Formats Unpacked: Cracking the Cryptic

How a YouTube format turned a solo endeavour into a shared experience

Hi All,

I’m always keen to get a broad range of formats, across a wide range of media, covered in Formats Unpacked. I’d like to know more about games and puzzle-related formats, but I’m not a big player. Thankfully, I know someone who is.

Rob Mansfield is a regular here. He has a great newsletter you all should subscribe to. Rob has previously unpacked Fighting Fantasy, Big Brother and the Guardian’s Pass Notes. Today he’s unpacking an unlikely viral format that Storythings founder Matt Locke was obsessing over during lockdown. Perhaps many of you were too.

Over to Rob…

What’s it called? 

Cracking the Cryptic (YouTube channel)

What’s the format? 

An ongoing series of vlogs explaining how to solve classic sudoku puzzles, intriguing variants, cryptic crosswords and more. The vlogs are hosted by master solvers Mark Goodliffe and Simon Anthony, and there’s a new video practically every day to watch.

What’s the magic that makes it special? 

When I was growing up, puzzles always fascinated me. They appealed to my inner nerd. I loved word searches, crosswords, codewords. You name it, I devoured it. 

With that knowledge, it may not surprise you to hear that one of my early jobs was working for a puzzle magazine company. I was even editor of Logic Problems magazine for about a year.

But the thing about most puzzles is that they’ve always tended to be a solo pursuit. They’ve not really been something you can share with someone else – after all, most people see them as a personal challenge for their own brain. 

And explaining the solution of a puzzle to someone has always felt a bit like someone trying to explain the punchline to a joke you don’t understand. Revealing, but not very fulfilling. 

So you wouldn’t assume that watching people ‘live solve’ super-hard sudoku puzzles is a particularly riveting spectator sport.

And yet – in the same way that watching professional gamers on Twitch has taken off over the past 10 years – in just two years, Cracking The Cryptic has pulled in more than 400k subscribers. 

It helps that Simon, in particular, is remarkably genial. It’s actually highly possible that you’ve already watched (or at least knew about) one Cracking The Cryptic vlog before. In May 2020 – during the first UK lockdown – one of Simon’s videos solving a particularly clever sudoku puzzle went viral.

But the true magic of Cracking The Cryptic doesn’t come from the hosts. It comes from something far more simple – turning what was previously a solo endeavour into a shared experience.  

In the same way that we can watch a top gamer try out League of Legends or Grand Theft Auto on Twitch – reaching levels and scores that we could never achieve ourselves – so Cracking The Cryptic allows puzzle enthusiasts the chance to see experts tackle genuinely head-scratching challenges, and understand their workings at the same time. 

And, just to enhance things further, there’s a free ‘playalong’ Cracking The Cryptic app into which they load each of the puzzles they solve.

This means that each video gives you two experiences. You can either choose simply to watch the mental workings of a top-class solver trying to crack a fiendish puzzle, or you can try and crack it too – either simultaneously, or solo without their help.

And it’s important to point out that these videos are the polar opposite of the bitesize TikTok-length creations that engage millions around the world.

The daily videos often last longer than an hour, reflecting both the complexity of a puzzle and the explanation needed to solve it, but still rack up thousands of views within a matter of hours after posting.

This isn’t a community or an experience that could ever truly have been served by traditional linear TV. It needed a platform like YouTube to flourish, and is all the better for it.

Favourite video

I feel bad not bigging up Mark, because he’s an integral part of the Cracking The Cryptic, but Simon’s videos are the ones to watch if you’re getting into them. The famous viral ‘Miracle Sudoku’ is absolutely worth a watch to get a sense of his personality and enthusiasm, and what the videos are all about.

If that piques your interest, then try this one – yes, it’s over an hour long, but makes you realise how intricate advanced sudoku is. 

Similar formats

Over the last 5-10 years, the rise of the YouTube influencer has been well documented. People – mainly teens and 20-somethings – broadcasting from their bedrooms have become massive stars outside of the so-called mainstream media. The likes of Zoella and PewDiePie are well-known.

One of the early ‘playalong’ stars was Stampy, who popularised Minecraft and became a hero to millions of pre-teen boys and girls.

Outside YouTube, videogame livestreaming is another even-more popular area. Channel 4’s GamesMaster may have tried to popularise games on traditional TV, but never quite cracked the experience. 

Twitch, meanwhile, has now been going since 2011 and, to demonstrate its huge appeal, by June 2021 the professional gamer Ninja had 16 million subscribers. 

Elsewhere, Instagram – of course – has enabled video and streaming and resulted in relatively ‘niche’ interests getting traction. You wouldn’t have put cleaning at the top of most people’s favourite subjects, but the popularity of Mrs Hinch (4.2m followers and counting) proves otherwise.

Thanks Rob,

If you have a favourite format you’d like to unpack do get in touch. Or if you’d like help from Storythings to research audiences, develop content ideas or produce an entire campaign we’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you all next week,


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