The Fool, The Magician, The High Priestess, and The Gamer

Jane Seymour reading tarot as the James Bond character Solitaire in Live and Let Die

What do you think of when you think of tarot cards? Puzzles, games, logic, and creative problem-solving? Or crystal balls, tea leaves, palmistry, and vibes?

Popular imagination seems to be split on this. Googling “tarot” brings me recommendations for psychics I might want to visit; a significant chunk of the other search results occupy astrology and “lifestyle” websites. A Teen Vogue introduction to tarot states, “To those who think the practice of reading tarot is an occult art reserved for spook sessions, let me say: You’re wrong,” but goes on to explain that a tarot reading is an intimate conversation.

However, according to A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack, Volume 1,tarot cards were invented for gaming, not for fortune-telling, when they originated in 15th century Italy. And while their modern role in the world of games and puzzles is fairly divorced from their roots, many still see them as having puzzly potential.

The final puzzle in horror video game Silent Hill 3, for example,requires players to arrange tarot cards in a specific order. New tabletop narrative puzzle game The Light in the Mist involves unraveling a mystery with a deck of tarot cards as your greatest resource. A 2018 Nerdist article gives advice on how to incorporate tarot into tabletop role-playing regardless of the original game’s design. There are also many jigsaw puzzles drawing on the designs of various tarot decks, including the classic 1909 Rider-Waite deck, and the “Life is Like a Board Game Tarot” is a fully functional deck modeling itself after Monopoly.

A couple of Rider-Waite major arcana cards. The Fool is commonly the trump card in tarot games. The Wheel of Fortune is unfortunately unrelated to the game show.

The Nerdist article does suggest that using tarot for role-playing is “poor form and bad luck,” and that it would be safest to use a special, dedicated deck for any gameplay rather than mixing and matching your fictional fortunes with your more “factual” future. But just as it’s a personal choice whether to treat a Ouija board as a spiritual artifact and potential gateway to demonic possession or to take it very literally as a toy by Hasbro, only you can decide how much weight to give this word of caution.  

Yes, some people fear that they are tempting fate by using a tarot deck for both serious and recreational purposes—but maybe you’re perfectly comfortable tempting fate! Or maybe you’ll choose to acquire a deck that will only ever be used recreationally. Either way, you can have a lot of fun with tarot, even beyond the possibilities of incorporating it into your usual tabletop role-playing hijinks.

The original Italian trick-taking tarot card games introduced the concept of cards trumping other cards to the realm of gameplay, a concept we can trace all the way to modern fantastical, battle-style competitive card games like Pokemon and Yu Gi Oh. After occupying Milan, the French adopted the idea of playing with the tarot deck, and the game of French tarot quickly became favored more highly than chess. The full rules to playing French tarot can be found here, though you might decide that you’re more interested in playing Grosstarock, which Stewart Dunlop describes as “really cool, if you want to play for real stakes, but are tired of poker.” Or perhaps your fancy will be struck by Hungarian Tarokk or Königrufen, the latter of which is wildly popular in Austria. These games differ in exact rules, number of players, and even number of cards used from the tarot deck, but are united by gameplay featuring bidding and the assignment of point values to the cards.

Your blogger’s preferred tarot decks

Between trick-taking, tabletop gaming, and forecasting the future, tarot is replete with many marvelous uses. While its forecasting function appears to tie into the mystical side of the cards more than the puzzly side, I’d argue that it sits comfortably in both realms. Michelle Tea, who wrote The Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards (my personal go-to volume for discerning meaning in my own readings), describes her early experience with tarot thusly:

I was in a growing state of awe at their intuitive accuracy, the way the small stories encapsulated in each illustration knit together into a wider narrative that made sense, sometimes poetic, sometimes chillingly pointed.

What I see in this take, above all, is the word narrative, drawing me back to the allure of tying tarot and tabletop gaming together. There may be no dice or character stats involved, but tarot still enables us to tell compelling stories. Considering that we are living in a world in which forces such as Lifehacker urge us to gamify our lives via apps, I think now is tarot’s time to shine. Maybe pointedly using the same deck for both role-playing games and connecting with your inner truth is actually the perfect way to go, a strategy for injecting your day-to-day life with the magic of games.

Move over habit trackers and apps that turn jogging into an escape from zombies! Here comes something more poetic and more pointed: in Michelle Tea’s words, “an ancient story system” that will fill your life with wonder.


I see in your future . . . a tall, dark stranger, a voyage across the sea, and some delightful deals on puzzles. You can find those deals on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

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The PN Blog 2021 Countdown!

2022

It’s the final blog post of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2021 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


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#10 The Man Who Found Forrest Fenn’s Treasure

One of 2020’s most baffling stories was the announcement that Forrest Fenn’s treasure, a mystery sought by thousands for most of a decade, had been found, but the lucky solver was remaining anonymous. Lawsuits were filed, fraud was claimed, and what should have been the resolution to a great mystery ended up sparking several more.

This year, we finally received some information from the solver himself, and it seemed to resolve those lingering questions and quiet the conspiracy theorists (for the most part, anyway). It seems poetic to start off our countdown with the conclusion of another puzzly endeavor.

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#9 Bringing People Back to Puzzles

It’s always disappointing when one bad experience with a new hobby or endeavor spoils an entire world for someone. I’ve seen it happen with puzzles more than once, and I always consider it a privilege to get a second chance at introducing someone to the world of puzzles.

So it was a real treat to write this post and offer some advice to other puzzle fans, helping to equip them when and if the opportunity arose to reintroduce a friend to one of our favorite pastimes.

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

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#7 First Look: The Case of the Golden Idol

Sometimes, we get to be pioneers, trying out new games, new products, and new puzzles before anybody else, and that’s always a treat.

This time around, not only did we get an early look at an in-progress investigation-style puzzle game, but we brought in a friend of the blog to give it the full review treatment. (We’ve done this in the past with video game and app reviews.) We get to share new voices with our marvelous readership and venture into exciting new puzzly frontiers while we do it.

house-rules

#6 Board Game House Rules

It’s always fun to ask the PN readership to contribute to posts, and this was a fun topic to explore with the readers. We asked for house rules used in popular board games, and the sheer variety and creativity employed by game fans to spice up classic board games made for a terrific blog post and one of our favorite discussions of the entire year.

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#5 5 Questions

Across dozens of interviews over the years, we’ve talked to game designers, pop culture figures, and puzzle luminaries about what makes them tick, and each time, we learn something new about puzzling and those who puzzle.

This year, we focused mostly on folks that were relatively new to puzzles, not only to give them greater exposure, but to get a glimpse of where the world of puzzles is headed in the future. And based on those we had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with, the future of puzzles is very very bright.

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#4 Superman and Crosswords

Puzzles are lurking anywhere and everywhere in popular culture if you know where to look. Often I find them in television shows, mystery novels, odd historical moments, and many other places, and I thoroughly enjoy chronicling those experiences for the readership.

And one of the highlights of the year for me was discovering an old Superman radio show adventure where he literally had to solve crosswords in order to save Lois Lane and stop the bad guys. It was silly and delightful all at once, providing yet another example of how puzzles find their way into all aspects of life.

bad puns

#3 Puns

Puns come in all shapes and sizes, running the gamut from clever and hilarious to shameless and groan-inducing. So it was long overdue to write a post discussing the role of puns in puzzles and defending puns from some of their many detractors.

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#2 Ten Years

We marked ten years of PuzzleNation this year, and to get to celebrate that milestone with our loyal fellow solvers was absolutely a high point of the year.

We delved behind the curtain for a brief history of the company, and released a special puzzle pack for readers to enjoy.

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#1 Fairness and Accessibility

Throughout the year, we discussed efforts to make puzzles more inclusive and accessible than ever. More women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community are constructing than ever before, and we happily contributed to the discussion of fairness in puzzles wherever possible.

One of my favorite posts on the topic this year was our dissection of the concept of “the average solver,” and pointing out how this concept can be helpful or hurtful, depending on how it’s employed. We received a lot of great feedback and some very kind words of support on these posts, and it was incredibly worthwhile to participate in these discussions with our fellow puzzlers.


Thanks for spending 2021 with us, through brain teasers and big ideas, through treasure hunts and trips to the past, through puzzle launches and landmark moments. We’ll see you in 2022.

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PuzzleNation Blog Looks Back on 2021!

2021 is rapidly coming to a close. As we do every year, we look back on another eventful year in the world of puzzles and games.

And we are incredibly proud of the contributions both PuzzleNation Blog and PuzzleNation made to the puzzle community as a whole.

Over the last year, we explored board games and card games, strategy games and trivia games, dice games and tile games, do-it-yourself puzzlers and pen-and-paper classics. We met game designers, constructors, and creative types of all kinds, many of them relatively new creators that are part of a new generation of puzzle innovators.

We unraveled math puzzles and diabolical brain teasers. With our fellow PuzzleNationers, we tackled visual puzzles, trivia, optical illusions, and logic problems. We played punny hashtag games galore, exploring everything from mysteries and art to geography and weather, Halloween puns and puzzly theme songs.

We delved into puzzle history, pondering hidden codes in music, cryptography in Ancient Egypt, and secret messages on old swords. We explored the puzzly endeavors of Voltaire and Frederick the Great, how the Founding Fathers relied on coded messages, and even delved below the waves to investigate ENIGMA machines discovered decades later.

We got to see the fourth and fifth Crossword Mysteries films. We defended the noble art of puns, searched for the greatest fictional TV escape room, and found the ultimate jigsaw puzzle table.

We marked 150 years since the birth of Arthur Wynne, 15 years since the debut of the Wordplay documentary, and 10,000 days of Will Shortz puzzles.

We found puzzly ways to celebrate everything from Independence Day and Halloween to Thanksgiving and Christmas. We lamented the sad losses of luminaries like Maki Kaji and Stephen Sondheim.

We watched computers continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in puzzles. Computer programs helped design word squares/magic squares of incredible size and 3-D design and printing led to bigger and more complicated Rubik-style twisty puzzles. The crossword-solving program Dr. Fill even won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament!

And speaking of ACPT, it was fascinating to watch as crossword tournaments and events continued to migrate into the virtual space.

Boswords continued to lead the charge all year for virtual puzzle events, launching the Winter Wondersolve event, the Spring Themeless League, their traditional summer tournament, and the return of the Fall Themeless League.

Lollapuzzoola also returned in virtual form, as did ACPT (although the organizers did hold out hope for an in-person event).

But arguably the biggest topic of the year, one we returned to over and over in 2021, was the power of puzzles and how influential puzzles can be.

We discussed how crosswords reflect what’s going on in society, and celebrated how the constructing community was continuing to grow more diverse. We watched as projects like the Expanded Crossword Name Database sought to make the cluing and grid entries more inclusive.

PuzzleNation Blog happily contributed to the discussion, pondering what made something “puzzle-worthy” and questioning how discussions of “too familiar,” “too safe,” and “too family friendly” can be exclusionary.

We asked who is the average solver and discussed how that concept can be employed in negative ways, and championed puzzles that were more fair and accessible to solvers than others. (We even mentioned ways you might bring people back to the world of puzzles after bad solving experiences.)

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2021 went well beyond that.

In a tumultuous and uncertain year, we focused on honoring our promise to our fellow puzzlers: maintaining and producing the best puzzle experience possible.

Penny Dell Crossword App, Daily POP Crosswords, Daily POP Word Search, Penny Dell Sudoku… no matter the platform, our team worked hard to produce engaging puzzles at all levels, and we are immensely proud of the work the PN team performed this year.

Every day, we delivered top-notch content for Penny Dell Crosswords App, Daily POP Crosswords, and Daily POP Word Search. Whether it was monthly deluxe sets and holiday bundles for PDCW or the world-class topical puzzles by some of the industry’s best constructors for Daily POP, hundreds of outstanding crosswords and word searches wended their way to our loyal and enthusiastic solvers.

But whether we’re talking about crosswords, Sudoku, or word searches, we’re proud to say that every single puzzle represents our high standards of quality puzzle content crafted for solvers and PuzzleNationers.

And your response has been inspiring! Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search are rolling, the blog has over 2600 followers, and with our audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms continuing to grow, the enthusiasm of the PuzzleNation readership is both humbling and very encouraging.

2021 was a difficult year, but it’s one that also reminded us of the amazing things that can be accomplished when puzzlers come together. And we firmly believe that the coming year will be brighter, more exciting, and more creatively fulfilling.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. The new year looms large, and we look forward to seeing you in 2022!


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Do You Accept the Challenge of “The Impossible Crossword”? You absolutely should!

Part of the challenge for many crossword solvers is that you can’t adjust the difficulty of the cluing on a given day. The clues you get are the clues you get.

New York Times crossword solvers are intimately familiar with this, talking about Tuesday puzzles and Saturday puzzles and understanding what each means in terms of expected puzzle difficulty.

Our own Penny Dell Crosswords App offers free puzzles across three difficulty levels each day, but those are three distinct puzzles, not three different clue sets for one particular puzzle.

Having options for more than one set of clues is fairly rare. Lollapuzzoola has two difficulty-levels for their final tournament puzzle, Local and Express. GAMES Magazine previously offered two sets of clues for their themeless crossword, entitled The World’s Most Ornery Crossword.

The tournament final of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament offers different clue difficulties for three separate divisions. The Boswords Spring and Fall Themeless Leagues work in a similar manner, offering three levels of clue difficulty — Smooth, Choppy, and Stormy — for competitors to choose from.

The concept of Easy and Hard clues is not unheard of… it’s just rare.

And it’s only natural that someone, eventually, was going to take this concept and dial it up to a Spinal Tap 11.

The pair of someones in question are Megan Amram and Paolo Pasco.

Paolo is fairly well-known around crossword circles, having contributed puzzles to the American Values Club crossword, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets, while also serving as associate crossword editor for The Atlantic.

And Megan is an incredibly talented television and film writer who has written for Parks and Rec, The Simpsons, and The Good Place. Anytime you saw a hilariously shameless punny name for a store in The Good Place, it was undoubtedly one of Megan’s.

Together, they unleashed The Impossible Crossword in the print edition of The New Yorker‘s December 27 issue, its first ever Cartoons & Puzzles issue. (It was made available on the website the week before.)

The instructions are simple: This crossword contains two sets of clues to the same answers. Toggle to the set labelled “Hard” to impress people looking over your shoulder. (And toggle to “Easy” when they look away.)

This 9×9 crossword’s Easy clues were fair and accessible, but the Hard clues were the real stars. They ricocheted between immensely clever, wildly obscure, and hilarious parodies of themselves.

For instance, the word JEST was clued on the Easy side as “Infinite ____” but received the brilliantly condescending add-on “Infinite ____” (novel that’s very easy to read and understand) in the Hard clues as a reference to the famously dense and impenetrable nature of the novel.

For the word APPS, the Easy clue was “Programs designed to run on mobile devices,” while the Hard clue was “Amuse-gueules, colloquially.”

(I had to look that one up. An amuse-gueule is “a small savory item of food served as an appetizer before a meal.”)

And those are just two examples.

When you finally finish the puzzle, this is your reward:

“You’re a genius! You can tell your mom to get off your case about going to law school.”

All at once, The Impossible Crossword manages to be a fun puzzle to solve on its own, a riotously fun gimmick that lampoons clue difficulty in general, and the most meta puzzle I’ve solved all year.

Kudos to Megan and Paolo for pulling it off. What a way to welcome the Cartoons & Puzzles era of The New Yorker while the rest of us close out another year of puzzling.


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Counting Down the Hours With Some Holiday Trivia!

As you well know, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, we usually post a puzzle to celebrate a given holiday.

But last year we started a new holiday tradition and offered you some trivia to help count down the hours until Christmas Day!

So this year, we’re doing it again. That’s right, twelve questions on holiday pop culture from around the world. How does that sound?

Feel free to cherry-pick from these questions for your own Yuletide trivia. We’ve tried to keep it relatively easy and accessible, though a few tougher historical questions might’ve snuck in alongside the song trivia and the food trivia.

Enjoy!


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1. What holiday song was the first song played in space?

2. How old was Brenda Lee when she recorded Christmas classic “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”?

3. Saint Nicholas, whom Santa Claus is based on, is from what country?

4. Which well-known Christmas song was originally a Thanksgiving song?

5. How many days of Kwanzaa are there?

6. When are gingerbread houses believed to have been invented? 

eggnog-SOC

7. Which founding father had a famously boozy eggnog recipe that forgot to note the number of eggs needed but included the instruction “Taste frequently”?

8. Who was the first U.S. president to recognize Hanukkah in the White House?

9. You can stay at the original “Home Alone” house through Airbnb. Where is the home – and film – located?

10. In Oaxaca City, Mexico, Noche de rábanos is celebrated every 23rd December. Which food gives this festival its name?

11. Which Christmas song’s second verse begins with “The cattle are lowing”?

12. After leaving Bethlehem, to which country did Joseph, Mary, and Jesus travel?


Do you have any favorite nuggets of holiday trivia? Please share it with us in the comment section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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Tackling the GCHQ 2021 Christmas Card!

GCHQ card

Every year, one of the puzzliest challenges many solvers will encounter all year descends upon the world, as the GCHQ issue their Christmas card.

The GCHQ — or Government Communications Headquarters — provides security and intelligence services for the British government. Back when they were known as GC&CS — Government Code and Cypher School — they were responsible for funding Bletchley Park and its successes cracking the German “Enigma” code during World War II.

This year’s Christmas card was directed toward solvers with a secondary school education (essentially solvers age 11 and up), and was less complicated than offerings in previous years, but still offered an engaging challenge.

Here’s the link in case you’d like to try it for yourself.

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Last chance before we walk through the solution!

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Okay, ready? Good! Let’s do this!


GCHQ card 1a

Clue number one is an easy one, as you simply read the first letter of each word in the message. Your solution is CHRISTMAS.

Clue number two is a simple 4×4 across-and-down grid where 1-Across and 1-Down are the same word, 2-Across and 2-Down are the same word, and so on. The completed grid reads:

T H I S
H O O T
I O W A
S T A G

And the letters in THIS are highlighted in the grid, so the solution is THIS.

GCHQ card 1b

Clue number three is a complete-the-sequence puzzle where the names of the Hogwarts houses from Harry Potter are listed, but each house in the sequence has more letters missing from the beginning and end of the word. Slytherin is the missing house, and with three letters missing from the beginning and end of the word, your solution is THE.

Clue number four is a Blackout! or Minesweeper-style puzzle where you deduce the location of bombs in the grid according to numbers in the neighboring squares. Once you’re marked off each of the bombs, the remaining spaces form letters and spell out a word. Your solution is SAFE.

GCHQ card 1c

Clue number five is a mnemonic device, and solvers must puzzle out what chain of related words is represented by the device. In this case, the major taxonomic ranks that are used to organize related living things are represented, and the word Kindly points toward the second word in the taxonomic ranks, so your solution is Kingdom.

Clue number six has three overlapping circles, each with letters inside, and you have to figure out not only what the words are, but what missing six-letter word would sit in the middle of this Venn diagram.

I found this to be the hardest puzzle in the card by far, as I tried and failed in numerous attempts to anagram the letters into recognizable words. Finally, I decoded the shortest word — LEEDS — only because I remembered that this is a British organization and I have friends who live in Leeds.

Leeds led me to unraveling the other two answers — MANCHESTER and NEWCASTLE — and my meager knowledge of European football provided the missing six-letter word. The solution is UNITED.

GCHQ card 1d

Clue number seven is a simple cryptogram, and is quickly decoded to read “This is the 7th question: people born between nineteen forty-six and nineteen sixty-four are commonly known as baby what?”

The solution appears to be BOOMERS, but there is an additional instruction to follow after decoding the message, and you must encode the answer. Following the same letter-substitution rule, BOOMERS becomes KEEPING, and that is your solution.

GCHQ card 2

Now each word must be placed in order on the tree for your message to properly read out.

  • The word BABY in clue 7 points toward the stroller icon, so our message begins with KEEPING.
  • The lightning bolt icon refers to Harry Potter, so the word THE from clue 3 goes next.
  • The soccer ball icon points to clue 6, so the word UNITED continues the message.
  • The word KINGDOM from clue 5 aligns with the crown icon, so that’s our fourth word.
  • The lock icon is most closely associated with SAFE from clue 4, so that’s next.
  • At first, I thought the image of the Stag was a Harry Potter reference, but I then realized that STAG was one of the answers in clue 2’s grid, so this was the place for THIS.
  • Finally, the present is the perfect spot for clue 1’s solution, CHRISTMAS.

And the message is revealed, celebrating the mission of the GCHQ itself: Keeping the United Kingdom Safe This Christmas.

Did you unravel this festive puzzly challenge, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Treat yourself to some delightful deals on puzzles. You can find them on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

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