NEW YORK – The self-proclaimed godfather of sudoku wants to cultivate a specialized logic-game market of puzzle fans worldwide who appreciate handcrafted games.
“I want to seek out puzzle fans around the world and bring Nikoli puzzles to them,” said Maki Kaji, president of Tokyo-based Nikoli Co.
Nikoli introduced sudoku to the world as an advanced version of the game that was invented by American Howard Garns and first published in the United States under the name Number Place in 1979.
Kaji runs the small firm, with about 20 employees. But for the Keio University dropout, it’s all about fun and games. “My company’s games bring you no merits,” the 55-year-old said. “Our puzzles are not for educational purposes, nor are they aimed at developing the brain. They are just a way of killing time and enjoying recreation.
“Our readers are well aware of that and so they easily become creators of games.”
Logic games are popular in Japan largely due to the work of Nikoli, which was founded 27 years ago, but sudoku is the only one known abroad.
That may change if Kaji gets his way.
Early this month, Nikoli formed a partnership with Sterling Publishing Co., a unit of Barnes & Noble Inc.
The deal calls for Sterling to begin publishing a series of puzzle books by fall 2008. Specifically, Sterling will introduce to Americans an array of number games, including Slitherlink, which is already a hit in Japan.
The new games may not surpass sudoku in popularity but Kaji is confident that many of Nikoli’s some 250 puzzles will make millions of U.S. puzzle fans addicted to fresh fun.
Sudoku won great popularity globally after The Times of London began publishing them in 2004. The sudoku boom swept the United States the following year.
Nikoli estimates that more than 200 publishers in 50 countries have published books of sudoku, many of them beating crossword puzzles in the best-seller lists.
The man who introduced sudoku to the world was New Zealander Wayne Gould, a retired Hong Kong judge who fell in love with the number puzzle during a visit to Japan in 1997.
After spending a couple of years developing software that automatically generates sudoku puzzles, he began selling the games to newspapers in the West. Currently about 400 newspapers in 60 countries buy sudoku from Gould, according to Sussex Publishers.
About 15 years ago, Kaji tried to sell the game to publishers in New York and London but got no responses. “Perhaps it was a matter of timing, along with the availability of cheaper sudoku,” he said.
As Kaji didn’t think sudoku would become an international hit, he did not trademark the game outside of Japan. Therefore, he receives no royalties.
Kaji, however, has no ill feelings toward Gould. When the New Zealander visits Tokyo, the two sudoku fans go out drinking and talk about how “we both took part in spreading sudoku to the world,” he said.
Currently, Nikoli’s overseas business accounts for 11 percent of the company’s 445 million yen in annual sales. The company estimates its share in the sudoku market to be “no more than 5 percent.”
Now that logic games are growing popular outside Japan, Kaji believes puzzle enthusiasts will ultimately choose Nikoli’s handcrafted games over computer-generated ones.
When puzzles are created by individuals, they are meant to be solved “like a mystery novel,” Kaji said. Even within the sudoku genre, Kaji’s company tries to create a large variety in its solving patterns.
“It’s like climbing Mount Fuji,” Kaji said. “Whether the games are created by computer or by hand, the goal is to get to the top.
“Handcrafted games can provide a deeper experience for challengers. Depending on the puzzle, the experience can make you happy, angry, nervous or excited.”
Few puzzles are created by Nikoli employees. Most have been made by students, housewives and businesspeople who share Kaji’s passion and enjoy making puzzles just as much as solving them.
“When they see their own work and pen names published in our magazines, they are so surprised,” Kaji said.
Nikoli pays contributors a flat fee. Once they have been paid and seen their work in print, they usually send more puzzles to Nikoli — because they gain a reputation and confidence, he said.
Puzzle Tsushin Nikoli, the company’s quarterly magazine, sells about 50,000 copies every month. It published the first sudoku in 1984.
“The sudoku boom may be over but the game has taken firm root among puzzlers around the world,” Kaji said.
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