Watch Celebrities Tackle an Escape Room for Charity!

I know the last few months have been hard for a lot of people. But it’s also been inspiring to see communities rally and work together, even while social distancing, to take care of each other. And loads of creative folks out there have been raising money for charity in clever and entertaining ways.

In the last few weeks alone, we’ve seen examples like the cast of the TV show Community reuniting on behalf of World Central Kitchen and Frontline Foods, Twitch streamer Rachel Howie supporting St. Jude through gaming, and a puzzle bouquet to support safe maternity care worldwide, masterminded by Andrew Chaikin (with puzzles by Mike Selinker, Kid Beyond, Alison Muratore, and Sandor Weisz) and distributed through Lone Shark Games.

One of the biggest annual fundraisers is Red Nose Day, a yearly international event dedicated to eradicating child poverty. There are often special TV events tied into the Red Nose Day, and this year was no exception.

NBC employed a more puzzly route than most participating networks, as they presented an hour-long show dedicated to a celebrity-filled escape room.

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[Image courtesy of EOnline.]

Musician and actor Jack Black hosted, serving as the exuberant and maniacal gamemaster for the event. Ben Stiller, Adam Scott, Courteney Cox, and Lisa Kudrow were the celebrity players, and they had one hour to escape Jack’s series of rooms. For each puzzle they successfully solved, they would earn $15,000 in charitable donations from the event’s sponsor, M&Ms.

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[Image courtesy of NoReruns.net.]

Jack explained the rules, and then informed them that they were allowed three hints to help them solve the puzzles. Each hint was represented by a red clown nose, the official symbol of Red Nose Day.

You can watch the entire special video below, or continue reading for a recap of the show and a breakdown of each puzzle:


RECAP

The celebs were escorted into an elevator and sent on their way. The team immediately started trying to figure out how to escape.

But the elevator wasn’t a puzzle room. Jack was just messing with them, sending the elevator up and down before opening it.

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The group’s first actual challenge was an 80’s themed room, which contained not only numerous references to the decade (posters, movies, decor, etc.), but references to each actor’s career to serve as a distraction. Jack Black informed the audience of two key locations to pay attention to — a photo wall and the table with pizza on it — but didn’t explain the actual puzzles.

Courteney Cox stumbled upon a clue — a recorded message from Jennifer Lopez — that sent the celebs to their yearbooks on one of the shelves. Inside, they each found a different variation of a picture of people sitting on a couch, each one with more people in it.

Ben Stiller not only realized that they needed to be placed somewhere in order, but spotted where to do so.

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The photo wall was a 3×4 grid, with 8 photos already placed and 4 open spaces. My first instinct would have been to place the photos in order of the rows (as if reading the photos in storyboard order from left to right, row to row).

But the photos had to be placed in column order from left to right, ignoring the rows. Courteney figured this out, and a couch folded out from the wall. Having successfully completed a puzzle, $15,000 was added to the team’s charity total.

By all sitting on the couch, they activated the TV, which aired a commercial for Rubik’s Cubes. Ben realized the pizza and tablecloth in the center of the room were covering a giant Rubik’s Cube. (Instead of being rotated and twisted, this one had removable magnetic blocks, which made solving it easier.)

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[Image courtesy of WhatsNew2Day.]

By completing the puzzle (and earning another $15,000), the room’s window opened onto a school hallway set.

Jack directed the audience’s attention toward a clue on the floor, a mascot head in the trophy case, and to the lockers along the corridor.

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[Image courtesy of WhatsNew2Day.]

The celebs immediately started checking the lockers, but they were all locked. While searching for their next puzzle, the celebs misinterpreted a banner that said “Let’s get loud” and started screaming.

It’s silly, but hey, in an escape room, sometimes you’ll try anything.

Ben spotted the clue on the floor, and Courteney realized that some of the floor tiles could be pulled up, revealing a picture puzzle to be assembled. They solved the puzzle — a picture of Jack in a mascot costume — and it opened the trophy case. That made their charity total rise to $45,000.

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When Adam put the mascot head on, the lights dimmed, and he began looking for the next clue. Three of the celebs tried the mascot head on, but they couldn’t find anything. So they used one of their red noses and asked for a hint.

Jack intervened and told them to direct the mascot head’s vision toward the lockers. On certain lockers, the mascot’s head revealed in invisible ink the birthdays of the four players. After some difficulty, Adam realized they should open the lockers in birthday order, which caused all four to open. (Four puzzles completed, $60,000 earned.)

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As the other players removed letterman jackets from the lockers, Courteney stepped into her locker (which was larger inside than the others) and Jack shut it behind her, seemingly locking her in. While trying to figure out how to free Courteney, they all decided to put their jackets on.

Jack directed the audience to pay attention to the janitor’s closet, the trophy case, and the cubby area for the next puzzle.

Courteney discovered her locker secretly led into the locked janitor’s closet. Meanwhile, the other players found prom tickets in their jackets.

The Red Nose Day Special - Season 2020

[Image courtesy of TV Insider.]

Unable to free Courteney (the inside door handle came off in her hand), the celebs were flummoxed again, even trying to play rock-paper-scissors to open the door. (Bafflingly, Ben doesn’t know how to play.) They decided to ask for their second Red Nose hint. Jack pointed them toward the janitor’s to-do list, which has four tasks on it, three completed.

The unfinished task referenced the water fountain, and upon investigating it, Adam found the door handle for the janitor’s closet, freeing Courteney (and earning another $15,000).

Doing so activated the TV in the trophy case, and special guest “Principal” Kelly Clarkson provided a year-in-review that recounted the trophy won by each celeb, and suggested they hang up their jackets on the Wall of Fame (the cubby area).

The celebs missed the trophy clue and just hung their jackets up (not realizing that the trophies — first place, second place, third place, and fourth place — indicated the order of the jackets).

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They tried birthday order again, then headed back to the trophy case, realized their mistake, and put the jackets in the correct order, earning another $15,000 for charity.

Part of the locker wall then opened up to reveal a room decorated for prom, complete with balloons and a space for couple/group photos. Jack directed viewers to pay attention to the clock on the wall, the photos of couples on the wall, and the photography setup.

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Relying on the clue “it’s almost time for crown the king and queen,” they puzzled out that there are clocks on all of the photos, but it reads 9 PM for the crowned couple.

Courteney eventually realized there was a stepladder that would allow her to reach the clock, and rotated it until it read 9 PM. (Their charity total was now $105,000!)

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Completing the puzzle activated the lights in the photo area. They posed for their picture, and when they snapped it, the balloon wall burst, revealing a gym decorated for prom. (It also scared the daylights out of them, which made for a great prom photo.)

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Jack then fully explained the next puzzle to the audience, as the celebs had to match the images on their prom tickets to certain champagne bottles (filled with M&Ms) on the refreshments table, which would then point them to particular light-up squares on the electronic dance floor.

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The celebs immediately zeroed in on the symbols on the champagne bottles, but didn’t know what to do with them. Jack taunted them, hoping to goad them into using their third and final hint, until Courteney spotted the matching symbol on her prom ticket.

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Now finally pairing up bottles of M&M champagne, Courteney again figured out that the colors of each pair of bottles should combine to match the color of the podium they’re placed on. It’s a pretty impressive bit of puzzling, I must admit.

Each time they placed a pair of bottles correctly, part of the dance floor lit up.

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Unfortunately, they confused the colors required to make pink with the colors needed to make orange, which slowed them down. Fixing their mistake and completing the puzzle, they ran to the dance floor with another $15,000 for charity.

The dance floor was a 4×4 grid, with each player standing in a different colored square in the bottom row. As the dance floor lit up in a sequential pattern of lights, the team realized they were playing a Simon-style game where they had to step forward in a certain order to match the pattern of colored lights displayed on the floor.

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There were three rounds of the game. The first (and simplest) required a single step each onto the second row. The second required two steps (meaning eight total moves in order), and third required three steps (meaning a more complicated twelve-step order).

Once they sorted out their timing issues in the first round, they flew through the second and third rounds, solving the puzzle and earning another $15,000.

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Jack then instructed the group to go onstage and sing their way out of the room as their final challenge. He noted they only had 9 and a half minutes left to escape.

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A video wall across the room activated, and Adam and Mike, the two remaining Beastie Boys, wished them luck. When Jack started playing guitar over the intercom, Ben recognized the song as “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party),” which they’d have to sing karaoke-style to escape.

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But Lisa didn’t know the song, and she consistently botched the rhythm on each of her turns. Thankfully, that didn’t hinder the group too much, and after being startled one last time (with victory confetti), they escaped the prom with a total $150,000 for charity, and a little over 6 minutes to spare.

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Honestly, as a fan of escape rooms, I really enjoyed this. It’s a great — if highly budgeted — example of this puzzle genre, and a strong introduction for anyone who has never tried them.

The puzzles ranged from simple to moderately hard, but for the most part were fairly intuitive. Also, while it’s embarrassing in the moment to try silly things and draw dumb conclusions while trying to solve puzzles, it’s also very entertaining to watch someone else do the same.

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[Image courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.]

All in all, it was a fun event hosted for a great cause, and the four celebrity players (plus gamemaster Jack) made an engaging cast of characters. The little interviews interspersed throughout also added a lot. (Plus, at the end, we found out Courteney loves escape rooms, which explains her mad puzzle skills.)

If you’d like to contribute to the fine charity work Red Nose Day represents, please click here for more details.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Indie 500 Puzzle edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

June 4 marked the second annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Peter Broda, Andy Kravis, and Angela Olsen Halsted. And instead of last year’s racing theme, this year was prom-themed!

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and after a few weeks, I had the opportunity to sit down and tackle the six puzzles prepared for the event. And today, after a few weeks’ reflection, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the future.


[Image courtesy of Teen Vogue.]

Puzzle 1: Canned Music by Peter Broda and Lena Webb

The opening puzzle got solvers off to a playful start with three themed song titles tied together by the phrase “That’s my jam,” highlighting the love of wordplay that typifies the Indie 500 puzzles.

Broda and Webb’s partnership was a fruitful one, giving us a nicely constructed grid with very little crosswordese (and a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference to boot!).

Interesting grid entries included PHONES IT IN, BUPKIS, WATERWORN, and BIKER BAR, and my favorite clue was either “Server error?” for LET or “Cans of Prince Albert, for short?” for WCS.

[Image courtesy of TheChive.com.]

Puzzle 2: A Modest Promposal by Andy Kravis and Neville Fogarty

Five prom-themed puns awaited solvers in this 17x effort, making it quite a bit easier than last year’s Puzzle #2 (which involved shared boxes and some diabolical letter swaps), but remained a very fun and engaging solve. The punny entries were colorful, definitely bringing back memories of forgotten prom tropes from my own high school days.

I was surprised to see a little grid repetition with the word OUT in two different entries, but given the tight construction and fun vocabulary overall, that’s easy to overlook.

Interesting grid entries included EDWARD V, HOTWIRE, and R.L. STINE, and my favorite clues were “Wilson that Tom Hanks talks to a lot” for RITA, “Coastal retreat?” for EBB, and “Bird that’s a real head-turner?” for OWL.

Puzzle 3: I Now Pronounce You… by Sam Trabucco

Last year, Puzzle 3 was guest constructor Finn Vigeland’s time to shine, and this year, guest constructor Sam Trabucco ably stepped up to join the topnotch puzzlers that organized this year’s event. Sam’s puzzle interrupted the prom theme and centered around a bad cell phone connection, allowing tongue-in-cheek misheard words to populate his grid (like CORPSE for “Military subdivision”).

Interesting grid entries included DO THE MATH, SKYPE DATE, and HOT SECOND, and my favorite clues were “Characters often found to be up in arms?” for YMCA and “Apostrophe, in emoticons” for TEAR. (And points for effort should definitely go to the clue “El numero de Fibonacci despues de cinco” for OCHO. It’s not often that Spanish and math cross over in a clue like that.)

[Image courtesy of Freeway Dance Studios.]

Puzzle 4: Do I Hear a Waltz? by Erik Agard and Joanne Sullivan

Without a doubt my favorite puzzle from this year’s tournament, Puzzle 4 hid its theme in its cluing rather than a series of themed entries. (One entry in the center hinted at the clever cluing construction). Instead, the words ONE, TWO, and THREE were missing from sequential clues, providing a hidden one-two-three count for the puzzle’s titular waltz.

For instance, 36-Across clued TRUMP as “Up,” 37-Across clued BIKINI as “Piece, say,” and 38-Across clued TITLES as “Peat makeup.” As you’d expect, those clues make much more sense when you add the hidden one-two-three: One-up = TRUMP; Two-piece, say = BIKINI; Threepeat makeup = TITLES.

None of the clues feel forced at all, and the fun fill of the grid allowed for a lot of interesting grid entries, like OH C’MON, TRUST ME, ART THIEF, T-REX, and FEMINIST.

My favorite clues were “Cafeteria trays, sometimes” for SLEDS, “Had a few spare moments, perhaps?” for BOWLED, and “High point on a mattress?” for CLIMAX (especially when “Low point on a mattress” for SAG was the previous clue).

[Image courtesy of Celebrity Radio DJs.com.]

Puzzle 5: Group Dance by the Indie 500 Team

For the penultimate puzzle, all of the organizers collaborated on a puzzle that utilized all of the previous themes, as well as having its own twist: two different hidden links. (The circled letters in the theme entries all spell out words that can follow the word WATER, as in WATERLOO or WATERSPOUT, while the shaded words can all follow the phrase LET IT, as in LET IT GO or LET IT RIDE.)

It’s an impressive way to tie all of the puzzles together and include the voices of all of the collaborators. (The clues themselves are even credited to different speakers.)

With interesting grid entries like PIT STAINS, EWOK, and NEAR YOU (along with some odd ones, like TEA BARS and SALARY LIMIT), the puzzle was challenging without being daunting or unfair.

My favorite clues were “Gatorade showers?” for ADS and “Really, really, really not look forward to” for DREAD.

[Say, since we’re talking crosswords, have you checked out the Penny Dell
Crosswords App for both iOS and Android devices? /shameless plug.]

Puzzle 6: The Dance-Off by Angela Olsen Halsted and Kameron Austin Collins

The closing puzzle of the tournament was offered in two difficulty levels: the Inside Track (designated for solvers who finished in the top 25% of the field in a crossword tournament with published standings in the past 5 years) and the Outside Track (designated for everyone else). I opted for the Inside Track, then looked over the cluing for the Outside Track.

This themeless closer was the toughest puzzle of the day, as you might expect, with tough, conversational entries like OH COME NOW and IT’S SO EASY all over. But, despite the many long entries and tight construction, there was very little crosswordese or obscurity to throw you off-track. It’s a great grid with some brutal cluing.

My favorite grid entry was easily MWAHAHAHA, though SILENT A and HOT DAMN were close runners-up, and my favorite clue was “Person who tunes in on Sundays and sees a bunch of spoilers” for NASCAR FAN. Great stuff.


Overall, I thought this year’s Indie 500 was more accessible than last year’s, an engaging and worthy series of puzzles to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure. The prom theme was brilliantly executed, and the cluing surpassed last year in both cleverness and style.

I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Indie 500 edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of the Indie 500 crossword tournament!

Why, you ask? Because it’s tomorrow, June 4, and you still have time to register! Click here for all the details. You can compete in person in Washington, D.C., for just $30, or you can participate from home for only $10!

Not only that, but once again they’ve whipped up a meta-suite of puzzles to boot, and you name your own price for it!

This is the second year of the tournament, and I expect great things from the immensely talented team of constructors and directors they’ve assembled. With a prom theme, topnotch constructors, and pie (there’s always pie), you can’t go wrong!

Click here for the Indie 500 home page, here for an interview regarding this year’s event with constructor Andy Kravis, and here for a rundown of last year’s terrific puzzles!

Will you be competing? Or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below!


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Subway Time Travel edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of puzzly events!

I’m a huge fan of events where puzzly-minded people get together and create something new. Whether it’s a festival of indie games or a Rube Goldberg machine about Passover, a prom-themed puzzle tournament or a crossword contest about a crossword contest, anything is possible when folks with a mind for puzzle fun collaborate.

The team at Improv Everywhere know this better than most, as they’ve put together some terrific live experiences to entertain unsuspecting strangers.

In the past, they’ve staged a repeating time loop at a coffee shop, recreated the opening of Star Wars on a subway, and (my personal favorite) made a cabbie the hero of a reunion right out of a romantic comedy.

This time around, they faked time travel with four sets of twins. Check it out!

You can explore the full details of the prank/performance here, as well as many other “missions” from their past, but sufficed to say, it took a fair amount of puzzly skills and improvisational style to pull this off!

I wonder what delightful trickery they’ll attempt next.


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

Last year, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered top-notch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The second edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 4, and this year, it’s all decked out in a prom motif.

I reached out to the team behind last year’s event, and constructor/director Andy Kravis was happy to answer my questions and offer some insight into this year’s event.

Andy has been published in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Los Angeles Times, and other venues, and he was excited to discuss this year’s tournament with the PuzzleNation audience.

1.) I’m very glad to see The Indie 500 returning for a second year. What did you learn from the inaugural event, and what are you hoping to change/improve?

We’re glad to be back! Here’s a list of things we learned from the inaugural Indie 500:

How to run a crossword tournament.

None of us had ever done anything like this before, so every step was brand new to us. We all went into it knowing that building our own crossword tournament from the ground up was going to be a lot of work, but I don’t think any of us fully appreciated how much work it would be until we were already neck-deep in it. We started planning about a year in advance, and one thing I learned is that it takes almost exactly a year to plan a successful Indie 500, even with a team of five directors and a ton of wonderful volunteer test-solvers and staffers.

As for the tournament itself, a lot of our more ambitious ideas — writing a meta suite to raise funds for the tournament, using a new scoring system, having a contest to find a tourney puzzle by a new constructor — worked out really well, so we brought them back this year. We got some great feedback from attendees about which puzzles they enjoyed most, which parts of the program worked well, and so on, all of which we incorporated into our planning for this year. On the whole, the tournament will look a lot like last year’s: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a finals puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

I would say the most visible change we’re making is getting lots of new faces involved. After last year’s event, Evan Birnholz was hired as the Washington Post‘s new crossword constructor (whoo!), and Neville Fogarty entered the last year of his Ph.D program, so they both had to step away from their directorial duties. We were thrilled to bring on Angela Olson Halsted, who’s been a terrific addition to our team, and we’ve also gotten to work with a lot of really talented constructors this year as well.

We’re always open to ideas of how to improve the tournament experience, so feel free to e-mail us at xwordtournament@gmail.com if you have suggestions.

[Andy, alongside Sara Nies, solves at the 2015 Lollapuzzoola event.]

2.) Last year’s theme was racing, and this year’s theme is prom. What about prom appealed to the team more than other possibilities?

We knew almost immediately after wrapping last year’s tournament that we wanted this year’s Indie 500 to be prom themed. The biggest upside, and the main reason we chose it as our theme, is that we really wanted to see what we could do when working with other new constructors in teams. By bringing on prom dates, we now have the opportunity to showcase not just the work of our contest winner but also of the additional constructors we’ve invited. Some of our constructing teams bring very different voices to the constructing process, and it’s been really cool to see how those styles have meshed. And of course you don’t have to take a date to prom — you can go solo, or you can go with a group — and we’ve also kept that in mind while planning the tournament.

We also love the aesthetics of prom. As we tossed around ideas for this year’s tournament, we kept returning to the similarities between a disco ball and a crossword grid, and Raina Zheng did an awesome job designing this year’s logo with that idea in mind. It was easy for us to see the aesthetics of crosswords in disco balls, tuxedos, limousines, and dance floors, and it’s also fun for us to think of ways to inject some of the colorful elements of prom back into a crossword tournament.

Plus, our tradition of playing entrance music for our finalists makes possibly more sense with a prom theme than it did with a racing theme.

In a broad metaphorical sense, I think prom is more in line with what we’re about than racing anyway. Racing seems like a natural fit for a crossword tournament — it’s an individual pursuit that’s about speed (plus the checkered flag and the Indy/Indie pun were too good to resist). But I think what’s great about crossword tournaments is that crossword people have an excuse to get together and have fun and celebrate.

[Possible crossword prom looks?]

3.) One of my favorite aspects of The Indie 500 is that you hold a contest for constructors to join the team and contribute a puzzle to the tournament. Last year’s winner was Finn Vigeland, and this year’s winner is puzzle newcomer Sam Trabucco. What sort of response did you get when you announced this year’s contest, and what made Sam stand out?

Those of you who solved last year’s puzzles know just how lucky we were to get Finn’s submission. We got a lot of excellent puzzles that year, quite a few of which we’ve since been pleased to see published in venues like AV Club and Fireball Crosswords.

We chose Finn’s puzzle because it had a unique combination of clean and lively fill, clues with a clear voice, and a tricky theme that had the potential to incorporate a unique visual element (namely, the candy bars that ended up going in the grid). The version of the puzzle that ran during the tournament ended up being one of my favorite puzzles that year.

[One of the candy bars from Finn Vigeland’s Indie 500 puzzle.]

We didn’t get quite as many submissions this year, and yet picking a winner was just as tough. After narrowing the group of submissions to four or five entries that stood out to us as the best of the bunch, we debated for a long time before picking the puzzle that turned out to be Sam’s. Without giving too much away, what we liked about Sam’s submission was that the theme was something we hadn’t seen before, and the fill was really fresh and showed a point of view.

One thing I want to mention is that after we unblinded the submissions, we were really disappointed not to have received more entries from women and people of color. We’ve already started talking about what we can do to encourage more submissions from that pool of talent next year. This is a top priority for us in running the best indie crossword tournament we can.

4.) Finally, and most importantly, will there still be pie?

Yes, there will be pie. In fact, we’re considering a Pie-Only division in 2017.

Thanks to Andy for taking the time out to answer my questions! You can check out the full details on The Indie 500 by clicking here!

(I’m already signed up to solve from home, and I can’t wait to see this year’s puzzles.)


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