Mike Selinker is a legend in the worlds of puzzles and games. He’s worked on countless games, including Pirates of the Spanish Main, Lords of Vegas, and the revised edition of Axis & Allies. He was a creative director at Wizards of the Coast when they released Dungeons & Dragons 3E. He’s also one of the main contributors to Wired’s own Decode department.
On top of all that, he and his crew at Lone Shark Games — the company he founded with game designer James Ernest of Cheapass Games fame — run puzzle events at many major gaming conventions every year, including Gen Con, Origins, and PAX. These have delighted thousands of puzzle hunters for close to twenty years.
Mike’s also competitive as can be. He likes to play, and when he plays, he prefers to win. This past weekend, I put out a coupon for a free copy of my latest ebook omnibus on Twitter, and Mike snapped it up and spiked it home before anyone else. And he already has the books. He did it just to win! (And then apologized afterward and practically dared me to mention it in this interview. So there.)
He’s also one of the funniest people I know. Chatting with him and James can leave me gasping for breath from laughing too much in minutes.
Mike recently decided to take all that talent, cleverness, and drive to create his first Kickstarter for a unique puzzle novel called The Maze of Games, illustrated by the incredible Pete Venters. He sweated over it for weeks, tried to make sure he thought of everything for it — he even designed puzzles for the Kickstarter page — and then hit the launch button. It funded in mere hours and still has well over a month to go in the drive.
If you like puzzles and intriguing stories, you need this book. It features puzzles on every two-page spread, and you have to solve each one before you can move on to the next. And you can’t skip any of them because the pages are out of order.
As a bonus, he’s lined up a number of other puzzlemasters to help out with the stretch goals — including luminaries like Ken Jennings, Thomas Snyder, and Eric Harshbarger — and the rewards are only getting better from here. I interviewed Mike about the book.
Forbeck: Lone Shark Games has worked on dozens of projects, but it’s never published anything before. Why not? What is it about The Maze of Games that made you pick it as your first book to make?
Selinker: This book is something I’ve had bouncing around in my computer in one form or another for 18 years. It’s in a style — a “solve your own adventure,” where the pages need to be put into the right order by solving the puzzles — that no one else has written. My brain’s been holding a cool set of characters — a pair of kids from 1897 England, and the mysterious skeletal guardian called the Gatekeeper, who takes them on a journey through a maze of madcap creatures — for almost two decades. Eventually, I stopped begging other people to publish it, and bit the bullet.
For all intents and purposes, this was not a book that mainstream publishers believed they could sell. Like I was in some sort of alt-universe Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial, they would say “you got puzzles in my novel!” or “you got novel in my puzzles!” I even heard one publisher tell me he’d be lucky to sell 100 copies. Except that with the rise of Kickstarter, and the proliferation of puzzles on the web, I figured that publisher might be wrong. Since I sold 100 copies in ten minutes, I was able to stop myself from sending that publisher a smirky email — so far, anyway.
Forbeck: You’ve already racked up over $80,000 dollars for this project. That’s over five times what you were originally asking for. What are you going to do with all that extra money?
Selinker: Look, it’s not about the money; it’s about making the most people happy. I was hoping that 1,000 people might want a copy, and now they’ve signed up for that in a week, which is awesome. Knowing that I can now pay my talented colleagues — legendary Magic artist Pete Venters, for one — the amount they deserve, rather than just enough to get this thing off the ground, makes me very happy. Even if I don’t end up with much money myself, I will have the best team possible making the best puzzle book they can.
After all, I’m publishing this book in an age I didn’t even dream about when I first came up with the idea. Now I can add more content for the backers, more illustrations, and more interesting puzzle forms, like the solvable ebook version from Puzzazz that will be like no other novel you’ve ever seen.
Forbeck: You still have more than a month left in the drive. Do you have any upcoming stretch goals you can share with us?
Selinker: Ah, we are … working on it. Really, the Conundrucopia — a series of puzzles by the best puzzlemakers in the world, in a special section designed to look like it’s from 1897 — was planned to roll out as a series of stretch goals over the entire month and a half of the campaign. Right away, I started putting those up, and then bang! Over half of my intended puzzle contributors were snapped up in a couple days. Wish I had planned that a little better.
For now, we intend to improve the physical experience of the book. Readers of the hardcover version will be given a special bookmark, and like the ebook, it won’t just sit there. Using it like a guide to mark where you are in the maze as you flip around, it will both help you and confound you. I have a lot of other ideas, and my teammates do too. Thankfully, we have a little time to get them out there.
Forbeck: What is it about puzzles that you love so much, because you clearly do?
Selinker: For my entire life, I’ve been challenged by my parents to solve things. Larry Selinker, my dad, is a world-famous linguist, and Phyllis Selinker, my mom, is an attorney specializing in pro bono services. I think that combination — love of the properties of words, respect for the effects of rules — made a game and puzzle designer out of me. Each day, I see the world in ways that most people don’t. Show me a sign for the local Dash Point Road, and I’ll figure out what Morse code I can make out of it.
Lately, I’ve been trying to share that love of puzzles with the world. In a couple months, I’m putting out a book with my coauthor Thomas “Dr. Sudoku” Snyder called Puzzlecraft: The Ultimate Guide on How to Construct Every Kind of Puzzle, so that people can learn how to do what I do. Keep in mind, though, that once you turn on the puzzle switch in your brain, it doesn’t turn off. Every day I’m puzzling.
Forbeck: Have you ever made a puzzle so fiendishly clever that even you couldn’t solve it?
Selinker: Absolutely … but not the one I embedded in this interview.
Disclaimer: I’ve known Mike for years, and I’m backing this Kickstarter drive too. But I’d do that even if he wasn’t my friend. It’s that cool.