motris (motris) wrote,

The Year in Puzzles - Award Edition #2

As with last year’s entry, I’m doing this awards style and keeping the categories from last year. Commenters are welcome to recommend other “awards” for the best or worst in puzzles.

Most Inspired Puzzle Solve of the Year:
United States Puzzle Championship Runaway Victory

Not a lot of inspired solving from me this year, but the obvious winner has to be the solving of 21 out of 23 puzzles in ~135 minutes on the USPC. Admittedly the test ran 150 minutes, and I couldn’t put those sheep into those fences in the last minutes, but the 360 point score was 95 points above my highest domestic competitor (and 50 points clear of Mehmet Murat Sevim’s second place score), for the largest margin of victory in the test’s history. Considering I also own the smallest margin of victory in the test’s history (1 point, in 2006), which expanded to 5 in 2007, and then 43 (+15 minutes) in 2008, I’m glad to see the trendlines going as they are, even if it is breaking the test.

Final Puzzle of the Sudoku National Championship – an investment of 13 dollars and 73 cents provided me with a large piece of showerboard and electrical tape to reconstruct the silly solving experience of the whiteboard finals for this event. After practicing on about a hundred puzzles, I figured I should be able to shave a minute or two off the ridiculous 7+ minutes that the finals in each level of this championship take. This year, after a quick start, I seized onto the triples in box one and box nine rather efficiently and raced to a finish in an amazing 4:14. So amazingly fast that I’d made a transposition error from misreading an 8 note as a 6 note. If this was actually a valid puzzle solve, it would certainly have been the most inspired solve of the year.

OAPC 1 – On the first of a long series of internet tests preceding the WPC, I got the first (and, until Ulrich’s performance on #10 without an optimizer, only) perfect score on an OAPC. The organizers might have said it best: “Thomas Snyder has got all the puzzles correctly and reached the possible maximum in optimizer, which is great for him but sad for us, because he has done it all ☺ Congratulations!” I have done it all indeed!

Surprise of the Year:
Dishonesty and cheating in the world of competitive puzzles

In 2005, after the discovery of dishonesty and cheating led to the sudden end of a four-year long relationship with a person I expected to spend the rest of my life with, I turned to puzzles to cope. Somehow, at a time when interpersonal relationships just weren’t making sense, puzzles were an outlet that could provide some answers, particularly with logic that would never betray the solver who spent the time to see a solution through. Sudoku was just getting big at the time, and a B-team spot at the WPC offered a fresh opportunity to open a new door in my life.

Four years later, with books and trophies and other mementos to speak for our time together, my rebound relationship with “puzzles” stopped making sense this year and required reevaluation. First, my solving spirit was crushed by a completely illogical set of competition rules, invalid puzzles, non-sudoku, and much other nonsense at the World “Sudoku” “Championship” in Slovakia. In June, days before the USPC, I’d discover direct plagiarism of my puzzles for the first time on a foreign national championship that kept me tossing and turning in bed for several nights. Then the Sudoku National Championship brought “Eugene” and cheating into the fore of the discussion, even making message boards about WPC rounds in the weeks that followed as I pursued some justice for puzzlers against this interloper. After not paying enough attention to the problems in my relationship with puzzles (its easy to ignore some of them when most of the time things are going well), it was impossible to deny them this year. It is clear to me that organizers of events need quality standards including clear printed rules instructions for all parts of the competition well before the events, that the puzzles used need to be tested to ensure human-solvability, and that playoffs should be eliminated or minimized and at the very least structured to favor the best qualifier(s) so that World and US puzzle titles mean something. My responses to all this insanity (and by far, the biggest trend of the year) were my “Open Letters to Organizers” which I hope never happen again. I’m beginning to realize, as I did four years ago with my last girlfriend, that it is simply not worth investing so much time in a relationship if it is just a one-way love without any trust left. For me, this year marked the loss, forever, of the innocence of the world of puzzles.

And its not just competitive puzzles that got scummy. When even mildly noteworthy ideas – like Strimko – can be copied, formatting and all, by a supposed leader in logic puzzles, Conceptis, and resold as “Chain Sudoku – probably the best variant of the world’s most popular logic puzzle” without any credit to the initial inventor, something really shitty is going on. Here, and elsewhere, the quality and substance of puzzles was taken over by marketing, mechanization, and money.

German Youth - The strong performance of newcomers Florian Kirch and Philipp Weiss of the German team at the WPC, joining Ulrich Voigt and Michael Ley in their first team title in several years. With a US team that has seen no turnover since my break-through in 2006, Antalya gave us the first signs of a revived powerhouse in Germany that will be hard to beat in the future.

The Asymmetric 17s Round at the Sudoku National Championship – for another year Nick Baxter came close to picking off this award with great gamesmanship as an organizer. Last year, he released a phony “counting puzzle” just before the USPC to pick on a dislike of mine. This year, in the run-up to the US Sudoku National Championship, after many D4 symmetric puzzles from Stefan Heine, Nick released a completely asymmetric advanced puzzle I’d describe as a “curveball in the dirt”. Thinking he’d spent this joke before the event, we’d chat between rounds 1 and 2 about why I didn’t like asymmetric puzzles for various reasons, except when absolutely required such as for minimal 17s. Minutes later, a round of minimal 17s appeared. The lack of symmetry gave me an instant FU kind of response to Nick, and it threw me off my game. While I’d eventually see they were all 17s, I’d still manage to break all three puzzles and finish the round 7th. While there were many other stories at that championship, this second round was another huge competition surprise.

My best puzzle creation of the year:
TomTom Puzzles (aka my take on KenKen)

There is nothing I can write here that can match just linking back to the original Thomas Snyder Does the NYT KenKen post and having you reread the first week that I transformed a soulless brain-exercise into an evolved and interesting puzzle. Next year will see TomTom Puzzles released on the market, with over 150 puzzles looking like their lesser brother but containing so much more theme and fun (and better rules and variants). It may or may not sell well, but TomTom Puzzles is my first step outside of the comfortable world of Sudoku and was the most inspired thing on my blog since my first puzzle, that United States Jigsaw Sudoku. While the name is high on hubris, these puzzles are undoubtedly mine and I hope will define my creative abilities now and in the future.

Mystery Hunt puzzles - Lego Skyscrapers, and Cross-Something-or-Others (with Dan Katz) – both were awesome puzzles from and hinted at in last year’s awards as changing the landscape of puzzles in various ways. Lego Skyscrapers was my personal favorite, given how visual skyscrapers puzzles seem to be even though numbers are only ever used for the cities to this point. While the solving process of these puzzles was solid, with a staggered difficulty, a clunky extraction mechanism spoiled an otherwise great experience. Cross-Something-or-Others similarly was a fun solving experience (with a busy-work extraction step) that demonstrated that interesting puzzles in a lot of varieties of Kakuro are possible. It was a pleasure to construct it with thedan.

Since my book puzzles are written over a year before they come out, many Sudoku Masterpieces gems are disqualified for now, but Mutant Sudoku contains many examples of stellar work. With no clear winner in the book, I’ll recommend the “Child’s Play?” Shape Sudoku (Tic-Tac-Toe puzzle with a gimmicky but interesting solution path), the “All Smiles” Thermodoku (the best of my smile puzzles in the book), and the “Volcano!” Chimera (not too hard to solve, but still an incredibly clean execution of this theme) as my personal favorites.

There are also many Friday Puzzles that were cool, like the 2/22 Nurikabe and the Arrow Sudoku as in an example SudokuCup3 puzzle that stand out on reflection.

Puzzle Nemesis of the Year:
KenKen and “Sudoku” (tie)

While the signs were already there last January that this might be the “year of KenKen” according to one company and one powerful puzzlemaster, getting a prime placement in the print version of the NYTimes in February certainly elevated the numbers puzzle to a higher spot than last year’s runner-up status as worst puzzle trend here. While some (ahem … Tom Collyer … ahem) would defend it here as brain-training, I could not accept a puzzle unchanged from the version used to teach 5-6 year olds to do arithmetic as what adults should be getting in the New York Times, especially as it seemed to squeeze out other, better puzzles in the Sunday Magazine (whether real or imagined). By taking up spots worthier puzzles deserved, and at the very least not striving to innovate even after I pointed out clear weaknesses in the product, KenKen deserves its spot here as my puzzle nemesis of the year.

However, a shared and equally deserved title – also to a runner-up from last year – must be given to “sudoku”, my new term for number-placement puzzles that are either not sudoku or not human-solvable or both. Sudoku is a number-placement puzzle involving three-constraints on each cell; puzzles with fewer than three-constraints do not capture the magic formula that is sudoku and are instead best described as “Latin Squares” or worse. Just as I don’t consider what a sudoku is up for debate, I don’t consider what a solvable sudoku is up for debate either. After many years of developing identified solving strategies for these puzzles, encoded into the best computer solvers as well, there is a well-established set of steps to solve a sudoku. Exercises in bifurcation – whose only virtue as a “valid” puzzle is having a single solution – are not fitting competition puzzles and should be labeled “sudoku” or something else entirely. The Guinness World Record puzzle, with one placeable number, joins a growing list of inappropriate puzzles that killed “sudoku” competition for me.

Wolves and Sheep in Fences (USPC) – still a puzzle I can’t do logically in a reasonable amount of time despite such a solution likely existing. The 25 minutes I spent on it during the test without a solution certainly kept a 400 from happening for my 4th title.

Myself – solving way too fast led to lots of sloppy errors – in rounds, in finals, just about everywhere. While I would be a loud proponent that organizers affected my performance as well as others in several competitions, I must certainly admit that I also had a hand in some of my defeats this year as well.

Puzzle Event of the Year:
Shinteki Decathlon 5

I formed my own team of friends from Stanford (including my best friend who got to Stanford via Caltech where we met as frosh-SURFs) to compete in this day exploring the spectrum in search of Indigo. While we were minutes from finishing all the bonus puzzles when the day ended, and hours behind the leaders, I don’t think I had more fun all year in a day of puzzling. Many clean, inspired, and often multi-layered puzzles. Crayons! A lot of fun places visited (including a romp through the Exploratorium, Golden Gate Park, and a foggy inspiration point). And a clear reason to bring Garrett back to the Bay Area again next year.

MIT Mystery Hunt – For most solvers, this likely was a great event to solve, with fun and varied
puzzles, space-themed events that excited the ‘techer in all of us and even lead to a worthy Game-level construction of team Left Out’s Borg Cube. However, in the rush to production, problems with a large bottleneck, and with old versions of meta files in particular, led to a much buggier event than wanted, especially as observed from the GC side of things. When the event leads to the dissolution of the running team, it cannot be the event of the year.

MS Puzzle Hunt 123 – psychologically important for me in inspiring me to write puzzles again after the Mystery Hunt killed the urge and left me sick (Thomas Snyder Outdoes the NYT KenKen was conceived of and first posted the day after the MS Puzzlehunt ended), the Microsoft hunt this year was an incredibly fun weekend as I solved with the CoEds and the Burninators, winning the Bay Area division. Bay Area GC also got the (obvious) highlight of watching me jump into a fountain to search in vain for a transparent stencil (no, not near the claw itself; no, closer to the perimeter; no, closer to just this side) as I got wetter and wetter. However, while our team certainly enjoyed the event a lot, the hunt was not without problems such as meta-bottlenecks that blocked many “competitive” teams from seeing all of the puzzles. In this way, both the Mystery Hunt and the MS Puzzle Hunt made an error that future organizers would do well to avoid.

BANG 21 – This ~5 hour event from the Burninators single-handedly delayed BANG 23 by several months (first, because some of us were learning how to write/run an event by watching the process first-hand by helping out GC; second, from the inertia and fear of being the first BANG to follow such a well-executed event). The 21-themed puzzles were well presented and all clean solves.

Puzzle of the Year:
Normally I have a stockpile of puzzles I saved over the year as being especially brilliant. This year, my strongest memories in puzzles are unfortunately on the dark side, but I can pick out a couple that stood out to me as the nominees (descriptions can and will be spoilery):

Reflections on a Milky Steed Who’s Quite Amphibious, Indeed – Ian Tullis, Mystery Hunt – Test solving the Mystery Hunt was mostly pain for me. For many months it was basically remote solving (not recommended) and our test-solving groups tended to have just one active and many inactive members anyway so almost all solo solves (also not recommended). Well, of all the puzzles I tested in our Hunt, this stood out as my clear favorite, and test-solving it with Zack (and team) was a delight. It captures all the elements I like in an Aha puzzle. It had a simple, clean, whimsical appearance as something like (not unlike) what you need to do with it, in this case appearing as a Seussian rhyme. Digging deeper revealed that the rhyme scheme, starting from the ABBA first stanza on amazingly spelled words throughout. These words then amazingly clued other words in each stanza, which re-encoded into the rhyme scheme to give a phrase cluing a fitting answer word of VERSE. It didn’t need hours of research or busy-work like many MIT puzzles. It was simply elegant, inspired, and executed to perfection.

Tapa – Serkan Yurekli, OAPCs and WPC – Appearing as the very first four puzzles on the very first OAPC, this new logic puzzle type would come to be perhaps the most loved of the Turkish puzzles at the WPC. The combination of loops/paths and minesweeper-like constraints formed a magic space where simple constraints still allowed for a lot of different kinds of thinking. Many worthy variations followed including hex grids, +/- variants, crypted puzzles, etc. Like the Spanish appetizers of similar name, Serkan’s tapas always left me satisfied but wanting more.

Cannibal Housewives – Kenny Young, MS Puzzle Hunt – I am a card-carrying chemist. By this I mean, when a puzzle involves a periodic table, I’ve got a pocket reference with me at all times to pull out and use. BANG 21 revealed one occasion I proved my nerdiness as a chemist. The MS Puzzle Hunt seems a good place for periodic table puzzle ideas (Boggle on the periodic table was part of my favorite puzzle of PH 11.0). Here, a game of Scrabble with ludicrous scores was played. After the Aha that you were using tiles from the periodic table, headway could be made but still a lot of creativity in looking at the game board was required. Getting to the end, a relatively un-clued and un-scored play of seven tiles gave the answer. The step wasn’t trivial, but the remaining elements that made THERMODYNAMICS completed one of my favorite final answer discoveries of all time, in a really great puzzle.

Botsu Bako Hashiwokakero – 45, – Many great Nikoli choices this year, including a bunch of inspired Masyu by Juno, but the one puzzle that instantly jumped to my “favorite ever of this type” list was the 4 only Hashiwokakero. An original theme, with fun execution, and a satisfying mix of logic for a puzzle so heavily tied to one kind of gimmick. While there still aren’t many Hashi worth writing home about, this one clearly was.

And the winner is:
Reflections on a Milky Steed Who’s Quite Amphibious, Indeed – while this puzzle was almost nipped at the finish, when I first considered having to type the whole name again, I quickly remembered the value of cntl-c and cntl-v and made the right choice. When I have to show a person who’s not into puzzles what it is I do at an event like a Mystery Hunt, this will be what I show them. A whimsical rhyme that contained so much more. They may still end up rolling their eyes at the kind of steps we take to solve these “puzzles”, but for many, the execution of this treat is so clean and the idea so fresh that they will certainly be intrigued to try a puzzle event out for themselves.
Tags: bang, eugene, fridaypuzzle, hashi, kakuro, kenken/calcudoku, mutant sudoku, mystery hunt, nikoli, oapc, puzzlehunt, shinteki, sudoku masterpieces, uspc, ussc, wpc, wsc
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