Getting Things Straight From the Creator of the Str8ts Puzzle

Published Mar 13, 2024

Jeff Widderich of Syndicated Puzzles
Jeff Widderich of Syndicated Puzzles
Jeff Widderich of Syndicated Puzzles

Hi! Can you tell us who you are and about your work?

Hey everyone! I’m Jeff Widderich, the President of Syndicated Puzzles, where we’ve been publishing and creating mind-boggling puzzles for more than ten years! I am an architect and designer by trade, and I use the skills I’ve accumulated over decades of experience to create things that fall under my specialty—3D spatial perspectives. Many games and puzzles are under Syndicated Puzzles, but some of our own creations are Str8ts, 1 to 25 and Letterlicious.

Our games look similar to the classic games you know, like Sudoku, Word Search and Crosswords, but our unique games are of their own and have different rules and twists to them! If you’re looking for something like Sudoku but need something fresh, then Str8ts is what you need. For word puzzle enthusiasts, Letterlicious is the perfect blend between Word Search and Crosswords.

How did you end up creating puzzles?

First off, I’m going to give it straight to you all. Up to this date, I have never made a Str8ts puzzle. Ever. I’ve never made a puzzle completely nor have I created one by using pen and paper. I just gave Andrew Stuart, my partner, the parameters that needed to be met and he made it so in a way that I wasn’t going to waste my time making one because it’s tough to make a puzzle by hand.

When I created Str8ts, it was during the time when everyone was looking for the next Sudoku substitute. The Sudoku variants didn’t interest me, so I was set on coming up with something completely new. So I took a piece of paper and wrote down all the things that could possibly make a puzzle; addition, subtraction and all that. And when I was starting to write down what would become Str8ts, it took me about four or five minutes to figure it out and I then overlaid it on top of a nine-by-nine grid.

The only thing that was left to do was to add the black squares with white numbers. Without those black squares with the white numbers, which eliminate a number, the puzzle didn’t interest me. It was the spatial challenge of having the black cell with the white number that would break up the puzzle in such a way that you could make it more interesting.

After that, I had to find someone who could fill in with the abilities I lacked, and that’s when I found Andrew. He has dedicated his whole life to Sudoku and he said straight away that he was in and wanted to do it right. And after that, Str8ts was born and afterwards, the rest of our puzzles.

So Str8ts was your first puzzle?

Yes, Str8ts is our first official collaboration and creation together. When I reached out to Andrew, he was already known in the Sudoku community, and he’s ripped Sudoku apart so many times and learned it from the inside out. He was doing Sudoku at the beginning for some of the large newspaper names, and it was his job to make Sudoku puzzles interesting, and he was really good at it. There’s an art to handcrafted puzzles, and you’d be able to notice the distinction between a created one and a generated one from the internet. Generated puzzles are bland and artificial, while handcrafted ones have that distinct flair to them. And to make a good puzzle is to be a good reverse engineer.

And when I created the concept of Str8ts, Andrew handled the technical work involved. Together, we created the Str8ts that you know of now.

How did you end up knowing that you were passionate about creation and games?

I didn’t know from the get-go, that’s for sure. I had an art company in Toronto, and back then, I was doing historical art like Da Vinci’s works, Mona Lisa and stuff like that. And I was carving all these famous pieces so that people could collect them. The art company would be integral to how I got into the game industry as a whole.

After that, I started on a board game project I called Card Chess. Then I made chess pieces, from the king, queen and down to the pawn. I cut out a piece of sheet metal, rotated the pieces, cut them in half and made the playing cards for the board game. Card Chess was basically playing Chess with cards, and I had a huge advantage. I could illustrate the board like a historical piece and the board in itself was spectacular. So I made the box, carved the pieces that would go into the box, photographed everything and that’s how I ended up knowing I was passionate about this stuff and ended up becoming a part of the game industry.

Creating other games

I also created another game called Pompeii: The Last 37 Minutes, and what I did was that I built this huge model and set it on fire! We had a charcoal barbeque going and we put all the coal on top of the model and then set it ablaze. Then the photographer took a picture of Pompeii with all the houses and everything from above. After the pictures were taken, we had the necessary stuff to create our unique cards for Pompeii: The Last 37 Minutes. All of this was an advantage from my perspective, as I was able to create something very eye-catching and realistic, and that would make my creations stand out from the rest.

Aside from that, I also had a very memorable event to share. I was at the toy fair in Nuremberg and I met this Chinese guy, and he was a magician with plastic. He could make so much stuff out of plastic that it was downright unbelievable. He even had a car that didn’t have tires, it was a remote-controlled flying car. I was so dumbfounded by his ability that I said to him, “Anthony, what the hell are you doing at this show? Go to General Motors or somewhere else and show this car to them!”

And afterward, Anthony would end up making all my games out of plastic for me. It was insane what this guy could do! I came up with another game called Mouse Chaos, and it was a three-dimensional game with chairs, walls, little mouse holes and the dice were cheese. The objective of Mouse Chaos was to get the four mice into your nest. You lift up a cheese container and there was a number underneath it, and that was the dice and was a very unique way of moving your pieces around.

I showed up with that game in Essen, Germany, and that was a place where you could find game collectors. And from what I understand, there were 6000 game collectors at the time there, and they didn’t care whatever game you had as long as it was visually appealing. So we were selling Mouse Chaos to these collectors, and it was such a crazy game that they hadn’t seen anything like it. Most games ranged between 12 to 16 inches, but Mouse Chaos was around 28 inches and all the visual pieces were very striking. And we really did well in that game! We made around 10,000 of them and sold them all.

I also ended up creating a superstar of a board game called Crossword Pyramids, and it was very interesting in particular as it had created a big stir, especially with the guys from the Game of the Year in Germany. They invited me to their party, and they said I had to take six games of Mouse Chaos and six games of Crossword Pyramids. When I got there and started interacting with the people, the whole place was playing those 12 games! There were 80 other games in the place, but all of them were playing these games. So it felt great seeing all these Germans playing these two very visual games, and the ones who were judging games had very specific criteria for evaluating these games. The games, to be chosen as candidates, had to be family-oriented, had to be of value product-wise, educational and all those other standards.

Why were you focused on Germany in particular?

Germany is such a big market for the games we created, and to be honest, I have no idea how or why, but I’m fluent in German. I went to high school in Germany and I always tend to forget that I was able to learn German. I focus on Germany as a game market and speak fluent Deutsche, but I don’t really think of myself as a German. I’m more Canadian, see. So going to all those shows in Germany was fantastic because I could listen to what they were saying and know what they felt but they didn’t know that I was fluent in German. It was really cool, having a secret weapon in the form of a second language.

Between board games and sheet puzzles, which is more complex for you?

Straight off the bat, I’m going to say both have their share of complex problems. The board game industry is very tough, as we didn’t have Kickstarter back in the day. Like, if I had Kickstarter in those days, I assure you I would have done so well! But we didn’t have it, so we had to go to a lot of events and places, like trade fairs in New York, Toronto, Germany and Italy, it was really hard work. You really had to hustle just to get people interested, and even more to sell your stuff, and I tell you, it was a real undertaking to sell 10,000 games.

What made you want to create something that would compete with Sudoku?

As I said earlier, I want to create something unique and different. My thought process is different from those who would enjoy playing Sudoku. With Str8ts, there’s an element of unpredictability and discovery that keeps it fresh in my mind and to those who enjoy playing it. Games that have something different and creative to offer while feeling familiar are what make people want more. I myself have done 50 Str8ts puzzles myself and I’d end up saying, “Are you kidding me? This is how I’m getting a number!”, and it’s interesting that there’s like more than 200 oddities that allow you to find a number in that game.

Sudoku is very structured, on the other hand. Nothing wrong with that, nor the people who enjoy it. People who love Sudoku are often as structured and organized as the puzzle itself, and it gives them that sense of familiarity and comfort. For them, seeing something that speaks to them instinctively is like drinking a cup of coffee. They’d be like, “Oh nice! I can get through this puzzle through my systematic problem-solving skills!” And I’m not like that. Nothing wrong with being a systematic person, but that’s just not me, nor is it my concept of fun. Andrew loves Sudoku, and he’s a very systematic person, and that’s the way he seduces the numbers in a way that he feels so comfortable with.

How did Syndicated Puzzles come to be?

Back then, I had a big setup in the Mac and iOS Store. I had a company with a couple of guys in India that were making apps and together we created around a hundred apps. One of the developers we had, Raj, was a very, very talented guy, and we collaborated on many projects and that was parallel with Syndicated Puzzles because we needed that before our time in Dragon’s Den.

Can you tell me about your time in Dragon’s Den?

Well, when we showed up in Dragon’s Den, it was interesting because the problem during our episode was that I didn’t need any help! When I was there, I told them that we needed a computer to run this business, and they asked why did we need their assistance. Then they asked me to go for a walk with this guy, and I was like, “Why do I need to go on a walk with this guy and in these tunnels?” And I figured out later that they wanted me to be tired.

Afterward, on the show, I basically had four investors out of five, and it was $150,000. They kept raising the price, but I was only there for $50,000, but they kept doing more. At one point it was 100, then they’d go, “No, no, we’ll do 150!”, and it was just a really funny and interesting experience. Four dragons were trying to secure a deal with you, and they were all angry and cursing at each other. I was just there in plain view, dumbstruck and shaking my head internally, while these four dragons had one of their most aggressive episodes to date.

So in the end, I settled with the final offer with three dragons and 50 grand each. I had to give up 10% on a royalty arrangement and then that was it.

When I got back home, I got like 10,000 emails that night and so many people wanted to invest. And the exposure we got from Dragon’s Den was ginormous, it was really crazy and all the time I thought, “How many people watch this show, really?!” As for the dragons themselves, they just dragged their feet forever, and one of the big guys there promised to get me into the Toronto newspapers but didn’t work out as well. They were so busy that they couldn’t be bothered to follow up on the projects they were shown, and they’d just send you underlings that would try to help you, but it wasn’t that great as you didn’t get the attention you were hoping for.

It also really bothered them that we were a business that didn’t need much of anything; no warehouses, offices, nothing! Just a computer and an internet connection and we were set, but they really couldn’t grasp it that well. So instead, we ended up getting some investment from some private people out of Manitoba, Canada, and they helped us out a lot!

With that in mind, how do you think timing and trends played a role in your career?

Alright, let’s say I invented Str8ts in 1974. Around that time, newspapers would’ve been very powerful in terms of, you know, everything! Everyone was buying newspapers every day for information and all their day-to-day activities. If Str8ts had been created and published at that time, a lot of people would be playing it in print form. Str8ts came after Sudoku, and Sudoku was also significantly popularized by newspapers.

Nowadays, newspapers are basically outdated, with the most popular names adapting to modern technology and digital trends. And so with Str8ts, it became an online thing but it’s also available for print media and such. So yes, timing is very important, especially with a game-related career.

Another thing is, if Kickstarter was a thing during my time and online stuff was more prevalent back then, then as a game designer and board game maker, you bet I’d be heavily involved in it! When I was focused on board games, the common way was to attend fairs and basically network the hard way. Information was also not as accessible as before, so people who had new ideas tended to explode in a very good way if they knew what was going on in the market. But now, whoever has the strongest social media presence and getting their name out there garnered the most interest and profit, so in both new and old, networking is crucial, it just changed in what medium it was most effective on.

If you were to build something new today for modern times, what would it be?

I would zombies. Sure, zombies at the moment aren’t as popular as they were before, but it’s always going to be relevant and interesting in the game industry, so I think you can’t go wrong with working on something zombie-focused. Like, we thought we had it with Str8ts, and we were confident that it could stand toe-to-toe with Sudoku in the newspapers. But the thing we couldn’t get past was the newspaper editors. The newspaper bosses would say they’re in and let’s do it, but the editors would bar it and say that it was terrible and can’t publish it.

Then I’d make a rebuttal that Str8ts has been running for over ten years in one of Germany’s biggest newspapers, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and the Germans are the toughest critics in the game industry. Everybody knows how they are with work, strict and meticulous, from their cars to their games. So it was no question that they knew what they were doing and that they were very, very tough to please. So if Str8ts has lasted more than ten years in one of the most well-known newspapers in Germany, then it can’t be that bad. Heck, we even had an elderly German couple fighting over playing the Str8ts puzzles on the Süddeutsche Zeitung and called the editor about it!

How do you monetize Syndicated Puzzles?

Our primary source of income is our relationship with the German market, and our presence there is our stronghold. We have book sales, and we do have online players in many places that make us around $10 a day. We also have people buying print puzzles off of us like how we would supply newspapers. Andrew’s so organized that he basically has a basket for them to pick out which kinds of puzzles they want.

Frankly, it’s a very self-maintaining business and this is what, I think, really puzzled the Dragon’s Den investors. It’s just a shame that Str8ts didn’t blow up like we hoped it would, and I think the biggest factor for it not being as widely known around the world as it is in Germany is because of newspapers and firms having a chokehold on the Sudoku industry.

Why do you feel that Sudoku has a monopoly in its genre?

We’ve been doing this for more than ten years now, and not a single larger newspaper, aside from those that are within Germany, would call us up and have Str8ts in their newspaper. Never did we ever get any strong traction from big papers, and we’re really disappointed and flabbergasted by it all.

In other industries, like car manufacturing or toy making, there are big names but there is a semblance of variety and freedom to it. But in the number puzzle industry, I don’t care what anyone says, but there it’s a bottleneck. There is little opportunity to exercise creative freedom in the genre because everyone’s shuffled into what’s expected of it, with Sudoku being at the forefront. It’s a struggle to emerge well into the number puzzle industry, and the struggle is very, very real.

You’d be able to notice that in many bookstores, the shelves for Sudokus and number puzzles are getting smaller and smaller. And you know why? It’s because people are getting tired of the same old Sudoku or Sudoku variant, with these companies just keeping on regurgitating the same systematic content over and over again. Game designers and everyone involved don’t put out anything that will keep the enthusiasm going, and the publishers are just outright blocking fresh ideas and creativity in general.

All these companies and publishers are asking for the next Sudoku, but they’re the ones stopping all these good puzzles like Str8ts, KenKen and others from taking the top spot. It’s like they’re afraid of change, even. So I think until this monopoly in this industry is broken, no good number puzzle will become truly widespread as Sudoku.

Is there any advice you’d like to offer budding game designers?

I’d offer it with pleasure. With all my experience and going through everything I’ve done, here are some things I’d like to share:

1. Poke holes in your own design and learn

Take a piece of paper and go through the steps and make your flow charts. Make a pathway for yourself then re-check it. Keep going back and forth, even if you have to make little sketches in between the stages. Most of the time, what I see that is missing in many game designs, is missing the obvious.

What happens in real life?

What happens when I add one component?

What happens if I take away this component?

I’ve helped a lot of people create their designs and passions, and I always end up spotting one little thing that drives me crazy, and I’d be like, “How could you miss that?” Make the game make sense and enjoyable and not just difficult for the sake of creating a puzzle. Because, really, it’s hard enough to sell a good game or puzzle. What more for mediocre games that aren’t fun at all?

2. Think outside the box

As I said, I’m not a systematic type of guy. I don’t like being confined by what’s expected and I like to think of things from a spatial perspective. Try to see things in a different manner and then tackle whatever it is you’re struggling with or working towards. You’d be very surprised at the results you’d get.

Do you play any games in particular?

I’m actually not a game player. I create and design puzzles, yes, but I don’t really play games. My real enjoyment is seeing the spatial parts of a game more than the game itself. So I get very interested in games that are well thought out and very organized in a way that my brain can understand them. See, I don’t have any number abilities, nor am I a math or computer science guy. All I know is that I see things in a three-dimensional plane, and seeing games that tick the boxes for me is what makes me happy. And in that regard, puzzles are the games that hit the right notes for me.

Where can we learn more about you and your projects?

For me, it’s and Andrew is All our games are subcategorized, so you can play 1 to 25 or Letterlicious or Str8ts or anything you can find within our sites. Andrew just added a new word puzzle player: Codewords, so do give that a try as well! And if you want some constructive feedback on a puzzle you’re working on, you can reach out to me and let’s see what we can do!

Have a game to sell?

Let’s find out if we play well together.