(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

Good news for the end of November

"Good News for a change!" - adapted from Rick Warden, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

Adapted from an image by Rick Warden, released under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence,
originally created using a Flickr Commons non-copyrighted archival photo

Never enough good news stories. Never, ever enough of them.

  • Congratulations to Sofija and Artur who recently became engaged at Locked In Edinburgh; the story even made it onto STV! If you’re in the UK, you can enjoy the couple’s moment by watching a later part of this episode of The Fountainbridge Show within the next 30 days – and aired on St. Andrew’s Day, no less! This is the ninth UK exit game proposal of which this site is aware; this is the point at which these stories will continue to be joyously celebrated, but perhaps no longer counted.
  • On the subject of TV, Nick Gates of Bother’s Bar passes on a suggestion that Race to Escape is due to be broadcast in the UK, on our version of the Discovery channel, available on Sky and Virgin. A few months ago this site discussed covert ways to watch the show but this will be much more convenient, as well as – ahem – legal. This site considers it a varied, imaginative and entertaining show, though criticisms that it requires (and thus risks encouraging) horrible behaviour from exit game players do have a point.
  • Still on the subject of TV, though here it’s TV inspiring live games rather than the other way around, the live The Crystal Maze attraction is whirring into life with Indiegogo backers being able to select their tickets today and sales surely being opened up to the rest of the world very soon. With so many booking options sold during the campaign and literally thousands of people booking tickets, the booking process appears to have been a little bumpy in patches, but only a little and largely quickly resolved.
  • It’s been a bumper year for Rubik’s cube speed-solving records. Back in May, Collin Burns clocked a 5.25 second solve of a standard 3x3x3 cube to break a World Record that had lasted two years; on 21st November, Keaton Ellis improved on this with a 5.09 second solve, a new World Record. Unfortunately Keaton may go down in history alongside legendarily transient record-holder Olga Rukavishnikova, for his landmark achievement was overshadowed only about an hour or so later when Lucas Etter clocked a 4.904 to break the five-second barrier. Far better to have been the fastest that the world has ever known, even if only briefly, than never to have held the crown at all.
  • On the subject of records and prizes, Escape Manor in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, have announced on their Facebook that they’re holding an exit game design contest with a buxom prize pool of six thousand Canadian dollars; five finalists will be selected to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. “The top 3 contestants will be awarded a cash prize and a chance to help have their room developed at one of the Escape Manor locations!” This site contacted Escape Manor for comment, which has not yet been returned, as to whether entrants have to be Canadian and whether it might be possible for a finalist to pitch by videoconference should travelling to pitch in person be uneconomic. At the very last, perhaps it’s a model for design contests in the future.
  • A less geographically constrained, less competitive endeavour is the forthcoming Breakout EDU game jam on 9th-10th January 2016. Breakout EDU is a standard collection of equipment intended to help people create classroom games with something of the exit game nature to them – though normally breaking into a box, rather than breaking through a locked exit door. The standardisation of the platform means that if you design a game, anyone around the world will be able to play it; there aren’t many games available in this way yet, but this event will hopefully get people creating – and then using the created games. While the tools may be relatively frequently found, there’s no limit to the puzzles and ingenuity that might surround them; you can create games for four- and six- year olds, or anywhere up the scale to being for adults. Get designing games wherever you like, but the focus on one weekend will inspire physical events at which many people with a common goal can get together to get creating. Exciting times, and – again – perhaps a model for another part of the future!

Puzzlecraft: a review

Screen grab from a presentationThe wonderful, if slightly fruitily-worded, sentiment above comes from a talk given by Mike Selinker. Mike has co-written a hundred installments of the PuzzleCraft series, describing how to construct puzzles of sundry types, in the US’ legendary Games Magazine over the years; Mike and co-author Thomas Snyder (whose record in the World Puzzle Federation’s global puzzle and sudoku competitions is among the very best) have also compiled a book, updating these instructions, and including sample puzzles as examples. The book, of full title PuzzleCraft: The Ultimate Guide on How to Construct Every Kind of Puzzle, is widely available online from your stockist of choice. (This site doesn’t “do” affiliate links programmes.)

Perhaps “Every” kind of puzzle is pushing it, but not actually very hard. There are well over seventy different types of puzzles discussed here: various types of knowledge puzzles, observation puzzles, manipulation puzzles, all sorts of word puzzles – all manner of types of crosswords – logic puzzles featuring numbers, patterns, paths and pure logic, plus discussion of plenty of other types of puzzles along the way.

The writing style is breezy, often funny, and very directly conversational. There’s a thorough explanation of how each puzzle works, an example – usually a really polished example of the genre – along with a set of techniques about how to break the construction down into manageable steps, and how the techniques were used in that particular example. The discussion of the specific puzzle types is pragmatic enough that you may not get much out of it unless you use it for its intended purpose and actually set puzzles, but the more general discussion of puzzles at large reflects the authors’ practically unparalleled breadth of experience and is great general reading to leave you excited about the potential of the world of puzzles at large.

One big caveat is that this book doesn’t consider exit games as such, and the embedding of paper-and-pencil puzzles within exit games would have to be handled with great care to avoid jarring. This site is not aware of either author having been involved with the genre yet, but would be delighted for that to change. The section at the start of the last chapter in which Selinker describes a puzzle hunt he ran at the PAX convention in 2009, as well as all the other events described on his Lone Shark Games site, will fill you with every confidence that he could do something quite delightful in the genre if he wanted to. As Reiner Knizia would put it, “so much to do and so few turns“!

If you do have an inclination to construct puzzles, there surely can only be a couple of very specialist types of puzzles where there might be more specific, in-depth guidance available. Even if you don’t, this book comes extremely highly recommended in the context of containing a really wide variety of very fine puzzles to solve. At a third, more general level still, it’s a wonderful, cheerleading love-letter to what puzzles can achieve at their finest. Bravo!