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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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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Identity and Gender in The New York Times Crossword

[Image courtesy of the Odyssey Online.]

Only two months ago, I wrote a blog post about a Slate article discussing how The New York Times crossword can be socially tone-deaf at times. So it’s heartening today to write about a New York Times crossword puzzle that’s progressive, one that is bringing the conversation forward instead of feeling out-of-touch.

On Thursday, September 1, the paper published a crossword by constructor Ben Tausig. Even on the surface, this was a rare puzzle, because it allows for multiple entries that fit a given definition. These puzzles are known as Quantum puzzles or Schrödinger puzzles.

The most famous example is the 1996 Election Day crossword pictured below, which “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.

In Ben Tausig’s puzzle, there are four across entries and four down entries that each allow for two possible answers. For instance, 67 Across is clued “Tough stuff to walk through” and the answer can be FIRE or MIRE. That entry crosses 60 Down, which is clued “Word that can precede sex,” allowing for the answers SAME or SAFE.

What separates Tausig’s puzzle from this elite group of masterfully constructed Quantum crosswords is what it represents on a social inclusiveness level.

The letter variability — allowing for M or F to appear in the box and still fit the definition — is a wonderful metaphor for the fluidity of gender, especially in the limiting, but generally accepted, binary concept of male or female. Having GENDER FLUID as the revealer entry helps demystify both the theme and the topic at hand for solvers.

[Click here to see a larger version of the grid.]

As constructor Ben Tausig says in his XwordInfo write-up of the puzzle:

The theme letters don’t move from M to F or from F to M, in the manner of a binary, but float in an unresolved place in between. That’s a simple but reasonable way of representing queer sexuality — as a forever-exploration of identity and desire.

And although those two concepts only scratch the surface of the rich panoply of emerging terms and definitions with which people can express their gender or identity, this is an excellent step forward.

Kudos to Tausig and the crew at The New York Times crossword for a puzzle that’s elegant and inclusive in more ways than one.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Schrodinger’s Cats

Even if you don’t know the science behind it, you’ve probably heard of Schrodinger’s cat at some point in your life. If you haven’t, let me give you the short short version: there’s a box with a cat in it, and a substance that may or may not release inside the box and kill the cat.

So until you open the box, there’s no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or not. Schrodinger posited that, since we can’t know which is the case, both are true until the box is opened. It’s essentially a thought experiment which delves far deeper into quantum mechanics and particle physics than I’m going to in this review.

But the idea that someone created a card game based on the concept of Schrodinger’s cat is not only audacious, but pretty impressive. (And the puns are just the icing on the cake.)

[Some of the cat physicists in the game: Sir Isaac Mewton,
Sally Prride, Madame Purrie, and Neil deGrasse Tabby.]

Schrodinger’s Cats was funded through a Kickstarter campaign last year, and it’s the brainchild of Heather Wilson, Heather O’Neill, and Chris O’Neill. A mix of bluffing, deduction, and wagering, this game combines Name That Tune-style bravado and strategy with Poker-style game play.

Each player is a cat scientist forming hypotheses on how many boxes contain live cats, dead cats, or nothing at all. (While Schrodinger is away, of course. As the old saying goes, when the scientist’s away, the cats will play. Or something like that.)

Every player receives one box card for each player in the game (so if there are three players in the game, each player receives three box cards), as well as one cat scientist card.

Once the cards are dealt, players look at their box cards and see what each box contains, hiding this info from the other players. Then the players begin hypothesizing. They wager on how many of each result are in ALL of the boxes on the board. So, in the game layout above, there are nine boxes, and each scientist has to wager what’s in all the boxes.

But instead of starting with a high guess and then wagering lower totals (as you would in Name That Tune), you start low in Schrodinger’s Cats and wager upward. Scientists can also affect the wagering by “showing findings” — revealing one or all of their own boxes to either prove their hypothesis or make the other players doubt their own — or by swapping out some boxes. (Each cat scientist card also allows for a one-time-use special action for a player, which can also prove useful.)

When a player either refuses to wager higher or challenges another player’s hypothesis by yelling “Prove it!”, all of the boxes are revealed and the hypothesis is proven or debunked (meaning the player stays in the game or leaves). After multiple experiments (rounds of play), one character remains and wins the game (and an honorary doctorate from Cat Tech University).

What I enjoyed most about this game (other than all the pseudo-scientific jargon involved in playing the game) was the wagering, bluffing, and reading of opponents that is integral to the game play. With so few possible cards to reveal (only four, in varying quantities, as opposed to 13 different cards across four suits in poker), it’s not nearly as challenging as the classic card game, but offers a lot of similar game mechanics.

It’s great fun to try to outwit or read your fellow players in order to make the best hypothesis, and that’s a sort of puzzling that is often left behind in puzzle games. Often, you’re so busy trying to achieve a certain goal or acquire points that you stop actively interacting with the other players; but in Schrodinger’s Cats, a lot of puzzling and game play takes place in the actions and reactions of the other players. It’s a delightfully social game.

Although you can play with as few players as two or as many as six, I recommend playing with at least four characters to keep the game moving and interesting. Between raising hypotheses, showing findings, and trying to puzzle out what your fellow players are hiding, the more uncertainty you can introduce to the game, the better.

Schrodinger’s Cats is available from 9th Level Games and can be found here.


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