Lollapuzzoola 11 is near!

Saturday, August 18, marks the eleventh annual Lollapuzzoola!

The marvelous indie offspring of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Lollapuzzoola is a favorite of both solvers and top constructors, all of whom descend upon New York City to enjoy what can only be described as “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August.” (At least, that’s what they say on their website.)

The format is simple. Four divisions — Express (experienced solvers who have contended in or won tournaments before), Local (solvers with some experience), Rookies, and Pairs (allowing you to team up to solve) — pit their puzzly minds against clever clues and crafty constructors.

With seven tournament puzzles — designed with inimitable style, both fun and befuddling in how often they innovate classic crossword tropes — you’re guaranteed to get your money’s worth as you solve!

And for those who reach the top of mountain, “winners in each division are awarded prizes, which could range from a box of used pencils to a brand new car. So far, no one has ever won a car.

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But if you can’t make it to NYC that weekend, worry not! There’s an At-Home Division that will allow you to participate as if you were there! You’ll get your puzzles by email the day after the actual tournament for a very reasonable $15 fee! Not only that, but you’ll be able to submit your times (and your number of blank/wrong squares) to be officially ranked in the At-Home Division lineup!

It’s one of the highlights of the puzzle world each year, and I’m definitely looking forward to tackling the puzzles! They’re a diabolical treat each and every year! (For a full rundown of the event, check out this interview with Local Division winner and friend of the blog Patti Varol!)

Are you attending Lollapuzzoola or solving from home? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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A New Feature! Citizen Shoutouts!

Welcome to the first installment of a brand-new monthly feature on the blog, Citizen Shoutouts!

Each edition of Citizen Shoutouts is an opportunity to say thank you, to put the spotlight on folks in the PuzzleNation community who contribute to the world of puzzles and games.

And in our inaugural edition, I’d like to highlight a few intrepid puzzlers who regularly make their presence felt across our social media feeds.

As many of you well know, we have a recurring feature on Facebook and Twitter, the Crossword Clue Challenge. Every weekday, a word from that day’s free puzzle for the Penny Dell Crosswords App is selected, and we use it to test the puzzly skills of our followers on social media.

Not only does it highlight the clever cluing and expansive vocabulary you can expect from our app puzzles, but it gives members of the PuzzleNation readership a chance to show off their chops, filling in the blanks Wheel of Fortune-style and revealing each day’s answer.

Over on Facebook, we have a number of devoted solvers who regularly accept the Crossword Clue Challenge.

On any given weekday, you’re likely to see correct answers from PuzzleNationers Diane Wood, Sherri Strayer, and Mary Hayes, alongside fellow puzzlers Francis Ichihara and our two resident Crossword Carols, Carol Dawn Whittaker and Carol Tucker!

And I just wanted to take a moment today to thank them for their enthusiasm and their involvement in the game. It always brings a smile to my face to see their names pop up in our feed, alongside the new solvers trying their hand at the CCC for the first time.

But Twitter also has a Crossword Clue Challenge master who deserves a shoutout.

If you follow the CCC on Twitter, you’re bound to have seen one name pop up again and again. No matter how crafty the clue, no matter how many or how few letters I provide as a starter, one solver stands head and shoulders above the rest.

His name is Joshua Heckert, and he definitely merits a hearty round of applause for his puzzly skills and a thank you for accepting the Crossword Clue Challenge as often as he does. Ever since he first followed our Twitter account months ago, he has been a CCC contributor, and he rarely, if ever, misses a day. That enthusiasm certainly merits a Citizen Shoutout!

All of these folks, my fellow puzzlers, help make PuzzleNation one of the best puzzle communities on the Internet today, and I’m proud to highlight them in our first Citizens Shoutout post.

But what about next month? I’m glad you asked.

In the future, I’d like to take suggestions from my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers for those we highlight in each month’s post.

It could be a puzzler or designer who inspires you, a constructor who challenged you or surprised you with a puzzle, or someone who did something kind in a puzzly way.

Maybe you have a favorite local game shop where you meet other puzzlers, or that introduced you to a favorite game.

Maybe you’d like to give a shout-out to an escape room you think others would enjoy, or to someone who went above and beyond to make a puzzly experience truly memorable.

You can submit your suggestions for the next Citizen Shoutouts post on Facebook, on Twitter, or in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Garfield

Puzzles are ubiquitous. Once you start looking around for them, you’ll find them in every nook and cranny of popular culture.

Sometimes, they’re the basis for an entire episode of television, as in Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Parks and Rec. Sometimes, they serve as a linchpin metaphor, as they did in Sleepy Hollow. Other times, they’re good for a funny aside, as in Gilmore Girls, or as a prop to reveal deeper character insight, as on The West Wing.

Over the years, I’ve seen puzzles incorporated into storytelling in dozens of ways. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to stumble across puzzle references where I least expected them: the funny pages.

Yes, they’re such a part of the cultural fabric that they’ve even infiltrated comic strips.

The other day, I stumbled across this Garfield comic strip from last year:

Now, it’s meant to be funny, but I think any puzzler who has stood onstage in front of a whiteboard at ACPT, Lollapuzzoola, or another crossword tournament would agree with Jon over Garfield here.

That was one example. As it turns out, when you start digging, you find crossword gags strewn through the Garfield comics.

Like this one from November of 2005:

That’s a pretty simple gag, but it’s also a nice bonding moment for Jon and Garfield, as Jon’s rampant procrastination dovetails nicely with Garfield’s bottomless love for Italian food.

Jon has less luck making a puzzly connection in this comic from February of 1998:

If you ask me, a cookie and a crossword puzzle sounds like an excellent way to spend time with someone interesting. But I’m biased. I love cookies.

And as you can see in this comic from February of 1979, Jon’s crossword struggles have been an ongoing issue for decades now:

But it’s not just crosswords. Sudoku has gotten a fair amount of attention in the Garfield strip over the years. That’s understandable, as it’s one of the most recognizable pencil-and-paper puzzles in the world.

And as someone who isn’t the fastest Sudoku solver in the world, this series of comics from January of 2010 (an entire week’s worth!) speaks to me. I get it, Jon. I get it.

Honestly, it makes sense that Odie would have Sudoku wired. He’s a puzzle dog. He’s been appearing in crossword grids for years.

There’s a lovely callback to that previous crossword gag.

Finally, Jon triumphs! I admire both his resilience and his unwillingness to give up. Though, given that it took a week to complete a Sudoku, maybe Jon should stick to other puzzles.

Heck, our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have the perfect book for him to try out.

[All images are courtesy of Garfield.com.]


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Computer Program Teaches Itself to Solve Rubik’s Cubes!

I tried to warn you, fellow puzzlers.

I wrote posts about computer programs that play chess, Scrabble, Go, Atari games, and Jeopardy! I wrote posts about programs that solve crosswords. I even wrote posts about robots that solve Rubik’s Cubes in a fraction of a second.

And they’re getting smarter.

Say hello to DeepCube, an AI program that is now the equal of any master Rubik’s Cube solver in the world at solving 3x3x3 cubes.

And unlike other AI programs that have learned to play games like chess and Go through reinforcement learning — determining if particular moves are bad or good — DeepCube taught itself to play by analyzing each move, comparing it to a completed cube, and reverse-engineering how to get to that move.

It’s labor-intensive, yes, but it also requires no human intervention and no previous information. Chess-playing programs like Deep Blue work by analyzing thousands of previously played games. But DeepCube had no previous history to build on.

It started from scratch. By itself.

And became a Rubik’s Cube master.

In only 44 hours.

Compare that to the 10,000 hours it supposedly takes for a human to become an expert in anything, and that’s a mind-blowing accomplishment.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

From the Gizmodo article on DeepCube:

The system discovered “a notable amount of Rubik’s Cube knowledge during its training process,” write the researchers, including a strategy used by advanced speedcubers, namely a technique in which the corner and edge cubelets are matched together before they’re placed into their correct location.

Yes, the program even independently recreated techniques designed by human speed-solvers to crack the cubes faster.

The next goal for the DeepCube program is to pit it against 4x4x4 cubes, which are obviously more complex. But supposedly, deposing human puzzle solvers as the top dogs on the planet isn’t the finish line.

No, this sort of three-dimensional puzzle-solving is only an intermediate goal, with the ultimate endgame of predicting protein shapes, analyzing DNA, building better robots, and other advanced projects.

But first, they’re coming for our puzzles.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Constellations

Plenty of games offer ambitious goals for the players to achieve. You become a real estate tycoon in Monopoly, a castle owner in Castellan, and a time-traveling adventurer in U.S. Patent Number 1. You could traverse the country in The Oregon Trail, save the world in Pandemic, or conquer it in Risk. That’s part of the magic of games.

But what if you could build the night sky? What if you could harness the stars themselves, assemble constellations, and place them into the heavens above?

Now that is a puzzly endeavor worthy of your attention. And that’s the concept behind the game in today’s product review. We’ll be trying out Constellations by Xtronaut Enterprises.


Constellations combines the resource management card game mechanics of Just Desserts with the pattern-matching tile play of Carcassonne to create an educational and engaging play experience.

Each player starts with five star cards. Each star card represents a different type of star (or in some cases, two of that type of star). The star cards are used to assemble various constellations in order to score points.

The game begins with one constellation already placed in the sky, as well as three possible constellations to build. Players may reserve one of the three constellations, making it their primary goal and removing it from play for the other players.

As you can see in the picture above, different constellations require different combinations of star cards. Some constellations are simpler, so they’re worth fewer points. Other constellations have higher values, but more complex combinations of star cards, which may be harder or more time-consuming to collect.

[One constellation tile, plus the star cards played to complete it. As you can see, you can use extra stars as needed (like a Two B-Type Stars card above), as well as using O cards as wild cards (as I did for the two A-type stars needed to complete this constellation.]

Once a player has gathered all of the star cards necessary to complete the constellation, they then must play it in the night sky, placing it adjacent to one or more of the constellations already completed.

You score points by placing a constellation so that the gemstones along the edges match the neighboring constellation(s), and there are additional points available for placing constellations beside other constellations (as they would appear in the actual night sky). For instance, Leo Minor offers a two-point bonus when placed next to either Leo or Lynx.

Different arrangements of gemstones around the edges of the constellation tile require you to be crafty when and where you place your tile, since more matching gemstones means more points.

[In this layout, Taurus was added perfectly, matching gemstones with both Perseus and Ophiuchus. Pegasus, on the other hand, matched Perseus nicely, but only matched one gemstone with Orion.]

Unfortunately, you have to play a completed constellation, and sometimes the gemstone patterns don’t match up at all. If that’s the case, you’ll lose two points for a constellation played out of place. (Once again, the closer you get to placing your constellation as it would actually appear in the night sky, the better it is for your game.)

All of the game’s mechanics are designed around actual science, which is a very cool touch. The star cards include “Did You Know?” facts about each type of star, and the instruction booklet also includes a short guide to stargazing, star classification, and little write-ups for each constellation included in the game. (There’s even a criss-cross-style crossword on the back page!)

Constellations is great fun, requiring strategy, timing, and puzzly observational skills in order to effectively play the game. The educational aspect doesn’t detract from the gameplay at all, and the alternate rules offered in the back (as well as rules for shorter and longer gameplay times) offer an impressive amount of replay value.

All in all, Constellations mixes card games and tile games with ease, and it makes for a fun and mellow gameplay experience.

[Constellations is available from Xtronaut Enterprises and other select retailers.]


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Introducing New Players to Roleplaying Games!

A month or so ago, there was a marvelous article on Amazing Tales about how to make your child’s first role-playing game amazing.

Although the article was geared toward introducing younger players to the world of roleplaying games, the advice can be easily adapted and expanded to include new players of all ages. So today, I thought I would take the five points introduced by Amazing Tales and do just that.

So if you’re a new or inexperienced game-runner / dungeon master, or if you’ve only run games for people with previous experience playing roleplaying games, this is the place for you.

(And this advice should fit no matter what sort of game you’re running. Is it classic Dungeons & Dragons? Supernatural? Zombie horror? Space adventure? Knights of the Round Table? Explorers? Pirates? Monster hunters? Modern spies? Thieves in the Victorian era? No matter what setting or characters, this advice is universal.)

#1 Keep cool

It’s easy for the person running a roleplaying game to have high expectations for themselves and the story they want to craft. You want your new players to have fun. You want them to immerse themselves in telling a story. You want them to be excited and come back for more.

But that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and a stressed or nervous game master can lead to stressed or nervous players. So don’t set the bar so high. Sit back and let the players interact; sometimes, you can engineer a scenario that allows for this, like a tavern scene. Or you can create an instant threat and let them jump into the action and work together to solve a problem as a bonding experience.

Don’t be afraid to take opportunities to ask if anyone’s confused. A first game is introductory by nature, and if someone feels left behind early on, it can be hard to catch them up later, or to make them feel included if they’re not gelling with the other players.

Sometimes when I’m starting a new game with new players, I’ll hold what I call a “session zero,” a safe game before the game kicks off, where the characters can play in the environment, interact, and test out the actual mechanics of playing (particularly if there’s a magic system or some other aspect of the game that might not be intuitive).

#2 Keep it small

You want your players to feel immersed but not overwhelmed, so party size (the number of players) is an important consideration. I try to keep my number of new players to three or fewer, because it can be hard to give meaningful attention to a larger number of players. It’s like a classroom; you want the ratio of experienced voices to students to be as small as possible, so you can get that one-on-one time to answer questions and help them find their footing.

For me, the ideal group for a newcomer-heavy game is two (or three) new players, one (or two) experienced players, and myself running the game. That way, each new player is balanced by someone with greater experience. You can even have a buddy system to get them acclimated.

A smaller group also means less time for players to sit out while other players get the spotlight. Never let the new players feel shortchanged or like their voices aren’t as important as those of the more experienced players. After all, if you’re an experienced player, you’re going to feel more comfortable speaking up and venturing forward than a new player might.

[Image courtesy of Lewis Brown.]

#3 Say yes to their ideas

Now, obviously, you can’t say yes to every idea a player has or the story could descend into nonsense. But trust your players’ instincts.

Let them wander down the paths they find most interesting. It might not be the path you intended, and it might take them longer to get to the desired end point, but it’s always better for players to reach a story point organically, rather than railroading them to the place and time you want. Even new players can sense when they’re being strong-armed in a certain direction, and that can leave a bad taste in players’ mouths.

Be flexible. I’ve always found that, no matter how thoroughly I think I’ve mapped out an adventure, my players (both new and experienced) excel at finding paths I hadn’t considered. That requires me to be quick on my feet, and I enjoy the challenge of pitting my wits, improvisational skills, and imagination against those of my players.

A roleplaying game is like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel writ large… whenever possible, let them feel in control of their players, their story, and their destiny.

[Image from Stranger Things courtesy of The Verge.]

#4 Take them where they want to go

This might feel like a repeat of the previous note, but it’s not. This point is a reminder to always consider the characters your players are playing. What are their strengths? What goals do they have? What are they hoping to experience and accomplish?

Plenty of game runners, myself included, can get so wrapped up in the story WE want to tell that we forget that it might not mesh with the story our players want to participate in.

Give them moments to shine. Give the fighters a chance to fight, give the magicians opportunity to ply their craft, and give the puzzlers puzzles to solve. If characters have wings, let ’em fly.

[Image courtesy of Digital Trends.]

#5 Make the ending awesome

No matter how simple the adventure starts — a theft, a murder, the discovery of a treasure map, the descent into a trap-laden dungeon — make sure the ending is memorable. You want the quest, however short or long, to feel worthwhile.

You can try the old cliffhanger trick in the hopes of leaving them wanting more, but that can come back to bite you if the players are dissatisfied that their first adventure doesn’t feel complete. Instead, give them a sense of accomplishment.

Martin at Amazing Tales said it well:

Make sure your child’s first ever role-playing game features an epic ending. Face to face with the villain on a cliff edge as the counter ticks toward zero; returning the stolen jewels to the temple moments before sunset while pursued by ghosts; wrestling the controls of the star-ship from the pirate moments before it crashes into the sun. That kind of epic.

You don’t necessarily need to go epic, but certainly make it memorable. Nothing sells a big win like giving the bad guy a funny line before he turns to ash.


Here’s hoping this advice encourages aspiring dungeon masters and storytellers to get out there, find some players, and spin some marvelous adventure yarns. (Or maybe it’s inspired some new players to try roleplaying themselves!)

What’s your favorite memory from your early roleplay sessions, fellow puzzlers? (Either as a game runner or player.) Let us know in the comments section below!


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!