'Good Sudoku' Is Making Me Good at Sudoku

Playing this game cut the time it took to solve these puzzles from 15 minutes to under 10.
July 31, 2020, 1:00pm
Good Sudoku on both iPhone and iPad
Image: Good Sudoku

Good Sudoku is truly the only Sudoku app anyone will ever need, especially if you never thought you would like or enjoy Sudoku.

Sudoku has always seemed like a game I would like, but it's been so tedious to learn that I've never delved deeply into it. I enjoy meditative puzzles, like crosswords, where the key to solving them is to input more and more information onto the board until you eliminate all possibilities except the correct one. It's just that words are interesting to me, and numbers are usually not. Combine that with the frustrating nature of most Sudoku apps, which treat you as if you already know how to play the game, and I've never found a foothold.

It would appear that Zach Gage, developer of puzzle games like Really Bad Chess and Spelltower, shares my frustration with Sudoku apps. In Good Sudoku, he has not only made a pleasant version of the game to play on my phone, but a teaching tool that shows new players the magic of solving a Sudoku puzzle.

The small quality of life features in this game make a big difference to players that don't understand the core concepts of Sudoku. A Sudoku puzzle is a grid of nine by nine "houses" that are themselves placed in a three by three grid.Each row, column and house must contain the digits one through nine, and can only contain one of each number. You're given hints to where to place the digits based on the squares that have already been filled in for you. Describing this puzzle in words already gives me a headache; trying to figure out where to place a number just based on the filled in squares based on the scant information you're given is even more daunting. If you're playing with a pencil and paper, you can make notes on each square, meticulously noting where each number can or cannot be. In Good Sudoku, there's an automatic note taking function, cutting down that busy work.

Even more helpful than the auto-note taking is Focus Mode, which highlights the squares where a particular number has been filled in, and also every square affected by those placements. This means if you're really stumped on where to place that 2, you can very quickly have a visual guide for the possibilities, allowing you to more easily understand how the board is read, and how to fill it. On top of that, Good Sudoku also has short guides that walk you through more advanced concepts and give you an opportunity to identify them and practice solving them. 

By using Focus Mode, automatic note taking and practicing with the guides, I have cut down my time on the Expert level puzzles from 15 minutes to under 10. At first, I felt like using these tools were cheating. It's hard to shake that in the first few puzzles, as you watch these learning tools do all the work for you. But learning Sudoku with these tools made me understand the puzzles better once I took them away. Now I can recognize patterns and solutions at a glance, after having had Good Sudoku show me examples of them. Part of completing a puzzle is being stumped, setting stuck, and then seeing the elegant solution that wasn't clear until you took a break. We all imagine the answer will reveal in a burst of beauty itself like it did in the viral Sudoku video, where a mathematician completed a puzzle that awed him in its grace. But getting from "Sudoku Novice" to "Mathematician Seeing God" has a lot of steps in between, where you need help to understand the patterns and their purpose.

I can tell I'm learning something when I play Good Sudoku, but it never feels makes me feel stupid. The ways it tracks your progress, but showing how many hints you use and how long the puzzles take you is such a strong, encouraging marker of improvement that it makes all the struggle seem worth it. 

I feel like the eventual goal of Good Sudoku is not needing to use its helpful little tools anymore, and to be able to complete a puzzle just with your wits and a sharp #2. Someday I'll get there. For now, Good Sudoku has my back.