Half a Life

Recently I have been moaning a lot about how puzzle creation has moved in a direction that I find, shall we say, unappealing. Today I will take a brief look back and describe how – in my perception – the scenery has changed over the years. Puzzle trends are evolving all the time, hence we can take for granted that I am not really covering a lot of ground here. I guess we should view this as just a short trip down on memory lane.

I joined the puzzle community in the early 2000s, probably inspired by Ulrich’s immediate success in the WPC 2000. The first time I took part in a WPC myself was in 2002, and to my own big surprise I came very close to winning. After that, I was away from the international stage for some time and resurfaced only in 2011. The years in between I was doing all sorts of puzzle stuff (among other things, I helped organize several national championships), but the time was not ripe for another WPC appearance, I guess.

In the 2000s – I do not know about the decade before – puzzles were not quite what they are now. For example, contests often included Observational Puzzles which I feel have no place in this setting. Also, there was no strict separation between Unique Puzzles and Optimization Puzzles, so the latter frequently found their way into championships and qualifiers.

Even if we restrict our views to what we call Logical Puzzles, the differences between then and now are still striking. There are a couple of puzzle styles which are very popular by now but had not been invented yet back then (Tapa and Masyu come to mind). On the other hand, some puzzle styles which enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the early days have become rare or even passed into oblivion. I seem to recall doing a lot of Radar puzzles and Lighthouses, various kinds of City Tours, and also more Arukone Puzzles than what is typical today. Every Second Turn was still considered an exciting Loop Puzzle style at the time.

The puzzles were different in other regards as well. For example, it was customary to provide full information for many puzzles which had clues outside the grid. In some cases (Magnets), this is still not unusual, but in other cases (Skyscrapers or Tents) this seems rather unthinkable nowadays.

I tend to think that this has to do with the overall evolution of solving skills. It is not like new solving techniques have been discovered all over the place (although even that may happen once in a while). But the general approach to puzzles has become more “subtle” – the former blunt approach based on full information has been replaced by elegant solving paths which require only some of the clues.

Some puzzle styles seem to be more susceptible than others to what I referred to as “elegance” above. In fact, I think some puzzle styles have a greater potential for interesting puzzles per se. And I believe this is another reason why we have such trends at all: Puzzle styles which are less “rich” will reach a state where they appear to be “exploited” sooner than others, and at this point they are fast losing their appeal to solvers.

Let us just consider Placement Puzzles for a minute. Most styles which are about single-cell objects (Minesweeper, Tents, Lighthouses, even Star Battle) have grown boring over the years. Instead, we are now seeing a great many puzzles which are about the placement of multi-cell objects, such as Pentominoes. These puzzles have more potential, more complexity, and there are many interesting constellations yet to discover. Pentopia is one of my favorite examples in this regard.

Looking back, I think it was about ten years ago that the community had reached a near-perfect variety of puzzle styles. It is probably not a coincidence that several of the most popular puzzle websites – first and foremost Croco-Puzzle, which is now greatly missed – came to life and flourished at the same time. And mabye it is just my imagination, but I believe this is also the time when solving skills exploded; it took experienced solvers only a fraction of the time they needed before to solve a puzzle.

Personally, I like to think of this as the Golden Age of our community. The puzzle styles which were popular in these years offered excitement in all known directions – Shading Puzzles, Filling Puzzles, Loops, etc. – without the need for exorbitant variants and hybrids.

Sadly, nothing lasts forever, not even a Golden Age. Puzzle solving can be a little like an addiction; once you have done it for a certain period, you can no longer reach the same state of enthusiasm as before by working the same kind of puzzles. It is not like we have now exploited all the interesting puzzle styles from 10 years ago, but we do not get the same kick out of them either.

I guess this is why, starting somewhere in the 2010s, the number of exotic variants and hybrids has increased drastically. Even though there is plenty left to discover in the classic puzzle styles, they seem mundane and thus unsatisfying to many puzzle friends, solvers and authors alike.

On many occasions I have commented on puzzle styles (and how people pack as many variants as they can into one single grid). What has also changed – but is frequently overlooked – is the amount of clues we are ready to give. For some reason, authors tend to make only the absolute minimum of information available that is necessary to solve a puzzle, and even replace the value of clues which cannot be avoided by question marks. It is probably because they think only a hard puzzle can be a good puzzle, and I strongly disagree with this practice.

My last WPC was in 2014 in London, at which time the aforementioned trend – which drives people to create Sudokus with Arrows, Thermometers, Killer cages and Kropki dots all in one grid – had not reached its peak yet. And we must not forget that world championships are a stage where it is not unusual to come up with puzzles of kinds that have never been seen before; this is in the nature of things. In that spirit, the WPC 2014 was actually all right, I guess; there was very little really “wild” stuff, and the real change for worse began later.

To be honest, I had to look up the instruction file from 2014 because I remember only pieces of the event – the excitement of exploring London on my own for a whole day has left a stronger impression than many of the individual rounds. What I do recall is that Her Majesty sent a well-wishing letter to the event; that some of our delegation played golf, with mixed success; that I rushed through the Afternoon Tea round like a rabid hedgehog because I had to make up some ground; that I still missed the playoffs due to an unfortunate appeal situation; that Ulrich was attacked by a hostile flight of stairs; that I designed some extreme Skyscraper puzzles on my way there and back; that some of the team rounds were a lot of fun.

Now, team puzzles are an entirely different kind of animal, hence as far as puzzle trends go, they should be left out of the discussion. As for the rest, there were a lot of Loop Puzzle styles, but with the benefit of seven years of reflection I think that the overall selection of puzzles was quite good and reasonably well-balanced.

Since I have not participated in another WPC ever since, I cannot really comment on the impact of the recent developments on world championship level events. The German Championships have been extremely exhausting lately (and it appears I do no longer have the endurance for top performances over longer intervals), and I am noticing that Puzzle Grand Prix rounds are also getting more and more exotic.

Earlier on I spoke about “addiction-like” effects in the community, and there is another issue I would like to address. With the Sudoku flood in the Puzzle Portal ongoing, we have more puzzle authors than ever. Under the current conditions it is rather hard for a puzzle to stand out; on the other hand, puzzle authors want their creations to stand out, sometimes at any cost. Therefore, they go to virtually any lengths to make their puzzles “shine”. It is happening to free puzzles, and apparently it is also happening to contests and championships. But, let me repeat, standing out is by itself not necessarily a good thing.

I am not sure how overall solving skills evolve in this climate. My guess is, they hardly do at all. Becoming better at puzzles has to do a lot with routine, and there simply cannot be any routine if each puzzle we are dealing with is so very different from the previous one.

This makes me wonder how our puzzle friends from Japan are managing to maintain or even increase their overall level. After all, they produce large numbers of top solvers at an incredible pace. The Puzzle World Cup in Kirchheim, where four Japanese solvers won the four semi-final groups, was an eye-opener. We all knew that they were among the best for a long time (and Ken Endo has been a class of his own for years), but right now I cannot help thinking that, when it comes to classic puzzle styles, they have left the rest of the world far behind. Maybe the Japanese puzzle community still lives in its own Golden Age.

There you have it. Of the forty years of my life, I have spent about twenty with puzzles (in different ways and with occasional breaks, of course). The early years were about finding my way in the puzzle community, but looking back I can only conclude that the community itself still had to find its way at the time. And the most recent years appear to be about the community losing its way. If I could, I would go back about ten years, because this is where things were best in my opinion.

4 replies on “Half a Life”

In my opinion, Nikoli magazines have an important role in Japanese situation. They consist of submissions from readers, and as commercial books, only “ordinary” puzzles are selected. Good place to shine, so some are motivated with this. There exist complaints for the difficulty gap between Nikoli and competitive/online puzzles, from both sides, but anyway good entrance is necessary somewhere.

By the way, Masyu appeared first on Nikoli in 2000! In fact the inventor of black circle rule is in Toketa team. It took a while to be shared in world scene, which is improved in the decades.

You know what they say about nostalgia – it isn’t as good as it used to be!

I cannot claim to be as involved in the puzzling world quite as long as you Roland, but I’ve been around for a few years now as well. My route in was in via (classic) sudoku, and soon after that via I dearly loved, and I think that combined with the croco era defines my golden age of puzzling, sometime up to about 2016 or so. One of the things I enjoyed about were the interviews with the authors, where consistently the authors said the most important thing to them was that people tried their puzzles and enjoyed them

I think one phenomenon over the last 5-10 years is what I’d call the “cult “of the puzzle author. Maybe this started with the advent of online puzzle contests, starting in 2010 or so, but in any case it increasingly seems that puzzle authors care less about the solving experience, and more about whether their own creations sufficiently demonstrate that they, the author, are smart, creative and inventive – especially compared to other authors. I think it started become a little bit ego-centric and even competitive in a strange way; in recent years it seems to me to have become hugely amplified.

Of course there didn’t used to be quite so many contests and maybe authors have always been a bit like this – there are now many contests and maybe it is just a case of things being more obvious.

There are a few other things at play. Increasingly puzzle authors are also top level solvers. My advice to a would-be author is to create the puzzle that you would like to solve – and I can certainly see that sorts of extraordinary (and hard!) logic that a top solver puts into their puzzles definitely put them in one-off categories rather than everyday territory. Because top authors have a natural prominence, so too do their puzzles.

I think online contests have also encouraged a sense of creativity for the sake of being creative (again, losing what i think should be treasured above all else by the author, the solver’s experience). This combined with a desire to be encouraging to newer authors, of always having to say the puzzle is amazing rather than giving more honest feedback, has not led us to an entirely satisfactory state of affairs. A related observation is the relatively recent paradigm that every puzzle needs to have a “theme”, usually visual, and often at the expense of the solving experience.

The last thing I’d like to add is that the instructions themselves, and how they have an impact on the solving experience. Often an author will be very familiar with two different styles before they start role-playing as Dr. Frankenstein – but they won’t pay any attention to how the rules are written out. Most often I know whether I want to solve a new variation or hybrid on the puzzle GP simply by how much physical space the instructions take. And where the instructions go on and on and on, sometimes you miss something important – the Futoshiki Fillomino in the last GP was a great example of where one crucial constraint (namely 1-N had to appear in every row and column) was buried away. I think Sudoku is the natural place to look when it comes to variations, and my preferences have certainly come down to those whose instructions can be very simply and naturally stated.

On the subject of the proficiency of Japanese solvers – I think you touch on it yourself, it’s all about practice. I think its largely that these Japanese solvers get a lot more practice than most other solvers, and this is reinforced by a thriving puzzle culture on twitter, as well as in-person clubs at universities that I don’t think exist in many places in Europe or the USA for example. When you get to spend lots of time solving with lots of other talented solvers, this can only be a very positive thing for your own solving ability!

There are other non-Japanese solvers who have improved rapidly over the last few years, I think this also reflects a lot of practice, and perhaps the expansion of puzzle communities away from blogs (whose golden age was about 2008-13) and onto things like facebook or discord.

Thank you both for your feedback. Unless I am misreading your comments, that seems to confirm that the most important factor is a constant supply of puzzle material, perhaps from books or magazines which focus on “ordinary” puzzles, not so much on exotic or spectacular creations.

@Tom: I agree with the part about puzzle authors and the motivation behind their work. Well, when I was more active as an author, I had my share of puzzles of this kind, so I should not complain too much. But, once again, I wish I could go back in time and steer things in a different direction.

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