Puzzles are everywhere these days—on our phones and in our hands and in the corners of our brains. And we think maybe we know why: Puzzles are safe mysteries, solvable problems, if we apply enough wisdom, logic, and patience. In that way they’re not just fun distractions; they help us navigate an uncertain world.
So this year we launched AO Puzzles. Each Monday we offered themed crosswords, logic puzzles from Japan, and linguistic stumpers from all over the world. At their best, puzzles can themselves be stories, and we hope they’ll also be a gateway to the rich narratives and global perspective we work to provide here at Atlas Obscura. Here are a few of our favorites from the year, and check back with us every Monday for a new installment!
The inaugural Atlas Obscura crossword, with clues that point to wondrous places around the world, came to us from Inkubator, a collective that publishes crossword puzzles by women and nonbinary constructors. They offer a yearly subscription and have just released a book, Inkubator Crosswords: 100 Audacious Puzzles from Women and Nonbinary Creators. We present a new Inkubator puzzle each month.
Our other crossword creator, independent puzzle maestro Brendan Emmett Quigley, came up with this spooky, skull-shaped grid for AO Loves Halloween, our month of weird, wondrous, wicked new stories about our favorite holiday.
We had one more crossword creator work with us this year: You. This puzzle came to us from the students in Atlas Obscura’s Creating Crossword Puzzles course in May 2022, along with their instructors, expert crossword creators Brooke Husic and Natan Last. A new student-led crossword will be released soon!
Each month we also featured pencil-and-paper logic challenges from Puzzle Communication Nikoli, a cult-favorite puzzle publication from Japan best known for making Sudoku a global phenomenon. Best of all, much like our collection of wondrous places around the world, the puzzles are almost exclusively contributed by readers and fans.
For the first Nikoli puzzle we offered Tentai Show, which recalls origami, celestial bodies such as galaxies and stars, and traditional Japanese clan symbols. It is one of Nikoli’s most beloved reader creations—using solving logic to create a picture, making each one a kind of puzzle-based constellation. If you can solve the third one, you will find an Atlas Obscura surprise.
We at Atlas Obscura love science, maps, and infrastructure, so Nikoli’s Hashiwokakero was a natural fit. Originally inspired by the diagrams that illustrate molecular bonding in chemistry, the puzzle can be read many different ways. For a city dweller, it might look like a transit puzzle, connecting stations in a subway system. For someone on the coast, it looks like building bridges between islands. In the end, the last metaphor won out: Hashiwokakero means “Build Bridges.”
One of the inspirations for our puzzle collection is journalist and puzzle-maker Alex Bellos, author of numerous books exploring global puzzle phenomena. For his monthly puzzle, Bellos goes around the world to provide linguistic challenges—each of which comes with a story explaining the culture and history behind it.
Before the Navajo famously helped the United States create an unbreakable code in World War II, a group of eight Choctaw soldiers were instrumental in helping the Allies win key battles in the final weeks of World War I: the first Native Americans to be used by the U.S. military as “code-talkers.” One of their advantages was the challenge of learning Choctaw, as this puzzle shows.
Mandombe, a script now understood by up to 10,000 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, and Angola, is a relatively recent invention that is unusual for a couple of reasons. It had a political motive—a rejection of colonialism and the writing systems it imposed—and it was inspired by a divine revelation that took place while its creator, Wabeladio Payi, was staring at a brick wall.
To celebrate the launch of AO Puzzles, we also worked with world record–setting maze maker, Michigan-based artist Michelle Boggess-Nunley, for an Atlas Obscura–themed maze that captures the spirit of exploration, and has plenty of Easter eggs.