PuzzleNation 2019 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide: Grab Bag!

Welcome to the PuzzleNation Blog 2019 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!

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

This guide is a grab bag of all sorts of dice games, puzzle games, brain teasers, card games, puzzle books, party games, and board games, the perfect random assortment for any puzzle fan you need ideas for! We’re sure you’ll find the right 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!


Let’s start off with some puzzle books before we get into the grab bag of games, puzzles, and other terrific holiday treats!

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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), the Crossword Extravaganza collection ($7.99), or a value pack of Jumble puzzles ($13.95)! Maybe you’d like 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 Merry & Bright Fill-Ins Puzzle Gift Set ($44.95), complete with pencils, coffee, and snacks to keep you puzzling, or the Merry & Bright Sudoku Puzzle Gift Set ($44.95). 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, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today crosswords to their credit, you’re sure to find some quality puzzlers within these pages!

–Eric Berlin’s Puzzle Snacks: More Than 100 Bite-Size Puzzles for Every Solver ($7.59)

–David Steinberg’s Juicy Crosswords from the Orange County Register ($8.95)

–Brendan Emmett Quigley’s Octopus Crosswords ($6.95)

–Matt Gaffney’s Fast & Fun Mini Crosswords ($7.49)

–Andrew Ries’s Maverick Crosswords ($8.95)

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

–Erik Agard’s Food for Thought Crosswords ($7.48)

USA Today Crossword Super Challenge ($9.99)

–The Puzzle Society’s Pocket Posh New Crosswords 1 and Pocket Posh New Crosswords 2 ($8.99 each)

–Cynthia Morris’s CynAcrostics Volume 4: My Word! and CynAcrostics Volume 5: My Word, Part 2 ($9.95 each)

–Andrews McMeel Publishing’s Posh Simple Word Search ($12.99)

–Andy Kravis’s Challenge Accepted!: 100 Word Searches ($8.39)

–Shawn Marie Simmons’s 25 Word Search Puzzles for Classic Literature Lovers and 25 Word Search Puzzles for MODERN Literature Lovers ($6.99 each) [available in a large print bundle as well ($12.99)]

USA Today Super Sudoku Challenge ($9.99)

–Oliver Roeder’s The Riddler: Fantastic Puzzles from FiveThirtyEight ($10.99)

USA Today Logic Super Challenge ($9.99)

–Andrews McMeel Publishing’s Posh Kurosu ($12.99)

And that doesn’t even cover the many great email and downloadable puzzle books and sets available this holiday season!

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

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

The Inkubator, edited by Laura Braunstein and Tracy Bennett (crossword puzzles constructed exclusively by women, twice a month, $25 for 1 year)

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

–Andrew Ries’ Aries Xwords ($12 per year), Aries Freestyle themeless crosswords ($45 per year), and Aries Rows Garden ($30 per year) [available in monthly bundles as well]

–Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords ($31 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!

–Will Nediger’s Bewilderingly weekly themed and themeless crosswords ($25 for 1 year)

–Eric Berlin’s Puzzlesnacks puzzles ($3 per month)

Crossword LA 2018 puzzle pack ($5)

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

Topple puzzle magazine ($1 per issue)

–Lone Shark Games’ Puzzle Vault Bundle (8 PDF collections including Marching Bands, Rows Garden, Crosswords, Cryptics, and more, $44.95)


And now, without further ado, here is our grab bag of puzzle games and products galore!

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The Curated Collection (Project Genius, brain teaser)

Why tackle one brain teaser when five different challenges are there for the solving? The Curated Collection represents five different historical eras with five distinct styles to unravel. Distribute them around the room or pit one friend against the entire gauntlet! ($19.97)

[Our full review now available here!]

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Domino Maze (ThinkFun, puzzle game)

Test your deduction skills and your balance in this diabolical puzzle game. Domino Maze tasks you with not only figuring out how to place the dominoes and complete your path, but being dexterous enough not to set it off too early! ($29.99)

[Check out our full review by clicking here!]

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I’d Rather Be Puzzling travel mug (Penny Press, miscellaneous puzzle swag)

After a long day of puzzling, sip some coffee from a snazzy I’d Rather Be Puzzling Travel Mug ($7.95).

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Time Breaker (Looney Labs, card game)

Time itself is in danger as you chase a fugitive across history in this clever strategy game. Whether you’re moving your token through time across the board or playing special cards to leap to specific moments in time, you’ll have to be quick and cagey to prevent the Time Breaker from escaping your clutches. ($25)

[Check out our full review here!]

Tak: A Beautiful Game (Cheapass Games, board game)

Many new games build off of classic mechanics, but very few new games truly feel like they could have been played centuries ago. Tak definitely fits that mold, using simple wooden pieces to create a game that feels both fresh and ancient all at once. Inspired by the eponymous game in Patrick Rothfuss’s KingKiller Chronicles series, Tak is a wonderful two-player game that quickly grows addictive. ($40 and up)

[Click here for our full review of Tak!]

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Wooden Fractal Tray Puzzles (Martin Raynsford, jigsaw puzzle)

Laser-cut precision and patterns built on fractal designs make these wooden tray puzzles as maddening as they are beautiful. The pieces fall so seamlessly into place that they practically vanish… that is, if you can puzzle out how to place them all into the tray. ($35.99)

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The Mysterious Mansion by Daria Song (Andrews McMeel Publishing, puzzle book)

Combining puzzles and riddles with mazes, coloring books, and a wonderful, intricate story, The Mysterious Mansion is designed to relax, engage, and puzzle the reader in equal measure. The gorgeous full-color illustrations are a feast for the eyes, and the puzzles are both fun and visually immersive. Daria Song gleefully takes activity books to the next level with this beautiful puzzle experience. ($16.99)

[To check out our full review, click here!]

Sagrada (Floodgate Games, dice game)

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. ($39.95)

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The Oregon Trail (Pressman Toys, card game)

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? ($10.23)

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

All of the Things (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 back to the Gift Guide this year!

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

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 mind-boggling 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!]

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Wish You Were Here (The Enigma Emporium, puzzles by mail)

Imagine an entire mystery hidden across a handful of postcards. That’s the multilayered puzzle experience offered by Wish You Were Here, where a series of coded messages awaits you. Unravel all the secrets and discover an exciting tale of danger and spycraft along the way! ($15)

[And if you enjoy Wish You Were Here, there are 3 additional puzzle bundles to try out!]

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Ghost Cube (Project Genius, brain teaser)

A regular Rubik’s Cube is challenging enough, but at least you can trust that, no matter how mixed up the colored squares get, you’re still dealing with a standard cube. Well, that’s not the case with Ghost Cube.  Bending into all different shapes as you manipulate the many twisting pieces, this puzzle will force you to examine Rubik’s-style solving from a whole new angle! ($21.95)

[Check out our full review of Ghost Cube here!]

Scrimish (Nexci, card game)

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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Invasion of the Cow Snatchers (ThinkFun, puzzle game)

One of the most creative deduction puzzle games I saw all year, Invasion of the Cow Snatchers has you piloting a UFO and picking up different cows on an obstacle-laden field. Can you figure out how to magnetically nab all of the cows while avoiding fences, bushes, walls, and silos? ($29.99)

[Read our full review of Invasion of the Cow Snatchers here!]

Decrypto (IELLO USA, party game)

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! ($19.98)

Chessplus (board game)

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! ($44.95)

[Click here for our full review of Chessplus!]

Unspeakable Words (Playroom Entertainment, card game)

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. ($18.75; deluxe edition $29.38)

The Enigmatist (puzzle event)

“An immersive evening of puzzles, cryptology, and illusions” created by magician and crossword constructor David Kwong, The Enigmatist is based on William and Elizebeth Friedman’s work at Riverbank, a peculiar hotbed for codebreaking in the early days of the twentieth century.

Tickets are available in New York City until January 11th, then again in May, but in Los Angeles this time at the Geffen Playhouse! (Prices range from $59 to $150 in NYC, $30 to $130 in LA.)

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Flying Colors coloring book (Penny Press, miscellaneous puzzle swag)

Our puzzly pals at Penny Press know that sometimes, you need a break from puzzles, so why not unwind with their Flying Colors coloring book ($6.99).

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Castellan (Steve Jackson Games, board game)

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!]

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Star Trek Chrono-Trek (Looney Labs, card game)

Can you bend time to your will and make the future you desire come to pass? In Star Trek Chrono-Trek, you take on the role of a famous member of Starfleet and try to alter the fabric of space-time itself in order to win. But be careful, because other players are changing the timeline too, and there are consequences for meddling with time! ($25)

[Check out our full review by clicking here!]

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The Crosswords Club (puzzles by mail)

A monthly publication with six Sunday-sized crosswords, The Crosswords Club utilizes some of the sharpest crossword constructors in the business today, and the puzzles are all edited by top constructor Patti Varol. Each bundle is as fun as it is challenging, plus each monthly bundle has an extra word game printed right on the envelope! ($39.95 for 12 issues)

Deblockle (Project Genius, board game)

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!]

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Thinking Putty Puzzle (ThinkFun, puzzle game)

It’s not a stretch to call this one of the most inventive and creative puzzle games of the year. Thinking Putty Puzzle pits the player’s wits and planning against some deviously sticky and tricky puzzle scenarios. Can you connect all the dots without your putty paths crossing? ($29.99)

[Click here to check out our full review!]

Constellations (Xtronaut Enterprises, card game)

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! ($23.98)

[Check out our full review of Constellations here!]

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Gearjits Roller Coaster (Gearjits, jigsaw puzzle)

Bring your puzzle skills to life as you assemble a working roller coaster from these wooden pieces. Assembling handcranks and gears to operate the machine along with the structure of the roller coaster itself makes this 3-D puzzle more exciting and satisfying than the average 3-D puzzle. ($39.95)

Slapzi (Tenzi, party game)

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!]

The Keymaster’s Bundle by Mike Selinker, Gaby Weidling, and Eric Harshbarger (puzzle book)

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 Keymaster’s Bundle combines The Maze of GamesThe Theseus Guide to the Final Maze hint book, the Maze of Games Map, and the new Keymaster’s Tome all in one place, along with some bonus digital downloads! It’s the entire Maze of Games experience! ($74.95)

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Of course, if you’ve already got The Maze of Games, The Theseus Guide, and the Maze of Games map, you can pick up The Keymaster’s Tome on its own right here! ($17.81)

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

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Fluxx (Looney Labs, card game)

The chaos and ever-changing rules of Fluxx finally meet their match as they tackle the crews of the Federation’s most famous outposts, Deep Space Nine. Work with Sisko and his eclectic team to outwit the Dominion, the Cardassians, and more, all in a card game that boldly goes where only a few other versions of Fluxx have gone before! ($20)

And if Star Trek isn’t your style, maybe you’d enjoy Jumanji FluxxMarvel Fluxx, or any of the other marvelous variations on this classic quick-changing card game!

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Cryptogram Puzzle Post (Jack Fallows, puzzles by mail)

A combination of different puzzles and encrypted messages interwoven together with bits of narrative, each edition of the Cryptogram Puzzle Post is a standalone story steeped in mystery and supernatural elements. But solve them all together, and a grand universe of storytelling unfolds. Sold in seasonal bundles and annual subscriptions, this episodic puzzly adventure is quite unique. (£5 for digital downloads, £20 for seasonal bundles)

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Tsuro: The Game of the Path (Calliope Games, board game)

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. ($30)

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Schmovie (Galactic Sneeze, party game)

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. ($19.95)

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

Tenzi (dice game)

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)

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Waiter’s Tray (Project Genius, brain teaser)

Just move the wine bottles so you can remove the Waiter’s Tray. Sounds simple, right? When you’re talking about one of the brain teasers from the Constantin Puzzle series, what appears simple quickly becomes a proper puzzly challenge. ($20)

[Check out our Waiter’s Tray review here!]

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Geode Puzzle (Uncommon Goods, jigsaw puzzle)

Forget looking for the edge pieces, because these nature-based puzzles take jigsaws beyond the usual patterning. Geode Puzzle‘s flowing, unusual shapes and vibrant colors create a unique solving experience. ($65)

Spaceteam (Timber and Bolt, card game)

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. ($24.95)

Chroma Cube (Project Genius, puzzle game)

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! ($20)

[Check out our full Chroma Cube review here!]

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Qwirkle (MindWare, board game)

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! ($14.99)

Zendo (Looney Labs, puzzle game)

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!]

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Codenames (Czech Games, card game)

It’s a race against time to locate all of your spies before your opponents. But in order to do so, you need to communicate information with a single word. Codenames will put your word association skills to work as you try to find secret agents disguised with code words, while avoiding innocent citizens and dangerous assassins along the way! ($19.99)

[Read our full review of Codenames here!]

The Abandons (Puzzling Pixel Games, card game)

Can you escape a dangerous labyrinth that changes every time you explore it? The Abandons pits the solver against a random deck, where luck, quick decision making, and puzzly skill all must be on your side if you ever want to see daylight again.  ($15)

[Check out our full review by clicking here!]

 

Tavern Puzzles / Tucker-Jones House Inc. (brain teaser)

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)

Puzzlecraft: How to Make Every Kind of Puzzle by Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder (puzzle book)

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)

Pinbox 3000 (Cardboard Teck Instantute, puzzle game)

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)

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Puzzometry (jigsaw puzzle)

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 in seven different styles — including Puzzometry ($18.50), Puzzometry Jr. ($14), Puzzometry Squares ($18.50), and the new Puzzometry Hex ($18.50) — you’ve got distinct challenges appropriate for all different ages!

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

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Are You a Robot? (Looney Labs, card game)

In this social deduction game, your space station has been invaded by robots that can masquerade as human. Is one already in the room, or are you just being paranoid? The more packs you have, the more people can play, and the more devious and exciting the gameplay becomes. If you’ve ever played Mafia or Ultimate Werewolf, you’ll enjoy Are You a Robot? ($2 per pack)

[Check out our full review by clicking here!]

The Island of Doctor Lucky (Cheapass Games, board game)

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, new movement mechanics, and a very distracting cat. This is the best addition to the series yet! ($27.39)

[Check out our full review by clicking here!]

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Bananagrams Duel (Bananagrams, dice game)

Bananagrams specializes in crossword-inspired fun for groups, but what if you’re looking for a head-to-head challenge? Well then, Bananagrams Duel might be what you’re looking for. Utilizing letter cubes instead of tiles, you’ll have to build a grid of related words fitting a given theme before your opponent can! It’s a new twist on an old classic! ($7.99)

[Click here to check out our full review!]

Lightbox (Eric Clough, brain teaser)

A puzzle box unlike anything you’ve ever seen, Lightbox creates different patterns of shadow and light as you shift and arrange the various plastic plates that make up the box. As you twist and reset them, different electrical connections are made, and different plates light up. As gorgeous as it is challenging, Lightbox is a very eye-catching puzzle that always wows new solvers. ($85)

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

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Timeline (Asmodee Games, card game)

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! ($8.99 and up)

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Lexicon-GO! (Winning Moves UK, puzzle game)

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! ($13.27)

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

The Great Dinosaur Rush (APE Games, board game)

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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Cat Stax (Brainwright, brain teaser)

Can you place the feline figures into the purrfect arrangement to complete each challenging design? That’s the question posed by Cat Stax, a terrific introduction for younger solvers to spatial-awareness puzzles and Tetris-style solving! ($6.39)

Deluxe Pairs (Hip Pocket Games, card game)

Building on the legacy already established by the bar-friendly series of Pairs decks available, Deluxe Pairs offers a new artistic spin on the classic Pairs “Fruit Deck,” as well as a companion booklet with rules for numerous Pairs variants you can play with the deck! This isn’t just one card game, it’s dozens! ($14.85)

[Click here for our full review of Deluxe Pairs!]

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Smart10 (Bananagrams, party game)

Can you pick one correct answer from a field of possibilities? Smart10 challenges you and a group of friends to do just that by selecting correct answers from a list of possible responses. It’s tougher than it sounds, and it’ll test your trivia skills and your ability to think under pressure. ($19.95)

[Check out our full review here!]

Escape Room gift cards/vouchers (puzzle event)

When it comes to the puzzler in your life, why not buy them a gift card or voucher for your friendly local escape room? It’s a terrific unique puzzle experience they can share with friends, loved ones, and fellow puzzlers!

Most escape room companies offer them, and a quick Google search should turn up an escape room near you!

But here’s a smattering of terrific escape rooms to check out:


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

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How to Get Started in Cryptic Crosswords

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[Image courtesy of Amazon. The Times Cryptic Crossword Book.]

On Twitter yesterday, Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight asked, “If one wanted to learn/practice solving cryptic crosswords, with what puzzles should one begin?”

Most of the replies mentioned different cryptic crossword outlets to try out, like The Nation, Harper’s Magazine, and The UK Times Quick Cryptic Crossword Book. The Nation in particular was recommended as a good starter cryptic.

Monthly offerings from constructors like Andrew Ries and Cox & Rathvon were also mentioned, though I would add Patrick Berry’s Son of the Crypt cryptic collection to the list of suggestions. (I would normally also recommend The Guardian because of their great cryptics, but they’re pretty tough, particularly for beginners.)

This, of course, presumes that Roeder meant which cryptic puzzles one should start with.

cryptic

[Image courtesy of The New European.]

It occurred to me that he might be asking what OTHER puzzles are good for beefing up your cryptic crossword solving game.

Given the different kinds of clues used in cryptic crosswords, I have a few suggestions.

1. Anagram puzzle

Anagrams are a staple of cryptic cluing, and any puzzler looking to get into cryptics should have some facility with them. There are plenty of ways to practice — the Jumble, Anagram Magic Square and other puzzles from our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, and even Bananagrams, Words with Friends, or Scrabble will help build your anagram skills.

2. Rebus

Rebus puzzles are all about adding and subtracting letters to form words or phrases, and there’s plenty of that in cryptic cluing. This is a good way to get used to breaking down longer words into abbreviations, anagrams, and so on in order to puzzle out the answer to a cryptic clue.

3. Brain teaser/riddle

Many cryptic clues rely on words with multiple meanings, as well as words that serve as both instructions and hints. Brain teasers and riddles employ similar wordplay, and they can help you develop a proclivity for looking at words from a new point of view.

cryptic2

[Image courtesy of Eastern Daily Press.]

Of course, if you want help learning to decipher the many variations on cryptic crossword cluing that you’ll encounter, there are some great resources out there.

Penny Dell Puzzles has a PDF containing examples of the most common cluing tricks, and you can bolster that with similar insights from Wikipedia and The Nation.

If you’re looking for deeper dives into all sorts of cryptic cluing, my one-stop shop for insight is The Guardian’s crossword blog. They offer regular features breaking down various kinds of cryptic clues.

In the last few weeks alone, they’ve covered cycling clues, “stuttering” in clues, and how the points of the compass can be used in cluing, and there are dozens of similarly illuminating posts in their archive.

It’s a terrific resource for newbie cryptic solvers and established puzzlers alike.

And it’s worth getting into cryptic crosswords, if only for the occasional subversive little Easter egg like this one from yesterday’s The Guardian cryptic:

brexit

Did I miss any resources or outlets for great cryptic crosswords? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!


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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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Puzzle Plagiarism: One Year Later

sculpture

This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest stories in puzzles: the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal, aka #gridgate.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can click here for more detail, but here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are 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.

crossword-finals-shady

The story originally broke on data analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com thanks to Oliver Roeder, but the real credit belongs to Tausig and Pwanson. The article 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, Roeder 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.

usa-today-crossword-online-puzzle-5

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, puzzle constructor and president of Lone Shark Games, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken:

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

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.”

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. After all, plagiarism isn’t tolerated in publishing or college term papers, so why should the efforts of crossword constructors be considered any less sacrosanct?

And except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it. As far as anyone knew, Parker was still employed by Uclick, and they wouldn’t confirm or deny his involvement in any non-USA Today and Gannett-published puzzles in the future.

So naturally, as the one-year anniversary of the story loomed in the distance, I got curious. What had become of Parker? Was he still involved with Universal Uclick?

Sadly, I have no new answers for you. I reached out to Universal Uclick for comment, and they declined to reply. Parker was similarly difficult to reach.

But even without new threads to follow, this is an important story to revisit. It represents the solidarity, pride, and support of the puzzle community. It represents the rights of creators to be respected and to have their hard work respected. It represents the power of concerned citizens speaking up.

It reminded people that crosswords represent much more than a way to pass an idle Sunday morning.


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Puzzle Plagiarism, Part 3: Parker Out

After months of nothing, things are suddenly moving forward with the Universal Uclick/USA Today puzzle plagiarism scandal.

A quick recap: Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are 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.

Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords” in March.

Last week, there was finally a new development, as Universal Uclick stated that they’d confirmed “some” of the allegations against Parker, and he’d be taking a three-month leave of absence.

That underwhelming semi-admission of Parker’s guilt led Lone Shark Games and Mike Selinker to call for a boycott of USA Today and Universal Uclick, and many other game companies and puzzle constructors have followed suit.

So where are we now?

Well, as reported by Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight, Christopher Mele of the New York Times, and Deb Amlen of Wordplay, Timothy Parker is out as editor of the USA Today crossword.

According to Gannett, who publishes USA Today:

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.

This still leaves some important details up in the air. For one thing, Parker is still employed by Universal Uclick, even if USA Today and Gannett won’t be using any puzzles he’s touched.

We also don’t know who will be taking his place providing puzzles for USA Today and other Gannett publications.

According to Oliver Roeder:

Fred Piscop, who has been interim editor, told me that his position was temporary unless he was officially informed otherwise, and that there was nothing else he could tell me at this point. A call to Universal Uclick was not returned.

Clearly things are far from settled for Parker, Universal Uclick, and USA Today.

Regarding the #gridgate boycott, Mike Selinker and the team at Lone Shark Games had this to say:

As far as we can tell, USA Today and its parent company Gannett just vowed not to use puzzles edited by Timothy Parker ever again. That bold statement — sure, months late, but welcome nonetheless — was all we were looking for. If they stick to their word, we’ll stop our boycott. We can’t claim credit for the result, but we can say that our friends shining a flashlight on the wrongdoing did help get USA Today to speak out publicly and settle the score.

We’re maintaining the boycott of Universal Uclick, though. They’re continuing to employ someone they’ve admitted is a plagiarist—someone who apparently plagiarized our friends’ work. And just because USA Today isn’t buying Parker’s puzzles doesn’t mean no one else will. We can’t even be sure if the person editing the puzzles isn’t Parker, because he’s made a habit of hiding behind pseudonyms. So we’ll keep this boycott going until we’re sure they’ve got a plan for puzzles that aren’t edited by someone they think is a plagiarist.

Uclick, the ball’s in your court.


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Puzzle Plagiarism, Part 2: Uclick Responds

It’s Follow-Up Friday, but it doesn’t feel right to open this post with our usual exuberant intro.

Today, I’m returning to the subject of Timothy Parker and the USA Today/Universal Uclick plagiarism scandal.

crossword-finals-shady

You know, when I first wrote about this topic, I suspected I’d be returning to it in Follow-Up Friday fashion, and sadly, that’s proven true.

If you don’t recall, or you hadn’t heard, here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are 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.

Back in March when I first blogged about this, Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

usa-today-crossword-online-puzzle-5

Well, Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight has reported that Universal Uclick has completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’ve CONFIRMED some of the allegations of puzzle repetition — they don’t explain which allegations they’ve confirmed — they’re only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

According to the Universal Uclick press release:

During his leave, Mr. Parker will confirm that his process for constructing puzzles uses the best available technology to ensure that everything he edits is original. We will work with Mr. Parker on this effort and redouble our editorial process so that there is a stronger second level of review.

Roeder points out that Universal also doesn’t say if the last two months count toward Parker’s three-month leave of absence, since Fred Piscop has been serving as interim editor since the scandal broke.

As you might expect, some in the puzzle-game community are underwhelmed, to say the least, with Universal Uclick’s decision.

For instance, Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and head honcho of Lone Shark Games, sent out a release last night regarding Parker’s situation, stating that he and his team will boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick.

From their Tumblr post:

But USA Today and Universal Uclick, two important providers of puzzles to the world, have abandoned all pretense that originality and credit for content is important to them. So we’re abandoning them. As of today, we’re boycotting both companies.

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

I suspect Mike and the wonderful crew at Lone Shark Games won’t be the only ones giving USA Today and Universal Uclick the cold shoulder. Kudos to them for taking a stand against plagiarism and standing with friends and colleagues in the puzzle community.

You’d think a major publication like USA Today would be against plagiarism instead of downplaying it like this. I doubt they’d tolerate plagiarism anywhere else in their paper.

It will certainly be interesting to see where the story goes from here. Here’s hoping Universal Uclick does the right thing and stands with content creators, not against them.

I’ll conclude this post the same way the team at Lone Shark Games concluded their release:

If you share this on Twitter or Facebook, please tag @usatoday and @UniversalUclick to tell them that you stand with the puzzlemakers, and add the hashtag #gridgate. Or, if you want to talk to USA Today directly, send them a note addressed to Reader Feedback/Letters saying that you find plagiarism in any department unacceptable. Now would be awesome.


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