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.