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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Celebrating the Puzzly Legacy of John Horton Conway

The worlds of puzzles and mathematics overlap more than you might think. I’m not just talking about word problems or mathy brain teasers like the Birthday Puzzle or the jugs of water trap from Die Hard with a Vengeance.

For twenty-five years, Martin Gardner penned a column in Scientific American called Mathematical Games, adding a marvelous sense of puzzly spirit and whimsy to the field of mathematics, exploring everything from the works of M.C. Escher to visual puzzles like the mobius strip and tangrams. He was also a champion of recreational math, the concept that there are inherently fun and entertaining ways to do math, not just homework, analysis, and number crunching.

And on more than one occasion, Gardner turned to the genius and innovative thinking of John Horton Conway for inspiration.

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[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Conway was best known as a mathematician, but that one word fails to encapsulate either his creativity or the depth of his devotion to the field. Conway was a pioneer, contributing to some mathematical fields (geometry and number theory among them), vastly expanding what could be accomplished in other fields (particularly game theory), and even creating new fields (like cellular automata).

Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus, Simon Kochen said, “He was like a butterfly going from one thing to another, always with magical qualities to the results.” The Guardian described him in equally glowing terms as “a cross between Archimedes, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí.”

lifep

[Image courtesy of Cornell.edu.]

His most famous creation is The Game of Life, a model that not only visually details how algorithms work, but explores how cells and biological forms evolve and interact.

Essentially, imagine a sheet of graph paper. In The Game of Life, you choose a starting scenario, then watch the game proceed according to certain rules:

  • Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies, as if by underpopulation.
  • Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation.
  • Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies, as if by overpopulation.
  • Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

The process plays out from your starting point completely without your intervention, spiraling and expanding outward.

It’s the ultimate if-then sequence that can proceed unhindered for generations. It is a literal launchpad for various potential futures based on a single choice. It’s mind-bending and simple all at once. (And you can try it yourself here!)

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[Image courtesy of Sign-Up.To.]

But that’s far from Conway’s only contribution to the world of puzzles.

Not only did he analyze and explore puzzles like the Soma cube and Peg Solitaire, but he created or had a hand in creating numerous other puzzles that expanded upon mathematical concepts.

I could delve into creations like Hackenbush, the Angel Problem, Phutball/Philosopher’s Football, Conway’s Soldiers, and more — and perhaps I will in the future — but I’d like to focus on one of his most charming contributions: Sprouts.

Sprouts is a pencil-and-paper strategy game where players try to keep the game going by drawing a line between two dots on the paper and adding a new dot somewhere along that line.

The rules are simple, but the gameplay can quickly become tricky:

  • The line may be straight or curved, but must not touch or cross itself or any other line.
  • The new spot cannot be placed on top of one of the endpoints of the new line. Thus the new spot splits the line into two shorter lines.
  • No spot may have more than three lines attached to it.

Check out this sample game:

sprouts

[Image courtesy of Fun Mines.]

It’s a perfect example of the playfulness Conway brought to the mathematical field and teaching. The game is strategic, easy to learn, difficult to master, and encourages repeated engagement.

In a piece about Conway, Princeton professor Manjul Bhargava said, “I learned very quickly that playing games and working on mathematics were closely intertwined activities for him, if not actually the same activity.”

He would carry all sorts of bits and bobs that would assist him in explaining different concepts. Dice, ropes, decks of cards, a Slinky… any number of random objects were mentioned as potential teaching tools.

Professor Joseph Kohn shared a story about Conway’s enthusiasm for teaching and impressive span of knowledge. Apparently, Conway was on his way to a large public lecture. En route, he asked his companions what topic he should cover. Imagine promising to do a lecture with no preparation at all, and deciding on the way what it would be about.

Naturally, after choosing a topic in the car, the lecture went off without a hitch. He improvised the entire thing.

Of course, you would expect nothing less from a man who could recite pi from memory to more than 1100 digits? Or who, at a moment’s notice, could calculate the day of the week for any given date (employing a technique he called his Doomsday algorithm).


Conway unfortunately passed away earlier this month, due to complications from COVID-19, at the age of 82.

His contributions to the worlds of mathematics and puzzles, not to mention his tireless support of recreational math, cannot be overstated. His work and his play will not soon be forgotten.

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[Image courtesy of Macleans.]

If you’d like to learn more about Conway, be sure to check out Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts.

[My many thanks to friend of the blog Andrew Haynes for suggesting today’s subject and contributing notes and sources.]


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Hide & Word Seek With These Puns We Toyed Around With

Yes, yes, it’s that time again. It’s hashtag game time!

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzleToys, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles with action figures, cars, dolls, brands, characters, and anything else related to toys!

Examples include: Connect Four Square, Ouija Exchange Boards, and Bop-It’s Your Move.

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


My Little Puzzler

Cabbage Patchwords / Cabbage Patchworks Kids

Alphabet Soup-erball

Bowl Gameboy

Mix and Matchbox Cars

Mr. Potato Headings / Mr. Potato Heads and Tails

Barbie Styling Heads & Tails

Barbie and KenKen Dolls

Evel Ken-ken-ievel action figure

License Fashion Plates

Stretch Armstrong Letters

Etch A Stretch Letters

Slide-O-Crayon

Slip and Slide-o-grams

Chutes and Letter Addition

Word Play-Doh / Play-Doh-ku

Word Playmobil

Blue’s Clues in Twos

The Match Game of Life

Mousetriplex

Diamond Minecraft

Raggedy Anagrams

Trivia Pursuit Frame

Mega Blokbuilders

Slinkywords

Sock Monkeywords

Linkwords-in-Logs

Lincoln Logic Problems

Anagram Magic 8-Balls / Anagram Magic 8-Ball Square

Anagram “Magic—The Gathering” Square

Brick by Rubik’s Cube

KakuRubik’s Cube

Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Kakurobots

Giant (Sudo)Koo-ties

Toss Across and Down

Jack in the Letterboxes

Furby Another Name / All Furby One

Ted-Dilemma Ruxpin

View Masterwords

See n’ Say That Again

Speak & Spellbound / Speak & Spelldown / Speak & Starspell

Strawberry Shortz-cake

Mighty Morphin’ Flower Power Rangers

Flower Pow-Pow-Power Wheels Pow-Power Wheels POWER WHEELS!


One of our contributors went above and beyond in musical fashion, resurrecting the old Crossfire riff for some puzzly fun:

It’s some Timed Framework in the future
The ultimate challenge
CROSSWORDS!
CROSSROADS!
You’ll get caught up in the
CROSSBLOCKS!
CROSS PAIRS!
You’ll get up in the
CROSS ARITHMETIC!
CROSS ANAGRAMS!
CROSSOUT QUOTE!
CROSSNUUUUMMMBBBEEEEEERRRRRRSSS!!!!


Have you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle Toys entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!