Missing Pieces: Teaching Puzzles what Board Games have Known for Years

This week’s guest post comes from the out-of-the-box brain of Rachel Happen, who sets out to show that puzzles have a lot to learn from the revolution the board game industry has and indeed is still undergoing; examining where puzzles go wrong and attempting to unlock their full potential. But that’s enough from me, here is Rachel to take you into the future of puzzling.

Hey there! I’m Rachel Happen, creator of Baffledazzle puzzles. Baffledazzle is available on Kickstarter through May 4th. If successful, I will use the campaign proceeds to buy a laser cutter and begin producing my puzzles! In this article, I’d like to explore how Baffledazzle brings something new to the puzzle landscape.

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Puzzles, what are you lacking?

All board gamers know about our white elephants: the few behemoth games that are overwhelmingly popular and simply not that good *cough* Monopoly, I’m looking at you. Well, puzzles have the same problem! Everyone can remember that monotonous puzzle of polar bears in the arctic they put together with Grandma or that devilish crossword that soured them on puzzles for good.

Puzzles haven’t yet been through the amazing groundswell that has brought us thousands of excellent new boardgames, many from independent, even first-time publishers. So I’m aiming to get that movement started! Puzzles have just as much to offer as board games; so much of their potential is yet to be explored.

If you think about what makes for a first-rate board game, you’ll see what puzzles are missing! Great board games have well-balanced mechanics, space for different player strategies, and replayability, all tied together with a compelling theme. Almost all puzzles are missing this final key ingredient!

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Game play is entertaining when everything in the game naturally follows from the theme: when you really feel like everyone is joining together to save the world from a raging pandemic, or you’re all shouting orders and adjusting different controls to defend your space ship. Even better if you can apply real concepts, like the way real farmers hedge against risks like drought, during a resource management game.

It’s that sense of immersion in a game that’s missing from puzzles. Crosswords often have a “theme” that connects the answer phrases, but it doesn’t shape the puzzle solving experience. What do “Famous Canadians” have to do with ponderously filling in crisscrossing words? What does an idyllic image of a starry sky have to do with slotting cardboard jigsaw pieces together? Puzzles are simply too focused on mechanics. There are many puzzles that are 100% mechanic, like Sudoku!

There’s a place for these puzzles but they shouldn’t be what the puzzling hobby is known for. Baffledazzle aims to change that! The theme of Baffledazzle puzzles is discovery and I’ve tried to incorporate the process of discovery into every step in the solving experience. So what does that look like?

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A good theme tells a story, a better theme lets you write it

To develop the theme, I laid out everything I knew about discovery and all of the forms of entertainment that incorporate that experience. I drew on everything from cornfield mazes (where the bigger picture isn’t obvious and you need excellent spatial awareness to find your way out) to mystery novels (where the cunning detective reveals some clues and conceals others, inviting you to solve bits of the mystery yourself along the way). I even drew on pop culture depictions of discovery, one of my favorites being Indiana Jones, the cunning archaeologist with a sharp mind who’s willing to get his hands dirty to protect historical artefacts and bring them to light!

One big, thematic decision I made was to craft puzzles that led to “real things.” So unlike the fictitious mystery novel, my puzzles lead to real people, real places, and real stories from history. This is allows me to open the doors to the puzzle and invite you and all your friends and the internet inside. Googling is welcomed and there is no such thing as cheating! There is simply no wrong way to solve these puzzles.

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I did this because search is at the very heart of discovery. How do you discover something new if you don’t look anywhere but your own mind? Similarly, it’s not really discovery if I lay out all the clues, taking you along for the ride like our mystery novel detective. I try to provide enough clues so that there several ways to connect them and arrive at the solution, but I space them out, like stepping stones in a river, so that you still have to make the leaps between each one. 

Why you have to get lost to find the solution

Part of the thrill of discovery is getting off course, mis-stepping, and splashing into the river. You have to climb back out, figure out where you went wrong, and find another way forward. Puzzles that are about “real things” make this possible! The book of history is much richer and deeper than any world I could create, so there are thousands and thousands of “decoy paths” that can divert you from the solution. This makes discovering the true answer that much sweeter!

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This is why I can’t include everything you need to solve the puzzle in the box! If part of the fun of discovery is making leaps, crossing perilous rope bridges, and getting a bit lost, then the only way to deliver that experience is to send solvers out into the world which is absolutely bursting with knowledge trap doors and history black holes.

I also see Baffledazzle as an opportunity to advocate for unbridled curiosity. Read a dozen Wikipedia pages in a row, opening 8 more for each one you close. Check out a book from the library that you can only understand a quarter of. Figure out why it's the Toronto Maple Leafs and not the Maple Leaves. Read a comic in another language by Google Translating every panel. Hack things together, take them apart. The reality of learning is that it is a fluid process that swings between question and answer. There is nothing more empowering than having a question and setting out to find the answer to it!

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of puzzles’ potential! I’d love to hear what you think about puzzles and how we can continue to improve them. Come connect with me on Twitter Tumblr  or Facebook  or check out my video puzzles on Youtube  If you’d like to check out the Baffledazzle puzzle series you see here, find me on Kickstarter! Thank you!

Can you solve the hidden puzzle in the article? Then contact Rachel and let her know, the first person to solve it will get a free set of four Code Breakers coasters!

Status: Unsolved