Complex Puzzles and the Importance of Double-Checking

Puzzles are constantly evolving, and in the age of the Internet, the only thing more impressive than the multi-stage brain-melting complexity of some puzzles is the ability of people to work together to solve them.

There are the in-person examples, like escape rooms, scavenger hunts, and puzzle hunts, where people gather together to unravel a series of puzzles in order to accomplish a task.

But when it comes to the hidden challenges concealed within some video games, the Internet itself becomes the gathering place for dedicated puzzlers to come together and crack these ingeniously devised brain teasers.

We’ve talked about several of these puzzle hunts in the past. There was the Gravity Falls cipher hunt that led to an actual statue of the show’s villain Bill Cipher in the woods of Reedsport, Oregon. (And a mayoral position for the first person to find him and shake his hand!)

There was the puzzle-turned-global-scavenger hunt from Trials Evolution that won’t be completed until 2113 at the base of the Eiffel Tower. And there was the Destiny 2 puzzle hunt that led to a replica of one of the game’s most famous weapons.

[Just one of the codes employed in the Trials Evolution puzzle.]

What’s amazing about these elaborate puzzly challenges is the complexity involved. There are different codebreaking techniques applied, levels upon levels of deduction, bits of word association, pattern recognition, and more, all of which must be executed to perfection in order to arrive at the correct solution.

But as a puzzle editor myself, I can’t stop focusing on how that complexity only increases for the puzzlesmiths themselves. After all, they have to create these clues, reverse engineering a challenging, multi-layered series of puzzles resulting in the answer they want, and along the way, make sure that it’s actually solvable.

I mean, creating a challenge is one thing. But striking a balance is remarkably difficult. You have to offer breadcrumbs and clues so that solvers know how to proceed (or that they’re on the correct path), and you can’t make it too easy, or it doesn’t feel like a worthy challenge. But make it too hard, and you risk solvers becoming frustrated, or worse, not discovering your creation at all, which feels like a wasted effort.

Threading the needle in this fashion is an awesome task in every sense of the word, and every time I see one of these puzzle hunts unearthed and completed blows my mind. The folks who solve them are the coolest, and the folks who create them are badasses.

But with all these elaborate puzzles, I couldn’t help but wonder… what happens when something goes wrong?

I mean, we’ve all seen crosswords with incorrect clues, or cases where more than one answer to a riddle or a puzzle makes sense. These things can happen, no matter how hard you try, or how often you test-solve and beta-test.

Recently, that question was answered.

The crew behind Destiny 2 — the same game that featured the impressive Warmind puzzle from last year — unleashed a new fiendish puzzle as part of their Black Armory content pack. That puzzle, Niobe Labs, served as a lock, and until the puzzle was solved by at least one player, none of the online players could access the adventures that lay beyond it.

The puzzle was released last Tuesday, and last Thursday — less than two full days after the release — the company decided that it was unfair to have regular players waiting for those with world-class puzzly skills to unravel the secret behind the puzzle, and they opened the full download for everyone.

Now, that might seem like a knee-jerk reaction, given that it was less than two days afterward. But it’s worth noting that these online crowd-solving efforts can work remarkably quickly, since so many people are not only trying it, but sharing their discoveries with each other.

In fact, in less than 24 hours after the original release, players had completed six out of the seven puzzles in Niobe Labs, involving complex ciphers, visual patterns, and references to sources as disparate as “Frere Jacques” and Victor Hugo.

Level Seven had the entire community stymied. And with good reason.

The puzzle was broken.

As it turns out, a piece of coding connected to the Level Seven puzzle had been deleted from the game’s code, making the puzzle unsolvable.

The Destiny 2 designers offered a new hint late Friday night to solvers, consisting of six cryptic sentences. And within hours, the intrepid solvers pooled their collective skills and knowledge to crack the final puzzle.

It never ceases to amaze me what puzzlers can accomplish when they put their minds to it, particularly when they work together.

And, of course, it makes me grateful for the test-solvers and beta-testers out there making sure our puzzles actually work as intended. Although this might’ve been embarrassing for the crew behind Destiny 2, it’s a valuable lesson.

Don’t be afraid to have someone check it one more time.


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Kickstarter Roundup!

Oh yes, it’s that time again.

For years now, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have been hotbeds of innovative puzzle and game design, and I’m always happy to spread the word about worthy projects that I think will delight and intrigue my fellow PuzzleNationers.

So let’s take a look at some projects that are currently seeking funding and see if any pique your interest!


The first is Peter Gordon’s Fireball Newsflash Crosswords.

Culturally timely clues and entries are a hallmark of this marvelous variation on Gordon’s long-running Fireball Crosswords brand, and you can be guaranteed that each Fireball Newsflash Crossword grid will be well-constructed and cleverly clued.

With twenty puzzles sent to you by email — one every two to three weeks — you’ll always have some terrific puzzling to look forward to.

Gordon has a knack for melding flowing grid design with sharp, topical entry words, and much of the time, you’ll not only be impressed by how much material makes it into the grid, but by what major and minor events you’ve missed recently! Gordon’s history of topnotch puzzles is all the incentive you need to contribute.

He’s already at one-third of his target goal, and he only launched a few days ago. I suspect Peter’s got another successful project on his hands here.

For the roleplaying-game enthusiasts out there, our second offering is right up your alley: Treacherous Traps.

Designed for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons — but easily adapted for all sorts of other RPG systems — Treacherous Traps offers obstacles and surprises for players of any experience level.

Whether you’re selecting one of the specially tailored decks or the hardcover book containing all 250(!) traps, you’re sure to find plenty of devious ammunition to toss at your players.

Treacherous Traps has blown way past its original goal, but there’s still plenty of time to get in on the ground floor of some fun and crafty additions to any roleplaying campaign.

For our third and final offering today, we’ve got a new board game with ancient ties.

Enso Koi is a strategy game where each player tries to capture their opponents’ koi fish while protecting their own. As players navigate the pond, seize and maneuver stones, and eliminate the rival fish, they’ll have to devise tactics while playing both offense and defense.

A mix of piece-capturing games like chess and territory-control games like Risk, Enso Koi offers an elegant new take on classic board game tropes.

It’s about a third of the way funded already, and for a first-timer on Kickstarter, that’s pretty impressive!


Have any of these games hooked you? Let us know which ones you’re supporting in the comments section below! And if there are any campaigns you’re supporting that we missed, let us know!

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Happy One Year Anniversary, Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory!

It’s funny how crosswords can seem like a solitary pursuit — and are often depicted as such in pop culture — and yet, there’s such a sense of camaraderie that comes with being a solver.

I talk a lot about the PuzzleNation community and my fellow PuzzleNationers, or about the puzzle community in general, because it’s one of my favorite aspects of being a puzzle guy.

Whether it’s engaging in a puzzly activity with friends (like an escape room or a D&D adventure), hanging out with fellow puzzlers at events like the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (registration is open now!), or just teaming up with a pal to crack a particularly devious puzzle or brain teaser, those moments of shared experience are as encouraging as they are welcome.

So it’s very cool to see one of the newer parts of the puzzle community celebrating its one-year anniversary: The Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory.

This Facebook group is part gathering place for established and aspiring constructors and part resource for constructors of all skill levels.

Over the last year, people have posted and shared information about everything from grid construction, editing programs, and cluing advice to networking, test-solving, and encouraging feedback.

[Some constructors even offer visual aids when answering questions!]

Inexperienced and aspiring constructors meet and collaborate with established names. Obstacles, problems, and questions are handled with equal care and support. Heck, some constructors have even posted rejection notices they’ve received in order to share the valuable feedback it contains.

And some members of the group have greater ambitions for the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, hoping to encourage more constructors from underrepresented groups to construct and submit their puzzles, bringing a genuine level of equality and equal representation in the world of puzzles.

It’s a place to learn, to network, to grow, to celebrate one’s successes, and learn from one’s setbacks. One of the regular visitors of the group even managed to cross off one of her New Year’s resolutions last year by submitting a crossword to The New York Times, thanks in part to the resources and support provided by this marvelous group of people.

And that’s definitely something worth celebrating.


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A Happy Ending and A New Beginning for the Universal Crossword!

Some stories have happy endings, eventually.

In one particular case, it took nearly three years for the satisfying resolution to arrive.

Allow me to explain.

In March of 2016, programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which were edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in The New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

The troubling pattern uncovered by Tausig and Pwanson sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, president of Lone Shark Games and puzzle constructor, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

Parker was out as far as USA Today went, but his relationship with Universal Uclick was still unclear. (Even now, despite inquiries, I’m unable to determine if he’s still associated with Universal Uclick.)

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles.

And, as I said, the story has a happy ending. Constructor David Steinberg has been named the new editor of the Universal Crossword and Universal Sunday Crossword!

Although this means the end of The Puzzle Society Crossword that Steinberg was previously editing (as it is being folded into the Universal Crossword), there is a bright side, as it guarantees fresh, well-vetted puzzles for many more solvers from a young, respected voice in the field.

David’s resume is impressive, as the youngest constructor to be published in The LA Times crossword, and the second-youngest to be published in The NY Times. He was also named the crossword editor for the 24 newspapers associated with The Orange County Register.

Between those accomplishments, his work with the archival Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and his prolific and creative crossword output, it’s obvious why Universal Uclick (now Andrew McMeels Universal) would want him for the job.

Several puzzles under his stewardship have already appeared, featuring constructors like Jim Peredo, Doug Peterson, and Samuel A. Donaldson!

David offered some details in an announcement email:

Each week I’m publishing eight themed Universal crosswords—seven 15x15s and one 21×21. Puzzles appear in all venues that formerly ran the Universal Crossword, as well as in those that ran the Puzzle Society Crossword.

Among the many new venues that run the 15x15s are The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Seattle Times; new venues that run both the 15x15s and the 21x21s include The Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Daily News, and The Miami Herald. The Universal Crossword is also truly universal, appearing in countries as far-flung as China, India, and Saudi Arabia!

We wish David the best of luck in his latest puzzly endeavor. We know the Universal Crossword is in great hands!


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Escape Room Tips Galore!

The movie Escape Room opens today in theaters, so naturally, I’ve got escape rooms on the brain.

For the uninitiated, an escape room is an interactive series of puzzles or challenges set in a closed space. The group needs to explore the room and complete various tasks in order to escape the room within the allotted time.

Escape rooms have exploded in popularity over the last few years, so it’s likely you’ve either already participated in one or at least heard of them.

But the idea of being locked in a room with a fixed time limit and an unknown number of tasks to accomplish can be intimidating or discouraging.

So today, I thought I could offer some helpful tips to get you going.

#1 Communication

Whether it’s your first escape room or your twentieth, communication is always key. There’s a room to search, puzzles to solve, and tasks to complete, and everyone is going to have their own unique insights.

So speak up! Point out things you notice, keep everyone informed of what you’re doing or trying to do, and let people know if you’ve solved or discovered something.

And if you need help or you’re not sure about something, ask. It’s a team game.

#2 Note-taking

Most of the escape rooms I’ve done usually give you a whiteboard and a marker or a notepad and pencil to take notes with. This is an incredibly useful tool in solving the room, because it lets you keep track of code words, number chains, and possible combinations for the various locks you’ll encounter. And once you’ve used a code to unlock something, you can cross it out so nobody wastes time reusing a code you’ve already figured out.

If there’s not some way to physically keep track, you can always ask someone to try their best to mentally keep track of which ones you have used or might need in the future.

#3 Organization

There’s a lot going on in any escape room, so keep things simple by setting up two areas: puzzles in progress and puzzles solved.

Many puzzles or tasks you encounter in an escape room take time to fully form. For instance, you might get a keycard in one color, and not know what it’s for. But as you explore the room and solve a few puzzles, you find more keycards in other colors. Suddenly, you’ll find the use for ALL of them in a new puzzle. So have a designated place to keep things you find that you haven’t used yet. You’ll be glad you did.

Also, once a puzzle is complete or a clue is used, put it into your “puzzles solved” area. You don’t need extraneous clutter confusing you, and it’s a good way to discard solved locks, used keys, and other parts of the game you’ve completed in a way that won’t slow you down moving forward.

Doing so is also part of good communication, since everyone will immediately know what’s still in play and what’s been handled.


That should be enough to get you started, but if you’d like more advice, check out this terrific breakdown of more escape room tips that can make your solving experience more fruitful:

Whether you’re enjoying a friendly day of solving or tackling a monstrous challenge like the characters in the Escape Room film, these clues are bound to come in handy.


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: The Sequel

It’s a new year, and many folks treat the new year as a clean slate, a jumping-off point from which to launch efforts at self-improvement. They embark on new endeavors, hoping to complete resolutions made in earnest.

Others use the first few days or weeks to try to set the tone for the rest of the year by establishing new routines or breaking from old routines.

Unfortunately, The New York Times crossword is not off to a good start.

We’ve discussed in the past how The NYT crossword has a less-than-stellar reputation for cultural sensitivity, and Tuesday’s puzzle was, for many solvers, more of the same.

Here’s the grid from January 1st:

[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

One of those entries, 2 Down, leapt out at many solvers. Yes, it was clued innocently as “Pitch to the head, informally.” But, for millions of people, that word has a far more unpleasant, insulting, and flat-out racist meaning.

It’s natural for people to want to explain this away as unintentional. That becomes harder to accept when it has happened before.

Will Shortz had the following to say in The New York Times Wordplay blog from 2012, after a similar incident involving the answer word ILLEGAL:

Thanks for your email regarding the clue for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”) in the Feb. 16 New York Times crossword.

At the time I wrote this clue (and yes, it was my clue), I had no idea that use of the word “illegal” in this sense (as a noun) was controversial. It’s in the dictionary. It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. There is nothing inherently pejorative about it.

Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of “illegal” as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation. I don’t want to offend people in the crossword. So I don’t expect to do this again. Fortunately, there are many other ways to clue the word ILLEGAL.

At the end of the post, Deb Amlen stated:

Should Mr. Shortz have been more aware of the current usage of the word? Sure, but no one is infallible, and I will give him points for stepping up. He is the captain of the New York Times crossword ship, and he owned his mistake. Not only that, but he has assured us that it will not happen again.

That’s evolution.

Well, it’s happened again.

And this time, being unaware is not an excuse. In Shortz’s apology for this latest mistake, he mentions not only discovering the pejorative meaning of the word in his own research, but that the issue was raised by fellow constructor and XWordInfo archivist Jeff Chen.

In his own take on the puzzle on XWordInfo, Jeff was incredibly kind regarding Shortz, stating:

I generally think Will does a great job in editing the NYT puzzle — hard to argue with results, with solvership exploding into the hundreds of thousands under his helm. This is one of the less than 5% of things that I strongly disagree with, though.

(Jeff then offers two easy fixes to remove the word from the puzzle, because Jeff is a pro.)

Again, unfortunately, we don’t know if this will lead to any changes at The New York Times. Shortz stated:

My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword. This is an issue that comes up occasionally with entries like GO O.K. (which we clued last April as “Proceed all right,” but which as a solid word is a slur), CHINK (benign in the sense as a chink in one’s armor), etc. These are legitimate words.

That’s certainly one way to look at it. Of course, it’s not great that one of his examples was employed as part of a misunderstanding in an episode of Scrubs fifteen years ago to similarly unpleasant effect:

Shortz followed up by saying, “Perhaps I need to rethink this opinion, if enough solvers are bothered.”

In response, I think constructor Eric Berlin summed up the issue perfectly:

Perhaps a good rule for this sort of thing is, if you were looking *only at the completed crossword grid* and not at the clues, what would CHINK or GOOK call to mind first?

That’s what I thought, and that’s why I would never dream of using either word in a puzzle.

At least it’s still early in the year. Plenty of time to go onward and upward from here.


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