PuzzleNation Product Review: Codenames

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There are all kinds of games where communication is crucial.

In You’ve Got Crabs, you must employ a secret non-verbal signal to inform your partner that you’ve completed a task, but without the other team spotting your signal and intercepting. In Taboo, you have to get a teammate to state a particular word, but without using several words closely associated with the answer.

But other games ratchet up both the creativity necessary to win and the difficulty involved in doing so. Imagine having to communicate volumes with a single word.

In today’s product review, we delve into the world of spycraft and put our communication skills to the test as we try out the card game Codenames.

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In Codenames, two teams (the red team and the blue team) are tasked with identifying all of their secret agents before their opponents can locate their own agents from the same list. But in order to do so, they must pick those agents out of a field of 25 possible individuals.

In each group, there are red agents, blue agents, innocent bystanders, and an assassin. Each possible individual is marked with a codename that is viewable by all of the players.

So, where does the wordplay and communication come in?

Each team selects one player apiece to serve as the spymaster. The spymaster for each team looks at one of the secret patterns determining which cards/codenames represent blue agents and which red agents.

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So it’s up to the spymaster to point the players in the right direction, but it’s up to the players to actually choose a given person in the field of 25 and label them an agent.

Each round, the spymaster comes up with a one-word clue for the other players on their team that points to their secret agents (as well as a number representing the number of agents in the field that the clue applies to). The word must be specific enough to point them in the right direction, but that can be difficult depending on the words in your play area.

For instance, in our example grid, the clue “royalty: 1” could point toward KING, or QUEEN, or HEAD, or even REVOLUTION, depending on what the other players associate with the word “royalty.” But suppose that you want your players to choose KING and not QUEEN. Then “royalty” is no good, because it’s too vague.

The number aspect of the clue is also important, because it offers the opportunity to gain an advantage over your opponents. For instance, if you wanted both KING and QUEEN to be labeled as your agents, the clue “royalty: 2” would be good, because those would probably be the two most likely choices based on that clue.

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In our example grid, the red team went first, and the spymaster said “dishes: 2.” The other player on the red team chose GLASS and WASHER from the grid, and both were correct and marked with red agent cards. This was a smart play, but also a risky one, as PAN could also be associated with “dishes.”

The blue team responded with the clue “rasp: 1,” choosing specificity and a single possible answer for the sake of certainty, rather than risk trying for more than one agent in this turn. The blue player correctly selected FILE, and that card was marked with a blue agent card.

The next turn for the red team didn’t go nearly as well. The spymaster used the clue “big: 1” and instead of choosing SHOT (the intended answer), the player opted for MAMMOTH. The card was revealed to be an innocent bystander, and the red team’s turn was immediately over for failing to ID an agent that turn.

And that is one of the big strategic challenges of Codenames. Do you stick to 1 agent per turn with a greater chance of success, or do you try to get more creative and bold by going for less certain clues that could lead to multiple agent IDs in one fell swoop? Do you risk uncovering the assassin (and immediately losing the game) with a clue that could suggest him as well as a secret agent for your team?

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The field of codenames in the play area can also lead to unexpected challenges. In one game, I was playing the spymaster for my team. The words JUPITER and SATURN were both in the grid, but only JUPITER was one of our agents. So a clue like “planet” was out. Unfortunately, other clues (like “biggest” or “god”) were excluded because they also applied to other codenames in the play area, including the dreaded assassin.

A mix of tactics, efficiency, association, vocabulary, and luck, Codenames is a terrific game that will test your wits, your communication skills, and your ability to make every word count.

The sheer volume of possible codenames (as well as the increased variety offered by each card being double-sided) ensues a huge amount of replay value is built into the game. And not only is it great as a group game, but the two-player version is just as fun!

Codenames, playable for 4 to 8 players (with variant rules for 2 or 3 players) is available at Target, Barnes & Noble, and many online retailers.


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Tackling the 2019 Indie 500 Puzzles!

June 1 marked the fifth annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Neville Fogarty, Andy Kravis, Peter Broda, and Angela Olsen Halsted. The first tournament had a racing theme, the second had a prom theme, the third had a time theme, the fourth had a fashion theme, and this year was travel-themed!

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and last weekend I finally had the opportunity to sit down and tackle them. And today, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the event in the future.


Before the official tournament puzzles start, there’s a warm-up puzzle, a 15x grid entitled “Getting There” by Neville Fogarty. The hook is simple and accessible — forms of transportation found inside locations, like TRAIN in MOUNT RAINIER or BIKE in NAIROBI KENYA — and with easy fill and some fun cluing, this is the perfect puzzle to get your motor running for the tournament to come.

Interesting grid entries included I’M SORRY, AMNIO, and ONE PAGE. My favorite clue was “Org. with Magic and Wizards” for NBA.

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

#1 Is There a Fee for Emotional Baggage? by Angela Olsen Halsted

The tournament opens with this smooth-solving entry by the ever-reliable Halsted. Loaded with shameless puns based on locations like MYSEOULMATE and OTTAWATCHIT, this fun crossword definitely builds any solver’s confidence for the challenges to come. The effortless fill is bolstered by great references in the cluing, citing The West Wing, The Lion King, Creed, and Shonda Rhimes. I blasted through this one quicker than expected, but I still really enjoyed it.

Interesting grid entries included CARDI B, STANDBY, ACELA, and ADONIS. My favorite clues were “Potables actually first brewed in England, for short” for IPAS and “Gosling of the ‘Hey Girl’ meme” for RYAN.

#2 Jet Set by Yacob Yonas

The second puzzle of the tournament was an ambitious 17x grid with lots of long entries and solid fill overall, tied together by theme of airplane/flight terms hidden in longer entries (like TAKEOFF in TAKE OFFENSE and FLIGHT in BEAM OF LIGHT). Overall, this was a very impressive grid, though not much harder than the first puzzle, making for another fairly quick solve.

Interesting grid entries included OVER HERE, ERASABLE, FIRE SALE, FAT CAT, PEBBLES, and the delightfully slangy HATERADE. My favorite clues were “Displays of pride” for PARADES and “Take up again, say” for REHEM.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

#3 Currency Exchange by Andy Kravis

Puzzle 3 was the first genuinely challenging puzzle of the tournament, a considerable jump in difficulty from the first two, and it takes the “word hidden in a longer phrase” gimmick to a whole new level.

The built-in ATM graphics in various grid boxes represent different currencies concealed in the theme entries; even across and down entries that share an ATM have different currencies, which is an immensely clever trick and a feat of grid construction I’ve never seen before. For instance, one ATM represents WON in SMALLWONDER and DINAR in ORDINARY.

This was easily my favorite puzzle of the tournament, and one of Kravis’s most diabolical and well-designed creations. Nicely done!

Interesting grid entries included CLAMATO, BALL HOG, END QUOTE, GAP YEAR, and PUMBAA. My favorite clues were “TV character described by Jon Stewart as ‘a fastidious, pigeon-worshiping felt tyrant” for BERT and “It’s three before November” for KILO.

#4 Travel Arrangements by Janie Smulyan

The toughest puzzle of the tournament for me (except for the final), this was a definite struggle, despite a well-constructed grid and a smart hook. The theme of this puzzle was a common phrase where the second half of the phrase was anagrammed into a form of transportation (for instance, MUSCLE STRAIN becomes MUSCLE TRAINS), tied together by the revealer TRANSFORMERS.

The anagram hook didn’t come to me quickly, making me work for every letter. Some of the clues as well, like “Japanese hog” for YAMAHA, took me an embarrassingly long time to unravel. Smulyan is clearly a devious constructor to watch out for.

Interesting grid entries included OPULENT, IBERIAN, ABSTAIN, and PIXAR. My favorite clues were “House payments” for ANTES and “Some are dry, some are magic” for SPELLS.

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Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

#5 Four Plus One by Bryan Betancur

The final puzzle of regular tournament play, Puzzle 5 was an excellent closer, rewarding solvers with a breezy solve and a fun hook centered around travel phrases with circled bonus letters that spell out the word TIRE, a spare for the four circles/wheels already in the grid. (For example, STAR TREK becomes STAIR TREK and BUM A RIDE becomes BURMA RIDE, my personal favorite.)

Interesting grid entries included BOGUS, SWANKY, WALTZ, FAKING OUT, and ROBBERS. My favorite clue was “Pixar hero or Verne antihero” for NEMO.

#6 Final by Rebecca Falcon

A very tough closer designed to challenge the worthy top tournament solvers, Puzzle 6 was loaded with tough, long entries (AUDI DEALER didn’t occur to me for ages), and I would argue that TO A T (rather than TO A TEE) is questionable at best.

Nonetheless, it was a strong closer and featured diabolical cluing in both versions of the puzzle, the Inside Track and the Outside Track. (Although I tried to solve the puzzle with only the Inside Track (tougher) clues, I needed some help from the Outside Track to complete the puzzle.)

Interesting grid entries included ONOMATOPOEIA, SAFARI, ACHOO, HOTEP, and HOOPLA. My favorite clue was “With 46-Across, comforting words” for THERE. (Since that clue WAS 46-Across, the actual answer is THERE THERE. Fun stuff.)

Although that was the end of the tournament proper, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the bonus puzzles in the packet.

The Tiebreaker puzzle by Erik Agard was super tough, but clever and impressive, considering that the grid was constructed in the shape of a 5 (as this was the fifth edition of the tournament.)

Layering lots of long entries like SPLIT A CAB, I WANT OUT, DISGRACE, MAGNETRON, LPGA TOUR, and LESOTHO, it was a brain-melter of a finale to a tournament that swung between easy and challenging and back again.


Overall, this was the most inventive edition of the Indie 500 yet. The puzzles mingled the creativity of the previous four tournaments with particularly strong grid design, cunning clues, and some fun takes on classic crossword conventions.

The constructors made the most of the travel theme, incorporating anagrams, hidden answers, and the inspired ATM gimmick in puzzle 3. All in all, this was an engaging and worthy series of puzzles, designed to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure.

I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!


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Putting Clever Cluing to the Test?

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As a puzzler, there are few article titles that serve as more efficient clickbait than “6 CHALLENGING CROSSWORD PUZZLE CLUES THAT WILL LEAVE YOU CLUELESS,” so when I saw that title, fellow puzzlers, you know I clicked.

This article by the crew at Wealth Words claims to offer “the trickiest clues that have ever existed.” That is quite a bold statement. Shall we try our luck and see how we do?


Now, before we start, it’s worth noting that we’re at a huge disadvantage here, because any clue, easy or tough, can be made easier if you know some of the letters in the word thanks to words in the grid you’ve already placed that cross this particular entry. We don’t have any of those helper letters, so we’re going to have to rely solely on our sharp wits, wordplay skills, and love of punnery.

Okay, let’s get to it.

Clue #1: Leaning column? (9 letters)

Most crossword fans know that a question mark virtually always means there’s wordplay afoot, so you know you can’t take this clue at face value, which means anything relating to Pisa is probably out. If you focus on “leaning,” that could take you anywhere from Jenga to drunkenness, so let’s play with “column.” Other columns appear in graphs, Excel files, and newspapers.

A-ha. Newspaper column. And some of those “lean” to either the left or the right, depending on the author. This train of thought leads us to the intended answer OPED PIECE.

Grade: A- (It’s a solid clue where the answer doesn’t necessarily immediately jump out at you, but makes total sense once you’ve puzzled it out.)

Clue #2: Strips in a club (5 letters)

[Now, to be fair, “club” was capitalized in the clue on the webpage, but I felt like that was misleading, so I fixed it here. After all, capitalization can be used to great effect in crafty cluing — particularly if you conceal the capital word by making it the first word in the clue, which is always capitalized regardless — but here, it becomes an unnecessary red herring.]

This one is slightly harder, because you don’t immediately get the hint that there’s wordplay involved, since there’s no question mark.

This is one of my favorite kinds of clever cluing, the sort where our preconceived notions of word forms works against us. (Also, it sounds naughty, but isn’t, which I also quite enjoy.) At first glance here, the phrasing makes it sound like “strips” is a verb, when it’s really a plural noun.

And once you get into that mindset, you realize that we’re not talking about that kind of club, and the intended answer emerges: BACON.

Grade: A (Misdirection plus a tongue-in-cheek bit of lewdness? Great stuff.)

Clue #3: Group of crows (6 letters)

I have no idea how this one made it onto the list. Anyone who knows their animal groupings knows that a group of crows is a MURDER. There’s no tricky cluing or misdirection here, just something that might not be in the common knowledge. (But again, I think people are more likely to come up with this one that “exaltation of larks,” “smack of jellyfish,” or “parliament of owls.”)

Grade: D- (Could be difficult for some solvers, but only for unfamiliarity, not style.)

Clue #4: “Yep, perfectly clear” (7 letters)

Okay, this one has quotations around it, which both means it’s a spoken line and it’s likely non-standard, so you won’t find it in a dictionary. It’s probably a phrase, and used in casual conversation.

The answer, as it turns out, is I HEAR YA, which I don’t think any solver would come up with unless they had a few crossing letters filled in for them. The slangy spelling of YA and the informal wording altogether pretty much precludes this from being a “see-it-and-get-it” sorta clue.

Grade: C

Clue #5: [Boo-Hoo] (5 letters)

Brackets are used less commonly than quotation marks or question marks in crossword clue, so it’s more likely that a casual solver wouldn’t immediately recognize what to do with this clue. Usually, brackets indicate this is a non-traditional clue, either making an oblique reference to something or indicating it’s a non-verbal clue like a cough.

In this case, this is meant to be the actual sound of someone crying or something of that nature. So it could be something informal like CRYIN’ or TEARS (as opposed to the more traditional “in tears”) or something like that.

As it turns out, they were looking for I’M SAD. Which is pretty blah. It’s not a standard phrase, and comes off as a cheaply constructed way out of a bad corner, not a solid bit of fill to keep the puzzle interesting.

Grade: F

Clue #6: They come in last (3 letters)

This clue is fairly tough, because it’s both vaguely worded and has a curious letter count. It’s plural phrasing (with “they”), so that immediately makes you want to tack an S onto the end of the word. But it’s also such a short entry that a two-letter word plus S doesn’t seem to fit the clue.

So what comes in last? “End” would fit, if not for the plural phrasing. “P.S.” comes in last, but “P.S.’S” is really clunky, and I don’t recall ever seeing that pluralized.

So what were they looking for? XYZ. Ah. Alphabet entries. You’ll usually see entries like this centering around the first three letters (ABC) or a random string (“RST” seems to come up more often than most), and XYZ certainly fits the bill. But, in the end, it’s not a real entry, and it feels a little cheap, despite the decent wordplay involved in the cluing.

Grade: C-


So, what did I think of the Wealth Words “6 CHALLENGING CROSSWORD PUZZLE CLUES THAT WILL LEAVE YOU CLUELESS” challenge?

I thought it started off very strong with two clever, slippery clues that required you to play with the words and come at them from several angles before stumbling upon the correct solution, and I quite enjoyed those clues.

But the quiz took a real nose dive in quality starting with Clue #3, which had no wordplay at all. #4 and #5 relied heavily on being slangy non-standard verbiage rather than adept cluing or creative fill, and #6 was a bit of a cop-out, even if the cluing quality rebounded nicely.

All in all, I thought the specious entries outweighed the clever cluing on display early on, making for an underwhelming set of clues.

Final grade: C+.

What did you think of these group of challenging clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Did you enjoy them or find them wanting? Let us know in the comment section below, we’d love to hear from you!


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Final Jeopardy for James Holzhauer

Alas, all great runs must come to an end, and so it is with a heavy heart that I report that James Holzhauer — sports gambler, trivia whiz, and Jeopardy! champion — has been defeated, relinquishing his title as champion after 32 days.

He amassed an impressive total of $2,464,216, the second highest in game history during regular-season play. And his impressive daily totals have yielded some impressive stats. He now holds 21 of the top 25 spots on the show’s list of the highest single-day winnings.

Only $58,484 separated him from Ken Jennings’ long-standing total of $2,520,700, which was amassed in 74 games back in 2004.

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Holzhauer was complimentary toward both Jennings and his Jeopardy! opponent Emma Boettcher on social media, stating, “CONGRATULATIONS to Emma on a world-beating performance. There’s no greater honor than knowing an opponent had to play a perfect game to defeat me.”

He then cited one of the predictions as to how his reign would end, quoting, “James will eventually beat himself by flubbing one of his big bets,” before responding, “Nope, James got his ass kicked straight up by an elite player who nailed her own big bets.”

Naturally, the buzz around social media regarding this unexpected turn of events is mixed. Some viewers are glad to see a new champion crowned, while others are sad to see Holzhauer go.

There are also a few conspiracy theories brewing. Some viewers believe that James intentionally threw this match, citing slower reaction times, gimme questions being missed, and a general lack of energy from the normally bullish champion. He went into Final Jeopardy in second place.

The capper for many was his performance in Final Jeopardy where he made an uncharacteristically low wager (only $1300 or so, when he was at $23k), meaning that despite his correct answer, he wouldn’t defeat his rival for this game. (Emma Boettcher, on the other hand, bet $20k on Final Jeopardy, perhaps anticipating a similarly aggressive bet from Holzhauer.)

But Holzhauer has already explained his unexpected move, telling The Atlantic that, “By the time Final Jeopardy rolled around I knew my goose was cooked if Emma answered correctly. It’s a little like needing a team to miss a last-second field goal ― nothing you can really do but watch. I made peace with my fate before the clue for Final was even revealed.”

Holzhauer seems pleased with his Jeopardy! performance despite not dethroning Jennings. “My only real goals were: Win $110,914 on an episode to honor my daughter’s birthday, and play my absolute best every game. I achieved both, and I’m very proud of myself for that.”

Congratulations to James Holzhauer for a very notable run as champion, and congratulations to Emma Boettcher for proving to be a more than worthy champion in her own right.

And now, there’s really only one way to conclude a saga like this, and that’s with a song. Take it, “Weird Al”…


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Daily Double Trouble for a Long-Standing Jeopardy! Record?

It’s been a few weeks, so it’s time for a Jeopardy! update.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (specifically a rock with no wi-fi, morning news coverage, or game show fans nearby), you’re probably aware of James Holzhauer, the Jeopardy! contestant who has been dominating the scene for more than a month.

After a two-week hiatus where Jeopardy! aired episodes centered around teachers as contestants, sports gambler and trivia master Holzhauer has returned to continue his reign of terror over Alex Trebek’s domain. His undefeated streak now stands at 29 consecutive victories.

Holzhauer is only the second person in history to pass the million-dollar mark on the show, and his success has fans anxiously eyeballing the money-winning record set by Ken Jennings more than a decade ago. That sense of anticipation is only growing stronger.

Holzhauer’s total thus far is $2,254,938.

As of last night’s performance, Holzhauer is a mere $265,762 away from Ken Jennings’ total for highest winnings in regular season play. (Jennings has won additional money in tournament play that isn’t counted in this total.)

Now, granted, that’s a lot of money. But it’s worth noting that $265,762 is only $4613 higher than Holzhauer has won on his two highest-scoring games combined. So, essentially, if he performs to the absolute best of his ability, he’s three wins away from overtaking Jennings. (Even if he’s not performing at his best, his average money won per game ($77,756) means that he’s only four average wins away from overtaking Jennings.)

Oh, and that average money per game statistic? It’s worth noting that the previous single-game record for the show was BELOW that, clocking in at $77,000 dollars.

Have you been keeping up on all the trivia excitement? If so, what do you think, folks? Is Holzhauer going to make history by surpassing Ken Jennings in less than half the time? Is Jennings’ 74-day winning streak also within reach for the bold betting master?

Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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Puzzles and Brain Health: Finally Some Definitive Data?

For years now, brain health and puzzle-solving have been intertwined topics.

There have been many, MANY published studies touting all sorts of effects, both positive and negative, of solving puzzles. Alongside those studies, there have been numerous products of a puzzly nature that claim to do everything from improving memory to staving off Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other debilitating conditions.

I’ve been reading articles on the subject for more than six years now, and the results, for the most part, have been inconclusive. This is often due to small sample sizes for the experimental data, or evidence that leads to likelihoods rather than verifiable, repeatable, reliable data.

Across all of these articles, there are essentially three suppositions:

  • A. Solving puzzles helps maintain or improve brain function
  • B. Specific “brain-training” exercises, programs, or products help maintain or improve brain function more so than traditional/unfocused puzzle solving
  • C. Solving puzzles (whether traditional or “brain-training”) helps stave off conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and memory loss later in life

When it comes to Supposition B, I’ve yet to see anything that proves a “brain-training” or “brain-boosting” puzzle regimen actually helps in a meaningful way. In fact, at one point, one of these “brain-training” companies had to pay a two-million-dollar fine for making promises that their program couldn’t verifiably deliver on.

[Image courtesy of SharpBrains.com.]

But let’s leave that nonsense aside for a moment and focus on Supposition A, the idea that solving puzzles is good for the brain.

For the first time, we have a study performed by a reputable organization with a sample size large enough that it may finally allow us to draw some decent conclusions. Two articles published this month in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry have concluded that adults age 50 and older who regularly solve puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku have better brain function than those who do not.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Exeter, involved a test group of more than 19,000 participants.

From an article on Science Daily discussing the study:

Researchers asked participants in the PROTECT study . . . to report how frequently they engage in word and number puzzles and undertake a series of cognitive tests sensitive to measuring changes in brain function. They found that the more regularly participants engaged with the puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory.

From their results, researchers calculate that people who engage in word puzzles have brain function equivalent to ten years younger than their age, on tests assessing grammatical reasoning, and eight years younger than their age on tests measuring short term memory.

Yes, this is only one study, and yes, obviously more testing and sampling is needed to apply this to the millions upon millions of folks age 50 and older who might benefit from this. But it’s worth giving this topic deep consideration. A sample size of 19,000 is impressive, and there’s no profit or “brain-training” scam behind the study.

And, regarding Supposition C, while this study didn’t offer anything definitive, it remains a possibility. Dr. Anne Corbett of the University of Exeter Medical School said, “We can’t say that playing these puzzles necessarily reduces the risk of dementia in later life but this research supports previous findings that indicate regular use of word and number puzzles helps keep our brains working better for longer.”

How much longer, who can say? But, when it comes to better brain health, it seems we can finally say that puzzles are good for you. (I always suspected.)


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