Puzzles and Games With a Sacred Touch?

In recent times, religion and the world of puzzles and games have crossed paths with sometimes surprising results.

The film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, a fairly puzzle-centric thriller, was widely denounced by members of the Catholic Church, and there was similar resistance, though less vocal, against the sequel film, Angels & Demons.

And, of course, in the 1980s, the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons was condemned as Satanic and dangerous to young minds.

I say that the above is strange because, for the most part, these seem to be anomalies or isolated incidents. There are numerous instances throughout history where puzzles and games were embraced by religion, even used as tools to teach aspects of religious beliefs.

For instance, in ancient Egypt, we’ve seen evidence of puzzly techniques used not just to secure the tomb of Tutankhamun, but also to disguise the language and rituals employed by elite members of their society. Puzzles were entrusted to keep their secrets well beyond the grave.

the seal on king tut's tomb

Plus one of the most ancient games in the historical record, Senet, seems to have evolved from being an enjoyable pastime into a spiritual tool.

You see, some Senet boards have religious iconography on them, believed to symbolize the journey into the afterlife. So gameplay — or the inclusion of the gameboard itself among the belongings of the deceased — represented that journey and the quest to learn more about it.

Some online articles have taken to referring to Senet as “the Rosicrucian board game of death,” which is a harsh misinterpretation.

There was also an afterlife connection with games for the Vikings.

According to Mark Hall, a curator at Perth Museum and Art Gallery, there have been 36 burials where board games of some description have been found in the graves around Northern Europe.

These grave sites grant intriguing insight into how the Vikings viewed board games as a learning tool. It’s believed that including a board game among the effects of the deceased signaled not only their skill and status as a warrior, but their preparedness for the afterlife itself. Heck, their win-loss records were even recorded for posterity!

Palindromes were believed to work as magical shields that protected those wearing the talismans bearing such clever wordplay.

Heck, even the shape of dice were influenced by changing religious views. Early dice games gave very little consideration to the shape or evenness of dice, because rolls were believed to be guided by Fate or some greater outside force, so the shape didn’t matter.

As religious beliefs evolved away from gods and greater forces intervening in such things, the general spirit of fairness in dice began to prevail, and the shape, balance, and pip distribution of dice became much more standardized.

And as for the Catholic Church, I certainly didn’t mean to make it look like I was picking on them in the introduction, because there are positive associations between the church and the world of puzzles and games as well.

And no, I’m not just talking about lighthearted products like BibleOpoly or the cottage industry of family-friendly games like Bible editions of Outburst, Scattergories, Apples to Apples, Scrabble, and Taboo.

Chess boards and other game boards have been found in houses formerly used by the Knights Templar, for instance.

There’s also the puzzly art of carmina figurata, poems wherein either the entire body of the poem or select parts form a shape or pattern. These works originated as religious tributes, poems where letters were colored red to stand out from the regular black lettering in order to draw attention to or highlight a certain religious figure.

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[“De laudibus sanctae Crucis” by Oliverus.
Image courtesy of WTF Art History.]

There would be hidden words or messages concealed in the text, some speaking of the religious icons at the center of the piece in glowing terms.

Do you have any favorite puzzles and games that have an element of religion to them, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Fairness and Accessibility in Puzzles?

We love crosswords here at PuzzleNation. Crosswords are our bread and butter, as well as our pizza, our salad, and our desserts.

We strive to keep our puzzles as accessible as possible for solvers of all ages. And that’s tougher than non-puzzlers might think.

Recently we discussed a never-ending debate in crosswords as we delved into the many, sometimes contradictory, goals of creating a great crossword. You want entries to appeal to older solvers without alienating younger solvers, and vice versa. Some people despise pop culture references and proper nouns, while others embrace them.

Abbreviations, partial phrases, fill-in-the-blank clues, wordplay clues, clues that reference other clues… there’s a vast swathe of crossword qualities that must be balanced, and no matter how good a job you do, you’re probably still going to have a few dissenting voices who believe you should do better.

As a hobby still very much viewed as the purview of older white men — despite the many worthwhile voices of women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community that contribute to the world of crosswords in increasing numbers — the language featured in crosswords MATTERS.

It reflects our society, serving as a microcosm of the current day and our culture as a whole. Older solvers might not know new slang or black artists or trans performers or any number of references that are growing more commonplace AND gaining greater visibility. But updating the vocabulary of crosswords is a constant effort, and a worthwhile one.

But I said a lot of this in that previous post, so why am I returning to the topic now?

Well, because I find this continuing democratization of crosswords interesting, because it’s something required of crosswords, but not of many other types of puzzles.

Word seeks (except for some variations) give you the starting list, and then you go hunting for answers. Fill-Ins do the same thing, leaving you the empty grid to fill but requiring no specialized knowledge. Everyone gets the same running start.

(I snagged this helpful image from www.logic-puzzles.org.)

Traditional logic puzzles are also presented on an even playing field. You’re presented with information (say, hints about various names, places, times, and activities), as well as an end goal to figure out (the correct schedule of who did what, where, and when).

You don’t have to bring any foreknowledge or previous experience to the table. Given the opportunity, everyone should have an equal chance of solving the puzzle.

Naturally, this equality depends on the assumption that you, the solver, can read the language the puzzle is presented in.

Which brings me to, perhaps, the most democratically fair paper puzzle of all: Sudoku.

The rules are simple, even if the puzzles can be very challenging: place the numbers 1 through 9 in every row, column, and cell.

Even at a glance, without knowing the puzzle, pretty much anyone would have an idea of what’s going on and what needs to be done. Language doesn’t matter, so long as you can identify the nine different symbols to be placed. (This is why word and color variations of Sudoku exist, because the numbers themselves are irrelevent. You just need nine different things.)

Anyone can pick up a pen, a pencil, or a stylus and solve a Sudoku.

And we should strive for the same thing with crosswords.

Sure, all of those other puzzles require practice to get GOOD at them. But at a baseline, everyone who approaches them has a fair shot. Crosswords demand that solvers bring their own knowledge and info and trivia and vocabulary to the table.

But crosswords as a whole should seek that same democratization: Accessibility. Representation. That inviting X factor.

There’s already a touch of that in the medium. Anytime I see someone solving a puzzle on a train, or in an airport, or in some public place, there’s always someone else sneaking a peek or stealing a glance.

Have you ever seen someone complete a crossword for the very first time? I have, and it’s awesome. It’s a magnified version of the delicious a-ha moment when you unravel a tricky clue.

Do you remember the joy in your heart the first time you conquered a New York Times puzzle on a difficult day? The first time you solved a puzzle type you’d never bested before? The first time you cracked the meta lurking in the background of an already devilish design?

Everyone should get that feeling.

No crossword will ever be everything every solver wants it to be. And that’s fine. But I do look forward to the day when everyone looks at a puzzle and at least one of the clues speaks to them, makes them feel seen and heard and represented.

Puzzles should be for everyone.

[Thank you to ThinkFun and Michelle Parrinello-Cason for inspiring this post.]


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Building Better Bonds with Board Games

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[Image courtesy of Toy-TMA.com.]

Earlier this year, we discussed a study indicating that playing board games was good for your relationship. The results of the study revealed that the act of playing board games actually coincided with the creation of new chemical bonds of affection for the person with whom you’re playing the game.

Well, as it turns out, it’s not just romantic relationships that benefit from the board game experience, as another article suggests that social relationships also benefit from communal play like board games.

From the article on QZ.com:

Board games, along with role playing and table games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, allow players to enter into a controlled state of conflict. The process of engaging in that conflict is fun even when you lose, and the outcome is likely to be different the next time around.

A good board game builds in enough chance so that any reasonably skilled player can win. Even in chess, famously associated with warfare and military strategy, the emphasis is not on who ultimately wins, but on the ingenuity that players display in the process.

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[Image courtesy of Den of Geek.]

It’s a simple combination, really. Board games offer not only an achievable goal — something that can feel rare in our ever-complicated world — but a sense of fairness to the proceedings that might feel equally rare. Everyone is operating on the same footing, everyone is capable of the same actions, and (ignoring previous experience with the game) everyone has a fair chance of succeeding.

Heck, in most games, taking turns is built into the game. Board games are orderly affairs. Even the chaotic ones operate under a standard set of rules that are reassuring and clear. Life is rarely so simple.

In addition, there is the comfort-building social aspect of getting together to play games. Conventions like Gen Con and holidays like International Tabletop Day are designed around the joys of shared play, and more and more, you see game stores, hobby shops, libraries, board game cafes, and other locations offering game night activities and bringing people together.

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[Image courtesy of Review Geek.]

I wonder if there are any games that are commonly regarded as strong relationship builders. I’m sure cooperative games would rank higher than most, but then again, sometimes the spirit of competition can also bring people together.

Fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, is there a particular board game that you prefer for family or friendly game nights? What about games you enjoy playing with your significant other? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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A Relatively Modern Idea: Fairness in Dice Rolling

[Image courtesy of Larsdatter.com.]

This may come as a surprise to you, fellow puzzlers, but fairness was not always a priority when it came to rolling dice.

Nowadays, whether you’re going after that elusive Yahtzee, hoping for doubles to earn another roll in Monopoly, or trying to roll sevens in a game of craps, the basic concept behind throwing dice is that every outcome of a six-sided die has an equal chance to appear. Unless you’re dealing with loaded or gimmicked dice, your odds should be 1 in 6.

But a recent study by researchers from the American Museum of Natural History and the University of California, Davis, has revealed that fairness in dice rolling didn’t really become a concern for dice users until the Renaissance. Researchers gathered dice spanning 2000 years of human history to explore why this was the case.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

From an article on Science Alert:

Roman-era dice, the researchers found, were a mess when it came to shape. They were made from a variety of materials, such as metal, bone and clay, and no two were shaped entirely alike. Many were visibly lumpy and lopsided, with the 1 and 6 on opposite sides that were more likely to roll up.

In fact, it seems like variety was the name of the game in Roman times, since the number configurations, shape, and size were inconsistent across the board, although dice were fairly common in the time period.

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

The Dark Ages led to a downturn in dice frequency, as they become very rare between the years 400CE and 1100CE.

The use of dice rebounds after 1100, and are most commonly found in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt in what is known as the primes configuration, meaning that opposite numbers add up to prime numbers. 1 pairs with 2, 3 pairs with 4, and 5 pairs with 6.

There was a reinvigorated focus on the mechanics of chance and calculating probability, thanks to names like Galileo and Pascal, as well as a spirit of greater scientific understanding overall. Those Renaissance influences led to both a standardized shape for dice and a change in the numbering system. At this point, most dice convert to the sevens configuration, where opposite sides add up to seven (1 pairs with 6, 2 pairs with 5, and 3 pairs with 4).

[Image courtesy of Smithsonian.com.]

And according to lead researcher Jelmer Eerkens, cheating may have been on the mind of manufacturers going forward. “Standardizing the attributes of a die, like symmetry and the arrangement of numbers, may have been one method to decrease the likelihood that an unscrupulous player had manipulated the dice to change the odds of a particular roll.”

That change from variable shapes, sizes, and designs reflects a sea change in thinking towards dice and chance. Before, the shape didn’t matter because the results were attributed to Fate or some greater outside force, but later on, an understanding of chance and probability pushed standardization of dice forward.

In the end, it’s amazing how much of our culture and worldview, both past and present, can be revealed by exploring how we solve puzzles and play games.


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