Need Crosswords Sorted by Difficulty? Look No Further!

A quick reminder before today’s blog post:

ThinkFun’s Cold Case: A Story to Die For is available for preorder today on Amazon and the ThinkFun website!

Click here to check out our spoiler-free review!

Getting into crosswords can be daunting for new puzzlers. Maybe you’ve solved the syndicated puzzle in your local paper, or you’ve downloaded one of those fabulous apps like Daily POP Crosswords, and you’ve enjoyed, but you’re looking to expand your solving horizons.

The New York Times crossword is well-known, for sure, but has an intimidating reputation as the flagship brand. You know other companies and newspapers have crosswords, but you’re just not sure where to start.

We’ve got good news for you on that front.

A constructor and crossword enthusiast named Lloyd Morgan has assembled what he calls the crossword difficulty matrix, and it’s a thoroughly impressive launchpad for new and inexperienced crossword fans to explore a lot of terrific puzzles and crossword venues.

[Click here for a larger version!]

He originally launched a version of the crossword difficulty matrix on Reddit, and then expanded and adapted it based on feedback from fellow solvers. His goals was to create a guide for new solvers that would help them find the right puzzles and difficulty rankings for their puzzly comfort level.

Not only does he cover major outlets like The New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Universal, but he also looped in Kings syndicated constructors like Joseph and Sheffer, plus some other outlets casual solvers might not even be aware of!

I haven’t really seen anything like this made available for enthusiastic solvers before, and I think he did a terrific job.

Then again, I’m not the savviest crossword solver around.

[Me, watching faster and more clever solvers posting their solve times.]

But I do know some pretty savvy cruciverbalists, so I reached out to some topnotch and experienced constructors and solvers and asked for their thoughts on the crossword difficulty matrix.

Wordplay blogger and brilliant crossword lady Deb Amlen thought it was a totally fair breakdown of puzzle difficulty, though she noted, “I still believe that if you asked 10 solvers about the difficulty of a puzzle, you will get 10 different answers.” TRUTH.

David Steinberg, editor of the Universal Crossword, thought the matrix was pretty accurate as well, though he suggested a few tweaks regarding “Universal (which has no increase in difficulty during the week for 15x15s, though the Sunday 21×21 is a bit more challenging) and maybe the Wall Street Journal (which I would consider a little easier in the early week).”

Looks like Deb’s prediction is already coming true.

I also reached out to constructor Doug Peterson, one of the most knowledgeable puzzlers in the game today, was also kind enough to offer his thoughts:

I don’t really know the Joseph & Sheffer puzzles, but I believe they’re easy, unthemed 13x13s, so light-green makes sense for those. And I think New York Magazine is Matt Gaffney, so that seems about right too. Yeah, this is well-done. I might tick up the Thursday NY Times a notch, but it varies from week to week.

He had some suggestions for other venues to include as well:

If folks are looking for something else at the Very Difficult/dark-red end of the scale, Fireball [Crosswords] sometimes gets there. They’re definitely a “red” venue. The Inkubator I’d put in that middle yellow/Wednesday area for their themed stuff. And AV Club is literally the entire range above “Very Easy.”

I did ask one or two other puzzlers, but they hadn’t had the chance to reply by press time, so we’ll probably revisit this topic in the future (especially if Lloyd offers an updated version).

But in the meantime, I want to give some well-deserved kudos to Lloyd for this marvelous resource for new solvers. Not only does it include a lot of terrific outlets, but it offers a terrific stepladder of difficulty for them to find ever-increasing challenges whenever they’d like!

Thank you to Lloyd, as well as the marvelous constructors and puzzly folks who offered their thoughts. You’re all part of a brilliant, vibrant, and welcoming crossword community.

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Solution to our May the 4th Jedi Logic Puzzle!

Last week, we celebrated Star Wars Day (aka May the Fourth) with a Jedi-themed brain teaser for our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers to solve!

How do you crack this Star Wars-inspired Jedi mystery? Let’s find out together!

On a small planet in the Mid Rim, a group of Jedi defeated several squads of battle droids. Reporters had a hard time piecing together descriptions of the five Jedi who saved the day, even after interviewing many witnesses.

The only thing the reporters were sure of? The names of the five Jedi:

  • Drosco Wrs
  • Ko Duus
  • Pramyt Gorc
  • Wendo Grars
  • Seredwok

Each of the Jedi wielded a different color lightsaber (green, yellow, blue, orange, or purple). Each held a different title within the Jedi Order (Padawan, Knight, Master, Instructor, or Council Member). And each of them was a different species (Barabel, Bith, Nautolan, Twi’lek, or Wookiee).

Based on the information gathered below, can you figure out which lightsaber color, title, and species belongs with which Jedi?

1. Drosco Wrs (whose lightsaber is either orange or green) is neither the padawan nor the knight.

2. Either Ko Duus or the Bith is the council member, and the other has the yellow lightsaber.

3. The Jedi with the blue lightsaber (who isn’t on the council) is either the Twi’lek or the Wookiee; if Twi’lek, then Drosco Wrs is the instructor, but if Wookiee, then Seredwok is the instructor.

4. The padawan (who has neither the blue lightsaber nor the green lightsaber) is not Seredwok.

5. Wendo Grars (who isn’t the knight) doesn’t have the yellow lightsaber or the blue lightsaber.

6. The Barabel (who is either Pramyt or Seredwok) isn’t the Jedi with the purple lightsaber.

7. The master has either the purple lightsaber or the yellow lightsaber. Neither the purple lightsaber nor the yellow lightsaber are wielded by the Nautolan.

So, where do we begin?

Well, there’s a lot of information here about the lightsabers, and that’s where we can start.

We know that the Nautolan doesn’t have the purple or yellow lightsabers (rule 7) or the blue lightsaber (rule 3). Similarly, we know that the Barabel doesn’t have the purple lightsaber (rule 6) or the blue lightsaber (rule 3). But we can also deduce that it doesn’t have the yellow lightsaber, because either Ko Duus or the Bith have the yellow lightsaber (rule 2), and Ko Duus isn’t a Barabel (rule 6).

That means the green and orange lightsabers are split between the Nautolan and the Barabel. That also means that Drosco Wrs is either the Nautolan or the Barabel, because his lightsaber is either green or orange (rule 1). But since he can’t be the Barabel (rule 6), Drosco Wrs is the Nautolan.

Let’s start our chart there:

sw puz 1

But we know more about Drosco Wrs. He is neither the padawan nor the knight (rule 1) and according to his lightsaber color, he is not the master (rule 7). He is also not the council member, who must be the Bith or Ko Duus (rule 2), so he is the instructor.

Because he is the instructor, we now also know that the Twi’lek has the blue lightsaber (rule 3).

We also know that the Jedi with the blue lightsaber isn’t the padawan (rule 4), the master (rule 7), the council member (rule 4), or the instructor (since Drosco Wrs is the instructor and his lightsaber is either green or orange). That means that the blue lightsaber is with a Twi’lek who is a knight.

Let’s update our chart:

sw puz 2

If we return to the Barabel, according to our chart they’re not the knight or the instructor, and they can’t be the master based on their possible lightsaber color. So they’re either the padawan or the council member. But the council member is either Ko Duus or the Bith (rule 2), and Ko Duus can’t be a Barabel (rule 6). So the Barabel must be the padawan.

And since Seredwok isn’t the padawan (rule 4), Pramyt Groc is the Barabel and the padawan.

But that’s not all. We know that the Barabel’s lightsaber is either green or orange, and the padawan’s lightsaber can’t be green (rule 4), so we have our first complete row.

sw puz 3

It’s taken a lot of work to get here, but now things are rolling.

Drosco Wrs, our Nautolan instructor, could only have a green or orange lightsaber (rule 1), and since orange is the padawan’s color, we now know his lightsaber is green.

So green, blue, and orange are all accounted for, and the council member cannot have a yellow lightsaber (rule 2), so the council member has a purple lightsaber, and the master has a yellow lightsaber.

Wendo Grars can’t have orange, blue, or green, based on our chart, nor can she have yellow (rule 5), so she has the purple lightsaber, making her the council member.

Our chart is looking pretty full now:

sw puz 4

Since Wendo Grars is the council member, Ko Duus must be the wielder of the yellow lightsaber (rule 2), which also makes Wendo Grars the Bith.

And process of elimination gives us one name left — Seredwok — and one species left — Wookiee — to assign.

So our completed chart looks like this:

sw puz 5

Oh, we also hid a little puzzly easter egg in this puzzle. Each of our Jedi names were anagrams of popular puzzles:

  • Drosco Wrs = Crossword
  • Ko Duus = Sudoku
  • Pramyt Gorc = Cryptogram
  • Wendo Grars = Rows Garden
  • Seredwok = Word Seek

Did you manage to unravel this devious Jedi-themed logic puzzle? Did you spot the wordplay in the Jedi names? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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PN Product Review: ThinkFun’s Cold Case: A Story to Die For

a story to die for box

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

Detective novels, police procedurals, murder mysteries, forensic shows… there’s an entire entertainment industry out there built on the idea of solving crimes. And why do we watch and read and participate?

Because we all like to believe we can catch the crook. Deep down, we all want to be Batman or Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes or Temperance Brennan or Jessica Fletcher or Gil Grissom or the NCIS team or members of the NYPD or any of those quick minds who unravel cases and bring the guilty to justice.

Board games are no different, encouraging us to solve crimes through process of elimination (Clue/Cluedo), careful examination of the evidence (Deception: Murder in Hong Kong), or exploring Victorian London through maps, directories, and newspapers (Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective).

ThinkFun has taken a different route with their new line of Cold Case mysteries for you to solve.

Today’s review is based on A Story to Die For, the first of two Cold Case mysteries being released in the next few weeks.

In A Story to Die For, you try to solve the 1988 murder of a young journalist.

Yes, this is a cold case, meaning you’re coming in after an investigation has already taken place, yet the case remains unsolved.

You have transcripts of police interviews with suspects, evidence, photographs, and other items collected by the police during their initial investigation. But it’s up to you to comb through the evidence and find what they missed.

There is an absolute wealth of material here to read, creating an entire world of suspects, motives, events, and red herrings for you to unravel. And the materials are top-notch. Full-color photographs, plus different papers and fonts to represent the different sources of information collected.

a story to die for 1

I was very impressed by the presentation of the case. A lot of hard work and detail went into crafting the materials for you to read and reread as you assimilate more information about Andy Bailey’s life. (I would love to tell you specifics, but I want to keep this review spoiler-free!)

And once you think you’ve cracked the case and found answers for all of the questions left behind by the initial investigation, you can test your theory by going to the ThinkFun Cold Case website and submitting your answers.

If you’re on the wrong track, the replies from the website will give you clues on where to look in order to correctly solve the case. And if your detective skills are in tiptop condition, you’ll get more information and a chance to read the suspect’s confession!

It’s a game built on observation, deduction, and wits, and I think it’s one of ThinkFun’s most impressive creations yet. Whether you’re solving alone or with friends, the hour or two you spend unraveling this mystery will be time well spent.

[Cold Case: A Story to Die For is part of ThinkFun’s Cold Case series, designed for players ages 14 and up, and is available for $14.99 from ThinkFun and other associated retailers. Pre-orders start May 18th!]

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Candyland: Pastime or Past Its Prime?

If you ask the average person to name five board games off the top of their head, you can pretty readily guess some of their replies. Monopoly is always there, Scrabble is often second, and then you’ll get a smattering of Candyland, Chutes & Ladders, Sorry, and the like, and then a few outliers like Mouse Trap, Trouble, The Game of Life, and so on.

Candyland is a perennial name on that list, but if you look around the Internet where modern board game enthusiasts congregate, Candyland often appears on lists of the worst board games.

Why is that? Does Candyland get a bad rap?

Well, yes and no.

Strangely enough, the reason that causes so many game fans to put it on “worst” lists is the same reason it is celebrated as a good intro game for children: lack of choice.

Candyland isn’t really a game. There are no moves to make, no strategy to employ. Nothing you say or do will make you the winner. The game is purely one of chance. Once the deck is shuffled, the game is essentially over. (Chutes & Ladders and the card game War suffer from the same problem.)

Defenders of Candyland say that this is intentional… which is true. The game was designed to entertain and distract children either suffering from polio or trapped inside because of polio.

But defenders also argue that the game teaches children about reading instructions, learning to take turns, pattern-recognition, and more, all without the “complication” of actual tasks to complete.

But this is a weak argument, because virtually ANY game can teach these things and still offer children choices to make that affect the game.

Still, kids absolutely love Candyland. It’s bright and simple and silly, and the characters are charming.

So, what can we do to make the game engaging for solvers who actually want to do something, but won’t alienate the simplicity factor that makes it appealing to the youngest board game fans among us?

We institute some house rules!

1. Pick a card

Give the players two, three, or four cards to choose from. By allowing them to actually choose a card, there’s some level of strategy involved, even if it’s still a race to the end.

A variation on this idea is the push-your-luck house rule. In a regular game of Candyland, after you draw your card, you can ditch it for a second random draw. If you choose the second card, you must play it. This is a simple modification, but one that still allows players to affect the game in a meaningful way. Do you press your luck or accept the card you know you have?

2. Spot the color

One house rule suggested that a child should have to look around the room and point out an object that’s the same color as the card before they can move forward. While this doesn’t affect the gameplay, it does reinforce the idea that you can use Candyland to teach pattern recognition.

[A gritty reboot of Candyland by artist Shira-Chan.]

3. Deception

Now, it’s probably not a great idea to teach your kids about lying through board games. (After all, you’ll never be able to trust them in a game of Battleship ever again.) But adding a deception element can turn Candyland into an introductory poker game.

Basically, you draw your card, and announce your move without showing the card. If someone thinks you’re lying, they can call you out.

If you are lying, you don’t move AND you lose your next turn. But if you’re not lying, the player who accused you loses a turn.

4. Add trivia

This was a variation in my house on more than one occasion. Since there are six colors on the game board — and six categories in Trivial Pursuit — we combined the two.

When you draw a color card, you must answer a question of the corresponding color. Get it right, and you move on. Get it wrong, you stay where you are.

There are all sorts of terrific ideas out there to make Candyland more enjoyable for players of all ages — for instance, we found some good suggestions listed here which we didn’t cover — and with a little creativity, you can resurrect a classic and make it new again.

And we’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s a good or bad game after that.

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Eyes Open #20


Welcome to the latest puzzle in my ongoing series, Eyes Open, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights protests.

The school year is beginning to wind down, and for many, thoughts have already turned to graduation and summertime and destinations beyond high school.

Unfortunately for some, even years later, systemic racism spoiled not only graduation and college plans, but followed them beyond the halls of high school.

In Mississippi, the school district of Cleveland was sued twice (once in 2017, once in 2019) by students who alleged that there were racial reasons behind them being denied academic achievements.

One case is detailed in today’s puzzle, but I can give you details on the other. Jasmine Shepard sued the district in 2017, claiming that she was named co-valedictorian with a white student with a lower grade-point average, denying her the title of valedictorian.

Shepard was not informed of certain options regarding class availability — something white students WERE informed of — and a clerical error awarded her “co-valedictorian” more points toward their GPA than were actually allowed.

The judge wrote, “There is no dispute that rank points were improperly assigned or that these improper assignments negatively affected Shepard,” but unfortunately, since the errors were deemed accidental and not intentional, it was the ruling of the court that this case didn’t meet the requirements of a civil rights violation.

The subject of today’s puzzle suffered similar treatment, losing out on scholarship opportunities after a dubious “quality point” system affecting students’ GPA caused her to lose out on the Salutatorian honor to a white student.

The school district claims there’s no conspiracy here, and that clerical errors were responsible for all of these problems, but that’s not good enough. College acceptance isn’t just too expensive, it’s also insanely competitive, and these mistakes (whether racist or clerical) still caused genuine, tangible damage to the potential futures of these young women.

Through bias or stupidity, they screwed hard-working students out of opportunities. And screwing people of color out of opportunities is absolutely a systemic problem, in this school district and many others around the country.

This may seem like a minor thing, but it’s just another in a countless chain of examples where these “small” errors contribute to a system that makes everything harder for people of color, no matter how diligent and dedicated they are.

In this country, every child is told if you work hard and keep at it, good things will follow. But that’s not always true, is it?

Today’s puzzle isn’t the cleanest crossword I’ve presented for Eyes Open, but it visually represents, however clumsily, what has been going on in this school district and others for too long.

I hope this puzzle serves to both engage you as a solver and encourage you to keep your eyes peeled for other ways we can reform school systems to better serve students of all backgrounds. The real world isn’t fair, but the school world should be.

eyes open 20 image

[Click this link to download a PDF of this puzzle.]

If you have suggestions for more topics for me to cover in future puzzles, please let me know. If you’re a person of color and you’d like to share a puzzle of your own, or to collaborate with me on a puzzle, please let me know.

If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, and you have ideas, please let me know. If you’re a trans person, or a non-binary individual, and you feel underrepresented in puzzles, please let me know.

I would like this to become something bigger, but hopefully, this is at the very least a start.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for standing up, speaking up, and fighting the good fight.

Support LGBTQIA+ people.
Believe women.
Black lives matter.

The 2021 Boswords Spring Themeless League: Looking Back

boswords new

After two months of challenging, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable weekly solving, the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League came to a close a few weeks ago.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League spreads out a tournament-style solving experience over nine weeks, one themeless crossword per week. Each puzzle is scored based on your answer accuracy (incorrect letters, empty squares, etc.) and how quickly you complete the grid.

While each week’s puzzle only had one solution, there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate, they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

Hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition, and now that it’s over, I’d like to share a few thoughts about my experience in the League.


When I participated in the 2020 Fall Themeless League, I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t have much experience with themeless puzzles, and I rarely solve online, so even though I’m very familiar with crosswords, it felt like a new experience.

But with last season’s league under my belt, I went into the 2021 Spring Themeless League excited to again test my skills with some top-flight puzzles, a touch more confident in my themeless solving than last time.

As you might expect, being freed from the shackles of themed puzzle building allows constructors to really flex their creative muscle, indulging all sorts of curious and unexpected vocabulary as they cross long entries and employ staggeringly few black squares in these impressive grids.


Aimee Lucido opened up week one with three 13-letter entries across the center of the grid, giving new solvers a taste of just what constructors can do with a themeless grid, and offering established solvers some terrific crossings and fun vocabulary.

Peter Wentz’s week two puzzle and the week three offering from Brynn Diehl and Mark Diehl continued to set the tone for the season, mixing some clever wordplay in their cluing with ambitious grid construction. (Week three’s puzzle had stacks of 10-letter entries in every corner, which was impressive.)

Rachel Fabi provided week four’s puzzle — which really tickled me by having “advice column” as a down entry, i.e. a column — and Ryan McCarty’s week five puzzle was one of my smoothest solves of the tournament. Plus, he had “doggos” in the grid, and I am fully onboard with “doggo” becoming crosswordese.

I stupidly submitted my grid with an empty square in Patti Varol’s week six, which hurt my score somewhat. I still enjoyed the puzzle, though. Crossing SPANKED with BUCKNAKED was certainly a style choice. Also, Patti always teaches me new words with her puzzles. This time around, it was “vaporetto.”

Week seven’s offering by Ricky Cruz really impressed me with some difficult letter placements — particularly the plethora of Xs in the lower-left corner. (Unfortunately, I missed the submission deadline for this one, so I got a zero for this puzzle.)

That was followed by Kevin Der’s amazing week eight grid. This one took me ten minutes longer than my average time for the rest of the tournament puzzles.

I mean, look at this grid:

kevin der grid

Week nine’s championship puzzle was constructed by Brooke Husic, and it was the perfect closer to two months of solving. It was sharp and well-constructed, sending everyone home happy.

All in all, I enjoyed the Spring Themeless League more than the Fall League because I felt much more comfortable with the solving interface and I had a better handle on themeless solving overall. My times were stronger — although far from the blistering pace set by many of the top solvers — and I felt like I was making smarter choices in my solving. It’s always nice to both see and feel improvement in your puzzling.

I ended up placing 262nd out of around 600 competitors — had I actually gotten puzzle seven submitted, I would’ve been closer to 115th or so — which is about on pace for how I did in the Fall Themeless League.

But the tournament experience was delightful. Having a new challenge awaiting you every week is a treat, especially with the fantastic roster of talent they assembled in this season’s constructors.

And with the promise of future Boswords-hosted events in 2021 like the Summer Tournament on July 25th and the Fall Themeless League in October and November, it’s nice to have exciting puzzle events to look forward to in the near future.

Kudos to everyone who helped bring this marvelous project together, and kudos to everyone who participated. It was so much fun.

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