Xyzzy "Best Individual Puzzle" winners

Recommendations by Nusco (Bologna, Italy)

All the games that won the Best Individual Puzzle award, year by year. I'll avoid giveaway spoilers in my comments, but I'll still comment on the type and difficulty of the puzzle.

I'll describe the puzzles by my own categories. Categories are fuzzy, and a puzzle can belong to multiple categories.

In the typical manipulation puzzle, you usually experiment with the game's items until you get enough feedback from the game to finally nail the right sequence of actions. If you cut a tree with an axe, then use the wood to build a raft and sail to the pirates' island, that's a manipulation puzzle.

You solve a logic puzzle by thinking about it rather than by trial and error. Once you find the solution, you'll probably know it's going to work even before typing it in. The Enigma machine in Jigsaw is a logic puzzle.

A combination puzzle is IF's equivalent of a quasi-mathematical puzzle like Rubik's cube. To solve a combination puzzle, you usually experiment until you understand the logic behind the puzzle, and then you apply that logic to get to the right sequence of actions. Many puzzles that involve unknown machinery and devices work like this.

You solve a lateral thinking puzzle by thinking out of the box and doing something that might not come natural by reading the puzzle's description. Lateral thinking puzzles tend to surprise you with unexpected solutions.

A language puzzle requires you to play with words, or learn and apply an in-game language.

A worldview puzzle is based on your environment and the game's map. Mazes and other puzzles where you need to understand your environment are examples of worldview puzzles.

A multiplay puzzle requires multiple attempts to get right (they're usually combination puzzles), and failed attempts usually mean starting the game anew. You're expected to play the game again and again until you've pieced together a solution. "Eliminating your opponents" in Varicella is a good example.

An investigation puzzle involves a lot of observation and piecing information together to come to a final conclusion or twist in the story - for example, the identity of a killer or finding out the details of a backstory.

I didn't comment on all games, because I didn't play them all. I'll update this list as I play the games.

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1. The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M
by Michael D. Hilborn
Average member rating: (29 ratings)

Nusco says:

Winner in 2011 for "The hat mystery" (see below).

2. Last Day of Summer, by Doug Orleans (as Cameron Fox) (2011)
Average member rating: (19 ratings)
Nusco says:

Winner in 2011 for "The hat mystery" (see below).

3. Playing Games, by Kevin Jackson-Mead (2011)
Average member rating: (19 ratings)
Nusco says:

Winner in 2011 for "The hat mystery" (see below).

4. Cold Iron, by Andrew Plotkin (as Lyman Clive Charles) (2011)
Average member rating: (35 ratings)
Nusco says:

Winner in 2011 for "The hat mystery". The winning puzzle in 2011 was distributed across four games.

5. Aotearoa
by Matt Wigdahl
Average member rating: (61 ratings)

Nusco says:

Winner in 2010 for "Crossing the river".

6. Byzantine Perspective
by Lea Albaugh
Average member rating: (55 ratings)

Nusco says:

The winning game in 2009 consists entirely of a worldview puzzle where you have to understand your surroundings. It contains an ingenuous smaller logic puzzle, "finding out how the goggles work", that is embedded in the larger one, and that's the puzzle that won the award.

The game itself is a very nice diversion for a lunch break or two. Being centered on a single good puzzle, it's short but satisfying to solve. I suggest you play it without looking at the map feelie first, to get a bit of an extra challenge.

7. Violet
by Jeremy Freese
Average member rating: (374 ratings)

Nusco says:

Violet contains many quirky, multiple-steps manipulation puzzles where you try out many actions on many different items. The game has plenty of interesting responses to your experiments, wether or not they're successful. The strong narrative voice only makes things better: it guides you without being too obtrusive, and it offers gentle hints to prevent you from getting hopelessly stuck.

The puzzles are of generally high quality, just difficult enough to keep you going without being frustrating. The game was also a nominee for the "Best Puzzles" award. However, none of the puzzles really stands out on its own. Having to pick one, people awarded the "Best Individual Puzzle" 2008 to "Disconnecting the Internet/Getting rid of the key". This is probably one of the best puzzles in the game: like the others, it's consistent with the game's slightly twisted logic, and it will probably take you a few amusing failed attempts. However, the rest of the puzzles tend to be just as good, and Violet is strong enough that you shouldn't play it for this particular puzzle alone.

8. An Act of Murder
by Christopher Huang
Average member rating: (80 ratings)

Nusco says:

Winner in 2007 for "Identifying the killer".

9. Delightful Wallpaper
by Andrew Plotkin ('Edgar O. Weyrd')
Average member rating: (76 ratings)

Nusco says:

Winner in 2006 for "Navigating the mansion". The game is split in two parts, with one large puzzle for each part. The worldview/combination puzzle in the first part is the best of the two, and it requires some time and careful planning. This was the fourth time Andrew Plotkin won this award.

10. Beyond
by Roberto Grassi, Paolo Lucchesi, and Alessandro Peretti
Average member rating: (45 ratings)

Nusco says:

Beyond was an unusual, nearly-puzzleless winner in 2005. The winning puzzle was "Following the murderer", which is like saying: "the criminal investigation that spans almost the entire game". The puzzle is a long whodunit investigation that's not particularly challenging: you simply collect evidence and talk to NPCs to advance the story and ultimately identify the killer.

As a puzzle, I found "following the murderer" very linear, unchallenging and generally unremarkable. The game is also pretty heavy-handed in letting you know that you cannot exit an area because there is still evidence left to uncover, which adds to the railroaded feeling. In the end, most of the investigation boils down to an EXAMINE-fest and selecting every possible conversation menu item.

If anything, the "puzzle" is satisfying because it gives you plenty of opportunities to piece together the story and make your own hypotheses. The game has a very strong backstory that's involving enough to keep you going. If a "Best Individual Puzzle" is perplexing, Beyond definitely deserved its "Best Story" award.

(This is not a critique of Beyond as a game. The game was widely acclaimed, and it definitely deserves playing. If you expect a great puzzle, though, you may be disappointed.)

11. All Things Devours, by half sick of shadows (2004)
Average member rating: (90 ratings)
Nusco says:

Winner in 2004 for "The time travel puzzle" - which is like saying "the entire game". This is a very ingenious combination/multiplay puzzle based on time travel paradoxes that is ultimately very satisfying once you finally nail it. As an added bonus, it can be solved in two different ways, one of which is more difficult and brings the game to a better ending.

12. The Recruit
by Mike Sousa
Average member rating: (9 ratings)

Nusco says:

The 2003 winning game is basically a sequence of puzzles, some of which are better than others. "The purple room", not far from the beginning of the game, is a well-written lateral thinking puzzle that's almost a reflective joke on combination puzzles in general. It's also very well-written. I didn't find it especially compelling or satisfying, but it made me chuckle. Your experience solving it may be different.

On the whole, the game offers good puzzles in a variety of styles, so the winning puzzle fits with the general tone. The puzzles get better as you move through the rooms, so don't let the first couple of lackluster puzzles put you off.

13. Lock & Key
by Adam Cadre
Average member rating: (74 ratings)

Nusco says:

Winner in 2002 for "Setting the traps". Another game where the puzzle makes the game, and it's a very good combination/multiplay puzzle that will keep you busy for a short while. Bonus (useful) graphics, but it's the writing that really steals the show and makes this one-puzzle game so fun to solve. Highly recommended.

14. The Gostak
by Carl Muckenhoupt
Average member rating: (82 ratings)

Nusco says:

Winner in 2001 for "Deciphering the language".

15. Rematch, by Andrew D. Pontious (2000)
Average member rating: (87 ratings)
Nusco says:

Winner in 2000 for "The whole game".

16. Hunter, in Darkness, by Andrew Plotkin (1999)
Average member rating: (120 ratings)
Nusco says:

This short game packed more than its share of original puzzles, one of which ("The maze") won the award in 1999. Although it involves a maze, this is more a lateral thinking puzzle than a worldview puzzle. It took the bold move to revisit mazes, one of the most criticized devices in IFs. It can also be solved in two different ways, but you can't really pick one - the viable solution depends on a choice you made earlier in the game. Both solution are interesting enough to deserve an entire playthrough.

The winning puzzle itself feels a bit tired these days, but the game is still a must-play because of its original approach to puzzles, wonderful writing and systematic challenging of IF conventions.

17. Spider and Web
by Andrew Plotkin
Average member rating: (300 ratings)

Nusco says:

Winner in 1998 for "Getting out of the chair".

18. The Edifice
by Lucian P. Smith
Average member rating: (82 ratings)

Nusco says:

Winner in 1997 for "The language puzzle".

19. So Far, by Andrew Plotkin (1996)
Average member rating: (70 ratings)
Nusco says:

Winner in 1996 for "Opening the gate".

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