Cardboard Connections: Piecing Our Humanity Together Through Jigsaws

I’ve found from years of experience working in retail that I always develop an affection for a particular section in each store. Usually it’s the section where I’m given my first “big” task. At Pier 1 Imports for example, after spending a late night on inventory, counting and making a list of every kind of napkin, I felt maternally bonded to the napkins. Since that night, I always make sure my napkin children are neatly folded, stacked, and displayed perfectly. I’m not a psychologist, but this feels like Corporate Stockholm Syndrome: an irrational love for the patterned fabric that pays my wages.

At Eureka, I immediately felt a protective instinct for the puzzle wall. As a newbie to the world of puzzle retail, there was something comforting about such traditional, straightforward merchandise. You don’t have to be a genius to give people a jigsaw recommendation, especially when you have a selection of pretty much every kind of jigsaw puzzle anyone would ever want right at your fingertips. What you do have to be is an attentive listener with a knack for remembering where that one puzzle with all the dogs in hats ended up (I swear I just saw it yesterday).

Our collection of jigsaw puzzles is usually the first thing people notice when they walk into the shop. It occupies an entire wall. It’s also constantly changing. It has to be restocked and rearranged every day—never retaining the same puzzles from one day to the next. As such, it needs constant love and attention. I’ll take ten minutes to sit down and write a new blog post only to look up and see fifteen holes in the puzzle wall that weren’t there before.

Jigsaw enthusiasts will understand why it’s hard to keep the wall organized. When shopping for a jigsaw, it’s important to take each option down and carefully study the image on the box. Picture yourself sitting on a screened-in porch, around a fire, or at a kitchen table picking through the pieces. Picture the pieces sitting on your kitchen table for the three weeks it might take you to finish it. Decide that maybe the 24,000 piece puzzle (yes, that’s a real puzzle we sell) might be too large to complete over a weekend on the cape.

A jigsaw is a wonderful thing. It’s a constantly-evolving piece of interactive art. I think it’s a real shame that it isn’t a constant fixture in most homes. Puzzles nowadays are only found lying out in summer houses. It’s a good way to kill time when we don’t have the internet or in the rare moments of our lives when we  just sit down, take a breath, and exist. They’re a low-stress leisure activity, but they’re also surprisingly stimulating to the brain (some research suggests that solving jigsaws delays the onset of Alzheimer’s). But I’ve found it can be just as rewarding to set one up in your front hall and use the opportunity to take a second every day to place a single piece.

I am about to visit my parents for a brief stay on the coast of Nova Scotia and I will be bringing my mother a jigsaw for her birthday (don’t worry, she doesn’t have internet access right now, so she can’t read this). She’s had a New Yorker subscription since before I was born, so the moment I saw all of our jigsaws featuring vintage cover art from classic New Yorker issues, I knew I had to get her one. I can’t lie, the anticipation of arriving on the shore, setting up a puzzle on the porch, and spending a few hours of every internet-less day sitting in silence, picking out pieces, feeling the warm Canadian breeze waft up from the beach across the field is almost too much to handle—almost.

A successfully completed puzzle from the sidewalk outside.

A successfully completed puzzle from the sidewalk outside Eureka.

I’ve learned to appreciate jigsaws because of their ability to bring people together. On sunny days, we’ll set up a jigsaw on the sidewalk for folks to stop and work on while walking to their different destinations. It’s always fun to watch the first intrepid cryptographer sit down to start the puzzle and shortly thereafter see them joined by others. The puzzle-solvers (who usually don’t know each other) will sit together for ten minutes to an hour, starting in silence, handing each other pieces, united in their shared desire to escape from the stresses of life for a moment, ending with handshakes and introductions. It may seem corny or hyperbolic for me to take this communal effort as a symbol of the potential symbiosis and interconnectivity of human society, a proof that deep down we’re all trying to solve our own puzzles and it’s okay to ask for help, but the point remains that it’s rare to interact with strangers in such a familial way in a city as large as Boston. Then again, it might just be that Eureka attracts the best customers around.

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July 25, 2014 at 8:39 pm Leave a comment

David Leschinsky Interview – Pt. 1: Finding Time to Play

Trying to find time to sit down with David Leschinsky and interview him for a blog is like trying to find time to sit down with Santa Claus a week before Christmas. When he’s not on the phone with a manufacturer, planning our next On the Spot event, or downstairs attending to the myriad of responsibilities and tasks that come with owning a small business, David is inevitably working the sales floor at Eureka helping our customers find the perfect puzzle or game to fit their needs. The moment David walks in the door he is shaking hands, greeting customers, and chatting with employees about the morning’s tasks.

His enthusiasm is infectious. He’s a person that can make you feel excited about your own mind. When you have a conversation with David you’ll feel him really listening to you. When he speaks to a customer, you can sense them relax, often ending in a guided tour around the store. It’s a more thoughtful and intimate conversation than you might expect to see in a retail store. The ease and dedication is undoubtedly due in part to David’s minors in philosophy and psychology from Rutgers University, but on a more basic level, it’s due to David’s personal passion: helping people think.

Originally from Middlesex, New Jersey, David was fascinated by puzzles from an early age. Throughout his education and early career as a consultant in the application of software modeling to assist decision making, David maintained his hobby of mechanical puzzles. This passion culminated in David opening Eureka! Puzzles in 2004. Since then Eureka! has changed locations and expanded to become an integral part of the Brookline community.

When I got a chance to sit down with David for an interview, he was in the process of filing his taxes, a task on which he was “woefully behind.” I pulled up a chair in his cramped office in the basement of Eureka to ask him a few questions. The following is the first installment, a teaser if you will, of a series of interviews with David and the Eureka staff on the unique experience of working at Eureka!

J.H.: Being an owner of a puzzles and game store, what percent of your time do you spend finding new puzzles or playing puzzles and games with friends and family?

David: That’s an excellent question. Very little. One of my passions is mechanical puzzles. But I find that aside from evaluating new puzzles when they come up, I rarely get a chance to sit down and actually enjoy them. I’m part of an international group of puzzle collectors and puzzle designers. These are the folks that actually make most of the puzzles that are available worldwide. I meet up with them regularly. They had an annual meeting a couple years ago that I went to. They had a room where they had set up a puzzle competition. This room had probably one hundred or one hundred and fifty of some of the newest and most innovative designs introduced that year. I remember sitting down happily, working out a puzzle, solving it, working on the next puzzle, sitting down and spending some time with it, moving to the next puzzle. Before I knew it, I was there for three or four hours. And I realized that was the longest period of time that I had spent just sitting and enjoying the process of solving things since the last time I had been to that meeting a few years prior.

David stops outside the store to help solve a jigsaw.

David stops outside the store to help solve a jigsaw.

J.H.: Would you say that’s a catch 22 of opening a store like this, where your whole mission is to actively help people get into puzzles and expand their way of thinking, but at the same time you’ve limited your own time?

David: Unfortunately, yes. When I started this company we’d have game nights at home regularly. We’d always have a jigsaw out. We’d play games. Now there’s much less time available to do that. So I still get a chance to enjoy games and jigsaw puzzles with the family, but not as much as before I had the store.

J.H.: Do you find yourself inundated by people who constantly want you to spend time playing games and puzzles and to share your expertise?

David: Whenever I go to a family gathering, I’m always asked to either—well not so much asked, it’s more of a tremendous anticipation of what I’m going to show up with next.

J.H.: You always bring a new one.

David: I always bring something. Generally a combination of games and puzzles. And that’s where I’ll also spend time with the family, enjoying a more relaxed atmosphere.

July 11, 2014 at 6:09 pm Leave a comment

It’s Not the Destination: The Zen of the Mechanical Puzzle

At some point in people’s lives there comes a moment, at a party, in your friend’s living room, or if you’re old school, it’s at a tavern after a few tankards of mead, when someone comes up to you and hands you a jumble of metal rings and doo-dads and tells you to “try to get that piece there off this ring here.” You take the contraption in your hands, and while you’re suspicious of trickery or witchcraft you try diligently to do as they ask. But these things take time, and inevitably someone calls you onto the dance floor, or “Say Yes to the Dress” comes back on, or Beor gets into a fight with Ronald the Large and you have to unsheathe your broadsword and join the battle. In any event, the puzzle gets tossed aside.

For those who are unfamiliar, the type of puzzle you failed to solve was a mechanical puzzle: an object in which various pieces must be manipulated to complete some challenge (for example, taking a cube of multi-colored mosaic tiles and rotating each side to form uniform colors, i.e. Rubik’s cube).

I’m a patient person. If I’m presented with a problem and given time to solve it, I’m happy to work long past the point when others’ attention spans have waned. But I’m horrible under pressure. The simplest tasks, like giving change for a five dollar bill or constructing an IKEA coffee table, become insurmountable if there’s a time restraint. This is why I’ve never been excited about mechanical puzzles—until I started working at On the Spot events at Eureka.

On the Spot is a program of Eureka’s that provides entertainment for events like Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, corporate retreats, birthday parties, and even weddings. We’re most typically croupiers of a board game casino, ambling professionally from table to table assisting our savvy 13-year-old high rollers with the rules of the games and resolving disputes.

When I trained to become an On-the-Spot game leader, I was suddenly expected to apply logic and intelligence to solving a mechanical puzzle in a social setting in a limited amount of time. I felt myself getting nervous and clammy when I was handed the first puzzle and told to solve it. I fumbled awkwardly and felt pressure that might have been more suited for the task of disarming a bomb.

But this time there was one crucial difference; if I didn’t solve it within a few minutes, I was just told the answer.

We moved on to The Comet. The Comet is particularly infuriating because it is one of the rare puzzles that you can complete right in front of someone, hand it to them, and they still won’t be able to solve it. This is exactly what Rafi, our On-the-Spot coordinator did. I took the puzzle from him and it jangled in my hands in mocking metallic sounds, prepared to display my ineptitude to the world.

In the absence of expectations, however, suddenly the puzzle’s merciless mockery ceased to matter as much. As I twisted the illusive wire shape, looking for weaknesses, I found myself enjoying the challenge for the first time. I didn’t solve The Comet by myself, it’s a really hard puzzle and I had limited time, but I started to see mechanical puzzles in a new light.

The mechanical puzzle station is consistently the table that adults gravitate toward at On-the-Spot events. They’ll stand around the table while their children run from station to station, twisting metal puzzles and sipping chardonnay. Many people, it turns out, get a rush from the pressure of solving a puzzle. But the thrill of the hunt was a new experience for me, and I’ve discovered that I am of a more sadistic breed: the kind of person that enjoys solving a puzzle right in front of someone, handing it to them, and watching them suffer. But I’m enough of a gentleman to understand it’s unsportsmanlike to taunt someone for lacking skills which you yourself do not have, so I’ve had a change of heart about mechanical puzzles.

If you’re like me and have always been turned off to them, I suggest a new approach. Sit down by yourself, on a quiet night, and allow yourself to appreciate the zen of the task. Don’t pressure yourself to achieve puzzle victory; accept the fact that the puzzle is solvable and it will be solved. You may find the pieces slide apart with ease. In the moment when you solve The Comet for yourself, you may find that rather than relief from the trauma of expectation, you will experience a deeper, more satisfying feeling: the thrill of new understanding. In that moment, you won’t think to yourself, “Thank God, I solved it. Now I can be done with this stupid thing.” You will think, “Wow! I never thought to do it that way. Cool.” Don’t be surprised if it’s followed by the profound urge to solve another—which we’ll be happy to help you find. 

June 27, 2014 at 10:18 pm Leave a comment

Monopoly: The House Always Wins

I recently had the opportunity to sit down to a game of Monopoly with a few friends. Perhaps you haven’t played Monopoly in a while. Let me assure you, not much has changed.

Monopoly was not my favorite game growing up. I lacked the attention span of a junior industrialist. I was easily frustrated by trades that I deemed unfair, paranoid of conniving bankers, and, I’ll admit it, a sore loser. More often than not, I quit before the game was over. It’s amazing how quickly these playground antics return to a group of “adults” around a childhood game.

Not finishing the game seems to be fairly common with Monopoly. In fact, my roommate, returning home late at night expecting everyone to be asleep, found four of us sitting cross-legged on the floor around the board. He walked over, looked at the board and said to the person who was winning (who wasn’t me), “Man, you own pretty much the whole thing, don’t you.”

Tired and cranky, I said, “Yeah. That’s what happens at the end of Monopoly.”

To which my roommate responded, “Right, I just don’t think I’ve actually ever seen the end of a game of Monopoly.”

The phenomena of house rules (an element of the game that is added by particular families or friend groups in addition to the actual rulebook) is what many people find most frustrating about Monopoly and other classic board games. This kind of insider chicanery often results in a final-hour rage, with uninformed players screaming things like, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN THAT’S A RULE?! IT’S NOT IN THE RULEBOOK!” The most common house rule in Monopoly is the “Free Payout Variation” (yes, it has an official name), in which any money collected in taxes or fees is placed in the middle of the board and collected by whichever player lands on FREE PARKING. This addition is not only unendingly frustrating to those who don’t subscribe to it, but it has the potential to exponentially increase the length of a game.

This is by no means a condemnation of house rules. They are an element of gaming that I find particularly interesting and unique; it’s the ultimate manifestation of the kind of egalitarian, open-source spirit that’s central to the idea of playing games. But house rules are best employed in the right circumstances. As with any dictatorship, the freedom to adapt the rules of a game is easily manipulated by a smooth talker. Enter The Banker, an individual who decides who gets money and, by virtue of their implied authority (see the Stanford Prison Experiment), is often the consultant on the house rules. The person who volunteers for this role is usually responsible for everyone playing Monopoly in the first place. There are many types of bankers, ranging from the morally scrupulous arbiter of justice to the openly despotic seven-year-old embezzler. Since this was my apartment’s first foray into Monopoly as a group, our banker determined our house rules. They were the rules he’d played with as a child.

And herein lies the danger in establishing house rules. As one quickly discovers, there is a certain authority commanded by rules handed down by some absent, yet omnipresent authority, as represented in the rulebook that is rendered void when the players make the rules. When playing games, an individual’s true egoism shines through and any perceived unfairness is disturbing on an animalistic level. When the person making the new rule is present in the room, it does not matter how logical an improvement it may be on the existing rule set, it will be immediately questioned by the individual in society whom it does not serve. This is a lesson Moses luckily avoided when he hiked back down Mt. Sinai, because his ten commandments were given to him by God, an authority who (like the Hasbro Brain Trust) can hardly be questioned. It’s not surprising that Monopoly, a blatant celebration of free-market Capitalism and the accrual of wealth, runs into problems once its inherent authority is questioned. The banker may think they are the Supreme Being, but if they step on too many toes, there will be swift mutiny—or flipping of the game board.

Toward the end of our game, my roommate and I were the only two players left standing. I rolled the dice and landed on Boardwalk—the same Boardwalk that was controlled by my roommate and had a shiny, red hotel on it. I forked over the $2000 and lost all hope of winning.

It was late, and I had an early shift at Eureka the next day. I turned to her, resigned, and muttered, “I hate to be a bummer, but I concede. You’ve already won.”

“That’s fine,” she said, a smirk fully planted on her face. We packed the game away so I could get to bed.

When we take the metaphor of Monopoly to its logical conclusion, there is something unnerving about the perpetual, unfinished game. I am reminded of the wise words of T.S. Elliot.

This is the way Monopoly ends

This is the way Monopoly ends

This is the way Monopoly ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Yet, we keep coming back. And that’s because as frustrating as Monopoly may be, it appeals to our spirit as Americans. The Fourth of July is coming up, and I like to think that while other elements of modern American culture would disturb our founding fathers, Monopoly is a pastime they would find particularly gratifying (I think Ben Franklin in particular would get really into it). It’s the frustration and turns of luck that make Monopoly an effective teaching tool. One should never give up when all seems lost, in the hope that the next turn might yield enough capital to unmortgage properties. After all, there’s always the chance you’ll land on FREE PARKING.

June 20, 2014 at 6:53 pm Leave a comment

The Power of Board Games

When the last child leaves for college, most parents consider getting a pet, traveling, or having another child. My mom and dad played backgammon every day after I moved to college. My parents had replaced me with a board game. They’d tell me about the crazy battles they had after dinner, who had won, and what their strategy was for the next game. The backgammon war ended after they surreptitiously purchased a stack of strategy books and started staying up half the night, one on either side of the bed, improving their own game. My mother eventually refused to play with my father. She grew so frustrated with his knack for strategy, which she insisted was blind luck, that she would end up throwing the pieces across the room and tearing at her own hair (though my mother is normally a fairly low-key, even-tempered person, none of this is an exaggeration).  

My first blog post for Father’s Day has me reminiscing about how board games, card games, and puzzles have made me closer with both of my parents. It’s not an experience that everyone grows up with; some families are “game families,” some aren’t (it is never too late to start, by the way). But I count myself lucky having spent hours with my parents playing Scrabble (if it was my mother’s turn to pick), Hearts (if it was my father’s), Gin Rummy (if it was mine), and Mexican Train dominoes (if a consensus could not be reached). But in hindsight, it wasn’t the content of the game that mattered most.

The feeling you get from playing a game with those you love is different for everyone. For me, it’s a mix of nostalgia and surrender; you’re engaging in an activity that is recognized by all the players as low-stakes rest and relaxation, barring the heated arguments over whether “mm” is a word. In my experience, it’s those arguments that I remember most fondly. I suspect that this was the case with my parents’ year of backgammon as well. Since both of them were recently retired and were finally spared my ill-advised teenage antics, that first year was just as much of a transition period for them as it was for me.

Now when I return home, I’ve found playing games is the best way to reconnect with my parents. Sitting down and playing a game helps us reacquaint ourselves with each other in a way that ordinary conversation can’t. Stepping through the doorframe of my parents’ new house after they’d just sold my childhood home, I felt like I’d suddenly become a different person, a stranger in my own house, a person who might be expected to pick up checks or discuss politics. It was only after sitting down to a card game with my parents and seeing old rivalries ignited that I discovered time had passed, but little had changed.

If you’re looking to rekindle an old tradition with your dad or start a new one, a board game has the potential to unlock aspects of your relationship that you haven’t accessed in years. For Father’s Day last year, I took my Dad to my favorite bar in Boston, and I picked up the check. Now, when I return home, I play backgammon with him—because no one else will.

June 13, 2014 at 5:55 pm Leave a comment

Exclusive Preorders for Forbidden Desert with Eureka!

Three years ago, local game company Gamewright released the hit cooperative game Forbidden Island, where players work together to collect four treasures from a sinking island and escape via helicopter, while the board they’re playing on disappears beneath them. From the get-go, Forbidden Island has been one of our best-sellers, and a consistent hit at our game nights, game camps and events.

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Now, Gamewright is about to release the much-anticipated sequel, Forbidden Desert! In this new stand-alone game, players will cooperate to escape the desert by building an airship out of components hidden under the sand. Forbidden Desert takes the hostile-board theme of its predecessor, and gives it a challenging twist: periodic sandstorms shift the pieces of the board around, sometimes carrying characters or important components along, while accumulating sand buries areas ever deeper, and the hot sun bears down on the thirsty players…

Like Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert was created by Matt Leacock, who is best known for Pandemic, a game about medical personnel traveling the world to discover vaccines for three massive viral outbreaks before they consume the planet. Pandemic, a somewhat more complex game marketed for strategy game players, has established itself as America’s best-selling cooperative board game. His designing prowess once again shines in Forbidden Desert, as he puts forward a game simple enough for kids as young as 8 to pick up, yet layered and challenging enough for veteran strategy gamers to puzzle over!

If you are one of the many fans of Forbidden Island, or looking for a great new family strategy game to test your mettle, then we have great news – Eureka has partnered with Gamewright to offer exclusive preorders of Forbidden Desert! You can order the game on our website, or through our Amazon account, and we will ship it to you – or hold it for you in the store – as soon as it hits stores later this month!

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And while you’re at it, you can also preorder Cube Quest, another great forthcoming Gamewright title that mixes strategy with dexterity as you launch cubes across the field of battle! Your army of cubes is made of many different soldiers, all with unique abilities, so you’ll have to think carefully before taking your shot. Knock out your opponent’s king and your name will become legend! Preorders of Cube Quest are also available on our website or Amazon.

May 9, 2013 at 5:27 pm Leave a comment

Incredible New Puzzle Brought in From England

For all the veteran puzzlers out there, or anyone looking for a gift to stump the brainiac in the family, Eureka has just brought in an ingenious new mechanical puzzle from Ashton Pitt, Ltd. in England. In the classic genre of maze puzzles, which require puzzlers to complete a mechanical maze to unlock a puzzle, the Revomaze adds a twist that completely upturns the concept.

The Revomaze Obsession

In the Revomaze, the maze itself is completely invisible to the solver, hidden inside the puzzle’s shell! Players will have to use tactile clues, memory and deduction to decipher all the twists and turns of the concealed maze, avoiding traps that lock the mechanism in place and force you to start over from the beginning. Available in standard plastic or stylish metal designs, and a series of increasing difficulty levels, the Revomaze offers incredible variety for those who become addicted to its deductive style of play and smooth, intricate mechanism.

Three Revomazes from the Extreme V2 Series

The Revomaze presents a considerable challenge even to big puzzle fans – but thanks to the ability to make continuous progress and work your way a little farther through the maze with each attempt, it’s addictive even for more casual players who like a challenge! Best of all, when you finally solve the Revomaze, you can see the maze etched into the unlocked mechanism, confirming everything you’ve deduced about its layout – an exciting payoff! The Revomaze is one of the most unique and attention-grabbing new puzzles we’ve brought in – and Eureka is one of the first stores in the U.S. to carry it. If you or someone you know loves mechanical puzzles, this is a series you should not miss!

July 27, 2012 at 7:27 pm Leave a comment

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