A dialog of thoughts and ideas about software, usability, and products, with random science and wacky ideas thrown in for good measure.


As a puzzle creator, I'm interested in what makes puzzles fun. Two things strike me as particularly important to a successful puzzle: The way that solved answers begin to reveal other answers, and the ability to solve a puzzle without resorting to guesses or brute force.

Crossword puzzles and Sudoku are two types of puzzles that demonstrate the progressive revelation of unknown answers - and these are two of the most popular puzzle formats around today! Every answer helps narrow down the choices for other answers, eventually leading you to a solution for the whole puzzle, followed by a feeling of puzzle-solving elation. There are other puzzle types that do not embody this principle, including word searches and anagram games; each answer is found independently of the others. When you're done with a game like this, there's less of a spark (that "puzzler's high") than in a game where the answers build off each other. There could just as well be 5, 10, or 20 more or fewer answers to the puzzle, and the puzzle wouldn't feel any different. In fact, a sufficiently large puzzle with many independent answers may start to feel boring pretty quickly.

Good puzzles also give the solver a starting point from which to begin finding answers. Maybe the starting point is some filled-in squares, a sample answer, answerable clues, or a limited number of starting positions. There are some puzzles, however, that lose a lot of points in the fun department by starting with too large of a space of possible answers. I have recently seen puzzles in which you have to spell a word, given the telephone keypad numbers that would be used to spell it if you were texting the word. For example, given 2 = ABC, 3 = DEF, etc., you need to find out what word can be spelled from "2478475223". Looks like "agr," "bir," "bip," and "chr" are all good starting points, but finding the right answer for the first couple of characters doesn't help reveal rest of the puzzle, aside from simply being the beginnings of words in the language (for example, solving 2 = 'a' doesn't mean the other 2's are also 'a'). Just because a puzzle reflects something people do today (texting, in this case) doesn't mean it's fun.
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