Themeless Crosswords Vs. Themed Crosswords?

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When you think of crossword puzzles, what comes to mind? The grid first, or maybe the clues? When you picture your default crossword, is it a themed puzzle or themeless?

I ask because something of a kerfuffle was sparked on Twitter over the weekend regarding themeless puzzles vs. themed puzzles, and as you might expect, fellow puzzler, I have thoughts on the subject.

So how did all this start? With a blog post by crossword reviewer Rex Parker.

If you’re unaware, Rex is a constructor in his own right, but is far better known in the crossword world for his curmudgeonly reviews of the New York Times crossword. He frequently makes fair points, but they can be lost amid his personal views regarding particular clues and entries. (Often, if he doesn’t know it, it’s obscure. Which is not the same thing at all.) He’s sort of a “you love him or you don’t” figure in the crossword sphere.

I genuinely believe his commentary, however inconsistent or caustic at times, comes from a sincere desire to be engaged, entertained, and wowed by the puzzles he is so clearly invested in. But again, sometimes he can’t see the forest for the trees, and when your brand is “guy who bellyaches about crosswords,” you often play into what people expect from you.

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[Now, to be fair, Rex is no Grandpa Simpson. But I simply couldn’t resist, given how he’s become synonymous with “grumpy fan who knows better than you.” And I’m so so very tired of gatekeeping fandom in general.]

And on Sunday, he carved into a Robyn Weintraub 21x themeless crossword with some serious vitriol:

This is very good for what it is, but unfortunately (for me), what it is is a Sunday themeless, and these are just never going to be interesting to me. As I’ve said before, it’s a giant (literally, giant! 21×21!) shrug. A Sunday-sized “we give up, here’s some stuff.” It’s too easy to be that interesting, and since the grid is so big, the construction doesn’t feel particularly special.

That is, yeah, you can get a lot of longish answers into a 21×21. There’s lots of room. I just don’t care as much as I ought to care. And today’s grid shape was really vanilla. No, wait, I like vanilla. A vanilla malt is the best thing in the world. Let’s call it “boilerplate” instead. It looks like a template of some kind. It’s a very clean grid, and many of the entries here are interesting, but the overall effect of said entries in a Sunday themeless is ho-hum.

There’s a reason the NYTXW didn’t do Sunday themelesses until, what, like two or three years ago? It’s because they’re a cop-out. I hear that some people enjoy them. I’m happy for them. For me, they’re a non-event. There’s no real low, no real high, just … middle middle middle. Time passes, and then the puzzle is done. Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest. Certainly, from a blogging perspective, this is much much worse, as there’s really hardly anything to say.

Wow.

Now, this post is not intended to be a burial of Rex and his opinions. Even though I wholeheartedly disagree with his dim view of his puzzle.

It’s worth discussing because I’m someone who didn’t initially get the appeal of themeless crosswords.

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[Robyn’s thoroughly impressive Sunday themeless grid.]

I’ve always liked puzzles, and tried my hand at solving New York Times-level crosswords many times before I ended up as part of the puzzle world. Once I really immersed myself in themed puzzles, I quickly started to appreciate the amount of skill, creativity, and hard work that went into a satisfying themed crossword.

I was slower to come around on themeless puzzles. I liked figuring out the trick of a themed puzzle, and I didn’t give themeless puzzles much thought. Thankfully, friends of the blog Patti Varol and Keith Yarborough (both of whom also helped open my eyes to so many terrific puzzle outlets and constructors) encouraged me to solve themeless puzzles more.

And I started to see that you don’t need a theme to show off the same skill, creativity, and hard work that goes into a crossword.

As I said in my wrap-up of the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League (yeah, I went from never solving themeless crosswords to eagerly anticipating a two-month tournament full of them!):

I really enjoyed seeing what creative constructors could do with crosswords once freed from the shackles of a theme. The long, crossing entries can certainly be intimidating at the start — especially if you read three or four clues in a row and feel like your brain has gone blank — but the sheer inventiveness of the entries you get to see, often stacked close together, is really cool.

And, like a jigsaw puzzle, the solving experience sneaks up on you. You get a few words here, a few letters there, and suddenly everything starts to fall into place. Clues that eluded you make total sense on a second or third reading, or the now-obvious wordplay punches you in the face.

Eventually, you’re left with a full grid and a real sense of accomplishment. (Not to mention a growing sense of wonder that the constructor managed to make all those crossings work.)

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And it’s disappointing that an influential voice in crosswords sees a themeless Sunday puzzle as a waste of time. (Constructor Eric Berlin has rightfully noted that Rex isn’t against all themeless puzzles, and has stated in the past that he often looks forward to the Friday themeless.)

Which makes it all the more strange that he’d choose to die on this particular hill. Robyn is a well-respected constructor, and her byline alone is a welcome sight for many puzzle fans, themeless or themed. The response online to this themeless puzzle was very positive overall; even in the comments section of Rex’s blog post, the majority of the responses celebrated Robyn’s themeless as a terrific solve.

I would argue that the occasional Sunday themeless puzzle is a good thing. Not only is it a nice break from the expected norm, but having puzzles the caliber of this one will bring more eyes to the merits of themeless crosswords in general.

The sheer variety in fresh, exciting, and thought-provoking grid entries alone makes them worthwhile. Themed puzzles are great, obviously, but they can also severely limit how interesting you can make the rest of the grid once the theme has been figured out.

Great constructors and engaging cluing can overcome that, but it’s a limitation that themeless crosswords simply don’t have. The fill is EVERYTHING, and that pushes constructors to be as creative as possible with their grid designs, the often ambitious crossings and stacks of long entries, and all that delightfully unexpected vocabulary.

Rex says, “Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest.”

I think you’ll find many solvers and constructors disagree. There’s as much beauty and value in a skilled themeless as there is in a deftly-constructed themed puzzle.

And to say a well-constructed themeless is on par with a “disastrous” themed puzzle is just ridiculous. Sure, for his brand, he gets more mileage taking apart a bad puzzle than discussing a good one, but a good solve and good blog fodder aren’t the same thing at all.

As I said before, you can learn a lot from Rex’s blog. Plenty of constructors have gleaned valuable lessons about theme entries, grid fill, and more from his critiques. But punching down against a particular style of crosswording benefits no one, particularly when it can easily be misconstrued as a shot against themeless puzzles in general..

Thank you, Robyn Weintraub, for a banger of a Sunday puzzle, and thank you, Evan Birnholz, for championing the cause of themeless crosswords (and bringing this to my attention.)

Do you enjoy themeless puzzles, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Have you checked out our special summer deals yet? You can find them on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

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The 2021 Boswords Spring Themeless League: Looking Back

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After two months of challenging, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable weekly solving, the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League came to a close a few weeks ago.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League spreads out a tournament-style solving experience over nine weeks, one themeless crossword per week. Each puzzle is scored based on your answer accuracy (incorrect letters, empty squares, etc.) and how quickly you complete the grid.

While each week’s puzzle only had one solution, there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate, they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

Hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition, and now that it’s over, I’d like to share a few thoughts about my experience in the League.

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When I participated in the 2020 Fall Themeless League, I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t have much experience with themeless puzzles, and I rarely solve online, so even though I’m very familiar with crosswords, it felt like a new experience.

But with last season’s league under my belt, I went into the 2021 Spring Themeless League excited to again test my skills with some top-flight puzzles, a touch more confident in my themeless solving than last time.

As you might expect, being freed from the shackles of themed puzzle building allows constructors to really flex their creative muscle, indulging all sorts of curious and unexpected vocabulary as they cross long entries and employ staggeringly few black squares in these impressive grids.

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Aimee Lucido opened up week one with three 13-letter entries across the center of the grid, giving new solvers a taste of just what constructors can do with a themeless grid, and offering established solvers some terrific crossings and fun vocabulary.

Peter Wentz’s week two puzzle and the week three offering from Brynn Diehl and Mark Diehl continued to set the tone for the season, mixing some clever wordplay in their cluing with ambitious grid construction. (Week three’s puzzle had stacks of 10-letter entries in every corner, which was impressive.)

Rachel Fabi provided week four’s puzzle — which really tickled me by having “advice column” as a down entry, i.e. a column — and Ryan McCarty’s week five puzzle was one of my smoothest solves of the tournament. Plus, he had “doggos” in the grid, and I am fully onboard with “doggo” becoming crosswordese.

I stupidly submitted my grid with an empty square in Patti Varol’s week six, which hurt my score somewhat. I still enjoyed the puzzle, though. Crossing SPANKED with BUCKNAKED was certainly a style choice. Also, Patti always teaches me new words with her puzzles. This time around, it was “vaporetto.”

Week seven’s offering by Ricky Cruz really impressed me with some difficult letter placements — particularly the plethora of Xs in the lower-left corner. (Unfortunately, I missed the submission deadline for this one, so I got a zero for this puzzle.)

That was followed by Kevin Der’s amazing week eight grid. This one took me ten minutes longer than my average time for the rest of the tournament puzzles.

I mean, look at this grid:

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Week nine’s championship puzzle was constructed by Brooke Husic, and it was the perfect closer to two months of solving. It was sharp and well-constructed, sending everyone home happy.

All in all, I enjoyed the Spring Themeless League more than the Fall League because I felt much more comfortable with the solving interface and I had a better handle on themeless solving overall. My times were stronger — although far from the blistering pace set by many of the top solvers — and I felt like I was making smarter choices in my solving. It’s always nice to both see and feel improvement in your puzzling.

I ended up placing 262nd out of around 600 competitors — had I actually gotten puzzle seven submitted, I would’ve been closer to 115th or so — which is about on pace for how I did in the Fall Themeless League.

But the tournament experience was delightful. Having a new challenge awaiting you every week is a treat, especially with the fantastic roster of talent they assembled in this season’s constructors.

And with the promise of future Boswords-hosted events in 2021 like the Summer Tournament on July 25th and the Fall Themeless League in October and November, it’s nice to have exciting puzzle events to look forward to in the near future.

Kudos to everyone who helped bring this marvelous project together, and kudos to everyone who participated. It was so much fun.


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Upcoming Puzzle Events! The Spring Themeless League, Plus ACPT Going Virtual!

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Most years, the puzzle event season starts with the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in late March/early April, but 2021 is different. We already had the Boswords Winter Wondersolve event last month, and there are plenty of exciting puzzle events on the horizon!

Did you know that there’s still time to sign up for the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League? It starts Monday night, and you should check it out!

Last year, Boswords launched the Fall Themeless League, a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consisted of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you completed the grid.

Each week’s puzzle only had one grid, but there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging.

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The Spring Themeless League follows the same format. Every Monday in March and April, a themeless puzzle awaits you!

Not only is there some serious talent among the constructors — Brooke Husic, Aimee Lucido, Rachel Fabi, Patti Varol, Ryan McCarty, Kevin Der, Peter Wentz, Ricky Cruz, and the duo of Brynn Diehl and Mark Diehl — but there’s a great community of solvers out there participating in after-puzzle chats and Twitch streams.

The Fall Themeless League gave me a new appreciation for what themeless crosswords are capable of, and I’m happy to be signed up for the Spring edition!

The Spring Themeless League will conclude with the championship puzzle on April 26th, which will make for a busy few days of puzzle solving, since another puzzle event is set for that very weekend!

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Yes, you might’ve heard that the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament will be hosted online this year.

The 43rd annual edition of the granddaddy of all crossword tournaments will take place April 23rd through the 25th. We’re awaiting further details, but hopefully we’ll know more soon!

So there you go, the next two months of puzzles all planned and set for you, with more to come this summer.

Will you be participating in either the Spring Themeless League or ACPT’s virtual event this year, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comment section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Halfway through the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League!

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Last night marked the fifth week of competitive puzzly fun in the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League is a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consists of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

Each week’s puzzle only has one grid, but there are three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth is the least challenging, Choppy is the middle ground, and Stormy is the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate — which you can still do now! — they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

With a lineup of top-flight constructors involved and the Boswords team organizing, it was a can’t miss prospect, and hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition.

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Now that we’re officially halfway through the season, it feels like the right time to take a moment and reflect on the last four weeks of puzzling.

I will only be referencing the previous four puzzles — not last night’s Week 5 themeless — so there are only potential spoilers for non-participants. Competitors may read at their leisure.

Although I am quite familiar with crosswords, I am far from the fastest or cagiest solver, nor have I ever competed in any tournament solving, so I opted to enter the Choppy rank.

And I have very much enjoyed the experience thus far. Themeless puzzles always often a fun challenge, mixing long answers — often crossing or stacked with other long answers — with strong cluing, clever grid design, and most notably, no theme around which to frame the grid (or your solve, if you happen to dig into the theme entries immediately).

The cluing feels very fresh, mixing topical entries, meme fodder, and slang with traditional crossword classics and a dash of pop culture references. Although my lack of football knowledge betrayed me in week 1, I’ve made up some ground in weeks 3 and 4, posting my two quickest times, both with clean grids.

My times are far from cheetah-like; the top solvers in the Choppy rankings often solve these puzzles in half the time I do, and manage perfect scores to boot. I am getting faster, it seems, which is probably due to a growing familiarity with the solving interface, wasting less time maneuvering the screen.

I’m definitely finding it challenging. There are plenty of clues I pass over two or three times before coming up with something that fits the entries I’ve already placed, and these diabolical constructors always slip some devious wordplay and a-ha cluing into their puzzles.

In October alone, solvers contended with puzzles from Tracy Gray, Nate Cardin, Amanda Rafkin, and David Quarfoot, each bringing a unique style and flavor to their grid entries and cluing. Each themeless has been a challenge all its own, and once you finally figure out each solver’s tricks, you’re confronted with a new constructor the next week, and you start all over again.

Still, it’s great fun, a nice puzzly touch to the week that feels like you’re part of a community, bolstered not only by a communal solving experience once a week, but by Twitch chats and interactions with the organizers and fellow solvers.

We’re only halfway through, and I’d have to declare the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League a rousing success. I can’t wait to see what surprises the November puzzles bring, and what awaits the top solvers in the championship round.

Whether you’re competing alongside us or simply enjoying puzzles at your own speed, thanks for visiting. And happy puzzling!


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A New Weekly Crossword League Coming Soon!

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The internet puzzle community has done an impressive job over the last six months of adapting to the social distancing restrictions of the current COVID-19 crisis, with tournaments like Crossword Tournament From Your Couch, Lollapuzzoola, and Boswords successfully going virtual in 2020.

And now John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, the creative team behind Boswords, have announced a new tournament-inspired online puzzle project to keep crossword fans engaged for the next few months!

It’s called The Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League, and every Monday night in October and November, a new themeless crossword will be posted for competitors to solve. That’s eight puzzles (plus a championship round to follow), along with a preseason puzzle to get people used to the format.

Although each week’s puzzle only has one grid, there will be three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. When you register to participate, you’ll choose the difficulty level for your clues.

From least challenging to most challenging, the ranks are called Smooth, Choppy, and Stormy. (Quite appropriate, given that we’re heading into unfamiliar waters here!)

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Each week’s puzzle will be accompanied by a Twitch stream where participants can follow along and discuss all things puzzly with their fellow crossword enthusiasts!

You can compete as an individual or as part of a pair, and with a one-time registration fee of $25 — or $5 for students and those in need — that’s very reasonable indeed!

Not only that, but they’ve already announced the team of constructors assembled for the League, and it is a stacked roster of talent.

Nate Cardin, Emily Carroll, Tracy Gray, David Quarfoot, Amanda Rafkin, Claire Rimkus, Sid Sivakumar, Yacob Yonas, and Stella Zawistowski are all contributing puzzles, and you won’t know ahead of time which constructor’s puzzle you’ll get on a given week, which keeps things interesting.

With experienced crossword constructor and editor Brad Wilber as the League’s puzzle editor and the dynamic duo of Lieb and Kingsley as assistant editors and League directors, I have high hopes for this project going forward.

Check out the full informational video on the Boswords homepage, as well as links for further info and registration! (Register by September 28th to participate!)

I think this is an incredibly cool and ambitious project, and a really neat way to bring tournament-style solving in a bite-size format to as many puzzlers as possible.

Will you be taking part in this exciting new puzzle challenge, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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PuzzleNation 2019 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide: By Category

Welcome to the PuzzleNation Blog 2019 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!

We’re excited to be bringing you our biggest gift guide ever! There are so many tremendously fun and puzzly products to share with you. We just might be your one-stop shop for all things puzzly!

This guide is broken down into categories for ease of searching. We have puzzle books, subscription/downloadable puzzles, puzzles by mail, jigsaw puzzles, brain teasers, puzzle games, board games, card games, dice games, party games, miscellaneous puzzle swag, and puzzle events.

We’re sure you’ll find the perfect gift for any puzzler on your list!


This year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide is sponsored by Daily POP Crosswords!

Daily POP Crosswords offers a different themed puzzle every single day, spanning everything from TV and film to sports and music!

Available for both Android and iOS users, you get terrific content from some of the world’s top constructors! And the download is free!


Puzzle Books

Pencil-and-paper puzzles are alive and well, and we’re happy to share some of our favorites with you.

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

Maybe you’re looking for one kind of puzzle, like their Logic Problems Spectacular ($8.99), the Crossword Extravaganza collection ($7.99), or a value pack of Jumble puzzles ($13.95)! Maybe you’d like some variety with the Mammoth Grab A Pencil Book of Brain Boosters ($10.50).

Or perhaps you’d like a little something extra, and you’d prefer the Merry & Bright Fill-Ins Puzzle Gift Set ($44.95), complete with pencils, coffee, and snacks to keep you puzzling, or the Merry & Bright Sudoku Puzzle Gift Set ($44.95). Either way, the folks at Penny Dell Puzzles have got you covered.

And be sure to check out their deals on Facebook and Twitter throughout the holiday season. They’ve got bundles and discounts for days!

And while we’re on the topic of puzzle books, some of the best constructors working today have released their own books for your perusal! And with New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today crosswords to their credit, you’re sure to find some quality puzzlers within these pages!

–Eric Berlin’s Puzzle Snacks: More Than 100 Bite-Size Puzzles for Every Solver ($7.59)

–David Steinberg’s Juicy Crosswords from the Orange County Register ($8.95)

–Brendan Emmett Quigley’s Octopus Crosswords ($6.95)

–Matt Gaffney’s Fast & Fun Mini Crosswords ($7.49)

–Andrew Ries’s Maverick Crosswords ($8.95)

–Todd McClary’s Fresh Freestyle Crosswords ($8.95)

–Erik Agard’s Food for Thought Crosswords ($7.48)

USA Today Crossword Super Challenge ($9.99)

–The Puzzle Society’s Pocket Posh New Crosswords 1 and Pocket Posh New Crosswords 2 ($8.99 each)

–Cynthia Morris’s CynAcrostics Volume 4: My Word! and CynAcrostics Volume 5: My Word, Part 2 ($9.95 each)

–Andrews McMeel Publishing’s Posh Simple Word Search ($12.99)

–Andy Kravis’s Challenge Accepted!: 100 Word Searches ($8.39)

–Shawn Marie Simmons’s 25 Word Search Puzzles for Classic Literature Lovers and 25 Word Search Puzzles for MODERN Literature Lovers ($6.99 each) [available in a large print bundle as well ($12.99)]

USA Today Super Sudoku Challenge ($9.99)

–Oliver Roeder’s The Riddler: Fantastic Puzzles from FiveThirtyEight ($10.99)

USA Today Logic Super Challenge ($9.99)

–Andrews McMeel Publishing’s Posh Kurosu ($12.99)

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The Mysterious Mansion by Daria Song (Andrews McMeel Publishing)

Combining puzzles and riddles with mazes, coloring books, and a wonderful, intricate story, The Mysterious Mansion is designed to relax, engage, and puzzle the reader in equal measure. The gorgeous full-color illustrations are a feast for the eyes, and the puzzles are both fun and visually immersive. Daria Song gleefully takes activity books to the next level with this beautiful puzzle experience. ($16.99)

[Click here to check out our review!]

The Keymaster’s Bundle by Mike Selinker, Gaby Weidling, and Eric Harshbarger

The Maze of Games is one of the most diabolical puzzle books ever conceived. It allows the protagonists AND the reader to choose their own path through various labyrinths and challenge themselves to dozens of different puzzles in the hopes of conquering each of the labyrinths within the book.

And The Keymaster’s Bundle combines The Maze of GamesThe Theseus Guide to the Final Maze hint book, the Maze of Games Map, and the new Keymaster’s Tome all in one place, along with some bonus digital downloads! It’s the entire Maze of Games experience! ($74.95)

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Of course, if you’ve already got The Maze of Games, The Theseus Guide, and the Maze of Games Map, you can pick up The Keymaster’s Tome on its own right here! ($18.71)

[Click here to check out our full review of The Maze of Games!]

Puzzlecraft: How to Make Every Kind of Puzzle by Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder

Updated seven years after the original version hit shelves, the new and improved Puzzlecraft is a self-contained masterclass in puzzle creation. Covering everything from crosswords and Sudoku to logic puzzles and brain teasers, this is the perfect launchpad for any and all aspiring puzzlers and constructors! ($29.95)


Email Subscription/Downloadable Puzzles

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

The American Values Crossword (subscription and daily puzzles) ($22 for 1 year)

The Inkubator, edited by Laura Braunstein and Tracy Bennett (crossword puzzles constructed exclusively by women, twice a month, $25 for 1 year)

–Matt Gaffney’s Daily Crossword ($26 per year) and Weekly Crossword Contest ($26 per year)

–Andrew Ries’ Aries Xwords ($12 per year), Aries Freestyle themeless crosswords ($45 per year), and Aries Rows Garden ($30 per year) [available in monthly bundles as well]

–Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords ($31 for 1 year)

–Joon Pahk’s Rows Garden puzzles ($20 for 1 year) and Variety puzzles ($15 for 1 year) OR get both for $30!

–Will Nediger’s Bewilderingly weekly themed and themeless crosswords ($25 for 1 year)

–Eric Berlin’s Puzzlesnacks puzzles ($3 per month)

Crossword LA 2018 puzzle pack ($5)

–Bryant Park 2018 tournament puzzle pack ($5) and 2016/2017 bundle ($10)

Topple puzzle magazine ($1 per issue)

–Lone Shark Games’ Puzzle Vault Bundle (8 PDF collections including Marching Bands, Rows Garden, Crosswords, Cryptics, and more, $44.95)


Puzzles by Mail

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The Crosswords Club

A monthly publication with six Sunday-sized crosswords, The Crosswords Club utilizes some of the sharpest crossword constructors in the business today, and the puzzles are all edited by top constructor Patti Varol. Each bundle is as fun as it is challenging, plus each monthly bundle has an extra word game printed right on the envelope! ($39.95 for 12 issues)

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Wish You Were Here (The Enigma Emporium)

Imagine an entire mystery hidden across a handful of postcards. That’s the multilayered puzzle experience offered by Wish You Were Here, where a series of coded messages awaits you. Unravel all the secrets and discover an exciting tale of danger and spycraft along the way! ($15)

[And if you enjoy Wish You Were Here, there are 3 addition puzzle bundles to try out!]

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Cryptogram Puzzle Post (Jack Fallows)

A combination of different puzzles and encrypted messages interwoven together with bits of narrative, each edition of the Cryptogram Puzzle Post is a standalone story steeped in mystery and supernatural elements. But solve them all together, and a grand universe of storytelling unfolds. Sold in seasonal bundles and annual subscriptions, this episodic puzzly adventure is quite unique. (£5 for digital downloads, £20 for seasonal bundles)


Jigsaw Puzzles

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Puzzometry

For a next-level jigsaw challenge, Puzzometry is tough to top. These beautiful pieces can be combined in seemingly endless combinations, and yet, there’s only one solution. Available in seven different styles — including Puzzometry ($18.50), Puzzometry Jr. ($14), Puzzometry Squares ($18.50), and the new Puzzometry Hex ($18.50) — you’ve got distinct challenges appropriate for all different ages!

[Check out the full review of Puzzometry by clicking here!]

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Geode Puzzle (Uncommon Goods)

Forget looking for the edge pieces, because these nature-based puzzles take jigsaws beyond the usual patterning. Geode Puzzle‘s flowing, unusual shapes and vibrant colors create a unique solving experience. ($65)

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Gearjits Roller Coaster (Gearjits)

Bring your puzzle skills to life as you assemble a working roller coaster from these wooden pieces. Assembling handcranks and gears to operate the machine along with the structure of the roller coaster itself makes this 3-D puzzle more exciting and satisfying than the average 3-D puzzle. ($39.95)

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Wooden Fractal Tray Puzzles (Martin Raynsford)

Laser-cut precision and patterns built on fractal designs make these wooden tray puzzles as maddening as they are beautiful. The pieces fall so seamlessly into place that they practically vanish… that is, if you can puzzle out how to place them all into the tray. ($35.99)


Brain Teasers

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Waiter’s Tray (Project Genius)

Just move the wine bottles so you can remove the Waiter’s Tray. Sounds simple, right? When you’re talking about one of the brain teasers from the Constantin Puzzle series, what appears simple quickly becomes a proper puzzly challenge. ($20)

[Check out our review of Waiter’s Tray here!]

 

Tavern Puzzles / Tucker-Jones House Inc.

These hand-forged beauties are ready to challenge your dexterity and cleverness, as you accept the Tavern Puzzles challenge. Whether you’re trying to remove twice as many pieces in a Collaborative Effort or free the triangle from Tridiculous, you’re sure to put your skills to the test. ($25 each)

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The Curated Collection (Project Genius)

Why tackle one brain teaser when five different challenges are there for the solving? The Curated Collection represents five different historical eras with five distinct styles to unravel. Distribute them around the room or pit one friend against the entire gauntlet! ($19.97)

[Our full review now available here!]

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Cat Stax (Brainwright)

Can you place the feline figures into the purrfect arrangement to complete each challenging design? That’s the question posed by Cat Stax, a terrific introduction for younger solvers to spatial-awareness puzzles and Tetris-style solving! ($6.39)

Lightbox (Eric Clough)

A puzzle box unlike anything you’ve ever seen, Lightbox creates different patterns of shadow and light as you shift and arrange the various plastic plates that make up the box. As you twist and reset them, different electrical connections are made, and different plates light up. As gorgeous as it is challenging, Lightbox is a very eye-catching puzzle that always wows new solvers. ($85)

[Check out our full review of Lightbox by clicking here!]

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Ghost Cube (Project Genius)

A regular Rubik’s Cube is challenging enough, but at least you can trust that, no matter how mixed up the colored squares get, you’re still dealing with a standard cube. Well, that’s not the case with Ghost Cube.  Bending into all different shapes as you manipulate the many twisting pieces, this puzzle will force you to examine Rubik’s-style solving from a whole new angle! ($21.95)

[Click here to read our full review!]


Puzzle Games

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Thinking Putty Puzzle (ThinkFun)

It’s not a stretch to call this one of the most inventive and creative puzzle games of the year. Thinking Putty Puzzle pits the player’s wits and planning against some deviously sticky and tricky puzzle scenarios. Can you connect all the dots without your putty paths crossing? ($29.99)

[Click here to check out our full review!]

Zendo (Looney Labs)

Puzzle games are all about the rules, but what if you don’t know the rules? That’s where Zendo comes in. In this puzzle game, you arrange Looney pyramids and other shapes into various designs, and then see if those designs conform to a mysterious rule. A game of deduction and trial-and-error, Zendo is a very different solving experience. ($40)

Plus there’s a brand-new expansion pack with additional rules for the game! ($5)

[Check out our full review for Zendo here!]

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Domino Maze (ThinkFun)

Test your deduction skills and your balance in this diabolical puzzle game. Domino Maze tasks you with not only figuring out how to place the dominoes and complete your path, but being dexterous enough not to set it off too early! ($29.99)

[Check out our full review by clicking here!]

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Lexicon-GO! (Winning Moves UK)

Are you a word-forming pro? Take your speed-solving skills and try them out with Lexicon-GO!, a Scrabble-style tile game suitable for solvers of all ages! ($13.27)

[Click here for our full review of Lexicon-GO!]

Chroma Cube (Project Genius)

Deduction puzzles have never been so colorful! In Chroma Cube, you need to puzzle out where to place twelve richly colored cubes, with only a few tricky clues to help you out! Take logic puzzles into the third dimension with this minimalist delight! ($20)

[Check out our full Chroma Cube review here!]

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Invasion of the Cow Snatchers (ThinkFun)

One of the most creative deduction puzzle games I saw all year, Invasion of the Cow Snatchers has you piloting a UFO and picking up different cows on an obstacle-laden field. Can you figure out how to magnetically nab all of the cows while avoiding fences, bushes, walls, and silos? ($29.99)

[Read our full review of Invasion of the Cow Snatchers here!]

Pinbox 3000 (Cardboard Teck Instantute)

How about the chance to build your own game? Is that puzzle enough for you? Pinbox 3000 provides all the pieces you’ll need, plus valuable advice for brainstorming and creating your very own pinball game. It’s endlessly customizable, so you can make your Pinbox pinball game as simple or as complex as you like! ($49.95)


Board Games

Some of the puzzliest games on the market today are being made by top-flight board game companies, and we’ve got some marvelous games that will appeal to puzzlers of all ages!

Deblockle (Project Genius)

It sounds so simple! Just move your four cubes from one side of the board to the other. But Deblockle is more than meets the eye, and as you race against your opponent to puzzle out a path to victory, you’ll push your puzzly skills to the limit! ($24.99)

[Check out our full review of Deblockle here!]

The Island of Doctor Lucky (Cheapass Games)

People have been trying to kill Doctor Lucky for over twenty years, and this time around, you’re visiting his exotic island estate to try your murderous luck against the titular Doctor! The Island of Doctor Lucky offers a new gameboard to explore, new movement mechanics, and a very distracting cat. This is the best addition to the series yet! ($27.39)

[Check out our full review by clicking here!]

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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!]

The Abandons (Puzzling Pixel Games)

Can you escape a dangerous labyrinth that changes every time you explore it? The Abandons pits the solver against a random deck, where luck, quick decision making, and puzzly skill all must be on your side if you ever want to see daylight again.  ($15)

[Check out our full review by clicking here!]

The Great Dinosaur Rush (APE Games)

Bring the insane real-life rivalry of paleontologists Cope and Marsh to life in The Great Dinosaur Rush! As you collect fossils and discover your own unique dinosaur, you must also steal bones, sabotage other scientists, and more! Show off your cunning and creativity in this game that proves historical truth is weirder than fiction! ($50)

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Walk-By Scrabble BoardTile Securing Travel Scrabble, and Drawing Room Scrabble (Hammacher Schlemmer)

Hammacher Schlemmer has several Scrabble variants available, including Tile Securing Travel Scrabble for those who want to solve on the go ($39.95) and Drawing Room Scrabble for those with swankier taste ($249.95) — not to mention the mind-boggling 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!]

Tak: A Beautiful Game (Cheapass Games)

Many new games build off of classic mechanics, but very few new games truly feel like they could have been played centuries ago. Tak definitely fits that mold, using simple wooden pieces to create a game that feels both fresh and ancient all at once. Inspired by the eponymous game in Patrick Rothfuss’s KingKiller Chronicles series, Tak is a wonderful two-player game that quickly grows addictive. ($40 and up)

[Click here for our full review of Tak!]

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Tsuro: The Game of the Path (Calliope Games)

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. Try not to meet any other dragons or fly off the board! It’s a simple mechanic with plenty of replay value, and perfect for quick games with large groups. ($30)

Chessplus

The first thing you learn in chess is how the pieces move. But what if that could change? What if you could make new pieces that move in unexpected ways? How would that change the game? With Chessplus, you’ll find out, as you mix and match chess pieces in order to capture your opponent’s king. The possibilities really are endless! ($44.95)

[Click here for our full review of Chessplus!]

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Qwirkle (MindWare)

A wonderful mix of Uno and Mexican Train DominoesQwirkle is a tile-placing game where you try to maximize your points while minimizing the help you give to your opponents. With six bright colors and six different shapes to match up, Qwirkle is endless fun that’s so easy to jump into! ($14.99)


Card Games

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Fluxx (Looney Labs)

The chaos and ever-changing rules of Fluxx finally meet their match as they tackle the crews of the Federation’s most famous outposts, Deep Space Nine. Work with Sisko and his eclectic team to outwit the Dominion, the Cardassians, and more, all in a card game that boldly goes where only a few other versions of Fluxx have gone before! ($20)

And if Star Trek isn’t your style, maybe you’d enjoy Jumanji Fluxx, Marvel Fluxx, or any of the other marvelous variations on this classic quick-changing card game!

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Codenames (Czech Games)

It’s a race against time to locate all of your spies before your opponents. But in order to do so, you need to communicate information with a single word. Codenames will put your word association skills to work as you try to find secret agents disguised with code words, while avoiding innocent citizens and dangerous assassins along the way! ($19.99)

[Read our full review of Codenames here!]

Deluxe Pairs (Hip Pocket Games)

Building on the legacy already established by the bar-friendly series of Pairs decks available, Deluxe Pairs offers a new artistic spin on the classic Pairs “Fruit Deck,” as well as a companion booklet with rules for numerous Pairs variants you can play with the deck! This isn’t just one card game, it’s dozens! ($14.85)

[Click here for our full review of Deluxe Pairs!]

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Are You a Robot? (Looney Labs)

In this social deduction game, your space station has been invaded by robots that can masquerade as human. Is one already in the room, or are you just being paranoid? The more packs you have, the more people can play, and the more devious and exciting the gameplay becomes. If you’ve ever played Mafia or Ultimate Werewolf, you’ll enjoy Are You a Robot? ($2 per pack)

[Check out our full review by clicking here!]

Spaceteam (Timber and Bolt)

Can you repair your ship and get the engines up and running before a black hole ends your space adventure forever? That’s the name of the game in Spaceteam, a cooperative, communication-based game where you have to accomplish various tasks with your fellow players while sharing tools. It’s delightful chaos, heightened by the five-minute hourglass timer counting down your dwindling seconds before disaster strikes! A definite favorite around here. ($24.95)

Unspeakable Words (Playroom Entertainment)

Some word games might drive you mad, but only Unspeakable Words actually makes keeping your sanity part of the gameplay! As you spell different words, you have to make a die roll to see if spelling the word cost you a bit of your sanity. If you lose too much of it, you’ll start uttering unspeakable words, which can be worth more points… if your sanity can take it! A fun twist on Scrabble and other word-forming games. ($18.75; deluxe edition $29.38)

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Time Breaker (Looney Labs)

Time itself is in danger as you chase a fugitive across history in this clever strategy game. Whether you’re moving your token through time across the board or playing special cards to leap to specific moments in time, you’ll have to be quick and cagey to prevent the Time Breaker from escaping your clutches. ($25)

[Check out our full review here!]

Constellations (Xtronaut Enterprises)

Sometimes, we can move heaven and earth! Constellations is all about collecting stars and building famous constellations, then placing them in the night sky! The more effective your constellation-building, the higher your score! ($23.98)

[Check out our full review of Constellations here!]

Scrimish (Nexci)

Combine the card game War with elements of Chess and Memory, and you’ve got something approximating Scrimish, a card game that’s effortless to learn, but offers endless possibilities. Can you protect your crown card while hunting down your opponent’s? With cards for both defense and offense, there’s a lot packed into just 25 cards apiece! ($9.99)

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

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Timeline (Asmodee Games)

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! ($8.99 and up)

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Star Trek Chrono-Trek (Looney Labs)

Can you bend time to your will and make the future you desire come to pass? In Star Trek Chrono-Trek, you take on the role of a famous member of Starfleet and try to alter the fabric of space-time itself in order to win. But be careful, because other players are changing the timeline too, and there are consequences for meddling with time! ($25)

[Check out our full review by clicking here!]

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The Oregon Trail (Pressman Toys)

The classic computer game comes to life as you and your fellow players team up to survive the perilous journey along The Oregon Trail. With art evoking old-school computer games, rampant threats and calamities to endure, and a long and challenging road to travel, will any of you will make it to Oregon? ($10.23)

[Check out our full product review of The Oregon Trail by clicking here!]


Dice Games

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Bananagrams Duel (Bananagrams)

Bananagrams specializes in crossword-inspired fun for groups, but what if you’re looking for a head-to-head challenge? Well then, Bananagrams Duel might be what you’re looking for. Utilizing letter cubes instead of tiles, you’ll have to build a grid of related words fitting a given theme before your opponent can! It’s a new twist on an old classic! ($7.99)

[Click here for our full review!]

Sagrada (Floodgate Games)

One of the most beautiful strategy games on the market today, Sagrada is a singularly peaceful gaming experience. Compete with other players to build the most beautiful stained glass window, but with dice instead of glass! Unique and challenging, Sagrada is something else. ($39.95)

Tenzi

All of us have rolled dice in games before, but can you roll what you need as fast as possible? That’s the challenge of Tenzi, a game that pits up to four players against each other in tests of speed and dexterity. Can you roll ten 6’s before everyone else? ($14.95)


Party Games

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Smart10 (Bananagrams)

Can you pick one correct answer from a field of possibilities? Smart10 challenges you and a group of friends to do just that by selecting correct answers from a list of possible responses. It’s tougher than it sounds, and it’ll test your trivia skills and your ability to think under pressure. ($19.95)

[Check out our full review here!]

Slapzi (Tenzi)

Slapzi will keep you on your toes. In this quick-reaction game, you’ve got to match your picture cards to the clue cards before your opponents. But with clues like “Not sold in a hardware store” or “Two of the same letter together,” this isn’t as easy as it appears! ($19.95)

[Click here to check out our full review of Slapzi!]

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Schmovie (Galactic Sneeze)

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! Now redesigned in a sleeker box and playable by all ages, this is the movie game for everyone. ($19.95)

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

Decrypto (IELLO USA)

Can you covertly communicate with your teammates without revealing your secret code to the opponent team? That’s the name of the game in Decrypto, a party game all about word association and deduction. The first team to crack the opposing team’s codes twice wins! ($19.98)


Miscellaneous Puzzle Swag

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I’d Rather Be Puzzling travel mug (Penny Press)

After a long day of puzzling, sip some coffee from a snazzy I’d Rather Be Puzzling Travel Mug ($7.95).

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Flying Colors coloring book (Penny Press)

Our puzzly pals at Penny Press know that sometimes, you need a break from puzzles, so why not unwind with their Flying Colors coloring book ($6.99).

All of the Things

If you’re looking for puzzly magnets, keychains, teddy bears, and more, the team at All of the Things have puzzle treats for you! Their table was one of the marketplace highlights at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and we’re happy to welcome them back to the Gift Guide this year!


Puzzle Events

The Enigmatist

“An immersive evening of puzzles, cryptology, and illusions” created by magician and crossword constructor David Kwong, The Enigmatist is based on William and Elizebeth Friedman’s work at Riverbank, a peculiar hotbed for codebreaking in the early days of the twentieth century.

Tickets are available in New York City until January 11th, then again in May, but in Los Angeles this time at the Geffen Playhouse! (Prices range from $59 to $150 in NYC, $30 to $130 in LA.)

Escape Room gift cards/vouchers

When it comes to the puzzler in your life, why not buy them a gift card or voucher for your friendly local escape room? It’s a terrific unique puzzle experience they can share with friends, loved ones, and fellow puzzlers!

Most escape room companies offer them, and a quick Google search should turn up an escape room near you!

But here’s a smattering of terrific escape rooms to check out:


Thank you to all of the constructors, designers, and companies taking part in this year’s holiday puzzly gift guide!

And thank you for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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