A Writing Prompt with a Puzzle/Game Twist!

I’m always on the hunt for different ways that puzzles have found their way into pop culture and society in general, and it never ceases to amaze me how ubiquitous puzzles can be.

I recently stumbled across a puzzly reference in a list of writing prompts intended to spark some creative scribbling:

A long while back, the world came to an end, and with it your favourite newspaper. For years you’ve been filling the idle hours between scrounging and scavenging by solving crosswords puzzles. You’ve got 50 years worth of backlogs, but now you’ve completed every single one.

Every single one except the most recent one. The final one, that is. The crossword puzzle that never got released because the world ended.

So now you’re on a journey through the post-apocalyptic wasteland to find the last puzzle, and finally complete your collection.

A dystopian tale with a puzzly hook? Sounds like a can’t-miss YA book to me!

It’s an intriguing pitch — for a story or a roleplaying campaign — and one that reminds me of David Steinberg and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, as they’re still on the hunt for 142 missing New York Times crosswords that weren’t published in New York.

And, naturally, since my mind has wandered to puzzle-and-game-fueled scribblings, I simply must include this board game-inspired take on the classic Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” that a friend of mine penned. Enjoy!

Customer: Excuse me, do you sell this particular board game whose name I’ve forgotten, it’s like Parcheesi, only smaller and has a Pop-O-Matic dice rolling bubble in the middle.

Clerk: Are you looking for Trouble?

Customer: What? No! Sorry.

Clerk: Ah, we do have that. But without the dice popper.

Customer: What?

Clerk: Sorry.

Customer: No, it’s fine. I just want your opinion of the other game you have, if it’s no trouble.

Clerk: Well, it kind of is. According to some people.

Customer: Sorry?

Clerk: Yes.

Customer: You are fast becoming a source of aggravation.

Clerk: Oh, we have that one, too!

Customer: Argh! What. Game. Were you talking about before, and what’s your opinion?

Clerk: Sorry, and it’s no Trouble, if you ask me.

Customer: Well, great.

Clerk: So do you want that?

Customer: Huh?

Clerk: Or would you prefer Aggravation?

Customer: I’d rather you gave me a clue!

Clerk: Well that game’s nothing like Parcheesi.

Customer: Then why bring it up?

Clerk: I didn’t, you did!

Customer: Look, just… go.

Clerk: We don’t have that, but what about Othello?

Customer: ARGH!

As always, puzzles and games make everything better.

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Felix the Cat

It’s fun to uncover little puzzly bits of history, but when history, puzzles, and entertainment intertwine, it always makes for intriguing viewing.

So when friend of the blog Darcy Bearman showed me a Felix the Cat cartoon from the 1920s that centered around an unsolved crossword puzzle, naturally I was intrigued.

It wasn’t hard to track down a copy, given how practically everything seems to be on YouTube these days.

Here are the official details:

Felix All Puzzled (1924)

  • Director: Pat Sullivan
  • Animator: Otto Messmer
  • Distributor: M.J. Winkler Productions

Originally Released on January 15, 1925.

Felix is hungry, but his owner won’t feed him until he finishes his crossword puzzle. And he’s fixated on the down clue that will complete the puzzle, “Vertical. Found chiefly in Russia.”

Pondering what the answer could be Felix, the cat laments that he could eat if only he could get to Russia and uncover the missing word.

A nearby mule kicks Felix all the way to Russia, seemingly out of spite — clearly a Moscow Mule — and Felix lands in a small hut. Momentarily mistaken for a bomb, he leaves the hut and heads into town.

He sees two Russians leaning over some papers, and presumes that the answer will be on those papers. But after sneaking into the building, he’s accused of spying, shot at, and chased out. As it turns out, these two men are plotting a revolution, and they toss bombs at Felix.

After avoiding several of them, Felix is blown into the air by the last one, and ends up back in America.

His owner, the ungrateful boor, immediately asks if Felix found the answer. He doesn’t ask how his trip was, or if he’s alright, or hey, can I get you a bite to eat after your mule-and-bomb-propelled world tour. What a jerk.

And Felix’s snarky reply turns out to be the correct answer.

Felix laughs. His owner does a little victory dance. And the cartoon ends.

Naturally, I can’t help but ask… DID YOU FEED FELIX NOW THAT YOUR PUZZLE IS DONE, YOU SELFISH DOOFUS? I mean, come on. It’s the whole reason that Felix bothers going to Russia. He wants to eat. Feed him!

But I digress.

You may have noticed that the cartoon is a little choppy. If you did, kudos to you. As it turns out, most of the copies of this cartoon that are in circulation are from a Kodascope print where several scenes were cut. Given that the original run time listing was 5 minutes, suddenly the choppiness makes sense.

A half-dozen sequences or so are missing from this version, and they explain some of the weirder moments in the cartoon. For instance, the mule kicks Felix because the question marks (from his attempts to figure out how to get to Russia) tickle the mule.

Additionally, if you were wondering why the first Russian Felix meets thinks he’s a bomb, it’s because he got a letter from the revolutionaries earlier that reads “Today, you die!” (Which is admittedly a little grim.)

Now, let’s talk about that puzzle.

TRIPPLE is a pretty strange 1-Across. A chiefly South African term for a horse’s gait (according to Merriam Webster, anyway), you can’t help but wonder if they simply misspelled TRIPLE.

But the rest of the puzzle is fairly straightforward. It’s a 7×7 grid with a few two-letter entries (which wouldn’t fly in most crosswords these days). The combination of EASTERS and EVADERS crossing at the S is admittedly underwhelming, but as far as I can tell

The only other entry that jumps out at me is NVA, but only because I wonder how it would be clued. It’s not like a 1925 cartoon would be referencing the North Vietnamese Army.

Upon further digging, I suspect this would have been clued referencing the National Vaudeville Artists, a union formed by Edward Franklin Albee. The clue “Theatrical organization” is used for NVA in a 1953 New York Times puzzle, according to XwordInfo.

Of course, with obtuse cluing like “Chiefly found in Russia,” even a small grid like this could prove to be a challenge!

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Delving into the Lollapuzzoola 11 puzzles!

The eleventh edition of Lollapuzzoola arrived, as expected, on a Saturday in August, and it did not disappoint. The largest annual crossword tournament in New York (and the second largest in the world) has become not only one of the highlights of the puzzle calendar, but an institution at this point.

I was not in attendance, but I did sign up for the Solve At Home puzzles. Last weekend, I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hands at this year’s tournament puzzles, and I was not disappointed. Lollapuzzoola continues to push the envelope with inventive themes and unique spins on how to bring crosswords to life. (Although there was nothing as raucous as last year’s De-cat-hlon puzzle that had participants meowing aloud.)

This year’s theme was “Back to School,” so every puzzle had something academic or el-hi about it, and the constructors were clearly inspired in all sorts of ways. Let’s take a look at what they came up with.

Warm-Up: Twinlets by Brian Cimmet

This puzzle felt more like hitting the ground running than warming up, but it definitely got the creative juices flowing. The solver is presented with two identical grids and two sets of clues, and you have to figure out which grid each answer applies to.

This was complicated by the fact that several of the clues were the same for multiple entries. For example, the clue to 1 Across for both grids was “One party in an after-school one-on-one encounter.” The grids themselves also made for a tough solve, since there were several sections only connected by a single word, so you had fewer ins to tell you which answer applied.

Overall, this was a tough but fair way to open up the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included US OPEN, GLAIVE, STEVIA, and CAN IT BE, and my favorite clue was “Fit to finish?” for ATEE.

Puzzle 1: Back to School by Aimee Lucido

The competition puzzles kicked off with this gem — my first Aimee Lucido puzzle, if I recall correctly — a terrific variation on a 17×17 grid with a clever hook. The themed entries had 4-letter colleges hidden backwards inside them (inside shaded boxes), and those colleges reappeared elsewhere in the grid, this time reading the correct way.

With four themed entries and four repeated colleges in a tight space, you could’ve easily had some tough crossings and awkward fill, but instead, the solve was smooth and the grid construction tight. A really great starting puzzle overall.

Interesting grid entries included COSTCO, TAOIST, MALAWI, and AGITATOR, and my favorite clues were “Mac alternative?” for BUB, “Movies, and some comics, but *definitely* not video games, according to some” for CANON, and “Axle attachments that always make me think of the world record holder for the 100-meter dash” for U-BOLTS.

Puzzle 2: Going Off by Erik Agard and Yacob Yonas

The difficulty increased with Puzzle 2, as Yacob Yonas and ACPT champion and speed-demon Erik Agard tested solvers with this diabolical entry. This puzzle’s hook was a familiar phrase where the final letter was replaced by the word “ring” — for instance, LUNCH BUFFET became LUNCH BUFFERING — and this hook was revealed in the final themed entry, SAVED BY THE BELL.

You see, each of those missing letters was “saved,” spelling out the word TEST. Truly a time in school when you’d hope to be saved by the bell. It’s a clever hook, but one that wasn’t easily parsed, at first.

Interesting grid entries included SHINNYING, FEE WAIVER, LIE ABED, and YOU UP?, and my favorite clues were “Sewer’s terminus?” for HEM and “Wood-chopping site” for DOJO, which is on the shortlist for my favorite clue of the year.

Puzzle 3: Subject to Change by Patti Varol

A nice palate cleanser after Puzzle 2, Puzzle 3 featured three pairs of themed entries where common expressions and phrases that ended in school subjects had those subjects swapped. So, for instance, YOU DO THE MATH and MARTIAL ART became YOU DO THE ART and MARTIAL MATH.

This was a really fun solve, and the hook was both challenging but very intuitive. The themed entries were complemented by great fill and a lot of fun, accessible cluing. This easily could’ve slotted in as the first puzzle, but served as an excellent midpoint for the regular tournament puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included TERMINATOR, I DON’T GET IT, GIANNI, and ALL IN ALL, and my favorite clues were “Two out of nine, literally” for ENS and “Result of hitting a certain bar” for SPACE. (Also, points for a quality Simpsons reference with “KWYJIBO” in one of the themed entry clues.)

Puzzle 4: Roll Call by Jeff Chen

This hook took me longer to get than it should’ve — which was the story of my Lollapuzzoola solving experience this year — as parts of an actor’s name were literally inserted into other entries. But the clues only reflected the word without the insert, which added to the challenge. For instance, CONSUMES became CONSUMMATES with MAT inside, but it was clued “Depletes,” so it was up to you to figure out the longer entry.

And which actor was hiding within the themed entries? Well, quite appropriately, it was MAT/THEW/BRO/DER/ICK, who famously played lovable truant Ferris Bueller. Well played, Mr. Chen.

Interesting grid entries included RYDELL (referencing another famous school from a film), SAMOSA, LIP RINGS, and BEER STEIN, and my favorite clues were “Caesarian section?” for VIDI and the pair of “Org. concerned with millions of screens” for TSA and “Organizations concerned with millions of screens?” for TV NETWORKS.

Puzzle 5: Watch Your Tone! by Paolo Pasco

The regular tournament puzzles wrapped up with this 21×21 puzzle, which expanded on the trading-words hook we saw in Puzzle 3. But instead of school subjects, we were treated to the entire musical scale, as seven themed entries shifted letters. For instance, instead of DOCK OF THE BAY (which started with DO, the first note), we had TICK OF THE BAY (featuring TI, the second note).

That DO was swapped down to the next entry, where REMAINS TO BE SEEN became DOMAINS TO BE SEEN, and RE was the note sent down to the next entry. This formed a complete chain by the seventh themed entry, with the eighth themed entry serving as the revealer explaining what was going on in this class: PASSING NOTES.

The trade-off for this fun and ambitious theme was some pretty tough fill entries to make the grid work, but those difficult entries were mitigated somewhat by very solid cluing, making for a challenging, but ultimately fair puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included CD CASES, A JIFF, ELASTICITY, and AERO MEXICO, and my favorite clues were “’Look at that puppy!’” for AWW, “Crossword making, for one” for ART, and “’____, ____, Nanette’ (possible Russian remake of the ‘Tea for Two’ musical” for NYET.

Puzzle 6: Finals by Mike Nothnagel and Doug Peterson

As always, there were two sets of clues for the Finals puzzle, the Local and the more difficult Express clues. No matter which clues you were working with, you were in for a terrific tournament finale.

With two 15-letter entries crossing in the middle to build around, Mike and Doug delivered a tight grid with some terrific filler entries. As for the cluing, it felt like a summation of high school classes, with references to math, foreign languages, Greek mythology, and American history.

(That clue in particular shined in both versions of the puzzle. In the Local Finals, it read “American ship sunk in Havana Harbor… don’t you remember?” and in the Express, it was “Ship in 1898 headlines.” The answer? USS MAINE.)

This was a final puzzle worthy of a tournament built around clever hooks, top-notch construction, and delightful cluing, and it delivered in spades.

Interesting grid entries included HAVE A SNACK, EPIC FAIL, RENAULTS, and MEDEA, and my favorite clues were “Event at which you might stand for a spell?” for BEE and “Ikea’s AROD and KLABB, e.g.” for LAMPS.

There was also a tiebreaker puzzle which kept me guessing for a long while, especially with clues like “Mother’s father’s daughter’s son’s daughter” for NIECE and “’I have to write ____ on my blog tonight, mostly to complain about this atrocious partial in the Lollapuzzoola tiebreaker'” for A POST.

The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were tight, there was very little crosswordese, and the creative themes and puzzle mechanics — from swapping classes and passing notes to replacing missing letters with “rings” — ensured that not only would fun be had by all, but that the unique puzzles would linger in your memory.

Mission accomplished, and congratulations on the competitors and the organizers who made it all happen. Lollapuzzoola is only getting more creative, more groundbreaking, and more clever with each passing year.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year!

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A 5-Letter Word Related to Crossword Skills? Try “Music”

A few years ago, I wrote a post discussing the curious intersection of music and puzzles. It centered around several studies about the effects both listening to music and performing music can have on individuals taking tests or solving puzzles.

There were two intriguing takeaways from these studies:

  • Both adults and children perform better on tests, puzzles, and problem-solving exercises when music is involved (ex.: if they listen to music before or during the test).
  • Children who are given music lessons often achieve greater heights in other subjects, including math and sports.

But it didn’t occur to me until much later that the connection between music and crosswords in particular has been in evidence for quite some time.

There are two 7-time champions in the history of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament: Dan Feyer and Jon Delfin. Think about that. Fourteen out of forty-one ACPT tournaments have been won by one of these men. Practically one out of every three!

And both of them have a musical background as pianists and music directors.

But they’re not the only ones. Constructor Patrick Blindauer, puzzler and actress Whitney Avalon, Lollapuzzoola co-founder Brian Cimmet, and even our own Director of Digital Games Fred Galpern are all musicians.

So what’s the connection between music and crossword puzzles?

No one can say for sure, but there are theories.

In the crossword documentary Wordplay (and quoted from the article linked below), former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent mentioned why he felt that musicians and mathematicians were good fits as crossword solvers:

Their ability to assimilate a lot of coded information instantly. In other words, a piano player like John Delfin, the greatest crossword player of our time, he sits down and he sees three staffs of music and he can instantly play it. He’s taken all those notes and absorbs what they mean, instantaneously. If you have that kind of mind, and you add it to it a wide range of information, and you can spell, you’d be a really great crossword puzzler.

Crossword constructor and psychology professor Arthur Schulman — known for a series of seminars entitled “The Mind of the Puzzler” at the University of Virginia — would agree with that statement. He posited a correlation between word puzzles, math, and music, in that they all involve a quick and intuitive understanding of symbols. It’s about “finding meaning in structure.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Dan Feyer built on this idea, stating that music, math, and puzzles all have pattern recognition in common, quickly recognizing combinations of blanks and spaces and mentally filling in possible answer words, even before reading the clues.

Now, clearly, musical skill and proficiency isn’t required to be a good crossword solver — I’d classify myself as a pretty good solver and I have an almost magical lack of musical talent — but it’s intriguing to ponder how puzzling could easily be wrapped up with a musical bow.

Do you know any other puzzlers with a musical background, or are you a lyrical solver yourself? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!

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Delving into the 2018 BosWords Puzzles!

I finally had a chance to sit down and take a crack at the puzzles from the BosWords Crossword Tournament last month. Given the talent involved amongst the organizers, I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

So let’s put those puzzles under the microscope and see what’s what!

Comedy Central by Andrew Kingsley

This unscored opening puzzle is a nice warm-up, getting everyone into the puzzly spirit and ready to solve. The revealer (INSIDE JOKE) explains the simple hook — words and phrases containing synonyms for “joke,” a la ACU”PUN”CTURE — and the easily-accessible fill entries make this puzzle a breeze.

Interesting grid entries included ZINN, YUAN, THE OC, and FAMOUS AMOS, and my favorite clues were “Ocean liner?” for SHORE and “Ending with ‘buck’ or ‘stink’” for AROO.

Puzzle 1: Cold Open by Laura Braunstein

For the second year in a row, Laura Braunstein constructed the opening puzzle of the tournament, and once again, she delivers a picture perfect appetizer for a day of solving. The cluing feels fresh and relevant, and the theme — phrases with a chilly starter, like ICY RECEPTION — is instantly gettable without feeling hackneyed or overdone. The grid fill is fun with hardly any crosswordese. A terrific start for the event.

Interesting grid entries included AIR GUITAR, TACO TRUCK, LISZT, and DOODAD, and my favorite clues were “Medieval peasant (no, not ESNE!)” for SERF — a nice reference to common crosswordese there — and the pairing of “Much ____ About Nothing” for ADO and “‘Much ____ About Nothing’ (1996 ‘The Simpsons’ episode)” for APU.

Puzzle 2: Not Ready for “Prime” Time Players by Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb

This puzzle puts an interesting spin on the classic moniker for Saturday Night Live cast members by casting athletes from Boston-based teams whose jersey numbers are not prime numbers. (For instance, BOBBY ORR is “Bruins #4 who is an NHL and crossword legend.”) Although you need to know your Beantown sports figures for this one, the accessible fill makes it easy to cobble the names of the athletes together if sports isn’t your strong suit.

Interesting grid entries included BALL PIT, MASTER YODA, OPIUM, and BLUE MAN, and my favorite clues were “What this is” for PRONOUN, “What this entry isn’t” for ACROSS [this was a down clue], and “‘The Fast and the Furious’ films, e.g.” for OCTET.

Puzzle 3: Musical Guests by Brendan Emmett Quigley

Although Puzzle 3 was the toughest puzzle in last year’s BosWords tournament, this year’s contribution by Quigley didn’t have the most difficult theme of the day, but it did have the most challenging fill. (The crossing of VAPED and VSIX was particularly vexing.)

But the theme entries were very clever, concealing famous musicals within mashup entries — TRENTON OF BRICKS, which is TON OF BRICKS with RENT inside, for instance — all of which spanned the entire grid as 15-letter answers. Another topnotch grid and concept from one of the best.

Interesting grid entries included CUT BAIT, AFLAC, MINSK, and K-SWISS, and my favorite clue was “Like the main characters in ‘Scooby-Doo’” for NOSY.

Puzzle 4: Deep Thoughts by Joon Pahk and Lena Webb

This year’s toughest tournament puzzle — other than the actual championship themeless — Puzzle 4 had two tricks up its sleeve. First, the answer words in the bottom half of the grid extended beyond the grid itself, as the missing last letters in those Down answers spelled the word IDEA three times underneath the grid. (For instance, DALI, PACED, WEATHER VANE, and ONEIDA appeared in the grid as DAL, PACE, WEATHERVAN, and ONEID, and it was up to the solver to realize what was happening.)

But those missing IDEAs — the “deep thoughts” of the title — were also missing from the theme entries, so EUCLIDEAN GEOMETRY had to be written into the grid as EUCLNGEOMETRY. It was diabolical, and a masterful example of gridplay at work.

Interesting grid entries included BANTU, MAJORCA, ADONAI, MY BABY, and ROPE RUG, and my favorite clues were “Buster’s target?” for MYTH and “HAL 9000 adversary” for DAVE.

Puzzle 5: Celebrity Jeopardy! by Finn Vigeland

The tournament concluded with a fun, punny hook, as Vigeland paired six celebrity guest hosts with descriptors to create common phrases like VOLCANIC (Chris) ROCK and BURNED (Jeff) BRIDGES. After the challenge of Puzzle 4, this was a pleasant solve that still made you work for some of the obscure fill entries.

Interesting grid entries included TIMESUCK, FBI AGENT, EBATES, and I GOTTA GO, and my favorite clues were “The Great Wall of China is visible from space, e.g.” for MYTH and “Deal breakers?” for NARCS.

Space Walks by John Lieb and Andrea Yanes

This well-constructed tiebreaker puzzle abandoned the SNL theme for a sci-fi twist, and the resulting puzzle was very smooth, combining a good hook — eight phrases consisting of two B words — with a clever revealer: beloved Star Wars rolling droid BB-8. Although not strictly part of the tournament puzzles in either point value or style, this was a fun puzzle all around.

Interesting grid entries included MR. DARCY, OPEN BAR, BOO BERRY, and ACADIA, and my favorite clue was “Like inside-the-park home runs” for RARE.

Championship Themeless by David Quarfoot

The grand finale of the tournament was this fairly tough puzzle with lots of long entries crossing and some difficult cluing. Although well-constructed — particularly the corners with intersecting 8- and 9-letter entries — the inclusion of answers like H-TILE and ECON EXAM felt like a little bit of a cop-out, compared to the otherwise tight grid construction by the usually impeccable David Quarfoot.

Still, this outdid Puzzle 4 for toughest overall solve for the tournament. I don’t think I would have completed it in the time allotted, let alone fast enough to do well against fellow solvers.

Interesting grid entries included CHEMTRAIL, BOSOX, ARIOSO, TRAVEL BAN, and NEVERLAND, and my favorite clues were “Fitting position?” for TAILOR and “Pill-dropping alternative to Tetris” for DR. MARIO.

Overall, I would call this year’s array of tournament puzzles a rousing success. They clearly had fun with the Saturday Night Live-inspired hooks, and the puzzles were challenging and creative in their fill without being intimidating or getting too esoteric.

BosWords is probably the most new-solver-friendly tournament out there in terms of puzzle difficulty — not nearly as challenging or as experimental as those at Lollapuzzoola or The Indie 500 — while still remaining engaging.

It’s the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the tournament.

Can’t wait to see what they cook up for us next year.

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Lollapuzzoola 11 This Weekend!

This Saturday, August 18, marks the eleventh edition of the Lollapuzzoola crossword puzzle tournament!

For the uninitiated, Lollapuzzoola is an independent crossword tournament run by Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer, featuring puzzles constructed with a more freewheeling style than the traditional American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. As they say, it’s “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August.”

The format is similar to BosWords. Competitors are placed in one of four divisions: Express (solvers with tournament experience), Local (other solvers), Rookies, and Pairs.

With seven tournament puzzles — designed with inimitable style, both fun and befuddling in how often they innovate classic crossword tropes — you’re guaranteed to get your money’s worth as you solve.

And for those who reach the top of mountain, “winners in each division are awarded prizes, which could range from a box of used pencils to a brand new car. So far, no one has ever won a car.

Registration is still open if you want to attend in person!

But if you can’t, the At-Home Division is open for any and all solvers to enjoy. For $15, you’ll receive the tournament puzzles the next day for your enjoyment (or frustration, depending on the difficulty).

It should be a great time, either in person or for solvers at home. Lollapuzzoola is one of the highlights of the puzzle calendar.

Are you planning on attending Lollapuzzoola or solving from home? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!

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