Do You Accept the Challenge of “The Impossible Crossword”? You absolutely should!

Part of the challenge for many crossword solvers is that you can’t adjust the difficulty of the cluing on a given day. The clues you get are the clues you get.

New York Times crossword solvers are intimately familiar with this, talking about Tuesday puzzles and Saturday puzzles and understanding what each means in terms of expected puzzle difficulty.

Our own Penny Dell Crosswords App offers free puzzles across three difficulty levels each day, but those are three distinct puzzles, not three different clue sets for one particular puzzle.

Having options for more than one set of clues is fairly rare. Lollapuzzoola has two difficulty-levels for their final tournament puzzle, Local and Express. GAMES Magazine previously offered two sets of clues for their themeless crossword, entitled The World’s Most Ornery Crossword.

The tournament final of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament offers different clue difficulties for three separate divisions. The Boswords Spring and Fall Themeless Leagues work in a similar manner, offering three levels of clue difficulty — Smooth, Choppy, and Stormy — for competitors to choose from.

The concept of Easy and Hard clues is not unheard of… it’s just rare.

And it’s only natural that someone, eventually, was going to take this concept and dial it up to a Spinal Tap 11.

The pair of someones in question are Megan Amram and Paolo Pasco.

Paolo is fairly well-known around crossword circles, having contributed puzzles to the American Values Club crossword, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets, while also serving as associate crossword editor for The Atlantic.

And Megan is an incredibly talented television and film writer who has written for Parks and Rec, The Simpsons, and The Good Place. Anytime you saw a hilariously shameless punny name for a store in The Good Place, it was undoubtedly one of Megan’s.

Together, they unleashed The Impossible Crossword in the print edition of The New Yorker‘s December 27 issue, its first ever Cartoons & Puzzles issue. (It was made available on the website the week before.)

The instructions are simple: This crossword contains two sets of clues to the same answers. Toggle to the set labelled “Hard” to impress people looking over your shoulder. (And toggle to “Easy” when they look away.)

This 9×9 crossword’s Easy clues were fair and accessible, but the Hard clues were the real stars. They ricocheted between immensely clever, wildly obscure, and hilarious parodies of themselves.

For instance, the word JEST was clued on the Easy side as “Infinite ____” but received the brilliantly condescending add-on “Infinite ____” (novel that’s very easy to read and understand) in the Hard clues as a reference to the famously dense and impenetrable nature of the novel.

For the word APPS, the Easy clue was “Programs designed to run on mobile devices,” while the Hard clue was “Amuse-gueules, colloquially.”

(I had to look that one up. An amuse-gueule is “a small savory item of food served as an appetizer before a meal.”)

And those are just two examples.

When you finally finish the puzzle, this is your reward:

“You’re a genius! You can tell your mom to get off your case about going to law school.”

All at once, The Impossible Crossword manages to be a fun puzzle to solve on its own, a riotously fun gimmick that lampoons clue difficulty in general, and the most meta puzzle I’ve solved all year.

Kudos to Megan and Paolo for pulling it off. What a way to welcome the Cartoons & Puzzles era of The New Yorker while the rest of us close out another year of puzzling.


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The 2021 Boswords Fall Themeless League: Looking Back

boswords new

After two months of challenging, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable weekly solving, the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League came to a close last week.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League spreads out a tournament-style solving experience over nine weeks, one themeless crossword per week. Each puzzle is scored based on your answer accuracy (incorrect letters, empty squares, etc.) and how quickly you complete the grid.

While each week’s puzzle only had one solution, there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate, they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

Hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition, and now that it’s over, I’d like to share a few thoughts about my experience in the League.

With the previous two Themeless League events under my belt, I had a good sense of what to expect both from the puzzles and from myself.

Although I rarely solve online — and I solve themed crosswords far more often than themeless crosswords — I now have a good base to build on.

Unfortunately, I accidentally signed up for the wrong difficulty level this time around. The previous two seasons, I’d opted for the middle ground, Choppy. I signed up for Stormy by mistake, and didn’t realize my error until I logged in and prepared to solve the season’s first puzzle.

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As you might expect, being freed from the shackles of themed puzzle building allows constructors to really flex their creative muscle, indulging all sorts of curious and unexpected vocabulary as they cross long entries and employ fewer black squares in these impressive grids.

And since I’d mistakenly opted for the toughest level of cluing, I also saw the decidedly clever and devious side of each constructor as I navigated tricky wordplay and more challenging clue content.

The first puzzle of the season immediately showed me what I’d gotten myself into. I didn’t know the number of operas Beethoven had written, or who spoke what ended up being a Madonna quote, or what Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” was about.

I hit nearly half an hour with my solving time, which I think was a ten-minute increase from my performance in the previous League’s debut puzzle.

Although I would have better performances later in the season — my time averaged out to 24:48 across eight puzzles — that was definitely a shot right across the bow of my confidence.

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I could have contacted the organizers and asked to be moved over to Choppy. I’m sure they would have accommodated me; the Boswords team is terrific.

But instead, I decided to throw myself into the deep end and stick with Stormy and see how it went.

As I expected, it was quite a challenge. But I trusted my instincts more — filling in more guesses at the start, rather than letting them sit empty until crossing words offered confirmation — and overall, I enjoyed the experience. Sure, I was a little disheartened at how my season started, but knowing that I was competing — however slowly — at the steepest level available pushed me to keep going.

I’ve never been the fastest solver to begin with — doesn’t matter if it’s pencil and paper or on a computer — and I rarely time myself when I solve in my free time. But I kept setting different goals each week. If I had half the grid filled by a certain time, I’d set a time to beat based on that. I didn’t always succeed, but more often than not, I kept my time below whatever goals I’d set.

(Still, I dare not look at the times of the top performers, lest I despair once more. Heh.)

In the end, my individual rank was 220 (out of 303 Stormy solvers), and my overall rank was 251 (out of the 871 individual solvers). Not too shabby. A staggering 1253 people participated in this season’s event,

As for the puzzles themselves, they were solid. The vocabulary — particularly the longer entries — was incredibly creative and unexpected. And the constructors were fantastic.

Each brought their own style and flavor to the competition, and it was great to see well-established names like Byron Walden, Evan Birnholz, Kameron Austin Collins, and the dynamite duo of Doug Peterson and Angela Olson Halsted mixed with newer names to the field like Mollie Cowger and Quiara Vasquez.

All in all, I enjoyed the Fall Themeless League. (Although I was more comfortable with the solving interface and I had a better handle on themeless solving, given that this was my third go-around, I still felt like a rookie tackling the Stormy-level clues.)

I think when the Spring Themeless League rolls around, I’ll try Stormy again. Now that I have a baseline to compare it to, I’d like to see how I can improve.

And with the promise of future Boswords-hosted events in 2022 like the Winter Wondersolve event on February 6th and the Spring Themeless League, it’s nice to have exciting puzzle events to look forward to in the near future.

They’ve already announced the teams for each! The Winter Wondersolve will be constructed by Kate Chin Park, Christina Iverson, Adesina Koiki, and Matthew Stock.

The Spring Themeless League will be handled by Adam Aaronson, Wendy L. Brandes, Katja Brinck, Julian Lim, Frank Longo, the team of Sophia Maymudes & Kyra Wilson, Ada Nicolle, Robyn Weintraub, and one constructor to be named later.

(Yup, a mystery constructor. They’re actually selecting them based on an open submission process, the details of which will be announced tomorrow, Wednesday 12/8! How cool is that?)

Kudos to everyone who helped bring this marvelous project together, and kudos to everyone who participated. It was tough, but also a great deal of fun.


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Farewell, Stephen.

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[Image courtesy of Vanity Fair.]

Most people know him as a titan of Broadway and the American stage, the composer and lyricist behind dozens of iconic works, spanning decades. West Side Story. Gypsy. Into the Woods. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. (My personal favorite? Assassins.)

Even as someone with a degree in theater, I don’t feel qualified to discuss or summarize his impact on the stage. It’s monumental. Incalculable. Iconic.

But as a puzzle enthusiast, I do feel qualified to discuss his influence in that realm. You see, Stephen Sondheim occupies a curious space in the history of puzzles.

sondheim

He created cryptic / British-style crosswords for New York Magazine in the late 1960s, helping to introduce American audiences to that devious and challenging variety of crosswords.

In fact, he famously wrote an article in that very same magazine decrying the state of American crosswords and extolling the virtues of cryptic crosswords. (He even explained the different cluing tricks and offering examples for readers to unravel.)

Sondheim was an absolute puzzle fiend. His home was adorned with mechanical puzzles, and he happily created elaborate puzzle games. Some of them were featured in Games Magazine! In his later years, he was also an aficionado of escape rooms. (Friend of the blog Eric Berlin shared a wonderful anecdote about Sondheim here.)

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He also represents another link in the curious chain that seems to connect musicians with crosswords. Prominent constructors like Patrick Blindauer, Brian Cimmet, and Amanda Rafkin, as well as top crossword tournament competitors like Dan Feyer and Jon Delfin also have musical backgrounds.

In the crossword documentary Wordplay (and quoted from the article linked below), former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent mentioned why he felt that musicians and mathematicians were good fits as crossword solvers:

Their ability to assimilate a lot of coded information instantly. In other words, a piano player like Jon Delfin, the greatest crossword player of our time, he sits down and he sees three staffs of music and he can instantly play it. He’s taken all those notes and absorbs what they mean, instantaneously. If you have that kind of mind, and you add it to it a wide range of information, and you can spell, you’d be a really great crossword puzzler.

Sondheim certainly fits the bill.

He will forever be remembered for his musical creations, and that legacy far overshadows his work in puzzles. But as someone who opened the door to a new brand of puzzle solving for many people, Sondheim will also have the undying loyalty, respect, and admiration of many puzzlers around the world.

We wholeheartedly include ourselves in that crowd of admirers.

Farewell, Stephen. Thank you.


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Rain Boosters: A Puzzly Hashtag Game (Featuring Some Cirrus Punning)

[Image courtesy of Perfect Presents.]

You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie or hashtag games on Twitter.

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 #PennyDellPuzzleWeather. Today’s entries all mash up Penny Dell puzzles, magazines, and products with weather terminology, seasonal terms, conditions, climate effects… anything that falls under the umbrella of meteorology!

Examples include Squall Fours, Frostbits and Pieces, or ABC7 Chief Meteorologist Lee-From-Nine Goldberg.

So, was the wordplay partly-lousy or partly-punny? Let’s check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


You Snow the Odds

Blizzard Words

Cold Spellbound

Frost and Last

Polar Vortext Message

Wintry Mixmaster

Pairs in Rime

Raining Categories and Dogs

Dew Point the Way

Gust Star Framework

Crisscrosswind

Forecast Corners

The Mountain Shadow Effect

In the Humid-dle

Lucky Cl(oud C)over

Santa Anagrams Winds

Cumulostrategy

Letterdrop in Temperature

Extreme Weather Sudoku

Grand Tournado

Tornadoku

Bull’s-Eye Spiral of the hurricane

Thunderheads & Tailwinds Word Seek

Misty Vowels Word Seek

Partly punny, with a chance of Chain Words

“This fog is thick as Alphabet Soup!”

April Showers Bring May Flower Powers

Fancy Five Day Forecast

Forecast ‘n’ Aft

“The temperature was Seven-Up from yesterdaisy, and we can expect Plus Fours tomorrow as well.”

Climate Changaword


As always, one of our contributors went above and beyond, creating something special for everyone to enjoy.

Please check out this pun-filled take on a Penny Press-style Wizard Words, complete with grid and bonus answer!

Click here to download the Blizzard Wizard Words puzzle!

It’s a stormer of a puzzle!


Did you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle Weather entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them.

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Brother, Can You Paradigm?: A Punderful Discussion

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I like puns. Okay, that’s a massive understatement. I adore puns. I happily share them on Facebook every Wednesday in our Wordplay Wednesday posts. I love Tom Swifties.

I love pretty much all wordplay, no matter how shameless. You may have noticed that PuzzleNation Blog posts discussing puns and wordplay often include the searchable tag “Get thee to a punnery” in the list of tags below.

Yup, that’s how much I like puns.

A lot of great crossword clues are built on punning, utilizing the multiple meanings of words to mislead you, to create soundalike phrases (like “Baa nana?” for EWE), or simply to keep the cluing interesting.

And puns get a bad reputation. Fozzie Bear’s elicit groans from his fellow Muppets. John Oliver, a comedian I absolutely adore, is often quoted online as having said, “I think puns are not just the lowest form of wit, but the lowest form of human behavior.”

That’s pretty rough. I haven’t been able to verify that quote to my satisfaction, but I can verify that he said this: “The moment I accept that there’s an artistic, redeeming quality in puns, I have a horrible feeling I’ll get hooked.”

bad puns

That’s the catch, isn’t it? A lot of crossword clues rely on wordplay, but a lot of people supposedly hate puns. But where is the line between wordplay and puns?

I can’t say for certain, but I suspect the line is drawn directly between what makes someone groan and what makes them nod their head in appreciation.

“Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns. He should be drawn and quoted.” — Fred Allen

A quick Google search will find celebrities on both sides of the great pun divide. Alfred Hitchcock famously said that puns are the highest form of literature. Shakespeare is loaded with puns. Edgar Allan Poe enjoyed wordplay in all its forms.

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[Well, maybe not in this particular form…]

We find puns everywhere. In the one-liners of action heroes, in funny asides by the Cryptkeeper, on bumper stickers, in tweets, in dad jokes, on coffee mugs. And certainly in crossword clues.

Maybe I’m in the minority here, but in the end, I’d rather have a groan-worthy pun than no puns at all.

So what do you say we share a few? Leave your favorite puns in the comments section below!

Here’s a really bad one to get the ball rolling:

A man is about to have surgery, and before he goes into the operating room, the anesthesiologist pulls him aside and says, “We’re out of the usual anesthetics, so you have two unconventional options. I can use an older organic compound that’ll knock you out… or I can hit you in the head with a boat paddle.”

The man replied, “So it’s an ether-oar situation?”

Shameless.

Your turn. Go!


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Answers to the Punderful Halloween Costume Game!

Halloween has come and gone, but the glorious puns remain.

That’s right, today we’ve got the answers to our latest edition of the Punderful Halloween Costume Game!

Let’s take a look at those punny answers!


#1

She’s the travel bug!

[Image courtesy of Haley Dodds/weregoingtomakeit.]

 

#2

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They’re party animals!

 

#3

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She’s Card-E Bee (aka Cardi B)!

[Image courtesy of Samara/silly_samy.]

 

#4

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It’s The Devil Wears Prada!

[Image courtesy of Angela Jeanneau.]

 

#5

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They’re candy rappers!

 

#6

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She’s Judy Garland!

[Image courtesy of Hannah Madeleine Goodman/hannahsopranah.]

 

#7

puncostume2021 07

She’s a bear-ista!

[Image courtesy of MILI/milibabes.]

 

#8

puncostume2021 08

She’s Space Jam!

[Image courtesy of Soriah Sobbizadeh/sobbi.insurance.]

 

#9

puncostume2021 09

Meat and Greet!

[Image courtesy of Sarah Pearce/sarahcrowe27.]

 

#10

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She’s spoiled milk!

[Image courtesy of MILI/milibabes.]


How many did you get? Have you seen any great punny costumes we missed? Let us know!

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