Puzzles and games have been there for many people during the pandemic.
Many puzzle and game companies offered (and continue to offer) “COVID discounts” and giveaways to help people financially impacted by the crisis. Companies released free online or zoom-compatible versions of their products to help people get by.
There are all sorts of articles out there about how Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games have served as critical socializing tools in virtual hangouts. Bar-style trivia, zoom games, Jackbox, Board Game Arena, Fall Guys, Among Us… lots of communal activities went virtual as puzzles and games filled a rapidly growing niche.
Whether solved alone or with other members of the household, jigsaw puzzles sales increased 500% or more. Online sites to coordinate trades sprang up, allowing people to swap puzzles they’d solved before for ones new to them.
At a terrible time for many people, puzzles and games helped us cope.
And honestly, if you know the history of games and puzzles, it makes sense. Many of them have been born out of unpleasant circumstances.
Monopoly was a hit during the Great Depression, offering an escape and the illusory feeling of being rich. The game itself only cost two dollars, so it was a solid investment with a ton of replay value.
Candy Land was created to entertain children with polio (although that fact wasn’t commonly known for 50 years). Clue was designed during air raid drills as a way to pass the time. The Checkered Game of Life (later The Game of Life) was inspired by Milton Bradley’s own wild swing of business misfortune.
Risk and other conflict-heavy games weren’t popular in postwar Germany, so an entire genre of games that avoided direct conflict was born: Eurogames.
It’s just as true in the modern day. What game was flying off the shelves during COVID-19 lockdowns? Pandemic.
That combination of escapism and social interaction is so powerful. Games are low-stakes. They offer both randomness (a break from monotony) and a degree of control (something sorely missing during lockdown).
Puzzles too assisted folks in maintaining their mental health. And isn’t it interesting that crossword solving, something viewed by many as a solitary endeavor — I guess they never needed to ask someone else 5-Down — helped fill a crucial social role for people?
Constructors stepped up in interesting, inventive ways. The sense of community fostered by online crossword events like Crossword Tournament From Your Couch (which filled the void of ACPT in 2020) and the Boswords Themeless League was absolutely invaluable to puzzlers who couldn’t attend some of the highlights of the puzzle calendar year.
As I said before, there are numerous articles out there celebrating the benefits of roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and more.
Roleplaying games certainly helped keep me sane during lockdown. It might sound ridiculous, but dealing with world-threatening threats, fiercely dangerous monsters, and sinister plots that I could DO something about was medicinal. It was escape in its truest form. It recharged me, allowing me to lose myself in storytelling with friends.
The last 18 months were hard. There may be hard months ahead. But I’m grateful for the puzzle/game community — and the many marvelous pastimes they’ve created — for helping me and many others get by. To smile. To cope. To socialize. And to enjoy.
What games and puzzles have helped you deal with unpleasant circumstances, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you.
We can’t close out June without a bit more news, it seems.
Two weeks ago, we updated you on the state of the puzzle industry as it pertains to crossword tournaments. We were able to share the sad news that Lollapuzzoola would not be happening this year — a solve-at-home event is in the works — as well as the happier news that BosWords would be hosting an online tournament this year on Sunday afternoon, July 26.
We also made passing reference to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament‘s original date in March being cancelled, and a prospective date of the weekend of September 11-13 for a rescheduled tournament.
Unfortunately, yesterday Will Shortz confirmed through the NY Times Wordplay social media platforms that the 2020 ACPT has been scrapped for the year:
Over the past few months we kept modifying our plans for the event, as the pandemic persisted, but now it has become clear that it cannot be held this year at all.
We believe we have already refunded all registrations for the in-person tournament. If somehow we overlooked yours, please let us know (email@example.com).
Registrations for at-home solving of the 2020 ACPT puzzles — either by mail or online — will be rolled over until next year. If you would like a refund instead, let us know that, too.
Originally, a weekend in late March was announced, but those posts were later replaced by updates stating that the tentative date for the 43rd ACPT is now the weekend of April 23-25, 2021.
Here’s hoping that the world will be in a better, healthier state and allow us to enjoy puzzling in public with our fellow puzzlers and cruciverbalists once again.
Something to look forward to.
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The organizers of the Indie 500 posted back in March that they were working on a solve-at-home event to be held this summer, but as of this posting, no further details have emerged.
But do not fret. If you’re looking for some puzzly challenges to dive into over the weekend, the Indie 500 team have made the tournament puzzle packs for ALL FIVE previous tournaments available for free on their website, which is an incredibly generous and kind gesture.
And if you’re looking to get a sense of what sort of challenges and delights the tournament has to offer, we have write-ups covering eachof thefivepreviouseditions of the tournament for you to check out.
Here’s hoping we still get to indulge in some fresh Indie 500 treats this summer. It truly has become one of the highlights of the puzzly calendar, one that I look forward to every year.
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I know the last few months have been hard for a lot of people. But it’s also been inspiring to see communities rally and work together, even while social distancing, to take care of each other. And loads of creative folks out there have been raising money for charity in clever and entertaining ways.
One of the biggest annual fundraisers is Red Nose Day, a yearly international event dedicated to eradicating child poverty. There are often special TV events tied into the Red Nose Day, and this year was no exception.
NBC employed a more puzzly route than most participating networks, as they presented an hour-long show dedicated to a celebrity-filled escape room.
Musician and actor Jack Black hosted, serving as the exuberant and maniacal gamemaster for the event. Ben Stiller, Adam Scott, Courteney Cox, and Lisa Kudrow were the celebrity players, and they had one hour to escape Jack’s series of rooms. For each puzzle they successfully solved, they would earn $15,000 in charitable donations from the event’s sponsor, M&Ms.
Jack explained the rules, and then informed them that they were allowed three hints to help them solve the puzzles. Each hint was represented by a red clown nose, the official symbol of Red Nose Day.
You can watch the entire special video below, or continue reading for a recap of the show and a breakdown of each puzzle:
The celebs were escorted into an elevator and sent on their way. The team immediately started trying to figure out how to escape.
But the elevator wasn’t a puzzle room. Jack was just messing with them, sending the elevator up and down before opening it.
The group’s first actual challenge was an 80’s themed room, which contained not only numerous references to the decade (posters, movies, decor, etc.), but references to each actor’s career to serve as a distraction. Jack Black informed the audience of two key locations to pay attention to — a photo wall and the table with pizza on it — but didn’t explain the actual puzzles.
Courteney Cox stumbled upon a clue — a recorded message from Jennifer Lopez — that sent the celebs to their yearbooks on one of the shelves. Inside, they each found a different variation of a picture of people sitting on a couch, each one with more people in it.
Ben Stiller not only realized that they needed to be placed somewhere in order, but spotted where to do so.
The photo wall was a 3×4 grid, with 8 photos already placed and 4 open spaces. My first instinct would have been to place the photos in order of the rows (as if reading the photos in storyboard order from left to right, row to row).
But the photos had to be placed in column order from left to right, ignoring the rows. Courteney figured this out, and a couch folded out from the wall. Having successfully completed a puzzle, $15,000 was added to the team’s charity total.
By all sitting on the couch, they activated the TV, which aired a commercial for Rubik’s Cubes. Ben realized the pizza and tablecloth in the center of the room were covering a giant Rubik’s Cube. (Instead of being rotated and twisted, this one had removable magnetic blocks, which made solving it easier.)
The celebs immediately started checking the lockers, but they were all locked. While searching for their next puzzle, the celebs misinterpreted a banner that said “Let’s get loud” and started screaming.
It’s silly, but hey, in an escape room, sometimes you’ll try anything.
Ben spotted the clue on the floor, and Courteney realized that some of the floor tiles could be pulled up, revealing a picture puzzle to be assembled. They solved the puzzle — a picture of Jack in a mascot costume — and it opened the trophy case. That made their charity total rise to $45,000.
When Adam put the mascot head on, the lights dimmed, and he began looking for the next clue. Three of the celebs tried the mascot head on, but they couldn’t find anything. So they used one of their red noses and asked for a hint.
Jack intervened and told them to direct the mascot head’s vision toward the lockers. On certain lockers, the mascot’s head revealed in invisible ink the birthdays of the four players. After some difficulty, Adam realized they should open the lockers in birthday order, which caused all four to open. (Four puzzles completed, $60,000 earned.)
As the other players removed letterman jackets from the lockers, Courteney stepped into her locker (which was larger inside than the others) and Jack shut it behind her, seemingly locking her in. While trying to figure out how to free Courteney, they all decided to put their jackets on.
Jack directed the audience to pay attention to the janitor’s closet, the trophy case, and the cubby area for the next puzzle.
Courteney discovered her locker secretly led into the locked janitor’s closet. Meanwhile, the other players found prom tickets in their jackets.
Unable to free Courteney (the inside door handle came off in her hand), the celebs were flummoxed again, even trying to play rock-paper-scissors to open the door. (Bafflingly, Ben doesn’t know how to play.) They decided to ask for their second Red Nose hint. Jack pointed them toward the janitor’s to-do list, which has four tasks on it, three completed.
The unfinished task referenced the water fountain, and upon investigating it, Adam found the door handle for the janitor’s closet, freeing Courteney (and earning another $15,000).
Doing so activated the TV in the trophy case, and special guest “Principal” Kelly Clarkson provided a year-in-review that recounted the trophy won by each celeb, and suggested they hang up their jackets on the Wall of Fame (the cubby area).
The celebs missed the trophy clue and just hung their jackets up (not realizing that the trophies — first place, second place, third place, and fourth place — indicated the order of the jackets).
They tried birthday order again, then headed back to the trophy case, realized their mistake, and put the jackets in the correct order, earning another $15,000 for charity.
Part of the locker wall then opened up to reveal a room decorated for prom, complete with balloons and a space for couple/group photos. Jack directed viewers to pay attention to the clock on the wall, the photos of couples on the wall, and the photography setup.
Relying on the clue “it’s almost time for crown the king and queen,” they puzzled out that there are clocks on all of the photos, but it reads 9 PM for the crowned couple.
Courteney eventually realized there was a stepladder that would allow her to reach the clock, and rotated it until it read 9 PM. (Their charity total was now $105,000!)
Completing the puzzle activated the lights in the photo area. They posed for their picture, and when they snapped it, the balloon wall burst, revealing a gym decorated for prom. (It also scared the daylights out of them, which made for a great prom photo.)
Jack then fully explained the next puzzle to the audience, as the celebs had to match the images on their prom tickets to certain champagne bottles (filled with M&Ms) on the refreshments table, which would then point them to particular light-up squares on the electronic dance floor.
The celebs immediately zeroed in on the symbols on the champagne bottles, but didn’t know what to do with them. Jack taunted them, hoping to goad them into using their third and final hint, until Courteney spotted the matching symbol on her prom ticket.
Now finally pairing up bottles of M&M champagne, Courteney again figured out that the colors of each pair of bottles should combine to match the color of the podium they’re placed on. It’s a pretty impressive bit of puzzling, I must admit.
Each time they placed a pair of bottles correctly, part of the dance floor lit up.
Unfortunately, they confused the colors required to make pink with the colors needed to make orange, which slowed them down. Fixing their mistake and completing the puzzle, they ran to the dance floor with another $15,000 for charity.
The dance floor was a 4×4 grid, with each player standing in a different colored square in the bottom row. As the dance floor lit up in a sequential pattern of lights, the team realized they were playing a Simon-style game where they had to step forward in a certain order to match the pattern of colored lights displayed on the floor.
There were three rounds of the game. The first (and simplest) required a single step each onto the second row. The second required two steps (meaning eight total moves in order), and third required three steps (meaning a more complicated twelve-step order).
Once they sorted out their timing issues in the first round, they flew through the second and third rounds, solving the puzzle and earning another $15,000.
Jack then instructed the group to go onstage and sing their way out of the room as their final challenge. He noted they only had 9 and a half minutes left to escape.
A video wall across the room activated, and Adam and Mike, the two remaining Beastie Boys, wished them luck. When Jack started playing guitar over the intercom, Ben recognized the song as “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party),” which they’d have to sing karaoke-style to escape.
But Lisa didn’t know the song, and she consistently botched the rhythm on each of her turns. Thankfully, that didn’t hinder the group too much, and after being startled one last time (with victory confetti), they escaped the prom with a total $150,000 for charity, and a little over 6 minutes to spare.
Honestly, as a fan of escape rooms, I really enjoyed this. It’s a great — if highly budgeted — example of this puzzle genre, and a strong introduction for anyone who has never tried them.
The puzzles ranged from simple to moderately hard, but for the most part were fairly intuitive. Also, while it’s embarrassing in the moment to try silly things and draw dumb conclusions while trying to solve puzzles, it’s also very entertaining to watch someone else do the same.
All in all, it was a fun event hosted for a great cause, and the four celebrity players (plus gamemaster Jack) made an engaging cast of characters. The little interviews interspersed throughout also added a lot. (Plus, at the end, we found out Courteney loves escape rooms, which explains her mad puzzle skills.)
For twenty-five years, Martin Gardner penned a column in Scientific American called Mathematical Games, adding a marvelous sense of puzzly spirit and whimsy to the field of mathematics, exploring everything from the works of M.C. Escher to visual puzzles like the mobius strip and tangrams. He was also a champion of recreational math, the concept that there are inherently fun and entertaining ways to do math, not just homework, analysis, and number crunching.
And on more than one occasion, Gardner turned to the genius and innovative thinking of John Horton Conway for inspiration.
Conway was best known as a mathematician, but that one word fails to encapsulate either his creativity or the depth of his devotion to the field. Conway was a pioneer, contributing to some mathematical fields (geometry and number theory among them), vastly expanding what could be accomplished in other fields (particularly game theory), and even creating new fields (like cellular automata).
Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus, Simon Kochen said, “He was like a butterfly going from one thing to another, always with magical qualities to the results.” The Guardian described him in equally glowing terms as “a cross between Archimedes, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí.”
His most famous creation is The Game of Life, a model that not only visually details how algorithms work, but explores how cells and biological forms evolve and interact.
Essentially, imagine a sheet of graph paper. In The Game of Life, you choose a starting scenario, then watch the game proceed according to certain rules:
Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies, as if by underpopulation.
Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation.
Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies, as if by overpopulation.
Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.
The process plays out from your starting point completely without your intervention, spiraling and expanding outward.
It’s the ultimate if-then sequence that can proceed unhindered for generations. It is a literal launchpad for various potential futures based on a single choice. It’s mind-bending and simple all at once. (And you can try it yourself here!)
It’s a perfect example of the playfulness Conway brought to the mathematical field and teaching. The game is strategic, easy to learn, difficult to master, and encourages repeated engagement.
In a piece about Conway, Princeton professor Manjul Bhargava said, “I learned very quickly that playing games and working on mathematics were closely intertwined activities for him, if not actually the same activity.”
He would carry all sorts of bits and bobs that would assist him in explaining different concepts. Dice, ropes, decks of cards, a Slinky… any number of random objects were mentioned as potential teaching tools.
Professor Joseph Kohn shared a story about Conway’s enthusiasm for teaching and impressive span of knowledge. Apparently, Conway was on his way to a large public lecture. En route, he asked his companions what topic he should cover. Imagine promising to do a lecture with no preparation at all, and deciding on the way what it would be about.
Naturally, after choosing a topic in the car, the lecture went off without a hitch. He improvised the entire thing.
Of course, you would expect nothing less from a man who could recite pi from memory to more than 1100 digits? Or who, at a moment’s notice, could calculate the day of the week for any given date (employing a technique he called his Doomsday algorithm).
Conway unfortunately passed away earlier this month, due to complications from COVID-19, at the age of 82.
His contributions to the worlds of mathematics and puzzles, not to mention his tireless support of recreational math, cannot be overstated. His work and his play will not soon be forgotten.
We’re all doing our best to keep ourselves and our loved ones engaged, entertained, and sane during these stressful times.
And after weeks of doing so, it’s possible you’re running out of ideas.
But worry not! Your puzzly pals at PuzzleNation are here with some suggestions.
Please feel free to sample from this list of activities, which is a mix of brain teasers to solve, puzzly projects to embark upon, treasure hunts, unsolved mysteries, ridiculous notions, creative endeavors, and a dash of shameless self-promotion.