It Was His Sister, In the Living Room, With the…

We’re one week into 2021, but if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to share one last bit of puzzle fun from 2020.

Every household has their holiday traditions. Maybe it’s who you see on Christmas Eve or who puts the star on the tree, who lights the first candle on the menorah or who says grace at the dinner table.

It’s no different when it comes to puzzly holiday traditions. One friend challenges his kids to a puzzle hunt Christmas morning before they open their gifts. Another couple I know gives each other games for Christmas, and then invites certain friends over that evening for a holiday game night. (Naturally, this year, they did so over Zoom.)

I recently stumbled across another puzzle/game-fueled holiday tradition and I wanted to share the story with my fellow PuzzleNationers.

One Christmas, six years ago, a young man received a candlestick from his sister as one of his gifts. It was in a black box with a purple ribbon. He was very confused. He didn’t understand this gift at all.

The next year, he received another strange gift: a spool of rope.

And so it went each year. Another Christmas, another strange gift.

He soon cottoned on to the pattern, though, and began to look forward to each year’s new offering.

This year, she completed the set for him:

Yes, every Christmas, his sister got him one of the weapons from Clue, a favorite movie from their childhood, inspired by the classic board game Clue/Cluedo. Pictured above are the gifts in order, from the candlestick first to the revolver last.

One can’t help but wonder what their parents thought when the pipe, the knife, or the revolver arrived. But hey, maybe they’re Clue enthusiasts as well.

A lot of people plan ahead for Christmas. But planning ahead for six years? Now that’s puzzly commitment.


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The Great Crossword Debate: Overused Vs. Obscure

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Making a great crossword puzzle is not easy. Heck, making a GOOD crossword puzzle is not easy.

You want the theme to be creative, innovative even, but still something that can be intuited from a clever title and crafty clues.

You want the clues to be engaging, challenging, funny, tricky, and loaded with wordplay and personality.

And you want the grid fill to be fresh and interesting, yet accessible. You want to avoid obscurities, abbreviations, nonsensical partial-phrases, and the dreaded Naticks where two difficult entries cross.

But you also want to add to the lexicon of grid fill, leaving behind the tired vowel-heavy words that have become cliche or crosswordese.

Even if you accomplish all that, you also want your puzzle to have an overall consistent level of difficulty. Having a bunch of easy words in the grid only highlights the hard words necessitated when you construct yourself into a corner. A sudden spike in vocabulary and eccentricity is always noticeable.

So completing every grid becomes a balancing act between new and old, pop culture-loaded and traditional, obscure and overused.

This raises the question posed in a Reddit thread recently:

Which bothers you more, words that you probably wouldn’t know without a dictionary OR filling out OLEO and ARIA for the millionth time?

Both options had their proponents, so I’d like to give you my thoughts on each side of this cruciverbalist coin.


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Obscure Over Overused

A well-constructed grid can overcome the occasional obscure entry. After all, since you have Across and Down entries, several accessible Across answers can hand you a difficult Down answer that you didn’t know.

You can assist with an informative clue. It might get a little lengthy, but like a well-written trivia question, you can often provide enough context to get somebody in the ballpark, even if they don’t know the exact word or phrase they need. If it FEELS fair, I think solvers will forgive some peculiar entries, as long as you don’t go overboard.

Also, if you’re a crossword fan, you’re probably a word nerd, and who doesn’t like learning new words?

As one contributor to the thread said, “I’d rather eke out a solution than fill in EKE OUT or EKE BY again.”


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Overused Over Obscure

The very nature of crosswords demands letter arrangements that are conducive to building tight grids. Your vowel-heavy entries, your alternating consonant-vowel ABAB patterns, the occasional all-consonants abbreviation or all-vowels exhalation or size measurement… these are necessary evils.

But that doesn’t mean the cluing has to be boring. I absolutely love it when a constructor finds a new twist on an entry you’ve seen a billion times. I laughed out loud when Patti Varol clued EWE as “Baa nana?” because it was a take I’d never seen before.

Here are a few more examples of really smart ways I’ve seen overused entries clued:

  • “It’s never been the capital of England (and it surely won’t be now)” for EURO (Steve Faiella)
  • “Name-dropper’s abbr.” for ETAL (Patrick Berry)
  • “It’s three before November” for KILO (Andy Kravis)
  • “Fix plot holes, maybe” for HOE (Peter Gordon)
  • “50/50, e.g.” for ONE (Michael Shteyman). This one really plays with your expectations.
  • “Hawaiian beach ball?” for LUAU (George Barany)

Still, this is no excuse for going incredibly obtuse with your cluing just to be different. Making an esoteric reference just to avoid saying “Sandwich cookie” for OREO might be more annoying to a solver than just the overused answer itself.

On the flip side, you can treat them as gimmes, cluing them with familiar phrasing and letting them serve as the jumping-off points for longer, more difficult entries or the themed entries the puzzle is constructed around. Some familiar words are always welcome, particularly if a solver is feeling daunted with a particular puzzle’s or day’s standard difficulty.

(One poster even suggested pre-populating the grid with common crosswordese like OLEO, kinda like the set numbers in a Sudoku. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that approach before.)


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So, have we come to any conclusions today? Probably not.

As I said before, it’s a tightrope every constructor must walk on the way to finishing a crossword. Every constructor has a different method for getting across, a different formula for success. Some even manage to make it look effortless.

What do you think, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Do you favor overused entries or obscure ones? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Puns: What Sweet Music They Make

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There’s nothing like a bit of shameless punnery to improve my mood. Sure, a deftly crafted and immaculately executed pun can be a delight, but there’s something about a labored, ridiculous pun that just brings me joy.

You know, like the one about going into surgery and being given two options: an old anesthetic or a paddle to the face.

It was an ether/oar situation.

BAM. Silly punnery afoot.

You can find it in many forms, like crossword clues and Tom Swifties. There’s even the O. Henry Pun-Off competition each year where punsmiths from all over the world gather to show off their linguistic limberness.

And what a treat it is when the puns are packaged in a song.

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I recently stumbled across a wonderful example on YouTube when I found the channel belonging to singer, musician, and actress Malinda Kathleen Reese. Her channel, simply called MALINDA, has over 250,000 subscribers, and features not only her lovely voice and impressive musical chops, but a wide variety of creative endeavors involving music.

She’s crafted songs about subjects both joyful and sad, often incorporating submissions and suggestions from her viewers. One is made up entirely of old Facebook statuses she posted. Another features compliments she’s received online, while a third is composed from hate comments.

MalindaKathleenReese

Whether she’s singing what she sees, composing a symphony with a deck of cards, testing the reliability of the website RhymeZone by using it to write a rap, or performing with an orchestra of singers and musicians assembled for a virtual performance, Malinda is as ambitious as she is innovative.

And, as you might expect from this blog post’s introduction, she has a song made up entirely of shameless puns.

Enjoy, won’t you?

What a treat!

You can check out Malinda’s works on her YouTube page and stay up-to-date with her current projects on her Twitter account, and if you’re feeling so inclined, support her on Patreon so she can continue making marvelous musical melodies like the one above.

Thanks for brightening our days, Malinda!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Chicken War

chicken war header

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

The farm is no longer the quiet, idyllic escape you pictured when learning the sounds barnyard animals make. Instead, it has fallen to factional fury and un-cooped combat between various groups of chickens vying for victory. Such is the setting for ThinkFun‘s latest brain-training game, the colorful and crafty tile game Chicken War.

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There are two ways to win Chicken War. You can either be the last player standing or the first player to complete their army. To be the last player standing, your opponents’ leaders must be identified. To be the first player to complete your army, you have to have nine other chickens with two traits in common with your leader.

As you can see, Chicken War’s hybrid style of play combines the player observation of a game like Throw Throw Burrito or Scrimish with the deductive reasoning of a game like Clue.

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Each player is trying to recruit chickens for their army, and must do so in full view of the other players. This means that you have to strategize not only your recruitment process, but how to do so without revealing too much to your opponents. Plus you have to do all that while keeping an eye on your opponents’ efforts to recruit!

First, you select your leader from the ten starting chickens in your yard. Optimally, you’ll pick a leader where many of the other starting chickens already share two traits, which gives you a leg up in building your army.

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You’ll hide your leader token under that particular chicken to mark it, using your screen to do so away from the prying eyes of other players.

Remember, that’s two traits and only two traits in common.

chicken war trait

The four possible traits, as shown above, are weapon, shirt color, eyewear, and footwear. Each trait has three variations. For instance, shirt color can be blue, red, or green. Eyewear can be sunglasses, mask, or none.

(Keep those four traits in mind. Body type, pose, and style of tail are all irrelevant, but can be distracting.)

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As you can see here, the top two chickens have two traits in common: shirt color and eyewear. (Footwear and weapon differ.) The two bottom chickens have three traits in common: shirt color, eyewear, and footwear. Therefore, if 05 and 06 are leaders, 05 has a recruit, but 06 does not.

How do you recruit chickens? By drawing from the discard pile. You either keep the new chicken and discard one of the chickens from your yard, or you immediately discard the new chicken.

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The only other ways to recruit chickens are to use the two special tiles: steal and infiltrate.

Steal lets you take a chicken from another player’s yard and discard one of your unwanted chickens into the discard pile. This not only gives you a new chicken, but leaves your opponent one chicken short. This can be a strategic advantage, because any player with fewer than 10 chickens can’t lob an egg and cannot win the game, even if their remaining chickens all match the leader.

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Infiltrate allows you to swap one of your chickens with one of your opponents’ chickens. That player must then tell you one trait your chicken (the one placed in their yard) has with their leader. If there are no traits in common with the leader, they must tell you that instead. And if you accidentally trade for their leader, they must pick a new leader and start over. So in any case, you gain a new chicken and important knowledge about your opponent’s game.

If multiple players gang up on a single player, the Infiltrate card can prove very dangerous, eventually outing the player’s leader and making them easy pickings for an egg and elimination from the game. (This tactic is more likely to catch new players, as more experienced players would endeavor to repeat the same revealed trait over and over, whenever possible.)

So each turn, you must either draw a chicken from the discard pile or lob an egg.

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Lobbing one of your three eggs means you place your egg on a chicken in another player’s yard that you suspect is their leader. If you’re correct, that player is out.

But if you’re wrong, you lose an egg and have to discard two chickens from your yard, leaving yourself two chickens short of victory. (Also, as we stated before, you can’t win the game or lob an egg with fewer than 10 chickens in your yard.)

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The two methods of winning can often lead to two different styles of gameplay. Either a player focuses on their recruitment, hoping to be the first to complete their army, or they focus on eliminating another player by sussing out who their leader chicken is.

This adds a lot of variety to the game, particularly when it comes to repeat playthroughs. Figuring out your opponents’ tactics can inform your own, and yet, you don’t want to tip your hand.

Once I had one or two playthroughs behind me, I really started getting invested in the gameplay and trying to get into my opponents’ heads. (Also, there’s something delightfully demented about these chickens all being armed with “weapons” we would use to make breakfast from their eggs. That’s a nice touch.)

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Although it makes for a tense, enjoyable one-on-one game, the full potential of Chicken War comes alive with all four players involved. It forces to split your attention, retain a lot of information, and constantly adapt your strategy to an ever-shifting landscape.

As you can see, there’s a surprising amount of thought, strategy, and complexity behind this so-called guessing game, and it makes Chicken War a terrific gateway game to other board games in the same style, but with more complex rulesets or player choices. War is hell, but Chicken War is healthy brain-fueled fun.

[Chicken War is available from ThinkFun and other retail outlets.]


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View a Clue: Crossword Characters

Welcome to the latest edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s most visual feature: the View a Clue game!

I’ve selected ten fictional characters that commonly show up in crossword grids — some have become crosswordese at this point — and I want to see if the PuzzleNation audience can identify them from pictures. It’s a visual puzzle I call View a Clue!

Without further ado, let’s give it a shot!


#1 (4 letters)

view fcc 1

#2 (4 letters)

view fcc 2

#3 (3 letters)

view fcc 3

#4 (4 letters)

view fcc 4

#5 (4 letters) [I’ve included two possible characters for this one.]

view fcc 5a

view fcc 5b

#6 (4 letters)

view fcc 6

#7 (4 letters)

view fcc 7

#8 (5 letters)

view fcc 8

#9 (4 letters)

view fcc 9

#10 (3 letters)

view fcc 10

[All image credits will be posted with the answers next week.]


How many did you get? Let me know in the comments below! And if you have ideas for another View a Clue game, tell us below!

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PuzzleNation Product Review: Are You a Robot?

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

Whether you’re playing a board game like Clue or a card game like Werewolf or Mafia, you and your fellow players have accepted the challenge of a very different form of puzzle gaming: the social deduction game.

Social deduction games operate under a simple premise — the cards determine the role you play — and from that point forward, you’re trying to determine who is secretly a danger to you and others in the game.

In this particular case, there might a robot lurking among the humans aboard your space station.

You see, in Are You a Robot?, all of the players randomly select a card. There’s always a human card for every person playing the game, plus one robot card. (So, for instance, if five people are playing, you have five human cards and one robot card in the deck.) You shuffle the cards, deal out one to each player, and put the last one aside. Everyone looks at their card (but doesn’t show anyone else) and discovers their role for the game.

Now, at this point, there’s between zero and one robots in the game, and the rest of the players are human. The humans want to suss out if there are any robots disguised as humans, and the robot wants to get the humans to accuse each other and whittle down their numbers so the robots can take over.

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[A whole lot packed into a little envelope.]

This is the social aspect of the game. There are three things players can do in order to figure out who is who: shake hands, shoot a laser gun at another player, or talk. If the players all agree that there are no robots in play, two players can agree to shake hands. If there are no robots in the game after all, the humans win. If a robot is present after all, the humans lose.

Humans can shoot other players, but robots cannot. If a robot is shot, it’s gone from the game and the humans rejoice. If a human is shot, three things happen: the shooter is immediately removed from the game, the human who was shot comes back to life and returns to the game, and there’s a chance another robot slips into the game.

This element of chance involves all of the players closing their eyes, any robots secretly revealing themselves, and all of the remaining players turning in their cards. Those cards are shuffled randomly, a robot card is introduced, and the cards are redistributed to the surviving human players.

It’s possible everyone remains human, and it’s possible one of the humans is now a robot in disguise.

The game now resumes, and the players must once again figure out if there are any robots in their midst. (And your mind immediately begins spiraling out with possibilities. “Did so-and-so not shoot me because he believes that I’m human? Or because he’s a robot and can’t shoot me?”)

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[The set up for a four-person game: instructions, four human cards, and one robot card.]

Play continues until either the humans have eliminated any possible robots (and have shaken hands to confirm this) or the robots have overwhelmed the game and the humans have been whittled down to a single player.

In my estimation, Extended Mode, designed for 5 or more players, is the most interesting version of the game. The core game is for two or three players, consisting of two human cards and one robot card. Adding a second game allows for up to four players, a third game allows for up to six, and so on.

Our Extended Mode testing involved eight players (and four copies of the game), which allowed for multiple rounds of play, the introduction of several possible additional robots, and so on, making for a deeper, more engrossing (and nerve-wracking!) play experience.

And that’s the beauty of Are You a Robot? when compared to similar social detection card games like Mafia and Werewolf. Not only can you have satisfying play experiences with fewer people but the element of randomness that comes into play with more players adds tension to the game. (In Mafia and Werewolf, the number of antagonists is set at the start of the game. In Are You a Robot?, the number might increase, or it might not. It’s a simple change that adds so much.)

An elegant balance of silliness and suspenseful, consequence-loaded gameplay, Are You a Robot? is a winner with any number of players. Bring your laser gun, bring your skepticism, and bring along a couple of sets so everyone can play.

[Are You a Robot? is available (for $2!) from Looney Labs and other participating retailers.]


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