Delving into the 2019 ACPT Puzzles!

acptlogo

One of the highlights of the puzzle year is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The impressive, challenging, and well-constructed puzzles awaiting solvers there rank among the craftiest you’ll ever see.

So let’s put them under the microscope and see how I did!


Puzzle 1: And We’re Off! by Kathy Wienberg

The opening puzzle in this year’s tournament was a good smooth solve, easing solvers into the tournament experience. The theme of the word BATON being “passed” over a black square between longer entries was clever and accessible, easily cracked by tournament-puzzle standards, and the related phrases like FINISH LINE really sold the theme well.

Interesting grid entries included KOMBAT, ZAGAT, MAORI and AMOCO, and my favorite clues were “15 things in this puzzle” for ROWS and “Necessity for a farm team” for YOKE.

Puzzle 2: Following Orders by Joel Fagliano

Joel’s contribution to to the tournament was a fun reinterpretation of a song by The Doors, BREAK ON THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE, splitting up the theme entries so that the second part of the answer was a food. (Example: CAPRICORN becomes CAPRI CORN.) It was surprising to have two puzzles in a row that involved answers spanning black-square breaks between entries, but the revealer with The Doors added an extra touch to this one.

Interesting grid entries included UNHANDY, MY OH MY, SCHTICK, RICOH, and APOGEE, and my favorite clue was “Inspiring halftime speech, for a sports movie” for TROPE.

Puzzle 3: Added Time by Patrick Berry

The hook for Puzzle 3 was simple, but deftly executed, as the word AGE was added onto the end of established phrases like DOG POUND and CLASSIFIED AD to form new answers. But this was balanced by harder-than-expected fill, which definitely kept me guessing and ate up a great deal of the given time for solving.

Interesting grid entries included MAHLER, BIG DEAL, COLUMBO, MARS BAR, and MESMER, and my favorite clues were “Name-dropper abbr.” for ETAL and “Time or Money” for MAG.

[Image courtesy of How Stuff Works.]

Puzzle 4: It’s the Law by Jeff Stillman

My favorite puzzle from the tournament, Puzzle 4 employed a brilliantly visual gimmick where two circles represented an apple and a head, with a series of I’s (and one V) forming an arrow between them. With themed entries ISAAC NEWTON, ROBERT HOOKE, and GRAVITATION, you’ve got all the ingredients for a science-themed puzzle with a very fun twist.

Interesting grid entries included GO BAG, PC GAME, TUBULAR, and ARTOO, and my favorite clue was “One who gets asked a lot of questions” for SIRI.

Puzzle 5: Trade Names by Evan Birnholz

Puzzle 5 is infamously the most difficult of the tournament, and this year’s entry was no exception.

I figured out the gimmick pretty quick — themed entries in the same row would swap words that were also names, so the answers LANDMARK and GRANTING were actually LAND GRANT and MARKING — but the tough cluing and crafty fill entries made this a challenging solve. It was definitely the puzzle I struggled with the most. Puzzle 5, you’ve done it again.

Interesting grid entries included SPEEDO, ORVILLE, OFF NIGHT, and NOOGIE, and my favorite clue was “1986 #1 hit ‘On My Own,’ e.g., ironically” for DUET.

Puzzle 6: Playing the Field by Lynn Lempel

The first day of tournament puzzles wrapped up with this smooth, well-constructed closer loaded with delightful football puns. It was the perfect palate cleanser after the battle I had with Puzzle 5, and Lempel once again displayed her impressive skill mixing interesting fill words and balanced grid work to create puzzles with terrific flow. Blazing through this puzzle was a nice confidence boost after some tough earlier puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included CITIZENRY, ARAL SEA, MULAN, and DAUPHIN, and my favorite clues were “Adams who got the picture” for ANSEL and “Helpful feature of a crossword solver’s pencil?” for EXTRA POINT.

Puzzle 7: Politically Correct by Mike Shenk

Day Two of the tournament kicked off with this diabolical entry where the letters PC were added to established phrases to form new entries. (For example, LOW RANKING became PLOW CRANKING, which was clued as “Starting up a farm machine by hand?”)

The theme entries made sense, but weren’t immediately intuitive, so I found them tough to come up with, even though I cottoned onto the hook pretty quickly. Combine that with creative fill entries and you’ve got a well-constructed obstacle before the tournament’s final puzzle. Devious Mr. Shenk strikes again.

Interesting grid entries included ASADA, SCHIRRA, KIM NOVAK, CAT LADY, and MONADS, and my favorite clues were “Dial in your home, perhaps,” for SOAP, “Welcoming sign” for OPEN ARMS, “They’re just over two feet” for ANKLES, and “Volume setting?” for SHELF.

Puzzle 8: Troublemaker by Robyn Weintraub

The finals puzzle for the tournament boasts a different set of clues for each of the three divisions — A, B, and C — where the competitors solve the puzzle live on stage, and Weintraub constructed a puzzle with loads of intriguing entries and personality to spare. When the puzzle both apologizes to you (2 Down was I AM SO SORRY) and checks up on you while you’re solving (50 Across: HOW DID IT GO), you’re in for a unique puzzling experience.

Confession: I attempted the A-level clues, but I struggled with some of them. I did successfully solve the puzzle with a mix of A- and B-level clues.

Interesting grid entries included CHANDELIERS, ICAHN, IT GIRL, and IN RETROSPECT, and the B-clues were undoubtedly my favorite, boasting gems like “Joins a union?” for WEDS, “Darn it!” for HOLE, and “One with a talent for hitting low pitches” for BASS.


Overall, I think this year’s tournament puzzles were not as consistently hard as in previous years, though a lot of individual fill entries were fairly obscure. I did get stuck on several puzzles, frequently outwitted by cleverly misleading clues or my own inability to come up with what would later feel like obvious answers. But, as always, I relish the challenge of trying my hand at these puzzles, even if it’s not under tournament conditions.

The ingenious and creative constructors once again brought their A-game to the table with this year’s puzzles, and I never cease to be amazed at how fast and how clever so many of my fellow puzzle solvers are, blasting through these crosswords at unbelievable speeds.

ACPT, I’ll see you next year.


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ACPT 2019 Wrap-Up!

The 42nd annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this weekend, and puzzlers descended on the Stamford Marriott Hotel once again to put their puzzly skills to the test in what is lovingly known as “the Nerd Olympics.”

The tournament takes place over two days, with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday. Then the top three finishers in the A, B, and C brackets solve the championship puzzle on whiteboards in front of the audience.

On Friday and Saturday night, there are often puzzle events, demonstrations, and panels by top puzzlers and figures in the puzzle world as well.

I made the journey down to Stamford myself Saturday morning, arriving with plenty of time to spare to prep our spot in the puzzle marketplace and say hello to friends and puzzly acquaintances. This year, I was joined at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth once again by my friend and partner-in-promotion Stacey Scarso.

The Penny Dell crew had a terrific setup as always, with a metric buttload of magazines to give away, including copies of The Crosswords Club and several flavors of Tournament Variety, Master’s Variety, and Dell Sunday Crosswords. They were also running a kickass promotion offering half-price on a year’s subscription to Crosswords Club, which is a great deal.

The Penny Dell Store also returned for the first time in a few years, as puzzle books (including a collection of Daily POP Crossword App puzzles!), tote bags, travel mugs, and coffee mugs were for sale. The Word Nerd mugs were a big hit!

PLUS we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, coffee fixin’s, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by Eric Berlin.

And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles.

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running.

There were puzzle books galore from Will Shortz and Merl Reagle, ACPT shirts and cards from Elena Powell Abrahams, and a massive uber-crossword from T. William Campbell, which definitely caught the eye of some solvers:

Our friends from Lone Shark Games also had a booth at the tournament, staffed by either a very good hologram or an impressive doppleganger of Gaby Weidling. There were The Maze of Games books for sale and a puzzle card for their ongoing Maze of Games Omnibus Kickstarter campaign!

As competitors readied themselves for the day’s solving, I had plenty of time to see friends of the blog like Crosswords Club editor Patti Varol, crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, constructor Joanne Sullivan, and Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough!

Perhaps the best part of attending the tournament is getting to chat with so many members of the puzzle community in one place. There were 200 first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies, mixing with current and former champions, and all sorts of puzzle enthusiasts of all ages.

There were long-time puzzle fans who have been competing at ACPT for years, if not decades, many of whom were decked out in puzzle shirts, puzzle scarves, puzzle ties, and other grid-heavy accoutrements.

One of the attendees even offered to buy the Crossword Puzzle Junkie shirt off my back! I assured him that that would work for him and literally no one else in attendance.

But I digress.

Many of the top constructors in the business were there, names like David Steinberg, Evan Birnholz, Joon Pahk, Erik Agard, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, David Plotkin, Howard Barkin, Ellen Ripstein, and Stella Zawistowski.

Getting to connect faces and personalities with names I know from tournaments like the Indie 500 is a real treat, and so many of the people in the puzzle world are genuinely nice, funny individuals. Not only that, but I also got to meet several fellow trivia fiends from the Learned League community!

The two hours before showtime passed quickly, and soon, the marketplace emptied and the ballroom filled as competitors took their seats for Puzzle 1.

Attendance jumped again this year, which meant not only was the main ballroom absolutely jam-packed with competitors, but an overflow room was once again needed to accommodate the more-than-700 solvers in Stamford!

When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Kathy Wienberg’s puzzle to be quick and fair, on par with Monday NYT puzzles.

Although there was no sub-2-minute time like last year, the top solvers still blasted through this one.

Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Joel Fagliano, surprised some solvers with a clever little trick at its core. This is consistent with the last few years, where Puzzle 2 has surprised the competitors. I think many solvers forget that, given how legendarily difficult Puzzle 5 is every year. It’s easy to forget other puzzles can offer quite a challenge along the way.

About this time, scores started trickling out for Puzzle 1, and many of the expected names were at the top: Feyer, Pahk, Plotkin, Zawistowski, Sanders, Kravis, Ryan… but two big names were missing.

Former 5-time champion (and perennial top contender) Tyler Hinman was not attending the tournament this year, and Erik Agard, last year’s champion, had a mistake in Puzzle 1, which would seriously hamper his efforts to repeat last year’s success.

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Patrick Berry, and served as a well-received, smooth-solving palate-cleanser before the lunch break.

          [Even empty, all the dividers make the room feel packed…]

Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4, while the tournament officials were still hard at work tabulating scores:

After 3 puzzles, Dan Feyer was on top of the rankings, followed closely by Pahk, and then a three-way tie among Kravis, Plotkin, and Zawistowski for third.

But it was time to kick off the second half of the day with Puzzle 4.

Last year’s fourth puzzle had a visual element that tripped up some of the competitors, and this year’s Puzzle 4 (by constructor Jeff Stillman) was also harder than expected. The fill featured more obscurities than solvers anticipated, and several competitors commented on it on Twitter:

Oh, and by the way, thanks to his puzzly skills and blistering speed, Erik Agard had worked his way back up to 7th place after completing Puzzle 4. Amazing.

Finally, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Evan Birnholz (not Birnholtz, as it was misprinted on his name tag) did the honors, and according to competitors, it was as challenging as expected, really putting the craftiness and keen wits of the solvers to the test.

Even the officials noticed:

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, it was Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin, Stella Zawistowski, and… Erik Agard.

Competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel (she also contributed Puzzle 6 last year), and declared it both fun and fair. The competitors dispersed to rest their brains (or solve more puzzles). We packed up the Penny/Dell table and headed for home.

[The standings after Puzzle 6. Erik has worked his way back to 4th. Was a comeback story in store for Day 2?]

And although I wasn’t present for Sunday’s tournament finale, I continued to get updates from friends and fellow puzzlers.

Puzzle 7, constructed by Mike Shenk, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, little crosswordese, and great fun.

But Shenk’s name being announced for Puzzle 7 also meant a puzzly milestone for the Finals:

Yes, Robyn Weintraub’s tournament constructing debut would be the final hurdle for the competitors! Fantastic news!

Dan Feyer remained at the top of the leaderboard, having maintained a great solving pace, followed closely by Joon Pahk and David Plotkin.

But it was not meant to be, and the final three came down to Dan Feyer (7-time champ, looking for a record-breaking 8th title), Joon Pahk and David Plotkin (two familiar names in the top ten).

[Image courtesy of Dave Mackey.]

The top three competitors for each live-solving division were:

  • A: Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin
  • B: Matthew Gritzmacher, Brian Fodera, Arnold Reich
  • C: Brian Kulman, Lily Geller, Claire Rimkus

Lily Geller won the C division, and Brian Fodera won B. Congrats to the winners!

And, finally, it was time for the A Block.

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below, courtesy of Ben Zimmer:

Dan Feyer crushed the A clues in under 7 minutes. Joon Pahk was a strong runner-up at 9:05, and David Plotkin placed third with a very respectable showing of 11:13.

[Image courtesy of ACPT.]

As he had done all tournament, Dan solved with undeniable speed and precision, claiming his eighth tournament victory!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 21st, David Steinberg placed 26th, Angela Halsted placed 94th, Vega Subramaniam cracked the top 100 with 98th, and Patti Varol placed 113th out of a field of 741 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)

There were also some wonderfully heartwarming stories to emerge from the tournament, like this multi-generational solving success story:

In the end, Jenna LaFleur (aka daughter) placed 33rd! Awesome job!

It’s always great fun to spend time with fellow puzzlers and wordplay enthusiasts, immersing myself in the puzzle community and enjoying all the charm and camaraderie that comes with it.

Of course, everyone should make sure to check their puzzle vaults when they get home:

We’ll see you next year!


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How Far Away Are Computer-Generated Crosswords?

[Image courtesy of ESLTower.]

There’s no denying that computers play a large role in the world of crosswords today.

Some companies use computer programs to generate their unthemed crosswords, no human intervention necessary. Computer programs like Crossword Compiler aid constructors in puzzle design and grid fill, allowing them to build and cultivate databases of words with which to complete their grids.

And, of course, with those little computers in your pocket, you can solve all kinds of crosswords (like those in our Daily POP Crosswords and Penny Dell Crosswords apps).

Heck, computers are even getting pretty good at solving crosswords — just look at Matt Ginsberg’s evolving crossword program, “Dr. Fill.

An article in Smithsonian Magazine posed the question, “why haven’t computers replaced humans in crossword creation?”

The answer, as you’d expect, is simple: computers are just fine at plugging words into established grids and generating basic, unthemed crosswords.

But unthemed is the key word there.

When people think of The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Values Club, The Crosswords Club, or any of the other well-respected crossword outlets in the market today, I doubt unthemed puzzles are what comes to mind.

And when it comes to creating themes, innovating, and playing with the conventions of crosswords in order to create puzzles that surprise and challenge solvers, computers simply don’t have the chops.

They might be able to solve puzzles, but as far as I can tell from my research, there’s no program out there capable of generating and executing a theme with any sort of wordplay element involved.

[Image courtesy of Crossword Compiler.]

There is an art to creating an exciting grid, an intriguing theme, or a new puzzle mechanic that solvers have never seen before. The creativity of constructors is truly boundless.

And, it seems, the potential for crossword grids is just as boundless.

Recently, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight challenged the puzzle fans in his readership to calculate how many different crossword puzzle grids were possible.

He offered the following conditions:

  • They are 15-by-15.
  • They are rotationally symmetric — that is, if you turn the grid upside down it appears exactly the same.
  • All the words — that is, all the horizontal and vertical sequences of white squares — must be at least three letters long. All the letters must appear in an “across” word and a “down” word.
  • The grid must be entirely connected — that is, there can be no “islands” of white squares separated from the rest by black squares.

Now, obviously, all of those rules can be violated for the sake of an interesting theme. We’ve seen grids with vertical symmetry, islands of white squares, and more. Heck, plenty of grids allow words to go beyond the grid itself, or allow multiple words to share puzzle squares.

[“Cutting Edge” by Evan Birnholz. A puzzle where answers extend
beyond the grid. Image courtesy of The Washington Post.]

But assuming these rules are standard, what total did solvers come up with?

None. They couldn’t find a total.

One solver managed to calculate that there were 40,575,832,476 valid 13-by-13 grids following the above conditions, but could not apply the same technique to 15-by-15 grids.

40 billion valid grids. For a comparison, there are 5,472,730,538 unique solutions for a 9×9 Sudoku grid, and I previously calculated it would take 800 years to use every possible 9×9 Sudoku grid.

Of course, that’s 40 billion 13-by-13 grids. The number of possible 15-by-15 grids must be orders of magnitude larger.

Consider this: There were 16,225 puzzles published in The New York Times before Will Shortz took over the NYT crossword. The current number of NYT crosswords in the XWordInfo database is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 puzzles.

And they’re one of the oldest crossword outlets in the world. Even when you factor in the number of newspapers, magazines, subscription services, and independent outlets for crosswords there are these days, or have been in the past, we barely scratch the surface of a number like 40 billion.

Maybe by the time we’ve run through that many, AI constructors will have caught up.


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Happy One Year Anniversary, Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s definitely something worth celebrating.


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A Happy Ending and A New Beginning for the Universal Crossword!

Some stories have happy endings, eventually.

In one particular case, it took nearly three years for the satisfying resolution to arrive.

Allow me to explain.

In March of 2016, programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which were edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in The New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

The troubling pattern uncovered by Tausig and Pwanson sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, president of Lone Shark Games and puzzle constructor, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

Parker was out as far as USA Today went, but his relationship with Universal Uclick was still unclear. (Even now, despite inquiries, I’m unable to determine if he’s still associated with Universal Uclick.)

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles.

And, as I said, the story has a happy ending. Constructor David Steinberg has been named the new editor of the Universal Crossword and Universal Sunday Crossword!

Although this means the end of The Puzzle Society Crossword that Steinberg was previously editing (as it is being folded into the Universal Crossword), there is a bright side, as it guarantees fresh, well-vetted puzzles for many more solvers from a young, respected voice in the field.

David’s resume is impressive, as the youngest constructor to be published in The LA Times crossword, and the second-youngest to be published in The NY Times. He was also named the crossword editor for the 24 newspapers associated with The Orange County Register.

Between those accomplishments, his work with the archival Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and his prolific and creative crossword output, it’s obvious why Universal Uclick (now Andrew McMeels Universal) would want him for the job.

Several puzzles under his stewardship have already appeared, featuring constructors like Jim Peredo, Doug Peterson, and Samuel A. Donaldson!

David offered some details in an announcement email:

Each week I’m publishing eight themed Universal crosswords—seven 15x15s and one 21×21. Puzzles appear in all venues that formerly ran the Universal Crossword, as well as in those that ran the Puzzle Society Crossword.

Among the many new venues that run the 15x15s are The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Seattle Times; new venues that run both the 15x15s and the 21x21s include The Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Daily News, and The Miami Herald. The Universal Crossword is also truly universal, appearing in countries as far-flung as China, India, and Saudi Arabia!

We wish David the best of luck in his latest puzzly endeavor. We know the Universal Crossword is in great hands!


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PuzzleNation 2018 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide: By Category

Welcome to the PuzzleNation Blog 2018 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!

We’re excited to be bringing you our biggest gift guide ever! There are so many tremendously fun and puzzly products to share with you. We just might be your one-stop shop for all things puzzly!

This guide is broken down into categories for ease of searching. We have puzzle books, downloadable puzzles and puzzles by mail, jigsaw puzzles, puzzle games, board games, card games, dice games, party games, and miscellaneous puzzle swag. We’re sure you’ll find the perfect gift for any puzzler on your list!


This year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide is sponsored by Daily POP Crosswords!

Daily POP Crosswords offers a different themed puzzle every single day, spanning everything from TV and film to sports and music!

Available for both Android and iOS users, you get terrific content from some of the world’s top constructors! And the download is free!


Puzzle Books

Pencil-and-paper puzzles are alive and well, and we’re happy to share some of our favorites with you.

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles have put together some outstanding holiday collections with puzzles galore to be solved!

Maybe you’re looking for one kind of puzzle, like their Logic Problems Spectacular ($8.99) or some variety with the Mammoth Grab A Pencil Book of Brain Boosters ($10.50). Or perhaps you’d like a little something extra, and you’d prefer the Signature Fill-Ins Puzzle Gift Set ($32.95), complete with pencils, coffee, and snacks to keep you puzzling, or the Signature Sudoku Puzzle Gift Set ($32.95). Or you want to unwind with their Flying Colors coloring book ($6.99) and sip some coffee from a snazzy I’d Rather Be Puzzling Travel Mug ($7.95). Either way, the folks at Penny Dell Puzzles have got you covered.

And be sure to check out their deals on Facebook and Twitter throughout the holiday season. They’ve got bundles and discounts for days!

And while we’re on the topic of puzzle books, some of the best constructors working today have released their own books for your perusal! And with New York Times and Los Angeles Times crosswords to their credit, you’re sure to find some quality puzzlers within these pages!

–David Steinberg’s Juicy Crosswords from the Orange County Register ($5.35)

–Brendan Emmett Quigley’s Octopus Crosswords ($5.59)

–Matt Gaffney’s Fast & Fun Mini Crosswords ($6.18)

–Andrew Ries’s Maverick Crosswords ($8.31)

–Todd McClary’s Fresh Freestyle Crosswords ($8.95)

–Erik Agard’s Food for Thought Crosswords ($8.95)

–Cynthia Morris’s American Acrostics Volume 6: Puzzling American Culture and American Acrostics Volume 7: Puzzling Explorers and Adventurers ($7.95 each)

The Gatekeeper’s Bundle by Mike Selinker, Gaby Weidling, and Eric Harshbarger

The Maze of Games is one of the most diabolical puzzle books ever conceived. It allows the protagonists AND the reader to choose their own path through various labyrinths and challenge themselves to dozens of different puzzles in the hopes of conquering each of the labyrinths within the book.

And The Gatekeeper’s Bundle combines The Maze of Games, The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze hint book, and the new Maze of Games Map all in one place! ($74.95)

Of course, if you’ve already got The Maze of Games and The Theseus Guide, you can pick up the Maze of Games Map on its own right here! ($14.95)

[Click here to check out our full review of The Maze of Games!]

Puzzlecraft: How to Make Every Kind of Puzzle by Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder

Updated seven years after the original version hit shelves, the new and improved Puzzlecraft is a self-contained masterclass in puzzle creation. Covering everything from crosswords and Sudoku to logic puzzles and brain teasers, this is the perfect launchpad for any and all aspiring puzzlers and constructors! ($29.95)


Downloadable Puzzles and Puzzles by Mail

Many top constructors and organizations market their puzzles directly to solvers, so between by-mail offers, subscriptions, and downloadable puzzle bundles, you’ve got plenty of quality choices!

The Crosswords Club, edited by Patti Varol (puzzle bundles by mail, $39.95 for 12 issues)

Puzzle Your Kids by Eric Berlin ($3/month, or puzzle sets available starting at $3.99; one free puzzle per week)

The American Values Crossword (subscription and daily puzzles) ($22 for 1 year)

–Matt Gaffney’s Daily Crossword ($24 per year) and Weekly Crossword Contest ($26 per year)

–Andrew Ries’ Aries Xwords ($12 per year)

–Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords ($30 for 1 year)

–Joon Pahk’s Rows Garden puzzles ($20 for 1 year) and Variety puzzles ($15 for 1 year) OR get both for $30!

Crossword LA 2018 puzzle pack ($5)

–Bryant Park 2018 tournament puzzle pack ($5) and 2016/2017 bundle ($10)

Topple puzzle magazine ($1 per issue)


Jigsaw Puzzles

Puzzometry

For a next-level jigsaw challenge, Puzzometry is tough to top. These beautiful pieces can be combined in seemingly endless combinations, and yet, there’s only one solution. Available as Puzzometry ($17), Puzzometry Jr. ($12), and Puzzometry Squares ($17), you’ve got three distinct challenges appropriate for different ages!

[Check out the full review of Puzzometry by clicking here!]

 

Tavern Puzzles / Tucker-Jones House Inc.

These hand-forged beauties are ready to challenge your dexterity and cleverness, as you accept the Tavern Puzzles challenge. Whether you’re trying to remove twice as many pieces in a Collaborative Effort or free the triangle from Tridiculous, you’re sure to put your skills to the test. ($25 each)


Puzzle Games

Cat Crimes (ThinkFun)

A mischievous cat has turned your living room upside-down… can you figure out which one? Cat Crimes adds an adorable domestic twist to deduction-style puzzling with a cuddly cast of kitty miscreants for you to place at the scene of the crime, if you can read the clues properly! ($12.99)

[Check out our full review of Cat Crimes by clicking here!]

IcoSoKu (Project Genius)

Perhaps the most diabolical brain teaser is the one you make yourself! In IcoSoKu, you place the numbers into the grid ball, and then try to puzzle out how to place the plates so that they all fit! It’s tougher that it looks and twice as fun! ($19.99)

[Click here to check our full review of IcoSoKu!]

Zendo (Looney Labs)

Puzzle games are all about the rules, but what if you don’t know the rules? That’s where Zendo comes in. In this puzzle game, you arrange Looney pyramids and other shapes into various designs, and then see if those designs conform to a mysterious rule. A game of deduction and trial-and-error, Zendo is a very different solving experience. ($40)

Plus there’s a brand-new expansion pack with additional rules for the game! ($5)

[Check out our full review for Zendo here!]

Lexicon-GO! (Winning Moves UK)

Are you a word-forming pro? Take your speed-solving skills and try them out with Lexicon-GO!, a Scrabble-style tile game suitable for solvers of all ages! ($12.95)

[Click here for our full review of Lexicon-GO!]

Chroma Cube (Project Genius)

Deduction puzzles have never been so colorful! In Chroma Cube, you need to puzzle out where to place twelve richly colored cubes, with only a few tricky clues to help you out! Take logic puzzles into the third dimension with this minimalist delight! ($19.99)

[Check out our full Chroma Cube review here!]

Pinbox 3000 (Cardboard Teck Instantute)

How about the chance to build your own game? Is that puzzle enough for you? Pinbox 3000 provides all the pieces you’ll need, plus valuable advice for brainstorming and creating your very own pinball game. It’s endlessly customizable, so you can make your Pinbox pinball game as simple or as complex as you like! ($49.95)


Board Games

Some of the puzzliest games on the market today are being made by top-flight board game companies, and we’ve got some marvelous games that will appeal to puzzlers of all ages!

Deblockle (Project Genius)

It sounds so simple! Just move your four cubes from one side of the board to the other. But Deblockle is more than meets the eye, and as you race against your opponent to puzzle out a path to victory, you’ll push your puzzly skills to the limit! ($24.99)

[Check out our full review of Deblockle here!]

The Island of Doctor Lucky (Cheapass Games)

People have been trying to kill Doctor Lucky for over twenty years, and this time around, you’re visiting his exotic island estate to try your murderous luck against the titular Doctor! The Island of Doctor Lucky offers a new gameboard to explore and new movement mechanics — including the Doctor’s very distracting cat — this is the best addition to the series yet! ($40)

[Check out our full review by clicking here!]

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Castellan (Steve Jackson Games)

Build a castle and then occupy it in Castellan, a game of strategy and opportunity. With great modeled pieces that really add to the aesthetic, Castellan has style and substance. ($34.95)

[Check out our full product review here!]

Shadows in the Forest (ThinkFun)

It’s lights out with this unique exploring game that pits players against brightness and darkness! In Shadows in the Forest, one player searches the board for magic little creatures, while the other players try to keep them hidden! In the darkness, who knows who will win? ($24.99)

[For our full review of Shadows in the Forest, click here!]

The Great Dinosaur Rush (APE Games)

Bring the insane real-life rivalry of paleontologists Cope and Marsh to life in The Great Dinosaur Rush! As you collect fossils and discover your own unique dinosaur, you must also steal bones, sabotage other scientists, and more! Show off your cunning and creativity in this game that proves historical truth is weirder than fiction! ($50)

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Walk-By Scrabble BoardTile Securing Travel Scrabble, and Drawing Room Scrabble (Hammacher Schlemmer)

Hammacher Schlemmer has several Scrabble variants available, including Tile Securing Travel Scrabble for those who want to solve on the go ($39.95) and Drawing Room Scrabble for those with swankier taste ($249.95) — not to mention the mindboggling World’s Largest Scrabble Game for $12,000! — but few are as clever or as convenient as the Walk-By Scrabble Board! Designed as a family game for people on the go, it’s a perfect way to bring back Board Game Night for busy families! ($29.95)

[Check out our full product review of the Walk-By Scrabble Board here!]

Laser Chess (ThinkFun)

The classic game of positioning and strategy gets a 21st-century upgrade! In Laser Chess, you use mirrors and careful piece-placement to bounce your laser beam across the board! Can you remove your opponent’s obstructing pieces and light up their king with your laser? If you do, you win! ($39.99)

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Tsuro: The Game of the Path (Calliope Games)

A path-laying game with tons of style and historical spirit, Tsuro casts up to eight players as flying dragons, and tasks you with laying out your path with special tiles. Try not to meet any other dragons or fly off the board! It’s a simple mechanic with plenty of replay value, and perfect for quick games with large groups. ($23.00)

Chessplus

The first thing you learn in chess is how the pieces move. But what if that could change? What if you could make new pieces that move in unexpected ways? How would that change the game? With Chessplus, you’ll find out, as you mix and match chess pieces in order to capture your opponent’s king. The possibilities really are endless! ($39.95)

[Click here for our full review of Chessplus!]

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Qwirkle (MindWare)

A wonderful mix of Uno and Mexican Train DominoesQwirkle is a tile-placing game where you try to maximize your points while minimizing the help you give to your opponents. With six bright colors and six different shapes to match up, Qwirkle is endless fun that’s so easy to jump into! ($18.39)


Card Games

Star Trek FluxxStar Trek: The Next Generation Fluxx, and The Bridge Expansion Pack (Looney Labs)

The chaos and ever-changing rules of Fluxx finally meet their match as they tackle the crews of the Federation’s most famous vessels. Whether you’re using the original series team in Star Trek Fluxx ($20), the crew of the Enterprise-D in Star Trek: The Next Generation Fluxx ($20), or combining both decks with the help of The Bridge Expansion Pack ($5), these cards will take you where Fluxx has never gone before!

[Click here for our full reviews of Star Trek Fluxx, Star Trek: The Next Generation Fluxx, and The Bridge Expansion Pack!]

Ricochet Poker (Hip Pocket Games)

Have you tried poker without the bluffing? With Ricochet Poker, you’ll sharpen your wagering and tactical skills by playing the cards, not the players! The player with the worst hand controls the action, but the player with the best hand wins the pot! ($10)

[Our full review of Ricochet Poker can be found here!]

Spaceteam (Timber and Bolt)

Can you repair your ship and get the engines up and running before a black hole ends your space adventure forever? That’s the name of the game in Spaceteam, a cooperative, communication-based game where you have to accomplish various tasks with your fellow players while sharing tools. It’s delightful chaos, heightened by the five-minute hourglass timer counting down your dwindling seconds before disaster strikes! A definite favorite around here. ($24.99)

Get the MacGuffin (Looney Labs)

Endurance is the name of the game here! (Except not.) In Get the MacGuffin, your goal is to outlast your opponents by being the last player with cards in their hands or in play! If you get the MacGuffin, you’ll be in good shape! But beware the thief, he could spoil your day! ($10)

[Click here for our full review!]

Unspeakable Words (Playroom Entertainment)

Some word games might drive you mad, but only Unspeakable Words actually makes keeping your sanity part of the gameplay! As you spell different words, you have to make a die roll to see if spelling the word cost you a bit of your sanity. If you lose too much of it, you’ll start uttering unspeakable words, which can be worth more points… if your sanity can take it! A fun twist on Scrabble and other word-forming games. ($21.83; deluxe edition $24.34)

Constellations (Xtronaut Enterprises)

Sometimes, we can move heaven and earth! Constellations is all about collecting stars and building famous constellations, then placing them in the night sky! The more effective your constellation-building, the higher your score! ($19.95)

[Check out our full review of Constellations here!]

Scrimish (Nexci)

Combine the card game War with elements of Chess and Memory, and you’ve got something approximating Scrimish, a card game that’s effortless to learn, but offers endless possibilities. Can you protect your crown card while hunting down your opponent’s? With cards for both defense and offense, there’s a lot packed into just 25 cards apiece! ($9.99)

[Check out our full product review of Scrimish by clicking here!]

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Timeline (Asmodee Games)

Timeline pits your knowledge of history against a growing timeline of important events, inventions, and historical moments. You don’t have to know exact dates; you just need to know if something happened before or after something else. Was the toothbrush invented before or after the syringe? Which came first, language or agriculture? Timeline is a fast, fun way of learning (or relearning) history! ($14.99 and up)

Girl Genius: The Works (Cheapass Games)

When you mess with the machine, you never know what might happen! In Girl Genius: The Works, you will play, spin, and remove cogs (cards) from the machine in order to earn points. But be careful, since chain reactions could leave your opponents in better standing by the time your turn is done! With multiple starter decks to choose from, Girl Genius: The Works will keep you coming back for more. ($10)

[Check out our full review by clicking here!]

Mary Engelbreit Loonacy (Looney Labs)

The singular pattern-matching chaos of Loonacy gets a lovely aesthetic update in the newest edition of the rapid-fire card game! Mary Engelbreit Loonacy marries the bright colors and warm tones of Engelbreit’s art with the fun and furious card-slapping gameplay of Loonacy! ($15)

[Click here to check out our full review!]

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The Oregon Trail (Pressman Toys)

The classic computer game comes to life as you and your fellow players team up to survive the perilous journey along The Oregon Trail. With art evoking old-school computer games, rampant threats and calamities to endure, and a long and challenging road to travel, will any of you will make it to Oregon? ($14.99)

[Check out our full product review of The Oregon Trail by clicking here!]


Dice Games

Button Men (Cheapass Games)

It’s one-on-one combat with dice in Button Men, a quick-play game that deftly balances luck and calculation! Can your strategy and math skills overcome your opponent and the random chance of rolling and re-rolling the dice? ($35)

[Click here to read our full review for Button Men!]

Sagrada (Floodgate Games)

One of the most beautiful strategy games on the market today, Sagrada is a singularly peaceful gaming experience. Compete with other players to build the most beautiful stained glass window, but with dice instead of glass! Unique and challenging, Sagrada is something else. ($44.95)

Fluff (Bananagrams)

Get ready to put your bluffing skills to the test with a kid-friendly round of Fluff! This fun version of Liar’s Dice will have you wagering, guessing, and deceiving your way to victory… or dicelessness! ($12.99)

Knot Dice (Black Oak Games)

Can you twist, turn, and spin these dice to complete beautiful, elaborate patterns inspired by Celtic knots? That’s the name of the game with Knot Dice, a dice game as challenging as it is gorgeous. With single-player and multi-player puzzles included, you’ll be tying yourself in knots for days! ($29.95)

[Click here to check out our full review!]

Tenzi

All of us have rolled dice in games before, but can you roll what you need as fast as possible? That’s the challenge of Tenzi, a game that pits up to four players against each other in tests of speed and dexterity. Can you roll ten 6’s before everyone else? ($14.95)


Party Games

Slapzi (Tenzi)

Slapzi will keep you on your toes. In this quick-reaction game, you’ve got to match your picture cards to the clue cards before your opponents. But with clues like “Not sold in a hardware store” or “Two of the same letter together,” this isn’t as easy as it appears! ($19.95)

[Click here to check out our full review of Slapzi!]

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Schmovie (Galactic Sneeze)

Are you the funniest, punniest one in your group of friends? Find out by playing Schmovie, the party game that pushes you to scribble down the best name for an imaginary movie created on the spot! Now redesigned in a sleeker box and playable by all ages, this is the movie game for everyone. ($18.95)

[Check out our full product review of the original version of Schmovie here!]

Decrypto (IELLO USA)

Can you covertly communicate with your teammates without revealing your secret code to the opponent team? That’s the name of the game in Decrypto, a party game all about word association and deduction. The first team to crack the opposing team’s codes twice wins! ($19.93)


Miscellaneous Puzzle Swag

If you’re looking for puzzly magnets, keychains, teddy bears, and more, the team at All of the Things have puzzle treats for you! Their table was one of the marketplace highlights at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and we’re happy to welcome them to the Gift Guide this year!


Thank you to all of the constructors, designers, and companies taking part in this year’s holiday puzzly gift guide!

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