Will KenKen be the next Sudoku or a passing puzzle fad?

The art of play.
Feb. 20 2009 10:24 AM

I Was Told There Would Be No Math

Will KenKen be the next Sudoku or a passing puzzle fad?

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Though KenKen is a fun game, even mesmerizing at times, it's by no means unique. Ever since Sudoku landed on American shores in 2005, puzzle writers (me included) have been trying to come up with the Next Big Japanese Logic Puzzle Craze, with mixed results. Kakuro, a math-cum-logic puzzle closer to KenKen than Sudoku, didn't make quite make the second-wave splash that puzzle-book publishers had hoped for in 2006. That same year, I tried singlehandedly to create the third wave with a word-logic hybrid called Kaidoku, but it turns out I don't (yet!) possess the Shortz-ian clout to tell America which puzzle it will be solving this year. (I also didn't trademark the name Kaidoku, which turned out not to matter, since no imitators followed.)

Why do some puzzles take off and others don't? As a puzzle writer, I wish I knew. Group psychology in puzzle trends is more art than science, as it is with music, movie, and food trends. Some ever-shifting combination of tastemakers, timing, and Gladwell-ian tipping points is involved, but no one knows the precise mix. Sudoku took off because it massages the brain in a way that crosswords don't, and its marketing was extremely clever—its main popularizer, a New Zealander named Wayne Gould, syndicated the puzzle to newspapers for free as a means to sell his Sudoku-writing computer program. Ensuing copycat puzzles—the Kakuros and Kaidokus—haven't done as well because they're not that different from that other game with the grid and the numbers. Sudoku got there first, so that part of people's brains has already been massaged.

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So, what to make of KenKen? While I'm confident that you won't be able to resist its charms the first or second time, no one knows whether it will stand up to repeated play over weeks, months, or years. If anyone can start a puzzle craze, it's Shortz, but book sales are middling so far, and Shortz's very entertaining YouTube video explaining the game has an OK-but-not-through-the-roof 30,000 views. The shrinking newspaper market is also much less fertile ground for a new puzzle than it was in 2005, and it was newspaper syndication that facilitated the Sudoku explosion. (KenKen does appear in a couple of dozen papers already.)

Only time and the puzzle-solving public will determine KenKen's fate. The puzzle's marketers—a team that includes Shortz—are wisely playing up the Japanese angle of the puzzle. Unlike Sudoku, popularized as a Japanese puzzle craze though invented in the 1970s by an architect from Indiana, KenKen really was created by an Asian fellow, a Tokyoite math teacher named Tetsuya Miyamoto. We Americans tend to go for Japanese fads and trends (think Hello Kitty, karaoke, and Pokémon), so the product's exotic name and origins can't hurt. (Sudoku languished in obscurity for decades in American puzzle magazines, tagged with the unsexy name Number Place.)

So, should you KenKen? Sure, why not? I'm not above participating in (or even starting) a top-down, inorganic puzzle craze. Try the puzzles in the Times or elsewhere, and if you like them, which you probably will, then buy a book or two. I'll probably pick up (and perhaps publish) a volume myself. But remember that KenKen isn't the only number puzzle in the sea. If you enjoy the Times' new puzzle, consider buying the magazine GAMES World of Puzzles the next time you're in the grocery store. It costs less than a book of KenKen, and it's filled with dozens of different types of puzzles—word, logic, math, visual, the whole gamut. You may even like some of them better than KenKen. If you're feeling entrepreneurial, you could always take a shot at slapping a Japanese name on one of them and marketing it to the masses. Kendoku, anyone?

Matt Gaffney wrote Slate's crossword from 1999-2003. He runs a weekly crossword contest at http://www.crosswordcontest.blogspot.com/.

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