Puzzles at Sea with Jonathan Coulton!

Fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, I’ve got something special in store for you today. Friend of the blog and Penny Press puzzle editor Jason Keeley is guest-blogging for me today, sharing his experience tackling an impressive puzzle hunt aboard a cruise ship earlier this month.

So, without further ado, take it away, Jason!


[Jonathan Coulton, your host for the next eight days…]

I just got back from JoCo Cruise Crazy 5, an 8-day excursion to the Caribbean on a massive ship. In brief, Jonathan Coulton is a musician famous on the internet for his songs about robots, zombies, and disaffected mad scientists. Five years ago, JoCo (as his fans sometimes refer to him) decided to invite a bunch of his fans onto a cruise ship, take them to some tropical destinations, and entertain them along the way.

He also brought a number of other performers with him, from stand-up comedians to TV personalities to other musicians. Guests such as singer Aimee Mann, Grant Imahara of Mythbusters, and Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation have all been a part of previous JoCo Cruises.

[A few of the guests from this year’s JoCo Cruise: Wil Wheaton,
author Patrick Rothfuss, and author John Scalzi]

Curtis Chen isn’t here just for a vacation or to listen to his favorite musician perform, though. Oh no, he, and his group of talented puzzle writers, are here to bend your brain.

Curtis, believing that many of his fellow passengers probably shared his love of puzzles, volunteered his time to put together a “Puzzle Hunt”: a series of puzzles, often unified by an overarching theme. Once on the ship, he released a couple of puzzles each day, all of which eventually feed into a final “meta” puzzle.

There were no prizes, except for a large button and bragging rights, but the Puzzle Hunt has been quite successful over the past five years. It hasn’t been uncommon to see a handful of people clustered around a nearby table after each day’s puzzles have been released, helping each other out.

[A group gathered around a table, except they’re tackling a few games
from our friends at Looney Labs instead of the Puzzle Hunt…]

This year’s Puzzle Hunt was titled “Number Five is Alive,” and the puzzles were themed around helping a self-aware computer come to terms with its new-found sentience. It begins quite innocently, with a page of knock-knock jokes, except some of the words were replaced with pictures.

Then it ramps up to an acrostic and a Star Trek-themed Sudoku. Then, they put out a modified clock with flashing LED lights. As they flash and spin, I realize that they are spelling out words in semaphore. Luckily, Curtis supplied solvers with a handy cheat sheet for that particular alphabet.

But halfway through the decoding process, something hits me: I should have been turning the clock at certain times so that the 12 was in different positions. Otherwise, most of the message is gibberish!

That sort of thing represents the two-step nature of many of the Puzzle Hunt puzzles. It’s often not enough to be see that “debase sing sin laugh far furry” is a broken speech-recognition software’s way of interpreting the familiar saying “the best things in life are free.” You’ll also have to extract certain highlighted letters from that phrase (and all the others) to build a final quote, which is the information you’ll need for the meta puzzle.

And this year’s meta puzzle was a doozy.

Once I had the keywords from the previous 12 puzzles, I entered specific letters from them into three different grids that appeared to be a random collection of circles and lines. These connected circles spelled out encouraging phrases (such as “Thanks for helping me!”), but I knew I wasn’t finished.

Another sheet gave me instructions for folding these three grids, origami-style, until I had three shapes which had to somehow be fitted together in a certain way to form one three-dimensional object. I struggled with it all throughout lunch, but when I finally figured it out, it was a moment of triumph. The connected circles on the outside now spelled a question that led me to a final keyword, earning me a special sticker to put on my button. Success!

[A huge assortment of games available for guests to play…]

While there were no shortage of concerts and events to attend on the cruise ship, I went out of my way to participate in this enjoyable and challenging event. Curtis and his team of puzzlers (John, Josh, Sean, Corby, and DeeAnn) put together a series of puzzles that taxed my intellect and facilitated conversation with the other passengers. Kudos to them all!


Thank you to Jason for his outstanding writeup of Number 5 is Alive and the JoCo Cruise in general!

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