PuzzleNation Blog Looks Back on 2018!

2018 is quickly coming to a close, and as I look back on an eventful year in the world of puzzles and games, I’m 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, artists, YouTubers, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and diabolical brain teasers. We pondered optical illusions, Internet memes, and more, even questioning our place in the world of puzzles as AI and solving robots continued to rise in capability.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about ancient board games from centuries ago, Edgar Allan Poe’s secret codes, and the legacy of influential female codebreakers and spymasters previously lost to revisionist history like Elizebeth Smith Friedman and the Countess Alexandrine. We brought to light valuable examples of puzzles in art, comic strips, animation, music, television, film, and popular culture.

We spread the word about numerous worthwhile Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, watching as the puzzle/game renaissance continued to amaze and surprise us with innovative new ways to play and solve. We shared worthy causes like Queer Crosswords and Women of Letters, as well as amazing projects like new escape rooms, puzzle experiences like The Enigmatist, online puzzle quests, and long-running unsolved treasure hunts.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, offered up puzzly suggestions for Valentine’s Day, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and dove deep into an ever-expanding litany of puzzle events like the Indie 500, BosWords, and Lollapuzzoola.

We found puzzly ways to celebrate everything from Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas to Star Wars Day and the anniversary of the Crossword, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you.

It’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to explore the world of puzzles and games with you, my fellow puzzle lovers and PuzzleNationers. We marked six years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I’m closing in on my 1000th blog post, and I’m more excited to write for you now than I was when I started.

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2018 went well beyond that.

Every month, we delivered quality content for both the Penny Dell Crosswords App and Daily POP Crosswords. 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 topnotch crosswords wended their way to our loyal and enthusiastic solvers.

And a little more than a week ago, we launched our newest puzzly endeavor — Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate — bringing you a unique, story-driven puzzling experience, complete with gorgeous visuals, atmospheric music, and an immersive mystery to keep you solving!

But whether we’re talking about crosswords, Sudoku, or Wordventures, I’m 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 fantastic! Daily POP Crosswords is thriving, we’re very excited about the response to Wordventures, the blog has over 2300 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.

2018 was our most ambitious, most exciting, and most creatively fulfilling year to date, and the coming year promises to be even brighter.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. The new year looms large, and we look forward to seeing you in 2019!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Felix the Cat

It’s fun to uncover little puzzly bits of history, but when history, puzzles, and entertainment intertwine, it always makes for intriguing viewing.

So when friend of the blog Darcy Bearman showed me a Felix the Cat cartoon from the 1920s that centered around an unsolved crossword puzzle, naturally I was intrigued.

It wasn’t hard to track down a copy, given how practically everything seems to be on YouTube these days.

Here are the official details:

Felix All Puzzled (1924)

  • Director: Pat Sullivan
  • Animator: Otto Messmer
  • Distributor: M.J. Winkler Productions

Originally Released on January 15, 1925.

Felix is hungry, but his owner won’t feed him until he finishes his crossword puzzle. And he’s fixated on the down clue that will complete the puzzle, “Vertical. Found chiefly in Russia.”

Pondering what the answer could be Felix, the cat laments that he could eat if only he could get to Russia and uncover the missing word.

A nearby mule kicks Felix all the way to Russia, seemingly out of spite — clearly a Moscow Mule — and Felix lands in a small hut. Momentarily mistaken for a bomb, he leaves the hut and heads into town.

He sees two Russians leaning over some papers, and presumes that the answer will be on those papers. But after sneaking into the building, he’s accused of spying, shot at, and chased out. As it turns out, these two men are plotting a revolution, and they toss bombs at Felix.

After avoiding several of them, Felix is blown into the air by the last one, and ends up back in America.

His owner, the ungrateful boor, immediately asks if Felix found the answer. He doesn’t ask how his trip was, or if he’s alright, or hey, can I get you a bite to eat after your mule-and-bomb-propelled world tour. What a jerk.

And Felix’s snarky reply turns out to be the correct answer.

Felix laughs. His owner does a little victory dance. And the cartoon ends.

Naturally, I can’t help but ask… DID YOU FEED FELIX NOW THAT YOUR PUZZLE IS DONE, YOU SELFISH DOOFUS? I mean, come on. It’s the whole reason that Felix bothers going to Russia. He wants to eat. Feed him!

But I digress.

You may have noticed that the cartoon is a little choppy. If you did, kudos to you. As it turns out, most of the copies of this cartoon that are in circulation are from a Kodascope print where several scenes were cut. Given that the original run time listing was 5 minutes, suddenly the choppiness makes sense.

A half-dozen sequences or so are missing from this version, and they explain some of the weirder moments in the cartoon. For instance, the mule kicks Felix because the question marks (from his attempts to figure out how to get to Russia) tickle the mule.

Additionally, if you were wondering why the first Russian Felix meets thinks he’s a bomb, it’s because he got a letter from the revolutionaries earlier that reads “Today, you die!” (Which is admittedly a little grim.)

Now, let’s talk about that puzzle.

TRIPPLE is a pretty strange 1-Across. A chiefly South African term for a horse’s gait (according to Merriam Webster, anyway), you can’t help but wonder if they simply misspelled TRIPLE.

But the rest of the puzzle is fairly straightforward. It’s a 7×7 grid with a few two-letter entries (which wouldn’t fly in most crosswords these days). The combination of EASTERS and EVADERS crossing at the S is admittedly underwhelming, but as far as I can tell

The only other entry that jumps out at me is NVA, but only because I wonder how it would be clued. It’s not like a 1925 cartoon would be referencing the North Vietnamese Army.

Upon further digging, I suspect this would have been clued referencing the National Vaudeville Artists, a union formed by Edward Franklin Albee. The clue “Theatrical organization” is used for NVA in a 1953 New York Times puzzle, according to XwordInfo.

Of course, with obtuse cluing like “Chiefly found in Russia,” even a small grid like this could prove to be a challenge!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Comic Strips

Two weeks ago, we took a puzzly detour into the world of comic strips and explored all the puzzly references we could find in the annals of Garfield publishing history.

In the course of compiling those comics, I stumbled across many others that referenced crosswords and other puzzles. As it turns out, plenty of iconic comic strips have had something to say about puzzles. It makes sense, really, given that crosswords and comic strips are both synonymous with reading the newspaper every day.

So naturally, I couldn’t resist putting some comic strips aside for the PuzzleNation readership to enjoy.


We start off today with this Fred Basset comic strip, wherein a mischievous dog saves the most important part of the paper for his owner.

In this Beetle Bailey strip, we’re not only reminded of the true power behind the General, but of the power of crosswords to eat up your free time.

In the Peanuts comics, many of Snoopy’s best jokes are visual gags, given that most of the other characters can’t understand him. In this case, the joke is on us, as Snoopy and Woodstock crack a curious crossword entry together.

Calvin and Hobbes also had their fun with filling in crosswords, as Calvin takes his usual outside-the-box approach and applies it to our favorite puzzles. (He’d clearly be a whiz at Double Trouble and other crossword variants.)

In this strip by artist Dave Coverly, he reimagines crosswords in an earlier era. (And makes me wonder what an all-symbol crossword would be like.)

There’s a marvelous sense of accomplishment that comes with solving your first crossword. In this comic from Mother Goose and Grimm, the celebration is a bit more enthusiastic.

Many comic strips have fun with the difficulty of crosswords or the wordplay involved in the cluing. But this one by J. Gravelle presents the trouble you can get into by making assumptions while letters are still missing.

In this comic from John Deering’s Strange Brew, the human condition — and the rat condition — are summed up in one poignant quote.

And speaking of The New York Times crossword… we’ve all felt like this at one point or another.

Finally, we get a little meta with this one. But it makes sense, given that the funnies page and the daily crossword are usually in close proximity.

I hope you enjoyed this brief sojourn into comic strip — and puzzle — history. Do you have any comic strips mentioning puzzles that we missed? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Garfield

Puzzles are ubiquitous. Once you start looking around for them, you’ll find them in every nook and cranny of popular culture.

Sometimes, they’re the basis for an entire episode of television, as in Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Parks and Rec. Sometimes, they serve as a linchpin metaphor, as they did in Sleepy Hollow. Other times, they’re good for a funny aside, as in Gilmore Girls, or as a prop to reveal deeper character insight, as on The West Wing.

Over the years, I’ve seen puzzles incorporated into storytelling in dozens of ways. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to stumble across puzzle references where I least expected them: the funny pages.

Yes, they’re such a part of the cultural fabric that they’ve even infiltrated comic strips.

The other day, I stumbled across this Garfield comic strip from last year:

Now, it’s meant to be funny, but I think any puzzler who has stood onstage in front of a whiteboard at ACPT, Lollapuzzoola, or another crossword tournament would agree with Jon over Garfield here.

That was one example. As it turns out, when you start digging, you find crossword gags strewn through the Garfield comics.

Like this one from November of 2005:

That’s a pretty simple gag, but it’s also a nice bonding moment for Jon and Garfield, as Jon’s rampant procrastination dovetails nicely with Garfield’s bottomless love for Italian food.

Jon has less luck making a puzzly connection in this comic from February of 1998:

If you ask me, a cookie and a crossword puzzle sounds like an excellent way to spend time with someone interesting. But I’m biased. I love cookies.

And as you can see in this comic from February of 1979, Jon’s crossword struggles have been an ongoing issue for decades now:

But it’s not just crosswords. Sudoku has gotten a fair amount of attention in the Garfield strip over the years. That’s understandable, as it’s one of the most recognizable pencil-and-paper puzzles in the world.

And as someone who isn’t the fastest Sudoku solver in the world, this series of comics from January of 2010 (an entire week’s worth!) speaks to me. I get it, Jon. I get it.

Honestly, it makes sense that Odie would have Sudoku wired. He’s a puzzle dog. He’s been appearing in crossword grids for years.

There’s a lovely callback to that previous crossword gag.

Finally, Jon triumphs! I admire both his resilience and his unwillingness to give up. Though, given that it took a week to complete a Sudoku, maybe Jon should stick to other puzzles.

Heck, our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have the perfect book for him to try out.

[All images are courtesy of Garfield.com.]


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First Look: Puzzle, A Film About Finding the Right Pieces

[Image courtesy of Steven Teagarden.com.]

Satisfaction. Nothing encapsulates the feeling of completing a puzzle quite like the word “satisfaction.”

Whether we’re talking about crosswords, brain teasers, mechanical puzzles, or jigsaw puzzles, it’s a gratifying feeling to write that final letter, place that final piece, make the final twist/move/connection and unlock the solution.

“When you complete a puzzle, you know you have made all the right choices.” That idea is at the heart of a new movie coming out next month entitled Puzzle.

[Image courtesy of IMDb.]

From one of the press packets for the film:

Agnes, taken for granted as a suburban mother, discovers a passion for solving jigsaw puzzles, which unexpectedly draws her into a new world – where her life unfolds in ways she could never have imagined.

The film stars Kelly MacDonald (who you might know from Brave, Boardwalk Empire, Gosford Park, or Trainspotting), Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, In Treatment, and Jurassic World), and David Denman (The Office, Angel, 13 Hours, and Logan Lucky), but even from the brief glimpses offered in the trailer, this is clearly Kelly MacDonald’s show.

Transitioning from a warm reception at Sundance to wider release in July and August, the film looks like a wonderful character piece, a nice bit of counterprogramming after the usual summer blockbuster fare.

I’m looking forward to seeing the film when it’s released — it opens July 27th in select theaters — and I’ll write a full review for the blog when I do.

But in the meantime, check out the trailer, and if you’re intrigued, spread the word.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Challenge: Champs Vs. Stars

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.

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: Champs Vs. Stars, pits celebrity guests (athletes, reality stars, actors, etc.) against some of the top competitors from previous seasons of The Challenge. Each player earns money for a certain charity as they win challenges and outmaneuver their opponents.

At this point in the game, there were four teams of two remaining: the all-stars team of Louise and Casper, the all-champs team of CT and Tony, the star/champ team of Kailah and Drake, and the star/champ team of Wes and Robert.

In last week’s episode, as the four teams arrived, there was a puzzly surprise waiting for them: the Text Tile Challenge.

In teams of two, the competitors had to roll a giant crate across a length of beach — one player lifting and rolling the crate while their partner scrambled atop it to avoid falling to the ground — until they reached an empty grid.

An empty crossword grid, complete with clues. (Technically it’s a criss-cross, but hey, most non-puzzlers don’t know the distinction.)

The competitors then broke open their crates to retrieve lots and lots of letter tiles, which then had to be placed into the grid.

The teams had varying strategies. CT and Tony opted to just fill in words as fast as they could, choosing to ignore that other competitors could cheat by looking over at their board. (Kailah and Drake, in fact, did precisely that, stealing looks at everyone’s boards in order to make up time.)

Louise and Casper, on the other hand, laid out their tiles in the sand, spelling words out and eliminating tiles, but not making it as easy for other players to cheat off them.

The criss-cross itself was pretty underwhelming, consisting mostly of straightforward clues for contemporary slang and Internet terms, like NO FILTER, THIRSTY, WOKE, and SHADE.

Although Casper and Louise’s technique was good, and they were the first team to get their crate to the grid area, CT and Tony ended up completing their grid first, and achieving victory.

In the end, CT and Tony would choose Casper and Louise to go into elimination, and the remaining three teams voted Kailah and Drake to join them, meaning that Wes and Robert were safe, and made the finals alongside CT and Tony. The winner of Casper and Louise vs. Kailah and Drake would be the third and last team in the finals. The loser would go home.

Honestly, if the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is looking to beef up the level of competition, this might be a cool place to start. If nothing else, it would make for one heck of a pairs challenge.

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 any puzzly obstacles awaiting the three teams that’ll be competing in the finale of The Challenge: Champs Vs. Stars.


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