Fairness and Accessibility in Puzzles?

We love crosswords here at PuzzleNation. Crosswords are our bread and butter, as well as our pizza, our salad, and our desserts.

We strive to keep our puzzles as accessible as possible for solvers of all ages. And that’s tougher than non-puzzlers might think.

Recently we discussed a never-ending debate in crosswords as we delved into the many, sometimes contradictory, goals of creating a great crossword. You want entries to appeal to older solvers without alienating younger solvers, and vice versa. Some people despise pop culture references and proper nouns, while others embrace them.

Abbreviations, partial phrases, fill-in-the-blank clues, wordplay clues, clues that reference other clues… there’s a vast swathe of crossword qualities that must be balanced, and no matter how good a job you do, you’re probably still going to have a few dissenting voices who believe you should do better.

As a hobby still very much viewed as the purview of older white men — despite the many worthwhile voices of women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community that contribute to the world of crosswords in increasing numbers — the language featured in crosswords MATTERS.

It reflects our society, serving as a microcosm of the current day and our culture as a whole. Older solvers might not know new slang or black artists or trans performers or any number of references that are growing more commonplace AND gaining greater visibility. But updating the vocabulary of crosswords is a constant effort, and a worthwhile one.

But I said a lot of this in that previous post, so why am I returning to the topic now?

Well, because I find this continuing democratization of crosswords interesting, because it’s something required of crosswords, but not of many other types of puzzles.

Word seeks (except for some variations) give you the starting list, and then you go hunting for answers. Fill-Ins do the same thing, leaving you the empty grid to fill but requiring no specialized knowledge. Everyone gets the same running start.

(I snagged this helpful image from www.logic-puzzles.org.)

Traditional logic puzzles are also presented on an even playing field. You’re presented with information (say, hints about various names, places, times, and activities), as well as an end goal to figure out (the correct schedule of who did what, where, and when).

You don’t have to bring any foreknowledge or previous experience to the table. Given the opportunity, everyone should have an equal chance of solving the puzzle.

Naturally, this equality depends on the assumption that you, the solver, can read the language the puzzle is presented in.

Which brings me to, perhaps, the most democratically fair paper puzzle of all: Sudoku.

The rules are simple, even if the puzzles can be very challenging: place the numbers 1 through 9 in every row, column, and cell.

Even at a glance, without knowing the puzzle, pretty much anyone would have an idea of what’s going on and what needs to be done. Language doesn’t matter, so long as you can identify the nine different symbols to be placed. (This is why word and color variations of Sudoku exist, because the numbers themselves are irrelevent. You just need nine different things.)

Anyone can pick up a pen, a pencil, or a stylus and solve a Sudoku.

And we should strive for the same thing with crosswords.

Sure, all of those other puzzles require practice to get GOOD at them. But at a baseline, everyone who approaches them has a fair shot. Crosswords demand that solvers bring their own knowledge and info and trivia and vocabulary to the table.

But crosswords as a whole should seek that same democratization: Accessibility. Representation. That inviting X factor.

There’s already a touch of that in the medium. Anytime I see someone solving a puzzle on a train, or in an airport, or in some public place, there’s always someone else sneaking a peek or stealing a glance.

Have you ever seen someone complete a crossword for the very first time? I have, and it’s awesome. It’s a magnified version of the delicious a-ha moment when you unravel a tricky clue.

Do you remember the joy in your heart the first time you conquered a New York Times puzzle on a difficult day? The first time you solved a puzzle type you’d never bested before? The first time you cracked the meta lurking in the background of an already devilish design?

Everyone should get that feeling.

No crossword will ever be everything every solver wants it to be. And that’s fine. But I do look forward to the day when everyone looks at a puzzle and at least one of the clues speaks to them, makes them feel seen and heard and represented.

Puzzles should be for everyone.

[Thank you to ThinkFun and Michelle Parrinello-Cason for inspiring this post.]


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Answers to our International Tabletop Day Puzzle (Plus a Special Offer!)

a story to die for box

Before we start with today’s blog post, we’ve got a special offer for you from the puzzly folks at ThinkFun!

Have you checked out our reviews of their new unsolved crime series of puzzle games? In Cold Case, you’re tasked with going through the evidence and solving the case!

There are two editions of Cold Case; A Story to Die For is available for preorder now, and A Pinch of Murder will be available for preorder on June 14th!

And if you click this link and use the promo code 20COLDCASE, you’ll get the puzzle game for 20% off!

Enjoy!


tabletopday_logo

Last week, we celebrated International Tabletop Day with some puzzly recommendations, suggestions, and an anagram mix-and-match puzzle, all in the spirit of celebrating gathering with friends and loved ones — in person or virtually — to play games together.

The challenge was to unscramble the names of famous board game characters from the entries on the left, and then match them up with the correct board game from the list on the right.

We’re sure you managed to unravel all those jumbled phrases, but just in case, let’s take a look at the solution.

First, let’s look at the anagrams.

  • Resist Clams = Miss Scarlet
  • Screenplay Bunching = Rich Uncle Pennybags
  • Niceness Fir Sport = Princess Frostine
  • I, Hyphen Pro = Henry Hippo
  • Air Ma = Maria
  • AI Zag Rug = Gigazaur
  • Cam Sat Ivy = Cavity Sam
  • Be Brother = The Robber

And now, for a splash of color, here is the solution for the matching portion of the puzzle.

tabletop-day-mix-and-match-solution

How did you do with the puzzle? Did you enjoy International Tabletop Day? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from 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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PN Product Review: ThinkFun’s Cold Case: A Pinch of Murder

pinch of murder box

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

A puzzle can leave you baffled for the longest time. You think you’ve examined it from every possible angle, and yet, you’re still left without a solution. Then a fresh pair of eyes arrives, and suddenly all of the pieces fall into place.

Maybe it’s a friend or colleague who sees something you’ve missed, or simply hasn’t been stuck running through the same paths over and over. Or maybe it’s you, having taken a break from the puzzle, stepped away, and returned, now recharged and refreshed and ready to start again.

And that’s the mindset behind ThinkFun’s new Cold Case series. In this puzzle game, you are picking up where a previous investigation left off, trying to close an unsolved murder case.

pinch of murder 2

In today’s spoiler-free review, we’re looking at A Pinch of Murder, the second of two Cold Case mysteries being released in the next few weeks.

A Pinch of Murder presents players with the story of Harold Green, a loyal churchgoer found dead late one afternoon in 1983.

You have transcripts of police interviews with suspects, witness statements, evidence, photographs, and other items collected by the police during their initial investigation. But it’s up to you to comb through the evidence and find what they missed.

There is so much material here that it’s a bit daunting at first. The dizzying array of suspects and names takes a while to get a handle on, even as you carefully read through every scrap of evidence. The presentation is very impressive, with different types of paper and full-color reproductions of photographs and other materials really adding to the immersive feel of the game.

And this case file feels totally different from the one included in the previous entry in the Cold Case series, A Story to Die For. You receive bits of evidence in unfamiliar formats, the interviews are presented differently, and it genuinely feels like a separate team of investigators put this set together.

pinch of murder 1

Harold Green’s life unfolds before you in little bits and bobs, and the glimpses you get of his town, the people around him, and his day-to-day existence feel so credible.

And once you think you’ve cracked the case and found answers for all of the questions left behind by the initial investigation, you can test your theory by going to the ThinkFun Cold Case website and submitting your answers.

If you’re on the wrong track, the replies from the website will give you clues on where to look in order to correctly solve the case. And if your detective skills are in tiptop condition, you’ll get more information and a chance to read the suspect’s confession!

But with no shortage of suspects and a wealth of material to pore over in order to track down the killer and tie up every loose end, this is hardly a cakewalk. You’ll need to pay attention, read between the lines, and make connections like a proper detective.

Solving puzzles is great fun, but to actually feel like you’re solving a murder? That’s something special. Whether you’re solving alone or with friends, the hour or two you spend eliminating suspects and narrowing down the truth in this mystery game will absolutely be worthwhile. When you have that a-ha moment and you know you’ve earned it, there’s nothing quite like it.

ThinkFun has only made two of these so far, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the next ones.

[Cold Case: A Pinch of Murder is part of ThinkFun’s Cold Case series, designed for players ages 14 and up, and is available for $14.99 from ThinkFun and other associated retailers. Pre-orders start June 1st! Links coming soon!]


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Need Crosswords Sorted by Difficulty? Look No Further!

A quick reminder before today’s blog post:

ThinkFun’s Cold Case: A Story to Die For is available for preorder today on Amazon and the ThinkFun website!

Click here to check out our spoiler-free review!


Getting into crosswords can be daunting for new puzzlers. Maybe you’ve solved the syndicated puzzle in your local paper, or you’ve downloaded one of those fabulous apps like Daily POP Crosswords, and you’ve enjoyed, but you’re looking to expand your solving horizons.

The New York Times crossword is well-known, for sure, but has an intimidating reputation as the flagship brand. You know other companies and newspapers have crosswords, but you’re just not sure where to start.

We’ve got good news for you on that front.

A constructor and crossword enthusiast named Lloyd Morgan has assembled what he calls the crossword difficulty matrix, and it’s a thoroughly impressive launchpad for new and inexperienced crossword fans to explore a lot of terrific puzzles and crossword venues.

[Click here for a larger version!]

He originally launched a version of the crossword difficulty matrix on Reddit, and then expanded and adapted it based on feedback from fellow solvers. His goal was to create a guide for new solvers that would help them find the right puzzles and difficulty rankings for their puzzly comfort level.

Not only does he cover major outlets like The New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Universal, but he also looped in Kings syndicated constructors like Joseph and Sheffer, plus some other outlets casual solvers might not even be aware of!

I haven’t really seen anything like this made available for enthusiastic solvers before, and I think he did a terrific job.

Then again, I’m not the savviest crossword solver around.

[Me, watching faster and more clever solvers posting their solve times.]

But I do know some pretty savvy cruciverbalists, so I reached out to some topnotch and experienced constructors and solvers and asked for their thoughts on the crossword difficulty matrix.

Wordplay blogger and brilliant crossword lady Deb Amlen thought it was a totally fair breakdown of puzzle difficulty, though she noted, “I still believe that if you asked 10 solvers about the difficulty of a puzzle, you will get 10 different answers.” TRUTH.

David Steinberg, editor of the Universal Crossword, thought the matrix was pretty accurate as well, though he suggested a few tweaks regarding “Universal (which has no increase in difficulty during the week for 15x15s, though the Sunday 21×21 is a bit more challenging) and maybe the Wall Street Journal (which I would consider a little easier in the early week).”

Looks like Deb’s prediction is already coming true.

I also reached out to constructor Doug Peterson, one of the most knowledgeable puzzlers in the game today, was also kind enough to offer his thoughts:

I don’t really know the Joseph & Sheffer puzzles, but I believe they’re easy, unthemed 13x13s, so light-green makes sense for those. And I think New York Magazine is Matt Gaffney, so that seems about right too. Yeah, this is well-done. I might tick up the Thursday NY Times a notch, but it varies from week to week.

He had some suggestions for other venues to include as well:

If folks are looking for something else at the Very Difficult/dark-red end of the scale, Fireball [Crosswords] sometimes gets there. They’re definitely a “red” venue. The Inkubator I’d put in that middle yellow/Wednesday area for their themed stuff. And AV Club is literally the entire range above “Very Easy.”

I did ask one or two other puzzlers, but they hadn’t had the chance to reply by press time, so we’ll probably revisit this topic in the future (especially if Lloyd offers an updated version).

But in the meantime, I want to give some well-deserved kudos to Lloyd for this marvelous resource for new solvers. Not only does it include a lot of terrific outlets, but it offers a terrific stepladder of difficulty for them to find ever-increasing challenges whenever they’d like!

Thank you to Lloyd, as well as the marvelous constructors and puzzly folks who offered their thoughts. You’re all part of a brilliant, vibrant, and welcoming crossword community.


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PN Product Review: ThinkFun’s Cold Case: A Story to Die For

a story to die for box

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

Detective novels, police procedurals, murder mysteries, forensic shows… there’s an entire entertainment industry out there built on the idea of solving crimes. And why do we watch and read and participate?

Because we all like to believe we can catch the crook. Deep down, we all want to be Batman or Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes or Temperance Brennan or Jessica Fletcher or Gil Grissom or the NCIS team or members of the NYPD or any of those quick minds who unravel cases and bring the guilty to justice.

Board games are no different, encouraging us to solve crimes through process of elimination (Clue/Cluedo), careful examination of the evidence (Deception: Murder in Hong Kong), or exploring Victorian London through maps, directories, and newspapers (Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective).

ThinkFun has taken a different route with their new line of Cold Case mysteries for you to solve.

Today’s review is based on A Story to Die For, the first of two Cold Case mysteries being released in the next few weeks.

In A Story to Die For, you try to solve the 1988 murder of a young journalist.

Yes, this is a cold case, meaning you’re coming in after an investigation has already taken place, yet the case remains unsolved.

You have transcripts of police interviews with suspects, evidence, photographs, and other items collected by the police during their initial investigation. But it’s up to you to comb through the evidence and find what they missed.

There is an absolute wealth of material here to read, creating an entire world of suspects, motives, events, and red herrings for you to unravel. And the materials are top-notch. Full-color photographs, plus different papers and fonts to represent the different sources of information collected.

a story to die for 1

I was very impressed by the presentation of the case. A lot of hard work and detail went into crafting the materials for you to read and reread as you assimilate more information about Andy Bailey’s life. (I would love to tell you specifics, but I want to keep this review spoiler-free!)

And once you think you’ve cracked the case and found answers for all of the questions left behind by the initial investigation, you can test your theory by going to the ThinkFun Cold Case website and submitting your answers.

If you’re on the wrong track, the replies from the website will give you clues on where to look in order to correctly solve the case. And if your detective skills are in tiptop condition, you’ll get more information and a chance to read the suspect’s confession!

It’s a game built on observation, deduction, and wits, and I think it’s one of ThinkFun’s most impressive creations yet. Whether you’re solving alone or with friends, the hour or two you spend unraveling this mystery will be time well spent.

[Cold Case: A Story to Die For is part of ThinkFun’s Cold Case series, designed for players ages 14 and up, and is available for $14.99 from ThinkFun and other associated retailers. Pre-orders start May 18th!]


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