History of Puzzles
When you think about puzzles, most will go straight to the jigsaw variety. This may be the obvious archetype but puzzle games go way back to ancient Greece and the invention of riddles. Because of this puzzles are the older brother of Trivia Games. Unlike trivia where knowledge is the main solution, riddles use knowledge in logical or illogical ways to come to the specific answer. The most famous of these is the Riddle of the Sphinx from the story of Oedipus “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?”
The concept of a jigsaw puzzle may have came from Tangram, a puzzle that requires the specific placement of 7 flat shapes. Theorized to be invented in China during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279). Tangram were first introduced to America during the early 1800’s after a trader ship captain brought a version to Philadelphia. Sam Loyd’s The Eighth Book of Tan popularized the game with a faked history of Tan, a supposed god, who had invented the game 4,000 years prior. They also saw a large resurgence during World War 1 in America and for the first time Europe.
Jigsaw puzzles themselves were created in 1767 when a map-maker John Spilsbury dissected a map by the political-lines and sold the concept to help teach geography. Puzzles spent the next two hundred years in relative obscurity as they were thought of as mostly a children’s toy. It wasn’t until around 1900 that more adult type puzzles emerged. The great depression and improvements in production materials (cardboard replaced wood) made puzzles cheap forms of entertainment.
The Chinese Finger Trap is a great example of how counter-intuitive puzzles work. Typically they play with a fallacy in human intuitiveness. When the trap tightens on your finger you instinctively want to pull back, which is the exact opposite of the solution. The finger trap originally was a one player puzzle, dating back to at-least 1870.
Puzzles come in multiple forms with multiple ways to describe them. Puzzle historian, Jerry Slocums has a mechanical puzzle classifications and I enjoy the simplicity of his classifications although they focus on only one type. James Dalgety uses a very detailed classification that includes things such as video games, hidden image pictures and holograms among it’s 90+ sub-classes. Robs Puzzle page has a very hard to look at form where he tries to combine many others authors categories (Slocums & Dalgety included) into general categories but still has around 20 classifications.
Basics of Puzzle Games
Merriam-Webster noun definition of puzzle is: something that puzzles. Seems a little flawed to me, we can’t even get a good definition of what it is. How could we ever classify the various types properly when we have a looping definition. (see what I’m doing, I’m puzzling about puzzles.) To define puzzle games we need a better definition of puzzles, and then a separation of the types of puzzles.
I enjoy mathematician professor Steven Clontz definitions, although he prefaces them with the horrible phrase generally speaking.
Generally speaking, a puzzle is any question/problem which satisfies two properties:Steve Clontz
It is designed to entertain the solver.
There is a well-defined solution.
Personally I like solid statements of fact in my definitions so I’m a try to take a crack at it.
A puzzle is any item that requires the user to follow a mental process in a entertaining or novel way to find a singular solution.
Also for the sake of simplification, I’ll go ahead and classify these puzzles into four categories based on end user experience: problem, simulation, toy or game. I’ll give a little more depth to each category below but remember a problem is the simplest while a game is the most complicated.
Puzzle problems are the simplest version, and don’t require any dexterous manipulation. They also typically have limited replayability, for instance a riddle is the simplest version of a puzzle problem. Once you know the answer, it’s hard to forget. The same could be said of Magic Eye Images, once you see the image your brain then knows it is there and how to find it again. A maze or a word search is another example of a puzzle problem, do it once and it loses it’s fun.
Puzzle simulations are specific recreations of more difficult theories to help one get better understanding. The most popular of these are Chess puzzles, but can also contain more outside the box thinking. The Monty Hall problem is puzzle problem meant to explain the odds on the TV show Let’s Make a Deal.
Puzzle toys have a learn-able strategy and don’t require competition. A Rubix Cube is a perfect example, once you know the end result and how to get there you can develop a more refined strategy. The Perplexus line of 3D maze spheres is a great (and fun) example as well. I place multi-step puzzle problems in this category. For instance a Crossword or Logic Grid Puzzle is really just a collection of smaller steps and/or trivia. The overall strategy doesn’t change between uses and their are prevalent effective strategies.
Puzzle games have a system of competition. This usually means a bit of randomness needs to be added to them as well. The thing that sets puzzle games apart is that you are looking for an answer or answers, not domination. Scrabble and Boggle are classic examples but the field has become much more diverse than the word themed past. Many games now ride the line between puzzle, strategy and luck. Memory games, social deduction games and mystery games all start in puzzle game category then push those bounds. I’ll give some of my favorite recommendations on these later in this article.
Learning Benefits of Puzzles
Increased Mental Acuity – Puzzles help boost memory and processing speed, as well as pattern recognition and cause and effect. It has also shown to help with the effects of Dementia.
Improved Visual / Spacial Reasoning – By having to recognize how physical pieces fit together we become better at estimating sizes and design functions. This can help people get better at driving a car to packing a suitcase.
Increased Cognitive Ability – Puzzles force one to visual and see the bigger picture, the force the use of general knowledge, language skills and concentration. The number of puzzles that educate one on difficult concepts is at an all time high.
Jim Carrey is one of my three favorite comedians ever (Carlin and Ansari FYI). I didn’t know who he was when he played Riddler in Batman Forever as I was 8 years old, but it would have a lasting impression. Riddler was my go to Halloween costume growing up, and I had a hand full of riddles to go with it. I didn’t start doing a lot of puzzles until I was 14 when my aunt introduced me to Sudoku, which is still one of my favorite time wasters.
As I love to draw Pictionary has always been my favorite old school puzzle game. Guess Who? was another of my fond childhood memories. I have played my fair share of Scrabble, although I don’t think I have ever beaten anybody at it. The only time I’ve ever solved a Rubix Cube is when I took the stickers off and placed them back. I was more of the Wood Labyrinth and Simon Says kid myself.
This is probably why I’m such a huge fan of the Perplexus balls, I have 2 that I constantly try and master. I also love all the small disentanglement puzzles that have become popularized lately.
For social deduction games, Two Rooms and A Boom and Secret Hitler are my go to. Trying to find all the clues to the puzzle when people are bluntly trying to throw you off the tracks is a interesting concept. I’ve played The Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow (or just Werewolves) twice and it’s good but shows its age. If you are looking for an intro to deduction games I couldn’t suggest Cash N’ Guns more. The Resistance and it’s various themes are always a fun time as well.
On the other hand mystery games are focused on finding an end object (usually a whodunit) as opposed to finding whose lying. Obviously Clue is there but I’ve never really agreed with the mechanics (specifically how it ends.) Mystery of the Abbey is much better, and if you like sci-fi Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game is an epic example that mixes social deduction, role playing and mystery very well. Betrayal at House on the Hill is also an excellent example and I’m dying to try it’s new Betrayal Legacy version. As a co-op game Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective has been a good source of entertainment for my wife and I.
Will you like it?
If you enjoy achievement over mastery, puzzles are for you! The replay value of most puzzles are limited so if you find you like puzzles then it’s probably time to step it up to puzzle games. Play games with reputations for great functionality because that highly outweighs the need for theme or graphics. More over find the game with mechanics you like, art, word-play, sociology and more can be revealed with just a simple puzzle.
The problem with these games is if somebody decides to break the rules or doesn’t pay attention to them in the first place. Make sure to play with people who will pay attention and not just google everything.
What are you doing still reading this? Go out there and get puzzled!