BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.


2013: Future imperfect?


In which I welcome the new year — happy 2013! — and talk about Digits in a Box, a packing puzzle designed by Eric Harshbarger, produced by Popular Playthings, and given to me at Christmas. The puzzle is many things: clever, compact, tactile and immediately engaging, but it’s certainly not perfect — and that’s what makes it so good.

You can’t invent a design. You recognise it, in the fourth dimension.

D.H. Lawrence

The trick with Digits in a Box is simple: fit the 10 sturdy plastic pieces, the shape of the digits 0–9, back into the little box and close the lid. You know it must be possible, since that’s how the puzzle is delivered, and the box tells you that there are over 4000 solutions, so it sounds easy. And getting 8 or 9 of the pieces back in the box is easy. But the final one? Not so much.

The odd thing is that, unlike almost every other packing puzzle on the market, there seems to be ample spare room in the box. The designer Eric Harshbarger makes this point in his own excellent exposition of how the puzzle came to be: the box’s dimensions are 5×5×5 ‘unit squares’, so contains space for 125 ‘unit cubes’. But the pieces themselves occupy 107 unit cubes, only around 85% of the space.


The puzzle was an immediate hit with my and my family. The pieces were satisfying to handle and simply fun to play and experiment with; and a solution, when it came, elicited a pleasingly wry smile of recognition. One down, only 4328 to go!

Most packing puzzles rely on filling all the space available with a specific arrangement of the pieces, which themselves have been designed to make any other arrangement impossible. And one can imagine how designers usually begin at the end: imagining the whole and then carefully dissecting it into impossibly devious constituent parts. Eric did the reverse: he wondered if an already present set of pieces — the 10 digits, albeit rendered into consistent geometric forms — could possibly fit into a specific container, whose dimensions merely suggested that a solution was likely, and that it would be neither impossible nor trivial.

But what do I mean when I say that the puzzle isn’t perfect? I mean only that some of the hallmarks of perfection are absent. Where is the completeness? Where is the purposeful, deliberate precision of a thoughtful and thorough creator? For one thing, there’s all that infuriatingly unused extra space.

There was nothing inevitable about the puzzle or its multiple solutions. In a sense it might be considered merely an accident of mathematics, history and the origins of Arabic numerals, but that would be to miss the point that it took Eric’s creative insight to notice it’s potential. And to yearn for ‘perfection’ would be to miss something equally profound: that the ideal isn’t necessarily as much fun as it sounds.

Or, to put it another way — and to begin 2013 with a new design maxim — if the Devil is in the details, then God is in the gaps.

Quote via Quotes on Design.

David Brain said...

January 07, 2013 12:00 am

Indeed. I find that some of the most interesting pentomino solutions are the ones that involve leaving spaces in the 2d grid of various specifications for much the same reason.
Not that I can ever do any of those spatial arrangement puzzles: I think I have a hole in my brain that isn't filled by that particular ability...

Eric Harshbarger said...

January 14, 2013 11:36 pm

Brett, I'm glad you like the puzzle. You've obviously been to my website as well, so maybe you've seen my Lexomino Puzzle page? It is essentially details "Digits" puzzles custom made for individual names. Not mass-produced, but laser-cut by myself on a by-request basis:

Anyway, thanks for the favorable review.


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