The 2021 Boswords Spring Themeless League: Looking Back

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After two months of challenging, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable weekly solving, the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League came to a close a few weeks ago.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League spreads out a tournament-style solving experience over nine weeks, one themeless crossword per week. Each puzzle is scored based on your answer accuracy (incorrect letters, empty squares, etc.) and how quickly you complete the grid.

While each week’s puzzle only had one solution, there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate, they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

Hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition, and now that it’s over, I’d like to share a few thoughts about my experience in the League.

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When I participated in the 2020 Fall Themeless League, I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t have much experience with themeless puzzles, and I rarely solve online, so even though I’m very familiar with crosswords, it felt like a new experience.

But with last season’s league under my belt, I went into the 2021 Spring Themeless League excited to again test my skills with some top-flight puzzles, a touch more confident in my themeless solving than last time.

As you might expect, being freed from the shackles of themed puzzle building allows constructors to really flex their creative muscle, indulging all sorts of curious and unexpected vocabulary as they cross long entries and employ staggeringly few black squares in these impressive grids.

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Aimee Lucido opened up week one with three 13-letter entries across the center of the grid, giving new solvers a taste of just what constructors can do with a themeless grid, and offering established solvers some terrific crossings and fun vocabulary.

Peter Wentz’s week two puzzle and the week three offering from Brynn Diehl and Mark Diehl continued to set the tone for the season, mixing some clever wordplay in their cluing with ambitious grid construction. (Week three’s puzzle had stacks of 10-letter entries in every corner, which was impressive.)

Rachel Fabi provided week four’s puzzle — which really tickled me by having “advice column” as a down entry, i.e. a column — and Ryan McCarty’s week five puzzle was one of my smoothest solves of the tournament. Plus, he had “doggos” in the grid, and I am fully onboard with “doggo” becoming crosswordese.

I stupidly submitted my grid with an empty square in Patti Varol’s week six, which hurt my score somewhat. I still enjoyed the puzzle, though. Crossing SPANKED with BUCKNAKED was certainly a style choice. Also, Patti always teaches me new words with her puzzles. This time around, it was “vaporetto.”

Week seven’s offering by Ricky Cruz really impressed me with some difficult letter placements — particularly the plethora of Xs in the lower-left corner. (Unfortunately, I missed the submission deadline for this one, so I got a zero for this puzzle.)

That was followed by Kevin Der’s amazing week eight grid. This one took me ten minutes longer than my average time for the rest of the tournament puzzles.

I mean, look at this grid:

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Week nine’s championship puzzle was constructed by Brooke Husic, and it was the perfect closer to two months of solving. It was sharp and well-constructed, sending everyone home happy.

All in all, I enjoyed the Spring Themeless League more than the Fall League because I felt much more comfortable with the solving interface and I had a better handle on themeless solving overall. My times were stronger — although far from the blistering pace set by many of the top solvers — and I felt like I was making smarter choices in my solving. It’s always nice to both see and feel improvement in your puzzling.

I ended up placing 262nd out of around 600 competitors — had I actually gotten puzzle seven submitted, I would’ve been closer to 115th or so — which is about on pace for how I did in the Fall Themeless League.

But the tournament experience was delightful. Having a new challenge awaiting you every week is a treat, especially with the fantastic roster of talent they assembled in this season’s constructors.

And with the promise of future Boswords-hosted events in 2021 like the Summer Tournament on July 25th and the Fall Themeless League in October and November, it’s nice to have exciting puzzle events to look forward to in the near future.

Kudos to everyone who helped bring this marvelous project together, and kudos to everyone who participated. It was so much fun.


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Upcoming Puzzle Events! The Spring Themeless League, Plus ACPT Going Virtual!

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Most years, the puzzle event season starts with the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in late March/early April, but 2021 is different. We already had the Boswords Winter Wondersolve event last month, and there are plenty of exciting puzzle events on the horizon!

Did you know that there’s still time to sign up for the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League? It starts Monday night, and you should check it out!

Last year, Boswords launched the Fall Themeless League, 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 consisted of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you completed the grid.

Each week’s puzzle only had one grid, but there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging.

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The Spring Themeless League follows the same format. Every Monday in March and April, a themeless puzzle awaits you!

Not only is there some serious talent among the constructors — Brooke Husic, Aimee Lucido, Rachel Fabi, Patti Varol, Ryan McCarty, Kevin Der, Peter Wentz, Ricky Cruz, and the duo of Brynn Diehl and Mark Diehl — but there’s a great community of solvers out there participating in after-puzzle chats and Twitch streams.

The Fall Themeless League gave me a new appreciation for what themeless crosswords are capable of, and I’m happy to be signed up for the Spring edition!

The Spring Themeless League will conclude with the championship puzzle on April 26th, which will make for a busy few days of puzzle solving, since another puzzle event is set for that very weekend!

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Yes, you might’ve heard that the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament will be hosted online this year.

The 43rd annual edition of the granddaddy of all crossword tournaments will take place April 23rd through the 25th. We’re awaiting further details, but hopefully we’ll know more soon!

So there you go, the next two months of puzzles all planned and set for you, with more to come this summer.

Will you be participating in either the Spring Themeless League or ACPT’s virtual event this year, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comment section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Delving into the 2021 Winter Wondersolve Puzzles!

I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hand at the puzzles from the Winter Wondersolve event a few weeks ago. Given the talent involved amongst the organizers and constructors — as well as the reliable puzzles featured in previous Boswords-hosted events — I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

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


Practice Puzzle: Spring Forward by John Lieb

Perennial Boswords warmup puzzle master Mr. Lieb delivers perfect warmup material with this 15x puzzle. The theme entries depict a spring thaw, as the answer phrases progress from FREEZE to COOL to WARM to MELT across the grid.

The theme itself not only fits the winter gimmick, but also feels like shaking off any cobwebs or nerves the solver may have and just getting to work. Mix that with some playful cluing and vocabulary, and you’ve got a terrific puzzle to kickstart solvers’ brains into motion.

Interesting grid entries included VAMOOSE, KEYNOTE, and OH HENRY, and my favorite clue was “Discontinued candy bar too old to have been named for Hank Aaron” for OH HENRY.

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[Image courtesy of Knithacker.]

Puzzle 1: Don’t Forget Your Outerwear! by Sophie Maymudes

The tournament proper launched with this great starter, a 16×17 puzzle that mixed some fun longer entries with a tightly constructed grid that’ll have you looking “out” for the theme answers.

In this case, winter clothing items like SCARF, GLOVES, and COAT were broken up so that half of each word was on the end of a given row. For instance, answers like GLOMS ONTO and SOLVES had GLO VES at the beginning and end. Because they’re “outer” wear! This fun visual gag offered a nice change of pace from traditional themed puzzles, while remaining accessible for less experienced solvers.

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

Interesting grid entries included AMIIBO, TOUR BUS, ARE YOU NUTS, and PAPA SMURF, and my favorite clue was either “Affliction for the head or the heart” for ACHE or “Initials with which kids interrupt parents’ honeymoon stories, maybe” for TMI.

Puzzle 2: It’s Not THAT Cold! by Jessie Bullock and Ross Trudeau

Puzzle #2 was only a half-step or so tougher than Puzzle #1, remaining very solver friendly while still peppered with some great vocabulary. This 18x puzzle was well-constructed and had brilliant flow between the across and down entries, offering very little crosswordese for such a densely-packed grid.

The theme was all about punning in the cold, as each themed entry was clued as “Cold something?,” like “Cold war?” for SNOWBALL FIGHT or “Cold air?” for CHRISTMAS CAROL. All in all, a very fun solve.

Interesting grid entries included PANDORA, TLAIB, LAIKA, MUESLIX, and appropriately enough, XWORD, and my favorite clue was either “Underexposed film, perhaps” for INDIE or “Labor party?” for DOULA.

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[Image courtesy of The Whole World is a Playground.]

Puzzle 3: The Arctic Circles by Brendan Emmett Quigley

Puzzle #3 continued to ratchet up the difficulty, but again, solving remained fair and welcoming to newer tournament competitors and less-experienced solvers. This was the toughest so far, but nothing approaching the levels of the dreaded Puzzle #5 at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, for instance.

This 18×17 puzzle featured Across entries that contained the letters IF, but solvers had to ignore them in the Down entries that crossed those letters. As explained by the revealer WHITE OUT CONDITIONS, this blizzard had you mentally “white out” those “conditions” and read the newly revised Down entry.

I could easily see this hook tripping up new solvers, but hey, what is puzzle-solving if not removing all the IFs and seeing what’s left?

Interesting grid entries included CABANA, TOP TEN, NO FUSS, and ARISTOCATS, and my favorite clue was “Exclamation with a Kermit flail” for YAY. It’s rare that you can hear an answer as you read the clue, but that’s definitely the case here.

Puzzle 4 by Joon Pahk

The tournament concludes with the toughest puzzle of the day, a 15x themeless grid that still managed to sneak in some wintry entries alongside a few devious crossings.

Two sets of clues were offered for the final puzzle — FLURRY clues on the easier side and BLIZZARD clues on the tougher side of the spectrum — but both offered their fair share of challenges for solvers of all skill levels.

One particular crossing in the upper-left section of the grid had me stumped for a while, as the Down answer MELD was clued with Mah-jongg and canasta references (neither of which I play) and I was unfamiliar with the crossing phrase IN A PET. I would have guessed correctly, but it definitely slowed down my time.

Interesting grid entries included GEYSER, MIDSCALE, SESTET, I TONYA, E-SPORTS, CAROUSE, and LOOSE CANNON. Both the easier and tougher sets of clues had some gems, so I’ll list them separately below:

FLURRY clues:

  • “Plot that’s rarely nefarious” for GRAPH
  • “Sticks around Aspen?” for SKI POLES
  • “Shake your hand?” for WAVE

BLIZZARD clues:

  • “Drip’s slower relative” for COLD BREW
  • “Team who negotiates a lot?” for VALETS
  • “Necessities for cross-country travel” for SKI POLES
  • “Light or sound, e.g.” for WAVE

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Overall, I quite enjoyed the array of puzzles assembled for this year’s Winter Wondersolve. The gradual rise in difficulty kept me interested and the fun wintry themes all felt different enough for the entire experience to feel crisp and engaging.

The themeless puzzle also felt like a strong refresher for themeless solving in general, as Boswords has their Spring Themeless League coming up soon!

Boswords has truly become the perfect host for events 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 event, building on the strong continuity of virtual events established last year by the Boswords tournament and the Fall Themeless League. A hearty tip-of-the-hat to the hardworking organizers for pulling this all off!

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


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Happy (Inter)National Puzzle Day!

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It’s National Puzzle Day, also known as International Puzzle Day, depending on where you are and whether your puzzly activities extend across borders.

Maybe your puzzly Zoom group spans several countries. Maybe you and a friend are using remote-controlled robots to play Jenga. Maybe you’ve gotten hooked on Polish crosswords you’re solving through Google Translate. These are some of most common international ways to enjoy puzzling, of course. I’m sure you have plenty of additional suggestions.

But whether your Puzzle Day is National or International, we have some fun puzzly events and information to share with our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers.

The first is that tomorrow marks the latest virtual puzzle event being hosted by the ever-inventive Boswords crew. After the wild success that was the Fall Themeless League, they’re hosting a one-day puzzle event on Sunday, the Winter Wondersolve.

Participants will have four puzzles awaiting them — three themed crosswords and a themeless — designed by top-notch constructors, and it’s only $20 to compete live! (If you just want to solve the puzzles outside the tournament, that’s only $10!)

Considering how terrific both the 2020 Boswords tournament and the Fall Themeless League were, I’m expecting a great day of puzzling from the Winter Wondersolve.

Speaking of puzzly events, the long-awaited fourth installment in the Crossword Mysteries series is debuting on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries on Sunday, February 14th at 8 PM Eastern.

And what would be more perfect for Valentine’s Day than a crossword-themed murder mystery about an elevator accident entitled Terminal Descent?

Exactly.

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Of course, the easiest way to celebrate your (Inter)National Puzzle Day is to solve with us! Whether you enjoy crosswords, Sudoku, word seeks, or story-driven puzzling, we’ve got you covered with the click of a button!

Names like Normal Mailer, Mike Mussina, Beverly Sills, Neil Patrick Harris, and many more are proud puzzle fans, so I thought I’d whip up a quick little puzzle about famous crosswords solvers.

Below is a list of eight names.

As you can see, there are letters missing from each name. Coincidentally, those missing letters spell out the phrase CELEBRITY CROSSWORD ENTHUSIASTS.

Can you place the letters in the correct spots to reveal this octet of puzzle-solving celebs?

Good luck and happy solving!


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Sometimes, You Can’t Trust the “Rules” of Crosswords

There are a lot of things you learn as you solve more and more crosswords.

You learn vocabulary, both words that are simply new to you AND words that are common to crosswords. You learn cluing tropes, like question marks indicating wordplay or quotation marks indicating informal speech or exclamations.

You also start to learn some of the constructors’ tricks.

Now, there are all sorts of ways that constructors can play with solvers, but all told, they seem to fit into three overall categories: clue trickery, theme gimmickry, and grid manipulation.

We’ve spoken about clue trickery loads of times in the past, and no doubt will again. And theme gimmickry will be the subject of a future post.

But today, we’d like to focus on grid manipulation.

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So, what do we mean by that? Well, essentially, grid manipulation is our catchall term for the most devious arrow in the constructor’s quiver. It’s when the standard accepted rules of crosswords no longer apply.

No matter what sort of symmetry is involved or how the grid is constructed, there are generally three accepted rules of crosswords:

  • Across words read across.
  • Down words read down.
  • One letter per square.

These are the fundamental rules, Newton’s three laws of crosswords. They’re the rules every solver expects to be in play when they sit down to solve a crosswords.

But that’s not always true.

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Over the years, crafty constructors have found ways to push the boundaries of what you can do with those iconic grids of black and white squares.

Some constructors have literally gone outside the box, creating puzzles where letters of answers are placed beyond the grid itself, as in Sid Sivakumar’s American Values Club crossword “Bursting With Pride” a year or two ago (with the letters LGBTQIA+ appearing in sequence).

Byron Walden’s Fasten Your Seatbelts puzzle from the AVC crossword in 2019 also extended beyond the grid. Extra letters served not only as “bumps” along the otherwise smooth sides of the grid, but spelled out various bumps, like RAZOR, SPEED, and GOOSE.

Other constructors find fresh ways to pack more into a grid than expected.

The most common form is the rebus puzzle, whether multiple letters can be placed in a single grid square. Sometimes, it’s only a single square in a themed entry where multiple letters fit. Other times, you can get whole strings of them. The exact puzzle escapes me, but I can remember a crossword where two down entries all had rebus squares, so instead of one film title in that down entry, two would fit in each.

One impressive example that comes to mind is Andy Kravis’s “Currency Exchange” puzzle from the 2019 Indie 500 puzzle tournament.

The puzzle actually had little ATM graphics in various grid boxes, and they represented different currencies concealed in the theme entries. Plus, the across and down entries that shared an ATM had different currencies in their entries. For instance, one ATM represented WON in SMALL WONDER and DINAR in ORDINARY.

Other puzzles, known as quantum puzzles, feature multiple possible answers in the same space.

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The most famous example is the 1996 Election Day crossword. The puzzle “predicted” the outcome of the election quite cleverly by allowing for either CLINTON ELECTED or BOB DOLE ELECTED to read out, depending on how the solver answered seven down clues.

Arguably the most impressive one I’ve ever seen was published in 2014. Constructors Kacey Walker and David Quarfoot combined some considerable Scrabble skills and a dynamite crossword grid to create an amazing puzzle.

You see, clues 26-Across, 36-Across, and 44-Across all featured seven letters, like a rack in Scrabble. It was up to the solver to find the anagram of each rack that fit the grid. Walker and Quarfoot designed the puzzle so that each of those clues had three possible correct answers — for 26-Across: ROWDIER, WORDIER, and WORRIED all fit the down clues — meaning there were a staggering 27 possible correct solutions!

Still, those puzzles followed the standard across and down rules. But other puzzles don’t.

In those puzzles, entries don’t go the way you’d think, bending or taking unexpected twists in the grid. One example was Patrick Berry’s brain-melting Puzzle 5 from the 2016 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, “Changing Lanes,” where answers zigzagged across the grid.

A less complex puzzle with a similar gimmick appeared in the 2019 Boswords tournament. “Spill the Tea” by John Lieb and David Quarfoot featured longer entries than would fit in the given spaces. The trick was to shorten in by removing a brand of tea from the answer, and letting it read down off that across entry, rather than inside it. So, for instance, HOTEL CHAIN read HOTELCN across, because CHAI was reading down from the C instead.

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Lieb and Quarfoot incorporated five such “spills” in the grid, and clued each tea reading down simply with “Oops.” It was an immensely clever way to utilize the across and down entries in a unique, unexpected way.

As you can see, puzzle innovation can come in virtually any form, and often, the very foundational rules of crosswords can be bent or broken to create an ambitious, brain-twisting, and (ultimately) satisfying solve.

So be on the lookout, fellow puzzlers. You truly never know how constructors will challenge you next.


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Looking Forward to the Year in Puzzles and Games!

We spent this week looking back on the year that was 2020, celebrating the resilience, innovation, creativity, and kindness that makes the puzzle community so unique and remarkable.

But today, on the first day of 2021, it feels appropriate to turn our gazes forward instead of back, looking ahead for what’s to come.

And for our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, there are already exciting developments awaiting us all in the new year.


If you didn’t participate in either the Boswords crossword tournament or the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League last year, you might not have heard about this yet, but the intrepid puzzlers from Boswords are already launching their next solve-from-home puzzly endeavor…

The Winter Wondersolve.

On Sunday, January 31st, participants will have four puzzles awaiting them — three themed crosswords and a themeless — designed by top-notch constructors.

Registration opens tomorrow, so be sure to visit Boswords.org for all the details!

(And that’s not all! They’ve also announced a Spring Themeless League, a date for their traditional summer tournament, and the return of the Fall Themeless League later in the year! That’s loads of puzzly goodness to look forward to!)


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Speaking of crosswords and tournaments…

After being forced to postpone and then cancel the 2020 edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament outright, Will Shortz and the tournament’s organizers announced the following a few days ago:

In most years, registration for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament opens on January 1. This year, though, we’re going to wait to see how the fight against the pandemic goes before deciding how to proceed.

Our hope is that, with widespread vaccinations, enough people will feel safe in attending an in-person crossword event in April to have it be worthwhile. We won’t know about that for some time.

Whatever happens, in-person or not, we’re planning at least a major online crossword event in April. We hope you’ll take part in some form.

Whether this means an in-person event — which seems optimistic — or a sequel to last year’s Crossword Tournament From Your Couch, we cannot say. But we will certainly keep you posted on any and all updates.


But it’s not just the world of puzzles that will be celebrating and finding new ways to bring fans together in 2021. The folks at Looney Labs will be marking their twenty-fifth year on the calendar in 2021. Yes, twenty-five years of Looney Labs and twenty-five years of Fluxx!

To mark the occasion, Looney Labs has a plethora of events and promotions planned throughout the year. There is a limited run of special anniversary cards and copies of a miniature version of Fluxx available with web store purchases, plus new game releases planned and much more!

The team at Looney Labs is also welcoming fans like never before with a series of one-of-a-kind Zoom experiences for game enthusiasts. You can purchase tickets for these Silver Jubilee events to play games virtually with the game designers and crew from Looney Labs! There are tutorials, full game sessions, previews of new games, and more planned for each one!

Tickets for the first Silver Jubilee event go on sale at their online store at noon Eastern on Tuesday, January 5th, and there will be more throughout the year!


The year is barely a day old and there’s already so much to look forward to!

We have also heard that some of our favorite constructors will be releasing new puzzle books in the coming weeks and months.

When you factor in all of the puzzles we can expect in major and independent outlets throughout the year — not to mention the puzzles we’ll be producing for our own apps like Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search — 2021 is certainly looking bright for solvers of all ages!

And we look forward to sharing in all of that puzzle-fueled fun with you, PuzzleNationers. Happy puzzling!


Do you know of any puzzle or game events coming in 2021 that we missed? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!

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