An Amazing New Resource for Aspiring Constructors!

Just yesterday, I mentioned the accessibility of many modern puzzle constructors thanks to the Internet. Of course, I was referring to access to their puzzle content, but a new project has reminded me that many constructors are also very accessible when it comes to advice and encouragement.

Deb Amlen wrote an article about a new Facebook page, the Puzzle Collaboration Directory, that is encouraging new and aspiring constructors to reach out to established names in the industry and build an interactive community. This is an amazing resource for puzzlers whose enthusiasm might be undercut by lack of confidence or experience in crafting themes, building grids, and creating clues.

From the introductory post:

If you’re a puzzle constructor looking to collaborate or to be a resource to those seeking one, kindly add your name, contact info, and puzzle specialties to the file entitled “constructors list.”

If you’re here looking for someone to collaborate with, ask questions of, or something in that general vicinity, you can peruse the aforementioned file and reach out to any of the constructors listed – we’ll be happy to hear from you. If you have a question that everyone would benefit from hearing, or if you want to work with someone and you’re not picky about who, feel free to post directly in the group to that effect.

Terrific, innovative, and generous puzzlers like joon pahk, Erik Agard, Robyn Weintraub, Andy Kravis, Doug Peterson, Tracy Bennett, and more have all signed up to mentor aspiring constructors and answer questions.

This is just one more example of how awesome the puzzle community is. We’re all fans of puzzles and we’re more than happy to encourage others with the same passion. (Heck, a few years ago, we also shared some constructing advice right here on the blog.)

You never know where the next great puzzle theme will come from, or who will be wowing you with crafty clues and brain-melting themes in the future.

Good luck to all the constructors getting started there, and a hearty thank you to all the constructors who have already signed up to share their time, insights, and knowledge. I can’t wait to see what comes from this marvelous new resource.


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How to Get Started in Games

[Image courtesy of The Board Game Family.]

So, it’s after Christmas, and you’ve been gifted with a new game, or a roleplaying book, or someone showed you a new card game and you want to know more. Or your New Year’s Resolution is to learn more games, play more games, solve more puzzles, or even make some puzzles yourself.

Basically… how do you get started?

Here. You get started right here. I’m going to run down my favorite guide books for gaming, puzzles, tabletop play, roleplaying, and more, creating the perfect first step to a new world of play for you.

Let’s get cracking!


My first recommendation is also the most recently published book on my list.

The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming by Teri Litorco is a perfect introduction to all things gaming. This delightfully nerdy tome is loaded with thoughtful advice covering everything from choosing new games to teaching them to others, as well as building a game group for regular sessions or roleplaying games, and more.

From how to deal with cranky gamers to how to host your own major gaming events, Teri has dealt with every obstacle imaginable, and she offers her hard-won first-hand knowledge in easily digestible tidbits. Even as an experienced tabletop gamer, roleplayer, and puzzler, I found this to be a very worthwhile read, and I think you will too.

If card games are your poison, then what you need is a copy of The Ultimate Book of Card Games by Scott McNeely.

What separates this book from many other card game books — namely the ones attributed to Hoyle (the vast majority of which had nothing to do with him) — is that it doesn’t claim to be the definitive source. It provides the key rules for how to play, and then offers numerous variations and house rules that expand and refine gameplay.

There are more than 80 pages of variations of Solitaire alone! Kids games, betting games, games for two, three, four or more, this is my go-to guide for everything that can be played with a standard deck of cards.

What if you’re already a fan of games, but you want to play them better? If that’s your goal, check out How to Win Games and Beat People by Tom Whipple.

Monopoly, Jenga, Hangman, Operation, Trivial Pursuit, Twenty Questions, Checkers, Battleship… heck, even Rock, Paper, Scissors is covered here. With advice from top players, world record holders, game creators and more, you’ll find advice, tactics, and fun facts you won’t see anywhere else.

For instance, did you know that letter frequencies in Hangman are different from letter frequencies in the dictionary? ESIARN is the way to go with Hangman, not ETAOIN.

That’s just one of the valuable nuggets of info awaiting you in this book.

Ah, but what about puzzles? There are so many amazing puzzle styles out there, how do you know where to begin learning to construct one of your own?

I’d suggest you start with Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder’s Puzzlecraft.

If you’re a puzzle or game fan, you already know their names. Selinker’s The Maze of Games is featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide; Snyder is better known online as Dr. Sudoku, and we explored several of his creations in our Wide World of Sudoku post a few years ago.

Snyder and Selinker break down the fundamentals of dozens of different puzzles, explaining how they work and what pitfalls to avoid when creating your own. You can easily lose hours within the pages of this in-depth handbook — I know from firsthand experience — and you always come out the other side a stronger constructor.


Do you have any favorite books about puzzles and games that I missed? Let me know, I’d love to hear about them!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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[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.

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[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!

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!

Gearing up for the ACPT!

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is days away, and at this point, competitors are sharpening their pencils and honing their skills for game day.

I’ve considered entering for a few years now — haven’t pulled the trigger yet, maybe next year — and over the last few months, I’ve been working on my tournament-style puzzling to see if I can improve my solving.

After speaking to several ACPT veterans — and reading numerous blog posts offering tournament-specific tips — I’ve discovered that every solver approaches competitive solving differently.

Some puzzlers recommend training yourself to look ahead, reading the next two or three clues as you write the answer to the previous clue. This maximizes efficiency and decreases wasted time while solving. Other solvers suggest focusing on a given section (a corner, for instance) instead of scanning all the acrosses and all the downs.

Some competitors have said they’ve turned in puzzles without having read all the clues, which is an amazing thing to consider.

The one universal piece of advice when it comes to competitive crossword-solving? Solve lots and lots of crosswords. It builds your confidence, your familiarity with crosswordese and clever-clue dissection, and it makes you faster with a pencil.

(You’d be surprised how much slower online solvers can be, since they’re more accustomed to typing than scribbling.)

A terrific source for tournament-solving insight is Crossworld: One Man’s Journey into America’s Crossword Obsession by Marc Romano. Romano explores the history of crosswords as he prepares to compete in the 2006 ACPT, and he offers some valuable first-hand experience.

A competitor in a crossword tournament has three enemies to face: the genius of puzzle constructors; the vagaries, vicissitudes, and inconstancy of his own mind; and the clock.

A first-timer at the competition who overlooks the basic rules is making a big mistake… managing your time is perhaps the single most important thing you have to do if you wish to place anywhere near the top of the puzzling heap…

For the casual solver, simply completing the puzzle is a victory, but in tournament solving, it can become a question of strategy: time vs. accuracy.

Here, Romano gives us a breakdown of ACPT scoring:

You get 10 points for every correctly filled-in answer across and down. You get 25 points for every full minute you complete a puzzle before time runs out; however, you also lose 10 points for every incorrect or unfilled-in letter in the puzzle.

A complete and error-free solution to a puzzle earns you another 150 points.

You’re better off striving for a full and complete solution than going for the time bonus. The trade-off between time and accuracy is a somewhat counterintuitive concept to master, especially when you see the fastest solvers turning in their puzzles before you’ve even got your pencil properly sharpened.

(She’s probably stressed because she’s solving in pen.)

Surrounded by dozens and dozens of fellow solvers, as if you’re all back in high school, scrambling to complete a test before class is over, it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the energy of the event.

Romano mentions this as well in his advice for first-time competitors:

I’ll stress that, for a rookie solver, keeping all of this in mind under competitive conditions is extremely difficult; not only are you concentrating on solving puzzles under the gun (puzzles, mind you, that perhaps 90 percent of your fellow citizens couldn’t complete if you gave them a week in which to do them), but you’re also unconsciously pressured, timewise, by your out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye awareness of how many of your fellow contestants have completed a puzzle before you and already scurried out of the hall.

My advice to a first-time tournament puzzler? Do your best. It sounds ridiculous when you know guys like Dan Feyer are out there crushing puzzles in three minutes flat, but in all honesty, your main competition is yourself. I know plenty of puzzlers who walk into the ACPT with one objective: improve on their performance from last year.

That is an admirable goal, to be sure.

Good luck to all the newcomers and veterans! Be sure to keep calm and puzzle on. =)

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