How People Used Puzzles and Games to Endure the Pandemic

Puzzles and games have been there for many people during the pandemic.

Many puzzle and game companies offered (and continue to offer) “COVID discounts” and giveaways to help people financially impacted by the crisis. Companies released free online or zoom-compatible versions of their products to help people get by.

There are all sorts of articles out there about how Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games have served as critical socializing tools in virtual hangouts. Bar-style trivia, zoom games, Jackbox, Board Game Arena, Fall Guys, Among Us… lots of communal activities went virtual as puzzles and games filled a rapidly growing niche.

Whether solved alone or with other members of the household, jigsaw puzzles sales increased 500% or more. Online sites to coordinate trades sprang up, allowing people to swap puzzles they’d solved before for ones new to them.

At a terrible time for many people, puzzles and games helped us cope.

And honestly, if you know the history of games and puzzles, it makes sense. Many of them have been born out of unpleasant circumstances.

Monopoly was a hit during the Great Depression, offering an escape and the illusory feeling of being rich. The game itself only cost two dollars, so it was a solid investment with a ton of replay value.

Candy Land was created to entertain children with polio (although that fact wasn’t commonly known for 50 years). Clue was designed during air raid drills as a way to pass the time. The Checkered Game of Life (later The Game of Life) was inspired by Milton Bradley’s own wild swing of business misfortune.

Risk and other conflict-heavy games weren’t popular in postwar Germany, so an entire genre of games that avoided direct conflict was born: Eurogames.

It’s just as true in the modern day. What game was flying off the shelves during COVID-19 lockdowns? Pandemic.

That combination of escapism and social interaction is so powerful. Games are low-stakes. They offer both randomness (a break from monotony) and a degree of control (something sorely missing during lockdown).

Puzzles too assisted folks in maintaining their mental health. And isn’t it interesting that crossword solving, something viewed by many as a solitary endeavor — I guess they never needed to ask someone else 5-Down — helped fill a crucial social role for people?

Constructors stepped up in interesting, inventive ways. The sense of community fostered by online crossword events like Crossword Tournament From Your Couch (which filled the void of ACPT in 2020) and the Boswords Themeless League was absolutely invaluable to puzzlers who couldn’t attend some of the highlights of the puzzle calendar year.

As I said before, there are numerous articles out there celebrating the benefits of roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and more.

Roleplaying games certainly helped keep me sane during lockdown. It might sound ridiculous, but dealing with world-threatening threats, fiercely dangerous monsters, and sinister plots that I could DO something about was medicinal. It was escape in its truest form. It recharged me, allowing me to lose myself in storytelling with friends.

The last 18 months were hard. There may be hard months ahead. But I’m grateful for the puzzle/game community — and the many marvelous pastimes they’ve created — for helping me and many others get by. To smile. To cope. To socialize. And to enjoy.

What games and puzzles have helped you deal with unpleasant circumstances, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you.


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Free RPG Day Returns Tomorrow!

Role-playing games are high on the list of my favorite pastimes, and whether you’re looking for a fun game, a puzzly experience, or a chance to tell some exciting, engrossing stories with friends, you’re bound to find something to enjoy in a role-playing session.

And if you’ve never tried out a role-playing game or dipped a toe into the fascinating world of RPGs, tomorrow is the perfect opportunity for you to do so.

Because tomorrow, Saturday June 15th, is Free RPG Day!

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Established in 2007, Free RPG Day is a collaborative event where RPG publishers team up with game shops, hobby shops, and other game retailers to celebrate role-playing games and try out brand-new and unfamiliar games.

Stores around the world will be offering free adventure modules and quick-play rulebooks for all sorts of different role-playing games — covering everything from classic D&D-style games to spacefaring campaigns — much of it created specifically for Free RPG Day!

Companies like Goodman Games, Paizo Publishing, Green Ronin, Off World Designs, and many more are participating, along with game shops all over the U.S. and across the world.

You can use this store locator to find the nearest participating location, but worry not if you can’t get out to a friendly local game shop!

There are all sorts of online resources celebrating the day as well. For instance, the team at DriveThruRPG are offering a ton of free downloads for you to sample! (Not to mention the articles we’ve written about the subject over the years.)

Will you be celebrating Free RPG Day, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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The Value of Recreational Math

There was a wonderful opinion piece in The New York Times a few weeks ago about the importance of recreational math.

Now, as author Manil Suri said, I’m sure that to some people, the idea of recreational math sounds like an oxymoron. But it’s everywhere! From poker players calculating their odds based on the cards dealt to the number crunching in role-playing games in order to complete certain tasks (or develop a character’s skills), math is built into many recreational activities.

It’s certainly a part of many kinds of puzzles, including brain teasers. Heck, previous brain teasers featured here in the blog like Mystery Number, the Birthday Puzzle, and the jugs of water trap from Die Hard with a Vengeance would all easily fall under the umbrella of recreational math.

The article goes on to mention the wonderful work of Martin Gardner, whose column “Mathematical Games” in Scientific American was a mainstay of recreational math and puzzly whimsy for over twenty-five years.

From Suri’s article:

In his final article for Scientific American, in 1998, Mr. Gardner lamented the “glacial” progress resulting from his efforts to have recreational math introduced into school curriculums “as a way to interest young students in the wonders of mathematics.”

Indeed, a paper this year in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics points out that recreational math can be used to awaken mathematics-related “joy,” “satisfaction,” “excitement” and “curiosity” in students, which the educational policies of several countries (including China, India, Finland, Sweden, England, Singapore and Japan) call for in writing.

In contrast, the Common Core in the United States does not explicitly mention this emotional side of the subject, regarding mathematics only as a tool.

This is an excellent counterpoint to the regular argument that the primary value of puzzle-solving and other activities (like recreational math) is to stave off brain health issues later in life.

In a previous post, we discussed the inconsistent reports about the effects of puzzle-solving on the brain, leaving it unclear if regular doses of puzzles and recreational math are beneficial for other aspects of brain health over time, like memory retention, neuroplasticity, and concentration.

That may well be the case, but Suri’s point stands. The idea of instilling a sense of fun and wonder into the field of math, especially for younger minds? That’s one worth pursuing.

Show them that math can be about more than fulfilling homework or graphing parabola. Show them that mathematical concepts can help you crack a diabolical seesaw brain teaser, save a village with a grain of rice, or find an alternate solution to a PSAT question and prove the testers wrong.

It has been championed in the past by television shows like Square One TV and MythBusters, but sadly, examples like that are few and far between.

And if we can instill recreational math as a key facet of math itself, then we’d be one step closer to ensuring that STEM courses will have plenty of participants in the future.


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Demystifying Role-Playing Games

When you hear the words “role-playing game,” what comes to mind? A bunch of nerds in a basement, hunched around a table debating weird and esoteric rules? Practitioners of the black arts, thumbing their noses at God and all that is natural? Or nothing at all?

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Some TV shows, like Community and Freaks & Geeks, have displayed role-playing games in a positive light, but for the most part, role-playing games in general, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, have gotten a bad rap over the last few decades, maligned as (at best) a game for lonely friendless types and (at worst) a tool to corrupt children.

(This might sound ridiculous to many of you, but folks like Pat Robertson continue to talk about role-playing games as if they’re synonymous with demon worship.)

But in reality, role-playing games are simply a way for a group to tell one collaborative story.

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There are two major elements to this storytelling. The first is managed by a single person who oversees that particular game or gaming session. In Dungeons & Dragons, this person is called the Dungeon Master, or DM; in other games, this person is the Game Master, the Storyteller, or bears some other title tied to the game or setting. For the sake of simplicity, from this point on, I’ll refer to this person as the DM.

So, the DM manages the setting and sets up the adventure. In this role, the DM will describe what the player characters (or PCs) see and explain the results of their actions. The DM also plays any characters the players interact with. (These are known as NPCs, or non-player characters.) Essentially, the DM creates the sandbox in which the other players play.

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Which brings us to the second element in role-playing storytelling: the players. Each player assumes a role, a character, and plays that character for the length of the session, or the game, if there are multiple sessions. (Some games last months or years, so these characters evolve and grow; players often become quite attached to their characters.)

The PCs navigate the world created by the DM, but their actions and decisions shape the narrative. No matter how prepared a DM is or how carefully he or she has plotted out a given scene or adventure, the PCs determine much of what happens. They might follow the breadcrumbs exactly as the DM laid them out, or they might head off in an unexpected direction, forcing the DM to think on the fly in order to continue the adventure.

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That’s what makes role-playing games so amazing: you never quite know what you’re going to get. The PCs usually don’t know what the DM has in store, and no DM can predict with perfect clarity what the PCs will do. You’re all crafting a story together and none of you knows what exactly will happen or how it all ends.

For instance, I run a role-playing game for several friends that is set in the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and my PCs routinely come up with solutions to problems and puzzles that I didn’t expect, but that nonetheless would work. They constantly keep me on my toes as a DM, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of the game.

Oftentimes, major events and key moments are determined by dice rolls, adding an element of chance to the story. (In some games, players have replaced dice rolls with a Jenga-style block tower, and they must remove pieces from it to achieve certain goals. That adds a marvelous sense of real-world tension to the narrative tension already present!)

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And while I’ve talked quite a bit about the game aspect, some of you might be wondering where the puzzly aspect comes in.

Some of the best, most satisfying puzzle-solving experiences of my life have come from role-playing games.

These puzzles can be as simple as figuring out how to open a locked door or as complicated as unraveling a villain’s dastardly plot for world domination. It can be a poem to be parsed and understood or a trap to be escaped.

There are riddles of goblins and sphinxes, or the three questions of trolls, or even the brain teasers and logic problems concocted by devious fey hoping to snare me with clever wordplay. I’ve encountered all sorts of puzzles in role-playing games, and some of them were fiendish indeed.

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One time, during a LARP session (Live-Action Role-Playing, meaning you actually act out the adventure and storytelling), I thought I’d unraveled the meaning of a certain bit of scripture (regarding a key that would allow me to escape the room) and acquired a sword as my prize, only to realize much much later that the key I’d spent the entire session searching for was the sword itself, which unlocked the door and released me.

And designing puzzles for my players to unravel is often as much fun as solving the puzzles myself. Especially when they’re tailored to specific storytelling universes or particular player characters.

(Trust me, it doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with a Jedi or a paladin; riddles stop pretty much everybody in their tracks.)

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Whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, Legend of the Five Rings or Star Wars, GURPS or Ninja Burger, there’s a role-playing game out there for everyone, if you’re just willing to look.


This post was meant as a brief overview of role-playing games as a whole. If you’d like me to get more in depth on the subject, or if you have specific questions about role-playing games, please let me know! I’d be happy to revisit this topic in the future.

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