The Art & Design of a Geometric Puzzle

It’s rare to get a glimpse inside the puzzly creative process.

Sure, plenty of crossword constructors are happy to share how particular puzzles of theirs came to be, but many constructors and designers, whether we’re talking mechanical puzzles, pen-and-paper puzzles, or electronic puzzles, keep their techniques and tricks secret. They’re like magicians that way.

So when a puzzler takes you behind the curtain, it’s a rare and special treat. The website Gamasutra recently hosted such an event when app designer and puzzler Paul Hlebowitsh explained in detail how he designs the puzzles for his app RYB.

In Paul’s words, “RYB is very similar to ‘Minesweeper’ or ‘Hexcells,’ but instead of using numbers or symbols, it uses colors. The colored dots inside of a shape tell you how the neighboring shapes are colored.”

I love the devilish simplicity behind the solving. It’s so universal that it transcends the language barrier. Simply show another person the first step, and they’ll pick it up immediately.

Paul goes on to explain how one particular puzzle evolved as he sought the perfect mix of puzzly challenge and unique solvability.

He took this:

and eventually ended up with this:

It’s a fascinating read, one I can’t do justice to with a brief summary, so I suggest everyone check out the full post to watch an impressive constructor at work. Being walked step-by-step through a build by the designer is a delight.

I also have to praise the puzzles themselves. The mix of geometric shapes and colors creates a truly striking image. I think I’m gonna get a print made of this one and put it on my wall:

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What’s your position on that puzzle?

The line between puzzles and games can be razor-thin, and some of the best multiple-player games have distinct puzzle aspects to them.

Today, let’s take a brief look at puzzle games I consider “position puzzles,” or puzzles where the key aspect of the solve/gameplay is a matter of tactical positioning.

The puzzle game that always comes to mind when I think of positioning is Hex.

Hex is a simple game that can get fiendishly complicated in a hurry. The goal is to create a linked chain of cells from one wall to the opposite wall, while your opponent tries to do the same. So not only is positioning a key element to building your chain of cells, but it’s crucial to depriving your opponent of similar positioning.

Best of all, the only things you need to play are a grid and a couple of pencils. My astronomy teacher in high school introduced me to Hex, and I’ve been playing it on and off for years ever since.

From Hex, let’s move on to another puzzle game that demands positioning skills and a level of strategic forethought: The Icosian Game.

The goal of the Icosian Game is familiar to anyone who’s done a Pencil Pusher or similar puzzle, requiring that you trace a path without lifting your pencil tip or revisiting any point in the diagram.

You want to visit every letter-marked spot once, and complete what is known as a Hamiltonian cycle, named for the puzzle’s creator, William Rowan Hamilton.

(Also, PuzzleNation fans will no doubt recognize some major similarities between the Icosian Game grid and the grid for our word-hunting game Starspell.)

Another classic positioning puzzle goes by many names, including Mills and Cowboy Checkers, but you probably know it best as Nine Men’s Morris.

Nine Men’s Morris is a two-player game where you try to place three tokens in a row while thwarting your opponent’s efforts to do the same. Every three-token row means your opponent loses a token, and the winner is whichever player reduces an opponent to two tokens or forces a stalemate.

Variations of this game date back to the days of the Roman Empire, but I suspect most people would recognize it in a simpler, more popular form. After all, it’s an easy leap from Nine Men’s Morris to Tic-Tac-Toe.

Today’s final positioning puzzle is a little different from the others, but it’s a personal favorite of mine. This is another game that goes by many names and appears in many forms. The version I play is called Turf Wars.

In Turf Wars, your goal is to capture as many squares as possible by drawing one line each round that connects two points. Your opponent does the same, and you slowly winnow down the board, creating opportunities to seize single squares or blocks of squares. Any time a box is enclosed on three sides, whomever draws the fourth side seizes the box.

(In this case, the puzzle game is hosted on the Ninja Burger website, so the boxes become either “Ninja” or “Samurai” depending on whether you or the computer capture the box.)

And if seizing one box encloses the third side of another box, you can seize that one as well. So there is the potential to seize multiple boxes in a single turn with some strategic line placement.

All of these games can be played with ease on paper, or with tokens scrounged up from other games, and they provide a great challenge and serious fun.

Just remember: In positioning puzzles, as in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location.

[For more ninja-centric puzzle and games fun, including the phenomenal Ninja Burger roleplaying game, click here.]