Sweep Your Eyes Across These Ugly Puzzly Sweaters!

proper ugly sweater

It’s December, and you’ve probably already received an invitation to some sort of holiday event. Maybe it’s a housewarming, or a holiday luncheon, or a game night. But, maybe, it’s an ugly sweater party.

Ugly sweater parties used to be events that ironically appreciated sweaters that were made with genuine affection, but simply didn’t please the eye. But once ugly sweaters became a part of pop culture, they became, as all things do, a cottage industry, and now companies release “ugly” Christmas sweaters for every pop culture property imaginable.

Most of them are simply underwhelming — and a few are often actually quite lovely — but none of them really capture the spirit of the original ugly sweater party ideal.

abominable sweater

Of course, there are exceptions.

And then, there are the ones I’m on the fence about. Check out this Minesweeper-inspired ugly sweater from Microsoft:

minesweeper sweater

It’s not garish by any means. It’s cleverly designed and weirdly festive. But I also can’t imagine anyone buying it.

It’s certainly unique.

But it raised the question…

What other puzzly ugly sweaters are out there? Would they all feel too corporate like the modern ugly sweater patternings, or could I find some genuine diamonds in the rough?

Let’s find out, shall we?


Of course, when you type “puzzle ugly sweater” into Google, you find an amazing array of jigsaw puzzles featuring ugly sweater designs. And honestly, what a great idea for an image for a jigsaw. The riot of colors alone would make for a pretty fun jigsaw solving experience.

So I started pairing different puzzle brands with “ugly sweater” in my searches, and I began to yield some results, however mixed.

rubiks color sweater

There’s this Rubik’s sweater design, which I find a bit meh. It’s nice, it’s unoffensive. But it’s not the colorful visual assault I was hoping for.

I mean, look at this Rubik’s hoodie on Amazon. At least that seems to be trying to overwhelm your senses.

ugly rubik hoodie

So what about Tetris? Tetris is part of the fabric of modern puzzling. Surely there must be some Tetris-fueled designs for ugly sweaters.

tetris moscow sweater orig

The first result I found was this pattern, which is actually quite lovely. It’s discontinued in its original sweater form, but lives on as a print for t-shirts.

tetris stack shirt

There’s also this festive message delivered in the style of the monumentally successful Game Boy Tetris version of the puzzle classic. (I’ll probably end up ordering this shirt.)

These are festive, but hardly fit the ugly sweater criteria.

falling tetris sweater

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not particularly Christmas-y, but it does manage to barrage the eyes with color.

ugly tetris sweater

I found this one on Poshmark, and supposedly it won some sort of ugly sweater contest. Not sure who judged that one. This isn’t great, but it’s hardly ugly.

Alas, where else can we look?

math sweater

Well, there’s this ugly sweater-patterned take on the math puzzles that periodically circulate on social media. I couldn’t find it in actual sweater form, but it’s a start.

(It also exemplifies the unsatisfying corporate nature of the modern ugly sweater pattern. Festive borders on the top and bottom, and the hook in between. Nothing on the sleeves or back, no real effort involved.)

Finally, I turned my attention to crossword-specific sweaters, and I struck gold. None of these are particularly festive, but you could slap a bow on them and get past any discerning bouncer at the ugly sweater party of your choice in these.

pas de mer crossword sweater

This pas de mer sweater feels like you’re looking at a cryptic crossword grid through a funhouse mirror.

poshmark diffusion crossword sweater

I also found this sweater on Poshmark. You’ll be heartbroken to discover it’s already been sold. But man, you could easily wear this one at the crossword tournament or ugly sweater party of your choice and turn a few heads.

ebay ugly sweater

I wish I could find a bigger picture of this one somewhere. It was clearly made with love, and it’s one of the few that actually feels like a proper crossword grid.

crossword sweater vest

What is it about a sweater vest that somehow makes this worse than a normal sweater? Maybe it’s how the boxes don’t quite line up, or the two-letter words trailing off near the armpits. Man, this is pretty bad.

boating crossword sweater

And this one, fellow puzzlers, was the pièce de résistance. The random crisscross placement. The color palette. The way the lighthouse beam doesn’t make it past the center buttons, condemning the proud cross-legged sailor nearby to a disastrous collision with the rocks near the shore.

This might not be a Christmas sweater, but man, does it fit the bill in every other way.

Do you have any favorite ugly sweater designs? Are any of them puzzle-fueled? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Puzzling and Brain Health Update: Crosswords and Jigsaw Puzzles

brain health

[Loads of images come up when you google “brain health” or “brain fitness,”
but I liked this one much more than all of the ones with brains lifting barbells.]

“Brain health.” “Brain fitness.” “Brain-training.” Ever since I started writing for PuzzleNation Blog, I’ve been chronicling the debate over whether solving puzzles makes a verifiable, detectable impact on brain function, development, and overall health.

There are plenty of puzzle magazines, apps, websites, and services that claim to help with brain fitness. Some make vague assertions related to memory, mental flexibility, and other cognitive functions. Others are insanely specific, promising to reverse the aging process or to help prevent the onset of dementia and other cognitive difficulties later in life.

(Examples of the latter style of advertisement are rarer these days after Lumosity’s two-million-dollar payout for falsely advertising that their puzzle games could “reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions,” as well as “stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.”)

cogs-in-the-shape-of-a-human-brain-ryger

[This puzzle by Ryger can be found here!]

Whether we’re talking short-term or long-term benefits to brain health from puzzling, you’ll find dozens of articles online arguing both sides. Unfortunately, so much of the data out there is inconclusive, or is hindered by test groups too small to be applicable to the general population.

However, the positive, verifiable data we can find is encouraging.

Tetris has been used by researchers to help people suffering from traumatic flashbacks, a type of post-traumatic stress. The University of Exeter conducted a study involving more than 19,000 participants that concluded that adults age 50 and older who regularly solve puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku have better brain function than those who do not.

(While 19,000 is still relatively small when compared to millions upon millions of adults over 50, it’s still one of the largest test groups yet assembled for brain health studies related to puzzles.)

dory

And while people are always discussing short-term memory or long-term memory and how they relate to puzzle solving, it turns out there’s a middle ground between the two that crosswords may have a positive effect on. An article from Scientific American last year discussed how crossword solving engages the episodic buffer, one of the mechanisms related to our working memory, our ability to temporarily hold information while performing cognitive tasks.

Most cognitive activities engage the working memory through either verbal components or visuospatial components. (Visuospatial means how we perceive the relationships between different objects in multiple dimensions). But as it turns out, while playing Scrabble or solving crosswords, both visuospatial and verbal components are utilized by the short-term memory.

Of course, this is preliminary work, and there’s so much more to learn about short-term and long-term memory, but apparently, wordplay like Scrabble and crosswords could have a unique effect on how our working memory functions. That’s pretty cool!

But they’re not the only puzzles that we’ve discovered some fascinating new details about. Jigsaw puzzles can have a positive effect on the brain during the solving process.

BrainGames-scaled

Now, like crosswords and Sudoku puzzles, jigsaw puzzles have been the subject of several articles claiming they can help with brain health (or even decrease the presence of Beta-amyloid protein in the brain, a major component of the plaque that indicates Alzheimer’s disease). But I cannot verify those facts in scientific journals to my satisfaction, so I’m tabling that part of the argument.

What I do want to talk about it is how jigsaw puzzle solving can induce a mental state similar to dreaming, one that helps with stress, relaxation, and mood.

The company Sanesco Health is heralded as an industry leader in neurotransmitter testing, and according to an article on their site, placing those tricky little pieces in the right places can do you a world of good:

The connections made while working on jigsaw puzzles aren’t limited to our brain cells. Exercising both sides of the brain simultaneously also allows the brain to move from a Beta state, the wakeful mind, into an “Alpha” state, the same mental state experienced while dreaming. The Alpha state is where we tap into our subconscious mind.

Jigsaw puzzles naturally induce this state of creative, focused meditation, where connections can be made on deeper levels. And that release of dopamine with every puzzle piece you successfully place is an added bonus! Dopamine causes improved motor skills, an increase in concentration, optimism, confidence, and an enhanced recollection.

[Imagine how restful she felt after this!]

Considering that jigsaw puzzle sales spiked during the pandemic — with some outlets reporting sales increases of up to 500% — it sounds like people were either consciously or subconsciously making the perfect choice to cope with the stresses of lockdown.

As always, we’ll keep our eye out for any additional data on these findings.

But in the meantime, happy puzzling! It might be good for you!


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The Mind-blowing Variety of Puzzles

[A sampling of puzzles of many sorts: crosswords, puzzle boxes,
mechanical brain teasers, tile puzzles, riddles, and more!]

It really is incredible how many forms puzzles can take.

Think about it. Whether you’re talking Rubik’s Cubes, cryptograms, jigsaws, Sudoku, brain teasers, riddles, crosswords, escape rooms, tangrams, word seeks, sliding tiles, deduction problems, coded messages, or anagrams, they all fall under the umbrella of puzzles.

A puzzle can be as simple as pencil and paper or as complex as a multi-stage puzzle hunt or escape room, replete with codes, keys, hidden buttons, mechanical devices to assemble or utilize, and more. The folks at ThinkFun, for instance, have employed everything from ropes and magnets to lasers and mirrors in their puzzles.

That’s some extreme variety.

And the field of possibilities only widens when we add video game puzzles to the mix. We’ve previously talked about games like Tetris and Portal, where you must think in 2D and 3D respectively. We’ve seen games where you change the rules of the world to proceed or even interfere with the coding of the game itself to solve problems.

In the last few years, indie game designers and big studios alike have produced puzzle games that continue to push the boundaries of puzzly minds.

For instance, in Iris Fall you solve puzzles and maneuver around obstacles by playing with light and shadow. By moving light sources and interacting with the environment, both the light and the shadows it creates allow your character to play with perspective and illusion in order to accomplish tasks. It’s very cool!

In a similar vein, the game Superliminal challenges you to solve puzzles and move from room to room by shifting perspective. For instance, if you pick up a small item and then pull it close to you so that it looks bigger, it BECOMES bigger.

Check out this playthrough to see this mindbending puzzler in action:

The game Maquette works off of a similar concept, but requires you to think in both big and small terms. In Maquette, you have a city to explore, and in order to do so, you also need to manipulate a miniature version of the city that affects the world outside.

For instance, there’s a bridge with the center path missing. How can you reach the other side with only a key in your hands?

Easy. You take the key, place it over the same bridge gap in the miniature, and then walk back to the real bridge, where a giant version of that key is now spanning the gap.

And now there’s Viewfinder, a game where you use a Polaroid-style camera to take pictures that you can then place into a three-dimensional world and turn them into structures you can interact with and solve problems!

These sorts of puzzle games help reinforce one of the fundamental rules of puzzle-solving: always be willing to change your perspective and come at the puzzle from another angle. It works with wordplay, it works with brain teasers, and it works in three-dimensional perspective puzzles in video games.

What’s your favorite flavor of puzzles, fellow PuzzleNationers? Have you learned something from one kind of puzzle that you’ve been able to apply in another style of puzzling? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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A Kinder, Gentler Tetris? How!?

[Image courtesy of Eurogamer.]

If there was a Mount Rushmore of puzzle games, Tetris would have to be up there. It made the Game Boy one of the most successful mobile platforms in gaming history. It has been played on every continent AND aboard the International Space Station.

Everyone has played Tetris at one time or another. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous that you’ve probably not only played the original, but some variation on the classic version as well.

And there is no shortage of options on that list. Heck, Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov himself created several famous variations on Tetris, like Hatris (stacking similar hats to clear them from the board), Faces…tris III (where you create famous faces Tetris-style), and Welltris (where pieces fall down all four sides of a cube, and the bottom part is the communal playspace).

[A game of Welltris in progress.]

So what else is out there in the world of Tetris?

There is four-player Tetris (Familiss), Tetris with bombs (Super Tetris), Tetris in a cylinder (V-Tetris), color-specific Tetris (Tetris 2), 3-D Tetris, 3-D Tetris in a sphere (Tetrisphere), speed Tetris (20G or Tetris: The Grand Master), Tetris with earthquakes and meteors (Tetris Elements) and many many more.

As you can see, many of these variations are designed around making the classic game harder. One that we’ve discussed in the past, a 4-directional Tetris variation called Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, was a personal favorite for a long time.

But easily the most diabolical version was created eleven years ago, and it was aptly named.

Hatetris.

Hatetris is designed to give you the worst possible piece on every turn.

hatetris 1

After figuring out what to do with multiple S pieces, Hatetris throws me a curveball with an I piece.

hatetris 2

Then once I’ve placed the I piece, they flip the script on me with a Z piece. Diabolical.

For the record, after about 30 minutes of play, my record was 3 lines.

hatetris 3

That is brutal.

And after the year or so that many of us have had, who needs brutal?

lovetris 2

Thankfully, the spiritual opposition to Hatetris has appeared for everyone to enjoy. It is, of course, called Lovetris, and it is designed to drop the exact piece you need to clear a line.

lovetris 3

Now, I know what you’re thinking. After a few easy ones, doesn’t it lose its flavor?

On the contrary! It actually offers some new challenges if you approach it from a different direction.

The designer warns that setting up a tetris — eliminating four lines with a single piece — can be difficult when the game is geared toward clearing single lines. That’s one possible challenge for you to solve.

Another that I quite enjoyed was trying to arrange the pieces so I cleared the board entirely. Can you arrange the pieces so that, once you’re done, you’re left with a clean slate to try over with?

A third option is to purposely drop five or six pieces in a row randomly — or even in a tower in the center of the screen — and then work with the program to dig your way out of your predicament.

lovetris

[Even with the AI’s help, this is a doozy to clear.]

Amazing that it took 37 years for someone to come up with this.

So what do you think, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Will you be trying out Lovetris, or enduring Hatetris for a spell, or trying out one of these many variants? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Intersections of Puzzle and Poetry

The more you look, the more you can find puzzles in all sorts of interesting places. We find them in literature, in historical documents, and in popular culture.

So it should come as no surprise that puzzles can be found in the world of poetry as well.

We’ve covered a few examples where poetry and puzzles have overlapped in the past, whether it’s the creations of Peter Valentine, the works of Edgar Allan Poe, or the art of carmina figurata.

carminafig7

But that’s only scratching the surface.

One of the most common ways that puzzly techniques find their way into poetry is through acrostics. Acrostics spell out messages with the first letter of each line or verse.

One of the most famous is a poem by Lewis Carroll at the end of Through the Looking-Glass where he reveals the identity of the girl who inspired his famous stories:

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

Carroll certainly offers the most famous example, but I must confess that my favorite example comes from a story on Wikipedia. Poet Rolfe Humphries was banned from Poetry Magazine for life for an acrostic aimed at a diplomat and former president of Columbia University. The acrostic quite bluntly read “Nicholas Murray Butler is a horse’s ass.”

Of course, the message reading down — also known as an acrostich — isn’t the only way these messages can be hidden.

There are also examples of mesostich — where the word or message is spelled with letters in the middle of the verse — and telestich, where the last letters of each line spell a name or message.

Dd8mL6_UwAA3OTY

[Image courtesy of Twitter.]

These techniques were also used in ancient Greek inscriptions, where one particular example, AL205, featured acrostich, mesostich, and telestich messages at the same time.

Other puzzly stylings have also allowed poets to flex their wordplay muscles.

For instance, David Shulman wrote a 14-line sonnet about George Washington’s famous river crossing where every line is an anagram of “Washington crossing the Delaware”:

A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
“How cold!” Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general’s action wish’d “Go!”
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands – sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens – winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can’t lose war with’s hands in;
He’s astern – so go alight, crew, and win!

There are also ABC poems, a form where the goal of each poem is to use words starting with each letter of the alphabet in order. You can find some entertaining and impressive examples here.

Some poets, however, have flipped the puzzle poem on its head by treating the poems like puzzles. The folks at UVA’s Puzzle Poetry group utilize Tetris-like puzzle pieces with words on them to assemble poems.

poetry_puzzle_da_header_3-2

[Image courtesy of the University of Virginia.]

The concept dates back to 2017, a creation of Neal Curtis and Brad Pasanek, serving as a way to both explore and deconstruct the art of poetry itself by making a puzzle out of it.

It’s a very cool idea, reminiscent of how magnetic poetry sets allow you to turn your fridge into a canvas by assembling and reworking the order of the various available words.

Puzzles by their very nature are about finding a solution, bringing order out of chaos, whether it’s assembling puzzle pieces, answering devious crossword clues to fill a grid, or unraveling a tricky brain teaser that pushes you to think in a different way.

And since poetry is all about expressing truths in a personal way, it makes a lovely sort of sense that puzzly techniques would intertwine with this thoughtful, elusive form of art.


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Forget 3-D Chess and Try 4-Directional Tetris!

[Image courtesy of Eurogamer.]

Tetris is the ultimate puzzle game. If you somehow haven’t played it, you’ve at least heard of it. The brainchild of Alexey Pajitnov conquered the world, not only making Nintendo’s Game Boy a bestselling video game platform, but turning millions of puzzlers into gamers and gamers into puzzlers as well.

Those iconic little Tetromino shapes are instantly recognizable, and the music can still induce panic and nervousness in players decades after the first time they heard those infamous notes.

And it serves as a brilliant template for ambitious game designers and puzzlers to add their own twists to the Tetris formula.

The basic concept is simple: try to arrange the constantly falling Tetromino blocks so that they make complete lines in the play area. If they do, that line disappears.

Of course, just because the concept is simple, that doesn’t mean the game is. As your play area fills up with Tetrominos, the music speeds up, amping up the tension. And as you progress through different levels, the pieces fall faster and faster. You need quick reflexes and ice in your veins to handle the higher difficulty levels.

Thankfully, you only need to worry about the blocks falling from one direction.

But a new variation on Tetris quadruples the gameplay area in a very devious way.

Say hello to Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, Stephen Lavelle’s take on Tetris. In Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, Tetromino blocks appear in the center of the play area, and you control where the piece is placed in each of the four directions.

No, the blocks do not fall automatically, nor is there a time limit that forces you to place the blocks quickly. Yes, you can spin each piece before placing it.

But each block goes into all four play areas simultaneously, and in the same position on the opposing sides.

schwerk1

As you can see, the straight piece lands flat in the east and west grid spaces, but standing upright in the north and south grid spaces. You have to work along each axis to find the best case scenario for all four of your play areas.

Yes, you’re trying to complete lines in four different directions at the same time. The T-shaped Tetromino will land in four different arrangements (flat, on one side of the T-bar, on the other side of the T-bar, and on the long end of the T-bar) with a single keystroke.

schwerk2

It’s mind-blowing how challenging this makes the game, but it’s challenging in a good way.

I mean, in a regular game of Tetris, you need several dozen completed lines to conclude a level and feel like a champion. In Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät, you feel like a genius if you can get two completed lines in each of the four play areas before the game is over!

Just as addictive as the original, yet offering a totally new twist on the familiar style of puzzling, I foresee a lot of office hours being lost to this engaging four-directional experiment in space efficiency.

You can try Schwerkraftprojektionsgerät for yourself here, and check out all of Stephen’s games here. (He also has a YouTube channel featuring some of his creations.)

After 35 years, it’s cool to see there are still new ways to make Tetris feel fresh again.


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