Advanced Map and Word Ladders Tutorial

(Last Updated On: June 1, 2018)

Advanced Maps & Word Ladders – an Epic Quiz Construction Tutorial

Map and Word Ladders Tutorial

Editor’s Note: This post was written by bhenderson79, a Sporcle moderator who occasionally graces us with amazing blog posts.

Sporcle’s quiz creation tools give us the power to create some really cool visual games – particularly since the release of the customizable color & shape options on Map & Picture Click quizzes. The methods for achieving those game designs, however, aren’t entirely obvious.

This year, I’ve gotten quite a few messages from Sporcle users asking about what it takes to create games that are similar to some of the more high-level-of-effort quizzes I’ve released. With these things in mind, I decided to do a full write up of the design process & quiz settings for my next really big quiz design effort.  That quiz happened to be US Road Trip Ladder – a visual word ladder that traverses the United States, stopping off at a number of famous landmarks along the way. This will give us an opportunity to cover both the advanced Map Quiz settings and also good word ladder design. So, let’s dig into the process from start to finish!


Pretty much every good Sporcle quiz is going to start with some research. That research is necessary to ensure the accuracy of the data in your quiz, or it can be research intended to help you flesh out your idea. For this quiz, I spent a few hours Googling famous American landmarks, vacation spots, and other roadside destinations, sorting them into possible 4-letter and 5-letter words as I went. I ended up with a better selection of 5-letter landmark words, so that’s the route I took for this ladder.

Ladder design

If you’re on Sporcle regularly, chances are you’ve probably played at least a few hundred word ladders.  But if you haven’t tried to design one, you might not realize just how much goes into it! Here are some of the fundamentals:

1. Avoiding “bungs”

What’s a bung? A bung is a set of word ladder rungs that changes the same letter position two or more times in a row. For example: RUNG->SUNG->BUNG

Bungs are typically frowned upon in word ladder design, and Sporcle tries to eliminate these situations before publishing word ladders on the site. There are some sites available that can help you find alternate paths between words – here is one I like to use

2. Avoiding obscure words, if possible

It can often be quite difficult to find paths between words in your ladder that don’t traverse some fairly obscure words, which end up making for poorer clues in the ladder.

For example, in one section of my ladder, I’m traveling between the words “SPARE” and “SOARS.” Some online word ladder tools will tell me I can do this with just one word: SPARE->SOARE->SOARS (soare is a name for a young hawk).  Alternately, I can simply add one extra step and go with SPARE->STARE->STARS->SOARS. These more common words will make for better clues and happier players.

A good tool for exhausting a complete list of possible next-rungs in your word ladder is this site: (use the “with 1 misprint” option in the first dropdown)

I find this extremely helpful in coming up with possible alternate word-routes to help in avoiding obscure words.

3. Keeping things concise

Striking a balance between using well-known words and keeping your ladder from inflating can be tough. It’s not always as easy as just adding one more step, as in the previous example. I often don’t want my word ladder turning into a 10 minute quiz due to long word paths that create a game with 100 rungs in it, which is especially important in a visual games.

I find that online word ladder helper tools often ignore names, places, and other proper nouns that can otherwise be quiet useful in shortening your word ladder. If you’re trying to get from CHILD to WHILE, some word ladder dictionaries that exclude proper nouns will tell you it can be done in 10 steps. But if you just throw “CHILE” in between, your problem is solved.

This particular ladder posed the added challenge of needing to follow a sensible geographic route. Some of the possible landmarks in the ladder presented easy word ladder paths (for example, STATE -> SPACE) – but my Empire State building & Space Needle are on completely opposite sides of the country, so I couldn’t really take advantage of that fact. Other landmarks, like the ROCKY Mountains and MOUNT Rushmore were very close on the map but had no short semantic routes in the word ladder. Finding a good balance of visual distances and word distances was the biggest challenge here, and  took a few hours of designing 6-8 different possible word ladder routes to find the most efficient one.

Image Creation

Now it’s time to put an image together and get a feel for how this quiz will be laid out visually. A game like this will require a bit of familiarity with some image editing software – I’m personally working in Photoshop, but there are plenty of online tools that can achieve the same effects.

In this quiz, the user will start with a blank US map, and each rung of the word ladder will move them one more step between a series of US landmarks. To achieve this, I’ll need to create two images: 1) the blank map that will be used as the final quiz image: 2) a guide/template image for drawing my map shapes.

I’ve chosen a dark colored map to provide high contrast for the shapes I’ll be drawing. That’ll make everything more visible and give the quiz some extra visual pop. The blank map will look like this:

Now that my blank map is in place, I’m going to find some clip art/icons related to my landmark shapes, and cut and paste them all over my map. You can see below what it looks like after I’ve spent an hour or two in Photoshop, laying out my landmarks and my little car & boat icons to traverse my path around the map. I’ve also been careful in my layout to make sure I’ve left plenty of space for the labels of all my word ladder’s rungs, which will need to share screen space with the drawn images in the quiz. My final guide image looks like this:

This image is only going to be used temporarily to help me trace my shapes on top of the icons in my image.  I’ll upload this picture someplace (like, which is free and quiet easy to use) and then paste the link to my picture into the ‘Game Image URL’ box on the ‘Game Info’ tab:

Once I’m done drawing all my map shapes, I’m going to replace this image link with a link to the first map image (the empty US one above). Then, as the user answers the questions in the quiz, they will be drawing these shapes onto the blank map as they play!

Quiz Settings

If you’ve never created one of these shaped image quizzes, the first thing you need to do is select the “Map” type on the Game Info tab.

Next, on the options tab, be sure to check “Draw answers as shapes” – this is the property that is going to allow us to create custom ‘art’ on top of our background image.

Finally, on the Style tab, you should see a ‘Shape Styles’ section.  You’ve got 4 choices in the ‘Color of Drawn Shapes’ box:

  • ‘Right/Wrong’ is the default that you typically see on green=correct/red=incorrect quizzes.
  • ‘Pastel’ & ‘Bright’ are two different sets of default colors that will assign a rotating cycle of 8 shades to the answers in your quiz.
  • ‘Custom’ is what we’d like to use here, because it gives us the ability to use the ‘Extra Info’ column in the Data tab to set any color we’d like for every one of our quiz answer shapes. (More on how to do that the next section.)

Shape creation

Now comes the part that you might find hypnotically relaxing, or you might find endlessly tedious. For me, it vacillates between the two depending on the day and the quiz I’m making. 

Click on the ‘Edit Map’ link near the top of the ‘Game Info’ tab. Now you’ll be able to drop each answer onto your map, select it, and click the ‘Draw Shape Area’ button to begin drawing.

With this tool, you can throw together simple shapes like squares in a flash. But you can also spend 10 minutes on a single shape, creating very complex borders with dozens (or even hundreds) of points. Below is an example of the shape I drew for the Disney Magic Kingdom in this quiz:

Okay, so you’ve spent some time drawing your shapes on your map. For this example, I drew 29 tiny cars, 7 tiny boats, and 7 US landmarks. It’s time to swap out your Game Image URL for the blank version without the guide icons on it.  After you’ve done that, we can address that question from the previous section: how do you set the custom colors for each shape? Well, you need HTML hex codes for each color value. That might sound daunting, but Google makes it very easy with this simple tool for selecting HTML hex codes for any color you like: your desired color and copy the code (beginning with the # symbol) to use for your quiz.

Once you’ve got your hex code, paste it into the ‘Extra Info’ column for the answer/shape you want to set with that color:

Getting things to look exactly right usually takes some trial and error using the ‘Test Quiz’ link – but the end results can be really cool because of the awesome flexibility of the Custom Shape Colors option.

Clue creation

The users need some sort of questions to answer, right? Since word ladder answers are typically short, commons words, standard crossword-style clues are typically appropriate for them. I find that this site gives some very good clue suggestions for these types of words.

Personally, I tend not to use these clues verbatim because I like my word ladder clues to feel a bit different or unique in some way. But it’s a great starting point to quickly get a list of common uses of a word that you might not have otherwise thought about.

Sometimes, if I’ve already spent days or weeks working on a quiz, I just feel like, “Why not throw in another wrinkle? I’m clearly not in a hurry here.” I reached that point in this quiz and decided to hide an Easter egg in my clues before finishing up. With 43 rungs in the ladder, I came up with a themed 43-letter long sentence (“Away we go, across the country in a car, and maybe a boat.”) and spelled it out with the first letter of every clue in the quiz.  I actually like to do this from time to time in my quizzes, because the lack of complete freedom in lettering forces me to get a bit more creative with the wording of my questions. I find that the end result is a set of word ladder clues that sound more unique than the usual run-of-the-mill batch.  (Plus, then there’s a little hidden bit in the quiz to reward the particularly eagle-eyed player.)

Well, that’s about it! Hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two about some of Sporcle’s quiz creation options, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the behind-the-scenes breakdown of what goes into a quiz like this. Sometimes when I play a fun & creative Sporcle game, it’s nice to think about the hours and hours of work that someone put in so I could enjoy that 90 seconds of quiz taking. Now, go make a quiz!!