# A PuzzleNation First Look: Setka

Making a new puzzle is challenging. You have to strike a balance between established solving styles (those that are familiar and effective) and innovative twists, mechanics, and variations, all without making the puzzle too convoluted, too tedious, too easy, or too hard.

In the world of crosswords, some variant success stories include Double Trouble, cryptic crosswords, Brick by Brick, and diagramless. With Sudoku, there are variants like Extreme Sudoku (aka X-Sudoku or Diagonal Sudoku), Samurai Sudoku, and Word Sudoku.

I’m always on the lookout for new puzzles and variations to try out, so when the folks behind Setka contacted me, I was more than happy to try out their puzzle brand and explore their signature attempt to combine Sudoku and clued-puzzle elements.

In short, Setka puzzles start with a single word. The consonants of that word not only form the answers to the clues, but also provide the letters to place in the accompanying grid.

For example, if the starting word was INFORM, the key letters would be N, F, R, and M. Every clue answer would feature one or more of those letters. The answer words, like the starting word, ignore the vowels. So you could have answers like NeaR, MoRoN, or MaiNFRaMe. (In the case of duplicate letters, like ReRaN, any duplicates are dropped, so the key letters here would be RN.)

And since there are four letters, there would be an accompanying 4×4 grid for you to fill in, where no letter is repeated in any row or column, Sudoku-style.

To place the letters, the clues are numbered, and the relevant cells in the grid are numbered to match. So, for NeaR (let’s say it’s clue 2), there would be two neighboring cells in the grid with a number 2 in them, and you could place the letters as RN or NR. Words that are three letters or above can read backward, forward, or in an L-shape in the grid.

This mechanic separates Setka from other clued or letter-placement puzzles, because you need both the clue answer AND the Sudoku no-repeats rule in order to complete a grid. Without the clue answers, there can be alternate solves where grid letters swap. And without the Sudoku-style placement, it would be virtually impossible to actually place the answer letters into the grid, because there’s more than one way to do so.

The cluing style alternates between standard crossword-style clues (but usually longer and a little more conversational or trivia-based) and fill-in-the-blank clues. The clues also fit the theme established by the starting word. For instance, the clues above all have to do with kids, which fits the puzzle’s theme word, CHILD.

It takes time to get used to seeking out answer words from the given consonants (since you have to supply any vowels or duplicate consonants missing in order to come up with the correct answer word), but once you’re a few puzzles in, it becomes second nature and a fun component to the solving experience.

Setka puzzles range in size from 4×4 to 7×7, with its signature size being 5×5. Honestly, 5×5 is really where it becomes a proper puzzle. With a 4×4 grid, once you have a few letters placed, it becomes an elementary logic puzzle and you don’t really need the clues.

[A selection of Setka sizes and themes.]

The puzzle itself is reminiscent of another puzzle we tried late last year — Cluedoku — but Setka’s letter-based theme and smaller grids make for a far more sustainable puzzle going forward, and the mechanic of placing the words in the grid (rather than just individual letters/numbers) adds an intriguing wrinkle to the solve.

All in all, I enjoyed trying out Setka — I solved a half-dozen or so puzzles to get a feel for different sizes and difficulties — and I think they’ve forged an engaging and clever combination of crossword-style cluing and Sudoku-style solving.

You can try Setka for yourself on their website, either playing interactive versions of Setka on the site or printing and solving PDF copies of Setka puzzles. They also offer a subscription where you can receive a Setka puzzle each week along with news and updates.

What do you think of Setka, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.

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# Other puzzles you might not know! (Volume 3)

In previous editions of this series, we’ve presented some new puzzles for crossword devotees and Fill-In fans to try out. Today, let’s turn our attention to Sudoku enthusiasts.

Now, before we talk about other types of puzzles, there are numerous Sudoku variants to choose from, if you’d like just a little twist on the familiar Sudoku formula. In fact, I did an entire blog post about them, as well as posts about new variants like Will Sudoku and Pentdoku Puzzles!

There are a few lesser-known number-placement puzzles out there that might scratch your puzzly itch if you’re a Sudoku fan: Futoshiki and Beehive Hidato.

[Futoshiki image courtesy of PuzzleMagazine.com.]

Futoshiki will seem fairly familiar, since the row and column rules of Sudoku are in effect. But you have an additional placement rule to consider: the less than/greater than signs in the grid, which indicate where to place lower or higher numbers in the grid. (Futoshiki translates to “not equal” in Japanese.)

[Hidato image courtesy of TheGuardian.com.]

Beehive Hidato eschews the traditional Sudoku row/column system of the deduction in favor of chain-placement of numbers in its hexagonal grid. Your goal is to fill every cell in the grid by filling in the missing numbers between 1 and the highest number. So, instead of placing the same numbers in every row and column, you’re placing a different number in each cell, forming a single chain from 1 to the last number.

The cell containing the number 1 must neighbor the cell containing the number 2, and the cell containing the number 2 must neighbor the cell containing the number 3, and so on, all the way around the grid.

If you’re looking to go a little farther afield and leave numbers behind, I’ve got you covered.

After all, some people tend to think of Sudoku as a math puzzle, but it’s really not; it’s more of a deduction and placement puzzle. You could check out not only Fill-Ins, but also all the puzzles I’ve previously recommended for Fill-In fans. That’s a great place to start.

You could also try your hand at Brick by Brick.

Brick by Brick puzzles are a terrific bridge between placement puzzles and crosswords, using aspects of both. You’re given the complete first row of a crossword, and all of your clues, both across and down.

But, instead of the black squares you’d normally rely on to help guide you through answering those clues and placing your words, you’ve got 3×2 bricks filled with letters and black squares, a scrambled jigsaw puzzle to reassemble.

Here you can use your deductive Sudoku skills to place black squares and entire bricks into the grid as you apply crossword-solving skills toward answering the across and down clues, working back and forth between the two to complete your grid, assembling chunks of answer words as bricks fit neatly together.

And if you prefer quote puzzles to crossword puzzles, there’s always Quotefalls.

[Click here or on the grid for a full page of Quotefalls.]

Quotefalls gives you all of the letters in a given quote, plus the black squares that separate each word from the next. But it’s up to you to figure out where in each column to place the letters above so that the quotation reads out correctly.

Sometimes that’s easy, like in the fourth column of puzzle 2 above. Since there’s three black squares and only one open square, you know exactly where that E will go. Seedling letters like that can go a long way toward helping you fill each word, and eventually, the entire quote.

It’s a different form of deduction, but one not too terribly far from the number-placement solving of Sudoku.

Any one of these puzzles could add some welcome variety to your puzzle solving, while still honoring the style and play inherent in your favorite puzzle. Give them a shot, and let us know how you like them.

Next time, we’ll be tackling recommendations for Cryptogram fans, but if you’ve got puzzle recs for your fellow puzzlers in the meantime, please let us know in the comments!

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# The Ultimate Jigsaw Puzzle

Jigsaw-style puzzling is a huge part of puzzle culture, one that’s easy to overlook. Even the average jigsaw is hardly average these days.

You can get them without squared-off edges — removing that crucial first step of finding all the border pieces — or with extra pieces that aren’t intended to fit anywhere. Some, like Baffledazzle puzzles, come without the final image as a guide, leaving you to rely on texture as well as shape. Others involve incredibly detailed or repetitive patterns, eliminating “find this color/image”-style searching. Some are even double-sided!

(My sister had a 550-piece edgeless puzzle that was nothing but coffee beans and some random cups. Another was golf balls and tees. They were mind-melting.)

Then there are the three-dimensional ones that tax your dexterity as well. Whether you’re making a sphere or a replica of the Taj Mahal, your jigsaw skills will be tested severely.

[A massive 3-D puzzle of New York’s skyline… in progress.]

Other forms of puzzles are hardly immune to jigsaw-style solving. Tangrams and pentominoes eschew jigsaw shapes for triangles, squares, and Tetris-style pieces. Even some pen-and-paper puzzles, like Penny/Dell’s Brick by Brick crossword, employs jigsaw pieces.

And, of course, there are all the building toys that rely on the same hand-eye coordination and pattern-finding skills that jigsaw puzzles require. Erector sets, K’Nex, Mega Bloks and LEGO and Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs and many many others… all have their roots in jigsaw-style puzzling.

But I think I’ve stumbled across one of history’s greatest jigsaw puzzles, and I’m curious if any of the jigsaw puzzle enthusiasts in the PuzzleNation community think they could’ve handled this challenge.

An entire London mansion, broken down and reconstructed jigsaw-style.

Yes, between 1910 and 1912 a mansion in Essex called Cedar Court was dismantled and moved piece-by-piece over 70 miles to its new home in Surrey and painstakingly rebuilt.

The mansion was already over 400 years old at the time, and it’s become known as the “jigsaw puzzle” house ever since.

According to the article in The Telegraph, “Every part of the building was sectioned out and numbered so that it could be stuck back together again exactly as it was after its trip across the capital.”

This was clearly a monumental undertaking, and even with careful planning, I suspect a few jigsaw-savvy workmen were required to get the mansion back in shape.

And hey, are any jigsaw aficionados out there interested in owning this bit of puzzle history? It’ll only cost you fourteen MILLION pounds to acquire it.

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# Tile style puzzling!

Tile puzzles and tile games have been with us for centuries, but I daresay they’ve never been as prominent in our game/puzzle culture as they are these days.

Chinese Dominoes, which are slightly longer than the regular ones pictured above (not to mention black with white pips), can be traced back to writings of the Song Dynasty, nearly a thousand years ago. Dominoes as we know them first appeared in Italy during the 1800s, and some historians theorize they were brought to Europe from China by traveling missionaries.

The most common form of playing dominoes — building long trains or layouts and trying to empty your hand of tiles before your opponent does — also forms the core gameplay of other tile-based games, like the colorful Qwirkle, a game that combines dominoes and Uno by encouraging you to create runs of the same shape or color.

A tile game with similarly murky origins is Mahjong, the Chinese tile game that plays more like a card game than a domino game. (Mahjong is commonly compared to Rummy for that very reason.)

Mahjong has been around for centuries, but there are several different origin stories for the game, one tracing back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), another to the days of Confucius (500 BC). The gameplay itself is about matching tiles (called melds) to build winning hands.

Rummikub, another tile game (but with numbers instead of characters on the tiles) also resembles card games in its gameplay, and anyone who has played Texas Rummy or Go Fish will instantly recognize the gameplay of building runs (1, 2, 3, 4 of the same color, for instance) and sets (three 1s of different colors, for instance).

All of these games employ pattern matching and chain thinking skills that are right in the puzzler’s wheelhouse, but some more modern tile games and puzzles challenge solvers in different ways.

The game Carcassonne is a world-building game wherein players add tiles to an ever-growing landscape, connecting roads and cities while placing followers on the map in order to gain points. Here, the tiles form just one part of a grander strategic puzzle, one encouraging deeper plotting and planning than some other tile games.

The Settlers of Catan also involves tile placement, but as more of a game starter, not as an integral part of the gameplay. Both Fluxx: The Board Game and The Stars Are Right employ tile shifting as a terrific puzzly wrinkle to their gameplay.

Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have a puzzle combining crosswords and tiles, Brick by Brick, which encourages the solver to place the “bricks” on the grid and fill in the answers.

And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most popular electronic tile game in modern memory, Tetris.

Tetris — which turns 30 this year! — requires quick thinking, good spatial recognition, and an ability to plan ahead (especially for those elusive four-block pieces that can eliminate four rows at once!). There are plenty of puzzles that employ similar tiles — Blokus, tangrams, and pentominoes come to mind — but none that have engendered the loyalty of Tetris.

Last but not least, there are the sliding-tile puzzles. These puzzles take all the challenge of tile placement games like Dominoes and add a further complication: the tiles are locked into a frame, so you can only move one tile at a time.

Frequently called the Fifteen Puzzle because the goal is to shift all 15 numbered tiles until they read out in ascending order, sliding-tile puzzles are chain solving at its best. Whether you’re building a pattern or forming a picture (or even helping a car escape a traffic jam, as in ThinkFun’s Rush Hour sliding-tile game), you’re participating in a long history of tile-based puzzling that has spanned the centuries.

Heck, even the Rubik’s Cube is really a sliding-tile game played along six sides at once!

[Be sure to tune in on Thursday, when I explore tile-based word games like Scrabble!]

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# A day for puzzles and games galore!

Aloha, friends and fellow puzzle fiends! Just a quick reminder that tomorrow (March 30th) is International TableTop Day!

For the uninitiated, International TableTop Day is the brainchild of Internet superstars and gaming devotees Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day, a day devoted to board games, card games, dice games, roleplaying games (RPGs), and any other communal game-playing activity played on a table or any convenient flat surface.

(And with so many puzzle-based games out there, from Boggle and Scrabble to Jenga and Hex, I think it definitely merits mention here on the PuzzleNation blog.)

While the term “TableTop” was originally coined to differentiate one style of gaming or roleplaying from another. TableToppers were your Magic card-carrying, dice-rolling, character sheet-wielding gamers, as opposed to those who played video games or engaged in Live-Acting Roleplaying (LARPing).

Obviously, the definition has since expanded to include many other types of games, so long as you play with others around a table.

As not only a self-confessed puzzlin’ fool, but a devoted player of Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs, I’m happy to tell you that some of my all-time favorite puzzles have come from my experiences as a roleplayer.

I remember being trapped in a dungeon in my friend’s game, and there was this elaborate machine that would open the door with flowing water if you could direct the water properly. You did so by way of numerous levers located in various rooms around the dungeon. And as a bare-bones adventuring party, we didn’t have anything with which to draw a map of the labyrinthine corridors, so I basically had to memorize the route in my head, figure out what each of the levers did, then run around the dungeon pulling them in the precise order necessary to unlock the door.

It was mindbending and frustrating and a terrific time. That’s the kind of puzzle-gaming experience I’d love to share with others.

Since Easter is this Sunday and I’ll already be spending time with my nephews this weekend, I’m hoping to introduce them to some of my favorite board games and puzzle games. I’ll definitely be bringing my two-player version of Brick by Brick with me.

A variation on the classic Tangram-style of piece-moving puzzle solving, Brick By Brick puzzles offer a shadowed shape you need to form with irregularly shaped bricks. You can play by yourself or go head-to-head with an opponent, or even team up and use both sets of bricks to solve even tougher shadow puzzles. It’s great fun and a terrific brain-teaser.

I’m hoping it’ll be the gateway drug to other puzzle games as they get older, since they’re a little too young for some of my favorites. (Like U.S. Patent Number 1, the game where you’ve built a time machine, and so have your opponents, and you race to soup them up and travel back in time to register for the very first patent. It’s a blast.)

Oh, and Older Sister? Beware, I’m also bringing Upwords, a marvelous variation on Scrabble where you can place letters on top of other letters in order to form new words. You’re going down, sis!

Of course, in the midst of all this TableToppy goodness, I’ll be bending the rules a bit, since I also plan on sharing the spirit of International TableTop Day by playing some two-player PuzzleNation games with friends abroad. Hey, it’s much harder to gather around the table with an ocean between you.

In any case, I hope you indulge your puzzle fancy tomorrow with some communal puzzle-game goodness. Have a fantastic holiday!