Back in March, when hand sanitizer evaporated, toilet paper shortages loomed and in parts of New York City, cans of Lysol couldn’t be had for love or any reasonable amount of money, another commodity flew from shelves and warehouse pallets: jigsaw puzzles.
What explains the craze? “Life is full of puzzles,” Nick Baxter, who chairs a puzzle design competition, said. “Those real-life puzzles aren’t very fun. They aren’t elegant.” But a jigsaw puzzle, he said, is designed to have a satisfying conclusion. “It’s there to make you feel good.”
At the very least, a jigsaw can stave off feeling bad, occupying the same neural pathways we reserve for anxiety. “A lot of people have told me that when they’re doing a puzzle, they just sort of shut out all their worries, they just concentrate on matching pieces,” said Anne Williams, the author of “The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History.” Nine months into the pandemic shortages are mostly alleviated. But anxiety continues. So puzzles remain quite popular.
Jigsaw puzzles had their origins in the mid-18th century as a handsome pedagogical tool, the artisanal alphabet blocks of their day. These “dissected maps” drilled children in geography. Puzzles for adults came into fashion about a century later, spreading further when advances in the lithographic press and the foot-powered treadle jigsaw made them easier and cheaper to produce. Over the years, the materials have altered — from wood to plywood to cardboard and acrylics. Laser cutting has made more complicated cuts possible and created a renewed interest in what puzzle fans call “whimsy” pieces, pieces cut into particular shapes — a bird, say, or a butterfly. But some sought-after puzzles remain cut by hand.
Jigsaw puzzles had a huge surge in popularity about 90 years ago, around the time of the Great Depression. Unsurprisingly, they have surged again during lockdown. A good jigsaw — whether it involves hundreds of pieces or thousands — provides a relatively inexpensive form of home entertainment with a tactility that screen-based entertainments don’t allow.
“There is supposed to be a dopamine hit every time you put puzzle pieces together. So assembling a puzzle is just a constant dose of happy chemicals,” said Tammy McLeod, a champion puzzler and a founder of the USA Jigsaw Puzzle Association.
While the association promotes timed events, most people experience jigsaws as collaborative rather than competitive. Several of the major companies make pandemic-friendly puzzles expressly designed for families. In family puzzles, pieces come in a variety of sizes, some quite large, so that even little hands can contribute. Still, jigsaw puzzles work for isolated play as well. (They are also available in a variety of apps, though that style of play removes the haptic pleasure of having the pieces in hand.)
Certain skill sets help with puzzle-solving — a good visual memory, a talent for pattern-matching, organizational flair. Patience, too. And with a good puzzle that patience is rewarded. What makes a good puzzle? “A lot of it is, ‘Hey, is there an aha experience?’” Mr. Baxter said. “Is there some kind of light bulb that has to go off?”
As some lightbulbs come cheaper than others, companies, like Completing the Puzzle and the Hoefnagel Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle Club, have created rental services so that no one has to go broke or give up precious storage space in search of 1,000-piece pastimes. And if you enjoy novelty, you are in luck. Jigsaw design has had an eventful few years, with puzzle makers devoting themselves to trick puzzles, multipart puzzles, three-dimensional puzzles, reversible puzzles and puzzles of absolutely fiendish difficulty, like The Accident (a hefty $73.99), from Yelldesign, a clear acrylic puzzle designed to look like a pane of shattered glass. For something that feels even more 2020, you might try a new release from Yelldesign, The Virus ($43.79), a round puzzle with a green coronavirus-shaped center. Or consider Puzzle 29 ($34.99), which has five corners. Is that there to make us feel good?
Here are some puzzles, mostly priced between $10 and $200, for the novice or the aficionado.
Jigsaw for Beginners
Happily, most ordinary jigsaw puzzles announce their difficulty numerically. A 100-, 200- or 500-piece puzzle should satisfy the first-time solver, as should clear images with bright colors, cut into a regular grid pattern. “What is most important is that you should be enjoying putting the puzzle together. So it should be some picture that you enjoy looking at,” Ms. McLeod recommends. Novices might begin a search with some of the major brands, like Ravensburger, Springbok, Buffalo Games and Puzzles and Bits and Pieces (prices range from under $10 to over $50), most of which will let you search according to theme. Ravensburger alone has hundreds of options, from astronauts to unicorns to the Neuschwanstein Castle ($34.99), a riot of fall foliage and fairytale towers.
Teasers and Tricks
If you have solved sufficient images of cats, candy bar wrappers and picturesque Italian scenery, you will want a puzzle that offers something more. The brand Wasgij specializes in cartoonlike puzzles (around $20) that when solved helped to explain what caused the catastrophe pictured on the box. Ravensburger has released a line of escape room puzzles ($19.99), in which you have to solve riddles as you complete the puzzle, arranging pieces into objects that can help you break out of the Witches Kitchen or the Space Observatory. Puzzles from the Magic Puzzle Company culminate in a trick ending, with new pieces that allow you to rearrange the image. Nervous System mixes two puzzles together ($175). PuzzleTwist specializes in jigsaws ($20) that differ in essential ways from the image on the box. Stave Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles makes a specialty of trick puzzles, plus others known as Troublemakers, Tormentors and Teasers, but as these can run more than $1,000, they are less pastime than investment.
Jigsaws as Art
If aesthetics matter to you, there are companies that push puzzles closer to art and design. One is Pomegranate, which specializes in fine art reproductions of works by the likes of van Gogh and Diego Rivera ($17.95 to $34.95), allowing you to linger on color and suggestions of texture as you solve. “You can learn about brush strokes and color palettes and you can memorize the smallest details of vastly complicated and densely populated canvases,” the novelist and jigsaw enthusiast Margaret Drabble wrote in an article last spring. Then again, an Old Master in 2-D may still feel kitschy. Those who prefer a more Modernist feel can try Piecework’s hip and sumptuous illustrations ($26 to $36), Areaware’s soothing gradient puzzles ($15 to $35), in which colors slide from light to dark, Pomegranate’s line of Charley Harper posters or Jiggy’s playful rectangles ($40). Some collectors might argue that certain wooden puzzles are works of art themselves or, at the very least, models of exquisite craftsmanship, especially those that specialize in whimsy shapes, like Liberty Puzzles and Wentworth Wooden Puzzles.
No Easy Pieces
You could try The Lines from Bgraamiens ($18.99), in 1000 crazy-making pieces of graphite strokes on a white background. Too abstract? Check out puzzles from Nervous System, the makers of those mixed puzzle sets, which specializes in organic shapes based on phenomena like geodes, ammonites and wriggly amoebae ($45-$95). For a particularly devilish version of the gradient puzzle, try 5000 Colors from Play Group ($50). No piece is the same shade as any other. If that is perhaps too many colors, turn to monochrome puzzles, like Ravensburger’s Krypt series ($20.99), which takes incredible patience to solve as every piece is colored precisely the same. Or here’s one where the name says it all: Beverly Micro Pure White Hell (about $25).