Friday, March 14, 2014

Broadcast Network (Puzzle No. 3,317)

A little while ago, we learned that Nathan Curtis and some of our other favorite constructors were involved in a new project, which turned out to be a quarterly puzzle magazine edited by Will Shortz.  Now the first issue of Will Shortz’s Wordplay is now out. What’s it like?  Find out after the break.

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): easy to moderate, and very consistent.

Hozom’s comment: “Chez Henri,” in which Hot realizes his dream of opening a Bay Area cryptic restaurant.  Reviewer’s note: the groaning you hear isn’t just from the large portions!

I think the best way to describe the new Wordplay puzzle magazine from Penny Press is to compare it to a television channel.  In the 1960s, TV for most people was the three major networks.  Cable TV was mainly for people who wanted better reception or not to have to fuss with an antenna.  The networks showed a little bit of everything: Laugh-in, a college football game on Saturday afternoon, soap operas mid-day, and the evening news.  Then we started seeing new and more focused channels: ESPN, HBO, MTV.  Today there are channels for everything from home remodeling to Tejano music to game show reruns.

So it is with puzzles.  Thirty years ago, we had the newspaper crossword plus some syndicated variety puzzle like Jumble or a cryptogram.  If you wanted variety, there were print magazines at the supermarket checkout lane.  For harder puzzles, there were magazines and books at bookstores. 

Then came the internet, which has been fabulous for us solvers.  We can congregate at sites for our favorite types of puzzles, and constructors have a place to go to seek out an audience.  Now we’re getting into app world and push content; we don’t ever have to go without our preferred puzzles. 

Penny Press is the broadcast company that’s trying to thrive in the 500 channel age.  Checkout lane magazines of easy crosswords and word searches are their bread and butter, and they’re the dominant player in that market.  But they also do specialty puzzles: The Other Doctor Mitchell is an avid consumer of their logic puzzles. 

Wordplay fits the Penny Press model to a T.  They understand solvers, and that they derive satisfaction from finishing puzzles and feeling they’re smarter because they’re able to get the right answers.  So they tend to stay away from difficult puzzles or ones that are intimidating at the beginning, just like the other editors who have to publish for a broader market, like Mike Shenk with the WSJ weekend puzzles

What that means is that the variety and cryptic crosswords in Wordplay are interspersed among other quick word games of the type Willz is good at coming up with.  Those are good for a quick two or three-minute break from whatever else you’re doing, or to pick up and solve while you’re waiting in line for something.  Nathan’s Pathfinder is probably the hardest puzzle in the magazine.  

Another benchmark: the Fraser Simpson cryptic is easier than his Globe and Mail puzzles, and is in pure US cluing form rather than the part-British approach of his weekly puzzles.  (The other cryptic in the magazine is by Jeffrey Harris.) 

Other names you’ll recognize (most but not all the puzzles are credited) include Patrick Berry, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Foggy Brume, and Mark Halpin.  There are also some new constructors working in forms you’ll recognize, like a Rows Garden by Joon Pahk.  Anthologies like this one are valuable for giving these people some cash and a wider audience for their puzzles.  Kudos to Will Shortz for convincing the big names to join the cast and for recognizing some emerging talent. 

The presentation is like other Penny Press magazines: comfortably-sized grids on good quality newsprint paper.  Since it’s newsprint, you will have to choose pen or pencil carefully, and it won’t take too much erasing. Games Magazine is better in this department.  There are about 60 puzzles in a 64-page magazine for $3.99 ($18.97 for an annual subscription: 6 issues per year).  For the whole thing, that’s a good value, but if you see the word games and logic art pages as filler, less so.

So like the people who watch military history 24/7, solvers who want just variety crosswords will change the channel.  Those whose idea of variety extends more broadly will be satisfied but not thrilled with this magazine.  But that’s OK since those are fairly small slivers of the population.  Like the big TV networks, Penny Press is trying to build an audience out of people who are just tuning in to whatever is on now plus those who are looking for a particular show to meet their interest. 

For the typical reader of this blog, it’s worth having a copy of Wordplay.  It’ll be ideal for airplane trips or on the nightstand for when you want a light and fairly easy diversion.  If you discover some new favorites, and constructors get a breakout from it, even better. 

Penny Press says the best place to find Wordplay will be at larger bookstores, but to make sure you get your copy, subscribe.

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