Touching a Piece of Puzzle History

Friend of the blog Peter Kanter came by the other day and showed me this curious piece of puzzle history that his brother had stumbled upon in a garage sale or a flea market.

Little did I realize I would soon be holding a puzzle that predates the crossword puzzle by over twenty years.

According to the instruction manual — which features rules for ten different spelling and anagramming games, one or two of which bear no small resemblance to Bananagrams in play style and spirit — this game was copyrighted in 1890 by McLoughlin Bros.

According to one of their catalogs, this game “consists of a box full of letters, so selected as to be most useful in a number of exceedingly interesting spelling games. The letters, printed on cardboard, are easily distinguished and handled. The box label is unusually bright and attractive.”

Yes, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I’ve been able to do a little research on this marvelous find.

McLoughlin Bros. was a publishing firm based in New York that operated from the mid-1800s until the early 1900s. They specialized in children’s books and picture books, but also published linen books, games, paper dolls, puzzles, and toys.

They were among the first publishing houses to employ color printing techniques in products marketed specifically for children. (They also helped popularize the works of Thomas Nast, curiously enough.)

[A sampling of McLoughlin Bros.-style art, a style definitely reflected in the box art of the anagram game above.]

As it turns out, after the death of one of the founders, the company was sold to none other than Milton Bradley — makers of Battleship, Axis & Allies, Candyland, Connect Four, Operation, and Jenga, among many many others — who had continued success with some of the McLoughlin Bros. products, including mechanical paper toys called “Jolly Jump-Ups.” (You might know “mechanical paper toys” better as pop-up books.) Production of those toys was halted, however, during World War II, presumably to save materials for the war effort.

There is now a collector’s market for McLoughlin products — check out this listing for a game board produced by the firm — and if this anagram game is any indication, the color and striking artistic designs from a century ago still hold up today.

And although I can’t definitively say that this exact game predates the crossword, there’s no doubt that this sort of wordplay was delighting kids and adults alike well before Arthur Wynne’s “Word-Cross” puzzle saw the light of day.

How cool is that?


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Roll with it!

When it comes to games, there’s probably no component more common or familiar than the six-sided die. From craps to Yahtzee, backgammon to Monopoly, everyone has played a game where the dice controlled your destiny.

And there are several games where the dice are integral to the puzzly gameplay.

The most obvious example is Boggle and its numerous variants. Boggle is played with a 4×4 grid of dice with letters on them, shaken up in order to randomize the letters shown. Players have a limited amount of time to spell out as many words as possible, moving from one letter to an adjacent one.

Testing both your vocabulary and anagramming skills, Boggle is great fun and a terrific challenge, depending on the letters you get. (It can also depend on which edition of the game you purchase, since some have different available letters in order to facilitate gameplay.)

Along that line, I actually received a great puzzly dice game as my Secret Santa gift in the office this year. (How did they know I like puzzles and games!?)

It’s called Campbell’s Alphabet Dice Game, and it’s a marvelous mix of Boggle, Yahtzee, and anagramming games, challenging the players to conjure words from the letters they roll.

The packaging is clever, and the game is designed with all sorts of puzzly references to cooking. With higher-valued letters and a low-stress game mechanic — if you’re stumped, everyone rerolls their letters instead of making one player suffer with crummy letters — it’s a nice addition to my puzzle game treasure chest.

And when it comes to letter-dice games, we have to talk about one of my all-time favorites, Scattergories.

In Scattergories, you roll a giant 20-sided die with numerous letters on it, determining what letter everyone will be using that round. Then players are required to come up with one word for each category that starts with that letter.

The puzzly aspect comes not only from coming up with appropriate words to fit each category, but trying to figure out which words your fellow players WOULDN’T come up with themselves, since answers duplicated by one or more players are worth zero points.

It can be a real challenge to not only come up with ten answers on the fly, but to then try to get into the heads of your opponents and guess what words THEY’D write. More than once, I’ve psyched myself out by assuming one answer was too easy and changing it, only to discover a friend had done the exact same thing. *laughs*

Of course, I would be be remiss if I didn’t mention Dungeons & Dragons, a dice game that goes far beyond the average board game-playing experience.

When it comes to conquering puzzles, some of the best puzzle-solving experiences of my life have been in sessions of Dungeons & Dragons with friends.

Whether it was unraveling a curious mechanical puzzle in order to unlock a door, solving a devious riddle to avert some horrible outcome, or devising a clever way to combine the tools at hand to overcome an unexpected obstacle, my puzzle skills often served me well, allowing me to match wits with dark wizards and perilous foes.

This weekend marked the 40th Anniversary of the birth of the world’s most famous roleplaying game, and it’s hard to deny the incredible legacy sparked by those curiously-shaped dice.

Dice games come in all shapes and sizes — as do the dice themselves! — but they add a marvelous wrinkle of randomness and challenge to the puzzle-game community.

What are your favorite puzzly dice games? Did I miss any major ones? Let me know in the comments!

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Anagram Answers for Patriotic Puzzlers!

My apologies for the delay in posting the answers to our Patriotic Anagrams, my fellow puzzle fiends. I hope you enjoyed untangling these little puzzles!

And so, without further ado, here are your answers!

Penny Aced Indeed = Independence Day

Flared Prosy Kiwis = Fireworks display

Horologic Gent Kiln = Cooking on the grill

Legend For Merit = Let freedom ring

Attend Suites = United States

Nice solo = Colonies

It’s Spartan Dress = Stars and Stripes

Phi Alpha Deli = Philadelphia

How many did you get? Let us know in the comments below!

Fourth of July = Joyful Fourth

It’s Independence Day, and is there any better way to celebrate the marvelous mixing pot of American culture than some holiday anagrams? I hardly think so!

Unscramble the following phrases to uncover some Fourth of July words and phrases, and enjoy!

Penny Aced Indeed

Flared Prosy Kiwis

Horologic Gent Kiln

Legend For Merit

Attend Suites

Nice Solo

It’s Spartan Dress

Phi Alpha Deli

Answers will be posted on the blog tomorrow afternoon! Enjoy your day!