A hundred years ago, a craze swept through Europe and America. In the offices of America, it was banned as a distraction that kept workers from their desks; in the cafés of Paris, it was handed from person to person; statesmen and politicans sat down with it in the halls of the Reichstag. It was a puzzle, the "Fifteen Puzzle", the masterwork of the American puzzle king, Sam Loyd. The Fifteen Puzzle was unquestionable Loyd’s most popular work; it sold tens of thousands of copies, spurred on by Loyd’s offer of $1000 to the first person who was able to provide the solution to the puzzle. This sort of offer isn’t terribly unusual; the lure of prizes drives armchair treasure hunts (as opposed to the more active kind, which seems to be mainly driven by prestige). Celebrity magician David Blaine commissioned an armchair treasure hunt from game and puzzle designer Cliff Johnson; Blaine’s puzzle was recently solved, bringing the winner a hundred thousand dollar prize. Unlike David Blaine, Sam Loyd didn’t have to worry about paying up; the Fifteen Puzzle has no solution. Game design is hard; the designer needs to balance play so that it’s fun, make the rules simple but the game strategy deep, find a balance between games over in five minutes and games that can last weeks. Game publishers recycle the same ideas in new trappings over and over; game inventors sometimes steal the best ideas. Designers like Sid Sackson or Reiner Kniza who can make dozens of enjoyable, innovative games are rare. In a sense, puzzles are even harder to design; gameplay isn’t a factor, since puzzles are the same every time, but making something easy enough to hold the public’s attention but difficult enough to keep it isn’t easy. Sam Loyd made wildly successful puzzles; amazingly enough, he made all kinds of puzzles. He had a genius for chess puzzles, a gift for mathematical ones, but his commercially successful puzzles — huge sellers, like the pony puzzle, his famous "Get Off the Earth" (in which rotating a disk makes a human figure disappear) or the trick mules Loyd sold to P.T. Barnum for a reported $10,000 — were usually mechanical or illustrated. His puzzles were sold to magazines and books (his own Cyclopedia of Puzzles is a treasured collector’s item), but Loyd made the real money from devices. (His occasional colleague, Britain’s Henry Dudeney, was perhaps Loyd’s only peer at puzzle design, but his puzzles were almost exclusively logical and chess puzzles and word games. Loyd’s greatest popular success was not his greatest commercial success, however; competitors sprang up to issue the Fifteen Puzzle in dozens of variations. Nineteenth century law required a working model to be submitted to the patent office in order for a patent to be received; when Loyd had explained that the Fifteen Puzzle had been unsolveable, the patent office had decided that it wasn’t a working model, and that was that.
Puzzles are hard to write, but computer programmers seem to be adept at writing them; the Japanese computer game Sokoban is a series of puzzles that has been bedevilling players on computers, PDAs, and cell phones since 1980. (Several Sokoban puzzles have been incorporated, in their entirety, into the sprawling computer game Nethack.) In 1987, Cliff Johnson released The Fool’s Errand, a dazzlingly inventive series of puzzles based around a Tarot theme. 1991 was a bumper year for computer puzzles; Johnson released his viciously difficult 3 in Three, the tale of a number lost in a computer wilderness, and puzzle designer Scott Kim teamed with programmer Ian Gilman and artist Mark Ferrari to release Heaven & Earth. And there the genre sat; the rapidly increasing processing power of computers and the increasing adoption of CD-ROMs meant that games with ever more detailed graphics could be developed.
In 1993, Cyan Software released Myst, the game that launched a thousand CD-ROMs. Myst is widely credited for killing off interactive fiction like the games produced by Infocom, but it’s puzzle-game blend, with plots to follow, worlds to explore, and attractive animated cut scense to watch, slowly replaced both the pure adventure game and the pure puzzle. Myst was followed by successors and pseudosuccessors; games like The 7th Guest strung a series of puzzles together, but the plot was often wafer-thin plot — "soup can" puzzles were scorned for a reason — and the puzzles were quite often equally uncompelling. Some games had deadly boring puzzles with old chestnuts like the Towers of Hanoi and variations on Loyd’s old Fifteen Puzzle thrown in. And the occasional brilliant puzzle is released, games like Reflections or Warthog (link via Graham), a game where the player explodes a Jeep with grenades to kill aliens; the bizzare concept makes a surprisingly difficult game. But these weren’t strung together into lengthier puzzle games. The puzzle game wasn’t making money any more; Uru Online, the distant heir to Myst was ignominiously cancelled before it even came to market. And that was largely it, since the puzzle game hobbyist community never really developed the way the interactive fiction community did (although interactive fiction author and puzzle enthusiast Andrew Plotkin wrote an homage to 3 in Three called System’s Twilight, featuring a dozen new puzzle types and a humdinger of an end puzzle). But this fall, Cliff Johnson will release his long-awaited, long-delayed sequel to Fool’s Errand, The Fool and His Money. Will it will sell like hotcakes and revive the genre? Game lovers can hope. Maybe David Blaine will slip the first person to solve it a hundred thousand bucks.