75 Years of New York Times Crosswords!

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of The New York Times publishing its first crossword, and I thought I’d delve into NYT crossword history a bit to commemorate this event!

On February 15, 1942, The New York Times ran its first Sunday edition crossword. (The daily feature as we know it wouldn’t come into effect until 1950.)

But, you might be thinking to yourself, Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” first appeared in the New York World in 1913. Simon & Schuster published The Cross-Word Puzzle Book, edited by Margaret Farrar, in 1924. What took The New York Times so long to catch on?

Truth be told, they didn’t think much of crosswords back then.

“Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjongg sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.”

The article goes on to call crosswords “a primitive form of mental exercise” and compare their value to that of so-called brain teasers that should be solved by schoolchildren in 30 seconds or less. A pretty harsh assessment, overall.

So, what changed their minds regarding crosswords?

Well, World War II happened.

“I don’t think I have to sell you on the increased demand for this type of pastime in an increasingly worried world,” wrote Margaret Farrar, the first crossword editor of The Times, in a memo to Lester Markel, the Sunday editor, after the Pearl Harbor attack. “You can’t think of your troubles while solving a crossword.”

In a memo dated December 18, 1941, Markel conceded that the puzzle deserved space in the paper, considering what was happening elsewhere in the world, and that readers might need something to occupy themselves during blackouts.

The puzzle proved popular, and Arthur Hays Sulzberger — the publisher of the New York Times and a longtime crossword fan himself — would author a Times puzzle before the year was out.

And so now, only a few years after the crossword itself celebrated its centennial, the most famous crossword outlet in the world is celebrating three-quarters of a century, along with a wonderful legacy of innovation, wordplay, and creativity.

To mark the occasion, The Times is going all out. Not only did they publish a crossword on Tuesday by the youngest constructor in NYT history — 13-year-old Daniel Larsen — but over the course of the year, they’ll be publishing collaborations between top constructors and celebrity solvers!

The first, a feast of a collab between Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg, was published yesterday.

So, we here at PuzzleNation tip our hat to not only the current crew at The New York Times crossword, but all of the editors, constructors, creators, and collaborators who have contributed to a true crossword institution. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

[For more on the 75th anniversary, please check out Deb Amlen’s wonderful piece here (from which I nabbed that Margaret Farrar quote).]


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An Excluded Solver Strikes Back!

Many people find crossword puzzles daunting.

For some, it’s the crosswordese, those obscure or curious words that you only encounter in crossword grids. Whether it’s European rivers or needlecases, these entries never make casual conversational appearances.

For others, it’s the pop culture that often feels dusty and out-of-touch. It’s not like many silent movie stars are household names these days.

Thankfully, many current outlets and constructors have moved away from this stodgy approach to grid construction and cluing, working hard to keep cultural references fresh and up-to-date, and striving for fluid grid-filling entries that remain both accessible and interesting.

Unfortunately, the reputation of crosswords as behind-the-times is still prevalent in many circles, including among younger solvers.

But I was amused to find one younger solver who sought to balance the scales a bit by taking matters into her own hands.

Tumblr user Greater-than-the-Sword created and shared her own crossword. (Well, technically a criss-cross to puzzle aficionados like ourselves, but the average person would call this a crossword.)

In her own words:

Tired of your parents always doing better than you at crossword puzzles just because they’re old and get the ancient pop culture references? I made this Millennial’s Crossword Puzzle™. Guaranteed to make your parents feel old and less smug.

Sample clues included “is either white and gold or blue and black” for DRESS (referencing the optical illusion that took over the Internet for a day or two) and “Popular Youtuber” for PEWDIEPIE.

Although the puzzle didn’t make me feel old or less smug, it did make me laugh, since I found several of the entries completely baffling and impenetrable. It also reminded me of how amazingly fast cultural references emerge and vanish in the age of the Internet. I got about half of the reference in the puzzle, many of which applied to memes and pop culture from the last few years.

(Though I must confess that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize the clue “bendy cabbage patch” meant BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH.)

I was unable to reach Greater-than-the-Sword to ask her what sort of feedback she received on the puzzle — either from millennials or from older solvers who accepted the challenge — but I found it to be a delightful response to lazy crossword construction.

You’re welcome to try your luck against the puzzle here.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Gems from 2016 edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to revisit the post listing our favorite crosswords and clues from 2016!

[Image courtesy of blog.dictionary.com.]

At the end of the post, I asked readers and fellow puzzlers what their favorites from 2016 were, and several top constructors and puzzle personalities reached out to share the puzzles that caught their eye!

The Crosswords Club editor and friend of the blog Patti Varol shared four crosswords she really enjoyed last year: one from The LA Times, one from The Crosswords Club, and two from Andrew Ries’ Aries Xwords puzzles.

Both The LA Times Daily puzzle and the 21x Crosswords Club puzzle were created by constructor Ed Sessa, and Patti considered them two of “the cutest crosswords I’ve solved in a very long time.”

[Image courtesy of Dunkin Donuts.]

The Crosswords Club puzzle, “Made to Order,” had different donuts as themed entries, complete with the all the O’s circled, so that there were actually a dozen donuts in the grid. It was a clever visual gag executed with style.

I enjoyed that one, but I preferred the LA Times puzzle from October 6th, which offered four clues in all caps: OREO, ORE, OR, and O. Those were your themed entries, and the revealer explaining the all-caps entries? ME EAT COOKIE. That was great.

[Image courtesy of District of Calamity.]

The other two puzzles were a double-header from March 12th. “Can You Read Me?” was constructed by Andrew Ries and “Copy That” by Jared S. Erwin.

“Can You Read Me?” was a solid puzzle with a three-part quotation (I CAN’T WRITE FIVE WORDS BUT THAT I CHANGE SEVEN) and the speaker (DOROTHY PARKER) as the featured entries.

But the fun really began when you solved “Copy That,” which featured the same quote, but cited TIMOTHY PARKER as the speaker. And there were seven words in total changed from “Can You Read Me?”

This one-two punch of puzzling is a savagely clever reference to the crossword plagiarism scandal we covered in detail in the blog. Very well played, Andrew and Jared.

[Image courtesy of Jake Silverstein’s Twitter.]

We’ve got one last puzzle to highlight, recommended by constructor and friend of the blog David Steinberg. It was the absolutely monstrous puzzle pictured above, a 50×50 puzzle by Frank Longo that appeared in the special Puzzle Mania section in The New York Times.

I haven’t had the pleasure of tackling this one yet, but David said, “I’ve never solved such a big puzzle before, and it was amazingly smooth and entertaining!”

And with that, we wrap up our look at 2016 and look forward to all the puzzly creativity and inventiveness coming in 2017!


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: 2016 Countdown edition!

It’s the final Follow-Up Friday of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2016 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


#10 Doomsday Prep

One of the big surprises for me this year was discovering that crosswords and puzzle books were hot-ticket items for doomsday preppers. The idea that crosswords belong next to necessities like food, water, shelter, and knowledge was a revealing one, something that gave me great hope for the future, whether we need those caches or not.

#9 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#8 A Puzzly Proposal

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles once again pulled off a heck of a puzzly coup when an intrepid fellow puzzler asked them for help proposing to his girlfriend with a special Simon Says puzzle.

I reached out to the lucky fiancé and got his permission to share the story with the PuzzleNation readership, and as I learned more about who was involved and how they’d managed to make it happen, I enjoyed the story more and more. Here’s hoping for many happy puzzly years ahead for the young couple!

#7 Puzzle Fort

For International Puzzle Day, I built a fort out of puzzle books.

It was awesome. Definitely one of my favorite puzzly moments of the year.

#6 The End of Sudoku?

The Sudoku boom may be over, but Sudoku remains one of the most popular puzzles in the world, and I got to thinking… when would we run out? I mean, eventually, statistically speaking, every single Sudoku puzzle permutation would get used at some point, so when would that happen?

So, I crunched the numbers, and it turns out, we’ve got centuries before that happens. Still, it was a fun mental puzzle to unravel.

#5 Murder Mystery

At some point this year, I let slip to my fellow puzzlers that I’d written and staged murder mystery dinners in the past, but it had been a while since I’d done anything like that. Naturally, they volunteered to be participants, urging me to stage something in the office.

Eventually, I accepted their challenge, pitting myself against a half-dozen or so of my fellow puzzlers, allowing some of them to investigate while others played a part in the mystery. It was an enormous undertaking and an absolute blast that lasted three days, and it was definitely a highlight of the year for me.

#4 Puzzle Plagiarism

There was probably no bigger story in crosswords all year than the accusations of plagiarism leveled against Timothy Parker. The editor of puzzles for USA Today and Universal UClick. After numerous examples of very suspicious repetitions between grids were discovered in a crossword database compiled by programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig, Parker “temporarily stepped back from any editorial role” with their puzzles.

Eventually, Parker was removed from any editorial influence on USA Today’s puzzles, but it remains unknown if he’s still serving in a puzzle-related capacity for Universal Uclick. But the real story here was about integrity in puzzles, as many puzzle and game companies rallied to defend their rights as creators. That’s a cause we can all get behind.

#3 Interviewing the PuzzleNation Team

Our recurring interview feature 5 Questions returned this year, but what made it truly special to me was being able to turn the spotlight on some of my fellow puzzlers here at PuzzleNation as part of celebrating 4 years of PuzzleNation Blog. Introducing readers to our programmer Mike, our Director of Digital Games Fred, and yes, even myself, was a really fun way to celebrate this milestone.

#2 ACPT, CT FIG, and Other Puzzly Events

There are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was supporting local creators at the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games or cheering on my fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, getting out and talking shop with other creators is invigorating and encouraging. It really helps solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#1 Penny Dell Sudoku and Android Expansion

Those were our two biggest app releases this year, and I just couldn’t choose one over the other. This has been a terrific year for us as puzzle creators, because not only did we beef up our library of Android-available puzzle sets to match our terrific iOS library, but we launched our new Penny Dell Sudoku app across both platforms, broadening the scope of what sort of puzzle apps you can expect from PuzzleNation.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

Thanks for spending 2016 with us, through puzzle scandals and proposals, through forts and festivities, through doomsday prepping and daily delights. We’ll see you in 2017.


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My Favorite Crosswords and Clues for 2016!

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the crossword — the one hundred and third, to be precise — and I thought I would celebrate the day by sharing some of my favorite crossword puzzles and clues from this year.

I solved more crosswords this year than any other year I can remember. From The New York Times, The LA Times, and The Washington Post to Peter Gordon‘s Fireball Newsflash Crosswords and our own Free Daily Puzzle on the Penny Dell Crosswords app, I tried to sample as many constructors and outlets as I could.

I want to start with Ben Tausig’s “Gender-Fluid” quantum puzzle from The New York Times in September. In a year that saw the Times called out several times for tone-deaf and insensitive cluing, to have a puzzle dedicated to the increasing awareness of other gender options was great.

And it certainly didn’t hurt that Ben’s grid was tightly constructed and each of the variable M or F entries worked well. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

“Eliminating the Competition” by Barany and Friends was another strong crossword with clever letterplay involved. The puzzle paid tribute to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament by dropping the letters A, C, P, and T, respectively from the four theme entries in the grid.

Not only that, but there were no As, Cs, Ps, or Ts to be found anywhere else in the puzzle grid, which I thought was not only clever, but impressively challenging as a constructing gimmick. It was one of the most ambitious grids I saw all year. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

On the flip side — a puzzle that was more about the clues than the grid — there was the cryptic crossword from Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography.

With clues like “Sounds like an assortment of taxis in which you were the MC (7)” (for CABARET) and “Costar a large, fake amount of money? (7)” (for FILLION), this puzzle not only rewarded attentive readers, but it severely taxed my (admittedly less-than-daunting) skills at unraveling cryptic clues. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

Oh, and on the topic of cryptic clues, I asked some constructors if there were any clues or puzzles that caught their eye this year, and David Kwong mentioned a doozy of a cryptic clue by master constructors Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon that he considered the most diabolical he’d ever seen.

The clue? “Emphatically, the key to making bozos boss? (9)”

The answer? SFORZANDO, which parses as “S for Z and O.”

That’s awesome. Doug Peterson did a variation on that in this year’s Lollapuzzoola tournament, “What Happened?”, which featured words or phrases where the letter H had been replaced with either a T or a Y. He revealed this with the entry “HISTORY” breaking down “H is T or Y.” I really dug this puzzle.

And speaking of Lollapuzzoola, I absolutely loved Francis Heaney‘s “Quote Boxes” puzzle from this year’s tournament. It was an 18×18 grid jam-packed with entries, and he used an interesting mechanic to fill the grid.

There were five 2×2 boxes shaded with different shapes, and each of the four cells in those 2×2 boxes contained a word from a famous four-word movie quote, allowing him to place longer entries in the grid. It was the highlight of Lollapuzzoola for me this year. Great stuff.

But before I get to the final crossword on my list, I’d like to run down some of my favorite crossword clues from this year.

  • “Island country that becomes a geometric solid if you change its last letter to an E” for CUBA (from Patrick Blindauer‘s Piece of Cake Crosswords. A super-long clue, but very fun.)
  • “Struggle with hopelessness?” for LISP (from Brendan Emmett Quigley)
  • “The Sky, Sun, and Stars play in it” for WNBA (from Peter Gordon)
  • “Answers, on ‘Jeopardy!'” for ASKS (I don’t recall where I saw this one. Let me know if you know, so I can correct this!)
  • “Some people do it for kicks” for KARATE (Again, no idea where I saw this one. Let me know if you know, so I can correct this!)
  • “Characters often found to be up in arms?” for YMCA (from Sam Trabucco’s Indie 500 puzzle)

And cluing tied into my final choice for favorite crossword of the year with Erik Agard and Joanne Sullivan’s puzzle “Do I Hear a Waltz?” from the Indie 500 tournament.

In this puzzle, the words ONE, TWO, and THREE were missing from sequential clues, providing a hidden one-two-three count for the puzzle’s titular waltz. For instance, 36-Across clued TRUMP as “Up,” 37-Across clued BIKINI as “Piece, say,” and 38-Across clued TITLES as “Peat makeup.” As you’d expect, those clues make much more sense when you add the hidden one-two-three: One-up = TRUMP; Two-piece, say = BIKINI; Threepeat makeup = TITLES.

Hiding the beat within the cluing was absolutely brilliant, and one of the highlights in crosswords for me this year.

Now I’m sure there were great clues or puzzles that I missed, since I’m hardly a prolific solver. Let me know which puzzles and clues from 2016 were your favorites! I’d love to hear from you!


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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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