# Removing numbers from a full sudoku puzzle to create one with a unique solution

What is a simple and efficient way of removing numbers from a full sudoku puzzle to create one with a single unique solution?

I have already figured out how to generate sudoku grids, like this one:

5 6 7 2 3 8 1 4 9
4 8 9 7 6 1 3 5 2
2 3 1 9 5 4 6 8 7
1 7 5 6 8 9 2 3 4
8 4 3 1 2 5 9 7 6
9 2 6 3 4 7 5 1 8
3 9 4 8 1 6 7 2 5
7 1 8 5 9 2 4 6 3
6 5 2 4 7 3 8 9 1


Now, I need to make it an actual puzzle by removing some of the numbers. How can I do this in a simple and efficient way (that can be done by a computer)?

• remove a number and test if the solution is still unique, repeat until dead end May 15, 2014 at 21:18
• @ratchetfreak ... so how do I test if the solution is still unique? That's the question. :P May 15, 2014 at 21:18
• fire a solver at it that can test for multiple solutions of course :) May 15, 2014 at 21:19
• Find the code for an efficient solver and reverse it. May 15, 2014 at 21:39

Here's how to remove numbers from a full Sudoku puzzle to create one with a single unique solution:

1. Remove a number,
2. Run a solver,
3. Check if the puzzle is still unique,
4. Repeat until solver is unable to find a solution, or solution is not unique.
• This works, but it's highly inefficient. Surely there's a more effective technique? Jun 8, 2015 at 16:45
• @Kevin If it were inefficient, you would know of a more effective technique.
– bryc
Sep 17, 2020 at 13:10

Strictly speaking, you don't need to do anything because the puzzle already has a unique solution. Let's redefine your goal. Starting with a valid number grid, you want to eliminate numbers to arrive at a puzzle that still has a unique solution, but also has a specified level of difficulty (e.g., "Easy", "Medium", "Hard", etc.) and (optionally) has a symmetrical arrangement of numbers.

To do this, it helps to have a sudoku solver that can also tell you (a) if a puzzle has more than one solution, and (b) how difficult it is to solve. I'm using Bill DuPree's sudoku solver here, although you will get faster results using a solver that aborts as soon as it finds more than one solution instead of going on to count them all.

As others have suggested, a simple approach is to remove as many numbers as possible from the grid without losing the uniqueness of the solution. You will always get an empty top row if you clear the cells in strict sequential order, so you'll need to check them randomly. This is what I ended up with:

. 6 7 2 . . . 4 .
. . 9 . . 1 3 . .
2 . . . . . . 8 .
. 7 . . 8 . 2 3 .
8 . 3 . . . . . .
. . 6 . 4 . . . .
. . . . 1 6 7 . 5
. . . 5 . . . . .  24 numbers
. . . . . . 8 9 .  Difficulty: ultra-diabolical


We can get a symmetrical puzzle by clearing two cells at a time (cells n and 80-n), resulting in the following grid:

. 6 7 . . . . . .
4 . . . . 1 . 5 .
2 . . 9 5 4 . . 7
. . . . 8 . 2 . .
. . . 1 2 5 . . .
. . 6 . 4 . . . .
3 . . 8 1 6 . . 5
. 1 . 5 . . . . 3  27 numbers
. . . . . . 8 9 .  Difficulty: easy


Or, with a different random seed:

5 . . . 3 8 . . 9
4 . . . 6 . . . .
. 3 . . . . 6 . .
1 . 5 6 . 9 . . 4
. 4 . . . . . 7 .
9 . . 3 . 7 5 . 8
. . 4 . . . . 2 .
. . . . 9 . . . 3  28 numbers
6 . . 4 7 . . . 1  Difficulty: ultra-diabolical


As you can see, this approach results in puzzles with widely varying difficulty levels. To get a puzzle with a particular difficulty level, you can simply repeat this process with different random numbers until you get a result you like. (Using a hill climbing algorithm might make this process more efficient, although I haven't looked into this.)

## Another approach

Instead of removing numbers from a completed grid, you could try adding numbers to a minimum sudoku puzzle (i.e., a puzzle with a unique solution but only 17 filled cells). Even after filling cells to make these puzzles symmetrical, they should still be fairly challenging to solve.

• The last approach is what I would do. Generate symmetrical patterns with random numbers and run a sudoku solver that can check that the sudoku is possible and unique, and measure the level of difficulty. Oct 12, 2014 at 20:33
• @FlorianF i know this is old question but i would be really grateful if you still remember and could help. You mean you will take numbers(from generated grid) symmetrically, and run the solver if it can solve it? And also how do you measure the difficulty? What i am thinking of is the following "measure of difficulty": Check for each number 1-9 if only that number can be placed in one cell. Lets call this checking for all 9 numbers "ONE ROUND". So if the solver need less rounds to solve the sudoku it should be easy and if it need more round it should be hard? What do you think of this?
– peco
Dec 10, 2020 at 21:32
• Yes. Start from an empty grid and add numbers until a program can solve it. I don't know how to evaluate difficulty. I guess you have to check what is the most difficult deduction step required and how many different deductions are available at any time. So the difficulty is in the complexity of the deduction steps and the difficulty to find them. Dec 11, 2020 at 8:21