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Say I have a bunch of words that I want to make a word-search out of. What are some strategies for making a challenging but doable word-search puzzle where these are the words to be found?

I'm planning to post an answer myself with some ideas I've come up with. But I've never actually made a word-search puzzle and haven't solved many either, so I'd be grateful for input from those who have. Let's get a nice long list of techniques!

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    $\begingroup$ I like this question and I think it clearly belongs on this site, but it clearly does not have just one answer. Therefore, do we have a double standard? We close many questions for being too broad, which means that many answers could be correct. Are only the puzzle-creation questions exempt from being too broad? Even my question about the best puzzle websites was closed on meta. How much faster would it probably have been closed on here! $\endgroup$ – JLee Jun 26 '15 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ @JLee This question is more like the sort that would fit on a 'normal' Stack Exchange: someone has a problem, needs help, asks a community of experts. I also thought of the "which answer to accept?" problem, but SE has a standard guideline on that too: the OP should accept whichever answer they find most useful. $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Jun 26 '15 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ @randal'thor Why do I get the feeling that the next puzzle you post on this site is going to be a word-search related puzzle? Just a hunch, maybe. $\endgroup$ – Spencerkatty Jun 26 '15 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Spencerkatty Nah, I don't even like word-searches! I only posted this to prove the point that it's a fine question after Bob said it'd be off-topic :-P $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Jun 26 '15 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ I actually do think this is too broad, and would offer that it should be closed. It's not that reference requests and "how do I make X" is inherently bad, it's just not specific enough to be useful or produce meaningful answers. The below answers are interesting on their own, for instance, but wouldn't really help someone trying to make an "interesting but challenging" puzzle unless they wanted tips on an idea that showed up here. $\endgroup$ – Aza Jun 27 '15 at 18:08
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Some more points

  • Choose an easy-to-the-eye font and letter-spacing. The overall "look" is very important!

  • Consider crossings, i.e. have some letter be part of more than one word

  • Ensure that the number of "needed" letters and the number "filler" letters are in a "good" proportion. This may depend on you intention though. There are word-searches where all letters are part of some word, and ones with a lot of empty space. If the second category, don't have too many fillers.

  • Keep an eye on overall statistic. Each language has a certain distribution of 'likely letters' - your fillers should represent this as well.

  • You can make things interesting, by having the overall shape of the puzzle something else than a rectangle, or by having the 'fillers' end up in useful pattern etc.

  • Give the word-search some common "topic", don't choose arbitrary words.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm going to accept this answer since it's the most generally useful (Bob's answer is pretty general too, but also kind of evil!). Everyone else got a +1 as well though :-) $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Jul 1 '15 at 13:08
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You could also consider going with a differently aligned grid if you want to be original (like a diamond shape or an octogon) - you can also like in the example below complicate things by putting multiple letters as one:

enter image description here
Image credit

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this. Very fancy. $\endgroup$ – Bob Jun 26 '15 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ That is amazing! You could post that pic as a question here :-D I can find DUMBBELL, BABBLE, BUMBLEBEE, BEDBUG, BUNKBED, and RABBIT already. It's very B-y! $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Jun 26 '15 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ Robber, Ball(boy), clerk,beggar,bubble, lobby, blabbed, rubber, dam, mad, mug,row, oral, baby, big, , i could keep going. Its full of words //BTW before people start giving me more credit than I'm due - i just searched for diamond/hexagon word search in Google and found the pic. I had my idea but didn't make the grid myself. $\endgroup$ – Spacemonkey Jun 26 '15 at 17:17
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Some ideas I came up with:

  • Consider the orientation (leftwards, rightwards, upwards, downwards, all 4 kinds of diagonally) of words to be found. Include at least a few words in each of these directions. Rightwards and downwards are the easiest to find, diagonally (other than southeastwards) the hardest - take account of this when deciding how difficult you want the puzzle to be.

  • Consider what 'fillers' (letters in between the words to be found) to put in. Use too many X's and Q's and the puzzle will be too easy; you should use a similar distribution of letters to the distribution in the words to be found.

  • To increase the difficulty, use red-herring words. If one of the words to be found is STACK, then throw in a STALK and a SACK somewhere and sprinkle loads of S's, T's, A's, C's, and K's around where STACK actually is to make it hard to find the right word.

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    $\begingroup$ 2) When considering fillers, it's important to not accidentally form your words from them. Especially in the case of short words, it would be easy to overlook if using a distribution similar to the "hidden" words. $\endgroup$ – Set Big O Jun 26 '15 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ Hahaha.. I did the third one once on a school project. Everyone came complaining to me on how they were running out of eraser, or the paper was covered in crossed out circles. It was funny. $\endgroup$ – AJL Jun 26 '15 at 17:02
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For the "filter" letters, I would not consider using the same distribution, but equalize its distribution. For instance, if you have only one 'Z' in the words to search for, keeping the same distribution for filters would mean approximately 'add another Z in the filters'. So searching this word would be easy.

Whereas equalizing the distribution would mean words a bit more difficult to find. For instance, if you have 5 'E', 3 'M' and 1 'Z', try to insert 1 'E', 3 'M' and 5 'Z' as filters, so that all letters have 6 occurrences in your grid. Doing so will require a bit more difficulty to find words with rare letters.

EDIT:

A simple algorithm to implement this would be:

  1. check which is the less frequent letter currently in the grid
  2. insert it randomly as a filter
  3. loop to 1. until the grid is full
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  • $\begingroup$ Good point. +1 (and welcome to the site, btw!) :-) $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Jun 26 '15 at 17:04
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If you want your puzzle to be really hard here are some things to try:

Avoid words that read left to right (for languages naturally read in that direction), top to bottom (in all languages I think), and horizontally or vertically when at the edges of the grid. These are all easy to spot even if no clues are provided.

Giving a list of words to find makes things a bit too easy. A hint at some connection or theme if the words are really obscure might be okay. Of course if you want your puzzle to be really hard just use the most obscure words you can think of and only provide the number of words to be found (if you do this you will need to check thoroughly that no extra words have crept in.)

If you feel the need to provide a list of words use fragments of those words to fill in blank spaces. Placing the start fragment of a word near the beginning or end of a complete word is great way to create a wild goose chase. Fill the remaining single spaces with the least common letters from your clues, you want to make sure that if a letter only appears once or twice in all your you use it at least three or four times to fill in blank spaces. Any strings of letters that appear repeated across many of your clues will be any easy target to search for so make sure you use those to fill spaces. The more red herrings the better.

To make a puzzle really time consuming make it really large. Spotting a word and finding another that begins or ends nearby, or crosses it, makes things too easy. Having a grid large enough to space your words out nicely can completely eliminate this.

If capitalization is not important to any of the words, randomising between upper and lower case can make a word search fiendishly difficult to read. if you want a puzzle that is really difficult just to read, try a textured background and patterned letters. I'm thinking of camouflage schemes for the letters and background to are so similar you can hardly see the letters.

To be really unfair why not swap some letters for numbers or symbols, 0 for o, ( for c, that sort of thing.

A most wicked twist is to allow words to wrap around the edges of the grid. This is particularly unfair if there is no reason to expect you would do this. So to be really cruel make sure you give no hints this is what you are up to.

Of course if you are not a complete sadist then ignore this advice. If you want to make a nice easy puzzle do the opposite. A good word search will have just the right amount of cruel and kind elements. The right balance depends on your target audience.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree with many of the above, but not with the argument about making things hard to read. These make the puzzle not more difficult but simply less fun to work on and are a horrible designer choice. (Unless you actually want people to rather give up than solve it.) On the same line, you could make a word-search with text written RGB(254,255,255) on background RGB(255,255,255) plus random noise... $\endgroup$ – BmyGuest Jun 26 '15 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ @BmyGuest Yeah you got the idea. Really hard to solve $\neq$ good fun puzzle. $\endgroup$ – Bob Jun 26 '15 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ Jeez. Remind me never to have a go at one of your word-searches! ;-) I see you were the one who wrote that ghastly periodic-table word-search too :-o $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Jun 26 '15 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @randal'thor Don't worry only a madman would use all these evil tricks at once! $\endgroup$ – Bob Jun 26 '15 at 19:44

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