And now, the other side of the wall

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Last week I talked about some of the puzzle events I play in. I also help run them, which includes creating the puzzles. And boy oh boy, you can pick up some really strange skills and knowledge when writing puzzles.

Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve had lots of exposure to some very commonly used ciphers: Morse code, Braille, semaphore, ASCII encodings,  binary representations of numbers that correspond to letters of the alphabet. These turn up frequently in puzzles, although these days there’s been a trend to at least disguise that it’s an encoding-based puzzle. But after a time, you get to recognizing at least some of the most common letters; perhaps even being able to read them off without needing to look them up on your pocket geek card.

I’ve also had cause to look up more obscure knowledge. Do you know which words in the English language don’t use any vowel other than Y? I did at one time (at least, all the ones in my electronic dictionary.) What do the number ranges in the Dewey Decimal cataloging system mean? I needed to know that too for a puzzle I was creating a couple of years ago. Convert numbers from base-3 to base-10 without using a calculator? Yeah, I’ve got that.

While I’ve never quite gotten the hang of anagramming words in my head or deciphering cryptic crossword clues, I have picked up the habit that many authors have of seeing something unusual and thinking, there’s a puzzle in there somewhere. My personal favorite that I created using environmental data is from couple of years ago. One night I noticed that every other pillar in one of the Microsoft garages had both a row/column designator, and an arrow pointing north. I turned that into a real-life Choose Your Own Adventure game with a secret message embedded in the only successful path.

Sometimes, what we authors think is elegance falls flat with the solvers. [Note: One near-universal technique in writing puzzles is indexing, where you’re given a phrase and a number, and you take the letter from the sentence that corresponds to the number.] One year I designed a puzzle with a set of clues and answers, where the first hidden message came from indexing by the length of the answer into the clue, and then a second message came from indexing by the length of the clue into the answer. I thought it was brilliant. Everyone else… not so much. I still believe the design itself was elegant, and that the failure was just in my implementation. Well, we all have our little delusions.

It’s simultaneously much easier and much harder now that most solvers have smartphones – literally the entire internet in their pockets, as long as they stay within their carrier’s coverage area. It only takes a moment to look up the track listing for a collection of CDs, or the intersection of two particular interstate highways. I suspect that the greater availability of wireless connectivity is fostering an increase of puzzle styles that depend less on knowing (or hunting) trivia, and more on insight. To me, those are the ones that require more work to develop, but give the solver more satisfaction when they finish it.

As an author, you walk a narrow line in creating these puzzles. You want the insight to be just hidden enough so that the solvers feel smart in finding it, but not so obscure that they lose interest in looking for it. One philosophy I’ve heard is that there should be an inverse correlation between the amount of time needed to catch the insight and the amount of time required to do the rest of the puzzle. If it takes a long time to figure out what you need to do, then actually doing that work should go more quickly, and vice versa.

There are probably as many theories about how to create puzzles as there are puzzle authors. Everyone’s got a different feel for what’s “too hard” or “too easy,” and that line is also influenced by the size of the event you’re creating. For a weekend-long event, a 45-minute puzzle is considered quick. For a five-hour walking event, that same puzzle is one of the long ones. In the end, though, the best thing to hear from someone who’s solved your puzzle isn’t “That was easy!” or “Wow, that was really hard,” but rather, “That was fun.” It’s a battle of wits between author and solver; one that in the end, the author intends to lose.


Author: Jessica Wallace

I'm a wife, mother, and software engineer living near Seattle, Washington. I like doing competitive puzzle events like the MIT Mystery Hunt and The Game. I've recently started learning a bit about candymaking, much to the delight of my husband, friends, and co-workers.

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