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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A Clued Sudoku Puzzle? It’s More Than Meets the Eye

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The hunt is always on for the next big puzzle idea.

Sometimes, it’s an old idea that gets repackaged and catches fire. That’s what happened with Sudoku, a puzzle that had been around since the late ’70s, but only rose to prominence decades later.

Other times, it’s a combination of different puzzle types that yields something special. Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, for instance, have a popular puzzle called Anagram Magic Square, which combines crossword-style cluing, anagrams, and the mathematical element of a magic square to create an engaging puzzle experience you can solve from several angles.

Whether a puzzle is destined for superstardom or not depends on a lot of factors: difficulty, the type of solving it involves, how intuitive the solving is (i.e. needing a lengthy explanation vs. getting the gist of the puzzle from a glance), visual aesthetics, and more.

As a puzzler, it’s always exciting to try out a new puzzle. Wholly original ideas are rare, to be sure, but even a single twist on an old classic can be enjoyable if executed well.

Today, we’re taking a look at a puzzle that combines Sudoku with cryptic crosswords (aka British-style crosswords). It’s called Cluedoku, and it was created by cryptic constructor Charlie Methven, better known in solving circles as Chameleon, a contributor to British puzzle outlets like The Guardian.

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[Just a sample of the puzzle. Check out the entire puzzle here.]

Like Sudoku, Cluedoku involves placing the digits 1 through 9 into each row, column, and 3×3 square in the grid. But unlike Sudoku, there are no set letters.

Instead, you have 81 clues, one for every cell in the grid, utilizing cryptic-style cluing to hint toward which of the nine numbers goes in a given cell.

Once you’ve unraveled a clue and placed a number in the grid, standard Sudoku rules apply: that number will only appear once in a row, column, or 3×3 square.

But that’s easier said than done. These clues run the gamut of slyly clever to almost baffling. Even when you consider that there are only nine possible answers for each clue, it’s still a challenge. (Plus, not all of the clues adhere to the standard cryptic cluing mechanic of having both a definition AND a wordplay clue included.)

That being said, you’ll find lots of traditional cryptic cluing tricks at play here.

Now, we’re going to be discussing specific clues and answers from this puzzle, so this is your spoiler warning.

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Last chance to solve without spoilers!

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Okay, here we go.

In terms of traditional cryptic cluing gimmickry, we see hidden words, anagrams, homophones, word reversals, and more.

In clue 6 — Axis revolves without beginning to accelerate — we revolve (aka reverse) axis to spell SIXA, and then drop the A (“without beginning to accelerate”) to spell SIX.

In clue 8 — Prime cut from sloth reeks — the answer hides in plain sight, as a prime number (three) reads out in sloTH REEks (and can be cut out of it).

In clue 22 — Scenes in X-Men Origins reveal how many claws Wolverine has! — the phrase “origins reveal” points towards the first letters of the words that precede it proving the answer, meaning that SIX is the number of claws Wolverine has (three on each hand).

There is a similar game in clue 67 — With only seconds remaining, Officer Columbo outwits crook — which has the second digits of “Officer Columbo outwits crook” spelling out FOUR.

In clue 27 — UFO demolished third of Parliament Square — the letter R (“third of Parliament”) gets mixed up with UFO to make FOUR, a square.

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But other clues would be familiar to crossword solvers in America.

Clue 29 — Number of Romans in the New Testament? — is simple wordplay for 6, since Romans is the SIXth book. (Similarly, clue 62 — Number of lines taken by bar staff — is a reference to the FIVE lines that make up a staff in sheet music.)

Clue 34 — Top score in Scrabble — is a bit more devious, requiring you to know that T is worth 1 point, O is worth 1 point, and P is worth 3 points, making the correct answer FIVE.

Clue 48 — Man’s arms’ legs’ digit — feels like a clue you’d see at the Indie 500 or Lollapuzzoola, because it’s initially baffling, but then reveals itself as merely clever and challenging. You see, there are THREE legs on the coat of arms for the Isle of Man. But that’s concealed by the wordplay involving three different words that don’t mean what you’d think.

This mix of American and British-style clues made for a fun solve that mixed and mingled two worlds of cluing nicely.

I think my favorite clue was Clue 39 — 192+284 — because it was built like one of those magazine word puzzles, the ones where “rockcaughthardplace” means “caught between a rock and a hard place.” In this case, you have “2+2” literally in 1984. And for anyone familiar with George Orwell’s famous novel, 2+2 in 1984 equalled FIVE.

Although obviously Cluedoku isn’t really sustainable as a recurring puzzle — you’d burn out your anagrams and homophones pretty quickly, as Chameleon himself stated in an interview — it is an impressive marriage of two different puzzles that rarely interact otherwise.

But he did raise the possibility of another variation in the future:

If I did another Chameleon cluedoku, I think I’d use the seven colours of the rainbow plus black and white, as solvers could then colour in each square as they solved. How’s “Cry over Norwich’s core Canary”?

That sounds like a fun follow-up to an interesting puzzle.

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


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How to Get Started in Cryptic Crosswords

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

On Twitter yesterday, Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight asked, “If one wanted to learn/practice solving cryptic crosswords, with what puzzles should one begin?”

Most of the replies mentioned different cryptic crossword outlets to try out, like The Nation, Harper’s Magazine, and The UK Times Quick Cryptic Crossword Book. The Nation in particular was recommended as a good starter cryptic.

Monthly offerings from constructors like Andrew Ries and Cox & Rathvon were also mentioned, though I would add Patrick Berry’s Son of the Crypt cryptic collection to the list of suggestions. (I would normally also recommend The Guardian because of their great cryptics, but they’re pretty tough, particularly for beginners.)

This, of course, presumes that Roeder meant which cryptic puzzles one should start with.

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[Image courtesy of The New European.]

It occurred to me that he might be asking what OTHER puzzles are good for beefing up your cryptic crossword solving game.

Given the different kinds of clues used in cryptic crosswords, I have a few suggestions.

1. Anagram puzzle

Anagrams are a staple of cryptic cluing, and any puzzler looking to get into cryptics should have some facility with them. There are plenty of ways to practice — the Jumble, Anagram Magic Square and other puzzles from our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, and even Bananagrams, Words with Friends, or Scrabble will help build your anagram skills.

2. Rebus

Rebus puzzles are all about adding and subtracting letters to form words or phrases, and there’s plenty of that in cryptic cluing. This is a good way to get used to breaking down longer words into abbreviations, anagrams, and so on in order to puzzle out the answer to a cryptic clue.

3. Brain teaser/riddle

Many cryptic clues rely on words with multiple meanings, as well as words that serve as both instructions and hints. Brain teasers and riddles employ similar wordplay, and they can help you develop a proclivity for looking at words from a new point of view.

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[Image courtesy of Eastern Daily Press.]

Of course, if you want help learning to decipher the many variations on cryptic crossword cluing that you’ll encounter, there are some great resources out there.

Penny Dell Puzzles has a PDF containing examples of the most common cluing tricks, and you can bolster that with similar insights from Wikipedia and The Nation.

If you’re looking for deeper dives into all sorts of cryptic cluing, my one-stop shop for insight is The Guardian’s crossword blog. They offer regular features breaking down various kinds of cryptic clues.

In the last few weeks alone, they’ve covered cycling clues, “stuttering” in clues, and how the points of the compass can be used in cluing, and there are dozens of similarly illuminating posts in their archive.

It’s a terrific resource for newbie cryptic solvers and established puzzlers alike.

And it’s worth getting into cryptic crosswords, if only for the occasional subversive little Easter egg like this one from yesterday’s The Guardian cryptic:

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Did I miss any resources or outlets for great cryptic crosswords? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Challenge: War of the Worlds 2

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[Image courtesy of The Challenge Wiki.]

One of the first reality TV shows to make an impact was MTV’s The Real World, which debuted back in 1992. A show wherein seven strangers would live together in a house and have their lives and interactions taped, it is credited with helping launch the modern reality TV genre.

In the decades since, one of the show’s longest-lasting spin-offs has been The Challenge, a competition show where former Real World alums and other reality show figures compete against each other in physical and mental games, both individually and as teams. There is also a social element to the show, as players form alliances, scheme against other competitors, and often vote out players at regular intervals.

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[Image courtesy of People.com.]

As you might expect, puzzles have worked their way into The Challenge from time to time. Memory games, sliding tile puzzles, and variations on the Tower of Hanoi puzzle.

The most recent iteration of the show, The Challenge: War of the Worlds 2, pits a team of reality show contestants and former Challenge competitors from the UK against a team of previous Challenge competitors from the United States.

At this point in the game, the UK team had lost two players already (as one was sent home at the end of the previous episode, and another left the show for personal reasons).

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In last week’s episode, as the two teams arrived at a secluded lakeside area, there was a puzzly surprise waiting for them: Cryptic Crossbow.

Each team had a giant crossbow, a grid with four four-letter words on it (as well as spaces for additional letters), and a platform from which to jump into the water.

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Eight competitors from each team had to swim out into the water and collect wooden tiles with letters on them. (One letter per tile, one tile per swimmer.) Once eight letters had been retrieved, a second wave of swimmers could jump into the water to retrieve the other eight tiles in the water.

Once all 16 tiles had been retrieved, each team had to add them to the grid in order to form four eight-letter words (using the preset four-letter words as clues). Two things would happen once all 16 tiles were placed on the board:

  • The crossbow would activate, and send one of the competitors out into the lake. That competitor would then swim out, retrieve a giant cryptex on a raft, and swim it back to the rest of the team to be solved.
  • When the four eight-letter words in the grid were properly displayed, six highlighted letters in the grid would spell a code word that could be used to open the cryptex once it was delivered to the group.

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Both teams strategized ahead of time.

CT, the Challenge veteran on the UK team, urged his team to simply place all of the letters on the grid as quickly as possible, so they could launch their crossbow-loaded teammate into the water to retrieve the cryptex.

CT noted that the grid didn’t need to be correct for them to win — opening the cryptex was how a team achieved victory — so the grid didn’t matter, so long as they could mentally solve the puzzle and come up with the correct code word for the cryptex.

It’s a solid plan.

On the US side, Laurel pushed her teammates to solve the puzzle before their teammate was launched from the crossbow (to ensure they’d be able to open the cryptex on the first try), but Johnny Bananas had the same instincts as CT and pushed the idea of loading the grid quickly in order to launch their teammate and retrieve the cryptex.

Once the battle plans were in place, the teams then determined who would swim to which letters (in order to use their best swimmers to travel the farthest distance the fastest).

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As a puzzler, after one glance at the grid, I immediately tried to figure out the possible eight-letter answers in my head. Naturally. AQUA was the easiest, because SEAQUAKE was the only relatively common word that fit.

Though UK competitor Georgia obviously disagreed with me, as she was certain EVACUATE would fit.

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Similarly, HIJACKED was the only common word that would fit for JACK.

TACO was harder, because it took me a while to come up with CATACOMB as the answer. It’s a cool word, but not one that jumped out at me.

LORD was the most challenging, because SLUMLORD, OVERLORD, LANDLORD, and DRUGLORD all came to mind, although some seemed less likely due to unpleasant connotations. (Not only that, but my nerdy brain kept suggesting possibilities like TIMELORD, STARLORD, DARKLORD, HIGHLORD, STALLORD, etc.)

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With stronger swimmers on their side, the US team retrieved all of their letters before the UK team did, and according to plan, they simply filled the grid randomly in order to trigger their catapult, launching teammate Jordan into the water and toward the cryptex. They then began mentally reworking the grid to solve the puzzle.

(We couldn’t see all of the available letters, but teammate Paulie correctly determined that the top word was, in fact, OVERLORD.)

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The UK side, on the other hand, struggled to get all 16 letters back to their grid in a timely fashion, and then compounded this mistake by trying to fill in the grid properly, delaying the launch of their crossbow-loaded teammate.

While they tried to solve the puzzle (and failed), Jordan had already unlocked the US team’s cryptex and started swimming it back to his team’s platform.

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Finally, the UK team listened to CT and just filled the grid in order to launch their teammate Joss into the water, but by this point, Jordan was more than halfway to the US team’s platform with their cryptex.

Joss had barely reached the UK team’s cryptex when the US team unlocked theirs with the code word DEMISE.

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The US team made it two Challenge event wins in a row, and the UK team was sent off to choose one member of their team for possible elimination.

In short, the UK team was decimated in this challenge. They were outswam, outpuzzled, and outstrategized by the US team. Although they were behind at the start due to some of their slower swimmers, they would’ve had a better chance if they’d follow the US team’s lead and just gotten their crossbow teammate into the water sooner while they worked out the puzzle. But alas, it was not meant to be.

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If only they had a PuzzleNationer on their team, this could’ve all been avoided.

Although this wasn’t the most difficult puzzle-based event I’ve seen in previous editions of The Challenge, it was a nice variation and certainly kept the competitors on their toes. I look forward to seeing if there are more puzzly obstacles awaiting the two teams as the competition continues.


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An 80-Year-Old Literary Mystery Returns!

[The Doctor, of Doctor Who fame. No stranger to nonlinear stories.]

Avid readers and television watchers are probably familiar with the concept of nonlinear storytelling.

Whodunits often bounce forward and backward in time so that readers and detectives alike can reconstruct the events of the crime, and of course science fiction is filled to bursting with time-travel stories that tie the readers’ minds in knots. Bookworms are used to getting their story elements out of order.

But what if the entire novel was out of order? Imagine every single page out of place. Could you reassemble the story and solve the murder?

That was the question posed by Cain’s Jawbone, a 1934 novel by famed cryptic crosswords constructor Edward Powys Mathers, who published under the pseudonym Torquemada.

Readers were tasked with identifying the six victims of the killers, as well as who killed each victim. Not only that, but a successful solve also needed to include the correct order of all 100 pages of the novel.

A prize of 15 pounds was offered to the first reader who could unravel the mystery. That is no small feat, given that the number of possible page combinations is in the millions.

And yet, two solvers did submit solutions and get their prizes, even if the solution was never shared publicly.

85 years later, Cain’s Jawbone is returning to publication, allowing a new generation of puzzlers the chance to solve one of Torquemada’s greatest puzzles.

From publishing company Unbound’s announcement page:

Subscribers to Cain’s Jawbone will receive its 100 pages unbound in a box. This means that they can be spread out and placed next to each other – so much easier than when pages are bound, as in the original publication.

A space for notes is provided as well as a page to submit with the answer. Only solutions submitted on a page from the box will be eligible.

The competition is returning as well, and a prize of 1,000 pounds is being offered.

With a release date of September of this year, it will be fascinating to see how quickly modern solvers can unravel this classic mystery.


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Puzzle Romance!

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Hello there, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!

It’s Valentine’s Day, and in lieu of our usual post touting different ideas for celebrating love in a puzzly way — since it’s a bit short-notice for those ideas — we thought we’d share some of our favorite tales of puzzle romance.

(Of course, if you ARE looking for ideas, you’re welcome to click here. Just saying.)

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In the past, I’ve had the privilege of reporting on two puzzly proposals that were quite brilliantly facilitated by our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles. Each time, the gentleman in question — both times named Bryan, oddly enough — asked that the proposal be hidden in a favorite puzzle, slipped into one of their puzzle books. The first time, it was Escalators, the second, Simon Says.

Both times, the plans were executed to perfection, and both times, the lovely fiancees-to-be said yes.

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(We’ve also previously shared the stories of proposals couched in a game of Monopoly and a Rubik’s Cube.)

But my favorite story of puzzle romance involves two friends of mine who are both devotees of cryptic crosswords. (For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call them Carol and George.)

Carol and George are one of those brilliantly matched couples that makes you smile just thinking of them. Marvelously compatible interests and senses of humor and general weirdness that makes relationships worthwhile.

George had several gifts picked out for Carol, but he wanted to surprise her with a little something extra, a bit of diabolical sweetness only a true puzzle devotee would love.

So, before Carol received each small token of affection, she was given a cryptic crossword (also known as a British-style crossword) clue to solve. Cryptic crossword clues involve both cunning wordplay and a definition. The number after the clue provides the number of letters in the answer word.

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[A cryptic crossword by constructors Cox and Rathvon,
courtesy of National Post Cryptic Crossword Forum.]

Here are the clues George created. Hopefully you can figure out the answers just as Carol did!

Really glitchy web address loaded between Tuesday and first of year (5)

Found, amidst mishap, pyramid’s content (5)

Begin tortured existence (5)

Thine enemy, in the end, belonging to us both (5)

Plus, there’s an added bonus: the four five-letter answers, when placed in order, form a phrase.

Hopefully, there will be some wonderful new stories of puzzle romance to come. Maybe even tonight! If you have a story to share, comment below! We’d love to hear it!


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