a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

i like crosswords now

When I was a kid, my family sometimes had a newspaper subscription, I think primarily because of my interest in the comics page. I was a little more into newspaper comics than the average kid (at the same time showing little to no interest in superhero comics, one of many preferences that made my dad dislike me.) But I would carefully cut out my favorite comics, glue them to pieces of loose-leaf paper and make my own collections in 3-prong1 folders like this one:

3-prong folder

I had a pretty sizable collection, at its peak about three of those folders crammed full of comics. They were smaller than they looked, because the glue and layered paper added a lot to the thickness, but I was still proud of them. They were part of my regular reading rotation, alongside the few precious published volumes I had been given. I figure a newspaper subscription was cheap enough and I showed enough dedication to make it a worthwhile expense for my parents.

When Calvin and Hobbes ended in 1995, my interest in comics went with it. There were a few other comics I was half-interested in, but Calvin and Hobbes was the centerpiece, the thing that made me love comics, the reason they were precious enough to collect. Peanuts still had a few more years, but as much of a machine as Charles Schulz was, the 90s era of Peanuts didn't make as much of an impression as the volumes of 60s and 70s Peanuts I got from the library. Foxtrot had its ups and downs. Garfield was... there. I still read the comics every day, even the bad ones, but without Calvin and Hobbes, the funny pages no longer felt worthy of preservation.

Still, this was a half-decade before I had the internet, and I was lucky to get one or two new video games a year, so I tried to wring as much entertainment out of the newspaper as I could. The comics page also had puzzles. The only one I genuinely enjoyed was the cryptoquip, but that was phased out of my local paper at some point too. I would do the jumble, which was about a 90 second diversion. Trying to glean some meaning from the bridge puzzle was (and is) like figuring out ancient Egyptian algebra.

That brings us to the crossword. Other than the bridge puzzle, and Rex Morgan M.D., it was the most "adult" thing on the comics page. I wanted to be able to do the crossword very badly. I understood how it worked. The concept is very simple. But in practice, I was never able to fill out more than a couple clues before getting hopelessly stuck. It was second maybe only to Encyclopedia Brown in terms of making me feel very dumb.

The clues I could solve were ones that required information that I happened to know. Like, if the clue is "He discovered E=MC2", and there were eight squares, of course I knew that's EINSTEIN. I'd fill it in, and scrutinize all the other clues that shared letters with it, and I'd get nowhere. It would be facts that 10-year-old me didn't know, or it would be clues that felt so cryptic and ambiguous that the answer could be almost anything, and the one letter wasn't enough to help me narrow it down.

I had done enough logic puzzles to know that I could try filling in guess answers temporarily to see if that provides any flashes of inspiration, but this strategy added to my frustration. You know how people who are way into crosswords brag about filling them out in pen? Well, in my experience, trying to erase pencil marks on newsprint might as well be the same thing. It turns the whole thing into a black smudgy mess. Maybe I just always used super cheap pencils, I dunno.

Anyway, that was it for me and crossword puzzles. I tried and determined that I don't have what it takes. Until five days ago when I signed up for my puzzmo account.


It's a website what has puzzles on it. There are new puzzles of many different kinds every day. If you have a free account, which I do, there are five puzzles you can play every day, and I like all of them except for the chess puzzle. Three of them (including the crossword) are word-style puzzles, and there's one where you rotate *ominos to neatly fit inside a rectangle. There's a certain number of invites given out per day, or you can get an invite from a member, and you have to solve a puzzle to sign up. I don't have any invites right now, but if you're a fellow puzzmoid, feel free to friend me! My username is bluelander#jw.2

crosswords are good

I've never done a crossword on a computer, so this sort of thing may be common, but the UI for puzzmo crosswords is extremely good. You click on a square, and it highlights every fillable square in that row or column. If you want to orient it the other way, you double-click the square. You can also click on the clue number, like "22 down", and it'll automatically orient you vertically, highlight that column, and make 22 the active square. Then you just type! You can backspace if you make a mistake and click on another clue or square when you're ready to move on. It beats the heck out of trying to erase your chicken scratch and rubbing through the flimsy newsprint.

The other benefit of doing a crossword on a computer is that I'm at the same device I can use to look up any facts I don't know. And sometimes I do. It feels like cheating, but it's better than getting stuck, and I still get the satisfaction of solving the clues that I do know. But puzzmo also offers a secondary hint system, which gives you another way of solving it or a more direct clue. Here's an example from today's puzzle, which is a spoiler, but it's one I don't imagine people had too much trouble with: For 9 down, the clue is "home for a warbler" (4 letters.) Say you didn't know that a warbler is a kind of bird. It's totally possible, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. Nobody knows everything, and everyone is learning new things all the time (or at least we shouldn't be discouraging them from doing so)

XKCD comic

I don't think we should need a math reason not to make fun of people for not knowing things, but I like the overall sentiment

So 10-year-old me might not know what a warbler is, doesn't have the internet to look it up, and has a dictionary that for whatever reason doesn't include the word "warbler". So 10-year-old me gets frustrated and decides they're not smart enough for crosswords. That's no good.

But on Puzzmo, you can click the "hint" button and get "structure a bird might make from twigs." A-ha! A warbler is a kind of bird! And everyone knows birds use twigs to make a NEST.

Using a hint adds 30 seconds to your time, which decreases your overall score, and I'm not playing to compete with people, so I'm fine using the hint button whenever I need to. I dunno, it's nice to feel like I figured it out a different way rather than looking up the answer directly. Of course, if I were solving a non-Puzzmo crossword I'd be looking up stuff left and right, but I dunno, the more I do that, the more it feels like I'm not actually doing anything? Like I'm just consulting a database of information and placing the information in a grid. Even if the hint system in practice isn't all that different, the effect is that I feel like my accomplishment is more earned. Being able to finish a puzzle without any outside information feels good, for the same reason I don't play games that require you to have a wiki open. Puzzmo crosswords succeed at one of the trickiest game design challenges: giving the player just enough information to feel smart. It's a beautiful balance.

...it's a balance that I tried to achieve in my puzzle game, Quest For The Radiant Cake! (Starring Slime And Goo), still available in Indiepocalypse #46! Did I succeed? You be the judge 🦝

  1. Or maybe it's six prong? Two prongs per hole? I don't know what these are supposed to be called.↩

  2. I don't know how useful the social features are, since with a free account you can't show off your stats or compete on the leaderboards or form groups, and I don't know how any of these puzzles are supposed to work "multiplayer"... but hey, it's early access.↩

#comics #game design #games #puzzles #social media