(Almost) Everybody hates deliberately ambiguous puzzles

You might have seen these puzzles, which have been doing the rounds on social media recently. What do you think the answers are?

Ambiguous fruit puzzle

a) 15. A bunch of bananas is a bunch of bananas. Who knows how many there really are in each one?
b) 14. There are four bananas in the bunches in lines 2 and 3, sort of, and there are only three bananas in the bunch in line 4.
c) 11. Nobody cares about boring old ordinary bananas. The only reason the bunches in lines 2 and 3 have any value is because of that special double-tipped banana. Without it, the rest of the bunch is worth zero.

Ambiguous flower puzzle

a) 26. A blue flower is a blue flower, regardless of how many leaves it has. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
b) 25. The flower head and stems are distractions, this is really about leaves.
c) The answer is undefined as there is no basis to say what the relationship is between the value of a blue flower with four leaves and one with five leaves. Consider how much more highly a four-leaf clover is regarded than a three-leaf one.

How many watermelons are there?

Ambiguous watermelon puzzle

a) Five. Three-quarters times four is three, and one-half times four is two.
b) Six. The middle four are two cut in half, the other four are used to produce the outer four. Yes, four quarter-melons are missing, but they clearly aren’t used to make up the ones in the middle.
c) An indeterminate number between six and eight, because we don’t can’t tell whether or not the ones in the middle are two halves of the same melon or not.
d) Zero. Three quarters of a melon and half a melon are both different things to a watermelon, notably in terms of freshness.

You might think that the fact that they’ve got hundreds of thousands of shares suggests they’re popular and thus worth including (or, at least, adapting) in your exit game. Please don’t. They’re popular because they’re deliberately ambiguous and can be argued more than one way. That’s really not a good property for an exit game puzzle. The fact that people are likely to have seen the puzzles, or their central conceits, before is not the best starting-point.

Counting puzzles have a long history in exit games and are a core skill. They’re hardly likely to excite, though there are a few cute ways to dress them up and if you have fantastic art then they can be genuinely pretty. The last time that a counting puzzle actually made someone smile was approximately 1898 (some reports suggest 1896) when Sam Loyd sold more than 10,000,000 copies of “Get Off The Earth” (discussed in detail, though the link is old and so the pictures have rotted, at the wonderful defective yeti) – and that’s perhaps better classed as an optical illusion than as a puzzle.

Algebraic equations are also known within exit games; if you write out the equations in words, then things are unambiguous. They may be a sufficiently close reminder of school that people who didn’t like algebra at the time are unlikely to appreciate the reminder now. The first puzzle of the three is the least problematic; if the bananas were completely separate from each other, it would be unambiguous, though not particularly exciting. As it is, it gets into issues of two-dimensional depictions of three-dimensional objects; why do you assume a banana is there when you can only see part of it, when you assume there isn’t any fruit hidden behind the apples?

One big problem with the puzzles above is that if you declare one of the answers to be correct and another to be wrong, then people are unlikely to be impressed by your explanation as to what makes something right or wrong. The bigger problem is that when people try what you consider to be the wrong answer and find out it doesn’t get them anywhere, they will probably stumble on the right answer by shifting one either way and then concluding that either their arithmetic was wrong (not much fun) or that your arithmetic was wrong (even less fun). It then becomes simple trial and error rather than puzzle-solving. It’s the sort of situation where only the person setting the room thinks it’s funny and the people playing the room think it’s not.

By contrast, if the “right” and “wrong” answers were, say, six away from each other and there were a satisfying reason why the “wrong” answer was wrong, that’s a much better puzzle – and whether a reason is satisfying or not is judged by the person hearing the answer, not the person setting the puzzle. This has been a very negative article so far, so here’s a constructive suggestion instead. If you’re effectively required not just to count up items for an equation but identify each item and work out whether thematically it fits into the category to be counted, that’s fine and potentially good; at worst, it’s a “how many animals of each time did Moses take into the ark?” trick question.

In short: stay well away from this sort of gimmick. The least worst thing that could be said about them is that they anchor the creation of your room to a particular point in time – specifically, this week or so – when everyone will have moved onto something completely different next week.

And as for the division sign in this little blighter, don’t even go there

Ambiguous division puzzle

9 Comments

  1. I totally agree that these puzzles (that’ve been recently making rounds on Facebook) are stupid. And what is worse is seeing your friends/family having semi-serious debates over them.

    Reply
  2. There was a brief craze for late-night tv shows a couple of years ago which were full of questions like this that encouraged people to ring in to expensive phone-lines and give an answer that was declared to be wrong without any explanation as to why (or, indeed, what the “correct” answer was supposed to be.)

    When you see an answer to a puzzle that you didn’t solve, your reaction must always be “D’oh!” and never “WTF?” If the answer is ambiguous, then you’re just going to annoy people.

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  3. Thanks for updating the title! I guess I like the idea that you can do your mathematics perfectly, be a super maths genius, and still get it “wrong” because you didn’t see something which someone else might. In the end, I think it’s all about your audience. I believe, for the vast majority of people, if you pointed out the extra banana, they wouldn’t find it ambiguous in the slightest. To me, this (the banana puzzle) is about whether you object to the trick or misdirection, not whether you object to ambiguous puzzles. As soon as you spot the trick, I don’t think you have any doubt about what you were “meant” to do.

    On the other hand, your point about off by one results, brute forcing a code and bringing algebra into escape rooms, those I agree with entirely.

    Now, if you gave me a “what comes next in this sequence” puzzle, *then* I’d be unhappy. 🙂

    Reply
    • Ahh I can’t find it now (after literally three or four minutes of looking) but did you see the thread about discussion of series that start 1,1,1,1,1,1? As you’d guess there are all sorts of justifications for all sorts of next series members.

      Reply
  4. I agree Chris

    These “puzzles” seem to be aimed at a rather dumb-downed audience purely as clickbait for the main media titles which republish on their ad-bloated websites. They annoy me and in a way they tarnish the perception and the fun of genuine puzzles. I never set ambiguous challenges. The answer may not be obvious it must always be capable of being rationalised and unambiguous.
    I do however set “what comes next in this sequence” as online puzzles, but not in my locked room challenges, purely because I enjoy setting the challenges and the responses are more frequent, even if incorrect, which suggests that kind of puzzle is more popular.

    Regards

    Reply
    • Perhaps this leads on to a more general sort of debate as to what sorts of puzzle experiences are appropriate for an exit game where time pressure is on. There’s a thin line between a scope for creativity and ambiguity; the former definitely has its place, but not (I’d argue) in an exit game.

      Reply
  5. Totally agree. I don’t know if it’s deliberately ambiguous, or the ambiguous ones are naturally selected and go viral (much like #thedress). The worst is that my LinkedIn feed is full of this garbage.

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