Post Script: How I Constructed the Great American History Puzzle

Post Script: How I Constructed the Great American History Puzzle

But yes, that one was a slog. It was supposed to be. I’m sorry.

Will there be another Great American Puzzle from Smithsonian and myself? I think it’s very possible. Ideas have already been tossed around. From my point of view, everyone on the digital team was a pleasure to work with and we were all very pleased with the way the contest came together and people responded to it.

We also learned a lot, of course. Speaking only for myself here, I don’t know if we really nailed the transition between the magazine puzzle and the Web end. It turned out the subscriber base for a print magazine and the kinds of people interested in tricky Web puzzles were two very different audiences, and it was hard to bridge that gap. (We made a full scan of the issue available to Web readers arriving late, but that wasn’t as convenient as it could have been.) If there’s a next time, and we try to capture both print and digital audiences again, I’d put a lot more thought into a two-pronged approach that would smoothly involve both.

We also learned how careful we had to be at all times to keep a very astute solver base from getting one step ahead of the puzzles. The double-crostic elements turned out to be much more legible at their final screen size than I’d originally planned, which meant that people could get a head-start on solving the final message. I worried a little about this, but not as seriously as I should have. After all, I reasoned, even early-bird solvers would have to wait and finish the ninth puzzle to submit a correct solution, so it would come down to a race on the hidden-picture. But I’d forgotten that I’d also planted a clue in the double-crostic (“FORT MCHENRY”) that would let a sufficiently clever puzzle back-solve the ninth puzzle without having to wrestle with it much. I still feel like this wasn’t optimal, since (a) it made the final day of the puzzle more of a sprint than we’d intended, and (b) it meant players could totally bypass the hidden picture, one of my favorite puzzles. If we ever do anything like this again, rest assured that everything will be even more carefully genius-proofed.

But despite these small hiccups, I’m proud of the way the contest turned out. Players seemed to be going down the exact rabbit-holes and blind alleys I’d planned, and feeling the exact same flush of pride once a wall fell. Temporary frustration may have been “increased and diffused,” but so was knowledge.

If nothing else, at least a few thousand people now have a nice origami mammoth to display for friends and family. NO CHARGE!


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