The Weird, Wonderful World of Dice

[Image courtesy of ThoughtCo.]

Dice have been an integral part of gaming for centuries. They’re the simplest way to introduce randomness to a game.

The six-sided die is, by leaps and bounds, the most familiar die. The d6, as role-players call it, is a staple of classic board games like Yahtzee and Clue, as well as the centerpiece of role-playing systems like GURPS.

But the d6 is hardly the only kind of die you see in gaming. Plenty of games and role-playing systems rely on dice of other shapes in order to run smoothly.

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia.]

If you play World of Darkness role-playing games like Werewolf or Vampire: The Masquerade, then the d10 is your friend. If you enjoy updated editions of Dungeons & Dragons (or even board games like Unspeakable Words or Scattergories), the d20 is a familiar sight, whether it has letters or numbers on it.

A standard dice set for beginners Dungeons & Dragons contains six different dice shapes: a pyramid-shaped d4, a d6, a d8, a d10, a d12, and a d20. (Many come with 2 d10s, one with single digits and one with double digits, allowing you to calculate percentages).

[Image courtesy of Instructables.]

Heck, if you think about it, flipping a coin to decide something is simply rolling a two-sided die.

But when you start delving into the history of games, it’s amazing to see just how far back some of these traditions and conventions go.

Did you know that The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a d20 in its collection?

Dating back to Roman times (somewhere between the 2nd century BC and the 4th century AD), the above die is inscribed with Greek letters. It’s not certain if this particular die was used for games or religious divination, but there’s no doubt it’s a beautiful example of craftsmanship.

And this is just scraping the surface. One of my favorite dice in my collection is an oversized 3D-printed d20 with Braille markings for every number. Such a cool piece.

Can you think of any strange dice in favorite games of yours, fellow puzzlers? We’d love to hear about them! (Unless they’re fuzzy dice hanging from your rearview mirror. Those don’t make reliable rolls in regular gameplay.)


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Zendo

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

Experienced puzzlers are familiar with deduction as a puzzle-solving method. They may know it from solving logic puzzles, determining who brought what to Thanksgiving dinner. They may know it from asking questions in Clue in order to eliminate possibilities and figure out who killed Mr. Boddy, where, and how. They may know it from brain teasers, riddles, puzzles, or card games.

But they’ve probably never tried their hand at a deduction puzzle game quite like Zendo.

In Zendo, the players pull pieces from a communal pile in order to build different structures, using pyramids, wedges, and blocks. One player, the moderator, chooses a secret rule for the players to uncover, and builds two structures. One of these structures follows the secret rule, and one does not, and both are marked as such.

Secret rules can be as simple as “must contain all three shapes” or “must contain exactly four pieces.” They can be as complex as “must contain more blue pieces than blocks” or “must contain at least one yellow piece pointing at a blue piece.” Some rules involve how pieces touch, or how they’re stacked, while others demand no touching or stacking whatsoever. The field is wide open at the start of the game.

Players then try to deduce the secret rule by building structures themselves, arranging pieces from the communal pile into various patterns and asking the moderator for more information.

[Can you tell what the rule is by looking at these two structures?]

They can do so in one of two ways. The first is by saying “Tell,” wherein the moderator marks the player’s structure with either a white token or black token, depending on whether the structure fits the secret rule.

The second is by saying “Quiz,” wherein every player guesses whether the given player’s structure fits the rule. Every player who guesses right gets a guessing token.

Guessing tokens, as you might suspect, are spent to guess the secret rule. But the moderator doesn’t answer with a simple yes or no. The moderator instead must build a new structure, which will either fit the secret rule (but not the player’s guess, and get marked with a white token) or fits the player’s guess (but not the secret rule, and gets marked with a black token).

This back-and-forth between players can be frustrating or informative, depending on how specifically you frame your guesses. It also tests the creative mettle of your moderator, which adds a curious wrinkle to the game. Not only are you competing with your fellow players to figure out the secret rule, but you have to deal with the often crafty skills of the moderator.

[Does this second sculpture give you any hints?]

It’s an ever-evolving puzzle that can change in an instant with a new bit of information. You might confirm you’re on the right track, or realize you’ve been looking at the structures incorrectly all along, and you’re back to square one (or, you know, pyramid one or wedge one).

But thankfully, Zendo is easily scalable for solvers of any age or solving skill level. You can keep the secret rule simple or make it complex, depending on who is playing. And if you’re the moderator, you have a free hand in determining how much information your structures reveal.

Like Fluxx and other games under the Looney Labs umbrella, Zendo has tons of replay value, and it’s a puzzle-game that ages well, since solvers with more experience are not only better players, but more devious moderators as well. This is some seriously puzzly fun.

Zendo is available from the crafty crew at Looney Labs, and it’s also featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!


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Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors: Robin Stears

One of the Daily POP Crosswords app’s best features is the level of involvement from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh themed crosswords.

And over the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing you to some of them. Some names you may know, some you may not, but they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

In this installment, allow us to introduce you to constructor Robin Stears!

How did you get started in crosswords?

I’ve been constructing crossword puzzles for about 25 years, since my first daughter was born and I had to figure out a way to work from home. I’ve always enjoyed solving puzzles, ever since I was a child. Constructing puzzles is even more fun.

My puzzles have been in many Penny Press and Dell magazines – they’re my favorites – and also in The LA Times, Games Magazine, and of course, the Daily POP Crosswords app. The restrictions, like not being able to use any crosswordese or even slightly difficult words, adds a bit of a challenge, which of course makes it even more fun!

Personally, I prefer easier-to-medium puzzles rather than very difficult ones. I think puzzle solvers should have a good time and maybe learn something new. There’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to finish a crossword – and there’s nothing more satisfying than filling in that final square with the very last answer.

I want everyone who solves one of my puzzles to be able to finish it and enjoy that feeling of a job well done. And, at least once while they’re solving, I’d like them to look up and say, “Wow. That’s cool. I never knew that.”

What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Crosswords?

The best thing about Daily POP Crosswords is what a joy they are to create. I’m a pop culture fan from way back in the day when I used to read comic books and go to Star Trek conventions, and I still love watching movies and TV shows, listening to music, reading books, and checking out the latest fashions. I still go to two or three pop culture conventions every year.

Recently, I decided to go back to college to finish the degree I started thirty-some years ago, and I find that hanging out with young people helps keep my pop culture knowledge up-to-date. Between classes, we hang out and spill the tea, and mentally I’m taking notes for future crossword puzzles.

Is there a particular theme day that appeals to you most or that you enjoy working on?

I don’t have a particular theme day that I love above all others – I love all kinds of pop culture. I have so much fun deciding who or what is “worthy” of a crossword tribute, and then researching why they’re famous. I do like to celebrate big anniversaries, like the fifty-year birthday that both Hawaii Five-O and Laugh-In will celebrate next year.

So far, my favorite Daily POP Crosswords puzzle is the one I made for Thanksgiving about the Macy’s parade balloons. I learned so much about the balloons, and I was delighted to pass along all the trivia I discovered to my fellow parade fans. I hope everyone enjoyed solving it as much as I enjoyed constructing it.


A huge thank you to Robin for her time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles in the Daily POP Crosswords app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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The New York Times Crossword Cruises and Celebrates!

A few months ago, we told you about The Crossword Crossing, a 7-night transatlantic journey aboard the Queen Mary 2, hosted by Cunard Cruise Line in honor of The New York Times crossword’s 75th anniversary.

Well, the cruise leaves tomorrow, and interest was apparently high, as it’s listed as “sold out” on the Cunard website!

Scheduled speakers include “Wordplay” blogger and crossword guru Deb Amlen, linguist Ben Zimmer, journalist Jane Corbin, historian Simon Newman, and crossword constructors Natan Last and Joel Fagliano.

This cruise caps off an impressive year of celebration for The New York Times crossword. Throughout the year, notable fans of the crossword have been paired with top-flight constructors to try their hand at constructing puzzles of their very own, and the results have been as intriguing as they are impressive.

The last four puzzles in the series in particular pushed the creative envelope in different ways.

Constructor Lynn Lempel tagged in comedian and “The View” host Joy Behar as a partner for the September 26th puzzle, and it was a punny delight. The names of various comedians served as the anchors for puns like PAW PRINZE and PRYOR COMMITMENT. Couple a great theme with interesting fill like DALAI LAMA, KOALA, RESCUE DOG, and BAMBI, and you’ve got a terrific debut puzzle.

October 18th marked not only Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 175th(!) NYT puzzle, but a collaboration with actor John Lithgow. Their puzzle redefined acting terms in clever ways, cluing entries like SUMMER STOCK and STAGE LEFT as “Accountant’s shares in a company?” and “Why one missed the coach?” respectively.

The grid was also loaded with additional thematic words like PROP, DRAMA, WALK-ON, and ACTOR, making for a puzzle positively bursting with style.

It was a marathon of a solve when game designer and puzzler Mike Selinker teamed up with NPR host Peter Sagal for a crossword that actually mapped out the New York City Marathon from Staten Island to the Bronx with entries like FERRY and CHEER. It’s a super-clever theme and layout, and an interesting use of grid space.

Venerated newsman Harry Smith worked with constructor Zhouqin Burnikel for the December 5th puzzle, where they playfully created their own news show. Clues like “Beat reporter?” and “Anchor man?” led to unlikely castings ALLEN GINSBERG and POPEYE THE SAILOR.

It’s been quite a year for what many view as the flagship daily crossword, and apparently there are still a few more celebrity collaborations to come!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Doctor Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted

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

Some board games are known for their iconic characters. You know the Monopoly guy, all the folks from Candyland, the mouse from Mouse Trap, the cast of suspects from Clue, and more. But one of the flagship characters from Cheapass Games might be new to you. His name is Doctor J. Robert Lucky, and players have been trying to kill him for twenty years now.

The game Kill Doctor Lucky has taken many forms over the decades — including several versions where players tried to save the infamous doctor instead — but the newest variation takes things in a spookier direction.

In today’s review, we look at Doctor Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted.

[Just half of the new game board.]

This expansion includes a new game board and new instructions, but that’s all; everything else you need to play is contained in the Deluxe 19.5th Anniversary Edition of Kill Doctor Lucky, including cards and tokens.

The endgame is also the same: kill Doctor Lucky before another player does. And while the same rules apply — you have to be alone in the room with Doctor Lucky and out of sight of every competitor — this expansion adds one curious wrinkle: all of the players are ghosts.

You see, in Doctor Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted, Doctor Lucky is trying to sell off his famous mansion, but the ghosts who also reside there wish for Doctor Lucky to stay, and they’ll go to any lengths to keep him around.

And you might not think that one curious wrinkle could radically change a game, but you’d be wrong. The fact that you’re a ghost means you can pass through walls, ceilings, and floors. That is a huge alteration in both strategy and game mechanics.

You can more quickly maneuver into a room with the Doctor, but you can also thwart your opponents by sneaking into a neighboring room and spoiling their murder attempt by observing the proceedings through an open door.

After all, it saves a lot of time to pass through a wall instead of leaving a room, moving down the hall, and entering the next. (Passing between floors is an even bigger time saver! Slipping through the ceiling and dropping in on someone is a marvelous feeling.)

Factor in the secret portals connecting several of the rooms, and suddenly the mansion is much more accessible.

This expansion harkens back to the early days of Cheapass Games — when they would send you the necessary pieces for their game and encourage you to harvest the extra bits (like dice and tokens) from games you already owned, thereby saving money all around — while adding new touches and revitalizing a game you already know quite well.

Plus, if Kill Doctor Lucky seems less family-friendly than you’d prefer, you can always call this Spook Doctor Lucky and give it a Scooby-Doo-esque twist.

Doctor Lucky’s Mansion That Is Haunted (and the Deluxe 19.5th Anniversary edition of Kill Doctor Lucky) are available from Cheapass Games. And the expansion is also featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!


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Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors: Angela Halsted

One of the Daily POP Crosswords app’s best features is the level of involvement from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh themed crosswords.

And over the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing you to some of them. Some names you may know, some you may not, but they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

In this installment, allow us to introduce you to constructor Angela Halsted!

How did you get started in crosswords?

I solved crosswords off and on when I was a kid but it wasn’t until 2006 that I got obsessed with them. I don’t even remember what puzzle I was doing, but I was Googling for an answer and came upon the Rex Parker blog. I loved the blog and I loved all the commentary, and that made me want to solve puzzles every day so I could participate.

The first time I decided to comment on the blog, I was required to have a username. I wasn’t very creative and I just felt like I was in a hurry to share my thoughts, so I typed in “PuzzleGirl.” Pretty boring. But it’s stuck all these years!

I submitted my first puzzle to The New York Times in December 2008. It was… terrible. But I knew it was something I could be good at if I kept trying. My first published puzzle was a collaboration with Michael Sharp in The Los Angeles Times in January 2011. Since then, I have had puzzles published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The AV Club, The Wall Street Journal, and other venues. Most of those are collaborations with Doug Peterson, though I’ve also collaborated with Jeff Chen and Erik Agard.

The part I have the most trouble with when constructing is coming up with the theme. I think that’s why I collaborate so much. For me, it’s a lot easier (and more fun) to brainstorm and hone a theme with a partner.

What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Crosswords?

Oh, speaking of themes, one reason I like writing puzzles for Daily POP Crosswords so much is that the themes can be very simple, which I can handle! Also, I feel like I’m getting a lot of practice generating themes so maybe I’ll get better at it with puzzles for other venues too.

But the best thing about writing for Daily POP Crosswords is working with Patti Varol. She is a phenomenal editor. She is so smart, so efficient, and so motivated. I have a blast talking with her about puzzles and I’m learning a LOT from her.

I also really love being a part of this project because the puzzles are accessible to new solvers. That’s who these puzzles target and I hope they appeal to people who might be really interested in trying crosswords but are intimidated by harder puzzles.

When I had my first Friday themeless published in The New York Times earlier this year, I couldn’t really distribute it to my co-workers, you know? It was hard and probably would have just made them feel bad about themselves. But I’m constantly telling people about Daily POP Crosswords because I know the puzzles are accessible to new solvers and there’s a possibility they’ll get hooked!

I guess the last thing I want to mention is that Patti has assembled a great group of constructors that includes many women. She is also very open to themes about women. And I like that because crossword publishing and construction are generally male-dominated.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are male crossword constructors. But it’s nice to see someone branching out a little. I hope Daily POP Crosswords will inspire women solvers to take up constructing. That would be amazing.


A huge thank you to Angela for her time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles in the Daily POP Crosswords app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!