Halfway through the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League!

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Last night marked the fifth week of competitive puzzly fun in the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League is a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consists of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

Each week’s puzzle only has one grid, but there are three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth is the least challenging, Choppy is the middle ground, and Stormy is the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate — which you can still do now! — they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

With a lineup of top-flight constructors involved and the Boswords team organizing, it was a can’t miss prospect, and hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition.

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Now that we’re officially halfway through the season, it feels like the right time to take a moment and reflect on the last four weeks of puzzling.

I will only be referencing the previous four puzzles — not last night’s Week 5 themeless — so there are only potential spoilers for non-participants. Competitors may read at their leisure.

Although I am quite familiar with crosswords, I am far from the fastest or cagiest solver, nor have I ever competed in any tournament solving, so I opted to enter the Choppy rank.

And I have very much enjoyed the experience thus far. Themeless puzzles always often a fun challenge, mixing long answers — often crossing or stacked with other long answers — with strong cluing, clever grid design, and most notably, no theme around which to frame the grid (or your solve, if you happen to dig into the theme entries immediately).

The cluing feels very fresh, mixing topical entries, meme fodder, and slang with traditional crossword classics and a dash of pop culture references. Although my lack of football knowledge betrayed me in week 1, I’ve made up some ground in weeks 3 and 4, posting my two quickest times, both with clean grids.

My times are far from cheetah-like; the top solvers in the Choppy rankings often solve these puzzles in half the time I do, and manage perfect scores to boot. I am getting faster, it seems, which is probably due to a growing familiarity with the solving interface, wasting less time maneuvering the screen.

I’m definitely finding it challenging. There are plenty of clues I pass over two or three times before coming up with something that fits the entries I’ve already placed, and these diabolical constructors always slip some devious wordplay and a-ha cluing into their puzzles.

In October alone, solvers contended with puzzles from Tracy Gray, Nate Cardin, Amanda Rafkin, and David Quarfoot, each bringing a unique style and flavor to their grid entries and cluing. Each themeless has been a challenge all its own, and once you finally figure out each solver’s tricks, you’re confronted with a new constructor the next week, and you start all over again.

Still, it’s great fun, a nice puzzly touch to the week that feels like you’re part of a community, bolstered not only by a communal solving experience once a week, but by Twitch chats and interactions with the organizers and fellow solvers.

We’re only halfway through, and I’d have to declare the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League a rousing success. I can’t wait to see what surprises the November puzzles bring, and what awaits the top solvers in the championship round.

Whether you’re competing alongside us or simply enjoying puzzles at your own speed, thanks for visiting. And happy puzzling!


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A New Weekly Crossword League Coming Soon!

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The internet puzzle community has done an impressive job over the last six months of adapting to the social distancing restrictions of the current COVID-19 crisis, with tournaments like Crossword Tournament From Your Couch, Lollapuzzoola, and Boswords successfully going virtual in 2020.

And now John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, the creative team behind Boswords, have announced a new tournament-inspired online puzzle project to keep crossword fans engaged for the next few months!

It’s called The Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League, and every Monday night in October and November, a new themeless crossword will be posted for competitors to solve. That’s eight puzzles (plus a championship round to follow), along with a preseason puzzle to get people used to the format.

Although each week’s puzzle only has one grid, there will be three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. When you register to participate, you’ll choose the difficulty level for your clues.

From least challenging to most challenging, the ranks are called Smooth, Choppy, and Stormy. (Quite appropriate, given that we’re heading into unfamiliar waters here!)

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Each week’s puzzle will be accompanied by a Twitch stream where participants can follow along and discuss all things puzzly with their fellow crossword enthusiasts!

You can compete as an individual or as part of a pair, and with a one-time registration fee of $25 — or $5 for students and those in need — that’s very reasonable indeed!

Not only that, but they’ve already announced the team of constructors assembled for the League, and it is a stacked roster of talent.

Nate Cardin, Emily Carroll, Tracy Gray, David Quarfoot, Amanda Rafkin, Claire Rimkus, Sid Sivakumar, Yacob Yonas, and Stella Zawistowski are all contributing puzzles, and you won’t know ahead of time which constructor’s puzzle you’ll get on a given week, which keeps things interesting.

With experienced crossword constructor and editor Brad Wilber as the League’s puzzle editor and the dynamic duo of Lieb and Kingsley as assistant editors and League directors, I have high hopes for this project going forward.

Check out the full informational video on the Boswords homepage, as well as links for further info and registration! (Register by September 28th to participate!)

I think this is an incredibly cool and ambitious project, and a really neat way to bring tournament-style solving in a bite-size format to as many puzzlers as possible.

Will you be taking part in this exciting new puzzle challenge, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Delving into the 2020 Boswords Crosswords!

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I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hand at the puzzles from the Boswords Crossword Tournament. Given the talent involved amongst the organizers and constructors — as well as the reliable puzzles featured in the previous three tournaments — I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

So let’s put those puzzles under the microscope and see what’s what!


[Boswords 2020 Comedy Opener from Boswords on Vimeo.]

 

Warmup 1: On the Move by John Lieb

The first of three unscored opening puzzles did a nice job of loosening up solvers (whether they’re practiced or rusty) and getting them ready to solve. The five related entries all had the letter chain STU in them, and the letter grouping moved diagonally to the left with each successive entry. (This was explained by the clever revealer RV TRIP in the corner, as the letters between R and V made the journey across the grid.)

Although I struggled a bit with the lower-right corner of the grid, I found this 15x puzzle served its purpose nicely, offering an easily grasped theme to warm up solvers.

Interesting grid entries included WINNIPEG, OPEN BARS, RUN DMC, and DEATH STAR, and my favorite clue was “Some ‘The Mandalorian’ characters, for short” for ETS. (Though, since none of the characters are from Earth, I suppose we would consider ALL of them ETs. But I digress.)

Warmup 2: Act I by Andrew Kingsley

I’m not entirely sure if this 15x puzzle was a smoother solve than the previous crossword or if I was just more warmed up. This puzzle’s theme entries all started with an EYE sound, but spelled differently (AY CARAMBA, AYE AYE CAPTAIN). The revealer (EYE OPENER) not only explained this, but referenced the title. Nicely done overall!

This was a fun concept (despite one very obscure theme entry), and playing on pronunciation is a less frequently used gimmick in crosswords, which made it a nice treat.

Interesting grid entries included IMPOUNDS, BAT SIGNAL, and ONCE-A-DAY, and my favorite clue was “Change ‘chagne’ to ‘change,’ say” for EDIT.

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[Crossword street art at Heilig-Sacramentstraat 9000 Gent, Belgium]

Warmup 3: Starting From Scratch by John Lieb

Our warmup master Mr. Lieb returns with a well-constructed 15x puzzle that had the best flow of the three. Any solver would feel pumped and ready for the tournament after this one.

The theme entries were all phrases where the first word could be preceded by BANK (as explained by the revealer BANKSY). And I quite enjoyed having RUHROH from Scooby-Doo as the first entry across. It shows off the playfulness you can expect from Boswords tournament puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included AQUA NET, ROXANE, MARLOWE, and HEADBUTTS, and my favorite clue was either “Casino conveniences” for ATMS or “How Boswords 2020 puzzles will *not* be solved” for IN PEN.


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Puzzle 1: Gather Round by John Lieb and Andrea Yanes

The tournament proper launched with this great starter, a snappy 15x puzzle with a tightly-constructed great and a plethora of theme entries to hook solvers. All the theme entries were round or circular items — LIFESAVERS, FULL MOONS, BULLSEYE — which fit both the title and the revealer CIRCLE TIME in the grid.

As Boswords puzzles don’t tend to be as difficult as those at Lollapuzzoola or the Indie 500, this was the perfect representation of a Boswords Puzzle #1.

Interesting grid entries included GROVES, VOLDEMORT, ROMCOM, and CHALLAH, and my favorite clue was either “National dance of the Dominican Republic” for MERENGUE or “‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ has over 800,000 of these” for CELS. I love learning things from crosswords!

Puzzle 2: Two Across by Andrea Carla Michaels

Puzzle #2 really stuck the landing in this thoroughly enjoyable solve. A fun, accessible hook — naming two of the characters in famous trios and cluing each theme entry with the third — was made evident by the revealer THREE’S A CROWD, and the trios were well-chosen for maximum pop culture familiarity. (Though I suspect I got the Ron-Harry-Hermione trinity slower than most solvers.)

I found this puzzle right on par difficulty-wise with Puzzle #1, making for a breezy solve and some delightful cluing.

Interesting grid entries included ISHMAEL, CD TOWER, and THE SEA, and my favorite clues were “Nursery purchase” for SEED, “Pronoun containing another pronoun” for SHE, and “K-I-S-S-I-N-G in a tree, for short” for PDA.

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Puzzle 3: Mass Mayhem by Rob Gonsalves and Jennifer Lim

Bosword tournaments tend to have jumps in difficulty rather than a gradual increase, and this year was no exception. Puzzle #3 offered a boost in difficulty from the previous two puzzles, though I suspect cryptic solvers might have cottoned onto the theme faster than other puzzlers. Each theme entry was a “villain” whose description was an anagram of a Massachusetts locale (SILVER MOLE for “Graying double agent from Somerville,” GRID BUSTER for “Crossword puzzle vandal from Sturbridge”).

I figured out the entries without the anagrams, but getting the clues last is always the worst feeling. The “from” phrasing probably made the gimmick obvious to others, but I was a little slow on the uptake with this one.

Interesting grid entries included DEVITO, NAIROBI, BRAHMS, and MEMBRANE, and my favorite clue was either “First word spelled out in a lunchmeat jingle” for OSCAR or “Tea at the Boston Tea Party, effectively” for JETSAM.

Puzzle 4: Water Picks by Amanda Rafkin

For the second year in a row, Puzzle #4 featured my favorite gimmick from the tournament. Rafkin concealed different kinds of apples in zigzagging patterns throughout the 17×21 grid, allowing the letters in the entry to bob up and down. This fit the bonus entries HALLOWEEN PARTIES and BOBBING FOR APPLES elsewhere in the grid.

A delightful hook with a clever visual element, really fun cluing, and strong fill? It comes as no surprise that this was my favorite puzzle from the tournament by a long shot, despite being the largest.

Interesting grid entries included FEARSOME, EVAN HANSEN, GALLERIA, LOONIE, and ZORRO, and it was impossible for me to narrow down my favorite clue in this one:

  • “Foot work?” for POEM
  • “Without pier?” for ASEA
  • “Page in a screenplay?” for ELLEN
  • “One in a batting lineup?” for EYELASH
  • “Vessels that are often blown up” for RAFTS
  • “Org. with Sarah McLachlan (AND HER VERY SAD SONG) as a spokesperson” for ASPCA

(Unfortunately, I must also deduct points for referencing Dave Matthews Band in a clue. Sorry, Amanda, them’s the rules.)

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[There really ARE stock photos for everything.]

Puzzle 5: The A’s Have It! by Sid Sivakumar

The tournament puzzles concluded with a very satisfying solve from Sivakumar, whose choice of theme must’ve made for some fun constructing. Puzzle #5’s theme entries featured the letter A as every other letter in each entry (BANANARAMA, PANAMA CANAL), tied together with the revealer FIVE-SECOND RULE referencing the cavalcade of A’s in the grid.

All those A’s allowed for some long crossings, and the constructor made the most of them, using a number of 9- and 10-letter entries to tie the grid together nicely.

Interesting grid entries included IXNAY, MOVIE NIGHT, RAMIS, and KODAK, and my favorite clue was either “Chapter in a history textbook, say” for ERA or “Promoter of chess?” for PAWN.

Championship Themeless by Sam Trabucco

After two years of championship puzzles being shepherded by the ambitious grids of David Quarfoot, and Finn Vigeland offering an intimidating themeless championship puzzle of his own last year, Sam Trabucco stepped up to the plate with a suitably challenging finale to the day’s proceedings.

Absolutely packed with 8- and 9-letter entries, this grid was very tightly constructed, but included enough unexpected vocabulary to make solvers truly earn their completed grids. (My only qualm was reusing I in three entries — I TELL YA, I’VE GOT IT, and I’LL TAKE IT — but I’m probably in the minority on that nitpicky point.)

Interesting grid entries included TEXAS TEA, SNAPCHAT, SOYLENT, JANIS IAN, and STAGE MOM. Both the easier and tougher sets of clues had some gems, so I’ll list them separately below:

Easier clues:

  • “Lamenting some shots, perhaps” for HUNGOVER
  • “Like the origins of each day of the week” for PAGAN
  • “Like many colorful characters in ‘Reservoir Dogs'” for CODENAMED

Harder clues:

  • “Paying for a lot of drinks, perhaps” for HUNGOVER
  • “Vegan food named for a decidedly non-vegan ‘food'” for SOYLENT
  • “Put in charge?” for IONIZE
  • “Sounds Jazz fans love to hear?” for SWISHES.

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Overall, I was fairly impressed by the array of puzzles assembled for this year’s tournament. There were tricky themes, visual themes, and even an auditory theme, all of which made great use of both the cluing and the grids themselves. Yes, one or two puzzles didn’t resonate with me as strongly as the others, but the tournament puzzles as a whole were challenging and creative in their design without being off-putting or getting too esoteric.

BosWords remains the perfect tournament to introduce solvers to tournament-style puzzling, making up for difficulty with accessibility, playfulness, and straight-up solid grid construction.

It’s the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the tournament, especially with the trying circumstances this year. I heard nothing but good things about the online solving experience, and I credit the hardworking organizers for pulling this all off!

And I can’t wait to see what they cook up for us next year.


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Delving into the BosWords 2019 Crosswords!

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I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hand at the puzzles from the BosWords Crossword Tournament last month. Given the talent involved amongst the organizers and constructors, I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

So let’s put those puzzles under the microscope and see what’s what!


Leading Ladies by John Lieb

This unscored opening puzzle served as a fun and pleasant warm-up, getting everyone into the puzzly spirit and ready to solve. The theme entries were five films with female leads (like CLEOPATRA, FOXY BROWN, and CAT BALLOU), and the revealer TITLE NINE nicely tied the five films together through their nine-letter titles.

With good flow and an accessible theme, this is a great confidence booster and a solid puzzle to shake off any nerves going into the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included SAMOANS, ZOWIE, DEEP-SIXED, and LANDO, and my favorite clue was “Got to square 100 first in Chutes and Ladders, e.g.” for WON.

Puzzle 1: Central Intelligence by Claire Rimkus and Andrew Kingsley

As you might expect from the first puzzle in the tournament proper, this puzzle was a fairly easy start, combining an accessible theme with interesting fill. Each of the three-letter words at the center of the theme entries spelled out a different degree one could earn, a la VET reading out in LONG LIVE THE KING.

The circles for the three middle letters in each themed entry are almost unnecessary, as between the title and the themed entries themselves, you could suss out the theme without much trouble.

(But then again, I’m a sucker for circles in a crossword grid, so I liked having them there.)

One of the theme entries was more obscure than the other three, but this was still a breezy solve to get the tournament going.

Interesting grid entries included THE UK, OBERON, SOIREE, and MASHUP, and my favorite clues were “Hacker’s problem?” for COUGH and “You don’t want to be under it” for ARREST.

[Image courtesy of SharpBrains.com.]

Puzzle 2: Don’t Strain Yourself by Ross Trudeau

Normally, you’d expect the difficulty to ratchet upward a bit for puzzle 2, but this one was pretty much on par with the first puzzle. The revealer NO FILTER explained the link between the theme entries (things like EMAIL SPAM and INSTANT COFFEE), but overall, I was a little underwhelmed by this one.

That’s not to say the puzzle wasn’t otherwise well-constructed, because it was. The longer down entries linking the themed entries were executed with finesse, and other than one tough entry (ILLINI), the fill was fair and the cluing solid.

Interesting grid entries included DOOMSDAY, TO THE MAX, IOLANI, AL EAST, and DALLIANCES, and my favorite clue was “Turns into a screenplay, perhaps” for ADAPTS.

Puzzle 3: Plus or Minus by Joon Pahk and Laura Braunstein

The increase of difficulty I was expecting in puzzle 2 arrived with gusto in puzzle 3, as the solver must figure out how to either add or remove a number from the theme entries. With the subtraction clues, it was easier, because you had the number spelled out in the entry (like STONE AGE DOOR, where the -1 in the clue indicates that the word ONE should be removed, making the more familiar STAGE DOOR).

With the addition entries, you had to get a little more creative. For instance, the entry PAT PENDING becomes PATENT PENDING when you add the +10 from the clue. It’s a clever hook, and certainly not the last time we’ll be seeing some puzzly math in this puzzle set.

Interesting grid entries included SEA MONKEYS, SQUEAK, UMAMI, and SAYSO, and my favorite clue was “Something that won’t stay hot” for FAD.

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Puzzle 4: Spill the Tea by John Lieb and David Quarfoot

My favorite gimmick from the tournament puzzles appears in puzzle 4, which took me longer to figure out than it probably should have. In this puzzle, longer theme entries are shortened by having a brand of tea contained in the answer reading down instead of across. So, HOTEL CHAIN reads HOTELCN across, because CHAI is reading down from the C instead.

This sort of visual gag in a crossword is hard to pull off, but Lieb and Quarfoot do so nicely, having five “spills” in the grid. (Cluing each tea reading down as an “Oops” was a nice touch, as was the Boston Tea Party reference in the tagline at the top of the page.)

Interesting grid entries included AP CALC, WIN BIG, UNCLE SAM and X-ACTO KNIFE, and my favorite clue was “Charlatan exposer of film” for TOTO.

Puzzle 5: Get the Picture by Paolo Pasco

The regular tournament concluded with puzzle 5, and Pasco ably brought it home with this film-centric puzzle where the theme entries all ended with synonyms for part of a film (SHOT, SCENE, FOOTAGE, TAKE, and CLIP). The theme is quickly uncovered, but the puzzle is by no means a cakewalk, as solid, creative fill makes for a more challenging solve than you expect.

There’s very little crosswordese — the grid instead focused on unusual entries in a well-constructed grid. (Heck, if Pasco had included J and X, this puzzle would have been a pangram as well!)

Interesting grid entries included SATYRS, CYBER, KAPOW, ME DAY, and GUIDE DOG, and my favorite clue was “Write this answer as EER, say” for ERR.

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[Image courtesy of @StalkingSarah.]

Championship Themeless by Finn Vigeland

After two years of championship puzzles being shepherded by the ambitious grids of David Quarfoot, Finn Vigeland steps up to the plate with a very intimidating themeless grid loaded with lots of long entries. With 3 nine-letter words in each corner and 3 thirteen-letter entries stacked in the middle of the grid, this one would probably give any solver pause at the outset, let alone those solving on stage in front of an audience.

Those long entries were bolstered by a lot of terrific crossings that made use of the open grid, making for a mostly great solving experience, save one or two specious phrases (AREN’T I?, ick).

But the impressive ones far outweigh the occasional clunkers, and Vigeland’s first championship themeless for BosWords will most likely not be his last.

Interesting grid entries included PR FARM, FUTURAMA, I CAN’T EVEN, and ARMREST, and my favorite clue was “One of a breakfast trio” for SNAP.


Bonus puzzle: Do the Math by John Lieb

Although this wasn’t an official tournament puzzle, I have to mention it because this bonus grid was my favorite in the entire set. Treating common hyphenated phrases with numbers as if they were equations, the theme entries in this puzzle required a little outside-the-box thinking to come up with the correction solutions.

For instance, “Combo from Rocky Balboa” would normally be “ONE-TWO PUNCH,” but since we’re thinking mathematically, ONE minus TWO is NEGATIVE ONE, so our themed answer is actually NEGATIVE ONE PUNCH.

The revealer DIFFERENCE MAKERS was just the icing on the cake for a puzzle that took something in plain sight and turned it on its head in a clever way. It was the perfect conclusion to a day of enjoyable puzzling.

Interesting grid entries included ELIXIR, RELAXED FIT, YIKES, and K’NEX, and my favorite clues were “Pricey place for a fan” for SKYBOX and “Improvises musically” for VAMPS.


Overall, I was mostly impressed by the array of puzzles assembled for this year’s tournament. There were tricky themes, visual themes, and math themes, all of which made great use of both the cluing and the grids themselves. Yes, one or two puzzles didn’t connect with me as strongly as the others, but the entire gauntlet of puzzles were challenging and creative in their design without being off-putting or getting too esoteric.

BosWords is probably the tournament that is friendliest to new solvers in terms of puzzle difficulty — not nearly as challenging as those at Lollapuzzoola or The Indie 500, but increasingly just as experimental and inventive — while still remaining engaging.

It’s the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the tournament.

Can’t wait to see what they cook up for us next year.


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Two Upcoming Crossword Tournaments for Summer 2019!

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If you’re a crossword solver, the next few weeks will have loads of opportunities for you to show off your puzzly chops and meet some fellow cruciverbalists!

Next weekend, the third annual edition of the BosWords crossword tournament will be running on Sunday, July 28th from noon to 5 PM!

With three divisions to choose from — Red Sox (Expert), Paw Sox (Amateur), and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels will have the opportunity to test their puzzly wits.

Tournament organizers Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb have gathered a murderer’s row of talented constructors for this year’s puzzles. The five themed puzzles in regular competition (as well as the championship final) will be constructed by Laura Braunstein, Claire Rimkus, Finn Vigeland, Ross Trudeau, Paolo Pasco, Joon Pahk, and David Quarfoot.

You can click here for more information!

But that’s not all…

Just a few weeks later, the twelfth edition of Lollapuzzoola will be held in New York City on Saturday, August 17th from 10 AM to 4 PM!

Yes, the greatest crossword puzzle tournament ever held on a Saturday in August returns once again to challenge solvers with some of the most innovative and creative crosswords of the year.

Tickets for solo competitors (Express for top solvers, Local for average solvers, and Rookie for newcomers) and Pairs Division are available here (as well as the at-home division for solvers who cannot attend).

And for those who reach the top of mountain, “winners in each division are awarded prizes, which could range from a box of used pencils to a brand new car. So far, no one has ever won a car.”

Are you planning on attending either BosWords or Lollapuzzoola (or maybe both)? Or will you be solving either from home? Let us know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!


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The BosWords Crossword Tournament Returns Soon!

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Sunday, July 28th, from 11 AM to 5 PM, puzzlers from all over will gather at The Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury, Massachusetts for the third edition of the BosWords Tournament, and registration opens this Saturday, June 22nd!

With three divisions to choose from — Red Sox (Expert), Paw Sox (Amateur), and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels will have the opportunity to test their puzzly wits.

Tournament organizers Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb have gathered a murderer’s row of talented constructors for this year’s puzzles. The five themed puzzles in regular competition (as well as the championship final) will be constructed by Laura Braunstein, Claire Rimkus, Finn Vigeland, Ross Trudeau, Paolo Pasco, Joon Pahk, and David Quarfoot.

BosWords is asking for $25 for adults, $25 for pairs, and $10 for students to attend and compete, which is a real bargain!.

You can check out the BosWords website for full details!

Will you be attending the BosWords tournament, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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