Puzzling Virtually at Norwescon 43!

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Over the weekend, I participated in an online version of the celebrated sci-fi, fantasy, and horror convention Norwescon.

Although many of the convention’s panels and events have a writerly focus, plenty of attention is also given to art, films, games, and pop culture, so there was plenty for puzzle and game fans to enjoy at the event.

Naturally, since the convention was being held virtually rather than in person, some creativity was required to redesign events to be enjoyed from the comfort of attendees’ homes.

For instance, costumes were shown off through video or submitted photos — there was even a closet cosplay challenge held where participants had twenty minutes to create a costume based solely on what they could find in their closets!

As for my contributions, each year I host a themed scavenger hunt and an escape room for teen attendees to enjoy.

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The scavenger hunt adapted to the format easily. We cast volunteers to portray different characters from the film The Princess Bride, and players had scheduled times to actually interact with them through Zoom chats. Players downloaded a PDF of the rules and some puzzles to be solved, and they would receive a code phrase upon completing each of their assigned tasks.

(The code phrases, when properly combined, revealed a secret word which would “trigger” a surprise video.)

Their more puzzly tasks included using instructions to whittle down a list of 40 possible ingredients down to the three Miracle Max would need for his miracle pill for Westley, as well as solving a logic puzzle to find evidence that an ROUS was innocent of a royal guardsman’s disappearance.

And on the last day of the convention, they attended the wrap-up panel where we explained the hunt in full, thanked the cast, announced the winners, took suggestions for a theme for next year’s scavenger hunt, and even played a Cameo video from a member of the film’s cast as a surprise for all the attendees!

It was a rousing success.

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Adapting the Star Wars-themed escape room for a virtual format was far more daunting. After all, one of the most satisfying aspects of escape room solving is to actually physically solve puzzles, unlock containers, open doors, and defeat all sorts of key locks, combination locks, and more.

My solution to this problem was to still allow players to “unlock” and open something, just something virtual: password-protected PDF files.

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[This “panel” required a 5-digit code and a 3-digit combination to unlock.]

I created a webpage with images of all the “locked” panels for them to virtually open, each of which had symbols to indicate what sort of lock there was, as well as links to the password-entry screens. As they found keys and solved puzzles, they coordinated to try different panels and see which keys and codes unlocked the PDFs, which then opened to give them new tools and puzzles to solve.

It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but once players got the hang of it, they were soon racing through the room, using a built-in chat window to keep track of items they hadn’t used and working out passwords in real time.

One of the players even started livestreaming her efforts to solve a pipe puzzle on Twitch so everyone could solve along with her. It was a very cool and innovative way to virtually solve!

Hopefully, we’ll be back in person for next year’s convention and we can get back to opening locks and running around for a proper scavenger hunt. But either way, it’s nice to know we’re adaptable and creative enough to still pull them off in the virtual space when circumstances arise.

After all, as long as the players had fun, we can definitely call it a win.


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Solutions to Last Week’s Detective Riddles!

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Last week, we delved into a curious cousin of brain teaser family — detective riddles. These crime-fueled and investigation-filled little logic problems often cast you as the detective, the accused, or simply someone putting on their deerstalker hat and endeavoring to suss out the actual truth.

And we couldn’t resist putting your puzzle skills to the test with a few detective riddles. Did you unravel them easily or find yourself stumped?

Let’s find out, shall we?


#1

A Japanese ship was leaving the port and on its way to open sea. The captain went to oil some parts of the ship and took his ring off so it wouldn’t get damaged. He left it on the table next to his bunk. When he returned, it was missing. He suspected three crew members could be guilty and asked them what they had been doing for the ten minutes that he had been gone.

The cook said, “I was in the kitchen preparing tonight’s dinner.”

The engineer said, “I was working in the engine room making sure everything was running smoothly.”

The seaman said, “I was on the mast correcting the flag because someone had attached it upside down by mistake.”

The captain immediately knew who it was. How?

Answer: The seaman was to blame.

The key to this one is paying attention to the ship and the flag. A Japanese ship would be flying the Japanese flag, and it’s hard to believe a white field with a red circle in the center could be hung “upside down.”

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#2

A chemist was murdered in his own lab. The only evidence was a piece of paper that had the names of chemical substances written on it. The substances were nickel, carbon, oxygen, lanthanum, and sulfur. The chemist only had four people come by his lab on the day of the murder: fellow scientist Claire, his nephew Nicolas, his wife, and his friend Marc.

The police arrested the murderer right away. How did they know who it was?

Answer: Nephew Nicolas was to blame.

If you know your elemental abbreviations, you probably noticed the correlation between what the chemist wrote down and one of the suspects. Ni + C + O + La + S spells the criminal’s name and points the finger at the criminal from beyond the grave.

#3

A man was found on the floor dead with a cassette recorder in one hand and a gun in the other. When the police arrived at the scene they pressed play on the recorder. It was the man’s voice. He said, “I have nothing else to live for. I can’t go on,” followed by the sound of a gunshot.

After listening, the police knew that this was a murder, not a suicide. How?

Answer: Dead men don’t rewind.

The cassette recorder was all prepped for someone to press play, which means someone stopped the tape and rewound it after the gunshot was recorded. If it had been a suicide, the tape recorder would have just kept running after the gunshot, since there wasn’t anyone alive to stop it.


How did you do, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Did you solve all three? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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The Man Who Found Forrest Fenn’s Treasure

One of the biggest stories in puzzles last year revolved around Forrest Fenn’s treasure hunt, which had left treasure hunters and puzzle fans baffled and searching for almost a decade.

The hopes of thousands of would-be rich treasure seekers were dashed when Fenn announced that his treasure had been found.

It was under a canopy of stars in the lush, forested vegetation of the Rocky Mountains and had not moved from the spot where I hid it more than 10 years ago. I do not know the person who found it, but the poem in my book led him to the precise spot.

I congratulate the thousands of people who participated in the search and hope they will continue to be drawn by the promise of other discoveries.

So the search is over. Look for more information and photos in the coming days.

But in the days and months that followed, controversy ensued. The identity of the hunter who found the treasure was kept secret, only referenced as someone “from back East.” Some treasure hunters demanded more proof, positing that Fenn had retrieved the treasure himself, or that he’d never hidden it at all.

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Lawsuits were filed, alleging that the mysterious treasure hunter had stolen his solution from someone else, or that Fenn had faked the entire decade-long endeavor.

In September, a few months after the announcement that the treasure had been found, Forrest Fenn passed away. Depending on what you believed, it was either oddly poignant or terribly convenient that his passing would follow the discovery of his long-hidden treasure.

Eventually, though, as these things go, the story grew quiet.

A reader of the blog recently asked me if there had been any updates on Fenn’s treasure. As it turns out, there had, but they’d flown relatively under the radar.

Back in December, a gentleman named Jack Stuef came forward as the finder of the Forrest Fenn treasure.

According to an article on NPR, Stuef claimed he pored over Fenn’s poem for two years, as well as interviews with Fenn, “teasing out clues from his words to understand what kind of person he was and where he might be inclined to hide his riches.”

As for why he remained anonymous, he further stated:

For the past six months, I have remained anonymous, not because I have anything to hide, but because Forrest and his family endured stalkers, death threats, home invasions, frivolous lawsuits, and a potential kidnapping — all at the hands of people with delusions related to his treasure. I don’t want those things to happen to me and my family.

The U.S. District Court for New Mexico has ruled that Forrest’s estate must provide some of my personal information to a woman I do not know and with whom I have never communicated who has brought a meritless lawsuit against me. This would make my name a matter of public record, so I chose to come forward today.

The entire piece is interesting, sharing his solo efforts to solve the mystery and find the treasure, as well as debunking a number of false reports, accusations, and various attempts at conspiracy theorizing.

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But he also refuses to disclose where he found the treasure or how he arrived at that solution, which will no doubt frustrate and confound some of the more obsessive folks that spent the last decade trying to find Fenn’s treasure. (As for people claiming he was working with Fenn or that the treasure being found is still a hoax, I doubt they will ever be satisfied with ANY answers, short of them finding the treasure themselves.)

Still, with the expectation that any and all lawsuits related to the Fenn treasure hunt will be thrown out, this brings one of the strangest and most interesting puzzle mysteries of the last decade to a close.

Jack Stuef apparently managed to do what thousands of armchair adventure seekers (and more than a few real-life wildlife trekkers and treasure hunters) failed to: unravel Fenn’s riddle.

As a closing thought, I do hope that Stuef or someone connected to Fenn’s estate place some sort of marker where the treasure was found, if only to offer something for future treasure hunters to find. It would be a nice way to keep the spirit of the mystery alive, hopefully without the rancor or nonsense involved.


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Voltaire and Frederick the Great: Puzzle Pals?

frederick and voltaire

One of the most curious – and tumultuous – friendships in history was that of Frederick the Great and Voltaire.

Voltaire, the 18th-century philosopher and writer, never shied from criticizing the monarchy in his outspoken defenses of civil liberties. That makes it all the more curious that he became friends with the Prussian King Frederick II, aka Frederick the Great.

They bonded over a shared interest in the arts — a passion for Frederick all his life, despite his father’s disapproval.

From Joshua Figueroa’s marvelous article on KMFA.org:

Through Frederick’s public admiration, Voltaire was given a status few other philosophers of the era had. Likewise, Voltaire helped spread the word of Frederick’s flattering image as a philosopher-king.

As it turns out, they were mutual wordplay enthusiasts as well.

The story goes that Frederick the Great wanted to invite Voltaire to lunch, but did so with a rebus:

the question

Voltaire replied simply:

the answer

Which left Frederick confused as to why Voltaire would reply in German. Voltaire retorted that he hadn’t.

There’s a lot going on here, all to do with how things sound when said aloud.

Let’s look at Frederick’s message first:

the question

You have the letter P above the number 1 and the word Si above the number 100, with the letter a between them.

Anyone familiar with rebuses knows that a horizontal line between two words means “over/above” or “under.”

But remember that we’re working in French. So that’s un for 1 and sous for under. Un sous p.

Aloud you get un souper, or “a supper.”

Following the same logic, you’ve got 100 (cent) under (sous) si, which sounds like Sanssouci, Frederick’s castle.

Put it all together, and it’s the lunch invite Frederick intended, souper à Sanssouci. Pretty clever.

But what about Voltaire’s reply?

the answer

It sure looks like the German word for yes.

But if you’re very literal about what you’re seeing, you’ve got a large J and a small A.

Large in French is grande (as Starbucks customers know). Small in French is petit.

J grande A petit.

Or, said aloud, J’ai grand appétit. Which means “I have a great appetite.”

You know, I’m starting to see why these two became pals.


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A White and Snowy White Grid Instead of Black and White?

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You can get crosswords in many forms these days.

You get books full of them, or find them in the newspaper. Spiral-bound collections. Puzzle-a-day calendars.

You can download PDFs and Puz files, or solve them right on your screen. You can solve through puzzle apps like Daily POP Crosswords.

You can solve along with friends on Zoom or with The New York Times Wordplay crew in their livestreams.

Heck, there’s a coffee mug where you can fill out different crosswords that all fit the same empty, fillable grid on the outside of the mug. I have a crossword analog wall clock that’s solvable.

But this is definitely the first time I’ve seen a crossword made of snow.

This puzzle is the creation of pumpkin carver and ice rink artist Robert Greenfield, and he shared his icy enigma with solvers through his Twitter account.

You can solve it in more conventional form here.

I think the gripping nature of this artistic act of puzzly expression was best summed up by his brother on Twitter:

This is a REAL crossword puzzle with REAL questions and solutions (see the thread) constructed on a REAL ice rink done by my REAL brother who is REALLY impressive.

I’m curious if other frigid puzzle styles will follow suit. Will we see an ice rink word seek where he has to skate around the words to loop them? Perhaps a rime-crafted rebus to challenge observers with wordplay?

There are definitely possibilities here, with a natural timer built-in as well!

Forgive the unintentional pun, but this is pretty cool.


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Puzzly Suggestions for Valentine’s Day!

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Valentine’s Day is a little more than a week away, but there’s still plenty of time to whip up a puzzly treat for the special someone in your life!

And naturally we’ve got a few suggestions…

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Jigsaw puzzles are the perfect metaphor for relationships, as they require separate pieces working together to complete the picture.

There are necklaces and other pieces of jigsaw-themed jewelry, as well as do-it-yourself jigsaw patterns you can utilize. You could depict anything from a favorite photo to a specific Valentine’s message in the completed image.

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Now, you can always start with something simple, like a subscription to a puzzle service like The Crosswords ClubThe American Values Club Crossword, or The Inkubator. New puzzles every week or every month are a great gift. (Especially the Valentine’s Deluxe Sets for the Penny Dell Crosswords app! *wink*)

If they’re more into mechanical puzzles, our friends at Tavern Puzzles offer several brain teasers that incorporate a heart shape.

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But if you’re looking for something more personalized, why not make a crossword for them yourself?

(Yes, you can also commission a top puzzler to do one for you, but you’d usually want to get the ball rolling on something like that well before Valentine’s Day.)

Now, to be fair, crosswords can be tough and time-intensive to make, so if that feels a little daunting, why not try a Framework puzzle or a crisscross instead? They incorporate the same crossing style, but don’t require you to use every letter.

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It allows you to maintain a terrific word list all about you and your significant other without all the effort of filling in every square crossword-style.

Or you could write the object of your affection a coded love letter! All throughout history, people have employed different tricks and techniques to keep their private messages away from prying eyes, and you could do the same!

Whether it’s a simple letter-shifting cipher or something more complex, make sure your message is worth reading. =)

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[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

Plus you could learn a bit of letterlocking to add some flair — and a sense of puzzly secrecy and personalization — to your message. It involves a mix of precise folds, interlocking pieces of paper, and sealing wax in order to create a distinctive design or pattern.

Even if you don’t go the encryption route, the unique presentation of a letter-locked message makes a simple card or a heartfelt note feel more precious.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Have you considered a puzzle bouquet? You could grab some newspaper crosswords and origami them into flower shapes for a fun puzzle-fueled spin on a holiday classic.

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Or you could gather flower-themed puzzles and spell out messages in the grids.

Rows Garden immediately comes to mind, as do Daisy and Flower Power, which you can find in Penny Press magazines!

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Or you could hide jigsaw pieces around the house that, when put together, spell out a Valentine’s message or a picture of the two of you.

Put your own spin on the idea. A little bit of effort can go a long way, plus it doesn’t cost anything.

With a little more effort, you could whip up a scavenger hunt! You could leave clues around leading to a gift, or a romantic dinner, or some other grand finale. Maybe offer a rose with each clue. (You can do this without leaving the house, like a reverse escape room!)

Show off how much you know about him or her. You could make each clue (or destination, safety allowing) about your relationship or about your partner, allowing you to show off how well you know them… where you first met, favorite meals, favorite movie…

If you don’t want to leave things around where anyone could nab them, keep a few small tokens on you, giving one for each destination reached or clue solved. Heck, you could enlist a friend to text clues to your special someone once they’ve reached a particular destination!

Or for something less formal, you could make a game of your romantic wanderings and play Valentine’s Day Bingo.

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[I found this blank template on Makoodle.com.]

Maybe go for a walk or take a drive with your loved one, and see if they can get bingo by observing different things. A couple holding hands as they walk, a Valentine’s Day proposal, outrageously priced flowers…

You could even channel-surf and see if you can get bingo from all the Valentine’s Day programming.

The possibilities are endless when you put your mind to it.


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