Where to Look for Crossword Reviews/Commentary?

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Occasionally, we’ll get a message from a PuzzleNationer who wonders why we don’t review the daily New York Times crossword or some of the other prominent daily newspaper crosswords.

It makes sense to ask. After all, we try to cover all things puzzles and games here — great clues, trivia, brain teasers, puzzles in pop culture, interviews, game reviews, how to’s, puzzle history, the Crossword Mysteries — so why not the top crossword outlets?

Well, to be honest, there are already several crossword blogs doing a dynamite job of covering those. So today, I want to discuss some top-notch blogs that discuss and review the daily crosswords!

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For the New York Times crossword alone, there’s Wordplay, XWord Info, and Rex Parker.

Wordplay is the official New York Times crossword blog, and not only do you get great analysis from knowledgeable minds, but you get live solve-alongs, insight from constructors, and more.

XWord Info is my go-to for details on construction and a fair, informative review. People occasionally accuse XWord Info of being too favorable to the puzzles/constructors, but I think they call it right down the middle, and there have been times where reviewers and constructors leveled stern criticism at a puzzle’s editorial process OR how it was discussed on XWord Info itself.

Rex Parker’s blog can be more critical of Times puzzles — as we’ve said before, he borders on the curmudgeonly — but he has terrific advice about grid construction, theme entries, and more that several constructors have told me proved to be invaluable in their early days learning to construct.

His blog is probably not for everybody, but he remains one of the most influential voices in crossword reviewing today.

Oh, and if you’re looking for some terrific reviews of the NYT Mini Crossword, check out this great Instagram account!

Of course, the NYT crossword isn’t the only game in town.

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If you’re a fan of the Los Angeles Times Crossword, there’s the terrific L.A. Times Crossword Corner blog to keep you up to date on that puzzle, breaking every puzzle down clue by clue. (There’s also LAX Crossword, which offers answers and clue explanations.)

If you enjoy the USA Today crossword, Sally Hoelscher offers Sally’s Take on the USA Today Crossword daily, offering up theme explanations, things she learned from the puzzle, and sharing terrific opinions and thoughts that would absolutely be beneficial to newer solvers.

And although it’s not a blog per se, the XWord Muggles Forum offers an interactive space to discuss and break down the Wall Street Journal weekly crossword contest, as well as other meta crossword puzzles.

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But, if you’re looking for more of a one-stop-shop experience, then you should check out Diary of a Crossword Fiend.

Crossword Fiend covers NYT, LA Times, WSJ, Universal, USA Today, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Newsday, The Inkubator, AVCX, and more! Not only that, but you’ll get reviews of puzzles from independent constructors like Elizabeth Gorski’s Crossword Nation, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords, and others.

They post their solving times, analyze the puzzles, and spread the word about other puzzly projects and crossword news. It’s a fantastic site.

And before I wrap up this recommendation post, I do want to shout out the community on Reddit’s r/crossword subreddit. It’s a forum for discussing puzzle opinions, sharing works from aspiring and developing constructors, and yes, reviewing and sharing thoughts on the major outlets (mostly the NYT).

Most of the posters and commenters are genuinely good folks who love crosswords and enjoy discussing them, and it’s a pretty pleasant place to visit if you’re a crossword fan.

Do you have any favorite Crossword Review Blogs that we missed? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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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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Ask a Puzzler: What’s your puzzly pet peeve?

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Originally this post was going to be a nitpicky little thing where I focused on one of my puzzly pet peeves.

But it occurred to me that this might not just be a pet peeve of mine. It might similarly irk other puzzle people I know.

I then reached out to some of the constructors I know to ask what their puzzly pet peeves are. And, as it turns out, there are lots of silly little things in crosswords and other puzzles that catch the ire of constructors and puzzle-minded folks.

So please join us as we kvetch and complain a little bit and let off some steam about one of our favorite pastimes.

Welcome to Ask a Puzzler: What’s one of your puzzly pet peeves?


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Constructor Joanne Sullivan:

The myth that solving in pen is the highest achievement.

Winners of the ACPT have told me that they never solve in pen. Almost all solvers (including the expert speed-solvers) use pencils at crossword tournaments. You could write a whole article on serious crossword solvers’ pencil preferences–wood vs. mechanical, .5 mm vs. .7 mm lead, disposable vs. refillable, etc.

When I’ve worked as a judge at crossword tournaments, I’ve been irked by solvers who solve in pen and then wrote over their original answers when they made mistakes because they couldn’t erase them. If they insist on using pens, at least they should use ones with erasable ink. Sloppy handwriting in tournament puzzles is also a pain for judges. What’s worse than mere sloppy handwriting is inconsistency. If a contestant always uses the same squiggle to represent a certain letter, it’s easier to determine their intent, but if they form the same letter different ways in different squares, it can be maddening for judges.


Washington Post Crossword editor Evan Birnholz:

A pet peeve of mine is the tendency to refer only to classical or Romantic-era music pieces when writing clues about keys (A MINOR, C MAJOR, etc). Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin are great, but there are other genres and musicians who used those keys, too.


Universal Crossword editor David Steinberg:

I’d say my puzzly pet peeve is when a crossword has too many cross-reference clues (like “See 19-Across”), since it’s always sort of frustrating to be sent all over the grid.


Constructor Doug Peterson:

Clues that want me to think the answer is a “good name” for a certain profession.

For example STU as a [Good name for a cook?] or SUE as a [Good name for a lawyer?]. OTTO for a chauffeur, OWEN for a debtor, PHILIP for a gas station attendant. The list goes on and on. I love third grade riddles as much as anyone, but for some reason these stick in my craw. =)

In my opinion, this sort of thing only works for pets. OREO is a great name for a black-and-white kitten!

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Fireball Crosswords constructor Peter Gordon:

The best I can come up with is when someone feels the need to cross off the clue number after filling in the answer. Why bother doing that?

[PN Blog: I confess. I do this.]


Wordplay blogger Deb Amlen:

It took me a really long time to understand when there was a rebus element in a puzzle. I spent a lot of time cursing at my empty grid before I realized that something must be up.


Daily POP Crosswords constructor Robin Stears:

Puzzle books for little kids, particularly the ones in the dollar stores.

Very often, they’re nothing more than scaled-down grids with clues written for adults. And for some reason, they all contain the word ARIA, which I doubt children even know, unless Peppa Pig has a friend named Aria. I actually saw one with a Blackjack clue for ACE! Are these kids today playing poker on the playground? At my school, we didn’t learn how to count cards until the eleventh grade. 😉


Constructor Neville Fogarty:

My biggest pet peeve in the world of puzzles is actually in the world of cryptics — indirect anagrams! I can’t stand when a clue involves rearranging letters that you aren’t given. That’s just not fair; there are too many possibilities!

Fortunately, most publishers of cryptics edit these out, but I still see these on occasion from newer setters and indie sites. Yikes!


Oh, and what was the pet peeve that inspired this entry in the first place?

When people call things crosswords that aren’t crosswords.

I get it. You see a clued puzzle where words cross, and you think crossword. But it’s not. It’s a crisscross. It’s a perfectly valid puzzle, but it’s not a crossword.

Perhaps the most egregious example recently was featured on the Hallmark website page for the Crossword Mysteries series of films. They advertise a crossword tie-in to each show. And when you click on it, you get this:

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That’s not a crossword. And this happens all the time. a blog page or an activity book or a tie-in product related to some pop culture property, you’ll be told there’s a crossword to solve…

And you get a crisscross instead.

Several of my fellow puzzlers chimed in on this topic when I mentioned it as my example of a puzzly pet peeve.

Joanne Sullivan: Oh, don’t get me started! Criss-crosses being passed off as crosswords are bad enough, but I think it’s even worse when clueless designers try to emulate real crosswords but make all kinds of mistakes like lack of symmetry, noncontiguous white squares, unchecked squares, and worst of all, nonsensical numbering. I can’t stand it when fake crosswords in cartoons or fabrics have numbers thrown in them willy-nilly.

Robin Stears: Dang it, you stole my pet peeve. I was just complaining to someone the other day about a book cover with a pseudo-crossword grid that wasn’t really a crossword puzzle at all!

Oh, and puzzle books for kids very often try to pass off criss-crosses as crosswords, too. It’s not just Hallmark — that new People crossword game is not a crossword either. Six words that vaguely overlap do not a crossword puzzle make, and you can quote me on that.


Did you enjoy this fun little venting session, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below, and we might do another Ask a Puzzler post in the future! (But not too often. I don’t want them to start dreading emails from me.)

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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.

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A Handful of Puzzly Resources for Constructors!

Crossword.

The internet has really grown the crossword community by leaps and bounds. Puzzlers can share favorite puzzles, reviews, opinions, and feedback with fellow solvers, constructors, editors, and publishers at the touch of a button. With downloadable puzzles, online solving, and puzzle apps (like Daily POP Crosswords!), access to puzzles has never been easier.

Entire forums dedicated to solving and sharing a love of puzzling are cultivating a new generation of solvers and encouraging ambitious new constructors. Twitter is a great place to start, there’s a growing community on r/crossword, and on Facebook, you’ve got both the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament group and the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory to keep you informed and aware of all things crossword.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that both solvers and constructors have greater access to resources than ever before. There are reviewers breaking down the crosswords printed by the major outlets on a daily basis, and blogs like Wordplay exploring how to construct and what words solvers and constructors should know. With searchable databases like XWordInfo out there as well, you can hunt down clues, entries, themes, and a huge chunk of the history of crosswords with ease.

But sadly, not all resources have made their way online, so building a personal library of key volumes to peruse and refer to can help boost your solving and constructing efforts.

So today, I thought I’d share a few of my personal favorite resources that I use when constructing not only crosswords, but all sorts of other puzzles, in the hopes that you find them useful as well.

Your mileage may vary, but to me, these books have been invaluable.


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Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary (Fourth Edition) by Marc McCutcheon

Word Menu, in either book or online form, has long been the gold standard when it comes to building themed word lists that you can trust to be well-sourced and reliable. But when I need a theme idea, I have much greater luck flipping through the pages of the Descriptionary, a cross-cultural theme listing that covers everything from weather to fashion, medicine to crime.

Searchable by topic in the front and individual words in the index, it’s never difficult to find a list I’ve used before or to zero in on a topic as needed. I ended up buying my own copy after checking out the copy from my local library at least a half-dozen times, and I’ve never regretted it.

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The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary by Rosalind Fergusson

Whether I’m cluing, looking for rhymes to support a playful theme, or playing with pronunciation for a particular bit of wordplay, The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary is my go-to resource. It’s absolutely loaded with vocabulary, organized by individual rhyming syllables and patterns (as well as near-rhymes). Just look up your word to rhyme in the back index, and then go work.

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The Cook’s Essential Kitchen Dictionary: A Complete Culinary Resource by Jacques Rolland

This book is a tremendous resource, running the gamut from food and equipment to cooking styles and common vernacular. Not only are these definitions informative, complete with preparation instructions and suggested dishes for given ingredients, but they add little touches of culinary history to the mix, offering context and greater detail.

The book also features subsections listing varieties of apples, cheese, salt, pasta shapes, and other ingredients. Whenever I need food-related clues or theme entries, this is my first stop.

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

If you need a starter guide or just a handy resource to remind you of the essentials for any puzzle you might be rusty on, 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.

Snyder and Selinker break down the fundamentals of dozens of different puzzles, explaining how they work and what pitfalls to avoid when creating your own. Constructing an unfamiliar puzzle for the first time can be overwhelming, and this book can help get you going.

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I’m a sucker for weird words and colorful vocabulary, so I thoroughly enjoy constructing any unthemed puzzle that allows me to play with language. And there’s any number of niche dictionaries out there to bolster your puzzle lexicon and spruce up any word list.

Here’s a list of some of my favorites:

  • Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words by Josefa Heifetz Byrne
  • Murfles and Wink-a-peeps: Funny Old Words for Kids by Susan Kelz Sperling
  • The Endangered English Dictionary by David Grambs
  • The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten by Jeffrey Kacirk
  • Informal English: Puncture Ladies, Egg Harbors, Mississippi Marbles, and Other Curious Words and Phrases of North America by Jeffrey Kacirk
  • The Great Panjandrum (and 2,699 Other Rare, Useful, and Delightful Words and Expressions) by J.N. Hook
  • Stone the Crows: Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang by John Ayto and John Simpson
  • I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech by Ralph Keyes
  • The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World by Adam Jacot de Boinod
  • That’s Amore!: The Language of Love for Lovers of Language by Erin McKean
  • Much Ado About English: Up and Down the Bizarre Byways of a Fascinating Language by Richard Watson Todd
  • America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America by David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf
  • The Highly Selective Dictionary of Golden Adjectives for the Extraordinarily Literate by Eugene Ehrlich
  • Word Catcher: An Odyssey Into the World of Weird and Wonderful Words by Phil Cousineau

(And, although this book isn’t a dictionary, it includes some terrific vocabulary along the way, so it’s worth checking out: Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea.)


Hopefully these resources can aid you in your puzzling endeavors as they’ve assisted me many times over. Are there any offline resources I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you.

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ACPT Cancelled (Again): More Crossword Tournament Updates!

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We can’t close out June without a bit more news, it seems.

Two weeks ago, we updated you on the state of the puzzle industry as it pertains to crossword tournaments. We were able to share the sad news that Lollapuzzoola would not be happening this year — a solve-at-home event is in the works — as well as the happier news that BosWords would be hosting an online tournament this year on Sunday afternoon, July 26.

We also made passing reference to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament‘s original date in March being cancelled, and a prospective date of the weekend of September 11-13 for a rescheduled tournament.

Unfortunately, yesterday Will Shortz confirmed through the NY Times Wordplay social media platforms that the 2020 ACPT has been scrapped for the year:

Over the past few months we kept modifying our plans for the event, as the pandemic persisted, but now it has become clear that it cannot be held this year at all.

We believe we have already refunded all registrations for the in-person tournament. If somehow we overlooked yours, please let us know (msmithacpt@gmail.com).

Registrations for at-home solving of the 2020 ACPT puzzles — either by mail or online — will be rolled over until next year. If you would like a refund instead, let us know that, too.

Originally, a weekend in late March was announced, but those posts were later replaced by updates stating that the tentative date for the 43rd ACPT is now the weekend of April 23-25, 2021.

Here’s hoping that the world will be in a better, healthier state and allow us to enjoy puzzling in public with our fellow puzzlers and cruciverbalists once again.

Something to look forward to.


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