PuzzleNation Book Reviews: The Code Busters Club, Case #3

Welcome to the ninth installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!

All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.

Let’s get started!

Our book review post this time around features Penny Warner’s third Code Busters Club novel, The Mystery of the Pirate’s Treasure.

I regularly get questions from fellow puzzlers who are looking for fun ways to get their kids into math, science, history, and other subjects through the media of board games or puzzles. Sadly, I don’t always have the picture-perfect recommendation for them prepped and ready in my back pocket, gift-wrapped for delivery.

That’s what makes stumbling upon a book tailor-made for encouraging both reading AND a love of puzzles such a delight. And if you’re looking for a gateway book for scavenger hunts or coded puzzles, look no further than The Code Busters Club series.

When there’s a puzzle to be unraveled or a code to be cracked, you can count on the crafty quartet known as the Code Busters. Friends Cody Jones, Quinn Kee, Luke LaVeau, and M.E. Esperanto are ready at a moment’s notice to put their codecracking skills to the test, and a field trip to Carmel Mission might be the perfect opportunity. There are some shifty characters lurking about, but with rumors of a pirate’s treasure hidden nearby, what else would you expect? Can the Code Busters make history and solve the riddle of de Bouchard’s gold?

If you’re looking for a fun way to introduce coded puzzles to younger readers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a book that employs as many different styles of coding as The Mystery of the Pirate’s Treasure. Warner has clearly done her research, employing everything from Morse code and semaphore to symbols, skip codes, Caesar ciphers, alphanumerics, and more.

[A quick interlude for coded-puzzle newbies:

  • A skip code is a message wherein you skip certain words in order to spell out a hidden message concealed within a larger one.
  • A Caesar cipher, also known as a shift cipher, works by shifting the alphabet a predetermined number of letters. For instance, if you shift the alphabet 5 letters, A becomes F, B becomes G, etc.
  • An alphanumeric code (in its simplest form) replaces the letters in words with their corresponding digits on a telephone keypad. So an A, B, or C becomes 2 while G, H, or I becomes 4.

End informational interlude.]

As a puzzler with plenty of experience with coded puzzles and cryptography, I was impressed by the breadth of codes and secret messages Warner had snuck into book that’s less than 200 pages, including illustrations and a sizable typeface.

The story itself is a bit threadbare, but considering the brisk storytelling pace and the sheer number of puzzles included, it’s easy to forgive the author for providing just enough impetus to get the Code Busters (and the reader) from one puzzle to the next. After all, this is a book about friends solving puzzles, and the puzzles are dynamite introductory-level puzzles for young readers.

I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for further Code Busters Club adventures.

[To check out all of our PuzzleNation Book Review posts, click here!]

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It’s Follow-Up Friday (in color!)

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

For those new to PuzzleNation Blog, Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and update the PuzzleNation audience on how these projects are doing and what these people have been up to in the meantime.

And today, I thought I’d mention a curious and clever board game development I stumbled across recently.

One of the most popular games from our recent TableTop Day event was Qwirkle.

A wonderful tile game featuring different colors and symbols, Qwirkle follows in the strategy and pattern-matching tradition of Uno and Mexican Train dominoes.

Unfortunately, my fellow puzzlers and I quickly discovered that the colors chosen for the game are difficult for colorblind players to tell apart. And in a game where you don’t want to show other players your tiles before you play them, it becomes much harder to tell the different between red and orange tiles, which is a crucial distinction during gameplay.

Thankfully, a software developer and board game fan named Joe Michael McDonald took it upon himself to design a colorblind-friendly color palette for Qwirkle.

[On the left is the standard Qwirkle color options. On the right is McDonald's colorblind-friendly variant.]

It’s a terrific example of player ingenuity solving an unforeseen problem and opening up the game to a whole new audience.

Kudos to you, sir. Here’s hoping more games offer a colorblind-friendly variant very soon.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

A globetrotting musical mystery…

Every moment in history is a puzzle to be unraveled. What threads had to be drawn together, what forces had to converge, what improbable series of events had to unfold in precise order to create the exact circumstances to allow that moment to happen?

Any student of history is a puzzler at heart, every personality and preceding event a clue, a potential piece, one domino in the chain of events.

And one student of history found the solution for an unexpected puzzle in a museum in New Jersey.

The Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey is home to hundreds of mechanical musical instruments and players, displaying numerous pieces of the Murtogh D. Guinness collection.

In 2011, when W. Anthony Sheppard stumbled upon a music box — an 1877 Swiss cylinder music box known as a harmoniphone — at the Morris Museum, he had a mystery on his hands.

It was a Swiss music box, much like the one featured above, but the titles of the melodies it played were written in Chinese characters. These were Chinese pieces of music, intended for a Chinese audience. And yet, several of the tunes were strikingly similar to themes from two of Puccini‘s operas: Turandot (set in China) and Madama Butterfly (set in Japan).

Now, Sheppard knew from his musical studies that Puccini used Chinese tunes in the creation of Turandot, but the origins of several tunes in Madama Butterfly have proven more elusive. (The general belief at the time was that the Madama Butterfly tunes in question were inspired by Japanese music, but no one had definitively tied any particular melodies to the opera.)

Yet in an American museum, a Swiss machine with Chinese melodies, traced to an Italian composer, shifted the spotlight from Japan… and back toward China.

[The card that pointed Sheppard in a new direction.]

And the globetrotting didn’t end there. The box had a stamp for a Shanghai department store, as well as a stamp from a repair shop in Rome from the early twentieth century. Not only had the box been manufactured in Europe for sale in China, but it later returned to Europe for service.

Later, Sheppard would further track the providence of the piece, believing it to be the actual music box Puccini listened to before creating his famous operas.

A single clue with widespread ramifications for the history of opera. A music box that not only traveled the world, not only offers proof of how music circulated more than a century ago, but also solved a mystery and rewrote its own corner of history.

It just goes to show you that puzzles are everywhere, sometimes hiding in plain sight, ready to challenge a sharp mind and change the way we see the world.

[I learned of this story in the book Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You by Harriet Baskas. The Morris Museum music box is just one of many interesting stories featured within.]

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

PuzzleNation Reviews: Cirkusu (by Baffledazzle)

In our most recent edition of 5 Questions, I introduced you to Rachel Happen, the puzzler behind Baffledazzle, a Kickstarter to create high-end jigsaw puzzles that are aesthetically pleasing and more challenging than the average puzzle.

She sent us a review copy of one of the five initial Baffledazzle puzzles she’s created, so let’s give Cirkusu the full PuzzleNation review treatment!

[Note: This is intended as a spoiler-light review, so while I do discuss the completed puzzles in vague terms, I won't include any pictures of completed puzzles.]

Cirkusu is a series of jigsaw puzzles centered around the history of games. It’s up to the solver to complete each puzzle, and once they’re assembled, to unravel the identities of each game.

[A fleet of puzzle pieces awaits the solver upon opening the box.]

First off, these pieces are beautiful. The wooden pieces are well cut, visually interesting, and simply fun to play with. Despite the curious shapes and inscribed patterns, it’s still a very challenging jigsaw-style puzzle. And since there’s no picture on the cover to bias the solver, it becomes a matter of matching words, patterns, and different fonts in order to solve the seven puzzles included.

[Just a small sample of the variety of Cirkusu puzzle pieces.]

Each puzzle is inscribed with text, presenting historical context for the game’s creation or rules on how to play, enriching the solving experience and offering clues for the second part of the solve: determining each game’s identity.

Also included are numerous miscellaneous bits and bobs, made from wood, plastic, acrylic, and other materials. These allow some of the puzzles to become full playable games, encouraging the solver to experiment further with different play styles, perhaps even inventing your own game along the way toward figuring out the actual game. (Other puzzles explain how to create a given game on your own, even providing blueprints for how to do so.)

[A close-up of a few individual pieces.]

What separates a Baffledazzle puzzle from the average jigsaw is not only the fine craftsmanship and attention to detail, but also the exploration each puzzle encourages. You can hit the library or take to the Internet in order to find out more about the puzzles, or you can play with the games and make it your own. You dictate when the puzzling experience ends (particularly when there are hint and solution envelopes included).

Solving the puzzle becomes one part of a greater journey. And that makes for a truly memorable solving experience.

[You can check out all of Rachel's Baffledazzle puzzles, including Cirkusu, on her Kickstarter page.]

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

It’s Follow-Up Friday: TableTop Day Edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

For those new to PuzzleNation Blog, Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and update the PuzzleNation audience on how these projects are doing and what these people have been up to in the meantime.

And today, I’m following up on all the International TableTop Day goodness we got up to this week.

The PuzzleNation offices weren’t open on April 5 for the actual TableTop Day, so we celebrated a few days late with an event on Tuesday, and we invited our pals from Penny/Dell Puzzles to join us in all the puzzly game activities we had planned.

Here’s the table of available games for play that day! Everything from one-player brain teasers from ThinkFun (like Rush Hour and the Sudoku-inspired Chocolate Fix) to bigger group games like Apples to Apples and Scattergories, and everything in between! (Including previously reviewed games like Castellan, Pink Hijinks, ROFL!, Fluxx: The Board Game, and Loonacy!)

Here, fellow puzzlers partake in a spirited round of Apples to Apples, the perfect way to blow off a little steam at work after a long morning of puzzlesmithing.

Furiously contested games of Bananagrams and Qwirkle were conducted at either end of our play area, and both were big hits with attendees.

I even had the opportunity to test my mettle against Penny/Dell’s well-traveled Corin the Puzzle Bear in a few rounds of Jenga.

While he beat me handily in two straight games, the tide soon turned against him in round three.

We had a pretty decent turnout overall, and everyone who attended had fun. What more can you ask for, really? (Other than more excuses to play games during work, that is…)

I hope your International TableTop Day was just as enjoyable. As Wil Wheaton says on his YouTube show TableTop, play more games!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

5 Questions with Puzzle Creator Rachel Happen of Baffledazzle

Welcome to another edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, board game creators, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m overjoyed to have Rachel Happen as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Rachel is the entrepreneur behind Baffledazzle, a Kickstarter campaign to create visually striking, challenging jigsaw puzzles for a new generation of savvy puzzlers. Baffledazzle originated as Tumblr and Twitter accounts that encouraged viewers to try different activities and explore Rachel’s unique brand of visual and mental puzzles.

As an avid puzzle solver herself, Rachel strives to turn every new puzzle into a learning exercise, making Baffledazzle puzzles an intriguing mixture of hands-on puzzling and solver-driven exploration.

Rachel was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for Rachel Happen

1.) How did you first get into puzzles?

Honestly, I can’t remember! I have always been really into puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles were my school-break staple for many years. I’d spend snowy days lying on the floor, sorting pieces by color. In fourth grade I had a math teacher that would give us those grid-based logic puzzles to fill time. I just devoured them. I solved them all and collected them in a binder. She had no idea what to think of me.

But my interest in puzzles really ramped up a couple of years ago when I stumbled on a 1960s-era Springbok and it knocked my socks off. They were doing things that pushed the jigsaw puzzle medium forward, visually and conceptually. I absolutely love exploration and challenges so finding both in a jigsaw puzzle was heaven.

I started buying up old Springboks and learned all about Par and Stave and the centuries-old tradition of beautiful wooden jigsaw puzzles. Then I read Anne Williams’ excellent book on jigsaw puzzle history and just thought, “I have to try making my own puzzles.”

[A glimpse at Code Breakers, one of Rachel's puzzly designs.]

2.) Many of your creations, both on your YouTube channel and in your Kickstarter campaign, have both a puzzle aspect and a research aspect. Is it safe to say that your optimal solving experience goes beyond paper or puzzle pieces? What appeals most to you about that style of puzzling?

Ah, you put this so beautifully! Yes that’s exactly right. I want to use puzzles as a path, instead of making puzzles for puzzles’ sake. I aim to make puzzles that take you somewhere new, show you something you haven’t seen before. The solving experience I’m looking for is one of discovery.

I love that style of puzzling because one minute you’re quietly solving a puzzle and the next you’re combing through the history of public transit in France or plugging common Polish sayings into Google Translate, hot on the trail of the next clue. It pulls you away from your desk and pushes you out into the world. By making puzzles about real things (facts, people, moments in history, cultural traditions, etc.) I’ve tried to give solvers another way to engage with the world, another way to explore it.

I also love that there are no rules! They’re puzzles where you’re supposed to look up the answers on your phone. I wanted to make puzzles that acknowledged the omnipresence of information. I’ve tried to draw on that skill for searching by asking solvers to harness it and navigate into new waters, find new sources, and piece things together.

[In this video, Rachel discusses the Baffledazzle Kickstarter
campaign she launched earlier this month.]

3.) You mention in your Kickstarter video that you’re also a dancer and a clothing designer. How does the creative process for those activities compare to creating a BaffleDazzle video or puzzle?

Ooh, good question! I feel like the creative process is very similar because I’m hyper-focused on experience. Creation of any kind usually starts with an experience of my own. Maybe I saw something, learned something, or felt something that I thought was worth sharing. From there I think about how I can capture that experience in an object, activity, or performance.

For me, it’s not enough to just share the thing. Seeing a picture of that hilarious dog isn’t the same as walking around a street corner and just seeing it there. You don’t feel that same silly elation of encountering something bizarre out of nowhere. Similarly, reading a couple of sentences about a clever British spy isn’t the same as sliding a dusty book off the shelves of a deathly quiet library, flipping it open, and seeing her face, discovering her story like some forgotten treasure.

I do everything I can to capture that experience, then iterate and iterate and iterate! I credit my love of “let’s try it again!” to years of training in a ballet conservatory, where you can never practice too much.

When it starts to feel done, I take a step back and ask if I’ve made something that rewards people for their time. Have I captured the experience? Does this deliver something new? Will people walk away seeing the world a little differently? If the answer is yes then I push it out into the world!

[A few of the intricate pieces that make up the Baffledazzle puzzle
Cirkusu, which we'll be reviewing on Tuesday!]

4.) What’s next for Rachel Happen and Baffledazzle?

More puzzles!! I have a big backlog of puzzle ideas that I’d love to create. Having my own laser cutter will make prototyping new puzzles much easier, so I’m putting 110% into this Kickstarter campaign to (hopefully!) fund that purchase.

Aside from puzzles, I’d like to explore other experiences that could be paths to discovery. We’ll see what sorts of shenanigans I can get up to with a laser cutter in the workshop!

5.) If you could give the readers, writers, entrepreneurs, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

See how many chips you can eat in a stack! But seriously, I would say: make things first, then worry if they’re any good. The only difference between someone with a business and someone with a good idea is that one of them acts like they know what they’re doing.

But wait! There’s more! Rachel has hidden a puzzle in this interview! The first person to provide the answer — either in a comment on this post or on one of Rachel’s social media platforms — will win a set of four Code Breakers puzzles!

(This offer is not contingent on the success of the campaign; she’s already produced these Code Breakers. And this puzzle never expires! If someone solves it years from now, she’ll still send them their prize.)

Many thanks to Rachel for her time. You can check out (and support) the Baffledazzle Kickstarter by clicking here, and be sure to check out Rachel’s other creative endeavors by following her on Facebook, Twitter (@Baffledazzle), and on her Tumblr page.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!