A Delicious New Twist on Rubik’s Famous Cube?

Rubik’s Cube solving has come a long way since Erno Rubik built his prototype out of wood in 1974.

Top solvers are so fast that they need specially designed cubes that spin fast enough to match their fingers. We’ve seen them solved blindfolded, underwater, while being juggled, and during a skydive.

We’ve chronicled dozens of variations on the classic model, covering everything from larger cubes (4×4, 5×5, even 17×17!) to different shapes like spheres, pyramids, and dodecahedrons.

Heck, with the 3-D printing revolution, people are designing and making their own Rubik’s Cube-style twisty puzzles from the comfort of home!

Still, every once in a while, the thought crosses my mind that I’ve probably seen everything that people can do with Rubik’s Cubes, short of one being solved during a spacewalk or on the moon.

And then someone goes and invents a Rubik’s Cube that looks like Maruchan instant noodles.

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Yes, say hello to the Midori no Tanuki twisty puzzle.

What appears to be a traditional package of Maruchan Midori no Tanuki instant soba noodles is instead one of the fiendish Rubik’s-style puzzles ever devised.

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It works like a standard Rubik’s Cube — a 3×3 twistable cube — but five of the six sides are based on a 3D scan of noodles. Only the top is distinguished by a tempura disk “atop” the noodles.

You would think this would make solving it easier. After all, who cares what the five virtually identical sides look like as long as you can arrange the pieces of the tempura disk on top?

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But apparently, that’s not the case at all. There is only one arrangement of this six-sided cube that allows for the tempura disk to be properly formed. So you don’t have five sides you can disregard. Instead, you’re essentially solving five sides blindfolded while focusing on the top one.

That sounds like a challenge worthy of modern Rubik’s Cube solvers. Hopefully we start seeing reports of folks tackling this daunting brain teaser, and we can begin to get a sense of how long it takes to solve and how difficult the average puzzler would find it.

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All we know for now is that we’re not supposed to pour water on it, no matter how delicious it looks.

What do you think, fellow puzzlers? Would you accept the challenge of the Midori no Tanuki puzzle? Is it really as difficult as reported, or do you think it’s just a lot of hype to sell a puzzle? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Musical Cryptography: Hiding Messages in the Music!

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In previous posts, we’ve explored many ways that messages can be encrypted or hidden. We’ve talked about legendary encryption methods like Caesar ciphers and Vigenere ciphers, as well as simpler auditory ones like Morse code and tap codes. We’ve seen encryptions through blinking lights, woven through crossword grids, and even knitted into scarves.

But did you know that composers can encode messages in their music, and have done so for centuries?

No, we’re not talking about subliminal messaging or tales of backwards messages hidden in metal songs. We’re talking about musical cryptography, and it turns out there’s not just music between the notes, but messages among them as well.

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Now, to be fair, there is no evidence that musical encryption has ever been used for spycraft. (Sorry, Outlander fans.) Most of the time, composers simply entertained themselves by hiding the letters of their name or the names of others into compositions just because they could.

This sort of musical wordplay appears in compositions by Ravel, Debussy, and Shostakovich among others. Johann Sebastian Bach did this often enough that the succession of notes B-A-C-H is now called a Bach motif.

According to Western Michigan University Music Professor David Loberg Code:

Sometimes a musical version of a name is a subtle reference in the piece of music… Often it is very prominent; it is the main theme of the piece and is heard over and over. In that case, whether or not you know exactly how the composer translated the name into musical pitches, it is obvious that it is meant to be heard… They were not secretive about it.

It even proved therapeutic for some composers.

Johannes Brahms incorporated the notes A-G-A-H-E in bars 162 to 168 of the first movement in his 1868 piece “String Sextet No. 2 in G major.” By doing so, he included the name of Agathe von Siebold, a young woman he had fallen in love with. He and Agathe made plans to wed, but he later broke off the engagement to focus on his musical career.

But, by encoding her name into one of his works, he both honored her and gave himself closure on a relationship that would never be.

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The musical nature of this encryption technique makes it effective — because casual listeners wouldn’t notice anything hidden — but it also means that longer messages are harder to include naturally.

You see, the “spelling” can affect the music. Obviously, the more complex the message, the more it interferes with the actual musical composition and flow of the piece. To the untrained ear, this wouldn’t necessarily jump out, but to a trained ear, or at least a person experienced in reading music, it would be fairly obvious that something was amiss.

Musical ciphers are attributed to various composers (like Haydn) and even to writers like Francis Bacon, but arguably the greatest success story in musical cryptography goes to French composer Olivier Messiaen.

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His cipher matched a different note to each of the 26 letters in the alphabet. Unlike many other composers, he managed to develop a cipher that closely mirrored his own compositional style. Because of the similarities between his cipher and his traditional musical works, there was less of a chance that listeners would detect anything was off.

He managed to translate the words of philosopher Thomas Aquinas into an organ piece called “Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité,” and cryptographers and musical historians alike praise him for doing so with complex rhythms and rich tones without spoiling his own works.

It’s clear that it takes both an artistic flair and a puzzler’s mind to make the most of musical cryptography. But then again, those two pursuits have crossed paths many times before, as evidenced by musically minded solvers like Dan Feyer, Patrick Blindauer, Jon Delfin, and friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough.

Perhaps the best of musical cryptography is yet to come.

[For more details on musical cryptography, check out this brilliant Atlas Obscura article by Christina Ayele Djossa.]


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Sometimes, You Can’t Trust the “Rules” of Crosswords

There are a lot of things you learn as you solve more and more crosswords.

You learn vocabulary, both words that are simply new to you AND words that are common to crosswords. You learn cluing tropes, like question marks indicating wordplay or quotation marks indicating informal speech or exclamations.

You also start to learn some of the constructors’ tricks.

Now, there are all sorts of ways that constructors can play with solvers, but all told, they seem to fit into three overall categories: clue trickery, theme gimmickry, and grid manipulation.

We’ve spoken about clue trickery loads of times in the past, and no doubt will again. And theme gimmickry will be the subject of a future post.

But today, we’d like to focus on grid manipulation.

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So, what do we mean by that? Well, essentially, grid manipulation is our catchall term for the most devious arrow in the constructor’s quiver. It’s when the standard accepted rules of crosswords no longer apply.

No matter what sort of symmetry is involved or how the grid is constructed, there are generally three accepted rules of crosswords:

  • Across words read across.
  • Down words read down.
  • One letter per square.

These are the fundamental rules, Newton’s three laws of crosswords. They’re the rules every solver expects to be in play when they sit down to solve a crosswords.

But that’s not always true.

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Over the years, crafty constructors have found ways to push the boundaries of what you can do with those iconic grids of black and white squares.

Some constructors have literally gone outside the box, creating puzzles where letters of answers are placed beyond the grid itself, as in Sid Sivakumar’s American Values Club crossword “Bursting With Pride” a year or two ago (with the letters LGBTQIA+ appearing in sequence).

Byron Walden’s Fasten Your Seatbelts puzzle from the AVC crossword in 2019 also extended beyond the grid. Extra letters served not only as “bumps” along the otherwise smooth sides of the grid, but spelled out various bumps, like RAZOR, SPEED, and GOOSE.

Other constructors find fresh ways to pack more into a grid than expected.

The most common form is the rebus puzzle, whether multiple letters can be placed in a single grid square. Sometimes, it’s only a single square in a themed entry where multiple letters fit. Other times, you can get whole strings of them. The exact puzzle escapes me, but I can remember a crossword where two down entries all had rebus squares, so instead of one film title in that down entry, two would fit in each.

One impressive example that comes to mind is Andy Kravis’s “Currency Exchange” puzzle from the 2019 Indie 500 puzzle tournament.

The puzzle actually had little ATM graphics in various grid boxes, and they represented different currencies concealed in the theme entries. Plus, the across and down entries that shared an ATM had different currencies in their entries. For instance, one ATM represented WON in SMALL WONDER and DINAR in ORDINARY.

Other puzzles, known as quantum puzzles, feature multiple possible answers in the same space.

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The most famous example is the 1996 Election Day crossword. The puzzle “predicted” the outcome of the election quite cleverly by allowing for either CLINTON ELECTED or BOB DOLE ELECTED to read out, depending on how the solver answered seven down clues.

Arguably the most impressive one I’ve ever seen was published in 2014. Constructors Kacey Walker and David Quarfoot combined some considerable Scrabble skills and a dynamite crossword grid to create an amazing puzzle.

You see, clues 26-Across, 36-Across, and 44-Across all featured seven letters, like a rack in Scrabble. It was up to the solver to find the anagram of each rack that fit the grid. Walker and Quarfoot designed the puzzle so that each of those clues had three possible correct answers — for 26-Across: ROWDIER, WORDIER, and WORRIED all fit the down clues — meaning there were a staggering 27 possible correct solutions!

Still, those puzzles followed the standard across and down rules. But other puzzles don’t.

In those puzzles, entries don’t go the way you’d think, bending or taking unexpected twists in the grid. One example was Patrick Berry’s brain-melting Puzzle 5 from the 2016 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, “Changing Lanes,” where answers zigzagged across the grid.

A less complex puzzle with a similar gimmick appeared in the 2019 Boswords tournament. “Spill the Tea” by John Lieb and David Quarfoot featured longer entries than would fit in the given spaces. The trick was to shorten in by removing a brand of tea from the answer, and letting it read down off that across entry, rather than inside it. So, for instance, HOTEL CHAIN read HOTELCN across, because CHAI was reading down from the C instead.

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Lieb and Quarfoot incorporated five such “spills” in the grid, and clued each tea reading down simply with “Oops.” It was an immensely clever way to utilize the across and down entries in a unique, unexpected way.

As you can see, puzzle innovation can come in virtually any form, and often, the very foundational rules of crosswords can be bent or broken to create an ambitious, brain-twisting, and (ultimately) satisfying solve.

So be on the lookout, fellow puzzlers. You truly never know how constructors will challenge you next.


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Eyes Open #13

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Welcome to the latest puzzle in my ongoing series, Eyes Open, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights protests.

An important historic moment in Georgia was sadly overshadowed by violence in the nation’s capitol, provoked by the inflammatory rhetoric of the outgoing (but, unfortunately, not-yet-gone) president.

It was a moment a long time coming for Georgia. After years, decades even, of voter manipulation, outright discrimination against certain members of the population, and electoral conduct that made many sick to their stomach, a dedicated and organized movement was born to flip the Senate, and it centered on two Senate races in Georgia.

Voters turned out in droves to determine the fate of not only their state, but the entire government for the next few years, and it was a moment as amazing as it was gratifying.

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One particular woman has received well-deserved praise for her role in making this moment possible. Through speeches, fund-raising, hard work, and incredible resolve, she won the day for many.

But she did not do so alone. Many women of color contributed to this amazing moment, and today’s puzzle is dedicated to several of them.

This 21×20 grid is unusual not only for its non-standard size, but also for its presentation. I have purposely grayed out most of the traditionally black boxes so that the ones that remain spell out a suitable visual representation of what these women achieved.

I also purposely surrounded those black squares with the names of these women and some of the organizations they run, hoping to recreate in puzzle form exactly what these women and these groups did: they surrounded and protected Georgia, even as they helped flip it.

I hope this puzzle serves to both engage you as a solver and encourage you to learn more about these inspiring women and the causes they serve.

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[Click this link to download a PDF of this puzzle.]

If you have suggestions for more topics for me to cover in future puzzles, please let me know. If you’re a person of color and you’d like to share a puzzle of your own, or to collaborate with me on a puzzle, please let me know.

If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, and you have ideas, please let me know. If you’re a trans person, or a non-binary individual, and you feel underrepresented in puzzles, please let me know.

I would like this to become something bigger, but hopefully, this is at the very least a start.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for standing up, speaking up, and fighting the good fight.

Support LGBTQIA+ people.
Believe women.
Black lives matter.

New Puzzle Sets for PDCW App and Daily POP Crosswords!

Hello puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!

We’re excited to announce new puzzle sets for both of our marvelous crossword puzzle apps! Yes, whether you’re a fan of our Penny Dell Crosswords App or our Daily POP Crosswords app, we’ve got something special for you!

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First off, for Daily POP Crosswords users, we have our latest featured set, That’s Entertainment!

Consisting of ten puzzles, all with themes focusing on television, film, and the entertainment industry in general, this puzzle set offers the smart, pop culture-savvy cluing you’ve come to expect from PuzzleNation, collected for your convenience and enjoyment!

Of course, that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to featured sets! In our puzzle library, you can find all sorts of topics, ranging from the 1960s and superheroes to summer reading and more!

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And for the Penny Dell Crosswords App, we have a new deluxe puzzle set available! If you’re looking for something lyrical and melodic, we have our new Music Deluxe bundle!

With special themed puzzles and loads of great crosswords at all difficulty levels for you to enjoy, these bundles are a fresh and fun way to relax and keep your puzzly wits sharp!

Both sets are available now for in-app purchase, so don’t miss out on these terrific new puzzle bundles!

Happy puzzling, everybody!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Forged in Fire

As you might expect, I am always on the lookout for puzzles on television.

Sometimes, a complete solvable puzzle appears, like in the seesaw brain teaser from Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Sometimes, they’re only referenced, like in a murder mystery involving a crossword editor on Bones.

Other times, a major portion of an episode revolves around them. We’ve seen this countless times from shows as diverse as The Simpsons and NCIS: New Orleans.

But I didn’t expect to stumble across a puzzle in an episode of Forged in Fire.

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For the uninitiated, Forged in Fire is a reality competition show on the History Channel where blademakers show off their smithing prowess by forging knives, swords, and other bladed weapons for a panel of judges.

A typical episode consists of four competitors given a material to work with, and challenged to create a weapon of their choosing. They work on the set — known as The Forge — and at the end of the first round, they present their preliminary design, and one competitor is eliminated.

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The remaining three continue working to refine their blades in round two, and at the end of that round, after the blades are subjected to testing by the judges, another competitor is sent home.

In the third round, the two remaining competitors return to their home workshops/forges to create a different weapon entirely from scratch.

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But that was not how things went in episode 33 of season 7, entitled “Japanese Ono.”

Instead of building a blade of their choosing from a given material, the four bladesmiths were challenged to craft a blade that would fit a particular shape.

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They were each given the same amount of raw material, and they would have to shape it to fit a very specific design.

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Yes, their finished blade had to be the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

So their challenge was twofold. Not only did they have to exercise extreme resource management — they had only enough raw material to fill the space — but they had to exhibit the skill and finesse to make the steel bend and shape to fit the necessary design.

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These are two skills that many puzzle solvers are familiar with. Whether you’re dealing with a mechanical brain teaser by filling a particular space with various unwieldy or oddly-shaped pieces OR you’re trying to accomplish a task in a riddle with only simple ingredients, you’ve probably been in a similar situation.

Just not at 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

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The four competitors were Nic, Logan, Keaton, and Dale, each with five to six years’ experience bladesmithing.

They had three hours for the first round of the competition, which would focus on shaping the knife to fit the puzzle.

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Dale and Keaton immediately welded their metal in preparation for putting it into the forges, while Logan grabbed a sheet of paper to trace the shape of the knife in the jigsaw puzzle.

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Keaton soon joined him, and they helped each other trace, which highlighted one of my favorite things about this show. Unlike so many reality shows where backstabbing and mean-spiritedness win the day, this one is all about competing against yourself. The blacksmiths aren’t sabotaging each other, they’re simply trying to do their best. We need more of that on TV.

Soon, all four blacksmiths had their pattern, following Logan’s lead.

Then, it was a blur of pressing and hammering their heated metal into shape, followed by quenching, grinding, and other steps in the preparation process.

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Nic and Logan were making good progress, but Dale was unhappy with how his metal was turning out, so he abandoned his current billet and started over from scratch.

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The judges noted that Keaton was the only bladesmith who kept returning to the jigsaw to trace and retrace his shape as he worked.

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But viewers would have to wait to see if that technique paid off.

When Logan went to check his blade against the puzzle template, he discovered his blade was too long, so he cut off about four inches of extra metal.

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You may recall that the judges said there was just enough metal to fill the space.

Yeah. This plot point would come up later.

But he wasn’t the only smith who had issues. Nic’s blade didn’t come out to the shape he wanted, and the judges joked it looked like an oar. Keaton quenched his blade three times (rather than one) to deal with various problems, but risked stress fractures in the blade by doing so.

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And just as the judges complimented Dale for his come-from-behind effort, he actually dropped his blade into the quenching liquid. By dipping his arm in to retrieve it, he coated his arm in a potentially flammable oil mixture. He basically turned his arm and sleeve into a potential wick.

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Good thing he brought a spare shirt.

Soon, the three hours were up, and the bladesmiths presented their blades to the judges to see how they’d fit into the puzzle.

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Dale’s blade was a decent fit, particularly considering he had to start over partway through, ending up 30-40 minutes behind his fellow competitors. But the judges warned him about several cracks in his blade that would need to be addressed in the second round.

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Keaton’s blade fit nicely, showing that the multiple tracings served him well. In the end, his blade would end up as the best fit of the four.

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Logan’s blade was well-shaped, and actually followed the pattern nicely. It was simply too small, because he wasted metal early by making the blade too long and then cutting off the “excess.” Judge Doug Marcaida couldn’t even let the blade sit in the puzzle like the others, because it would fall out.

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Finally, Nic’s blade was solid and well-made, but just doesn’t fit the pattern, either toward the hilt or along the edge. Beyond that, there was a big crack near the tip of the blade.

The shape alone was reason enough for Nic to be eliminated.

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And then there were three.

In round two, the remaining bladesmiths had two hours to address the problems raised by the judges, refine their blades, AND use two different kinds of handle material on each side of the tang (the metal on the back end of the knife) to make the handle.

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Plus a harsher test awaited each blade in round two, as the blades would be subjected to chopping a bone (to test its strength) and slicing a series of apples (to see how the blade retains its sharpness).

Logan and Keaton focused on grinding out the issues with their blades, while Dale had to try to weld shut the cracks in his blade to ensure it would endure the strength test. But in doing so, he noticed more cracks. “It’s make-it-or-break-it time,” he told us, prophetically.

While Dale was still grinding, Logan had moved on to choosing materials for the handle, focusing on building a resilient knife and worrying less about appearances.

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As Keaton worked on his handle, it turned out that he viewed this — getting the different materials to line up correctly and fit the design — as the puzzliest part of the whole endeavor.

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He also confessed that he didn’t pay much attention to which materials he chose — he just wanted it to look like a puzzle.

Soon enough, the two hours had expired, and the three bladesmiths presented their refined blades to the judges for the dreaded bone chop test.

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The judge, J. Neilson, happily slammed each of the knives against these unforgiving bones, interested in seeing what damage the bones inflicted on the blades and how the blades weathered his treatment of them. This would test not only the overall strength of the blade, but how well they retained their edge.

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Logan’s blade was first for testing, and it went through the first bone like butter. The next five swings of the knife barely made an impression on the second bone. But Neilson complemented the handle design (which allowed for a secure grip), even though the knife had some pitting and metal tearing from the test.

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Much like Logan’s blade, Keaton’s blade went through the first bone and was chewed up by the second. He lost some of his handle in the testing, and his blade showed similar damage to Logan’s, but again, the blade mostly held up against the strenuous field test.

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I actually liked Dale’s handle design the most. It looked and felt like pieces of a jigsaw put together, and really fit the aesthetic of the episode’s theme.

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Unfortunately, one chop into the testing, despite slicing through the first bone, Dale’s blade catastrophically failed.

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So Logan and Keaton moved on to the final round, where the puzzly theme fell away and the episode’s actual title came into play.

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The two bladesmiths were given four days in their home workshops/forges to build a Japanese ono, a double-headed battle-axe used by samurai in Japan during the 17th century.

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Logan, based in Bryan, Texas, and Keaton, based in Nantucket, Mass, set out to recreate this unfamiliar weapon.

Similar to his approach with the puzzle knife, Logan’s technique again involved cutting off the excess metal, but this time, he then stacked the extra metal to reforge and weld to make the large, unusually-shaped blade.

Keaton, meanwhile, focused on using a single piece of metal and shaping each end into one of the blades.

On Day 2, Logan’s blade shattered, and he had to start over from scratch. As it turned out, his welds failed to hold the blade together.

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[Logan’s finished second effort.]

Meanwhile, Keaton quenched his axe head and was overjoyed with how it turned out. He had ample time to cast heart-shaped ornamentation out of bronze for the axe while working on the handle.

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After the four days had elapsed, they returned to The Forge and presented their blades for testing. Each Japanese ono was tested against a ballistic gel dummy (to test lethality), a bamboo wall (to test strength and resilience) and a series of water-filled plastic tubes (to see how well it retained its edge).

Both blades performed well, but in terms of balance, design, and execution, Keaton’s was considered the superior blade, and he won the day, becoming a Forged in Fire champion and winning $10,000.

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While this wasn’t the traditional sort of puzzling we usually cover in a Puzzles in Pop Culture post, I do feel like the ingenuity, problem-solving, and resource management shown by each of the bladesmiths easily fall under the puzzle-solving umbrella.

Like a key into a lock, they had to forge the final piece of a very unique puzzle, and for the most part, they succeeded. That sounds like solid puzzling to me.


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