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Monday, May 23, 2005

Number wars 

In the last few weeks, the UK media has been giving a significant amount of space to the growing popularity of a game called Sudoku, or Su Doku, or various other spelling variants. To explain this game briefly, it consists of a grid nine squares wide by nine squares tall, which is divided into nine sections of three squares by three squares. The object of the exercise is to fill in the grid so that each row, column and nine-square section contains the numbers 1 to 9. The initial grid has some of the squares already filled in with a number, and you then have to use a process of logic, deduction and elimination to complete the rest of it. Apparently the game originated in Japan and fulfilled a similar function to the crossword puzzle (crosswords not being viable in a character based language) and it started appearing in newspapers over here late last year.

I first came across it when reading a newspaper someone had left behind on the train (my usual newspaper doesn't carry it). During the General Election campaign I swapped newspapers to get an different perspective on issues, and started playing it on a semi regular basis. It can be quite fun, although I've found that there's a pretty narrow challenge range that I enjoy doing - the easy and moderate ones are too easy to be interesting, and currently the very difficult ones can be just too frustrating and/or time consuming. As I've done more and got better at doing them I can sense that there may be a point where even the 'fiendish' ones aren't enough of a challenge to make it fun.

What's been more interesting than the puzzles, is watching their use by newspapers. As Sudoku's popularity has increased it seems to have become an increasingly important part in their circulation wars. The Times offers one puzzle, with different degrees of difficulty, and a prize draw for correct entries e-mailed in before noon. Then The Independent starts offering four puzzles a day - easy, moderate and advanced on the inside of the paper, with a 'quick' one on the outside. The Times sets up a 'Sudoku by SMS' service. The Independent launches a national championship. How far this will go and how long it will take before people get bored with Sudoku (as I suspect they will) remains to be seen. I wouldn't be at all surprised if when I land back in the UK in December I find newspapers with five pages of news and fifty five of Sudoku.

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