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Process The Open Aha!

Sorry for the Esalen-sounding title, but it'll make sense if you stick with me!  I've been stuck writing a post about puzzles using a distinction I was calling "open" vs "closed" when I came upon an article by a certain Errol Elumir who writes of a distinction he uses calling puzzles "process" or "aha". Here's his words on the subject here and here.

Here's Errol: "There are a lot of process puzzles in escape rooms, which I usually define as a puzzle you could program a computer or robot to solve. An example may be a cryptogram, or a sudoku, or even something physically task based. 

Contrast this to an “A-ha!” puzzle, a puzzle where you need a flash of insight to solve. Sometimes, you get that magical moment where you correlate a clue you saw to the current problem and cry “Eureka!

I find this distinction very useful and dovetails nicely into my own way of separating puzzles, which is "open" vs closed".

Whats a closed puzzle?

I think of a closed puzzle as being one where all the components of the puzzle are known to the player prior to the player attempting to solve the puzzle. For instance, a crossword puzzle is a closed puzzle. You know that only words are going into the rows and columns in the crossword. There won't be pictures or shapes for answers, for instance. Additionally, the goal is known. There are different goals possible in a crossword (fill in everything, guess the theme or word), but the specific goal, or at least the broad outlines, to a crossword is known all players. 

Sudoku Puzzle

Sudoku Puzzle

Closed puzzles are basically the same as Process Puzzles. My friend Edwin uses a term, "Handout", to describe, well ... a handout! It's a paper with a puzzle on it. These are used in Escape Rooms frequently because it has the advantage of an ease of construction as well as offering familiarity to the player.

The downside to this type of puzzle is that it's near impossible to integrate this type of puzzle into a story or theme. We're pirates ... solving Sudoku! We're Zombie-Hunters ... doing crossword puzzles! For this reason, we avoid this type of puzzle completely at Enigma HQ. 

On the other end of the spectrum is an open or aha! puzzle. In an open puzzle, the player may not know what the goal, components necessary to achieve that goal, or even the rules governing play once the challenge has begun.

In our puzzles at Enigma HQ, we frequently don't give you the information as to what the puzzle even is in any straightforward type of way. This allows for the aha! of figuring out what the puzzle or task is. The next aha! is figuring out what information or objects in the room could pertain to the challenge at hand. The last aha! is figuring out how to use those objects and information to solve the challenge. This hopefully makes the puzzles a lot more rich and perhaps more importantly allows the puzzles to be integrated into a story.

Real life mysteries do not involve closed puzzles that give you answers by doing Sudoku. We feel that to maximize immersion, the puzzles must integrate into the story in as close as possible to the way they would if they story were real. This reminds of me of the advice in the game Myst, "If you are stuck, think about how you would approach this if it were real life."


Brian has been in the games industry for over 20 years, first as a professional Magic player. He went on to become a professional poker player and game designer. In an effort to understand obscure technologies and lose what remaining free time he had, he opened Enigma HQ!