Constructors’ Favorite Crosswords from 2017!

Yesterday, I wrapped up my efforts to celebrate 2017’s contributions to the long, marvelous legacy of puzzles and games.

But before saying goodbye to 2017, I reached out to other constructors and puzzlers to ask them if they had any favorite crosswords from 2017, either of their own creation or those made by others.

So let’s check out the favorites from some world-class constructors in their own right.

Note: Wherever possible, I’ve included links to the puzzles, but for the most part, the links included filled-in grids, so if you want the full solving experience, scan for dates, outlets, and names to hunt down copies for yourself.

And remember: every single person who replied stated that there were other puzzles they loved that they knew they were leaving out, so don’t consider this in any way to be an exhaustive list. 2017 was a dynamite year for crosswords!


We’ll start off with some of crossword gentleman Doug Peterson‘s favorites:

– Monday, May 8 NY Times puzzle by Zhouqin Burnikel aka CC Burnikel. It’s an LGBTQ theme executed so nicely for a Monday. Difficulty and theme are spot-on for an easy puzzle. Lots of fresh, colloquial fill. CC is the master.

– Saturday, July 22 LA Times themeless puzzle by Erik Agard. All of Erik’s themelesses are fun, but this one stood out a bit more for me. SHIRLEY CHISHOLM, KITE-EATING TREE, TOOTHBRUSHES stacked on top of ORTHODONTISTS. Fun stuff everywhere you look.

– Wednesday, August 9 AVCX puzzle “Birthday Bash” by Francis Heaney. Broken PINATAs that have dropped their candy into the grid. It doesn’t get much better than that. 🙂 OK, slight ding for having one PINATA filled with ALTOIDS, but this was still a blast to solve.

[Image courtesy of Party Cheap.]

Several constructors, including Joanne Sullivan and Patrick Blindauer, heaped praise upon the puzzles from this year’s Lollapuzzoola event, and rightly so. They always push the envelope in terms of creativity with Lollapuzzoola, and folks went all out for the tenth year of the tournament. Blindauer cited Paolo Pasco’s tournament opener in particular as a delight.

Patrick had several other recommendations:

It’s no surprise to see New York Times puzzles getting a lot of love. George Barany cited David Steinberg’s June 8th puzzle as particularly clever. Definitely not surprised to see those words associated with David.

[Image courtesy of Snark Squad.]

David Kwong sung the praises of Mark Halpin’s Labor Day Extravaganza — which doesn’t contain any crosswords, but it is still very worthy of mentioning — making a point of mentioning that “the meta puzzle involving the spider’s web was so expertly constructed.”

Constructor Brendan Emmett Quigley did an entire post highlighting his favorite puzzles from the previous year, which marked the only overlap between today’s entry and my list of puzzles yesterday. As it turns out, we both enjoyed his “Next Level Shit” puzzle from November 2nd. He cited “Party Line” from September 28th and “We Have Achieved Peak Puzzle” from November 9th as two other favorites.

[Image courtesy of Arrested Development Wiki.]

To close out today’s rundown of killer puzzles, we’ve got a murderers row of recommendations from Evan Birnholz of Devil Cross and The Washington Post crossword:


Thank you to all of the fantastic constructors who offered their favorite crosswords from 2017! Please check out both these constructors AND the constructors they recommend! There are so many great puzzles out there for you if you bother to look!

Here’s to a terrific, challenging, baffling, and creative new year of puzzles to come!


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The New York Times Crossword Cruises and Celebrates!

A few months ago, we told you about The Crossword Crossing, a 7-night transatlantic journey aboard the Queen Mary 2, hosted by Cunard Cruise Line in honor of The New York Times crossword’s 75th anniversary.

Well, the cruise leaves tomorrow, and interest was apparently high, as it’s listed as “sold out” on the Cunard website!

Scheduled speakers include “Wordplay” blogger and crossword guru Deb Amlen, linguist Ben Zimmer, journalist Jane Corbin, historian Simon Newman, and crossword constructors Natan Last and Joel Fagliano.

This cruise caps off an impressive year of celebration for The New York Times crossword. Throughout the year, notable fans of the crossword have been paired with top-flight constructors to try their hand at constructing puzzles of their very own, and the results have been as intriguing as they are impressive.

The last four puzzles in the series in particular pushed the creative envelope in different ways.

Constructor Lynn Lempel tagged in comedian and “The View” host Joy Behar as a partner for the September 26th puzzle, and it was a punny delight. The names of various comedians served as the anchors for puns like PAW PRINZE and PRYOR COMMITMENT. Couple a great theme with interesting fill like DALAI LAMA, KOALA, RESCUE DOG, and BAMBI, and you’ve got a terrific debut puzzle.

October 18th marked not only Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 175th(!) NYT puzzle, but a collaboration with actor John Lithgow. Their puzzle redefined acting terms in clever ways, cluing entries like SUMMER STOCK and STAGE LEFT as “Accountant’s shares in a company?” and “Why one missed the coach?” respectively.

The grid was also loaded with additional thematic words like PROP, DRAMA, WALK-ON, and ACTOR, making for a puzzle positively bursting with style.

It was a marathon of a solve when game designer and puzzler Mike Selinker teamed up with NPR host Peter Sagal for a crossword that actually mapped out the New York City Marathon from Staten Island to the Bronx with entries like FERRY and CHEER. It’s a super-clever theme and layout, and an interesting use of grid space.

Venerated newsman Harry Smith worked with constructor Zhouqin Burnikel for the December 5th puzzle, where they playfully created their own news show. Clues like “Beat reporter?” and “Anchor man?” led to unlikely castings ALLEN GINSBERG and POPEYE THE SAILOR.

It’s been quite a year for what many view as the flagship daily crossword, and apparently there are still a few more celebrity collaborations to come!


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Crosswords LA is on the horizon!

It’s kind of cool that it feels like there’s always another crossword tournament on the horizon. Just last month, we had BosWords AND Lollapuzzoola 10.

And now, we’re about a month out from Crosswords LA! It’s happening on Saturday, October 21, at the University of Southern California, and registration is open now!

The format is simple. Four divisions — Expert, Regular, Rookie, and Doubles (allowing you to team up to solve) — pit their puzzly minds against clever clues and crafty constructors. Plus there’s an unscored Casual division for spectators and puzzlers who don’t want to compete!

Competitors will complete five themed puzzles made by constructors C.C Burnikel, Andrea Carla Michaels, Susan Gelfand, Lynn Lempel, Aimee Lucido, Erin Rhode, and friend of the blog Patti Varol! That’s right, an all-female lineup of constructors!

Then the top three solvers will tackle a championship puzzle, complete with live play-by-play commentary!

You can check out their webpage here for full details!

Are you planning on attending Crosswords LA, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!


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Delving into the Lollapuzzoola 10 puzzles!

Lollapuzzoola celebrated ten years of puzzling this year, and although I was not in attendance, I did sign up for the Solve At Home puzzles. Last weekend, I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hands at this year’s tournament puzzles, and I was not disappointed. Lollapuzzoola continues to push the envelope with topnotch themes and unique spins on how to bring crosswords to life.

This year’s theme was “Passing the Torch,” so every puzzle had something Olympic or athletic about it, and the constructors were clearly inspired in all sorts of ways. Let’s take a look at what they came up with.


Warm-Up: Twinlets by Brian Cimmet

This puzzle felt more like hitting the ground running than warming up, but it definitely got the creative juices flowing. The solver is presented with two identical grids and two sets of clues, and you have to figure out which grid each answer applies to.

This was complicated by the fact that several of the clues were the same for multiple entries. For example, the clue to 1 Across for both grids was “Olympic season.” The grids themselves also made for a tough solve, since there were several sections only connected by a single word, so you had fewer ins to tell you which answer applied.

That being said, the Olympic theme was well-executed and working back and forth made for an enjoyable solve.

Interesting grid entries included BALLSY, ONE-NIL, BIONIC and A-MINOR, and my favorite clues were “Asian river (or mountains) (or maybe both, I can never remember)” for URAL and “One might check it at the door” for EGO.

[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Puzzle 1: Let the Games Begin by Paolo Pasco

The tournament proper gets off to a strong start with Puzzle 1, a really clever opening solve where the letters in various Olympic events have been removed from the other entries along that row. For instance, the first answer in the top row, JUDO, has each of its letters removed from the four subsequent entries: (J)ABS, FA(U)ST, (D)RIPS, and GO(O)DS.

This technique made for a curiously sized grid — 23×13 — but an impressive grid overall, since each of the words with missing letters still formed actual words. BENCHED became BEND and TRYOUTS became TOUTS when the CHE and RY were removed to be part of ARCHERY.

Interesting grid entries included K-POP, LABOR DAY, NASCAR DAD, and SIREE, and my favorite clues were “Mythological character who had a problem with hot wings?” for ICARUS, “Prop for Fred Astaire or Yoda” for CANE, and “Pair in a boat” for OARS.

Puzzle 2: Crossword De-Cat-hlon by C.C. Burnikel

Puzzle 2 was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It was a relatively easy solve, one that most solvers would no doubt finish well before the end of the 20 minutes allotted. But it was also hilariously interactive. The themed entries were instructions for different catlike actions for you to perform aloud!

For instance, MEOW FOR SOME MILK was one answer, and the clue instructed you to do so nine times, one for each “life.” It’s a very funny idea that no doubt must have made for a fairly unique and chaotic experience at the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included HOOKUP, PALE ALE, and HEEHAW, and my favorite clues were “Palindromic Swedish band with a palindromic hit” for ABBA and “Car mechanic’s wiper” for RAG.

Puzzle 3: Gym Playlist by Erik Agard

We take a break from the Olympics specifically to focus on music in Puzzle 3, where we have song titles broken into two parts on different lines, like NINETOFIVE, which would have read out in order, except TOFIVE was one row lower. Why? Well, because they become UNEVEN BARS, as the revealer explains.

It’s a very playful theme that mixed well with some engaging grid fillers, and a really fun solve overall.

Interesting grid entries included MAURITANIA, SCHMOE, MENUDO, MEDICO, and POUFS, and my favorite clues were “Titular thief of literature” for GRINCH and “Singer Lavigne who allegedly died in 2003 and was replaced by a lookalike” for AVRIL. (Now that’s some trivia!)

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Puzzle 4: New Biathlons by Francis Heaney

Probably the toughest puzzle of the tournament, save for the finals, Puzzle 4’s themed clues felt more like clues for a cryptic puzzle than a regular crossword. There were essentially two clues for each answer. The first was a “new biathlon” — a sport formed by combining two events into one hybrid event, like skiing and shooting — bookended by parts of an additional word. The second clue was a description of the word chain also formed both those letters.

For instance, 20 Across was clued “Indian instrument + new biathlon = Caption of a photo in which reviewer Gene and an alien sit atop a carpet, next to a sailor.” That’s a LOT of information, but it does make sense when you complete the answer: SISKELETONRUGBYTAR. You have SITAR with SKELETON RUGBY inside it, and you also have SISKEL ET ON RUG BY TAR.

Couple that with some hard grid fill, and you have a difficult but really engaging puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included CATARRH, UNICEF, ESTADOS, LAUNDROMAT, and TELL ME THIS, and my favorite clues were “When repeated, ‘Look, Senorita Sorvino’!” for MIRA and “What the wicked get” for NO REST.

Puzzle 5: Stick the Landing by joon pahk

The tournament puzzles closed with joon pahk’s immensely clever Puzzle 5, which presented four themed entries that vaulted the black squares between neighboring spaces on the same row in order to complete the answer. You see, each black square represented a pole vault, and those poles — MAY, SOUTH, SKI, and TOTEM — were found elsewhere in the grid. So 86 Across, MAY, bridged the gap between 24 Across’s JOHNM and YER to form JOHNMAYER.

This gimmick meant that, for instance, there was no 25 Across clue, because 25 Across was part of 24 Across, just separated by a black square, which I confess was confusing at the outset until I figured out the puzzle’s hook. Still, it was a very satisfying solve and one of the highlights of the day.

Interesting grid entries included BROUHAHA, I GOT THIS, UM OK, DC AREA, and DASHIELL, and my favorite clues were “Insult that Bugs Bunny mistakes for ‘maroon’” for MORON and “Cow who hasn’t had a cow” for HEIFER.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

Puzzle 6: Finals by Mike Nothnagel and Doug Peterson

As always, there were two sets of clues for the Finals puzzle, the Local and the more difficult Express clues. But this year, there was an additional challenge to tackle.

As both solvers in person and at home were warned, “Each finalist will have a personal Marker Caddy. The Marker Caddy will be holding a cup of several markers. We aren’t going to say anything else, except that we’ve never had Marker Caddies before. Just this year. That is all.” Non-finalists were provided with a small four-pack of crayons containing a green, a red, a blue, and a yellow crayon.

Those colors would come in handy, as there were four O’s in the grid that needed to be marked with the colored markers. The first O in LOW RESOLUTION was blue, so that OSTATES would really be BLUE STATES, just as the last O in LOW RESOLUTION was red, so that OPEPPER was really RED PEPPER.

The same followed for the O in AS TO and the O in OUTS, so that BIGOTAXI would read BIG YELLOW TAXI and THEOMILE would read THE GREEN MILE.

Couple that with some very tough cluing — in the Express Finals anyway — and you’ve got one heck of a finale to the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included SQUAWKS, HEY WAIT, LA PLATA and GAMETE, and my favorite clues were “Station not popular with Rush fans” for MSNBC and “Nancy who solved ‘The Clue in the Crossword Cipher'” for DREW.

There was also a tiebreaker puzzle I quite enjoyed, especially with clues like “Do goo” for GEL and “Boxing great, or her father” for ALI.


The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were tight, there was very little crosswordese, and the creative puzzle gimmicks — the markers, the cat activities, the athletics in the grids (like pole vaunting or uneven bars) — ensured that not only would fun be had by all, but that the unique puzzles would linger in your memory longer.

Mission accomplished, and congratulations on the competitors and the organizers who made it all happen. The tenth year of the tournament showed that Lollapuzzoola is only getting more creative, more groundbreaking, and more clever with each passing year.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year!


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5 Questions for Constructor Doug Peterson

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 Doug Peterson as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Crossword gentleman and constructor Doug Peterson is a regular in the Los Angeles Times and many other outlets, offering topnotch grids and brilliantly fun, pop-culture-savvy cluing. Doug was also one of the constructors in this year’s Lollapuzzoola crossword tournament and a winner at this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Anytime you encounter one of his puzzles, you’re guaranteed a great solve.

Doug 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 Doug Peterson

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

Like many others, I caught the puzzle bug from older family members, specifically my dad and maternal grandmother. I’d spend summers at my grandparents’ house, and my grandma always had a stack of Dell puzzle books on hand. My favorite thing was to tackle one of the huge 21×21 crosswords, which would literally take me days to finish. And that was great, because I had a lot of long, boring days to get through.

2. 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?

I think the most important element in a puzzle is craftsmanship, meaning that significant effort has gone into making that puzzle as enjoyable as possible. I realize that’s a little vague, but it’s like the old line about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Basically, the theme, fill, and clues should all demonstrate care and a personal touch.

I’m not the best at coming up with themes, so I strive to make my fill and clues pick up the slack, so to speak. There’s plenty I avoid in my grids, and I’m getting pickier all time. For the record, I’ve never used ÉTÉ in a grid. I don’t trust three-letter words with two accent marks. Also on my “banned list” are IDI, AMIN, and ULEE. I’m not going there. I hate brutal dictators, and bees kinda scare me.

The most common pitfall I’ve found among newbies is trying to do too much right out of the gate. My advice is to get a few 15×15’s under your belt before trying to construct that 21×21 triple rebus with five meta-answers and a tribute to your favorite band hidden diagonally. My first published puzzles are embarrassing to look at now. I used PATLY in my debut puzzle. PATLY? That barely resembles a word that a human would use. But I got better, and by the time I was ready to tackle something truly challenging, I had some constructing chops.

Teaser: I’ll give my best advice to newbies (and all constructors) in my answer to Question 5.

[Two of Doug’s books currently available on Amazon: Sit & Solve© Brain-Straining Crosswords and Sit & Solve© Lickety-Split Crosswords.]

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?

We’re living in a golden age of crosswords, and there are so many superb themes and clues out there, and of course I can’t think of anything specific off the top of my head right now… I solve a crapload of puzzles, more than 20 per week, so honestly it’s hard to single out themes or clues that made me say “Oooh!”

Constructors whose themes I admire include Brendan Emmett Quigley, Andrew Ries, and Erik Agard. They’re at the top of my “why the hell didn’t I think of that?” list. BEQ publishes two free high-quality puzzles a week, which boggles my mind. And he used to do three a week! Just recently, he posted puzzle #900. I would have burned out years ago. BEQ’s puzzles are a blast to solve, and they’re hip without being eye-rolly.

Andrew Ries publishes a weekly crossword (www.ariesxword.com) that’ll run you $12 bucks a year (a steal!) and consistently features fresh themes and clues. It’s often my favorite puzzle of the week. And then there’s Erik Agard over at gluttonforpun. Mind-bending, multi-level themes and clues that make me laugh out loud. This dude is the next wave of crossword puzzles.

The best venue for stand-out themes by a variety of constructors is Fireball Crosswords, edited and sometimes constructed by Peter Gordon. Shameless plug: I constructed the first Fireball puzzle of 2017, which will hit solvers’ in-boxes in January. It’s a theme that’d been bouncing around in my brain for over two years, and I finally got off my lazy butt and made the puzzle.

Cool entries do tend to stick in my head, and a couple recent entries I loved (and wish I’d thought to use myself) were BEER O’CLOCK and DC UNIVERSE. Both were in puzzles by another of my favorite constructors, C.C. Burnikel. She turns out quality puzzles on a regular basis. In fact, on a more-than-regular basis. C.C. is remarkably prolific. Nary a week goes by that I don’t solve a well-crafted Burnikel puzzle in one of the major outlets.

4. What’s next for Doug Peterson?

On the constructing front, I’d like to branch out a little and create more non-American style crossword puzzles. I love constructing cryptic crosswords. I had a couple published in the New York Times ages ago, and then I drifted away from them. I got my start writing cryptic clues back in the Dark Ages in the rec.puzzles.crosswords Usenet group. (Psst, constructors. No one remembers USENET anymore, so stop putting it in your grids. SYSOP, too.) And maybe I’ll try my hand at constructing a Rows Garden or a Marching Bands puzzle. Something outside my comfort zone.

[A. A familiar Sudoku grid; B. A Kakuro (or Cross Sums) grid; C. A Nurikabe
grid, a variation on Minesweeper-style solving; D. A Hashiwokakero grid,
which readers might remember from this year’s UK Puzzle Championship.]

Speaking of comfort zones, on the solving front, I want to get much better at solving logic puzzles. And by “get much better at,” I mean “actually be able to solve.” I’m talking about Sudoku, Kakuro, Nurikabe, Hashiwokakero (yes, that’s an actual puzzle type I just found on Google), all the puzzles with Japanese names and little lines and boxes and circles. I’ve solved maybe ten Sudoku puzzles in my life, and it would be cool to stretch my brain in another direction or many other directions.

And hey, it will open up a whole new world of puzzles that I can print out and never quite get around to solving!

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

To aspiring constructors, my best advice is: Solve puzzles! I cringe when I hear a constructor say that they don’t solve puzzles or “can’t” solve puzzles. Just looking at answer grids or reading reviews of puzzles isn’t enough. To me, solving is the only way to figure out what sorts of things make a puzzle enjoyable. There’s a reason I don’t use ULEE in my grids, aside from my slight apiphobia. It’s because it bugs me when I see it in a puzzle I’m solving.

Create the kinds of puzzles that you enjoy solving, and you can’t go wrong. (Unless you like solving really crappy puzzles for some reason.) And if you’re interested in being published and getting paid a few bucks for your hard work, it’s essential to solve puzzles from the venue you’re submitting to.

OK, I’ve rambled on long enough. Look for my été-free puzzles in all the usual places. Thanks for reading. Peterson out.


A huge thank you to Doug for his time. Be sure to follow him on Twitter for the latest updates on all his puzzly creations!

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