The Hardest Puzzle Ever (by far)

As part of his exploration of the world of puzzles for his excellent book The Puzzler, author A.J. Jacobs set out on a rather quirky mission: He wanted to commission the world’s most challenging puzzle. The job ultimately went to puzzle constructing legend Oskar van Deventer, and the result is a device called the Jacobs’ Ladder.

How difficult is this puzzle? Let’s back up a moment.

Did you ever download a puzzle app for your phone or tablet, and find that you are encouraged not only to solve each level but to do so in a minimum number of moves? Yes, you can slide the doohickey into the whatever, avoiding all the traps along the way, but can you do it in six moves or less? The 6 sits in the upper corner of the screen, mocking you. You solved the level in eight moves. Do you move on? If you are me: Heck, no. You reset the level and try to find an improved solution.

Similarly, there are classic puzzle games like the Tower of Hanoi, where you have to move all of the discs from one peg to another, always keeping smaller discs on top of larger ones. These games have been the subject of much mathematical analysis — it is reasonably well-known that a three-disc version of Tower of Hanoi can be solved in seven moves. A four-disc game can be solved in fifteen moves. If you have five discs, you’ll need 31 moves. That’s if you take the most direct route, of course. Make a wrong turn and the puzzle might take you far longer.

You might suppose that a Rubik’s Cube would take longer to solve than a five-disc Tower of Hanoi, but you would be wrong. Back in 2010, computer scientists figured out that no matter how scrambled your cube is to start, you can get it to a solved position in a minimum of 20 moves.

The very hardest puzzles, of course, have a much higher number of minimum moves. Before the Jacobs’ Ladder was created, the acknowledged contender for the record was a Chinese ring puzzle with 65 rings, owned by collector Jerry Slocum: Solving it perfectly will take you a full 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 moves. As Slocum notes in this New York Times article, at one move per second, that would take about 56 billion years. But, you know. By moving faster maybe you could cut that time in half.

So Slocum’s puzzle takes longer to solve than the age of the universe, but Jacobs’ Ladder beats it somehow? Indeed it does. The goal of Jacobs’ Ladder is to get a corkscrew-type thingie from the bottom of the device all the way to the top, traversing a number of pegs along the way. This will require you (if you take the shortest possible route) to make 1,298,074,214,633,706,907,132,624,082,305,023 moves. That’s over a decillion moves, and needless to say it leaves Slocum’s 18 quintillion moves in the dust. I can’t improve on Oskar van Deventer’s own description of just how long this is, so let’s break out the quote box, from this article by A.J. Jacobs in the Atlantic:

Oskar did some delightfully nerdy calculations on just how long it would take to solve this puzzle. If you were to twist one peg per second, he explained, the puzzle would take about 40 septillion years. By the time you solved it, the sun would have long ago destroyed the Earth and burned out. In fact, all light in the universe would have been extinguished. Only black holes would remain. Moreover, Oskar said, if only one atom were to rub off due to friction for each move, it would erode before you could solve it.

You might wonder what the point is of a puzzle that, at the end of the day, can’t really be solved. Well, in the above-linked article, Jacobs points to the enjoyable meditative aspect of sitting and turning the pegs, embarking on a slow, slow journey down the solving path. Fair enough. The puzzle is also a physical encapsulation of how hard it is for humans to envision enormous numbers. You can hold it in your hands and try to get your brain around the concept of 40 septillion years.

But for sheer solving pleasure, I think I’m going to stick to this app on my phone. Surely this time I’ll figure out how to beat this level in a mere six moves.

Ever So Logical

Sudoku has become such a mainstay puzzle, a common find in newspapers and magazines, that it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way. While Sudoku got its start as Number Place in the pages of Dell Magazines back in the late 1970s, it wasn’t until mid-2006 that the logic puzzle became an all-consuming worldwide fad, blowing up in a way no puzzle had since the crossword in the 1920s.

The fad has subsided a bit, but Sudoku is still with us, exercising the minds of millions of solvers. But for lovers of logic puzzles, Sudoku’s greatest impact is in how it inspired dozens if not hundreds of related puzzles, all with their own devious rules. If you love Sudoku but have wondered now and again what else there might be for you out there, read on.

A great place to start is at the blog of Grandmaster Puzzles, where Thomas Snyder and his crew of constructors post a new logic puzzle six days a week. It’s a great place to start, that is, if you can overcome the intimidation factor, which is significant. Take a look at that menu of puzzle types on the left! What are all those? Statue Park? Cross the Streams? Kakuro, Kurotto, Kuromasu?

Deep breaths. We’re going to give you a few good places to start, and then if you like what you see, you can branch out from there.

Star Battle: As simple to grasp as a logic puzzle gets, which is why you’ll sometimes see this type in other venues, notably in the New York Times under the (bizarre) name of “Two Not Touch.” All you need to do is place some number of stars (usually two) in every row, every column, and each bordered region so that stars are never right next to each other, even diagonally. Here are Grandmaster Puzzles’s easiest Star Battle puzzles, an excellent place to get started.

Fillomino: A step up in trickiness, but still a good type for newbies. You’ll need to divide up a Fillomino grid into irregularly shaped regions according to the following few rules: First, the area of each region must be equal to the numbers within it — so, for example, a region of three cells has to contain three 3s. (You’ll never have a region with different digits within it.) Second, no two regions of the same size may share an edge. Third… there is no third. That’s it, those are the two rules. See?

One thing newcomers to this puzzle type need to watch out for: Not every region in a completed puzzle will encompass one of the numbers given to you at the start. You might have a “hidden” region that is only logically revealed as you figure out the regions around it. Once you’re prepared for that possibility, though, this puzzle is reasonably straightforward. Here are the easiest Grandmaster Filliominos.

LITS: Looks a lot like Star Battle, right? Sure. But this time around you’re not placing stars. Instead, you will shade in exactly four spaces in each region, so that when you’re done, all of the shaded cells make a connected path through the grid. (That is, you can reach any shaded cell from any other shaded cell.)

There are only four shapes you can make with shaded cells: L, I, T, and S. (Hey, I think I figured out where this puzzle’s name comes from!) In the completed grid, no two shapes of the same type can share an edge. Also, no four shaded cells can form a 2×2 square. Those extra rules will definitely give you pause as you go about filling a grid. Try some easy LITS puzzles here.

Masyu: We’ll conclude with a slightly trickier puzzle to grasp — but only slightly. In Masyu, you’ll draw a loop that goes through some number of cells in the grid (not necessarily every cell). The white circles and the black circles obey different rules:

Black Circles: The path must turn here, and then the path must not turn in either adjacent cell.

White Circles: The path must go straight through these circles without turning. Also the path must turn in the cell just before and/or just after a white circle.

Not a ton of rules, but they can be a little confusing for the newbie. Still, this is a satisfying type. Try some easy examples here.

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Nobody is going to enjoy every logic puzzle type. I personally will wave away all attempts to get me to solve the math-oriented Kakuro — even though I enjoy both TomTom (an improvement on KenKen) and Japanese Sums, both of which are also math-based. Why? Who knows? We are what we are. So go explore the puzzle types above and then dive into Grandmaster’s full list of logic types. Your next favorite puzzle is in there somewhere.

It’s Puzzletember!

The Curious Correspondence Club creates all manner of unusual, immersive puzzle experiences — a bit like if escape rooms could fit in your mailbox. These folks love puzzles, and as such, for the past few years they have decided that the month we are now in should be called Puzzletember. And what better way to celebrate Puzzletember than by turning the spotlight on a different online puzzle company for each day of the month? They’ve gotten thirty different puzzlemakers (full disclosure: your friendly PuzzleNation correspondent is one of them) to create an Instagram-friendly puzzle. Already we have seen offerings from Puzzling Pursuits, Gruzzle, the German company EscapeWelt, and Edaqa’s Room.

If you solve the daily puzzle and submit your answer, you might win a prize. But even if you don’t win, you’ll discover thirty different new places to add to your puzzle checklist, and that’s pretty good all by itself. Follow along with Puzzletember here!

News from Crosswordland!

Hello there, PuzzleNationers! We’re happy to be back in blogging mode! Let’s kick things off with a look at what’s going on in the world of crosswords.

First up, it’s the return of Lollapuzzoola! After two pandemic-afflicted years where the freewheeling crossword tournament was forced online, Lollapuzzoola was back in its New York City home for a live event. (And also online — a virtual tournament was held in parallel.) Solvers were treated not only to crosswords by top-tier constructors like Will Nediger and Francis Heaney, but also a ton of extras, including a multi-crossword meta suite, and an entirely separate mini-puzzle hunt by prolific constructor Foggy Brume.

Whereas the venerable American Crossword Puzzle Tournament spreads out its proceedings over three days, Lollapuzzoola is a more concentrated blast of puzzling — solvers arrived at the Riverside Church by 11:00 a.m. for pre-show icebreakers; the first three tournament puzzles launched at noon; the second three tournament puzzles were handed out in mid-afternoon; and the three finalists were onstage competing for the crown just before dinnertime. Those three finalists — Gavin Byrnes, Matthew Gritzmacher, and Max Kurzman — went up against a puzzle by Brooke Husic that we heard from several corners was the hardest final puzzle they have ever seen. In the end, Matthew Gritzmacher reached the finish line first and was crowned champion. Congrats as well to Ada Nicolle, who won in the intermediate “Local” division, and to Tyler Hinman, who cleaned up in the online tournament.

If you missed the tournament but don’t want to miss the puzzles, including that killer finale and all the extra meta suites, they are available for $20.00 — just click here!

Once upon a time, the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was the only game in town. These days, no sooner does one tournament end than the next one is on the horizon. Goodbye, Lollapuzzoola — hello, Finger Lakes! The 10th annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition will take place entirely online on Saturday, September 24. Pay what you want to join the fun (be generous: all proceeds benefit an assortment of adult literacy charities), choose your difficulty level (Easier, Trickier, Toughest), and then be sure to show up early on the big day for a kick-off event featuring constructors Adam Perl and Anna Shechtman, New York Times “Wordplay” columnist Deb Amlen, crossword blogger Michael Sharp (better known as Rex Parker), and NYT crossword editor Will Shortz!

Finally, as part of its recent “Game On” celebration, YouTube hosted an unusual live crossword tournament: Top-rated solver Stella Zawistowski versus… well, the entire rest of the world, or at least the thousands of people watching the livestream at that exact moment. First the livestream crowd was presented with a crossword, the clues to which they could answer simply by typing an answer into chat. When the puzzle was completed, Stella took her shot, solo. Who came out on top in this best-of-three competition? Find out here!

To Be Continued . . .

Greetings, puzzlers, gamers, and PuzzleNationers! We hope you’re staying cool out there, and taking plenty of time to kick back and relax with your favorite tabletop roleplaying games, jigsaw puzzles, Sudoku collections, or crossword puzzle and wordseek apps :)! While winter is traditionally the hibernation season, we’ve decided to switch things up, and our blog and social media presence are going into hibernation for the rest of the summer. (Heat is bad for computers, after all.)

Never fear—Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search will continue to update on a daily basis. We’ll just be a little quieter about it than usual. In the meantime, we invite you to peruse the blog’s archives! Maybe you’ll get some great ideas for new games to check out, or TV shows to marathon on those days when the sun is too intense for you to brave the outdoors.

Have fun! Happy puzzling!


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Heardle, Hurtling Toward the Internet’s Future

With Wordle’s surging popularity earlier this year came a slew of derivatives like Nerdle, Queerdle, and Trekle, all fighting for second place in the guessing game spotlight. Heardle, it seems, was the real breakthrough hit. Launched in February by product designer Glenn Angelo, Heardle gives listeners six tries to figure out a song’s identity, based on increasingly lengthy clips from the song’s intro. Angelo’s initial inspiration was just the pun of the name, though the concept can be traced back to the television game show Name That Tune,or to its radio-based predecessor, Stop the Music.

Like Wordle, Heardle updates daily, uniting players in listening to a single song together, creating the illusion of people all over the world huddling around the same jukebox. Some days unite the crowd more than others, depending on how avid a tune’s fanbase. I’ve recently seen a couple of different viral social media posts excitedly imploring people to play the day’s Heardle, once when it featured One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” and again when the answer was My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade.” (Full disclosure: I recognized the One Direction song immediately.)

Student Gigi Vincent, who plays Heardle every day, explained the game’s appeal by contrasting it with the movie-clip trivia game Framed. She noted that while the brain behind Framed “clearly has a specific taste, so you can really narrow things down once you understand their repertoire, Heardle is more democratic [in its song choices], and therefore harder,” making for a compelling challenge.

Just as the strength of Wordle’s appeal lead to a purchase by The New York Times, Spotify has heard the acclaim for Heardle and snatched it up in response. This is Spotify’s first game acquisition—the company’s previous purchases have primarily been forms of podcast technology. Spotify’s press release about the acquisition quotes the company’s Global Head of Music, Jeremy Erlich, as saying “We are always looking for innovative and playful ways to enhance music discovery and help artists reach new fans.” According to the release, the company intends to eventually “integrate Heardle and other interactive experiences more fully into Spotify,” building on the eye-catching, meme-able feature of Spotify Wrapped to further gamify music streaming.

The illusion of democracy.

I spoke to media specialist, musician, and Heardle dabbler Sam Hozian about his strong disapproval of the acquisition. He said that it runs directly opposite to the Heardle ethos that Vincent highlighted above, elaborating, “Spotify is the anti-democratization of music. It creates an illusion of democracy because people have a sense that anyone can upload to Spotify and become a hit, but it’s one-in-a million that this will happen . . . It’s not easy for Spotify to make money off of independent artists,” so that’s not where the corporation puts its resources.

Hozian isn’t the only disapproving player. Last week, the BBC ran an article entitled, “Heardle Spotify move hits sour note with some fans.” Complaints lodged in the article include that winning streak stats have been deleted, and that the website is now showing as unavailable in some countries.

Joanna Newsom has been among Spotify’s most outspoken critics.

Until Spotify sees through its plans to more fully integrate Heardle, the main difference is that the challenging songs are now hosted by the streaming app itself, rather than by SoundCloud. Angelo’s original choice to use SoundCloud for the game was not politically motivated. Instead, he’s cited convenience as the reason; the SoundCloud player was quick and easy to set up within a day. SoundCloud, however, would seem to be more in line with Heardle’s democratic ethos. SoundCloud touts itself as “the first music company to introduce fan-powered royalties, where independent artists can get paid more because of their dedicated fans.” Compare this to oft-repeated criticisms that Spotify underpays artists for streaming their work.

Lest I sound like Spotify’s biggest detractor, rest assured that I am a daily user of the platform. Access to algorithmically generated playlists and the playlists of strangers worldwide opens the door to musical discoveries I would otherwise never have made. In this age of attacks on the Internet Archive, when the ubiquity of Amazon’s cloud services make fully boycotting Amazon an uphill battle, it’s tempting to go quietly into the future of the internet—a future in which everything is owned by a small handful of monopolies, pay-walled and demanding access to our IRL identities. Still, I believe that it is important to resist this new wave of the web in whatever ways you can. Maybe you’ll switch from Google Chrome to Firefox; maybe you’ll download some indie games; maybe you’ll give up Spotify for SoundCloud. We all have our parts to play in shaping the fair, equitable, weird, creative internet that we want to see.

infinitely more complex than any map of the path could ever be.


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