Putting Clever Cluing to the Test?

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As a puzzler, there are few article titles that serve as more efficient clickbait than “6 CHALLENGING CROSSWORD PUZZLE CLUES THAT WILL LEAVE YOU CLUELESS,” so when I saw that title, fellow puzzlers, you know I clicked.

This article by the crew at Wealth Words claims to offer “the trickiest clues that have ever existed.” That is quite a bold statement. Shall we try our luck and see how we do?


Now, before we start, it’s worth noting that we’re at a huge disadvantage here, because any clue, easy or tough, can be made easier if you know some of the letters in the word thanks to words in the grid you’ve already placed that cross this particular entry. We don’t have any of those helper letters, so we’re going to have to rely solely on our sharp wits, wordplay skills, and love of punnery.

Okay, let’s get to it.

Clue #1: Leaning column? (9 letters)

Most crossword fans know that a question mark virtually always means there’s wordplay afoot, so you know you can’t take this clue at face value, which means anything relating to Pisa is probably out. If you focus on “leaning,” that could take you anywhere from Jenga to drunkenness, so let’s play with “column.” Other columns appear in graphs, Excel files, and newspapers.

A-ha. Newspaper column. And some of those “lean” to either the left or the right, depending on the author. This train of thought leads us to the intended answer OPED PIECE.

Grade: A- (It’s a solid clue where the answer doesn’t necessarily immediately jump out at you, but makes total sense once you’ve puzzled it out.)

Clue #2: Strips in a club (5 letters)

[Now, to be fair, “club” was capitalized in the clue on the webpage, but I felt like that was misleading, so I fixed it here. After all, capitalization can be used to great effect in crafty cluing — particularly if you conceal the capital word by making it the first word in the clue, which is always capitalized regardless — but here, it becomes an unnecessary red herring.]

This one is slightly harder, because you don’t immediately get the hint that there’s wordplay involved, since there’s no question mark.

This is one of my favorite kinds of clever cluing, the sort where our preconceived notions of word forms works against us. (Also, it sounds naughty, but isn’t, which I also quite enjoy.) At first glance here, the phrasing makes it sound like “strips” is a verb, when it’s really a plural noun.

And once you get into that mindset, you realize that we’re not talking about that kind of club, and the intended answer emerges: BACON.

Grade: A (Misdirection plus a tongue-in-cheek bit of lewdness? Great stuff.)

Clue #3: Group of crows (6 letters)

I have no idea how this one made it onto the list. Anyone who knows their animal groupings knows that a group of crows is a MURDER. There’s no tricky cluing or misdirection here, just something that might not be in the common knowledge. (But again, I think people are more likely to come up with this one that “exaltation of larks,” “smack of jellyfish,” or “parliament of owls.”)

Grade: D- (Could be difficult for some solvers, but only for unfamiliarity, not style.)

Clue #4: “Yep, perfectly clear” (7 letters)

Okay, this one has quotations around it, which both means it’s a spoken line and it’s likely non-standard, so you won’t find it in a dictionary. It’s probably a phrase, and used in casual conversation.

The answer, as it turns out, is I HEAR YA, which I don’t think any solver would come up with unless they had a few crossing letters filled in for them. The slangy spelling of YA and the informal wording altogether pretty much precludes this from being a “see-it-and-get-it” sorta clue.

Grade: C

Clue #5: [Boo-Hoo] (5 letters)

Brackets are used less commonly than quotation marks or question marks in crossword clue, so it’s more likely that a casual solver wouldn’t immediately recognize what to do with this clue. Usually, brackets indicate this is a non-traditional clue, either making an oblique reference to something or indicating it’s a non-verbal clue like a cough.

In this case, this is meant to be the actual sound of someone crying or something of that nature. So it could be something informal like CRYIN’ or TEARS (as opposed to the more traditional “in tears”) or something like that.

As it turns out, they were looking for I’M SAD. Which is pretty blah. It’s not a standard phrase, and comes off as a cheaply constructed way out of a bad corner, not a solid bit of fill to keep the puzzle interesting.

Grade: F

Clue #6: They come in last (3 letters)

This clue is fairly tough, because it’s both vaguely worded and has a curious letter count. It’s plural phrasing (with “they”), so that immediately makes you want to tack an S onto the end of the word. But it’s also such a short entry that a two-letter word plus S doesn’t seem to fit the clue.

So what comes in last? “End” would fit, if not for the plural phrasing. “P.S.” comes in last, but “P.S.’S” is really clunky, and I don’t recall ever seeing that pluralized.

So what were they looking for? XYZ. Ah. Alphabet entries. You’ll usually see entries like this centering around the first three letters (ABC) or a random string (“RST” seems to come up more often than most), and XYZ certainly fits the bill. But, in the end, it’s not a real entry, and it feels a little cheap, despite the decent wordplay involved in the cluing.

Grade: C-


So, what did I think of the Wealth Words “6 CHALLENGING CROSSWORD PUZZLE CLUES THAT WILL LEAVE YOU CLUELESS” challenge?

I thought it started off very strong with two clever, slippery clues that required you to play with the words and come at them from several angles before stumbling upon the correct solution, and I quite enjoyed those clues.

But the quiz took a real nose dive in quality starting with Clue #3, which had no wordplay at all. #4 and #5 relied heavily on being slangy non-standard verbiage rather than adept cluing or creative fill, and #6 was a bit of a cop-out, even if the cluing quality rebounded nicely.

All in all, I thought the specious entries outweighed the clever cluing on display early on, making for an underwhelming set of clues.

Final grade: C+.

What did you think of these group of challenging clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Did you enjoy them or find them wanting? Let us know in the comment section below, we’d love to hear from you!


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Puzzles and Brain Health: Finally Some Definitive Data?

For years now, brain health and puzzle-solving have been intertwined topics.

There have been many, MANY published studies touting all sorts of effects, both positive and negative, of solving puzzles. Alongside those studies, there have been numerous products of a puzzly nature that claim to do everything from improving memory to staving off Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other debilitating conditions.

I’ve been reading articles on the subject for more than six years now, and the results, for the most part, have been inconclusive. This is often due to small sample sizes for the experimental data, or evidence that leads to likelihoods rather than verifiable, repeatable, reliable data.

Across all of these articles, there are essentially three suppositions:

  • A. Solving puzzles helps maintain or improve brain function
  • B. Specific “brain-training” exercises, programs, or products help maintain or improve brain function more so than traditional/unfocused puzzle solving
  • C. Solving puzzles (whether traditional or “brain-training”) helps stave off conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and memory loss later in life

When it comes to Supposition B, I’ve yet to see anything that proves a “brain-training” or “brain-boosting” puzzle regimen actually helps in a meaningful way. In fact, at one point, one of these “brain-training” companies had to pay a two-million-dollar fine for making promises that their program couldn’t verifiably deliver on.

[Image courtesy of SharpBrains.com.]

But let’s leave that nonsense aside for a moment and focus on Supposition A, the idea that solving puzzles is good for the brain.

For the first time, we have a study performed by a reputable organization with a sample size large enough that it may finally allow us to draw some decent conclusions. Two articles published this month in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry have concluded that adults age 50 and older who regularly solve puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku have better brain function than those who do not.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Exeter, involved a test group of more than 19,000 participants.

From an article on Science Daily discussing the study:

Researchers asked participants in the PROTECT study . . . to report how frequently they engage in word and number puzzles and undertake a series of cognitive tests sensitive to measuring changes in brain function. They found that the more regularly participants engaged with the puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory.

From their results, researchers calculate that people who engage in word puzzles have brain function equivalent to ten years younger than their age, on tests assessing grammatical reasoning, and eight years younger than their age on tests measuring short term memory.

Yes, this is only one study, and yes, obviously more testing and sampling is needed to apply this to the millions upon millions of folks age 50 and older who might benefit from this. But it’s worth giving this topic deep consideration. A sample size of 19,000 is impressive, and there’s no profit or “brain-training” scam behind the study.

And, regarding Supposition C, while this study didn’t offer anything definitive, it remains a possibility. Dr. Anne Corbett of the University of Exeter Medical School said, “We can’t say that playing these puzzles necessarily reduces the risk of dementia in later life but this research supports previous findings that indicate regular use of word and number puzzles helps keep our brains working better for longer.”

How much longer, who can say? But, when it comes to better brain health, it seems we can finally say that puzzles are good for you. (I always suspected.)


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TableTop Day 2019: PuzzleNation Style!

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International TableTop Day is one of our favorite days of the year around here! Whether you play board games, role-playing games, card games, dice games, puzzles, or logic games, this is the holiday for you, family, and friends to come together and play games.

As we discussed in a previous post, there has been some controversy surrounding the date of TableTop Day this year, so we decided to celebrate our own in-house TableTop Day last Tuesday!

For the seventh year in a row, we put aside some time to indulge in some puzzles and games with our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, and as always, it was a delight. Games were played, snacks were consumed, and fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers were introduced to some terrific games.

For our TableTop Day event, we focus on quick-play games and games for 2 to 4 players, since that allows people the opportunity to try several games without taking too big a bite out of the workday. Not only that, but with smaller groups or 1-on-1 games, it’s easier to introduce someone to a game and really get into the mechanics and gameplay swiftly.

[The spread of games available for the event. Can you name them all?]

As usual, the event started with people picking out their favorites and introducing new players to the game. Quarto was immediately snatched up, and I played several rounds of Tak with a newcomer to the game who really enjoyed the board game’s strategy, simplicity, and elegant design.

At another table, several rounds of the quick-play pattern-matching card game Loonacy marked a fast-paced and chaotic start to the day’s festivities for new players and familiar faces alike.

A few games of the British History edition of Timeline soon followed, as well as new players trying out the labyrinth-building challenge of The Abandons, which quickly proved both difficult and addictive for one particular celebrant. One-player puzzles like Puzzometry and Knot Dice were also popular.

We concluded our celebration of gaming and community in suitably epic fashion with a round of Exploding Kittens. The players bravely tried to avert and avoid the catastrophes induced by various adorable, oblivious, combustible cats, and it made for a fun, silly ending to another terrific event.

People got to blow off some steam, try some new games, and enjoy some snacks. What more can you ask for? All in all, we definitely call that a success!

[Naturally, people waited with baited breath to see who won our raffle AND this terrific bundle of games and goodies!]

So, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, do you celebrate International Tabletop Day? Let us know in the comment section! We’d love to hear from you!


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View a Clue: Crosswordese Answers!

Last week, we brought back one of our trickiest recurring features, the View a Clue game!

If you recall, we selected ten words that commonly show up in crossword grids — frequently and infamously enough that they’ve becomes crosswordese at this point —  to see if the PuzzleNation audience could identify them from pictures.

Without further ado, let’s get to it!


#1 (3 letters)

Answer: SST, aka supersonic transport

#2 (5 letters)

Answer: AERIE, a high nest for a bird of prey

#3 (3 letters)

Answer: TAW, a large marble used as a shooter

#4 (4 letters)

Answer: SERF, a medieval laborer bound to serving a feudal lord

#5 (5 letters)

Answer: AIOLI, mayonnaise flavored with garlic

#6 (4 letters)

Answer: YEGG, a safecracker

#7 (5 letters)

Answer: SABOT, a wooden shoe worn in European countries

#8 (4 letters)

Answer: OGEE, a pointed arch or molding in an S-shape

#9 (4 letters)

Answer: APSE, a semicircular vaulted area of a church

#10 (3 letters)

Answer: ELL, a building extension added at a right angle to the main building


How did you do? Let us know in the comments below!

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View a Clue: Crosswordese Edition!

Welcome to the latest edition of one of PuzzleNation Blog’s most visual features: the View a Clue game!

I’ve selected ten words that commonly show up in crossword grids — frequently and infamously enough that they’ve becomes crosswordese at this point — and I want to see if the PuzzleNation audience can identify them from pictures. It’s a visual puzzle I call View a Clue!

Without further ado, let’s give it a shot!


#1 (3 letters)

#2 (5 letters)

#3 (3 letters)

#4 (4 letters)

#5 (5 letters)

#6 (4 letters)

#7 (5 letters)

#8 (4 letters)

#9 (4 letters)

#10 (3 letters)


How many did you get? Let me know in the comments below! And if you have ideas for another View a Clue game, tell us below!

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Our Annual TableTop Tournament: Recap!

We wrapped up our fourth annual in-house tabletop tournament last week, and as you probably expected, it was loaded with all sorts of board game goodness.

So what went down?

Well, it was a 12-person two-week tournament with different games to play every round. With four competition days across two weeks, it was a virtual gauntlet of gaming to determine who is the best in the company.

One of the things I liked about the layout of the tournament was how there are no one-on-one match-ups until the final. Instead of a single-elimination tournament, competitors were first slotted into groups of three. Each group of three played two games, and the two winners (one from each game) from each trio moved on to the next round.

So to survive round 1, you had to win either Timeline or On the Dot.

In the first bracket, former champ Kevin and last year’s defending champ Nikki moved on. In the second bracket, yours truly was bested in On the Dot by newcomer Ryan AND in Timeline by perennial top contender Rick. In the third bracket, Gordon and Sam moved on in impressive fashion. And in the fourth bracket, former champ Jen and newcomer Laura each earned a spot in the next round.

So right away, all three former champs were in the running, along with some new blood and some tough competition with tabletop experience. This was shaping up to be one heck of a tournament.


Round 2 began the following Thursday, and this time around, competitors were slotted into groups of four. Each group of four played two games, and the two winners (one from each game) moved on to the next round.

So to survive round 2, you had to win either Noueni or Guillotine.

Guillotine is a card game for 2 to 5 players set during the French revolution. As the royals are marched to the guillotine in one big line, you play cards in order to switch the royals around so that the most valuable royals are beheaded on your turn, adding their scores to your pile. (You can also manipulate the hands of the other players by forcing them to give you cards or discard them.)

Played over three rounds, the player with the highest score (i.e. the most valuable royals beheaded) wins.

Noueni is a card game for 2 to 4 players that involves pattern-matching, color-based scoring, and cards that can either overlap or sit next to other cards. Your score is determined by how many of your scoring orbs are on the board at the end of the game.

Each card has two colored scoring orbs and a pattern of black lines emerging from them. Those lines are the connectors, and they determine how the cards are placed in the play area. Any card played must link up with the other cards on the board, whether there’s zero, one, two, or three connectors along that neighboring edge.

Noueni was a new experience for all of the players, though it is similar to Qwirkle, which the competitors had played before.

All of the players quickly took to Guillotine, deftly maneuvering valuable royals into their score piles. Noueni proved to be a tougher play experience, as many players devoted so much time to covering up the colored orbs of other players that they neglected to play simpler moves to add colored orbs to their own scores. Too much defense can be a bad thing if it hinders your offense.

In the end, four more players were eliminated from the field, including the first two tournament champions. After this colorful round of play, only Rick, Gordon, Laura, and returning champ Nikki remained.


Round 3 began the following Tuesday, and the remaining players were collected into one final group of four. But they would all play the same game, and the top two point-scorers would move on to the finals.

The game for round 3? Sheriff of Nottingham.

Sheriff of Nottingham is a card game that mixes strategy, resource management, and bluffing. The players collect cards with different goods to take to market — apples, chickens, bread, and cheese — as well as cards of contraband items (like spices, mead, and weapons). Each of these cards is worth points, and the contraband goods are worth more than the legal goods. Of course, the contraband goods are illegal, so if you’re caught bringing them to market, there’s a penalty.

And, unfortunately, in order to get your goods (legal or otherwise) to market, you have to get past the Sheriff.

For example, in a four-player game, let’s say the first player is the Sheriff. The other three players will each place up to five cards in their bag, then snap it shut, and declare what’s inside to the Sheriff. A player may be telling the truth about the contents of her bag, or she may be lying. The Sheriff can choose to either let a bag pass through unchecked or open and inspect the contents of any bag.

Anything that gets through the Sheriff goes into your market stand and is worth points at the end of the game. If the Sheriff chooses to check your bag, one of two things happens. If you were honest about what’s in the bag, the Sheriff pays you the value of those items. If you lied about the contents of your bag and the Sheriff catches you, you must pay him a penalty, and any contraband goods in the bag are seized.

Of course, you can always negotiate with the Sheriff before the bag is opened. Bribes (of coin, product, or favors) can be offer, and deals can be made.

Once the Sheriff has either let the players’ bags through or finished the inspections, everyone settles their goods in the marketplace, the next player takes over as Sheriff, and the cycle starts again.

The game ends after every player has been the Sheriff twice. Then the players count up the value of everything they’ve brought to market — including any contraband they’ve snuck through — as well as their coin piles. (Plus, there are bonus points to be gained if you brought the most of any product to market. For instance, the person who brought the most apples is King of Apples, and the person who brought the second-most is Queen of Apples. Both titles are worth points.)

Once starting coins and cards were allotted to each player (plus a few coins extra to encourage wheeling-and-dealing/bribery), the game commenced. In the end, only two of the four players at the table would be moving on to the finals. What combination of Nikki, Rick, Gordon, and Laura would face off for the championship?

As it turned out, a game all about duplicity can be won with transparency. In this cutthroat round, honesty reigned supreme as most players opted to avoid contraband and move only legal goods through the Sheriff to market. Rick, as the most suspicious Sheriff, ended up paying some hefty fines to players whose bags he checked.

(Personally, I probably would have cut a deal with one of the other players and promised to allow whatever they wanted through when I was Sheriff, in exchange for the same treatment from them. That way, you could move a LOT of valuable contraband one round, and play it safe the other rounds. But I am nefarious that way.)

After a tense game, the judges swooped in to count everyone’s haul, and the players stepped away from the table to enjoy some marvelous cookies and treats provided by the judges… and await their fate.

In the end, Nikki and Gordon had accumulated the top two scores, and they would be moving on to the finals.

Or would they? In the end, there was one more wrinkle!

It turns out that Laura had forgotten to empty her bag of goods in the last go-round, and with her additional contraband, she had outearned Gordon! Shock and heartbreak!

It would instead be Nikki and Laura in the finals.

Now, given that this was our fourth annual tournament, we’d finally amassed some proper stats and trivia regarding the event. You see, not only had no previous champion ever repeated as champion, but no previous champion had ever made it to the finals again!

So already, Nikki had set a new precedent as the only previous champion to return to the finals. Would she be our first repeat champion (back-to-back, even!) or would we have our fourth new champion in four years as the newcomer Laura ascended to the throne?

Let’s find out.


Unlike the previous rounds, this was a head-to-head match-up, winner-take-all. So, naturally, we made posters to hype the event like a prizefight.

And to survive round 4, the finalists would need some help from the audience, as they played a round of the card game Cult Following.

Cult Following is a card-based improvisation game, similar to Superfight, wherein you have to draw several cards that dictate what your cult is about, and then improvise your answers to various questions posed by the other players, who are potential recruits for your cult. Once the round of questions is over, the potential recruits vote on which of the cults they’d rather join, and the cult with the most recruits wins.

To make the task even more daunting, both players had to stand in front of the audience and plead their case.

Nikki’s cult centered around saving the planet from toxic waste (and yes, she did acknowledge the possibility that you might gain superpowers from said toxic waste). Laura’s cult centered around the magical ability to transform yourself into any animal you wished.

Although many potential recruits in the audience were wowed by this idea, I couldn’t get past the very real danger that you could end up as prey rather than simply enjoying life as an animal.

After answering questions from the audience about recruitment, rules, cult theme songs, and more, both competitors turned their backs to the audience so the audience members could vote for the cult of their choice.

Nikki made a valiant effort to retain her crown, but unfortunately, the cards were not in her favor, and more potential recruits opted for Laura’s were-cult. (Not me, though. I was a toxic avenger all the way.)

And thus, Laura dethroned the previous champion in impressive fashion to become the new tabletop tournament champion!

The traditional crown, scepter, and Game Night Gift Pack awaited the new champion, as did an enthusiastic round of applause and a well-earned chance to sit down after the fierce improvisational back-and-forth.

Alas, we must bring this marvelous recap to a close. With a new queen atop the tabletop throne, what will her reign be like? Peaceful? Warlike? Boastful? Quiet? Only time will tell.


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