In my post about Go, I mentioned how Japanese logic puzzles such as kakuro, nurikabe and hashiwokakero (Bridges) derive many heuristics from a few rules. Some of you wondered, why didn’t I mention sudoku on that list? Doesn’t it also fit this pattern? It does, but at the time I was making a reference to Asian culture, and the truth is, sudoku isn’t entirely a product of Asian culture. In fact, it actually started in America.
When the Latest Thing From Japan is Actually From Connecticut
Sudoku was first published as “Number Place” by Dell Logic puzzles, a Connecticut puzzle company that sold monthly puzzle magazines under the Dell Magazines label. The creator was probably a retired architect and freelance puzzle creator named Howard Garns, but as it was published uncredited in the Dell folios, we can’t be sure. Dell published their first number place in 1989, and it was a regular in their magazine over the next five years before it was picked up by the Japanese puzzle company Nikoli in 1994. Nikoli’s name for the puzzle, roughly translated, was a short description of the rules: "the digits are limited to one occurrence." This was later contracted using the first kanji of compound words to produce “sudoku,” which Nikoli registered as a trademark.
“It’s American in origin, but it’s not Americana.”
Meanwhile, the generic term for such puzzles among the Japanese was still “Number Place,” (Nanbāpurēsu), which was itself contracted to “Nanpure.” The popular puzzles were picked up by a Hong Kong judge, who spent six years on a computer program to generate them randomly before pitching them in Great Britain. In 2004 “Su Doku” appeared in UK newspaper “The Times,” where it gained widespread popularity and was picked up by other UK papers, going through a whirlwind of rising popularity before moving on (returning home) to the United States.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t about being a hipster and saying “we did it first.” Nor is this about cultural appreciation or appropriation; “number place” was never a cultural emblem, or even part of a larger cultural context. It’s American in origin, but it’s not Americana. No, my point in bringing this up is to talk about how sudoku is more a product of the modern age than it is of either Japan or America. It’s classic enough by now to earn a place along all the others we feature here, but only in the most modern age could the latest thing from Japan actually be from Connecticut. The world is truly flat these days.
Branding, Yes. Foreign, Yes. Foreign Branding, No.
Still, there’s something timeless in this story of the puzzle that circles the globe and returns home by a name no one recognizes, like Odysseus at the end of his journeys. It’s practically the opposite of the foreign branding that plagued the history of peg solitaire and so many other puzzles: at no point in this process was a local-made puzzle branded as coming from someplace else. On the contrary, when the game was marketed in Japan, the fact that it came from America may or may not have been part of the appeal, but it actually did come from America. Moreover, it was sold under Japanese names, even if one of those names was Japanified English. Likewise, when it came back to America under the Japanese name, the foreign name may have increased the appeal, but it had earned that foreign name legitimately.
“It’s practically the opposite of foreign branding”
Whether or not the foreign-ness was part of the appeal, and by whatever name, the puzzles themselves now reach a much broader audience than the inventor or original publisher could ever have imagined. The Dell Logic Puzzles were targeted at hardcore puzzle aficianados--laypeople are hardly going to buy an 80+ page magazine of assorted puzzles. This may have helped lay a stronger foundation for pure-logic puzzles in the community at large, without the need for vocabulary skill such as with crosswords and other verbal games that were common in newspapers before that.
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
The game has changed remarkably little through all those travels. Nikoli instituted a maximum of 32 givens, which made sense but was not an official rule for any subsequent publishers. All major publishers from Dell onward have instituted “challenge” variations with additional rules for diagonals or other extra bits, but the sudoko that most people know is unchanged from the original number place. The sheer simplicity of it defies additional rules while creating a staggering amount of complexity. In this sense, it is truly in the same category as many other popular puzzles invented in Japan and China.
Sudoku has also prompted a rash of scientific study, starting with the question of whether or not it can hold off dementia (sometimes, sort of) and more recently when it became the poster child for the NP-complete subset of the P vs NP problem. Since it can be checked easily by computers but only solved by brute force algorithms, that puts it in the same category as protein folding, traveling salesman, and Rubik’s cubes. The essential nature of all these puzzles was the same with regard to programming, but the popularity of sudoku makes it the obvious choice when asking whether anyone has a shortcut for it that could be taught to a computer. So far, no one’s come forward to claim the prize, but every morning paper brings another opportunity.
A Young Classic
For all these reasons, sudoku has earned its place among classic puzzles despite being the relative newcomer on the scene. Here at Kubiya, we’ve tried our best to capture the essence of this simple but profound puzzle in a number of tasteful wood designs. For those looking for a traditional arrangement, we have dark-backed wooden sudoku and light-backed sudoku bored, each with their own box to hold the numbered pegs. For those looking for a unique challenge, we have colored sudoku, and our sudoku blocks variation is delightful for adults and children. In the spirit of Killer Sudoku and other enhanced versions, our sudoku cube elevates it to an entirely new dimension.
Thanks for joining me for another puzzle pedigree. From America or Japan, by whatever name you choose, it’s a wonderful way to sharpen the brain and pass the time.