Today I’d like to talk a bit about elegance in puzzle design.  I touched briefly on the subject in my red herrings post, but I think there is a difference between an elegant puzzle and one that just doesn’t have any extraneous parts.

Alex Pearson provided a perfect definition for elegance in the comments of that red herring post:

Elegant (adj): Everything cluing and everything clued.

That means no extraneous parts, but also that all of the parts coordinate in a sensible and meaningful way.

I’m learning a lot about elegance as I design more puzzles.  I’m learning certain expectations that solvers have when decoding a puzzle.  For example, if I do a line connection-style puzzle, it’s best to have the answer pieces reveal in order somehow (either in the natural line of sight, or from the top line to the bottom line), not in a random order.  While I might see re-arranging the pieces into the correct order as another “step” of the puzzle, solvers need some sort of confirmation that they have made the right connections.

I’m also learning that the answer phrase itself can and should be elegant.  I think I’ve fallen into the habit of just using whatever answer I can easily get the puzzle to make, but there’s really nothing better than when the answer is a clever play-on-words relating to the theme of the puzzle.  At the very least, the answer should have something to do with the theme.  This is another way to help players feel more confident in their work.  When you solve an elegant puzzle, it should be 100% clear that you have solved it correctly.

Maybe elegant puzzles are the ones that make us frustrated and say “I should have figured that out!” when we can’t solve them.  The anime puzzle at this year’s MIT Mystery Hunt (You Should Be Listening) was a very elegant puzzle, I think.  All the data was important/helpful, there were a few extra clues meant to help you along, and the answer was clever, thematic, and tied back into a previous solving method.  Despite this, Mike and I weren’t able to solve it and only made progress through a sort of brute-force method since we hadn’t made sense of most of the important clues.  The frustrating part is that we had acknowledged most of the important clues (the title which we thought might refer to voice actors, the fact that there were always six characters, the Japanese / English format of the answers), but weren’t able to make the proper connections to the solving method.  Looking back, I wondered at first whether we had already lost trust in the designer and didn’t believe it would be an elegant puzzle.  But I remember us addressing each of those clues and saying “That has to be significant!”  We were right, we just failed to figure out any of that significance.  We should have figured that out!

I think I still have a lot to learn about elegance, as a designer and a player.  A recent playtest was especially inspiring, and I hope to design my own elegant, inspiring, satisfying puzzle soon.

5 comments on Elegance

    • clavicarius (author)

      Ha! Yes.. useless information definitely makes a puzzle more difficult, but not in a fun way.

  • Todd

    Another aspect of elegance is to go beyond the “everything cluing” step and try to achieve “everything cluing within the theme of the puzzle.” It’s often very hard to do, but basically it means if you’re striving for elegance and purity, try to avoid adding external data into a puzzle. So things like extraneous blanks, arrows, numbers, etc.

    All things being equal, a puzzle where nothing stands out as being added will seem more elegant and thematic. Example: You wrote a nice puzzle about Christmas gifts a while back:


    This is a tight puzzle, had no extraneous info, and was fun to solve. But one thing that is a bit out of context are the dots next to the gifts. To take the puzzle one step further, I would suggest trying to figure out a way to incorporate the indexing mechanism in a way that was thematic to the puzzle. So instead of dots, you could attach bows onto each gift and the number of segments of the bow could be the indexing.

    This accomplishes two things: a) it makes the puzzle seem even more real world, and b) it gives the solver another little aha when they realize that a “superfluous decoration” was actually important. Now there is a danger in doing this if it becomes so buried and hard to see that it’s much harder to solve, but in general trying to achieve theme cohesion is something good to aim for, I think.

    An offshoot of this involves matching puzzles, ones in which you have two sets of data and you have to match them and then extract somehow (your Christmas puzzle falls into this variety). Let’s say I have a set of images and a list of words and somehow you have to make a connection between the words and the images and then order them to get your answer. The easier thing to do is to slap a letter onto each image that spells out the answer when you match and reorder. As an upside for the constructor, this 100% unconstrains the puzzle–you could have any group of images you wanted and have any answer phrase. The two parts of the puzzle are completely unconnected. If you have to change an image… no problem. Your answer can remain unchanged. If you have to change the answer, no problem either.

    The harder, and more elegant thing to do, is to use the words of the actual images to somehow yield the answer. Often this is much more time-consuming, but in general, it’s effort that makes the puzzle more elegant and more appreciated by the solver. I often find that the bulk of a time working on a puzzle is taking it from 90% done to 100% done. Sometimes it means searching for hours for an answer that feels right. Other times, it’s trying to stay within the theme and constraints and not add any helper data. But in the long run, I feel like the effort will result in a more elegant final product.

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