Dissecting puzzle design: Ballot

Warning, Spoilers Ahead

Notice: This blog post is a peek behind the cur­tain to reveal the design of and thought process behind a Puzzled Pint puz­zle.  It con­tains spoil­ers about said puz­zle.  This is the sec­ond post in this series.  If you find it inter­est­ing, you may want to look back at “Dissecting puz­zle design: Dem Bones.”  This par­tic­u­lar post is about a puz­zle that became a bonus puz­zle dur­ing the November 2012 Puzzled Pint (“Webcomics”).  If you were at that Puzzled Pint, you’re good to go.  If you have not yet seen this puz­zle, then I highly sug­gest going to the archives, down­load “Ballot,” print out a copy and try to solve it before pro­ceed­ing.

The Seed

This puz­zle came to me while think­ing about the Oregon bal­lots (they’re all mail-in) and Scantron answer sheets.  The fill-in bub­bles by them­selves make good pips for things like Braille.  I wanted to do some­thing like that, but not a straight­for­ward fill-in-the-pips-and-see-the-answer-directly sort of thing.  I thought maybe I could make it a bit more three-dimensional.  I had already done a puz­zle for the month, though, so didn’t want to spend a lot of time on it.  This, cou­pled with the easy dif­fi­culty, is exactly how Ballot became a bonus puz­zle; my other puz­zle was fin­ished and tightly cou­pled with the web­comic theme.  We had all the other puz­zles for the month.  This one was the­mat­i­cally cou­pled to November and elec­tions, so would have been hard to save for the next month.  (Admittedly, we could have held it for a year, but.... really?)

The Implementation

My orig­i­nal thought was to have two Scantron-like bal­lots that the puz­zler fills in.  Each would have three (or more) options for each ques­tion.  She would then stack them and off­set one from the other a bit to see all the dots.

I really liked this scheme, but there was an encod­ing issue.  If you were to legit­i­mately fill out the bub­bles, you could only have zero or one pips in each Braille col­umn.  That severely lim­its the let­ter choice: four let­ters, specif­i­cally.

The Rethink

I thought I could then rotate things a bit.  If there were two answers per ques­tion and three answer sheets, I could get away with one pip for each row.

That gave me a larger, but still lim­ited let­ter set.

At this point, I knew I had to break the rules and allow more than one answer filled in.  That, in turn, led to the fla­vor text about dis­si­dent protest votes — peo­ple inten­tion­ally mark­ing bal­lots with invalid marks to throw away their vote with an atti­tude.

The Puzzle

At that point, I made the first and final tech­ni­cal draft.  There was one non-technical draft that fixed a typo and removed bar­codes to sim­plify the pre­sen­ta­tion.  The early draft had bar­codes (hold­ing the same data as the ser­ial num­bers), which were just there as graph­i­cal design ele­ments to spice up the look.  You can see them in the answer key:

The “Alternate Solve”

When design­ing puz­zles, you have to look at things from the point of view of the solvers.  Given an ele­ment, how could you inter­pret it?  There is the offi­cial way, yes, but there may be alter­nate inter­pre­ta­tions.  You might inten­tion­ally put ambi­gu­i­ties in inter­pre­ta­tion there to increase dif­fi­culty, but often they are unin­ten­tional.  I hadn’t thought there could be an alter­nate inter­pre­ta­tion of braille, but one team came up with an inter­est­ing near-solve.

One team didn’t rotate and trans­late to braille, they looked at the filled-in cir­cles as num­bers: 0, 1, or 2, depend­ing on how many were filled in.  That con­jures up the idea of tri­nary (or ternary, base-3).  They then read the dig­its across as a ternary num­ber, start­ing from the bot­tom of the bal­lot, work­ing toward the top: 112:N, 001:A, 121:P, 121:P, 212W.  They thought that maybe they messed up the last one and the answer was “nappy.”  It’s a great, cre­ative solve and noth­ing that any­one in Game Control thought of, but unfor­tu­nately was not the answer.

The Easter Egg

Of course you found it, right?


Posted in: Games Portland Puzzle Games

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Brian Enigma

Brian Enigma is a Portlander, manipulator of atoms & bits, minor-league blogger, and all-around great guy. He typically writes about the interesting “maker” projects he's working on, but sometimes veers off into puzzles, software, games, local news, and current events.

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