[Update: As of 2021, we are now routinely using penpa-edit and more info is here.]
While I am mainly a pencil-and-paper puzzle solver, I always thought GMPuzzles would eventually find some digital outlets. Not necessarily one outlet — our different styles have different needs and a good app for Sudoku/TomTom is probably quite different from a good app for Tapa/Nurikabe — but at least some outlets where we would be content providers. While I will soon have some of my TomTom puzzles as part of one app-based release, this is the exception and not the rule after 7.5 years.
A few times over the years, including again two weeks ago, solvers asked us to consider linking out to puzz.link, an open source project that gives constructors an option to share online versions of several puzzle genres. We did try this last week for Star Battle, one of the easier styles to think of digital solutions for and where the puzz.link implementation is really good including the ability to add star notes on lines and corners of cells. We received positive comments from several solvers, which suggests at a minimum that this year we have to get serious about digital options.
While I’ve been pointed at this project before, I hadn’t properly explored it until this trial week. I’m still mainly a pencil solver but I didn’t mind the puzz.link interface for object placement/shading puzzles in my experimentation. I could see a role for maybe half of the puzzles we put out with a tool like this. I worry this coverage is too low, and misses important genres for us like Sudoku (+ variants) and TomTom that have better implementations elsewhere.
I also have my own quirky dislikes of the puzzle presentation. The following concerns may not be too important to solvers, but they are important to me as a puzzle publisher. We care about our authors and about puzzle themes. The default puzz.link implementation allows sharing a grid with other users as a web link, but it gives no apparent option to connect a name or a title to the grid when building a link. While the puzz.link database picked up our posts (listed as from “gmpuzzles” with a link back to the web post), the actual solving experience is completely removed from recognizing the author/origin of the puzzle. Related to the first item is that the current implementation is to click out from this site to go elsewhere, to a page with a different visual style. With some work (contributing directly to the puzz.link project, or funding development to extend it) we may be able to embed our own version of the code here on this site.
My vision for digital solving of our puzzles is larger than this: at minimum an interface through which we can reliably and securely sell puzzle packets, that works well on computer and mobile device screen sizes for solving without any printing required. But at maximum with many benefits that aren’t possible on paper. A few are in tools like puzz.link or what Nikoli.com had like showing the solvers what rules may still be incomplete/broken. We get so many solvers asking us about duplicate solutions where we always just respond by highlighting the rule they missed. So that kind of visual highlighting, and interactive tutorials, would be great to expand the puzzle community. Another mode I’ve not seen routinely could be a “walkthrough” mode for a puzzle like a TomTom where we can code 3-4 natural next steps that should be found by a solver so when they ask for a “hint”, they can get a dynamic one for the current state of their grid. Leaderboards of times, watching the solving paths of others, and other competition friendly but community growing aspects would be great.
But maybe I’ve let my big vision halt us from starting somewhere with a basic web interface for our puzzles, understanding we cannot cover all. Puzz.link may be the closest of the things we have seen to be able to start using, and it has grown up naturally over the last few years to be a very good resource. But I have to evaluate how much work is needed (and who could do it) to extend the code to get to where I am comfortable with it for many of our genres at GMPuzzles. We’re going to give this more thought, and also recheck one or two other options that might complete a patchwork solution to get 80+% of our puzzle genres covered.
While we are building out a plan for eventual coverage this year, we are interested in hearing your comments on how you solve our puzzles and what makes a good/great digital option in your mind.