November 25, 2011


A couple of years ago, I was privileged to be commissioned to produce a unique, custom puzzle for the 2009 Science Foo Camp, a eclectic annual gathering of scientists sponsored by the journal Nature, by Google, and by O'Reilly Media. I ended up producing 300 copies of a special version of my then-new puzzle Anansi's Maze, which they then handed out to all of the attendees that summer. I was also invited to attend the event myself, which was truly wonderful, and they asked me back again the next summer. At the event in 2010, I started discussing with the organizers the possibility of my producing another puzzle for them for the 2011 gathering, this time a puzzle that had been designed from the beginning specifically with that event in mind.

I spent some time brainstorming puzzle themes with Kay Thaney from Nature, and we hit upon what I thought was a great inspiration. Tim O'Reilly, the founder of O'Reilly Media and one of the organizers of the event, has a favorite saying that he brings up at the introductory session of each Foo Camp:

“All of the most interesting stuff happens at the edges.”

When Tim says this, he's referring to the edges between intellectual disciplines, and how Foo Camp is designed to bring together people from different areas and enable a kind of creative friction as the areas butt up against one another.

When we brought up the saying in our puzzle-theme brainstorming, however, it immediately took on an entirely different meaning for me, and my mind began chewing over all sorts of ideas for embodying that meaning in a puzzle design. Edgewise is the result of that chewing. (Hm. That sounded better in my head than it reads here. Oh, well...)

Edgewise consists of about two dozen jigsaw-puzzle pieces, most with large letters etched on them, and some with additional words of potential significance. As this is the latest in my series of multi-stage puzzles, I won't say anything more about the solving experience here, but I can tell you that it should keep you happily busy for a little while as you make your way through it.

In the end, ironically, Edgewise did not wind up being used as a Science Foo Camp gift, but I remain grateful to Tim and Kay for providing the inspiration for this puzzle. We did use it in this summer's Microsoft Intern Puzzleday event, and I also used it for my Exchange puzzle at the International Puzzle Party in Berlin, so I think it's getting the kind of exposure it deserves, particularly because now it's available here on the website for you to try out for yourself!

November 23, 2010

Get a Clue!

Even before I began designing my Anansi's Maze puzzle, I'd been thinking about how to create puzzles that intrinsically relied on the transparency of the pieces. My inspiration was a relatively unusual and little-known sub-genre of mechanical puzzles, sometimes called overlapping puzzles, in which the pieces have openings or transparent sections and your goal is to find a way to stack up those pieces and form a picture from the intersection of their transparent bits. The first puzzle I know of in this family was released way back in 1900, but there's been a steady trickle of examples ever since.

I got one such in the Puzzle Exchange at one of my first International Puzzle Parties. It consists of six octagonal pieces of transparent acetate, each laser-printed with a gray-scale image; if you stack up the pieces just right, the gray bits combine and darken and you end up with quite a nice picture of a dog, if I recall correctly. Mostly, I remember it being really difficult.

Still, the notion had stuck with me. I wanted to play in that design space, but I also wanted to make a puzzle that wasn't so tough to solve. I had the idea that I could make it easier by sharply reducing the number of layers, maybe using only two or three. To keep it from becoming trivial, I could break each layer into multiple pieces, so that you'd have to assemble the layers themselves before you could stack them up.

So far, so good, but then I got ambitious: what if you could assemble the layers in more than one way? What if you could form either of two different pictures from the same pieces, depending on which assembly you built? This whole story got me pretty excited: this could be a really cool puzzle! Now I just needed to actually design such a thing...

And there the idea sat, more-or-less unmoving, for almost two years.

The problem was, I had no idea how to go about creating this kind of a puzzle. Unlike many of my designs, I couldn't see any way to write software to help me search for a puzzle that would match my story; one of my key design tools had been stripped away from me!

I finally picked up the idea again late last winter, when I was trying to come up with a new mechanical puzzle for use in this summer's Microsoft Intern Puzzleday. There wasn't anything magical about the process, I just dug in, started drawing potential pictures, overlapping them, and looking for interesting area intersections. It was a very incremental, iterative design journey, one of the most difficult puzzle-design efforts I've been through. Even after I'd finished the artwork, what I'd thought of as the hard part of the process, the design went through five different prototype and test-solving iterations before I finally hit on the right combination of cleverness, accessibility, and clarity of solution.

In the end, ironically, the puzzle was completed too late to be used in Puzzleday, but I did use it as my Exchange at IPP 30 in Osaka later this past summer. I had barely enough copies made then to satisfy the Exchange rules, with just a few left over at the time for selling. By the time I finished with building those, I knew that I wanted to do yet one more, fairly minor design iteration before putting the puzzle up here on the website. What with one thing or another, it's taken me a while to do that iteration, but now it's done, and I'm quite happy with how the puzzle has turned out. I hope you'll enjoy it too!

August 23, 2010

The Cruciatus Curse

Each year, we begin the planning process for the Microsoft Intern Puzzleday in the same way, with an evening of training in puzzle design. This is primarily aimed at the folks who've never helped put on such an event before, but it's a good refresher for everyone. The best part, though, comes after our training lead, Kenny Young, works through his PowerPoint slides. At that point, we break up the group into smaller sections of 5-8 people each, and each section does some slightly directed brainstorming on puzzle ideas. Not only does this help the newbies get a sense of how the process works, and provides a safe environment for tossing out ideas, but we often get three or four puzzles from this that survive all the way to the final event.

I said "slightly directed" brainstorming, and that describes it pretty well. Each section gets a brief visit from Kenny, who imparts a little germ of an idea to kick things off. My first year, the theme of the event was to be Hogwarts, the school for wizards from the Harry Potter books. Kenny came to our section and looked a little sheepish.

"Um, this is going to be pretty sketchy, even moreso than usual; I'm sorry about that, but I'm also sure you'll be able to do something with it."

Oh goodie, I thought; this should be good.

"OK, Hogwarts is in England, right? Well, I've noticed that the British seem to have a lot of interesting pairs of things. For example, Marks & Spencer, the department store in London. Or bangers and mash, which is apparently something you can eat. Got it?"

We all stared at him.

"Well, that's it. Go for it!" And then he left, presumably to go torture the next section, too.

As I said, the brainstorming is only "slightly" directed.

As a kind of temporizing maneuver, we first spent some time trying to come up with a bunch more such "pairs". After a while of that, the ideas started flowing for how to make use of them. Over the course of the next half hour or so, we played around with a lot of ideas, but just one of them had any staying power, and Cruciatus Curse was the result. The actual detailed puzzle design work was a collaboration between me and Stacey Eck, but we probably wouldn't have gotten that far without all of the ideas flowing around that initial brainstorming session.

The answer to Cruciatus Curse, like all of the puzzles in Puzzleday, is a single word or short phrase.

Well, that's it. Go for it!

August 05, 2009

Anansi's Maze

As I write this, I'm helping to host the first Microsoft Non-Intern Puzzleday, a re-run of the puzzles from this year's regular Intern Puzzleday, just to give the actual Microsoft employees a whack at them. I'm sitting outside a room in which I've set up six "solving stations" for the multi-stage mechanical puzzle I contributed this year, Anansi's Maze. (The Intern Puzzleday actually has a budget, so I could afford to give each team a copy of the puzzle; for the non-interns, they have to timeshare.)

This year, I wanted to play with transparency, as you could probably guess from the picture. I started out with a much more complex puzzle idea, but whittled it down, stage by stage, to get something that was a more appropriate level of difficulty and that hung together more completely. The result, I think, is my best multi-stage puzzle yet, so I decided to also use it for my 2009 Exchange puzzle at the International Puzzle Party in San Francisco.

Anansi the Spider is the trickster spirit of Caribbean and Western African myth and legend, known for his creative mischief making. This puzzle will tease you with its ambiguities and lead you on a merry chase to find its hidden meaning.

Here is a maze, Anansi tells us, but there are no walls, no paths to follow, let alone any dead ends or cycles. Our treasured ‘right-hand rule’ is useless in these uncharted territories.

Anansi’s Maze is a multi-stage solving experience: finding the solution to one stage leads to a new puzzle, and that one to another! Where does this pathless path lead? Can you see through all of Anansi’s tricks and find the answer he’s left for you at the end of your journey?

Gamesters of Triskelion

My orignal plan, when designing the Octamaze puzzle, was that it would serve double duty, being both my gift to everyone at Gathering for Gardner 8 and something to torture the interns with at the 2008 Microsoft Intern Puzzleday. Sadly, though, it became quite clear during initial playtesting that Octamaze would be too difficult for the intern event. (I was willing to make the mathematicians, puzzlers, and magicians at G4G8 work harder...)

Still, I thought I could at least reuse the primary mechanical idea of Octamaze, and so I started from there when designing the Gamesters of Triskelion puzzle; I did, though, make that part a bit easier. The 2008 Puzzleday theme, for those of you who didn't recognize it immediately from the title, was Space, including many science-fiction references. I was put in mind of the Gamesters of Triskelion episode from the original Star Trek series by the triangular shape of the pieces from Octamaze, and somehow it occurred to me to check whether or not "triskelion" was actually a normal English word. As it happens, it is: a triskelion is a (sometimes quite literally) three-legged motif from heraldry and graphic design. I particularly liked some of the more modern interpretations of the motif, so I incorporated one into the etching on the pieces.

Gamesters of Triskelion is the third in my series of multi-stage puzzles, where solving one stage of the puzzle creates another puzzle for you to solve, on through some number of stages until you reach a single-word or short-phrase final answer. I'm having a lot of fun designing such puzzles, so you can expect the series to continue for quite a while.

Unlike most of my puzzles, this one comes with some "flavor text", not essential to solving the puzzle, but perhaps helpful:

Captain's log, stardate 3211.9: We are leaving starsystem M-24 Alpha, having convinced the three disembodied Providers, the one-time Gamesters of Triskelion, to help their former gladiators to form a new, free civilization. This should end the deadly gambling in their obsessively triangular fighting arena.

As we left orbit, the Providers transported a small octahedron onto the bridge, along with an engraved tablet (three sided, of course) in what appears to be their language. During transport, the faces of the octahedron detached from one another, so now we have eight triangular pieces.

Spock believes it will be straightforward to reassemble them since, he says, they can only fit together in one way. He is more puzzled about the meaning of the etchings on the faces, and how they might relate to the tablet, but assumes that this will become clear once the octahedron is back together.

September 16, 2007

The Spelling Hex

The theme of this year's Microsoft Intern Puzzleday was the Harry Potter books; we told the interns that they were attending the summer residential session (Redmond Campus) of the Kwikspell (TM) Correspondence Course in Beginners' Magic.

Because Microsoft gets summer interns from all over the world, we couldn't assume that they'd even heard of Harry Potter, let alone devoted themselves to its arcana. We could refer to Hogwarts all we liked, we just couldn't require them to know what it was. The result was that we named all of the puzzles after various spells (from the books or otherwise) and all of the live mini-events after Hogwarts classes (e.g., Charms, Potions, etc.).

The original idea for this puzzle came from a Perplex City card, but I wanted to avoid the non-sequitur in my own version. (Also, I wanted to use the "hex" pun.) Pretty much all of the intern teams ended up solving this one.

August 17, 2007

The Ooo Tray

Every year, a group of volunteers puts on a one-day puzzle event for Microsoft's summer interns here on the Redmond campus called Intern Puzzleday. It's kind of a scaled-down version of the more well-known (and ambitious) Microsoft Puzzlehunt events. Although Puzzlehunt traditionally begins at about 10am on Saturday and continues straight through to dinner time on Sunday, Intern Puzzleday is a kinder, gentler one-day affair, almost exactly 24 hours shorter than Puzzlehunt.

This year, I had the great fun of joining the team of volunteers putting on Puzzleday 2007, and I designed or co-designed five different puzzles for the event, three of which we finally used on the day itself. Perhaps I'll write a fuller description of the event later, but for now I'll just show one of the puzzles I designed for it.

Traditionally, Puzzlehunt and Puzzleday puzzles are designed to have a short, one- or two-word answer that solvers can type into email or a web page to prove that they've finished. All of those answers are later used in one or more layers of "meta-puzzles" leading eventually to a final "hunt" somewhere on campus for an artifact specific to that hunt's theme.

I wanted to find some way to incorporate a mechanical puzzle into this domain that's typically dominated by paper-and-pencil or on-site-event puzzles. To do so, I started with the tray and piece design from my "Perkinson Guest Bathroom Tile" puzzle and laser-engraved some additional information on both. The result is, I think, something new in the world of mechanical puzzles: a puzzle with an answer, not just a solution. In this case, the answer is just one word long, and finding it takes you through a multi-layer solving experience; guidance for the first layer is etched right onto the tray ("Place all twelve pieces flat in the tray"), and solving each layer reveals more guidance on how to attack the next one. There are a total of three or four layers to this seemingly simple puzzle, depending on how you count. During Puzzleday, the Ooo Tray was solved by all 28 teams of interns, and it was the first puzzle that many teams worked on.

I'm now making this puzzle in beautiful natural cherry! I've also tightened up the design slightly from the original to give the puzzle a somewhat nicer look and an even more satisfying ending.

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