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Jigsaw Puzzle - Game Strategy

Jigsaw puzzles can be a delight for families to engage in during these days and evenings when more time is spent at home than previously. Among other things, completing jigsaw puzzles increases one's observational and problem-solving skills, logic, attention to detail, and, if doing the puzzle with others, one's collaboration skills (hugely important in our times). Having completed many beautiful jigsaw puzzles over the years, here are the game strategies I've developed for successfully doing jigsaw puzzles.

The Astronomer Fantasy Wizard Jigsaw Puz

Framed Wizard Jigsaw Puzzle In My Home Study

Selecting a Puzzle

1. Pick out a puzzle with an image that appeals to you. You will be motivated to work on the puzzle if you love the image and can't wait to see how it looks completed.

2. Pick out a puzzle that has a lot of varying details. This will help you build out sections of the puzzle. A puzzle with a lot of the picture (and pieces) that look the same and that have little varying detail is very difficult to do, and not very fun unless one is an advanced puzzler and wants that extra challenge. In fact, there are puzzles that have no picture but are all a single color just for such a challenge.


3. Pick out a puzzle that has the right number of pieces for the skill level of the puzzlers, the amount of time they want to devote to the puzzle, the size of their work space, and the intention for the finished puzzle. For instance, will the finished puzzle be mounted and displayed, and, if so, how large do you want the mounted puzzle to be?

Van Gogh Mosaic Jigsaw Puzzle.jpg

Completed Van Gogh Mosaic Jigsaw Puzzle Waiting To Be Framed

Preparing the Workspace

Make sure you have a more-than-adequate workspace. This includes:

1. A hard flat surface for the puzzle itself. This work area, which I call the puzzle assemblage area (PAA), should be at least 2 to 3 inches wider on every side than the size of the puzzle's dimensions, or outside edges. This margin around the edges of the part of the puzzle that has already been assembled will allow you to place individual pieces close to where you figure they must go as the puzzle takes more form.

2. Another hard flat surface to hold all the unassembled pieces. This work area, which I call the puzzle sorting area (PSA), should be at least as big as the surface where the puzzle will be assembled, and ideally twice as big to allow for the moving around (sorting) of the unassembled pieces as described in steps 4 and 5 of the Steps to Complete the Puzzle section below.

Both work areas, the PAA and PSA, should be elevated (table height) to allow the puzzlers to stand or sit while working, as preferred.

3. Both areas should be well lit, with the ability to direct a bright lamp (a flashlight will also do) to various sections of the puzzle or the PSA as needed.

4. Have a magnifying glass on hand. This comes in handy even if the puzzlers have great eyesight, to be able to see minute details on individual puzzle pieces when needed.

Steps to Complete the Puzzle

1. When you open the puzzle box, place the photo of the completed puzzle, if one is included, on the wall next to the PAA / PSA. If one isn't included you can find one online and print it out for reference. You will also want to keep the top of the puzzle box with the photo of the completed puzzle nearby to refer to.

2. Lay out all the pieces face up in the PSA. Make sure all pieces are visible, i.e., that pieces aren't on top of each other.


Here are all of the 2,000 pieces of the Old-Time General Store jigsaw puzzle, the puzzle for this demonstration, moved to the PSA, puzzle side up:

01 - 2000 pieces all laid out face up on

Note that each puzzle piece generally has four sides...


...though not always, for instance in the following four examples. The first two are wooden Waldorf jigsaw puzzles, the third is a wooden geometric puzzle whose pieces all have the same shape and can thus be made to create any number of different designs, and the fourth is a puzzle of the Milky Way seen through trees whose pieces each have a unique interlocking shape.

Snow White Waldorf Jigsaw Puzzle.jpg
Happy Day Waldorf Jigsaw Puzzle.jpg
Geometric wooden jigsaw puzzle.JPG
A wooden circular night sky puzzle with

When each puzzle piece does have four sides, the side of each piece will have either:

a. an opening in it,

b. a protuberance that will fit into another piece's opening,

c. one side that is flat and has neither an opening or a protuberance, or

d. two adjacent sides that are flat (these are the four corner pieces).


In woodworking when pieces have openings and protuberances that are designed to join together, the openings are called "mortises" and the protuberances are called "tenons". In the world of jigsaw puzzles these protuberances and openings on the jigsaw puzzle pieces are called a number of things, such as "males" and females", "loops" and "sockets", "knobs" and "holes", "tabs" and "slots", and "keys" and "locks", but we'll call them "outies" and "innies" because, after all, we are probably doing the puzzles with children!

3. Move all pieces that have one or two sides without an innie OR an outie into the PAA. These pieces will form the frame, or outside edge, of the puzzle. Normally these will be pieces with one or two of the four sides flat, i.e., with a straight edge. If the puzzle you're assembling is rectangular, put the four corner pieces onto the four corners of the PAA, according to the color and detail of the piece compared with the picture of the finished puzzle.


On jigsaw puzzles with odd shapes, the edge pieces will have one side that's simply smooth, and will not have corners. For instance, here is a jigsaw puzzle the outer frame of which doesn't have flat sides or even regularly-curved sides as in the round Milky Way puzzle above. This beautiful elephant puzzle was presented as a gift to the Khartoum American School in Sudan, Africa, where it hangs in the school's front office.

Ele-Phantastic Elephant jigsaw

Here are the edge pieces and corners of the Old-Time General Store jigsaw puzzle moved to the PAA. At this point it's not clear to the puzzlers putting this together whether all the edge pieces have been located and moved, and only two of the four corners have been located. As soon as we complete the frame we'll see that we're missing a few edge pieces, which weren't found until well into the process. It was strange that these edge pieces eluded all our efforts to find them, and we thought for a while that maybe these pieces got lost somewhere. This is not an uncommon experience with puzzlers, especially if one has purchased or otherwise received a used puzzle.

03 - seventh group- edges, on puzzle tab

Here are the six shapes of pieces that will be left in the PSA (from left to right): 4 innies, 3 innies (and 1 outie), 2 innies and 2 outies opposite each other (I call this kind of piece an "opposites" if I mention to a co-puzzler a piece I'm looking for), 2 innies and 2 outies each on either side of a corner (I call this kind of piece "corners"), 3 outies (and 1 innie), and 4 outies.

4 Innies.jpg
3 Innies.jpg
3 Outies.jpg
4 Outies.jpg

4. Move all the remaining pieces in the PSA into one of six areas of the PSA, grouped according to which of the six shapes it has. This is a major sorting, during which you may discover edge or corner pieces missed in step 3. This step saves a tremendous amount of time as the assemblage of the puzzle progresses. In a 2,000 piece puzzle, instead of searching for one piece you're looking for among approximately 1,800 other pieces (2,000 pieces less the ~200 pieces forming the frame), you only have to search in a fraction of that number of pieces, as you see what type of piece is needed to fit into a given space, e.g., whether it needs to have one or more innies and/or outies, whether these innies and outies need to be opposites or corners, etc.

Here are all the remaining pieces of the Old-Time General Store puzzle grouped into the six groups according to the shapes of the puzzle pieces, with some pieces that were easily seen as pairs grouped on the bottom left of the PSA. Notice that in this particular puzzle, pieces with 4 innies (far left on the edge of the PSA) and 4 outies (far right of the PSA) are the smallest groups, followed by "opposites" (just to the left of the middle of the PSA), etc. This seems to be a general pattern for many large puzzles.

02 - pieces arranged into six groups + s

5. As space in the PSA allows, arrange the pieces in each of the 6 sorting areas according to color and/or other details of the pieces. This will narrow your search time for pieces even more.

6. Complete the puzzle frame as much as possible with the edge pieces and corners you have moved to the PAA.

Here is the mostly complete frame of the Old-Time General Store puzzle, with some sections of the puzzle beginning to take shape. Notice the frame missing a piece on the bottom, left side, and top of the frame.

04 - frame mostly complete, sections sta

7. Continue working on individual sections of the puzzle. If you start to feel bogged down in one section, move to another section to keep it fun and to free your eyes and mind from the section bogging you down. When you come back to it you may discover pieces you missed before.

Here are sections of the Old-Time General Store puzzle taking shape:

06 - more sections taking form.jpg

As the sections in the PAA take shape, the pieces remaining in the PSA decrease:

05 - pieces on reserve table thinning a

Here is the Old-Time General Store puzzle progressing, mirrored by the decreasing number of pieces in the PSA:

08- more sections complete.jpg
07 - reserve pieces continue
09 - puzzle nearing completion.jpg
10 - pieces remaining really thinning ou
11 - almost there.jpg
12 - very few pieces remaining.jpg

As you near the end, it is natural to push forward to completion without regard for food or sleep. Be aware of this if you have work or the kids have school the next morning!

13 - done.jpg

What a great feeling of accomplishment to complete a challenging, beautiful jigsaw puzzle!

15 - puzzle photo.jpg

Send me photos of jigsaw puzzles you've completed, and we'll create a jigsaw puzzle gallery!

Mr. Centers

Here is my latest completed puzzle: The Country Vet!

The Country Vet.jpg
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