Nudge nudge, wink wink

Friday 16th August, 2019

How do you give enough hints to a puzzle without ruining the charm of it?

Hidden door in library

Every month, the collective Puzzled Pint run puzzle theme evenings in secret locations across the world. The Friday before, they send out cryptic clues to the location, but also have a “just tell me where it is already” link.

We really enjoy these nights as a chance to try out new puzzles (and beers), and one comment made by one of the organisers of the London Puzzled Pint group has really stuck. To paraphrase:

The secret is in working out how the puzzle works in order to solve it. We give you clues to help you on your way, but are on hand if you need a few more hints.

This absolutely matches our philosophy. We know that our puzzles aren’t to everyone’s tastes. Unlike a book of Sudoku, there is no gentle learning curve, with a book full of computer-generated puzzles, gradually increasing in difficulty. Instead, we spend a long time crafting individual puzzles, ensuring that they link to the narrative where possible, but also having the charm of a puzzle that makes you lean back and smile wryly when you’ve solved them. We also try where possible to sprinkle clues in the text, in other images and other page adornments.

This does cause problems however. For some, they miss the learning curve (for us, that makes life easier, as it would involve less puzzle mechanics, but we think would make the books as a whole a little less fun). For others, they can be frustrated by elements of a puzzle needing background information or a Google search.

We are determined to do all we can to help people read and enjoy our books, and are finding the right balance of supporting players, but without giving them a directive list of how to solve problems. Here are some of our solutions:

A dedicated forum, where questions can be asked, and possible solutions are hidden with a neat little ‘spoiler’ function, which covers text unless you click on it. The challenge with this is that whilst the forum is looked at (the website numbers bear this out), less than 1% of players post to it.

A clue under the submission box. For many of our puzzles, you can scan a QR code or go to the specific webpage, and enter your solution. We have been experimenting with giving clues under this box.

A Reverse Index of hints. We have been beavering away and have made a reverse index for a few of our titles so far. You simply look for the number of the puzzle, and next to it is a very clear hint to solve. The hints have been alphabetised in order to avoid seeing a hint to the next puzzle.

This is a work in progress. With each new version of our books, we look at the comments on the forum, responses on Social Media, and will make clearer puzzles which are clearly more challenging.

So here is the big ask; how can we improve? What would work best in supporting players solving particular puzzles? What would you like to see?

See a need, fill a need

Tuesday 30th July, 2019
Photo by Adam Griffith on Unsplash

Rodney Copperbottom, in the film Robots, operates under the phrase, “see a need, fill a need.” This has been a primary driver for our publishing roadmap – create the books that we see are needed.

The Vice Versa series follows this mantra. I was working on a puzzle book one evening, and asked my partner Ruth if she fancied solving a puzzle with me. “They aren’t for me, they are more of a solo thing,” she replied. Right then and there, the penny dropped. Puzzle books, especially escape books, are primarily solo enterprises. You can solve the puzzles on your own or with others, but the onus is on you to make them sociable. What if there was a puzzle book where the mechanic was that you had to work with someone else to solve each puzzle?

This, married to our desire to raise the profile of narrative in puzzle books, led to Vice Versa. We believe that these are the first ever cooperative puzzle books.

The premise is simple; there is one story, told through two perspectives. In one book, we are shared part of the story, with another perspective of the story told in the other book. Each edition has 46 puzzles, which can be only solved by working with the other person. It may be that they have a clue to help you, or they have the cipher to help solve your puzzle; we’ve used 46 different mechanics to keep it interesting!

Here’s where the narrative develops – they are a murder mystery book, and you only find out the end of the story by working together and gradually revealing the final two paragraphs (each puzzle gives you a missing word).

There are also two Easter eggs contained within; one which helps you solve the puzzles (which is hidden in plain site), and another we won’t even hint toward here!

Although they have been out less than a week, the response and sales have been fantastic. Rodney was right!

To try these books out, head on over to Amazon, and don’t forget that you’ll need to get both books to solve the puzzles! Why not gift one to a friend? Heads Edition – amzn.to/2MmGg9B | Tails Edition – amzn.to/2Y90jiN

What other types of puzzle books are we missing? Do you want an escape book with games inside as well as puzzles? One which has a Roll and Write feature? How about a “Choose Your Own Adventure” escape book? Let us know either in the comments, or on Twitter @theescapages.

The challenge of difficulty

Saturday 22nd June, 2019

Imagine a scenario where you are asked to write one round of a quiz. You have a rough idea of the attendees, and it is a general knowledge round, so is fairly open. What do you choose?

This is where the challenge of difficulty lies – everyone’s range of general knowledge is incredibly varied – some know a few subjects, others have a much broader knowledge, but at a much more surface level. A rare few combine these two, knowing lots about everything. We secretly despise this group at times.

In the quizzes we have been asked to write in the past, we have always aimed for a target score of around 7/10 – a few easy win questions, a couple of mild puzzlers, and a final few real headscratchers. Too many easy questions, and quizzers are frustrated, and at the other end, rounds which are too hard sap the fun from what should otherwise be an entertaining night.

Designing puzzles lives in a very similar territory. It’s hard to picture challenge with puzzles when you design them, and as we have found at Escapages HQ, the way one of us solves something can be completely different to the other.

Luckily, we have a difficulty measure built in. Each of our puzzles in our titles has a QR code, leading to a link on the website. This records wrong guesses, and more valuably, the number of wrong guesses, in a way an ordinary puzzle book can’t measure. Using this dataset against our sales, we can produce quite an effective difficulty rating which we are classifying the Number of Attempts measure. Take the first ten puzzles in one of our books as an example:

PuzzleAverage attempts
112.5
23.9
315.3
46.2
53.3
62.9
71.8
82.5
92.6
101.3

As you can see, puzzles 1 and 3 have caused much consternation – too much it would seem, and we have been able as publishers to ease the pain of those puzzles. The rest vary between 1 and 3 attempts (puzzle 4 being an outlier here).

As more copies of the titles are sold, these attempts will even out a little and become a little more accurate. We will also be able to group this attempts metric to types of problem, to see if shape puzzles fare better than morse code puzzles for example.

For the moment however, we are still trying to decide on one crucial issue; do puzzlers want an escape book where the puzzles get incrementally harder as they progress, or do they prefer books which have challenged peaks and troughs? Do they want the puzzles to be rated in difficulty?

In our planning for the future, these are the questions which will help us to ensure that we are delivering solid puzzle books, with a clear context and inviting narrative, while puzzlers will get a carefully-planned range of puzzles. Do let us know which you’d prefer.

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