Tuesday, May 31, 2005

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".


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