I’ve written about closed versus open puzzles from the standpoint of a designer, but in this post, I wanted to go over how to approach the difference from a player’s standpoint.
To review quickly, a closed puzzle is one where all the information needed to solve the puzzle is apparent to the player immediately upon finding the puzzle. For instance, a Sudoku puzzle or most crossword puzzles. Many math puzzles also fall into this category. In these puzzles, no additional information is needed to solve the puzzle. Once you find an element of the puzzle, you have found all the elements of the puzzle. It then becomes a matter of solving it.
An open puzzle is one where the information needed to solve it is not obvious or self-contained in the puzzle itself. Most good escape room puzzles tend to be open puzzles. It’s hard to describe an open puzzle easily, because by their very nature, an open puzzle can’t have all of the information in one place.
Closed puzzles are inherently easier to solve since at least we know all the components that are involved in the puzzle itself. If you can’t solve an closed puzzle within a few minutes, it’s usually best to pass it along to another member of your team, or at the very least move on to another puzzle. The reason for this is that closed puzzles usually won’t give way to prolonged deep thinking. You usually need to associate a few puzzle elements together or figure out the system that intertwines all the puzzle information together. If you can’t work out how the puzzle works, it’s usually best to move on.
An open puzzle is very different. In an open puzzle, it’s very possible that you don’t have enough information to solve the puzzle, or the information you are looking at is either incomplete or the information you have requires a different lens to solve it.
For instance, you have a set of numbers, like 2,50,18,25,6,13,11. You don’t know if these numbers are meant to refer to something else to form a sentence, like the 2nd word, 50th word, 18th word, etc. Or it’s possible that the numbers are themselves referred to by another clue. Imagine a paper describing a murder that happened at 6:18 PM. This might yield a code of 53 (the fifth word, then the third word.)
A tricky element of the last puzzle is that it might look like a closed puzzle when you first see it. If you try to solve it as a closed puzzle, it won’t yield and you’ll be using precious minutes solving something that you can’t.
The flip side is when you do have all the elements to solve a puzzle and you believe that you don’t. You’ll be wasting your time looking for additional clues when you have all the clues needed for your puzzle already.
The ability to intuit whether you have enough information to solve a puzzle is an important one in Escape Rooms. The next time you get stumped by a puzzle, try determining whether you have all the parts to the puzzle already or not. This skill is a big one I see in the best groups.
Brian is wondering if he has enough clues to figure out his newest room despite being 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!