PuzzleNation Product Review: Puzzle Books Galore!

As part of our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, we reached out to companies far and wide to explore as big a swathe of the puzzle/game world as we could. And a plethora of puzzle books arrived in response.

With eight in total to cover in this review, we’re going to work from simplest to toughest in terms of difficulty, whilst bundling some books with similar puzzles or styles of presentation together for ease of navigation.

So please enjoy as we peruse offerings from USA Today, the Puzzle Society, and Andrews McMeel Publishing.


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We start our puzzle book journey with objectively the easiest type of puzzle in the group: word searches.

Posh Simple Word Search collects grids and lists of hidden words to test your word recognition skills. The different sizes, themes for puzzles, and variations of word search puzzles (like an Eiffel Tower-shaped grid!) across more than 100 puzzles will have you looping words to your heart’s content.

Factor in a spiral binding that allows you to lay each page flat as you solve, and you’ve got a perfect intro to puzzles.

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From word searches to another iconic and traditional puzzle type: crosswords.

For a travel-friendly puzzle book with eye-catching cover designs and enjoyable pocket-sized puzzles, look no further than Pocket Posh New Crosswords 1 and New Crosswords 2.

With fun, accessible clues and grids designed to test newer, less experienced solvers, Pocket Posh New Crosswords won’t stand in the way of a New York Times-level solver, but they will serve as a satisfying puzzle experience for solvers working their way up the difficulty ladder.

Featuring more than 50 puzzles each, these books are loaded with content created by The Puzzle Society’s pool of talented constructors. (All of whom are credited by name!)

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For a step-up in difficulty and notoriety, check out USA Today’s Crossword Super Challenge.

Packed with 200 puzzles previously published in USA Today, this collection offers a range of difficulty levels depending on the constructor. And the names here are top-notch. Puzzly elites like Elizabeth Gorski, Martin Ashwood-Smith, Gail Grabowski, Frank Longo, and George Barany are featured in the collection, along with numerous contributions by USA Today‘s Crossword Editor, the inimitable Fred Piscop!

This array of 15×15 grids presents loads of different types of themed clues, serving as an ideal crash course in crosswords for solvers with a bit more experience but also have room to grow. Perfect for anyone who enjoys your local daily/weekly syndicated newspaper crossword.

It’s a little thick to make a great travel book — not as pocket-friendly as the Pocket Posh series — but it’s just right for an afternoon or two of cozy armchair solving.

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We then move from one world-conquering puzzle style to another that more recently took the world by storm: Sudoku.

Another in the USA Today series of Super Challenge titles, USA Today’s Sudoku Super Challenge is armed to the teeth with 200 Sudoku puzzles to challenge any fan of the infamous puzzle juggernaut.

Each puzzle is ranked on a scale of 1 to 5 stars in terms of difficulty, so you’ll be solving your way through increasingly tricky number puzzles the deeper you get into this book.

And despite being packed with hundreds of puzzles, this one will easily fit into a pocket, purse, or carry-on for any trip.

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Are you a Sudoku-savvy solver looking to test your number-placement skills in a new way? Posh Kurosu might just have what you’re seeking.

With dozens of examples of Kurosu puzzles — also known as noughts and crosses — this puzzle book packs a surprising amount of variety into a simple solving mechanic. Instead of nine digits to fill the grid, all you have are Xs and Os. And you can’t have more than two Xs or Os next to each other in any column, row, or diagonal.

This is the only kind of puzzle in this selection of puzzle books that I’d never encountered before, and it was a welcome change of pace to try my hand at something that felt familiar and yet fresh all at once. Posh Kurosu tests your logic and deduction chops in fun, unexpected ways.

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After collections of Sudoku and Kurosu puzzles, it feels appropriate to follow up with a puzzle book loaded with puzzles that test your logic and deduction skills in other ways.

USA Today’s Logic Super Challenge fits the bill nicely, mixing traditional story-driven logic problems (complete with those iconic solving grids to help you weed out false paths) with other logic-based puzzles like Killer Sudoku, Battleships, and Domino Search.

All of these puzzles will bend your brain around corners as you try to hold multiple facts in your head at the same time, waiting for them to fall into place and reveal a new piece of the overall puzzle solution.

And with 200 logic problems in various forms, you certainly won’t run out of devious deduction puzzles anytime soon.

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But if you’re looking for a unique solving experience, something that is as visually immersive as it is engagingly puzzly, then you can’t go wrong with Daria Song’s The Mysterious Mansion.

Mixing lushly illustrated scenes with black and white drawings meant for you to color in, this narrative puzzle book incorporates mazes, spot-the-difference games, word searches, and other puzzly endeavors in a story about one girl’s journey through a strange and confusing mansion.

Designed to relax, engage, and puzzle the reader in equal measure, this book is one you could lose yourself in for hours. The gorgeous full-color illustrations are a feast for the eyes, and the puzzles are seamlessly woven into the art and story of each scene.

Daria Song gleefully takes activity books to the next level with this beautiful puzzle experience, a fairy tale that you not only help write, but make your own by doing so.


All of these puzzle books are available from Andrews McMeel Publishing as well as some local and online retailers. They’re also part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!

[Note: I received a free copy of each puzzle book in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]


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Puzzle Plagiarism: One Year Later

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This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest stories in puzzles: the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal, aka #gridgate.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can click here for more detail, but here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

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The story originally broke on data analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com thanks to Oliver Roeder, but the real credit belongs to Tausig and Pwanson. The article sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Roeder reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

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The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and president of Lone Shark Games, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken:

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles. After all, plagiarism isn’t tolerated in publishing or college term papers, so why should the efforts of crossword constructors be considered any less sacrosanct?

And except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it. As far as anyone knew, Parker was still employed by Uclick, and they wouldn’t confirm or deny his involvement in any non-USA Today and Gannett-published puzzles in the future.

So naturally, as the one-year anniversary of the story loomed in the distance, I got curious. What had become of Parker? Was he still involved with Universal Uclick?

Sadly, I have no new answers for you. I reached out to Universal Uclick for comment, and they declined to reply. Parker was similarly difficult to reach.

But even without new threads to follow, this is an important story to revisit. It represents the solidarity, pride, and support of the puzzle community. It represents the rights of creators to be respected and to have their hard work respected. It represents the power of concerned citizens speaking up.

It reminded people that crosswords represent much more than a way to pass an idle Sunday morning.


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Puzzle Plagiarism, Part 3: Parker Out

After months of nothing, things are suddenly moving forward with the Universal Uclick/USA Today puzzle plagiarism scandal.

A quick recap: Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords” in March.

Last week, there was finally a new development, as Universal Uclick stated that they’d confirmed “some” of the allegations against Parker, and he’d be taking a three-month leave of absence.

That underwhelming semi-admission of Parker’s guilt led Lone Shark Games and Mike Selinker to call for a boycott of USA Today and Universal Uclick, and many other game companies and puzzle constructors have followed suit.

So where are we now?

Well, as reported by Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight, Christopher Mele of the New York Times, and Deb Amlen of Wordplay, Timothy Parker is out as editor of the USA Today crossword.

According to Gannett, who publishes USA Today:

No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.

This still leaves some important details up in the air. For one thing, Parker is still employed by Universal Uclick, even if USA Today and Gannett won’t be using any puzzles he’s touched.

We also don’t know who will be taking his place providing puzzles for USA Today and other Gannett publications.

According to Oliver Roeder:

Fred Piscop, who has been interim editor, told me that his position was temporary unless he was officially informed otherwise, and that there was nothing else he could tell me at this point. A call to Universal Uclick was not returned.

Clearly things are far from settled for Parker, Universal Uclick, and USA Today.

Regarding the #gridgate boycott, Mike Selinker and the team at Lone Shark Games had this to say:

As far as we can tell, USA Today and its parent company Gannett just vowed not to use puzzles edited by Timothy Parker ever again. That bold statement — sure, months late, but welcome nonetheless — was all we were looking for. If they stick to their word, we’ll stop our boycott. We can’t claim credit for the result, but we can say that our friends shining a flashlight on the wrongdoing did help get USA Today to speak out publicly and settle the score.

We’re maintaining the boycott of Universal Uclick, though. They’re continuing to employ someone they’ve admitted is a plagiarist—someone who apparently plagiarized our friends’ work. And just because USA Today isn’t buying Parker’s puzzles doesn’t mean no one else will. We can’t even be sure if the person editing the puzzles isn’t Parker, because he’s made a habit of hiding behind pseudonyms. So we’ll keep this boycott going until we’re sure they’ve got a plan for puzzles that aren’t edited by someone they think is a plagiarist.

Uclick, the ball’s in your court.


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Puzzle Plagiarism, Part 2: Uclick Responds

It’s Follow-Up Friday, but it doesn’t feel right to open this post with our usual exuberant intro.

Today, I’m returning to the subject of Timothy Parker and the USA Today/Universal Uclick plagiarism scandal.

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You know, when I first wrote about this topic, I suspected I’d be returning to it in Follow-Up Friday fashion, and sadly, that’s proven true.

If you don’t recall, or you hadn’t heard, here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

Back in March when I first blogged about this, Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

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Well, Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight has reported that Universal Uclick has completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’ve CONFIRMED some of the allegations of puzzle repetition — they don’t explain which allegations they’ve confirmed — they’re only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

According to the Universal Uclick press release:

During his leave, Mr. Parker will confirm that his process for constructing puzzles uses the best available technology to ensure that everything he edits is original. We will work with Mr. Parker on this effort and redouble our editorial process so that there is a stronger second level of review.

Roeder points out that Universal also doesn’t say if the last two months count toward Parker’s three-month leave of absence, since Fred Piscop has been serving as interim editor since the scandal broke.

As you might expect, some in the puzzle-game community are underwhelmed, to say the least, with Universal Uclick’s decision.

For instance, Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and head honcho of Lone Shark Games, sent out a release last night regarding Parker’s situation, stating that he and his team will boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick.

From their Tumblr post:

But USA Today and Universal Uclick, two important providers of puzzles to the world, have abandoned all pretense that originality and credit for content is important to them. So we’re abandoning them. As of today, we’re boycotting both companies.

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

I suspect Mike and the wonderful crew at Lone Shark Games won’t be the only ones giving USA Today and Universal Uclick the cold shoulder. Kudos to them for taking a stand against plagiarism and standing with friends and colleagues in the puzzle community.

You’d think a major publication like USA Today would be against plagiarism instead of downplaying it like this. I doubt they’d tolerate plagiarism anywhere else in their paper.

It will certainly be interesting to see where the story goes from here. Here’s hoping Universal Uclick does the right thing and stands with content creators, not against them.

I’ll conclude this post the same way the team at Lone Shark Games concluded their release:

If you share this on Twitter or Facebook, please tag @usatoday and @UniversalUclick to tell them that you stand with the puzzlemakers, and add the hashtag #gridgate. Or, if you want to talk to USA Today directly, send them a note addressed to Reader Feedback/Letters saying that you find plagiarism in any department unacceptable. Now would be awesome.


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Puzzle Plagiarism?

[Image courtesy of PlagiarismToday.com.]

Today’s post isn’t the usual Follow-Up Friday fare. Instead of returning to a previous subject, I’d like to discuss a topic that I expect I’ll be returning to in Follow-Up Friday form in the near future.

There is a certain pride and sense of accomplishment you experience as a puzzler when you come up with an exciting, innovative, unexpected theme idea for a puzzle, or when you pen a terrific clue for a word. Whether the wordplay is spot on or you’ve simply found a way to reinvigorate a tired bit of crosswordese, you feel like you’re adding something to the ever-expanding crossword lexicon, leaving a mark on the world of puzzles.

Unfortunately, there’s also the flip side of that coin, and those who would pilfer the hard work of others for their own gain. And in a story broken by the team at FiveThirtyEight, there may be something equally unsavory going on behind the scenes of the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword.

You can check out the full story, but in short, an enterprising programmer named Saul Pwanson created a searchable database of crossword puzzles that identified similarities in published crosswords, and it uncovered an irregularly high number of repeated entries, grids, and clues in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

More than 60 puzzles feature suspicious instances of repetition — the word “plagiarism” comes to mind, certainly — and it has sparked an investigation. In fact, only a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that the subject of the investigation, Parker himself, “has agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

I’ve heard that oversight of the USA Today crossword has already passed to another editor of note in the crossword world, constructor Fred Piscop (author of last Wednesday’s New York Times crossword), but I wonder if more examples of crossword duplication are lurking out there.

With resources like XWord Info and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project out there, the history of crosswords is becoming more and more accessible and searchable. I can’t help but wonder if more scandals are lurking down the pike.


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