Anatomy of a Puzzle Experience: Measuring the “Aha!” Moment

I’ve been putting together a whitepaper on the mathematics behind what makes a puzzle fun to solve. What started as a simple model has evolved into something more akin to a PhD thesis, so I’m going to slow down and outline a few of the basics of the experience of solving a puzzle.

I’m starting by breaking down how to quantify the elusive “aha!” moment- one of the most exciting moments to have in a puzzle. With the below description and tools, you can measure the “aha!” factor on any puzzle or mystery.

Pattern 1: Weak Puzzle – Solution does not stand out

Let’s start with a “puzzle” that lacks an “aha!” factor.

One of these bottles contains a key. Which one is it? (Correct answer: Bottle 2)

Let’s survey a few solvers. They can look at the puzzle but can’t interact with it, and we’ll give them 100 coins each to wager on which solution is correct.

Each of our solvers has a little bit of a different strategy, and different preferences lead to different wagers.

The key thing to note here is that in spite of each of the solvers considering the correct solution as a possibility, none had assigned more than 24% of their wagers to that solution. The correct solution does not stand out amongst the field of possible answers, and players never achieve a moment of “aha!” nor the associated feeling of accomplishment.

Pattern 2: Weak Puzzle – Solution too obvious

Let’s change the scenario a little bit.

One of these transparent bottles contains a key. Which one is it? (Correct answer: Bottle 2)

The bottles are now see-through. Let’s see how our puzzlers do on this one.

Brian is a little skeptical of subterfuge- maybe the key is a hologram. But no- the simplest solution is accurate, and all three solvers identified the correct solution with greater than 95% confidence.

Clearly this puzzle is also lacking an “aha!” factor- players will breeze through this challenge without feeling tested at all.

Note that this pattern of puzzle can be used to good effect in a puzzle experience like an escape room. One example would be when a designer inserts multiple easy/obvious puzzles between challenging puzzles so that participants can feel like they’re progressing, rather than letting solvers stall on back to back puzzles.

Pattern 3: Problematic Puzzle – The Red Herring

Same puzzle as above, but this time Brian was right about the subterfuge. The key in bottle 2 is a glued-in fake, and players really need to open bottle 1 to find the true key concealed within.

One of these transparent bottles contains a key. Which one is it? (Correct answer: Bottle 1)

The maximum wager on the correct solution is 1%. Every solver is going to test an incorrect solution and then reevaluate the scenario, after which the puzzle will revert to a “Pattern 1” type with no indication of which of the other bottles might contain the key.

Advanced experience designers can use this pattern intentionally as a gag or to convey part of an interactive story, but it needs to be used with caution to avoid frustration, especially when the cost of attempting a solution is high, e.g. if it takes several minutes to attempt a solution.

Pattern 4: Problematic Puzzle – Inappropriate Challenge

Audience is also important when designing the puzzle- “aha!” moments should be maximized for the correct target audience.

One of these bottles contains a key. Which one is it? (Correct answer: Bottle 1)

This puzzle is a little more fair- “X marks the spot” clues that the bottle with the symbols for Morse Code “X” contains the key. Unfortunately, none of our participants know Morse Code.

We’re back to a low percentage across the board. Christina and Jim will have the underwhelming experience of searching every bottle, while Brian will waste a lot of time with an alternative interpretation of the clue.

Pattern 5: “Aha!” achieved

It’s finally time for a demonstration of a puzzle with a real “aha!” moment.

One of these bottles contains a key. Which one is it? (Correct answer: Bottle 2)

Christina figures it out (the parking space numbers are upside down in order from 86-91), but Brian and Jim do not. Brian feels pretty confident but has the wrong answer.

This is a healthier distribution, and it lacks the red flags presented in each of patterns 1-4. Now for the coup de grace- suggest a hint to the true solution to Brian & Jim and ask them to rate again.

Brian is still a touch skeptical, but after being presented with a solution they had not previously considered, the true solution stands out clearly to all participants. We have achieved an appropriate “aha!” moment for our target audience.

One note of caution– A puzzle with pattern 4 may appear to be a case of pattern 5. If Christina knew Morse Code ahead of time, puzzle 4 might appear to be challenging but fair at first blush, and in that case, it’s important to pick the right hint to measure whether there is truly an “aha!” moment. In that example, telling Brian & Jim “- . . – is Morse Code for X” would likely change the survey to show that all solvers are confident with the correct solution, but the puzzle is still not fair because there is no way Brian and Jim could have come to that conclusion without the hint.

One more caution– This sample puzzle could be a hit or miss depending on the audience. Experienced puzzlers will probably blaze through this sample puzzle as obvious (pattern #2), and other groups may be totally stuck on it (pattern #4). The value of the puzzle is entirely dependent on whether or not it generates the desired survey response pattern for the intended audience. A puzzle great for one audience may be terrible for another.


The above may look like a lot, but fundamentally, the principle behind an “aha!” moment is simple. At least some members of your target audience who untangle the puzzle should be able to confidently state the true solution, and the other members of the target audience should be able to arrive at that same point when the appropriate logic is added to their consideration pools.

The simple survey I’ve used above- asking testers to pause before attempting to validate solutions and write out their confidence levels with possible solutions- is an easy way to monitor that a puzzle or mystery experience has at least a few key moments that leave solvers feeling rewarded for having a moment of revelation. Not every puzzle in an escape room experience needs to have an “aha!” moment attached, but having at least a few of these moments mixed in can elevate an experience to keep the solvers enthralled.

As part of my overall puzzle experience quantification project, I may revisit this topic and streamline the categories/flows/survey methodology, but for now I hope this breakdown provides plenty of food for thought on an otherwise elusive topic.

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