Indie Spotlight: Outside the Box Puzzles by joon pahk

This month’s Indie Spotlight shines brightly into the visage of joon pahk, puzzling jack-of-all-trades. He’s a:

*** top-level solver. joon took 2nd place at this year’s ACPT, won the 2015 Indie 500, and won Lollapuzzoola in 2012, for instance.

*** accomplished constructor — see here for his NYT puzzles, and here for an outstanding tournament puzzle he wrote in 2015.

*** puzzle reviewer. He’s been blogging my weekly contest puzzles at Fiend for eight years, and his reviews are so incisive that they’ll frequently sway my own view of a puzzle’s quality. His memory is scary as well; he’ll often bring up a meta from the mists of 2010 or so to draw comparisons with another meta; often I can barely recall the puzzle he’s so easily and aptly brought back into the light.

*** 7-time “Jeopardy!” champion

*** husband of 1, father of 3.

*** indie puzzle writer. Joon’s got the crazy, have no doubt. He began with this amusing and addictive little game, and two years ago started his own subscription-based weekly variety puzzle series called Outside the Box Puzzles. Let’s talk to the legend himself:

Riffing off Twitter: Tell us all about your life in 140 characters or fewer.

can i cheat by writing multiple paragraphs about it and then posting a screenshot? no? ok, here goes. wait, how many characters do i have le

What made you want to start a niche indie feature like Rows Garden/variety puzzles?

although it was short-lived, will shortz’s wordplay magazine was a big influence—i thought it was great that there was a place to get lots of different kinds of word puzzles, and for constructors of those puzzles to have a place to sell them. when the magazine went under, i saw it as an opportunity to fill the breach. as it happened, this occurred right as i was finishing my teaching gig at harvard, so i had some free time on my hands. i spent a few weeks in the summer of 2015 learning enough tech stuff to build a website that did what i wanted it to do, and then i was off and running.

You’re about to begin Year 3. What will be different, if anything?

i was happy with the way year 2 turned out, so i’m not planning to make any structural changes. but one thing that i’d love to see turn out a little differently this year is a few more different names contributing variety puzzles.

How many subscribers do you have?

between 200 and 250, most of whom are premium subscribers (i.e. subscribers to both the rows gardens and the variety puzzles). there’s maybe only about a dozen or so who get just the rows gardens, and about the same number who get just the varieties. i think it’s about the same pace i was on last year, or maybe a bit ahead; i get a lot of people signing up right at the start of the year and then a trickle after that. by the end of year 2 i was up to nearly 300.

Who are your variety puzzle icons?

patrick berry, for starters. among other things, he invented the rows garden format, which is now my canvas of choice. his puzzle masterpieces book from 2009 is a stunningly beautiful collection of variety grids. mike shenk is right up there, too—the wall street journal saturday puzzle is often my favorite solve of the week, and he also innovated a bunch of other variety puzzle formats i like to emulate.

What do you like so much about Rows Gardens compared to standard crosswords, or other variety puzzles?

from a constructor’s perspective, the great thing about rows gardens is that i don’t need to make ugly compromises to stuff the grid with great, lively long fill. the extra degrees of freedom that you get from the 12 possible ways of entering a bloom answer go a surprisingly long way towards enabling the good fill without letting in the bad. and typically, those bloom answers are the shortest in the grid, so the problem of very frequent repeaters is also minimized. if i constructed a standard 15×15 crossword every week for three years, i’d probably have to clue ERA ten or twenty times, and there would be dozens of other 3- and 4-letter words that appeared over and over. with rows gardens, i rarely use the same bloom answer more than once in a year.

from a solver’s perspective… well, the funny thing is that my subscribers have solved more rows gardens than i have, so maybe they’re better qualified to answer this part of the question. but all of the benefits i mentioned about long answers, fresh fill, and few repeaters apply to the solving experience as well, of course. the other thing that i really dig is the way the geometry of the grid can transform word and letter patterns unexpectedly. i mean, sometimes the bloom answer is RATING and it’s just ING in one row answer and TAR below it, which isn’t that interesting. but occasionally you can get things that look completely different even though it’s the same six letters—like the way [WRI]TER atop BANAN[ASP]LIT yields the bloom entry RIPSAW, as it did in a rows garden from last year. those words don’t look like they have anything in common, but there they are, sharing the same space in the grid. it’s magical.

What was the word you misspelled that caused postponement of the August 9th, 2016 puzzle?

oh geez, i was hoping nobody would remember that. it was the surname of former french president françois MITTERRAND. for whatever reason, MITTERAND (one R) was in my word list, and i made the whole puzzle and clued it without realizing it was a misspelling. one of my test-solvers found it (far from the only time test-solvers have saved my bacon!), but the misspelled word was right in the middle of the grid and i had to redo more than half the puzzle to get rid of it. then when i had done that, the same test-solver realized i’d duped a word in two entries, so it was back to the drawing board yet again. all told i think there was something like a four- or five-day delay in getting the puzzle out. it actually worked out fine because it was the week before lollapuzzoola and i like to have a “fresh” puzzle to bring to tournaments, so having it come out on friday instead of monday made sense. and indeed, i’ve since adopted this practice intentionally a couple of times in year 2. but it was a frustrating week, to be sure.

What’s the current status of variety puzzles in major US publications?

the wall street journal has a variety puzzle every saturday, and it’s gold. every other week is a hex (henry cox/emily rathvon) variety cryptic, which are fantastic if you like cryptics. (i like cryptics!) and the other weeks alternate patrick berry and mike shenk; need i say more? the nyt also has a weekly variety puzzle as the “second sunday” puzzle; every other week it’s a hex acrostic. i’m not sure if there’s a regular rotation of puzzle types for the other weeks; you regularly see diagramless, marching bands, split decisions, block cryptics, puns and anagrams, and then i think the sixth slot in the rotation is open for different kinds of puzzles. i’m also enjoying the “a little variety” puzzles, which are bite-sized variety puzzles in various formats. every week there are three, and one of them is by patrick berry. they’re definitely good, but the small size tends to leave me wanting more.

i don’t know of other newspapers that regularly feature variety puzzles, but there is now hatched, a variety puzzle magazine that just launched a few weeks ago. the editor in chief is nathan curtis, and he’s got a good team together. they’re specifically encouraging new and aspiring constructors to submit their work. i enjoyed the first issue and i’m looking forward both to future issues and to the possibility of broadening the pool of variety puzzlemakers.

You have a lot of guest contributors. Do you find them, or do they find you?

both. i’ve occasionally reached out privately to some constructors and asked them if they wanted to submit something, but i’ve also had good luck with open submissions. you don’t have to be a subscriber to submit a puzzle, so if you have a great idea for a variety puzzle (or an already completed puzzle), feel free to send it in.

Thanks, joon! A great guy and a great guy to have so active in the puzzle world.

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6 Responses to Indie Spotlight: Outside the Box Puzzles by joon pahk

  1. David L says:


  2. pannonica says:

    Thanks for the interview and the insights from both of you!

  3. Anne E says:

    Great interview, Matt and joon! I feel so fortunate that there are several constructors creating Rows Gardens on a regular basis now – they’re by far my favorite type of variety crossword. Joon’s are wonderful.

  4. sharkicicles says:

    Not only are Joon’s puzzles a highlight of my week, they are also the reason I downloaded the Hamilton soundtrack.

  5. debbie spathelf says:

    i love joon’s rows gardens! they may be my favorite. his sense of humor is always delightful. i also love that he can produce them every week with current topics! they are also by far my favorite type of variety crossword. thank you for the interview, very interesting.

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