June 2023 update: I will mostly preserve what I wrote the day I learned of Jack’s passing. I have added a section below it of resources, and I plan to add a few things to the main article that I forgot to say initially
Jack Lance was a unique person whom I’m grateful I got to know, even in a small capacity. He was a designer of many types of puzzles – game puzzles, logic puzzles, and puzzle hunts, as well a finder of impossible plays on words. I am most familiar with his game puzzles since I spend more time in that area, but there’s nobody who could excite me more about a logic puzzle than Jack when sharing a new one. His overall puzzle output, not just the number of puzzles but their originality and breadth, is truly astounding. It’s hard to imagine that he composed all that by 25, and while working/studying full time for most of it (first at Google, then at Thekla making puzzles, but those aren’t even released yet for us to see). You can find his games here, his blog with logic puzzles here, and his archive of twitter jokes here.
His puzzle games, though they are all great, have matured over time. Early PuzzleScript games like the seasons and his alliteration assortment (AA through FF, with HH coming a few years later) are short and clever games with a fun twist (though EE was an early sign of deep mischief brewing). Later games have more than just a twist, being conceptually entirely new and rule-defying. Examples of these are ENIGMASH, VEXT EDIT, and I’m Too Far Gone 1 and 4. In the middle he explored some simulation style games, where you design a setup and then run it (sometimes with participation in the running phase) starting with Botsket Ball, reaching great heights with Coping Mechanisms and Gating, and ending with a prototype called Swaygmlarg – I tested this unusually named game and loved it, and it influenced my upcoming game Loopoban (but don’t judge him based on my much lower standards!). I might try to find the latest version of Swaygmlarg and share it. I wish I knew if he would have wanted that.
Jack’s puzzles are accessible and delightful. Though he could have designed impossibly difficult puzzles if he wanted to, he somehow designed them to make players feel good and at ease instead, while at the same time blowing their minds. (Not to say they aren’t challenging, and there are exceptions like Char-Min-Glee which I’ll get to.) And when he wanted to do something impossibly hard, he did it mostly in the design rather than as an exercise for the player. I feel slightly sick when I think about the code behind ENIGMASH, Pushing It, Hilbert Highway, and Char-Min-Glee (in large part due to the constraints he worked under. Char-Min-Glee had to fit in 2 tweets / 560 characters, PuzzleScript is hardly adequate for the complicated logic of ENIGMASH and Hilbert Highway, and Pushing It I will not spoil further).
Jack had a great sense of humor, and told jokes not only directly but also subtly through puzzles. Mechanic Overload! is about a mechanic clumsily making their way through puzzles overloaded with mechanics (of the other kind), with the gag somehow growing more grotesque with each level.
This logic puzzle at first appears to be just a pop-up box stating the rules. Take a moment to investigate:
And how about the amazing wordplay jokes that he seemed to invent out of thin air? This is my favorite:
Sometimes he wanted to convey something other than humor. In Mac & CHI, you control either Mac the human or CHI the robot (Crate Helper Intelligence), as they solve their way through a crate factory of puzzles, first individually and then even more effectively together. It was well after finishing the game that I realized its authors, Jack and PHI, were metaphorical analogues of the protagonists.
I knew Jack mostly through the thinky-puzzle-games discord server, as well as in private messages. His legacy in that community goes beyond the puzzles he shared. His wit and wordplay resulted in a special emoji called “jacklance” that would be used as a reaction to anything pithy and hilarious (the fact that it was almost always a reaction to messages by Jack Lance is simply a coincidence). He initiated the first collaborative puzzle game project, where he drafted the start of a game and then passed it on to a random participant to continue where the previous one left off. The experience not only resulted in the fun game What Gophers Go For, it also brought the community closer together and started a tradition of collaborative projects, now numbering 8 finished games under the name Thinky Collective. My contribution to the first project was a bit of a prank, I concluded the game with a tricky level that looks impossible (this in itself isn’t that unusual), and thematically insinuated that it might really be impossible. It was only recently solved, and in the interim I sometimes itched to ask Jack if he knew that it was solvable. I only imagined two possible responses: “Yeah I know, I was letting you have your fun” or “it is? Oh, got it.”
One doesn’t need more evidence of Jack’s genius than the puzzles he designed. But, of course, he left behind many other clues. Here are a few personal anecdotes.
Once upon a time, when I was well-rested and childless, I felt very confident in my ability and speed in solving sokoban-style puzzles. Suddenly a challenge was issued by a new member of the discord: the first person to solve all the puzzles in this game, all in optimal move counts, gets a prize! Confident as I was, I’m not an arrogant person and was open to being surprised in this competition. What happened was not a matter of being surprised. Jack completed it so quickly that I honestly could not have believed it possible. Though you may be aware of other amazing feats of speed, like Rubik’s cube or Sudoku solving, those are done with years of training while this was a particular game none of us had exposure to until the challenge was issued.
(don’t let the scores fool you, the missing points are from the hardest puzzles and would have taken me a long time to make up.)
hopefully probably not aware of my long article reviewing all the snake puzzle games ever made (until I stopped updating it last year). Soon after finishing the initial version of the article, having recently solved all the thousands of snake puzzles in existence, a new snake puzzle game was released – Bottom Feeder by Zach Abel. If there was any time for me to finish something blazingly fast it was now. You probably know how this ended. I couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed when Jack solved it much faster than me, while he was also working through another game at the same time.
Final anecdote. I said I would come back to Char-Min-Glee. This is the one time he overrode his player-friendly design philosophy and released a brutally complicated puzzle. He felt the need to defend himself, saying the puzzle “might not actually be that fun, but I just had to.” Actually, my phrasing is a bit inaccurate. The initial state of the puzzle is extremely simple, it’s the solution that is very much not simple. He later remarked that “It ended up with a puzzle that I think has highest complexity to size/# of elements ratio of any puzzle I’ve made.” After a load of heavenly toiling I finally managed to solve it, almost a month later. (There were no other solves in the meantime, and I’m not sure if there has been since.) My sense of achievement would have been grand had I not known that - it’s so preposterous it’s funny - Jack designed the mechanics, found this incredible puzzle (which required solving it of course, and it’s not one bit easier as the designer) in the heap of who knows how many other candidates that he had to solve, filled out the rest of the game with more fun puzzles, and condensed the code of the entire thing into 560 characters in a few days.
Jack’s creativity was spectacular, and his wonderful games have given me so much joy over the years. I wish I got to know him better on a personal level, grateful as I am for what we did share. We spoke about his puzzles, especially during testing. I sometimes sent him videos of me solving and talking about his latest prototype, or I might stream it to him live as he would listen and type back to me. I didn’t mind his shyness, and after all I don’t know how a spoken conversation would work – I wasn’t sure I could say anything he didn’t already know. Maybe how much I admired him, if I had the courage.
Jack never stopped amazing us, and continuing beyond the above stories I had the honor of seeing more of his incredible work, laughing at his clever jokes, and testing and discussing puzzles with him. Although I have spoken to many people more intelligent than I am through mathematics and other areas of life, I have never felt the same awe at someone’s genius as when talking to Jack. I used to know, happily, that my puzzles will never compare to those of Jack Lance. Now I know the same, with sorrow.
It is strange feeling close to someone that I didn’t even know the name of. (Well, something must be up if he uses a different name for his website - Jack Lance - and his blog – Jacob Lance - but I assumed one of the two was his real name.) When I first realized how special he was I Googled what I thought was his name, expecting to find an overflowing list of accolades. Until reading his obituary I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t. I am both eager and hesitant to learn more about who this brilliant, beautiful person was.
Rest in Peace.
Jack hadn’t posted every logic puzzle he made to his blog or Twitter, so IHNN and some other members of Puzzlers Club collected them from various sources and listed them in this spreadsheet. Puzzlers club user non also collected Jack’s wordplay and other types of puzzles that he had posted in the Puzzlers Club discord but not Twitter or his blog, and those can be viewed here.
Jack’s puzzle hunts sometimes required emailing him to proceed or check answers. There’s an ongoing effort to provide all useful information on this wiki, which should be completed soon.
My additional notes on Jack’s puzzle game page, including some games that are omitted or unfinished:
Swaygmlarg is a game Jack was working on intermittently. The version here is what I have from 2020, and it’s extra painful because he had really interesting plans for it. It was already a good game, so I think it’s worth sharing. There are some bugs you might encounter, such as the game crashing if you try to push a block into the border of a level, or into a star, but all the levels are solvable despite the bugs.
The Octogram link on the site is broken, it needed the trailing slash removed.
I’m Too Far Gone 4 isn’t listed on his site, he meant to get to it and must have forgotten. For the curious, he was going to put it in the PuzzleScript column.
Jack contributed a puzzle to the 2022 Confounding Calendar called Proof of Equivalence Via Explicit Construction of an Ambient Isotopy. It certainly fits the confounding criterion!
Jack also contributed to the CosmOS 9 project with the platformer Gordianaut. It is shorter than the other games in the bundle, perhaps because Jack adhered more strictly to the project’s initial guidelines.
The logic game Patterna, which is in the family of Minesweeper / Hexcells / Tametsi, includes two level packs designed by Jack named “Colorful” and “Platonic Patterns.”
Some other individual puzzles: Wall is a snakebird puzzle. His contributions to the Thinky Collective games include: Starting level of What Gophers Go For, level 15 of Dr Jelly and Mr Slime, AB1 in Conveyor Con-fusion (there’s no way to skip to this level without playing the rest of the game), and level 6 in Lab Rat-ional Thinking.
Snakeoban had 2 levels added to the end for this itch.io version, compared to the PuzzleScript link on his site. You can press X twice to skip a level, in case you want to go straight to the two extra puzzles.
Trains Love Snowmen is a short mash-up of some Draknek games.
Season Finale was updated in 2021 to fix a bug that caused level 10 to be broken (one of the objects would disappear). I assume it must have worked for some time initially, but it was broken when I first played. Jack told me he somewhat regretted making each season game as long as it is, because players might stop before seeing the highlight which is Season Finale. My recommendation would be to play each season as long as you feel like, then move on to the next, and be sure to at least look at the finale.
Some older games that were probably omitted due to being a bit more primitive than his later work:
Duplex was initially hosted on Jack’s site, but seems to have been taken off, probably because it’s a weaker game. It was made under the restriction of having only 2 rules. He designed some extra levels at a later date which I compiled in the above puzzlescript link.