What makes a good puzzle?

By Nigel Croot

What makes a good puzzle?

Deciding what makes a puzzle good or great is very subjective and will vary from individual to individual. Peter Hajek’s annual puzzle meeting will attest to this as many contributors are asked to state their 3 favourite puzzles of the year and whilst there will be the odd one or two puzzles which appear on many lists, these lists are often quite varied.

So perhaps we should consider the factors in making the decision as to whether a puzzle needs to be on our wish list. These are:

    – Price/Affordability
    – Designer
    – Manufacturer/Maker
    – Build quality/tolerances
    – Puzzle type
    – Investment
    – Materials
    – Aesthetics
    – Difficulty
    – Progression
    – Fun
    – Sharing
    – Repeatability

Let’s look at each factor in turn and discuss their merits.


Puzzles can range from a few pence (stocking filler string puzzles) to tens of thousands of pounds (Berrocal anybody?). Does this mean a cheap puzzle is inferior to an expensive one? Far from it as many of the other factors above come into play. A cheap button hole puzzle can leave people scratching their heads for hours and be the talk of a party. On the other hand a Stickman Borg Box can create a gasp of excitement when seen and many enjoy just sitting and appreciating the beauty and design (or perhaps they’re scared to death to try and reassemble it if they do get it apart!). Obviously, affordability is important and will be the deciding factor as to whether a puzzle gets added to a collection. Some collectors like to save for one very special piece and stick to collecting more affordable puzzles.


Berrocal Puzzle-TheMetagrobologist

Many metagrobologist like to collect a particular designer’s pieces such as Stewart Coffin, Robert Yarger or even Wil Strijbos, for example. Again, price and availability will affect your choice of designer and you may need to play a patient ‘waiting game’ in order to obtain good pieces that are no longer in production or that were from a limited run.

Manufacturer & Maker

Mass produced puzzles can vary immensely in quality. Anyone who has bought a good Bits and Pieces puzzle will attest to this, some are good, others are very poor! Individual puzzle makers though are more consistent with their quality and offer puzzles at a very reasonable price when you consider the time and build quality. Eric Fuller for example carefully chooses the pieces he wishes to reproduce and limits to the number to perhaps 30-40 pieces per design. The quality is always excellent and the puzzles often increase in value after release.

Elusive E Puzzle-TheMetagrobologistBuild quality & tolerances

For collectors, this is a very important factor. If a puzzle moves smoothly and precisely it will add to the overall impression of the puzzle. If a high-level burr is ‘sloppy’ it can hinder the solution and lead to being an unsatisfying solving experience. If, however, the puzzle has high tolerances such as many Japanese puzzle boxes it can raise a smile just in appreciation of the movement.

Puzzle type

Everyone has different preferences in regard to puzzle type. Some dislike burrs but love puzzle boxes. Others may favour twisty puzzles, others packing puzzles or coordinate motion. The beauty of puzzles is the variety of types available and everyone should be encouraged to try a few of each in order to assess which types suit each individual.


Perhaps your desire is to collect in order to build a ‘portfolio’ of puzzles that will accrue value and pay for the kid’s education down the line. A little research via puzzle auction sites will show which designers/puzzles have the greatest investment potential. If anyone comes across a box of Berrocals at a car boot sale please email me! 🙂


The choice of woods used in a puzzle can contribute to its desirability. Many exotic woods can add immeasurably to the aesthetic quality of a puzzle. Many makers offer a number of wood combinations in their creations in order to satisfy different collectors tastes. Others may prefer metal or aluminium puzzles for their look or precision such as Revomaze.

Some collectors like to save for one very special piece and stick to collecting more affordable puzzles.Nigel Croot


Clutch Box Puzzle-TheMetagrobologistWould you proudly display a puzzle on a mantelpiece for others to appreciate or will it be stored in a packing box with 50 others? Normally the aesthetic quality of the puzzle will dictate this (or whether your partner allows you to put it on display in the house!). A Krasnow Merk Merkaba or Clutch Box will attract attention just as La Gioconda does at the Louvre!


Is harder better? Not always, in my experience. A puzzle collection often contains pieces of high difficulty or number of moves (a 10×10 twisty perhaps or generation lock at 341 million moves!) but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re fun! Many non-puzzlers can be put off by perceived difficulty and state the often repeated statement of ‘I don’t have the patience!’. Puzzlers will be more willing to sit and solve a puzzle for hours where others will give in after 10 minutes. The sense of achievement though is massive when you crack a puzzle having spent 50-100 hours trying to reveal its secrets.


‘Am I getting anywhere with this?’ is a thought which often enters our minds when we are attacking a puzzle. This ‘sense of progression’ is important to assessing a puzzle. It can be very unsatisfactory to solve a difficult puzzle by accident or random movements without having worked out the mechanics of the mechanism. It is important to know you are moving forward with a puzzle and heading somewhere. Even learning what not to do or where not to go is vital in building a mental picture of what is going on or to reduce possibilities.


We are all big kids at heart and we have our hobby because it’s fun! It can often be frustrating, but the rewards are often met with a huge grin and many puzzles lend themselves to being great icebreakers at parties, even to a large group of non-puzzlers. Try the elusive ‘E’ at a party and watch the penny drop (or laugh at those whose penny doesn’t drop!). Try a Mount Fuji and advise the victim to try all manner of things which will be met with a raised eyebrow! We are a cruel lot at times and a metagrobologist can often be heard saying ‘Have you tried ……. ‘ to totally throw the solver off, …….. or not 😉


Tied in with fun a factor is whether the puzzle can be shared with others or children. Puzzles should be shared and be appreciated by others. Some are suitable for the heavy-handed nature of some non-puzzlers or impatient children. It is always good to think of the durability of the puzzle in this instance. Puzzle collectors are very generous people and those attending puzzles parties such as the MPP will have the opportunity to play with a variety of puzzles including the extremely rare and you only need to ask for someone to bring something along and they will usually oblige. Try asking an art collector to bring a piece from their collection and they may not be so willing!


Mount Fuji Puzzle

Once solved is a puzzle returned to the shelf to be untouched again or will you return to it again and again due to the enjoyment to be had in the process of the solve and the pleasure in having memorised the procedure such as with a Revomaze or SuperCubi. Repeatability is a key factor in your decision to rate your puzzle.

So, What makes a puzzle good or great? The answer lies not in a review or due to having spent hundreds of pounds on it. The answer lies in each individual who solves a puzzle and considers all the factors previously mentioned. What are your greatest puzzles?

So, What makes a puzzle great?

The answer lies not in a review or due to having spent hundreds of pounds on it. The answer lies in each individual who solves a puzzle and considers all the factors previously mentioned.

Originally presented in Issue 2 of TheMetagrobologist Magazine


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