Crosswords and Cryptics and Jumble--Oh My!
We may not have paperless offices yet, but old-time pencil-and-paper pastimes have gone digital with a vengeance. The Web has made everything from the venerable New York Times and Times of London crossword puzzles to such popular favorites as Jumble, Boggle, Sudoku, and Pictionary as handy as the nearest browser-equipped PC. Following are a dozen challenges that might persuade you to sacrifice a little Facebook and Twitter time.
Looking for more fun with your PC? Start by checking out our gaming blogs: Darren Gladstone's Casual Friday and Matt Peckham's Game On. Then wander through our review of free game sites. Looking for a crossword to solve on your iPhone? Read about two good iPhone crossword apps, courtesy of our friends at Macworld.
And if you're feeling guilty because you're reading this at work, you'll be relieved to learn that some companies are finding that allowing employees to play games at work may improve their productivity. So there!
Puzzles of the New York Times
The New York Times daily and Sunday crossword puzzles (considered by many avid players to be the gold standard among crosswords) are available online for downloading and solving--either with free downloadable Across Lite desktop software or via a Java Applet that lets you play against the clock (and see how you stack up against other contestants) or collaborate with a buddy.
They'll cost you, though: The Times has been charging for access to its puzzles for many years now; subscriptions cost $7 a month or $40 a year (clearly a better deal for puzzle aficionados).
For the money, you get good value. In addition to standard crosswords, you get access to various other types of puzzles from the Sunday magazine (acrostics, diagramless puzzles, and the like), Sudoku and another type of number puzzle called KenKen, a pattern-matching puzzle called SET, and even a blog about the puzzles called WordPlay. If the daily offerings aren't enough to satisfy your puzzling urge, you can pull up items from the archives.
Puzzles of the Times of London
It takes a special (and dedicated) crossword fan to tackle the Times Cryptic puzzles, which never involve straightforward clues. Be prepared for tortuous word play, puns, and anagrams. (The New York Times occasionally runs this type of puzzle, which it calls "Puns and Anagrams.") If this is your cup of tea, you no longer have to cross the Atlantic (or find a newsstand that carries foreign papers): Just head to the Times' Web site.
These guys charge too, but your credit card company will happily handle the currency conversion (and charge you a little for the privilege). An annual subscription to the Times Crossword Club runs £25, which is a bit less than $37 at this writing; alternatively you can pay £5 (or about $7.35) for a month's membership. Happily, TimesOnline does not charge for its many other puzzles, such as Sudoku or an intriguing word game called Linkudo in which you try to connect one word to another through intermediate links that rhyme, are related to, contain, or are contained by the current word in the chain.
USA Today Puzzles
USA Today offers daily crosswords and other puzzles at its site. I'm especially partial to USAT's implementation of Sudoku because it makes adding annotations super easy--you simply press Shift and the number you wish to enter.
USA Today's puzzle site is maintained as a partnership between the news publisher The Puzzle Society, which also receives and posts syndicated puzzles from other newspapers. You can play a few of these puzzles for free, but if you're a serious puzzler, the $20 annual subscription is money well spent, since it provides access to dozens of puzzle types and their archives. Shown above is one of the Word Search puzzles on the Puzzle Society's site.
Tribune Media's Jumble Web site has links to several versions of the popular word game, including downloadable editions for a slew of cell phones and PDFs for those who prefer to solve their puzzles the old-fashioned way. The Web site also has a Jumble forum and a blog. But the quickest way to get a Jumble fix is by heading to the Daily Jumble (which is actually located on the Uclick Games site). There you'll find a daily puzzle created in Flash, with cool animations and a timer (used to calculate a score). You can work puzzles from previous days, too. Well worth putting up with the lone pop-up and banner ads I encountered.
Hasbro, which owns the Boggle trademark, provides a free online version of Boggle on its Web site, with a replica of the board and the little hourglass timer. Unfortunately, the online game has serious shortcomings. Because you have to click through a word (and then click 'Enter Word' for each entry), you lose valuable time when nailing down variants (such as plurals). More disappointingly, it's strictly a one-person game online, with no way to tell how you stack up against others.
Fortunately for Boggle fans, there are quite a few well-developed alternatives. I'm partial to WordTwist.org, which has put together a pretty good imitation board. You can play either of two versions--one with Flash, and one without. (Either way, I seem to score better when typing than when mousing.) You also have a choice of two board sizes: 4 by 4 or 5 by 5.
Though WordTwist isn't a multiplayer game in the traditional sense, the Web site provides lots of data about how you stack up against the competition after each board: WordTwist shows you the number of points you scored, the number of words you found, your longest word, and your highest-scoring word--and it shows how others did in the same categories. Prepare to be humbled: I count myself lucky when I manage to score slightly above average. You also get a list of all of the words you could have identified, showing which ones you found and which you didn't; this is a useful way to increase your vocabulary of arcane words to use in future games.
WordTwist is free and ad-supported. If you register, WordTwist will keep track of your performance and let you set a default board size (which speeds up starting a new game).
Multiplayer Boggle Imitator
If only live play will do for you, head to Weboggle.info, where you'll typically find a dozen or more folks tackling a 4 by 4 board for 3 minutes, after which you recuperate for half a minute and then receive the scoring results. Graphics aren't as neat as those on WordTwist, and on occasion I've had the game hang on me (apparently it's programmed in Ajax); but at least there aren't a lot of annoying ads like the ones that plague other sites, and I like being able to type in (rather than mouse in) the words. Again, be prepared to be humbled.
If you're interested in a longer game on a larger board, try Spellbound, featured at a gaming site called Spogg. Spellbound plays out on an 8 by 6 board, and you have to click (typing appears to be reserved for chat); games last for either 5 or 10 minutes.
Logic problems typically challenge you to sort out several individuals (or groups) and several collections of attributes. In the problem shown here, the attributes include the person's name, the number of megapixels in the person's camera, the type of aristocrat the person encountered, and the person's programming language of choice (must have been written by a geek). Clues usually look something like "The PHP programmer is not Jerry or Harley" or "The 5 people were the person with the 5.2-megapixel camera, Jerry, the person who met the archduke, the Flash programmer, and the person with the 7.0-megapixel camera."
You solve logic problems by using a grid in which you can put x's to rule out logically discredited combinations and checkmarks or dots to identify known matches (determined either from provided data or by logical deduction).
In print, logic problems used to come with preformatted grids (created using problem data); I used to buy books full of these problems to keep me busy during long trips. These days, though, I go to Logic-Puzzles.org, which posts dozens of problems, each accompanied by a grid in which a single click places an x, a second click places a dot, and a third click removes all marks. You don't have to register; but if you do, the site will track your achievements (each puzzle is timed, and your score reflects how long you took to solve it).
The ad-supported site is free, courtesy of the Puzzle Baron (the same folks who created WordTwist).
Hangman games are easy to find online. At Hangman-Online.com, you're limited to a paltry three categories of words to guess: geographic terms, Oscar winners (actors, directors, or film titles), and dog breeds. I found more categories, cuter graphics, and some whimsical background music at Hangman.nor (the site appears to be hosted in Norway, but you can choose between English and Norwegian games). Shown above is a partly completed game from the Harry Potter category. No ads, just a cute game.
I can't sign off on a roundup of pencil-and-paper pastimes gone digital without putting in a plug for a game I've written about many times for PC World. I first ran across iSketch several years ago, and I have yet to find a better Web version of Pictionary. You'll need Shockwave to play this game, but that's all--registration is not required. iSketch maintains dozens of game rooms for different languages and different themes (movies, music, food, sports, and more). Rooms are limited to 10 or so players, and the game automatically passes drawing duties around at random, assigning the artist a word or phrase and providing basic drawing tools (think Windows Paint).
The other players get points for guessing correctly, and the artist is rewarded with extra points for each person who correctly identifies the drawing. Games run 10 rounds, so participating doesn't involve making a huge time investment. Check it out.