What Is Good Trivia?

Trivia is an integral part of many forms of puzzling. Crosswords involve a fair amount of trivia, as do many clued puzzles. Themed puzzles — particularly those that don’t give you a word list — also require some solid trivia knowledge. Brain teasers, riddles, escape rooms… all can involve trivia on some level.

But what do we mean when we say trivia? As it turns out, not everyone agrees.

Merriam-Webster defines trivia as “unimportant matters, trivial facts or details,” then acknowledges the secondary meaning “a quizzing game involving obscure facts,” a definition which didn’t come around until the 1960s.

That first definition certainly fits the bill in many trivia books and games. They’ll claim any random fact as trivia, obscure or otherwise.

But I don’t think obscurity defines trivia. After all, plenty of great evenings of bar trivia don’t require obscure topics or the minutiae of various subjects; they simply require a wide swathe of general knowledge and a decent grasp of recent news and pop culture.

[Image courtesy of The New 60 comic.]

The first time I gave serious thought to the question “what is trivia?” occurred years ago when I started working on a movies and television-themed subscription crossword book for the folks at Penny Press. In addition to creating puzzles centered around a central theme for the issue — soap operas, Star Wars, animal movies, etc. — I also created lists of trivia questions to be included in the book.

I would compile a list of 25 or 30 trivia questions — brief enough to read along the bottom of the page, but hopefully interesting enough to be worth the solver’s attention — and sent them off for consideration.

That’s when Editorial Manager Warren Rivers introduced me to his definition of trivia:

What a lot of people call “trivia” strike me as things one should or could have learned in school. Those are things I don’t consider trivia. Trivia to me are the things that I wouldn’t expect a person to know, or better yet includes a “twist” or an element of surprise.

And I think that’s a key element in good trivia: that interesting twist or surprise. It’s not just informational recall. There’s something more there, whether it’s in the answer or the clever construction of the question.

But there are plenty of knowledgeable trivia enthusiasts out there, and I wanted their input as well.

One of the first people I asked was Stella Zawistowski, a crossword constructor, powerlifter, and trivia supplier for Geeks Who Drink, who clearly has one of the coolest resumes in the world.

I think what you are asking me is, “what is GOOD trivia”?

Good trivia accomplishes one of two things: teaches people something they don’t know and will find interesting, or nudges them to realize they know more than they think. This means that what constitutes good trivia is highly audience dependent. The astronomy question that is too easy to be interesting to a group of JPL employees could be fascinating to a general audience. Conversely, a general-audience question about Handel’s “Messiah” could be very boring to a group of classical music experts.

IMO one of the best trivia questions I’ve ever written is “The hand-cut and -sewn lace of this instantly famous wedding gown includes four types of plants: roses, shamrocks, daffodils, and what?”

The reason I think it’s good is that it fits into the “nudge people to realize they know more than they think” category. On its surface, this is a fashion question. How on earth is one supposed to know a detail as tiny as what flowers were embroidered on the lace of somebody’s wedding gown?

But if you think a little more carefully, you’ll see that the bride is marrying a British royal, and if you know that the three plants mentioned in the question — rose, shamrock, and daffodil — represent England, (Northern) Ireland, and Wales, respectively, you then realize: Oh, she’s representing the four UK countries, and the one that’s missing is Scotland. So the answer is the thistle, the national flower of Scotland.

I very carefully chose which one of those I left out, too! If you give shamrock, daffodil, and thistle, rose is incredibly easy, easier than I wanted the question to be. Take out shamrock, and I think it’s a bit harder to realize that the three remaining flowers are national symbols. Take out daffodil, and the solver unfairly has to choose between daffodil and leek, the latter of which is also a botanical national symbol of Wales. I don’t know that anybody ever wanted leeks on her wedding gown, but I didn’t want anyone to get the question wrong simply because they went with the wrong national symbol.

[Image courtesy of AmazingSuperPowers.]

Stella gets into a very important aspect of quality trivia that you don’t immediately consider: the phrasing and construction of the question.

Sure, the answer is the payoff, but the question is how you get there. The question is often the source of the a-ha! moment we so desire.

According to the crew at Geeks Who Drink, “the usual job of the conscientious quiz-writer is to start with a kernel of something you don’t know, and stir in just the right mix of hints and parallels to lead you to the correct answer (yes, no matter what it feels like, we DO want you to get most of them right).”

And that can take time. Thorsten A. Integrity, commissioner of the invite-only Learned League trivia website, can spend up to 30 minutes on each of the six trivia questions featured in a given day of trivia during one of the four seasonal competitions.

He usually starts with an interesting tidbit from a reference book and builds the question out from there. He fact-checks everything and has his questions professionally copyedited.

That effort creates a conversation in the brain. You ask yourself about different aspects. You rule things out, as Stella shows in her example. A good trivia question gives you enough to get you started and JUST enough to eliminate some false paths. (Although there’s nothing wrong with a tricky trivia question that leads you down the incorrect path a little bit.)

On trivia nights, or in trivia games, that conversation can quickly become fun and engrossing. As Ken Jennings once said of trivia, “It can lubricate social interaction. I like to see it as a way to build bridges.”

Are you a trivia fan, fellow puzzlers? Let us know your favorite trivia questions and bits of trivia below. We’d love to hear from you! (We could even compile them into a future blog post!)


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U.S. Trivia for Independence Day!

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[Image courtesy of NWI Times.]

Tomorrow is Independence Day here in the United States.

Over the last sixth months, freedom has certainly been on the minds of many of us in the U.S., and across the world. People are out in the streets, fighting for freedom, while at the same time many are choosing to curtail some of their personal freedoms in order to help contain the Coronavirus and prevent spreading it to others.

During these uncertain times, people have been cleverly adapting and finding new ways to socialize. One way that has certainly worked for me and friends has been hosting virtual bar trivia nights. With programs like Google Hangouts, Zoom, Facebook Messenger, Streamyard, and others available, it’s amazing what you can accomplish from the comfort of your own home.

And I’d like to share some of that puzzly entrepreneurial spirit with you.

In honor of July 4th, I’ve collected some America-themed trivia I’ve used in previous trivia nights. Feel free to test your own knowledge with them OR use them in your own puzzly endeavors!

(Some are multiple choice and some aren’t, because I usually start with multiple choice in early rounds and then abandon that format in later rounds. Please adapt as needed.)

So, without further ado, let’s get quizzy!


1.) What is the only state in the USA that doesn’t share a letter with the word “mackerel”?

2.) With a distance of 1,523 mi from East to West, what is the second widest state in the United States?

3.) What is the only jurisdiction in the US where people drive on the left-hand side of the road?

4.) The city of Kanorado sits on the border between what two states?

5.) What is the area code for Brevard County, Florida, home of Cape Canaveral?

6.) What NASA mission was intentionally underfueled to prevent the astronauts from attempting an unauthorized moon landing on their own?

7.) What entertainment company convinced a U.S. court to rule that their characters weren’t human in order to save on taxes from toy sales?

A. Haim/Saban (Power Rangers)
B. Hallmark Entertainment (Zoobilee Zoo)
C. Kenner (Stretch Armstrong)
D. Marvel (X-Men)

8.) Designed by Benjamin Franklin and known as the Fugio cent or the Franklin cent, the first official circulation coin in the United States bore what inscription?

A. America First
B. A Penny Saved
C. Mind Your Business
D. God Bless America

9.) What entertainment company is the second largest consumer of explosive devices, only behind the U.S. Department of Defense?

A. The Walt Disney Company
B. Universal Studios
C. World Wrestling Entertainment
D. Platinum Dunes, aka Michael Bay’s production company

10.) There is no national monument in Washington, D.C. dedicated to U.S. service members who fought in what war?

A. World War I
B. World War II
C. Korean War
D. Vietnam War

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


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Puzzling From Home!

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In the wake of puzzly public events like the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament being cancelled, as well as the shutdown of various school districts, workplaces, and businesses in order to limit exposure to the Coronavirus, it’s completely understandable that some puzzle fans may be feeling disappointed or even isolated from their fellow puzzlers.

But fear not! There are all sorts of options available to solvers looking to enjoy a puzzly experience from home, either on their own or with friends.


If you’re looking for crosswords, all you need is your computer. The New York Times, The LA Times, The Washington Post, and many other outlets offer online puzzle-solving, either by subscription or through watching ads before solving.

If you have access to a printer, you can print those puzzles out for the true pencil-and-paper solving experience.

And it’s not just newspapers. Many constructors — Brendan Emmett Quigley comes to mind — offer their own free puzzles semi-regularly (though you’re welcome to tip as a thank you). There is a world of puzzles out there on the Internet awaiting solvers.

But you don’t even have to go to a computer anymore. There are loads of terrific puzzles available right on your phone. Forgive us for tooting our own horn, but Daily POP Crosswords is a great puzzle app with a free puzzle every day and additional puzzle packets available for purchase or through our in-app coin system. (We also offer Word Seeks, Sudoku, and a marvelous story-driven puzzle mystery, Wordventures, if you’re looking for something different.)

Oh, and speaking of something different, if you’re looking to delve into more elaborate puzzles, there are some fantastic puzzle services by mail that offer all sorts of challenges.

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Wish You Were Here by the Enigma Emporium conceals an entire mystery within a handful of postcards, challenging you to mine them for every scrap of information as you uncover a series of coded messages. It’s spycraft in an envelope, very clever stuff.

The Cryptogram Puzzle Post out of the UK offers something unique, mixing puzzles and encryption with bits of mystery and supernatural narratives to create standalone chapters in an ongoing story. So you can pick one season or an entire year, depending on how deep you want to go!

And for multi-month affairs, there are outlets like Hunt a Killer and The Mysterious Package Company, which create vast, immersive puzzle experiences by mail. (Though according to friends’ recommendations, Hunt a Killer works better without the month wait between installments.)

As you can see, there’s a wide variety of ways you can puzzle from home, whether you prefer to solve online, by email, on the phone, or by mail!


That’s all well and good, you might be saying, but what about the social aspect? Well, there are options there as well, even from the comforts of your home.

Photo by Matt MacGillivray, licensed via Creative Commons

Some puzzlers actually livestream their puzzle-solving online through avenues like Twitch, Facebook, and YouTube. The New York Times periodically does this as well, often with celebrity guest solvers!

You can keep your eyes peeled on Facebook and Twitter for constructors and solvers who do so. It often adds a fun, communal element to puzzle-solving (especially if they struggle with the same tricky clues that you do). Some pub trivia outlets are also moving online to allow for participating from home!

new york times

But if you don’t want to wait for someone to livestream their solving, you can do it yourself! Between Facetime and similar apps on smartphones and all the online avenues for audio and video-chatting (Skype, Google Hangouts, Discord, etc.), you could pair up with a friend and tag-team a crossword puzzle or other puzzly challenge!

It’s like co-working, except with puzzles. Co-solving!

In times like this, where uncertainty abounds and our comfortable routines have been upended, puzzles can offer a wonderful refuge from all the stresses of the world. And with technology on our side, we can even keep the communal joys of puzzling in our lives.

Happy puzzling, friends.


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International Puzzle Day is almost here!

 

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This Sunday, January 29th, is International Puzzle Day (aka National Puzzle Day), a day dedicated to all things puzzly — be it crosswords, jigsaw puzzles, riddles, or other brain teasers — and there are plenty of fun ways you could celebrate.

For instance, last year, we commemorated the day by building a puzzle fort!

puzzlefort

Now, if you don’t have dozens of puzzle books handy, don’t despair! You could bust out an old jigsaw puzzle (or a new one!), try your hand at a Rubik’s cube, or tackle a puzzle you’ve never tried before!

If you’re looking for more of a group activity, you’ve got the Internet at your fingertips. You could find your nearest hobby shop and try out a new puzzle, or track down an Escape Room or Puzzle Hunt event near you!

For instance, I stumbled upon this link for a National Puzzle Day Jigsaw Competition in Mobile, Alabama this Sunday! Race to see who can solve a 1,000 piece jigsaw the fastest!

And that’s just one of dozens of events happening around the country this Sunday.

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Need a place to start? Check the event calendar for your local library! Many libraries host events open to public on days like International Puzzle Day, and you might meet fellow puzzlers in your area!

And if there’s not an event in your area, why not host one? You could host a team puzzle-solving challenge, a scavenger hunt, a crossword contest, or a night of trivia!

This year, we opted to do something a little different, whipping up some puzzly bouquets of Daisy, Flower Power, and other floral puzzles, and handing them out to friends! Just a little way to brighten someone’s day! (This excellent suggestion came from puzzler and friend of the blog Jen Cunningham.)

puzzleflowers

And, hey, if you need something a bit more extreme, you could celebrate like this guy and solve a Rubik’s cube while skydiving!

Now, I won’t be doing that, but that doesn’t mean you can’t.

So, how are you celebrating International Puzzle Day? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!


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PuzzleNation Reviews: Linkee and Mr. Lister’s Quiz Shootout

[Note: I received free copies of these games in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

The folks at Bananagrams are synonymous with letter-tile games like Pears in Pairs, Zip It, and of course their flagship product, but today they’ve brought us something a little different. Instead of flashing your anagram skills or showing off your well-honed Scrabble techniques, these games will test your trivia knowledge, your ability to play well with others, and how shrewd a strategist you are.

In this post, we’ll be reviewing Linkee and Mr. Lister’s Quiz Shootout!

linkee1

Linkee is a trivia game for three or more players. (Up to 30, apparently!) Each trivia card has a letter on the back, and the goal of the game is to acquire enough letter cards to spell “LINKEE.”

One person acts as the Question Master, while the other players (or teams, if you prefer) each grab a pencil and pad. The Question Master shows the players what letter they’re playing for, then poses each of the four questions on the card. The players write down the answers and try to figure out what theme links the four answers.

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The first player or team to shout out “LINKEE!” and identify the link gets the letter card. You can shout out “LINKEE!” at any point, but if you’re wrong, you’re out until the next card is played. So confidence and boldness has to be tempered with strategy.

That’s what makes the game more intriguing than your average trivia game. It’s not just knowing the answers to individual trivia questions; it’s figuring out the link between them, and doing so before your opponents.

If the four answers aren’t enough for any player or team to figure out the link, the Question Master reads a clue at the bottom of the card.

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Although this can be a fun game for a few players, it really shines when you can get four teams going at once, because the shouting and competitiveness really brings out the fun of the game. (Thankfully, you don’t need to get both the yellow and green Es. That was the difference maker in one game this weekend.)

Although I’d rate the trivia as fairly easy for the average board game fan or puzzler in your household, some of it is not geared toward younger players — I doubt the 8- or 10-year-olds in your house know about the Rat Pack or Malala Yousafzai, for instance — so that’s something to consider.

Otherwise, this is the rare trivia game that’s more about speed and association than about straight-up trivia knowledge.

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Mr. Lister’s Quiz Shootout follows a similar format to Linkee, but has a completely different flavor.

Here, instead of a Question Master, you have Mr. Lister, the mustachioed bartender. Instead of spelling out LINKEE, you’re trying to acquire five different drinks, which are on the backs of the question cards. Again, players get a pad of paper and a pencil.

The main difference is that instead of figuring out the link between trivia questions, the teams must instead try to figure out which entries appear on the card, in the manner of Family Feud. For instance, a card could list “Americans’ 10 Favorite Cheeses.” Now the teams have a brief bit of time in which to write down which cheeses they think are in that top ten.

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Once the teams have made their lists, it’s time for the shootout! The first team selects one of the answers they’ve jotted down and tells Mr. Lister. If the answer is on the card, Mr. Lister marks it as a hit. If not, Mr. Lister marks it as a miss. Then the other team takes their first shot.

After both teams each take three shots, the team with the most hits wins the card. If there’s a tie, Mr. Lister reads the tie-breaking Last Chance Saloon trivia question at the bottom of the card. Each team writes down their answer, and whichever team is closest to the correct answer wins the card.

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This game feels more like a night of bar trivia than a round of your favorite trivia board game, and the old-timey saloon shtick is delightful. (Throwing in a mustache eraser that fits on atop the pencil is just the icing on the cake.) This is reinforced by the awesome box design, which features several bullet holes that go all the way through to the other side. It’s a simple gag, but an effective one, a highlight in game design for me.

Unfortunately, the gameplay was marred slightly by a few themed categories that were unclear or otherwise poorly explained. (The loose definition of “amusement parks” and “ethnic groups” led to some acrimony during one session, especially since these were trivia hounds, who are nitpickers and hair-splitters by nature. In the future, I recommend any Mr. Listers read through the card beforehand in order to avoid similar issues.)

Whether you prefer list building or associative thinking, both of Bananagrams’ latest trivia offerings will make welcome additions to your gaming arsenal.

[Linkee is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, and on the Bananagrams website. Mr. Lister’s Quiz Shootout is available at Target and on the Bananagrams website.]


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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!