PuzzleNation 2014 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide: Grab Bag!

Welcome to the PuzzleNation Blog 2014 Holiday Gift Guide!

We’re overjoyed to have so many tremendously fun and puzzly products to share with you this year. We just might be your one-stop shop for all things puzzly!

This guide is a grab bag of all sorts of puzzle games, card games, puzzle books, party games, and board games, the perfect random assortment for any puzzle fan you need ideas for! We’re sure you’ll find the right gift for any puzzler on your list!

Naturally, you’ll forgive us for starting off with a link for some familiar puzzle apps!

Click these links for all the details on the Penny Dell Crossword App for iOS devices, Classic Word Search for Android and Kindle Fire, our Sudoku App and more!

And we’ll follow up with some puzzle books before we get into the grab bag of games, puzzles, and other terrific holiday treats!


Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have put together some outstanding holiday collections with puzzles galore to be solved!

Whether it’s their Sudoku Spectacular, the Only Yesterday Word Seek looking back across the decades, the Crossword Extravaganza collecting some of the best puzzles around, or their Home for the Holidays Signature Puzzle gift bundles — with an all Word Seek collection (pictured above), an all Crossword, an all Fill-In, and many more options — Penny/Dell has you covered.

And right now, they’re offering 15% off their Selected Puzzles and Dell Collector’s Series books with the offer code “SNOW15″!

And for more specialized puzzle books, some high-level constructors have books of their own for your perusal! With New York Times and Los Angeles Times crosswords to their credit, you’re sure to find some puzzlers within these pages!

–Ian Livengood’s Sit & Solve® Sports Crosswords

–Rich Norris’s A-to-Z Crosswords

–Doug Peterson’s Easy ABC Crosswords

–Jeff Chen’s puzzles for Bridge enthusiasts

–Brendan Emmett Quigley’s Sit & Solve® Marching Bands

–Patrick Blindauer’s Quick-As-A-Wink Crosswords and Wide-Screen Crosswords

Many top constructors and organizations market their puzzles directly to solvers, so between by-mail offers and downloadable puzzle bundles, you’ve got plenty of quality choices!

The Uptown Puzzle Club (puzzle bundles by mail)

The Crosswords Club (puzzle bundles by mail)

Patrick Blindauer PuzzleFests (puzzle bundles by email)

David Steinberg’s Chromatics (color-themed puzzles)

The American Values Crossword (subscription and daily puzzles)

–Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest

And here is our grab bag of puzzle games and apps galore!

Bananagrams Wild Tiles (Bananagrams, board game)

The board game that requires no board, Bananagrams Wild Tiles is the latest variation on the beloved tile game, and with the introduction of new Wild Tiles that can stand in for any letter, Bananagrams is only getting faster to play and more accessible to solvers of all ages! ($14.99)

[Check out our full review of Bananagrams Wild Tiles by clicking here!]

Holiday Fluxx (Looney Labs, card game)

The folks at Looney Labs are all about games where the rules can change in an instant. They’ve broadened their library of Fluxx card decks with a marvelous Holiday version that puts a festive twist on the rapid-fire rule changes and ever-shifting objectives of the usual Fluxx fun! ($15.99)

[Check out our full product review of Holiday Fluxx here!]

The Stars Are Right (Steve Jackson Games, card game)

Build an army of followers and change the stars themselves in The Stars Are Right, a thoroughly enjoyable card game where the goal is summoning an elder god and destroying the world. As you do. ($27.95)

[Check out our full product review here!]

Word Winder (David L. Hoyt)

Word Winder (also available in app, puzzle book, and GIANT versions!) is a game of finding chains of hidden words in an ever-changeable grid! Put your strategy and spelling skills to the test! ($19.95)

Pairs (Hip Pocket Games, card game)

A simple card game with a lot of strategy behind it, Pairs is about NOT scoring points and avoiding pairing your cards at all costs. With numerous variant games available (depending on which deck you buy), Pairs is a perfect group card game you can pick up quickly. ($9.95)

Rudenko’s Disk (Brainwright, puzzle game)

Brainwright has a solid color-based brain teaser here to test your wits! The post-sliding and strategy-demanding Rudenko’s Disk offers you a single goal — move all of the colored pegs to one side or the other — and any number of ways to do it! ($9.99)

[Check out the full product review of Rudenko’s Disk by clicking here!]

Tsuro: The Game of the Path (Calliope Games, board game)

A path-laying game with tons of style and historical spirit, Tsuro casts up to eight players as flying dragons, and tasks you with laying out your path with special tiles. Your goal is to avoid meeting another dragon or flying off the board. It’s a simple mechanic with plenty of replay value, and perfect for quick games with large groups. ($29.99)

ROFL! (Cryptozoic, party game)

Challenge your friends to decode famous movie lines, catchphrases, and song lyrics in Cryptozoic’s game ROFL!!, created by Dork Tower‘s John Kovalic! Put your texting and abbreviation skills to the test in this laugh-out-loud party treat! ($35)

[Check out our full product review here!]


Baffledazzle (jigsaw puzzles)

Baffledazzle offers absolutely gorgeous jigsaw puzzles-with-a-twist, allowing the solver to learn about different cultures and uncover deeper mysteries as you place each piece. Whether you’re rediscovering ancient board games with Cirkusu, exploring the animal kingdom with Ozuzu, or running in circles with Code Breakers, you’ll find that these high-quality puzzles are more than meets the eye. (Prices range from $25 to $125)

Castellan (Steve Jackson Games)

Build a castle and then occupy it in Castellan, a game of strategy and opportunity. With great modeled pieces that really add to the aesthetic, Castellan has style and substance. ($34.95)

[Check out our full product review here!]

Schmovie (Galactic Sneeze, party game)

Are you the funniest, punniest one in your group of friends? Find out by playing Schmovie, the party game that pushes you to scribble down the best name for an imaginary movie created on the spot! ($29.95)

[Check out our full product review of Schmovie here!]


Walk-By Scrabble Board, Lexicographer’s Extended Scrabble, and Drawing Room Scrabble (Hammacher Schlemmer, board games)

Hammacher Schlemmer has several Scrabble variants available, including the Lexicographer’s Extended Scrabble for those with mega-syllabic ambitions ($39.95) and Drawing Room Scrabble for those with swankier taste ($199.95) — not to mention the mindboggling World’s Largest Scrabble Game for $12,000! — but few are as clever or as convenient as the Walk-By Scrabble Board! Designed as a family game for people on the go, it’s a perfect way to bring back Board Game Night for busy families! ($29.95)

[Check out our full product review of the Walk-By Scrabble Board here!]

Laser Maze (ThinkFun, puzzle game)

ThinkFun brings us a logic game with an actual laser in Laser Maze, a game of light, mirrors, strategy, and skill! ($26.95)

[Check out our full product review of Laser Maze by clicking here!]

Loonacy (Looney Labs, card game)

If you’re looking for a fast-play combination of Memory and Slapjack with a lot more options, then Loonacy is for you! It’s a manic pattern-matching good time for groups of all sizes! ($14.99)

[Check out our full product review of Loonacy here!]

Tic Tac Tome by Willy Yonkers (puzzle book)

And if you’re looking for a one-on-one solving experience, pit your mind against the Tic Tac Tome and see if you can beat the book at Tic Tac Toe. ($11)

[Click here to read our full book review!]

Robot Turtles (ThinkFun, puzzle game)

Teach your kids the basics of programming with this fun and deceptively simple board game! Robot Turtles uses board game rules and easy-to-learn card commands to show kids how to navigate their turtles past obstacles and to the jewel! ($29.99)

[Check out our full product review of Robot Turtles by clicking here!]

Chrononauts (Looney Labs, card game)

Time travel can be tough, but when other time travelers are changing history, it can be downright weird. In Chrononauts, you’ll bend the rules of time and space in the hopes of completing your mission and going home. And who hasn’t wanted to make history once or twice? ($20)

[Check out our full product review here!]

Get Lucky (Cheapass Games, card game)

Everyone wants to kill Dr. Lucky, but as his name suggests, that’s no easy task. Get Lucky challenges you and your friends to a strategy game to see who will be the first to beat the odds and take down Dr. Lucky! (And there’s a secret puzzle lurking within this game that no one has solved yet!) Will you be the first to solve the puzzle OR kill Dr. Lucky? ($16.95)

Collide-O-Cube (Brainwright, puzzle game)

It’s where pattern-matching precision meets magnetic randomness! Collide-O-Cube challenges you to recreate various colored patterns with these eight blocks, which sounds simple until you realize some blocks repel each other! Can you make the blocks mesh and solve the mystery of each pattern? ($19.99)

[Check out the full product review of Collide-o-Cube by clicking here!]

Fluxx: The Board Game (Looney Labs, board game)

Take a board game, and make the cards, goals, and board changeable, and you’ve got Fluxx: The Board Game. It’s the ultimate think-on-your-feet experience, and like nothing you’ve played before. ($30)

[Check out our full product review here!]

Gravity Maze (ThinkFun, puzzle game)

Can you bend gravity to your will? Gravity Maze pits the solver against increasingly difficult puzzles where the goal is to place the towers so that a dropped marble will end up in the red goal square. Can you unravel each maze without losing your marbles? ($24.99)

[Check out our full product review of Gravity Maze by clicking here!]


Tavern Puzzles (jigsaw puzzles)

These hand-forged beauties are ready to challenge your dexterity and cleverness, as you accept the Tavern Puzzles challenge. Whether you’re trying to free your heart from the tangled pieces of Heart’s Desire or remove the ring from the Iron Maiden, you’re sure to put your skills to the test. ($22)

Pink Hijinks (Looney Labs, puzzle game)

Part of Looney Labs’ multi-colored Pyramids series, Pink Hijinks is a quick-to-play strategy game for two players! Roll the dice, make your move, and try to race your opponent to the finish in this easily transported game of tactics! ($12)

[Check out our full product review here!]

Qwirkle (MindWare, board game)

A wonderful mix of Uno and Mexican Train Dominoes, Qwirkle is all about placing your tiles to maximize points and minimize helping your opponents. With six bright colors and six different shapes to match up, Qwirkle is endless fun that’s so easy to jump right into! ($34.99)

Timeline (Asmodee Games, card game)

Timeline pits your knowledge of history against a growing timeline of important events, inventions, and historical moments. You don’t have to know exact dates; you just need to know if something happened before OR after something else. Was the toothbrush invented before or after the syringe? Which came first, language or agriculture? Timeline is a fast, fun way of learning (or relearning history)! ($14.99)

Thank you to all of the constructors, designers, and companies taking part in our holiday gift guide!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! And remember to check out our Facebook Giveaway for the chance to win a free puzzle app download!

5 Questions with Puzzler Leslie Billig!

Welcome to another edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, board game creators, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m overjoyed to have Leslie Billig as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

[Leslie, next to trivia whiz Ken Jennings, at the
2006 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament]

Leslie Billig began her puzzle career at Dell Magazines in 1982 and went on to create, edit, proofread, and fact-check puzzles for numerous outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Games magazine, People, and Reader’s Digest.

She’s also published her own puzzle books, authoring Sit & Solve Cryptograms for Sterling and coediting Dell Magazines’ Puzzler’s Sunday Crosswords. In addition to all that, she has served as editor of The Uptown Puzzle Club — a by-mail Puzzle of the Month Club subscription with high-quality, New York Times-style puzzles — for more than a decade, but she’s making an exciting transition to a new post! (Come on, I can’t tell you everything in the intro. *smiles*)

Leslie was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for Leslie Billig

1.) How did you first get into puzzles?

I’ve loved puzzles and wordplay from an early age, and started solving crosswords at my father’s knee. He did the New York Times crossword puzzle (in ink!) and at some point I was able to fill in the squares he left blank. I also enjoyed the variety puzzles in Dell magazines; my favorite was the Bowl-a-Score Challenger (also known as Bowl Game).

In this game, you’re given 10 letters arranged like bowling pins, and the goal is to form one word using all the letters for a “strike” and two smaller words for a “spare.” I was never satisfied to make just one spare: I’d try to form as many combos as I could: 5,5 4,6, 3,7 etc. This game instilled in me a love of anagrams that’s lasted to this day.

[Leslie performing in the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle
Tournament talent show… which she won, by the way!]

2.) In your estimation, what separates a topnotch puzzle from a run-of-the-mill puzzle? What are some favorite puzzles or clues you’ve encountered over the years?

Crossword puzzles have truly evolved in the 32 years that I’ve been in the “puzzle biz,” and I continue to be astonished by the originality and cleverness of the people who make them. A great crossword begins with the theme, of course, but I believe the fill is just as important. The solver solves the *whole* puzzle, not just the theme entries. You can have a brilliant theme, but if the rest of the grid is filled with crosswordese, Roman numerals, obscure abbreviations, and overused words, it will diminish the solving experience.

One of my favorite crosswords appeared in the January 2007 issue of the Uptown Crosswords Club. It was called Self-Effacement by Robert H. Wolfe, and the gimmick was that there were no I’s in the grid. I decided it would be even better if there were no I’s in the clues, either. That was a fun challenge!

I remember the hardest two answers to clue were ENYA and BOHR. For Enya I couldn’t use the words Irish, Gaelic, singer, vocalist, musician, or (Grammy) winner. The clue for BOHR couldn’t include Danish, Nobelist, Niels, physicist, scientist, pioneer, or Einstein (contemporary).

Another example is a terrific puzzle constructor Raymond Young made for my magazine, Dell Puzzler’s Sunday Crosswords. It was a 15×15 crossword that, when solved, became a Word Search puzzle in which the names of all the playing cards, from ace to king, were hidden. Pretty impressive for a daily-sized crossword!

3.) In addition to your work in puzzles, you’re something of a game show pro, having worked on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and been a contestant on NPR’s Ask Me Another. Do you feel that your puzzle-solving experience has helped you in your game show adventures? Are there any other shows you’d like to tackle?

[Leslie on NPR’s “Ask Me Another”]

I actually held two positions while working on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — first as a researcher and then as a question writer. I’d say my years as a professional puzzle editor certainly helped me there: one picks up a lot of trivia and odd information in that line of work!

Being on Ask Me Another was a hoot. For one thing, it’s unique among game shows because so many the questions involve puzzles and wordplay, not just trivia. Right up my alley! You can hear the episode I was on at their archives.

You can listen to the whole episode, or just the segments I’m in: “Bankable Stars” (my first segment) & “Reverse Spelling Bee” (big finish).

4.) What’s next for Leslie Billig?

After 12 years as editor of the Uptown Puzzle Club, I’m excited to succeed Rich Norris — [Glenn’s note: Los Angeles Times Crossword Editor] — as editor of the Crosswords Club.

Patti Varol — [Glenn’s note: friend of the blog, puzzle constructor, and all-around good egg] — succeeds me as editor of Uptown, and solvers can continue to expect challenging and entertaining crosswords in each of these Clubs. Check them out!

5.) If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

No advice, but a request: please introduce any children in your life to the joys of puzzle solving — the pleasures and benefits will last a lifetime.

Many thanks to Leslie for her time. You can follow her work with the Crosswords Club here, and be sure to check out her library of puzzle books at Barnes & Noble here! I can’t wait to see what puzzly fun she cooks up next.

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!

American Crossword Puzzle Tournament Round-Up!

This past weekend was the 37th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Puzzlers descended upon Brooklyn, NY, for what more than one Twitter user affectionately referred to as “The Nerd Olympics.”

I’ve spoken to several participants — all veterans of the tournament who often enjoy the socializing as much as the actual puzzles — and much fun was had by all.

The tournament flowed smoothly, despite Daylight Saving Time stealing an hour’s sleep from competitors on Sunday. Topnotch solvers emerged early with blistering times, and other solvers challenged themselves to reach new personal bests and performances to be proud of.

In previous years, the biggest hurdle for most solvers has been Puzzle #5. It’s routinely the toughest, and this year’s puzzle proved to be no exception. Only a few dozen solvers completed the puzzle in the half hour allotted.

Here are two of my favorite tweets that captured the impression left by Puzzle #5:

I asked Penny/Dell variety editor and friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough about Puzzle #5. As a multiple-time attendee of the ACPT, one who has placed in the top 20% on more than one occasion, he had some valuable insight into the infamous puzzle:

If they didn’t have puzzle 5, the top solvers would all be bunched up with roughly the same scores, and it would be a mess trying to figure out the top three for the finals.  Puzzle 5 separates those people a bit and is the price we mortals have to pay for it.

(For the constructor’s thoughts on the puzzle, check out Brendan Emmett Quigley’s blog post here.)

On Sunday, after the ceremonial final solve in front of an audience — click here to check it out on YouTube! — the winners were crowned, and to no great surprise, Dan Feyer scored his fifth consecutive ACPT title, tying Tyler Hinman’s formidable streak. The top solvers were a who’s who of ACPT puzzlers, including Joon Pahk, Anne Erdmann, and Jon Delfin — and a thoroughly impressive 43 solvers managed to solve all 7 puzzles without any errors!

And friends of the blog had a terrific showing this year! Crossword gentleman Doug Peterson placed 14th, Los Angeles Times crossword editor Rich Norris placed 71, constructor David Steinberg (of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project) placed 136, Uptown Puzzle Club editor Patti Varol placed 145, and editor Keith Yarbrough placed 212. (When you consider the nearly 600 entrants, those numbers are stunning.)

For a more complete rundown of the tournament, I highly recommend you check out the Twitter feed of The Puzzle Brothers. They virtually live-tweeted the tournament — their coverage of the final puzzle is terrific — and it’s a really fun read overall.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Tumblr, download our puzzle apps and iBooks, play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

PuzzleNation Book Review: The Centenary of the Crossword

Welcome to the eighth installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!

All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.

Let’s get started!

Our book review post this time around features John Halpern’s The Centenary of the Crossword.

With the hundredth anniversary of the Crossword only a few weeks behind us, interest in puzzle is perhaps at an all-time high. With that in mind, constructor John Halpern has put together a tribute to the crossword that’s part history, part solving tool, and part celebration of everyone’s favorite pen-and-paper puzzle.

It’s a wonderful introduction to puzzles for anyone looking to get into solving crosswords. Beyond the timeline of puzzle history and glimpses into the minds of various constructors (or setters, as they’re known in England) and crossword editors (Rich Norris of the Los Angeles Times and Will Shortz of the New York Times included), Halpern offers numerous solving hints, including a terrific breakdown of cryptic cluing for fans of British-style crosswords.

Not only that, but the book is chock full of complete puzzles for the reader to solve, starting (quite appropriately) with Arthur Wynne’s marvelous “Word-Cross” and proceeding straight through to the modern day, featuring constructors from around the world. These puzzles show the depth and variety of crossword grids and cluing, and I think even well-established solvers will get a lot out of tackling the puzzles Halpern has collected.

The book is capped off with interviews with the top solvers from last year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, some terrific clues (including some from PuzzleNation Blog favorites David Steinberg and Doug Peterson), and a delightful collection of crossword-centric anecdotes, weird words, and impressive anagrams.

Essentially a cross-section of modern puzzling and the rich puzzle community, The Centenary of the Crossword is a quick and informative read, peppered with puzzles to engage and challenge you. I’m happy to report that I learned a great deal about crosswords (especially cryptics!) from Halpern’s work, and enjoyed every minute of it. What a treat.

[To check out all of our PuzzleNation Book Review posts, click here!]

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Tumblr, download our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

Let’s Make Our Own Crosswords, Part Two: Advice!

On Tuesday, I posted an introductory how-to for creating your own crossword puzzles. All of the advice and guidance was based on my own constructing instincts and work I’ve done over the years.

But I’m just one puzzler, and I figured why not reach out to other constructors and editors in the puzzling community and see what helpful suggestions they had for aspiring puzzle constructors.

So today, I put you into the good hands of professionals and topnotch puzzlers, as they walk you through the do’s and do-not-do’s of crossword construction. As constructor Ian Livengood said, “it’s more art than science,” but with the advice of established constructors in your pocket, you’ll be off to a great start.

And as it turns out, they’ve got plenty of worthwhile nuggets of advice to offer! In fact, they had so much to say (and I wanted to include so much more!) that I’ve broken up the advice by topic and put each one on its own page. Just click on the links below to take you to a treasure trove of puzzly wisdom!

Good luck, my fellow puzzlers!

And thank you to David Steinberg, Robin Stears, Ian Livengood, Rich Norris, Patti Varol, Doug Peterson, and Eileen Saunders for their masterful advice!

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

How to Make a Crossword: Choosing a Theme

“Themes are the hardest part of the construction process. Filling the grid and writing the clues takes perseverance, but coming up with a theme requires that elusive spark of inspiration.” — constructor Doug Peterson

This sentiment was echoed by other constructors I spoke with. Crossword guru Eileen Saunders said, “The hardest part of constructing a puzzle (for me) is coming with the theme. After that, everything else seems to fall into place.”

Los Angeles Times Crossword Editor Rich Norris and assistant Patti Varol: “Originality is an important element of a good theme, but sometimes originality means lively themers in a chestnut gimmick or a clever spin on familiar wordplay.

“Originality, themewise, is not always ground-breaking, or innovative, or even original. A good theme always has sparkle, with lively, idiomatic phrases that will resonate with a majority of solvers.”

New York Times Crossword constructor Ian Livengood discusses how to choose theme entries: “Once you think of a potentially good theme, it’s vital to see if something similar has been done before. What’s the point of having databases, right? If the theme looks interesting and relatively new, you must make sure the theme is consistent.

“For example, if you are doing two-word phrases that start with the letter P and you’ve got PLEDGE PIN, PARK PLACE, PLUM PUDDING, PINK PANTHER and … PARAKEET, that’s a problem. The single word breaks the pattern and confuses solvers. So consistancy and freshness is very important.”

Rich and Patti also mentioned consistency and balance as critical elements of a good theme. “One odd entry can ruin an otherwise great idea: a themer that ends with the theme’s key word when all the others begin with it, a stray plural in a set of singular phrases, a noun phrase in a group of verbs, a song title in a set of movie titles, a rhyming pun in the mix with spelling-change puns.”

I think I’ll give Doug the final word on coming up with a theme for your puzzle. “If you think a theme entry is humdrum or doesn’t quite fit with the others, it’s time to put your brainstorming cap back on. Remember, your first job is to entertain the solver, so make that theme sparkle.”