The term “Match-3 game” gets tossed around a lot. When you hear it, you usually think of tile-swapping puzzle games, but I’ve seen it used to refer to a lot of other kinds of puzzle games. You could argue that they’re all basically the same genre, but I feel that’s a bit reductive. If first-person shooters and third-person shooters are considered separate subgenres, so too should these types of Match-3 games. For now, I’ll hit the three most popular subgenres:
Examples: Bejeweled, Candy Crush Saga, Cookie Jam, Candy Blast Mania
These games are characterized by selecting two adjacent tiles and swapping their positions. If three or more tiles of the same color are lined up orthogonally, then a match is created and the matched tiles are removed. If not, the tiles are immediately reverted to their previous positions. However, this is not always the case. Panel de Pon allows for tiles to be swapped without requiring a match, and the popular Puzzle & Dragons lets players touch a tile and slide it across the screen freely, functionally allowing for many swaps in a single swipe of a finger.
Examples: Dungeon Raid, Puzzle Craft, Candy Swipe, Paint Monsters, Fruit Splash Mania
Tile-tracing games are well-suited for touch devices. Tiles may touch in sets of three or more, but will not be removed without player action. To remove matching tiles in this genre, players must trace an uninterrupted line across tiles of the same color. Diagonals are usually accepted. Identifying matches in tile-tracing games is usually easier than in tile-swapping games, and setting up large future combos is emphasized.
Examples: Puzzle Bubble/Bust-A-Move, Bubble Witch Saga, Panda Pop, Bubble Mania
I hesitate to use the term “bubble” in a name meant to describe genre mechanics, but these games uniformly use bubbles, and I want these subgenre names to be intuitive.
Bubble-matching games have a large field of bubbles in the upper part of the screen, and a player-controlled bubble launcher at the bottom. Gravity plays a large role in this genre; bubbles will stick to the ceiling and to other bubbles. A bubble that is not being held up by another will fall and be scored. They may touch in sets of three or more, but will not be removed without player action. The player may launch bubbles upward at different angles in order to bounce them off the side of the screen to reach bubbles they may not otherwise be able to reach.
A unique feature to bubble matching games is that a player may misjudge an angle and launch a bubble to an unintended place, and this is an intended part of the challenge. A major aspect of bubble-matching level design is to create opportunities for large drops, areas where a player may knock out the support for a large block of bubbles and clear a large area of the screen at once. More than any of the other genres, bubble-matching games benefit from tall scrolling levels that a player cannot see all at once.
These are games that meet the “Match three similar tiles” criteria that people don’t usually refer to as “Match-3”. These include Dr. Mario, Zuma, and Money Idol Exchanger. I’ll figure out names for these and cover them in more detail at a future point in time, but I just wanted to bring these up now to illustrate that the term is very broad, and tile-matching games are more diverse than people give them credit for.