Halfway through the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League!

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Last night marked the fifth week of competitive puzzly fun in the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League is a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consists of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

Each week’s puzzle only has one grid, but there are three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth is the least challenging, Choppy is the middle ground, and Stormy is the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate — which you can still do now! — they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

With a lineup of top-flight constructors involved and the Boswords team organizing, it was a can’t miss prospect, and hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition.

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Now that we’re officially halfway through the season, it feels like the right time to take a moment and reflect on the last four weeks of puzzling.

I will only be referencing the previous four puzzles — not last night’s Week 5 themeless — so there are only potential spoilers for non-participants. Competitors may read at their leisure.

Although I am quite familiar with crosswords, I am far from the fastest or cagiest solver, nor have I ever competed in any tournament solving, so I opted to enter the Choppy rank.

And I have very much enjoyed the experience thus far. Themeless puzzles always often a fun challenge, mixing long answers — often crossing or stacked with other long answers — with strong cluing, clever grid design, and most notably, no theme around which to frame the grid (or your solve, if you happen to dig into the theme entries immediately).

The cluing feels very fresh, mixing topical entries, meme fodder, and slang with traditional crossword classics and a dash of pop culture references. Although my lack of football knowledge betrayed me in week 1, I’ve made up some ground in weeks 3 and 4, posting my two quickest times, both with clean grids.

My times are far from cheetah-like; the top solvers in the Choppy rankings often solve these puzzles in half the time I do, and manage perfect scores to boot. I am getting faster, it seems, which is probably due to a growing familiarity with the solving interface, wasting less time maneuvering the screen.

I’m definitely finding it challenging. There are plenty of clues I pass over two or three times before coming up with something that fits the entries I’ve already placed, and these diabolical constructors always slip some devious wordplay and a-ha cluing into their puzzles.

In October alone, solvers contended with puzzles from Tracy Gray, Nate Cardin, Amanda Rafkin, and David Quarfoot, each bringing a unique style and flavor to their grid entries and cluing. Each themeless has been a challenge all its own, and once you finally figure out each solver’s tricks, you’re confronted with a new constructor the next week, and you start all over again.

Still, it’s great fun, a nice puzzly touch to the week that feels like you’re part of a community, bolstered not only by a communal solving experience once a week, but by Twitch chats and interactions with the organizers and fellow solvers.

We’re only halfway through, and I’d have to declare the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League a rousing success. I can’t wait to see what surprises the November puzzles bring, and what awaits the top solvers in the championship round.

Whether you’re competing alongside us or simply enjoying puzzles at your own speed, thanks for visiting. And happy puzzling!


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A New Weekly Crossword League Coming Soon!

boswords new

The internet puzzle community has done an impressive job over the last six months of adapting to the social distancing restrictions of the current COVID-19 crisis, with tournaments like Crossword Tournament From Your Couch, Lollapuzzoola, and Boswords successfully going virtual in 2020.

And now John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, the creative team behind Boswords, have announced a new tournament-inspired online puzzle project to keep crossword fans engaged for the next few months!

It’s called The Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League, and every Monday night in October and November, a new themeless crossword will be posted for competitors to solve. That’s eight puzzles (plus a championship round to follow), along with a preseason puzzle to get people used to the format.

Although each week’s puzzle only has one grid, there will be three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. When you register to participate, you’ll choose the difficulty level for your clues.

From least challenging to most challenging, the ranks are called Smooth, Choppy, and Stormy. (Quite appropriate, given that we’re heading into unfamiliar waters here!)

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Each week’s puzzle will be accompanied by a Twitch stream where participants can follow along and discuss all things puzzly with their fellow crossword enthusiasts!

You can compete as an individual or as part of a pair, and with a one-time registration fee of $25 — or $5 for students and those in need — that’s very reasonable indeed!

Not only that, but they’ve already announced the team of constructors assembled for the League, and it is a stacked roster of talent.

Nate Cardin, Emily Carroll, Tracy Gray, David Quarfoot, Amanda Rafkin, Claire Rimkus, Sid Sivakumar, Yacob Yonas, and Stella Zawistowski are all contributing puzzles, and you won’t know ahead of time which constructor’s puzzle you’ll get on a given week, which keeps things interesting.

With experienced crossword constructor and editor Brad Wilber as the League’s puzzle editor and the dynamic duo of Lieb and Kingsley as assistant editors and League directors, I have high hopes for this project going forward.

Check out the full informational video on the Boswords homepage, as well as links for further info and registration! (Register by September 28th to participate!)

I think this is an incredibly cool and ambitious project, and a really neat way to bring tournament-style solving in a bite-size format to as many puzzlers as possible.

Will you be taking part in this exciting new puzzle challenge, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Amanda Rafkin

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 we’re excited to welcome Amanda Rafkin as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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When she’s not contributing to musical theater with her deft piano performances (or entertaining herself with various showtunes), Amanda constructs crosswords for various outlets including her own puzzle website, Brain Candy, where she posts a new puzzle every day. She also features other constructors, providing a valuable platform for her fellow cruciverbalists!

She has been published in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Universal, The Inkubator, and many other outlets, and recently contributed a puzzle to the 2020 Boswords crosswords tournament (which just so happened to be your lead blogger’s favorite puzzle from this year’s tournament).

Amanda 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 Amanda Rafkin

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I really started loving puzzles at some point in my pre-teen years when I would confiscate my mom’s half-finished puzzles when she would step out of the room. I think she eventually got so fed up with me stealing her puzzles that she bought me my own book of variety puzzles, and since then I’ve been off to the races.

I became interested in constructing a couple of years ago when I got more serious with my crossword solving and felt that crossword construction could fall in that blissful middle-of-the-Venn-diagram area between something I might be good at and something I might love. I guess who’s good at anything is a matter of opinion, but I’m happy to report that I was wildly correct about the love part.

2. In addition to your crossword constructing, you’re also a musician, which seems to be a recurring theme among some constructors (Patrick Blindauer, Brian Cimmet) and tournament solvers (Dan Feyer, John Delfin). Do your musical skills ever influence your puzzling, or do you ever find yourself relying on your puzzly skills while performing or composing?

This is something I’ve heard many times (the relationship between crossword constructing and musicianship) to the point that I, myself, wonder if there’s something to it! If there is, it’s not something I’m aware of at all. For me, the two things are pretty separate experiences in my life.

The one exception to this I guess would be my theater-themed puzzles that I’ve grown so fond of. Every Thursday on my website is “Theatre Thursday”, where I post a midi-sized Broadway-themed puzzle, often accompanied by a bunch of relevant musical theater information that no one asked for. I also have a couple of Broadway-themed midi packs on the horizon. One is completed and will be released sometime in the (probably) not-too-distant future, and the other is a midi pack centering around each of Sondheim’s 19 major works, which I’m working on right now.

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[Sondheim constructed cryptic crosswords for New York Magazine,
so Amanda certainly finds herself in good company!]

3. To call the last few months tumultuous is an understatement, considering public unrest and pushback against infringements on civil rights. In a similar vein, there has been a more strenuous push in crosswords recently (Women’s March, for instance) for greater representation for women, people of color, and the LGBTQIA+ community. In your estimation, how are the major outlets faring regarding inclusion?

Well there’s a loaded question! The numbers will tell you that, by and large, they are faring rather poorly. There are of course some exceptions (notably, the USA Today, which publishes far more puzzles by women than men). If you’re looking at the major outlet (The New York Times), this can feel challenging to assess in some ways.

If we’re acknowledging a recent push for inclusion, then we also have to take into consideration the often 18-month delay between the time of construction and the time of publication. As a result, the things that are happening now may not reveal themselves to us until over a year from now. None of this is an excuse for not having implemented a more inclusive system long ago, but I do think that even the major outlets with a shorter queue than The New York Times may not reveal to us any of aforementioned representational shifts until months from now.

I hope this is something that we as constructors and solvers continue to keep our eyes on, so that we can continue to work on opening doors that may have previously felt closed, and offering equal opportunities to anyone and everyone interested in the endeavor of crossword construction.

I think, as a whole, the general industry is still struggling to understand the difference between “I personally don’t know this because of my own life experiences” and “This isn’t gettable/knowable/likeable for solvers”. Inclusion begets inclusion, as exclusion begets exclusion. By leaving certain things/people/customs etc. out of puzzles, we continue this cycle in perpetuity. The more different kinds of people we have making puzzles, the more likely it is that any given solver will be able to do a puzzle and see themselves within it. And, at least for me, that is a goal that I always try to keep in mind when constructing.

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[Solving runs in the family.]

4. What’s next for Amanda Rafkin?

I wish Amanda Rafkin knew the answer to that question as well. Given how things are going, it seems it will be a while before I’ll be doing much in the way of music again. So, for now, I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing for most of quarantine: making puzzles, putting them into the world, and hoping that they bring some kind of joy to folks during a time when joy can be a tricky thing to come by. Would it be awesome to be able to make a living solely from making crossword puzzles? HECK YES! So maybe that’s a goal for sometime in the future as well.

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

No matter who you are, no matter how much you know, no matter where you went to school, no matter who your friends are, no matter the experiences you’ve had in your life, no matter how woke you think you are, you have blind spots. We all have blind spots. And sometimes, in the wake of these blind spots can come decisions that hurt other people. We are imperfect but lifelong students on this collective journey to betterment.

Be open to feedback, specifically from people who have had different life experiences than you. Feedback is not criticism; it’s the space from which we all grow. So get feedback on your work and actually listen. Resist the urge to be defensive. Collaborate with other people. If they differ from you in some way, even better.

Oh, and if you’ve been tossing around the idea of constructing for a while but haven’t actually taken the leap…jump. The kindest and most supportive people are on the other side waiting to catch you.


A huge thank you to Amanda for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on her puzzly and musical endeavors, and be sure to visit her puzzle website Brain Candy for all sorts of puzzle goodness. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.

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Delving into the 2020 Boswords Crosswords!

boswords online

I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hand at the puzzles from the Boswords Crossword Tournament. Given the talent involved amongst the organizers and constructors — as well as the reliable puzzles featured in the previous three tournaments — I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

So let’s put those puzzles under the microscope and see what’s what!


[Boswords 2020 Comedy Opener from Boswords on Vimeo.]

 

Warmup 1: On the Move by John Lieb

The first of three unscored opening puzzles did a nice job of loosening up solvers (whether they’re practiced or rusty) and getting them ready to solve. The five related entries all had the letter chain STU in them, and the letter grouping moved diagonally to the left with each successive entry. (This was explained by the clever revealer RV TRIP in the corner, as the letters between R and V made the journey across the grid.)

Although I struggled a bit with the lower-right corner of the grid, I found this 15x puzzle served its purpose nicely, offering an easily grasped theme to warm up solvers.

Interesting grid entries included WINNIPEG, OPEN BARS, RUN DMC, and DEATH STAR, and my favorite clue was “Some ‘The Mandalorian’ characters, for short” for ETS. (Though, since none of the characters are from Earth, I suppose we would consider ALL of them ETs. But I digress.)

Warmup 2: Act I by Andrew Kingsley

I’m not entirely sure if this 15x puzzle was a smoother solve than the previous crossword or if I was just more warmed up. This puzzle’s theme entries all started with an EYE sound, but spelled differently (AY CARAMBA, AYE AYE CAPTAIN). The revealer (EYE OPENER) not only explained this, but referenced the title. Nicely done overall!

This was a fun concept (despite one very obscure theme entry), and playing on pronunciation is a less frequently used gimmick in crosswords, which made it a nice treat.

Interesting grid entries included IMPOUNDS, BAT SIGNAL, and ONCE-A-DAY, and my favorite clue was “Change ‘chagne’ to ‘change,’ say” for EDIT.

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[Crossword street art at Heilig-Sacramentstraat 9000 Gent, Belgium]

Warmup 3: Starting From Scratch by John Lieb

Our warmup master Mr. Lieb returns with a well-constructed 15x puzzle that had the best flow of the three. Any solver would feel pumped and ready for the tournament after this one.

The theme entries were all phrases where the first word could be preceded by BANK (as explained by the revealer BANKSY). And I quite enjoyed having RUHROH from Scooby-Doo as the first entry across. It shows off the playfulness you can expect from Boswords tournament puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included AQUA NET, ROXANE, MARLOWE, and HEADBUTTS, and my favorite clue was either “Casino conveniences” for ATMS or “How Boswords 2020 puzzles will *not* be solved” for IN PEN.


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Puzzle 1: Gather Round by John Lieb and Andrea Yanes

The tournament proper launched with this great starter, a snappy 15x puzzle with a tightly-constructed great and a plethora of theme entries to hook solvers. All the theme entries were round or circular items — LIFESAVERS, FULL MOONS, BULLSEYE — which fit both the title and the revealer CIRCLE TIME in the grid.

As Boswords puzzles don’t tend to be as difficult as those at Lollapuzzoola or the Indie 500, this was the perfect representation of a Boswords Puzzle #1.

Interesting grid entries included GROVES, VOLDEMORT, ROMCOM, and CHALLAH, and my favorite clue was either “National dance of the Dominican Republic” for MERENGUE or “‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ has over 800,000 of these” for CELS. I love learning things from crosswords!

Puzzle 2: Two Across by Andrea Carla Michaels

Puzzle #2 really stuck the landing in this thoroughly enjoyable solve. A fun, accessible hook — naming two of the characters in famous trios and cluing each theme entry with the third — was made evident by the revealer THREE’S A CROWD, and the trios were well-chosen for maximum pop culture familiarity. (Though I suspect I got the Ron-Harry-Hermione trinity slower than most solvers.)

I found this puzzle right on par difficulty-wise with Puzzle #1, making for a breezy solve and some delightful cluing.

Interesting grid entries included ISHMAEL, CD TOWER, and THE SEA, and my favorite clues were “Nursery purchase” for SEED, “Pronoun containing another pronoun” for SHE, and “K-I-S-S-I-N-G in a tree, for short” for PDA.

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Puzzle 3: Mass Mayhem by Rob Gonsalves and Jennifer Lim

Bosword tournaments tend to have jumps in difficulty rather than a gradual increase, and this year was no exception. Puzzle #3 offered a boost in difficulty from the previous two puzzles, though I suspect cryptic solvers might have cottoned onto the theme faster than other puzzlers. Each theme entry was a “villain” whose description was an anagram of a Massachusetts locale (SILVER MOLE for “Graying double agent from Somerville,” GRID BUSTER for “Crossword puzzle vandal from Sturbridge”).

I figured out the entries without the anagrams, but getting the clues last is always the worst feeling. The “from” phrasing probably made the gimmick obvious to others, but I was a little slow on the uptake with this one.

Interesting grid entries included DEVITO, NAIROBI, BRAHMS, and MEMBRANE, and my favorite clue was either “First word spelled out in a lunchmeat jingle” for OSCAR or “Tea at the Boston Tea Party, effectively” for JETSAM.

Puzzle 4: Water Picks by Amanda Rafkin

For the second year in a row, Puzzle #4 featured my favorite gimmick from the tournament. Rafkin concealed different kinds of apples in zigzagging patterns throughout the 17×21 grid, allowing the letters in the entry to bob up and down. This fit the bonus entries HALLOWEEN PARTIES and BOBBING FOR APPLES elsewhere in the grid.

A delightful hook with a clever visual element, really fun cluing, and strong fill? It comes as no surprise that this was my favorite puzzle from the tournament by a long shot, despite being the largest.

Interesting grid entries included FEARSOME, EVAN HANSEN, GALLERIA, LOONIE, and ZORRO, and it was impossible for me to narrow down my favorite clue in this one:

  • “Foot work?” for POEM
  • “Without pier?” for ASEA
  • “Page in a screenplay?” for ELLEN
  • “One in a batting lineup?” for EYELASH
  • “Vessels that are often blown up” for RAFTS
  • “Org. with Sarah McLachlan (AND HER VERY SAD SONG) as a spokesperson” for ASPCA

(Unfortunately, I must also deduct points for referencing Dave Matthews Band in a clue. Sorry, Amanda, them’s the rules.)

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[There really ARE stock photos for everything.]

Puzzle 5: The A’s Have It! by Sid Sivakumar

The tournament puzzles concluded with a very satisfying solve from Sivakumar, whose choice of theme must’ve made for some fun constructing. Puzzle #5’s theme entries featured the letter A as every other letter in each entry (BANANARAMA, PANAMA CANAL), tied together with the revealer FIVE-SECOND RULE referencing the cavalcade of A’s in the grid.

All those A’s allowed for some long crossings, and the constructor made the most of them, using a number of 9- and 10-letter entries to tie the grid together nicely.

Interesting grid entries included IXNAY, MOVIE NIGHT, RAMIS, and KODAK, and my favorite clue was either “Chapter in a history textbook, say” for ERA or “Promoter of chess?” for PAWN.

Championship Themeless by Sam Trabucco

After two years of championship puzzles being shepherded by the ambitious grids of David Quarfoot, and Finn Vigeland offering an intimidating themeless championship puzzle of his own last year, Sam Trabucco stepped up to the plate with a suitably challenging finale to the day’s proceedings.

Absolutely packed with 8- and 9-letter entries, this grid was very tightly constructed, but included enough unexpected vocabulary to make solvers truly earn their completed grids. (My only qualm was reusing I in three entries — I TELL YA, I’VE GOT IT, and I’LL TAKE IT — but I’m probably in the minority on that nitpicky point.)

Interesting grid entries included TEXAS TEA, SNAPCHAT, SOYLENT, JANIS IAN, and STAGE MOM. Both the easier and tougher sets of clues had some gems, so I’ll list them separately below:

Easier clues:

  • “Lamenting some shots, perhaps” for HUNGOVER
  • “Like the origins of each day of the week” for PAGAN
  • “Like many colorful characters in ‘Reservoir Dogs'” for CODENAMED

Harder clues:

  • “Paying for a lot of drinks, perhaps” for HUNGOVER
  • “Vegan food named for a decidedly non-vegan ‘food'” for SOYLENT
  • “Put in charge?” for IONIZE
  • “Sounds Jazz fans love to hear?” for SWISHES.

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Overall, I was fairly impressed by the array of puzzles assembled for this year’s tournament. There were tricky themes, visual themes, and even an auditory theme, all of which made great use of both the cluing and the grids themselves. Yes, one or two puzzles didn’t resonate with me as strongly as the others, but the tournament puzzles as a whole were challenging and creative in their design without being off-putting or getting too esoteric.

BosWords remains the perfect tournament to introduce solvers to tournament-style puzzling, making up for difficulty with accessibility, playfulness, and straight-up solid grid construction.

It’s the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the tournament, especially with the trying circumstances this year. I heard nothing but good things about the online solving experience, and I credit the hardworking organizers for pulling this all off!

And I can’t wait to see what they cook up for us next year.


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Lollapuzzoola? BosWords? Updates on Several Crossword Events!

crossword calendar

Over the last few years, crossword fans have been absolutely spoiled by an abundance of terrific crossword tournaments. Between the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the Indie 500, Lollapuzzoola, and BosWords (not to mention smaller local tournaments), in past years, there has always been something to look forward to.

As you might expect given the current circumstances, 2020 hasn’t been nearly so kind. ACPT’s original date in March was cancelled, and the tournament has since been rescheduled for September.

The Indie 500 was also cancelled, though the organizers are hoping to host a solve-from-home event in its place. (Whether it will bear any similarity to the wonderful Crossword Tournament From Your Couch event back in March, we cannot say.)

And recently, we got updates on two other beloved events on the crossword calendar.

Last Thursday, Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer reached out to Lollapuzzoola fans to sadly announce that Lollapuzzoola 13 will not be happening this summer.

Like the Indie 500 crew, our friends at Lollapuzzoola are hoping to host some sort of virtual event, but no decisions have been made yet.

Knowing that registration for BosWords opened around this time last year, I reached out to the organizers of BosWords to find out what we might expect regarding their event.

It turned out my timing was spot-on, as the next day, John Lieb confirmed (via email and social media) that BosWords 2020 will be an online tournament this year, and they have a date set: Sunday afternoon, July 26.

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For current plans and future details, be sure to visit the BosWords homepage.

With BosWords tentatively set for July, ACPT for September, and both Indie 500 and Lollapuzzoola hoping to host online events this summer, it could quickly prove to be a delightfully busy few months for crossword fans.

We’ll keep you posted on all of these events as more details emerge, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. In the meantime, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep puzzling!


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Puzzle Tournaments Loom Near!

[Solvers gather for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.]

Tomorrow is the 21st annual Westport Library Annual Puzzle Contest, and I consider Westport the unofficial start of the year’s crossword-y festivities.

Sure, the obvious start is the weekend of March 20-22, when the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament descends upon Stamford, CT, and puzzlers from all over test their puzzly mettle against some devious and delightful crosswords.

Then, after the big event in March, it’s a few months’ wait until summer, when there’s at least one proper tournament every month. We’ve got the Indie 500 in June, BosWords at the end of July, Lollapuzzoola on a Saturday in August, and Bryant Park in September.

But that ignores all the smaller tournaments and events in between. Libraries and rec centers all over the country host puzzly events that get less press than the famous ones.

For instance, did you know that on March 14th, you can attend the Eighth Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition?

I bet you didn’t.

So, in case you’re not traveling to one of the more well-known tournaments, keep your eyes peeled for smaller, but no less enjoyable, puzzle events happening throughout the year.

And good luck to all those headed to Westport for some Will Shortz-fueled cruciverbal adventures! Happy puzzling!

Are you attending any puzzle events this year, big or small? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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