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On Looking at Puzzle Solutions

Over on my posting about the Devil's Half Doven puzzle, Jon Acord posted a comment in which he said, "I never look at the solutions. Should I?". My reply to that question got so long, I decided I might as well turn it into a full blog posting.

I think the answer depends on the puzzle. Some puzzles are "aha!" events: you have some blazing insight and then all is clear (and sometimes you feel like a dummy for not having seen it earlier). If you look at the solution for one of these, it's all or nothing: you won't get just a little information on the path, you'll be spoiled on that puzzle forever, because the insight is usually quite memorable. My Sleazier puzzle most closely fits into this category.

Some other puzzles are "search" puzzles, where you're just going to have to try a lot of combinations and, over time, try to learn something about the "texture" of the search space that allows you (a) to sharply reduce the amount of effort required, and (b) to make your search systematic, so you won't miss the solution. (Doven falls into this category.) Often, you can look at the solution for a search puzzle (or, better, have someone else look at it) and get a hint or two in the form of a restriction in the search space; for example, "that piece goes there", or "this piece fits into that one". Of course, you can choose how many such hints/restrictions you give yourself before finishing the solve yourself.

Finally, there are multi-layered puzzles, in which each layer falls into one of the two categories above. (My Octamaze and Ooo Tray puzzles are like this.) Here, you can look at the solution (or, again, get someone else to look) and get a hint on just one layer, leaving the rest still available for solving.

Octamaze has more layers than people expect, so I wrote up a detailed walkthrough that doesn't put too much information on any one web page, to allow just such an incremental hinting approach.


I prefer hints to a full blown solution. It is always better if a person can figure the solution out by themselves, but sometimes you get stuck and need a nudge in the right direction.

Also, the best hints or solutions are ones that cause you to remember the solution. Chances are, if you just give someone a complete solution, they will solve the puzzle, but a month later they will again be stumped. Ideally, some sort of nugget of information causes people to remember not the solution, but the path to follow to find it. For example, on Sleazier, it helps me to remember to place the smallest piece last, and not in a corner as I recall.

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