The First Viral Handheld Puzzle Game?

It’s fair to say that PuzzleNation knows a little something about the world of mobile puzzling. Mobile apps are our bread and butter, after all, and whether you’re talking about our Daily POP Crosswords App or the Penny Dell Crosswords App, we are connoisseurs of puzzles that fit in your pocket.

Of course, puzzle apps are a relatively new addition to the genre. Mobile puzzles, like matchstick puzzles, have existed for centuries.

In fact, more than a hundred years ago, a mobile puzzle game went “viral” and became a cultural sensation. (And it has made a recent return to prominence thanks to the HBO drama Westworld.)

Today, let’s talk about Pigs in Clover.

Pigs in Clover is a ball-in-a-maze puzzle invented in 1899 by toymaker Charles Martin Crandall. Although puzzle historians aren’t sure if Pigs in Clover was the first ball-in-a-maze puzzle created, it was definitely the first to capture the imagination of consumers.

You’ve probably solved a ball-in-a-maze puzzle at some point in your life. From the flat disc and labyrinth-inspired models to spherical and more complicated three-dimensional versions, they’re a fun test of both dexterity and strategic thinking.

A quick Google image search turns up dozens of variations on the concept, including an iPhone case with two ball-in-a-maze puzzles built into it!

Pigs in Clover was a simpler design, involving only three rings and a center “pen” to herd the “pigs” into. But it’s one that was supposedly so popular upon launch in January of 1889, it impacted the actual operation of the U.S. government.

But how popular was “popular” in 1889?

Well, according to the Waverly Free Press, “The toy works are turning out eight thousand of ‘Pigs in Clover’ a day, and are twenty days behind with their orders.” According to some sources, over a million games were sold by late April 1889!

And one of those games found its way into the hands of William M. Evarts, senator from New York. Depending on the version of events you read, he purchased a copy of Pigs in Clover from either a street vendor or, curiously, an aggressive street fakir.

He then took it home and played with it for hours. At work the next day — and by work, I mean the Senate of the United States — another senator, George Graham Vest, borrowed it and went to the cloak room to try to solve the puzzle game.

Yes, a sitting U.S. senator went and hid in the coats to play this game. It’s sorta like hiding under all the coats at a Christmas party and playing Angry Birds, except in fancier clothing.

Oddly enough, Vest was soon joined in the cloak room by four other senators — Pugh, Eustis, Walthall, and Kenna — who were also interested in trying their hands at the popular game. Apparently, they were too impatient to share Evarts’ copy of the game, since a page was enlisted to go out and buy five more copies of Pigs in Clover for the distracted senators.

Once each had his own game in hand, they engaged in a pig-driving contest. It must’ve been harder than it looks, since it took Vest 30 minutes to herd all of his pigs into the pen.

Yup, at least half an hour of senate business was derailed by a few little metal balls in a cardboard maze. Amazing.

Naturally, the story got out, and a political cartoon in the New York World on March 17th commented on this peculiar delay in President Benjamin Harrison’s agenda, likening the political landscape to the game. With the White House as the pen and various lawmakers as the pigs, the cartoon asked, “Will Mr. Harrison be able to get all these hungry pigs in the official pen?”

It makes you wonder just how many man-hours were lost to Pigs in Clover! After all, a simple game — solved by many — can prove costly.

Remember the Google Doodle in 2010 that allowed you to play Pac-Man? It’s estimated it cost $120 million dollars, and nearly five million hours, in terms of productivity.

Sounds like President Harrison should count himself lucky it was just a half-dozen senators… as far as we know.

[Sources for this article: The Strong Museum of Play, Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, Le Roy Historical Society, Antique Toy Collectors of America, Wikipedia, and A History of Video Games in 64 Objects.]


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Puzzles and games: A community of hobbyists

A friend of the blog passed along a fascinating article analyzing the current gaming market.

The piece encompasses console games, PC games, mobile games, and MMOs (massive multiplayer online games, like World of Warcraft), and not only categorizes different types of gaming experiences, but predicts the future of the gaming business as a whole.

From the article:

“The concept of one true gamer community will be less feasible as evergreen hobbies grow in popularity. Instead, we have a crazy mixing bowl of diverse, separate, long-term communities. Few will share the same values or goals. Few players will consider themselves having anything in common with players of a different game.

Social organizations such as PAX will still promote common ground, much like the Olympics promotes common ground between athletes. But day-to-day cross-pollination will be rare.”

And his conclusion is one that rings true for puzzle-games particularly:

“The shift comes from realizing that individual digital hobbies will soon to be the default play pattern.”

Puzzles and puzzle games are famously singular endeavors. Crosswords and Sudoku puzzles hardly lend themselves to group play (unless you’re asking for help), and often the only “interaction” comes in tournaments or other forms of competition wherein individuals are pitted against each other in isolation.

The expansion of puzzles and puzzle-games into the mobile market (tablets, smartphones, etc.) has helped solidify this. Whether it’s Angry Birds or our own Classic Word Search iBook, puzzle-solving games remain something of a solitary hobby.

(The big exception to the rule here is, of course, Words With Friends and other Scrabble variants.)

But the similarities between the PuzzleNation community and the gaming community don’t end there.

We too have our “grinders” (those who enjoy one particular game to the exclusion of others, posting impressive monthly scores) and our “aficionados” (those who dabble in all kinds of puzzles, peppering the scoreboards with their name across numerous puzzle variants).

You know, the line separating puzzles and puzzle-games is a tenuous one, and while I’ve spent a good deal of time myself parsing out the differences between the two, it’s always nice to be reminded how much puzzlers and gamers have in common. We’re two very enthusiastic communities with a lot of overlap.

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