A PuzzleNation First Look: Setka

Making a new puzzle is challenging. You have to strike a balance between established solving styles (those that are familiar and effective) and innovative twists, mechanics, and variations, all without making the puzzle too convoluted, too tedious, too easy, or too hard.

In the world of crosswords, some variant success stories include Double Trouble, cryptic crosswords, Brick by Brick, and diagramless. With Sudoku, there are variants like Extreme Sudoku (aka X-Sudoku or Diagonal Sudoku), Samurai Sudoku, and Word Sudoku.

I’m always on the lookout for new puzzles and variations to try out, so when the folks behind Setka contacted me, I was more than happy to try out their puzzle brand and explore their signature attempt to combine Sudoku and clued-puzzle elements.

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In short, Setka puzzles start with a single word. The consonants of that word not only form the answers to the clues, but also provide the letters to place in the accompanying grid.

For example, if the starting word was INFORM, the key letters would be N, F, R, and M. Every clue answer would feature one or more of those letters. The answer words, like the starting word, ignore the vowels. So you could have answers like NeaR, MoRoN, or MaiNFRaMe. (In the case of duplicate letters, like ReRaN, any duplicates are dropped, so the key letters here would be RN.)

And since there are four letters, there would be an accompanying 4×4 grid for you to fill in, where no letter is repeated in any row or column, Sudoku-style.

To place the letters, the clues are numbered, and the relevant cells in the grid are numbered to match. So, for NeaR (let’s say it’s clue 2), there would be two neighboring cells in the grid with a number 2 in them, and you could place the letters as RN or NR. Words that are three letters or above can read backward, forward, or in an L-shape in the grid.

This mechanic separates Setka from other clued or letter-placement puzzles, because you need both the clue answer AND the Sudoku no-repeats rule in order to complete a grid. Without the clue answers, there can be alternate solves where grid letters swap. And without the Sudoku-style placement, it would be virtually impossible to actually place the answer letters into the grid, because there’s more than one way to do so.

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The cluing style alternates between standard crossword-style clues (but usually longer and a little more conversational or trivia-based) and fill-in-the-blank clues. The clues also fit the theme established by the starting word. For instance, the clues above all have to do with kids, which fits the puzzle’s theme word, CHILD.

It takes time to get used to seeking out answer words from the given consonants (since you have to supply any vowels or duplicate consonants missing in order to come up with the correct answer word), but once you’re a few puzzles in, it becomes second nature and a fun component to the solving experience.

Setka puzzles range in size from 4×4 to 7×7, with its signature size being 5×5. Honestly, 5×5 is really where it becomes a proper puzzle. With a 4×4 grid, once you have a few letters placed, it becomes an elementary logic puzzle and you don’t really need the clues.

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[A selection of Setka sizes and themes.]

The puzzle itself is reminiscent of another puzzle we tried late last year — Cluedoku — but Setka’s letter-based theme and smaller grids make for a far more sustainable puzzle going forward, and the mechanic of placing the words in the grid (rather than just individual letters/numbers) adds an intriguing wrinkle to the solve.

All in all, I enjoyed trying out Setka — I solved a half-dozen or so puzzles to get a feel for different sizes and difficulties — and I think they’ve forged an engaging and clever combination of crossword-style cluing and Sudoku-style solving.

You can try Setka for yourself on their website, either playing interactive versions of Setka on the site or printing and solving PDF copies of Setka puzzles. They also offer a subscription where you can receive a Setka puzzle each week along with news and updates.

What do you think of Setka, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle

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

Minecraft is one of the biggest indie video game success stories of the last twenty years. A simple block-style game about building things (and destroying things) is now a multimedia empire, complete with toys, LEGOs, and of course, video games across numerous platforms.

It was only a matter of time before it made the leap to puzzles, and as it turns out, the clever folks at ThinkFun were just the designers to bring Minecraft into a puzzlier world.

Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle pits the player against devious deduction puzzles with elements of the Minecraft universe included. By using the clues provided on each challenge card, the player must arrange three swords, pickaxes, and pieces of armor (all different colors, making nine unique game pieces) on the 3×3 crafting table in a particular pattern.

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Completing the grid is the only way to bypass the ender dragon (who is placing these challenge obstacles in your path) and continue onto the next world in your journey.

The instructions, puzzles, solutions, game board, and pieces are all contained within the single spiral-bound game book, making this one of ThinkFun’s most portable products yet. The magnetic pieces are fairly sturdy, as is the game board, so it will hold up nicely to the rigors of travel (and being stuffed into various carry-on bags).

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The gameplay itself is all about interpreting the clues provided with each challenge card. Some clues offer hints on where to place pieces according to color, others according to shape. Additional clues center around a given piece’s location on the grid or in relation to another piece.

For instance, in Beginner Challenge #5 in the image below, the solver gets two hints: one about color and the other about the game pieces.

All three of the blue pieces will be placed along the diagonal, according to the first hint. And according to the second hint, a piece of armor will be in the upper right corner and a pickaxe will be in the middle square. Combining these two hints tells us where to place the blue armor and blue pickaxe. And since only one blue gamepiece is left, the blue sword goes in the lower left corner.

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Similarly, the combination of the yellow square in the center of the top row in the first hint and the sword image in the center of the top row in the second hint tells us where to place the yellow sword. Once that’s in place, we look at the remaining sword image on the second hint and know where to place the gray sword.

The gray square in the upper left corner of the first hint and the pickaxe image in the upper left corner of the second hint point to where to play the gray pickaxe (and the yellow pickaxe by process of elimination).

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With two game pieces left and one unoccupied yellow square in the first hint, the solver can easily complete this challenge, besting the ender dragon’s latest obstacle and moving forward.

Once you graduate from the Beginner and Intermediate difficulty levels, you’ll face a new wrinkle: negative clues. Negative clues are layouts that must be avoided, so instead of telling you where to place a piece, they tell you expressly where NOT to place a piece, ratcheting up the difficulty.

For instance, in Advanced Challenge #25, the negative hints tell us that a gray gamepiece can never be directly below and to the right of a blue gamepiece, or above and to the left of a yellow gamepiece.

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These restrictions will prove to be valuable hints going forward, often telling a savvy solver more about the layout of the crafting table than the regular clues!

By gradually teaching deductive reasoning — slowly introducing new ways to provide information and eliminate possibilities — the solver quickly grasps a key component of strategy and planning: “If this, then that” thinking.

This sort of cause-and-effect observation allows a solver to hold several pieces of information in your head at once, eliminating red herrings and unhelpful possibilities until you’re left with one solution that fits all the requirements. (Just as every Sudoku puzzle is an exercise in deduction, so is every challenge card in Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle.)

Fun for younger solvers and older alike, ThinkFun’s latest deduction puzzle game turns Minecraft into Mindcraft, adding a valuable puzzly tool to the arsenal of every solver.

Minecraft Magnetic Travel Puzzle is available from ThinkFun and certain online retailers.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Puzzle Books Galore!

As part of our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, we reached out to companies far and wide to explore as big a swathe of the puzzle/game world as we could. And a plethora of puzzle books arrived in response.

With eight in total to cover in this review, we’re going to work from simplest to toughest in terms of difficulty, whilst bundling some books with similar puzzles or styles of presentation together for ease of navigation.

So please enjoy as we peruse offerings from USA Today, the Puzzle Society, and Andrews McMeel Publishing.


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We start our puzzle book journey with objectively the easiest type of puzzle in the group: word searches.

Posh Simple Word Search collects grids and lists of hidden words to test your word recognition skills. The different sizes, themes for puzzles, and variations of word search puzzles (like an Eiffel Tower-shaped grid!) across more than 100 puzzles will have you looping words to your heart’s content.

Factor in a spiral binding that allows you to lay each page flat as you solve, and you’ve got a perfect intro to puzzles.

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From word searches to another iconic and traditional puzzle type: crosswords.

For a travel-friendly puzzle book with eye-catching cover designs and enjoyable pocket-sized puzzles, look no further than Pocket Posh New Crosswords 1 and New Crosswords 2.

With fun, accessible clues and grids designed to test newer, less experienced solvers, Pocket Posh New Crosswords won’t stand in the way of a New York Times-level solver, but they will serve as a satisfying puzzle experience for solvers working their way up the difficulty ladder.

Featuring more than 50 puzzles each, these books are loaded with content created by The Puzzle Society’s pool of talented constructors. (All of whom are credited by name!)

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For a step-up in difficulty and notoriety, check out USA Today’s Crossword Super Challenge.

Packed with 200 puzzles previously published in USA Today, this collection offers a range of difficulty levels depending on the constructor. And the names here are top-notch. Puzzly elites like Elizabeth Gorski, Martin Ashwood-Smith, Gail Grabowski, Frank Longo, and George Barany are featured in the collection, along with numerous contributions by USA Today‘s Crossword Editor, the inimitable Fred Piscop!

This array of 15×15 grids presents loads of different types of themed clues, serving as an ideal crash course in crosswords for solvers with a bit more experience but also have room to grow. Perfect for anyone who enjoys your local daily/weekly syndicated newspaper crossword.

It’s a little thick to make a great travel book — not as pocket-friendly as the Pocket Posh series — but it’s just right for an afternoon or two of cozy armchair solving.

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We then move from one world-conquering puzzle style to another that more recently took the world by storm: Sudoku.

Another in the USA Today series of Super Challenge titles, USA Today’s Sudoku Super Challenge is armed to the teeth with 200 Sudoku puzzles to challenge any fan of the infamous puzzle juggernaut.

Each puzzle is ranked on a scale of 1 to 5 stars in terms of difficulty, so you’ll be solving your way through increasingly tricky number puzzles the deeper you get into this book.

And despite being packed with hundreds of puzzles, this one will easily fit into a pocket, purse, or carry-on for any trip.

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Are you a Sudoku-savvy solver looking to test your number-placement skills in a new way? Posh Kurosu might just have what you’re seeking.

With dozens of examples of Kurosu puzzles — also known as noughts and crosses — this puzzle book packs a surprising amount of variety into a simple solving mechanic. Instead of nine digits to fill the grid, all you have are Xs and Os. And you can’t have more than two Xs or Os next to each other in any column, row, or diagonal.

This is the only kind of puzzle in this selection of puzzle books that I’d never encountered before, and it was a welcome change of pace to try my hand at something that felt familiar and yet fresh all at once. Posh Kurosu tests your logic and deduction chops in fun, unexpected ways.

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After collections of Sudoku and Kurosu puzzles, it feels appropriate to follow up with a puzzle book loaded with puzzles that test your logic and deduction skills in other ways.

USA Today’s Logic Super Challenge fits the bill nicely, mixing traditional story-driven logic problems (complete with those iconic solving grids to help you weed out false paths) with other logic-based puzzles like Killer Sudoku, Battleships, and Domino Search.

All of these puzzles will bend your brain around corners as you try to hold multiple facts in your head at the same time, waiting for them to fall into place and reveal a new piece of the overall puzzle solution.

And with 200 logic problems in various forms, you certainly won’t run out of devious deduction puzzles anytime soon.

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But if you’re looking for a unique solving experience, something that is as visually immersive as it is engagingly puzzly, then you can’t go wrong with Daria Song’s The Mysterious Mansion.

Mixing lushly illustrated scenes with black and white drawings meant for you to color in, this narrative puzzle book incorporates mazes, spot-the-difference games, word searches, and other puzzly endeavors in a story about one girl’s journey through a strange and confusing mansion.

Designed to relax, engage, and puzzle the reader in equal measure, this book is one you could lose yourself in for hours. The gorgeous full-color illustrations are a feast for the eyes, and the puzzles are seamlessly woven into the art and story of each scene.

Daria Song gleefully takes activity books to the next level with this beautiful puzzle experience, a fairy tale that you not only help write, but make your own by doing so.


All of these puzzle books are available from Andrews McMeel Publishing as well as some local and online retailers. They’re also part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!

[Note: I received a free copy of each puzzle book in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Domino Maze

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

What is it about dominoes that makes watching them fall such a satisfying experience? Is it the meticulous prep work required for a domino display? The balance and hand-eye coordination required to place each one? The danger of upsetting the whole thing before all the pieces are in place? The potential energy harnessed and ready to be unleashed as soon as the last domino is set up?

Whatever it is, it makes for one heck of a conclusion to a logic puzzle.

The creative minds at ThinkFun have conjured up a delightful twist on their traditional complete-the-path brand of logic puzzles, incorporating not just gravity, but the click-clack cacophony of a chain reaction in a new challenge for younger puzzlers and more experienced ones alike.

In today’s product review, we’re taking a look at Domino Maze.

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[One Challenge Card’s preset pieces in place. Note the three gates, each already balanced to topple over when the domino path crosses through.]

Domino Maze builds on the usual domino-stacking skills and tricks — splitting the path, making sharp turns, redirecting kinetic energy — by adding sequential gates that your domino path must pass through in order to complete each challenge.

The gates are numbered one through three, indicating the order in which you must hit your targets. (The gates are carefully balanced, so when a domino hits the target, the weight on top flips over, raising the numbered flap high AND knocking over the next domino in your chain.)

Similar to other ThinkFun games, the puzzle includes Challenge Cards, which increase in difficulty as you work your way through the deck. Beginner and Intermediate Challenges give way later to Advanced and Expert puzzles that will have you wracking your brain to employ the required number of dominoes, build your path, and hit the gates in precise order.

Note: Be aware that you need a completely flat surface for this game. The grooves will hold the domino, but the slightest mistake could send them tumbling. That’s particularly true when the staircases are involved. There’s no need to add a level of frustration beyond the natural challenge of the game by fighting gravity AND the designers’ puzzles.

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The Beginner-level cards are your introduction to the puzzle, taking you through the motions of how to place the dominoes, utilizing the numerous grooves in both the base and the elevated platform. As you proceed, the game adds new wrinkles to the game, like using the two pivot pieces (allowing you to change direction in a single move), splitting your path with the diagonal grooves.

That elevated platform is an especially devious and clever addition, since it not only requires more dominoes (to traverse one or both of the staircases that connects the platform to the base), but requires multi-dimensional thinking, like starting your path underneath the platform versus atop the platform. In this manner of solving, Domino Maze echoes other top-down logic puzzles in the ThinkFun library like Gravity Maze and Roller Coaster Challenge.

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[Two different angles of the same Challenge Card, mid-solve.]

You also slowly develop a sense of what I call “domino math,” the ability to look at the number of dominoes you have to work with, and immediately limit your choices and potential solutions based on what you know. For instance, three dominoes in a straightaway can cover half the board, but it costs three dominoes to make a 90-degree turn in one square, so you begin to recognize where resources MUST go vs. where they COULD go.

That’s a huge benefit down the line, when your dominoes (through splits and other maneuvers) must maximize their usefulness. It seems daunting when you look at a Challenge Card and see that you have to place 18 dominoes, but honestly, that’s less intimidating than looking at a card with gates scattered all over, and seeing you only have seven or eight dominoes to work with.

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But whether you’re a younger puzzler just getting started with logics, an experienced puzzler who likes the idea of combining a little hand-eye coordination with your solving, or a domino enthusiast looking for a new challenge, you’re bound to find the ever-escalating gameplay of Domino Maze to be a treat. (And just imagine the challenging pathways you could construct with two sets. Or a Rube Goldberg device made of ThinkFun puzzles.)

Watching those dominoes fall and those gates flip with the push of a single fingertip is a very fun and satisfying way to confirm that your puzzling skills are up to snuff. Plus there’s the sound, and the tactile sense of accomplishment with a path well-deduced and well-built.

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Very few puzzles offer that kind of fanfare for a proper solve, and the logical foundation behind cause-and-effect is rarely as enjoyable as it is in Domino Maze.

Domino Maze is available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Invasion of the Cow Snatchers

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

Nobody does deduction and logic puzzle games quite like the folks at ThinkFun. We’ve wielded lasers, electrical circuits, robots, and even putty in order to conquer some of their most recent and diabolical puzzles. But they always have some new tricks up their sleeves, and their latest offering is positively magnetic.

So join us as we give the full PuzzleNation Blog review treatment to Invasion of the Cow Snatchers, a puzzle game all about bringing species together… with magnets.

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The challenge is deceptively simple: you’re an alien, and your job is to maneuver your UFO around the farm and pick up all of the cows, then finally the bull, before leaving the area.

Sounds easy, right? You’re a member of an advanced alien species, you can travel the galaxy. Picking up a few curious Earth creatures should be a cakewalk.

Well, obviously, the crew at ThinkFun already thought of that. And you’ll have plenty of obstacles to navigate and overcome before you can complete your task. Not only is there a silo you can never pass over, but there are barriers of varying heights that can impede your path.

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[Here, we’ve captured one cow, so we can pass over the green row of crops. In the second pic, we’ve captured our second cow. In the background, you can see the silo (which we can’t pass at all) and the white fence, which we can pass over with up to 2 cows.]

For instance, if you’ve already captured one cow, you can’t carry it over a barn wall, but you can carry it over the row of crops. (The walls allow between 0 and 3 cows to be carried over them, depending on their height.)

Note: Be aware that you need a completely flat surface for this game. The magnets are powerful, and they’re liable to shift and move when the UFO comes near. The bull is especially prone to this.

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Each Challenge Card requires you to navigate the grid in a specific way in order to capture all of the cows and be successful. After all, once a cow is captured, you can’t drop it. Demanding that the bull be collected last adds another wrinkle to the gameplay, since you cannot pass over the bull until all of the cows are collected, which requires creative thinking and good planning.

Honestly, I can’t think of another ThinkFun puzzle to date that requires this much movement or utilizes the full space of the board as effectively as Invasion of the Cow Snatchers.

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[Continuing the challenge card from above, we pass over the white fence, pick up our third cow, and pass over the hay bales, before rounding the corner, capturing the bull last, and making our escape.]

Finally, you have to escape the board, and there are no walls that allow you to pass with more than three captured cow tokens, so your escape route also has to be considered.

The Challenge Cards increase in difficulty as you work your way through the deck. Easy and Medium Challenges give way later to Hard and Super Hard puzzles that will have you wracking your brain to stealthily maneuver your UFO around the farm setting.

This is probably my favorite design I’ve seen from ThinkFun. The clever use of magnets, the plastic casing that separates the UFO from the rest of the board, and the impressive variety of challenges they’ve conjured with relatively few obstacles makes for a game with tons of replay value and puzzles that are always engaging, never frustrating. You KNOW there’s a path to victory. You just have to be cagey enough to find it.

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Oh, and remember how I said you can’t drop any of the cows? Well, you can if you accept the challenge of the twenty Genius level Challenge Cards that are also included. These cards utilize everything you’ve learned up to this point, but add crop circles where you can drop off cows (but not the bull) temporarily.

Why? Because it’s not just about capturing all of the cows, then the bull, then escaping. Now you must capture the cows in a very specific order. (Suddenly, the color coding of the cow tokens becomes more than a fun design choice. It becomes an integral part of the puzzle.)

This new gameplay option completely reinvents the concept. Before, it didn’t matter what in order you captured the cows, only that you got them all. It almost feels like you’re starting over from scratch, because the walls aren’t the primary obstacle anymore (though they can still offer some intriguing challenges to this new gameplay model).

The crop circles are another delightfully tongue-in-cheek addition to the already fun design of the game, playing nicely on the alien abduction gimmick.


All in all, I was thoroughly impressed by ThinkFun’s latest logic puzzle game. The concept is hilarious, the colorful and clever pieces make for fun reactive gameplay, and the puzzles are harder than you’d expect. Watching the cows fly up and snap! against the plastic as the UFO captures them never gets old!

It’s simple enough for the youngest puzzlers to get into, but there’s plenty here for parents and older puzzlers as well. (Some of the Genius level Challenge Cards really tax your brainpower!)

[Invasion of the Cow Snatchers is for ages 6 and up, available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.]


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A Deduction Puzzle for Independence Day!

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[Image courtesy of NWI Times.]

It’s Independence Day, and is there any better way to celebrate the history of America than with a little deduction puzzle based on some classic American symbols? I hardly think so!

Good luck and Happy Fourth of July!


To celebrate America’s birthday, a group of five enthusiastic vexillologists — devotees of the study of flags — decided to stage five days of presentations about different flags from American history.

Each person presented a different flag’s history each day (the thirteen-star flag, the fifty-star flag, the Don’t Tread on Me flag, the Marine Corps flag, or the Coast Guard flag), and the presentations were performed in a different order each day (first, second, third, fourth, or fifth).

Each vexillologist presented one flag per day, and none of them repeated a flag presentation across the five days. Similarly, none of the flag presentations happened in the same order each day. So, for instance, if a flag was first in the order on July 3rd, it wouldn’t be first in the order any other day.

Can you complete the schedule of flag presentations below?

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Are you having any puzzly celebrations for Independence Day? Let us know in the comments section below, we’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!