Fun and Games: Q&A: Pitt grad discusses puzzle-making process

Meck’s the name, puzzle-making is the game.

In 2008 Jonathan Meck graduated from Pitt, where he met his wife. Meck has since settled with his wife and dog. in Dormont, Pa. He has worked with web technologies for over six years, and currently works as a digital analytics engineer for LunaMetrics. 

In a Q-and-A with The Pitt News, Meck explained his love for puzzles and described his efforts to create the Kansuko puzzle, which came in second place at the Games That Make Kids Smarter national competition at the end of February. 

The Pitt News: What is the Kansuko puzzle, and how do you complete it? How does it compare to Sudoku?

Jonathan Meck: Kansuko is a twist on the classic Sudoku. The rules are very similar, so anyone who knows how to complete a Sudoku can pick up a Kansuko and master it in a short amount of time. It’s smaller than a normal Sudoku, with just three-by-three grids stacked on top of each and then a new concept called the “Sum Column,” which involves adding the numbers in the row and filling in the sum column with the singles digit from the total. Each three-by-three grid and each column has the numbers one through nine in it. 

TPN: What is the inspiration behind the Kansuko puzzle? 

JM: Kansuko really came from just experimenting with different restrictions on the normal Sudoku and trying to find different ways to make the game interesting. There are hundreds of variations, each with its own intricacies and quirks. Kansuko is just another twist to hopefully challenge people.

TPN: How have you been working to popularize the Kansuko puzzle? Has it taken off recently?

JM: Through a few lucky coincidences, I was able to pitch Kansuko to a book editor at a party, which led to the Kansuko book being published in the fall of 2011. Since then I’ve just been working to try to gain exposure for the puzzles, offering them up to newspapers and magazines. I’ve worked with teachers who are interested in using Kansuko puzzles in their classrooms, and just recently I adapted Kansuko to be a classroom game in the Games That Make Kids Smarter competition. Kansuko for Kids won second place in the competition and will be distributed to schools in the future.

TPN: For the puzzle beginner, what kind of puzzles would you suggest starting out on?

JM: I’d say to take on a beginner classic Sudoku. A lot of people are scared off when they see the numbers, but Sudoku requires no math whatsoever, just simple logic. Kansuko on the other hand is all about addition, so run for the hills! 

TPN: How did you come up with the name Kansuko? 

JM: Unfortunately, the story is not that exciting. Sudoku is said to have been adapted from a phrase that translates to “the digits must be single.” Following that vein, I tried to combine some Japanese words for math and puzzles, but then ended up just making up a brand new word. I have since been told that it doesn’t really mean anything in Japanese. Now it’s just a cool word!

TPN: What advice would you give to others looking to create their own puzzles?

JM: Puzzles are a great way to flex your mind and work through challenging thought processes. I find designing puzzles to be even more challenging and exhilarating. I’d recommend anyone who’s interested to just keep testing new ideas and trying different things. Bug friends and family to test your puzzles, though from experience, they might not share your enthusiasm.

TPN: What was your process for creating Kansuko?

JM: I actually created Kansuko using Microsoft Excel, as crazy as that seems. Most people think of Excel as a simple spreadsheet program, though really under the hood, you can get much more complicated with custom programming. Excel provided the perfect platform that balanced number crunching and visual tools. The puzzles are generated automatically through a program I wrote, then tested to make sure they’re solvable. Finally, I manually review each puzzle before deciding which ones to include on the website, in a book or in a paper. I’ve also created custom puzzles that have unique features, like only using the same four digits to start, or, like one in particular that I created for last March 14, that started with the first 10 digits of Pi.

TPN: What are your favorite types of puzzles? Crosswords? Sudoku? 

JM: I’m a fan of any game that you can work out or deduce the correct answer. So for me, that includes Sudoku, Scrabble, puzzles, etc. … I’ve never really been good at puzzles that rely on trivia or obscure knowledge, like crosswords.

TPN: Have you tried to monetize your puzzle-making efforts?

JM: While monetizing it would be nice, I just enjoy seeing other people complete something that I created. I have received commissions from the book sales though. I think my last check was for just more than $10.  Puzzles always have been and most likely always will be just a hobby.

TPN: What difficulty levels exist for the puzzle? 

JM: There are three difficulties: beginner, intermediate and expert. You’ll definitely notice a difference as you move to the harder levels, but all are possible to complete without guessing.

TPN: When did you start becoming interested in puzzles? Any family stories from when you were younger?

JM: My family has always been a very competitive family. My parents never let us win, so it was more significant when we did finally beat them in Scrabble or something similar. When Sudoku became popular, there were a few occasions where we’d print out the same puzzle and race to see who could complete it first. I’m not sure I ever made it through my macroeconomics class without completing at least one Sudoku, and I remember wasting many hours sitting in a room in Sutherland Hall completing Sudokus with friends. We used to tape each completed Sudoku to a particular wall, and we ran out of space pretty quickly.