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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My Favorite Crosswords and Clues for 2016!

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the crossword — the one hundred and third, to be precise — and I thought I would celebrate the day by sharing some of my favorite crossword puzzles and clues from this year.

I solved more crosswords this year than any other year I can remember. From The New York Times, The LA Times, and The Washington Post to Peter Gordon‘s Fireball Newsflash Crosswords and our own Free Daily Puzzle on the Penny Dell Crosswords app, I tried to sample as many constructors and outlets as I could.

I want to start with Ben Tausig’s “Gender-Fluid” quantum puzzle from The New York Times in September. In a year that saw the Times called out several times for tone-deaf and insensitive cluing, to have a puzzle dedicated to the increasing awareness of other gender options was great.

And it certainly didn’t hurt that Ben’s grid was tightly constructed and each of the variable M or F entries worked well. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

“Eliminating the Competition” by Barany and Friends was another strong crossword with clever letterplay involved. The puzzle paid tribute to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament by dropping the letters A, C, P, and T, respectively from the four theme entries in the grid.

Not only that, but there were no As, Cs, Ps, or Ts to be found anywhere else in the puzzle grid, which I thought was not only clever, but impressively challenging as a constructing gimmick. It was one of the most ambitious grids I saw all year. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

On the flip side — a puzzle that was more about the clues than the grid — there was the cryptic crossword from Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography.

With clues like “Sounds like an assortment of taxis in which you were the MC (7)” (for CABARET) and “Costar a large, fake amount of money? (7)” (for FILLION), this puzzle not only rewarded attentive readers, but it severely taxed my (admittedly less-than-daunting) skills at unraveling cryptic clues. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

Oh, and on the topic of cryptic clues, I asked some constructors if there were any clues or puzzles that caught their eye this year, and David Kwong mentioned a doozy of a cryptic clue by master constructors Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon that he considered the most diabolical he’d ever seen.

The clue? “Emphatically, the key to making bozos boss? (9)”

The answer? SFORZANDO, which parses as “S for Z and O.”

That’s awesome. Doug Peterson did a variation on that in this year’s Lollapuzzoola tournament, “What Happened?”, which featured words or phrases where the letter H had been replaced with either a T or a Y. He revealed this with the entry “HISTORY” breaking down “H is T or Y.” I really dug this puzzle.

And speaking of Lollapuzzoola, I absolutely loved Francis Heaney‘s “Quote Boxes” puzzle from this year’s tournament. It was an 18×18 grid jam-packed with entries, and he used an interesting mechanic to fill the grid.

There were five 2×2 boxes shaded with different shapes, and each of the four cells in those 2×2 boxes contained a word from a famous four-word movie quote, allowing him to place longer entries in the grid. It was the highlight of Lollapuzzoola for me this year. Great stuff.

But before I get to the final crossword on my list, I’d like to run down some of my favorite crossword clues from this year.

  • “Island country that becomes a geometric solid if you change its last letter to an E” for CUBA (from Patrick Blindauer‘s Piece of Cake Crosswords. A super-long clue, but very fun.)
  • “Struggle with hopelessness?” for LISP (from Brendan Emmett Quigley)
  • “The Sky, Sun, and Stars play in it” for WNBA (from Peter Gordon)
  • “Answers, on ‘Jeopardy!'” for ASKS (I don’t recall where I saw this one. Let me know if you know, so I can correct this!)
  • “Some people do it for kicks” for KARATE (Again, no idea where I saw this one. Let me know if you know, so I can correct this!)
  • “Characters often found to be up in arms?” for YMCA (from Sam Trabucco’s Indie 500 puzzle)

And cluing tied into my final choice for favorite crossword of the year with Erik Agard and Joanne Sullivan’s puzzle “Do I Hear a Waltz?” from the Indie 500 tournament.

In this puzzle, the words ONE, TWO, and THREE were missing from sequential clues, providing a hidden one-two-three count for the puzzle’s titular waltz. For instance, 36-Across clued TRUMP as “Up,” 37-Across clued BIKINI as “Piece, say,” and 38-Across clued TITLES as “Peat makeup.” As you’d expect, those clues make much more sense when you add the hidden one-two-three: One-up = TRUMP; Two-piece, say = BIKINI; Threepeat makeup = TITLES.

Hiding the beat within the cluing was absolutely brilliant, and one of the highlights in crosswords for me this year.

Now I’m sure there were great clues or puzzles that I missed, since I’m hardly a prolific solver. Let me know which puzzles and clues from 2016 were your favorites! I’d love to hear from you!


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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!

It’s Follow-Up Friday: Indie 500 Puzzle 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.

June 4 marked the second annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Peter Broda, Andy Kravis, and Angela Olsen Halsted. And instead of last year’s racing theme, this year was prom-themed!

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and after a few weeks, I had the opportunity to sit down and tackle the six puzzles prepared for the event. And today, after a few weeks’ reflection, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the future.


[Image courtesy of Teen Vogue.]

Puzzle 1: Canned Music by Peter Broda and Lena Webb

The opening puzzle got solvers off to a playful start with three themed song titles tied together by the phrase “That’s my jam,” highlighting the love of wordplay that typifies the Indie 500 puzzles.

Broda and Webb’s partnership was a fruitful one, giving us a nicely constructed grid with very little crosswordese (and a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference to boot!).

Interesting grid entries included PHONES IT IN, BUPKIS, WATERWORN, and BIKER BAR, and my favorite clue was either “Server error?” for LET or “Cans of Prince Albert, for short?” for WCS.

[Image courtesy of TheChive.com.]

Puzzle 2: A Modest Promposal by Andy Kravis and Neville Fogarty

Five prom-themed puns awaited solvers in this 17x effort, making it quite a bit easier than last year’s Puzzle #2 (which involved shared boxes and some diabolical letter swaps), but remained a very fun and engaging solve. The punny entries were colorful, definitely bringing back memories of forgotten prom tropes from my own high school days.

I was surprised to see a little grid repetition with the word OUT in two different entries, but given the tight construction and fun vocabulary overall, that’s easy to overlook.

Interesting grid entries included EDWARD V, HOTWIRE, and R.L. STINE, and my favorite clues were “Wilson that Tom Hanks talks to a lot” for RITA, “Coastal retreat?” for EBB, and “Bird that’s a real head-turner?” for OWL.

Puzzle 3: I Now Pronounce You… by Sam Trabucco

Last year, Puzzle 3 was guest constructor Finn Vigeland’s time to shine, and this year, guest constructor Sam Trabucco ably stepped up to join the topnotch puzzlers that organized this year’s event. Sam’s puzzle interrupted the prom theme and centered around a bad cell phone connection, allowing tongue-in-cheek misheard words to populate his grid (like CORPSE for “Military subdivision”).

Interesting grid entries included DO THE MATH, SKYPE DATE, and HOT SECOND, and my favorite clues were “Characters often found to be up in arms?” for YMCA and “Apostrophe, in emoticons” for TEAR. (And points for effort should definitely go to the clue “El numero de Fibonacci despues de cinco” for OCHO. It’s not often that Spanish and math cross over in a clue like that.)

[Image courtesy of Freeway Dance Studios.]

Puzzle 4: Do I Hear a Waltz? by Erik Agard and Joanne Sullivan

Without a doubt my favorite puzzle from this year’s tournament, Puzzle 4 hid its theme in its cluing rather than a series of themed entries. (One entry in the center hinted at the clever cluing construction). Instead, the words ONE, TWO, and THREE were missing from sequential clues, providing a hidden one-two-three count for the puzzle’s titular waltz.

For instance, 36-Across clued TRUMP as “Up,” 37-Across clued BIKINI as “Piece, say,” and 38-Across clued TITLES as “Peat makeup.” As you’d expect, those clues make much more sense when you add the hidden one-two-three: One-up = TRUMP; Two-piece, say = BIKINI; Threepeat makeup = TITLES.

None of the clues feel forced at all, and the fun fill of the grid allowed for a lot of interesting grid entries, like OH C’MON, TRUST ME, ART THIEF, T-REX, and FEMINIST.

My favorite clues were “Cafeteria trays, sometimes” for SLEDS, “Had a few spare moments, perhaps?” for BOWLED, and “High point on a mattress?” for CLIMAX (especially when “Low point on a mattress” for SAG was the previous clue).

[Image courtesy of Celebrity Radio DJs.com.]

Puzzle 5: Group Dance by the Indie 500 Team

For the penultimate puzzle, all of the organizers collaborated on a puzzle that utilized all of the previous themes, as well as having its own twist: two different hidden links. (The circled letters in the theme entries all spell out words that can follow the word WATER, as in WATERLOO or WATERSPOUT, while the shaded words can all follow the phrase LET IT, as in LET IT GO or LET IT RIDE.)

It’s an impressive way to tie all of the puzzles together and include the voices of all of the collaborators. (The clues themselves are even credited to different speakers.)

With interesting grid entries like PIT STAINS, EWOK, and NEAR YOU (along with some odd ones, like TEA BARS and SALARY LIMIT), the puzzle was challenging without being daunting or unfair.

My favorite clues were “Gatorade showers?” for ADS and “Really, really, really not look forward to” for DREAD.

[Say, since we’re talking crosswords, have you checked out the Penny Dell
Crosswords App for both iOS and Android devices? /shameless plug.]

Puzzle 6: The Dance-Off by Angela Olsen Halsted and Kameron Austin Collins

The closing puzzle of the tournament was offered in two difficulty levels: the Inside Track (designated for solvers who finished in the top 25% of the field in a crossword tournament with published standings in the past 5 years) and the Outside Track (designated for everyone else). I opted for the Inside Track, then looked over the cluing for the Outside Track.

This themeless closer was the toughest puzzle of the day, as you might expect, with tough, conversational entries like OH COME NOW and IT’S SO EASY all over. But, despite the many long entries and tight construction, there was very little crosswordese or obscurity to throw you off-track. It’s a great grid with some brutal cluing.

My favorite grid entry was easily MWAHAHAHA, though SILENT A and HOT DAMN were close runners-up, and my favorite clue was “Person who tunes in on Sundays and sees a bunch of spoilers” for NASCAR FAN. Great stuff.


Overall, I thought this year’s Indie 500 was more accessible than last year’s, an engaging and worthy series of puzzles to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure. The prom theme was brilliantly executed, and the cluing surpassed last year in both cleverness and style.

I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!


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The UK Sudoku Championship! (Or should that be Sudo-UK?)

Hot on the heels of The Indie 500 crossword tournament last weekend, the UK is also gearing up for a major puzzle event: The UK Sudoku Championship!

The event spans June 10 through June 13, and chairman Alan O’Donnell of the UK Puzzle Association sent out the Instruction Booklet for this year’s event a few days ago, which kicks off a string of major puzzle events in Europe and across the world, including the UK Puzzle Championship in a few weeks.

Although the UK Sudoku Championship is only open to competitors from the UK — with the top two earning a place on the UK team for the 2016 World Sudoku Championship — international players are welcome to test their puzzly mettle as guest solvers.

But even if most PuzzleNationers aren’t eligible to compete, you can still enjoy the challenge of some topnotch Sudoku puzzles. Let’s take a look at some of the diabolical puzzles they’ve cooked up for this year’s event!

[An Extra Regions puzzle, a variation on Classic Sudoku.]

In addition to some Classic Sudoku, Extreme Sudoku, Sum-Doku (or Killer Sudoku), Jigsaw Sudoku (or Geometric Sudoku), and Thermo Sudoku — all of which I explored in detail in my Wide World of Sudoku post — there are some variants I’ve never seen before, like this Linked 6×6 Sudoku.

In this puzzle, you have two grids to complete, but with the additional wrinkle that no number placed in the left 6×6 grid will occupy the same square in the right 6×6 grid. So you have more solving information than expected, but it’s spread out across two grids.

This Deficit Sudoku puzzle also uses the 2×3 box format, but arrayed in a 7×7 grid. This means that any of the numbers 1 through 7 can be in each 2×3 grid, which makes it slightly harder than if you were only using the numbers 1 through 6.

(Plus you have no information on what number goes in that solo square in the center of the grid.)

The curiously named Odd-Even-Big-Small Sudoku employs clues outside the grid to help you fill in some of the squares along the perimeter of the grid, telling you that two odd numbers, two even numbers, two small numbers, or two big numbers will occupy the nearest two spaces in that row or column.

This is a solving mechanic I’ve never encountered before in Sudoku, and I can see it posing an impressive challenge to the average Sudoku solver.

That unconventional style of cluing sets the tone for the rest of the unusual puzzles that competitors and solvers will encounter here. In the above grid, a Consecutive Pairs puzzle, those dots indicate that the neighboring numbers connected by those dots are consecutive numbers, like 5 and 6 or 2 and 1.

(You can also try Consecutive Pairs Sudoku in Will Shortz’s Sudoku and Sudoku Spectacular, both published by our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles.)

XV Sudoku works in similar fashion, with x’s and v’s instead of those little dots. The x’s mean the neighboring numbers add up to 10, and the v’s mean the neighboring numbers add up to 5.

This Eliminate Sudoku uses arrows to indicate that the number in the arrow box will not be repeated in any of the boxes that follow that arrow. So, for instance, if you place a 3 in that arrow box next to the 2 in the upper-right 3×3 grid, none of the boxes that arrow points at along that diagonal will contain a 3.

Like the dual grids in the Linked 6×6 Sudoku, this puzzle is interesting in offering more information on what’s NOT in a square than what IS.

The final new puzzle in the Instruction Booklet is my favorite, but that’s because I’m a sucker for palindromes in puzzles. This Palindrome Sudoku features gray lines that indicates spots where — you guessed it! — the chain of numbers reads the same backwards and forwards.

Similar to Thermo Sudoku in its solving style, Palindrome Sudoku takes advantage in the restrictive nature of Sudoku solving by adding a neat little twist.

You can check out the full Instruction Booklet here, and remember to keep your eyes peeled on June 10 when the actual puzzles go live!


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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!

It’s Follow-Up Friday: Indie 500 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.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of the Indie 500 crossword tournament!

Why, you ask? Because it’s tomorrow, June 4, and you still have time to register! Click here for all the details. You can compete in person in Washington, D.C., for just $30, or you can participate from home for only $10!

Not only that, but once again they’ve whipped up a meta-suite of puzzles to boot, and you name your own price for it!

This is the second year of the tournament, and I expect great things from the immensely talented team of constructors and directors they’ve assembled. With a prom theme, topnotch constructors, and pie (there’s always pie), you can’t go wrong!

Click here for the Indie 500 home page, here for an interview regarding this year’s event with constructor Andy Kravis, and here for a rundown of last year’s terrific puzzles!

Will you be competing? Or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below!


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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!

It’s Follow-Up Friday: Subway Time Travel 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.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of puzzly events!

I’m a huge fan of events where puzzly-minded people get together and create something new. Whether it’s a festival of indie games or a Rube Goldberg machine about Passover, a prom-themed puzzle tournament or a crossword contest about a crossword contest, anything is possible when folks with a mind for puzzle fun collaborate.

The team at Improv Everywhere know this better than most, as they’ve put together some terrific live experiences to entertain unsuspecting strangers.

In the past, they’ve staged a repeating time loop at a coffee shop, recreated the opening of Star Wars on a subway, and (my personal favorite) made a cabbie the hero of a reunion right out of a romantic comedy.

This time around, they faked time travel with four sets of twins. Check it out!

You can explore the full details of the prank/performance here, as well as many other “missions” from their past, but sufficed to say, it took a fair amount of puzzly skills and improvisational style to pull this off!

I wonder what delightful trickery they’ll attempt next.


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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!