Solving the Great American Puzzle: A Review of the Crossword Web-based Game from APH (2023)

J.J. Meddaugh

Crossword puzzles have been a staple of American mornings for more than a century, with the first puzzle appearing in a December, 1913 issue of the New York World newspaper. They can be one of the most stimulating mental exercises, stretching the mind to ascertain esoteric answers and rare pop culture references. Until recently, however, these puzzles were largely unreadable by screen readers and other accessibility tools, leaving people with visual impairments to rely on others in order to participate. The American Printing House for the Blind (APH), as a part of their increasing focus on free Web apps and tools, now offers a way to play these timeless puzzles at the same time as everyone else.

APH Crossword is a web-based game that allows users to play the same puzzles found in the largest daily newspapers, as well as many more from a variety of sources. Crossword is a web app, meaning it runs entirely inside your browser of choice, much like Google Docs or Office 365. To start, simply visit the Crossword website in your browser of choice. It's designed to work with screen readers, and many features have been included to make puzzles easier to navigate and explore.

The Basics of Crosswords

For those readers who may have never encountered a crossword puzzle, it may be helpful to explain the basic concepts. A crossword puzzle features a set of spaces on a grid, typically, a 15 by 15 square. Words are formed by filling in letters across (from left to right), and down (from top to bottom). The puzzle gets its name because many of the words cross each other.

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In order to determine which words fit in the grid, each puzzle includes a set of clues that you use to guess the word or phrase. A recent Wall Street Journal puzzle, for example, included the clue, "Take flight to unite (5)" as the clue for 1 Across. The 5 tells you the number of letters in the answer, which happens to be "elope." Connected to the first E in "elope" is 1 Down, the clue for which is: "fair (4)." The correct answer is "expo." Other letters in "elope" and "expo" connect to more clues in the puzzle, making it easier to fill in the blanks as you determine possible answers. If you're a bit confused, don't worry, as the concept often becomes clearer after doing your first puzzle.

Starting the Game

After loading the Crossword website, you will be presented with one of the built-in puzzles to solve. APH has created over 90 puzzles intended for middle and high school students in a variety of subjects. Some of these certainly may be a challenge to some, and they can also be a good way to explore and understand the app. If you're using a screen reader, you will want to turn on your browser's mode for interacting with pages, such as Focus Mode in NVDA or Forms Mode in JAWS.

While in the app, you can press Tab to move through the available parts of the game. The first item is an Options menu, which lets you load puzzles and set various game settings. More on that in a second. Pressing Tab again will put you in the list of available puzzles, including the educational puzzles mentioned above and any puzzles you may have loaded previously. Use your Arrow keys to select a puzzle and then press Tab to move to the puzzle itself.

Once you are in the puzzle proper, the first list you will encounter is the Across clues, typically starting with 1 Across. Use your Arrow keys to move between the clues in the puzzle. As explained above, each clue also gives the number of letters in the answer.

There are two ways to move into the puzzle. You can press Tab again from the list of Across clues to move your focus into the puzzle grid. Or, perhaps more intuitively, you can press Enter on any of the clues to move your cursor to the location in the puzzle corresponding to the clue. When in the puzzle itself, pressing Tab one final time will move you to the list of Down clues for the puzzle. So essentially, you will be moving among the two lists of clues (Across and Down) and the puzzle itself in order to solve it.

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At this point, it's worth moving focus to the grid to understand how crossword puzzles are laid out and how the app indicates the various items on the grid. Each square where you can type a letter is indicated by either hearing silence from your screen reader, or perhaps a placeholder such as "cell." Spaces where letters cannot be typed are indicated by the text "black space," which is also visually how this looks in the puzzle. By arrowing around the grid, you can hear how the various clues connect to each other in the layout of the puzzle. If you find one of the edges of the puzzle, a short click sound will play.

Let's illustrate this a bit further by giving an example. Follow along if you wish. I moved to the list of puzzles and selected "10th Grade Cooking" from the list. I pressed Tab and was placed on the first clue for the puzzle, which happens to be 1, Across: "An appliance where food is stored and kept cold (12)". Pressing Enter on this clue will put us at the first square of the answer, which we now know is 12 letters. Since I know a bit about food, I'm able to type in the answer, "refrigerator." Crossword plays a short beep when I type in the last letter of the answer so I know the answer is complete. You may notice that Crossword will speak the contents of the boxes as you land on them. There was a box labeled "2" and another labeled "3." These numbers refer to additional clues in the puzzle, in this case, Down clues. I can press Left Arrow to explore adjacent clues. Pressing the Left Arrow key once after typing in "refrigerator," moves the cursor back to the letter O, which also speaks the number "3." Press Enter on this box to hear the clue for 3 Down. This clue is then spoken: "Lets the cook know when the meal is ready (9)". Since this clue is connected to our answer of refrigerator, we now know that the answer is 9 letters and begins with O. As more answers are discovered, you will encounter words with many, or even all of, their letters filled in. Part of the beauty of crossword puzzles is that you don't need to know every answer and can use previous clues to help you solve more of the puzzle. You can move between the grid and the clue lists at will, and it’s recommended you do this to quickly explore the puzzle.

More Features

Most of the additional features for Crossword live in the Options menu. You can find this menu by pressing Tab or Shift + Tab until you hear "Options Menu." Press Enter to browse the various choices in this menu.

The first three options allow you to load puzzles from various sources. Puzzles, many of which are free, are available through the Web, with most using the .PUZ file format, a standard for puzzle makers. The website Crossword Fiend is one such resource for puzzles. Please note that not all puzzles on this page are in the .PUZ format. I have tested and played the Wall Street Journal puzzles, which are published six days a week. You can either download the .PUZ file and open it from your computer, or choose the "Open from Web" option and paste in a website URL of a puzzle that is online. There is another option in the menu for specifically loading New York Times puzzles. These are often seen as some of the toughest in the industry, especially the Saturday puzzle. You will need a subscription to access these puzzles, which includes archives going back over two decades.

Many of the remaining options allow you to check your answers as you type, or check the entire solution of the puzzle. These are also available using keyboard shortcuts, which vary depending on your operating system. For example, Windows users can press Alt + Shift + W to check the current word that has focus in the grid. You can also use Alt + Shift + L to check the current letter, or Alt + Shift + P to check the entire solution. You will either hear a ding or a buzz sound to indicate if the letter, word, or puzzle is correct or incorrect. The program will not give you the correct answer. You can also press Alt + Shift + S to toggle a mode that will let you know of incorrect letters as you arrow around the puzzle. These features are a nice way to check your work, though many purists, including myself, believe that much of the fun of crossword puzzles is to figure out the solution with as little help as possible, so may opt to wait until the very end to check a solution.

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The last set of options allows you to reset the puzzle by clearing all of the answers and to view the User Guide and About information. As is typical with APH products, the online manual is very detailed and includes a variety of tips and tricks for using the program. Of particular interest are some tips for working with specific screen readers to optimize the program.

Some Additional Notes

Crossword was initially designed for PC users, but now also works on mobile devices. The interface is streamlined, and will show one clue at a time with options to move between clues and around the grid. I personally find programs like this work best on a computer due to their inclusion of more keyboard shortcuts and the ability to easily move through the clue list. But for those moments where you need to kill some time on the subway or bus, the mobile option is a nice addition.

Some users, especially those using JAWS, have noticed a bit of lag when navigating the app, especially when moving from the grid to the list of Down clues. If you experience this, you may consider trying another screen reader or browser to see if this improves navigation. Screen readers are often still adapting to working with modern and more complex Web apps, so your mileage may vary.

Finally, crossword clues can be tricky beasts, and you can choose to finish puzzles in a variety of ways. For me, I would rather not look up answers as this takes away much of the fun of the puzzles, but will use Google to sometimes verify spellings or to learn about an answer once it has been entered. There are online crossword dictionaries and solvers that are available, and you can choose to use these resources as you see fit.

Suggestions for the Future

I've seen the Crossword app grow quite a bit since the first version in 2018, and find the puzzle-solving experience quite enjoyable. There are naturally some things that would make the program even better. In a typical puzzle, there are often more than 60 or 70 clues to answer. Once most of the clues have been solved, it would be great to press a key to get a list of unsolved clues, or perhaps move to the next or previous unsolved clue. Other navigation features, such as a way to type in a number to jump directly to a clue or a search function for known clue text, would make the game more efficient. Finally, a way to save progress on a game and send it to someone else, or a multiplayer mode would be a dream feature that would bring this program to the next level. It's worth noting that your puzzle progress is saved currently and will be reloaded if you use the same browser in the future. These are all just ideas to make the game even better, and do not detract from the current experience.

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The Bottom Line

If you are stuck at home, or are seeking a challenging mental exercise, Crossword may just be the app for you. It's completely free and there are plenty of puzzles to keep you busy. You can even create your own puzzles for others to try out. APH should be commended for a well-thought-out experience and their willingness to incorporate user feedback. Now I'm off to figure out the answer to 19 Across, "Muffin morsel (3)".

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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