The BosWords Crossword Tournament Returns Soon!

Sunday, July 29th, from noon to 5 PM, puzzlers from all over will gather at The Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury, Massachusetts for the second edition of the BosWords Tournament, and registration opens today!

With three divisions to choose from — Red Sox (Expert), Paw Sox (Amateur), and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels will have the opportunity to test their puzzly wits.

The five themed puzzles in regular competition have been constructed by Laura Braunstein, Andrew Kingsley, John LiebJoon Pahk, and Brendan Emmett Quigley, and after the scores from those puzzles are tabulated, a championship themeless crossword by David Quarfoot awaits the top three solvers in each division!

BosWords is asking for $20 for adults, $20 for pairs, and $10 for students to attend and compete, which is a real bargain!.

You can check out their Facebook page for full details!

Will you be attending the BosWords tournament, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Deblockle

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

Chess, checkers, backgammon, Go, Othello… all of the classic board games rely upon the idea that both players know how the pieces can and will move from round to round. That way, they can strategize, they can prepare defenses, they can circumnavigate your attempts to flummox them. To outmaneuver someone, you have to know how they can maneuver.

But what if your opponent could potentially move in five different ways? How would that alter your strategy? How would that alter your gameplay?

Beware, fellow puzzlers… one-on-one board gaming just got a little more complicated with Deblockle.

Masterminded by the team at Project Genius, Deblockle pits two players head to head to see who can remove their four blocks from the board first.

That’s right, there aren’t sixteen pieces to keep track of, like in chess, or twelve, like in checkers. There are just four blocks for you, and four blocks for your opponent.

But here’s where things get tricky. Each turn, you have two moves. The first move is to roll one of your blocks into an adjacent space (either vertically or horizontally).

The second move is to place your block according to whichever symbol that landed face-up because of that roll.

There are six symbols, each with a corresponding action:

  • Stop: your turn is over, there is no second move
  • Cross: move your block one space either horizontally or vertically
  • X: move your block one space diagonally
  • Hoops: move your block three spaces (vertically or horizontally) in any combination, including backtracking over a space you just occupied
  • Slider: move your block either vertically or horizontally until you reach the end of the row or column, or until you’re stopped by another block

With each of those second moves, you’re not rolling the block to reveal a new symbol; you’re picking it up and placing it into its new position.

And yes, there are six symbols, and I only listed five above. That’s because the sixth symbol, the star, can only be revealed if you’re rolling onto one of the star spaces on the board. By rolling the block star-side-up onto a star space, you remove the block from play.

That’s the only time you can roll your block star-side-up, and the only time you’re allowed to occupy a star space with your block.

There are only two star spaces on the board, and you can only remove your blocks from the game if you utilize the star space opposite you.

And that’s when things get really tricky. Because it’s entirely likely that your opponent’s blocks will prevent you from rolling onto the symbol you wanted. So you’re puzzling out how exactly to roll and move your blocks so you’ll end up adjacent to the star space with the star symbol waiting to be rolled face-up, and also playing defense to impede your opponent’s efforts to navigate and manipulate the board to their own advantage.

It’s a lot to keep track of, and it makes for an immensely engrossing, engaging puzzle duel for two players. You’ve got the resource management of Risk, the piece placement mechanics of chess, and the defensive gameplay of Stratego and other strategy games.

And since the blocks are placed in their starting positions by your opponent — after rolling them randomly to see which symbol is face-up to start — every game of Deblockle is different. Opening gambits — like those you can learn in chess — are useless, because you won’t know how you can move your blocks initially until your opponent places them.

There is a wonderfully fresh challenge factor to Deblockle that many other head-to-head board games lack. While playing the game over and over will allow you to develop techniques and skills for how to better move your blocks, there are no shortcuts to becoming a better player through sheer repetition, because each opening setup is different.

Project Genius has managed to stuff a massive amount of gameplay, strategy, and style into those four little blocks, and they’ve got a real winner on their hands here.

[Deblockle is available from Project Genius and other participating retailers, for players starting at 8 and up!]


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Playing Dungeons & Dragons Like Royalty!

Dungeons & Dragons (or any roleplaying game, for that matter) is about telling a story together. Many Dungeon Masters go above and beyond to immerse players in the roleplaying experience.

Some use miniatures or models atop battlemats to help players visualize the events that are taking place (especially combat). Others use music to set the tone, create atmosphere, or provide dramatic effect.

These little bits of set dressing can be simple or elaborate, but they all contribute to a better roleplaying experience.

Now imagine if you could turn the dial up to 11 and really immerse yourself in your setting. Say, by playing D&D in an actual castle.

That’s the idea behind D&D in a Castle, a special event being held in Challain-la-Potherie, France, from July 1st to the 5th.

Check out the sales pitch:

Spend four days playing Dungeons and Dragons in a castle with world class DMs in a vacation like none you have ever experienced. Retreat into a magnificently restored castle for a spot of luxury, relaxation, and, of course, role-playing.

Yup, a team of professional Dungeon Masters help attendees to build their characters and familiarize themselves with the game before they even walk through the door. And after that, there are two daily RPG sessions and optional ones in the evening.

Over the course of the five days, you are guaranteed to play at least 24 hours of Dungeons & Dragons.

Now THAT is immersion.

With names like Jeremy Crawford (the lead rules developer for D&D) and Satine Phoenix (actress, artist, and DM) involved, this is sure to be a massively creative event, and I am thoroughly envious of anyone and everyone attending.

This will certainly raise the bar for D&D night at the house afterward. Dimming the lights and putting on some mood music will pale in comparison to the palatial spread at Challain-la-Potherie.

Of course, if you’re looking for a more affordable option here in the US, I highly recommend Troll Haven in Sequim, Washington. The Gate Keeper’s Castle is absolutely awesome, and the perfect setting for a LARP, an escape room, or some immersive D&D.

Just be careful if you invite a rogue to the castle, folks. They have sticky fingers.


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The Penny Dell Crosswords App Summer Sale!

Hey there, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. I’ve got a quick question for you…

Have you been solving the free daily puzzle in the Penny Dell Crosswords App that shows up every day like clockwork?

If you have been, then you’re already in the know.

But if you haven’t, you really should.

Because not only is there a terrific free crossword delivered right to your phone every single day, but every day for the entire month of June, we’re throwing in a bonus deal exclusively for PDCW solvers!

That’s right, folks! By solving the free puzzle of the day, you’ll then be notified of that day’s awesome deal! It could be a deep discount on a puzzle bundle OR a limited time offer for a rare puzzle set or app upgrade! Some of the deals are worth up to 75% off!

And the only way to find out about these fantastic deals is to solve the daily puzzle every day!

As if a free daily puzzle in your pocket wasn’t incentive enough, right?

Keep puzzling, friends!


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Puzzle Fight? Them’s Fightin’ Words!

In this blog, I try to talk about puzzles in all their forms. We’ve explored everything from puzzle games and mechanical brain teasers to pencil-and-paper puzzles, from riddles and deduction puzzles to escape rooms and puzzle hunts. That covers a pretty impressive swath of puzzly varieties.

Naturally, I’ve spent some time talking about puzzle apps as well. Not only our own marvelous offerings — like Daily POP Crosswords and Penny Dell Crosswords App — but others as well that’ve piqued the interest of our in-house app reviewer, Sherri.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject, because there’s a curious subset of puzzle apps that I didn’t even know existed: puzzly fighting games.

[Image courtesy of Mario’s Hat.]

Now, your standard fighting game has a simple concept: two fighters go head-to-head in a match, and the first to drain his opponent’s life bar wins.

There are numerous famous fighting games across many video game systems. Franchises like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Soul Calibur, Tekken, Dead or Alive, Darkstalkers, and Marvel vs. Capcom have built devoted followings with eyecatching fighters, innovative attack combos, and ever-improving graphics.

But in a puzzle fighting game, the outcome of the fight does not depend on button-mashing skill, tricky combinations, or well-timed strikes… it depends on your puzzly talents.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Take, for example, the standard bearer for the genre: Puzzle Fighter.

The layout probably looks familiar. The game combines the aesthetics of Tetris — blocks dropping into a contained play area and being rotated and placed by the player — with the gameplay of Bejeweled, Candy Crush, and other color-matching puzzle games.

You want to group pairs of blocks (or gems) together, because you can clear them from the play area by using “crash gems,” which wipe out any neighboring gems of that color. So, with proper planning, you can wipe out huge sections of your board.

As you clear gems from your play area, your fighter does battle with the opponent’s fighter, succeeding or struggling based on how well you’re doing with your puzzling. (You can play against other opponents online in multiplayer mode or against computer-controlled opponents on your own.)

[Image courtesy of Emu Paradise.]

Puzzle Fighter was followed by a sequel, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, a fun reference to the Street Fighter franchise, which also allows some of its characters to appear as sprites in this puzzly spinoff. There was also a short-lived WWE wrestling-related app  that was more like Tetris in its gameplay, but similar in execution to the Puzzle Fighter series.

It’s an intriguing idea, if only because other head-to-head puzzle games like Dr. Mario and Tetris Arena feel a touch less adversarial. In head-to-head Tetris, it’s simply who’s the better puzzler. In Dr. Mario, as you eradicate the little viruses with color-matching pills, you can also bury your opponent under pill pieces, which adds a form of interaction to the gameplay.

[Watch the player on the left engineer chain reactions that hinder the player on the right.]

In Puzzle Fighter, the game goes two steps further. Not only are you allowed to visualize how you’re winning or losing based on the character sprites fighting above the play area, but your successful use of crash gems will send additional gems into your opponent’s play area, with only a limited amount of time to neutralize them.

But an upcoming entry in the genre has added a curious wrinkle to the puzzly fighting experience: magic.

[Image courtesy of Kotaku.]

The World Next Door features characters actually running across a shared game board featuring all sorts of colored runes. Your goal is to swap and connect runes of the same color so that they form chains of runes that can be activated.

Each colored rune represents a different attack, which means that, like in Dr. Mario and Puzzle Fighter, a crafty puzzler can create chain reactions where wiping out one set of runes causes another set to connect, triggering another attack.

In The World Next Door, this can lead to devastating combination attacks.

Of course, since you’re sharing a game board with your opponent, there’s the additional elements of defense and sabotage. While you’re building your rune chains, you’re going to want to defend them from your opponent while also disrupting their own attempts to form chains. Defense can truly become a strong offense, if you choose to play that way.

[Here, you can see the result of a rune spell, the small black hole in the corner, waiting for a sprite to wander too close. Image courtesy of The World Next Door.]

This is probably the most direct iteration of puzzly fighting I’ve encountered thus far, since you’re still using puzzle skills to make your attacks, but you’re also interacting head-to-head with your opponent’s game board AND sprite, which really ratchets up both the tension level and the challenge factor.

I’m definitely interested in seeing how this relatively minor subset of puzzle games continues to evolve and grow. The World Next Door is an impressive step up in complexity and style, and with this sort of creativity and innovation at play, the sky is truly the limit.

And let me know if you’d like us to discuss more puzzle apps, puzzly video games, or other related topics on the blog in the future!


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The Countess Who Revolutionized European Spycraft

[Image courtesy of Derek Bruff.org.]

The history of codebreaking is a fascinating subject not only for the mythic figures and their brain-melting accomplishments, but also for the unsung heroes who are only recently being rediscovered.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a woman who shaped a new foundation for American codebreaking, but has long since been overshadowed by the reputation of her husband William Friedman (as well as FBI sexism and self-promotion which helped to bury and/or co-opt her accomplishments as their own).

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Of course, not her page. The page on her family line.]

And as part of my research into Elizebeth’s story, I encountered a curious anecdote from the 1600s about another codebreaker and influential spymaster who history had forgotten.

From The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone:

Monks, librarians, linguists, pianists and flutists, diplomats, scribes, postal clerks, astrologers, alchemists, players of games, lotharios, revolutionaries in coffee shops, kings and queens: these are the ones who built the field across the centuries and pushed the boundaries forward, stubborn individuals with a lot of time to sit and think and not give up. Most were men who did not believe women intellectually or morally capable of breaking codes; some were women who took advantage of this prejudice to steal secrets in the shadows.

One of the more cunning and effective codebreakers of the seventeenth century was a Belgian countess named Alexandrine, who upon the death of her husband in 1628 took over the management of an influential post office, The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis, which routed mail all throughout Europe.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Naturally, I was intrigued. But there’s surprisingly little out there about Alexandrine, whose full title was Alexandrine of Rye-Varax, Countess of Taxis, widow of Leonard II, Count of Taxis, occasionally shortened to Alexandrine von Taxis. She gets merely a paragraph on Wikipedia, and most Google searches only feature her as part of noble family trees.

Which is amazing, because she created the first verifiable Black Chamber in Europe — better known ones in England, France, and Germany weren’t established until the late seventeenth century. (A Black Chamber is a secret spy room or intelligence office, and Alexandrine’s was not only one of the first, but it was one of the most expansive.)

Despite her status as a widow, she was sworn into office as Postmistress in 1628 (serving as such until 1646, when her son would come of age), using those years to improve the wealth and status of her family while expanding the reach of the Taxis postal business, based in the Spanish Netherlands.

[The Taxis postal service, circa 1505-1516.
Blurry image courtesy of ApfelbaumInc.com.]

Alexandrine took over the Taxis postal service — the primary postal service across the continent, save for private couriers. She had a monopoly over the post in Europe, and was the de facto postmistress for the entire Holy Roman Empire.

And she used that position to her advantage, forming the Chamber of Taxis, an elite intelligence team composed of agents, forgers, scribes, codebreakers, and artisans. In a couple of hours, they could melt the wax seals off letters, copy their contents (in short-hand, often), decipher any coded messages, forge a new seal (and any other marks, including signatures, that would authenticate a seal), reseal the letter, and send it on its way, the invasion of privacy undetected.

She spoke four languages — French, Dutch, Italian, and German — and was very politcally savvy, cultivating relationships with fellow nobles even as she prowled through their private messages.

It’s not clear for whom she was spying. Some sources claim she sold her information to the highest bidder, while others claim she worked for both Emperor Ferdinand II and his son and successor Ferdinand III.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

What is clear, however, is that many discounted her and the Chamber of Taxis as a possible threat because of who she was. Sir Balthazar Gerbier, an agent of Charles I, suspected her early on, but discounted his own instincts because of “her honesty, dignity, and sex.”

Yes, the fact that she was a woman disqualified her in the minds of many from being capable of the sort of deceit and spycraft going on in the Chamber. (It also rankled some, like several German princes, that she was in a position of power at all, given her sex.)

And discounting her was a mistake, given that she commanded a crucial hub in the postal network.

[Yes, there’s even a board game based on the family business.
No spycraft though, unfortunately. Image courtesy of 999 Games.]

From Diplomacy and Early Modern Culture, edited by R. Adams and R. Cox:

Since the 1490s Brussels had been the gateway to Europe’s postal network, connecting international postal routes from Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Scandinavia, and England. One single family, the Counts of Taxis (from 1649/50 Thurn and Taxis), commanded the mounted couriers over these many-branched routes.

Yes, the family name and title changed, and that was also Alexandrine’s doing.

When those aforementioned German princes questioned having a woman running the Taxis postal service, she ordered a full ancestral workup. That examination revealed her family’s ties to another important lineage, and from that point on, The Thurn and Taxis postal service (as well as her spy organization, The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis) would bear that additional name, increasing the prestige and reputation of both family and business alike.

For eighteen years, Countess Alexandrine commanded both a business and a spy network that spanned the European continent, influencing the information flowing between various noble families, and no doubt helping to shape the future of Europe.

I sincerely hope more is revealed about her life and the work of The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis in the future. I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface of the role she (and the group) played in European history.


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