Baby Bear brain

I’ve recently been working on getting one of my cousins into puzzles.

It all started back in March, when I was visiting back home.  I showed her the basics of sudoku with a kids’ book I had bought for my Mom.  (Would I put money on Mom having not touched that book since I left?  Yes.  Yes, I would.)  The ones that really grabbed her, though, were Fill-Ins; she told me later that she had bought a magazine of them and regularly worked on them in the evenings.

Cue me spending something close to $100 on various magazines and books for her, covering a wide gamut of puzzle types.  What can I say?  When someone seems to share a passion of mine, I want to make the most of it.  She’s actually coming to nearby Asheville next week on vacation, and I’ll be bringing her the second wave of puzzle books in person.

Teaching someone how to do puzzles “from scratch” has been an interesting experience for me.  I’ve been doing them since I was a kid; I used to walk around with a big brown tote full of puzzle magazines when I was seven or eight, and am still pretty bitter that my Mom threw them away sometime in the early nineties.  I only managed to save a single magazine from that apocalypse, a Dell Crosswords Spectacular from 1991.  It happens to have one of my favorite puzzles of all time, one I transcribed over a decade ago.  Here it is.  (The rules: make a single, Nikoli-style loop in the puzzle through the centers of the squares.  The numbers represent how many boxes in that row or column are part of the loop.)

That puzzle used to be the hardest one I had ever solved, and it took me years as a kid.  I’ve done tougher since, but going back to basics–as is necessary when you’re teaching someone who hasn’t been steeped in puzzles for the vast majority of their life–has been enlightening.  I get to experience the “a-ha!” moment of understanding, internalizing the ways that a good puzzle design works through someone else’s eyes.

I’ve also come to realize that, if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t really like very hard puzzles.  This was made crystal-clear by a particular puzzle that I recently worked on from a Japanese magazine called 超難問ナンプレ&頭脳全開数理パズル, which roughly translates to “Super Difficult Sudoku & Math Puzzles.”  It’s not lying.  The magazine contains a section of Slitherlinks, my favorite puzzle type, but even though I’ve solved literally hundreds of them the ones in this magazine regularly cause me to fail miserably.  You can actually play the breaking-point puzzle here, thanks to the Javascript version of Simon Tatham’s Portable Puzzle Collection and my fastidious transcription.  I don’t recommend it, though.

Put simply, the puzzle is brutally hard, and at the end requires what amounts to “guessing wildly and see what happens.”  This sort of arbitrary “what-if?” logic sets my teeth on edge in puzzles of all types.  In fact, I personally see it as a kind of failing.  If your puzzle can’t be reasoned out from first principles, then I just don’t think it’s very good.  I did eventually solve the puzzle, with some help on a couple of deductions from an online acquaintance, but it wasn’t satisfying at all.  I didn’t get to the end with a feeling of accomplishment; I got to it with a feeling of defeat.

The problem is that a lot of very hard puzzles end up making me feel that way, whether I manage to actually solve them or not.  And so: yeah, they’re just not for me.  I can accept that, although it pains me to admit that there are entire swaths of puzzles that I’ll never like or enjoy because of simply being too hard for me to enjoy.

Puzzles that are too easy have a different sort of problem: they feel rote, mechanical, like I’m doing the pencil-and-paper equivalent of writing lines.  Which, uh, I guess is just writing lines?  I still do them on occasion–most Fill-Ins are like this for me nowadays, actually–and there is some satisfaction to be gained from the process, from taking a disorganized list of words or an empty grid and putting it all together the right way based on the rules of the puzzle; we humans crave making order out of chaos, after all.  But they’re like over-sweet candy: nice every once in a while, but not really meal material.

So, like Goldilocks, I suppose I like my puzzles neither too hard nor too easy, but just right.  Fortunately for me, the majority of Nikoli’s publications fit into that spot.  They have a couple of harder-than-average puzzle types (Heyawake being the biggest outlier), but most of their stuff is eminently doable even at the highest difficulty level.

I’ll still buy my every-other-month copy of 超難問ナンプレ&頭脳全開数理パズル, but it’ll mostly be to gawk at the ridiculous puzzles.  And then I’ll turn back to Baby Bear’s books and magazines, the ones filled with not-too-easy, not-too-hard challenges, and actually enjoy myself.

2 thoughts on “Baby Bear brain”

  1. There’s another aspect to easy puzzles, though: they build confidence.

    They’re an important stepping stone in an “I can do this” climb to enlightenment. And they often teach and test fundamentals.

    The easy puzzles aren’t designed for you, honey… ^_^

    1. Oh, I’m very happy they exist. I certainly needed to do them at first for quite a few puzzle types. I just don’t get much out of them any more.

      I’m glad hard puzzles exist too, because there’s clearly a market for them, even if (sadly) that market isn’t me.

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