Crossword Competitions: Cancelled!

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Originally, today’s post was going to be about the Eighth Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition happening this weekend.

I was going to wish the participants good luck and talk about crossword tournament protocol and advice.

But that’s all been rendered moot, as the Eighth Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition has been cancelled due to concerns surrounding gatherings of people during the ongoing Coronavirus situation.

And unfortunately, it’s not the only upcoming puzzly event that has been scuppered by preventative health measures.

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Alas, the 43rd edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has also been cancelled for health-related reasons.

Although Will Shortz is in discussion with the hotel and event organizers regarding potentially moving the tournament to later in the year, for now, ACPT won’t be happening.

I’m disappointed, of course, but I’m not at all surprised. With schools and libraries closing their doors for the time being, not to mention sporting events potentially being held in empty arenas, all sorts of gatherings are being cancelled or rethought in order to keep folks safe.

We here at PuzzleNation hope you and your loved ones are happy, healthy, and taking steps to stay that way.

Be well, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. (And in the meantime, now you’ve got more time to practice your puzzly skills for the tournament’s talent show.)


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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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Intuitive vs. Non-Intuitive Puzzles

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[Image courtesy of The Spruce Crafts.]

Sometimes, when you look at a puzzle, you know immediately what to do and how to solve. In my opinion, a great deal of Sudoku’s success is due to its intuitive nature. You see the grid, the numbers, and you know how to proceed.

Crosswords are similarly straightforward, with numbered clues and grid squares to guide new solvers. (The “across” and “down” directions also help immensely.)

That’s not to say that these puzzles can’t be off-putting to new solvers, despite their intuitive nature. I know plenty of people who are put off by crosswords simply by reputation, while others avoid Sudoku because they’re accustomed to avoiding ANY puzzle that involves numbers, assuming that some math is involved. (I suspect that KenKen, despite its successes, failed to replicate the wild popularity of Sudoku for similar reasons.)

But plenty of other puzzles require some explanation before you can dive in. A Marching Bands or Rows Garden puzzle, for instance, isn’t immediately obvious, even if the puzzle makes plenty of sense once you’ve read the instructions or solved one yourself.

The lion’s share of pen-and-paper puzzles fall into this category. No matter how eye-catching the grid or familiar the solving style, a solver can’t simply leap right into solving.

Thankfully, this won’t deter most solvers, who gleefully accept new challenges as they come, so long as they are fair and make sense after a minute or so of thought. Cryptic crossword-style cluing is a terrific example of this. At first glance, the clues might appear to be gibberish. But within each clue lurks the necessary tools to unlock it and find the answer word.

Brain teasers often function the same way. You’re presented with a problem — a light bulb you can’t see and three possible switches for it, for instance — and you need to figure out a way to solve it. It might involve deduction, wordplay, or some clever outside-the-box thinking, but once you find the answer, it rarely feels unfair or unreasonable.

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[Image courtesy of Deposit Photos.]

But, then again, there are also puzzles that can baffle you even once you’ve read the instructions and stared at the layout for a few minutes. Either the rules are complex or the solving style so unfamiliar or alien that the solver simply can’t find a way in.

In short, puzzles as a whole operate on a spectrum that spans from intuitive to non-intuitive.

Want an example of baffling or non-intuitive? You got it.

GAMES Magazine once ran a puzzle entitled “Escape from the Dungeon,” where the solver had to locate a weapon in a D&D-style dungeon. A very small crossword puzzle was found in one room on a paper scroll.

But the solution had nothing to do with solving the crossword.

The actual solution was to take the crossword to a magician who removed letters from the fronts of words. Removing the C-R-O-S left you with a sword, completing the overall puzzle.

That sort of thinking is so outside the box that it might as well be in a different store entirely. Video games, particularly ones from the point-and-click era, have more than their fair share of non-intuitive puzzles like this. You can check out these lists for numerous examples.

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And as escape rooms grow in popularity, more of them seem to be succumbing to less intuitive puzzling as a result of trying to challenge solvers.

For example, in one escape room I tried, various fellow participants uncovered two stars, a picture of the three blind mice, and four different items that represented the seasons. Amidst all the locks to open, puzzles to unravel, and secrets to find, it never occurred to any of us that these three unconnected numbers would have to be assembled as a combination to a lock. By asking for a hint, we were able to figure out to put them together and open the lock, but it’s not a terribly intuitive puzzle.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a puzzle constructor — be it a pen-and-paper puzzle, an escape room scenario, or a puzzle hunt dilemma — is not creating a dynamite, unique puzzle, but ensuring that finding the solution is fair, even if it’s difficult or mind-boggling.

This sort of thinking informs not only my work as a puzzlesmith, but the designs for my roleplaying games as well. If my players encounter a gap, there’s some way across. If there’s a locked door, there’s a way through it. Oftentimes, there’s more than one, because my players frequently come up with a solution that eluded me.

In the end, that’s the point. All puzzles, no matter how difficult, exist for one reason: to be solved. To provide that rush, that a-ha moment, that satisfaction that comes with overcoming the clever, devious creation of another sharp mind.

And non-intuitive puzzles are tantamount to rigging the game.


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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.

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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.

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[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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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 Unexpected Return of Timothy Parker

Of all the names I expected to see pop up in puzzles in the new year, Timothy Parker wasn’t one of them.

For the uninitiated, Timothy Parker was the crossword editor for Universal’s syndicated puzzle and USA Today, both of which are owned by Universal Uclick. He touted himself as “America’s most solved crossword constructor.”

And almost four years ago, devastating accusations of plagiarism emerged regarding Parker’s conduct as a crossword editor. In a story broken by FiveThirtyEight.com, more than 60 puzzles were flagged for suspicious patterns of repeated entries, grids, and clues with previously published puzzles in The New York Times and other outlets. (Hundreds more showed some level of repetition.)

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Additionally, a pattern of puzzles re-published under fake names or Parker’s name — rather than the name of the actual constructor who submitted the puzzle — also emerged.

In response — eventually — Universal Uclick released a statement that Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.” The company later confirmed “some” of the allegations against Parker, and he was placed on a three-month leave of absence. He was soon removed as editor for the USA Today crossword. (The question of whether he was still employed by Universal Uclick would linger for years to come.)

After all the kerfuffle, Parker seemingly vanished. Except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it.

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[Image courtesy of Evan Birnholz.]

Until last week, that is.

In a promotional article on ExpoTor, Parker touted the strength and drawing power of his puzzle brand, taking the opportunity not only to toot his own horn, but to settle a few old scores.

From the article:

Thirdly, be aware of snakes in the grass. As you get more and more successful, there will be more and more snakes slithering around trying to degrade your work in hopes of boosting theirs. This is common in any industry but is particularly relevant in my industry. I once had a D-list constructor for the Washington Post actually convince a gullible major newspaper reporter that one of my family-oriented crossword themes contained a secret “rape” joke.

This preposterous and asinine assumption was then actually written up by a reporter who stated I had “hidden” a rape joke in my crosswords. Having a G-rated, family-oriented brand for 21 years, this could have been devastating to the brand. But in my case, solvers who have known my work for years came to my rescue, and not only chastised the D-list constructor responsible for this nonsense but also the reporter as well. The article stayed up for a couple of hours and was quickly removed.

Both the supposed “D-list constructor” and the supposed “gullible major newspaper reporter” gladly identified themselves, pointing out that the article — you know, the one that was quickly removed back in 2017? — is still up on HuffPost today.

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[Image courtesy of Huffpost.]

As for the secret rape joke, the grid contained the message “PSST HEY DOES THIS OLD RAG SMELL LIKE CHLOROFORM TO YOU.” The clue? “Run away from anyone who says this.”

Good lord. That’s about as overt a rape joke as I’ve ever seen that didn’t actually include the word “rape.”

Parker concludes the point with “The lesson learned here is rivals are rarely an asset to your brand.” You’d think a better lesson to learn — other than “don’t make offensive comments the centerpiece of your crossword” — would be “Don’t waste time in the middle of a promotional pitch grinding an ax that makes you look petty, incompetent, and insensitive.”

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[Image courtesy of biaphysio.]

Now, fellow puzzler, you might very well be asking yourself, “why waste blog post space on a topic like this?” That’s a fair question.

But I think it’s important to identify and call out problematic members of a community. Parker has never once admitted any fault or claimed any responsibility for the plagiarism scandal years ago. He has never apologized to the hardworking constructors whose work was stolen and/or reused without credit.

And for him to make such snide comments about another constructor — a well-respected one, I might add, with vastly higher standards for what constitutes a quality puzzle — reflects poorly on the entire field.

It’s been my privilege to meet and interact with dozens of top-flight constructors and puzzle editors. And the vast majority of them are good people, Evan included. They’re decent, creative, often brilliant, and frequently incredibly supportive of their fellow constructors.

Meanwhile, Parker claims that “Timothy Parker Crosswords is a brand that’s known worldwide.” That’s true, though DeLorean and Ponzi are also brands known worldwide.

Thankfully, USA Today and Universal Crosswords (part of Andrews McMeel Syndication) are both in more capable, reliable, and honest hands, being edited by Erik Agard and David Steinberg, respectively.

Here’s hoping the trend toward editors who support and respect both their fellow constructors and the crossword audience continues onward into 2020 and beyond.


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