samskivert: The year in puzzles

25 December 2019

I like to do puzzles. Crossword puzzles, logic puzzles, number puzzles, even a well conceived word search can tickle my fancy. My 2019 was nicely full of puzzles, so I'm recapping the year with a little summary of my puzzle throughput. Perhaps I'll lure more people into the wild world of puzzling with my enthusiasm.

For the past few years, I've been a subscriber to Games World of Puzzles, which is where I generally get my puzzle fix. But being a purveyor of niche entertainments that are non-trivial to create, Games only puts out 9 issues a year. Each of those has a couple dozen puzzles and a few other odds and ends. It is alas a meager feast for a puzzle enthusiast, which leaves periods of famine between issues.

Fortunately, In November of 2018, my friend and fellow puzzle enthusiast, Paul emailed me a PDF with 70 or so puzzles from Trip Payne's website, most of which were meaty and clever cryptic crosswords or other creative multi-layered takes on standard puzzle formats. I enthusiastically feasted on this fine fare in the gaps between Games issues. When I completed the last one in February of 2019, I sent a photo to Paul (and later Trip) as a requiem for all the puzzling joy he had wrought:

Those were printed two sided, so I could only show half of my work, and I was apparently too lazy to flip all the pages over and take another photo.

Just as I was coming to terms with the Payne bonanza running out, and a return to the lean times of one Games magazine every six weeks or so, I got an email from Kappa Publishing. They had dug up a trove of back issues of Games and were bundling them up and selling them in packs of 5 issues each. They had 5 packs of 5, so I ordered them all.

Those arrived in March. Twenty five glorious issues: the oldest from April 1993 and the newest from April 2006. Being not particularly creative in these matters, I decided to do them in chronological order, and save forthcoming subscription issues as a buffer against future lean times. Thus here at the end of 2019, I have a better idea of my "natural" rate of puzzle throughput:

I completed 17 back issues and the January, February and April 2019 issues. The Feb and April issues are not pictured because I apparently didn't hang onto them after completion, alas. Also, the January issue was probably mostly completed in December, but it can represent its newer brethren in the photographic reckoning. So roughly 19 issues a year seems to be my desired rate.

In addition to learning this, there were other fringe benefits of this blast from the past. My chronological approach enabled a strange recapitulation of the 1990s and early aughts through the lens of pop culture references in crossword puzzles. The April 1993 issue contained this puzzle about TV show logos:

I have helpfully redacted my written answers so that you too can enjoy this test of how much time you wasted in the 80s and 90s watching bad television.

Most of the puzzles were of not so graphical; mostly varieties of word puzzles, crosswords, cryptic crosswords, logic puzzles and the like. I habitually skipped a few styles that don't turn my crank: cipher decoding puzzles, Picross-style puzzles, word searches. Here's a sampling of the sorts of delightful puzzling fun lurking in each issue of Games:

I particularly like the few Crossnumber puzzles that turned up here and there. Being a puzzle enthusiast for as long as I've been, I've come to know the names of a few constructors (as they like to call them in the puzzle world) that I really like; Mike Shenk is high on that list. Though I didn't plan it, that photo contains a bunch of my favorite constructors: Harvey Estes, Bob Stigger, Trip Payne, Mike Shenk, and Patrick Berry (who vies with Mike Selinker for my top honors).

Along with my Games magazine fix, I've been a subscriber to the New York Times crossword puzzle (which they handily offer independently of the newspaper) for at least a couple of decades. On at least a few nights a week, I do those to quiet my brain before falling asleep. Back in the early aughties I had to download them from the NYT website and print them out, but these days, naturally, there's an app for that. One that tracks puzzle solving statistics to boot!

I tend to run a bit behind the latest puzzle, so I'm only on the November 2019 puzzles now, though I probably started the year with a similar deficit, so I'm guessing I average about a puzzle a day. I don't do these with any emphasis on speed, indeed I'm trying to relax my brain not stress it out, but it's still interesting to see the average solving times and the difficulty curation at work.

Will Shortz, the editor of the NYT crosswords, ensures that the puzzles go from easier to harder from Monday to Saturday. Sundays are ostensibly at a Wednesday or Thursday level of difficulty, but are larger than the rest of the week (21x21 instead of 15x15), so they still tend to take longer than Saturdays. Plus since I usually fall asleep in about 15 minutes, many of those Sundays are spread across two nights of solving and probably include a few minutes of accidental dozing.

Looking forward to 2020, I still have a modest collection of Games back issues to get through, and my accumulated buffer of 2019 issues:

With a mere 7 back issues (plus half of August 2003 which I'm in the middle of) and 7 new issues, I'm still well short of my 2019 rate of 19 issues a year (and also lacking the Trip Payne bonanza which provided more puzzling fun in early 2019). However, I did go and start a new video game company in mid-2019; that may have an impact on how much free time I have for puzzling. So I'll probably get by just fine with my current stash.

If push comes to shove, I can just finally get around to reading Mike Selinker's Puzzlecraft book and switch from solving puzzles to making them:

Here's to another fine year of puzzling in 2020!

©1999–2018 Michael Bayne