PuzzleNation Product Review: //CODE: On the Brink

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that. /end disclaimer]

There has been a tidal shift over the last few decades from the analog realm to digital. So much happens in cyberspace, by email, and in the liminal spaces between smartphones and computers, that it feels like we’re leaving behind physical media entirely. In the next decade, knowledge of programming will become an essential skill.

And it’s never too early to begin laying the foundation for that future. The folks at ThinkFun have been ahead of the curve there for a long time — their game Robot Turtles is a prime example — and they continue to push forward with their new //CODE Programming Game Series, a line of puzzly products designed to teach the basics of programming to young solvers.

The first game in the series, On the Brink, serves as an excellent primer. The game is based around a simple concept: navigating a robot along a particular path. This path can twist, turn, and even cross itself. But it’s up to the solver to figure out how to use the available programming cards to control and determine the robot’s path.

There are two sets of programming cards, one simpler deck designed for the first 20 challenges and one larger deck designed for the more difficult challenges that follow. Just as you learn simpler commands before you learn finer, more detail-oriented, and more complex ones, you must master the basic commands in On the Brink before moving forward.

Whereas Robot Turtles required players to be supervised by a Turtle Master who governed the setup, difficulty, and execution of commands, On the Brink can be played alone, as the solver tackles each puzzle in the challenge booklet, complete with starting cards, a given path to replicate, and colored boxes on the board that align with the three sections of the control panel.

I was impressed by the amount of variety to be found in a relatively small deck of commands. A cagey programmer can navigate the robot through some unexpectedly thorny paths, reminding me a bit of the step-by-step deductive reasoning that made Lunar Landing such a delightful challenge.

One way that On the Brink improves upon Robot Turtles is with the concept of commands that continue to run once activated. In On the Brink, your robot will follow a command for as long as the programming cards and colored spaces on the challenge booklet page dictate. Just as a command in programming requires parameters in order to know when to stop, your robot needs similar commands. Otherwise, it’s liable to pass right over the finish square instead of landing there perfectly.

On the Brink invites players as young as 8 to tackle the various challenges in the booklet, either alone or in groups, and the steady ratcheting-up of difficulty teaches the young programmer as they advance, putting new wrinkles and obstacles in the player’s path.

It’s the sort of patient, clever gameplay we’ve come to expect from ThinkFun, and they do not disappoint here. Figuring out how to utilize the available commands and complete the path given makes for an excellent puzzly challenge — especially the later scenarios! — but it never feels inaccessible or overwhelming.

You’re always in good hands with ThinkFun, and they’ve proven it again here with On the Brink.

On the Brink is available from ThinkFun and participating brick-and-mortar and online retailers for $14.99.


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The Puzzle of the Bard

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William Shakespeare is a name we all know well. We’ve studied his works in school, used words and phrases he coined or popularized, and we’ve seen numerous films, TV shows, and other adaptations inspired by his writing.

But for more than two centuries, there has been a great deal of debate over whether the man known as William Shakespeare actually wrote all of the brilliant works for which he is acclaimed.

There are whole societies dedicated to either rooting out the truth or proffering their candidate for who really wrote the works of Shakespeare. Many names are bandied about, including a who’s who of luminaries at the time, like Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Queen Elizabeth I, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, Anne Hathaway, Sir Walter Raleigh, and perhaps most ardently, Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford.

[Image courtesy of The Truth About Shakespeare.]

Now, granted, there’s plenty to suggest Shakespeare collaborated with other writers on some of his works, but we’re not talking about collaboration here. We’re talking about ghostwriting some of the most famous works in human history.

But, you may be asking, other than a shared love of wordplay, what does the Shakespearean authorship question have to do with puzzles?

I’m glad you asked.

Over the years, several theorists have reported finding secret codes or ciphers in the text of Shakespeare’s works which hinted toward the true author.

Samuel Morse, a man who knows one or two things about codes, discussed how Sir Francis Bacon had created such codes, probably as part of his spy work, perhaps even going so far as to create an encrypted signature of sorts that appears in multiple Shakespeare works.

According to a BBC America article on the subject:

One scholar at the time went so far as to produce an enormous “cipher wheel” composed of a 1000-foot piece of cloth that contained the texts of Shakespeare and others for easy comparison and decryption. He claimed that by deciphering codes, he’d discovered the location of a box, buried under the Wye River, that contained documents that would prove Sir Francis’s authorship. But a dredging of the area came up with nothing.

[Orville Ward Owen’s cipher wheel. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Now, there’s little doubt that Bacon was a code master, but there’s equally little evidence that he wrote the works of Shakespeare.

Of course, if there are codes in those works, perhaps Shakespeare placed them there himself.

According to a theory by scholar Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, Shakespeare’s careful and curious word choices were intended to foment subversive political messages and advance his own agenda of strong Catholic beliefs.

Constancy in love was Shakespeare’s way of alluding to the importance of a true faith in the ‘old religion’, she says. More specifically, his puns and metaphors often circled around certain key phrases. For instance, to be ‘sunburned’ or ‘tanned’, as are his heroines Viola, Imogen and Portia, was to be close to God and so understood as a true Catholic.

[Image courtesy of Amazon.com.]

It’s amazing that we know so little about someone so influential. And it’s only natural that we try to fill in the blanks with our own theorists, be they explanations of Shakespeare’s impressive knowledge or possibilities of alternative authorship.

The man himself is a puzzle, and that is irresistible to some, myself included. Are Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the bard one and the same?

As it turns out, that question might finally have an answer, thanks to the sleuthing of Dr. Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The story begins with Shakespeare’s father:

John Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon, was ambitious to rise in the world. He was certainly not the first Englishman keen to put his origins as a provincial tradesman behind him. Among his contemporaries in Stratford, he was a figure of fun for his social climbing. English class snobbery has a long pedigree.

His son, who would continue the quest for official recognition after his father’s death, also attracted metropolitan disdain as “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers”. In 1601, after his father’s death, Shakespeare the upstart returned to the college of arms to renew the family application for a coat of arms.

He had made a small fortune in the theatre, and was buying property in and around Stratford. Now he set out to consolidate his reputation as a “Gentleman”. Under the rules that governed life at the court of Elizabeth I, only the Queen’s heralds could grant this wish.

[Image courtesy of The Shakespeare Blog.]

And it’s this application for a family coat of arms that provides the connective tissue between the man and the bard. “They point to someone actively involved in defining and defending his legacy in 1602, shortly after his father’s death,” according to Wolfe.

But whether there are codes lurking in the Bard’s works or not, the mystery of the man himself might be the greatest puzzle of all.


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Bringing Home an Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript

[Image courtesy of BBC.com.]

If you scour the Internet for great unsolved mysteries of this or any era, the Voynich Manuscript is always one of the top results, and with good reason.

A small hand-written volume, the Voynich Manuscript is believed to have originated in the 15th century (thanks to carbon-dating), and it’s written in an as-yet-undeciphered language.

Both amateur and professional cryptographers have attempted to unravel the mysteries of the unknown language, but all have thus far failed. (Oh sure, some people have claimed in the past that they’ve cracked the code, but none of these efforts have held up to scrutiny.)

Some theorize that instead of an encryption, it’s an invented language or a previously unseen invented written form for an established language.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

A few cryptographers have gone so far as to call it unsolvable, while others believe it to be an elaborate hoax or the work of someone afflicted with glossolalia, a written equivalent of speaking in tongues.

And ever since the only known copy was donated to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, aspiring solvers have had to rely on online scans of the manuscript in their attempts to crack it.

Until recently, that is.

[One of several fold-out pages in the manuscript.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

A Spanish publishing house is currently working on a limited run of exacting replicas of the Voynich Manuscript, purportedly including “every stain, hole, [and] sewn-up tear in the parchment.”

Of course, such meticulous work is reflected in the price of each book, which runs roughly $8000 to $9000 a copy. A third of the 898 copies being offered for sale have already been snatched up in pre-orders.

If you’re still hoping for a chance to tackle the mystery but you’re not looking to break the bank, thankfully Yale University Press is offering a $50 trade hardcover edition of the manuscript for sale later this year.

Whether this finally leads to a solution or simply adds new members to the ever-growing list of disappointed or frustrated aspiring solvers, I can’t say. But it’s exciting to see the mystery is alive and well.


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The Great Puzzle Pursuit: Puzzle Hunting Across the U.S.!

Puzzle hunts are interactive solving experiences that often have you wandering around a certain area as you crack codes, unravel riddles, and conquer puzzles.

Whether you’re working alone or you’ve recruited a team to help with the hunt — perhaps solvers whose skills complement your own or fill a gap in your puzzling ability — it takes puzzles a step further, often making for a memorable puzzle experience, akin to Escape the Room challenges.

We’ve covered some puzzle hunts in the past, like BAPHL or the Trials Evolution hunt. We’ve also explored puzzle hunts that combine aspects of scavenger hunts and physical challenges to create a more physically demanding solving experience, like the Great Urban Race.

But I don’t know that we’ve ever covered something quite on the scale of The Great Puzzle Pursuit.

Instead of one city, you have 15 possible cities to test you. Instead of racing other teams over the course of a day or a weekend, you have a seven-month window of opportunity to test your puzzly mettle.

Intrigued yet? I certainly was, so I reached out to the team behind The Great Puzzle Pursuit to find out more about this ambitious solving experience. Co-creator Jason was kind enough to answer my questions about the event.


What inspired the Great Puzzle Pursuit?

A little background about us first. My wife Amy and I have been frequent participants in events like Warrior Dash, Urban Dare, and various scavenger hunts for the last 10 years. Now that I am older I can tell you that breaking both of my ankles previously ensured that I just cannot run like I used to.

So my wife and I, who are enormous fans of puzzles and the outdoors, tried various geocaching activities. Which we loved, but that is more just hide and seek. Then we went on to try various scavenger hunts and found the challenges to generally be silly tasks as opposed to actual puzzles.

After much research, we just couldn’t find exactly what we were looking for so we decided to make it ourselves, launching in Pittsburgh, PA.

You have 15 cities listed as possible points of entry into this puzzle hunt. What are the logistics involved in creating something of this scope? How many team members do you have running GPP?

The logistics in running multiple simultaneous hunts is somewhat of a challenge. In each city, we choose 7 locations — generally monuments, statues, or unique features — and then weave puzzle elements into these locations. Essentially you will need to solve 7 location puzzles and 7 on-site puzzles to complete your city.

[Glenn’s note: Location puzzles lead you to a location, while on-site puzzles can only be solved once you reach a given location.]

The locations are different but the puzzle elements are identical between cities so we can ensure it is a fair competition. Assuming a team bests their city challenge, all teams across the country share one last Meta puzzle. To date only 4 teams have unlocked this final challenge and now qualify for the cash prize nearing $1,200.

My wife and I are the owners and operators and we have a team of 8 that helps us create the challenges, scope out future locations, etc.

How many groups/competitors are involved right now?

We are nearing 300 teams now, with 4 total finishers [people who have completed a city challenge and the meta puzzle]. Two for Pittsburgh, one from Buffalo, and one from Hartford. All teams have until September 15 to finish so we expect to see a few more by then.

What lessons did you learn from season 1 that have informed this season’s event?

What we learned from season 1 is that people want to be challenged. In season 1 we made a puzzle hunt that was difficult but 50% of all teams completed it.

The vast majority said they wanted it to be even harder! So this year we added that 15th and final national puzzle that only the best of the best will be able to unlock.


Thank you to Jason and Amy for taking the time out to talk to us today! You can find out more about the Great Puzzle Pursuit on their website here and on Twitter here!

And remember, there are 15 possible cities to conquer:

  • Austin, Texas
  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • Boise, Idaho
  • Buffalo, New York
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • Columbus, Ohio
  • Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
  • Hartford, Connecticut
  • Indianapolis, Indiana
  • New York, New York
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • St. Augustine, Florida
  • Springfield, Massachusetts
  • Washington, D.C.

Let us know if you’re going to accept the Great Puzzle Pursuit challenge in the comments below!


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A puzzle hunt 100 years in the making!

Riddles, codebreaking, and scavenger hunts are three of my favorite puzzly topics. I’ve covered each extensively in blog posts previously, exploring not only the history and ever-changing nature of puzzles, but how deeply ingrained puzzle-solving is in our culture, past and present.

Tuesday’s post was about a fairly simple encoded puzzle I found lurking inside a short story. That simplicity, that accessibility is part of why I wrote about it.

For you see, fellow puzzlers, today’s post is not about a simple puzzle. Today’s post covers all three of the topics above — riddles, codebreaking, and scavenger hunts — in a sprawling, mindboggling story about a globe-spanning mystery that gamers and puzzlers joined forces to unravel.

It all started in April 2012 with the release of a video game called Trials Evolution, created by the game designers at Redlynx.

Trials Evolution is a motorcycle racing game that incorporates real-world physics into the gameplay, challenging players to complete obstacle-filled courses as fast as possible.

Now, this might not seem like the type of game to conceal a fiendish riddle, but players were actually expecting a challenging puzzle to be hiding within the game, because Trials HD, a previous installment of the series, featured a riddle to solve that helped build the Trials gaming community.

So expectations were high for whatever riddle was lurking inside Trials Evolution. And it did not disappoint.

First, players had to locate a series of wooden planks throughout the game, planks that featured encrypted writing on them. Once assembled and decrypted, the planks featured instructions for a special maneuver for players to perform in the game while a particular piece of music played.

Successfully completing this task earned the player a bonus song, which included lyrics suggesting players transform the song into a visual form. Cagey players realized this meant running a spectral analysis on the song — a visual graph of sound or energy — which revealed a hidden message in Morse Code.

That message led to a website where the images below started appearing daily, one by one.

(It’s worth noting that these images started appearing in late 2013, more than a year after the game was released!)

Each image references a particular scientist. Once all twenty-six images were revealed, the indefatigable players had a visual alphabet to work with.

So when a message appeared using the images instead of letters, players cracked that code as well.

Still with me?

That code led to four sets of coordinates. Real world coordinates across the world! This riddle was only getting more complex the deeper players went!

Something awaited intrepid players in San Francisco, California; Bath, England; Helsinki, Finland; and Sydney, Australia. In each location, players uncovered small chests, each containing a key and a metal plaque with the message “It seemed like forever ago” on it. (The Helsinki location also featured French documents, supposedly from 300 years ago, as well as an antique pocket watch.)

So, what do the keys open? What does it all mean?

Well, there was one last message. On the other side of the metal plaque included in each chest, there was a message:

Midday in Year 2113.
1st Sat in Aug
One of Five keys will open the box
Underneath the Eiffel Tower

That’s right. This riddle can only be unraveled nearly a century from now! This puzzle has gone from a hidden bonus feature in a video game to actual scavenger hunting in the real world, and is now becoming a multigenerational quest.

Take a moment and ponder that. It blows my mind to think about a puzzle that took dozens of people to conquer and will now become a story told to friends and sons and daughters as golden keys are passed down, all in the hopes of seeing what awaits us underneath the Eiffel Tower on a particular day in August in 2113.

And it all started with a motorcycle racing video game.

[For more details on the Trials Evolution riddle, check out this thorough write-up on Kotaku.]

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George Washington: Commander in Chief (and Codes)

George Washington was the first American president, the Father of Our Country, a general, a farmer, and an inventor. He invigorated and empowered the role of the president far beyond what the Framers of the Constitution originally envisioned, and is widely regarded as the standard against which all presidents are measured.

But did you know he also created America’s first spy ring?

The story is fascinating, and you get the full scoop in Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager’s book George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution.

As the Revolutionary War raged on and America struggled to rout the British forces, Washington realized that British spycraft was heavily responsible for American losses. Determined to even the playing field, Washington marshalled trusted associates to form America’s first spy ring, known as the Culper Ring.

Originally, Washington and his agents employed code names and a few numerical substitutions for words in their messages. The two key agents, Benjamin Tallmadge and Abraham Woodhull, were designated Culper Junior and Culper Senior, respectively, while a still-unidentified female agent is known only as Agent 355. (355 was Tallmadge’s code for “lady.”)

10 stood for New York and 20 for Setauket, so that the recipient would know the source of the information contained in the reports. Two additional numbers, 30 and 40, were used to designate Jonas Hawkins and Austin Roe as post riders delivering the messages to their next destination.

But after two close calls with key agents and information endangered by the British, they followed the French model and developed a more elaborate code system.

Making a list from 1 to 763, he [Benjamin Tallmadge] … assigned each pertinent word, location, or name a numerical code. He became 721, Woodhull as Culper Senior 722, Townsend as Culper Junior 723, Roe 724, and Brewster 725. General Washington was 711 and his British counterpart, General Clinton, was 712. Numbers were often represented by letters, so that the year “1779,” for example, might read as “ennq.”

Could you decipher this message, a rudimentary version of the code eventually used by the Culper Ring?

[In this example of Tallmadge’s ever-evolving code,
“Setauket” went from “20” in the earlier code to “729.”]

They delivered their coded messages through some tried-and-true spying methods, including employing invisible ink and disguising vital communiques as bland family letters. And the Culper Ring had some stunning victories to its credit, including rooting out Benedict Arnold’s traitorous plot to hand over West Point to the British.

[An example of the more elaborate, French-inspired code system
employed later in the war by Washington and the Culper Ring.]

The Culper Ring even saved American aspiring cryptographers one heck of a headache. There was a standing order for agents to “learn as many of the British navy’s code signals as possible, so that the French fleet could decipher what the enemy ships were communicating to one another during naval engagements.”

As you might imagine, even skilled codebreakers would’ve had a nearly impossible time memorizing the codes AND deciphering them in the midst of battle. Thankfully, the Culper Ring obtained a copy of the entire British Naval Codebook, not only saving the eyes and sanity of numerous Americans, but delivering Yorktown to American Revolutionary forces.

In fact, British intelligence agent Major George Beckwith commented, “Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us!”

And he used some puzzly cryptography skills to do it.

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