A Puzzly Nom de Plume?

[Image courtesy of Writers Write.]

There was an intriguing blog post on The Wall Street Journal‘s website a few days ago about their crossword editor, Mike Shenk.

For those who don’t know, Shenk is a well-respected name in the world of puzzles who has contributed puzzles to numerous outlets, including GAMES Magazine, The New York Times, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and of course, The Wall Street Journal.

The blog post revealed that Shenk had published puzzles in the WSJ under pseudonyms in the past, but going forward, that would no longer be the case. In the spirit of transparency, any puzzles constructed by Shenk would appear under his real name.

Greater transparency in crossword publishing is definitely a good thing. If you recall, part of the issue with Timothy Parker’s tenure for the Universal Crossword involved other constructors’ puzzles being reprinted under Parker’s pseudonyms instead of the actual constructor’s name. Ben Tausig found one example, and further investigation turned up others.

From a FiveThirtyEight article discussing the story:

The puzzles in question repeated themes, answers, grids and clues from Times puzzles published years earlier. Hundreds more of the puzzles edited by Parker are nearly verbatim copies of previous puzzles that Parker also edited. Most of those have been republished under fake author names.

Obviously, no such accusations mar Shenk’s tenure at The Wall Street Journal. His reputation is pristine.

[Image courtesy of Politico.]

But it made me wonder. Last year, we discussed how many women were being published in various crossword outlets. From January 1st to April 29th of 2018, nine out of the 99 puzzles published by The Wall Street Journal were constructed by women. Were some of those actually Shenk under a pseudonym? (One of the noms de plume mentioned in the WSJ blog post was Alice Long.)

Naturally, this whole topic got me thinking about pseudonyms in general. In British crosswords, most constructors (or setters, as they’re called in the UK) publish under a pseudonym. Among loyal solvers, names like Araucaria, Qaos, Paul, Enigmatist, Shed, and Crucible are as familiar there as C.C. Burnikel, Jeff Chen, Brendan Emmett Quigley, or Patrick Berry would be here.

How common are pseudonyms in American-style crosswords, do you suppose? Has usage of aliases increased or decreased over the years? I might have to follow up on that in the future.

In the meantime, it’s intriguing to see one of the most respected crossword outlets in the market today, The Wall Street Journal, take a stand on visibility and transparency in puzzle publishing. Maybe it’s the start of something bigger.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: ThinkFun’s Potato Pirates

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

Most of ThinkFun‘s coding-based puzzle games are either solo endeavors or head-to-head races to complete tasks. Potato Pirates adds a marvelous new wrinkle, since 3 to 6 players are required to take to the high seas for some swashbuckling spudly fun!

Potato Pirates is a tactical game where players compete to outlast their opponents and become the most dominant potato pirate the world has ever known, a Dread Pirate Roberts of starchy goodness. You do so by either collecting all seven Potato King cards, or by eliminating every other player at the table.

Each player starts with two ships and twenty potato crew members, along with a hand of five cards. There are control cards, action cards, and surprise cards (along with the aforementioned Potato King cards).

The coding aspect of the game allows you to battle your fellow players. The control and action cards can be combined into commands that you program one round and activate the next in order to attack the other players.

Action cards indicate damage dealt to the potato crew of your target, while control cards indicate conditions for that action, like multipliers to cause more damage or how many ships you can target with one command. (Surprise cards can be played at any time, even when it’s not your turn.)

And that coding structure makes Potato Pirates more strategic and tactical than a lot of other card games where you can play any card at any time. Since you can code a command or modify a command on one turn, and have to wait for the next to activate it, you may leave yourself open to attack during that turn you spend coding.

An important thing to remember is that you code and deploy each ship separately, so since you have two ships to start, you can take the tactic of coding one ship while attacking with the other, and then switching during the next round, so you’re never totally on defense. (My fellow players and I immediately adopted this tactic, which lengthened the gameplay and made things slightly more frantic. That’s two big bonuses for this game.)

[Two commands in progress. The first is ready to go next round, the second is currently attacking this round.]

Since players burn through the coding cards so quickly, reshuffling the deck can slow things down from time to time, but otherwise, the game is nicely designed, and once you’ve read and played around with the control cards for a little while, the concepts become second nature to you and you can really start plotting some devious attacks on the other potato buccaneers at the table.

Oh, and speaking of, making the little potato pirates balls of fuzz is both an adorable aesthetic choice and a kid-friendly way to make the game approachable for young players. Leading off with cards and coding can be a bit daunting, but once they’re divvying up their potato pirates across different ships (with delightful punny names), younger players are hooked.

Although the coding aspect of the game isn’t as predominant here as it is in games like Robot Turtles, Hacker, or On the Brink, the fun gameplay offered here — and the desperate need you feel to play again if your ships sink! — ensures that these basic coding commands and ideas will become familiar through sheer repetition.

And getting saluted each time you find a Potato King card is pretty great as well.

One of these days, fellow PuzzleNationers, I shall be the Potato King. I promise you that.

Potato Pirates is available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.


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Complex Puzzles and the Importance of Double-Checking

Puzzles are constantly evolving, and in the age of the Internet, the only thing more impressive than the multi-stage brain-melting complexity of some puzzles is the ability of people to work together to solve them.

There are the in-person examples, like escape rooms, scavenger hunts, and puzzle hunts, where people gather together to unravel a series of puzzles in order to accomplish a task.

But when it comes to the hidden challenges concealed within some video games, the Internet itself becomes the gathering place for dedicated puzzlers to come together and crack these ingeniously devised brain teasers.

We’ve talked about several of these puzzle hunts in the past. There was the Gravity Falls cipher hunt that led to an actual statue of the show’s villain Bill Cipher in the woods of Reedsport, Oregon. (And a mayoral position for the first person to find him and shake his hand!)

There was the puzzle-turned-global-scavenger hunt from Trials Evolution that won’t be completed until 2113 at the base of the Eiffel Tower. And there was the Destiny 2 puzzle hunt that led to a replica of one of the game’s most famous weapons.

[Just one of the codes employed in the Trials Evolution puzzle.]

What’s amazing about these elaborate puzzly challenges is the complexity involved. There are different codebreaking techniques applied, levels upon levels of deduction, bits of word association, pattern recognition, and more, all of which must be executed to perfection in order to arrive at the correct solution.

But as a puzzle editor myself, I can’t stop focusing on how that complexity only increases for the puzzlesmiths themselves. After all, they have to create these clues, reverse engineering a challenging, multi-layered series of puzzles resulting in the answer they want, and along the way, make sure that it’s actually solvable.

I mean, creating a challenge is one thing. But striking a balance is remarkably difficult. You have to offer breadcrumbs and clues so that solvers know how to proceed (or that they’re on the correct path), and you can’t make it too easy, or it doesn’t feel like a worthy challenge. But make it too hard, and you risk solvers becoming frustrated, or worse, not discovering your creation at all, which feels like a wasted effort.

Threading the needle in this fashion is an awesome task in every sense of the word, and every time I see one of these puzzle hunts unearthed and completed blows my mind. The folks who solve them are the coolest, and the folks who create them are badasses.

But with all these elaborate puzzles, I couldn’t help but wonder… what happens when something goes wrong?

I mean, we’ve all seen crosswords with incorrect clues, or cases where more than one answer to a riddle or a puzzle makes sense. These things can happen, no matter how hard you try, or how often you test-solve and beta-test.

Recently, that question was answered.

The crew behind Destiny 2 — the same game that featured the impressive Warmind puzzle from last year — unleashed a new fiendish puzzle as part of their Black Armory content pack. That puzzle, Niobe Labs, served as a lock, and until the puzzle was solved by at least one player, none of the online players could access the adventures that lay beyond it.

The puzzle was released last Tuesday, and last Thursday — less than two full days after the release — the company decided that it was unfair to have regular players waiting for those with world-class puzzly skills to unravel the secret behind the puzzle, and they opened the full download for everyone.

Now, that might seem like a knee-jerk reaction, given that it was less than two days afterward. But it’s worth noting that these online crowd-solving efforts can work remarkably quickly, since so many people are not only trying it, but sharing their discoveries with each other.

In fact, in less than 24 hours after the original release, players had completed six out of the seven puzzles in Niobe Labs, involving complex ciphers, visual patterns, and references to sources as disparate as “Frere Jacques” and Victor Hugo.

Level Seven had the entire community stymied. And with good reason.

The puzzle was broken.

As it turns out, a piece of coding connected to the Level Seven puzzle had been deleted from the game’s code, making the puzzle unsolvable.

The Destiny 2 designers offered a new hint late Friday night to solvers, consisting of six cryptic sentences. And within hours, the intrepid solvers pooled their collective skills and knowledge to crack the final puzzle.

It never ceases to amaze me what puzzlers can accomplish when they put their minds to it, particularly when they work together.

And, of course, it makes me grateful for the test-solvers and beta-testers out there making sure our puzzles actually work as intended. Although this might’ve been embarrassing for the crew behind Destiny 2, it’s a valuable lesson.

Don’t be afraid to have someone check it one more time.


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Kickstarter Roundup!

Oh yes, it’s that time again.

For years now, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have been hotbeds of innovative puzzle and game design, and I’m always happy to spread the word about worthy projects that I think will delight and intrigue my fellow PuzzleNationers.

So let’s take a look at some projects that are currently seeking funding and see if any pique your interest!


The first is Peter Gordon’s Fireball Newsflash Crosswords.

Culturally timely clues and entries are a hallmark of this marvelous variation on Gordon’s long-running Fireball Crosswords brand, and you can be guaranteed that each Fireball Newsflash Crossword grid will be well-constructed and cleverly clued.

With twenty puzzles sent to you by email — one every two to three weeks — you’ll always have some terrific puzzling to look forward to.

Gordon has a knack for melding flowing grid design with sharp, topical entry words, and much of the time, you’ll not only be impressed by how much material makes it into the grid, but by what major and minor events you’ve missed recently! Gordon’s history of topnotch puzzles is all the incentive you need to contribute.

He’s already at one-third of his target goal, and he only launched a few days ago. I suspect Peter’s got another successful project on his hands here.

For the roleplaying-game enthusiasts out there, our second offering is right up your alley: Treacherous Traps.

Designed for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons — but easily adapted for all sorts of other RPG systems — Treacherous Traps offers obstacles and surprises for players of any experience level.

Whether you’re selecting one of the specially tailored decks or the hardcover book containing all 250(!) traps, you’re sure to find plenty of devious ammunition to toss at your players.

Treacherous Traps has blown way past its original goal, but there’s still plenty of time to get in on the ground floor of some fun and crafty additions to any roleplaying campaign.

For our third and final offering today, we’ve got a new board game with ancient ties.

Enso Koi is a strategy game where each player tries to capture their opponents’ koi fish while protecting their own. As players navigate the pond, seize and maneuver stones, and eliminate the rival fish, they’ll have to devise tactics while playing both offense and defense.

A mix of piece-capturing games like chess and territory-control games like Risk, Enso Koi offers an elegant new take on classic board game tropes.

It’s about a third of the way funded already, and for a first-timer on Kickstarter, that’s pretty impressive!


Have any of these games hooked you? Let us know which ones you’re supporting in the comments section below! And if there are any campaigns you’re supporting that we missed, let us know!

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Happy One Year Anniversary, Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory!

It’s funny how crosswords can seem like a solitary pursuit — and are often depicted as such in pop culture — and yet, there’s such a sense of camaraderie that comes with being a solver.

I talk a lot about the PuzzleNation community and my fellow PuzzleNationers, or about the puzzle community in general, because it’s one of my favorite aspects of being a puzzle guy.

Whether it’s engaging in a puzzly activity with friends (like an escape room or a D&D adventure), hanging out with fellow puzzlers at events like the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (registration is open now!), or just teaming up with a pal to crack a particularly devious puzzle or brain teaser, those moments of shared experience are as encouraging as they are welcome.

So it’s very cool to see one of the newer parts of the puzzle community celebrating its one-year anniversary: The Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory.

This Facebook group is part gathering place for established and aspiring constructors and part resource for constructors of all skill levels.

Over the last year, people have posted and shared information about everything from grid construction, editing programs, and cluing advice to networking, test-solving, and encouraging feedback.

[Some constructors even offer visual aids when answering questions!]

Inexperienced and aspiring constructors meet and collaborate with established names. Obstacles, problems, and questions are handled with equal care and support. Heck, some constructors have even posted rejection notices they’ve received in order to share the valuable feedback it contains.

And some members of the group have greater ambitions for the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, hoping to encourage more constructors from underrepresented groups to construct and submit their puzzles, bringing a genuine level of equality and equal representation in the world of puzzles.

It’s a place to learn, to network, to grow, to celebrate one’s successes, and learn from one’s setbacks. One of the regular visitors of the group even managed to cross off one of her New Year’s resolutions last year by submitting a crossword to The New York Times, thanks in part to the resources and support provided by this marvelous group of people.

And that’s definitely something worth celebrating.


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Escape Room Tips Galore!

The movie Escape Room opens today in theaters, so naturally, I’ve got escape rooms on the brain.

For the uninitiated, an escape room is an interactive series of puzzles or challenges set in a closed space. The group needs to explore the room and complete various tasks in order to escape the room within the allotted time.

Escape rooms have exploded in popularity over the last few years, so it’s likely you’ve either already participated in one or at least heard of them.

But the idea of being locked in a room with a fixed time limit and an unknown number of tasks to accomplish can be intimidating or discouraging.

So today, I thought I could offer some helpful tips to get you going.

#1 Communication

Whether it’s your first escape room or your twentieth, communication is always key. There’s a room to search, puzzles to solve, and tasks to complete, and everyone is going to have their own unique insights.

So speak up! Point out things you notice, keep everyone informed of what you’re doing or trying to do, and let people know if you’ve solved or discovered something.

And if you need help or you’re not sure about something, ask. It’s a team game.

#2 Note-taking

Most of the escape rooms I’ve done usually give you a whiteboard and a marker or a notepad and pencil to take notes with. This is an incredibly useful tool in solving the room, because it lets you keep track of code words, number chains, and possible combinations for the various locks you’ll encounter. And once you’ve used a code to unlock something, you can cross it out so nobody wastes time reusing a code you’ve already figured out.

If there’s not some way to physically keep track, you can always ask someone to try their best to mentally keep track of which ones you have used or might need in the future.

#3 Organization

There’s a lot going on in any escape room, so keep things simple by setting up two areas: puzzles in progress and puzzles solved.

Many puzzles or tasks you encounter in an escape room take time to fully form. For instance, you might get a keycard in one color, and not know what it’s for. But as you explore the room and solve a few puzzles, you find more keycards in other colors. Suddenly, you’ll find the use for ALL of them in a new puzzle. So have a designated place to keep things you find that you haven’t used yet. You’ll be glad you did.

Also, once a puzzle is complete or a clue is used, put it into your “puzzles solved” area. You don’t need extraneous clutter confusing you, and it’s a good way to discard solved locks, used keys, and other parts of the game you’ve completed in a way that won’t slow you down moving forward.

Doing so is also part of good communication, since everyone will immediately know what’s still in play and what’s been handled.


That should be enough to get you started, but if you’d like more advice, check out this terrific breakdown of more escape room tips that can make your solving experience more fruitful:

Whether you’re enjoying a friendly day of solving or tackling a monstrous challenge like the characters in the Escape Room film, these clues are bound to come in handy.


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