Sudoku, Kenken, Crosswords, Rogo - what is it with puzzles?

It is interesting – even puzzling (!) to ponder the appeal of puzzles. Puzzles are popular among many ages and cultures, though not all people like them, and different people get enjoyment from different puzzles types. Older people are often keen puzzlers, especially now that their time puzzling is legitimised as “brain training”. Children can be happily engrossed in puzzles for hours. The puzzle category in the App store is well populated, with engaging games such as Cut the rope and Trainyard.

Types of puzzles

For many years the predominant puzzles in the English-speaking world were crosswords and all their variety. They ranged from straightforward, with simple clues, to cryptic. Individual crossword makers had their own styles, and personal following. The puzzle was part of a relationship between the creator and the solver. There was even an American Game show, “Merv Griffin’s Crosswords”, where five contestants competed to answer clues and then finish off the joint puzzle in the allotted time.

Recently Sudoku has become a worldwide phenomenon. No self-respecting newspaper would fail to have a Sudoku puzzle. Though Sudoku appears to be a number puzzle, it is a logic puzzle, with no arithmetic involved. Letters or symbols can substitute for the numbers. Killer Sudoku and Kenken use the “fill in a grid” principle, but also combine addition and other arithmetic operations.

The nature of puzzles

Puzzles are a way of spending time. A puzzle book can fill in hours waiting for appointments or riding in trains. They can take you away from troubles. When I was afraid of flying, I would carry cryptic crosswords from the Press newspaper, and concentrate intently on them during take-off and landing. The concentration required to solve the tricky clues saved me from panicky thoughts.
Puzzles are a way of making sense out of chaos. There is something satisfying in taking a jigsaw puzzle, and turning it from a pile of seemingly unrelated to pieces into a flat, smooth complete picture. A filled-in crossword or Sudoku grid gives a sense of completion.
There is an aspect of problem-solving in most puzzles. Computer programmers, statisticians and operations researchers can feel this satisfaction as they solve the problems and puzzles inherent in their work. As the creators of Rogo have skills in these areas, we are aware of many other puzzles waiting to be developed from real-life problem-solving.
Teachers use puzzles for teaching, especially the overworked  word-search, easy to create and requiring little from the solver other than time and perserverance. Crosswords do at least require recall or logic to complete as a homework exercise. Getting students to create their own puzzles can encourage creativity. An earlier post gives suggestions for this.
Creating Rogo, and crafting individual puzzles has drawn our attention to what makes a good puzzle. We have created many individual Rogo puzzle instances for solution on paper, in the app, for research purposes, and for education.  Each instance has its own combination of features. We aim for them to be difficult enough for a challenge, but not frustratingly insoluble. Sometimes the answer is such that you laugh when you find it – wondering how you could have missed it before. There is a fine line between difficulty and tedium, however. A Rogo puzzle with few blank squares would be difficult to solve, but not much fun. We assumed that little 6 step Rogos would only be of interest to children, but our adult solvers enjoy the quick challenge, trying to solve them without trial and error.

By putting Rogo into an iPhone app, we have removed the adding and counting needed in solving Rogos. This changes their nature somewhat and makes them more fun, in my opinion, but there is also something satisfying in adding up the numbers myself when solving on paper.

Research on puzzles

We have recently embarked on research as to what aspects of Rogo puzzles affect the level of difficulty for human problem-solving. There is little research on the how and why of human puzzle-solving. However it seems to be an important part of life, and we at Creative Heuristics and the University of Canterbury (Dr Petty and Dr Dye) are keen to explore this further.

Tell us what puzzles you like, and why. What is it that appeals to you in Rogo puzzles?

Note: Christhchurch, the home of Rogo, was hit by a devastating earthquake in late February 2011 and then again in June 2011. We are now recovering, and intend to resume posting more often.