Sometimes, You Can’t Trust the “Rules” of Crosswords

There are a lot of things you learn as you solve more and more crosswords.

You learn vocabulary, both words that are simply new to you AND words that are common to crosswords. You learn cluing tropes, like question marks indicating wordplay or quotation marks indicating informal speech or exclamations.

You also start to learn some of the constructors’ tricks.

Now, there are all sorts of ways that constructors can play with solvers, but all told, they seem to fit into three overall categories: clue trickery, theme gimmickry, and grid manipulation.

We’ve spoken about clue trickery loads of times in the past, and no doubt will again. And theme gimmickry will be the subject of a future post.

But today, we’d like to focus on grid manipulation.

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So, what do we mean by that? Well, essentially, grid manipulation is our catchall term for the most devious arrow in the constructor’s quiver. It’s when the standard accepted rules of crosswords no longer apply.

No matter what sort of symmetry is involved or how the grid is constructed, there are generally three accepted rules of crosswords:

  • Across words read across.
  • Down words read down.
  • One letter per square.

These are the fundamental rules, Newton’s three laws of crosswords. They’re the rules every solver expects to be in play when they sit down to solve a crosswords.

But that’s not always true.

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Over the years, crafty constructors have found ways to push the boundaries of what you can do with those iconic grids of black and white squares.

Some constructors have literally gone outside the box, creating puzzles where letters of answers are placed beyond the grid itself, as in Sid Sivakumar’s American Values Club crossword “Bursting With Pride” a year or two ago (with the letters LGBTQIA+ appearing in sequence).

Byron Walden’s Fasten Your Seatbelts puzzle from the AVC crossword in 2019 also extended beyond the grid. Extra letters served not only as “bumps” along the otherwise smooth sides of the grid, but spelled out various bumps, like RAZOR, SPEED, and GOOSE.

Other constructors find fresh ways to pack more into a grid than expected.

The most common form is the rebus puzzle, whether multiple letters can be placed in a single grid square. Sometimes, it’s only a single square in a themed entry where multiple letters fit. Other times, you can get whole strings of them. The exact puzzle escapes me, but I can remember a crossword where two down entries all had rebus squares, so instead of one film title in that down entry, two would fit in each.

One impressive example that comes to mind is Andy Kravis’s “Currency Exchange” puzzle from the 2019 Indie 500 puzzle tournament.

The puzzle actually had little ATM graphics in various grid boxes, and they represented different currencies concealed in the theme entries. Plus, the across and down entries that shared an ATM had different currencies in their entries. For instance, one ATM represented WON in SMALL WONDER and DINAR in ORDINARY.

Other puzzles, known as quantum puzzles, feature multiple possible answers in the same space.

1996 election puzzle gif

The most famous example is the 1996 Election Day crossword. The puzzle “predicted” the outcome of the election quite cleverly by allowing for either CLINTON ELECTED or BOB DOLE ELECTED to read out, depending on how the solver answered seven down clues.

Arguably the most impressive one I’ve ever seen was published in 2014. Constructors Kacey Walker and David Quarfoot combined some considerable Scrabble skills and a dynamite crossword grid to create an amazing puzzle.

You see, clues 26-Across, 36-Across, and 44-Across all featured seven letters, like a rack in Scrabble. It was up to the solver to find the anagram of each rack that fit the grid. Walker and Quarfoot designed the puzzle so that each of those clues had three possible correct answers — for 26-Across: ROWDIER, WORDIER, and WORRIED all fit the down clues — meaning there were a staggering 27 possible correct solutions!

Still, those puzzles followed the standard across and down rules. But other puzzles don’t.

In those puzzles, entries don’t go the way you’d think, bending or taking unexpected twists in the grid. One example was Patrick Berry’s brain-melting Puzzle 5 from the 2016 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, “Changing Lanes,” where answers zigzagged across the grid.

A less complex puzzle with a similar gimmick appeared in the 2019 Boswords tournament. “Spill the Tea” by John Lieb and David Quarfoot featured longer entries than would fit in the given spaces. The trick was to shorten in by removing a brand of tea from the answer, and letting it read down off that across entry, rather than inside it. So, for instance, HOTEL CHAIN read HOTELCN across, because CHAI was reading down from the C instead.

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Lieb and Quarfoot incorporated five such “spills” in the grid, and clued each tea reading down simply with “Oops.” It was an immensely clever way to utilize the across and down entries in a unique, unexpected way.

As you can see, puzzle innovation can come in virtually any form, and often, the very foundational rules of crosswords can be bent or broken to create an ambitious, brain-twisting, and (ultimately) satisfying solve.

So be on the lookout, fellow puzzlers. You truly never know how constructors will challenge you next.


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The Monster Mash-Up: Punny Costume Ideas!

Long-time readers know that we often host in-house wordplay contests. Not only do we invite our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles to participate, but our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers as well!

This month, the challenge was to create a punny costume for a wordplay-fueled Halloween party!

Participants could use famous phrases, quotes, celebrities, characters, and anything else they could think of, just so long as there was a punny element to the inevitable costume!

With both text and art submitted, let’s check out what these clever puzzly minds came up with!


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An enigmatic talk/game-show host… Rebus Fill-In

Just carry around pictures of Miss Kapowski, Miss Bundy, Dancer Gene, and Singers Clarkson and Rowland, then tear them up… Kelly Ripa

Someone all dolled up in a fabulous evening gown and hair stacked up high, but also wearing a flannel shirt, toting an axe, and covered in a bushy beard… RuPaul Bunyan

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A man in a sharp suit, dyed entirely pink, smoking a pipe and asking about your mother… Pink Freud

Someone in a striped shirt and beret, wielding a sledgehammer in one hand and a plate of thin pancakes in the other… The Crepes of Wrath

Kim Kardashian riding a broomstick… a Flying Buttress

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Slutty Sandy (from “Grease”) with Freddy Krueger hands and a Santa cap… Sandy Claws

A peanut butter cup carrying a ladle… Reese Witherspoon

A Great White shark dressed in a cereal box… The Jaws of Life

forest prime evel

An impaled Italian Stallion dressed in his boxing outfit and gloves, accompanied by someone dressed as a Boston Red Sox player… Rocky Horror Pitcher Show

A plaid bowtie and cummerbund with a black pork pie hat, black sunglasses, and a goatee… Breaking Brad Majors

(Here’s one for a family!) Mom, Dad and kids all dressed like Freddy Krueger or Edward Scissorhands… The Blady Bunch

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Picture it: A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…

A man with a Chuck Norris beard, scowl and cowboy hat, wearing a short trench over a black Jedi knight outfit looms in the doorway of a smuggler’s cantina. He slowly pushes back his coat with a robotic hand revealing his holstered sidearm and drops his lightsaber from his sleeve into his other hand…

Luke SkyWALKER, Galactic Ranger

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One of our contributors even created a delightful puzzly rebus for you to unravel! Can you identify this Halloween icon from the clues provided?

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Do you have any punny costume ideas? Let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!


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How to Get Started in Cryptic Crosswords

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[Image courtesy of Amazon. The Times Cryptic Crossword Book.]

On Twitter yesterday, Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight asked, “If one wanted to learn/practice solving cryptic crosswords, with what puzzles should one begin?”

Most of the replies mentioned different cryptic crossword outlets to try out, like The Nation, Harper’s Magazine, and The UK Times Quick Cryptic Crossword Book. The Nation in particular was recommended as a good starter cryptic.

Monthly offerings from constructors like Andrew Ries and Cox & Rathvon were also mentioned, though I would add Patrick Berry’s Son of the Crypt cryptic collection to the list of suggestions. (I would normally also recommend The Guardian because of their great cryptics, but they’re pretty tough, particularly for beginners.)

This, of course, presumes that Roeder meant which cryptic puzzles one should start with.

cryptic

[Image courtesy of The New European.]

It occurred to me that he might be asking what OTHER puzzles are good for beefing up your cryptic crossword solving game.

Given the different kinds of clues used in cryptic crosswords, I have a few suggestions.

1. Anagram puzzle

Anagrams are a staple of cryptic cluing, and any puzzler looking to get into cryptics should have some facility with them. There are plenty of ways to practice — the Jumble, Anagram Magic Square and other puzzles from our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, and even Bananagrams, Words with Friends, or Scrabble will help build your anagram skills.

2. Rebus

Rebus puzzles are all about adding and subtracting letters to form words or phrases, and there’s plenty of that in cryptic cluing. This is a good way to get used to breaking down longer words into abbreviations, anagrams, and so on in order to puzzle out the answer to a cryptic clue.

3. Brain teaser/riddle

Many cryptic clues rely on words with multiple meanings, as well as words that serve as both instructions and hints. Brain teasers and riddles employ similar wordplay, and they can help you develop a proclivity for looking at words from a new point of view.

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[Image courtesy of Eastern Daily Press.]

Of course, if you want help learning to decipher the many variations on cryptic crossword cluing that you’ll encounter, there are some great resources out there.

Penny Dell Puzzles has a PDF containing examples of the most common cluing tricks, and you can bolster that with similar insights from Wikipedia and The Nation.

If you’re looking for deeper dives into all sorts of cryptic cluing, my one-stop shop for insight is The Guardian’s crossword blog. They offer regular features breaking down various kinds of cryptic clues.

In the last few weeks alone, they’ve covered cycling clues, “stuttering” in clues, and how the points of the compass can be used in cluing, and there are dozens of similarly illuminating posts in their archive.

It’s a terrific resource for newbie cryptic solvers and established puzzlers alike.

And it’s worth getting into cryptic crosswords, if only for the occasional subversive little Easter egg like this one from yesterday’s The Guardian cryptic:

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Did I miss any resources or outlets for great cryptic crosswords? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!


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PuzzleNation Review: Topple Magazine

One of the best things about being a puzzle constructor these days is the level of access solvers have to you and your puzzles. Many constructors create and maintain their own puzzle subscription services, funding them through tips, crowdfunding, subscription fees, or direct-to-solver sales. When puzzly skills and a knack for self-promotion meet, you have the opportunity for real success in building a reputation and an audience.

So when constructor Gregory Gray reached out to me regarding his puzzle e-magazine, Topple, I was all ears. Whether it’s print books, downloadable puzzle packets, or Kickstarter campaigns, I’m always happy to spread the word about puzzle projects that I think the PuzzleNation audience will enjoy.

Gregory sent me the latest edition of Topple (issue VII) to review, so let’s dive right in.

Issue 7 offers a variety of different puzzles to try out. Anagramming and word-forming challenges, trivia, a rebus, some deduction, find-the-path games, and more can be found across these 12 pages of puzzles (plus solution pages, obviously).

I was immediately impressed with all of the different solving styles on display. Shying away from classics like crosswords, word seeks, and fill-ins, Topple opts for puzzles that offer greater opportunities to incorporate art and interesting layouts.

From the anagram rings of ‘Gram Crackers to the alphabet blocks of Blockhead, a great deal of work has clearly gone into not only the puzzles, but the presentation of them, which makes for a very eye-catching solving experience.

The mix of art and puzzles also presents a more welcoming tone for new solvers, who might find a denser arrangement of puzzle grids to be more off-putting or daunting. Each puzzle is given plenty of space to establish itself, so even unfamiliar puzzle types seem more inviting.

But solvers who prefer a bit more challenge will also find something worth their time in this issue of Topple, as a two-page spread of Japanese-style deduction puzzles awaits you in the middle of the book. Whether you’re connecting the dots in Masyu and Hashi or deducing the placement of numbers in Kakuro or black square in Nurikabe, these were easily the most challenging puzzles in the entire magazine, a pleasant change of pace for a more experienced solver.

[Examples of Hashi and Nurikabe puzzles.
Images courtesy of Conceptis Puzzles.]

To be fair, the book isn’t perfect. Some of the blurbs explaining the rules of each puzzle are a bit clunky, which can lead to moments of solver confusion. For instance, it’s not immediately clear in Blockhead if you can anagram the letters in each given word, or if those letters stay in place while you add a letter from the options below.

But those hiccups are few and far between, and for the most part, I found solving issue 7 of Topple to be a very enjoyable solving experience. I breezed through some puzzles, while others put my puzzly skills to the test.

And with Topple, you get quite a bang for your buck. Literally: Each issue of Topple is only $1, and when you consider both the variety of puzzles and the production quality of the book, it’s a steal.

So if you’re looking to try something new without breaking the bank, Topple is an excellent place to start.

The complete Topple collection, along with a free downloadable sampler pack of puzzles, can be found here. You can also subscribe to Topple through Patreon, and be sure to keep up with all things Topple-related on their Facebook page.


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Visual Video Trickery!

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Visual trickery plays an important role in puzzles. It can be the clever rebus that challenges you to find the words each image represents, or a visual brain teaser that forces you to think outside the box.

But nowhere in the realm of puzzles is visual trickery more obvious or more disconcerting than in optical illusions. Some are simple, like the famous old woman/young woman image above (or this hilarious video version). But others are not only more complex, they’re absolutely mind-bending.

Few optical illusions are as effective as those done on video. Drawings and photos are all well and good, but incorporating movement and performance into the illusion are something else entirely.

And stop-motion animator Kevin Parry has some doozies in his Instagram feed.

Check out this one involving a mirror and a wooded area. I’ve watched it a half-dozen times and I haven’t figured it out yet:

He’s also a dab hand at forced perspective illusions, as he shows in this video with a can of soda:

With innovators like Kevin at work, we will never run short of visual wonders, that’s for sure.


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A “Tolkien” Bit of Puzzly Wordplay

[A simple rebus, courtesy of mentalfloss.com.]

We’ve explored lots of puzzles in the time I’ve been writing for PuzzleNation Blog. Sudoku, crosswords, riddles, logic problems, anagrams, brain teasers, all sorts of coded puzzles and cryptograms… the list is seemingly endless.

But in all that time, we haven’t really covered one of the most accessible, visual puzzles still popular today: the rebus.

In a rebus puzzle, pictures (often with single letters added or subtracted) represent words and phrases, spelling out a message hidden in plain sight.

For instance, in the above rebus, you have an urn, a nest, then a hem, some ink, and someone being weighed. Put it all together, and you get… Ernest Hemingway.

Anyone who watched the game show Concentration or the later edition Classic Concentration probably remembers the rebus puzzles that featured prominently in the show.

As the players randomly chose numbered tiles two at a time, they revealed various prizes beneath the tiles. If they managed to find a match — uncovering the same prize with both guesses on a given turn — they banked that prize. Those tiles then went away, revealing part of the rebus beneath. If a player solved the rebus, he or she won all of the prizes they matched earlier.

Although rebuses tend to be simpler than most other puzzles, the difficulty can depend on the cleverness of the puzzler creating it. After all, the celebrated author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien, was known to create rebus letters in his youth and send them to family members and friends.

Can you unravel this message from the future creator of Middle-Earth?

If you’re stuck, I can break down the first line for you. You have the number 1000, an eye, a deer, several Y’s, an owl, the country of France with “Fr.” written on it, and a snake hissing.

1000 equals M in Roman numerals, so paired with the eye, you have “my.” Y’s is a soundalike for “wise.” The rest are pretty clear. So put them all together and you have “My dear wise owl Fr. Francis.” Tolkien was pretty clever even back then!

Unfortunately, this is only the front page of the rebus, so the solved message is incomplete. To see the back page, you need to look up the original letter in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. (And, sadly, the PuzzleNation Blog travel budget only covers trips to the diner and back.)

But, if you’d like to check out another Tolkien rebus puzzle, one written when he was 11 years old, click here!

As visual wordplay and puzzling in one of its purest forms, the rebus has been around for centuries, and with the advent of emojis in texting, I doubt they’re going away anytime soon.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!