy for the TI-83+ Calculator, a suitable substitute for the Game Boy in the middle of those boring pre-algebra lectures in high school! Even on that monochrome screen, the game's 60 puzzles wracked my brain enough to leave a lasting impression on me.

How to Play:
In Tetris Attack puzzles, you are presented with a pile of blocks. You may swap any block with a horizontal neighbor, but not a vertical one. Unlike Bejeweled, you are not limited to moves which cause matches; in fact, you may perform any swap you want, even swapping a block with an empty space. However, your number of moves is limited, so you must choose your moves wisely. Blocks will disappear if three or more of the same kind line up in a row, and blocks fall down if blocks underneath them are eliminated or if you drop a block off of a tower. You win the level if you eliminate all of the blocks before your moves run out.

Analysis:
Tetris Attack puzzles appear easy at first, but you soon discover they have many evil tricks up their sleeves. For example, since matching three blocks will clear them, the puzzle designers will often give you four of a kind -- matching only three of them will botch the puzzle, so you have to figure out how to match them all at once lest you be stuck with the orphaned block at the end. Similarly, sometimes you are presented with five of a kind, and must line them up in such a way to form a "T" or an "L" -- that is, a simultaneous horizontal and vertical clear. Though the puzzles look so small and so simple, they can require an unexpected amount of thought, as your trials may branch out in many directions as you search for the solution, dropping blocks from the middle of towers and forming matches where you may not have been able to visualize them happening. Many had me resorting to trial-and-error, just hoping that if I randomly used some of my moves, the tower would fall in some way that would give me a hint to the proper solution.

All around, these are good, juicy puzzles for block puzzle fans. The action modes of these games are very fun, too, especially once you have mastered the puzzles and you can recognize all the subtle combo opportunities.

SameGame, originally conceived as a game called Chain Shot! and released onto Japanese computers in 1985, is another highly addicting grid-based puzzle style which made its way onto many platforms with many different variants. Like Bejeweled, it lures in the player with a perfectly simple and innovative set of rules, only to pummel them with an unexpected brand of strategy and difficulty that makes it hard to admit defeat and walk away. Compared to similarly-styled puzzles, SameGame is more of an obscure series, relying on freeware clones and rarely seeing a commercial release through the years, but a very definitive version of the game was released onto WiiWare in 2009 by Hudson Soft called Pop 'Em Drop 'Em SameGame. This version supports many different options and game modes for both single player and multiplayer, so I recommend checking it out of this concept sounds interesting to you. My personal experience with this series began back in 2002 when my dad bought a shiny new PDA and it came with a little title called PocketPop; I would spend hours trying to beat his scores, only to get peeved when the battery would run out...

How to Play:
You are presented with a very large grid full of colored bubbles (or other shapes). To make a move, you must click a bubble which touches at least one other bubble of the same color, and "pop" it, removing it from the board along with all same-colored bubbles clustered with it. These bubbles will disappear and score points, and the other bubbles fall to fill the gaps, falling leftward only if an entire column is left empty. The larger the cluster, the more points are awarded. The game is over when no matches remain on the board, or if the board is empty (although some popular variations will give you a new board if you successfully clear it). The game's difficulty can be increased by introducing more colors of bubbles, or by adjusting the algorithms which generate the grids to begin with smaller clusters of matching colors.

Analysis:
SameGame is, perhaps, the most deceptively simple puzzler I have ever played. The controls cannot possibly be more intuitive or inviting -- invoking the simple joy and addiction of playing with bubble wrap -- but mastering the art of these puzzles takes a very high level of focus, visualization, and planning. Nearly every setup is possible to clear completely; the problem is, the pivotal moves which determine your fate often lie at the very beginning of the puzzle, and as the playing board continues to shrink, it becomes clear how you screwed up, and you will be left with some, if not many, disjointed orphans at the end of the stage which cannot be cleared. And once you begin to master the particularly tricky skill of clearing entire boards, then comes the brain-breaking skill of scoring as high as possible. Setting up combos is a snap: just break down barriers between clusters of a certain color, so they connect and form larger clusters. Indeed, compared to the limitations and randomness of Bejeweled, SameGame gives the player a significant sense of freedom to creatively play. But the freedom is really a curse; the bigger combos you set up, the more you'll score, but the harder it will be to visualize how the bubbles will fall afterward, and the harder it will be to clear the board. Also, can you combo the bubbles you're popping to set up other combos, without breaking said combos?

Under the hood, SameGame is a nightmare of twisting branches of logic and a foreboding sense of fate, all in a cute little bubble-wrapped package. What's for a puzzle enthusiast not to love?

Cogs is beautiful indie creation based on one of the oldest grid-work puzzles in the book -- so old, in fact, it predates video games by about a century! I am, of course, referring to the "fifteen-tile" puzzle. Chances are, you've seen this puzzle's cameo appearance in Super Mario 64's Lethal Lava Land, or perhaps you were introduced to it by the final boss of the SNES game Mickey's Ultimate Challenge. Or, better yet, maybe you remember these puzzles from the cheapy plastic toys Santa used to put in your stocking. Many of us could never figure out how to work the darn things aside from pure luck, or maybe by popping out the sliding tiles and assembling them the easy way. Regardless of whether we liked it or not, the fifteen-tile puzzle is a timeless classic. Cogs, released in 2009 by the one-man "Lazy 8 Studios", takes the concept and runs with it. Or maybe I should say it takes the idea, gags it, ties it in chains, throws it in the back of a van, straps it to a firework, and launches it into the midnight sky. The game will leave you bedazzled with its shiny steampunk style, but the puzzles will leave you begging for mercy the entire way. It's a tough one.

How to Play:
You are presented with a small board of tiles... except that one tile is missing. You can re-arrange the tiles by continually sliding them into the one empty space. Doing so, you must accomplish a wide variety of different tasks; some of the tiles will have objects attached to them, such as gears or segments of pipe, and you must slide them around so as to power machines, fill balloons with steam, spin propellers, or even play musical melodies. Many levels have three-dimensional aspects to them, requiring you to solve different puzzles on multiple sides of a machine, just to get the entire machine to run. For example, an early puzzle tasks you with solving four different puzzles, one on each side of a giant box, to turn a crank and make a Jack-in-the-box pop out.

Analysis:
Cogs puzzles take two steps to solve: figuring out what to do, and doing it. Players who try to be smartypants and skip the first step will find themselves cast into the many circles of Hades by a cold, heartless puzzle designer who always puts the required pieces as far away from where they belong as possible, so that you don't notice an extra piece is missing until you've labored for fifteen whole minutes almost getting the machine working only to cry crocodile tears when you realize you have to disassemble every last block you worked so hard to connect just to get that last piece in. Players who try to skip the second step (randomly moving pieces around because they don't understand the base mechanics of sliding block puzzles) will quickly find themselves tasked with complex scenarios that they will spend hours trying to piece together, only to accomplish nothing.

As noted, the solutions are wonderfully obfuscated by the starting layouts of the puzzles; it is not uncommon to find yourself completely overwhelmed at the visual complexity of a puzzle and floundering for ideas before experimenting with some possible layouts and piecing together the clues. For example, you can bet that the most obvious solution will never work because a piece is missing or a pipe is bent the wrong way, and so you must try to visualize other ways to make the pipes loop and wind around in order to get to the end without any steam leaks. Always count your pieces carefully. Another evil trick the puzzles will play is to make the blank tiles just as important as those with objects on them; leaving out a blank tile from the middle of your puzzle will mean that it is replaced with an important piece which you need, and so away goes all that hard work as you disassemble the puzzle and get that vital piece back out. Yet another downright evil tactic is to give you a separate puzzle on both sides of a board, so you solve one side, only to flip the board around and find the other side a complete disaster, and to realize that your half-victory means nothing. These puzzles do not solve themselves with a casual effort!

With persistence, you'll learn to manage all the different scenarios the game throws at you, and to pick up on the basic sliding tactics of the fifteen-tile puzzle. You'll find that getting a piece into a corner without disrupting any other tiles requires a very simple, repeatable maneuver involving a 3-by-2 (or 2-by-3) set. You'll find that any space at least two squares wide will allow you to freely transport any tiles back and forth through them. You'll soon find that puzzles which once felt so daunting and painful are now a snap to solve. And by the game's end, you, too, will feel like a hard-working, triumphant inventor.

Waiting for a port of Sudoku on this list? Too bad, you're not getting one. Instead, you're getting Everyday Genius: SquareLogic, a game which presents a staggering number of interpretations, both reused and original, upon the base Sudoku concept. Published by MumboJumbo in 2009, the game is graphically very simple (It's not difficult to outshine the black-and-white newspaper-printed puzzles the game is based on). Its biggest feature is the inclusion of over twenty thousand unique puzzles. Twenty thousand. Sudoku enthusiasts, think about that for a minute... The puzzle compilations you buy in bookstores have, what, maybe 500 puzzles in them? And they cost $12 on average? Save some trees and buy SquareLogic for $10, and be entertained for years.

The game's staggering number of puzzles are all arranged into categories based on mechanic combinations and difficulty. It is interesting to note that these puzzles, despite being consistent across installations of the game, were randomly generated and tested by a solving bot. The puzzle generator was designed with the promise that, no matter how many strange twists and curve-balls it may throw at you, every single puzzle is guaranteed to be solvable without guessing. It did, however, produce a couple of duplicate puzzles, mostly on the smaller levels where many variations of design are not possible.

How to Play:
Sudoku is a logic game played on a 9-by-9 grid which is divided into 9 "cages" (each 3-by-3). The object of the game is to write a numeral from 1 to 9 in each square, such that every row, column, and cage only contains one of each digit. The puzzle designer (usually a computer program) creates the puzzle by printing digits in a few of the cells, and the player is tasked with determining all the others.

SquareLogic takes this idea a bit further. The "cages" are no longer perfect 3-by-3 squares, but might be any shape or size. Furthermore, the "cages" each have separate rules to them; for example, some tell you an amount which the contents of the cage add up to, others tell you that all the numbers in the cage are either even or odd, others tell you whether each square is greater than or less than an adjacent square, and yet others have no rules at all. The puzzle boards themselves vary in size, too; some are as small as 4-by-4, others as large as typical 9-by-9 Sudoku grids. The only rule which remains perfectly consistent is the rule which states digits are only allowed to appear once in each row and column.

Analysis:
Like Sudoku, playing SquareLogic is a long, nonlinear process of observation and elimination. To play, you must keep track of each cell's "candidates" ... that is, numbers which you have not yet proven to be impossible for the cell to contain. By eliminating every candidate from a cell but one, you can logically prove which number goes into the cell for certain, and each new revealed number allows you to eliminate more candidates from more cells, until all the numbers in the entire puzzle fall into place.

Unlike Sudoku, SquareLogic introduces -- *gasp* -- math problems. But not to worry: the game's cleverly-designed accessibility features remove all need for you to actually know any math! Hovering the mouse over any cage will display a list of all known possibilities for that cage, and even red-out the ones which you have determined to be impossible. Of course, if you want to go really hardcore, you can turn off these features, but good luck getting through all 20,000 puzzles doing it that way.

With the new element of simple arithmetic, the mechanics of SquareLogic combine to bring some surprising flavors of puzzles. Spotting hints to eliminate candidates without guessing is a tricky process, requiring you to exploit many of the properties of mathematics. I cannot even begin to list all the tips and tricks in a FAQ, much less a Top 10 list... they are insights which the players can only pick up on their own respective journeys through the game. And what a journey it is! Just completing a single location of a single world will take many lessons and realizations, not the least of which is the meaning of the word "Everyday" in the title.

Hey, a hexagonal grid is still a grid.

Bookworm is a variant of Bejeweled, both of which were developed by the previously-mentioned drug lords known as PopCap Games. In fact, the game can be summed up perfectly with three words: "Bejeweled meets Scrabble" (The game's original title was even Bespelled when it was released in 2003). The game has more of a cult following than mainstream fame, having seen only a handful of ports, one spinoff, and no sequels... but I would argue that Bookworm needs no sequels; its formula is about as perfect as formulas get.

How to Play:
You are presented with grid of tiles; each tile has a letter of the alphabet on it. The columns of tiles are staggered so the board forms a hexagonal grid rather than a typical square grid. You score points by finding letter tiles which connect together to form words. The longer the word, and the higher the value of the letters in the word (based on Scrabble scoring), the more points the word is worth. Spelling huge words will cause special tiles to appear on the board, which are worth many points when used in a word. Letters used to spell a word will disappear, causing above tiles to fall and new tiles to appear at the top of the screen. Occasionally, a "fiery" tile will appear at the top of the screen, which will destroy the tile underneath it every time you spell another word. You can eliminate a fiery tile by spelling a word with it. If a fiery tile reaches the bottom of the screen, the game is over.

Analysis:
At first glance, Bookworm may seem like a gimmicky time-waster, and it will continue to seem as such as long as you are content with spelling only 3-letter words (with the occasional 4-letter word thrown in), scrambling to survive as a half-dozen fire tiles rain down upon your library. But Bookworm is one book that cannot be judged by the cover; if you're digging for a deeper, more strategic puzzle experience, you will not be disappointed.

The game's true nature begins to show itself as you choose to aim for those really big words -- we're talking 8 letters or more. Not only will the huge words propel you through the ranks faster, they introduce many changes to the game mechanics. For one thing, fire tiles actually stop appearing so often if you avoid spelling 3-letter words, instead being replaced by score-boosting green tiles. For another, if you spell large words, you will begin to accumulate many golden, sapphire, and diamond tiles upon the board. These bonus tiles not only boost your score when you use them in words, but they double as a safety net if you keep them around; it takes the fire tiles several rounds to burn through each special tile, allowing you much more time to set up a way to put out the fire. The fire tiles themselves turn from hated nuisances to valuable tools; deployed strategically, they allow you to destroy unwanted tiles, burrow down through the library, and get letters to places you otherwise wouldn't have been able to reach! Once you have spelled something like "FELLOWSHIP" or UNREASONABLE" with five golden tiles and three diamond tiles, you will have attained Bookworm enlightenment.

But that's not all. While games like Bejeweled or SameGame reward careful planning and visual-spatial analysis, that alone won't impress Lex. To succeed at Bookworm, you need an expansive vocabulary, something which the game itself cannot give you. Once you go read some Shakespeare or Melville, learn a few hundred antiquated English words, you might find the game board bursting with new possibilities you never would have noticed before, letting you score higher and dodge your way out of trouble with greater ease. And because the human brain is constantly learning, forgetting, and remembering words all the time, Bookworm becomes a different experience every time you play it.

Picross puzzles, also known as "Nonogram" puzzles to the pencil-and-paper world, play like a cross between grid-logic puzzles and Sudoku. They may also be described as a kind of "reverse Minesweeper" where the goal is to uncover all of the special tiles while avoiding the empty tiles. Traditionally, the special tiles form a pixelated picture when the puzzle is solved. Although Nonograms have existed in newspapers and puzzle anthologies since 1987, they've seen limited exposure on video game platforms, with Japan hogging most of the releases. The first video game release was Mario's Picross for Game Boy in 1995. The game formula received an update in 2007 with the sublime Picross DS.

How to Play:
You are presented with an empty grid. A list of numbers is displayed outside each row and column of the grid. The numbers indicate how many "special tiles" exist in the respective row or column, and in what order. For example, a row marked with "5 3" indicates that there is a chain of 5 consecutive special tiles in the row, at least one empty tile, then a chain of 3 consecutive special tiles somewhere to the right of it. Your task is to use logical deduction to locate and fill all of the special tiles in the entire grid, filling in spaces which you know for sure to be special tiles, and placing Xs in those tiles which cannot be. The Picross series adds a time limit as a new game mechanic; attempting to fill incorrect tiles will result in an increasing number of minutes off the timer.

Analysis:
Picross is a game of observation, logical deduction, and occasional experimentation. The logic of the puzzles flow in an intriguing, nonlinear fashion; ruling out one tile and placing an X in it may cause a cascade of new revelations across the entire board. On the surface, the puzzles are doable with some simple deductions (such as determining that, if a sequence of 3 tiles must fit in a space 5 tiles wide, you may fill in the 3rd tile for certain), but the challenge lies in spotting these opportunities. In the harder puzzles, simple logic will fail sometimes, and only indirect reasoning can save the day. This involves arbitrarily filling in a square somewhere on the grid where it might be, attempting to solve the rest of the puzzle based on this assumption, and reverting all the experimentation if a contradiction is caused somewhere -- but hey, at least now you know that space is an "X". Picross DS makes this process much easier by introducing an overlay that can be toggled on and off to guess and check assumptions. And finally, while logical forks can rarely appear and introduce the need to guess, your guesses can be based on the design of the picture you are revealing. In all, Picross puzzles can be clever and deep; they take patience, perception, and a good helping of intelligence to solve.

Speaking of guessing, the original Mario's Picross had to make a compromise when it came to difficult puzzles; since the "Try It Out" overlay was not feasible to implement, the game instead included a time limit. The time limit was very generous -- that is, until you began making mistakes which took time off the clock. This changed the game a little, as it made guessing much, much easier than in the classic pencil-and-paper Nonograms -- as long as you could manage with the time penalties, the game allowed you a couple of freebies. Picross DS's time limit is one hour, which can easily shrink down to something like ten minutes if you like to make guesses. Picross DS also does not force you to stop playing when the timer runs out; you may continue playing and complete the puzzle if you'd like, allowing you to guess upon every single tile, memorize the final pattern, restart the puzzle, and beat it in twelve seconds. ...Except, this cunning strategy doesn't work well on the game's second mode, "Free mode". Free mode puzzles are more faithful to the spirit of Nonograms. There is no time limit, but you'll never know if you'll make a mistake until you get to the end of the puzzle and realize the "Clear!" screen isn't activating. The hardcore puzzle critics are now satisfied.

What happens when you take the esoteric programming language Befunge, stuff it inside a finite-state machine or two, and program it to do your science homework? You get SpaceChem, a hardcore puzzler which boldly goes where no game has gone before. Released in 2011 by engineering enthusiasts Zachtronics Industries, SpaceChem is a completely unexpected, deeply challenging, and deeply profound indie creation which easily vies for the distinction of best grid-based puzzler ever to be implemented as a video game.

How to Play:
You are presented with a grid, called a "reactor". Within the reactor, there are two objects called "waldos" which have the ability to pick up and move individual atoms. When you hit the "run" button, the waldos will automatically move in a straight line, and will perform any commands which they collide with. There are a number of different commands which will instruct the waldos to change direction, pick up or drop atoms, and much more. The object of the game is to summon atoms and molecules from the left side of the reactor, program the waldos to transform them into a different substance, and output the substance on the right side of the reactor. Converting the inputs to the outputs will require many complicated operations upon the atoms, such as bonding and unbonding molecules, rotation, arrangement, nuclear fusion, and sometimes even teleportation. To complete a stage, you must program your reactor to perform the same task a large number of times without any collisions or errors.

Analysis:
SpaceChem is profound because it has a real-world skill to teach you, and not just about chemistry. Though you might learn a thing or two about the periodic table and the reactants and products of certain chemical reactions, the game's sense of chemistry is mostly exaggerated, silly, and two-dimensional. But the core of SpaceChem is a powerful lesson in programming concepts, often without you even realizing it. It reveals the truth behind programming; that it's not necessary to shoehorn puzzles into a programming environment, because programming already is a puzzle in and of itself. Indeed, very little in the way of "puzzle design" actually went into SpaceChem, and there are no predetermined answers for you to find. The game's levels consist of "Turn X into Y", and present you with an empty grid for you to do it however you'd like.

But don't expect it to be easy! SpaceChem tasks can be likened to advanced calculus homework problems: just one problem can take the better part of a day to solve, taking pages of sketching and planning, and one logical fallacy in the system can invalidate hours of work and send you back to the drawing board. But as you find yourself erasing your work for the tenth time to start over, you might find that you're having an inexplicable type of fun, and that a triumphant euphoria will come over you as you finally design a system that works. Also like calculus, some people will run away screaming from the entire idea and never look back... but hey, wimps will be wimps.

With this sense of difficulty, SpaceChem drives its point home. The game is never content with consistency; it's always throwing new ideas at you, like random inputs, puzzles which require more than one reactor to solve, nuclear fusion, and much, much more. With each new puzzle, a sense of overwhelming dread will wash over you. "No!" you'll whisper to yourself. "No, I can't do this! It isn't possible for me! There's just no way!" ... but see, you can. You just don't know it yet! That's where programming concepts come in... learn to branch your commands so your waldos perform different operations on different substances. Use multiple reactors to break down complicated substances into simpler ones. Synch the movements of your waldos so they work together. Find patterns in the random data and normalize it. Optimize your reactors for speed so the substances don't back up in the pipes. Before you know it, you're dealing with issues that real-world programmers deal with everyday, but in a colorful, symbolic way that resembles a Sci-fi video game.

And maybe, as you find yourself programming a laser to shoot down the final boss, you might realize the true power of programming. By breaking down complex tasks into simpler ones, and with a heavy helping of critical analysis, programmers can accomplish anything. Anything.

If you follow Top 10 lists, you probably know by now that there are generally two types of games that wind up as the #1 pick: the "overexposed mainstream obvious choice", and the "obscure Japanese game with untranslated title". So, what better way to top off this list than with a game which simultaneously fits both bills? If you recognize the name "Sokoban", you know exactly why it's here at number one. But if you're one of the growing number of gamers who have never heard this name before... well, let me just say one thing about this game:

It invented crates.

Video game crates, that is. You know, those obligatory, easy-to-render cubical obstacles which appear in every game ever made? The things that are used as background props, staircases, cover for fire? Things that you sometimes need to push around and solve puzzles with? Yeah, you can blame it all on Sokoban, a rudimentary game released on Japanese computers in 1982. I don't think I even need to prove how influential this game has been on video game culture, as its ideas can be clearly seen in video games all across the ages, and is the frequent subject of freeware remakes by budding programmers. The series has not seen many official, commercial releases, simply because the puzzle concept is so ubiquitous at this point that it's difficult for a single company to take credit or claim ownership for it.

How to Play:
Sokoban ("Warehouse Keeper" in English) presents you with a player character locked in an oddly-shaped warehouse. Crates are scattered around the room, as are special "destination" floor tiles. Your job is to control the character and push the crates onto the destinations. It's just that simple.

Analysis:
Although Sokoban is so simple in theory, the depth and complexity of the puzzles can be mind-blowing. On the surface, it becomes clear that you must take some precautions in solving the puzzles: since you can only push crates, never pull them, don't push crates into corners. Don't push them down hallways where they cannot be retrieved without pushing them into corners. Don't block off passageways so that you can't enter a room without pushing a block into a corner. As long as you keep all the crates "available" and navigate the warehouse carefully, victory is easy.

...Or is it?

In the more devious puzzles, order of operations come into play -- if you focus too much on getting the crates onto the destinations too quickly, you'll lose. The path to victory, especially if the level designer is skilled, often requires pushing crates into unintuitive positions so they will not obscure tasks of higher priority. For instance, sometimes a crate will begin right next to a destination, but the solution requires that it be placed on a completely different, far-away destination. Or worse, sometimes it will need to be pushed into a faraway "storage room" while the rest of the puzzle is solved, only to be pushed back at the very end of the task.

Sokoban puzzles, while simple-looking, are fuzzy, unclear, and consist of countless branching possibilities and decisions to make. These puzzles have been the subject of many logical and scientific studies, and many programs have been written in an attempt to solve the puzzles in the least steps possible. Countless spinoffs and interpretations have been created to explore the puzzle concept to its full potential, some involving puzzles with multiple characters, some implementing bombs to destroy walls, and others upon triangular or hexagonal grids. Sokoban, as a puzzle concept, still stands today as the most influential, elegant, and interesting, and potential-filled grid-based thinking game of all time.

Sometimes fun comes from blowing up zombies with rocket launchers. Other times... well, it can come from staring at a static block of grid cells for hours on end, doing nothing... nothing but thinking, contemplating solutions, looking for that tiny hint you must missing. Whatever you happen to be playing, remember: the game is not on the screen. The game is in your head.


List by Sytherantis (09/20/2011)

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