Puzzles So Cool They’re Inspiring Corporate Espionage
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this company’s addictive puzzles are selling like hot cakes.
All puzzles are not created equal.
The best puzzles, in our own humble opinion, are a certain brand of laser-cut wooden puzzles that look nothing like your traditional four-sided cardboard pieces with loops. Instead, Liberty Puzzles’ puzzling puzzle pieces (see what I did there?) hook together unpredictably; sometimes neighbor pieces don’t even link up without a third linchpin piece to tie them all together. And 15 to 20 percent of the pieces in each puzzle are so-called whimsy pieces, in shapes of animals, people or geometric shapes, generally themed to the puzzled image. Like if it’s a painting of a beach, you might have some sea creatures or a swimmer. We’ve seen wolves, skiers, dancers, snowflakes … you name it. And they come in all sorts of designs, including a psychedelic fox and the San Francisco skyline, with 600-plus choices in total.
There are two main ways to make a wooden puzzle, by hand with a saw or using a computer with lasers or water jets, says Anne Williams, a former economics professor at Bates College and the foremost puzzle historian in the U.S. Laser-cut wooden puzzles, like Liberty’s, take around five or 10 minutes to make for a 500-piece puzzle. A hand-cut puzzle, unsurprisingly, takes several hours. One potential downside? Laser-cut pieces tend to fit together a tad loosely, which adds an element of frustration or challenge, depending on your puzzling style.
For Williams, there’s something to the shapes and weight of Liberty’s wooden pieces. ”To me, it’s a sensory, tactile kind of thing,” Williams says. They have a bit of a heft to them. Plus, when you snap the pieces together they make a little clicking noise — weirdly satisfying. And if you drop a piece on the floor you hear it. The flimsy cardboard kind just float silently to the ground never to be found again.
These pricey puzzles range from $85 to $425, compared with around $15 or $20 for a 500- or 1,000-piece cardboard version, but are worth every penny. The truly obsessed can even join the yearlong puzzle club for $1,200. It’s kind of like the Equinox of puzzling.
Chris Wirth started Liberty Puzzles just over a decade ago as a sort of homage to his childhood and to the original wooden puzzles of the 1930s. Wirth is just 48, but he grew up piecing together his mom’s old Falls Puzzles collection of 30 hand-cut wooden puzzles. His family started taking them on vacations and pretty soon they couldn’t travel without one. Or a few. Puzzles, he says, are a social vehicle that bring people together for long periods of time to sit and talk. “It’s a decidedly nondigital experience,” says Wirth. And one we could all use a little more of.
That’s exactly the appeal behind puzzles. People want an activity that’s engaging and doesn’t involve a screen. But if you do interact with the company’s online store, be prepared: The website is retro too — and not in a good way. Even still, Liberty’s sales back up the idea that puzzles are popular again. Liberty has grown considerably every year since it opened up shop. Lately, though, its puzzles have been so popular it’s “overwhelming,” says Wirth. But when we asked him how many puzzles the company sells each year, he declined to reveal anything. “We’ve been the victim of corporate espionage,” he says. Like people scouting out its Boulder, Colorado factory operations and stealing precious information. Who knew puzzle intelligence operatives were a thing?
What we do know is that the last time Liberty reopened after two weeks of vacation it had more than 1,000 orders to fill. At an average of about $150 a pop, that math suggests Liberty Puzzles isn’t shy on profits. That might just explain why its copy cat competitors are so sneaky and ruthless.