In Defense of Sudoku

Escape room players hate Sudoku.

In a community that can debate the merits of anything, there seems to consensus around the idea that Sudoku and escape rooms don’t generally mix.

The Problems with Sudoku

We’ve knocked quite a few games over the years for including Sudoku… and occasionally given praise for a novel take on the puzzle type, or having one that at least kind of fit into the story.

That’s the problem that most seem to have with Sudoku: it almost never works narratively. Even if you squint, accept it as a metaphor, and really believe that it belongs… it just doesn’t.

Meme of a Firefighter going to save a person who tells him to do a sudoku first. He is seen outside of the burned house saying "She was already dead when he found her."
Via Room Escape Problems – I think that this is some of Bill’s finest work

Setting story aside, I think that problem of Sudoku in escape rooms is deeper than narrative nuance. I can enjoy puzzle-focused, no-narrative escape rooms. I think that they can be done well, although I suspect that in most places their market is going to be more niche.

Even in a puzzle-focused, story-free escape room, I think that Sudoku is generally lame for 3 reasons:

  • Sudoku is best solved by one person. It’s a solo, quiet, sit-down-at-the-desk-and-shut-out-your-team type of puzzle. This does not work well in an escape room.
  • This puzzle type requires outside knowledge to solve, even if it’s commonly known.
  • The world is filled with free or inexpensive Sudoku that are far more interesting than anything that will show up in an escape room.

I know that last point because… and please don’t tell anyone this… I like solving Sudoku.

In Defense of Sudoku

Sudoku has tons more depth than most are aware. There are countless additional rules that can be applied to transform this basic concept into something far more compelling.

The Miracle?

Probably the best-known illustration of this is “The Miracle Sudoku” video that has been circulating the internet for a few weeks. Brace yourself because you’re about to spend 25 minutes joyously watching an expert solver go from thinking that he’s being trolled to solving a puzzle so elegant that it defies logic:

Zelda Sudoku?

In a similar vein, The Legend of Zelda Sudoku Hunt assembled 6 different puzzles into one interlocking experience inspired by The Ocarina of Time. Each of the grids represented a temple, and the mechanics were especially cool (specifically the Shadow Temple):

Personal Thoughts

I have solved 1,127 Sudoku on my phone app alone since getting this device in the spring of 2016 (such an innocent time). I’m by no means an expert, but I can hold my own… at least on a computer. My skill abilities drop when I have to solve on paper.

David's Sudoku app stats shows 1127 solved. Most on Medium or Difficult setting.

I did most of that Sudoku solving on the subway or when I couldn’t sleep. I love that there’s always a puzzle to solve and I can feel my skill, knowledge, and awareness grow with practice. It has reached a point where I literally use Sudoku to gauge how alert I am. For detail-driven work, if my Sudoku solving isn’t on point, nothing else that I do will be either.

This puzzle type gets a lot of negativity thrown at it within the escape room community and in the context of escape rooms. While that is generally well earned, I wouldn’t discount the whole puzzle type. It has a surprising amount of depth.

If I ever have a dog – which my allergies won’t allow – I would name that hypothetical doggo “Sudoku.”

10 thoughts on “In Defense of Sudoku

  1. While I very much like Sudoku, there are a couple of additional reasons it doesn’t go well. First is writing, which many rooms don’t provide for, forcing you to solve in your head. This is awkward and forces a choice of a boring puzzle. The other is size: while the very best can finish anything reasonable in a minute and a half, most of the audience will find the default 9×9 size far too long, and they’d be missing out on the part of the experience you can’t have at your desk. I feel a side of 4 to 6 is a lot more digestible of a commitment.

  2. You raise some really good points.

    Writing Implement: Every Sudoku that I’ve ever seen in an escape room either came with a pencil or was a physical Sudoku where blocks or tiles needed to be arranged. So I’ve never seen one where it was necessary to solve one in my head (which would be a disaster). I hope that no one has ever made someone solve a Sudoku without any kind of notation (but I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that some now closed company used to do that).

    Size: A base 6 Sudoku is far more approachable than a base 9. It’s way faster, and doesn’t feel like it’s eating up all of your play time in a room.

  3. Sudoku can be a great distraction when you are otherwise trapped in life’s “standby” zones (subway, airplane, doctor’s waiting room, etc). I can count, but I am weak on the abbreviation for one of Shakespeare’s operas so crosswords are largely a waste of time while I’m wasting time. Imagine standing on the overlook at the Grand Canyon and seeing someone with their head down scribbling a Sudoku puzzle. That is what is happening in every escape room with sudoku that I have played. We’re killing time while we are desperately trying to make time. You might say Pig Pen cypher is more or less the same. However, the exotic figures add some mystery to the process and it doesn’t look like what you find on the walls of a 1st graders classroom (0-9). That being said, all of these types of puzzles should be used judiciously (code word for “cut out” at least 50% of what is in the room currently) because we are at the Grand Canyon for crying out loud. Sorry my take on this topic turned into a rant. There is a time and a place for everything – David’s post is a clear distillation of what players think about the match/mismatch of Sudoku and escape rooms.

    1. Agreed. It’s really about context.

      Also, Lisa and I do crosswords together… because between the both of us, we are one functional person. I get no enjoyment out of solo crosswording.

  4. Hysterically, Tommy and I have LABORED ALL WEEK over an intense, (Deeply) modified sudoku puzzle for our Mary Shelley project. This post is quite timely!

  5. I would also add some points:

    If you DO Sudoku regularly, then doing it in an Escape Room is redundant. If you DON’T, then you’re in for an unfortunate learning curve (especially if the reason you don’t is because logic puzzles are not your forte).

    Many people don’t do well with logic puzzles under time pressure.

    If you make a mistake in Sudoku, you often have to back-track or perhaps even start over, adding to the time pressure and frustration – and (depending on how the puzzle is delivered) you may end up with a puzzle unusable due to eraser marks.

    1. These are good points as well. Especially that last one. Correcting a Sudoku with an error is a skill unto itself.

  6. Wonderful article, I am thankful for the links to the Zelda sudoku hunt and the electrifying miracle sudoku solve!

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