Crosswords as Pop Culture Shorthand?

In television and movies, there are a lot of different techniques for revealing character traits. While some shows spend time developing their characters and slowly revealing their traits to the audience, other shows rely on visual shorthand. You often see a letterman’s jacket for a jock, or glasses for a nerdy boy or a mousy girl.

The act of solving a crossword puzzle has also become visual shorthand in pop culture. Crosswords often serve as a universal sign of intelligence.

In an episode of Jimmy Neutron, Sheen is shown solving a crossword puzzle in ink. This is an instantaneous sign that his brainpower has increased. (And when Cindy points out that her dad does the same thing, Sheen one-ups her by saying the puzzle is from The Beijing Times.)

It could have been math or organization or memorization, but instead, they went with crosswords.

In The Wire, the show uses a scene with a crossword to reveal that there’s more to street-smart Omar Little than meets the eye. Before testifying at Bird’s trial, he helps the bailiff with a crossword clue, identifying the Greek god of war as Ares. The scene immediately punches holes in several stereotypes both characters and viewers might have about the character.

This also happens on Mad Men, where one of the founders of the company is solving a crossword, only to be corrected by one of the secretaries. For that brief moment, the playing field has been levelled.

And because crosswords are seen as this visual shorthand for intelligence, they’re also used as a intellectual measuring stick, for better or for worse.

Rachel on Friends struggled with a crossword for an entire episode to prove she didn’t need anyone’s help, but still has to obliquely obtain information from others to finish the puzzle.

In an episode of House, M.D., House goes speed-dating, and is initially intrigued by a woman who brought a crossword puzzle with her. But when he notices she’s filled in random words instead of actually solving it — in order to pass herself off as someone she’s not — he quickly bursts her bubble in typically acerbic fashion.

P.G. Wodehouse loved to reveal the intelligence — or lack thereof — of characters through the use of crossword clues as fodder for banter. And that’s because it works. The audience draws conclusions based on these interactions.

In a fifth-season episode of Angel, a doctor is shown asking his receptionist for random crossword clues, only to fail at answering several. This immediately colors the audience’s opinion of him.

Crosswords can also be used as a mirror to reflect differences between characters. On The West Wing, President Bartlet couldn’t get past his own presuppositions and assumptions to properly complete the puzzle, while the First Lady had no problem navigating the same puzzle because of her own diplomatic skills.

Similarly, the parents in an episode of Phineas and Ferb show off their dynamic while solving a crossword. The father implies that every answer is obvious, and then waits for his wife to actually provide the answer. It says volumes about him, her, and the two of them as a pair.

But all of this raises the question: is this fair? Is the one-to-one association of crosswords and intelligence in pop culture valid?

[Check out this stock image from Deposit Photo.]

Crosswords are, essentially, piles of trivia and information, crisscrossing vocabulary locked behind clever or vague cluing. But are intelligence and access to information the same thing?

I mean, we’ve discussed the issue of crossword accessibility in the past. Many female constructors, constructors of color, and LGBTQIA+ constructors are helping to change the language used in crosswords, but plenty of people still see them as the domain of older white men. Which implies it’s not actually intelligence, just what older white men deem to be reflective of intelligence.

For a long time, pop culture clues were considered unwelcome or verboten. Beneath the crossword, even. Different editors bring different definitions of what’s appropriate for the puzzle.

And if people associate crosswords with intelligence because of this visual shorthand, and they don’t see themselves reflected in the puzzle, then they suffer from that jagged flip side of the pop culture coin. They’re excluded because of the measuring stick.

I realize most of the examples I cite above are intended to be humorous. Bartlet’s wrong answers are meant to be funny, as is Rachel’s struggle or the dad’s inability to answer on Phineas and Ferb.

But it’s worth mentioning that anyone who feels like they’ve been rapped across the knuckles by the measuring stick carries that with them. I’ve seen it plenty of times when I tell somebody that I work in puzzles. If they “can’t do them,” they look down when they say it. They already carry that visual shorthand with them.

While it’s fascinating that crosswords are part of that immediately recognizable pop culture lexicon, I also kinda wish that they weren’t.


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Puzzly Tombstones for October 1st!

[Image courtesy of How To With Kristin.]

It’s October 1st, and for many folks, it’s the official start of the spookiest of seasons, aka the lead-up to Halloween.

One of the things I really enjoy about the weeks before Halloween is seeing the decorations go up, and wondering just how elaborate they’re going to get. One house near me does a big fake spider web every year that’s made out of rope and dominates half of their yard!

But it’s the little fake tombstones that get me. It’s a simple thing, but I quite enjoy how people always put something interesting on them. Sometimes it’s funny inside jokes, or silly punny names like Bart Simpson would use to prank Moe the bartender on The Simpsons.

And it occurs to me that we as puzzlers could get in on this. Puzzly tombstone decorations! Why not?

Here are a few real-world examples to spark some ideas for you.

This gorgeous design adorns the gravestone of Michael and Elisabeth Ayrton. He was a painter and sculptor, and she was a writer.

It’s simple, but quite lovely.

headstone0

If you wanted, you could recreate this puzzly tribute that took passersby a century to finally unravel.

In a similar vein, this tombstone hides a simple message in thousands of different ways, if you know where to get started.

You could hide a coded message on them, like James Leeson did with his own tombstone in the Trinity Churchyard in Manhattan.

You could even offer a riddle or puzzly epitaph for people to solve, like this one found on the gravestone of Henry Rogers in Christchurch Priory in Dorset.

So what do you think, fellow PuzzleNationers? Will you be decorating with any puzzle-inspired tombstones? Or maybe you have something else that’s puzzle-inspired in store for Halloween.

Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Well, summer’s over, but we still have deals galore for you to check out. You can find them on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

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PuzzleNation First Look: The Case of the Golden Idol

Case of Golden Idol steam logo 616 x 353

Video games have taken puzzles in some fascinating directions. From Limbo and Little Nightmares to Portal and The Talos Principle, puzzling constantly adapts and evolves across many platforms.

One of the most intriguing developments is how modern video games combine logic/deduction puzzles with visual mystery stories for the player to unravel.

After seeing our writeup of Return of the Obra Dinn, the team at Color Gray Games reached out to us with a puzzly investigation demo to try out, intriguingly named The Case of the Golden Idol.

Naturally, we couldn’t resist an offer like that. To put the game through its paces, we recruited friend of the blog Laura — puzzler, gamer, cat (and Cats) enthusiast, and former Tabletop Tournament Champion — to accept the case and give us a comprehensive review.

So, without further ado, let’s turn things over to Laura for her thoughts on the demo of The Case of the Golden Idol.


lady

In a cozy 18th-century inn, a crew of people whiles away the evening playing cards round a table. Upstairs, a man lies murdered in his room. Who was he? Why was he killed? Whodunit? And how?

These are the questions you’ll answer in the Steam demo for The Case of the Golden Idol, a pixel art detective game from two-person Latvian studio Color Gray Games. Cast in the role of crime-solver, your job is to investigate several cases and put the pieces together, a phrase that Color Gray Games takes quite literally.

The investigation element of Golden Idol — its “exploring” tab — will feel familiar to those who have played point-and-click adventures before. As you scrutinize each frame, you can click on points of interest to learn more information. As you do so, you’ll gather clues in the form of words — names, locations, objects, etc. — that populate the bottom of your screen, ready to be used in the game’s “thinking” tab.

There, you’ll drag-and-drop your collected words to match names with faces and reconstruct the events of the case in a fill-in-the-blank format.

cliffside_solver

Golden Idol’s demo offers four cases in total. The first is simple enough to be solved in a matter of minutes, and the second is only marginally more difficult. Taken together, they feel more like a tutorial than anything else, giving you a grasp of the mechanics without taxing your mind very heavily.

Thankfully, the latter two cases beef up the complexity. They offer deeper mysteries that the player can sink their teeth into, and it’s here where the demo truly shines. At its best, The Case of the Golden Idol’s demo plays like an engaging, interactive logic problem. These cases serve you a platter of multiple suspects, all with motives and means, as well as red herrings to potentially lead you astray.

There’s little room for getting truly stuck, though. In each environment, the “hotspots” for clues are easy to spot. The art, while not as eye-poppingly pretty as other pixel games, is never muddy or unclear, and in each case, I found the clues with no frustration. Still, the demo offers a toggle that shows all hotspots with a bright visual cue, a great option for visually impaired players, or someone who just needs a bit of help finding that last missing word.

Golden Idol’s drag-and-drop nature does leave itself vulnerable to brute-forcing, however, especially as your solving nears its end. Each area of its “thinking” tab, once entirely filled in, will tell you if you’re right or wrong, and there’s no punishment for an incorrect guess. So if you’ve correctly identified your key players, for example, but don’t know the culprit, you could easily test your suspects one by one until you found the right answer. None of these cases has so many moving pieces that this is unreasonable.

outside

But doing this would sap the fun out of it, and if logic problems and murder mysteries are your cup of tea, Golden Idol is just that: a fun flex of your deductive skills, played solo or with a partner at your side to discuss theories with. Crack all of the demo’s cases and you’ll even see the threads (and the titular golden idol) connecting them.

How satisfying that overarching story will be, and how far Color Gray Games can go with their established mechanics, is yet to be determined. As a proof of concept, though, The Case of the Golden Idol’s demo certainly does enough to intrigue.

Ratings for The Case of the Golden Idol demo:

  • Enjoyability: 4/5Golden Idol isn’t for everyone, but if this is your niche, you’ll likely enjoy it. Its replayability is low, but such is the nature of mystery games.
  • How well puzzles are incorporated: 5/5 — The game is the puzzle; the puzzle is the game.
  • Graphics: 3.5/5 — Indie games have flooded with pixel art in recent years, and competition is fierce. I’ve seen art, particularly character art, that wowed more, but Golden Idol‘s lighting and colors still create a distinct atmosphere.
  • Gameplay: 4/5Golden Idol’s demo is mechanically accessible and easy to learn, and the loop of gathering & piecing together clues is satisfying, particularly in the more complex cases.

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Puzzling and Brain Health Update: Crosswords and Jigsaw Puzzles

brain health

[Loads of images come up when you google “brain health” or “brain fitness,”
but I liked this one much more than all of the ones with brains lifting barbells.]

“Brain health.” “Brain fitness.” “Brain-training.” Ever since I started writing for PuzzleNation Blog, I’ve been chronicling the debate over whether solving puzzles makes a verifiable, detectable impact on brain function, development, and overall health.

There are plenty of puzzle magazines, apps, websites, and services that claim to help with brain fitness. Some make vague assertions related to memory, mental flexibility, and other cognitive functions. Others are insanely specific, promising to reverse the aging process or to help prevent the onset of dementia and other cognitive difficulties later in life.

(Examples of the latter style of advertisement are rarer these days after Lumosity’s two-million-dollar payout for falsely advertising that their puzzle games could “reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions,” as well as “stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.”)

cogs-in-the-shape-of-a-human-brain-ryger

[This puzzle by Ryger can be found here!]

Whether we’re talking short-term or long-term benefits to brain health from puzzling, you’ll find dozens of articles online arguing both sides. Unfortunately, so much of the data out there is inconclusive, or is hindered by test groups too small to be applicable to the general population.

However, the positive, verifiable data we can find is encouraging.

Tetris has been used by researchers to help people suffering from traumatic flashbacks, a type of post-traumatic stress. The University of Exeter conducted a study involving more than 19,000 participants that concluded that adults age 50 and older who regularly solve puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku have better brain function than those who do not.

(While 19,000 is still relatively small when compared to millions upon millions of adults over 50, it’s still one of the largest test groups yet assembled for brain health studies related to puzzles.)

dory

And while people are always discussing short-term memory or long-term memory and how they relate to puzzle solving, it turns out there’s a middle ground between the two that crosswords may have a positive effect on. An article from Scientific American last year discussed how crossword solving engages the episodic buffer, one of the mechanisms related to our working memory, our ability to temporarily hold information while performing cognitive tasks.

Most cognitive activities engage the working memory through either verbal components or visuospatial components. (Visuospatial means how we perceive the relationships between different objects in multiple dimensions). But as it turns out, while playing Scrabble or solving crosswords, both visuospatial and verbal components are utilized by the short-term memory.

Of course, this is preliminary work, and there’s so much more to learn about short-term and long-term memory, but apparently, wordplay like Scrabble and crosswords could have a unique effect on how our working memory functions. That’s pretty cool!

But they’re not the only puzzles that we’ve discovered some fascinating new details about. Jigsaw puzzles can have a positive effect on the brain during the solving process.

BrainGames-scaled

Now, like crosswords and Sudoku puzzles, jigsaw puzzles have been the subject of several articles claiming they can help with brain health (or even decrease the presence of Beta-amyloid protein in the brain, a major component of the plaque that indicates Alzheimer’s disease). But I cannot verify those facts in scientific journals to my satisfaction, so I’m tabling that part of the argument.

What I do want to talk about it is how jigsaw puzzle solving can induce a mental state similar to dreaming, one that helps with stress, relaxation, and mood.

The company Sanesco Health is heralded as an industry leader in neurotransmitter testing, and according to an article on their site, placing those tricky little pieces in the right places can do you a world of good:

The connections made while working on jigsaw puzzles aren’t limited to our brain cells. Exercising both sides of the brain simultaneously also allows the brain to move from a Beta state, the wakeful mind, into an “Alpha” state, the same mental state experienced while dreaming. The Alpha state is where we tap into our subconscious mind.

Jigsaw puzzles naturally induce this state of creative, focused meditation, where connections can be made on deeper levels. And that release of dopamine with every puzzle piece you successfully place is an added bonus! Dopamine causes improved motor skills, an increase in concentration, optimism, confidence, and an enhanced recollection.

[Imagine how restful she felt after this!]

Considering that jigsaw puzzle sales spiked during the pandemic — with some outlets reporting sales increases of up to 500% — it sounds like people were either consciously or subconsciously making the perfect choice to cope with the stresses of lockdown.

As always, we’ll keep our eye out for any additional data on these findings.

But in the meantime, happy puzzling! It might be good for you!


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Well, summer’s over, but we still have deals galore for you to check out. You can find them on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

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Solution to the Peppermint Patty Brain Teaser!

[Image courtesy of SharpBrains.com.]

A week ago, we shared a brain teaser sent in by a PuzzleNationer named Bethany, who challenged us to solve the following stumper.

Today, we’re going to share not only the solution, but how we got there! Please enjoy this brief solve and tutorial, inspired by one of your fellow PuzzleNationers!


The Peppermint Patty Riddle

You’re facing your friend, Caryn, in a “candy-off,” which works as follows: There’s a pile of one hundred caramels and one peppermint patty. You and Caryn will go back and forth taking at least one and no more than five caramels from the candy pile in each turn. The person who removes the last caramel will also get the peppermint patty. And you love peppermint patties.

Suppose Caryn lets you decide who goes first. Who should you choose in order to make sure you win the peppermint patty?


When I posted this brain teaser, I said that “the question basically demands that you not only achieve victory, but figure out how to do so with your very first move.”

That was meant to be a hint. Because the best way to unravel this riddle is to start at the end.

Look at the last turn. If there are five or fewer caramels left on the board and it’s Caryn’s turn, she wins. For you to guarantee a win, she needs to see six caramels on her last turn. (Seven or more allows her to take just enough to leave YOU with six, which means she wins on her next turn.)

And that six is the magic number. Her previous turn, you need to leave her with 12 caramels. The turn before that, 18 caramels. The turn before that, 24. And so on and so on.

Why? Simple.

caramel

Let’s look at the 12 caramel turn. If she takes any number of caramels (anywhere from 1 to 5), she’ll leave you with between 11 and 7 caramels. You can use your turn to remove whatever number of caramels are necessary (anywhere from 5 to 1) to leave her with six.

The entire game can be broken into six-caramel increments.

And the closest multiple of 6 to 100 (your starting point) is 96 caramels.

Which means you can’t let Caryn go first. You need to remove 4 caramels on your first turn, and then use every subsequent turn to ensure Caryn faces a multiple of six, which eventually gives you the victory and the peppermint patty.

So the answer to the riddle is you should go first.

Diabolical!

Did you solve the brain teaser, fellow PuzzleNationer? Or do you have a brain teaser you’d like us to unravel with you? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Well, summer’s over, but we still have deals galore for you to check out. You can find them on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

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How to Define Success vs. Failure in Roleplaying Games

Roleplaying games are some of my absolute favorite pastimes. The simple act of telling a story with friends is rejuvenating for me. I love sitting at a table — or on a Zoom call — with friends and collectively creating an adventure in our imaginations.

I know that the dice and the rulebooks and all the numbers can be daunting for new players, but honestly, they’re just the laws of physics, fate, and chance given form. In the simplest form, roleplaying games consist of you telling the gamemaster / dungeon master / game runner what you want to do, and the dice determining how it goes.

In many RPGs, there’s a success/failure line. If you roll above a certain number, you succeeded. If you roll below it, you failed.

[Image from Stranger Things courtesy of The Verge.]

That’s certainly simple enough. But it can be frustrating for some players, new and old. After all, if you had to beat a 15 and you rolled a 14, why should the result be the same as if you’d rolled a 2? The 14 is much closer, after all.

Some roleplaying games stick to the strict success/failure model. But others have a different approach that players might find more rewarding.

star-wars-edge-empire-rpg-core_1_97bac45707850006a463c742ecc746af

Fantasy Flight Games offers a Star Wars-themed roleplaying game that has one of my favorite dice systems. There are different colored dice that represent different aspects of the game (your character’s ability to do something, the difficulty of the action they’re attempting, advantages and disadvantages to their action at the time, etc.), and the dice don’t have the traditional number values you’d expect.

Instead, they have symbols that represent success, failure, advantage, threat, triumph, and despair.

So, depending on the dice roll, it’s not just a success or a failure. You can have an overwhelming success, or an overwhelming failure, or many things in between. You can fail at the task, but end up with something unexpected and advantageous still happening. Or you can succeed, but with some consequence.

It opens up the narrative floodgates WAY beyond the success/failure binary option, and it has led to some of my absolute favorite moments in roleplaying.

Naturally, this requires a little more creativity from both the player and the game runner, but together, you can tell some fantastic adventures.

81YTNmLLMLL

Ninja Burger is a humorous quickplay roleplaying game that uses standard six-sided dice. In the game, you’re a ninja secretly delivering fast food. It’s very silly and great fun.

One rule in the game that can lead to enjoyable chaos AND take the sting out of the traditional success/failure mechanic of roleplaying games is that you are instructed to act as if you never fail. Even if you’re failed a roll.

So, say you’re using wujenitsu (ninja magic) to pretend to be a bag of golf clubs to sneak into a country club. But you failed your roll. The caddy who grabbed you is clearly carrying a ninja on his back, not a bag of golf clubs.

But you must proceed as if you succeeded, no matter how ridiculous things get.

Sure, failure has consequences in any game, even silly ones, but if you’re in on the joke, then failure isn’t so bad. Especially if you can find a way to make your friends laugh along the way.

dreadJenga

Dread is a roleplaying game that doesn’t use dice at all. Instead, you set up a Jenga-style tower of blocks, and to accomplish certain tasks, you have to pull a certain number of blocks from the tower without collapsing it.

It’s a brilliantly simple way to add tension to a game AND put your fate in your own hands. There’s no single unlucky dice roll that can condemn you to defeat. Just gravity and your own steady (or unsteady) hand.

And of course, as the game continues and the tower grows unsteadier — and your options for wood blocks to pull become fewer and fewer — the tension mounts and mounts.

Eventually, the tower — and your character’s chances — collapse in a clatter.

[Image courtesy of Lewis Brown.]

Of course, the rules of every roleplaying game are eventually up to the people running/playing the game. If you decide that the success/failure rules of your game should be more nuanced, you can do something about it immediately.

But for new players and new game runners, sometimes it helps to remind them there are always other options available. Whether you ditch numbers entirely for narrative dice like in FFG Star Wars, pretend failure isn’t failure at all in Ninja Burger, or ignore the dice completely with something like Dread, you can still build tension and tell some wonderfully fun, exciting, and action-filled stories.

Good luck, and happy roleplaying, everyone!


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Well, summer’s over, but we still have deals galore for you to check out. You can find them on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

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