The wrong idea

The “Sudoku flood” in the German Puzzle Portal has been the subject of an interesting discussion lately. I am choosing this way to reiterate some of my views there and to add a few further thoughts. I feel the forum linked above is not a good place for this, although I cannot put my finger on the exact reasons. Also, I needed a topic for my next article on this blog.

No one has clearly defined the purposes of the Puzzle Portal. I guess it has just been self-evident that it is a platform to share puzzles with the community for which no other place (e.g. a contest) appears suitable. In a sense, that is still what we have here, except that the quantity of published puzzles (and the focus on Sudokus and Sudoku variants) has suddenly gone through the roof.

Given the recent numbers of puzzles published in the Portal, it has been suggested that some regulating measures are called for. Many people seem to be in agreement that something has to be done about it, they just do not know what exactly. I find this curious; it is not clear to me whether action is required at all or not, and answering this question must clearly come first, before any specific reactions are to be discussed.

In any case, it feels weird to argue on the means without specifying the ends. It is imperative to define what we want the Puzzle Portal to be like, and only then can we discuss how we get there. The alternative approach – simply declaring that we are unhappy with the current state of things and trying to get away from it without a clear objective – is not good enough. Otherwise we may have the same problem a year from now, and nothing will have been achieved.

One of the targets of the puzzle community Logic Masters is the popularization of logical puzzles; this is even in our statutes. Perhaps we have just considered this a convenient catchphrase. Perhaps we were anticipating to attract only a handful of new puzzle solvers (or thereabouts) each year. And perhaps we were expecting things to just go on like this forever. If so, we were apparently having the wrong idea.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not excluding myself from any of this. Until recently, it did not occur to me that at some point large numbers of puzzlers would stand before our doors, solving and creating Sudokus like hell, trying to be part of the community. Well, it is happening now. And it seems highly inappropriate to take any kind of action which suggests that we suddenly do not want this any more.

I do not think it is a good idea to implement restrictions on how many puzzles authors are allowed to publish. It could give new members the impression that their contributions are not wanted, and might ultimately put them off entirely – especially if other authors enjoy different privileges.

I am aware that there are some distinguished authors like Richard Stolk (whom I regard as a puzzle author of the highest level) whose products do not get the appreciation they used to get. Yes, I think this is regrettable. On the other hand, I feel that the puzzle community rests on an idea of equality, which means that a priori no author receives any favoritism.

A “compromise” that has been suggested is that authors should earn certain publishing privileges first, for example by solving a given number of puzzles. This may sound reasonable at first glance, but I am very skeptical. When requirements of this kind are implemented, people find ways to cirvumvent them (or otherwise defy their purpose). I could imagine people solving only very easy puzzles to get the necessary points, or even sharing solution codes somewhere, to pass such a hurdle with minimal effort.

This reminds me of some ideas to artificially change rating systems to get people to design better puzzles (whatever “better” means in this context). In my experience it will achieve little, except that the ratings themselves will become inconsistent and thus lose their meaning.

The point is, in order to achieve the desired changes, people must really want to make better puzzles. Likewise, they must want to meet the taste of the solvers, regarding both the puzzle styles and the number of puzzles they publish. I have doubts that any artificial constraints are going to work. Maybe at some point people will start limiting their puzzle publications of their own accords, because they realize sharing more puzzles does not serve their interests. Is this realistic?

In the past there used to be a “balance” between puzzle authors and solvers. It was not always fixed – there have been waves of certain puzzle styles before, puzzle series, mystery puzzles, whatever – they came and went, and things went back to normal after some time. Maybe the balance will return by itself. Any “urgent” measures will prevent the Puzzle Portal to find its own balance once more in due time.

It has been submitted that there has never been such a huge flood of puzzles of a particular type like the current one, and this is certainly a valid point (at least I do not recall anything like it). So one could argue that perhaps there will be no more balance unless we begin to direct the Portal accordingly.

One suggestion which I think is more to the point is about the restructuring of the Puzzle Portal, perhaps the introduction of a “Sudoku Portal”, to separate this current Sudoku flood from the “established” puzzle types. This will do, I guess – well, until there is a Kakuro flood or Tapa flood or whatever. But that is not likely to happen any time soon.

For the time being, having two platforms instead of one may work out. It should just be avoided to depict them in any way as “first class” and “second class” puzzles; any such tendency could have a disruptive effect. And I am disinclined to make it in any way harder to publish puzzles in the Portal in general. If we think we can steer people away from Sudokus and towards other puzzle types simply by restricting the publication of puzzles, we are deluding ourselves. It is once again the wrong idea.

Let me make my point in a very blunt way: I am selfish. When I am visiting the Portal as a solver, I want to find puzzles to my own liking, and at that moment I care very little about what puzzle styles other people like. When I contribute to the Portal as an author, I want people to solve my puzzles, not those of others. I think this is human nature.

In the context of the current Sudoku flood, I have seen people label some puzzles (well, essentially Sudokus) as “noise”. This is, it cannot be stressed enough, just a personal assessment. And having such a personal opinion is of course all right, as along as it is not automatically assumed that everyone shares the same opinion.

This flood of puzzles from new authors can be seen as a wave of popularity – something we have pretended to aspire for a long time. But we must respect where these new puzzle friends come from. Whether it is Cracking the Cryptic, some other puzzle website they stumbled upon or just some Sunday afternoon Sudoku magazine session: At present, that which we discard as noise may be all they have ever seen (puzzle-wise).

In the end, popularity in the puzzle community comes from two criteria: what people know, and what people like. At this point, most people only know Sudoku, and they have had little chance to “like” any other puzzle styles. This is where we must draw on our efforts – not by forcing people to do less in one direction and more in another, but by advertising what the world of logical puzzles has to offer and giving them the chance to like it.

The wave of new puzzle friends is an opportunity, but we must try to put ourselves in their position. They are new to most of this, and we must give them time to build up a sense for the broad spectrum of puzzle styles we are already familiar with. I do not think we can attract the Sudoku fans right away with a “Knapp Daneben Hashi with Krypto Summenbild clues” or anything of this kind. That is why I would like to repeat my appeal to create basic puzzles with clear rules, not stun them with overwhelming creations, and to make them easily accessible for newcomers.

3 replies on “The wrong idea”

It’s worth reflecting that this sudoku flood might dry up all by itself. I think this is the case as it seems clear to me that many of the puzzles are posted by authors with at least some hope of being noticed by cracking the cryptic and perhaps featuring in a video. This is not a criticism, simply an observation. If that’s the case, as soon as it becomes clear that cracking the cryptic are no longer looking at the puzzle portal as a good source for their puzzles, then it seems logical that there is less motivation to post puzzles.

From cracking the cryptic’s point of view, the main thing is to find a reliable flow of puzzles to feature for the remarkable number of videos they are currently producing. The puzzle portal clearly fits the bill very well, as not only is there more supply of puzzles than they will ever need, there is also an (admittedly flawed) rating system that nevertheless is reliable in producing little to no false positives. A high rated puzzle on the portal is almost certainly a very nice one.

Perhaps this is exploitative on the part of cracking the cryptic. Let’s be generous and say there is an interest in them solving each and every puzzle on the portal – this is still not really relevant because the practicalities of their work mean they end up skimming off the cream from the top and there are simply not enough hours in the day to worry about the rest of the puzzles. Which i suppose brings us to this discussion.

If the goal is to simultaneously maximise the number of great puzzles and the audience to appreciate them, then at some point an editorial process is needed and you lose some sense of equality.

If you want equality and great puzzles, then this seems most like the status quo, with the added inconvenience of working hard to find these puzzles and no guarantee that they will be appreciated by the large audience they deserve.

If you want equality and puzzles to be appreciated, then you probably need to apply some limits to what is published and then risk missing out on some great puzzles (and perhaps have to put up with some less great puzzles).

You might also look at things in terms of the similar but distinct desires of the consumers of the puzzle portal. This is effectively the Facebook/Youtube problem of having too much content to display to any one person at a time, and leads you down the path of needing an algorithm that recommends tailored content for each user. This leads to winners and losers amongst puzzle authors, perhaps decided arbitrarily to a limited extent, but also maybe to the users themselves, who might get caught up in feedback loops of what they like at a given point in time and what the algorithm then feeds back to them at the next point in time.

I am not sure I have fully reached a conclusion, but I am certainly sympathetic to the idea that we cause ourselves stress and confusion when we are faced with too much choice. I do wonder if we are all slowly relearning that not all editors are born equal, and that there is real value in having a good selection made from a wider choice of options. Of course I would say that, I also once said that if we compare puzzle ideas to flowers, then I am much more at home in a cultivated and familiar garden than I am out in the wild searching far and wide for brilliant new discoveries.

Thanks for your thoughts Tom.

Re. your first point; I think the attraction of the portal (beyond getting featured on CTC) is due to it being one of the only sites where you can publish any puzzle and get some solves/feedback, occasionally resulting in people effectively ‘dumping’ puzzles just to see what comments/ratings the puzzle gets. Certainly a lot of puzzles originally published on the discord server have also been uploaded to LMD.

Thank you, Tom. I think you are right about the different prioritizations would mean (what it would take to implement them, and what would be lost in return).

I can live with several options here, including the “some animals are more equal than others” approach, assuming that it is clarified first what the target is.

This is something that has annoyed me early in the discussion: Some large groups of puzzles have been labeled as “noise”, assuming that everyone would automatically share the poster’s taste for flowers, as you put it.

One consequence of the growth of our community is that we face more and more opinions, so that it gets harder to find a compromise in these matters. Ultimately, no matter how the Portal evolves, someone will be unhappy about it.

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