What makes a good hint system?
First of all, if you’re wondering whether or not you should even provide a hint system, for the love of puzzles, yes! Do your players a favor and set it up. No one knows your game better than you do, and getting stuck and frustrated is no one’s idea of fun - especially when they’ve paid money to play your game.
Now, what makes a good hint system in a mystery tabletop game? I’ll start by saying that hint systems diegetic to the narrative are definitely preferable, but often challenging to execute because it requires having some sort of all-knowing character, as well as AI that will be able to address all potential questions. (If you have made this in a game though I would really love to hear about it!)
Setting that aside, some games opt for crowd-sourced hints, and while forums can be great for discussion, as a player I prefer a self-service hint system, ideally online. This allows players to control what information they see, avoiding potential spoilers, and progress through the game at their own pace. It is also fairly simple to execute, even without any programming knowledge, and allows for a robust structure with plenty of information. I’m going to focus on online hints for this post, though these principles apply to printed and in-app hints as well.
Make it user friendly
Differentiate which hints belong to which puzzle, either by the components(s) involved, a card number, an image, or another obvious identifier.
If the puzzles need to be solved in a linear fashion, arrange the hints on the page in the same order.
Write hints for every step of every puzzle, not just for the points where you think people might get stuck.
If you include solutions, make sure people can’t encounter them by accident.
Make hints incremental
The best thing you can do is allow your player to determine for themselves how much information they want to see. Even if you think a puzzle is really easy, I guarantee not all of your players will, and it’s better to have more hints per puzzle than less. Revealing too much information at once can make the player feel like they’re being robbed of the opportunity to discover something, thereby significantly diminishing the satisfaction they get from solving the puzzle, because they will feel like the answer was just handed to them.
The first few hints should notify the player if there was any previous puzzles that had to be solved in order to proceed, and ask some basic questions to make sure they’re looking at the relevant components and/or information.
The following hints should provide further nudges in the right direction, keeping in mind that many people looking at the hints might have already completed the earlier portions of the puzzle.
If it is a puzzle with multiple steps, it can be helpful to provide mid-way solutions so people can double check their work.
The last few hints can essentially act as a walkthrough to the solution, but should still go step by step rather than revealing all the information in one clue. Even the last few steps should give the player as much opportunity as possible to finish the puzzle themselves.
Nothing frustrates me more than getting stuck right near the end of a puzzle and not being able to move forward. Unless you’re running a competition, there’s not really any reason to stop players from experiencing the game on their own terms - not everyone is going to play your game exactly how you envisioned. Sometimes one just really doesn’t understand a puzzle, and desperate times call for desperate solutions.
If it isn’t already explained in the late hints, include an explanation of how the solution is derived. Being able to move forward is important, but it’s also nice to know what you were missing or doing wrong.
If you can, include a spoiler free solution check. This is a great tool for people to be able to check if they’re on the right track without potentially spoiling the puzzle if they’re wrong.
Integrate hints into your play testing
Prepare to have a hint system ready when you start any serious play testing. Just like every integral game component, this should be tested, both in terms of the hints themselves as well as the usability of the platform. First of all, it is helpful to keep track (or if blind testing have your players keep track) of when they take hints, because it will highlight problem areas in the puzzles themselves. Secondly, this will allow you to make sure your hints make sense and are sufficient for people to move forward. When asking for feedback, don’t forget to ask about the hint system too.
If it’s a timed game and you’re adding penalties for hint use, consider if it actually adds anything to game, or if you’re just discouraging hint use for the sake of it. The truth is that most people want to experience the game as much as possible and use hints only when they need them, rather than just to get a better score.
Anything to add? What do you think makes for a good hint system?