The Puzzling Art of Letterlocking

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[Image courtesy of Letter Writers Alliance.]

When you think about puzzles and personal security, what comes to mind?

Do you think of puzzle boxes, those delightfully tricky little wooden creations with all their sliding pieces and hidden compartments? Or does your mind go to encryption, the art of concealing your message in plain sight with ciphers, scytales, and other techniques meant to baffle anyone but those in the know?

Some puzzle box designs date back centuries, and ciphers can be traced back even further. (One is named after Caesar, after all.)

But there’s another centuries-old puzzly procedure you might not know about, and it kept letters and messages safe using nothing more than paper and wax.

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[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

This technique is known as letterlocking. It involves a mix of precise folds, interlocking pieces of paper, and sealing wax in order to create a distinctive design or pattern.

Although the pattern itself can work like a puzzle — requiring a particular trick to unfold it and reveal the message without ripping or damaging the letter — that’s only a secondary line of defense. The true goal of letterlocking is to reveal tampering. The folding techniques are distinctive, and the wax creates points of adhesion.

If you receive a letter and the folds are done (aka redone) incorrectly, or the wax is smeared (or the paper ripped where the wax would have held it tight), then you know the letter has been compromised.

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[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

Some examples of letterlocking trace back to the 13th century, and key figures like Queen Elizabeth I, Machiavelli, Galileo, and Marie Antoinette employed letterlocking security in the past. Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote a message and letterlocked it with a butterfly lock six hours before her beheading. (For a more modern reference, letterlocking was employed in the Harry Potter films as well, most famously in Dumbledore’s will.)

The various techniques involved are as distinctive as knots. The triangle lock. The dagger-trap. The pinwheel letter. And some historians believe that those techniques imply connections between some of the important players in history.

For instance, both poet John Donne and the spymaster of Queen Elizabeth I employed a similar letterlocking style. Did they share a common source, or even an instructor in common? Or did a particular letterlocking technique provide a clue as to the contents of the letter within?

Letterlocking is a historical curiosity that was seemingly lost to time after the proliferation of the envelope and other security techniques, but it is slowly being rediscovered by a new generation, as well as reverse engineered by scientists and scholars. Yale and MIT both have teams exploring the burgeoning field of letterlocking.

Museums are discovering treasure troves of letterlocked messages by going directly to the source: post offices. A cache of 600 undelivered letters in the Netherlands, for instance, are being analyzed by researchers.

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[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

It’s a remarkable thing, really, this union of centuries-old skills with twenty-first century knowledge. These are puzzles, frozen in time, waiting to be solved and placed into the larger picture of history.

Letterlocking is nothing less than a rare and beautiful art combining puzzles and privacy, as elegant as it is clever. There are no doubt many more secrets to be found behind the folds, slits, and wax seals of these lovingly crafted messages.


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A Corn Maze for Grown Ups?

Summer is officially here!

Usually, that doesn’t really mean much in the world of puzzles. After all, puzzles are a year-round activity, not beholden to seasonal changes in weather or temperature.

Unless, of course, we’re talking about corn mazes.

Cultivated and shaped over the course of weeks or months, corn mazes are grand puzzly creations, as immersive as they are impressive. Few puzzles can inspire the same feeling of wonder as a corn maze as you explore and roam the various twists and turns laid out by intrepid farmers and entrepreneurs.

Plus they’re family-friendly. It’s rare for a corn maze to provide a genuine challenge, so the genre as a whole tends to be viewed as an endeavor more suitable for families or children than adults on their own.

The folks at Holmberg Orchards & Winery in Gales Ferry, Connecticut, however, have something in different in mind this year.

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Find the Wine: A Grown Up Corn Maze Adventure is being held in August and September, and puzzlers must be 21 years old and up in order to attend.

This corn maze features stations hidden amongst the various labyrinthine pathways, and these stations will be offering samples of both wine and hard cider for your enjoyment!

Each event runs from 6 pm to 8:30 pm, which is ample time to explore both the maze and various libations in a relaxed and unique puzzly environment, and there will be live music and food truck options available after you’ve completed the maze.

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You can click here for ticket details, or visit their websites for further information on the event. There are six Find the Wine dates available — Friday August 23rd, Saturday August 24th, Friday August 30th, Saturday August 31st, Friday September 6th, and Friday September 13th — and tickets are both limited and date-specific.

I think it’s a clever take on the traditional corn maze, and a very smart marketing concept for the winery itself, eliminating some of the noise and chaos of kid-friendly events and creating more of an air of a date night or casual social gathering.

It sounds like a pleasant evening of puzzling for the tipplers out there, don’t you think?


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Codenames

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There are all kinds of games where communication is crucial.

In You’ve Got Crabs, you must employ a secret non-verbal signal to inform your partner that you’ve completed a task, but without the other team spotting your signal and intercepting. In Taboo, you have to get a teammate to state a particular word, but without using several words closely associated with the answer.

But other games ratchet up both the creativity necessary to win and the difficulty involved in doing so. Imagine having to communicate volumes with a single word.

In today’s product review, we delve into the world of spycraft and put our communication skills to the test as we try out the card game Codenames.

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In Codenames, two teams (the red team and the blue team) are tasked with identifying all of their secret agents before their opponents can locate their own agents from the same list. But in order to do so, they must pick those agents out of a field of 25 possible individuals.

In each group, there are red agents, blue agents, innocent bystanders, and an assassin. Each possible individual is marked with a codename that is viewable by all of the players.

So, where does the wordplay and communication come in?

Each team selects one player apiece to serve as the spymaster. The spymaster for each team looks at one of the secret patterns determining which cards/codenames represent blue agents and which red agents.

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So it’s up to the spymaster to point the players in the right direction, but it’s up to the players to actually choose a given person in the field of 25 and label them an agent.

Each round, the spymaster comes up with a one-word clue for the other players on their team that points to their secret agents (as well as a number representing the number of agents in the field that the clue applies to). The word must be specific enough to point them in the right direction, but that can be difficult depending on the words in your play area.

For instance, in our example grid, the clue “royalty: 1” could point toward KING, or QUEEN, or HEAD, or even REVOLUTION, depending on what the other players associate with the word “royalty.” But suppose that you want your players to choose KING and not QUEEN. Then “royalty” is no good, because it’s too vague.

The number aspect of the clue is also important, because it offers the opportunity to gain an advantage over your opponents. For instance, if you wanted both KING and QUEEN to be labeled as your agents, the clue “royalty: 2” would be good, because those would probably be the two most likely choices based on that clue.

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In our example grid, the red team went first, and the spymaster said “dishes: 2.” The other player on the red team chose GLASS and WASHER from the grid, and both were correct and marked with red agent cards. This was a smart play, but also a risky one, as PAN could also be associated with “dishes.”

The blue team responded with the clue “rasp: 1,” choosing specificity and a single possible answer for the sake of certainty, rather than risk trying for more than one agent in this turn. The blue player correctly selected FILE, and that card was marked with a blue agent card.

The next turn for the red team didn’t go nearly as well. The spymaster used the clue “big: 1” and instead of choosing SHOT (the intended answer), the player opted for MAMMOTH. The card was revealed to be an innocent bystander, and the red team’s turn was immediately over for failing to ID an agent that turn.

And that is one of the big strategic challenges of Codenames. Do you stick to 1 agent per turn with a greater chance of success, or do you try to get more creative and bold by going for less certain clues that could lead to multiple agent IDs in one fell swoop? Do you risk uncovering the assassin (and immediately losing the game) with a clue that could suggest him as well as a secret agent for your team?

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The field of codenames in the play area can also lead to unexpected challenges. In one game, I was playing the spymaster for my team. The words JUPITER and SATURN were both in the grid, but only JUPITER was one of our agents. So a clue like “planet” was out. Unfortunately, other clues (like “biggest” or “god”) were excluded because they also applied to other codenames in the play area, including the dreaded assassin.

A mix of tactics, efficiency, association, vocabulary, and luck, Codenames is a terrific game that will test your wits, your communication skills, and your ability to make every word count.

The sheer volume of possible codenames (as well as the increased variety offered by each card being double-sided) ensues a huge amount of replay value is built into the game. And not only is it great as a group game, but the two-player version is just as fun!

Codenames, playable for 4 to 8 players (with variant rules for 2 or 3 players) is available at Target, Barnes & Noble, and many online retailers.


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Inclusiveness in Puzzles: New LGBTQ+ Scrabble Words!

wordwithfriendsjedi

From time to time, someone will ask me whether a certain word is appropriate for a crossword. It could be a new constructor, or an aspiring constructor, or a fan of crosswords. It could be about a relatively new slang term, or an obscure word, or a foreign word, or a celebrity. Sometimes, they’re wondering if it’s too hard, or too new, or too niche, or whether it’s appropriate for crosswords at all.

That’s the thing. There is no one source you can go to for all your crossword questions. There’s no definitive list of appropriate words or phrases, because the language is constantly changing and evolving. Pop culture is dynamic, and new ideas, concepts, and personalities are always cropping up. In that way, crosswords are essentially eternal, because the source material constantly shifts in popularity and familiarity. There are always new words to fill those iconic black-and-white grids.

But, if you were looking for that mythical definitive list of appropriate words, it’s not unreasonable to assume you’d go to the International Scrabble Dictionary, the official source for what is allowed as a valid answer word in a game of Scrabble.

Recently, for the first time since 2015, new words were added to the approved list. Over 2800 fresh entries are now officially eligible for tournament and at-house use, and they’ll all appear in the latest edition of Collins Official SCRABBLE Words. (Collins, which also publishes the Collins English Dictionary, added the words after they were approved for use in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary last year. These 2800 words join over 276,000 already approved for Scrabble play.)

It’s quite appropriate that we’re covering this story in June. As many of you are aware, June is Pride Month, and awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and culture affects all aspects of life, even puzzle games!

Among those 2800 newly-approved entries are non-binary and gender-neutral words like “genderqueer” and “agender,” as well as related terminology like “misgender” and “cisgender.”

But the LGBTQ+-friendly term that’s getting the most attention in Scrabble circles is “ze”. This two-letter word is a gender-neutral pronoun, allowing individuals who don’t identify as strictly male (he/him) or female (she/her) to better differentiate themselves and their gender identity.

letterz

For Scrabble players, the word opens up a whole host of new possibilities. After all, “ze” allows far greater opportunity to score big points by playing that valuable Z tile. (“Ze” is only the third two-letter z-word to be authorized for the game, joining “za” and “zo.”)

Now, obviously, in the grand scheme of things, this is a very small step for LGBTQ+ representation, but it is a step. After all, every opportunity to include LGBTQ+ culture and embrace it is part of making it a more familiar part of life for all of us.

In this small way, Scrabble includes previously marginalized individuals by not only accepting these new words, but by changing and adapting in order to do so. It’s an act of welcoming.

Here’s hoping there are far more acts like this, big and small, to come.

[Sources: Pride.com, New York Times, Collins Dictionary.]


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ALIEN VS. EDITOR: Caption Contest Results!

Long-time readers know that we periodically invite our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers to show off their wordplay skills with puzzly prompts like our recurring hashtag game. We even invite our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles to participate!

But this month, we did things a little differently. A member of the Penny Dell crew cooked up an image for us, New Yorker-style, and we challenged our friends and readers to compose the perfect caption for it.

So, without further ado, let’s check out what all these clever folks conjured up!


captioncontest1

“Well General, it appears he’s looking for a 2-letter word for ‘Spielberg Film.’”

“He appreciates the mention in the Crossword, but he still thinks that two-letter entries are bad form.”

“He wants an answer for 3 Across, ‘Earth ending.'”

“He says they come in peace, but that could deteriorate very rapidly if we don’t give him the answer to 17-Across.”

“He travelled 47.2 light-years to tell us he needs help with 23-Across.”

“I guess he finds the clue ‘Little green man’ offensive. Some aliens are so touchy!”

“Sheesh, he thinks we have nothing better to do than help him with the Sunday Crossword every week? And they accuse us of being non-intelligent life forms.”

“Take me to your proofreader.”

“He appreciates the Crossword as a gesture of goodwill, but says he’s partial to Sudokus.”

“They harnessed nuclear fusion and have spaceships that travel three times the speed of light, but they still can’t make heads or tails of that Crossword.”

“Well this is awkward. He says his name is Oz, he comes from the planet Toto, and that Crossword he’s holding? He thinks it’s a map of Kansas.”

“Oh crap. Doug, remember that time capsule that we planted on Mars? The one with the Crossword puzzle? I guess we forgot to include the answer.”

“Apparently, on Proxima Centauri, they’ve never heard of Britney Spears.”

“All right…which one of you is Will Shortz?”

“IT’S A COOKBOOK!!!”

“I guess E.T. wants us to phone Dell”.

“Commander, he’s armed with a Easy Fast & Fun Crossword, someone get Penny Dell Puzzles on the phone!”

“Guess they don’t like being defined as aliens!”

“Says they found an alt-solve!”

“We don’t want to cross him.”

“He looks pretty cross.”


“Excuse me, can you show me where we are?”

In the background another alien yells out “Honey, I told you we don’t need directions!”

And the other, “Ugh, this is so embarrassing.”


And members of the PuzzleNation readership also got in on the fun!

One of our Facebook followers, Pat Manzo, offered up the delightful “He’s from the planet Rebus.”


Have you come up with any fun captions for this image? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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The BosWords Crossword Tournament Returns Soon!

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Sunday, July 28th, from 11 AM to 5 PM, puzzlers from all over will gather at The Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury, Massachusetts for the third edition of the BosWords Tournament, and registration opens this Saturday, June 22nd!

With three divisions to choose from — Red Sox (Expert), Paw Sox (Amateur), and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels will have the opportunity to test their puzzly wits.

Tournament organizers Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb have gathered a murderer’s row of talented constructors for this year’s puzzles. The five themed puzzles in regular competition (as well as the championship final) will be constructed by Laura Braunstein, Claire Rimkus, Finn Vigeland, Ross Trudeau, Paolo Pasco, Joon Pahk, and David Quarfoot.

BosWords is asking for $25 for adults, $25 for pairs, and $10 for students to attend and compete, which is a real bargain!.

You can check out the BosWords website for full details!

Will you be attending the BosWords tournament, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!