The match-3 genre has its roots in early tile-matching games, the likes of Tetris and Dr. Mario. But it properly emerged in the 2000s, with Bejeweled and various bubble shooters. Since then, the genre has been on a steady rise. With the advent of mobile devices, it exploded and took over the world.
Everyone has heard of Candy Crush Saga—the match-3 game topping mobile and online charts since 2012. The game started the match-3 era on mobile and spawned countless clones. So much so that it caused developer King to attempt trademarking the word candy. Even a decade after its release, it still sits in yearly top ten lists of highest-grossing mobile games.
Sensor Tower Store Intelligence data shows that in 2021, eight mobile game titles exceeded $1 billion in global player spending. #PUBGMobile and #HonorofKings from @TencentGlobal were placed among the eight titles.
— Sensor Tower (@SensorTower) December 16, 2021
As other mobile genres gain popularity, match-3 games innovate to remain relevant. Though, actual gameplay evolution is slow. More often, it happens through the addition of meta-game layers. Many games incorporate elements from other genres (role-playing, base building, character collection, etc.), or social play. Gardenscapes, for example, focuses more on garden renovation and story than match-3 play. These meta-game layers provide more engagement (often through busy work), increasing player retention.
The most stable way of retaining players is pumping out fresh content. While new match-3 titles keep coming in, old fan-favorites grow. At the time of writing this, Candy Crush Saga sits at staggering 11285 levels. Every week, the game adds 45 new levels! Which it has been doing for the past 10 years. Other popular titles (Toon Blast, Gardenscapes, etc.) follow suit.
The hallmark of the best match-3 puzzle games lies in their simplicity. They are easy to play but challenging (or varied) enough not to bore the player. This accessibility, coupled with broad appeal and gratifying gameplay, attracts players of all demographics. Hardcore gamers and casuals, young and old alike.
Beneath the simplicity, these games hide surprising layers of complexity and variation. The gameplay is easy, repetitive, and gorgeous looking. It provides an almost meditative, stress-relieving state of play. While constant explosions of color give them a fireworks-enjoying quality. Even being stuck on a level for weeks (frequent among non-paying players) tends to feel enjoyable. Somewhat.
Match-3 games are very addictive. Effortless play and incentivized frequent interaction, ensure long-lasting habit loops through dopaminergic design. But more on that in another article.
Core game design elements of Match-3
Matching puzzle games are all about removing objects from the playing field (board). Removal or clearing happens through the process of matching. That is, by grouping three or more adjoining, same-color objects. The match groups get cleared when they fill the game’s matching criteria.
Match-3 consists of several subgenres. Each with its distinct rules on how matching and player input work. Despite differences in gameplay, most share several design elements.
Two prevalent subgenres are tile-swapping and match-2. Fairly similar to each-other, they both utilize a grid-based pattern and share a lot of gameplay ideas. The design elements defined in the following text will largely relate to those two subgenres. I’ll be using my match-2 game, Solomeow’s Magic Blast, to illustrate concepts.
These are the objects that get matched by the player. They drive gameplay and are often the only object type that can form match groups. Example: candies in Candy Crush Saga or pebbles in Solomeow’s Magic Blast.
Primaries come in several flavors/shapes/colors but otherwise share the same properties. They are the core objects players interact with.
Challengers stand in the way of victory, making the player’s life harder. They can’t be matched or directly interacted with. Each has unique properties and needs a specific approach to clear it. Some get cleared by matching adjacent primaries. Others by utilizing powerups and abilities. Others yet by more strategic play, as they can have health, phases or conditional rules.
Chocolate in Candy Crush is a notorious example. The player can break it with adjacent matching and powerups, but it grows back every move when not broken.
Challengers are the most abundant object type in grid-based match-3. Ongoing games rely on frequently adding new ones to maintain player engagement.
Powerups are rewards for clearing larger match groups. Their main purpose is fun and reward for clever play. Also, clearing various objects (especially challengers) and rearranging the board. Powerups are the fireworks aspect of a match-3 game. Fun and flashy with an element of subtle trepidation. Will they cause a favorable board arrangement?
Example: Special Candies in Candy Crush or Elementals in Solomeow’s Magic Blast. Powerups are often the only other object type (beside primaries) the player can directly interact with.
A lot of matching games share a similar powerup design. Bombs (area destruction) and color bombs (clearing same-color primaries) are standard. Row or column cleaners are also frequent in grid-based games.
Often, games allow combining powerups for more potent, flashier effects.
Primary objects are randomly generated. This can make the same level a cinch to beat or excruciatingly difficult, depending on how favorable RNGesus feels.
Random elements are well received in all match-3 subgenres except for bubble shooters. Since shooters rely on higher skill, players get easily frustrated when stuck on a level due to bad luck. Whereas in tile swapping, which scantly relies on skill, getting unlucky and stuck is accepted as a normal part of progression.
Moves or Time
The typical loss condition in levels is running out of allotted moves. Examples: Candy Crush Saga deducts a move for every player action.
Other games utilize time. Whether through actual timers or by some mechanism that forces the player to speed up. Bubble shooters, for example, often shrink the playing area as levels progress.
Victory conditions vary. In some games, the goal is to clear the whole level of all objects. Others have a set amount of specific objects that need to be collected.
In Candy Crush Saga, levels have a score requirement. The player must accumulate a requisite amount of points to win.
Solomeow’s Magic Blast requires collecting objects by bringing them down to the bottom row.
Aside ads, the most common monetization approach is selling boosters to players. These are cheat-like, optional items that make the levels a breeze to beat. Boosters range from granting extra moves to serving as powerful or precise types of powerups.
Boosters are notorious when they don’t feel optional.
Mobile games, in general, deliberately frustrate players with unreasonable challenges. The aim is to coax players into buying In-App Purchases to alleviate imposed frustration. Match-3 games act the same. Tiresome levels with not enough moves to beat them beg to be boosted.
Object Swapping (aka Tile Swapping)
Popularized by Bejeweled and Candy Crush Saga, object swapping is the prevalent genre. Other notable games include Cookie Jam, Gardenscapes, Royal Match, Fishdom, etc. Also, games that use a well-known brand to garner popularity, from Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells to Simon’s Cat: Crunch Time.
To form matches, the player must swap the positions of two adjoined primaries. A match forms when a group of 3 or more same-color primaries lines up. Match groups get cleared automatically. The objects will usually revert to their original positions if no match is formed.
Match groups of 4 or more grant a powerup, depending on the group’s formation. Different formations produce different powerups, irrespective of the group’s color.
Matching and powerup generation in Candy Crush Saga:
- Combining 4 candies in a line produces a striped candy that clears a row or a column—depending on whether the match-4 line was horizontal or vertical.
- Combining 5 candies in a line produces a color bomb—a powerup that destroys all candies of a select color.
- Combining 5 candies in an L or T formation produces a wrapped candy. This is a bomb-type powerup, which clears an area around it.
Powerups activate by swapping them with adjoining objects. The effect will vary depending on what they get swapped with. Swapping a color bomb with a primary determines which color it will destroy. While swapping two color bombs will combine them into a whole-board explosion.
Due to the automatic destruction of match groups, object swapping games tend to fall into loops of automated play. The player makes a match > it gets destroyed > new objects spawn and fall > another match forms > it gets destroyed > rinse and repeat.
Automated play can be annoying or desirable, depending on other design elements. It works in Candy Crush Saga due to higher score accumulation from chained matches.
The re-emergence of old color pop games, this subgenre is sometimes referred to as Collapse or Blast. Although the blast keyword is an ill fit, as it is often used among other match-3 subgenres. Well-known examples include Toon Blast, Toy Blast, Pet Rescue Saga, Angry Birds Blast, and Hay Day Pop.
Match groups form automatically but don’t get destroyed like in object swapping. The player can destroy any group of 2 or more matching primaries. Powerups are (usually) granted when a destroyed group has five or more objects. Larger groups give better powerups, and the group’s pattern does not matter.
Toon Blast design approach:
- A group of 5 blocks provides a random-direction rocket. It destroys either a row or a column.
- A group of 7 blocks provides a bomb (area clearing).
- A group of 9 blocks provides a disco ball (color bomb).
Powerups activate by tapping on them. Adjoining powerups form combination groups. Tapping on any combines all nearby powerups and produces a more powerful combo effect.
Often this is undesirable, as combinations require 2 powerups at most. Any surplus is wasted.
Solomeow’s Magic Blast design approach:
- Groups produce star clusters of 1-3 stars, depending on the size of the group. Adjoining clusters group together. Tapping collects the whole group and adds stars into the reserve.
- Stars serve to cast spells or to create powerups on the board.
- Powerups differ in effect depending on which primary color they were made from. They don’t combine. Instead, they generate chain explosions by activating each other.
Before Bejeweled and modern match-3 games, there were shooters. These can be further divided into bubble shooters and Puzz Loop clones. Pioneered by Puzzle Bobble in 1994, bubble shooters are the prevalent gameplay form that remains relatively unchanged. A notable exception is Puzz Loop, which flipped the bubble shooter formula on its head and spawned popular clones like Zuma.
Shooters rely on precision and timing more than other subgenres.
The player has to shoot bubbles (or spheres, balls) into an existing field of randomly arranged bubbles. All bubbles stick to each other, and when three or more of the same color touch—the group gets destroyed. The goal is to clear all the bubbles from a level. Skill shots are valued while misjudging an angle can severely impede progress.
Similar to Tetris, an element of time pressure is often present. Poor play fills levels with bubbles, shrinking the play area. Additionally, many shooters implement mechanics which provide further pressure.
The player shoots bubbles from the bottom of the screen into a large bubble field sticking to the ceiling. Bubbles can be launched upward at different angles or at sidewalls to have them bounce up, a la breakout.
Famous examples include Bubble Witch Saga, Angry Birds Pop, Bubble Mania, and Panda Pop.
In Puzz Loop, time pressure is more apparent. Balls roll around the screen on a given path. The player has to shoot into the traveling balls to clear them (by matching) before reaching the path’s end. If they reach the end, the game is over.
Popular clones include Zuma and Luxor. In contrast, games like Potpourri bring further innovations.
Chaining (or linking)
In chaining games, matches form by tracing a continuous polygonal chain across matching primaries. Diagonal matching is usually valid (whereas other grid-based subgenres accept only adjoined matching).
The chaining subgenre’s popularity is dwindling, but it was never a top design approach in the first place. Example games include Jelly Splash, Best Fiends, and Puzzle Craft.
Some innovative, match-3 games don’t have a precise subgenre fit. Traffic Puzzle, for example, doesn’t have swapping, chaining, or blasting. Instead, it lets players control where objects enter the board.
Rovio games, such as Sugar Blast, are experimenting with a freeform variation of match-2. There, instead of objects sitting on a grid, they fall freely. Groups form as usual (when primaries touch), but levels are irregular and objects spherical—which maximizes contact areas and simplifies physics.
Even though the old playstyles of Bejeweled, Candy Crush and co. are becoming stagnant. The luck infused, relaxed nature of the genre is hypnotic. Sedative even. This narcotic quality, coupled with straightforward game design (for developers) ensures match-3 is here to stay. With or without actual innovation or meta-game layers on top.