5 Questions with PuzzleNation Social Media Manager Glenn Dallas

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!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

For the entire month of August, I’ll be introducing the PuzzleNation readership to many of the members of the PuzzleNation team! So every Thursday this month, you’ll meet a new name and voice responsible for bringing you the best puzzle apps on the market today!

And we’re continuing this series with me, your friendly neighborhood PuzzleNation blogger, as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

My name is Glenn Dallas, and I’m not only lead blogger for PuzzleNation Blog, but also Social Media Manager for PuzzleNation, maintaining and providing content for all of our social media platforms. A lifelong puzzler and board game enthusiast, I try to infuse every blog post with that same level of dedication and passion. Hopefully, I succeed.

I consider it a privilege for me to take some time out to talk to the PuzzleNation audience, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions with Glenn Dallas

1. How did you get started with puzzles and games?

Looking back, it seems like puzzles and games were always around. My mother has always been a dedicated crossword solver. I can remember my older sister playing “School” with me and my younger siblings, using brain teasers and puzzles from old issues of GAMES Magazine as “lessons.” The classic board games were played often — Monopoly, Sorry, Mouse Trap, Battleship, even Trivial Pursuit, which I was probably too young for. But I’ve always been a trivia nerd.

Although formal puzzling fell by the wayside as I got older, wordplay and riddles and the like remained a recurring interest. I would often create puzzle content for friends’ websites or my own blog that involved Say That Again?-style rewording, palindromes, puns, anagrams, portmanteaus, brain teasers, and other forms of wordplay. (And, for a bit of context for long-time internet users, I’m talking about Geocities and Angelfire websites, as well as a blog that pre-dated LiveJournal.)

I got back into puzzles more directly in college when I began playing Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games, because I enjoyed challenging my players with tests beyond the usual monster hunts. So mechanical puzzles, sliding-block puzzles, and more Myst-style puzzle-solving became an interest (along with riddles and such).

After college (and a stint as a TV cameraman), I had an interview at Penny Press and was hired as a puzzle editor, bringing my amateur puzzly skills into a professional setting working on traditional (and non-traditional!) pen-and-paper puzzles like word seeks, crosswords, cryptograms, fill-ins, etc. And more than a decade later, I’m still at it.

2. You’re one of the senior members of the PuzzleNation team, dating back to its earliest days. How has your work for PuzzleNation changed over time and what can you tell us about PuzzleNation as it evolves and moves forward?

That’s true! Originally, I was just pitching in occasionally as a product tester — helping look for bugs or problems with early versions of apps — and I started providing ideas for content to our social media person for Facebook posts. I was a big proponent early on of expanding our efforts to include a blog; it’s a great centerpiece to a social media platform (and one that allows for more control than your average Facebook post).

But I also wanted PuzzleNation Blog to be a hub for all things puzzles and puzzle games, because there’s not really anywhere like that on the Internet. If you like movies, there’s IMDb. If you like books, there’s Goodreads. You’ve got Gizmodo for tech, science, and sci-fi, and Board Game Geek for board games. And although there are plenty of terrific crossword blogs out there, there’s not one central place to go to talk about puzzles in general. I always envisioned PuzzleNation Blog as that place.

When our previous social media person left the company, I was already writing blog posts once or twice a week (alongside Eric Berlin, who was our top contributor to the blog in its early days), and I inherited his position, along with the Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest accounts that went with them. (I have since added Tumblr and Instagram to our bevy of social media platforms.)

So, as you can see, I’ve gotten a bit busier as time passed, expanding my duties and becoming the lead blogger on the site, writing three (and sometimes more) blog posts a week.

[Here I am, hard at work trying to beat a stuffed teddy bear in Jenga… and failing.]

I feel like the blog has grown and matured into what I originally envisioned — though there’s always room for expansion and improvement! — and my goal right now is continue maintaining that level of interest and quality.

As for our Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, I’m always looking to encourage more interaction with the PuzzleNation audience. I’m hoping at some point to have recurring puzzle features on every platform. (For now, we’ve got the Insta-Anagram game every Monday on Instagram, and the Crossword Clue Challenge every weekday on Facebook and Twitter.)

3. The crossword has been around for over a hundred years, and many puzzles (whether pen-and-paper or mechanical) have roots that can be traced back even farther. What, in your estimation, gives puzzles such lasting appeal?

I think it’s the Eureka! moments that keep people coming back. They’re certainly what I find the most enjoyable and the most motivating factor. And puzzles provide those in spades.

[Image courtesy of tnooz.com.]

When you approach a particularly fiendish brain teaser, or a crossword clue that keeps eluding you, or a mechanical puzzle that has you stymied, and then suddenly, that light bulb appears over your head. You’ve cracked the code, found the hidden latch, connected the missing pieces, made a deductive leap that would make Sherlock Holmes proud…those Eureka! moments never fail to make it all worthwhile.

And when you work with puzzles, you get to see those moments more often than most people.

4. What’s next for Glenn Dallas and PuzzleNation Blog?

For me, quite a bit. My writing partner and I just launched a new promotional blitz for the novel we published last year, Sugar Skulls (my first novel!), and I’m deep into several ongoing writing projects, one of which is on track to wrap up before the end of the year.

On the side, I’m a freelance book reviewer, and I recently posted my 1,200th book review. I’ve also started work on another in-office murder mystery that I’m hoping to run at our summer picnic event next month. (And I’ll be sure to share pictures here and on Instagram of that!)

As for PuzzleNation Blog, I’m proud to announce that, after the recent success of our PuzzleNation team series of interviews, 5 Questions will be returning as a regular, recurring feature on the blog!

It will be at least once a month (but hopefully twice a month), and I’ve already lined up our first guest for September, with more terrific puzzlers, constructors, and personalities to follow!

5. If you could give the readers, writers, puzzlers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Make time for yourself every day to do something that fuels you. If you want to write, write something every day, whether it’s just a haiku or a journal entry or a limerick or whatever. If you like games, play a round at lunch with friends or coworkers. There are plenty of quick-play games and puzzles that fit that bill. (Oooh, that gives me an idea for a blog post…)

But I digress.

We spend so much time worrying about, well, everything, it’s easy to let the good stuff, the stuff that reinvigorates you and keeps your spirits up, fall by the wayside. So make a little time for you every day. It does wonders.


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!

5 Questions with PuzzleNation Director of Digital Games Fred Galpern

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!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

For the entire month of August, I’ll be introducing the PuzzleNation readership to many of the members of the PuzzleNation team! So every Thursday this month, you’ll meet a new name and voice responsible for bringing you the best puzzle apps on the market today!

And I’m excited to continue this series with Fred Galpern as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Fred is our Director of Digital Games, and he’s been the driving force behind our mobile app brand since Day One. With previous video-game experience working on iconic games like System Shock 2 and Thief, Fred brings illustration, digital art, and graphic-design knowhow to the table, bringing pen-and-paper puzzle concepts to new formats like mobile gaming and solving.

(He’s also a pretty sharp guitar and ukulele player, but as far as I know, that hasn’t factored into our app-development efforts yet.)

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


5 Questions with Fred Galpern

1. As Director of Digital Games, you’re the head honcho around these parts when it comes to app development. What does that job entail? What role do you play in bringing new features and apps to market?

PuzzleNation is a small team, which means we all wear multiple hats. For me, the most important, and coincidentally the most fun, hat is product management. In this role I set the direction for each of our apps, including sorting out what new features to add, which existing features to improve, what new content to offer to users and how to improve the look and feel of our apps.

Our approach always starts with what will be best for the app user; we then figure out how to make that good user experience work for us as business. Finally, we do our best to listen to user feedback so we can improve a feature after it’s released, so that our apps get better and better over time.

2. You had a background in game development and design before you began developing puzzle apps. How has your work in traditional video games informed your work with puzzles, and has working with puzzles changed how you view game design as a whole?

Prior to joining PuzzleNation I was fortunate to have had experiences all around the game industry, from intense hardcore game development projects to family-oriented games and even some gaming hardware. All of these experiences have been valuable, especially my experience at Blue Fang Games, where I was an Art Director and Producer for the Zoo Tycoon series. Working on that series showed me how fulfilling it can be to create games that appeal to people outside the stereotypical gamer audience of males aged 13 to 35.

PuzzleNation strives to provide users of all ages with great puzzle-solving experiences. The lessons I learned at Blue Fang are useful every day at PuzzleNation. Whether we’re planning new apps or improvements to our current apps, I often find myself recalling a previous project that suggests a solution for today’s projects.

3. The PuzzleNation audience first got to know you in our post announcing the free daily puzzle feature for the Penny Dell Crosswords app, where you mentioned you and your family are big board game players. Are there any new games that have become favorites in your house?

Oh yes, our passion for board games has not slowed down! Our current favorites include a mix of old and new games: X-Wing Star Wars miniatures game, Star Realms, Ascension, Marvel VS and 7 Wonders.

Of those, 7 Wonders has gotten the most play. It’s a wonderfully fun game that has a small learning curve followed by hours of enjoyable, strategic gameplay that works for all different play styles. I usually try aggressive strategies which are countered by more thoughtful approaches by my wife and kids. Board games are still in the midst of an amazing renaissance. I encourage readers to learn more on sites like Board Game Geek and The Dice Tower and Watch-It-Played YouTube channels.

[Fred, alongside the Puzzle Pope at last year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.]

4. What’s next for Fred Galpern and PuzzleNation?

For me, next up is lunch! I know that sounds like a joke, but it’s true. Since I work from home, getting out of the house at lunchtime is a ritual that adds a bit of adventure to my day. I’m lucky to live in Providence, RI, a small city with an abundance of excellent restaurants. Today, I’m thinking of heading to historic Federal Hill, well known for several of the top Italian restaurants in the country. I’ll most likely indulge with a delicious Italian grinder sandwich or maybe a chicken parmigiana.

As for PuzzleNation, our what’s next may not be as literally delicious, but you can be sure it will be equally enjoyable. We’re deep into development of two great new apps, and at the same time rolling out performance improvements for our current Crosswords apps. I can’t go into specifics but can say that puzzle lovers who enjoy the puzzles found in Penny Press and Dell Magazines will be pleasantly surprised. Stay tuned to the PuzzleNation blog and Newsletter for more details soon!

5. If you could give the readers, writers, programmers, aspiring game/app designers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

One piece of advice for all of those different folks? Wow, that’s a puzzle in itself!

I learned something many years ago about achieving goals. The only way to reach a goal is to never give up. On the surface this can seem like rah-rah, sports minded, “stay strong” type of advice. For me, the thinking behind it goes a bit deeper. “Never give up” doesn’t speak to just tenacity and willingness to keep trying, but also to the need to think differently about the path to a goal.

Sure, sticking doggedly to the path you’re on may get you to your goal; however, creative exploration and finding alternate paths is often a more enriching, fulfilling journey. I know that may sound a bit mystical, but I assure you it’s not. It’s as simple as settling on a goal to strive for, then waking up every day and checking in that you’re still on a path towards that goal. The path may change every day, every few days or not at all. As long as you’re still on a path that can logically lead to the goal, you are making progress towards that goal.


A huge thank you to Fred for his time! I can’t wait to see some of those new apps hit the market and watch the PuzzleNation brand expand and flourish!

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!

5 Questions with PuzzleNation Programmer Mike O’Neil

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!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

For the entire month of August, I’ll be introducing the PuzzleNation readership to many of the members of the PuzzleNation team! So every Thursday this month, you’ll meet a new name and voice responsible for bringing you the best puzzle apps on the market today!

And I’m excited to kick things off with Mike O’Neil as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Mike is part of our dynamite programming team, maintaining the high level of quality we know PuzzleNationers expect of us and helping push us into new puzzly arenas. A musician and long-time video-game fan as well, Mike is enthusiastic, sharp, and immensely capable, part of the well-oiled machine that makes PuzzleNation a brand to watch!

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


5 Questions with Mike O’Neil

1. How did you get started with puzzles and games?

I’ve been a video-game addict my whole life, so when I got to college I eventually decided to make them for a living. Puzzles and puzzle solving have always been a part of being a big-time gamer, so I’ve been puzzle solving since I got the gamer bug as a kid, though my favorite magazine-type puzzles are word searches.

2. Programming, puzzles, and music all demand a strong sense of balance and flow to create an immersive and productive experience. As a musician, does that ever influence your work in unexpected or insightful ways?

I would say that it’s more of the opposite, where programming has influenced my musicianship. The biggest common feature of all three is patience, so growing up solving puzzles was good training for practicing guitar.

Also, working on a piece of music can actually be like solving a puzzle because every person is different, so I often need to “solve the puzzle” to figure out exactly how I’m going to be able to pull off a particular riff/lick/lead/etc, which could be radically different from how the next person would do it.

3. What do you do in your off-time? What helps you relax or mentally recharge after a long week of puzzling?

My biggest off-time activities are video games and music, though those can all be a bit mentally challenging and not often the greatest unwinding activity. If things get really heavy I often do some urban hiking around NYC. It’s very stimulating and can last for hours (I once walked all 33 miles around the perimeter of Manhattan. My feet hated me for a week.)

4. What’s next for Mike O’Neil?

What’s next is working with the PN team to get more and more types of puzzle apps out there. Crosswords are great, but we have so much potential with our tools and team that the sky’s the limit. I’m looking forward to seeing what we come up with.

[Crosswords ARE great! Have you checked out the Penny Dell
Crosswords App for both iOS and Android devices? /shameless plug.]

5. If you could give the readers, writers, programmers, aspiring game designers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

One piece of advice is to make sure that the solution you come up with for your current problem is the best one, not necessarily the fastest or most slick. When I was mentoring students back at the Electronic Arts Academy, my main goal was to make sure that they don’t start implementing solutions for simple tasks with the super fancy, super complicated-type things you do in school. A good general rule is to imagine someone has to take over your work the next day, so make sure it’s easily understandable.


A huge thank you to Mike for his time. I can’t imagine a better way to introduce a month of PuzzleNation-fueled interviews and content!

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!

5 Questions with Game Designer Andrew Looney

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Looney Labs this weekend, as well as the launch of the LooneyCon event today, we’re doing Follow-Up Friday a little differently today.

And so, welcome to another edition of 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!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Andrew Looney as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

[Image courtesy of BoardGameGeek.com.]

Andrew Looney is the chief game designer and co-founder of Looney Labs, a company specializing in games with serious replayability and dynamic rules that make every session a new experience. Founding the company in 1996 with his wife and partner-in-aerospace Kristin, he has gone on to launch such innovative games as Fluxx (and its many variations) and the Looney Pyramids series.

With two decades of experience in game design, he has presided over the growth of a major brand in games, one whose homegrown roots and values are still very much a part of the company’s fabric today.

Andrew was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us in the days before LooneyCon, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions with Andrew Looney

1. You’re celebrating twenty years of Looney Labs innovation and game design this month, and you’ve really cemented a reputation for fun games with a high replay value. How do you know when a game is right for your brand? And what role do you play in bringing these games to market?

I design everything we make myself. So I play a pretty big role. But the decision about what we publish next is not up to me… Ultimately, Kristin makes that call (although she gets input from everyone in the company and beyond).

When I feel that a game design is working, I’ll declare it ready for consideration, at which point it goes into the pool of possibilities. And some of my designs spend a lot of time waiting around in the pool before the company decides to publish them. In other cases, such as when I’m asked to create a game on a specific subject or when I come up with something particularly exciting, I have more deadline pressure.

But the ultimate test of when a game is ready is when everyone who plays it says, “This is great! Let’s play again!”

[The heart and soul of Looney Labs, Andrew and Kristin Looney.
Image courtesy of WindyconBlog.]

2. In the last year, Looney Labs released more games than ever before, with new licensing deals for Fluxx variations like Batman Fluxx and Firefly Fluxx, a Mad Libs game, and a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign for Pyramid Arcade, a relaunch of sorts for your Looney Pyramids series. How is Year 20 of Looney Labs different from Year 1, and what lessons have you learned along the way?

Wow, the difference is so vast. Twenty years ago we were still working at our day jobs in the aerospace industry, and learning how to start a company in our spare time. We’re still living in the same house, but the similarities end there. For many years, we ran the business out of our house, but now it’s just our house again, since our company has an 11-room office suite up the road, where our 8 full-time employees work.

Twenty years ago I had an idea for a wacky new card game… now there are almost 20 different versions of that game on the market, that have sold almost 3 million copies, and our games are in about 20 different languages.

Twenty years ago, we were struggling to find a way to manufacture the little plastic pyramids needed for our first game idea. Now we’re about to release an incredible boxed set featuring twenty different games I’ve invented since then for the pyramids.

Plus we have a bunch of other cool games I’ve invented along the way! It’s amazing, I never would have believed it. Where will we be in another twenty years?

[Sample cards from Firefly Fluxx, one of many games
released under the Looney Labs banner.]

3. You’ve created games of your own and helped others bring their games to life. What puzzles and board games, either in game-play style or in the experience of producing them for sale, have most influenced you?

I grew up on the old-school classics, so they were my obvious first influences. Sorry was an early favorite. Another was a sixties board game about the Civil War called Battle Cry. I think my first real game design effort was a small-scale, simplified version of Battle Cry I made as a kid, small and fast enough to be played at a restaurant during a meal. (Sadly, I lost that prototype long ago.)

Another early effort was combining the missile and warhead cards from Nuclear War with the board game Risk. Another of my earliest efforts was coding my own text adventure games, like Colossal Cave, a game so inspirational to me that it also first motivated my desire to program computers.

Kristin and I were independently inspired, during our high school days, by the dice game Cosmic Wimpout. Indie game companies like them are everywhere now, but at the time it was a revelation that such companies could exist. We were particularly inspired by their occasional newsletter and their grassroots approach to marketing.

My favorite card game from way back is Hearts, and certain elements of that game still inspire me, most notably the way it has two paths to victory (avoid taking points vs. take all the points).

Lastly, Fluxx was inspired by a conceptual game engine called Nomic, in which the game rules are created by the players as the game is played. I found Nomic to be an interesting idea, but felt I could do better…

I think a lot of game designers, and indeed inventors of every stripe, are driven by this sort of inspiration, the desire to improve on what someone else did, to go even further with the idea.

4. What’s next for Andrew Looney and Looney Labs?

Well, the very next thing is LooneyCon, a micro-convention for fans of our games which we’re running this weekend! And as mentioned, this fall we’ll be releasing Pyramid Arcade, the culmination of everything we’ve been doing with the pyramid system these past 20 years.

Well, almost — it doesn’t include Zendo, which is too big to fit in Pyramid Arcade. But a new standalone edition of that game is something we’re planning separately, and we have some pretty neat ideas for that, too.

And I’ve got other exciting stuff planned for the future, including 3 completely new board games I’ve been developing for the past few years. Sorry, I can’t even tell you their names yet, let alone when they will be released, but I’m pretty satisfied by each one.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring game designers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

“Don’t get left behind when the car goes into town.”

This is something my mom used to say (which I actually only learned at her funeral). It was a lesson she’d learned as a kid in rural Kansas, and it literally just refers to the limited availability of opportunities to catch a ride from the farm into town.

But I love it as a mantra for every fleeting chance we get at doing something fun. Pay attention to everything, because doors sometimes open and close quickly, and always say yes to travel and excitement!

Life is one big game, and whoever has the most fun wins!


A huge thank you to Andy for his time. Be sure to check out the Looney Labs site for updates on all things Looney, and check out their Facebook to keep up on all the activities for this weekend’s LooneyCon event, which starts today and runs through Sunday July 24, the actual 20th anniversary! I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next!

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!

5 Questions with Constructor and Editor Patti Varol!

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!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Patti Varol as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

If you’ve solved crosswords anywhere other than the New York Times for the last few years, you’re bound to have encountered Patti Varol’s clever constructing and crafty cluing. A regular of The Washington Post and other outlets, Patti is a topnotch constructor and a crossword pro.

She’s also no stranger to PuzzleNation Blog, as she has previously contributed advice for constructing your own crosswords and shared her victory at Lollapuzzoola two years ago with the PuzzleNation audience.

Patti 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 Patti Varol

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I solved all kinds of puzzles with my grandparents when I was a kid, and games were a big part of family time when I was growing up. A few years after I finished college, I answered an ad for an editorial job with the crossword/variety department at Penny Press — the puzzle test and the interviews for that position, and then taking that job, well, that changed my life. Suddenly, puzzles and games were something to study from the inside out, to take apart and put back together better, to make from scratch. And that was just as much fun as solving them…and I was getting paid to do it.

2. You keep awfully busy when it comes to puzzles. Can you fill the PuzzleNation audience in on your various puzzle jobs and how they differ from each other?

I do! I’m Rich Norris’s assistant at the L.A. Times Crossword, which means that I write some of his correspondence (I let constructors know what Rich likes or doesn’t like about the puzzles they’ve sent him), and I pre-edit some of the daily puzzles. I also send out the monthly constructor schedule notices and do some of our testing and fact checking.

I’m also the editor of The Crosswords Club, which is a monthly publication with six Sunday-sized crosswords. The puzzles are made by some of the best constructors in the business, so they are as fun as they are challenging. Each monthly envelope also has an extra word game, and all of the puzzles have explanatory blurbs with some trivia and etymology. It’s a really neat product – there’s really nothing else like it on the market.

And I also do puzzle testing/proofreading for a few other venues, including some crossword tournaments and puzzle magazines. And I’m a puzzle constructor for the CrosSynergy puzzle syndicate; my crosswords appear in The Washington Post roughly once a month. I also construct puzzles for the LA Times and Crosswords Club occasionally, and I mentor new constructors who seek out my help.

Every venue I work for has a different style guide and different target audience, so it’s a job in itself to keep them all straight. All of these different puzzle jobs have made me a strong, confident editor and constructor. I love what I do, and I love being good at what I do. And I’m only good at what I do because I’ve had the privilege to work with and learn from the best.

[Image courtesy of Wikihow.com.]

3. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own? What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?

A great puzzle has a spark to it — you know right away that it’s something original, fresh, and special. You learn something new, or you see something familiar from a new angle. It’s that aha! moment, that pop. I’m being maddeningly vague here, I realize, but the elements of a great puzzle are elusive and subjective.

That same pop comes when constructing a puzzle, too. Getting a tough grid to come together cleanly, realizing that the right pieces are finally all there in the right order — that can be even more satisfying than solving someone else’s puzzle.

New constructors always seem to start off with more than they can handle: they try to make a Sunday puzzle (21x) before they’ve mastered the smaller daily format, or they try to do a low-word-count themeless before they’re fully comfortable with the 15x themed format. Or they try to cram too much theme in a grid.

Start small, aim big, and you’ll get better with every grid.

4. Between the Timothy Parker plagiarism scandal and the recent Slate article about insensitivity and tone-deafness in cluing in the New York Times crossword, accountability has been a major topic this year in the world of puzzles. As a gatekeeper to getting published yourself, what changes would you like to see made in order to bring crosswords into the 21st century?

Change is already underway, and it’s exciting, because crosswords just keep getting better and better. Just as language evolves — words and their meanings can be as fluid as they can be subjective — so, too, do the media and art forms that rely on language.

[Image courtesy of HomeSchoolSuccess.com.]

The conversations about crosswords, online and offline, illustrate clearly that the crossword community is made up of some of the smartest, most language-sensitive, funniest people you’ll ever meet. We’re in love with our craft, and sometimes we take ourselves and our work too seriously, which is what happens when you’re passionate about what you do. But it’s so important to remember that puzzles are entertainment, a happy diversion, and if we use language incorrectly or insensitively, we’re not providing that diversion. We have to take our fun very seriously!

When we’re polishing a puzzle, crossword editors have a very specific audience in mind — we know our solvers because we listen to them and because we’re solvers ourselves. Because of this larger, ongoing conversation, we know that our solving audience is bigger and more diverse than ever.

This presents an interesting challenge: how do you make every crossword accessible and fun for every solver, regardless of race, gender, or age? Maybe not every clue and every entry will resonate with every single solver, but as long as I’m not actively alienating a solver, and as long as I’m stretching, testing, and entertaining most of my solvers, I’m doing my job.

And there are so many crosswords available now! In addition to the newspaper dailies, there are paper subscription services like The Crosswords Club, plus email/blog subscriptions by so many talented constructors, and more puzzle books and magazines available on newsstands than ever before.

We’ll always have good, old-fashioned puzzles, but now we also have lively, fresh puzzles with more current pop-culture references. This, too, is what happens when you’re passionate about what you do: your art naturally reflects and includes the community it is a part of.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Solve all the puzzles. All of them. Even the puzzles that, at first glance, look like the kind you don’t like, solve them. And if you don’t know the answers, look them up. There’s no such thing as cheating at a puzzle — it’s all simply research that makes you better at puzzles.

The more you look up, the more you will learn and remember for the next puzzle you solve. And if you want to learn how to make puzzles, or to get better at making puzzles, nothing will teach you more about how a puzzle works than getting stuck — and then unstuck — while solving one.


A huge thank you to Patti for her time. Be sure to check out The Crosswords Club, and follow her on Twitter for baseball tweets and updates on her latest projects! (Her website is currently under construction.) I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next!

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5 Questions with Author Elizabeth Singer Hunt!

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!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Elizabeth Singer Hunt as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Elizabeth Singer Hunt is the author behind the globe-spanning Jack Stalwart books, a young adult series featuring a nine-year-old secret agent, with over two million books sold to her credit! She’s recently expanded into the world of puzzles with the publication of the Secret Agent Training Manual, a terrific introductory guide to codecracking and concealment.

Anagrams, ciphers, scytales, and encoding with other letters, numbers, or symbols are all explained with easy-to-understand instructions and plenty of examples. She even provides sample encryptions to crack, letting readers practice their newfound skills and techniques, giving young readers the chance to become their own Jack Stalwart-style secret agents!

Elizabeth 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 Elizabeth Singer Hunt

1. What inspired the adventures of Jack Stalwart?

As a young girl, I struggled to read. It wasn’t so much that reading was a problem for me. I couldn’t find any books that I identified with. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana, and spent most of my weekends fishing, crabbing, playing with frogs and tossing around footballs. Basically, I was a tomboy. It was difficult to find books that I could relate to since most of the ‘girl’ books were about friendship issues, horses and fairies.

At around that same time, Raiders of the Lost Ark opened in theatres. That movie introduced me to archaeology and adventure, and showed me that there was a world outside of Louisiana. As a southern girl, I had no idea that places like ‘Nepal’ and ‘Peru’ even existed!

When I was in my late twenties, I decided to take a crack at writing a children’s book series. I drew upon my childhood experiences and inspirations to create the series’ main character, nine-year-old Jack Stalwart. Jack moonlights as a junior secret agent for the Global Protection Force, or GPF. In every book, he’s sent on a mission to an exotic locale in order to protect one of the world’s most precious treasures.

Millions of children around the world have fallen in love with Jack, largely because they identify with him and want to be like him. He’s like a pint-size Indiana Jones, sprinkled with a bit of James Bond and written for the nine-year-old ‘reluctant reader’ me.

Did they, in turn, inspire the Secret Agent Training Manual, or was that meant to be a standalone creation?

Over the years, I have received thousands of emails from children asking how they can become a secret agent like Jack. So I thought it would be fun to create a series that introduced them to basic secret agent/spy skills. Code-breaking seemed a natural place to start! The first book in the series is called How to Make and Break Top Secret Messages. Subsequent books will discuss basic spy craft and the history of intelligence gathering.

2. Are you a puzzle fan yourself, or did your aptitude with encryption and codebreaking puzzles come out of your research and work as a writer?

A little bit of both! I have always had an affinity and aptitude for word puzzles. My favorite game growing up was Boggle and to this day, I am the family Boggle Champion! Recently, my children and I discovered Bananagrams.

It’s right up my alley, since it relies on the ability to quickly arrange and re-arrange letter tiles into words. That being said, I didn’t know too much about the world of cryptography (except for some of the basics) until I began researching for this book.

Do you have a favorite method of encryption or one that didn’t make it into the SATM?

I am fascinated by all of the methods of encryption featured in the book because each has its use depending upon the situation. I suppose my favorite is the ‘cipher’ because it’s ever-changing and difficult for the average person to solve without a key.

3. Let’s talk a little bit about your writing process, since composing a novel is a puzzle in itself. Do you start with characters, plot, certain scenes in your head already? How do you approach the process of writing a book?

Good question! It depends upon the type of book that I am writing.

For my (fiction) Jack Stalwart chapter book series, I have a fairly unorthodox way of writing. I establish the setting, mission and villain and then I start writing! Everything is free-flowing, and little is planned. I love movies and am extremely influenced by film, so in a way I am writing as though I am watching a film play out before my eyes.

For the (non-fiction) Secret Agent Training Manual book, things needed to be a lot more structured. Research was done, notes were taken and the book was organized from the most basic cryptographic methods to those that took a bit more time and thought to decode. Most of this book was handwritten, while many of my fiction books are typed onto a computer screen from the get-go.

4. What’s next for Elizabeth Singer Hunt?

I’m excited to say that Costco is planning an exclusive nationwide launch of the Jack Stalwart series in volume form next month, i.e. in April of 2016. That means that children across the country will be able to enjoy the Jack Stalwart series four books at a time in a specially produced keepsake volume.

Besides this news and the launch of the Secret Agent Training Manual book, I’ve also recently published the first book in a new middle grade series called Swamp Mysteries: The Treasure of Jean Lafitte. The series chronicles the adventures of four twelve-year-old friends as they solve paranormal mysteries in the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. It’s a bit like Scooby-Doo with a southern twist.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

As my mother always says, “There’s always a solution to everything. Persevere!”

When I first had the idea for the Jack Stalwart series, I shopped it around to various agents and publishers and they promptly rejected it. I could have felt sorry for myself and given up. But I believed in the idea and in myself. So, I found a solution to the problem. I published it myself, i.e. hired an editor, illustrator, designer and found a local printer to produce the books. I printed thousands of Jack Stalwart books, and sold them personally to as many booksellers as I could find.

After five months of hard work, the series caught the attention of an agent and the head of children’s fiction at Random House UK. (I was living in England at the time). Random House acquired the Jack Stalwart series, and commissioned me to write a total of fourteen books.

The rest as they say is history. Had I listened to the naysayers, Jack Stalwart never would have existed and I never would have had a career as an author. Thankfully, I took my mother’s advice. It’s the same advice that I would give to anyone with a dream. Never give up. Be resourceful, and persevere.


A huge thank you to Elizabeth for her time. Be sure to visit her website for updates on her latest projects. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next!

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!