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I'm still very new to Connect Wall puzzle design, and I don't want to make a puzzle that frustrates or confuses potential solvers, so I figured I would ask here for some advice.

Recently I've designed a puzzle that combines a traditional Connect Wall puzzle (organizing sixteen words into four groups of four based on a theme) with a wordplay puzzle. In other words, it's sort of a "wordplay-wall."

However, as I've been designing the puzzle, I've started worrying that it might be too obtuse and not have a clear enough entry point for a solver to start on. Connect Wall puzzles are notorious for having lots of false starts, dead ends and red herrings that can frustrate a potential solver, and while I've deliberately designed this puzzle to be difficult, I don't want it to be impossible or completely frustrating to solve. I always try to design my puzzles so that once you've hit the right track or figured out the trick of the puzzle, it's clear where to go from there and you can solve the rest of it fairly quickly. As a result, I've been struggling with how to make this especially tricky Connect Wall more approachable.

How do I make sure solvers have clear entry points and know when they're going in the right direction on a particularly obtuse Connect Wall? That is, how should I go about providing enough guidance and signposting to make sure it's approachable and that potential solvers will have a good idea of where to start? (Examples of really good Connect Walls that you recommend I look at are also appreciated.)

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Interesting question! This sounds like an intriguing take on the genre (I am personally very partial to connecting wall questions which have a fun theme or which use things other than straightforward words for their links - even just right here on PSE we have seen impressive connecting walls based on sheet music, cryptic clues, missing vowel puzzles and even computer code!). A wordplay-based puzzle would feel right at home with this lot...

If you're worried that people may not be able to crack the wordplays and deduce the actual words that are supposed to comprise your connecting wall, here are some considerations:

  • Do your wordplay clues appear in a standard 4x4 grid or a list, or are they concealed within a deeper story? If a grid or a list, you have already provided a helping hand and given your solvers a nudge in the right direction - the clues are clearly distinct, they know what they are supposed to be solving, and they can focus on it. If, however, your puzzle is of the sort where they first must extract the clues from a passage of text (for example) then you will need some kind of gimmick to provide a hint...

    Consider Grandpa's last laugh by @Mithical, and the first steps in my answer to it. Here, the OP has laced clues in the flavourtext (and title!) which enable the connecting wall's components to be extracted successfully - without those the puzzle might have involved much more guesswork or trial-and-error; with them there's an instant pay-off for the solver who notices them.

  • This leads me neatly to my next point: Use the title to provide a hint. Calling your puzzle (e.g.) "My Connect Wall" is undescriptive and unhelpful to a solver, and a waste of a good opportunity to add a beneficial clue without making the puzzle look crowded by additional text. For instance, @JS1's puzzle Legend has it... (a connect wall) hints at what all four group connections are, while @hexomino's My Lovely Connect Wall provides an additional hint for a connection which links the four connecting groups themselves.

  • If you want to make sure that solvers correctly deduce your intended connecting words: Consider providing a 'checksum' or solution key. At its simplest, this could take the form of an alphabetical list of 16 letters and a note saying that these letters are the starting letters of the 16 intended keywords - if the solver's words do not match up to the list of initials, they know they've got something wrong and must look again.

If, however, you're worried that people may struggle to form the correct connecting groups from the component words, I'm afraid that's the occupational hazard of a puzzle and what makes them tricky! There are, of course, a few things you can still bear in mind though:

  • Avoid really common and really rare words for your wall components. If your connecting word is 'the' - just don't. How would your solver be feasibly expected to partition that into the correct group when in all likelihood it could belong to any of them?! On the other hand you don't really want it to be too easy though - if it's no challenge it tends to be no fun, so you may be better off avoiding using lots of words that only appear in one well-known context (providing all four of DEOXYRIBONUCLEIC, RIBONUCLEIC, HYDROCHLORIC and SULPHURIC to clue 'ACID', for example, is connecting wall suicide). What you want to aim for is instilling a sense of 'this word has some interesting possibilities - do any of the others correspond?' in your solvers.

  • Consider including groups of differing levels of difficulty. A connecting wall puzzle is most fun once you've got your teeth into it and think you've found a trail! This gives the solver two important things: (i) a feeling of success that will make them want to persevere with the puzzle, and (ii) a smaller pool of components for trying to spot the remaining connections. Perhaps have an 'easy-but-not-trivial' group to help wipe out four answers at once (e.g. listing four members of a well known set, like card suits or first names of Beatles members; or using more straightforward or common-knowledge connections, like LION, BRAVE, BROKEN and PURPLE to clue 'HEART' instead of URCHIN or SUTRA). Or if you don't want to remove a whole group in one fell swoop, provide a single word that only really has one renowned connection, enabling the solver to try to spot the others with this connection (e.g. LEWANDOWSKI for 'ROBERT'). Help your solver get into the puzzle and they will stick at it!

  • And a tip for post-publish: If user comments suggest that the puzzle is too difficult or there has been little user interaction at all, don't forget: On PSE, you can always edit your answer later to provide a hint. While puzzles should be designed not to require interactivity, an OP who seems engaged with people who are attempting to solve their puzzle is an encouragement to persist with attempting it. Try to avoid giving heavy spoilers in your hints, but don't feel that having to give one is a sign of a bad puzzle - that's not necessarily true...

Finally, a couple of points about puzzles that I have made before, which one should always bear in mind when creating puzzles of this type:

  • Ensure that your list of words has a unique solution. It's fine to include red herrings, but as soon as you have two words which can swap categories, satisfying both connections, (or indeed a chain of 3 or 4 exchanges) your connecting wall no longer has a unique solution, and the puzzle would be considered poorly thought out.

  • And most importantly: Always test your puzzle before publishing. Try to see if any swaps (as outlined above) exist - if so, change the words you thought of. Run your puzzle past somebody else first - if they solve it very quickly, change it (it's too easy); if they end up giving up, show them the intended solution - if they then argue that no rational human being would ever get this, change it (it's too hard!). Hitting that middle-ground of challenging-enough-but-gettable is your goal...

Good luck, and I look forward to seeing your puzzle here on PSE!

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    $\begingroup$ This is an incredible answer and amazing advice. Thank you so much! I am marking as correct. $\endgroup$ – Sciborg Oct 9 '20 at 22:43

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