A Month of Puzzly Celebration!

January is a good month for puzzles and puzzly pursuits. Not only is National Puzzle Day coming up soon, but there are two delightful anniversaries for us to celebrate.

Two years ago this month, one of the newer parts of the puzzle community was founded: The Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory.

This Facebook group is part gathering place for established and aspiring constructors and part resource for constructors of all skill levels.

People post and share information about everything from grid construction, editing programs, and cluing advice to networking, test-solving, and encouraging feedback.

Inexperienced and aspiring constructors meet and collaborate with established names. Obstacles, problems, and questions are handled with equal care and support. Heck, some constructors even post rejection notices they’ve received in order to share the valuable feedback it contains.

It’s become a hub for discovering and supporting underrepresented voices in puzzles as well, not only encouraging valuable new partnerships, but hopefully recruiting the next generation of constructors for all backgrounds.

It’s been a pleasure to watch this community grow and evolve as newer constructors become more confident and established voices launch new puzzly projects. I can’t wait to see what emerges from this marvelous endeavor in the months and years to come.

The second anniversary to celebrate this month belongs to domino master, kinetic artist, and friend of the blog Lily Hevesh, aka Hevesh5, who is celebrating 11 years as a domino artist and YouTuber.

Over the past decade, Lily has evolved from a foundling YouTuber with a few dozen dominoes into an influential member of the world domino community. She has designed works of kinetic art for films, TV shows, and special events, as well as Guinness World Records and collaborations involving hundreds of thousands of dominoes.

Continually pushing the boundaries of what you can do with dominoes — from chains and Rube Goldberg devices to literal works of art — Lily has amassed more than two million followers on YouTube and transformed a small hobby into a thriving business and contributing member of her community.

I’m overjoyed to see her ambitious plans for the future, especially after being a fan for so long. Every new video shows off her incredible range and talent, and I look forward to seeing what new wonders she has in store for us all in the future.

Happy Anniversary, Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory!
Happy Anniversary, Lily!

And happy puzzling to you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!


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The Decade in 10 Words?

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[Image courtesy of TV Guide.]

For the last few weeks, we’ve all been awash in lists. Whether it’s covering the year or the decade, there are Best Of, Worst Of, Most Influential, Most Scandalous, Most Underrated, Most Overrated, and many many more.

Heck, we’ve had a bit of fun with year-end lists ourselves in the last week, though we tried not to overdo it.

Smithsonian Magazine even got in on the trend with a recent article. They summarized the 2010s through ten words that made their debut in The New York Times crossword this decade.

It’s an intriguing hook for a list, offering context and brief histories for words like MEME, SEXT, TWEET, BARISTA, and LGBT while discussing their greater social and cultural impact.

Sadly, there were a few times that I felt like the article came up short when representing both crosswords and the puzzle audience in general.

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[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

I mean, come on. LOL? Yes, the entry appeared a staggering 48 times during the decade, but it’s been around since the ’90s! This was like IPOD finally making it into crossword grids just in time for iPods to not be a thing anymore. (Thankfully, IPADS salvaged some of those grids.)

They would have been better off including BAE, which is not only more modern (making the first of 10 NYT appearances in 2017), but feels significantly less eyeroll-worthy in this day and age.

I was also less-than-impressed by this statement, which accompanied the entry N.L. EAST:

“Jeopardy!” contestants are notorious for their aversion to sports, a weakness shared by many members of the cruciverbal clique. As it turns out, sports are a big part of American cultural life and have been for quite some while…

This is an embarrassing, reductive cliche that feels straight out of Revenge of the Nerds. There are plenty of sports-savvy constructors and solvers (which explains how N.L. EAST and A.L. EAST ended up in the Times crossword twenty times in total).

The idea that crosswords and sports are mutually exclusive domains isn’t just ridiculous, it’s insulting.

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I don’t mean for this post to feel like a takedown of the Smithsonian Magazine piece, because for the most part, it was a breezy examination of the decade through the lens of crosswords.

I appreciated the spotlight put on clues for the entries LGBT/LGBTQ, though perhaps a more illuminating glimpse into growing representation of the LGBTQIA+ community would have been mentioning Ben Tausig’s quantum puzzle from September of 2016, which introduced the entry GENDERFLUID to the Times crossword.

Although the entry itself has only appeared twice in the Times thus far, its inclusion in Tausig’s puzzle was noteworthy because it not only introduced the word to new eyes, but deftly explained the idea itself through its theme.

The letter variability — allowing for M or F to appear in a grid square and still fit the definition, a la FIRE/MIRE — is a wonderful metaphor for the fluidity of gender, especially in the limiting, but generally accepted, binary concept of male or female.

To have a puzzle not only debut an important new word, but to provide such valuable context for it in a clever, kind, fun mechanic represents not just where crosswords as a whole are going, but how they can help push us in a better direction in a unique way.

That feels like a more worthwhile note to conclude the decade on than 48 LOLs.


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Puzzly New Year’s Resolutions

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[Image courtesy of Dayfinders.]

It’s a new year, and with a new year comes new resolutions and goals, born from the welcome idea that the slate has been wiped clean and the next 365 days are full of possibilities.

That’s as true for puzzle solvers and constructors as it is for anyone else. On Twitter, I’ve seen puzzlers resolving to tackle every NYT crossword, or the daily Sudoku, or simply the jigsaw puzzles in their closets.

The folks over at the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory (which is closing in on its two-year anniversary, by the way!) have also been sharing their puzzly resolutions. Writing clues faster, finishing crosswords or getting them submitted, improving the quality of their grid fill, publishing a cryptic or a themeless, and submitting to new editors or outlets were among the many worthwhile resolutions proposed.

There were also some marvelously open-minded suggestions, like employing proper Chinese PinYin to spell Lao-Tzu/Lao-Tze “Lao Zi,” or pushing for entries like NAAN, ROTI, DAL, and others to be considered acceptable fill, not crosswordese.

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And as you might expect, I have a few puzzly resolutions of my own.

In the coming year, I resolve to:

  • get through the backlog of puzzles that has slowly accumulated over the past year
  • keep track of the number of puzzles I solve each month
  • organize my voluminous library of puzzle books
  • (and complete the unfinished ones)
  • (and probably donate a bunch of the ones I haven’t touched)

Have you made any puzzly resolutions, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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There’s a Little Something Extra in These X-Words…

Crossword constructors can be fiendishly clever, so there’s often something extra lurking inside a crossword grid, if you know where to look.

Sometimes it’s easy to spot. There are shaded areas or circled letters to reveal the hidden bonus answers that add a touch of pizzazz to a grid.

For instance, our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have a recurring crossword variant, Revelation, which conceals a quotation in a standard crossword grid.

The New York Times crossword has also featured this gimmick in puzzles plenty of times, perhaps most notably in a May 2015 puzzle where both poet WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS and the title of his poem THE LOCUST TREE IN FLOWER read down the sides of the grid, and the circled letters within the grid concealed the poem in full!

[Image sourced from Amy Reynaldo’s Diary of a Crossword Fiend.]

For his puzzle featured in an episode of The Simpsons, constructor Merl Reagle famously snuck a message into another New York Times crossword puzzle, allowing Homer to apologize to Lisa for his transgressions in the most public puzzly forum possible.

If you went diagonally from the upper left to the lower right of the grid, the statement “Dumb dad sorry for his bet” could be found.

[Image courtesy of The Guardian.]

Whether it’s a hidden quotation or a secret message hiding amidst the black squares and crisscrossing entries, these bonus answers offer a final little twist that wow solvers, leaving them shaking their heads at the cleverness and skill of constructors.

A puzzle in The Wall Street Journal recently reminded me of another surprise that a crafty constructor can spring on an unsuspecting solver.

This particular puzzle from September 28th of this year had instructions instead of the usual themed answers. If you read 22 Across, 61 Across, and 105 Across, you received the following message: Find the names of ten gems / hidden within the puzzle / grid in word search style.

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[Image courtesy of Reddit.]

Yes, the appropriately titled “Treasure Hunt” by Mike Shenk had jewels hidden among the answers in the grid, reading horizontally, vertically, and diagonally, just as they would in a word seek or word search.

Although this led to a few awkward entries — GOT ENRAGED is a bit clunky for an answer, even if the goal is to hide GARNET backwards within it — the grid is mostly great, and the spread of gems — from DIAMOND and EMERALD to ONYX and TOPAZ — is impressive. (I particularly liked RUBY reading out backwards in HURLYBURLY.)

I haven’t encountered many of these word search-style crossword surprises over the years, but there is one other prominent example that came to mind.

In his second appearance in today’s post, Merl Reagle constructed a special puzzle to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the crossword in 2013.

His puzzle was converted into a solvable Google Doodle — you can still solve it here! — and Merl added a crafty word search element by hiding the word FUN multiple times in the grid.

Why “fun,” you ask? Because that was the set word in Arthur Wynne’s original “word-cross” puzzle over one hundred years ago.

Believe me, constructing a great crossword grid is taxing enough. Adding touches and tricks like these just ratchet up both the difficulty involved and the skill level required to make the whole endeavor a harmonious success.

Kudos to those, past and present, who have pulled it off with such style.


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Delving into the Lollapuzzoola 12 puzzles!

The twelfth edition of Lollapuzzoola arrived, as expected, on a Saturday in August, and it did not disappoint. The largest annual crossword tournament in New York (and the second largest in the world) has become not only one of the highlights of the puzzle calendar, but an institution at this point.

I was not in attendance, but I did sign up for the Solve At Home puzzle packet. 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 inventive themes and unique spins on how to bring crosswords to life.

This year’s theme was “Be Part of the Future!” so every puzzle had something to do with time periods or the future in general, 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 “Popular Nabisco cracker brand.” 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.

Overall, this was a tough but fair way to open up the tournament, despite a few oddball entries (like YES OR NO).

Interesting grid entries included SOFT TACO, SUDOKU, ZYGOTE, and RAGTIME, and my favorite clues were “Pace rival” for ORTEGA and “Actress Gadot who has done lots of great things, but listing them isn’t going to help you get the answer (which you’ve probably already written in anyway, so really what’s the point)” for GAL.

tensesit

[Image courtesy of Wrong Hands.]

Puzzle 1: Tense Situation by C.C. Burnikel

The competition puzzles kicked off with this gem, a terrific 15x opener that properly set the tone for the rest of the day’s puzzles with a fun hook and solid fill. The themed entries all involved verbs where the tense had changed from the traditional phrasing, so TURKEYSHOOT became TURKEYSHOT (“Picture of a Thanksgiving entree?”) and NANCYDREW became NANCYDRAW (“Command to Mrs. Reagan to use a crayon?”).

Packing 6 themed entries into a relatively small grid didn’t hamper the grid construction at all, making for relatively little crosswordese and a smooth solve overall.

Interesting grid entries included STONE COLD, BYZANTINE, and BYRDS, and my favorite clue was “Prepares to sing an anthem” for RISES.

Puzzle 2: Wormholes by Stella Zawistowski

The difficulty increased with Puzzle 2, as Zawistowski tested solvers with an enjoyable swapping puzzle. In this puzzle, the theme entries each mentioned a unit of time, but it was swapped with another theme entry’s unit of time. So GLORYDAYS and MODELYEAR became GLORYYEAR and MODELDAYS. These unfamiliar phrases, when paired with straight-forward cluing, made for a solve that keeps you on your toes.

When paired with some tough fill — entries like OPCIT, SYLPH, and UNAGI — you’ve got a recipe for a puzzle that probably slowed a few puzzlers down in competition.

Interesting grid entries included EL CAPITAN, LAYLA, ON A BREAK, and MARILU (plus a nod to the absolutely horrible B-movie THE CAR), and my favorite clues were “Ran in the rain, say” for BLED and “Many a Comic-Con event” for PANEL.

Fountain of youth concept.

[Image courtesy of Burke Williams Spa.]

Puzzle 3: “If I Could Turn Back Time” by Paolo Pasco

At the halfway point for the regular tournament puzzles, our constructor took our time gimmick into the future in a delightfully fun way. In Puzzle 3, all of the celebrity names in the themed entries really needed the revealer (FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH), because they’d aged in punny fashion. JULIA CHILD became JULIA ADOLESCENT, HARVEY MILK became HARVEY CHEESE, JOEY FATONE became KANGAROO FATONE, and so on.

Six themed entries plus a revealer made for a very busy grid, but the fill complemented the puzzle nicely, making for one of the quickest and smoothest solves of the day.

Interesting grid entries included XANAX, FIJI, THE CURE, STIMULI, and OH HELL, and my favorite clues were “Musical key dreaded by racecar drivers?” for AFLAT, “Redding who made lots of green singing the blues” for OTIS, and the pairing of “Length of your friend’s one-man version of ‘Cats,’ seemingly” for EONS and “Casual answer to ‘Do you want to see my one-man version of ‘Cats’?” for NAH.

Puzzle 4: Saving Face by Maddie Gillespie and Doug Peterson

Although Puzzle 3 was the most fun to solve, Puzzle 4 was my favorite when it came to the grid construction and overall concept for the puzzle. You see, many of the across entries had letters missing, letters that had been shoehorned into their clues (and fit between the other letters in broken grid boxes).

So while DENALI was spelled DEALI in the grid, the missing N found its way into the clue “Alaskan national park with many nice walls for climbers.” [Bolding is my own to highlight the added letter.]

The missing/repurposed letters spelled out three words reading down — WATCH, SUNDIAL, and CLOCK — all time-keeping artifacts hidden between the lines. A completed grid also reveals the instructions for the solver to follow, reading GATHER THE PIECES and FIX THE TIMELINES down the grid.

There’s a lot going on in this puzzle, and it all works together nicely. Not unlike some of the missing artifacts, when properly maintained.

Interesting grid entries included ECSTASY, LIME WEDGE, XBOX, AMBASSADOR, and IDEA MEN, and my favorite clues were “Group with an electrifying stage presence” for ACDC and “Gendered term that 26-Down should be able to improve upon” for IDEA MEN. (This was, naturally, 26-Down.)

hottubtime

[Image courtesy of The Verge.]

Puzzle 5: Movie Theater Time Machine by Robyn Weintraub

The regular tournament puzzles wrapped up with this 21×21 puzzle, which expanded on the time-shifting gimmick of puzzle 3 with movie titles as the themed entries. For instance, instead of SUNSET BOULEVARD, we had SUNRISE BOULEVARD. Instead of BOOGIE NIGHTS, it was BOOGIE AFTERNOONS. With entries shifting backward and forward in time, there was plenty of opportunity for some fun wordplay.

The larger grid allowed for longer themed entries and longer fill entries as well, adding loads of clever vocabulary to a well-constructed grid. This was the perfect capper to the traditional tournament puzzles, making for a fair and engaging solve to close out the day.

Interesting grid entries included GENERATION X, SPIDER-SENSE, LET’S DANCE, JETTY, and ONE-ACT PLAY, and my favorite clues were “It’s frequently in a sonnet?” for OFT and the clever trio of “Go with the flow, figuratively” for ADAPT, “Go with the flow, e.g.” for IDIOM, and “Go with the flow, literally” for DRIFT.

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Puzzle 6: Finals by Mike Nothnagel

As always, there were two sets of clues for the Finals puzzle, the Local and the more difficult Express clues. No matter which clues you were working with, you were in for a terrific tournament finale.

With a pair of 10-letter entries mentioning time as anchors for the puzzle — FINEST HOUR and MINUTE MAID — Mike delivered a tight grid with some terrific filler entries and impressive stacks of 7- and 8-letter words in the corners.

This was a final puzzle worthy of a tournament built around clever hooks, top-notch construction, and delightful cluing, and it delivered in spades. I certainly had to jump all over the grid to find places to get started, whereas the top solvers no doubt powered through with staggering speed.

Interesting grid entries included WAR DANCE, BEGUILES, YULETIDE, GROUP HUG, and AVALON, and my favorite clues were “Road trips to the big game?” for SAFARIS and “They may send your spouse to another room” for SNORES.

There was also a tiebreaker themeless by Brian Cimmet which was a quick and satisfying solve, and seemed to be going for the record for clue length with examples like:

  • “Actress Ronan of ‘Lady Bird,’ whose name has four vowels in it and is pronounced SEER-shuh, if that’s any help” for SAOIRSE
  • “Mother of the most famous television character played by 20-Across” for ELYSE (20-Across was, appropriately, MICHAEL J. FOX)
  • “It precedes Alaska in a horrible dad joke I learned as a kid” for IDAHO

The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were tight, there was little crosswordese, and the creative themes and puzzle mechanics — from hiding entry letters in clues to switching verb tenses and ages on the solver — ensured that not only would fun be had by all, but that the unique puzzles would linger in your memory.

Mission accomplished, and congratulations on the competitors and the organizers who made it all happen. 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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Meet the Daily POP Word Search Constructors: Heather Phaneuf

One of the Daily POP Word Search app’s best features is the level of input from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh, themed word search puzzles.

And over the next few weeks, we’d like to introduce you to some of them. Some names you may know, some you may not, but they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

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For this installment, allow us to introduce you to puzzle constructor, mom, and music aficionado Heather Phaneuf!


How did you get started in puzzles?

I didn’t intend to get started in puzzles. I wanted to pursue a job in my degree: English, so when the opportunity came to be a copy editor, I jumped at it. Little did I know, I’d start off as a photocopy girl around the office, to a proofreader, then to an editor. It’s been a wild ride!

What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Word Search?

Daily POP Word Search was a bit out of my comfort zone, my realm, but it was something new. As someone who accustomed to creating the same sort of puzzles day in, day out: trying something new was like a breath of fresh air. I love new challenges, they push me in a creative, thoughtful way.

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Is there a particular theme day that appeals to you most or that you enjoy working on?

The music theme appeals to me most. I just love the “vibe” of it, how it brings people together. I grew up in a very musical house, always something playing, and yes, I recall 8-tracks in my dad’s car, but…we all sang together, albeit out of tune. I can sing out loud a modern song just as easily as the Beatles or Jimi; damn hippie parents!

How is working on Daily POP Word Search different from constructing for some other outlet or magazine?

Working on Daily POP Word Search certainly is fun, it’s challenging, and I appreciate that. Anything that makes me open my eyes and experience something new or current: I’m game. Just be open-minded. To me, that’s growth; just be open minded. IT’S NOT THAT HARD! Try new things, live and learn!


A huge thank you to Heather for her time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles in the Daily POP Word Search app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

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