It's a "Advice from (and for) a Puzzle Snob" a talk by Ian Tullis, who writes Shinteki puzzles. This here is my notes. [My rambling asides are in italics] and I take some pretty egregious summarize|rephrase|totally-change-meaning liberties with other folks' words, too. Original videos and slides at this here link.
[I was pretty glad to see Ian on the agenda. I still use ideas from his 2010 talk. I catch myself referring to them when talking about puzzle design with first-time puzzlemakers. I catch myself talking about "wow" and "fun" with these kids writing puzzles for #terngame before I realize they didn't attend that talk. Maybe it should be assigned homework. Anyhow.]
- Ian doesn't claim to be a top solver or a top designer [hmm], but he will lay claim to title of top puzzle snob.
- You might be a puzzle snob if you've thought:
- Damn, looks like someone else already wrote a produce (PLU) code puzzle ten Mystery Hunts ago [Maybe your target audience never saw that puzzle. Or if they have, by now they must have built up some tolerance to repeats.]
- That was kinda fun, but it didn't represent a meaningful advance in the field of Mega Man puzzles. [Yeah, OK there was a while there when even non-snobs maybe got a little burned out on those.]
- This puzzle seems humanly possible to construct, so it's at best a 4 out of 5 [Yes some puzzles may leave you thunderstruck. Yes, they're cool. But always remember the fun and value it.]
- Yawn, another extended wank that uses all four codesheet codes "Oh, I wonder when semaphore's coming up" [Yeah, Morse is awesome, give the others a rest.]
- I bet I could do it with like EIGHT codesheet codes [Yay, sounds like #Octothorpean will stay relevant until these snobs can get themselves under control.]
- At a day of talks about puzzles, puzzle snobbery is fun.
But let's take a moment for talk snobbery, too:
fun at TED.
- And along the way, a disclaimer: Ian's using the "puzzle snob" schtick to make his talk amusing. He's not such a jerk in real life. [I immediately concoct and discard the idea of giving a talk as a puzzle hipster: insisting on hand-crafted bespoke puzzles using only materials produced within 50 miles.]
- The following items are in the "voice" of a puzzle snob They're jokingly provocative. Careful, they sound harsh out without that context.
- "If a spreadsheet like this gets made, your puzzle sucks"
(slide shows a spreadsheet where team gathered some data but couldn't figure out what to do with it: column headings show an increasing level of desperation.)
- There are a lot of things to try; nobody knows what to do.
- More columns as folks try more things. They get weirder. Eventually, it becomes a cesspool that nobody wants to talk about.
- Seven hours later, someone like Rich Bragg goes in and finds the one error that made the right approach look wrong [where, if the puzzle designer's intent had been clearer from the beginning, folks would have focused earlier]
- If you're a designer and your puzzle's mechanism isn't one of the first 10 things the playtesters tried, ask yourself "why not".
- "Just because a puzzle can be written doesn't mean it should be"
- You will brainstorm. As you get better at brainstorming, you will have more ideas. They're not all winners. As you get better at brainstorming, you also need to get better at culling. [That's a great thing about collaboration: early playtesters who can tell me which of my four prototypes were fun enough to turn into one fun puzzle.]
- If the topic is obscure, use a mainstream mechanism. Don't leave solvers in the dark, give 'em something to cling to.
- Make it funny; folks will forgive a lot if it's funny. [Rhymes can help, too. Dumb riddles become mystically cool if you turn them into poems]
- If the topic is obscure, maybe the puzzle can be educational—if the topic is obscure and interesting maybe solvers will be glad that they "had to" learn.
- Don't make me feel like a chump for actually solving
Solving puzzles by hand is fun. Pasting puzzles into automatic solving programs is not fun—but in a time-competitive event, teams "have to" use automatic solvers when they can. So don't present automatically-solvable puzzles.
- Is the message "THE ANSWER IS HORSE"? Try to avoid that. If teams had to struggle for every letter, maybe they'll resent the time they spent struggling for "THE ANSWER IS"
- In a Mystery Hunt-like situation, you'll be tempted to include janky puzzles because teams can still solve a round by getting enough other answers to solve the round's metapuzzle. But consider: the players who spent time on that janky puzzle
- Don't make me ask "why is this even in the puzzle?"
- Every unneeded thing: flavortext, decoration, "extra layer"…
if it doesn't fit, it's making your puzzle worse, not better.
- If you have a multi-layer puzzle and it's not clear how those layers fit together, maybe you should divvy them up into separate puzzles.
- …and after you do that, if one of those layers doesn't stand up on its own, maybe that's an idea you should cull
- Why is that "codesheet code" in your puzzle? If you use Morse code for your puzzle on Telegraph Avenue, that's cool. But that doesn't mean Morse code's a good fit for every puzzle. [Don't listen to Ian. Morse code is definitely a good fit for every puzzle. Yay, Morse.]
- I was writing up feedback on a Mystery Hunt puzzle one year: "There's kinda gratuitous use of Braille. What do you think this is, a West coast event?" (laughter, howls)
- You can have one Arepo per puzzle… but only one!
- There's a famous (in some circles) 2000-year-old palindromic
In Latin, the square even means stuff: the farmer Arepo works the fields. Except it uses "Arepo" as a name, and "Arepo" was never a name. It's OPERA backwards, and makes the palindromic word square work. Wow, what a reach.
- "'Arepo' is a hapax legomenon—that is, a word not found anywhere else in literature"–Mike Selinker, Puzzlecraft ["Let's keep it that way"–Ian Tullis, my paraphrase right here]
- It might be OK if your puzzle has some awkward thing in there to make the otherwise-elegant construction work. But if there are two such things, check yourself.
- There's a famous (in some circles) 2000-year-old palindromic word square
- Like, maybe to make your pangram work you end up needing DR JUKEBOX. DR JUKEBOX is a song sufficiently obscure that it occasionally falls out of Google, so your players will need help getting there.
- The following items are in the "voice" of the funloving puzzle community talking back to a puzzle snob. They're still jokingly provocative, though, caveat lector etc.
- Nobody will notice or care how constrained your puzzle is
- If you constrain yourself to some cool gimmick, but it's not obvious [perhaps because it has nothing to do with the puzzle's theme] folks won't notice.
- Worse, they might think you made awkward choices for no reason.
- E.g. remember that clown-juggling puzzle from Ghost Patrol? Several teams had a correct theory of how to solve it, but tossed it out because it was too constrained to possibly work. [oh yeah, I remember it now] But that was indeed how the puzzle worked. Ian designed that puzzle; Ian worries he might be overfond of designing with cool constraints.
- If people can't solve your puzzle, they won't like it!
- In Iron Puzzler, err on the side of ease. Because there folks will vote on how much they like your puzzle. [Thus, it's a good way to find out what puzzlers like most (vs. what they'll tolerate)]
- Folks like a challenge. But when put to a vote to choose a favorite challenge, they'll choose the one they overcame.
- Even if afterwards they say "oh, how elegant, we should have seen that." somehow that puzzle won't get picked as the favorite one of the day.
- Example: one year when Ian's team was running the MIT Mystery Hunt, he noticed quark flavor names had length 2,3,4,5,6,7. Wow, you have to make a puzzle if you see a fact like that. So made a puzzle from it. Nobody solved it, though. And so nobody got to "share the aha"
- Clock hands as semaphore was once fun for you too!
- Work with a team including non-snobs!
- Consider the following hypothetical dialog amongst Shinteki members
that seems to reference a Decathlon challenge in the San Jose rose
garden a short while back
Linda: Ian, youre puzzle's just five words on an index card—will that be fun?
Ian: But I have to impress Todd [Etter, one supposes] with my spareness! He's so dreamy!
Brent: All right guys, I got this—they have to eat a candy cigar to collect each word!
- [Whether or not you're a puzzle snob, you have some blind spots that other people can help you steer through.]
- Don't confuse "puzzle" with "types of puzzle you like"
- Your elegant puzzle isn't the be-all and end-all of whatever.
- Our puzzlehunt puzzles aren't the first thing that springs to mind when you say puzzle. Folks think of jigsaw, crossword, sudoku, jumble…
- Talk around the water cooler next week will be about a gadget or a location; not about your puzzle.
- Some solvers like looking up data and filling out a spreadsheet: there's that constant dopamine hit of progress as facts pass through your brain and you fill in spreadsheet cells.
- Solve outside your comfort zone. The first time
the Burninators, champion
Real Escape Game, they didn't win.
- It rankled! Many puzzles similar to West Coast puzzlehunt puzzles, some were different.
- Were the puzzles wrong?
- Well, no, just different.
- When you find things that don't match your narrow category, you can slouch around feeling butthurt; or you can learn from them.
Don't take puzzle snobs too seriously
Who cares what puzzle snobs think?
(Answer: Other puzzle snobs)
- Me: OK, suppose I've got a cool piece of wordplay but it makes a crappy puzzle. What do I do with it then?
- Ian: You put it in the 2009 Mystery Hunt and it goes
- ?Who?: You could put it in later rounds of the MIT Mystery Hunt.
- Ian: Yeah, but if you don't win the MIT Mystery Hunt, then you can't dump your wordplay there.
- Melinda: Work with a team. Maybe someone else can salvage it.
- Ian: Or even if they can't, just by telling them the idea, you can get it out of your system.
- ?Who?: You could put it in later rounds of the MIT Mystery Hunt.
- Brent (I think): How did you become a puzzle snob?
- Ian: In first grade, we had playtime: we could cut out
paper and make shapes; at the end there was a contest to pick the best.
- Though everybody knows how to fold a cross up into a cube, I'd figured out how to make a sort of diagonally-connected double-cube from a double-cross.
- I made a couple of them, when time was called.
- So I panicked and hastily crammed them together and taped them up
- Thus resulting in a pretty boring-looking square: elegant internally, but only with a lot of explaining
- Ian: Back on topic: I saw the puzzles for the 2004 Mystery Hunt and thought they were great. I tried to get folks who read my LiveJournal interested in puzzles, but it wasn't much of an outlet. Then we won a BANG, and folks have been subjected to my puzzles ever since.
- Thank you!