First off THIS ISN'T A PUZZLE. It's a question about puzzle making, as the title suggests, though I thought I would make it clear, as I can see someone out there making a puzzle with such a title.

The title is slightly misleading, I want this for my own personal gain. Though I feel others would benefit from the answers too, in all honesty though I didn't know what else to put.

So here I am. At my desk, hoping to get some information, because I love puzzles a lot.

What I wanted from this community of well spoken, amazing puzzle makers and solvers, is some advice on how to go about making puzzles. What's my best approach, what I shouldn't try to do, etc.

I was going to go ahead and attempt to make a riddle, however the current meta topic of sandboxing has thrown off my confidence, as I think it's strenuous and that my first ever puzzle would just be thrown under and forgotten.

Any tips on how I should go about it? What techniques, knowledge, or other things do I need to know about beforehand?

For example, I see a lot of questions that include the need to decipher things using ASCII or something like that (I honestly don't know if that's right because I only know of ASCII as a programming language that I heard a few times from a friend.)

I don't have any programming knowledge. So I think having me work up a puzzle from that would be a little strenuous on my part, which I don't want. Though would it still be a good idea to get a little knowledge?

  • $\begingroup$ Sandbox is all about improving riddles and getting up front feedback on how to improve. If anything sandbox should increase your confidence ad you can get advice from some great riddlers before it goes public. $\endgroup$
    – gtwebb
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ So... Why is this here instead of Meta? $\endgroup$
    – user24580
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ @ObviouslyJake You don't need to worry at all, the question is totally appropriate for here. :) Questions about puzzling are appropriate and encouraged. Meta is for questions about puzzling.SE (the website itself) - which this question isn't. $\endgroup$
    – A E
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ @ObviouslyJake (I like how your name works as beginning of this sentence) there are many answers below which are way too long imo as there is no "way" to do that. I can tell you one thing: have fun and do whatever keeps you going. Feel free to send your riddles to someone, perhaps by email, if you want feedback or support. $\endgroup$
    – Avigrail
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 5:55
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    $\begingroup$ @MariaDeleva (and everyone else): One important thing to consider when discussing difficulty of puzzles is the Many-Eyes Effect. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 14:45

5 Answers 5


I'm not sure how representative it is of the "right" way, or even a common way, but here's the rough workflow my puzzles go through (sorry in advance for the wordiness).

1. Play to your strengths

You say you don't have any programming knowledge, great! Now you know where not to start. Have a dig through the tags and see what jumps out at you. Browse some existing content and see what you gravitate towards. If you like the sound of something, but don't have any experience, go through the top puzzles in that tag and either read through the accepted answers, or better yet, have a crack yourself - you'd be surprised how quickly you can pick up seemingly impenetrable topics.

(Also as an aside, the riddle sandbox is probably actually a great opportunity for you, as you'll get feedback on your ideas so you can iterate/polish rapidly with more experienced puzzler's help).

2. Brainstorm

Keep a notebook (or text file, or note keeping app, etc) and just dump anything in that pops into your head. It doesn't have to be complete ideas, it can just be fragments, or themes, or story ideas, etc. A lot of what you capture will be discarded or go nowhere, but you'll also find that random fragments tend to naturally clump together.

  • Observed that dice can be called "bones" in slang and that the singular is "die"?
  • Just learned what an ambigram is, or what amphibrach meter is, or a heteronym?
  • Standing in the shower wondering if you could make a fractal sudoku?
  • Noticed the little shapes in the background of the PSE site and wondered how you could build a puzzle around them?
  • Realised that all matter is merely energy condensed into a slow vibration?

...Awesome, write it all down.

Note: At any point from here on, you need to be willing to throw things away and go back a step or more (see refine for more). Don't force an idea - all ideas are made better by what's left on the cutting room floor, and sometimes a discarded idea can get resurrected months down the track when you have a new insight.

3. Iterate

Ok, I've got the best idea ever, I'm going to click that "Ask Question" button over there and start writing it up.

Not so fast, you've barely started... Once you've got some random fragments of ideas, pick one or two and start to flesh them out. Obviously this step is very vague, and the exact process will depend heavily on the type of puzzle you're creating, but generally try to ask yourself questions like:

  • What does the goal/solution look like?
  • How can I get there? (often working backwards from a goal makes puzzle creation easier)
  • Is my solution unique and well defined (and will you know it when you find it)?
  • How am I going to present this (theme, story, visuals, etc)?
  • How will solvers try to solve this?
  • How can I distract solvers from the true path?
  • How can I guide solvers towards the true path?
  • What ties these ideas together?
  • What other related ideas can I bring in to add interest?
  • What extraneous ideas can I cut to hone and bring cohesion?
  • If I didn't know the answer, could I solve this?

During this phase, anything goes and your puzzle will likely be changing a lot as it evolves. Don't be afraid to try random ideas out or try to mash multiple layers/ideas together. Don't be afraid to discard ideas, even if you've put work into it - remember the idea still exists, and may resurface later, plus you learned a bunch while trying things out.

Also, don't be afraid to "borrow" ideas from other puzzles, especially while you're learning, it's a great way to get started, and if you continue to iterate and refine, the borrowed idea will likely dissolve away and just become "inspiration" anyway (just be sure, when you get to later steps that you haven't outright plagiarised anything).

Note 2: All steps presented here, but this one in particular, don't represent work performed in a single "session", it is often five minutes musing here, thirty minutes trying out an idea there, a midnight waking with a new idea, a scrawled brain dump in a notepad, etc, that continues to evolve over a period of time. You'll also often find yourself with multiple "active" ideas running in parallel as you go.

4. Refine

Awesome, I've got a working puzzle, can I post it now?

Nope sorry, once you have something resembling a complete puzzle, it's time to refine things. This stage is all about trimming out extraneous ideas and tidying things up.

This is the step that people often skip, much to the puzzle's detriment. It can also be the hardest... that awesome idea about doing it all in French, or that stanza you shoehorned in because you liked the rhyme it produced? Does it still work, is it bringing anything to the table? You need to be willing to let go of ideas if they don't actually add something to your puzzle (don't forget, they can always come back another time in another puzzle).

If it's a riddle, spend some time smoothing out the meter/rhyme. If it's a visual puzzle, tidy up your images and make sure things are consistent and look good. If it's a pattern, make sure you're providing enough data points. Flesh out the story/presentation.

Go through the questions listed in the Iterate section and make sure you can answer them, but during this stage, the most important one is to MAKE SURE YOUR PUZZLE HAS A PATH TO SUCCESS! By this, I don't mean that a good puzzle must be solvable (although that's obviously important :P), what I mean is that a good puzzle doesn't present an insurmountable wall, it presents a challenging path.

Ideally, you want to pepper hints into your presentation (in wording, in visual style, etc) that help to nudge solvers in the right direction. If it's a multi-stage puzzle, the solution to one stage should provide new information that acts as a hint to the next. Just be careful not to provide too much direction (and feel free to throw in some misdirection), because you still want it to be a challenge. Think about what leaps of logic are required at any given point - if you have to make to big a leap, or worse, multiple leaps at once with no way of verifying the intermediate steps, it's likely going to be too hard (and not fun). All that being said, balance is difficult, and you will get it wrong, especially initially, just learn from those experiences and you'll improve.

5. Polish

Jeez Alconja, I'm getting bored of my own idea, can I just post the damn thing?!

Sorry, no, still one more step. At this stage your puzzle is good, it's solvable, it's refined, but I guarantee you've made a mistake. Go over it one last time with a fine-toothed comb (or get someone else to take a look) and make sure there's no spelling/grammar issues, make sure your images are clear, that stack exchange doesn't mess with your layout/formatting, etc.

...Ok, now you're good to go.

Final note: It may seem as if the above is written with the assumption that you'll be trying to make a massively elaborate, multi-layered, puzzle, but I think it still applies to the simplest of riddles. Don't be daunted or put off by my wall of text, it may look complex and/or time-consuming, but it doesn't have to be. I guess if I can give you one piece of advice, it's simply to try and not rush a new idea out. Let it stew for a bit, write it, hone it, let it sit some more, re-read it, etc, and you'll end up with a much better puzzle than you started with.

  • $\begingroup$ I can see how a lot of people would think "Why would i do that?" about the letting the idea sit and not rushing it part. However, I know better! not from puzzling, however from roleplaying! See, it's all based on quick paced replies there over in the action packed world, so you have to come up with your ideas fast, on the spot. When I come back to my ideas and look over them later for reference, or enjoyment, I see things that I could have done waaay different that would have been a much better fit than before. So I shall take your words of advice well! Thankyou for the insight $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 6:21
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    $\begingroup$ Alconja finally reveals his secrets! :D $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 10:49

There are a few things I do when creating a puzzle, and a few of my own rules I have created through experience, which I shall list below...

1. Planning is important

Puzzlemaking takes time and effort. Without your puzzle will have a massive drop in standard. Remember this equation:

Puzzle Value = Effort × Time × Ability

Ability is a small factor, if you try hard you will succeed.

Puzzles require planning, make sure you know what you want to do. Don't be afraid to change your ideas though.

2. Make it tricky!

A puzzle is supposed to be hard, otherwise it wouldn't be a puzzle - simply a question. Puzzles are designed to make you think. However it can't be too tricky either. You must make sure others will be able to follow your train of thought to completion. It also must be on-topic to not be closed. @DanRussell makes a good point in the comments below. Though a puzzle should be hard and (ideally) not solved within a few minutes, this is an excellent community of puzzlers so even if your puzzle is solved within 5 minutes, that doesn't mean it's a bad puzzle. It simply means your puzzle has been solved by people with higher puzzling IQ :)

3. Make it interesting!

The purpose of this site is based on having fun. You don't want to create a boring puzzle which others won't enjoy, you want them riveted to their screens, scratching their heads and having sleepless nights over your puzzles (No maliciousness intended). Creating an interesting puzzle is better than creating an incredibly tricky puzzle. Use weird things and odd displaying methods to confuse (but not blind) users. Don't post inappropriate questions either

4. Make note of your ideas

I have a list of ideas for puzzles on my desk, ready for me to transfer to reality. You want to be able to have options and if you think of a really good idea for a puzzle, write it down! or use a note-taking app to make sure you don't forget it. Every idea you think of could be a good one. Only use ideas that contribute to your puzzle, drop the ones that don't. Some ideas can be combined, others that don't quite fit can be used in later puzzles.

5. Bounce your ideas off someone

Sometimes it's hard to know whether you had a good idea. Ask someone else! Check if they're able to solve it and if they enjoy it. Get more than 1 opinion for sureness. If they don't think something works or have a better idea for a part of your puzzle then listen to them, however much you think there is no way their idea could improve your puzzle, they might just be right. A 2nd, and hopefully 3rd one, is the best thing you can have.

6. Look but don't copy

Look at some of the best puzzles on this site to see what ideas go down well and what contributes to a great puzzle. However, I must emphasize, DON'T PLAGIARIZE! Low level copying is fine, we all do it. 'Copy' can be defined as 'imitating the style of something'. What we don't want is 'taking someone's idea and using it as your own' - which would be plagiarism.

7. Learn from mistakes

If you post a puzzle which doesn't go down well, ask in the comments how you could make it better, or why the community doesn't think it's very good. Take this into account in your next puzzles. Gain as much experience as you can. You don't just have to learn form your own mistakes, learn from other's errors too!

8. Visit the help center

The help center is here, yes, to help and give advice. This will stop you making newbie mistakes and give you invaluable knowledge of this site.

9. Participate in the chat rooms

Ask all the questions you want, we're here to help! Read other users' questions and answers and learn.

Remember we all started at the bottom, it's how high you want to climb that matters

Hope this helps and hope to see some fantastic puzzles from you in the future. Happy Puzzling! :)

Open to other suggestions as well to add!

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    $\begingroup$ I think you've got some good suggestions here, but I worry whenever I see "make it hard". I think some people are too worried that their puzzles will be solved quickly instead of whether they're fun and/or challenging to solve, and thus end up making things extremely obscure/unsolvable. Then come the many hints, etc. This is a community of good puzzlers, so time-until-solving shouldn't be an important metric. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ @DanRussell, good points. I do agree but I also think that good puzzles should have a high level of difficulty. This isn't the most important factor, but for me it is still a big factor $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ I love how active everyone is at helping out. It really makes me feel like this community is a great one. || @Beastly gerbil - I'm rather impressed and amazed by the fact that you keep coming back to improve and add to your answer. Thanks for the effort :) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ @ObviouslyJake, thanks for asking the question! The community needed this question, it will help new users and other users improve their own puzzlemaking. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 18:58

TL;DR Get inspired by other puzzles or find a topic interesting to you, start from the answer, fuzz it up a bit so it's not easy to solve, let sit for a while, come back and clear up ambiguous clues

I'll just share my experience with puzzle making. Not sure if they would be considered "best practice", but they work for me.

The closest I got to making puzzles before puzzling.SE was drawing mazes in grade school. I enjoyed reading the puzzles here for a while and decided one day to make one and see how it went. Being a computer geek, I thought making something similar to the classic text-adventures from the days of old would be unique and easy to make (no image manipulation or anything like that). I had recently seen a question using Gray Code, which was interesting to me so decided to use that as the base for the answer. I wanted to make it harder than seeing a list of numbers, and the best way I could think to fuzz up the numbers is translating them to different languages. Next up was figuring out how to decide the language for each. I figured Europe has lots of different, popular languages, so just ended up going along using capital city coordinates. This ended up being solved much quicker than I planned. I made a second one that was much more difficult and experimented a bit with cryptography. It may have been a bit too hard from the start, but that's what hints are for, right?

Another puzzle I made was just from combining 2 random topics. I liked the puzzles involving moving a knight, and the fortnightly topic was mazes, so I figured I'd try combining them. Since I recently had Conway's Game of Life on the brain, I noticed the cell-structure of it could be used as the board for the knight. Making this into a puzzle proved to be more than I was willing to do, since most attempts proved to simple. Instead, I settled upon this question with slightly different goals.

This is getting kinda long, so final example. The Fortnightly Topic turned out to be good inspiration. When it was sports/olympic themed, I saw swimming all the time on random TVs. I never was interested in sports, but learned that there was an event that combined 4 types of swimming. I could use that as an answer and transform it into something interesting to me by fuzzing up the clues. Used Google's search suggestions box that drops down as you type and found words that could lead people to the answer. Was still a bit too easy, so grabbed some images to represent those (after all a picture is worth 1000 words). Changed out one image for something I thought was exceptionally difficult (since the people here are crazy good and I figured even just 3 of 4 could lead to the answer) and I was happy with it.


This answer links to a number of posts on this site that discuss how to make great puzzles. It's hard to give generic advice, since the things to consider will be different depending on what type of puzzle you're making.

But I think if you read through all the posts mentioned in the above-linked answer, (some of them even link to further resources), you'll be well on your way to constructing a quality puzzle.

It can also help to try to solve a bunch of puzzles. Take note of what was done well, and what wasn't. What aspect of a puzzle made it fun to solve? Where did you get really frustrated? Could something have been changed that would have made the solving experience better for you?


Cryptic crosswords!

Okay, maybe I'm a little biased, but cryptics were my first puzzle type.

Some advantages to them include:

  • easier grids than regular crosswords, so you don't have to worry too much about your words interlocking
  • a clear, mostly unambiguous set of rules
  • a wide variety of clue types that don't get repetitive
  • flexibility - you can use the clues as a base for some other type of puzzle (like my Chess Fortnight (shameless plug))
  • $\begingroup$ Not everyone likes word puzzles. I guess it depends on the OP. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 15:52

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