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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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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Lollapuzzoola 11 is near!

Saturday, August 18, marks the eleventh annual Lollapuzzoola!

The marvelous indie offspring of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Lollapuzzoola is a favorite of both solvers and top constructors, all of whom descend upon New York City to enjoy what can only be described as “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August.” (At least, that’s what they say on their website.)

The format is simple. Four divisions — Express (experienced solvers who have contended in or won tournaments before), Local (solvers with some experience), Rookies, and Pairs (allowing you to team up to solve) — pit their puzzly minds against clever clues and crafty constructors.

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.

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But if you can’t make it to NYC that weekend, worry not! There’s an At-Home Division that will allow you to participate as if you were there! You’ll get your puzzles by email the day after the actual tournament for a very reasonable $15 fee! Not only that, but you’ll be able to submit your times (and your number of blank/wrong squares) to be officially ranked in the At-Home Division lineup!

It’s one of the highlights of the puzzle world each year, and I’m definitely looking forward to tackling the puzzles! They’re a diabolical treat each and every year! (For a full rundown of the event, check out this interview with Local Division winner and friend of the blog Patti Varol!)

Are you attending Lollapuzzoola or solving from home? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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Constructors’ Favorite Crosswords from 2017!

Yesterday, I wrapped up my efforts to celebrate 2017’s contributions to the long, marvelous legacy of puzzles and games.

But before saying goodbye to 2017, I reached out to other constructors and puzzlers to ask them if they had any favorite crosswords from 2017, either of their own creation or those made by others.

So let’s check out the favorites from some world-class constructors in their own right.

Note: Wherever possible, I’ve included links to the puzzles, but for the most part, the links included filled-in grids, so if you want the full solving experience, scan for dates, outlets, and names to hunt down copies for yourself.

And remember: every single person who replied stated that there were other puzzles they loved that they knew they were leaving out, so don’t consider this in any way to be an exhaustive list. 2017 was a dynamite year for crosswords!


We’ll start off with some of crossword gentleman Doug Peterson‘s favorites:

– Monday, May 8 NY Times puzzle by Zhouqin Burnikel aka CC Burnikel. It’s an LGBTQ theme executed so nicely for a Monday. Difficulty and theme are spot-on for an easy puzzle. Lots of fresh, colloquial fill. CC is the master.

– Saturday, July 22 LA Times themeless puzzle by Erik Agard. All of Erik’s themelesses are fun, but this one stood out a bit more for me. SHIRLEY CHISHOLM, KITE-EATING TREE, TOOTHBRUSHES stacked on top of ORTHODONTISTS. Fun stuff everywhere you look.

– Wednesday, August 9 AVCX puzzle “Birthday Bash” by Francis Heaney. Broken PINATAs that have dropped their candy into the grid. It doesn’t get much better than that. 🙂 OK, slight ding for having one PINATA filled with ALTOIDS, but this was still a blast to solve.

[Image courtesy of Party Cheap.]

Several constructors, including Joanne Sullivan and Patrick Blindauer, heaped praise upon the puzzles from this year’s Lollapuzzoola event, and rightly so. They always push the envelope in terms of creativity with Lollapuzzoola, and folks went all out for the tenth year of the tournament. Blindauer cited Paolo Pasco’s tournament opener in particular as a delight.

Patrick had several other recommendations:

It’s no surprise to see New York Times puzzles getting a lot of love. George Barany cited David Steinberg’s June 8th puzzle as particularly clever. Definitely not surprised to see those words associated with David.

[Image courtesy of Snark Squad.]

David Kwong sung the praises of Mark Halpin’s Labor Day Extravaganza — which doesn’t contain any crosswords, but it is still very worthy of mentioning — making a point of mentioning that “the meta puzzle involving the spider’s web was so expertly constructed.”

Constructor Brendan Emmett Quigley did an entire post highlighting his favorite puzzles from the previous year, which marked the only overlap between today’s entry and my list of puzzles yesterday. As it turns out, we both enjoyed his “Next Level Shit” puzzle from November 2nd. He cited “Party Line” from September 28th and “We Have Achieved Peak Puzzle” from November 9th as two other favorites.

[Image courtesy of Arrested Development Wiki.]

To close out today’s rundown of killer puzzles, we’ve got a murderers row of recommendations from Evan Birnholz of Devil Cross and The Washington Post crossword:


Thank you to all of the fantastic constructors who offered their favorite crosswords from 2017! Please check out both these constructors AND the constructors they recommend! There are so many great puzzles out there for you if you bother to look!

Here’s to a terrific, challenging, baffling, and creative new year of puzzles to come!


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My Favorite Crosswords from 2017!

One of my New Year’s Resolutions last year was to solve more crosswords.

I wanted to sample as many outlets as possible, really immersing myself in the tricks and techniques that constructors use to create really topnotch puzzles. And I definitely solved more crosswords from more publishers than ever before.

And any time a puzzle really impressed me, or made me laugh out loud, or presented an enjoyable challenge that lingered in my mind after the solve, I put it aside in a little folder.

So now, I’d like to give those puzzles and their constructors a little love as I share my favorite crossword puzzles from 2017.


My collection started early in the year when David Steinberg celebrated the 125th anniversary of Stanford with a crossword that not only wished the university “happy birthday” in circled letters in the grid, but spelled out the number “125” when you connected the circles!

Peter Gordon marked 7/7/17 on the calendar with Fireball Newsflash Crosswords #7, and went all in on the 7s, placing three entries in the puzzle that were clued as “capital of a seven-letter country/state.”

Patrick Blindauer’s “End of the Summer” puzzle from the first edition of Piece of Cake Crosswords celebrated Labor Day with shaded entries that clued multiple down entries, depending on whether you filled the shaded space with LAB or DAY. So, for instance, you could have LAMP and BEAR or DAMP and YEAR reading down for their particular clues.

[Image courtesy of TV Tropes.]

For brazen acts of punnery, it’s hard to top Patrick Blindauer’s “For Fudd’s Sake” Piece of Cake Crosswords puzzle. Theme entries like WOOKIE MISTAKE definitely had me laughing. Then throw in clues like “Instrument that becomes a dessert if you change its first letter to a J” for CELLO and “What my fiancee said to me on September 16, 2011” for I DO, and you’ve got a great solve.

Then again, there was COOLIO JETS in Brendan Emmett Quigley’s “No Big Pun Intended” crossword from March 30th, MOSTLY ARMLESS from Patrick Blindauer’s “True ‘Liza” Piece of Cake Crosswords puzzle, and entries like PIGNORAMUS, LAMBITION, and SQUIDDITCH from Patti Varol and Dave Cuzzolina’s June 30th LA Times puzzle.

And how could you resist the wordplay in Quigley’s “Next Level Shit” puzzle from November 2nd? Entries like LAKE TITICACA and SKYSCRAPER AD were purposely broken up onto ascending rows, so that CACA and CRAP(ERAD) read out on the “next level.” It was shameless and very inventive all at the same time.

[Image courtesy of Scientix Blog.]

Nobody keeps it current like Peter Gordon with his Fireball Newsflash Crosswords, and #20 from March 3rd had a lot of fun with the snafu at the Oscars, first giving us “Winner of the Oscar for Best Picture at the recent Academy Awards” as a clue for LALALAND and then correcting itself later with “There’s been a mistake! Actual winner of the Oscar for Best Picture at the recent Academy Awards” for MIDNIGHT. Beautiful trolling there.

He did something similar in the “Themeless 107” Fireball Crosswords puzzle that had HARRY ANGSTROM as an entry, and then referenced it in another clue — “Film character whose last name is roughly 95 septillion times longer than 23-Across’s?” — for BUZZ LIGHTYEAR. The science/math nerd in me popped for that one.

I’m a sucker for ladder puzzles, so when Mary Lou Guizzo and Jeff Chen snuck one into their May 5th puzzle in The Chronicle of Higher EducationAPE, APT, OPT, OAT, MAT, MAN — and an evolutionary one at that, I very much enjoyed it. The cluing only added to the fun, with clues like “Member of a Latin lover’s trio?” for AMAT and “Kiddie or chick follower” for LIT.

The Chronicle of Higher Education struck gold again on April 21st with Ed Sessa’s puzzle “That Boxed-In Feeling.” Not only did the puzzle feature several confined spaces like MRI MACHINE and PHONE BOOTH as theme entries, but CLAUSTROPHOBIA was jammed into the center of the puzzle — two letters per square — to really bring the theme home. Really nice, tight gridwork there.

(For the trifecta, I also enjoyed George Barany and Michael Hanko’s July 21st puzzle in The Chronicle, “Side Order,” which used BERMUDA TRIANGLE, TIMES SQUARE, and THE PENTAGON to complete a themed GEOMETRIC SERIES.)

Another puzzle with a lot of interplay between cluing and theme answers was Jacob Stulberg’s “Two Descents’ Worth” Fireball Crosswords puzzle. This one had entries like DRESSING, STRIPPED, and UPSIDE, which were referenced in clues for CENSURE, BASIC, and FLIPPED.

You see, the theme here was DOUBLE DOWN, so a double DRESSING down would be CENSURE, something doubly STRIPPED down would be BASIC, and being doubly UPSIDE down would be FLIPPED. I confess, it took me a while to parse out the relationships between these entries, but once I did, I was very impressed with the imagination and constructing skills necessary to make the puzzle.

[Um, no, not THAT Double Down. Image courtesy of YouTube.]

There were also some grids that really played with word placement and omission in super-clever ways.

Tracy Bennett’s “To Everything There is a Season” puzzle from the Indie 500 tournament offered a grid with four-way symmetry built around the four seasons, which all appeared within the grid. Having the clues set at 90-degree angles to coincide with word placement in the grid was a nice touch.

Timothy Polin’s “A Prynne String,” the January 13th puzzle for The Chronicle of Higher Education, had four As in the grid that “concealed” the letters RED both across and down, so LEERED AT and HUNDRED ACRE WOOD became LEEAT and HUNDACREWOOD. It took me a while to figure out the game here, and when I did, I was really impressed with the grid construction and creativity.

[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Ed Sessa makes his second appearance on the list with a March 24th Los Angeles Times puzzle that played nicely with a classic idiom — Leave no stone unturned — by hiding stones within the other theme entries. For instance, AGATE read out backwards in TILL WE MEET AGAIN. He let us in on this clever hook with the revealer NO ENOTS UNTURNED. Nicely done.

(Brendan Emmett Quigley did something similar with his “Halfbacks” puzzle from June 8th, with entries like HIGH GERARD, RADIO SIDNEY, and ALFRED PANTS, as did Erik Agard with the “Bottoms Up” puzzle from the Indie 500 Meta puzzle pack, sneaking drinks like OJ and DECAF into the down-reading entries JO WALTON and FACED THE TRUTH.)

Quigley took it a step further with his April 6th puzzle “Catch You on the Rebound,” as the themed entries required you to fill in the boxes one letter at a time, then place the rest of the letters backwards on the same line, forcing two letters to share squares. For instance, THE POINT OF NO RETURN spelled out THEPOI(NN)(TR)(OU)(FT)(NE)(OR), with RETURN reading backwards in the boxes.

Alex Eaton-Salners did a tough variation on this idea in Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords with “Kicking Off the Fourth,” as his theme entries started backwards and then doubled back on themselves. For instance, POTATOPEELER was written as ATOPEELER, with the POT reading backwards, “kicking off the fourth” letter with the A, then reading forward with the rest of the entry. NRUBBER for BURNRUBBER, EDISHES for SIDEDISHES, and AVAVOOM for VAVAVAVOOM were just some of the NINE entries that fit the pattern. A top 5 puzzle of the year for me, easily.

[Image courtesy of Shutterstock.]

And I have to close out today’s post by mentioning Alex again for his “Read the Fine Print” Fireball Crosswords puzzle. This one actually used some of the numbers within the grid as part of the entries. Box 1 was filled with a 1 for 1 CUP and 1 PIN, Box 50 helped form 50 FIRST DATES and 50 CENT, and so on. I’ve never seen the actual cluing numbers incorporated into the answers like that before. Really terrific stuff.

There were so many great, creative, well-constructed puzzles that a post like this just scratches the surface. (Especially since I’m behind on my solving for The Crosswords Club and a few other outlets!)

I’m sure I missed plenty of worthy puzzles from constructors all over. Feel free to let me know your favorites in the comments section below! (And come back tomorrow to learn some of the favorites from others in the puzzle community!)

I’m continually amazed by the innovation, reinvention, and endless possibilities clever constructors can mine from these curious collections of white and black squares.

I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us in 2018.


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