Delving into the Lollapuzzoola 12 puzzles!

The twelfth 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 puzzle packet. 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.

This year’s theme was “Be Part of the Future!” so every puzzle had something to do with time periods or the future in general, 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 “Popular Nabisco cracker brand.” 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, despite a few oddball entries (like YES OR NO).

Interesting grid entries included SOFT TACO, SUDOKU, ZYGOTE, and RAGTIME, and my favorite clues were “Pace rival” for ORTEGA and “Actress Gadot who has done lots of great things, but listing them isn’t going to help you get the answer (which you’ve probably already written in anyway, so really what’s the point)” for GAL.

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[Image courtesy of Wrong Hands.]

Puzzle 1: Tense Situation by C.C. Burnikel

The competition puzzles kicked off with this gem, a terrific 15x opener that properly set the tone for the rest of the day’s puzzles with a fun hook and solid fill. The themed entries all involved verbs where the tense had changed from the traditional phrasing, so TURKEYSHOOT became TURKEYSHOT (“Picture of a Thanksgiving entree?”) and NANCYDREW became NANCYDRAW (“Command to Mrs. Reagan to use a crayon?”).

Packing 6 themed entries into a relatively small grid didn’t hamper the grid construction at all, making for relatively little crosswordese and a smooth solve overall.

Interesting grid entries included STONE COLD, BYZANTINE, and BYRDS, and my favorite clue was “Prepares to sing an anthem” for RISES.

Puzzle 2: Wormholes by Stella Zawistowski

The difficulty increased with Puzzle 2, as Zawistowski tested solvers with an enjoyable swapping puzzle. In this puzzle, the theme entries each mentioned a unit of time, but it was swapped with another theme entry’s unit of time. So GLORYDAYS and MODELYEAR became GLORYYEAR and MODELDAYS. These unfamiliar phrases, when paired with straight-forward cluing, made for a solve that keeps you on your toes.

When paired with some tough fill — entries like OPCIT, SYLPH, and UNAGI — you’ve got a recipe for a puzzle that probably slowed a few puzzlers down in competition.

Interesting grid entries included EL CAPITAN, LAYLA, ON A BREAK, and MARILU (plus a nod to the absolutely horrible B-movie THE CAR), and my favorite clues were “Ran in the rain, say” for BLED and “Many a Comic-Con event” for PANEL.

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[Image courtesy of Burke Williams Spa.]

Puzzle 3: “If I Could Turn Back Time” by Paolo Pasco

At the halfway point for the regular tournament puzzles, our constructor took our time gimmick into the future in a delightfully fun way. In Puzzle 3, all of the celebrity names in the themed entries really needed the revealer (FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH), because they’d aged in punny fashion. JULIA CHILD became JULIA ADOLESCENT, HARVEY MILK became HARVEY CHEESE, JOEY FATONE became KANGAROO FATONE, and so on.

Six themed entries plus a revealer made for a very busy grid, but the fill complemented the puzzle nicely, making for one of the quickest and smoothest solves of the day.

Interesting grid entries included XANAX, FIJI, THE CURE, STIMULI, and OH HELL, and my favorite clues were “Musical key dreaded by racecar drivers?” for AFLAT, “Redding who made lots of green singing the blues” for OTIS, and the pairing of “Length of your friend’s one-man version of ‘Cats,’ seemingly” for EONS and “Casual answer to ‘Do you want to see my one-man version of ‘Cats’?” for NAH.

Puzzle 4: Saving Face by Maddie Gillespie and Doug Peterson

Although Puzzle 3 was the most fun to solve, Puzzle 4 was my favorite when it came to the grid construction and overall concept for the puzzle. You see, many of the across entries had letters missing, letters that had been shoehorned into their clues (and fit between the other letters in broken grid boxes).

So while DENALI was spelled DEALI in the grid, the missing N found its way into the clue “Alaskan national park with many nice walls for climbers.” [Bolding is my own to highlight the added letter.]

The missing/repurposed letters spelled out three words reading down — WATCH, SUNDIAL, and CLOCK — all time-keeping artifacts hidden between the lines. A completed grid also reveals the instructions for the solver to follow, reading GATHER THE PIECES and FIX THE TIMELINES down the grid.

There’s a lot going on in this puzzle, and it all works together nicely. Not unlike some of the missing artifacts, when properly maintained.

Interesting grid entries included ECSTASY, LIME WEDGE, XBOX, AMBASSADOR, and IDEA MEN, and my favorite clues were “Group with an electrifying stage presence” for ACDC and “Gendered term that 26-Down should be able to improve upon” for IDEA MEN. (This was, naturally, 26-Down.)

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[Image courtesy of The Verge.]

Puzzle 5: Movie Theater Time Machine by Robyn Weintraub

The regular tournament puzzles wrapped up with this 21×21 puzzle, which expanded on the time-shifting gimmick of puzzle 3 with movie titles as the themed entries. For instance, instead of SUNSET BOULEVARD, we had SUNRISE BOULEVARD. Instead of BOOGIE NIGHTS, it was BOOGIE AFTERNOONS. With entries shifting backward and forward in time, there was plenty of opportunity for some fun wordplay.

The larger grid allowed for longer themed entries and longer fill entries as well, adding loads of clever vocabulary to a well-constructed grid. This was the perfect capper to the traditional tournament puzzles, making for a fair and engaging solve to close out the day.

Interesting grid entries included GENERATION X, SPIDER-SENSE, LET’S DANCE, JETTY, and ONE-ACT PLAY, and my favorite clues were “It’s frequently in a sonnet?” for OFT and the clever trio of “Go with the flow, figuratively” for ADAPT, “Go with the flow, e.g.” for IDIOM, and “Go with the flow, literally” for DRIFT.

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Puzzle 6: Finals by Mike Nothnagel

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 a pair of 10-letter entries mentioning time as anchors for the puzzle — FINEST HOUR and MINUTE MAID — Mike delivered a tight grid with some terrific filler entries and impressive stacks of 7- and 8-letter words in the corners.

This was a final puzzle worthy of a tournament built around clever hooks, top-notch construction, and delightful cluing, and it delivered in spades. I certainly had to jump all over the grid to find places to get started, whereas the top solvers no doubt powered through with staggering speed.

Interesting grid entries included WAR DANCE, BEGUILES, YULETIDE, GROUP HUG, and AVALON, and my favorite clues were “Road trips to the big game?” for SAFARIS and “They may send your spouse to another room” for SNORES.

There was also a tiebreaker themeless by Brian Cimmet which was a quick and satisfying solve, and seemed to be going for the record for clue length with examples like:

  • “Actress Ronan of ‘Lady Bird,’ whose name has four vowels in it and is pronounced SEER-shuh, if that’s any help” for SAOIRSE
  • “Mother of the most famous television character played by 20-Across” for ELYSE (20-Across was, appropriately, MICHAEL J. FOX)
  • “It precedes Alaska in a horrible dad joke I learned as a kid” for IDAHO

The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were tight, there was little crosswordese, and the creative themes and puzzle mechanics — from hiding entry letters in clues to switching verb tenses and ages on the solver — 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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PuzzleNation Product Review: Mystic Market

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[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

If you’re familiar with ThinkFun and their challenging and clever logic puzzle games, you know that most of them are one-player endeavors designed to pit the player against the game itself, playing repeatedly with increasing levels of complexity added as the Challenge Cards toss new twists and turns your way.

It is a formula that has worked well for them in the past, and yet, it’s one that they’ve completely put aside with their newest offering, Mystic Market.

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Rather than focusing on deduction in some form — through completing tasks, paths, or circuits — Mystic Market requires players to react to both their opponents’ actions and the ever-shifting demands of the game moment-by-moment in order to achieve victory. You see, players at the Mystic Market are competing to earn the most money. But how do you do that?

By buying and selling magical ingredients, as well as the potions you can make from those magical ingredients, of course.

To start, players receive four ingredient cards and five one-point coins. They then take turns interacting with the communal Ingredient Market and Potion Market, where they can buy, sell, or swap ingredients, as well as craft or play potions.

Each potion you craft and play not only brings in a profit, but it also allows you to take actions that affect the game (even when it’s not your turn).

But here’s where things get much trickier. The cost of ingredients (when purchasing them) and the value of ingredients (when selling them) changes throughout the game.

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Say hello to the Value Track. This inclined plane contains samples of all six ingredients in the game, representing their current value on the market from least expensive to most expensive. (The numbers represent the value of ingredients when sold as a set, while the dots indicate the cost of ingredients.)

The value of ingredients can be altered in two ways: by player actions or by random supply shifts.

When a player sells ingredients — either as single cards or complete sets — they move the colored vial representing that ingredient to the top of the Value Track, lowering its current value (because there’s now more of that ingredient on the market, so the price comes down). The other vials shift as a result of this action, and any vials that were previously cheaper increase in value due to relative rarity in the market.

This mechanic not only brings an element of randomness to the game (because prices aren’t static, as they are in many other games), but it also introduces a deeper level of strategy and opportunism to the gameplay as well.

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Because you can purposely affect the market, either inflating or deflating the value of ingredients through your purchasing and sales, you can create new chances for investment or spoil the attempted investments of your fellow players if you see them stockpiling certain ingredients.

You also have to keep a close eye on the Value Track, because you want to spend as little as possible when buying, and then strike while the iron is hot and sell when your ingredients are worth more.

There are a plethora of resource management games out there, with tons of mechanics for buying, selling, and swapping resources between players or with some sort of market or bank, but I can’t think of another game that simulates an ever-changing spectrum of prices and values for those resources as simply or as elegantly as Mystic Market does.

So, really, you have to play two games in one. You’re not just an alchemist working to create magical potions from otherworldly ingredients like phoenix feathers or mermaid tears; you’re also a savvy entrepreneur looking to corner the market on the ingredients you need and make a tidy profit from your investments.

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It’s certainly a lot to manage, and it took a handful of playthroughs before I really felt like I had a good handle on balancing all of the game’s elements. But with each successive round of play, I understood and enjoyed the experience more than the previous game. Because as you get better at taking advantage of the Value Track, so do your opponents. Each game becomes the magical equivalent of an arms race as you try to build your fortunes and make the most of a dwindling supply of resources.

This isn’t the sort of game I’d expect from ThinkFun — competitive gameplay isn’t really their style — but that only made Mystic Market a delightfully surprising treat that still ably represents their core values: teaching through play. This time around, they manage to make business, investments, and the stock market all integral parts of a terrific gaming experience.

[Mystic Market is available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.]


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Challenge: War of the Worlds 2

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[Image courtesy of The Challenge Wiki.]

One of the first reality TV shows to make an impact was MTV’s The Real World, which debuted back in 1992. A show wherein seven strangers would live together in a house and have their lives and interactions taped, it is credited with helping launch the modern reality TV genre.

In the decades since, one of the show’s longest-lasting spin-offs has been The Challenge, a competition show where former Real World alums and other reality show figures compete against each other in physical and mental games, both individually and as teams. There is also a social element to the show, as players form alliances, scheme against other competitors, and often vote out players at regular intervals.

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[Image courtesy of People.com.]

As you might expect, puzzles have worked their way into The Challenge from time to time. Memory games, sliding tile puzzles, and variations on the Tower of Hanoi puzzle.

The most recent iteration of the show, The Challenge: War of the Worlds 2, pits a team of reality show contestants and former Challenge competitors from the UK against a team of previous Challenge competitors from the United States.

At this point in the game, the UK team had lost two players already (as one was sent home at the end of the previous episode, and another left the show for personal reasons).

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In last week’s episode, as the two teams arrived at a secluded lakeside area, there was a puzzly surprise waiting for them: Cryptic Crossbow.

Each team had a giant crossbow, a grid with four four-letter words on it (as well as spaces for additional letters), and a platform from which to jump into the water.

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Eight competitors from each team had to swim out into the water and collect wooden tiles with letters on them. (One letter per tile, one tile per swimmer.) Once eight letters had been retrieved, a second wave of swimmers could jump into the water to retrieve the other eight tiles in the water.

Once all 16 tiles had been retrieved, each team had to add them to the grid in order to form four eight-letter words (using the preset four-letter words as clues). Two things would happen once all 16 tiles were placed on the board:

  • The crossbow would activate, and send one of the competitors out into the lake. That competitor would then swim out, retrieve a giant cryptex on a raft, and swim it back to the rest of the team to be solved.
  • When the four eight-letter words in the grid were properly displayed, six highlighted letters in the grid would spell a code word that could be used to open the cryptex once it was delivered to the group.

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Both teams strategized ahead of time.

CT, the Challenge veteran on the UK team, urged his team to simply place all of the letters on the grid as quickly as possible, so they could launch their crossbow-loaded teammate into the water to retrieve the cryptex.

CT noted that the grid didn’t need to be correct for them to win — opening the cryptex was how a team achieved victory — so the grid didn’t matter, so long as they could mentally solve the puzzle and come up with the correct code word for the cryptex.

It’s a solid plan.

On the US side, Laurel pushed her teammates to solve the puzzle before their teammate was launched from the crossbow (to ensure they’d be able to open the cryptex on the first try), but Johnny Bananas had the same instincts as CT and pushed the idea of loading the grid quickly in order to launch their teammate and retrieve the cryptex.

Once the battle plans were in place, the teams then determined who would swim to which letters (in order to use their best swimmers to travel the farthest distance the fastest).

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As a puzzler, after one glance at the grid, I immediately tried to figure out the possible eight-letter answers in my head. Naturally. AQUA was the easiest, because SEAQUAKE was the only relatively common word that fit.

Though UK competitor Georgia obviously disagreed with me, as she was certain EVACUATE would fit.

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Similarly, HIJACKED was the only common word that would fit for JACK.

TACO was harder, because it took me a while to come up with CATACOMB as the answer. It’s a cool word, but not one that jumped out at me.

LORD was the most challenging, because SLUMLORD, OVERLORD, LANDLORD, and DRUGLORD all came to mind, although some seemed less likely due to unpleasant connotations. (Not only that, but my nerdy brain kept suggesting possibilities like TIMELORD, STARLORD, DARKLORD, HIGHLORD, STALLORD, etc.)

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With stronger swimmers on their side, the US team retrieved all of their letters before the UK team did, and according to plan, they simply filled the grid randomly in order to trigger their catapult, launching teammate Jordan into the water and toward the cryptex. They then began mentally reworking the grid to solve the puzzle.

(We couldn’t see all of the available letters, but teammate Paulie correctly determined that the top word was, in fact, OVERLORD.)

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The UK side, on the other hand, struggled to get all 16 letters back to their grid in a timely fashion, and then compounded this mistake by trying to fill in the grid properly, delaying the launch of their crossbow-loaded teammate.

While they tried to solve the puzzle (and failed), Jordan had already unlocked the US team’s cryptex and started swimming it back to his team’s platform.

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Finally, the UK team listened to CT and just filled the grid in order to launch their teammate Joss into the water, but by this point, Jordan was more than halfway to the US team’s platform with their cryptex.

Joss had barely reached the UK team’s cryptex when the US team unlocked theirs with the code word DEMISE.

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The US team made it two Challenge event wins in a row, and the UK team was sent off to choose one member of their team for possible elimination.

In short, the UK team was decimated in this challenge. They were outswam, outpuzzled, and outstrategized by the US team. Although they were behind at the start due to some of their slower swimmers, they would’ve had a better chance if they’d follow the US team’s lead and just gotten their crossbow teammate into the water sooner while they worked out the puzzle. But alas, it was not meant to be.

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If only they had a PuzzleNationer on their team, this could’ve all been avoided.

Although this wasn’t the most difficult puzzle-based event I’ve seen in previous editions of The Challenge, it was a nice variation and certainly kept the competitors on their toes. I look forward to seeing if there are more puzzly obstacles awaiting the two teams as the competition continues.


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A New Daily POP Record?

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One of my favorite features offered by the Daily POP Word Search app is how it maintains records of your solving.

Not only can you see your fastest times for each theme day, but the app even keeps a running tally of how many days in a row you solve the free daily puzzles.

True, the app has only been out for a month or so, so even the most loyal PuzzleNationer hasn’t had the chance to compile a monster streak.

But users of the Daily POP Crosswords app also have a streak counter, and one of our faithful fellow puzzlers, Lori, just hit a milestone.

Check it out!

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Not only did she score a top 5 performance for the August 29 “Remember When” puzzle, but she did so while solving her three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth puzzle in a row.

That’s a one year streak of Daily POP Crossword solving! Amazing!

(I must confess that my best attempt topped out around 150 or so before I missed a day.)

However, it’s certainly possible there’s a PuzzleNationer out there with an even more impressive streak going. If you’ve got a Daily POP streak that you’re proud of, whether it rivals Lori’s record or not, let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you!

And hey, maybe we’re only 11 months away from celebrating our first year-long streak in Daily POP Word Search!

Wouldn’t that be something?


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100 FREE Coins for Daily POP Word Search? Tell me more!

Yes, it’s a special Saturday post, because we’ve got a special limited time offer for our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!

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Daily POP Word Search launched this week for iOS and Android users, and it’s only a click away!

Yes, the Daily POP Word Search app is FREE!

And this weekend — and this weekend only! — you can also get 100 FREE coins as part of a special promotion!

Just click this link and follow the instructions! It couldn’t be easier!

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The Daily POP Word Search app is 100% Free, the coins are Free… what are you waiting for? =)

Click here to participate and enjoy the best new puzzle app on the market today!

[Promotion ends at Midnight ET on Sunday, August 18, 2019.]


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Meet the Daily POP Word Search Constructors: Lori Boller-Tian

One of the Daily POP Word Search app’s best features is the level of input from top-notch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh, themed word search puzzles.

And over the next few weeks, we’d like to introduce you to some of them. Some names you may know, some you may not, but they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

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For our first installment, allow us to introduce you to constructor Lori Boller-Tian, word search master, Golden Girls enthusiast, and collector of vintage cookbooks!


How did you get started in puzzles?

I’ve always been a natural list maker, and when I discovered that I could make a career out of creating lists for word puzzles, I was sold. Over eighteen years later, I’m still at it!

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What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Word Search?

Researching topics is by far my favorite part of making Word Search puzzles. I especially enjoy researching puzzles for Daily POP Word Search because (with the exception of “Remember When”), the topics are really current. While working on these puzzles, I’ve learned about a lot of books, movies, and TV series that I probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

The puzzle themes are much more fine-tuned than most puzzles I create for magazines. Puzzles for magazines often have a monthly or seasonal theme, but for Daily POP Word Search, I try to focus on something happening on the exact day (or week) that the puzzle is released. For a magazine, I might create a general list about the TV series This Is Us. For Daily POP Word Search, I’ll take it a step further, doing a list on the last episode of season 3, set to appear on the app around the same time that season 4 premieres.

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Is there a particular theme day that appeals to you most or that you enjoy working on?

Yes! “Remember When” is my absolute favorite. I’m a huge fan of all things vintage, so making puzzles with a nostalgic feel is something I really enjoy. Whether it’s a toy from my ‘80s childhood or a line of kitchenware I remember from my grandparents’ ‘60s-style home, I love delving into topics that can transport me (and our solvers!) to another era.


A huge thank you to Lori for her time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles in the Daily POP Word Search app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!