The Mind-blowing Variety of Puzzles

[A sampling of puzzles of many sorts: crosswords, puzzle boxes,
mechanical brain teasers, tile puzzles, riddles, and more!]

It really is incredible how many forms puzzles can take.

Think about it. Whether you’re talking Rubik’s Cubes, cryptograms, jigsaws, Sudoku, brain teasers, riddles, crosswords, escape rooms, tangrams, word seeks, sliding tiles, deduction problems, coded messages, or anagrams, they all fall under the umbrella of puzzles.

A puzzle can be as simple as pencil and paper or as complex as a multi-stage puzzle hunt or escape room, replete with codes, keys, hidden buttons, mechanical devices to assemble or utilize, and more. The folks at ThinkFun, for instance, have employed everything from ropes and magnets to lasers and mirrors in their puzzles.

That’s some extreme variety.

And the field of possibilities only widens when we add video game puzzles to the mix. We’ve previously talked about games like Tetris and Portal, where you must think in 2D and 3D respectively. We’ve seen games where you change the rules of the world to proceed or even interfere with the coding of the game itself to solve problems.

In the last few years, indie game designers and big studios alike have produced puzzle games that continue to push the boundaries of puzzly minds.

For instance, in Iris Fall you solve puzzles and maneuver around obstacles by playing with light and shadow. By moving light sources and interacting with the environment, both the light and the shadows it creates allow your character to play with perspective and illusion in order to accomplish tasks. It’s very cool!

In a similar vein, the game Superliminal challenges you to solve puzzles and move from room to room by shifting perspective. For instance, if you pick up a small item and then pull it close to you so that it looks bigger, it BECOMES bigger.

Check out this playthrough to see this mindbending puzzler in action:

The game Maquette works off of a similar concept, but requires you to think in both big and small terms. In Maquette, you have a city to explore, and in order to do so, you also need to manipulate a miniature version of the city that affects the world outside.

For instance, there’s a bridge with the center path missing. How can you reach the other side with only a key in your hands?

Easy. You take the key, place it over the same bridge gap in the miniature, and then walk back to the real bridge, where a giant version of that key is now spanning the gap.

And now there’s Viewfinder, a game where you use a Polaroid-style camera to take pictures that you can then place into a three-dimensional world and turn them into structures you can interact with and solve problems!

These sorts of puzzle games help reinforce one of the fundamental rules of puzzle-solving: always be willing to change your perspective and come at the puzzle from another angle. It works with wordplay, it works with brain teasers, and it works in three-dimensional perspective puzzles in video games.

What’s your favorite flavor of puzzles, fellow PuzzleNationers? Have you learned something from one kind of puzzle that you’ve been able to apply in another style of puzzling? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Themeless Crosswords Vs. Themed Crosswords?

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When you think of crossword puzzles, what comes to mind? The grid first, or maybe the clues? When you picture your default crossword, is it a themed puzzle or themeless?

I ask because something of a kerfuffle was sparked on Twitter over the weekend regarding themeless puzzles vs. themed puzzles, and as you might expect, fellow puzzler, I have thoughts on the subject.

So how did all this start? With a blog post by crossword reviewer Rex Parker.

If you’re unaware, Rex is a constructor in his own right, but is far better known in the crossword world for his curmudgeonly reviews of the New York Times crossword. He frequently makes fair points, but they can be lost amid his personal views regarding particular clues and entries. (Often, if he doesn’t know it, it’s obscure. Which is not the same thing at all.) He’s sort of a “you love him or you don’t” figure in the crossword sphere.

I genuinely believe his commentary, however inconsistent or caustic at times, comes from a sincere desire to be engaged, entertained, and wowed by the puzzles he is so clearly invested in. But again, sometimes he can’t see the forest for the trees, and when your brand is “guy who bellyaches about crosswords,” you often play into what people expect from you.

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[Now, to be fair, Rex is no Grandpa Simpson. But I simply couldn’t resist, given how he’s become synonymous with “grumpy fan who knows better than you.” And I’m so so very tired of gatekeeping fandom in general.]

And on Sunday, he carved into a Robyn Weintraub 21x themeless crossword with some serious vitriol:

This is very good for what it is, but unfortunately (for me), what it is is a Sunday themeless, and these are just never going to be interesting to me. As I’ve said before, it’s a giant (literally, giant! 21×21!) shrug. A Sunday-sized “we give up, here’s some stuff.” It’s too easy to be that interesting, and since the grid is so big, the construction doesn’t feel particularly special.

That is, yeah, you can get a lot of longish answers into a 21×21. There’s lots of room. I just don’t care as much as I ought to care. And today’s grid shape was really vanilla. No, wait, I like vanilla. A vanilla malt is the best thing in the world. Let’s call it “boilerplate” instead. It looks like a template of some kind. It’s a very clean grid, and many of the entries here are interesting, but the overall effect of said entries in a Sunday themeless is ho-hum.

There’s a reason the NYTXW didn’t do Sunday themelesses until, what, like two or three years ago? It’s because they’re a cop-out. I hear that some people enjoy them. I’m happy for them. For me, they’re a non-event. There’s no real low, no real high, just … middle middle middle. Time passes, and then the puzzle is done. Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest. Certainly, from a blogging perspective, this is much much worse, as there’s really hardly anything to say.

Wow.

Now, this post is not intended to be a burial of Rex and his opinions. Even though I wholeheartedly disagree with his dim view of his puzzle.

It’s worth discussing because I’m someone who didn’t initially get the appeal of themeless crosswords.

weintraub themeless

[Robyn’s thoroughly impressive Sunday themeless grid.]

I’ve always liked puzzles, and tried my hand at solving New York Times-level crosswords many times before I ended up as part of the puzzle world. Once I really immersed myself in themed puzzles, I quickly started to appreciate the amount of skill, creativity, and hard work that went into a satisfying themed crossword.

I was slower to come around on themeless puzzles. I liked figuring out the trick of a themed puzzle, and I didn’t give themeless puzzles much thought. Thankfully, friends of the blog Patti Varol and Keith Yarborough (both of whom also helped open my eyes to so many terrific puzzle outlets and constructors) encouraged me to solve themeless puzzles more.

And I started to see that you don’t need a theme to show off the same skill, creativity, and hard work that goes into a crossword.

As I said in my wrap-up of the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League (yeah, I went from never solving themeless crosswords to eagerly anticipating a two-month tournament full of them!):

I really enjoyed seeing what creative constructors could do with crosswords once freed from the shackles of a theme. The long, crossing entries can certainly be intimidating at the start — especially if you read three or four clues in a row and feel like your brain has gone blank — but the sheer inventiveness of the entries you get to see, often stacked close together, is really cool.

And, like a jigsaw puzzle, the solving experience sneaks up on you. You get a few words here, a few letters there, and suddenly everything starts to fall into place. Clues that eluded you make total sense on a second or third reading, or the now-obvious wordplay punches you in the face.

Eventually, you’re left with a full grid and a real sense of accomplishment. (Not to mention a growing sense of wonder that the constructor managed to make all those crossings work.)

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And it’s disappointing that an influential voice in crosswords sees a themeless Sunday puzzle as a waste of time. (Constructor Eric Berlin has rightfully noted that Rex isn’t against all themeless puzzles, and has stated in the past that he often looks forward to the Friday themeless.)

Which makes it all the more strange that he’d choose to die on this particular hill. Robyn is a well-respected constructor, and her byline alone is a welcome sight for many puzzle fans, themeless or themed. The response online to this themeless puzzle was very positive overall; even in the comments section of Rex’s blog post, the majority of the responses celebrated Robyn’s themeless as a terrific solve.

I would argue that the occasional Sunday themeless puzzle is a good thing. Not only is it a nice break from the expected norm, but having puzzles the caliber of this one will bring more eyes to the merits of themeless crosswords in general.

The sheer variety in fresh, exciting, and thought-provoking grid entries alone makes them worthwhile. Themed puzzles are great, obviously, but they can also severely limit how interesting you can make the rest of the grid once the theme has been figured out.

Great constructors and engaging cluing can overcome that, but it’s a limitation that themeless crosswords simply don’t have. The fill is EVERYTHING, and that pushes constructors to be as creative as possible with their grid designs, the often ambitious crossings and stacks of long entries, and all that delightfully unexpected vocabulary.

Rex says, “Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest.”

I think you’ll find many solvers and constructors disagree. There’s as much beauty and value in a skilled themeless as there is in a deftly-constructed themed puzzle.

And to say a well-constructed themeless is on par with a “disastrous” themed puzzle is just ridiculous. Sure, for his brand, he gets more mileage taking apart a bad puzzle than discussing a good one, but a good solve and good blog fodder aren’t the same thing at all.

As I said before, you can learn a lot from Rex’s blog. Plenty of constructors have gleaned valuable lessons about theme entries, grid fill, and more from his critiques. But punching down against a particular style of crosswording benefits no one, particularly when it can easily be misconstrued as a shot against themeless puzzles in general..

Thank you, Robyn Weintraub, for a banger of a Sunday puzzle, and thank you, Evan Birnholz, for championing the cause of themeless crosswords (and bringing this to my attention.)

Do you enjoy themeless puzzles, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Eyes Open #22

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

Last week marked one hundred years since the Tulsa Race Massacre. Thirty-five blocks of Black-owned businesses and homes in the Greenwood District were looted and destroyed across two days. There were numerous reports of aerial bombardment during the attacks, meaning Tulsa was the first U.S city bombed from the air… and by those meant to protect it.

The death toll for Tulsa ranges somewhere between 100 and 300 people. (Though some historians stubbornly cling to the idea that less than 30 Black people were killed.)

And sadly, many people had never heard of the 1921 Tulsa riots before HBO’s Watchmen TV show featured it as part of their storyline.

This is only one example of a staggering number of crucial events, both positive and negative, from American history that were whitewashed, erased, and purposely excluded from school curricula and downplayed by white-centric historians.

Paul Gardullo, the curator of an exhibit on the Tulsa Race Massacre at the African American Museum of History in Washington, points out Tulsa is not an isolated incident. There are “many silences” in American history having to do with racial violence, whether a widespread riot or more mundane cases that “people paper over and don’t talk about.”

So while Tulsa is finally getting some much deserved attention from the public and modern historians, there are other tragedies still relegated to the dusty corners of American history and carefully concealed from the history books.

This puzzle is intended to cast a light on some of those events, some as old or older than Tulsa, some shockingly recent. The grid is also designed with small staircase-shaped black spaces in the center, meant to represent how quickly small steps escalate into dark actions.

I hope this puzzle serves to engage you as a solver and encourage you to learn more about these important, tragic historic events and help bring them to greater prominence and awareness. There are some links offered below for those interested in learning more.

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

Informational Links:

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.
AAPI lives matter.

Answers to our Double Feature Movie Title Opposites Game!

double-feature

Last Friday, we closed out the week with a movie title game for you. We paired off film titles that were opposites, and offered a few clues for each pairing.

With only the genre of each film, the year of release for each, and one star from each film, could you puzzle out each double feature?

We posted fifteen pairings for you to figure out! Let’s go to the movies and see the results!


#1
-Comedy, Romcom
-1985, 1995
-Madeline Kahn, Paul Rudd
(Bonus hint: Tim Curry, Alicia Silverstone)

double feature 1

#2
-Action/Crime, Drama/Crime
-1995, 1990
-Will Smith, Robert DeNiro
(Bonus hint: Martin Lawrence, Joe Pesci)

double feature 2

#3
-Holiday/Musical, Horror
-1954, 1974
-Rosemary Clooney, Margot Kidder
(Bonus hint: Bing Crosby, Olivia Hussey)

double feature 3

#4
-Western, Fantasy/Romance
-1952, 2008
-Gary Cooper, Kristen Stewart

double feature 4

#5
-Comedy, Comedy
-1985, 1994
-Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey

double feature 5

#6
-Drama/Musical, Action
-1980, 2021
-Irene Cara, Bob Odenkirk

double feature 6

#7
-Comedy/Drama, Drama
-2006, 1988
-Steve Carell, Tom Cruise
(Bonus hint: Abigail Breslin, Dustin Hoffman)

double feature 7

#8
-Holiday/Comedy, Animation/Adventure
-1990, 2001
-Macauley Culkin, Hayao Miyazaki

double feature 8

#9
-Romcom, Sci-Fi/Action
-1986, 2014
-Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise

double feature 9

#10
-Drama/Biographical, Action
-1993, 1988
-Ethan Hawke, Bruce Willis

double feature 10

#11
-Sci-Fi/Comedy, Comedy(?)
-1997, 2004
-Tommy Lee Jones, Marlon Wayans

double feature 11

#12
-Horror, Romance
-1987, 1995
-Bill Paxton, Ethan Hawke

double feature 12

#13
-Comedy, Horror
-1989, 2018
-John Travolta, Emily Blunt

double feature 13

#14
-Action/Crime, Horror
-1973, 2017
-Bruce Lee, Daniel Kaluuya

double feature 14

#15
-Drama, Sci-Fi/Comedy
-1994, 1993
-Winona Ryder, Daryl Hannah

double feature 15


How many did you figure out, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Malaika Handa!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the sixth edition of our series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Malaika Handa as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

You have to be fairly ambitious to get into constructing crosswords, but Malaika Handa is setting the bar pretty high.

Less than a year into her cruciverbalism career, she’s already been published in outlets like Grids These Days, Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and the American Values Club Crossword.

But she’s best known as the creator and curator of 7xwords, an attempt to create a puzzle for every possible 7×7 crossword grid in a single year. If that’s not impressive enough, she launched 7xwords after having only constructed crosswords for a few months!

Malaika was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Malaika Handa

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I started solving the New York Times puzzle about two years ago, when I got a job that had a commute. Eventually, we switched to working from home, but I still would solve the puzzle every morning. I didn’t realize regular people could make puzzles (“crossword constructor” felt akin to “astronaut” in terms of attainability) until a crossword blogger I liked refilled a corner as an example of how to make it better. That blew my mind! I started making mini puzzles in Excel, and then finally bought Crossfire around October 2020. Hand gridding is not for me, I’ve learned!

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

I really don’t think there’s such a thing as a canonical great puzzle– or if there is, I am frankly uninterested. Appealing to every single solver seems like an impossible task, and a good way to end up with a puzzle that’s a little flat and lifeless. I like to solve puzzles that are fun for me, Malaika Handa, to solve! (I hope that framing doesn’t seem selfish.) Puzzles with pop culture references that I know, computer / math stuff, make-up / fashion stuff, Twitter slang.

Adam Aaronson had a puzzle with SYNTACTIC SUGAR in it, and I plunked it in with no crossings. I solved the rest of the puzzle floating on a cloud. I love that term so much– when I was a teaching assistant in college (one of my favorite jobs I’ve had) I taught it to my students, and I think it is a lovely and evocative phrase. I bet a lot of people had never heard of SYNTACTIC SUGAR before, so maybe that was really tough for them, but that’s okay. We don’t have to have the same opinion on everything.

What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own? 

When I write puzzles, I like to use fill and clues that make me really excited, even if it’s things other people might not have heard of. (I think that’s called “voice,” by the way.) Once I clued ISLA as [Stephanie Perkins’ heroine] and all my test solvers said they had never heard of that reference. I kept it in the puzzle anyway.

Then my older sister solved it and when she got to that clue, she texted me with a zillion exclamation points and we freaked out over how good Stephanie Perkins’ books are. My number one advice to other constructors is: If a particular entry doesn’t make you excited, what is it doing in your puzzle? (By the way, sometimes the answer is “it’s holding in place three other entries that make me excited” and I think that’s fine.)

Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?

I love hearing people’s favorite clues. Mine are Robyn Weintraub’s [Batting equipment?] for FAKE EYELASHES, and Mollie Cowger’s [“Thank God it’s Friday”?] for SHABBAT SHALOM, both of which I, no exaggeration, think about probably once a week. My favorite clues that I’ve written are always clues from my most recent puzzles. So right now there’s 50-Across from this puzzle ((Editor’s note: Great clue, but NSFW)), or [Wireless device] from this puzzle.

3. Your 7xwords puzzle blog has become something of a sensation in the puzzle world, shouted out by fellow constructors like Erica Wojcik, Kevin Trickey and May Huang. Where did the concept for 7xwords come from? What have you learned from the project so far? Will 7xwords reach its ambitious goal by week 52?

The site started with the discovery that there are 312 legal 7×7 crossword grids, which works out to a six-days-a-week midi puzzle. (I talk more about the 7xwords origin story and the math behind it in this episode of Fill Me In, at around 24:30. And if you’re curious about the code I used to build the grids, feel free to message me on Twitter!)

I’ve learned so much from this project, I don’t even know where to start. Stuff like “How to make an html page exist on the Internet instead of just locally on my computer” and “Having a separate email address for a project like this will make your life one hundred times easier.” I’ve also gotten a lot better at articulating why a particular clue or crossing feels like it needs improvement. That’s a skill that has come from copy editing *checks notes* about 150 midi puzzles. Back in January, I was operating mostly under vibes (“this feels like it could be better”) but now I can usually identify what needs fixing, and how to fix it.

As for whether we’ll reach the goal… I do have a constructor locked down for every single grid. So it feels very promising. I have also seen that final grid, with no black squares, and it exists. So, even more promising!

4. What’s next for Malaika Handa?

The most concrete thing coming up is my puzzle in the Boswords summer tournament! Registration will open on July 1. Join us!! It’s going to be a super fun time.

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

I would love for solvers to remember that just because they personally didn’t like a puzzle doesn’t (necessarily) mean the puzzle should not have been published. (Sometimes it does, of course. Like Woody Allen tribute puzzles– we can just stop with those.)

Also, when you’re solving, look up entries that you don’t know! It’s a game, not a test.


A huge thank you to Malaika for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to check out her 7xwords puzzle site for both the 7×7 puzzles and her other crosswords! Whatever she does next, I’m sure it will be brilliant!

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It’s International Tabletop Day!

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It’s International Tabletop Day!

Whether you play board games, role-playing games, card games, dice games, puzzles, or logic games, this is the holiday for you, family, and friends to come together and enjoy games.

So, to celebrate, we’ve got a grab-bag of different ideas for you today. Want to learn more about games through video playthroughs? We’ve got you covered. Want to solve a Mix and Match puzzle all about games? We’ve got you covered. Want to play something similar to Monopoly that’s not Monopoly? We’ve got you covered.

Please enjoy this somewhat chaotic sampling of board game-themed goodness in honor of Tabletop Day!


monopoly

Monopoly is the most famous board game in history. We really can’t discuss the topic of board games without mentioning Monopoly.

But Monopoly has its issues. It takes a long time to play, and if you fall behind, it’s incredibly difficult to catch up. Plus, if you get eliminated, it’s not fun to watch other people keep going.

So what do you do if you like some of the game mechanics in Monopoly but not the total package? Easy! Use our handy-dandy guide to find other games that do part (or ALL) of Monopoly better than Monopoly!

Maybe you enjoy buying property and building it up with enhancements and making money with it. That’s great. You should check out Lords of Vegas.

It’s a casino-building game set in the early days of Las Vegas. It’s got play money, dice, all sorts of strategy, plus a gambling mechanic where you can make up for monetary shortfalls. It’s a brilliant game and so so much fun.

Maybe it’s collecting valuable cards, negotiating and trading with other players that you enjoy most about Monopoly. Terrific! You should try Sheriff of Nottingham.

In Sheriff of Nottingham, players collect cards with different goods to take to market — apples, chickens, bread, and cheese — as well as cards of contraband items (like spices, mead, and weapons). Each turn, one player is the Sheriff, trying to stop the other players from sneaking contraband into the market. So you can bluff, or bribe, or try to sneak goods past the Sheriff, or just play it straight with regular goods.

The game allows for trading, cutting deals, being sneaky, and bonuses for being the person with the most of certain goods (apples, for instance) at the market. It’s so much fun, and allows for lots of fun interaction throughout the game, since nobody is ever eliminated.

Do you like completing colored sets of items? Outmaneuvering other players? Claiming valuable property that other players want? Pretty much everything involved in Monopoly is also part of Ticket to Ride.

In Ticket to Ride, players collect cards and play train cards on a map in order to complete different train routes to earn points. Not only can you score by completing those routes under your banner, but you gain bonus points if you can connect distant locations through your railways.

It covers a lot of the strategy and craftiness that made Monopoly famous, but in a sleeker, quicker package.

Oh, and if you want a totally off-the-walls Monopoly-inspired game, there’s always The Doom That Came to Atlantic City.

In this game, you crush houses to claim properties, play Chants (instead of Chance) cards, and basically try to be the best doomsday cultist at the table, summoning your monstrous god to end the world before the other players can.

It’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek, great fun, and a hilarious inversion of a lot of classic Monopoly tropes. I highly recommend it.


Oh, were you looking for some great video content? We’ve got you covered!

If you’re looking for great recommendations and playthroughs of games that your family will love — like Sushi Go, Codenames, Tak, or Takenoko — Girls’ Game Shelf is one of my favorite YouTube channels. The hosts (Kiki and AnnaMaria) are brilliant and insightful, the players are hilarious, and the game choices are topnotch.

It’s been a few months since they’ve uploaded, but there’s a load of terrific content already waiting for you there. Check out Girls’ Game Shelf!

And for slightly less-family friendly — but still fantastic — fare, No Rolls Barred‘s game playthroughs are uproariously funny. Whether they’re bickering over Telestrations, betraying and misleading each other in epic-length games of Blood on the Clocktower, or simply pitching insane products with Snake Oil, their videos are incredibly entertaining.

Plus the channel has top ten lists of games by genre or play-style, skits, and glimpses of game history. They recently passed 50,000 subscribers on YouTube, and their content keeps getting better. Check them out!


Yes, it’s a puzzle on International Tabletop Day. Hey, we’re PuzzleNation, we’ve got to include some puzzly fun, don’t we?

Today, we’ve got a Mix and Match puzzle for you. Can you anagram these phrases into the names of characters from famous board games, and then match them up with their board game?


How are you celebrating International Tabletop Day? Let us know in the comment section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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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!