Making a Puzzle: Symbol Combination Cipher

“How do you make a puzzle?” is a refrain I hear often but is a difficult question to answer, partially because it’s hard to verbalize the steps, but also because the “steps” can differ significantly from puzzle to puzzle. Last week I took a photo as I was midway through making a puzzle and it inspired me to write out the process in detail, as having a specific example to focus on makes it easier to explain how it all comes together.

[DISCLAIMER: If you are participating in the 2020 mystery experience Secret Santa Project, do not keep reading, or risk part of your game being potentially spoiled!]

This walkthrough is for what I like to call a “symbol combination cipher,” and it was originally inspired by the concept of bind runes, which I learned about while making The Tale of Ord. If you are new to making puzzles, perhaps this can help illuminate what one approach looks like, and you can use this guide to try making one of these yourself. If you do, please share how it goes! Maybe this puzzlecrafting post will turn into a series...

Before we begin: How does this puzzle work?

Each letter is assigned a symbol, and then combined with another symbol to make 2-letter pairs that, presented in sequence, spell out words. Words with an even number of letters will have only combined symbols, whereas words with an odd number of letters have a single-letter symbol at the end. An example phrase is given, in which some letters show up multiple times, allowing you to deduce their various shapes. Once you can translate the individual symbols, you need to play around with the placement of the pairs to make words and translate the solution phrase.

Step 1: Decide on the solution phrase

More often than not I do this first, because it’s much easier to map out a journey when you have a destination. I usually try to pick a solution phrase that is meaningful or thematically relevant to the puzzle or game. (This is not relevant to this example, which I wrote for simplicity’s sake.)

Step 2: Write out the necessary letters

You don’t necessarily need to encipher an entire alphabet if your solution doesn’t call for it. Too lengthy of a deduction process might lead to tedium, and you don’t want the puzzle to overstay its welcome. Instead, pick out only the letters you need. For this example it’s going to be ADEKRTU.

Step 3: Write an example phrase using the necessary letters

Naturally, I also try to keep the example phrase relative and thematic to the puzzle and solution, sometimes even combining them to make a full clue. Try to write a phrase that uses all the letters in your solution, with several of them repeated. It’s okay if the example phrase also uses some letters that are not in the solution, but I try to keep these to a minimum. The phrase I went with here (again, for simplicity’s sake) is BEND BUT NOT BREAK. This contains all the necessary letters and 3 additional letters.

Step 4: Tally up how many times each letter appears in the example phrase and adjust if needed

Every letter should appear at least once, unless you want to make an even more challenging puzzle that requires filling in some blanks at the end (not recommended unless for a high level puzzle hunt). Several letters must appear more than once so that you can see the repeats and determine the symbols for the repeating letters. Once those are determined, it will be easier to make out the rest.

Step 5: Create the symbols

For this kind of puzzle, it is best to create symbols that are distinct from one another and not too complex, so that it’s not too difficult to see what’s used in a combination. In this instance I started by creating a symbol for a high-frequency letter (B) and then drew a shape that would work well on top of it. I filled in that letter wherever it appeared and created more combination symbols (see E, U, and R), while recording the individual symbols above. I continued to do this until all the spots were filled. It also helps to have a certain template for the dimensions (like a square in this case) so that it’s easy to line up the points in the symbols and make the combined symbols look more organic.

Step 6: Test the logic

This is where you check if it’s possible to decipher the letters based on the information given. I usually examine the text letter by letter and check them off as I go:

  • Because of the odd numbered words, we know immediately the symbols for T and K as they are presented on their own.

  • B appears 3 times, making it easy to determine its shape.

  • Once you know B, you can figure out the shapes for E, U, and R.

  • Knowing E, you can determine A.

  • N appears twice, allowing you to find that shape.

  • Knowing N, you can decipher the shapes for D and O.

It works! If this wasn’t enough information, however, you could adjust the example phrase or add more letters to it until it was clear what each symbol represented.

Step 7: Make a clean copy of the puzzle and playtest it!

The examples drawn out here are done digitally, but I drew this whole thing out in my sketchbook before I mocked them up on the computer. Digitizing allows for clearer and more precise symbols, but of course you can also just write out a clean version by hand. Once it’s all put together, hand it off for a playtest and see if someone else can solve it.

Can you decipher this final phrase?

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