Ready, set, puzzle!

This winter, jigsaw enthusiasts by the dozens can gather virtually to spend a few hours puzzling together.

There are prizes for putting the puzzle together the fastest, but the goal is to have fun and hang out on Zoom — with local actor Sasha Andreev as host.

"It's more about having fun for a while with folks that you may either know that are on the call, or people you don't know but you can establish a connection with," said organizer Scott Mayer. "When I think of puzzling, I think of relaxation — having a snack, having a glass of wine. It's a good way to talk with someone, as you're working on the puzzle."

The online events, called Piece Prize, came about because Mayer, the Twin Cities arts and culture impresario behind Doors Open Minneapolis, suddenly had a lot more time on his hands.

With in-person event planning at a halt, he was searching for a way to bring people together online. Mayer landed on puzzles — a pandemic pastime that he had picked up, along with so many friends and acquaintances.

"Jigsaw puzzles during COVID really serve a variety of purposes. I think it's a pastime that gives you a feeling of control," Mayer said.

There's all those little moments of satisfaction as pieces fit together, and a greater sense of contentment to see a puzzle completed, he said.

Indeed, the popularity of puzzles has surged since March. Some puzzlemakers have reported sales up more than 300% over last year.

Because puzzles have become such a hot item during the pandemic, Mayer initially had trouble finding enough inventory to go around. In the end, he was able to work with puzzlemaker Springbok Puzzles to supply the events.

Mayer has been reaching out to Facebook puzzle groups to spread the word.

"If people aren't into jigsaw puzzles, they probably know someone who is," he said.

Mayer, whose parents died of Alzheimer's and dementia-related illness, decided to donate partial proceeds from Piece Prize sign-ups ($39) to the Minnesota-North Dakota Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

"This is something that's fun for me to do during COVID time," said Mayer. "And then being able to give back just makes it makes it all the better."

The connection is a fitting one, because puzzles keep your brain engaged, one of the ways to help reduce risk for Alzheimer's disease, said Sue Spalding, the chapter's chief executive.

"There's just so many skills that you learn or utilize and activate when you're doing puzzles," she said. "Think about your hand-eye coordination, your ability to reason as you're looking at pieces and try to figure out where they go. You have to analyze, deduct, some logical thought, problem-solving skills, all those different kinds of things."

The first Piece Prize events — one for individuals and another for teams of two or more — are on Dec. 26, and the deadline to sign up ( is Wednesday. Up to 100 people or teams can sign up for each time slot.

Everyone who registers will get the same puzzle delivered in a bag, along with instructions not to start it until game time.

Then, everyone will open their puzzle at the same time and begin.

While the fastest can win prizes of up to $500, the aim is to have fun together, not just rush at top speed.

When Mayer first had the idea for Piece Prize, he researched other virtual puzzle events and turned up mostly speed competitions.

He signed up for one to see what it was like — only to see people finishing an entire puzzle in 40 minutes, he said.

"I immediately was like, 'Omigod, these people are out for blood!' " he said. "For me, that wasn't really the model I was interested in."

He's hoping to provide connection, not just competition.

Mayer decided on the day after Christmas for the first events thinking about the many people who are not traveling to see family over the holiday this year.

"It can be a pretty lonely weekend. So, this is an opportunity to connect with others even if it's online," he said.

Erica Pearson •@ericalpearson