(I might ask on meta for a new tag and term to describe these puzzles. "board game victory sequence puzzles" is unwieldy.)

I was thinking of making a Homeworlds puzzle, which would be analogous to chess mate puzzle, except that Homeworlds doesn't have checkmate, (but on the other hand a chess puzzle would be the same even without checkmate...)

I haven't ever made any kind of puzzle like this, the closest to it, being that one time I solved some chess puzzles.

so, my question is:

What tips are there for making chess problem-like puzzles (but generalised for analogous puzzles in all board games)?

I feel like I'm not actually very good at deep analysis in games like this so, it'd have to be a pretty short mate move sequence? Also I don't really have much idea, stemming from the lack of experience, of how to make such a puzzle be fun. are there tips on how to prevent cooking in these sorts of games? Are alternative moves by the other player an issue if they are both equally as good for them? is there a way to make sure I don't accidentally allow the opposition to eliminate the first player from being in too strong a position?

  • $\begingroup$ Would strategy be good enough for this purpose? $\endgroup$
    – boboquack
    Nov 16, 2017 at 0:59
  • $\begingroup$ @boboquack I don't think so. that has basically the same issues as just using the board game tag. anyway, I might ask the meta question actually on meta later $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2017 at 1:19

2 Answers 2


I'll try to list the essentials to consider. I used to moderate a go problems forum for several years, so most of this is based on go problems, but should be applicable to any strategy game puzzles, which is why the examples I used are mostly from chess problems. Yeah. Let's do this:

Rule 1: Always clearly state the desired objective.

"Mate in three" is very good. So is "White to play and win". "What is the best move in this situation" may work, but can be a bit tricky, since you have to justify why that move really was the best. If there's a hundred-years-old convention as to what is the default objective in that kind of problems, you might think of leaving the objective unstated. Even then, it's better to be explicit.

Rule 2: The opponent(s) must try to thwart the objective.

If the objective is "to play and win", the imaginary opponent should, of course, play the best possible moves, or possibly a tricky variation that the solver might get wrong. HOWEVER, if the objective is something unusual, like "white to capture a pawn", the opponent will do anything in her power to prevent that, including (but not limited to) trying to checkmate herself.

Rule 3: Anything that works is a solution.

If there are multiple ways to achieve the stated objective, every single one of those should be considered correct, even if there's a clear difference in effectiveness.

Rule 4: Have something to say.

A problem should exist for a reason. Just putting down a position from a game that you happened to win isn't a good way to create a problem. Some very good reasons are: "in this common position, you should know this exquisite technique", "Usually moves like this don't work, but look here" and "This position looks hopeless, but there's a way out", among others.

If there isn't an established collection of problems on the game you are.. problemizing, some very basic tactics and strategy problems will also be well received.

Rule 5: Avoid unnecessary clutter

Try to refine the problem, until only the essential bits remain (see Rule 4, above). There is no need to build a realistic full game position, if you only want to show a clever sequence of moves. Remove unnecessary pieces, clip off the unimportant parts of the board to show that there will be no moves there, remove uncertainties (e.g. say "opponent has no secret cards", if that would be a possibility), and all in all, try to find the crispest possible way of saying what you wanted to say.

Rule 6: Failures are also interesting

While it is definitely rewarding to find glorious victory in a problem, it's also thrilling to get totally skewered by an unexpectedly clever response.

When designing a puzzle, it's very important to examine all the possible moves in the variation trees, since a puzzle with a mistake as a solution is worse than no puzzle at all. From this process, you get the interesting failure paths as a by-product.

Rule 7: The problems are for the solvers

The reason people solve problems and puzzles of various kinds is that they want to become better persons by training their brain. That, and the smug feeling you get from correctly solving a problem. Try to cultivate those feelings. For beginner's mistakes, offer a refutation teaching the basics. For higher lever mistakes, try to offer the refutation at the level that was required to even reach that mistake. For the correct solution, offer adequate praise. Never ever insult the solver for making a mistake.

In addition to these, there are some conventions that will, in general, make any puzzle better, but are not strictly necessary:

  • Have a unique solution
  • Have a starting position that could, at least in theory, occur in a real game
  • Avoid tell-tales (eg. pieces in unnatural-looking places that give away that some action must happen near there)
  • Have at least some plausible error paths (if all the other moves are obvious mistakes at the first glance, finding the solution isn't much of a challenge)
  • Avoid duplicate problems
  • ..and probably many others that didn't pop into mind just now.

All of these are essentially corollaries to the great law of puzzle design: Make your puzzles fun and rewarding to solve.

Yeah, that should just about do it. Best of luck!

  • $\begingroup$ Elaborating on the "Have a unique solution bit": if your puzzle happens to be beautifully symmetric, please don't try to artificially break the symmetry just for the sake of having a unique solution. I'm looking at you, Hanayama. $\endgroup$
    – Bass
    Nov 16, 2017 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ In the chess problem world, a problem is considered flawed if it has more solutions than specified. Usually, White is to achieve some goal against any Black defence. If Black can't restrict White to 1 winning option on each turn, then the problem is flawed. Chess problems can have beautiful symmetry, though, e.g. two Black responses to White's key move might entail different White mates which are related in some way. Mind you, in chess, there's little risk of accidental geometrical symmetry: left/right because there are 8 files and thus not a central file, and diagonal because of pawns. $\endgroup$
    – Rosie F
    Jan 18, 2019 at 9:18

@Bass gave an excellent set of answers. I wanted to add something from the chess puzzling world (not that I have the equivalent of @Bass's credentials, but I've done this for many years).

Firstly, with chess at least, there are many variations that are interesting and puzzles have evolved into something different from play.

For example, there are unusual chess puzzles, like the recent mate in one. But also retrograde analysis, cooperative play (where the opponent is trying to get mated), find the only move that does not mate, and so on.

But even within the standard "white to play and mate in $n$" puzzles they have diverged from the more general chess training "find the best move" puzzles.

In the former, it is often not a move you would play in real life or a situation that you would encounter:

  • The game is often clearly won already. The challenge is doing it within $n$ moves rather than $n+1$.In a game you would rarely go to such an effort.
  • There are usually no extra pieces. Every piece is there for a purpose. The puzzle will not work if any piece is removed.
  • The solution is usually unique. This means the first move is unique and the mate is reached in the required number of moves against any defense usually through a series of minor miracles.
  • The solution is not a "good move". It is well-known that master chess players only see good moves and they therefore often struggle to solve good puzzles. So the move does something weird and unexpected in some way.
  • Related to the above. It is very rare for the first move to be check (which in a game you often do just to simplify the calculations and maintain the initiative), often allowing the opponent to seemingly regain the initiative by checking you or taking your big piece or whatever.

With training puzzles (see chess.com daily puzzle or tactics trainer, which are mostly of this sort), the conventions are totally different.

  • There it is often a position from an actual game.
  • There is no limit on the number of moves.
  • You are usually looking for some clever trick, but one that often comes up in a real game, ie the standard tactics.
    • Here there are plenty of superfluous pieces, which serve as a red herring. Your goal is to see through the position and analyse it like a real game.
  • There may still be several moves that would be good enough to win, but one is clearly better.
  • There should still be a unique solution, in the sense that other good looking moves have an issue with some kind of clever defense.

Chess, like go, has a huge history, so these conventions have grown up. With other board games I would expect them to be more like the latter, game-like puzzle than the conventional puzzle which is evolving into it's own separate thing.

One thing, either way, is that most people nowadays use computer analysis to create these things. If not, you need to be incredibly systematic in your analysis of the position to ensure you've considered all your angles. The reason computers are helpful here is that you will need to tweak your position many times and each time will require another thorough analysis.


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