5 Questions for Crossword Constructor and Wordplay Blogger Deb Amlen

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And we’re excited to welcome Deb Amlen as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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[Deb in the center, flanked by her fellow Musketeers.]

Deb is a talented crossword constructor, but these days, it’s more likely you know her for her role as the head writer and senior editor of Wordplay, the crossword blog and educational/humor column associated with The New York Times crossword puzzle.

One of the most public faces associated with the crossword, Deb entertains and informs across both the blog and its associated Twitter account, as well as hosting a live-solving show on YouTube with fellow constructor Sam Ezersky and celebrity guests!

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


5 Questions for Deb Amlen

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

Word games like “Ghost” were always my favorite things to play when I was a child, but I didn’t really get into puzzles until I was a young adult. I watched my father solve the New York Times crossword when I was really young, but I didn’t start solving on my own until I bought myself a subscription to New York Magazine after college and discovered Maura Jacobson’s puzzles.

I started constructing crosswords when my own kids were young because, as a stay-at-home mom, I desperately needed a creative outlet that didn’t involve Pokémon or Elmo. I read everything I could about puzzle making and learned how to make crosswords from Nancy Salomon. Nancy has mentored hundreds of constructors to publication.

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2. As the flagbearer for crosswords in the public eye, The New York Times crossword is often the most scrutinized when it comes to cultural sensitivity regarding entries and clues, and more than once, that has depicted the Times puzzle in an unflattering light.

As a very public figure for the brand — not to mention the de facto social media gatekeeper — this puts you in the unenviable position of being between the audience and the editorial team. How do you handle these situations, and as an enthusiastic solver yourself, how do you think the Times is doing in this arena?

The crossword does get a lot of flack, doesn’t it? Honestly, some of it is warranted, some of it is not.

There is definitely a need to bring the flagship puzzle into the 21st century in terms of diversity and representation. Like most large companies, however, sometimes change happens slowly at The New York Times.

A lot of work is being done by the company and the puzzle editors behind the scenes, though, to increase diversity on their team and to be more aware of content that is inflammatory, and I think the recent puzzles reflect that. They have a ways to go, but the conversation is active and ongoing, and I’m very optimistic about the future of the crossword.

As far as social media goes, people tend to conflate “the Wordplay Twitter account” with “Everything The New York Times Does With Regard to Puzzles and Games.” So, since I run the Wordplay account and the puzzle editors are not really on social media, I tend to be the target of people’s complaints, which is hilarious because I’m just the columnist. Luckily, The Times has allowed me to expense a thick skin, so I’m doing OK. When I’m not, I take a break from social media, which I highly recommend and think everyone should do.

On the other hand, most people are well-wishers and are a lot of fun. They tweet their solving victories to me and I give them a gold medal emoji, which people really respond to. It’s very satisfying to be able to lift people up and encourage them, especially on social media, which can be very negative.

3. For the 75th anniversary of the New York Times crossword, constructors and celebrity guest puzzlers collaborated on numerous puzzles. Which celebrity constructors surprised you the most with their work, and who would you like to see as guest constructors in the future?

I’m not sure I was surprised by this, but I believe that Rachel Maddow’s crossword was one of the most popular, most downloaded puzzles we’ve ever had. Neil Patrick Harris’s puzzle had a very cool trick to it. And I can’t leave out the one I did with Natasha Lyonne, who was just brilliant to work with.

[Author’s note: When asked about her puzzle, Natasha said, “Working with Deb Amlen to create this puzzle has quite literally been a lifetime highlight for me.”]

4. What’s next for Deb Amlen?

Dinner, probably.

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

Enjoy yourself. This is not like sitting down to take the SAT; it’s a game. And games should be fun. Life is too short to sweat the crossword.


A huge thank you to Deb for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on her puzzly and creative endeavors, and be sure to check out her work on the Wordplay blog and her very entertaining live-solving videos on YouTube. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.

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

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Janie’s Got a Pun: The ReHASHtag Game

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You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or @midnight’s Hashtag Wars segment on Comedy Central.

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzlyBands, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles with musicians, singers, bands, and more!

Examples include: The Beat-the-Clock-les, Brick by Brick Astley, or Kris
Krossword.

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


U2 at a Time

Sheryl Crows Soundgarden

Sheryl Letter Crow

Men at Framework

Framebjork

Patchwork Swayze

Alphabet Bowling for Soup

Mixmaster Flash and the Furious Five / Grandmaster Flash and the Fancy Fives

Fancy Jackson Fives

The Cracker Jackson 5 / Cracker-Joe-Jackson

Fill-In Collins

Wilson Fill-Ins

Fill-INXS

The Four Topsy-Turvy Fill-In / ZZ Topsy-Turvy Fill-In

ZZ Top to Bottom

Tina Turnabout

TurnabOutkast

Danzig-Zag

Zigzag Marley

RadioHeads & Tails

The Lemon Heads & Tails

The Lemon Headings

Bobby V-Words

Scramb-Led Zeppelin Words

Diagram-Les Paul

Mixed Nikki Sixxes

Throw-Burt-Bach-arachs

Neil Sudoku

Siouxsie Sioux-doku and the Banshees

Hüsker Sudokü

Kenkenny Rogers

Paul Simon Says / Carly Simon Says

Crypto Graham Nash

CryptoGram Parsons

Sly & the Crypto-Families Stone

Sly and the Family Ties

The Partridge Family Ties

Ringo Starr Words / Ringo Starrspell

ABBA-cus

Bay City Rollers of the Dice

Derek and the Missing Dominoes

Grand Funk Railroad Ties

Earth, Windowboxes & Fire

Tower of Letter Power

Flower Power Station

Rufus WainRight of Way

Point the Wayland Jennings

Steve Cropperfect Fit

Susan TedeschiWord

Green Daisy

Sum Words 41

KC and the Sum Words Band

Mathboxes Twenty

Hearts and Flowers

Stepping Rolling Stones

Alice in Chain Words

Sir Mix-and-Match-A-Lot

Busta Pairs in Rhymes

Dexy’s Midnight Punners

New Kidz On The Letterboxes / New Kids on the Blockbuilders

Bull’s-Eilish Spiral

Simple Minds Tickler / Simple Minds Boggler

Right Angles Said Fred

Quote Questlove

Mariah Carry-Overs

AccorDionne Warwick Words

Ella Four-Fitzgerald

The Blackout! Crowes / The Blackout! Eyed Peas / Blackout Sabbath!

Roberta Flack-out!

LudaCrisscross / Kiss-Kross

Chaka Khancellations

Fats Domino Theory

Neil Diamond Mine / Neil Diamond Rings

Alphabet Soupertramp

Cros-Styx

The Lucky Clovers

Miles Around the Block Davis

End of The Skyliners

The Who’s Calling / The Guess Who

Charlie Watts’ My Name

Duke Skellington Key

DartLorde

“My Sudoku” by The Knack

Dell Amitri / Dell La Soul

Tom Penny Publications and the Heartbreakers

Daily Iggy POP Crossword


One puzzler even paired puzzly bands with puzzly songs and albums!

MegaSudokuDeth (“Peace Sells . . . But Who’s Calling?”)

Sonny & Share-A-Letter (“The Beat the Clock Goes On,” “I Got You Know the Odds Babe”)

FleetWord Math (“LandSlide-O-Gram,” “Go Your Own Word Ways”)

Guns N’ Rows Garden (“Sweet Child O’ Diamond Mine,” “Live and Let Diagramless”)

Bingo Crosby (“White Crisscross”)

The Rolling SteppingStones (“Rhyme Time Is on My Side,” “Paint It Blackout!,” “Ruby Cluesday”)


One intrepid puzzler went so far as to rewrite the lyrics to Bungle in the Jungle by Jethro Tull! So please enjoy Bungle In The Jumble…

My friend says she’s bored, yeah she’s lonely and older
I thought, “She needs puzzles.”, and that’s what I told her

With fun illustrations they’re hers for the taking
She can finish several while her cookies are baking

Now she is hooked; she is terribly spellbound
She quickly deciphers and shares whatever she’s found

Bungle in the jumble, well for her that’s a breeze
Don’t give her easy puzzles, ‘cause she’ll say they’re a tease


Our readership also got it on the fun!

Laura Campbell offered up SyllacroSTYX and Bananaramagram Magic Squares. (Judy Schumacker on Twitter also pitched Bananaramagram Magic Squares!)

Sandra Halbrook posted Christopher Cross Sums, and Roni Gunn shared Slay-er-cros-tic.

Terrific puns all around!


Have you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzly Bands entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Puzzling From Home!

Problem-solving-crossword

In the wake of puzzly public events like the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament being cancelled, as well as the shutdown of various school districts, workplaces, and businesses in order to limit exposure to the Coronavirus, it’s completely understandable that some puzzle fans may be feeling disappointed or even isolated from their fellow puzzlers.

But fear not! There are all sorts of options available to solvers looking to enjoy a puzzly experience from home, either on their own or with friends.


If you’re looking for crosswords, all you need is your computer. The New York Times, The LA Times, The Washington Post, and many other outlets offer online puzzle-solving, either by subscription or through watching ads before solving.

If you have access to a printer, you can print those puzzles out for the true pencil-and-paper solving experience.

And it’s not just newspapers. Many constructors — Brendan Emmett Quigley comes to mind — offer their own free puzzles semi-regularly (though you’re welcome to tip as a thank you). There is a world of puzzles out there on the Internet awaiting solvers.

But you don’t even have to go to a computer anymore. There are loads of terrific puzzles available right on your phone. Forgive us for tooting our own horn, but Daily POP Crosswords is a great puzzle app with a free puzzle every day and additional puzzle packets available for purchase or through our in-app coin system. (We also offer Word Seeks, Sudoku, and a marvelous story-driven puzzle mystery, Wordventures, if you’re looking for something different.)

Oh, and speaking of something different, if you’re looking to delve into more elaborate puzzles, there are some fantastic puzzle services by mail that offer all sorts of challenges.

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Wish You Were Here by the Enigma Emporium conceals an entire mystery within a handful of postcards, challenging you to mine them for every scrap of information as you uncover a series of coded messages. It’s spycraft in an envelope, very clever stuff.

The Cryptogram Puzzle Post out of the UK offers something unique, mixing puzzles and encryption with bits of mystery and supernatural narratives to create standalone chapters in an ongoing story. So you can pick one season or an entire year, depending on how deep you want to go!

And for multi-month affairs, there are outlets like Hunt a Killer and The Mysterious Package Company, which create vast, immersive puzzle experiences by mail. (Though according to friends’ recommendations, Hunt a Killer works better without the month wait between installments.)

As you can see, there’s a wide variety of ways you can puzzle from home, whether you prefer to solve online, by email, on the phone, or by mail!


That’s all well and good, you might be saying, but what about the social aspect? Well, there are options there as well, even from the comforts of your home.

Photo by Matt MacGillivray, licensed via Creative Commons

Some puzzlers actually livestream their puzzle-solving online through avenues like Twitch, Facebook, and YouTube. The New York Times periodically does this as well, often with celebrity guest solvers!

You can keep your eyes peeled on Facebook and Twitter for constructors and solvers who do so. It often adds a fun, communal element to puzzle-solving (especially if they struggle with the same tricky clues that you do). Some pub trivia outlets are also moving online to allow for participating from home!

new york times

But if you don’t want to wait for someone to livestream their solving, you can do it yourself! Between Facetime and similar apps on smartphones and all the online avenues for audio and video-chatting (Skype, Google Hangouts, Discord, etc.), you could pair up with a friend and tag-team a crossword puzzle or other puzzly challenge!

It’s like co-working, except with puzzles. Co-solving!

In times like this, where uncertainty abounds and our comfortable routines have been upended, puzzles can offer a wonderful refuge from all the stresses of the world. And with technology on our side, we can even keep the communal joys of puzzling in our lives.

Happy puzzling, friends.


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

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

How Dungeons & Dragons Brings Us Together

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One of my favorite things about puzzles and games is the way they bring people together. It could be gathering around a table for a session of Dungeons & Dragons, enlisting a friend in unraveling a tricky crossword clue, or swapping jigsaws with a fellow enthusiast to share the wealth.

Recently, a story about Dungeons & Dragons went viral, but if you haven’t seen it, I’ll happily summarize.


A Twitter user named Antoine H. delivered his grandmother’s eulogy after her sad passing, but wasn’t able to devote the time he wanted to one important aspect of her life, so he took to Twitter later to do so.

At 75 years old, in the last year of her life, she started playing D&D at his suggestion.

terminatur

Her first character? A male forest gnome named Terminatur (a combination of “termite” and “nature”).

She helped her fellow players cleanse a haunted house, then made it a home, including inventing a new fruit that became quite popular. (It led to membership in an interplanar ecology organization, The Circle of the Green Hand.)

She even gave the adventuring party its name: “les Bijoutiers Fantaisistes,” the Fanciful Jewelers.

Although her cancer treatment would limit her opportunities to play regularly, she still kept on with the campaign whenever possible, adding delightful new wrinkles to her character.

Her last words to him? “Never change, never lose your family spirit, and keep on playing Dungeons & Dragons.”


As a longtime D&D player, I love this story. Because, as much fun as it is to play the game, it’s the connections you forge DURING play that mean the most. In fact, my favorite roleplaying game memory isn’t from an actual play session.

rpg-2009-berlin-2

It’s from a lazy afternoon hanging out with some of my players, just listening as they shared stories about their favorite moments from the game. (Since each of them had individual adventures, in addition to group adventures, they got to share stories the others hadn’t experienced.) Their reenactments were a pleasure to watch, knowing I had helped craft adventures that they enjoyed so much, they wanted to share them with others.

Getting to tell stories with my friends is an incredible gift, and I can only imagine how much joy it brought both Antoine and his grandmother to find this lovely, unexpected common ground.

You can (and should) click here to read the entire Twitter thread. It’s wonderful.

Also, please share your own stories of how games, puzzles, and RPGs have improved your life and friendships. I’d love to hear them.


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

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

How Tweet It Is!

Crosswords occupy a curious niche in popular culture.

They’re a part of everyday life, appearing in newspapers, apps, puzzle books, mysteries, and more. That simple patterning of black and white squares, no matter where it appears, brings them to mind.

And yet, despite their ubiquity, they’re not always viewed as something for the everyman. Some consider them off-putting or intimidating, steeped in obscure cluing and peculiar verbiage intended to keep casual solvers out.

That mix of familiarity and unfamiliarity makes crosswords the perfect fodder for comedians. The crew at HuffPost proved this by compiling a list of humorous tweets focusing on crosswords.

Some of them referenced the odd letter combinations you encounter in grids…

Or the difficulty some clues offer…

Or just the general difficulty of the puzzle…

But other tweets had fun with specific puzzles…

Or with the act of solving itself…

And, given how often wordplay finds its way into crosswords, it’s only appropriate to close out with a pun…

(That last one wasn’t in the HuffPost article. There’s plenty more puzzle humor out there, I just happened to stumbled across it yesterday before writing this post.)

Have you encountered any funny crossword-themed tweets recently? Let us know in the comments section below! (And be sure to follow us on Twitter, where we share little gems like these whenever we can.)


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

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Six Years of PuzzleNation Blog (Plus a Contest)!

[Image courtesy of Bogoreducare.org.]

Yes, we’re celebrating today, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!

We’re celebrating because it is the sixth anniversary of the very first post here on PuzzleNation Blog! Yes, we’ve been on this puzzly journey together since August of 2012, and in my admittedly biased yet humble opinion, it’s been a brilliant one.

In those six years, we’ve published over a thousand posts! (More than nine hundred of them penned by yours truly.) We’ve delved into puzzle history, cracked diabolical brain teasers, marked milestones like the centenary of the crossword, and even rejoiced at puzzly proposals of marriage!

And to celebrate six years of PuzzleNation Blog, we’ve got a week of activities planned for our marvelous readers and fellow puzzlers!

For starters, we’re loading over a hundred new pins to our Pinterest account for your viewing pleasure!

And we’re launching a promotion across all of our social media platforms to celebrate the anniversary. It’s our PuzzleNation 6th Anniversary Contest!

[Image courtesy of Ad Libbing.]

Starting today, and every day for the next five days, we’ll be posting a different brain teaser on Instagram.

Also starting today, keep your eyes peeled on Facebook and Twitter, because each day for the next five days, we’ll be asking for a single answer from that day’s Daily POP Crosswords App puzzle and that day’s Penny Dell Crosswords App puzzle.

(These will be separate from the usual Crossword Clue Challenge posts, and we’ll mark them with “PuzzleNation 6th Anniversary Contest” to distinguish them.)

Message us on FB or Twitter with the answer, or message us on Instagram with the answer to a brain teaser, and you’ll go into a drawing for a terrific prize! (And yes, since there are different brain teasers each day and different answers for each of the two daily puzzles, you can enter multiple times to increase your odds of winning!)

Enjoy the contest, fellow puzzlers. It’s a small thank you for being a part of the PuzzleNation community.


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

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!