Sometimes, Puzzles Can Be… MURDER

[Image courtesy of Carriageway.com.]

If you’re looking to host a puzzly event, but a crossword tournament or puzzle hunt isn’t for you, then I highly recommend hosting a murder mystery party.

It’s an instant icebreaker if you have new people you’d like to introduce to an established group of friends, it’s a great activity that encourages communication and interaction, and it’s a fun opportunity to flex your puzzly chops in a fresh and exciting way.

Now, as you might expect, there are plenty of websites that not only offer tips for creating your own, but entire scenarios you can purchase and run right out of the box. A simple Google search (or looksy on Pinterest) will reveal a wealth of possibilities out there if you’d rather get a running start with the help of experienced hands.

Naturally, your friendly neighborhood PN Blogger has to start from scratch, because that’s just my nature. I like to tailor puzzly events specifically to the people attending, in the hopes of evoking a greater connection with the material and investing the players in the story and gameplay.

This past weekend, I ran a murder mystery by special request for a 30th birthday party, and I thought I’d share a few tips for any aspiring murder mystery party hosts out there.


#1 Help for solvers

Optimally, you’d like the solvers to put their deductive skills to the test, observing the scene of the crime as well as the behavior of any actors you’ve recruited in order to play characters/suspects and act out various scenarios.

But sometimes, you need to go beyond that. I highly recommend offering some sort of system that allows the solvers to gain more information, even info they might not normally be able to gather with their own senses.

In my games, I have what I call “Holmes Tickets.” They’re just pieces of paper with a silhouette of the iconic detective on them, and when cashed in, a solver can learn additional information about a piece of evidence.

For instance, a solver would probably be able to tell if an object has fingerprints on it. But by spending a Holmes ticket, they can notice something more — a smell, a distinct flaw, a connection to one of the characters — or they can ask me if a specific person’s fingerprints are on the item.

Always make sure that extra information feels worthwhile, because you don’t want them to feel like they’ve wasted a ticket. If they want to know something that someone could reasonably glean from the object, I just tell them without taking away one of those helpful little prompts.

#2 In-game vs. Out-of-game

If people are searching a crime scene for clues, it can be hard to know what’s important and what’s not. During the event I ran this weekend, one of the solvers found a pen that matched a suspicious note found near the body. Since the pen was found on a bookshelf, that solver fixated on the books nearby, looking for more clues.

That’s a natural reaction, but there were no more clues to be found there, and you don’t want solvers to waste their time on false paths (unless those are intentional red herrings). So I mark any item that’s part of the investigation with the little detective symbol above, meaning that it’s “in-game,” or part of the narrative.

Not only does that give the solvers something to look for, but it prevents them from wasting time on random objects they might otherwise assign value to.

In addition, I’ve found that laying out ground rules at the start of the event helps with this. Let solvers know which rooms of the house are off-limits or outside the game, and which could potentially contain clues. In my game, I didn’t want people rifling through kitchen cabinets or drawers or anything, so I made sure to note than everything important was in plain sight (even if camouflaged a bit).

This prevented people from pawing through the host’s personal items, as well as protecting items I didn’t want revealed until later. (For example, a key piece of evidence was hidden under a couch cushion, but I didn’t want that revealed until the third act, so I specifically said “you won’t need to open drawers or lift couch cushions or move furniture or anything like that.”)

[Some of the trappings of a well-planned murder. Red ribbon for blood, a sparkly murder note, Monopoly money, fake jewels, fake badges, a torn-up Holmes Ticket, and a European miniature poisonous hippo. You know, the usual suspects.]

#3 Expect the unexpected

Without a doubt, the hardest part of planning a murder mystery party is trying to anticipate how solvers will interpret the evidence, what conclusions they will draw, and how quickly they will find certain key pieces of the story.

No matter how thoroughly you plan, no matter how meticulous your clues are laid out, solvers will invariably catch you off-guard at one point or another. That’s just the nature of the game. People make intuitive leaps, they find some clues and not others, and they stumble upon big revelations. You need to be able to adapt.

(Thankfully, as someone who has been running role-playing games for more than a decade, I’m accustomed to thinking on my feet.)

During the event this past weekend, there was a bag on the gift table with a card attached, and both card and gift were from one of the storyline characters. The card asked that the gift not be opened until this guest arrived at the party. That was intentional, so that we could put off that reveal until later in the event.

I figured the solvers would be curious, but honor that request. It never occurred to me that the solvers would instantly conspire to open the gift, search for clues, and then reset the bag as best they could before that character arrived! Yup, the solvers were more devious than I expected. One of the big revelations I’d planned for later in the game — some “precious gems” hidden at the bottom of a seemingly innocuous gift bag filled with packing peanuts (and an actual gift on top) — were about to be revealed much, much earlier than intended.

I went to plan B in my head as they opened up the gift — a red herring — and one of the solvers began digging through the packing peanuts. I readied myself to move to the second act earlier than planned, hoping to distract the solvers with a second murder.

And then… I got lucky. Despite being elbow-deep in this gift bag, the solver had somehow missed the five gemstones at the bottom of the bag. I breathed a quick sigh of relief as the players reset the gift bag and card back on the table, and went back to trying to solve the murder.

(At the end of the event, the players were astonished that the gems had been in the bag the whole time. We all shared a good laugh over it.)

[Image courtesy of Marketing Diva.]

#4 Have a backup plan

I didn’t have to use mine, but it never hurts to be prepared. Always be ready to advance the plot forward if needed, to ignore plot elements that don’t engage the solvers (if they’re not crucial to the murder mystery itself), and to change your gameplan to fit the players.

It’s fine to let the players sit for a bit and chew on what they know, but never let them become bored or frustrated. Adapt the events to keep them invested.

For example, I purposely planned the second murder of the night to be slightly random. A package would arrive at the door, and the person who opened it would instantly be poisoned. There was a strong possibility that the host would open the package, so I planned for there to be an antidote nearby that would save them (it’s rude to kill the host at their own party, after all), making it an attempted murder.

But if one of the other players — out of protectiveness or out of zeal to find a new clue — opened the package first, they would be poisoned, and in all likelihood die, propelling the story forward.

Allowing for several scenarios helps the game feel more natural and spontaneous. Although there has to be some level of guidance to the storytelling, solvers don’t like to feel railroaded into making certain choices, so whenever possible, allow them to follow their instincts and pursue the investigation as they see fit.

The more that the solvers feel like detectives or contributing members of the group, the more likely they are to enjoy the solving experience.


There you go, folks. Just a few helpful tips for running your own murder mystery event. Do you have any advice for fellow puzzly party planners? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!

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Crosswords LA is this weekend!

Crosswords LA is this coming Saturday, October 21. This crossword tournament consists of five puzzles for tournament attendees to solve, followed by a finale where the top three solvers race to complete one last puzzle and claim victory!

I reached out to Elissa Grossman, who runs and coordinates Crossword LA, and she was kind enough to fill me in on some of the details of this weekend’s event, her ninth year as the woman in charge!

The event will be hosted on the campus of the University of Southern California, beginning at 10:30 AM and ending at around 4:00 PM.

Online, advance registration is currently closed, because we reached 120 participants. There will be about 20 additional seats still open for walk-in participants, however. Check-in and, for those who choose it, on-site registration will open at around 9:30 AM.

I like having a small event, as it feels, in many ways, like a family project. The MIS Chief is my father. The Assistant Director is my son (who is only recently 7 and takes his pencil box filling responsibilities very seriously); he will this year help man the check-in table, with my mother. My nephew, a USC student, will also likely volunteer as a puzzle collector — and bring some of his friends to help out as well.

The event includes five in-competition puzzles of various difficulties, one warm-up crossword, one warm-up game for everyone, one team puzzle race, and a head-to-head-to-head final. This year’s puzzle wrangler is Alex Boisvert of Crossword Nexus, who invited this year’s constructors and oversaw all aspects of crossword production.

There are prizes for the winners for each division (usually gift baskets or chocolate towers, because we have a wonderful donor who gives us these). There is a “Perfect Puzzler” bumper sticker for those who solve clean for the whole tournament.

The funds that we raise are donated to Reading to Kids — a wonderful, local non-profit that sends hundreds of volunteer readers into schools each month, to read to the children and share a love of reading.

Tyler Hinman and Alex Boisvert will this year announce our Finals.

And for those who might be interested in tackling the Crosswords LA tournament puzzles themselves, there’s some good news…

For about six years now, however, we’ve sold tournament puzzle packs after the event is over. These packs typically go on sale about 24-48 hours after the tournament ends — and usually cost $5 or $6. They include all in-competition puzzles, the team race, the warm-up puzzle, and, sometimes, a bonus puzzle or two. The puzzles will be accessible through a link from our home page and from the Crossword Nexus site. They can be purchased for download or for email receipt (with attached zip file).

Good luck to everyone attending the event on Saturday, and many thanks to Elissa for her time, as well as friend of the blog Patti Varol pointing me Elissa’s way!

Are you planning on attending Crosswords LA, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Crosswords LA is on the horizon!

It’s kind of cool that it feels like there’s always another crossword tournament on the horizon. Just last month, we had BosWords AND Lollapuzzoola 10.

And now, we’re about a month out from Crosswords LA! It’s happening on Saturday, October 21, at the University of Southern California, and registration is open now!

The format is simple. Four divisions — Expert, Regular, Rookie, and Doubles (allowing you to team up to solve) — pit their puzzly minds against clever clues and crafty constructors. Plus there’s an unscored Casual division for spectators and puzzlers who don’t want to compete!

Competitors will complete five themed puzzles made by constructors C.C Burnikel, Andrea Carla Michaels, Susan Gelfand, Lynn Lempel, Aimee Lucido, Erin Rhode, and friend of the blog Patti Varol! That’s right, an all-female lineup of constructors!

Then the top three solvers will tackle a championship puzzle, complete with live play-by-play commentary!

You can check out their webpage here for full details!

Are you planning on attending Crosswords LA, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!


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Delving into the Lollapuzzoola 10 puzzles!

Lollapuzzoola celebrated ten years of puzzling this year, and although I was not in attendance, I did sign up for the Solve At Home puzzles. 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 topnotch themes and unique spins on how to bring crosswords to life.

This year’s theme was “Passing the Torch,” so every puzzle had something Olympic or athletic about it, 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 “Olympic season.” 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.

That being said, the Olympic theme was well-executed and working back and forth made for an enjoyable solve.

Interesting grid entries included BALLSY, ONE-NIL, BIONIC and A-MINOR, and my favorite clues were “Asian river (or mountains) (or maybe both, I can never remember)” for URAL and “One might check it at the door” for EGO.

[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Puzzle 1: Let the Games Begin by Paolo Pasco

The tournament proper gets off to a strong start with Puzzle 1, a really clever opening solve where the letters in various Olympic events have been removed from the other entries along that row. For instance, the first answer in the top row, JUDO, has each of its letters removed from the four subsequent entries: (J)ABS, FA(U)ST, (D)RIPS, and GO(O)DS.

This technique made for a curiously sized grid — 23×13 — but an impressive grid overall, since each of the words with missing letters still formed actual words. BENCHED became BEND and TRYOUTS became TOUTS when the CHE and RY were removed to be part of ARCHERY.

Interesting grid entries included K-POP, LABOR DAY, NASCAR DAD, and SIREE, and my favorite clues were “Mythological character who had a problem with hot wings?” for ICARUS, “Prop for Fred Astaire or Yoda” for CANE, and “Pair in a boat” for OARS.

Puzzle 2: Crossword De-Cat-hlon by C.C. Burnikel

Puzzle 2 was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It was a relatively easy solve, one that most solvers would no doubt finish well before the end of the 20 minutes allotted. But it was also hilariously interactive. The themed entries were instructions for different catlike actions for you to perform aloud!

For instance, MEOW FOR SOME MILK was one answer, and the clue instructed you to do so nine times, one for each “life.” It’s a very funny idea that no doubt must have made for a fairly unique and chaotic experience at the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included HOOKUP, PALE ALE, and HEEHAW, and my favorite clues were “Palindromic Swedish band with a palindromic hit” for ABBA and “Car mechanic’s wiper” for RAG.

Puzzle 3: Gym Playlist by Erik Agard

We take a break from the Olympics specifically to focus on music in Puzzle 3, where we have song titles broken into two parts on different lines, like NINETOFIVE, which would have read out in order, except TOFIVE was one row lower. Why? Well, because they become UNEVEN BARS, as the revealer explains.

It’s a very playful theme that mixed well with some engaging grid fillers, and a really fun solve overall.

Interesting grid entries included MAURITANIA, SCHMOE, MENUDO, MEDICO, and POUFS, and my favorite clues were “Titular thief of literature” for GRINCH and “Singer Lavigne who allegedly died in 2003 and was replaced by a lookalike” for AVRIL. (Now that’s some trivia!)

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Puzzle 4: New Biathlons by Francis Heaney

Probably the toughest puzzle of the tournament, save for the finals, Puzzle 4’s themed clues felt more like clues for a cryptic puzzle than a regular crossword. There were essentially two clues for each answer. The first was a “new biathlon” — a sport formed by combining two events into one hybrid event, like skiing and shooting — bookended by parts of an additional word. The second clue was a description of the word chain also formed both those letters.

For instance, 20 Across was clued “Indian instrument + new biathlon = Caption of a photo in which reviewer Gene and an alien sit atop a carpet, next to a sailor.” That’s a LOT of information, but it does make sense when you complete the answer: SISKELETONRUGBYTAR. You have SITAR with SKELETON RUGBY inside it, and you also have SISKEL ET ON RUG BY TAR.

Couple that with some hard grid fill, and you have a difficult but really engaging puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included CATARRH, UNICEF, ESTADOS, LAUNDROMAT, and TELL ME THIS, and my favorite clues were “When repeated, ‘Look, Senorita Sorvino’!” for MIRA and “What the wicked get” for NO REST.

Puzzle 5: Stick the Landing by joon pahk

The tournament puzzles closed with joon pahk’s immensely clever Puzzle 5, which presented four themed entries that vaulted the black squares between neighboring spaces on the same row in order to complete the answer. You see, each black square represented a pole vault, and those poles — MAY, SOUTH, SKI, and TOTEM — were found elsewhere in the grid. So 86 Across, MAY, bridged the gap between 24 Across’s JOHNM and YER to form JOHNMAYER.

This gimmick meant that, for instance, there was no 25 Across clue, because 25 Across was part of 24 Across, just separated by a black square, which I confess was confusing at the outset until I figured out the puzzle’s hook. Still, it was a very satisfying solve and one of the highlights of the day.

Interesting grid entries included BROUHAHA, I GOT THIS, UM OK, DC AREA, and DASHIELL, and my favorite clues were “Insult that Bugs Bunny mistakes for ‘maroon’” for MORON and “Cow who hasn’t had a cow” for HEIFER.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

Puzzle 6: Finals by Mike Nothnagel and Doug Peterson

As always, there were two sets of clues for the Finals puzzle, the Local and the more difficult Express clues. But this year, there was an additional challenge to tackle.

As both solvers in person and at home were warned, “Each finalist will have a personal Marker Caddy. The Marker Caddy will be holding a cup of several markers. We aren’t going to say anything else, except that we’ve never had Marker Caddies before. Just this year. That is all.” Non-finalists were provided with a small four-pack of crayons containing a green, a red, a blue, and a yellow crayon.

Those colors would come in handy, as there were four O’s in the grid that needed to be marked with the colored markers. The first O in LOW RESOLUTION was blue, so that OSTATES would really be BLUE STATES, just as the last O in LOW RESOLUTION was red, so that OPEPPER was really RED PEPPER.

The same followed for the O in AS TO and the O in OUTS, so that BIGOTAXI would read BIG YELLOW TAXI and THEOMILE would read THE GREEN MILE.

Couple that with some very tough cluing — in the Express Finals anyway — and you’ve got one heck of a finale to the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included SQUAWKS, HEY WAIT, LA PLATA and GAMETE, and my favorite clues were “Station not popular with Rush fans” for MSNBC and “Nancy who solved ‘The Clue in the Crossword Cipher'” for DREW.

There was also a tiebreaker puzzle I quite enjoyed, especially with clues like “Do goo” for GEL and “Boxing great, or her father” for ALI.


The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were tight, there was very little crosswordese, and the creative puzzle gimmicks — the markers, the cat activities, the athletics in the grids (like pole vaunting or uneven bars) — ensured that not only would fun be had by all, but that the unique puzzles would linger in your memory longer.

Mission accomplished, and congratulations on the competitors and the organizers who made it all happen. The tenth year of the tournament showed that 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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An Anniversary Crossword Cruise!

Someone once told me that part of the appeal of a crossword puzzle is its old-world charm. It’s just you, a pencil, and your wits, pitted against an empty grid and some dastardly clues.

And although crosswords have moved leaps and bounds beyond those humble origins and into the modern day with online solving and puzzle apps galore, they still retain those old-school trappings.

So it seems apropos that Cunard Cruise Line is offering The Crossword Crossing, a 7-night transatlantic journey aboard the Queen Mary 2 in honor of The New York Times crossword’s 75th anniversary! What’s more old-school that sailing across the Atlantic whilst celebrating a major anniversary?

From the announcement on the Cunard website:

With daily game sessions, lectures and crossword-themed activities, you’ll have the opportunity to solve your way across the Atlantic.

They’ve already announced several special guests, including constructor Joel Fagliano and “Wordplay” columnist and champion of all things puzzly Deb Amlen, and I suspect more names will be announced as the December launch date nears.

It’s a very cool idea, a puzzly variation on the yearly gaming-, music-, and comedy-fueled JoCo Cruise we’ve discussed in the past.

So what do you think, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Is The Crossword Cruise for you? Let us know in the comments section below!


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A New Puzzly Escape Room Is Coming! It’s The Maze of Games!

Escape rooms are some of the most interactive puzzling experiences available to solvers today. You get to immerse yourself in an environment and a story while flexing your puzzly muscles and your ability to thrive as part of a team.

In the past, we’ve covered Legend of Zelda-themed rooms, Houdini-themed rooms, and more, but I can honestly tell you that I’ve never been more excited to discuss an upcoming escape room.

Because Mike Selinker and the crew at Lone Shark Games just announced there will be an escape room based on The Maze of Games.

The Maze of Games is an interactive puzzle novel, combining the long-form narrative of a novel with a topnotch puzzle book and a strong element of choose-your-own-adventure flavoring on top. This is not a mystery with a few crosswords tossed in; this is a novel where the puzzle-solving is integral to the reading experience.

In the novel, Samuel and Colleen are swept into the realm of the Gatekeeper — a dapper, witty, and unforgiving skeletal game master who delights in challenging the unsuspecting to fiendish puzzle challenges — and they’re left to navigate the first of the book’s mazes: the Castle Maze.

As you roam the labyrinth with Colleen and Samuel, you encounter puzzles to be solved, each of which provides you with a keyword you’ll need for later. From word searches and crosswords to logic puzzles and code-breaking challenges, your puzzly chops will be put to the test and then some by the Gatekeeper’s many mind-bending obstacles.

It’s the perfect inspiration for an escape room.

And Lone Shark Games is teaming up with the crew at Epic Team Adventures, a Seattle-based company renowned for topnotch escape room experiences.

From the announcement:

It’s a really deep and impressive room, and it’s actually just the first in a series of Maze of Games escape rooms that function out of the same space. The first adventure in the series, The Maze of Games: A Curiouser Heart, will launch at Geek Girl Con on September 30.

And for attendees of PAX West this past weekend, there was a sampling to whet the appetite. A 10-minute escape room experience, The Gatekeeper’s Challenge, was launched at the ETA booth at PAX West, and those who completed the challenge were entered into a drawing to win a free ticket to the full Maze of Games escape room when it launches in late September.

So, puzzlers in the Pacific Northwest, mark your calendars. As for everyone else, we can sit back and be envious. (Or hope they take it on the road!)

Good luck to ETA, Lone Shark Games, and all the players who take on The Gatekeeper’s many tricks, traps, and puzzles. In the meantime, there’s always The Maze of Games to keep us busy.


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