Farewell, Maki Kaji.

maki kaji 1

When you get right down to it, the puzzle world isn’t all that big. There are a few names that everyone knows, and plenty of names that people should, but generally don’t. And sadly, too many of those names aren’t celebrated until after they’re gone.

Maki Kaji is one of those names you should know.

He passed away recently, and different articles and obituaries called him everything from “puzzle enthusiast” to “Sudoku creator,” but the title he most deserves is the one he put on his business cards: Godfather of Sudoku.

Honestly, he’s one of the three most important people in the history of Sudoku.

Howard Garns is credited with creating Number Place for Dell Pencil Puzzles and Word Games in May 1979 (though a French variant of the puzzle appeared in the newspaper La France in the 1890s). Wayne Gould stumbled upon Sudoku puzzles in a magazine, then designed a generation program and sold it to the Times in London, kickstarting the craze in the UK that spread elsewhere.

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[Maki Kaji at Brazil’s first national Sudoku competition in São Paulo in 2012.]

But it was Maki Kaji who championed the puzzle all over, using it in his puzzle magazine Nikoli starting in the early 80s, then taking advantage of the UK boom and selling it in dozens of countries. (Gould didn’t have the resources, so many newspapers and publishers came to Maki Kaji for them.)

The name Sudoku came from him. (In American puzzle magazines, it was Number Place or To the Nines.) Originally the puzzle was called Suuji wa dokushin ni kagiru, or “numbers should be single,” before taking the suggestion to shorten it to Sudoku.

Of course, despite his close association with Sudoku, Maki championed puzzles in all forms. He founded Nikoli (also known as Puzzle Communication Nikoli) with two school friends in 1980, four years before adding Sudoku to its roster of puzzles. It was Japan’s first puzzle magazine!

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One of the goals of Nikoli was to feature what they called “culture independent” puzzles, meaning puzzles that didn’t rely on a specific language or alphabet. (Talk about accessibility!)

“When we create our puzzles, we want people to enjoy them and not feel stressed by them,” he said.

Because of this culture-independent style, Nikoli was famed for its many logic puzzles, because they relied less on words and more on numbers, symbols, and elegant grid positioning. Popular puzzles included familiar ones like Sudoku and Kakuro, as well as less familiar puzzles like Nurikabe and Hashiwokakero.

nikoli puzzles

“I don’t want to just be the godfather of Sudoku,” Maki said. “I’d like to spread the fun of puzzles until I’m known as the person who established the puzzle genre in Japan.”

One of his key tools was a section in Nikoli that invited readers to submit their own ideas for puzzles. It quickly became the most popular part of the magazine. Readers submitted new puzzles, which other readers then refined and expanded on. Nikoli is credited with introducing hundreds of new logic and number puzzles to the world through this puzzle-loving fan-fueled pipeline.

Of course, even the Godfather of Sudoku ventured into crosswords from time to time. In fact, in 2017, it was reported that he published the world’s largest ever crossword, with 59,365 across clues and 59,381 down clues on a printed grid 30m long, kept in a scroll.

Go big or go home, I guess.

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[Constructor Peter Gordon (and his Sudoku license plate) with Maki.

Maki stepped down as president of Nikoli just last month, and the company released this statement in response to his passing:

Kaji-san came up with the name Sudoku and was loved by puzzle fans from all over the world. We are grateful from the bottom of our hearts for the patronage you have shown throughout his life.

But, naturally, it takes a puzzler to truly honor a puzzler, and I think Thomas Snyder (aka Dr. Sudoku, no slouch himself when it comes to the famed number puzzle) offered the perfect tribute on his Art of Puzzles website:

A wordoku puzzle dedicated to Maki Kaji.

snyder wordoku

The puzzle world is a far richer and more varied place thanks to the creativity, hard work, and passion of Maki Kaji. You probably didn’t know his name before. But hopefully, you’ll remember it now.

Farewell, Maki. Thank you for bringing so many new eyes to the world of puzzles.

[Source links: Kotaku, The Guardian, Wikipedia.]


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How to Get Started in Games

[Image courtesy of The Board Game Family.]

So, it’s after Christmas, and you’ve been gifted with a new game, or a roleplaying book, or someone showed you a new card game and you want to know more. Or your New Year’s Resolution is to learn more games, play more games, solve more puzzles, or even make some puzzles yourself.

Basically… how do you get started?

Here. You get started right here. I’m going to run down my favorite guide books for gaming, puzzles, tabletop play, roleplaying, and more, creating the perfect first step to a new world of play for you.

Let’s get cracking!


My first recommendation is also the most recently published book on my list.

The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming by Teri Litorco is a perfect introduction to all things gaming. This delightfully nerdy tome is loaded with thoughtful advice covering everything from choosing new games to teaching them to others, as well as building a game group for regular sessions or roleplaying games, and more.

From how to deal with cranky gamers to how to host your own major gaming events, Teri has dealt with every obstacle imaginable, and she offers her hard-won first-hand knowledge in easily digestible tidbits. Even as an experienced tabletop gamer, roleplayer, and puzzler, I found this to be a very worthwhile read, and I think you will too.

If card games are your poison, then what you need is a copy of The Ultimate Book of Card Games by Scott McNeely.

What separates this book from many other card game books — namely the ones attributed to Hoyle (the vast majority of which had nothing to do with him) — is that it doesn’t claim to be the definitive source. It provides the key rules for how to play, and then offers numerous variations and house rules that expand and refine gameplay.

There are more than 80 pages of variations of Solitaire alone! Kids games, betting games, games for two, three, four or more, this is my go-to guide for everything that can be played with a standard deck of cards.

What if you’re already a fan of games, but you want to play them better? If that’s your goal, check out How to Win Games and Beat People by Tom Whipple.

Monopoly, Jenga, Hangman, Operation, Trivial Pursuit, Twenty Questions, Checkers, Battleship… heck, even Rock, Paper, Scissors is covered here. With advice from top players, world record holders, game creators and more, you’ll find advice, tactics, and fun facts you won’t see anywhere else.

For instance, did you know that letter frequencies in Hangman are different from letter frequencies in the dictionary? ESIARN is the way to go with Hangman, not ETAOIN.

That’s just one of the valuable nuggets of info awaiting you in this book.

Ah, but what about puzzles? There are so many amazing puzzle styles out there, how do you know where to begin learning to construct one of your own?

I’d suggest you start with Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder’s Puzzlecraft.

If you’re a puzzle or game fan, you already know their names. Selinker’s The Maze of Games is featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide; Snyder is better known online as Dr. Sudoku, and we explored several of his creations in our Wide World of Sudoku post a few years ago.

Snyder and Selinker break down the fundamentals of dozens of different puzzles, explaining how they work and what pitfalls to avoid when creating your own. You can easily lose hours within the pages of this in-depth handbook — I know from firsthand experience — and you always come out the other side a stronger constructor.


Do you have any favorite books about puzzles and games that I missed? Let me know, I’d love to hear about them!

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