An Age Old Puzzle That Belongs In Your Game

The Swan

What would you say if I told you that there’s a centuries old Chinese puzzle that has limitless replay value, engages creative types, is appropriate for grade schoolers through adults, and that I’ve never seen this puzzle in a single D&D adventure, ever.  Intrigued?  Let me tell you about tangrams.

Tangrams are deceptively difficult puzzles in which you are required to replicate a given shape with a predetermined set of tiles.  The tiles are as pictured: two large triangles, a medium triangle, two small triangles, a square, and a parallelogram.  That’s the “official” tangram tile set, and they’re cut out of a single square.  Every single tangram in existence can be made with a set of these tiles (unless, of course, it’s a “double tangram” puzzle for the experts among us).  One of the greatest advantages to tangrams as a D&D puzzle is the fact that it requires players to use a different part of their brain – normally puzzles are logic based; tangrams require spatial reasoning, and they will be very rewarding to the creative types in your group.  They’re also tactile – instead of staring at a piece of paper, unjumbling words or filling numbers in blocks, players get to fiddle with something.  They may even put their cell phones away!  There is no special knowledge or level of education required to solve a tangram.  You are simply given a shape’s silhouette, and then must make that shape out of the tiles. 

Note that the picture at the top of the article belies the puzzle’s difficulty, because you can see each tile; an actual tangram looks more like this:

The Camel

 And even that may seem simple, just looking at it – you can sort of imagine where each piece goes… until you actually have the tiles in front of you.  Then you begin to stare at the misshapen puzzle you’ve tried to piece together, and then at the leftover pieces you can’t seem to find a place for, until you are forced to admit that, yes, there is a bit of a challenge here.  Especially if there’s a clock ticking… 

Before I get into the When and How, I should also note that tangrams come in all levels of difficulty.  In trying to convey the challenge presented in a tangram, I don’t want anyone to think that they’re TOO difficult.  There’s a tangram for every person, every group, and every one is solveable.

 So let me spell out a scenario for you: The characters enter a huge vaulted room, easily 50 feet high.  The floor is polished marble, and grim statues line the walls, each one pointing at the center of the room where a massive obelisk stands.  The obelisk has [insert number of characters here] sides, as smooth and cool to the touch as the floor.  In each face of the obelisk, there is a single depression – a setting for what you can only assume is a massive jewel.  And beyond the obelisk, on the other side of the room stands a set of double doors, 20 feet high, made of cedar no doubt, by the smell of it, and bound by adamantium.  The chill emenating from the area, as well as the faint crackling of arcane energies warn would be intruders from trying to break them down.

The PCs are meant to find [number of players] jewels, and with each jewel will be a tile set.  Once they have all the jewels set in the obelisk, each face will display a depression of a tangram silhouette below each gemstone.  The players will then have to solve the tangrams and place them in the depressions to open the door.  Going about it this way gives each player a puzzle to solve simultaneously, and makes retrieving the puzzle components as much fun as solving the puzzle.  After all, the gemstones and tiles don’t have to be in the same dungeon, let alone on the same continent.  How badly do the players want to see what’s on the other side of the door?

Of course, that’s just one way to play it.  You could have just one tangram that the group solves together, using a more advanced (or even a double) tangram and a timer.  “Not done yet? Take another 10 ongoing damage everyone….”

The drawback to tangrams is that they require equipment.  You’ll never see them in published adventures because an author cannot assume that a group has a set of tiles lying around.  (Though, really, they could just include one printed on a sheet of paper to cut out…) But you, you’re the DIY type, and lucky for you, it’s easy to make a tangram tile set.  I made one in about 10 minutes while watching TV.  Do it during a full length drama show, and you’ll have a set of six.  For this project, I used the old standby – crafting foam.  If you’ve never used it, crafting foam is about 1/8 inch thick, flexible, and about the size of a sheet of paper.  It comes in all different colors, and can usually be found in the kid’s crafts section of your art supply store.  I got six different colors, one for each player, and so the pieces couldn’t get mixed up. Drop each set in a sandwich ziplock baggie, and you’re good to go.

I was going to type out the cutting directions, but it turns out someone has already done that for me. Thanks Google!  You can check out the cutting directions here.  I will say that I was tempted to go bigger than 4×4 (the sheet of foam could have EASILY handled 8×8, after all), but it turned out that 4×4 was a perfect size.  So stick with that.

Now that you have your sets of tiles, where do you find the puzzles?  Well, as you might expect, online is a good source.  You also might want to buy a book of tangrams to have handy, like this one or this one over at Amazon.  You can also get them as decks of cards.  All these options are really cheap, and that’s just a sampling.  You can get books upon books of them, at all levels of difficulty. (They are sometimes also called “tangoes,” so be sure to include that in your search.)

I would suggest sticking with a theme (“animals” comes immediately to mind), though you could also simply do abstract shapes.  Believe it or not, it’s actually difficult to reassemble the basic square, especially your first time around.  No matter what you try, be sure to include them in your next game.  The creative types in your group will thank you!

Have you ever seen or used tangrams as a D&D puzzle? How did they work out?

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5 Responses to An Age Old Puzzle That Belongs In Your Game

  1. Eric Paquette says:

    Wizard of the Coast released the adventure Scepter Tower of Spellgard in 2008 that included a Tangram. When I used it, I used Dungeon Tile pieces for the various parts they found.

    • Ah, so that’s where my DM came up with that – it was so innovative I just assumed it was something he had added to the adventure himself. It was great fun at the table, so I would recommend it to any DMs thinking of trying it out.

    • Benoit says:

      Well, then I stand corrected. Did they use the standard tangram tiles, or something else? And was there a sheet of paper you had to cut the tiles out of?

  2. Sully says:

    That is an awesome idea, and I’m definitely going to put it to use in my new kids D&D campaign!

  3. gregwa says:

    Great idea! I had a nice plastic set of those in the attic… which I recently tossed in the dumpster. Figures.

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