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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Assemble the Party!

Long-time readers of the blog have no doubt noticed one of the recurring themes in blog posts over the years: everything is better with puzzles in it.

Mysteries, adventures, historical accounts… all of them have been enhanced in one way or another by the inclusion of a puzzly element to the topic.

And romantic gestures are no different. For years now, we’ve shared stories where moments of puzzle romance brought people closer together. Sometimes it’s a custom Monopoly board, other times it’s a puzzle-fueled proposal organized by our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.

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So when I stumbled across this story about a super-creative way for Dungeons & Dragons fans to announce their engagement, I knew I had to share it.

If you’re not familiar with the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, it’s a cooperative storytelling game. One of the major elements that makes it so fun is assembling your party — the group of friends and adventurers who journey together throughout the game, engaging in imaginary acts of derring-do.

And anyone who has planned to get married knows that there is also a party to assemble for that particular endeavor… a wedding party.

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So one couple reached out to their fellow D&D players and asked them to join the wedding party in truly apropos D&D fashion: with custom minis and dice for the occasion.

Each player/invitee even had their role in the wedding party inscribed in the base of their personalized miniature figure:

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It’s a delightfully unique and nerdy way to include close friends from a beloved pastime in a huge milestone in their lives, and it brings me joy just to see the photos everyone has shared.

Yes, the future bride and groom got minis of their own… to use as wedding cake toppers.

toppers

You can check out more details of this wonderful story here. Here’s hoping that the party — in both real life and the dice-filled realm of their favorite tabletop game — continue to share such marvelous adventures in the years to come.

Do you have any favorite puzzly tales of romance, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Crosswords as Pop Culture Shorthand?

In television and movies, there are a lot of different techniques for revealing character traits. While some shows spend time developing their characters and slowly revealing their traits to the audience, other shows rely on visual shorthand. You often see a letterman’s jacket for a jock, or glasses for a nerdy boy or a mousy girl.

The act of solving a crossword puzzle has also become visual shorthand in pop culture. Crosswords often serve as a universal sign of intelligence.

In an episode of Jimmy Neutron, Sheen is shown solving a crossword puzzle in ink. This is an instantaneous sign that his brainpower has increased. (And when Cindy points out that her dad does the same thing, Sheen one-ups her by saying the puzzle is from The Beijing Times.)

It could have been math or organization or memorization, but instead, they went with crosswords.

In The Wire, the show uses a scene with a crossword to reveal that there’s more to street-smart Omar Little than meets the eye. Before testifying at Bird’s trial, he helps the bailiff with a crossword clue, identifying the Greek god of war as Ares. The scene immediately punches holes in several stereotypes both characters and viewers might have about the character.

This also happens on Mad Men, where one of the founders of the company is solving a crossword, only to be corrected by one of the secretaries. For that brief moment, the playing field has been levelled.

And because crosswords are seen as this visual shorthand for intelligence, they’re also used as a intellectual measuring stick, for better or for worse.

Rachel on Friends struggled with a crossword for an entire episode to prove she didn’t need anyone’s help, but still has to obliquely obtain information from others to finish the puzzle.

In an episode of House, M.D., House goes speed-dating, and is initially intrigued by a woman who brought a crossword puzzle with her. But when he notices she’s filled in random words instead of actually solving it — in order to pass herself off as someone she’s not — he quickly bursts her bubble in typically acerbic fashion.

P.G. Wodehouse loved to reveal the intelligence — or lack thereof — of characters through the use of crossword clues as fodder for banter. And that’s because it works. The audience draws conclusions based on these interactions.

In a fifth-season episode of Angel, a doctor is shown asking his receptionist for random crossword clues, only to fail at answering several. This immediately colors the audience’s opinion of him.

Crosswords can also be used as a mirror to reflect differences between characters. On The West Wing, President Bartlet couldn’t get past his own presuppositions and assumptions to properly complete the puzzle, while the First Lady had no problem navigating the same puzzle because of her own diplomatic skills.

Similarly, the parents in an episode of Phineas and Ferb show off their dynamic while solving a crossword. The father implies that every answer is obvious, and then waits for his wife to actually provide the answer. It says volumes about him, her, and the two of them as a pair.

But all of this raises the question: is this fair? Is the one-to-one association of crosswords and intelligence in pop culture valid?

[Check out this stock image from Deposit Photo.]

Crosswords are, essentially, piles of trivia and information, crisscrossing vocabulary locked behind clever or vague cluing. But are intelligence and access to information the same thing?

I mean, we’ve discussed the issue of crossword accessibility in the past. Many female constructors, constructors of color, and LGBTQIA+ constructors are helping to change the language used in crosswords, but plenty of people still see them as the domain of older white men. Which implies it’s not actually intelligence, just what older white men deem to be reflective of intelligence.

For a long time, pop culture clues were considered unwelcome or verboten. Beneath the crossword, even. Different editors bring different definitions of what’s appropriate for the puzzle.

And if people associate crosswords with intelligence because of this visual shorthand, and they don’t see themselves reflected in the puzzle, then they suffer from that jagged flip side of the pop culture coin. They’re excluded because of the measuring stick.

I realize most of the examples I cite above are intended to be humorous. Bartlet’s wrong answers are meant to be funny, as is Rachel’s struggle or the dad’s inability to answer on Phineas and Ferb.

But it’s worth mentioning that anyone who feels like they’ve been rapped across the knuckles by the measuring stick carries that with them. I’ve seen it plenty of times when I tell somebody that I work in puzzles. If they “can’t do them,” they look down when they say it. They already carry that visual shorthand with them.

While it’s fascinating that crosswords are part of that immediately recognizable pop culture lexicon, I also kinda wish that they weren’t.


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Spies, Crosswords, and Secret Messages!

secret message

There are loads of ways to hide secret messages in puzzles. The field of cryptography is built around it. Many meta puzzles have a special secret lurking inside their clever constructions. Heck, our friends at Penny Press even have an entire word seek called Secret Message.

But have you ever noticed that there’s a strange fascination in pop culture with secret messages in crosswords?

No, I don’t mean constructors hiding quotations, poems, or word seeks in their crosswords, though those are impressive feats of cruciverbalism.

I’m talking about stories about actual secret messages concealed in crossword grids, meant to be hidden from even the most diligent solvers, only a special few possessing the keys to finding the hidden words.

Oh, believe me, it’s definitely a thing.

Look no further than the first Crossword Mysteries movie. The film opens with a murdered art gallery owner with a crossword in his pocket. And it turns out that a devilish criminal mastermind was submitting puzzles to Tess’s daily crossword that contained hidden instructions for robberies to be conducted that day. Diabolical!

You might laugh, but this is hardly the only time we’ve seen crime, secret messages, and crosswords combined. It was a plotline in the radio show The Adventures of Superman, and Lois Lane’s life once depended on Superman’s ability to solve a crossword puzzle.

There are any number of mystery novels, cozy and otherwise, that contain hidden messages in crosswords. Nero Blanc’s Anatomy of a Crossword and Corpus de Crossword come to mind, as do any number of murder mysteries where a strange message scribbled on a crossword grid turn out to be a pivotal clue to catch the killer.

And there’s an even more curious subset of this in pop culture: crosswords and spycraft.

I could give you a simple example, like Bernie Mac’s character in the Ocean’s 11 remake pretending to solve a crossword, but actually writing down key information about the casino for the upcoming heist.

But that’s not really a secret message IN a crossword. No, it’s more of a secret message ON a crossword, though it is a bit of decent spycraft.

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[From Spy vs. Guy.]

Let’s talk about spies and their crosswords, then.

In the TV show Burn Notice, former (and occasionally current) spy Michael Weston sometimes received hidden messages from his previous spy organization through the crossword, though we’re not given much info on how this is achieved.

In the James Bond prequel novel Double or Die, it’s actually the young Bond’s teacher who sneaks a secret message into a puzzle. He’s also a cryptic crossword editor, and he convinces his kidnappers to allow him to submit a crossword to the newspaper, because if he didn’t, it would let people know all was not well.

Naturally, the kidnappers didn’t spot the clues to his current location that the teacher had hidden in the puzzle. Bond, even in his youth, manages to do so with ease.

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In the short-lived TV show Rubicon, crosswords are at the center of a fascinating unsolved mystery. An intelligence agent named Will finds out his mentor committed suicide after seeing a four-leaf clover.

He then finds a pattern across several crosswords that leads him to believe his mentor’s death is somehow connected to the pattern in the crosswords, and he tells his superior about it.

And soon after investigating it himself, Will’s superior is also found dead. Unfortunately, we never get a resolution for this story, but it certainly fits the bill.

So yes, the curious connection between secret messages and crosswords in pop culture is definitely a thing.

But did you know it also extends beyond fiction? Yup, I’ve got some real-world examples for you too.

Back in June of 1944, physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe was questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph.

The words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

So it was possible (though highly improbable) that Dawe was purposely trying to inform the enemy of Allied plans, and the powers that be acted accordingly. In the end, no definitive link could be found, and consensus is that Dawe either overheard these words himself or was told them by his students — possibly slipped by soldiers stationed nearby — and placed them into his grids unwittingly.

Yes, this was just a big misunderstanding. But sometimes, accusations like this have real-world consequences.

In Venezuela, a newspaper has been accused multiple times of hiding encrypted messages within their daily crossword puzzles in order to incite revolt against the government.

Another Venezuelan newspaper was accused of concealing messages ordering the assassination of a public official named Adan, the brother of President Hugo Chavez!

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Some of the answers considered suspicious in the grid included “Adan,” “asesinen” (meaning “kill”), and “rafaga” (which can mean either a burst of gunfire, or a gust of wind).

Apparently this confluence was considered enough to warrant a half-dozen members of the intelligence service visiting the newspaper’s editorial office.

Now, were these cases of genuine secret messages being passed through the crossword, or were these coincidental events that appeared credible because the crossword/secret message concept has been part of pop culture for decades?

I leave that question to you, fellow puzzlers.

Can you think of any examples of crosswords with secret messages in pop culture or intersections of crosswords and spycraft that weren’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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The Rapid Advancement of Wooden Puzzles!

The essential elements of puzzles are centuries old. The knot to be unraveled, the wordplay to be processed, the pieces to be reassembled, the message to be decoded, the inconsistency to be spotted.

And yet, puzzles continue to evolve, finding new ways to express and employ these ancient components into fresh, satisfying solving experiences.

We recently discussed the evolution of Rubik’s-style twisty puzzles thanks to 3-D printing and computer modeling, and the same is true for an even older puzzle style: wooden puzzles.

Wooden puzzles frequently adhere to one of several formats:

Many of these puzzles are still effective and satisfying challenges today. If you’ve ever tried to hold four pieces in place at once in order to assemble a wooden camel, or suss out the dozen or so steps to open a himitsu-bako (or Japanese puzzle box), you know what I’m talking about.

Of course, like their twisty counterparts, these puzzles have only grown more complex over time.

And a relatively recent addition to the arsenal of wooden puzzle designers and creators is at-home laser cutters allowing for efficient production of puzzles and pieces at an affordable rate.

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Over the years, we’ve seen projects like Cirkusu and the Baffledazzle line of specialized jigsaw puzzles, as well as the hit Kickstarter project Codex Silenda (which even appeared in an episode of NCIS: New Orleans), thanks to crowdfunding campaigns and affordable laser cutters.

Check out some of the most recent wooden puzzles I’ve encountered, created through laser cutter design:

Martin Raynsford’s Antikythera Tablets

This collection of five puzzle tablets, each themed around different aspects of Greek mythology, create a beautiful and well-constructed narrative chain that feels brilliantly unique and immersive.

iDventure’s Cluebox Escape Rooms in a Box

These multi-stage puzzle boxes are completely self-contained. You need to explore every inch of its surface to find clues and tools to unlock each stage of the puzzle box and reveal further challenges!

The field has advanced so far in just last few years, so who knows where wooden puzzles will go in the future?

Have you seen any mind-blowing wooden brain teasers that you’d recommend, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Younger Solvers and Constructors Building Online Crossword Communities!

It’s a dynamic, fluid time for crosswords. It feels like we’re on the cusp of a sea change.

Women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community are featured more often, although we still have a LONG way to go on all of those fronts where representation is concerned, both for constructors and editorial staff.

Younger voices are rising up the ranks, and helping to influence the direction of crossword language through projects like the Expanded Crossword Name Database. Online resources like more inclusive word lists, free or discounted editing software (often constructed by younger solvers!), and words of guidance from online crossword collaboration groups are more available than ever.

Recently, these topics were tackled in The New York Times itself in an article about younger crossword enthusiasts penned by freelance writer and reporter Mansee Khurana.

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Her article is a terrific snapshot of the modern crossword world.

It discusses the divide between older solvers and younger, and how the content of crosswords doesn’t always serve both sides. It tackles the concept of “evergreen puzzles” — crosswords edited for timeless reprint value, eschewing up-to-date and provocative references that would appeal to younger solvers and underrepresented groups for the sake of republication later.

The article mentions the many virtual and online spaces that are now comfortable haunts for younger crossword fans. Facebook forums, Discord chats, Zoom solving parties, Crossword Twitter, r/crossword on Reddit, and even Tiktok accounts dedicated to crosswords got some time in the sun, and it’s really cool to see how these new spaces have emerged and grown more influential.

[A solve-along video from YouTube, Twitch, and Crossword Tiktok user
Coffee and Crosswords. Actual solving starts around 10 minutes in.]

Several names familiar to crossword solvers were cited as well. Constructors like Sid Sivakumar (mentioned just yesterday in our Lollapuzzoola wrap-up), Nate Cardin, and Malaika Handa were all quoted in the piece, reflecting many of the same concerns we’ve heard from new and upcoming solvers in some of our recent 5 Questions interviews.

I actually remember the author’s post reaching out to the contributors and readers of r/crossword a few months ago, and I was glad to see the subreddit getting some mainstream attention. Yes, like any internet forum, it can be combative and argumentative at times, but that’s a rarity.

Most of the time, it’s a supportive community for crossword fans and aspiring constructors, a place where they share questions, bravely offer up their first attempts for input and criticism, and discuss all things puzzly. It’s genuinely inspiring to see new solvers on a near-weekly basis reaching out and being embraced by fellow solvers and cruciverbalists-in-progress.

I highly recommend you take the time out to read Mansee’s piece. She captures a true sense of not just where crosswords are now, but where they’re headed. And if these young people have anything to say about it, it’s headed somewhere very bright indeed.


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