What makes a great riddle?

[Image courtesy of PNG Find.]

I have always suspected that riddles were our first experiments with puzzles and puzzly thinking. Long before crosswords, Sudoku, codebreaking, and magic squares, the potential for wordplay and outside-the-box thinking would have appealed to storytellers, teachers, philosophers, and other deep thinkers.

Who doesn’t enjoy unraveling a riddle, parsing the carefully constructed sentences for every hint and nuance lurking within, and then extracting that tiny purest nugget of a solution from the ether?

Riddles appeal to our love of story and adventure, of heroes with wits as sharp as their swords. Riddles are the domain of gatekeepers and tricksters, monsters and trap rooms from the best Dungeons & Dragons quests.

And so, for centuries upon centuries, even up to the modern day, riddles have been a challenging and intriguing part of the world of puzzling.

We can trace them back to the Greeks, to Ancient Sumeria, to the Bible through Samson, and to mythology through the Sphinx. Riddles abound in literature; we find riddles in Shakespeare, in the works of Joyce, Carroll, and Austen, all the way up to the modern day with The Hobbit and Harry Potter. Every locked room mystery and impossible crime is a riddle to be unraveled.

[Image courtesy of Campbell County Public Library.]

But this raises a crucial question: what makes a good riddle?

At first glance, it should be confusing or elusive. But after some thought, there should be enough information within the riddle to provide a solution, either through wordplay/punnery OR through looking at the problem from a different perspective.

Let’s look at an example. In this instance, we’ll examine the riddle from Jane Austen’s Emma, which is posed to the title character by a potential suitor:

My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!

The answer is “courtship.”

The first half of the riddle refers to the playground of royalty — court — and the second half to the domain of her suitor — ship — and when combined they form the suitor’s desire. This riddle is confusingly worded, to be sure, but it makes sense when analyzed and it’s totally reasonable when the clever Emma figures out the answer… and turns down the suitor’s attempt at riddly courtship.

[Image courtesy of Yale.edu.]

So, what’s an example of a bad riddle? Well, unfortunately, we don’t have to look too hard for an example of one. Let’s examine Samson’s riddle from The Book of Judges in the Old Testament, which he poses to his dinner guests (with a wager attached):

Out of the eater,
something to eat;
out of the strong,
something sweet.

The answer, bafflingly, is “bees making a honeycomb inside the carcass of a lion.”

This is borderline nonsense unless Samson actually told you the story of killing a lion with his bare hands and later returning to the corpse to find bees building a hive inside. So, basically, this riddle not only screws over his dinner guests — who lost a wager to buy fine clothing if they couldn’t solve the rigged riddle — and serves as an excuse to brag about killing a lion. Samson is a jerk.

This is a bad riddle, because it’s designed to be confusing, but does not offer enough information to get to the desired solution. It’s purposely unsolvable, and that sucks. Riddles shouldn’t be arbitrary or nonsensical.

James Joyce pulled this in Ulysses. Lewis Carroll pulled it in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And each of these examples give riddles a bad name. (Even if they do serve a literary purpose, as scholars claim they do in the Joyce and Carroll examples.)

Even if you want the hero to seem (or be) smarter than the reader, the riddle should still make sense. When confronted with five riddles by Gollum in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins solves four of them (and answers the fifth through charmingly dumb luck). It doesn’t hurt his character or make the reader feel like they’re being cheated when these riddles are resolved.

That’s another quality of a great riddle. Even if you don’t solve it, when you DO find the answer, it should feel like you were outwitted and you learned something, not that you were involved in a rigged game.

Oh, and speaking of learning, that reminds me of another example of a challenging yet fair riddle, one that comes from Ancient Sumeria (now, modern-day Iraq):

There is a house. One enters it blind and comes out seeing. What is it?

The answer, as you might have puzzled out, is “a school.”

Riddles can be devious or tricky; they can rely on misdirection, our own assumptions and biases, or careful word choice to befuddle the reader. But they should always be learning experiences, like the house you enter blind and leave seeing.

What are some of your favorite riddles, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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The Best Puzzle Solvers in Young Adult Fiction

In the past, we have assembled super-teams of the best puzzle solvers in horror films, television, and literature. The goal was to highlight characters who stand out, the ones you’d want on your side, because they’re clever, decisive, and immensely capable.

In the fourth installment in this delightful series, we turn our attention to books for young adult readers, seeking out the quickest minds and the deftest problem solvers from the printed page.

So let’s meet (or revisit) some wickedly bright minds from teen-centric reads.


nancy drew

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Nancy Drew

Originally created as a female counterpart to the Hardy Boys, detective Nancy Drew has largely eclipsed them at this point, cementing her reputation as one of the most prominent teen detectives in literature. Nancy’s interest in numerous fields — psychology, language, and many others — served her well as she dove headlong into each case.

Her gift for association — making connections others miss — gave her a leg-up in locating clues and building cases before her lawyer father and the local police could do so. The criminal element in River Heights never left a puzzle that the diligent and outspoken Nancy couldn’t solve.

hermione-granger

[Image courtesy of Claire Fox Writes.]

Hermione Granger, Harry Potter series

When you’re a student of magic at one of the most dangerous schools in the world, you need to be sharp and ready. And Hermione Granger has those qualities in abundance. As studious as they come, Hermione is one of the puzzliest characters in modern literature. She brewed the notoriously difficult Polyjuice Potion, solved Professor Snape’s potion riddle, and deduced that Remus Lupin was a werewolf.

She’s as comfortable bending time to enhance her coursework (and save a few lives) as she is battling the gossip and lies of the treacherous Rita Skeeter. Numerous mysteries surrounding Hogwarts and Voldemort are solved by the trio of Ron, Harry, and Hermione, but without the stalwart and clever Miss Granger, Ron and Harry would’ve been out of luck.

wide window

[Image courtesy of Thrifty Teachers.]

Violet Baudelaire, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

The eldest of the three Baudelaire orphans, Violet has the most mechanical mind of the trio. She is a prolific inventor, making marvelous contraptions out of whatever’s handy, and often getting her and her siblings out of dangerous situations in the process. Pursued by the malevolent and greedy Count Olaf, Violet outwits Olaf on more than one occasion, paying close attention to him and tailoring her behavior accordingly.

Whether she’s inventing a grappling hook to save her sister or picking a lock to find evidence against Count Olaf, Violet has a mind made for puzzles, whether she’s putting things together or taking them apart. As imaginative as she is capable, no mechanical brain teaser could stymie her for long.

ender game

[Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.]

Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game series

Although Ender’s story is not as happy as some of the others in this list, as mistreated and manipulated as he is throughout the first book, he should absolutely be counted among the best puzzlers in young adult literature. He is a phenomenal tactician, first in laser tag competitions in zero gravity, then later in simulated interstellar combat scenarios as part of his command training.

Ender uses his cleverness to circumvent the final test and win an unwinnable battle. And when he discovers that the battle was NOT simulated, and he had in fact won a war through his clever ruthlessness, he turns his puzzly mind to figuring out the mistakes that led to the war in the first place. As his adventures continue, he unravels numerous mysteries, often saving lives in the process.

ready player one

[Image courtesy of Goodreads.]

Parzival, Aech, and Art3mis, Ready Player One

In a virtual world known as the OASIS — a fully immersive Internet where work, school, and recreation are conducted — the characters of Ready Player One are on the ultimate puzzle hunt. For five years, the prize has remained unclaimed, no matter how expansive or expensive the methods employed to find it. Entire corporations are dedicated to solving it, because the prize is nothing less than control of the OASIS itself.

Which makes it all the more impressive that game and puzzle-loving teenagers are the ones to uncover several of the keys needed to complete the hunt. They are clever, determined, and resourceful puzzlers who combine a thirst for knowledge, top-notch gaming skills, and impressive deductive reasoning to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

westing game

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Turtle Wexler, The Westing Game

When you find yourself — and everyone else in your apartment building — on the list of possible heirs for a dead millionaire’s fortune, you know something strange is going on. And if it’s a race to a fortune predicated on solving an intricate puzzle, solving a murder, and uncovering a mysterious secret, then Turtle Wexler is the person you want on your side.

Possessing a keen mind and some serious analytical chops — after all, she plays the stock market at 13 years old — Turtle’s intellect is nearly as quick as her shin-kicking feet. Another strong tactician, Turtle takes advantage of opportunities (and creating a few of her own), eventually winning the Westing Game.

queen's thief

[Image courtesy of Christina Reads YA.]

Eugenides, The Queen’s Thief Series

The puzzles that Eugenides concerns himself with are far different than the ones tackled by other characters on this list. Eugenides is a master strategist, a chess player who must treat entire countries as his gameboard. Eugenides is observant and patient, playing out slow-burn tactics that can take months or years to come to fruition, all in the hopes of protecting those he serves.

It’s quite something to solve a puzzle in front of you, but it’s something else entirely to solve the next five puzzles before they’ve even shown themselves. Over the course of The Queen’s Thief series, Eugenides shows a tremendous understanding of how others think, what motivates them, and who can be trusted. There’s not a logic problem or a brain teaser around that Eugenides couldn’t plot his way past.

benedict

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Sticky, Constance, Kate, and Reynie, The Mysterious Benedict Society

If you’re looking for the most overtly puzzly quartet in young adult lit, this should be your first stop. These books are loaded to the brim with puzzles and mysteries, and this fearsomely brilliant foursome is equipped to handle any riddle, cipher, or brain teaser in their way.

Whether it’s Reynie’s logical deduction skills, Kate’s incisive ability to find shortcuts, Sticky’s memory and recall, or Constance’s penchant for finding patterns in plain sight, the sinister plans of Mr. Curtain (and any other puzzly evildoer out there) don’t stand a chance.


Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from famous (or obscure) works of young adult lit? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!

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

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The Best Puzzle Solvers in Fiction

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Last year, we assembled super-teams of the best puzzle solvers in horror films and television respectively. The goal was to highlight characters who stood out, the ones you’d want on your side, because they’re clever, decisive, and immensely capable.

In the third installment in this illustrious series, we turn our attention to literature, seeking out the quickest minds and the deftest problem solvers from the printed page.

Yes, this list will be a bit detective-heavy, since they’re the protagonists most frequently put into situations where puzzly problem-solving becomes synonymous with the character. But we still think it’s a fair representation of the best puzzlers in the medium.


Oh, two quick notes before we get on with the post.

1.) Since both Batman and Sherlock Holmes were listed amongst the best puzzle solvers on television, we’ve opted to exclude them from this entry in order to make room for other individuals. Obviously they still make the cut, but it never hurts to share the spotlight.

2.) Fans of children’s books and young adult novels may be disappointed that the likes of Nancy Drew and Winston Breen didn’t make the list. But that’s for good reason. They’ll be getting their own list in the near future.


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Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter)

[Image courtesy of eBay.]

Detective Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse is the protagonist of 13 novels and dozens of hours of television. This opera-loving detective is famous for enjoying cryptic crosswords, and several of his novels challenge the reader with a crossword clue early on, revealing the answer in a later chapter.

Possessing a keen intellect, Morse solves cases through diligence, intuition, and a near-photographic memory. When you factor in his puzzle skills, you end up with someone who can, for instance, effortlessly realize that the spelling mistakes in a piece of evidence are a hidden threatening message, not mere errors.

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Lord Peter Wimsey (Dorothy L. Sayers)

[Image courtesy of LibraryCat.]

Although investigation is a hobby for Lord Peter Wimsey rather than a profession, that doesn’t make his efforts any less impressive or diligent. He offhandedly solves a cryptic clue for his valet during breakfast, something that will prove helpful later when he has to solve “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will.”

Resourceful in the extreme, Wimsey always manages to gather the necessary info to crack the case, whether that requires faking his own death or unraveling an entire cryptic puzzle in order to settle an acrimonious family gathering.

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C. Auguste Dupin (Edgar Allan Poe)

[Image courtesy of Learnodo-Newtonic.]

Perhaps the first literary detective, this creation of Edgar Allan Poe combined a keen eye for observation with an impressive knack for abductive reasoning (inference or making good guesses, as Sherlock Holmes does). Equally at home solving mysteries or chasing forgotten manuscripts, Dupin is the template from which so many crime solving characters sprung.

A master at demystifying enigmas, conundrums, and hieroglyphics, Poe’s creation employed “ratiocination” to place himself in the shoes of criminals and work out not only what they’d done, but where they went after the crime. Surely no criminal mastermind or logic puzzle could withstand the skills of C. Auguste Dupin.

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Mary Russell (Laurie R. King)

[Image courtesy of Goodreads.]

Fans of Sherlock Holmes know that he retired from crime solving and spent his twilight years beekeeping. But worry not, England, because Mary Russell ably fits the role Holmes left behind. As observant and strong-willed as her mentor, Mary is brilliant, proving herself a worthy student for Holmes while still a teenager.

A student of many languages, a theology scholar, and an avid reader, Mary is a fierce and intriguing character who embodies many of the puzzliest attributes of Holmes, but with her own idiosyncratic touches, even managing to resolve lingering threads from some of Holmes’s most famous cases.

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George Smiley (John le Carré)

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

There are many characters in literature that think ten steps ahead and manage to succeed, but George Smiley is one of the few who does so in believable fashion. The fictional spymaster and intelligence agent may not have Bond’s rakish good looks, but he has the puzzly chops to crack even the most diabolical schemes.

With an encyclopedic knowledge of spycraft and a perceptive mind capable of subtly getting information out of people, George Smiley is a master of looking at the chessboard of international gamesmanship and figuring out the best moves to make, which pieces to sacrifice, and how to read your opponent and outmaneuver him.

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William of Baskerville (Umberto Eco)

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Given how many cryptic crossword constructors in England name themselves after Inquisitors, it’s appropriate to find a strong puzzle solver during the time of the Inquisition. Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, often regarded as insightful and humble, refused to condemn a translator as a heretic, deducing that he was innocent. Later, after leaving the ranks of the Inquisition, William is asked to help explain a series of strange deaths at a Benedictine monastery.

William manages to solve the case AND disprove the presence of a demonic force in the abbey, but not in time to prevent tragedy. Nonetheless, his impressive deductions and masterful efforts to unravel the mysteries at the heart of the case — braving labyrinths both real and invented — are key to the novel’s success.

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Sirius Black (J.K. Rowling)

[Image courtesy of Boxlunch.]

Yes, he was a devotee of the Daily Prophet crossword, but it takes more than that to land you on this list. Although reckless at times after a long incarceration in Azkaban, Sirius proved on more than one occasion to have a quick, clever, and strategic mind, a trait shared by many great puzzlers.

He managed to sneak into Hogwarts twice, escaped the infamous Azkaban prison, and deduced where he could find the traitorous Peter Pettigrew. Not bad, especially when you consider the damage Dementors can do to someone’s psyche.

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The Black Widowers (Isaac Asimov)

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

A fictional dining club (men only, sadly), the Black Widowers often solve problems without ever leaving the dinner table. While many mystery novels walk you through the detective’s deductions and theories at the very end as the crime is solved, each Black Widowers case is solved in front of you, as they ask questions and pose solutions, before the final deduction (and correct solution) emerges.

Combining skills in chemistry, cryptography, law, art, and math, the Black Widowers are equipped to handle every puzzle, even if common-sense solutions occasionally elude them.


Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from famous (or obscure) works of literature? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!

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!

Answers to the Punderful Halloween Costume Game!

Halloween has come and gone, but the glorious puns remain.

That’s right, today we’ve got the answers to our latest edition of the Punderful Halloween Costume Game!

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the punny answers!


#1

2019punderful1

It’s Hawaiian Punch!

[Image courtesy of Hikendip.]

#2

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It’s back to the drawing board for this fella!

[Image courtesy of Country Living.]

#3

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It’s Scar-Face!

[Image courtesy of Upbeat News.]

#4

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It’s prime rib!

[Image courtesy of The Kitchn.]

#5

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It’s a Rey of sunshine!

[Image courtesy of Hannah Sloan.]

#6

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Snitches get stitches in this lovely mix of idiom and Harry Potter!

[Image courtesy of sprace.]

#7

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It’s a two-fer here with the cat’s pajamas and the bee’s knees!

[Image courtesy of Devon Prokopek.]

#8

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It’s a creative outlet!

[Image courtesy of Mental Floss.]

#9

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It’s chicken cord on blue (chicken cordon bleu)!

[Image courtesy of Hikendip.]

#10

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It’s Edgar Allan Poe Dameron in this mix of Star Wars and classic literature!

[Image courtesy of rottenartist.]


How many did you get? Have you seen any great punny costumes we missed? Let us know!

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!

The Puzzling Art of Letterlocking

letterlocking

[Image courtesy of Letter Writers Alliance.]

When you think about puzzles and personal security, what comes to mind?

Do you think of puzzle boxes, those delightfully tricky little wooden creations with all their sliding pieces and hidden compartments? Or does your mind go to encryption, the art of concealing your message in plain sight with ciphers, scytales, and other techniques meant to baffle anyone but those in the know?

Some puzzle box designs date back centuries, and ciphers can be traced back even further. (One is named after Caesar, after all.)

But there’s another centuries-old puzzly procedure you might not know about, and it kept letters and messages safe using nothing more than paper and wax.

butterflylock

[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

This technique is known as letterlocking. It involves a mix of precise folds, interlocking pieces of paper, and sealing wax in order to create a distinctive design or pattern.

Although the pattern itself can work like a puzzle — requiring a particular trick to unfold it and reveal the message without ripping or damaging the letter — that’s only a secondary line of defense. The true goal of letterlocking is to reveal tampering. The folding techniques are distinctive, and the wax creates points of adhesion.

If you receive a letter and the folds are done (aka redone) incorrectly, or the wax is smeared (or the paper ripped where the wax would have held it tight), then you know the letter has been compromised.

daggertrap

[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

Some examples of letterlocking trace back to the 13th century, and key figures like Queen Elizabeth I, Machiavelli, Galileo, and Marie Antoinette employed letterlocking security in the past. Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote a message and letterlocked it with a butterfly lock six hours before her beheading. (For a more modern reference, letterlocking was employed in the Harry Potter films as well, most famously in Dumbledore’s will.)

The various techniques involved are as distinctive as knots. The triangle lock. The dagger-trap. The pinwheel letter. And some historians believe that those techniques imply connections between some of the important players in history.

For instance, both poet John Donne and the spymaster of Queen Elizabeth I employed a similar letterlocking style. Did they share a common source, or even an instructor in common? Or did a particular letterlocking technique provide a clue as to the contents of the letter within?

Letterlocking is a historical curiosity that was seemingly lost to time after the proliferation of the envelope and other security techniques, but it is slowly being rediscovered by a new generation, as well as reverse engineered by scientists and scholars. Yale and MIT both have teams exploring the burgeoning field of letterlocking.

Museums are discovering treasure troves of letterlocked messages by going directly to the source: post offices. A cache of 600 undelivered letters in the Netherlands, for instance, are being analyzed by researchers.

trianglelock

[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

It’s a remarkable thing, really, this union of centuries-old skills with twenty-first century knowledge. These are puzzles, frozen in time, waiting to be solved and placed into the larger picture of history.

Letterlocking is nothing less than a rare and beautiful art combining puzzles and privacy, as elegant as it is clever. There are no doubt many more secrets to be found behind the folds, slits, and wax seals of these lovingly crafted messages.


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!

Answers to the Punderful Pop Culture Halloween Costume Game!

Halloween has come and gone, but the glorious puns remain.

That’s right, today we’ve got the answers to this year’s edition of the Punderful Pop Culture Halloween Costume Game!

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the answers!


PuzzleNation’s Punderful Pop Culture Halloween Costume Game!

#1

It’s Beauty AND the Beast!

#2

It’s the Black (Pink) Panther!

(Black Panther from the Marvel Universe + The Pink Panther)

#3

It’s the Darth Knight!

(Darth Vader from Star Wars + Batman, aka The Dark Knight)

#4

It’s Ronald McDonald Weasley!

(Ron Weasley from Harry Potter + Ronald McDonald)

#5

It’s a Royal Lifeguard!

(Royal Guardsman from Star Wars + lifeguard)

#6

It’s Gand-ALF!

(Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings + ALF)

#7

It’s Snow-ba Fett!

(Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs + Boba Fett from Star Wars)

#8

It’s Sailor Freddie Mercury!

(Sailor Mercury from Sailor Moon + Freddie Mercury of Queen)

#9

It’s OB-GYN Kenobi!

(OB-GYN + Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars)

#10

It’s Doctor Cindy Lou Who!

(Doctor Who + Cindy Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas)

#11

It’s Doctor Stranger Things!

(Doctor Strange from the Marvel Universe + Netflix’s Stranger Things)

#12

It’s Hermione Texas Ranger!

(Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books + Texas rangers)

#13

It’s Stevie Wonder Woman!

(Stevie Wonder + Wonder Woman)

#14

It’s a WeresWaldo!

(Werewolf + Where’s Waldo?)

#15

It’s Ash Wednesday!

(Either Ash from Pokemon + Wednesday Addams from The Addams Family OR Ash from Evil Dead/Army of Darkness + Wednesday Addams from The Addams Family.)


How many did you get? Have you seen any great punny costumes we missed? Let us know!

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!