Puzzles… in… Space!

When you’re a puzzle enthusiast, you never know where your interest might take you, or what interesting and unexpected people you’ll encounter along the way. All sorts of folks enjoy puzzles, after all.

If you enjoy puzzles with trivia, you could bump into Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? winners or Jeopardy! champions like Ken Jennings. The New York Times has introduced us to several famous crossword enthusiasts. The British government is publishing puzzle books. Heck, actors Joel McHale and Neil Patrick Harris both included puzzles in their autobiographies!

Even astronauts are getting into the puzzly spirit!

Astronaut Tim Peake spent half a year in one of the most fascinating places in the solar system: the International Space Station. He was the first British astronaut to serve under the banner of the European Space Agency, and the first British astronaut to perform a spacewalk.

Upon returning to Earth, he turned his attention to more literary efforts, penning three books about space. The third, published last year in partnership with the European Space Agency, takes readers behind the scenes of the ESA screening process for astronauts.

Yes, puzzles are part of the screening process for the ESA.

Would you like to try your hand at solving some of them?

How did you do? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you

And if you’d like, you can find more of these puzzles in Peake’s delightful book The Astronaut Selection Test Book: Do You Have What it Takes for Space?

Do you have what it takes? I suspect that you do, fellow puzzler.

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Three ways to TV trivia!

Trivia-based game shows seem to be having a bit of a resurgence these days, between ABC’s 500 Questions, Fox’s BOOM!, and GSN’s The Chase.

Unlike Jeopardy!, television’s longest-running trivia-based game show, which relies mostly on the questions themselves to generate interest, this new class of game shows adds all sorts of gimmicky flair to dress up the trivia, be it pursuit by other players (500 Questions) or an in-house trivia master (The Chase) or the threat of being covered in something slimy (BOOM!).

I thought I’d take a look at each of these shows from the standpoint of a self-confessed trivia fiend.

[Image courtesy of reviewjournal.com.]

In BOOM!, the splatter appeal of shows like Double Dare is mixed with the multiple choice style of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, hoping to ratchet up the tension with a wrong answer resulting in some serious messes.

You’ve got multiple answers to a question, and all but one of them are correct. (For instance, you’ll be given the titles of four movies, and then told 3 out of the 4 have been inspired by books.) Each of those answers is color-coded to a wire on the bomb, and the contestant must cut each wire they think is correct in the time allotted in order to defuse the bomb.

[Image courtesy of fresnobee.com.]

If you cut all the right wires, the money for that question goes into your bank. If you get a wrong answer, the bomb “explodes” and you get splattered (there has been pesto, alfredo sauce, maple syrup, and yellow mustard), your team loses the money for that question, and you’re eliminated.

When every team member is splattered, you’re done. If any member of your team survives the six trivia bombs, you go after the Mega Money bomb, which if defused will multiply your banked money by a factor of 4. A perfect run will yield $500,000 for the team.

The show debuted last week on FOX.

[Image courtesy of abc.go.com.]

In 500 Questions, a contestant tackles ten rounds of 50 questions each. Three consecutive wrong answers will knock a contestant out of the competition (correct answers can erase one or two wrong answers).

Along the way, a challenger dogs the contestant at every turn, hoping to knock the contestant out by choosing tough categories if the contestant has acquired two wrongs in a row. The challenger only has one 50-question round to eliminate the contestant; if the challenger fails, a new challenger emerges for the next round.

[Image courtesy of usmagazine.com.]

For every board of 50 questions completed, the contestant is guaranteed the money earned in that round. However, any wrong answers acquired will follow the contestant into the next round.

It’s worth noting that these rules may only apply during the first 200 questions. Since no one has ever completed the fourth round, there could be alternate rules or new wrinkles awaiting contestants and challengers in round five and above.

The show ran for seven straight weeknights, and it’s unknown at this point if it will return.

[Host Brooke Burns and trivia pro The Beast.
Image courtesy of The Blog is Right.]

In The Chase (which is based on a British game show of the same name), a team of contestants pits their trivia wits against the chaser — known as The Beast — who is waiting to capitalize on any mistakes they make. In the early rounds, each contestant faces off against The Beast one-on-one, answering a certain number of questions in a row in order to lock in their prize money and continue in the game.

Any mistakes made by the contestant create opportunities for The Beast to catch them, preventing them from banking any prize money. If the contestant stays ahead of The Beast by answering more questions correctly, the prize money gets banked and the contestant moves on to the Final Chase.

[Image courtesy of variety.com.]

In the Final Chase, whichever contestants survived their individual chase rounds work together to answer as many questions as possible in two minutes. They move a space ahead on the gameboard for every correct answer. The goal here is to build as big a lead as they can before The Beast takes his turn.

The Beast then answers a different set of questions, with each correct answer bringing him one space closer to catching the contestants. If he answers a question wrong, the Chase is paused and the contestants get a shot at answering that question. A correct answer increases their lead by one space; an incorrect answer simply continues the game.

If the contestants can outpace the Beast, they win, splitting the banked money equally; if the Beast catches them, they go home with nothing.

The show’s fourth season on GSN resumes on July 16.

Now, I must admit, 500 Questions didn’t appeal to me because I don’t enjoy feeling obligated to watch something every single night. I understand it’s meant to be a special event and all that, but oversaturation, even in the short term, tends to leave me disinterested. (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? committed the same mistake by airing far too frequently for my tastes, and I quickly abandoned the show.)

I quite enjoy The Chase, but less as a viewer and more as a competitor, since I like to test myself against The Beast. Although I tend to do well, he has bested me more than once. He is a worthy foe.

Although only one episode of BOOM! has aired so far, I find myself watching it less for the trivia — which is very common sense and common knowledge, thus far — and more for whether the contestant botches the question and gets splattered. Whether that remains enough to keep me tuning in week after week… only time will tell.

Are you watching any of these newer trivia game shows, fellow PuzzleNationers, or do you stick with the classics? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

5 Questions with Puzzler Leslie Billig!

Welcome to another edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, board game creators, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m overjoyed to have Leslie Billig as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

[Leslie, next to trivia whiz Ken Jennings, at the
2006 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament]

Leslie Billig began her puzzle career at Dell Magazines in 1982 and went on to create, edit, proofread, and fact-check puzzles for numerous outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Games magazine, People, and Reader’s Digest.

She’s also published her own puzzle books, authoring Sit & Solve Cryptograms for Sterling and coediting Dell Magazines’ Puzzler’s Sunday Crosswords. In addition to all that, she has served as editor of The Uptown Puzzle Club — a by-mail Puzzle of the Month Club subscription with high-quality, New York Times-style puzzles — for more than a decade, but she’s making an exciting transition to a new post! (Come on, I can’t tell you everything in the intro. *smiles*)

Leslie 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 Leslie Billig

1.) How did you first get into puzzles?

I’ve loved puzzles and wordplay from an early age, and started solving crosswords at my father’s knee. He did the New York Times crossword puzzle (in ink!) and at some point I was able to fill in the squares he left blank. I also enjoyed the variety puzzles in Dell magazines; my favorite was the Bowl-a-Score Challenger (also known as Bowl Game).

In this game, you’re given 10 letters arranged like bowling pins, and the goal is to form one word using all the letters for a “strike” and two smaller words for a “spare.” I was never satisfied to make just one spare: I’d try to form as many combos as I could: 5,5 4,6, 3,7 etc. This game instilled in me a love of anagrams that’s lasted to this day.

[Leslie performing in the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle
Tournament talent show… which she won, by the way!]

2.) In your estimation, what separates a topnotch puzzle from a run-of-the-mill puzzle? What are some favorite puzzles or clues you’ve encountered over the years?

Crossword puzzles have truly evolved in the 32 years that I’ve been in the “puzzle biz,” and I continue to be astonished by the originality and cleverness of the people who make them. A great crossword begins with the theme, of course, but I believe the fill is just as important. The solver solves the *whole* puzzle, not just the theme entries. You can have a brilliant theme, but if the rest of the grid is filled with crosswordese, Roman numerals, obscure abbreviations, and overused words, it will diminish the solving experience.

One of my favorite crosswords appeared in the January 2007 issue of the Uptown Crosswords Club. It was called Self-Effacement by Robert H. Wolfe, and the gimmick was that there were no I’s in the grid. I decided it would be even better if there were no I’s in the clues, either. That was a fun challenge!

I remember the hardest two answers to clue were ENYA and BOHR. For Enya I couldn’t use the words Irish, Gaelic, singer, vocalist, musician, or (Grammy) winner. The clue for BOHR couldn’t include Danish, Nobelist, Niels, physicist, scientist, pioneer, or Einstein (contemporary).

Another example is a terrific puzzle constructor Raymond Young made for my magazine, Dell Puzzler’s Sunday Crosswords. It was a 15×15 crossword that, when solved, became a Word Search puzzle in which the names of all the playing cards, from ace to king, were hidden. Pretty impressive for a daily-sized crossword!

3.) In addition to your work in puzzles, you’re something of a game show pro, having worked on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and been a contestant on NPR’s Ask Me Another. Do you feel that your puzzle-solving experience has helped you in your game show adventures? Are there any other shows you’d like to tackle?

[Leslie on NPR’s “Ask Me Another”]

I actually held two positions while working on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — first as a researcher and then as a question writer. I’d say my years as a professional puzzle editor certainly helped me there: one picks up a lot of trivia and odd information in that line of work!

Being on Ask Me Another was a hoot. For one thing, it’s unique among game shows because so many the questions involve puzzles and wordplay, not just trivia. Right up my alley! You can hear the episode I was on at their archives.

You can listen to the whole episode, or just the segments I’m in: “Bankable Stars” (my first segment) & “Reverse Spelling Bee” (big finish).

4.) What’s next for Leslie Billig?

After 12 years as editor of the Uptown Puzzle Club, I’m excited to succeed Rich Norris — [Glenn’s note: Los Angeles Times Crossword Editor] — as editor of the Crosswords Club.

Patti Varol — [Glenn’s note: friend of the blog, puzzle constructor, and all-around good egg] — succeeds me as editor of Uptown, and solvers can continue to expect challenging and entertaining crosswords in each of these Clubs. Check them out!

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

No advice, but a request: please introduce any children in your life to the joys of puzzle solving — the pleasures and benefits will last a lifetime.

Many thanks to Leslie for her time. You can follow her work with the Crosswords Club here, and be sure to check out her library of puzzle books at Barnes & Noble here! I can’t wait to see what puzzly fun she cooks up next.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!