Thursday, December 29, 2005

Plain Vanilla Link Post

A number of those who read this blog regularly - well, as regularly as it gets updated, anyway - are participants in the MIT Mystery Hunt, or at least follow it from afar (as I do). The link I'm about to post has nothing to do with the Mystery Hunt propery, but is worthy of note here for the torturous trivia/puzzle contests often posted there. If you're looking for challenging Google-proof trivia/puzzle hybrids for practice, there are a number of them here. It also has the only on-line forum I know of dedicated to GAMES magazine (and even then, mostly to its contests - what a competitive bunch!) If you're lucky (or perhaps, if you're not), I will hopefully post my personal assessment of the site's contests here at a later time.

At any rate, without further ado: The Ultimate Calculatrivia Discussion Place

Spoilers Ahead

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Two More New Puzzle Blogs

If your puzzle interests run towards the World Puzzle Championships, perhaps this blog is for you. There's actually been quite a lot posted there already in the week-or-so since it opened, and some of it is quite relevant with respect to the puzzles-as-game dynamic. (Thanks to Chris Dickson for starting the blog and posting about it here in the comments to a previous posting.)

On the other hand, if your tastes run to the NYTimes crossword, perhaps this blog is for you. It's a good way to keep up with what the fuss is about for various NYT puzzles if, like me, you're too busy to actually avail yourself of a subscription to the puzzles themselves.
Spoilers Ahead

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Deadly Puzzles of Death.

Most of my time right now is directed at the upcoming convention of the National Puzzlers' League, which will be in my hometown of Los Angeles. I've got a few puzzle commitments that I'm struggling to wrap up, along with my mundane life.

I intended to write a post about my favorite computer puzzle game of all time, Deadly Rooms of Death, but after putting it off for a while, Ed Pegg, Jr., has beaten me to it. The article, part of his always-interesting "Math Games" column at, says most of the things I wanted to say.

Read the article, and pretend I wrote something very similar.
Spoilers Ahead

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Post for WPC Qualifiying Test Comments

This post is being made primarily for discussing the puzzles on today's World Puzzle Championship qualifier. The WPC qualifying test is one of a select few venues where there are a significant number of new or seldom-seen puzzle types, ideas or twists are presented, and I plan to comment on at least a couple of them over the next day or two as I find the time.

As always, your comments are also welcome.
Spoilers Ahead

Monday, June 13, 2005

WPC qualifier this weekend + New Crossword Blog

For those of you who like logic/math/visual/other language-independent puzzles, this is a quick reminder to surf over to to sign up for the test that will be used to select members of the US and Canadian teams (among others) for the World Puzzle Championships this year in Hungary. If you want to be elgible for selection for one of these teams, you should sign up by June 16th, 2005; the test itself will be on Saturday June 18th.

I'm planning to post here post-test to discuss the test from a design and/or solving perspective, time permitting.

Also of note: a brand spankin' new crossword blog.
Spoilers Ahead

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

I can't resist posting this link...

... and if you follow the link, you'll see why. You'll need to scroll about halfway down, to the paragraph starting with "In 1983, between work on the two operas, Knussen composed Music for a Puppet Court", and the paragraphs immediately following it.
Spoilers Ahead

Puzzle piece in Slate

Slate has a new piece up about Sudoku (aka "Number Place") puzzles.

I was one of the people who responded to a message the author of this piece sent along to the cruciverb list, and some of what I wrote seems more generally applicable, especially to those individuals who (like me) have an interest in creating brand new puzzle types.


Here are my thoughts as to some reasons why sudoku is currently as popular as it is:

1) Sudoku provides mentally engaging activity without requiring excessive cleverness. Sudoku puzzles have a simple structure that is easy to explain and understand, and because the puzzle is structured to require deductive logic exclusively (or almost so), the technique for solving them is also easy to understand. Not only that, the deductive structure ensures that few mistakes (and no dead-ends) occur, and any mistakes that do occur are easily corrected.

2) Effort is rewarded.

Sudoku provides visible progress at a steady pace, and as more of the puzzle is completed, it becomes easier to solve.

3) Sudoku puzzles tend to vary significantly from one another.

While the same basic techniques are used to solve any puzzle, the sheer number of combinations for the puzzle - millions for each 3x3 area of the puzzle - generally guarantees that two arbitrary sudoku puzzles provide very different solving experiences.

Reason 1 + Reason 2 + Reason 3 = a puzzle that always provideds mental stimulation and a feeling of accomplishment. I get tired of solving these after the second or third puzzle, and move on to something else, but many people do not get tired of these puzzles, and this formula for consistent gratification keeps them interested in solving.


It turns out the author's experiences with these puzzles, as described in his article, seem to align fairly closely with my analysis. It's instructive, at the very least, that puzzle enjoyment for the non-puzzle-geek types is not tied into puzzles being difficult, but rather with the solving process itself. Kinda like all the cliches about "it's not the destination, it's the journey".
Spoilers Ahead

Monday, May 16, 2005

Harvard Puzzle Hunt

Last week a small group of students, inspired by the MIT Mystery Hunt, held the Harvard Puzzle Hunt. While the hunt only attracted a few teams (eight teams registered, four teams participated), the hunt itself was very well done, with some very well done puzzles.

Here is the URL for the Hunt: Click on Grey Labyrinth and use the username grey, password paladin to gain access.

Of special note are the puzzles American Idol, Majority Report, Daily Double and Mixed Reviews (all round two puzzles). The Remix is a standard idea for a puzzle, but earns points for using numerous ungoogleable clips.

Discussion of the puzzles, with heavy spoilers, are here:
Spoilers Ahead

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Google Pursuit

A former professor of mine points to a Slate article by Bryan Curtis from last week about the death of generalist trivia and rise of specialist trivia. I responded with a comment in the professor's blog, but thought this might be an appropriate topic for here, as well.

Since many puzzles are, at their root, trivia puzzles (crosswordese, after all, is largely words known and used for no other purpose than crosswords), I would say that both generalist and specialist trivia are still going strong. Generalist trivia can serve you well in crosswords and pub quizzes; specialist trivia can serve you well in pop culture puzzles and the like. But really, both will always serve you well. Any trivia game, but especially a team game, practically demands a group of capable generalists, each with a different specialization.

Another complaint the article makes is of Google as the death of trivia. Aside from the ridiculous notion that people would be playing Trivial Pursuit with their laptops open in front of them, any more than they'd play Scrabble with an anagram generator on hand, it ignores the notion that trivia writers are capable of adapting to the situation. The Mystery Hunt has had to adapt to the new situation and my comment in the above-linked blog points to some of the many ways it has done so. Similarly, trivia competitions like those at Williams have found ways to make trivia difficult and enjoyable, even with Google readily available.

If Trivial Pursuit is dying (a claim Curtis' own story belies with statements like "23 years after its American debut, the original edition still accounts for a huge percentage of Trivial Pursuit's 80 million units sold."), it is because it is 23 years old and not suited to today's audiences, not because the trivia game is dying.
Spoilers Ahead

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Logic Problem

I'll throw this out there as a general question, but how does one gauge the difficulty of a logic problem, and more importantly, how does one write a logic problem intentionally of a specific difficulty level?

I've faced these questions recently and in the past when attempting to write logic problems as part of larger extravaganza. Since most have time constraints, it's difficult to justify writing a logic puzzle that could take 3 hours, but I also don't want to come up with a super easy puzzle that can be finished in 15 minutes.

My own experience, both solving and constructing, has shown the following:
1) Number of data categories and values within the data categories. If you've got three men with three hats and three dogs, all of different types, you can create a very simple logic puzzle. Whereas eight space aliens from different planets who are all different colors carrying different cargo and flying to the same eight planets as before (just not their own) in a certain amount of time would require a lot more clues.
2) Number of data categories with unknown data points within the category. For example, in the previous space alien one, the times could be given as from 1 to 10 light years, in 0.5 increments. That gives 19 possible values, of which only 8 will be used.
3) Complexity of the first few break-ins. Knowing Tex owns the mastiff is an obviously easy clue. Using four different clues to establish that the alien who travelled the least is one of two, thereby eliminating one of two planets that could have been the least, is a pretty difficult piece of reasoning.
4) Sequential rankings. I find that if a puzzle uses clues that order data, not eliminate certain matchups, this can be especially difficult.

For my money, Official actually makes the best logic puzzles. Usually over 70, with the 5-star puzzles truly deserving of the ranking. The first 1/3 of the book is a great warm-up, while the later 3 and 4-star puzzles have challenges all there own. But I've easily spent a good two days on a 5-star from them before. Dell's not too bad, but the only reason to get Dell, IMHO, is to follow the continuing saga of Barnaby and Dorabella.
Spoilers Ahead

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Black and White's Anatomy.

The Kevin McCann's indispensable site has hosting a series called "Anatomy of a Crossword Construction." There are two entries so far, with promise of more to come. In the first, "Anatomy of a Record-Breaking 19-Black Square Puzzle," Manny Nosowsky talks about his record-breaking March 11 puzzle (available to subscribers). The second is "Anatomy of the 2005 ACPT Playoff Puzzle" by Byron Walden (available with all American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles at their website).

It's started a something of a trend, and readers of Eric Berlin's blog were able to badger him into writing an informal anatomy of yesterday's New York Sun puzzle, "The Edge of Reason."

(Puzzles require AcrossLite, and all Anatomies contain spoilers for their respective puzzles.)
Spoilers Ahead

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Possibilities Are Endless(?)

During the MIT Mystery Hunt this year, one aspect of one of the meta-puzzles by which our team was fascinated was the seeming straightjacket constructors would have had to create that meta-puzzle. (The orange puzzle used the words Adman, Rime, Pastries, Plague, Born, Maracas, Lama, Tunic, and Yale.) The solution is here.

What one notes about this particular meta is that there are very few options for each word. When it came time to try solving the related super-meta, which involved these nine words plus 13 others (which I won't list here), we constantly were stymied at how impossible it would be to create any sort of super-meta with such limited fodder. The actual solution however, showed the constructor had an amazing degree of flexibility, and not only had numerous possibilities for each of the 13 secondary puzzles, but could easily change one if necessary.

When developing a puzzle, it's always vital to determine how flexible your construction can be. A crossword with three stacks of three 15-letter entries is extremely difficult. And while it has been done, is it necessarily more fun to solve, or is it a puzzle where we simply admire the construction? A crossword with a loose construction, but fun clues and fun entries may not be as admirable, but is usually going to be more fun to solve.

I've been guilty in the past of trying to construct puzzles that have an overly tight restriction, and the resulting puzzle suffers. I recently constructed a puzzle involving song lyrics. To keep a running theme, I tried to select only songs that fell into a certain category. Yet what I found is that I had very few options for the songs, and the solvability suffers as a result. So I may go back and cast my net wider, sacrifing the limiting theme, and choose song lyrics which will work better in this format, without worrying about commonality.

Some people can pull it off of course, the cryptogram that encodes to related words, a crossword with only 19 black squares. But for the beginner, keep your possibilities open if you want to keep the puzzle fun.
Spoilers Ahead

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Link: Lessons learned from running a puzzle hunt

Eric Berlin has placed a report on his blog about his experiences running a puzzle hunt for high school students. It's an excellent read.

Spoilers Ahead

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

American Crossword Puzzle Tournament reportage, part one

The 2005 tournament page at the website has links to quite a few news stories, pictures, and the like regarding the 2005 tournament.

(I hope to collect a set of links to blog postings and other information sources about the tourney sometime this weekend, but this should do for a start.)
Spoilers Ahead

Click in the Mud.

I keep trying to write about Andrea Gilbert's Plank Puzzles, and I keep getting stuck. Particularly, I keep getting stuck trying to solve the fifteen puzzles of the SwampBeast. I believe I've been at this for about two years. Most of that time is spent with the memory of these puzzles blocked out. Then something happens, and I find them again and, oh, look at that, where did the last three hours go?

These and the other interactive puzzles at Clickmazes appeal to me because they encourage a more active approach to solving. Instead of having to try to figure out a path of logic in one's head or on paper, a solver can just try what he thinks might work and see what happens. He might be right, in which case, hooray. More likely, he'll encounter an unexpected result, either because of a rule he forgot or an opportunity he missed. Sometimes it's advantageous, sometimes it's not; but the chance to surprise one's self is always exciting.

There are other helpful functions. Occasionally, I find I've gotten myself into an advantageous position through no planning on my part. Being able to undo and see how I managed it is very helpful. In fact, because the applet saves the state of progress in the maze entirely, I've been able to save my progress, return months later, and replay my actions to see how I got there. Also, the fact that the program restricts impossible moves has kept me from finding false solutions in more than a few places.

All of this helps make progress on the puzzles. I may have spent months of my life working on fifteen puzzles, but when I started, I had none complete, and now I've solved all but two. Which is why I keep coming back. They're hard, but I know they'll be solvable. With just a few more hours . . .

(Andrea Gilbert's plank puzzles are available for purchase as River Crossing.)
Spoilers Ahead