ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie and Puzzle Master and Challenge Collaborator Wei-Hwa Huang have crossed paths quite a few times over the years—most notably when Huang created the majority of the challenges for the ThinkFun games Laser Maze and Gravity Maze. Bill Ritchie had a moment to catch up with Huang again recently, and their conversation went something like this…
Bill Ritchie: Can you remind me where you grew up and when you started to get excited about puzzling?
Wei-Hwa Huang: I grew up all over. By time I was in high school I’d lived in two countries and five states. I was born in Eugene, Oregon and went to Kindergarten in Chicago; my dad was a researcher at Argonne Labs at the time. I went to half of elementary school and junior high school in Taiwan when my dad became a professor. By the time I hit high school, I was back in the US, in suburban DC.
It was while I was still in Kindergarten that I began to be interested in puzzles. At the time, puzzles were mainly just brainteasers that came in little books or small mechanical puzzles, like the Rubik’s Cube, which came out around that time. For me, the draw to puzzling is still just about doing something I’m passionate about.
Bill Ritchie: And yet you’re a world-class puzzler! You’ve been on the US team for the World Puzzle Federation for years, and you won the annual World Puzzle Championship on four occasions: 1995 and 1997-1999.
Wei-Hwa Huang: Yes, but now I’m ranked 20-something instead of #1. I wonder sometimes about what’s changed over the years, and I think that in the 90’s puzzle competitions were new, and less of a competitive game. Now people are practicing everyday, and are just more driven to solve than I am.
Bill Ritchie: So do you think there’s a difference between a puzzle and a game? Can you define that for us?
Wei-Hwa Huang: I would say that the word “game” is a very general word—people define it so many ways. Ultimately I’d say it has something to do with the number of players. Games need more than one player, whereas when you play a puzzle you’re playing by yourself. I believe you have an opponent in both though. Even when you’re playing a puzzle or a single player game, you’re playing the puzzle or game designer. The designer becomes your opponent.
Bill Ritchie: That’s a nice segue into my next question! You developed the lion’s share of the challenges on two of ThinkFun’s games: Laser Maze and Gravity Maze. Can you share a little bit about this with our readers?
Wei-Hwa Huang: Sure. For both of these games, the original designer only provided a sample set of 10 or so challenges. In both cases I did a lot of the work to increase complexity and flexibility of play by creating hundreds of challenges—much more than actually appeared in the final production versions.
In both cases there was an initial exploration phase, where I probed on whether changing or adding extra could create more interesting experiences. In Laser Maze, for instance, there was an additional piece—later dubbed the “shorty” piece—which I lobbied to include. The shorty piece doesn’t interact with the laser in any way, because it’s too low for the laser’s trajectory to reach. I thought this piece was interesting as a blocker, because having that piece means players are blocked from adding a full piece there, thereby complicating their path to maze completion.
I took the same approach when developing challenges for Gravity Maze, but because the pieces were more intricate and the marbles zig-zag around unpredictably, a lot of my suggestions didn’t get used. For example, I wanted to have the tower connectors separate from the towers, which would have allowed more variety in how the player could stack very tall towers. That didn’t end up getting produced in the final version, but it’s a good example of my thinking.
Bill Ritchie: Do you have any advice for parents on how to keep their kids’ minds sharp?
Wei-Hwa Huang: Keeping your mind sharp is an interesting analogy because you’d have to keep sharpening, but a pencil that’s sharp enough to write is good enough for me. Really, if the only goal of doing puzzles was to keep my mind sharp, I probably wouldn’t do it. I do puzzles and games because I think they’re fun.
But if parents want their kids to learn from this type of activity, the advice I’d offer is to motivate the children to really enjoy it. I realize not everyone is like me, so parents may need to rely on external motivation, like a positive reward of some kind, anywhere from verbal encouragement to more tangible reward—whatever works. Fear is a motivator too, but I wouldn’t recommend that for parents who love their children!
Bill Ritchie: What’s next for you?
Wei-Hwa Huang: I have a complex dice-based strategy game that’s coming out in October, and I playtest puzzles for a friend’s puzzle blog called Grandmaster Puzzles. But the big ambitious project that I’m aiming to do in the next few months is to run a large-scale puzzle hunt. It’ll include 10 teams of 12 people per team, and they’ll receive some hints on the Internet to get through the full hunt. I live in SF Bay Area and there’s a huge community of puzzle hunt fanatics out there. I haven’t committed to or publically announced the event yet, so keep your eyes and ears open for this hunt if you’re nearby.