Greetings, puzzlers, gamers, and PuzzleNationers! We hope you’re staying cool out there, and taking plenty of time to kick back and relax with your favorite tabletop roleplaying games, jigsaw puzzles, Sudoku collections, or crossword puzzle and wordseek apps :)! While winter is traditionally the hibernation season, we’ve decided to switch things up, and our blog and social media presence are going into hibernation for the rest of the summer. (Heat is bad for computers, after all.)
Never fear—Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search will continue to update on a daily basis. We’ll just be a little quieter about it than usual. In the meantime, we invite you to peruse the blog’s archives! Maybe you’ll get some great ideas for new games to check out, or TV shows to marathon on those days when the sun is too intense for you to brave the outdoors.
Have fun! Happy puzzling!
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Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!
It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them. (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!) Today I’m excited to introduce our latest interviewee, Christina Iverson!
Christina is a crossword constructor and the assistant editor for the LA Times Crossword. When she’s not working on puzzles, she can often be found reading, knitting, biking or hiking. She lives with her husband and two young children in Ames, IA. Find Christina on Twitter at @xtinaiverson.
1. How did you get started with puzzles?
I’m a first generation crossword solver. I grew up with a love of words, books, games, and puzzles, but no one in my family solved crosswords. In my mind, crosswords were just about trivia, and using big words that no one really uses in real life. Not true!
I realized that in 2018 when my son was a baby. My husband and I were trying to get him to fall asleep in his own bed at night before we went to bed (!). He’d usually last about 10 minutes before waking up again, crying.
One night while our TV show was paused, I came back from our son’s room to find my husband working on a crossword puzzle. We realized that crosswords were more easily interrupted than TV shows, and started solving them pretty regularly together. I was really terrible at them at first, so I started solving puzzles by myself to get extra practice; it’s not as fun to solve puzzles with someone who knows the answer before you even understand what the clue is getting at.
It wasn’t very long before I started trying to construct my own puzzles. I’ve always been interested in creating puzzles and games; I invented my first board game when I was probably 5 or 6, made treasure hunts for my brother in grade school, and designed logic puzzles for my geometry teacher in high school. So it didn’t seem like much of a stretch to go from solving to constructing.
The first puzzle I made was a puzzle for my husband, about our cat, George Melvin. I constructed on my own for a couple of months before I reached out to some mentors in the crossword community. Jeff Chen, Amanda Chung, and Ross Trudeau all gave me invaluable assistance at the beginning of my journey, and I don’t think I would have gotten published without their help.
2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy—or most commonly avoid—when constructing your own? What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?
I think a great puzzle is one that brings a smile to your face. For me, it’s mostly about having fun theme entries and a good “aha” moment, and also keeping the grid clean and free from yucky crossword glue.
I think the most common pitfall of new constructors is that they can be so enthusiastic that they move on to the next constructing stage too quickly. They often underestimate the importance of the theme entries, and move on to making a grid before having a solid theme set. The theme makes or breaks the puzzle, so if the theme isn’t well-conceived and well-executed, it doesn’t matter how great the rest of the puzzle is. They also often move on to writing clues before ironing out issues in a grid. I think many new constructors remember too vividly the times that they have run into words they didn’t know in a puzzle, and can have the attitude that all crosswords are full of obscure words and lots of abbreviations. (I definitely had this misconception when I first started out!)
3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?
My favorite puzzles to solve and construct are Sunday grids, and I especially like ones with wacky theme entries. I always try to make the theme entries as silly and fun as possible. One of my favorite puzzles I’ve made was in The New York Times with my frequent collaborator Katie Hale, and had R sounds switched for Ws. For example, “Cause for celebration at a pachyderm sanctuary?” led to AN ELEPHANT IN THE WOMB.
And one of my favorite clues that always stands out for me was in a themeless puzzle by Matthew Stock—“Ground shaking stuff?” was the clue for PEPPER. So clever!
4. How did you end up as Patti Varol’s assistant editor for The LA Times? And what’s next for Christina Iverson?
I have been submitting puzzles to the Crosswords Club and Daily POP for a while, so Patti was familiar with me and my work. In February, I had made a puzzle for the Boswords Winter Wondersolve, an online crossword competition. The constructors were all interviewed over Zoom, and Patti was watching. I mentioned in the interview that I’d love to be doing crossword things full time some day. About two minutes later, I had an email in my inbox from her about a potential job opportunity. Rich Norris was retiring in March, and she was looking for an assistant once she took over as editor for The LA Times. I enthusiastically said yes, and I’m so glad I did! I think we work together well and make a great team.
I really like what I’m doing right now, and don’t see any big changes coming up on the horizon. I do hope that I’ll have more time for constructing once my son starts school in the fall, as right now I’m mostly just constructing on the weekend, and doing LA Times work during the week.
5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?
You do you, and don’t let other people dictate what the right way is to solve puzzles. Puzzles are all about challenging yourself in a fun way. If it’s more pleasant for you to solve with a thesaurus and Wikipedia, then do that. If you enjoy speed solving, have fun that way.
And for new solvers and new constructors both, remember that no one is amazing the first time they do something, and that it takes time and practice, but you can have fun the whole time.
Christina’s work can often be found in the Daily POP Crosswords app! Download now and keep an eye out for her name, and enjoy our other contributors’ puzzles while you’re there. You can find delightful deals on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search!
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[Note: I received a free copy of this puzzle in exchange for a fair, unbiased review.]
Imagine embodying the forces behind the Big Bang. Science fiction writers do this all the time, bringing into being entire new planets, studding them with swathes of land and bodies of water, devising chemically unfamiliar atmospheres. While I am a writer, fiction is not my forte, meaning that the wonders of world-building are typically out of my wheelhouse—at least, they were. Enter Thinkfun’s GeoLogic: World-Changing Logic Puzzle. This puzzle sells itself as an opportunity to “create your own world,” and “become a planetary architect,” promises that appeal to me as a science fiction fan. The puzzle is recommended for ages eight and up, and requires only one player, though planet-building can be a team activity too.
GeoLogic offers a route to science-fictional world-building other than the written word, bringing the invention of alien landscapes into the hands-on, three-dimensional realm. Born from a conversation between inventors Ken and Jeremy about the concept of a thirty-sided game die, the puzzle consists of a thirty-sided planetary core, fourteen snap-in-place pieces representing five biomes, and sixty challenge cards. Cards range from easy to expert, each indicating where certain biome pieces should go on the planetary core to start. The solver is then left to figure out where to insert a list of remaining biome pieces in order to completely cover the globe’s surface.
The challenge cards are optional; they are intended for players who would prefer to test spatial-logical skills rather than engage in more free-form, creative play. This mode of engaging with GeoLogic still has a science-fictional appeal; it just happens to fall more into the category of consuming science fiction than acting as its mastermind. If you dream of discovering new planets through a process of trial-and-error, then you’ll likely find using the challenge cards a perfect way to spend an afternoon, working your way up the ladder of difficulty levels.
If you’d rather ignore the challenge cards instead, you can take the game up on its suggestion that you “get creative and design your own planets.” As the box asks, “Want to create the largest landmass known to humans? Or oceans that span half the globe?” Now’s your chance! This approach to GeoLogic does require a certain amount of spatial-logical skill, as the goal remains the same: cover all thirty sides of the planetary core in some combination of awkwardly-shaped desert, forest, mountains, tundra, and ocean. If you are looking for a purely creative exercise, you might find the limitations of where the different biome pieces fit to be a frustrating hindrance to your imagination running wild.
The solver most likely to be enchanted by GeoLogic, by my estimate, is the Tetris fan who longs for a more tactile experience—snapping the pieces into place on the core is very satisfying—and who can appreciate a sprinkling of science-fictional creativity. Those driven to the product by the idea of creating new worlds are less likely to feel fulfilled, but the core and biomes could certainly be used as a jumping-off point for contemplating what different worlds are possible. Dreaming big and freely when it comes to alternate worlds is important, yes. Possibly more important, for those interested in changing the world we’ve been handed, is knowing how to still dream big when complex limitations are imposed upon us from outside.
The New Yorker declared in 1959 that the “most important person in the world of the crossword puzzle” was a woman: Margaret Farrar, then the crossword editor of the New York Times. Here in the twenty-first century, whether the most important person in the world is a woman or not seems to be a thornier question. A 2014 work of criticism by constructor Anna Shectman reported that the crossword world was very much dominated by men, and that this problem had only worsened in the previous two decades. An important development since that piece’s publication is the Los Angeles Times’recent announcement that PuzzleNation’s own editor, Patti Varol, will be taking over as its crossword editor, but while this is a huge step forward, a lot of work remains.
For Women’s History Month, rather than looking back at Margaret Farrar, we want to look forward: toward the women making crossword history in the here and now, paving the way for a more equitable future. Toward Anna Shectman, Portia Lundie (see the “Three of a Kind” crossword for more of Lundie’s work), and other profound women seeking not to standardize crosswords, but to complicate the idea that standardization should be the ideal.
These days, The Inkubator is a funded and functional crossword subscription service, sending puzzles by women and nonbinary constructors to subscribers a few times each month. As their mission statement puts it, the project serves as “a venue for women to exhibit and get paid for high-quality puzzles, especially (but not exclusively) puzzles that may not have a chance at mainstream publications due to feminist, political, or provocative content.”
Back in October 2018, The Inkubator was just a dream with a Kickstarter. Around this time, Hailey Gavin interviewed co-founder and constructor Laura Braunstein about her vision for The Inkubator’s future. In response to a question about the suffocating nature of mainstream crossword norms, Braunstein put forth the inspiring challenge: “If this is a pluralistic culture and people are threatening that, could the puzzle be a place where we fight back? Could the puzzle be a place of resistance?”
Braunstein nods to another project, spearheaded by Deb Amlen, Amy Reynaldo, and Patti Varol. Women of Letters is a puzzle packet by some of the industry’s top constructors who happen to be women. The puzzles serve as an incentive for solvers to donate to women-centric causes—if you give at least ten dollars to one of the charities listed on the project’s page, and email your screenshot to WomenofLettersCrosswords@gmail.com, you’ll receive the packet in return. By combining a platform for crossword-constructing women with a call for financial support for activism, Women of Letters shows us a concrete way in which the puzzle can be a place of resistance.
Even if it didn’t link arms with other causes, Women of Letters, like The Inkubator, would be a remarkable example of women fighting for a pluralistic culture. It is a radical act just to represent an alternative set of perspectives to those typically laid out in the grids that we allow to define valuable knowledge (“Crosswords are strange arbiters of cultural relevance,” after all). These projects are especially radical because they put a name to how these constructors’ perspectives defy institutional norms, shining a light on gender’s importance. Portia Lundie put it elegantly: “In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a view from nowhere,” no such thing as an objective relationship to language or to knowledge of the world around us.
A pluralistic culture can only be represented in the plural, by a rising tide of women, all with different views from different places, lifting all boats. Solidarity matters more than figureheads when it comes to making real change.
Daily POP walks the walk, regularly bringing you puzzles constructed and edited by women.
How is a poem like a puzzle? That question’s easier to answer than the Mad Hatter’s classic “How is a raven like a writing desk?” From crosswords to cryptograms, many beloved puzzles do, if nothing else, resemble poems in their mutual wordiness. However, some forms of poetry are more puzzly than others—compare a sprawling collection of free and blank verse like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” to the concise machinery of a syllabically limited haiku, the boundaries of which are as strict as the edges of a crossword puzzle.
When you start to write a haiku, your possibilities are wide-open; with each word you set down, though, the potential choices for what might follow narrow. In effect, your “word bank” shrinks, and if three syllables already occupy the first line, then any words longer than two syllables are ineligible for that line’s continuation. The poet’s puzzling brain must kick into action, considering words for their dimensions and how they might lock into place with the words directly alongside them.
Haikus aren’t the only poetic forms that require this type of geometric thinking. Similarly brainteasery in their construction are sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas. Concrete poems take the shape of objects relevant to their contents, and erasure poetry—much like a word seek—highlights hidden messages by winnowing the chaos of a pre-existing text.
What about a more sprawling, less tightly organized work like “The Waste Land,” then? Beyond the wordiness it has in common with cryptograms et al, is it left out of our riddle’s answer? Roddy Howland Jackson, in the recent essay, “Beastly Clues: T. S. Eliot, Torquemada, and the Modernist Crossword,” appears to argue that no, such works are very much like puzzles.
Jackson takes us back to the 1920s, when “The Waste Land” first appeared in print, and modernist poetry and puzzles alike were derided by critics. He locates “a question asked about labour and idleness in this period: are crosswords and difficult poems worth the efforts required to elicit literary pleasure and linguistic revitalisation? Or merely a waste of time?”
As a poet and puzzler, this question resonates with me a century later. Swimming in the high-pressure waters of hustle culture makes us highly sensitive to the terror of “wasting time,” as in doing anything that doesn’t build our personal brands. Writing and reading poetry that isn’t tidily instagrammable? Solving puzzles that aren’t social media fads? By hustle culture’s standards, both of these things are wastes of time.
So how is a poem like a puzzle? Both present us with opportunities to take back our time, to carve out pockets of our days where we exert mental energy purely for the joy of thinking. Instead of being just a bullet point on your resume, your problem-solving skills can be part of how you resist the pressure to always have your nose to the grindstone.
Next week, we’ll encourage you to find joy in poetry by more closely examining one particular puzzly form. In the meantime . . .
You may remember that when long-time blogger Glenn stepped down from posting at the beginning of this year, he assured you all that it was time “for a new voice to take over.” Obviously, his prediction came true, and it’s been fun these past few weeks, regaling you with discussions of Wordle, a biblical adventure, and tarot cards. Maybe you’ve wondered, however, exactly whose voice you’re hearing. I think it’s time we get to know each other. This week, I pull back the curtain and reveal your new Wizard of Blog.
The Wizard of Oz revealed his full name to be Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmanuel Ambroise Diggs, but I’m going to go easy on you; you can just call me Rae. Puzzle fans are often excited to learn my name, pointing out that RAE is a common crossword entry. When you come across clues such as [“Call Me Maybe” singer Carly ___ Jepsen], [“Wayne’s World” actress ___ Dawn Chong], [Rap duo ____ Sremmurd], or countless others, you’ll already know the answer.
In addition to handling social media here at PuzzleNation, I act as our Editorial Assistant and as an occasional writer of Daily POP clues. Previously, I worked for Dell Magazines, writing clues for a range of crossword titles in addition to assisting the editors of Dell’s mystery and science fiction publications. Although my own writing is strictly nonfiction and poetry—I’m currently an MFA candidate in both disciplines—I am emotionally committed to genre fiction, mystery and sci-fi especially. You can expect to see those two genres making appearances on the blog in the future!
Outside of work, I’m a Simpsons buff and general television nerd, a voraciously omnivorous reader, a fan of superhero and heist media, and a painter. Wordplay, problem-solving, and board games are a few of my favorite things (the classic Clue is my favorite of the latter). As you may have inferred from blog posts thus far, I do read tarot, and yes, I try to solve Wordle right on the dot of midnight, turning to Queerdle immediately after (the artificial stress of Absurdle is a sometimes snack).
So what else, exactly, do I plan to bring to this digital table? The future holds a broad spectrum of posts, examining poetry and literature, art and music, TV shows and movies, video games, board games, and the scientific and historical sides of puzzles and games. Human interest pieces are close to my heart too—the puzzle and gaming worlds are full of fascinating people doing creative, groundbreaking things, and I can’t wait to spend time connecting with some of those individuals and bringing their stories to your screens.
On that note: it’s your turn! I would love to hear more about who’s reading. And if there’s anything in particular you’re interested in seeing on the blog, don’t be afraid to ask the Wizard for what you want.
One thing the Wizard can offer you now is delightful deals on puzzles!