Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Codebreaker and Scourge of Nazi Spymasters

[William and Elizebeth Smith Friedman, hard at work.
Image courtesy of National Geographic.]

Last year, I rather ambitiously attempted to summarize the early history of American codebreaking and the NSA in a series of blog posts spanning World War II through the modern day. One of the names I cited in that series, William Friedman, is synonymous with American cryptography, thanks to his contributions to the cracking of the German ENIGMA code and his efforts to establish the National Security Agency.

Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole in the narrative I constructed. Because none of my sources made any reference to another crucial Friedman: Elizebeth Smith Friedman, William’s wife and partner in code-cracking.

Yes, she was name-dropped in my post about the book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, but she had to share those pages with a host of underappreciated women who were codebreaking geniuses.

[Image courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.]

As The Woman Who Smashed Codes explains, she wasn’t just a talented codebreaker. She literally wrote the book on it. Eight of them, in fact. The Riverbank Publications — although often credited to her husband — covered new codebreaking techniques in rich detail, and they are still referred to today as part of the foundation of modern cryptography.

She also started the first and only American codebreaking unit ever run by a woman, serving as Cryptanalyst-in-Charge while jointly working for both the Treasury and the Coast Guard during and after World War II.

A history of American codebreaking without Elizebeth Smith Friedman is woefully incomplete, and in today’s post, I hope to rectify that oversight.

[Image courtesy of the Marshall Foundation.]

Elizebeth’s work with codes started in a most peculiar way. While seeking a job as a librarian after college, she was recruited by eccentric millionaire George Fabyan to live and work at Riverbank, his palatial estate that doubled as a self-funded research center for all sorts of scientific endeavors.

Elizebeth’s deep knowledge of Shakespeare was put to work attempting to prove Fabyan’s theory that there were secret messages encoded in the writings of Shakespeare. Although her work failed to uncover any hidden pattern in Shakespeare’s words or font choices, it did lead to two unexpected developments: a career in codebreaking and a budding romance with fellow Riverbank recruit William Friedman, whose own interest in codebreaking was sparked by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Thanks to the proliferation of radio, there was a seismic shift in how information was being passed between military units, governments, and other organizations, so the ability to listen in on one’s enemies (and allies) was not only a new strategic opportunity, but it was a relatively new science.

In short, America needed codebreakers who could crack the secret messages being transmitted (and intercepted). The military didn’t have them. The government didn’t have them.

But Riverbank did. And for the first eight months of World War I, the small group of William, Elizebeth, and those they trained handled ALL of the codebreaking for every part of the US government, from the State Department to the Army to the DOJ. William and Elizebeth began running a codebreaking school out of Riverbank, even embedding a secret message in a photo of the class taken on the last day of the course.

[Images courtesy of Elonka.com.]

In the aftermath of the First World War, codebreaking had become so important that countries were turning to machines to help develop uncrackable codes. And yet, at this point, American cryptography as a whole consisted of about 50 people. William went to work for the government, establishing the American version of Bletchley Park — Arlington Hall — and setting the stage for the creation of the NSA.

Elizebeth, on the other hand, cracked codes from home. And she did so for both the Treasury Department and the Coast Guard, who would send her sealed packages of intercepted encrypted intel and communications. In her first three months hunting down rum-runners during Prohibition, she solved two years’ worth of backlogged messages.

During World War II, Elizebeth’s Coast Guard Cryptography Unit turned their attention from smuggling (which waned during wartime) to cracking German codes. Under her tutelage, they would crack three different variations on the Enigma codes, each more complex than the last. (The British also cracked ENIGMA, independently of American efforts.)

Sadly, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the US military didn’t want civilians in charge of sensitive operations, so Elizebeth was demoted. Yes, she was no longer in charge of the group she started, trained, and cultivated, instead answering to a new boss of dubious cryptographic talents.

(Of course, the sexist dimwits making decisions like this had to grin and bear it when numerous other organizations and agencies continued to asked for Elizebeth’s assistance by name.)

And stealing Elizebeth’s credit was practically a cottage industry over at the FBI. We have them to thank for erasing Elizebeth’s role in particular — and the Coast Guard’s role in general — in hunting down, exposing, and compromising Nazi spy networks in South America, even though the FBI’s hamfisted blundering actually served to expose codebreaking operations in the past, forcing Elizebeth to crack new codes in order to regain the advantage the FBI had squandered.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that both during AND after World War II, Elizebeth continued to hound the Nazi forces in South America who sought to destabilize the region?

As one historian put it, referring to the thousands of pages of decryptions Elizebeth produced:

These pieces of paper saved lives. They almost certainly stopped coups. They put fascist spies in prison. They drove wedges between Germany and other nations that were trying to sustain and prolong Nazi terror. By any measure, Elizebeth was a great heroine of the Second World War.

The British knew it. The navy knew it. The FBI knew it. But the American public never did, because Elizebeth wasn’t allowed to speak.

[Image courtesy of Find a Grave.]

Even in their retirement, the Friedmans continued to contribute to the world of cryptography. They returned to the subject of Shakespeare with The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined, thoroughly debunking the whole idea of hidden codes in the Bard’s works.

When William died, Elizebeth even hid a secret message on his tombstone, for those who knew how to look. (It was Bacon’s cipher, something they both studied extensively during their time at Riverbank.) What a touching tribute to how she met her partner and husband.

And although the accolades and appreciation for Elizebeth’s incredible contributions have been slow in coming, they are trickling in. In the 1990s, the NSA renamed its auditorium from the William F. Friedman Memorial Auditorium to the William F. Friedman and Elizebeth S. Friedman Memorial Auditorium. A Justice Department building also has an auditorium bearing her name.

More information about the massive expansion of codebreaking worldwide is coming to light with every passing year. Hopefully that will mean greater attention for minds like Elizebeth, who used her puzzly mind to protect the world. That’s someone worth celebrating.

[Much of the information in this post comes from a wonderful book on Elizebeth, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, and it’s well-worth your time to check out her story in full.]


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Unsung Tales of Women in American Code Breaking!

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Dot Braden. Agnes Driscoll. Betty Hyatt. Elizebeth Friedman. Genevieve Grotjan. Ann Caracristi. Virginia Aderholdt. Ruth “Crow” Weston.

You don’t know these names, but you should. Everyone should. They’re bona fide American heroes who dedicated their time and energy to protecting not only our country, but also every soldier in the Allied forces during World War II. And they did so when they should have otherwise been continuing their collegiate studies.

That’s right, these women who came from majors as diverse as botany, math, psychology, and English, were recruited out of college in order to build a dedicated code-breaking unit for the US armed forces.

Thankfully, their stories are now being told in Liza Mundy’s new book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. And these are some amazing stories.

It all started in early 1942, as secret letters began showing up in college mailboxes. Schools like Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Barnard, Radcliffe, and more posed two questions to prospective female recruits:

1. Did she like crossword puzzles?
2. Was she engaged to be married?

All of these women replied yes, they like crossword puzzles, and no, they’re not engaged or soon-to-be engaged.

After answering these questions, the women began attending introductory meetings. They were issued manila envelopes containing “a brief introduction to the arcane history of codes and ciphers, along with numbered problems sets and strips of paper with the letters of the alphabet printed on them.”

Their orders? Complete the problem sets every week.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Each packet contained one problem that could not be solved, to show that sometimes, a jumble of letters or numbers doesn’t stand for anything. Sometimes, gibberish remains just that, because sometimes a code-breaker fails.

They developed working knowledge of foreign languages they didn’t speak. They memorized the most common English letters — E, T, O, N, A, I, R, S — and took frequency counts.

And that’s how America built its answer to England’s Bletchley Park code-breaking operation. (The American effort, known as Arlington Hall, was considered by their Bletchley Park rivals as “just a lot of kids playing at ‘office’.”)

College presidents like Ada Comstock, the president of Radcliffe College (the women’s counterpart to Harvard), were recruited to identify candidates to learn cryptanalysis to help shorten the war.

And make no mistake, they did shorten the war. They helped crack Enigma, which was key to decimating the German U-boat fleet, and their code-breaking efforts were instrumental in defeating Japan as well, providing valuable intel on the island-to-island battles of the Pacific theater.

[Image courtesy of Military Factory.]

Of the US Army’s World War II code-breaking force, nearly 70 percent was female. We’re talking 7,000 female code-breakers. When you factor in US Navy recruits as well, that number jumps to 11,000 women out of 20,000 code-breakers.

From Code Girls: “Code breaking required literacy, numeracy, care, creativity, painstaking attention to detail, a good memory, and a willingness to hazard guesses. It required a tolerance for drudgery and a boundless reserve of energy and optimism.”

Genevieve Grotjan was key to cracking the Japanese cipher known as Purple, and William Friedman, the man who initially ran the Arlington Hall operation, described the Purple cipher as “by far the most difficult cryptanalytic problem successfully handled and solved by any signal intelligence organization in the world.” He specifically pointed to the contrbutions of Grotjan, Mary Louise Prather, and other women in the Arlington Hall group.

Codes used by twenty-five different nations were analyzed by Arlington Hall, including codes of friends and foes alike. “There was a French code called Jellyfish, a Chinese enciphered code they called Jabberwocky, another they called Gryphon.”

But even their staggering efforts in code-breaking weren’t all they contributed to the cause. They were also crucial to the success of the D-Day invasion, as many of the women were put to work reverse-engineering messages in order to create false information about imaginary troop movements and landing areas. And in order to create fake signal traffic, they had to know the real traffic backward and forward.

I could go into more detail, breaking down how they cracked some of the war’s most important code languages, or exploring their personal lives and how life changed for these college students-turned-military operatives, but I don’t want to reveal more than I have already.

Read Code Girls. You won’t regret it. It’s another terrific entry in a year of books full of revelations about wartime puzzle history. We’ve been taken behind the scenes of the NSA, Bletchley Park, and now Arlington Hall.

And once more, important and influential female voices are getting the limelight far later than they deserve. It’s about time.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Brad Hough’s The Maze

Mazes are nothing new to even the most casual solver. Whether it’s a puzzle collection, a place mat at a chain restaurant, or a coloring book loaded with time-filling activities, we’ve all traced a path through a maze with pencil, crayon, or marker.

But in most paper-and-pencil mazes, we look down on the map from above, so we have the advantage of perspective, the ability to spot dead-ends ahead of time, the opportunity to make wiser choices with more information.

As anyone who has ever tackled a corn maze will tell you, maze navigation is far more challenging when you’re inside the puzzle itself, rather than observing it from a bird’s-eye view.

And that’s what makes Brad Hough’s The Maze series of puzzle books something different and far more challenging: they’re mazes designed from the first person perspective. You must imagine yourself walking through this maze, selecting each turn and hoping it will lead you to the promised land.

It’s a marvelous concept, offered in a variety of difficulty levels according to the size of the maze:

  • Easy is a grid of 5 rooms by 5 rooms.
  • Normal is a grid of 7×7.
  • Moderate is 9×9, Challenging is 12×12, and Intense is 15×15.

As you make your choices, you’ll flip to different pages in the book, just as you would in a Choose Your Own Adventure-style story, maneuvering your way to either a dead-end (forcing you to turn back) or your desired exit.

But those are the only decisions you’ll make. There are no monsters to slay or traps to navigate, as there are in labyrinths in Dungeons & Dragons. There are no moral conundrums to unravel, as in Choose Your Own Adventure books. There is simply The Maze… and you. This is bare bones storytelling designed as both a pure puzzle-solving experience and as a blank skeleton upon which you can built your own story.

There are no tricks or endless loops to wander into. This is a fair challenge meant to be unraveled by crafty minds with excellent spacial skills.

Although The Maze lacks the frills of many other labyrinth-style puzzles, it does a marvelous job of portraying the sort of blindness and trepidation that comes with actually residing within a maze, knowing that each choice is more crucial the farther you venture forth.

The Maze (in various sizes) is available from Amazon and other online retailers.


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PuzzleNation Book Review: Tetris: The Games People Play

Welcome to another 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!

The subject of today’s book review is Box Brown’s graphic novel Tetris: The Games People Play.

[Image courtesy of Macmillan.]

Tetris was a masterpiece right out of the gate. Simple, elegant, and infinitely replayable, it would go on to become one of the most beloved video games in history. And that popularity, that universal charm, sparked a bidding war unlike anything the video game world has ever seen. With secret meetings, dubious contracts, language barriers, and the involvement of the suffocating Soviet regime, it was a recipe for sitcom-style misunderstandings on a global scale.

Tetris: The Games People Play brings the whole ridiculous story to life with immense charm and style. From the creation of Alexey Pajitnov’s delightfully addictive brainchild to the globe-spanning race that ensued as production rights went international, this is a story as convoluted and madcap as it is epic.

Although the drawings accompanying the story are relatively simple, the large cast of characters — from executives and game designers to members of the Soviet government — never feels overwhelming or confusing.

[Image courtesy of DownTheTubes.net.]

Illustrator and author Box Brown brings the story to life with the same panache and colorful style that made his visual biography of Andre the Giant such a warm, enjoyable read. The rounded edges and busy frames help sell both the silliness and chaos of the story, and the mix of yellow, black, and white shading in each illustration harkens back to the earliest days of video games.

(The yellow feels especially inspired, given how easily the story could’ve bogged down in the omnipresent gray tones of Soviet society or the bureaucratic doubletalk that typifies business negotiations.)

Most importantly, Brown never allows readers to lose sight of Alexey’s role as creator and keeper of the faith, a man who, under one of the most oppressive regimes in history, brought to life a game that continues to delight generations of fans.

As entertaining as it is insightful, Tetris: The Games People Play is a fun, fascinating read.

[Tetris: The Games People Play is available in paperback wherever books are sold.]


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PuzzleNation Book Review: Kubrick’s Game

Welcome to another 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!

The subject of today’s book-review post is Derek Taylor Kent’s novel Kubrick’s Game.

Shawn Hagan is a film student at UCLA’s School of Film and Television, a gifted director of photography, cameraman, and lighting designer with aspirations toward directing. He’s probably like many cinephiles you know: obsessive, prone to losing himself in films, with a hard time relating to others.

He’s also a fan of puzzly scavenger hunts, tackling them with his friend Wilson, a former child star with his own directorial ambitions. They also recruit Shawn’s TA (and crush), Samira Singh, to join them. But when Shawn’s film professor asks for Shawn’s help deciphering the contents of a mysterious package, Wilson, Sami, and Shawn will find themselves on a puzzle hunt unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

The package is from visionary director Stanley Kubrick, a man who has been dead for fifteen years. Apparently, he left one last gift to his fans and fellow film lovers: an elaborate puzzle whose endgame could change history.

As Shawn, Wilson, and Sami unravel each clue, delving deep into Kubrick’s life and filmography, they discover they’re not the only ones in pursuit of the solution to Kubrick’s game; not only are students from other film schools also on the hunt, but shadowy forces are also working to solve the puzzle…forces that are willing to lie, cheat, steal, and worse to get what they want.

What could Kubrick have left behind to justify such means? Will Shawn, Sami, and Wilson solve the famous chessmaster’s last gambit?

Kubrick’s Game is a puzzly thriller/adventure piece very much in the vein of The Da Vinci Code, though a far more satisfying read, more akin to the Shakespeare-fueled mystery of Jennifer Lee Carrell’s Interred with Their Bones or Haunt Me Still than the smack-you-in-the-face-with-coincidence style of Mr. Brown. Kent is clearly a fan of Kubrick’s work, and that enthusiasm infuses every page of the story.

Part puzzle hunt, part tribute, and part whodunit, Kubrick’s Game revels in the minutiae of classic films, adding depth and meaning to cinematic quirks and questions that hardcore film geeks have been debating and theorizing about for years.

But Kent goes one step further by including relevant images and frames of film, allowing the reader to follow the narrative. You can’t quite solve the puzzles alongside the protagonists, especially in the later puzzles (unless you’re a serious Kubrick aficionado, that is), but you know enough to avoid any possible frustration.

On the puzzle side, there are really three puzzly narratives to unravel. The first is the puzzle hunt early in the game, which is very straightforward. The second is Kubrick’s game itself. The third is the whodunit of the story, pondering who Shawn and his team can trust and who they’re working against. It’s a multilayered narrative that never bogs down, despite the twists and turns and numerous characters in play.

[Image courtesy of Biography.com.]

Kubrick himself becomes a major player in the story, as his motivations, his choices, and his interests are crucial to the plot. His films as well become intriguing characters — particularly Eyes Wide Shut, often a maligned part of Kubrick’s legacy, though one I have more appreciation for after reading this book.

(And Kent is clearly having some fun with some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Kubrick’s life and works in this novel, but he does so without mocking.)

As for the human characters, Sami and Wilson are amiable support characters; they’re likable and capable, focused and flawed in their own ways, but Shawn is clearly the centerpiece of the novel, so most of Sami and Wilson’s more intriguing character aspects only emerge in reaction to Shawn.

As for Shawn, he’s a little polarizing, because you want to like him, but several of his choices make it hard to do so. Some of this can be attributed to Shawn’s social awkwardness and insensitivity; there are certain character moments that are selfish and border on the emotionally brutal.

(Some characters theorize that Shawn is on the spectrum, but I don’t feel comfortable commenting either way. It isn’t particularly germane to the plot, so long as you can accept that Shawn is fairly tone-deaf socially and has difficulty connecting with others.)

That being said, you cheer when Shawn succeeds and you root for him when he falters, which are signs of a solid protagonist.

Although the antagonists descend a bit into cartoonish villainy, that’s a minor quibble. For the most part, the stakes feel high and the mentality of Shawn, Wilson, and Sami’s team against the world is an easy one to buy into.

Kent has done an impressive job of constructing an elaborate mystery worthy of Kubrick’s labyrinthine storytelling, one that should satisfy thriller fans and puzzle fans alike.

Kubrick’s Game is available on Amazon in hardcover, softcover, audiobook, and ebook.

[Full disclosure: I received a free copy of today’s book in exchange for a review.]


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PuzzleNation 2015 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide: By Category

Welcome to the PuzzleNation Blog 2015 Holiday Gift Guide!

We’re overjoyed to have so many tremendously fun and puzzly products to share with you this year. We just might be your one-stop shop for all things puzzly!

This guide is broken down into categories for ease of searching. We have puzzle apps, puzzle books, downloadable puzzles and puzzles by mail, jigsaw puzzles, puzzle games, board games, card games, and party games. We’re sure you’ll find the perfect gift for any puzzler on your list!


Puzzle Apps

Naturally, you’ll forgive us for starting off with a link for a familiar puzzle app!

The Penny Dell Crossword App not only features bundles of terrific puzzle content, but it offers a free daily puzzle to all users! You can check out the full details on the PuzzleNation website!


Puzzle Books

Pencil-and-paper puzzles are alive and well, and we’re happy to share some of our favorites with you.

 

 

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles have put together some outstanding holiday collections with puzzles galore to be solved!

Whether it’s the Colossal Grab-a-Pencil Book of Brain Boosters ($10.50, also available with Logic Puzzles!), the Splash of Color Christmas Special (and its sister title, Flying Colors, both $6.99), the Logic Problems Spectacular collecting more than a hundred brain teasing puzzly challenges ($8.99), or their Super Grab-a-Pencil Pocket series — with a crossword edition (pictured above), a Fill-In editiona Sudoku edition, and a Word Seek edition ($7.95 each) — Penny Dell has you covered.

And be sure to check out their deals on Facebook and Twitter for the entire holiday season. 15% off all sorts of puzzle bundles and books!

And for more specialized puzzle books, some high-level constructors have books of their own for your perusal! With New York Times and Los Angeles Times crosswords to their credit, you’re sure to find some puzzlers within these pages!

–Ian Livengood’s Sit & Solve® Sports Crosswords ($5.95)

–Rich Norris’s A-to-Z Crosswords ($8.95)

–Doug Peterson’s Easy ABC Crosswords ($8.95)

–Jeff Chen’s puzzles for bridge enthusiasts ($12.95)

–Brendan Emmett Quigley’s Sit & Solve® Marching Bands ($5.95) and Diagramless Crosswords ($20.98)

–Patrick Blindauer’s Sit & Solve® Quick-As-A-Wink Crosswords ($5.95) and Wide-Screen Crosswords ($8.95)

–Dale Maron’s Pentdoku Puzzles: Volume 1 ($12.95)

The Maze of Games by Mike Selinker

And we simply have to mention one of the most innovative puzzle books released this year, the interactive puzzle novel The Maze of Games! Now going into its second edition, this delightfully challenging read allows solvers to choose their own path through various labyrinths and challenge themselves to dozens of puzzles, this is a one-of-a-kind solving experience. Factor in the Wil Wheaton-read audiobook and Austin Wintory’s soundtrack, and you have a real winner here. ($49.95 in hardcover, $20 in ebook form)

[Click here to check out our full review!]

Collins Little Book of Bananagrams

Are you a Bananagrams fan who’s looking for something to give you an edge? The Collins Little Book of Bananagrams might be just what you need! With a list of puzzle words you might not otherwise think of, suggestions for other games to play with Bananagrams tiles, and techniques for speeding up your gameplay, you’re sure to be Top Banana with this handy guide in your pocket. ($9.95)


Downloadable Puzzles and Puzzles by Mail

Many top constructors and organizations market their puzzles directly to solvers, so between by-mail offers and downloadable puzzle bundles, you’ve got plenty of quality choices!

The Uptown Puzzle Club (puzzle bundles by mail) ($35 for 12 issues)

The Crosswords Club (puzzle bundles by mail, available in both regular and large print; $39.95 for 12 issues, $59.95 for large print)

David Steinberg’s Chromatics (color-themed puzzles)

The American Values Crossword (subscription and daily puzzles) ($20 for 1 year)

–Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest ($26 per year)

–Bassey Godwin’s Will Sudoku (PDF puzzle bundle, full review here!) ($10)


Jigsaw Puzzles

Puzzometry

For a next level jigsaw-style challenge, Puzzometry is tough to top. These beautiful pieces can be combined in seemingly endless combinations, and yet, there’s only one solution. Available as Puzzometry ($16), Puzzometry Jr. ($11), and Puzzometry Squares ($16), you’ve got three distinct challenges appropriate for different ages!

[Check out the full review of Puzzometry by clicking here!]

Tavern Puzzles

These hand-forged beauties are ready to challenge your dexterity and cleverness, as you accept the Tavern Puzzles challenge. Whether you’re trying to free your heart from the tangled pieces of Heart’s Desire or remove the ring from the Iron Maiden, you’re sure to put your skills to the test. ($22)


Puzzle Games

These one- and two-player puzzle games are perfect to train your brain and keep you guessing!

Houdini, Gravity Maze, and Laser Maze Jr. (ThinkFun)

ThinkFun meshes learning and gameplay with three logic games ready to challenge kids and adults alike. Whether it’s the ropes and locks challenging nimble fingers in Houdini ($19.99), the marble-dropping path-building of Gravity Maze ($24.99), or the study of optics and mirrors with an actual laser in Laser Maze Jr. ($29.99), young minds and older minds will soon be in fighting trim for puzzling!

[Check out our full product reviews of Houdini by clicking here, Gravity Maze by clicking here, and Laser Maze Jr. by clicking here!]

Word Winder (David L. Hoyt)

Word Winder (also available in app, puzzle book, and GIANT versions!) is a game of finding chains of hidden words in an ever-changeable grid! Put your strategy and spelling skills to the test! ($19.95)


Board Games

Some of the puzzliest games on the market today are being made by top-flight board game companies, and we’ve got some marvelous games that will appeal to puzzlers of all ages!

Stuff and Nonsense (Cheapass Games)

Many games are about grand adventures, but only Stuff and Nonsense is about pretending to go on grand adventures while scamming your fellow would-be adventurers. Can you sneak around London and gather the props you need for your impressive lie, all while avoiding the fiendishly clever Professor Elemental? Great fun and quick to learn. ($25)

[To check out the full review of Stuff and Nonsense, click here!]

Castellan (Steve Jackson Games)

Build a castle and then occupy it in Castellan, a game of strategy and opportunity. With great modeled pieces that really add to the aesthetic, Castellan has style and substance. ($34.95)

[Check out our full product review here!]

Zip It (Bananagrams)

Bananagrams is already pretty travel-sized, but if you’re looking for a game you can play on an airplane tray table, you need to check out Zip It. This 24-cube game works on Bananagrams rules AND allows you to use the carrying case to keep score! For puzzling in your pocket, you can’t go wrong. ($12.99)

Tsuro: The Game of the Path (Calliope Games)

A path-laying game with tons of style and historical spirit, Tsuro casts up to eight players as flying dragons, and tasks you with laying out your path with special tiles. Your goal is to avoid meeting another dragon or flying off the board. It’s a simple mechanic with plenty of replay value, and perfect for quick games with large groups. ($29.99)

Walk-By Scrabble Board, Lexicographer’s Extended Scrabble, and Drawing Room Scrabble (Hammacher Schlemmer)

Hammacher Schlemmer has several Scrabble variants available, including the Lexicographer’s Extended Scrabble for those with mega-syllabic ambitions ($29.95) and Drawing Room Scrabble for those with swankier taste ($149.95) — not to mention the mindboggling World’s Largest Scrabble Game for $12,000! — but few are as clever or as convenient as the Walk-By Scrabble Board! Designed as a family game for people on the go, it’s a perfect way to bring back Board Game Night for busy families! ($29.95)

[Check out our full product review of the Walk-By Scrabble Board here!]

Qwirkle (MindWare)

A wonderful mix of Uno and Mexican Train Dominoes, Qwirkle is all about placing your tiles to maximize points and minimize helping your opponents. With six bright colors and six different shapes to match up, Qwirkle is endless fun that’s so easy to jump right into! ($34.99)

Tak•tak (Twizmo Games)

If you’re looking for a game that combines the strategy of chess and the mechanics of Upwords, Tak•tak is right up your alley. Score points by stacking and attacking your opponent’s pieces in this game that’s more than meets the eye! ($18.95)

[Check out our full product review of Tak•tak by clicking here!]


Card Games

These card games add a bit of friendly competition to some splendid strategizing for puzzlers of all sorts!

Pairs (Hip Pocket Games)

A simple card game with a lot of strategy behind it, Pairs is about NOT scoring points and avoiding pairing your cards at all costs. With new deck styles arriving all the time — like the Goddesses of Cuisine deck and the Lord of the Fries deck — complete with numerous variant games available, Pairs is a perfect group card game you can pick up quickly. ($10)

Give Me the Brain (Cheapass Games)

In this revamped version of a lesser-known classic, you and your fellow players are zombies running a fast food joint, competing to complete your tasks first. Unfortunately, there’s only one brain for all of you to share. A mix of strategy and luck, Give Me the Brain is the most fun you can having working in fast food, undead or not! ($25)

[Review coming soon!]

The Stars Are Right (Steve Jackson Games)

Build an army of followers and change the stars themselves in The Stars Are Right, a thoroughly enjoyable card game where the goal is summoning an elder god and destroying the world. As you do. ($27.95)

[Check out our full product review here!]

Batman Fluxx, Retro Loonacy, and Just Desserts (Looney Labs)

The folks at Looney Labs are all about games where the rules can change in an instant. They’ve broadened their library of Fluxx card decks with a marvelous Batman-fueled version ($20), as well as putting a new twist on their fast-play matching game with Retro Loonacy ($15)! Plus, you can always put your culinary skills to the test in the deliciously busy Just Desserts! ($18)

[Check out our full product reviews of Batman Fluxx here, Retro Loonacy here, and Just Desserts here, plus reviews for Adventure Time Fluxx and Fluxx Dice here!]

Timeline (Asmodee Games)

Timeline pits your knowledge of history against a growing timeline of important events, inventions, and historical moments. You don’t have to know exact dates; you just need to know if something happened before OR after something else. Was the toothbrush invented before or after the syringe? Which came first, language or agriculture? Timeline is a fast, fun way of learning (or relearning) history! ($14.99)

Adorable Pandaring (Asmadi Games)

We can all agree that pandas are adorable, but in Adorable Pandaring, you only earn points if your pandas are adorable, so you need to change the rules to favor the pandas in your hand. This game might have some mighty cute art, but don’t be fooled — it is all about timing and strategy. ($12)

[Check out the full review of Adorable Pandaring by clicking here!]

Compose Yourself (ThinkFun)

For a card game that’s marvelously musically different, try your hand at Compose Yourself. It’s designed to teach people of all ages the magic of music, and you can use the cards included to compose your own pieces, performed by an actual orchestra! I sincerely doubt you’ve ever seen — or heard — anything like it. ($14.99)

[Check out the full review of Compose Yourself by clicking here!]


Party Games

Some puzzles are best enjoyed in groups, so here are a few fun options for party puzzling!

Schmovie (Galactic Sneeze)

Are you the funniest, punniest one in your group of friends? Find out by playing Schmovie, the party game that pushes you to scribble down the best name for an imaginary movie created on the spot! Now redesigned in a sleeker box and playable by all ages, this is the movie game for everyone. ($19.95)

[Check out our full product review of the original version of Schmovie here!]

ROFL! (Cryptozoic)

Challenge your friends to decode famous movie lines, catchphrases, and song lyrics in Cryptozoic’s game ROFL!, created by Dork Tower‘s John Kovalic! Put your texting and abbreviation skills to the test in this laugh-out-loud party treat! ($35)

[Check out our full product review here!]


Thank you to all of the constructors, designers, and companies taking part in our holiday gift guide!

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