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

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A couple of links...

... before I forget, and while I work on my next puzzle theory posting offline:

Turkzeka is a turkish site announced recently in the forums at the site. In addition to other puzzle items of note, the Turkzeka site has an archive of paint-by-numbers puzzles with more being added regularly.

A Russian couple recently unveiled what is believed to be the world's largest crossword puzzle, shattering the old record. More here (in Pravda, no less). (Via the Mac Cruciverbalist blog).

-- Craig
Spoilers Ahead