The Floor Is Not to Be Trusted.

We love optical illusions here at PuzzleNation Blog. They’re puzzles for the eye, mind-bending ways that our senses can be tricked by clever manipulators of color, angle, and perspective.

And if you’re looking for visual trickery in flooring, look no further than the tile wizards at Casa Ceramica, a UK flooring manufacturer that decided to kill two birds with one stone. (Well, more like many tiles than one stone, but I digress.)

Supposedly, they had a problem with people running down the hallway to their store, and wanted to dissuade such shenanigans.

So they created an optical illusion to make it look like the floor was more treacherous than it really is. That way, ne’er-do-wells would be forced to slow down for their own “safety.”

And not only are they making their place safer, but they’re showing off their impressive skills while they do so! It’s a win-win.

What do you think, fellow puzzlers? Will it work? Or is it just a clever marketing scheme to draw attention to their topnotch tile skills?

Although I firmly believe it’s just an ingenious way to get the word out about their company, they’re not wrong in thinking that this sort of thing could dissuade rambunctious types. Other designers and stores have employed similar trickery in the past.

I mean, if you were trying to get across this floor, would you risk running?

I think not.


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5 Questions with Crossword Constructor Joanne Sullivan

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Joanne Sullivan as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

[Joanne stands beside fellow constructor Tracy Bennett at this year’s Indie 500 tournament.]

Joanne is a terrific constructor whose puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous other outlets. One of her puzzles is now featured on The New York Times‘ Wordplay Blog as one of their 11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers (each hand-picked by Will Shortz). Her puzzle with Erik Agard at the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, “Do I Hear a Waltz?”, was one of my favorite crosswords last year.

She often spends her time teaching crossword classes, spreading not only the love of crossword construction and wordplay to others, but hard-won knowledge and experience from a fun and innovative constructor.

Joanne was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Joanne Sullivan

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I’ve enjoyed a variety of puzzles and games ever since I can remember, but I had avoided crossword puzzles for decades. When I was a young adult, I would occasionally take a stab at The Sunday New York Times crossword and would manage to get only a couple of answers after reading every single clue. I was amazed that my father could routinely complete the whole puzzle. I didn’t aspire to match his achievement because I thought that crosswords were filled with useless, arcane information.

When I subscribed to GAMES Magazine, I solved all the puzzles in it except for the crosswords because I had the mistaken assumption that all crosswords were dry and boring. I now realize that I missed out on a lot of fun. The high-quality crosswords in GAMES were part of the new wave of puzzles that were filled with current references and lively phrases.

Many years later an office mate encouraged a group of our fellow coworkers to solve The New York Times crossword together each weekday. I never really enjoyed the computer programming work that I was supposed to be focusing on so I welcomed the diversion. I immediately was surprised at how clever and entertaining the crosswords were.

Like the character in Green Eggs and Ham, I learned that I actually liked the nourishment that I had assumed would be distasteful. In the beginning, my coworkers would pass around the newspaper, and we’d each fill in an answer or two until we managed to complete the whole puzzle. We relied heavily on Google by the time we got to Friday. Solving late week puzzles without help seemed like an impossible dream, but before long that dream became a reality.

[One of Joanne’s New York Times-published puzzles. This one makes excellent use of the black squares by incorporating some of them into the themed entries.
Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

I personally love puzzles with inventive, tricky themes and clues. Crosswords have been around for a long time so it’s hard to come up with a new theme or a tricky clue that misdirects the solver in a different way. Even new themes and clues tend to be variations on something that has been done before so I appreciate crosswords that are truly original.

What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own?

Here are crossword constructing tasks in descending order of my preference:

  • Coming up with a theme and finding answers that fit it.
  • Writing clues / Arranging the black and white squares in the grid. (Two very different tasks that I find equally enjoyable.)
  • Filling the grid with non-theme answers.
  • Adding new words to my database of potential crossword answers and rating those words in order of desirability.

Maintaining a good database of potential crossword answers can greatly facilitate crossword construction, but I find database maintenance time-consuming and dreary so I avoid it. I try to rationalize my negligence by telling myself that it’s impossible to add words and assign values to them that will be valid for all audiences.

For example, the word UGLY would be a perfectly fine answer in any mainstream newspaper, but I would try to avoid including it in a personalized puzzle that I was making as a birthday gift because I wouldn’t want the recipient to interpret it as an insult. But deep down I know that my rationalization isn’t valid, and I’m just too lazy to properly maintain my database.

What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?

I think some new constructors might settle for mediocrity instead of pushing themselves to achieve more. I’ve heard that some constructors are afraid to arrange the black and white squares in a grid from scratch. They’ll only use sample grids that they copy from a crossword database. It might take a lot of trial and error, but you’ll probably come up with a better grid if you try to arrange the squares in a way that best suits your theme answers instead of grabbing a prefab grid. I’ll often experiment with dozens of different grid designs before choosing one that fits my theme answers best.

Constructors might also be satisfied with so-so fill (which are the non-theme answers) or clues. I can understand the urge to leave well enough alone, especially when submitting puzzles on spec. It can be really frustrating to spend a lot of time coming up with stellar fill and clues only to be told that your puzzle was dead on arrival because the editor didn’t like the theme. Instead of compromising their standards, constructors might try to seek out the few editors who are willing to preapprove themes. Or they may emulate the many excellent indie constructors who publish their puzzles on their own websites.

[A puzzle, mid-construction. Images courtesy of Crossdown.]

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?

It’s hard to pick favorites because I’ve solved so many great puzzles and clues over the years so I’ll be self-centered and mention three of my own puzzles.

My Tuesday, February 23, 2010 New York Times crossword will always be close to my heart because it was my first published puzzle. Will Shortz picked it as one of the “11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers,” but novices shouldn’t feel bad if they find it difficult. Most solvers found it harder than an average Tuesday puzzle.

Another special crossword is “Contents Redacted,” which The Chronicle of Higher Education published on October 16, 2015. I’m very grateful to Brad Wilber and Frank Longo for polishing it and working hard to present it in a way that stayed true to my vision. I also appreciate pannonica whose review on the Crossword Fiend blog was clearer and more insightful than any description that I could have written.

(Speaking of blogs, kudos to PuzzleNation Blog, CrosswordFiend, and similar blogs for helping us appreciate puzzles! Thanks for helping us understand the strengths and weaknesses of puzzles you review, explaining tricky themes and clues, and keeping us informed of news such as puzzle tournaments.)

One of my most satisfying experiences was co-writing “Do I Hear a Waltz?” with Erik Agard for the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament. Working with Erik was a joy. He’s brilliant and extremely kind. You should interview him next!

One great thing about making a puzzle for a tournament was having the flexibility to make an odd-sized grid that best suited our theme. I find that tournament puzzles are often very creative, perhaps because the constructors don’t have the same editorial and size constraints that they do at most other venues. Some of my favorite puzzles came from The Indie 500 and Lollapuzzoola crossword tournaments.

As a solver, my favorite clues are the ones that make me think, “What on earth can this mean?” One recent clue that gave me that reaction came from Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 9/20/17 AV Club crossword (which is titled “The Lay of the Land”). At first, I couldn’t make sense of the clue [Like slightly firm elbows, e.g.] When I read it, I thought, “What the heck is a slightly firm elbow? … Hmm … AKIMBO doesn’t fit … Hmm …” Eventually I achieved a great aha moment — AL DENTE!

I also love clues that put a fresh spin on old crosswordese or teach me interesting pieces of trivia. I find that The Chronicle of Higher Education and Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords are particularly strong in that regard.

[Joanne poses with members of a crossword seminar,
showing off prizes from our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles.]

4. What’s next for Joanne Sullivan?

I’m currently focusing on giving crossword puzzle seminars. For years I had mistakenly assumed that crosswords were boring and impossible to solve. Now I enjoy showing skeptics how fun crosswords can be and giving people tips that help them improve their solving skills. I love hearing from novices who tell me that I inspired them to start solving crosswords and veteran solvers who say that my tips helped them tackle more difficult puzzles.

I recently taught my first children’s classes and was blown away by the kids’ intelligence and enthusiasm. I’m so glad those children caught the puzzle bug early and didn’t waste decades avoiding crosswords as I did.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Read Patrick Berry’s PDF publication Crossword Constructor’s Handbook. The former print version of that book (Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies) taught me more about constructing crosswords than any other source.

Cruciverbalists might find the information about crossword construction interesting even if they don’t aspire to create puzzles themselves. The book includes 70 crosswords by Patrick Berry (who many crossword aficionados consider the preeminent crossword constructor) so it’s worth the $10 for the puzzles alone.


A huge thank you to Joanne for her time. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles and her crossword seminars!

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Getting Started with Crosswords

We spend a lot of time talking about crosswords here on PuzzleNation Blog, and rightfully so.

For more than a century now, crosswords have been the standard-bearer for paper-and-pencil puzzles. From your local paper to The New York Times crossword, from online solving to puzzle apps like our very own Penny Dell Crosswords App, crosswords sit comfortably at the apex of the proverbial puzzle mountain, atop worthy also-rans like word searches, cryptograms, and Sudoku.

[Apparently Puzzle Mountain is actually a place. Who knew?]

But in talking about crosswords, it’s easy to forget that not everyone solves them. In fact, plenty of people find them intimidating, given the mix of trivia, wordplay, and tricky cluing that typify many crosswords these days, particularly in outlets like The New York Times, The LA Times, The Guardian, and more.

So today, I thought I’d offer some helpful resources to solvers just getting started with crosswords.

First off, if you need help filling in troublesome letter patterns, Onelook is an excellent resource. Not only can you search for words that fit various patterns, but you can narrow your searches according to cluing, look up definitions and synonyms, and even hunt down phrases and partial phrases.

Along the same lines, there are websites like Crossword Tracker that offer informal cluing help culled from online databases. For something more formal, there’s XWordInfo, an online database of entries and cluing that also serves as an archive of NYT puzzles you can search for a small fee.

The NYT Wordplay Blog chronicles each day’s puzzle, including insights into the theme, key entries, and more, plus they’ve begun amassing helpful articles about crossword solving. Not only are there sample puzzles to download and solve to get you started, but there are lists of opera terms, rivers, and sports names to know to make you a stronger solver.

And if British-style or cryptic crosswords are your puzzle of choice, look no further than The Guardian‘s Crossword Blog, which frequently posts about various cluing tricks employed by crafting cryptic puzzle setters. Their “Cryptic Crosswords for Beginners” series of posts has discussed all sorts of linguistic trickery, covering everything from the NATO alphabet to elementary chemistry.

For other variety puzzles, our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles offer sample puzzles and helpful solving tips for many of the puzzles in their magazines. For example, you can find a sample Kakuro or Cross Sums puzzle on the page for their Dell Collector’s Series Cross Sums puzzle book, as well as a How to Solve PDF.

Is there a particular puzzle that troubles you, or one you find too intimidating to tackle, fellow puzzlers? If so, let us know! We can either point you toward a solving resource or tackle the puzzle ourselves in a future post to provide helpful solving tips!


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A long time ago, in a corn maze far, far away…

Corn mazes are a wonderful puzzly tradition synonymous with the arrival of Fall and the end of Summer.

And one particular corn maze in Evansville, Indiana, has captured the attention of the masses with one lifelong Star Wars fan’s tribute to Carrie Fisher, the actress who portrayed Princess Leia Organa, who sadly passed away last year.

The maze was designed by Jeremy Goebel of Goebel Farms, who has been responsible for planning and executing corn maze designs as part of his duties on the farm — he’s been there 16 years! His previous maze designs include Darth Vader, the film The Force Awakens, and the starship USS Enterprise from the Star Trek series.

Each design is quite time-consuming to bring to life. Planting the Carrie Fisher design took 40 minutes — amazingly fast, courtesy of a tractor computer and GPS coordinates — and the initial plan dates back to February.

From an article in The Evansville Courier & Press:

The process used to be much more labor-intensive. The first year the Goebel family decided to make a corn maze they cut the rows by hand in mid-August, when the corn was tall and strong.

“It was not a great time to make a maze,” he said.

The second year they cut out the design earlier. The process involved a lot of guesswork. Goebel had to measure out the pathways in the field as he went.

“The third year we started using GPS,” Goebel said.

The maze is now open to the public for their enjoyment. As both a Star Wars fan and a maze enthusiast, this is the perfect puzzly way to combine those worlds in a satisfying fashion for all.

Do you know of any other dazzling corn mazes that will be challenging fellow puzzlers this Autumn, PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Brad Hough’s The Maze

Mazes are nothing new to even the most casual solver. Whether it’s a puzzle collection, a place mat at a chain restaurant, or a coloring book loaded with time-filling activities, we’ve all traced a path through a maze with pencil, crayon, or marker.

But in most paper-and-pencil mazes, we look down on the map from above, so we have the advantage of perspective, the ability to spot dead-ends ahead of time, the opportunity to make wiser choices with more information.

As anyone who has ever tackled a corn maze will tell you, maze navigation is far more challenging when you’re inside the puzzle itself, rather than observing it from a bird’s-eye view.

And that’s what makes Brad Hough’s The Maze series of puzzle books something different and far more challenging: they’re mazes designed from the first person perspective. You must imagine yourself walking through this maze, selecting each turn and hoping it will lead you to the promised land.

It’s a marvelous concept, offered in a variety of difficulty levels according to the size of the maze:

  • Easy is a grid of 5 rooms by 5 rooms.
  • Normal is a grid of 7×7.
  • Moderate is 9×9, Challenging is 12×12, and Intense is 15×15.

As you make your choices, you’ll flip to different pages in the book, just as you would in a Choose Your Own Adventure-style story, maneuvering your way to either a dead-end (forcing you to turn back) or your desired exit.

But those are the only decisions you’ll make. There are no monsters to slay or traps to navigate, as there are in labyrinths in Dungeons & Dragons. There are no moral conundrums to unravel, as in Choose Your Own Adventure books. There is simply The Maze… and you. This is bare bones storytelling designed as both a pure puzzle-solving experience and as a blank skeleton upon which you can built your own story.

There are no tricks or endless loops to wander into. This is a fair challenge meant to be unraveled by crafty minds with excellent spacial skills.

Although The Maze lacks the frills of many other labyrinth-style puzzles, it does a marvelous job of portraying the sort of blindness and trepidation that comes with actually residing within a maze, knowing that each choice is more crucial the farther you venture forth.

The Maze (in various sizes) is available from Amazon and other online retailers.


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What Makes a Thing a Thing in Crosswords?

A few months ago, there was a debate amongst the solvers and readers of The Guardian’s Crossword Blog concerning which words are fair entry fodder for crosswords.

It started with this comment on a post about cluing the entry WHITE KNIGHT:

I wonder if all the clues that are giving some sort of synonym for a chess piece are quite playing fair (including my own). Obviously, it’s a chess piece, but it wouldn’t be in a crossword because it’s a chess piece. If I solved a puzzle and found BLACK PAWN to be one of the solutions I’d feel a bit miffed.

I asked Penny Press Editorial Director Warren Rivers about this very subject, and he mentioned that WHITE KNIGHT would cause him no issue — it reminded him of this Ajax commercial — but an entry like WHITE ROOK would be a problem, because it’s not a standalone concept (as far as he is aware).

It’s an intriguing discussion, all centering around arbitrariness. Should the determining factor of “crossword worthiness” be whether the entry can be found in a dictionary or another reputable source, like Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable? Does a textbook definition make a thing a thing?

Not necessarily, as slang, phrases, partial phrases, and anecdotal entries make it into puzzles all the time.

In the Lollapuzzoola puzzles we looked at recently, entries like ONE-NIL, NASCAR DAD, SIREE (as in “no siree”), NO REST (as in “for the wicked”), and TELL ME THIS all appeared as answers in grids. Would you accept all of these as fair entries? Most of these wouldn’t pass muster in Penny Press puzzles.

The partial phrase, of course, opens up an entirely different can of worms. For instance, would you be upset to see “At a ____” cluing LOSS? Probably not. But what about “At ____” cluing ALOSS? Maybe so, maybe not.

Where do you stand on this issue, fellow puzzlers? Is there a particular cluing or entry style that bugs you? Do you have an example of something that made it into a puzzle recently that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny?

Or does nothing come to mind? If so, does that mean the issue doesn’t bother you at all as a solver?

Either way, let us know in the comments below!


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