Crossword Tournament From Your Couch Recap!

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This past weekend was supposed to be the 43rd year of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but that event was postponed due to the ongoing public health crisis.

But something amazing arose from the ashes of those plans. A small, intrepid group of puzzlers worked night and day for more than a week, bringing an at-home crossword tournament to life: Crossword Tournament From Your Couch. (AKA #CouchWord on Twitter.)

And in doing so, they hosted the biggest crossword tournament in history. According to the Google scoresheet, more than 1,800 solvers took part in the event (with at least 1,300 tackling ALL of the puzzles).

Over the course of a few hours, and thanks to the Herculean efforts of a hard-working few, the puzzle community came together for an afternoon of fun, frivolity, and frantic puzzle-solving.

Oh, and in this recap, I will be discussing the tournament puzzles somewhat, so if you want to remain completely unspoiled, stop reading here. (Or better yet, click here to solve the puzzles for yourselves!)


Before I get into the event itself, I want to highlight the folks who made it all possible.

The initial idea belongs to Kevin Der, who put out the rallying cry to fellow puzzlers. He ran the tech side of the event alongside Finn Vigeland, coordinating each puzzle’s release, the overlapping livestreams, and the live-solving finals.

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Hosting duties were ably carried out by Ryan Hecht and Brian Cimmet, who kept the energy light, made sure the participants were well-informed, and even interviewed fellow constructors and event organizers in the downtime between tournament puzzles.

The tournament puzzles — 4 tournament puzzles, 1 championship playoff puzzle, and 2 warm-up puzzles — were constructed by Byron Walden, Rachel Fabi, Joel Fagliano, Robyn Weintraub, Patrick Blindauer, Finn Vigeland, Laura Braunstein, and Jesse Lansner.

Jeremy Horwitz, Natan Last, and Ellen Ripstein were credited as test-solvers, and Jeff Davidson, Stephanie Yeung, and Vincent Siao were credited as tech support/magic gurus.

The Inkubator was credited as tournament sponsor.

Assembling and running this event was a monumental, complex undertaking, and my sincerest appreciation and utmost respect (and AWE) goes out to everyone involved in making CTFYC possible.


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[Image courtesy of @ladywinifredcat.]

So, how did the tournament itself go?

Well, participants logged into the website and selected one of three divisions in which to compete:

  • The Chesterfield Division (for individuals who in the past few years have finished in the top 20% of a major crossword tournament)
  • The Futon Division (for all other individual participants)
  • The Love Seat Division (for two participants who want to solve together)

Upon logging in, a warm-up puzzle created by Robyn Weintraub awaited solvers. “Get the Pillows Ready” allowed solvers to get familiar with the online solving interface and start getting in a tournament mindset.

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The tournament itself was set to begin at approximately 1 PM with the livestream of Ryan and Brian, our amiable emcees who covered the rules, other tournament info, and so on.

The livestream was warm and welcoming, and the accompanying chat area was packed with new faces as well as familiar puzzlers. The usual suspects from ACPT were all there, alongside constructors, puzzle enthusiasts, and top-notch solvers. It was genuinely heartwarming to see so many names I recognized from the puzzle world participating.

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Soon, a second warm-up puzzle became available — Rachel Fabi’s “Put Your Feet Up” — a small, Saturday mini-sized puzzle that still managed to be tricky. (And I personally loved the Fleabag reference.) It was a great way for solvers to get their pre-tournament juices flowing AND served to ensure that all of the tech was working for the organizers.


From the livechat:

“Changed my system font to Papyrus so that I could win Worst Handwriting.” — Neville Fogarty


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[Image courtesy of @vickieastus.]

The first tournament puzzle was scheduled for 1:30ish, and to the credit of the organizers, we only started a few minutes late.

Puzzle #1, “Hollywood Ending” by Joel Fagliano, was a 15x puzzle with a 15-minute time limit.

In all, it was a really fun starter with a good hook — entries that end with items found on a Hollywood set, a la JAVASCRIPT. I got stuck in the upper right corner for about two minutes, because I didn’t want to make a mistake, but doing so slowed me down considerably.

With the online solving, results were tabulated much faster than you’d expect from past tournaments, so you could view the leaderboard and see who was on top quite quickly.

At the end of puzzle 1, many of the usual suspects were on top, along with rookie (and bewilderingly constructor) Will Nediger:

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After solving, competitors were welcome to return to the livestream chat and treat the chatroom like the lobby at the ACPT, sharing thoughts and commiserating on their solves.

Puzzle #2, “Raise the Roof” by Laura Braunstein and Jesse Lansner, was a 17x puzzle with a 25-minute time limit.

This puzzle had a solid punny hook, phrases where the letter T became P, so you had PICKLE ME ELMO instead of TICKLE ME ELMO. This was accompanied by great fill, although some were tougher entries (like SEZ WHO and NEOPET). I made one dumb mistake, leading to my only error of the tournament, but otherwise, I enjoyed the puzzle.

(I also enjoyed the conversation about The Westing Game in the livestream chat kicked off by the entry RASKIN.)

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Errors by Dan Feyer and Erik Agard opened up a few spots in the top 15, so at least I was in good company with my own error.

At this point, players were invited to take a break before the next two puzzles. The tentative time for that was around 3 PM.

As I surfed the livechat during the break, the feedback for the tournament was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone was enjoying the communal puzzling, and compliments for both the constructors and organizers were plentiful.


From the livechat:

“Yeah, the bad news for the organizers is that this is working so well we’re all going to come to expect it now. :)” — Steve Thurman


Before Puzzle #3, Brian and Ryan had video interviews with Joel, Laura, and Jesse about their puzzles. It was a very cool touch to hear the constructors talk about the origins of each puzzle and how they ended up in the tournament. More of this in the future, please!

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[Image courtesy of @tinmanic.]

Soon, we were back, and it was time for the second half of the tournament.

Puzzle #3, “Look Up” by Patrick Blindauer, was a 15x puzzle with a 30-minute time limit. So everyone was expecting some trickery afoot.

Blindauer didn’t disappoint, naturally, offering up a clever hook that took entries in a different direction, mixed with lots of long crossings which made getting into the puzzle difficult. All in all, it was a worthy tournament puzzle.

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I managed to capture this screengrab of the top 15 after Puzzle 3 before the leaderboard went down. As you can see, the blistering speed of Erik Agard and Dan Feyer had them back in the top 15.

Yes, we managed to break the leaderboard on Google Sheets at this point. (This just made the design for the solving interface even MORE impressive, because it never broke down, even with more than a thousand solvers using it at the same time.)

I was ranked 292 after Puzzle 3, which I felt pretty good about.


From the livechat:

“Hmm, I can play the ‘where would I be if not for the silly error’ game.” — GP Ryan


After a short break, the final puzzle of regular tournament play was upon us.

Puzzle #4, “Naysayers Only” by Finn Vigeland, was a 19x puzzle with a 40-minute time limit.

This was a strong finisher for the tournament, combining clever cluing with a tough theme where the clues referred not to the answers you filled in, but to what the answers became if you followed the rule in the revealer GET OUT THE VOTE. (For instance, you filled in the answer VAMPIRE SLAYER, but the clue “Camera for a photo shoot with Dracula, in brief?” referred to VAMPIRE SLR, since you would remove “AYE” when you get out the vote.)

Yeah, I completed the grid first and had to go back and reread the grid and clues to actually understand the theme.

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Going into the live playoff final, the top 15 reshuffled a bit. (The board was constantly updating. At one point, I was ranked 283, then 312, then 314. I stopped checking there, because I’m a nerd for Pi.)


From the livechat:

“Shout out to the 11 Davids who are ahead of me in the rankings. Watch your backs.” — David Whyte


After Puzzle #4, Brian and Ryan attempted to interview Patrick, but that didn’t go so well, because the audience couldn’t hear Patrick. The interview with Finn went much better.

Then they announced the finalists for each division who would be participating in the live playoffs.

In the Chesterfield Division, it would be Paolo Pasco, David Plotkin, and Tyler Hinman.

In the Futon Division, it would be Will Nediger, Jason Juang, and Ricky Liu, the top three rookies.

As the top 3 competitors in each division were “sequestered” during the prep for the live playoffs, the playoff puzzle was released for non-finalists to enjoy.

The playoff puzzle, “Couch Your Words” by Byron Walden, was a themeless 15x puzzle with a 15-minute time limit. It also had two sets of clues: the difficult Chesterfield set, aka the A level clues, and the somewhat easier Futon set.

I looked at the Chesterfield clues, but I quickly bailed to try the Futon set. And honestly, even with the Futon Division clues, I found the puzzle pretty tough with ALL the long crossings. As you’d expect from Byron, it was a terrific, well-constructed grid, a very worthy choice to close out the day’s events.


From the livechat:

“Puzzle 5 in this tournament is so hard it doesn’t exist.” — Natan Last


The Futon Division solvers went first, and the three rookie solvers acquitted themselves well.

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[Image courtesy of @tinmanic.]

Each solver’s time was linked to when they clicked “Start” and when they clicked “I’m done”, so you couldn’t immediately tell who won based on who finished first, because with the livestream lag, it was hard to tell who started first.

In the end, Will completed the puzzle in 4 minutes flat, Jason wasn’t far behind with 4:48, and Ricky closed out the trio with 6:20. Impressive efforts all around!

There were a few more technical issues before the Chesterfield Division playoffs could begin but eventually the tech team got things sorted and the main event started.

During both the prep and the solving, Brian and Ryan interviewed Byron about the finale puzzle and about constructing and cluing in general. It was a terrific bonus mini-seminar on puzzling!

Finally, all was ready and the top three solvers took center stage.

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The final was over in less than six minutes.

Tyler, as you might expect from the five-time champ, blasted through the grid, completing it in 4:07. Paolo wasn’t far behind with 4:41, and David, a perennial top finisher, closed out the trio with 5:57.

Again, we had to wait for the official times due to lag, but it was worth the wait.


Here are your Crossword Tournament From Your Couch results:

  • Chesterfield Division: Tyler Hinman, Paolo Pasco, David Plotkin
  • Futon Division: Will Nediger, Jason Juang, Ricky Liu
  • Love Seat Division: Sam Ezersky and Madison Clague, Justin Werfel and Marta Herschkopf, Mike Berman and unnamed partner

After announcing the winners and finalists — and giving another well-deserved shout-out to all of the organizers and folks who made the marvelous event possible — the livestream chat was left running so that participants could talk and enjoy a virtual happy-hour mixer.


From the livechat:

“Anyone else never been to ACPT or Lollapuzzoola, but getting an itch to go after today??” — Josh Beu Forsythe


Even if it hadn’t been the biggest crossword tournament in history, Crossword Tournament From Your Couch would still have been a fantastic success.

More than just a tremendous stand-in for ACPT, CTFYC brought together established puzzlers and newbies for an afternoon of much-needed distraction. (According to the organizers, it was the first tournament for more than 1200 of the participants!)

Thank you once again to everyone involved in this brilliant endeavor. What a treat it was.

myresults


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Puzzling From Home!

Problem-solving-crossword

In the wake of puzzly public events like the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament being cancelled, as well as the shutdown of various school districts, workplaces, and businesses in order to limit exposure to the Coronavirus, it’s completely understandable that some puzzle fans may be feeling disappointed or even isolated from their fellow puzzlers.

But fear not! There are all sorts of options available to solvers looking to enjoy a puzzly experience from home, either on their own or with friends.


If you’re looking for crosswords, all you need is your computer. The New York Times, The LA Times, The Washington Post, and many other outlets offer online puzzle-solving, either by subscription or through watching ads before solving.

If you have access to a printer, you can print those puzzles out for the true pencil-and-paper solving experience.

And it’s not just newspapers. Many constructors — Brendan Emmett Quigley comes to mind — offer their own free puzzles semi-regularly (though you’re welcome to tip as a thank you). There is a world of puzzles out there on the Internet awaiting solvers.

But you don’t even have to go to a computer anymore. There are loads of terrific puzzles available right on your phone. Forgive us for tooting our own horn, but Daily POP Crosswords is a great puzzle app with a free puzzle every day and additional puzzle packets available for purchase or through our in-app coin system. (We also offer Word Seeks, Sudoku, and a marvelous story-driven puzzle mystery, Wordventures, if you’re looking for something different.)

Oh, and speaking of something different, if you’re looking to delve into more elaborate puzzles, there are some fantastic puzzle services by mail that offer all sorts of challenges.

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Wish You Were Here by the Enigma Emporium conceals an entire mystery within a handful of postcards, challenging you to mine them for every scrap of information as you uncover a series of coded messages. It’s spycraft in an envelope, very clever stuff.

The Cryptogram Puzzle Post out of the UK offers something unique, mixing puzzles and encryption with bits of mystery and supernatural narratives to create standalone chapters in an ongoing story. So you can pick one season or an entire year, depending on how deep you want to go!

And for multi-month affairs, there are outlets like Hunt a Killer and The Mysterious Package Company, which create vast, immersive puzzle experiences by mail. (Though according to friends’ recommendations, Hunt a Killer works better without the month wait between installments.)

As you can see, there’s a wide variety of ways you can puzzle from home, whether you prefer to solve online, by email, on the phone, or by mail!


That’s all well and good, you might be saying, but what about the social aspect? Well, there are options there as well, even from the comforts of your home.

Photo by Matt MacGillivray, licensed via Creative Commons

Some puzzlers actually livestream their puzzle-solving online through avenues like Twitch, Facebook, and YouTube. The New York Times periodically does this as well, often with celebrity guest solvers!

You can keep your eyes peeled on Facebook and Twitter for constructors and solvers who do so. It often adds a fun, communal element to puzzle-solving (especially if they struggle with the same tricky clues that you do). Some pub trivia outlets are also moving online to allow for participating from home!

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But if you don’t want to wait for someone to livestream their solving, you can do it yourself! Between Facetime and similar apps on smartphones and all the online avenues for audio and video-chatting (Skype, Google Hangouts, Discord, etc.), you could pair up with a friend and tag-team a crossword puzzle or other puzzly challenge!

It’s like co-working, except with puzzles. Co-solving!

In times like this, where uncertainty abounds and our comfortable routines have been upended, puzzles can offer a wonderful refuge from all the stresses of the world. And with technology on our side, we can even keep the communal joys of puzzling in our lives.

Happy puzzling, friends.


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Farewell, Keith.

The puzzle world is a relatively small one, and sadly, it grew smaller last week, as friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough passed away.

On more than a few occasions, I’ve asked my fellow constructors and cruciverbalists for their help on blog posts, whether the topic was advice for solving crosswords, constructing puzzles, or writing dynamic clues. Keith was often the first person I would turn to for help.

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A long-time member of the Penny Dell Puzzles family, Keith specialized in crossword/variety magazines, blending a knack for charming and clever cluing with eclectic themes for the many variety puzzles he crafted and edited. His varied interests ensured that he never ran out of ideas for interesting themes or intriguing twists on worn-out crossword tropes.

Keith was equally at home in a classroom, in an orchestra, and in a crossword tournament, a true lover of both the arts and the sciences. His affection for music was well-known — many bands, including The Optics and The Gene Gnomes, can attest to his skill playing the tuba — and yet, he could unravel a deduction problem or a fiendish math puzzle as easily as he could read the notes on sheet music.

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Having worked together for more than a decade, I struggle to recall all of the topics we covered in conversation together. We talked Nobel Prize nominees and quantum physics one week, then Looney Tunes cartoons and silent comedy film shorts the next.

We would dissect the minutiae of Breaking Bad and Twin Peaks, share stories about our dogs (I prefer labs and retrievers, Keith loved his poodles), or recount entire George Carlin routines from memory. When he found out I was a wrestling fan, he laughed and told me about the time he met Mighty Igor outside a sandwich shop. (He grew up in North Carolina, a hotbed for wrestling in decades past.)

And, of course, we talked about puzzles. Keith was a pro at whipping up new clues for crosswords, and they were often as immensely clever as they were completely inappropriate for a family-friendly audience. Several of the funniest clues that I’ve featured in previous blog posts were his — and he was always striving to find new ways to clue tiresome words or to push the boundaries of humdrum constructing and “appropriate entries”. (Just last week, he had to re-edit a puzzle of one-word film titles because he tried to sneak “Caligula” past the censors. *laughs*)

One time, while trying to fix a submitted crossword, he turned to me and asked with a smile, “I know this is a long shot, but is there a non-offensive way to clue ‘witch hunt’?” (The best we could come up with was “pressing engagement.” And no, that would never ever make the cut.)

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I’ll miss his humor, his wit, and his friendship. And I know that I’m far from the only one who feels that way.

Kind words have been pouring in for days now, as people share photos and memories of Keith. The Winston-Salem Symphony dedicated a concert in his memory a few nights ago. (I pilfered several of the photos in this post from those I’ve seen shared.)

It was my privilege to work with Keith for over a decade, and I’ll miss him very much. I’ll miss the fascinating, weird, unexpected bits of trivia he’d throw my way. I’ll miss the music references he would gamely try to explain to me. I’ll miss the way he was always a half-step faster than me on brain teasers and word puzzles. I’ll miss the sly ways he pushed the creative envelope. I’ll miss him a different way every day.

Farewell, my friend. Farewell, Keith.


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A Women’s March for Crosswords

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For years now, we’ve been discussing the gender gap in crossword construction and representation of women in published outlets. Heck, in 2018, we even shared detailed statistics on the percentage of women published by major outlets, thanks to the research of Patti Varol and Erik Agard.

Since then, we’ve seen projects like The Inkubator and Women of Letters highlighting female constructors, and there’s been a concentrated effort in the puzzle community (if not the major outlets) to support, foster, and cultivate more minority voices in crosswords.

And this month in particular has seen three different projects dedicated to female constructors come to fruition. Although many voices have been involved in these efforts, a huge chunk of the credit definitely belongs to constructor Rebecca Falcon, who pushed for outlets to publish only female constructors for an entire month.

The goal? A Women’s March.

The Wall Street Journal sought to meet Falcon’s request, but they didn’t have enough submitted puzzles to do so. They did do a week of female-constructed puzzles, though, including the traditional Friday contest puzzle with a meta solution, constructed by Joanne Sullivan.

Users of The New York Times Crossword app can also enjoy the fruits of these creative labors, as a Women’s History Month pack of 20 puzzles is available through both the App Store and Google Play as an in-app purchase! This project, accomplished in partnership with The Inkubator, features puzzles by Rebecca Falcon, Joanne Sullivan, Stella Zawistowski, Wendy L. Brandes, Rachel Fabi, Juliana Tringali, Annemarie Brethauer, Martha Jones, Wyna Liu, and Mary Lou Guizzo.

And it should come as no surprise that the ambitious and well-connected David Steinberg, editor of the Universal Crossword, succeeded in amassing the talent necessary for a full Women’s March.

As David said in the FB post announcing the project:

Each of the 36 Universal Crosswords this month has been constructed by a different woman or pair of women, and—to my knowledge—10 of the puzzles will be their constructors’ world debuts! Some of the puzzles’ themes are easy, some are a bit tricky, and a few are unlike anything I’ve seen in all my years of editing. One thing I noticed across all the March puzzles, though, was a refreshing woman-centric voice, both in the clues and grids.

Women’s March will continue into April for a few days, since so many women submitted excellent puzzles that the original 36 slots I’d allocated weren’t enough. As I see it, this event is not so much a Women’s March as the beginning of a Universal Crossword Women’s Movement, and I hope the puzzles this month inspire more women to construct for Universal as well as for other markets.

Andrew McMeels Universal put together a graphic celebrating all of the women involved in the project:

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It’s so cool to see so many deserving constructors represented, not to mention all of the newcomers to the puzzle community! Here’s hoping that Women’s March is the start of equal puzzle representation across the board. That would be something truly special.

Are you aware of any other crossword outlets participating in Women’s March, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section! We’d love to hear from you AND spread the word!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: DiscWorld

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[Image courtesy of Blizzard Watch.]

There are many strange worlds in the realms of fantasy literature, crafted in loving detail across dozens of novels and stories. But no fictional world is as hilarious, as thought-provoking, as sincere, as strange, or as endlessly inventive as the DiscWorld.

DiscWorld is a pizza-shaped planet that rests on the backs of four giant elephants that themselves stand atop the shell of a giant turtle that swims through space. The masterful creation of author Terry Pratchett, DiscWorld is a beloved universe of stories that encapsulates social commentary, parody, and epic adventure, all told through the lens of classic fantasy tropes turned on their heads.

And when you have a world that encompasses everything from witches and golems to time travel and Death himself, you’re bound to encounter a puzzle or two.

In today’s edition of Puzzles in Pop Culture, we’re looking at the colorful ways that Terry Pratchett incorporated puzzles into one of the most singular, expansive worlds in fantasy literature.

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[Image courtesy of The Daily Star.]

There are numerous capable puzzle solvers in the DiscWorld novels. Across several novels, Commander Vimes of the City Watch cracks both criminal cases and elaborate conspiracies thanks to his street smarts and years of detective work. Career criminal-turned-postmaster Moist Von Lipwig unravels several criminal conspiracies on his journey from miscreant to hero. Even Death, alongside his granddaughter Susan, takes a turn testing his puzzly might over the holidays when they uncover why the Hogfather (DiscWorld‘s version of Santa Claus) has gone missing.

But you cannot talk about capable puzzlers in DiscWorld without mentioning Lord Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician of the fabled city of Ankh-Morpork.

A trained assassin and mastermind who pulls puppet strings all over the city, Vetinari is both hero and villain, doing whatever he deems necessary to keep the city running smoothly.

As you might expect, he’s quite a fan of puzzles. (He plays games as well, like Thud and Stealth Chess, but we’re going to focus on puzzles today.)

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[Image courtesy of VS Battles Wiki.]

He’s something of a whiz when it comes to decoding and decrypting messages. At the Blind Letter Office in the Post Office — where letters unable to be delivered end up — Vetinari sometimes tests his wits by unraveling the near-gibberish found on some of the letters.

For example, Vetinari encountered a letter addressed to “Duzbuns Hopsit pfarmarrsc” and offhandedly explained that the letter was intended for “K. Whistler, Baker, 3 Pigsty Hill.” How, you ask? By decoding the above into the much-more coherent “Does Buns Opposite the Pharmacy.”

Although the regular employees of the Blind Letter Office manage to translate five out of every six addresses that cross their desks, they view Lord Vetinari’s puzzly skill with awe.

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[Image courtesy of Amazon. The Times Cryptic Crossword Book.]

When it comes to British-style/cryptic crosswords, he brings equal skill to the table. In fact, the only discernible sign that Lord Vetinari is drunk is when it takes him 15 seconds longer than normal to solve The Ankh-Morpork Times‘ daily crossword puzzle.

He is routinely challenged by “Puzzler,” the setter for The Ankh-Morpork Times. Naturally, his begrudging respect for the skilled constructor leads him to pursue the secret identity of Puzzler.

In a later DiscWorld novel, Vetinari believes that fellow trivia enthusiast and pet-food shop owner Grace Speaker could be Puzzler. He puts her under observation when it’s revealed she is one of five people in the city who correctly answers the trivia question “What is, or are, Pysdxes?”

(For the record, the other four are Vetinari himself, his assistant Drumknott, Puzzler, and the Curator of Ephebian Antiquities at the Royal Art Museum.)

Later confirming her secret life as Puzzler, Vetinari continues to welcome her challenging puzzles, even if entries like “snarkenfaugister” leave him exasperated at her fiendish and obscure vocabulary choices. (Apparently crosswordese is a thing on DiscWorld as well…)

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

In the novel Making Money, a cryptic crossword clue is presented for the reader to solve as well: Shaken players shift the load (9)

Later in the novel, the answer is revealed. Did you figure it out?

The answer is CARTHORSE. The word “shaken” implies that some letter-mixing is involved, and if you shake up ORCHESTRA (the “players” from the clue), you get CARTHORSE, a device which allows you to “shift the load.”

Naturally, this clue was no match for Vetinari.

[Screenshot from the Penny Dell Sudoku App!]

It’s worth noting that Sudoku has also made its way into DiscWorld, though in a tongue-in-cheek dismissive fashion. In DiscWorld, it is called Jikan no Muda, which is Japanese for “waste of time.” Lord Vetinari considers Jikan no Muda puzzles far easier than the crossword, and therefore less worthy of his attention.

As you’d expect from a master manipulator like the Patrician, he enjoys crosswords more because they allow him to comprehend how another person’s mind works when actively trying to mislead.

In the capable hands of a world-class storyteller, little puzzly details like this don’t simply add color to an established character; they can set the tone for the adventures to come.

In Making Money, for instance, mentioning both crosswords and Jikan no Muda is no coincidence. The entire novel is built around the battle between those who prefer to deal in words (Vimes, Vetinari, Moist) and those who prefer numbers (Mr. Bent, who runs the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork).

One of my all-time favorite series even before I compiled these puzzly moments, the DiscWorld books make the most of every story element involved, whether it’s witchcraft, magic, misunderstandings, fiendish plots, or simply one city official’s penchant for puzzles.


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A PuzzleNation First Look: Setka

Making a new puzzle is challenging. You have to strike a balance between established solving styles (those that are familiar and effective) and innovative twists, mechanics, and variations, all without making the puzzle too convoluted, too tedious, too easy, or too hard.

In the world of crosswords, some variant success stories include Double Trouble, cryptic crosswords, Brick by Brick, and diagramless. With Sudoku, there are variants like Extreme Sudoku (aka X-Sudoku or Diagonal Sudoku), Samurai Sudoku, and Word Sudoku.

I’m always on the lookout for new puzzles and variations to try out, so when the folks behind Setka contacted me, I was more than happy to try out their puzzle brand and explore their signature attempt to combine Sudoku and clued-puzzle elements.

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In short, Setka puzzles start with a single word. The consonants of that word not only form the answers to the clues, but also provide the letters to place in the accompanying grid.

For example, if the starting word was INFORM, the key letters would be N, F, R, and M. Every clue answer would feature one or more of those letters. The answer words, like the starting word, ignore the vowels. So you could have answers like NeaR, MoRoN, or MaiNFRaMe. (In the case of duplicate letters, like ReRaN, any duplicates are dropped, so the key letters here would be RN.)

And since there are four letters, there would be an accompanying 4×4 grid for you to fill in, where no letter is repeated in any row or column, Sudoku-style.

To place the letters, the clues are numbered, and the relevant cells in the grid are numbered to match. So, for NeaR (let’s say it’s clue 2), there would be two neighboring cells in the grid with a number 2 in them, and you could place the letters as RN or NR. Words that are three letters or above can read backward, forward, or in an L-shape in the grid.

This mechanic separates Setka from other clued or letter-placement puzzles, because you need both the clue answer AND the Sudoku no-repeats rule in order to complete a grid. Without the clue answers, there can be alternate solves where grid letters swap. And without the Sudoku-style placement, it would be virtually impossible to actually place the answer letters into the grid, because there’s more than one way to do so.

setka2-1

The cluing style alternates between standard crossword-style clues (but usually longer and a little more conversational or trivia-based) and fill-in-the-blank clues. The clues also fit the theme established by the starting word. For instance, the clues above all have to do with kids, which fits the puzzle’s theme word, CHILD.

It takes time to get used to seeking out answer words from the given consonants (since you have to supply any vowels or duplicate consonants missing in order to come up with the correct answer word), but once you’re a few puzzles in, it becomes second nature and a fun component to the solving experience.

Setka puzzles range in size from 4×4 to 7×7, with its signature size being 5×5. Honestly, 5×5 is really where it becomes a proper puzzle. With a 4×4 grid, once you have a few letters placed, it becomes an elementary logic puzzle and you don’t really need the clues.

setka3

[A selection of Setka sizes and themes.]

The puzzle itself is reminiscent of another puzzle we tried late last year — Cluedoku — but Setka’s letter-based theme and smaller grids make for a far more sustainable puzzle going forward, and the mechanic of placing the words in the grid (rather than just individual letters/numbers) adds an intriguing wrinkle to the solve.

All in all, I enjoyed trying out Setka — I solved a half-dozen or so puzzles to get a feel for different sizes and difficulties — and I think they’ve forged an engaging and clever combination of crossword-style cluing and Sudoku-style solving.

You can try Setka for yourself on their website, either playing interactive versions of Setka on the site or printing and solving PDF copies of Setka puzzles. They also offer a subscription where you can receive a Setka puzzle each week along with news and updates.

What do you think of Setka, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.


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