This column begins with a disclaimer. Yes, 5 A.M. GAMING is ostensibly a video game column, but occasionally we’ll take excursions into board and card games, and other forms of digital game-like entertainment. Why? Well, I’m kind of bony and oddly shaped and don’t fit so nicely into boxes, so my entertainment doesn’t either. Maybe you’re a bit like me and that’s why you are here. Maybe not, and that’s okay too.
As I’ve mentioned before, as the parent of a rambunctious three-and-a-half-year-old, when it comes to winding down after a day of temper tantrums, food all over the couch, and toys strewn from one end of our in-no-way-spacious Toronto apartment to the other, relaxation is the name of you’ve-run-me-ragged game and sometimes it takes the form of fiction, or floating in space, or lately, well, puzzles. I don’t mean puzzle games or in-game puzzles, though no doubt much could be said on either topic, I’m talking about good, old-fashioned jigsaw puzzles – or perhaps not so old-fashioned when done like this.
Like many people, I loved puzzles as a kid, but at some point I stopped doing them. Likely because I became a teenager, got a life, a guitar and a sweet computer, and never looked back. Decades passed. But in the last year puzzles have landed back in my life big-time, first in the form of the 24- to 48-piece traditional ones I do with my daughter, who is also a puzzle fiend, and second, in the contents of our bi-monthly Firefly Loot Crate, which has twice now included 3-D foam-core ships (hello Serenity!). My daughter’s puzzles conjured up the nostalgia, but it was the spaceships in all their nerdy glory that got me hooked all over again.
But I was still not about to go out and buy a puzzle. Why? Because puzzles have almost zero replay value. I don’t know about you, but once I’ve built that 1000-piece monstrosity, am I really going to break it apart and start all over again? Probably not. I’d rather declare it conquered and move on.
Then I discovered something brilliant: tablet puzzle apps. I can think of few tabletop pursuits that make as seamless a jump to (full-size) tablets as puzzles. Sure, you have to give up the tactile nature of turning the little cardboard pieces with your fingers, but instead you get to have hundreds of puzzles contained in a single iPad, as opposed the multiple real-life closets that would be needed to store that many boxes. Better still, most puzzle apps are supported by ads (unless you want to pay to remove them), so you can get your turning, matching, slipping, fitting fix entirely for free if you so desire.
Let’s take a look at two competing iPad apps, Jigsaw HD and Magic Jigsaw Puzzles. Both offer daily free puzzles, in-progress tabs that keep track of which puzzles you’ve started, and new packs to purchase (if you can’t get your fill with the dailies). Jigsaw HD‘s puzzles top out at 440 pieces (and offer a timer, for those who fancy themselves speed demons), while Magic Jigsaw Puzzles offers puzzles up to 550 pieces and some fun pop culture packs (Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Grumpy Cat, Hotel Transylvania, etc), which are great if you are sharing the app with the youngsters in your house.
Ultimately, though, with puzzle apps it comes down to selection and interface, and though Jigsaw HD has seen great improvements to its look and feel, Magic Jigsaw Puzzles still dominates in both departments. That said, Magic Jigsaw Puzzles ads are hell on older iPads (crashes, freezes, they be coming for you), but for $8 (the price of roughly one old-school store-bought puzzle), you can nix the ads and the crashes and get a bunch of extras to boot. Best of all, it frees up an additional row of sorting space for puzzle pieces where the ads used to be.
Going digital doesn’t always improve things (see: books we buy but don’t actually own), but in the case of puzzles, they seem practically tailor-made for it.