Geocache Puzzle Construction Tips

Here’s a brief summary of my own personal feelings of the elements of a good puzzle solving experience.

Balance

A good puzzle is one that compels the potential solver to actually solve it. If it’s too hard or too complex (or even if it just appears that way), most people won’t try or will give up quickly. If it’s too easy, experienced solvers won’t attempt it (or will blast right through it just to snag FTF honors wink.gif ). Obviously, the definitions of “too hard” and “too easy” will vary between cachers – in writing a puzzle, you should consider what experience level you want to target.

Flow

The best way to build a good puzzle cache is to start from the end and work your way backwards. As with a traditional cache, pick an interesting location, then frame your puzzle around it.

For instance, I noticed a building in my city that had three windows in the shape of the numbers “007″ and that there was a caboose parked on a nearby railway siding that also had the number “007″ painted on it. I created a James Bond trivia puzzle that when solved with information at the building would take you to the caboose. (Unfortunately, the building was knocked down shortly after the cache was published.)

Simplicity

A good puzzle doesn’t rely upon a complex solving mechanism. The harder it is to understand or ascertain the solving mechanism, the less compelling it is. Note that simplicity is unrelated to effort – all sudoku puzzles have a very simple set of rules that constrain the puzzle solution, yet some can be quite effort-intensive to solve.

Originality

A good puzzle is one that helps me to see the world in a new way. I already know how to do sudoku puzzles and have seen them used in caches quite a lot, so seeing a new sudoku puzzle pop up wouldn’t interest me. However, a variation on sudoku (such as GCQXGW) might be really interesting (I still haven’t solved that one, btw).

There are certain types of puzzles I find uninteresting as an experienced puzzle solver, mostly because they’ve been used over and over again. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t create one of these yourself, but you should be mindful of other caches in your area that might be similar. Here are some methods of hiding coordinates that have been overused:

  • Sudoku
  • Simple substitution ciphers
  • Bar codes
  • Basic arithmetic
  • Obvious mappings of the letter A into 1, B into 2, etc.
  • Obvious mappings of objects into numbers (elements, US presidents, US states, etc)

If you’re looking to construct a fairly standard type of puzzle (such as a crossword, cryptogram, maze, logic problem, etc), the Internet and your local library have many, many resources available. Just search for the word “construction” along with the particular type of puzzle you want to create, and you’re certain to find something meaningful.

Correctness

It’s very disappointing to spend a lot of time solving something only to find out that mistakes by the puzzle constructor have led you astray. (Imagine how you’d feel if a traditional cache owner gave you slightly incorrect coordinates and had you searching 100′ away from the actual location.)

Hints

I don’t care for puzzles that just give you some random sequence of letters and hope you guess the magic formula for untangling their meaning. The best ones have hints in the text, title, and other places that may directly or (better yet) not-so-directly nudge your thinking in the right direction. The worst ones require blind guesses about ciphers or keywords or magic numbers or secret incantations. I mean how much fun is this game?

Me: I’m thinking of a number. Guess.
You: Uh … 7?
Me: No.
You: 11?
Me: No.
You: A million?
Me: No.
You: I quit.

Location

The best puzzle caches are ones that incorporate the intermediate or final locations into the puzzle somehow. Perhaps the final location is a punch line to a joke posed by the puzzle text (I love those) or has some special relationship to the final … make the location meaningful.

Be sure that you have a good answer to the cacher’s question: “Why did you bother to bring me here? What’s in it for me at this place?” (It’s no different in that regard than traditional caches.)

Integration

Some of the most interesting puzzles are ones that tie multiple elements together – a clever backstory, an interesting puzzle, and a meaningful reward. The more elements you can tie together (especially those that can be discovered by surprise along the way), the more people will like your puzzle.

For instance, a puzzle that uses elements and leads to a monument at the site of some famous discovery in chemistry or physics might be really cool, or perhaps a puzzle with stellar magnitudes might lead to some other location involving stars (such as an observatory, or something like the Hollywood Walk of Fame).

Persistence

Puzzle caches aren’t found anywhere near as often as traditional ones, so if they are muggled it will take longer for someone to notice. Plus, if the final container disappears, would-be solvers might have the right solution but mistakenly think they’ve got it wrong. Make sure you pick a place and a container that will stand the test of time.

I have a corollary to the persistence rule for bonus caches that require collecting information from a series of other caches – treat the series caches the same as the bonus. If one of the series caches disappears and isn’t replaced for an extended period of time, then the bonus cache will become unfindable. Keep your series up to date as well as the status of the bonus.

Online Verification

If the puzzle can be solved at your desk, it’s a good idea to include a link to a verification tool such as Geochecker. Your solvers will appreciate not having to drive around testing out their solution theories.

Testing

There’s no better way to improve your puzzle than to have someone else test it prior to submitting it for publication. Not only will you find any errors you may have made, but you’ll also get an idea if people are solving it the way you intended and are getting the experience out of it that you wanted your finders to have.

The best way to find people to test your puzzle is to check with puzzle cache owners and puzzle cache finders in your area. Just search for all your nearby puzzle caches and send messages to folks you see in the listing … most everyone I’ve asked has been more the happy to help me out.

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