How Dungeons & Dragons Brings Us Together

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One of my favorite things about puzzles and games is the way they bring people together. It could be gathering around a table for a session of Dungeons & Dragons, enlisting a friend in unraveling a tricky crossword clue, or swapping jigsaws with a fellow enthusiast to share the wealth.

Recently, a story about Dungeons & Dragons went viral, but if you haven’t seen it, I’ll happily summarize.


A Twitter user named Antoine H. delivered his grandmother’s eulogy after her sad passing, but wasn’t able to devote the time he wanted to one important aspect of her life, so he took to Twitter later to do so.

At 75 years old, in the last year of her life, she started playing D&D at his suggestion.

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Her first character? A male forest gnome named Terminatur (a combination of “termite” and “nature”).

She helped her fellow players cleanse a haunted house, then made it a home, including inventing a new fruit that became quite popular. (It led to membership in an interplanar ecology organization, The Circle of the Green Hand.)

She even gave the adventuring party its name: “les Bijoutiers Fantaisistes,” the Fanciful Jewelers.

Although her cancer treatment would limit her opportunities to play regularly, she still kept on with the campaign whenever possible, adding delightful new wrinkles to her character.

Her last words to him? “Never change, never lose your family spirit, and keep on playing Dungeons & Dragons.”


As a longtime D&D player, I love this story. Because, as much fun as it is to play the game, it’s the connections you forge DURING play that mean the most. In fact, my favorite roleplaying game memory isn’t from an actual play session.

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It’s from a lazy afternoon hanging out with some of my players, just listening as they shared stories about their favorite moments from the game. (Since each of them had individual adventures, in addition to group adventures, they got to share stories the others hadn’t experienced.) Their reenactments were a pleasure to watch, knowing I had helped craft adventures that they enjoyed so much, they wanted to share them with others.

Getting to tell stories with my friends is an incredible gift, and I can only imagine how much joy it brought both Antoine and his grandmother to find this lovely, unexpected common ground.

You can (and should) click here to read the entire Twitter thread. It’s wonderful.

Also, please share your own stories of how games, puzzles, and RPGs have improved your life and friendships. I’d love to hear them.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Star Trek Chrono-Trek

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[Image courtesy of Trekcore.]

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

Some of the most important moments in the Star Trek franchise center around altering the past through time travel. Choosing to save Edith Keeler in the original series, the Enterprise-C sacrificing itself to bring peace to the Klingons and the Federation in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Sisko preventing a Tribble bomb from killing Kirk in Deep Space Nine… iconic scenes both humorous and galaxy-changing involved rending the fabric of time and space. (Heck, the new film franchise was based entirely on changing the timeline from what we knew previously!)

So when I heard that Looney Labs updated their time-jumping strategy card game Chrononauts to include elements from the Star Trek universe, it seemed like a perfect fit. How did they do? Find out today as we review the new Star Trek Chrono-Trek card game.

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[A sample of each of the 11 different types of cards in the game.]

Much like its inspiration Chrononauts, Chrono-Trek is all about the cards. You’ve got assignment cards, ID cards, timeline cards that make up the playing space, artifact cards, cards that change history (and others that change it back), as well as cards that can help or hinder your fellow time travelers.

At the beginning of the game, the timeline cards are laid out in a 4×9 grid that represents the historical timeline from the Star Trek shows and films. Each player then draws an ID card representing a Star Trek character. Each character has certain victory conditions — some combination of events that must be preserved or changed in the timeline and artifacts to be acquired during play — that must be met for you to win the game. The ID cards are ranked by difficulty, indicating how complex the victory conditions are.

As for the other cards available to the player, they allow you to manipulate time, find artifacts, or manipulate the cards in your opponents’ hands. (For Fluxx players, some of these Action cards will seem very similar, as will the artifact cards, which are played just like keepers in Fluxx.)

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[A small glimpse of the timeline.]

The history-changing aspect is the puzzliest part of the game, as you determine what moments to change (and which to protect from your opponents) in order for your timeline to come to pass. But you must be careful, because you also need to ensure that you don’t accidentally end the game by allowing the anomaly from the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation — the Anti-Time Devron Anomaly — from preventing life on Earth. (In nearly every scenario, that’s a game over for all players. Pretty daunting, to say the least!)

And although bending time to your will and winning is certainly fun, watching the effect ripple down through the cards after making a bold history-altering move is arguably the best part of the game.

It will take one or two playthroughs — with easier ID cards only — to get used to the game mechanics, but after that, it’s a quick and easy deep-dive into the more complex victory conditions and a much more immersive and challenging play experience. (The game can go a bit too rapidly if you’re only using two players, so I’d recommend playing with four or more players to get the most out of the game.)

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[A comparison of a one-pip (easy) ID card and a four-pip (complex) ID card. Kirk simply requires you to protect one moment, invert another, and collect an artifact. Meanwhile, Evil Spock requires you to find the Fracture card, manipulate two events just to place the Fracture, and still maintain another moment AND acquire an artifact. That’s a much taller order.]

The designers did an impressive job figuring out which moments from the 50 years of Star Trek history to include in the timeline, which characters to offer as ID cards, and so on. For a Star Trek enthusiast, there are great references and little callbacks galore to favorite moments from the series. Not only that, but the game ups the ante from the original Chrononauts formula, keeping all of the best aspects of that game while making this one feel unique.

I posed the question in the intro asking how Looney Labs did marrying Star Trek and Chrononauts. The answer? They boldly went where no Star Trek card game had gone before, and created one heck of a fun adventure.

[Star Trek Chrono-Trek is available from Looney Labs and other participating retailers.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Are You a Robot?

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

Whether you’re playing a board game like Clue or a card game like Werewolf or Mafia, you and your fellow players have accepted the challenge of a very different form of puzzle gaming: the social deduction game.

Social deduction games operate under a simple premise — the cards determine the role you play — and from that point forward, you’re trying to determine who is secretly a danger to you and others in the game.

In this particular case, there might a robot lurking among the humans aboard your space station.

You see, in Are You a Robot?, all of the players randomly select a card. There’s always a human card for every person playing the game, plus one robot card. (So, for instance, if five people are playing, you have five human cards and one robot card in the deck.) You shuffle the cards, deal out one to each player, and put the last one aside. Everyone looks at their card (but doesn’t show anyone else) and discovers their role for the game.

Now, at this point, there’s between zero and one robots in the game, and the rest of the players are human. The humans want to suss out if there are any robots disguised as humans, and the robot wants to get the humans to accuse each other and whittle down their numbers so the robots can take over.

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[A whole lot packed into a little envelope.]

This is the social aspect of the game. There are three things players can do in order to figure out who is who: shake hands, shoot a laser gun at another player, or talk. If the players all agree that there are no robots in play, two players can agree to shake hands. If there are no robots in the game after all, the humans win. If a robot is present after all, the humans lose.

Humans can shoot other players, but robots cannot. If a robot is shot, it’s gone from the game and the humans rejoice. If a human is shot, three things happen: the shooter is immediately removed from the game, the human who was shot comes back to life and returns to the game, and there’s a chance another robot slips into the game.

This element of chance involves all of the players closing their eyes, any robots secretly revealing themselves, and all of the remaining players turning in their cards. Those cards are shuffled randomly, a robot card is introduced, and the cards are redistributed to the surviving human players.

It’s possible everyone remains human, and it’s possible one of the humans is now a robot in disguise.

The game now resumes, and the players must once again figure out if there are any robots in their midst. (And your mind immediately begins spiraling out with possibilities. “Did so-and-so not shoot me because he believes that I’m human? Or because he’s a robot and can’t shoot me?”)

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[The set up for a four-person game: instructions, four human cards, and one robot card.]

Play continues until either the humans have eliminated any possible robots (and have shaken hands to confirm this) or the robots have overwhelmed the game and the humans have been whittled down to a single player.

In my estimation, Extended Mode, designed for 5 or more players, is the most interesting version of the game. The core game is for two or three players, consisting of two human cards and one robot card. Adding a second game allows for up to four players, a third game allows for up to six, and so on.

Our Extended Mode testing involved eight players (and four copies of the game), which allowed for multiple rounds of play, the introduction of several possible additional robots, and so on, making for a deeper, more engrossing (and nerve-wracking!) play experience.

And that’s the beauty of Are You a Robot? when compared to similar social detection card games like Mafia and Werewolf. Not only can you have satisfying play experiences with fewer people but the element of randomness that comes into play with more players adds tension to the game. (In Mafia and Werewolf, the number of antagonists is set at the start of the game. In Are You a Robot?, the number might increase, or it might not. It’s a simple change that adds so much.)

An elegant balance of silliness and suspenseful, consequence-loaded gameplay, Are You a Robot? is a winner with any number of players. Bring your laser gun, bring your skepticism, and bring along a couple of sets so everyone can play.

[Are You a Robot? is available (for $2!) from Looney Labs and other participating retailers.]


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Suggestions from the World of Puzzle Books!

Back in March, we did a round-up of all sorts of puzzle books for solvers looking to return to the simplicity of solving with pencil and paper. We focused on books loaded with puzzles for your enjoyment.

But that’s only a small sampling of the books available to puzzle fans. In addition to straight-forward puzzle books, you can find guides on how to make puzzles and games, books offering historical or social insight on the puzzle-game genre, and even fiction books that incorporate puzzles into the storytelling.

So today, we’re doing another puzzle-book round-up, but we’re expanding the scope a bit to cover some delightful puzzle-themed books you might’ve missed recently.


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If you’re relatively new to solving — or you’d like to introduce someone to the world of puzzles — then Puzzle Snacks by Eric Berlin is a terrific place to start.

Loaded with over 100 puzzles that run the gamut from fill-ins and clued puzzles to brain teasers and wordplay games, Puzzle Snacks fits solvers of any experience level, helping build up your puzzle skills while introducing you to dozens of variations on the puzzles you know.

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For the word seek/word search fans, we’ve previously recommended the word search puzzles of Shawn Marie Simmons, which are geared toward bookworms with themed lists based on literature.

Her latest offering is 25 Word Search Puzzles for MODERN Literature Lovers. With word lists tailored to different iconic authors and works of literature — ranging from the Lord of the Rings and Virginia Woolf to Roald Dahl and Margaret Atwood — you can revisit your favorite reads as you go searching each grid for a bevy of fun and familiar words.

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But maybe you’d like to mix some light puzzling with a touch of adventure-filled storytelling for either you or younger solvers. In that case, the recent Netflix revival of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? might have what you’re looking for.

A series of tie-in books for the show are now on the market, and the best of them is Clue by Clue by Catherine Hapka. Centered around the former thief’s efforts to do good and thwart her former allies, Clue by Clue sets Carmen and the ACME team on a treasure hunt for a prize that’s been missing for centuries.

What makes this book so noteworthy is the decoder wheel built into the cover itself! By rotating the wheel, you can decipher different coded messages throughout the book, cracking the case alongside Carmen and her allies.

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If you’re looking for a little more narrative heft with your puzzling, then the latest addition to The Maze of Games universe is probably up your alley.

Now that The Maze of Games has finally been solved after years of attentive puzzling, a new answer guide is available: The Keymaster’s Tome.

But this isn’t just the perfect walkthrough for the ultimate puzzle novel; this is an in-universe story in its own right, as the characters of Colleen and Samuel Quaice share their thoughts and reactions to the puzzles they encountered through The Maze of Games.

It’s a really fun and clever take on answer guides, and offers some nice character notes from the heroic and determined Quaice siblings.

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Our last offering turns to the world of board games, as the author shares both his own personal experiences with games and how different types of games create different play experiences.

Avidly Reads Board Games by Eric Thurm covers topics like the pluses and minuses of cooperative games, the emergence of legacy games, the infamy of Monopoly, and the curious subgenre of political games (both the intentionally nasty and those that history has judged poorly). Along the way, Thurm offers glimpses into various aspects of modern gaming.

More a series of short essays than one cohesive narrative, Avidly Reads Board Games is one man’s look at a world of games that is constantly evolving, yet remains tied to its earliest successes.

Can you think of any terrific puzzle books we missed? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Delving into the BosWords 2019 Crosswords!

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

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


Leading Ladies by John Lieb

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

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

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

Puzzle 1: Central Intelligence by Claire Rimkus and Andrew Kingsley

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

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

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

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

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

[Image courtesy of SharpBrains.com.]

Puzzle 2: Don’t Strain Yourself by Ross Trudeau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puzzle 5: Get the Picture by Paolo Pasco

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

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

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

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[Image courtesy of @StalkingSarah.]

Championship Themeless by Finn Vigeland

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

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

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

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


Bonus puzzle: Do the Math by John Lieb

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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Daily POP Word Search Is Here!

Friends and fellow PuzzleNationers, it’s our pleasure and our privilege to introduce you to the newest puzzle app to join our family of world-class mobile puzzling experiences!

Yes, it’s here! The latest innovation in word seek-style solving, Daily POP Word Search is now available!

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Available for both iOS and Android users, Daily POP Word Search puts all the fun of word-hunting puzzles at your fingertips… literally! Just drag your finger along each hidden word to highlight it and cross it off your list!

That’s right, no need to tote around a magazine and a pen or pencil to solve your favorite puzzles! You can do it all right from your phone with Daily POP Word Search!

And just like Daily POP Crosswords, you can expect up-to-date themes, entries, and topics! You won’t be hunting down silent film stars, you’ll be looking for entries for the music, TV, film, literary, and pop culture properties you enjoy today!

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We’re talking about free themed daily word search puzzles right in your pocket every day! Each day has a different pop culture theme, running the gamut from music and movies to sports and history, so no matter what piques your interest, the app is guaranteed to have puzzles for you!

Yes, we did use the magic word. Daily POP Word Search is FREE to download and FREE to play!

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With our responsive word-looping, cutting edge themes, and all sorts of ways to keep track of your solving progress — including optional timed solves, calendars with delightful emojis for each day’s puzzle, and more! — word search solving has never been this fun or this interactive! And it’s ready for you to enjoy right now!

Your search for the next great puzzle app is over! You can’t go wrong with PuzzleNation, and Daily POP Word Search is our best yet!


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