Among our crosswords and other puzzles, we’ll be featuring logic challenges from Puzzle Communication Nikoli, a cult-favorite puzzle publication from Japan. After checking out this introduction to Nikoli, try our first Nikoli challenge, Tentai Show!
In 1989, when Yoshinao Anpuku was a 21-year-old math student at the University of Kyoto, he came up with a puzzle, and sent it in to his favorite magazine, Puzzle Communication Nikoli. The logic-based challenge was in the style of others featured in the magazine: a square grid that the solver was required to fill in some way, step by step, following very simple rules to reach a unique solution.
Nikoli published Anpuku’s submission and called it Shikaku, short for “cut it in rectangles,” since the puzzle required solvers to divide the grid into rectangles of given sizes based on numbers scattered around it. It became one of the magazine’s most popular puzzles, and now, decades later, it is published in newspapers all over the word, including The Wall Street Journal and Times of London, where it is known as Cell Blocks.
Many other well-known puzzle types emerged from the pages of Nikoli; it is perhaps best known for popularizing the most famous grid logic puzzle of all, Sudoku. Indeed, Nikoli is widely recognized as the most influential puzzle publication in history, having established the template for all grid-based, paper-and-pencil logic puzzles, and paving the way for their ubiquity today. Yet what is remarkable about Nikoli is not just its peerless catalog of hits—to many, Nikoli is synonymous with satisfying logic puzzles—but also its model. The magazine is created almost entirely by its readers.
“We are a community,” says Anpuku, who joined Nikoli a year after he invented Shikaku, was its editor for two decades, and is now president of the company. “We just wish to share the joy and excitement of puzzles with our creators and readers.”
Nikoli is a quarterly magazine that sells around 30,000 copies, and is only available in Japanese. Every year it receives about 4,000 puzzles from a core of around 300 readers, who range from teenagers to people in their 70s. Nikoli’s editors—it has a staff of 24—check every puzzle and select the ones they like for publication.
Sometimes the puzzles sent in are examples of classic Nikoli puzzles, such as Sudoku or Shikaku. But often readers invent new types. Over the last 40 years, Nikoli has created and published around 500 new types of grid logic puzzle, a few dozen of which have become standards. Their most famous include Slitherlink, Nurikabe, Masyu, Fillomino, and Tentai Show (featured this week on Atlas Obscura).
Another aspect of Nikoli’s culture that sets it apart is that all its puzzles are designed by hand, rather than—as is the case for almost every other puzzle magazine in the world—generated by computer. Nikoli’s considers its creators artisans who use their puzzle-making skills to craft exciting journeys for solvers. Almost all the puzzles submitted arrive at Nikoli’s Tokyo office printed on pieces of paper, rather than in digital form.