If KenKen hadn’t become a mainstay in the puzzle section of newspapers and magazines in recent years, Arlingtonian Doug Gardner’s Octo may have very well been the Next Big Thing.
It still may be. And Gardner, a computer security specialist for the U.S. Defense Department, is enjoying the challenge of trying to launch America’s next puzzle sensation.
“KenKen came out at about the same time that I first started approaching people with Octo,” Gardner said. “One of the companies even told me that they weren’t looking for another puzzle because they were rolling out the whole KenKen puzzle.”
Gardner invented Octo in July 2007 when he was seeking to combine the mathematical logic of kakuro with the positional logic of sudoku.
An Octo puzzle consists of 16 octagons with the numbers one through eight running along each spoke. The goal of the puzzle is to position the numbers so that they are not repeated in any octagon, row, column or diagonal. The sums of certain numerical configurations are provided or can be discovered as clues.
"I thought it was new and interesting because it was like sudoku but there were a lot of different angles you use to solve the puzzle," said Jay Daugherty, one of a number of Gardner’s friends who helped test early incarnations of the puzzle.
Gardner handed out early puzzles to friends at Arlington’s Trinity Presbyterian Church and collected feedback as to what they liked and what they didn’t.
He now counts some of these friends among Octo’s “early adopters.” It wasn’t long before he was handing the puzzles to complete strangers.
“I would just run into people in airports, and if I saw them working on sudoku, I would come over and say, ‘Want to try a new puzzle?’ ” Gardner said.
Gardner has enjoyed the way that creating puzzles has linked him up with new people. But he’s frustrated the game hasn’t yet taken off in a big way.
“I haven’t gotten the kind of response that I’ve expected. It’s really one of those things where you have to break in and get the right people to show interest, but it’s fun,” Gardner said. “One of the counters to that is when someone comes up at the Arlington County Fair and they say they gave the book to their uncle or cousin or aunt and they loved it. I think there’s a big community out there that really embraces the Octo.”
It was at the county fair and the Eastern Market in the district where Gardner realized just how strong an interest people had in puzzles — and that he could carve out a home for Octo among them.
By 2011, Gardner had become immersed in the international puzzle community thanks to his efforts to promote his book. He had been to the Silicon Valley Puzzle Festival and was also aware of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. He decided that a similar event in Arlington might be a great way of fostering the development of an Octo community.
The Silicon Valley Puzzle Festival was set up through a local library, and so Gardner decided to follow a similar path and to approach the Arlington Public Library.
Perhaps it’s serendipity: At the time, the Friends of the Arlington Public Library wanted to add something to enliven its programming, and the group’s county liaison, Julia Karell, had puzzles on her radar.
“I know from people coming in and filling out crossword puzzles or using the photocopier to Xerox puzzles that there’s a lot of interest in puzzles. We wanted to respond to that interest in the community,” Karell said.
The first Arlington Puzzle Festival took place in November 2011 with over 100 attendees. The event included a scavenger hunt, talks by puzzle experts, sudoku and crossword tournaments, and the introduction of the Octo puzzle with prizes for the winners. This fall, the Arlington festival returned as an annual event and the Octo tournament was expanded.
“I spoke about the Octo puzzle last year but I try to be careful not to make it seem like I’m there to promote my product,” Gardner said. “I put on the event mainly for people to get together.”
Karell added: “Crossword puzzling can be a solitary activity, the same as reading. So one of our goals is to bring those people together.”
Gardner and the Friends of the Arlington Public Library are considering expanding their partnership to include a spring crossword event that would serve as a workshop.
In the meantime, Gardner is hard at work promoting Octo. In the past year, he worked on developing a smartphone app and sold his puzzle to college newspapers at Michigan State University, the University of Alabama and Mississippi State University.