A good puzzle game is not just an addicting one: it has style, simplicity and a certain hook that turns it into the whole package. And these qualities also make them the perfect games to grace the pages of Itch.io, where all the quirky indie gems make their home. The selection is so good it was impossible to narrow this list down to 10 entries, so we went for the full 20.
Playing dozens of puzzle games in preparation for this article was more fun that it was illuminating, but it is remarkable how many puzzle games are basically lighter, reimagined versions of chess or checkers, relying on unique parameters and environmental obstacles to rewrite the rules. That being said, there are many other puzzle types represented in this list, and whether you’re playing in browser or downloading, looking for something free or have some money to burn, there should be something for you. Here are our favorites, in no particular order.
In this rotation puzzle game, you must clear the room of all its decor by lining up the silhouette of each item against an identically colored wall or object until it disappears. It sounds easy, but it’s not—there’s a certain sequence to making each item vanish, which is key to the completion of each level. For example, patterned items can change the color of a background, which affects what objects can disappear, and in what order. It’s basic and brilliant, both aesthetically and thematically, and still hard enough to ragequit within five levels. In other words, perfect.
I’m not going to spoil TEMPRES by telling you how to play it, but I will tell you the objective is to light up all the white bars on the screen. The rules of the game and the pattern to follow, well, that’s on you. Finding the solution is a riddle in and of itself, and solving it will bring about a new challenge as well. And that’s all I’m gonna say about that.
Many of the puzzle games on this list are your basic grid-based move puzzle—that is, a game where the objective is to move between two points, navigating obstacles and hazards along the way. And as far as those go, Streamline is a good one. In it, you navigate a single line to its end point by working around various blocks and barriers, each with their own set of rules that affect the line’s trajectory as it passes through. Once you get into the flow, it’s downright mesmerizing, and as the levels increase in difficulty, solving them makes you feel like a genius. Oh, and if you get through the whole thing, there’s even an infinite mode with procedurally generated levels so you can keep going forever.
Ok, Sokobond is just cool. It’s a puzzle game that is based on chemistry but requires absolutely no understanding of science at all. The goal is to strategically maneuver around the obstacles on the screen to link the atoms according to the number of available bonds. It sounds complicated but it’s really not—the number of available bonds is marked on each atom, and moving them around to create a chain within those parameters is easy to figure out, though a challenge to master. The potential number of connections is modeled after those of actual atoms and molecules, and each completed puzzle represents an existing chemical compound—which the game provides more information on once the puzzle is solved. It’s totally nerdy and obscenely enjoyable.
This music-based puzzle game, which reminds me somewhat of Wandersong, is only available as a demo. But nonetheless One Hand Clapping is worth highlighting. To play it, you’ll need a set of earphones, a microphone and a whole lot of lung capacity—puzzles are solved by the pitch of your hum or whistle, which is used to trigger certain environmental effects to progress the story forward. Now, personally, I suggest calibrating the game to your singing voice—while whistling a tune to raise a series of platforms, I ran out of breath. But in general this is such a beautiful and inventive game, with a palette and landscape that all but vibrates with color. I can’t wait to see what the full version will be like.
This game just makes me happy. In A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build, as the name suggests, is about building a snowman, but in order to do so, you have to approach it in a very specific way. Each snowman is made of three balls of snow, but building up each section will require rolling it through just the right amount of snow before throwing it on your base. And of course, there are trees and other obstacles to consider, so moving each ball of snow will require careful planning and consideration. Overall it’s wholesome, adorable, low-stakes fun.
This soothing, sudoku-like game isn’t particularly long or challenging, but consider it a warm-up for some of the other brain busters on this list. In rocks and ravens, a single diamond and a single rock must be placed in each column and row, but with the added rule that the diamond has to stay out of the corvids’ lines of sight. At the start of each level, some rocks and diamonds may be stuck in a permanent spot, introducing new parameters to work with to complete the puzzle. With an appealing sketchpad type art style, this is one game you’ll probably wish there was a lot more of.
Fragments of Euclid is a little different than the others on this list—its puzzles are environmental, not mechanical—but it’s a can’t-miss based on its atmosphere alone. As you progress through its many bizarre, black and white rooms, the challenge isn’t just figuring out what button to press or door to pass through, but also, how to even reach them amid the competing visual perspectives and gravity-defying features of your surroundings. The end result is very Portal meets M.C. Escher, which is fascinating if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to experience his illustrations in a 3D space.
This puzzle game is of the push variety; the general goal is to get an object from point A to point B by strategically moving around certain environmental obstacles. In the case of Generator you must get the battery to the generator, both avoiding pits and using the magnet, which can pull the battery across the floor, or be blocked or pushed to move it indirectly. It’s a short play but a fun one, and a good primer to get you in the mood for some of the more complicated tactical maneuvering games on this list.
Swim Out is a game that manages to make you feel both smart and cool, with an impossibly chic poolside aesthetic evoking an afternoon in a chaise lounge at some boutique hotel. Gameplay-wise, its puzzle is of the “for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction” variety: as your swimmer moves a space, other swimmers will move as well and take up a space as well, adding a certain trickiness to reaching the ladder at the end of the pool. As the levels progress, new types of swimmers with different move patterns are added to switch things up, while barriers and obstacles escalate from ropes and buoys to waves, jellyfish and more. Enjoy this one on a summer day, or when you just wish it was one.
Another move-based puzzle, in The Tail of the Serpent you play as the head of a snake, stringing together shapes and then strategically maneuvering them into the matching slots on the screen. Of course, there are rocks and oddly configured spaces to keep things interesting, and every single move poses the threat of failure, whether you’re maneuvering yourself into an immovable position, collecting shapes in the wrong sequence, or some combination of both. How the snake can move and what effect it will have on certain blocks can be a bit of a mystery, and you’ll need to really think outside the box to get some of the shapes on the rocky spot where they belong. See how far you can get through the game’s 25 levels.
Built in Pico 8, Pieces of Cake isn’t necessarily as sophisticated as some of the others on this list. And yet, it’s among the puzzle games I’ve revisited the post over the past few weeks. The game assigns you an ingredient of a random quantity, with the goal of creating the highest scoring pie you can. You have to carefully choose and place your ingredient tiles, stringing together combos by linking them with similar tiles or ingredients to build up multipliers. When tiles combine to stack their scores, they collapse on themselves, leaving the open spaces for tile placement unpredictable. The pie is “done” when you fill up all the tiles, and it only counts if you include the requested ingredient in the right amount. So far, my high score is 228 for a single pie, which is pretty good.
One thing I have learned about puzzle games: the simpler they are in premise and aesthetic, the more likely they are to be the hardest thing you’ve ever played. As one player of Constellations writes, “This game makes me seriously question if I’m worthy to have a brain in my skull.” I feel their pain. In Constellations, you are given a long piece of string on a series of different pegboards, with a “key” at the top of the screen giving clues as to how to segment that string across the pegs. Certain visual elements of the key hint as to where to wind or bend the line and how long each segment should be, and once the right pattern has been created, the puzzle is solved. I am so terrible at it and it is tremendously difficult. But nonetheless, this game is terrific.
Like Empty, Vignettes is a brightly colored, aesthetically minimalist game that uses perspective to present a puzzle. Players are given a common household object on the screen and must “discover” a new one by twisting and turning the image until it transforms and reveals a new item. The game requires a lot of exploratory critical thinking but the sense of discovery at “finding” something new is delightful. Some objects even have more than one potential solution, leading to branched paths that you can view in the menu so you know when to keep going.
Cosmic Express is a chipper little game where you’re both the train conductor and the engineer. The goal is to design a track that can pick up all the passengers and drop them off before reaching the station. The trick, however, is that you can only carry one passenger at a time, and there’s only so much space to run your track; curving and winding and bending to get the right order down can be harder than it initially appears. The game has a lot of additional charm in its presentation, particularly the pastel color palette and the cute compact biodome where it takes place. But even more satisfying is the sense of fulfilled duty as you figure out the route and get people to where they need to be.
In Seek Etyliv, the combat relies on how the player navigates across the board, making them “fight” enemies by figuring out the strategic move patterns that will leave them vulnerable to damage. Only once they’re asleep can you strike and defeat them. As you plan and execute your attack, other items like shields, bottomless pits, chests and swords will come into play, though how they’re used and by whom will change depending on the puzzle. With soft sepia tones, poetic excerpts and unpretentious pixel art setting a sentimental tone between levels, it’s a lovely little take on the dungeon crawler, as well as a unique one.
Like Sokobond, Mitoosis takes its creative cues from science and, as the name suggests, is based on the concept of cell division. The objective is to fill all the open space in each level with yellow or red cells, each of which can be multiplied with a sliding motion to occupy an empty spot. Rows made up of three cells will disappear instantly, which must both be worked around and used to your advantage. With a tutorial so smooth you barely notice it’s there, Mitoosis is smart, fun and uncomplicated, just about everything you want in a puzzle game.
This game is an absolute delight from concept to execution, especially if you’re a language nerd. In Sethian, you must use a rudimentary translation system to decipher the strange symbols of an alien language, conversing with a computer to get answers on the nature of its being. It’s such an interesting look at linguistic patterns and structure; trying to find the right glyphs and punctuation to communicate an idea based on what little you can glean from the dictionary creates a growing sense of panicked curiosity that is downright intriguing. I would love to see something like Sethian incorporated into a larger game. But for now, this version will do.
Everything about Lyne is immensely pleasing: the soft jeweled tones of its palette, the pan flute lilt of its soundtrack, even the smooth fluidity of its drag mechanic. It also exhibits an a wordless intuitiveness in its tutorial levels that is impressive as it is easy to understand. In Lyne, the goal is to fill the board by drawing a line from one goal, represented by a shape and color, to another, passing through each matching obstacle while never double crossing. As the levels progress, new shapes with new rules (such as an octagon that must be passed through at least twice) appear, gently increasing the variety and difficulty of the puzzles while retaining its low stress-free atmosphere. And not only are there hundreds of prebuilt puzzles to play, there are infinite procedurally generated ones as well, making it very easy to incorporate Lyne into your morning mental warm-up routine.
Baba Is You is a wonderful exercise in critical thinking and problem solving, where the objective is to break the rules in order to win. Each level has a certain set of parameters, ie “BABA IS YOU” “WALL IS STOP” or “KEY IS OPEN” but the catch is that these rules are written out as actual words that can physically move around on the screen and be rearranged to win. I truly love this game; there were certain puzzles that had such a surprising and delightful solution that I literally cried out loud. Of all the games on this list, Baba is You is my favorite.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.