PuzzleNation Looks Back at 2016!

The year is quickly coming to a close, and as I look back on an eventful year in the world of puzzles and games, I’m unbelievably proud of the contributions both PuzzleNation Blog and PuzzleNation made to the puzzle community as a whole.

Over the last year, we explored board games and card games, strategy games and trivia games, dice games and tile games, do-it-yourself puzzlers and pen-and-paper classics. We met designers, constructors, authors, artists who work in LEGOs and dominos, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and used statistics to play Hangman and Guess Who smarter. We accepted the challenge of diabolical puzzles, optical illusions, Internet memes, and more.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about Bletchley Park, puzzle graffiti from ancient Greece, Viking board games, and modern mysteries like the Kryptos Sculpture and the Voynich Manuscript. We separated fact from fiction when it comes to puzzles and brain health, avoiding highfalutin promises and sticking to solid science.

We spread the word about numerous worthwhile Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, watching as the puzzle/game renaissance continued to amaze and surprise us with innovative new ways to play and solve. We shared amazing projects and worthy causes like Humble Bundles and puzzle/game donation programs for schools that allowed puzzle lovers to help others.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, built a puzzle fort in honor of International Puzzle Day, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games, and dove deep into puzzle events like the Indie 500, the UK Sudoku Championship, the 2016 UK Puzzle Championship, and Lollapuzzoola. We even celebrated a puzzly wedding proposal, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you.

It’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to explore the world of puzzles and games with you, my fellow puzzle lovers and PuzzleNationers. We marked four years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I’m approaching my 650th blog post, and I’m more excited to write for you now than I was when I started.

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2016 went well beyond that.

In April, we launched Penny Dell Crosswords Jumbo 3 for iOS users, and in May, we followed that with Penny Dell Crosswords Jumbo for Android. In November, we launched our new Penny Dell Sudoku app on both Android and iOS.

But the standout showpiece of our puzzle app library remains the Penny Dell Crossword App. Every month, we release puzzle sets like our Dell Collection sets or the themed Deluxe sets for both Android and iOS users, and I’m proud to say that every single puzzle represents our high standards of quality puzzle content for solvers and PuzzleNationers.

We even revamped our ongoing Crossword Clue Challenge to feature a clue from each day’s Free Daily Puzzle in the Crossword app, all to ensure that more puzzle lovers than ever have access to the best mobile crossword app on the market today.

And your response has been fantastic! The blog is closing in on 2000 followers, and with our audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms continuing to grow, the enthusiasm of the PuzzleNation readership is both humbling and very encouraging.

2016 was our most ambitious, most exciting, and most creatively fulfilling year to date, and the coming year promises to be even brighter.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. Have a marvelous New Year. We’ll see you in 2017!


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How to Get Started in Games

[Image courtesy of The Board Game Family.]

So, it’s after Christmas, and you’ve been gifted with a new game, or a roleplaying book, or someone showed you a new card game and you want to know more. Or your New Year’s Resolution is to learn more games, play more games, solve more puzzles, or even make some puzzles yourself.

Basically… how do you get started?

Here. You get started right here. I’m going to run down my favorite guide books for gaming, puzzles, tabletop play, roleplaying, and more, creating the perfect first step to a new world of play for you.

Let’s get cracking!


My first recommendation is also the most recently published book on my list.

The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming by Teri Litorco is a perfect introduction to all things gaming. This delightfully nerdy tome is loaded with thoughtful advice covering everything from choosing new games to teaching them to others, as well as building a game group for regular sessions or roleplaying games, and more.

From how to deal with cranky gamers to how to host your own major gaming events, Teri has dealt with every obstacle imaginable, and she offers her hard-won first-hand knowledge in easily digestible tidbits. Even as an experienced tabletop gamer, roleplayer, and puzzler, I found this to be a very worthwhile read, and I think you will too.

If card games are your poison, then what you need is a copy of The Ultimate Book of Card Games by Scott McNeely.

What separates this book from many other card game books — namely the ones attributed to Hoyle (the vast majority of which had nothing to do with him) — is that it doesn’t claim to be the definitive source. It provides the key rules for how to play, and then offers numerous variations and house rules that expand and refine gameplay.

There are more than 80 pages of variations of Solitaire alone! Kids games, betting games, games for two, three, four or more, this is my go-to guide for everything that can be played with a standard deck of cards.

What if you’re already a fan of games, but you want to play them better? If that’s your goal, check out How to Win Games and Beat People by Tom Whipple.

Monopoly, Jenga, Hangman, Operation, Trivial Pursuit, Twenty Questions, Checkers, Battleship… heck, even Rock, Paper, Scissors is covered here. With advice from top players, world record holders, game creators and more, you’ll find advice, tactics, and fun facts you won’t see anywhere else.

For instance, did you know that letter frequencies in Hangman are different from letter frequencies in the dictionary? ESIARN is the way to go with Hangman, not ETAOIN.

That’s just one of the valuable nuggets of info awaiting you in this book.

Ah, but what about puzzles? There are so many amazing puzzle styles out there, how do you know where to begin learning to construct one of your own?

I’d suggest you start with Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder’s Puzzlecraft.

If you’re a puzzle or game fan, you already know their names. Selinker’s The Maze of Games is featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide; Snyder is better known online as Dr. Sudoku, and we explored several of his creations in our Wide World of Sudoku post a few years ago.

Snyder and Selinker break down the fundamentals of dozens of different puzzles, explaining how they work and what pitfalls to avoid when creating your own. You can easily lose hours within the pages of this in-depth handbook — I know from firsthand experience — and you always come out the other side a stronger constructor.


Do you have any favorite books about puzzles and games that I missed? Let me know, I’d love to hear about them!

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It’s Follow-Up Friday: LEG-OH NO WAY edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

It’s been quite a week here at PuzzleNation Blog!

After posts that ran the gamut from Comic-Con encryption puzzles and new puzzle sets for the Penny Dell Crosswords app to becoming a sharper Hangman or Guess Who? player and enjoying the puzzly chain reactions known as Rube Goldberg devices, I was left with quite a conundrum: How do I close out such an eclectic week?

This will be my sixth post in six days after all. What would be an appropriate capper?

Well, I think I found the perfect Friday post idea: some visual LEGO puzzle wizardry.

Specifically, it’s a moving piece of puzzle art that combines the visual wonder of the pop-up book with the puzzly skill of a LEGO master builder.

I give you the LEGO Pop-Up Himeji Castle:

I’ve watched the video over and over, and I have no idea how the castle fits together OR compresses itself flat enough to fit between the “covers.” This is mind-blowing LEGO skill and puzzly three-dimensional manipulation of space.

And apparently, this sort of next-level three-dimensional spatial reasoning is second-nature to YouTuber Talapz, since he also managed to create this multi-dimensional sculpture that allows a ball to traverse it in three different arrangements:

I first stumbled across Talapz’s works on this site (written in French, no less!), and quickly followed his work on his YouTube page. Be sure to click the link for more brain-melting works of puzzly LEGO art.


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Better Gaming With Math and Statistics!

[Image courtesy of ThreeSixtyOne.gr.]

Statistical analysis is changing the world. The wealth of available data on the Internet these days, combining with our ever-increasing ability to comb through that data efficiently using computers, has spawned something of a golden age in data mining.

You don’t need to look any further than the discovery of Timothy Parker’s plagiaristic shenanigans for USA Today and Universal Uclick to see how impactful solid analysis can be.

But it’s also having an impact on how we play games. Statistical analysis is taking some of the mystery out of games you’d never expect, making players more efficient and capable than ever.

We discussed this previously with the game Monopoly — specifically how some spaces are far more likely to be landed on than others — and today, we’re looking at two more examples: Guess Who? and Hangman.

Guess Who? gives you a field of 24 possible characters, and you have to figure out which character your opponent has before she figures out the identity of your character. Usually, if you end up with a woman or someone with glasses, your odds of winning are low, because some aspects are simply less common than others.

But is there an optimal way to pare down the options? Absolutely.

Mathematician Rafael Prieto Curiel has devised a strategy for playing Guess Who?, based on an analysis of the notable features of each character, breaking it down into 22 possible questions to ask your opponent:

Based on this data, he has even created a flowchart of questions to ask to maximize your chances of victory. The first question? “Does your person have a big mouth?”

Yes, not exactly a great first-date question, but one that yields the best possible starting point for you to narrow down your opponent’s character.

It’s certainly better than my first instinct, which is always to ask, “Does your person look like a total goon?”

Now, when it comes to Hangman, the name of the game is letter frequency. Just like a round of Wheel of Fortune, you’re playing the odds at first to find some anchor letters to help you spell out the entire answer.

But, as it turns out, letter frequency is not the same across all word lengths. For instance, E is the most common letter in the English language, but it is NOT the most common letter in five-letter words. That honor belongs to the letter S.

In four-letter words, the most common letter is A, not E. And it can change, depending on the presence — or lack thereof — of other letters.

From How to Win Games and Beat People by Tom Whipple:

“E might be the most common letter in six-letter words, and S the second most common, but what if you guess E and E is not in it?” In six-letter words without an E, S is no longer the next best letter to try. It is A.

In fact, Facebook data scientist Nick Berry has created a chart with an optimal calling order based on the length of the blank word.

For one-letter words through 4-letter words, start with A. For five-letter words, start with S. For six-letter words through twelve-letter words, use E. And for words thirteen letters and above, start I.

Of course, if you’re the one posing the word to be guessed, “jazz” is statistically the least-likely word to be guessed using this data. And your opponent will surely hate you for choosing it.


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DIY Pencil and Paper Puzzles!

pencil-paper

Picture this. You’re stuck somewhere with friends. The airport, a traffic jam, wherever. Nowhere to charge your phone, so you can’t play Trivia Crack or solve any of the great puzzles offered by the Penny/Dell Crosswords app.

All you’ve got is paper and pencils, and you’re in a puzzly mood. What do you do?

Well, you whip up some DIY puzzle fun, of course.

Now, the classic go-to pencil and paper game is Hangman. The goal is simple: guess the complete word or phrase by guessing one letter at a time. Each correct letter is filled in every time it appears (like on Wheel of Fortune), and each incorrect letter results in one piece of the Hangman being drawn. If you let too many incorrect guesses stack up before solving the puzzle, the Hangman is completed and you lose.

hangman

People have differing rules when it comes to the Hangman’s complexity. Some draw the gallows and noose as well as the Hangman, while others pre-draw the gallows and noose, only drawing the Hangman when wrong guesses occur. (I, for one, always liked drawing him a jaunty top hat before sending him to his demise.)

I can remember a time we played Hangman in high school because the professor for our physics class didn’t show up. One of the other students I didn’t know very well suggested it, and his first two puzzles were cracked pretty quickly. But then the third one had most of the class stumped.

It read: C A P T A I N ___ O ___

People kept guessing “Captain Ron,” even though there was clearly no N in that second blank. When I realized it was “Captain Lou,” I blurted out the answer, and suddenly, we were fast friends.

Because of Hangman.

mark-wahlberg-plays-guessing-game-with-a-teddy-bear

Another simple game is Guess My Word. One person chooses a word, and the other narrows it down by guessing words and being told if those guesses precede or follow the secret word in the alphabet.

For instance, if the word was QUINTET and your first guess was HALLOWEEN, I would say after. So, in one guess, you’ve eliminated every word that comes before HALLOWEEN alphabetically.

And if you’d like to give it a shot, puzzle constructor Joon Pahk created a Guess My Word feature on his website that is great fun (and sometimes pretty challenging).

tic-tac-toe

I was going to mention Tic-Tac-Toe here — another staple of the pencil-and-paper puzzle game genre — until my mother mentioned a variation she read about in Parade magazine.

In the article, Marilyn vos Savant is credited with creating Toe-Tac-Tic, a reverse Tic-Tac-Toe game wherein getting three in a row means you lose.

It’s a completely different style of game play, adding a nice twist to a classic game. (Though, quite honestly, I’m not sure we can credit vos Savant with its creation, since I can remember seeing this played in the mid-2000s. I’m not sure anyone called it “Toe-Tac-Tic,” but the rules were the same.)

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And finally, for fans of card games, you can always whip up a round of 1000 Blank White Cards.

Named for the only thing you need to play — a bunch of identical blank pieces of paper, index cards, or something similar — 1000 Blank White Cards is a game you design and play both before and during the game! You can also further refine the game in subsequent sessions.

As Wikipedia so aptly puts it:

A deck of cards consists of any number of cards, generally of a uniform size and of rigid enough paper stock that they may be reused. Some may bear artwork, writing or other game-relevant content created during past games, with a reasonable stock of cards that are blank at the start of gameplay.

Some time may be taken to create cards before gameplay commences, although card creation may be more dynamic if no advance preparation is made, and it is suggested that the game be simply sprung upon a group of players, who may or may not have any idea what they are being caught up in. If the game has been played before, all past cards can be used in gameplay unless the game specifies otherwise, but perhaps not until the game has allowed them into play.

Once your initial deck of cards is created, players draw a card from the deck and either play them, keep them, or add them to the active rules of the table so they affect everyone. In this way, gameplay is quite similar to another classic puzzle card game, Fluxx, especially with the ever-changing rules and malleable gameplay.

Not only has 1000 Blank White Cards appeared in GAMES Magazine, but it was also included in the 2001 revision of Hoyle’s Rules of Games.

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I am a huge fan of customizable games, so I have played 1000 Blank White Cards many times. From cards that can cause immediate victory to cards that can negate those cards, from point cards and rule cards to cards that requiring singing or truth-or-dare challenges, the possibilities are endless.

Some of my favorite cards are just drawings of turtles, where another card grants you special powers or bonuses depending on how many turtle cards you have. Another allows you to create a new card on your turn, either to keep for yourself or to give to another player.

And the rules can depend entirely on who you’re playing with. Sometimes, you can make a new card every round, while other times, you can only introduce a new card when you’ve drawn a card that allows it. Heck, there might even be blank cards in the deck that you can draw and customize immediately! It is literally up to you and your fellow players how to play.

Fans of Calvin and Hobbes will no doubt draw comparisons between 1000 Blank White Cards and Calvinball, and rightfully so. (Savvy card-game players may also recognize similarities to the figure-out-the-rules-while-you-play game Mao.)

But whether you’re playing Hangman or guessing a word, getting three in a row or avoiding it at all costs, or even creating your own signature game, as long as you’ve got a partner in crime and an imagination, you’re never without a puzzle.


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!