This isn’t quite a book review, because Puzzazz isn’t quite a book. It’s a lot of books…none of which is in book form. Yes, we’re into things online, and Puzzazz is one of the more interesting developments. It’s largely American (as you may be able to guess from the name) but there’s quite a range of puzzles available apart from the typical American crossword. Brits can get somewhat dismissive of the non-cryptic nature of the standard American puzzle, but that overlooks its many charms. If you’re aware of the names of Hook, Berry, Shenk, Cox/Rathvon or Quigley (all decent scores in Scrabble, you notice – I’m sure that’s not coincidental), then you’ll be aware of the standard of the goodies available here. (Many of these setters also engage in cryptic crosswords as well.)
So, what is Puzzazz? Well, there’s an online presence (see link above), but the best way to indulge is via the app – from the Apple App Store (this is an iPad thing at the moment). This gets you access to a store full of crossword and puzzle ‘books’ – each book contains a quantity of puzzles of the same or related types. Your app displays “Owned Books”, “Featured Titles” (which changes from day to day), “Crosswords” (largely American style), “Cryptic Crosswords” (largely blocked style), “Word Play” (various word games not in any sort of standard crossword grid), and “Et Cetera” (logic puzzles, detective puzzles and rebuses). You choose a book, there’s a sample puzzle for you to try – and if you like it you go off to the iTunes store and buy it.
You solve on the iPad. There’s a thing called TouchWrite, which enables you to sketch out letters on the screen, and into the highlighted cells they go. I’ve come across these onscreen writing features on a number of devices and – well, maybe my fingers are too fat or maladroit, but I’m glad there’s a keyboard option! For crosswords, the clues to cross-checking answers are highlighted as you type in an answer, which can make for some lively jigging on screen, but you sort of get used to that. The highlighting of cells is surprisingly versatile – in puzzles where the lengths aren’t given, and there’s some reason for you to be uncertain of how many squares are filled, the first two or three cells are fully highlighted, after which the highlighting slowly fades.
There may be someone who has tried everything on Puzzazz and who can give a thorough review of the range. I can only comment on the items I’ve tried, which number four. Brian Greer (aka Brendan/Virgilius, and resident in the US) has produced one book under each pseudonym – if you’ve tried his puzzles, you’ll know what to expect. Mike Shenk (who edits the Wall Street Journal puzzle page) has recently produced something called Puzzability’s Variety Show, which is a collection of his puzzles on a range of unusually shaped grids – very accessible US-style puzzles. Most recently a volume of ‘variety cryptics’ has appeared – Cryptic All-Stars (which is also available in paper format). This, I think, is the most expensive item on the app – £17.49 – but contains 45 American barred cryptics. The American barred cryptic is a wonderful thing – a barred puzzle that generally has the vocabulary of a UK blocked puzzle, so that it is a useful tool for bridging the gap from ‘ordinary’ cryptics to ‘thematics’. You also get a few in the sort of shapes Mike Shenk is fond of. Established setters such as Henry Hook, Mikes Shenk and Selinker, and Bob Stigger all appear – among the ‘and many more’ are newer faces like Mark Halpin, who has been producing a neat range of puzzles for The Sondheim Review.
My fourth book is something called ‘The Year of Puzzles’. It was originally intended as a celebration of the crossword centenary, and the fact that it is still continuing now is a reflection of a somewhat troubled history. The puzzles are not solely word puzzles (one is even audio-only), and they are linked by an overarching narrative that sends ‘the solver’ on an all-expenses-paid trip around the world solving puzzles to thwart an evil conspiracy – well, I’m beginning to find it a little twee. But undoubtedly if you want a range of different puzzle types hooked into a meta-puzzle of some form, then it’s worth your attention.
There’s been a lot of discussion about how crosswords will evolve in the digital world – will newspapers survive? how to reach solvers via the web? and so on. There’s obviously a sufficient community of solvers worldwide to sustain online puzzling – the question is how to engage with them, and how to ensure the puzzle makers are suitably rewarded for their work. Puzzazz may not be the full or only solution, but if you’re interested in the future of crosswords, you ought to give it a look.