The Best Puzzle Solvers in Horror Movies

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[Image courtesy of Hayden Scott.]

Seven Halloweens have come and gone since I started writing for PuzzleNation Blog, and with an eighth one only a few days away, I’m writing a post about horror movies for the very first time.

Why did I wait so long, given the appropriate seasonal subject and the fact that I’m a huge horror movie buff?

Honestly, it’s mostly a matter of tone.

Horror movies by their very nature confront some fairly dark subjects. Fears, uncomfortable situations, horrific monsters, terrible villains, and no small amount of violence are part and parcel of the genre. And although I have discussed movies or TV shows with death in the past, it’s usually in the context of solving a crime in a puzzly fashion, a la Bones, NCIS: New Orleans, or the Crossword Mysteries.

I always strive to make the general tone of the blog as positive as possible, and for the most part, I don’t feel like horror movies are a good fit, no matter how puzzly some of them are (like Cube, Escape Room, and others).

So, what’s changed?

Well, I think I found a fun way to discuss the subject without dwelling on some of the less pleasant aspects of the genre.

Today, we’re celebrating the best puzzle solvers in horror cinema. These are the characters you want on your side, because they’re clever, decisive, and immensely capable. After all, most horror movies are populated with idiots who are destined to perish before the film’s conclusion.

So instead, these are the characters who break the mold.


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Nancy Thompson, A Nightmare on Elm Street

[Image courtesy of Horror Film Wiki.]

When you’re confronted with a monster who hunts people through their dreams, you have to be pretty clever to survive. After all, you have to sleep at some point. When it comes to the Elm Street franchise, they don’t come more clever than young Nancy Thompson.

Nancy discovers she has the ability to pull things from the dreamworld into the real world, and plans to use this ability to stop Freddy Krueger once and for all. She not only sets an alarm to ensure she wakes up before falling victim to Freddy in the dreamworld, but sets numerous booby traps in her house to ensnare and hurt Freddy.

Nancy is a top-notch puzzler for not only figuring out how to use her incredible ability to her advantage, but devising a plan (and a backup plan!) to save herself.

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Kirsty Cotton, Hellraiser

[Image courtesy of Wicked Horror.]

The Lament Configuration is a Rubik’s Cube-like puzzle box that opens a portal to another dimension, where monstrous beings called Cenobites promise untold delights in exchange for your soul. Unfortunately, Kirsty is a clever enough puzzler to solve the Lament Configuration and open the portal.

Thankfully, Kirsty is also clever enough to outmaneuver the Cenobites, buying herself time by realizing someone has escaped their clutches and working to save herself by finding the fugitive.

So Kirsty not only figures out the rules of monsters from another dimension and how to use them, but solves a difficult puzzle box (first opening it, then solving it in reverse to close it) in order to save herself. A pretty sharp cookie, to be sure.

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Clarice Starling, The Silence of the Lambs

[Image courtesy of SBS.]

A young FBI trainee who finds herself tangling with two serial killers — one on the loose, another in custody — Clarice Starling has to not only save a young woman kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, but do so while unraveling the word games and riddles of the devious and brilliant Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Clarice is perhaps the most overtly puzzly of our heroes, solving anagrams and figuring out the double meaning behind many of Dr. Lecter’s riddles and clues in order to get closer to stopping Buffalo Bill. Along the way, she uncovers information missed by more seasoned investigators, even managing to survive an attack by Buffalo Bill (in the dark!) and saving the kidnapped girl in the process.

If you’re ever in danger, hope that Clarice Starling is on the trail.

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Bret, Lights Out

[Image courtesy of Where’s the Jump?]

Imagine that you’re being hunted by a monster that lurks in the dark. It seems like an obvious solution to simply stay in the light, but when that monster is both intelligent and cunning, that’s a taller order than you think. Bret, along with his girlfriend Rebecca and Rebecca’s family, are being pursued by Diana, a creature who can only appear when it’s dark.

When Diana cuts power to the entire neighborhood, everyone must scramble for safety. Thankfully, the resourceful Bret is on their side, and he thwarts Diana’s attacks several times. When she knocks the flashlight from his hands and charges him, he banishes her momentarily with the brightness of his smartphone screen. As he runs for a car outside, she ambushes him from a shadow, but he escapes again by using the key fob in his pocket to activate the car’s headlights.

Effective puzzlers always make the most of the tools at their disposal, and Bret is a most effective puzzler.

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Joan Leaven, Cube

[Image courtesy of Movie Morgue Wiki.]

Sometimes, a good puzzler is plunked down in an unfamiliar situation and has to make sense of it all. (This is the premise of many an escape room or a video game, as well as the truth regarding many coded puzzles or puzzles with symbols.) The situation in Cube is like that times a thousand.

Leaven is one of six people trapped in a maze of interconnected cubical rooms, many of them booby-trapped in various ways. As a young mathematics student, Leaven is immediately intrigued by the numbers inscribed in the small passages that connect the various rooms. The group soon realizes that the rooms are shifting periodically, making the maze harder to solve.

After several theories don’t pan out, Leaven manages to unravel the pattern of the trapped rooms — realizing those rooms are related to prime numbers (specifically powers of prime numbers) — and navigates the group through the ever-shifting maze toward an exit.

The stakes may not always be as high as they were for Leaven, but she never gave up and always approached the puzzle from a fresh angle when thwarted. That’s a sign of a true puzzler.

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Michelle, 10 Cloverfield Lane

[Image courtesy of Yahoo.]

After being run off the road in an accident, Michelle wakes up in a well-stocked underground bunker. She’s been taken there by Howard, the bunker’s owner, who tells her the surface is uninhabitable and the air outside is poisoned. Michelle quickly realizes that Howard is unstable, but must bide her time before attempting to escape.

Michelle is another remarkably resourceful individual, mapping out the ventilation system in the bunker (while doing repairs), fashioning a hazmat suit out of found items, and outwitting Howard long enough to escape. (Once free, she even manages to whip up a Molotov cocktail and dispatch an unexpected threat.)

Some of the most devious puzzles are the ones where you have to figure out how to use what’s in front of you in creative ways to complete a task. Michelle has this skill in spades.

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Erin, You’re Next

[Image courtesy of The Dissolve.]

Erin joins her boyfriend at a family gathering, only for things to turn sour as masked invaders target the party’s guests. But they get more than they bargained for, as Erin quickly reveals herself as one of the most capable horror movie protagonists in the history of the genre.

Erin gathers information, sets traps, outwits the bad guys at seemingly every turn, and generally dazzles with her intelligence, tactical skill, and resourcefulness.

You know that puzzle where you have to connect all the dots in the square with only three lines, but to do so, you have to draw outside the square? That puzzle wouldn’t fool Erin for an instant. She is constantly thinking outside the box — and the house — in order to accomplish the most with the fewest moves.

Horror movies haven’t seen a puzzler like Erin before, and I almost feel bad for any bad guys who get in her way.


Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from horror movies? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!

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Virtual Reality Puzzling Takes Another Step Forward

Two years ago, we launched an April Fools Day prank involving a virtual reality version of our puzzles: PNVR.

It was great fun to both imagine how our puzzles would be reinvented by VR and to lampoon the idea of VR puzzling by creating pictures of solvers riding their bikes while wearing VR headsets, puzzling alongside interactive robotic companions, and more.

And more than a few people fell for the prank, given the explosion in VR technology when it comes to gaming and interactive entertainment experiences over the last few years.

Not only can you buy full VR rigs like the Oculus Rift system, but there are plenty of programs and peripherals available that allow you to turn your smartphone into a VR screen, immersing yourself in unusual situations and gaming scenarios.

Some video games have already embraced the technology, and more are sure to do so in the future. But it’s not just video game companies that are getting in on the VR trend.

Escape rooms are as well.

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Ubisoft (the company responsible for the Assassin’s Creed video game series) offers a series of game-inspired VR escape rooms in locations around the world.

From an advertisement for their latest room, Beyond Medusa’s Gate:

Two or four players team up and have 60 minutes to find a way out of a vast Aegean coastal cave where the legendary ship of the Argonauts is anchored. To successfully escape, players must use cooperative teamwork, problem-solving skills and precise timing to solve riddles and find their way out of this room-scale experience. Players start the adventure by choosing their avatar from among six diverse characters, and can customize them with Ancient Greek accessories.

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Although the VR environment means that the focus is more on VR action than puzzle-solving, there are several mechanical puzzles to unravel and virtual rooms to escape, either on your own or with the help of another player. From descriptions, it appears to feel more like playing a video game than conquering an escape room, but it’s still an impressive step forward in VR technology.

I wonder how far we are from being able to experience an escape room from home. Whether it’s fully immersive and you can manipulate objects or you’re simply piloting a person or robot remotely through the VR interface, I suspect we’ll see a puzzly experience like that sooner rather than later.


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A World of Puzzles and Games at Norwescon 42!

Your friendly neighborhood puzzle blogger took a trip across the country to attend Norwescon, the premiere fantasy and science fiction convention in the Pacific Northwest.

This was the 42nd edition of the convention, and if you know your sci-fi novels, then you’re not surprised that there were all sorts of references to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (The number 42 is a big part of the first novel.)

The convention’s subtitle was “Don’t Panic” (another HHGTTG reference), and lots of convention attendees were in their bathrobes or carrying towels, representing the two main characters of the series, the bathrobe-wearing Arthur Dent and the towel-toting alien tourist Ford Prefect.

As with any convention, the costuming was amazing. There were fairy godmothers, vikings, mermaids, Daleks, folks in Seahawks-colored finery (it was Seattle, after all), a Predator offering free hugs, an inflatable T-rex costume with those robotic grabber arms, and even photo ops with Krampus and Santa! (And Easter Krampus on Sunday.)

One of the oddest moments for me was seeing a group of people in uniforms I didn’t recognize, and realizing they weren’t con attendees, they were the flight crew for an international airline. (The hotel was across the street from the airport.)

Although many of the convention’s panels and events have a writerly focus, plenty of attention is also given to art, films, games, and pop culture, so there was loads for puzzle and game fans to enjoy at the event.

The dealers room — the main area to shop for costumes, books, fabric, t-shirts, memorabilia, collectibles, and more — had several game shops represented, toting loads of games at good prices. (Several of which we’ve reviewed on the Blog in the past, and some that will be reviewed in the future.)

[All hotel nooks and crannies were stuffed with thematic exhibits, including this delightful leave-a-book, take-a-book mini-library a la The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.]

Board game demos were available all day, complete with skillful players to introduce newbies to various games, as well as tabletop roleplaying adventures in all sorts of settings and systems, from Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade to Pathfinder and more. In fact, one of the gaming spaces was right down the hall from my hotel room, and it was PACKED morning ’til night with enthusiastic roleplayers telling stories, rolling dice, and battling monsters.

There were open games as well as sign-ups for specific games and adventures, including a multi-table multi-hour battle for gang supremacy in the fictional city of Waterdeep.

One of the most intriguing puzzle/game experiences available to try at the convention was Artemis.

Artemis is a spaceship bridge simulator that allows a group of players to essentially play out a Star Trek-esque adventure. Each player has instructions, controls, and a laptop in front of them, as well as a big screen for everyone to view (much like the main viewer on the bridge of the Enterprise).

Two teams, each piloting their own ship (the Artemis or the Intrepid) must battle foes, trade goods, dock with space stations, and explore the galaxy, all while maintaining their weapons, shields, energy usage in the ship, and piloting control, as well as communicating with their sister ship through headset.

I moved back and forth between the two “ships,” watching as the players navigated different challenges, cooperated (and disagreed) on command decisions, managed their resources, and ventured between the stars, all while some pretty impressive graphics tied the whole play experience together.

What really struck me about the Artemis style of play was how much communication was required for success. It is a co-op game in the same vein as Castle Panic!, Forbidden Island, or Spaceteam, but with a lot more personal responsibility. Plus the laptop interfaces for each station were slick and well-designed, bringing that polished Star Trek: The Next Generation feel home.

I was also responsible for some of the puzzliest events at the convention. Although I did participate in some panels on writing, literature, roleplaying games, and movies (both good ones and the worst of b-movies), the two events that were the main focus of my time were a LARP/scavenger hunt based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and an escape room based on Star Wars.

The HHGTTG event was built as an in-universe scavenger hunt where players (who were all expected to bring their towels, of course), had to complete five tasks. The completion of each task led to a rune for the players to record on their gamesheet. and earn five runes, then spell them out in a secret location using their towels, in order to ask an important question.

Some of the tasks included:

  • finding HHGTTG character names in a word search grid, then reading the remaining uncircled letters as a secret message
  • singing karaoke to the mermaids at the hotel pool
  • assisting a Vogon poet with her terrible poetry

They had to earn all five runes, then find me in a secret location and spell out the runes with their towels. If they did so correctly, they would bring one of the missing dolphins back to Earth (and received a small stuffed one for their efforts).

[A bag full of dolphins, awaiting a possible return to Earth.]

The Star Wars event was a traditional escape room with puzzles to solve, boxes to unlock, combinations to find, keys to uncover, and a room to escape under a time limit. Designed for the teenaged attendees, the escape room was set on a bounty hunter’s ship, and all of the players were recently captured by the bounty hunter, awaiting transport to an Imperial prison.

But the bounty hunter has fallen victim to one of his own security protocols, so all of the “prisoners” have a chance to escape, if they disable the (Nerf gun-)armed droid blocking the escape pod, as well as either shut off the radiation leak near the pod OR gather enough bacta to heal themselves from radiation damage in order to actually survive the escape.

[Nerf guns and five shipped boxes. An embryonic escape room.]

[The contents of said shipped boxes. An escape room mid-construction.]

Although some of the boxes were opened out of order (by brute force, rather than proper solving) and one of the puzzles had an unfortunate printing error, the players unraveled the mysteries of the bounty hunter’s ship and escaped with only seconds to spare before the Imperials arrived. SUCCESS!

(Plus friend of the blog Jen Cunningham cooked up some lovely victory certificates for the players, which was a cool bonus. Thank you Jen!)

More importantly, despite the hiccups encountered during both events, everyone had fun while playing (either walking away with a small dolphin or a certificate).

The entire convention was a blast (an exhausting one, but a blast nonetheless), and I highly recommend attending Norwescon next year to any fans of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, writing workshops, games, roleplaying, and of course, puzzles.


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The Maze of Games Returns to Kickstarter With Some Epic New Twists!

Less than a month ago, we wrote a blog post about The Maze of Games, an interactive puzzle novel first published in 2014, designed by Mike Selinker of Lone Shark Games.

After four years, an intrepid team of puzzlers had finally conquered all five labyrinths in the story and freed the Quaice siblings from the clutches of the diabolical Gatekeeper and his many puzzly challenges.

Naturally, some assumed that the adventure was over.

But not yet, my friends.

Today, Mike and the team at Lone Shark Games are launching a Kickstarter campaign to expand the universe of The Maze of Games like never before!

And in honor of Pi Day, they’re launching it at 3/14, 1:59 PM Eastern!

For the first time, in one collection, you can collect the entire world of The Maze of Games, plus some brand-new features!

In addition to The Maze of Games book (hardcover, PDF, and audiobook), The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze (softcover and PDF), a new updated version of The Maze Map poster, The Maze of Games Soundtrack, AND the EP Songs in the Key of Maze, you can add:

  • a new audiobook version of The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze
  • a new audio puzzle suite, The Gatekeeper’s Variety Hour
  • a new answer guide, The Keymaster’s Tome, written by The Maze of Games characters Samuel and Colleen Quaice (PDF or softcover)

It’s the most complete version of The Maze of Games ever offered: The Maze of Games Omnibus.

And yet, there’s still more.

You can now experience The Maze of Games in an immersive new way: in one of the Gatekeeper’s escape rooms in Seattle!

Yes, as we first reported back in September 2017, A Curiouser Heart, the first of four escape rooms designed in the world of The Maze of Games, is now open and awaiting the bravest and puzzliest minds, thanks to Epic Team Adventures!

And one of the perks of The Maze of Games Omnibus Kickstarter campaign is a discounted booking for this escape room experience! How cool is that?

But if you can’t get to Seattle, guess what? You’re not excluded from a proper puzzling experience. There’s a Maze of Games challenge awaiting you on the Internet as well.

As part of this Kickstarter campaign, author Mike Selinker and developer Gaby Weidling ventured into The Maze of Games themselves, and now they’re trapped. And only you can save them.

During the campaign, there will be daily puzzles — available through the Kickstarter campaign page, the Lone Shark Games Twitter account and at several puzzly events happening nationwide (including the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament) — and if you solve them all, you can help free Mike and Gaby from The Maze of Games!

That’s right, you can be a puzzly hero from the comfort of your own home!

Check out the Kickstarter campaign page for full details on The Maze of Games Omnibus, the Escape Room for “A Curiouser Heart”, and the ongoing puzzle hunt to save Mike and Gaby!

No matter how you participate, you’re bound to have a marvelous puzzly experience!


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Unlikely Ways to Escape an Escape Room!

[Image courtesy of I Googled Israel.]

Solving an escape room is a unique experience, one that immerses you in a story and surrounds you with tasks to complete and puzzles to unravel. Although there are some similarities between rooms (as well as solving techniques you can learn to be better at solving all sorts of escape rooms), each one has its own flavor, its own challenges, and its own quirks.

The same can be said for those groups who tackle the escape room experience. They all have different skill levels, different styles, and different approaches. Some players are terrific at the hide-and-seek portion of a room — discovering hidden compartments, secret caches, and so on. Others are better at identifying and solving puzzles. Still others can be strong abstract thinkers who look outside the box and recognize where patterns are formed and where they are absent.

But sometimes, players think too far outside the box, surprising escape room managers and designers with their curious efforts to complete the game.

[Image courtesy of Snorg Tees.]

In a post on Quora Digest, someone asked what was the weirdest or most unexpected thing that has happened during an escape room event?

One commenter, the owner/operator of an escape room, said that a player once snuck a Swiss army knife into the room, used it to unscrew the boxes containing keys to some of the major lockboxes, and escaped the room in five minutes. Naturally, to the disappointment and chagrin of his friends, he skipped the vast majority of the game itself, missing the point entirely by doing so.

Figuring that there had to be more stories like this out there in the world of escape rooms, I reached out to some of the escape room companies we’ve connected with on Twitter, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s plenty of escape room weirdness to go around!

For instance, the crew at Boxaroo, based in Boston, Massachusetts, have had to deal with the opposite problem: people sneaking things OUT of an escape room:

We’ve had interesting things stolen from our rooms. The usual locks, keys, and even a light bulb once. But the most bizarre was an entire lockbox that went missing. About 4″ by 5″ by 11″.

We had no idea how the person snuck it out until we checked our security tape footage. It was someone sticking it in their trenchcoat, old-school style.

When asked about their most peculiar moment with players, the team at ESC Escape Rooms, based in North Hollywood, Los Angeles, shared a story that explores the dangers of getting into character and immersing yourself too deeply into the setting of a game.

One of the employees was overseeing a game from outside, and instructed the player to go through a door. That’s all, just use the door as you would any other.

The player responded by creating a fake door — like a mime or an actor in an improv show — and pretending to step through it, as if acting out the instruction was somehow part of the solve.

Much like the escape room supervisor who witnessed this, I’m totally baffled.

Sometimes players take instruction in a manner you wouldn’t expect. Other times, they take those instructions all too literally.

Just ask the folks at Red House Mysteries in Exeter, England, who lost visual contact with the solvers in one escape room scenario.

The room had a suspended ceiling, and apparently, this created a blind spot for one of the cameras used to monitor the room.

After not being able to see the players on the CCTV for a good 5 minutes and getting no response on the radio, they went into the room to see if everything was ok.

They found the team of 3 people standing on each others shoulders, having removed the ceiling tiles, and currently climbing into the roof cavity above.

“Whilst technically this is escaping, it’s not really the spirit of the game scenario. Nor do I have any idea where they were going to go from there. Needless to say, they didn’t manage to escape…”


To close out this sojourn into the world of escape room shenanigans, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention something that happened during my very first escape room.

We broke something. We broke one of the mechanisms that released a hidden key.

As a group of ten or so players, we quickly scattered around the room and began looking for clues, hidden compartments, hints on how to proceed, and so on. One team member, an acquaintance of my sister I didn’t know, spotted a small statuette on the mantel.

It was meant to be turned 90 degrees, releasing a hidden key below. Not knowing this, she lifted it off of its small base instead, triggering the hidden key.

And since there was a matching statuette nearby, the group surmised that lifting it would release another key on the other side.

It didn’t.

My best guess is that she managed to lift AND turn the first statuette when she picked it up, triggering the release. The second statuette was lifted straight up, leaving the hidden key still untriggered.

As it turns out, the statuettes weren’t intended to be lifted off their bases, and we’d broken the second release trigger. One of us managed to trigger it with a quarter and free the key, but we didn’t realize we’d actually damaged the game room until the session was over.

Here’s hoping it was a quick and easy repair job. I still cringe when I think about it.

Needless to say, I’ve been far more cautious in all of my subsequent escape room attempts.

Have you ever had or seen any strange escape room moments, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Two Puzzly Experiences in the NY/NJ Area!

For puzzle fans, there are few things more tantalizing than a mystery, and when you wrap that mystery up in a puzzly fashion, you’re virtually guaranteed to be a hit with puzzlers.

But the folks at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, have kicked things up a notch by adding the Great Detective to the mix.

Yes, we’re talking about a proper murder mystery for puzzlers and escape room fans to unravel, one draped in the trappings of Sherlock Holmes.

The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes is an interactive solving experience that places participants in the middle of an investigation set in the 1890s. With the forensic tools of the day at your disposal, your puzzly skills, and the spirit of Sherlock Holmes with you, it’s up to you to observe your setting, deduce what happened, and solve the mystery.

It sounds like a terrific puzzly experience that adds a nice murder mystery twist to the popular escape room genre. And the adventure is running through May of 2019, so you’ve got plenty of time to make the trip to Jersey City for a unique solving event.

Oh, and speaking of puzzly experiences in the Tri-State Area, we’re happy to report that another interactive puzzle event, The Enigmatist, has been extended through the end of March!

“An immersive evening of puzzles, cryptology, and illusions” created by magician and crossword constructor David Kwong, The Enigmatist is based on William and Elizebeth Friedman’s work at Riverbank, a peculiar hotbed for codebreaking in the early days of the twentieth century.

So if you’re in the Northeast, there’s all sorts of unique puzzly events waiting for you, if you know where to look!


The Enigmatist is hosted at the High Line Hotel in New York City. Click here for tickets and information.

The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes is hosted at Liberty Science Center, 222 Jersey City Boulevard, Jersey City, NJ 07305. Click here for tickets and information.


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