I'm so read the specific requirements and a meta post about the requirements for riddles.

I felt my question fit the requirements but some comments have highlighted some grey areas - I wonder if that's lack of experience or just grey areas hard to cater for?

I purposely made my riddle a little tricky because I've seen other riddles with multiple answers and the solution within 5 mins of being posted. In my mind that's too easy. I tried hard to make it tricky by being clever with the clues, ie instead of just having vague clues or not many etc.

I'm just discussing this, not defending or attacking, but are there answers to the grey areas below:

  1. How does one know what is the acceptable level of "difficulty"
  2. Can it be allowed to be difficult and clues given over time, or should it be answerable within a short period of time, how do you determine how long it will take (see 3)
  3. How do you manage the fact that people have different problem solving skills, as well as difference in the time it takes them to solve a puzzle. As well as not having had chance to see the question before it's solved in 2 mins because it was simple
  4. When is a riddle really "too broad"? Surely without knowing the answer to the riddle this is impossible to determine. 10 people could say on face value "this is never going to be solved" but 10 other people could instead actually solve it in 5 mins or an hour with a bit of thought

I was going to give it a few hours and post a clue if no-one had it. Riddle answers are upvoted if they're good guesses, and I'm monitoring to see if people are close or not to comment and decide if giving a clue is needed, or just more time.

I am entirely open to being corrected or further informed :)

Quickly discussing the comments which made valid points (I'm discussing not arguing):

All three of the answers posted seem to fit alll the clues. You might want to try adding more clues before this becomes too broad.

Won't it often be the case that many things could fit the clues? I think this is the fun and attraction of people making answers/guesses and getting closer as a collective group. One persons answer being "close" makes others edit theirs.

How does one put enough info to narrow down the number of possible answers without making it too easy by having too many clues? It's really hard to find a middle ground for all of this.


"although that's [determining if too tricky or not] hard to determine when one knows the answer" that's a sign of a too broad/bad riddle

This comment was upvoted so bringing it here.
I don't think I explained myself well there. I meant that when one knows the answer it's arguably impossible to be impartial, so it's really hard to judge if the clues are too easy or too cryptic. This is something that can be attempted to be gauged, and I did as best I could, but it's hard and as with a lot of the other things, only time will tell really.

Looking at the answers now it's been open a while, I see even more how hard it is to make a puzzle guessable without being too easy. But again, I think it's fine there are many answers/guesses. If they fit the clues they get upvotes - isn't this an ok format to have?

I have no solution to the dilemmas, just asking if I've missed something and there is no dilemma or how to work with it.

Link to the question I asked


Having written this, someone solved the riddle. I think making them harder as long as not stupidly cryptic and allowing more time and answers makes it more inviting. But, I haven't been here long so perhaps that fails in most cases.


2 Answers 2


This answer attempts to give guidance for puzzles in general, and riddles in particular where so noted.

  1. How does one know what is the acceptable level of "difficulty"

To know if your riddle is "acceptable" in difficulty, you first must know how difficult it is. Alas, rating your own puzzles is notoriously difficult. Your puzzle is probably harder than you think it is.

That excellent answer to What should you look for when rating the difficulty of a puzzle? discusses better than I could the challenges in trying to estimate how hard something is to solve when you already know the solution. The top answer to that question notes that the best way to know how hard your puzzle is, is to get some people to test-solve it for you.

"Difficulty" may be because the riddle (or puzzle) requires thinking about the information provided in a very specific way before it leads to a solution; or because it relies on uncommon knowledge in some specific subject or language or culture or place, or requires knowledge of some random bit of trivia; or because the provided clues are themselves mini-puzzles that have to be solved to get at their meaning. These are all ways a riddle or puzzle can be challenging, yet solvable by the right person with the right knowledge and the right way of thinking about it.
However, as happens all too often, perceived "difficulty" may also be due only to the riddle (or puzzle) being under-specified, under-clued, or poorly designed.
This includes forcing a solver to go through tedious mechanical steps instead of actual solving — please don't make your puzzle "harder" just by making it more of a grind... puzzles are, after all, supposed to be fun to solve.
Not all difficulty is equal, and not all is good.

Once you have an idea how difficult your riddle is, it's time to decide if it's too easy or too difficult to be "acceptable" here. Finding the fine line between too-easy and too-hard puzzles is a topic that comes up from time to time. The leading answer to that question suggests anything that sits unsolved on this site for more than a few hours is probably the sign of an overly difficult puzzle. I'm not sure that's always true, as some excellent puzzles have taken days or even weeks of different people thinking about different parts before someone connects the dots to come up with a solution. But it is a good general guideline, and applies pretty well to riddles, where there's not a lot of piece-wise solving; anything beyond a day or two is probably a good sign the difficulty was much higher than expected.

The flip-side of being too difficult is being too easy. Some puzzlers get frustrated that a puzzle that took many hours to craft and which they (and their test solvers?) thought was a challenge, ends up solved in mere minutes, or at least in some disappointingly small fraction of the time it took to create. If that happens to you, congratulations: you've just encountered The many-eyes effect.

The best answer I can offer, then, is:

  • Get test solvers, so you eliminate the "in your own head" factor
  • Try to estimate how your puzzle's difficulty compares to other puzzles here
  • Make sure it's the level of difficulty you intend, and is difficult for the right reasons
  • Don't be discouraged if it's solved "too quickly" - because of the many-eyes effect, solution time is not always the best indicator of difficulty
  • If you really want to gauge difficulty, ask the people who solved it for their feedback


  1. Can it be allowed to be difficult and clues given over time, or should it be answerable within a short period of time, how do you determine how long it will take?

Actual difficulty is really up to you; I'm often amazed at what gets solved here, and often solved quickly. I already offered some rough guidance on how long a riddle should probably take to solve, but if you don't mind a riddle sitting unsolved for longer (and, potentially, answerers losing steam and then losing interest after fruitless attempts to make sense of it), you're certainly allowed to make it more inaccessible.
(It bears repeating, though, that not all difficulty is equal, and not all is good.)

You ask about time to solve. I'll reiterate that solution time is not always the best indicator of difficulty. But as it is often the case that the poster underestimates the difficulty of a puzzle and no forward progress gets made even after "long enough" has passed, hints are often a good way to give additional guidance to solvers and to make more accessible a puzzle that ended up more difficult than intended.

But here's the thing. Hints are fixes to a puzzle's difficulty. Ideally, you should not need them.

Puzzles in general should incorporate enough information in their original statement to allow someone to solve them—as part of the puzzle itself, not grafted on later as "hints". Since riddles tend to be less about solving bit by bit, and more about a global association of a single answer with all the information provided, the clues provided within the riddle need to be enough to lead to the solution.

If an added hint is effectively required for anyone not inside your head to solve the riddle then it's not a "hint", it's an essential part of the riddle--and in many cases is the only thing preventing your riddle from being "guess what I'm thinking of". That kind of information should be part of the riddle from the start.

Assuming what you're giving are actual hints, and not required information, then ...
Yes. Hints can be added after some time has passed to give extra help to solvers not making progress without them.


  1. How do you manage the fact that people have different problem solving skills, as well as difference in the time it takes them to solve a puzzle. As well as not having had chance to see the question before it's solved in 2 mins because it was simple

I'm not sure you do.

The audience here runs from folks cruising the Hot Network Questions list, who have only casual interest and skill in solving puzzles, to people who have a deep intuitive sense for puzzles and/or considerable knowledge and skill in solving and even creating them. It's unlikely you're going to be able to create a single puzzle that will be equally engaging to both ends of that spectrum, and equally unlikely that your puzzle will take both ends of that spectrum anything resembling similar times to solve. So you're not really going to address the disparity in people's solving skills and solving speed.

If you just don't want your puzzle to be solved in two minutes, even by experts, then don't make it too simple. A puzzle that really has just one step to solve is going to be solved as quickly as it takes someone to figure out that single step. Puzzles with multiple parts or with multiple layers are going to take a bit longer, and present an opportunity to more people to latch onto something solvable to them without them having to solve the whole puzzle in its entirety. If different parts require different knowledge, insights, and/or strategies to solve, you increase the chances that a single solver will hit a step they have to stop and think about for a while.

  • Very simple puzzles are going to be solved quickly, and probably by whoever sees them first and/or types their answer fastest.
  • Puzzles with multiple parts and/or multiple steps may take minutes to hours per step, frequently with different people solving different parts and posting partial solutions. Depending on the puzzle, there may or may not be a single ("meta") puzzle whose solution comes from the various parts; where there is one, it's usually one of the contributors of partial solutions who sees the big picture answer and posts it, sometimes before all the pieces have been solved.
  • Complicated puzzles may take days or weeks to solve, with hints being needed along the way to guide solvers along the intended solution path. Often, different solvers will solve different steps, and someone will eventually connect the dots and find the final solution.

Different puzzle structures can lead to more people being engaged for longer periods of time and in different ways. But at the end of the day, the answer to "how do I make my puzzle last longer" is simple: More Puzzle.

This advice isn't quite so useful when we're talking about riddles, as your other questions do—riddles generally have just one layer—but for puzzles in general, creating puzzles with a solve path that goes beyond a single step can be a good way to provide solvers of any skill level a bit more challenge and engagement, and in many cases can give multiple solvers the opportunity to contribute to the solution.


  1. When is a riddle really "too broad"? Surely without knowing the answer to the riddle this is impossible to determine. 10 people could say on face value "this is never going to be solved" but 10 other people could instead actually solve it in 5 mins or an hour with a bit of thought

A good riddle leaves no doubt as to the correctness of its solution, once that solution is known; the answer uses all the information provided by the riddle, and while it may have to reinterpret some or all of that information, it doesn't have to make additional assumptions to justify the answer as correct.

But until a definitive answer is found, it is often the case that people will post their guesses. Poorly defined riddles tend to attract lots of guesses, as people throw anything out there to see if any of it sticks. But a lot of people attempting to answer is not what makes a puzzle "too broad".

What makes a riddle or a puzzle too broad is when people offer answers that fit with all the information provided, and where it is not apparent at all that there is a reason (beyond "that wasn't what I was thinking of") why those answers do not solve the puzzle. If there can be multiple answers for which there is no part of the puzzle that actually invalidates those answers, then those answers should be at least as valid as the solution the poster had in mind; that makes the puzzle "too broad" by definition.

You asked:

Won't it often be the case that many things could fit the clues? I think this is the fun and attraction of people making answers/guesses and getting closer as a collective group. One persons answer being "close" makes others edit theirs.

If many things could fit the clues, then the puzzle is under-specified. Many things may fit some of the clues, but a good riddle will have exactly one solution that fits all the clues. Now obviously some people will go out of their way to stretch explanations to justify how their putative answer is a solution to the clues, and puzzle setters cannot close every loophole (nor should they have to), but a well-crafted puzzle will give enough information to rule in the intended solution while ruling out everything else. And it should be apparent to someone reading a wrong answer that they've either ignored parts of the puzzle, or that they've taken unwarranted liberties in fitting their "solution" to the puzzle as stated.

I appreciate your comment about the fun of watching a group get iteratively closer to a solution. Keep in mind, though, that (at least here) puzzles in general, and riddles in particular, are not interactive challenges—they're not playing Hot or Cold with the setter. If they're picking up ideas from each other about what specific clues might mean, that's fine, but those guesses should be testable by referring to the puzzle or riddle, not by needing a response from the setter as to whether they're right or not. If the puzzle lacks enough specificity to make that determination, then it's probably too broad.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for such as well informed answer. I agree with everything pretty much. :) $\endgroup$
    – James
    Mar 7, 2018 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ Very well crated answer. I would extend two of your arguments a bit: 1) If a riddle(or puzzle) has more than one "well fitting answer" (as indicated by the vote-judgements of the general public), it is not necessarily bad. As OP don't "deny" alternative but valid answers as "wrong" outright. 2) The last paragraph: YES! I think people need to be constantly reminded that SE is not a forum. Things are a bit interactive, for sure, but the "endresult" should be something that can withstand the ages and is good for people "discovering" it after a long period. Always work towards this. $\endgroup$
    – BmyGuest
    Mar 15, 2018 at 8:04
  • $\begingroup$ Is there a way this thread can be linked to this help page? The information contained here is invaluable, but its discoverability is low as the help center doesn't link to it. $\endgroup$
    – Phylyp
    Mar 15, 2018 at 14:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Phylyp The general sentiment is that customizing help pages should be avoided where possible, because then changes to the original won't be reflected in the altered page and their content will thus drift apart over time. Not all help pages even can be localized, though I think that one in particular could be. Our site is different enough that maybe a custom page makes sense anyway ... The process as I understand it is to draft our own version, get community consensus that we want to make the change, and then use that to make the request to the SE team. $\endgroup$
    – Rubio Mod
    Apr 12, 2018 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ Riddle: "Why do things sit on the ground instead of hovering?" Answer: "Gravity." How many centuries did that one take to solve? $\endgroup$
    – Wildcard
    Jul 5, 2018 at 23:08

Rubio's answer is excellent, but I wanted to throw in one other thought as well:

Difficulty is possibly not the best term to be used here, as it is inherently subjective and not something to be objectively measured. Not even by time/amount of correct or wrong answers. After all you can solve a puzzle and still think it to have been difficult.

I think the type of questions you asked make more sense if one rephrases them in terms of

When is a puzzle or riddle under-defined or over-defined ?

This is a far more objective measure. Unfortunately, the answer to it can only be evaluated with knowledge of both puzzle and its solution. As a result, only time will really tell. Luckily, this is exactly what StackExchange is built for: Some interactive communication which eventually develops into long-standing, high-quality results to be found "by next generations". I think it should always be the aim of both OP and solvers to work towards this goal. That's what voting, edits and moderator are for! And the work does not necessarily stop once an "accepted" answer is found.

But what can you as OP to answer the question under-defined or over-defined? While you are in a good position to answer this - you, after all, know both puzzle and solution -, you're likely biased towards thinking as your solution as the only one, making you to some extend blind to valid alternatives. As a result, you need to be open-minded to different answer-attempts. Nevertheless, you should be self-critical before posting the question by trying to answer yourself the following questions, some of them more valid for specific types of puzzles than others:

  • What is the key-insight needed to solve the puzzle?
  • Are there (enough) indicators in the puzzle which can 'guide' thoughts to that insight? Alternatively: Is it an insight which has a good enough chance of being 'discovered' on its own by experimenting with answers?
  • Are existing indicators so strong, that one’s thought are near-automatically driven to the solution?
    ( The puzzle is then likely over-defined - and no fun. )
  • Is the key-insight something which is more or less arbitrary and can (only) be discovered by pure chance?
    ( In most cases, the puzzle is then under-defined - and no fun. )
  • Can one arrive at the (intended) solution without making un-specified assumptions?
    ( If not: under-defined and most often 'guesswork' instead of working towards a solution. No fun. )
  • Is the (intended) solution fitting all conditions of the puzzle really well? Would other people at once agree that it is the solution, or would they possibly argue?
    ( If there is room for discussion, then the puzzle is possibly under-defined. )
  • Could different solutions fit the puzzle as well?
    ( Either outright specify that more than one solution may exist, or consider addtional conditions to limit the scope. )

None of the above with give you an absolute answer, of course, but the questions are more objectively answerable than "difficulty". If you feel your puzzle is "ready" and in the region just between under- and over-defined, post it! But consider this a test and be ready to learn.

To me, PuzzlingSE to a large extend is the playing-ground to test on hone your creative skills. It is for sure where I learnt (the hard way) what an "under-defined/over-defined puzzle" is and how to fix things. It is important to avoid taking feedback personally though. And sometimes, it can even take time until the 'general public' can appreciate (or even recognize) a good puzzle. This might be frustrating at first, but it becomes even more satisfying because of it in the end.

( Here is a good example for a riddle starting out heavily under-valued which turned into one of the 'best' once the solution was obvious. )


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .