A few weeks ago, I did a blog post exploring the history of paper puzzles, comparing relatively new puzzle innovations like crosswords and Sudoku — crosswords are nearing their 100th anniversary, and Sudoku has only been around a few decades in its current form — to a much older style of puzzling, the riddle.
But it occurs to me that another branch of puzzles, logic puzzles, can trace their formative roots nearly as far back.
Logic puzzles are a curious breed of puzzles, since they rely less on grids and trivia and more on deductive reasoning. (Yes, many solving styles utilize grids, like this one from our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles, but they’re not strictly necessary.)
If I was to chart the evolution of puzzles like that of animals or plants, riddles and logic puzzles would be offshoots of the same ancestor. Riddles are actually very simplistic logic puzzles, since they often rely on a single twist or turn of phrase.
For example, there’s the riddle “what gets wetter as it dries?”
The answer is “a towel.” The riddle relies on logical misdirection. The structure implies a passive voice (something becoming dry) but its actual structure is active voice (something actually drying another object).
This is known as a garden path sentence, and a terrific example is this quotation often attributed to Groucho Marx: “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.”
The main difference between the two is the complexity of logic puzzles as they’ve developed. Riddles are a one-and-done trick of wordplay, while logic puzzles are multilayered exercises in deduction.
So, from riddles, it’s easy to imagine mystery stories and whodunits as the next precursor in the development of logic puzzles. From the early days of the genre’s creation at the hands of Edgar Allan Poe to its explosion in popularity under the quick and clever pens of Agatha Christie and her fellow authors, the plot of virtually every mystery story is a logic puzzle in itself.
The arrangement is similar. You’re given your setting and the circumstances that gathered the players together. Then you’re given the pertinent information on who was where at a given time, and it’s left to you (and the ubiquitous detective) to unravel the truth from a convoluted mishmash of information.
Except for the detective, that’s the modern day logic puzzle exactly.
(I snagged this helpful image from www.logic-puzzles.org.)
Heck, there are even some mystery stories that are considered unsolved, practically waiting for an enterprising logic puzzle fan to find the key piece of evidence that will unlock the entire story.
Frank Stockton’s story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” comes to mind, as does Stanley Ellin’s “Unreasonable Doubt”. (I encountered these stories in Otto Penzler’s collection Uncertain Endings: The World’s Greatest Unsolved Mystery Stories.)
And in case you’re curious as to why I’m rambling about riddles and Poe and how they directly or indirectly influenced the evolution of logic puzzles as we know them… the answer is simple.
With the hundredth anniversary of the crossword fast approaching, it’s made me wonder just how long the spirit of puzzle-solving has been with us as a civilization.
And when you can trace logic puzzles back hundreds of years and riddles back thousands of years, it’s hard not to smile and imagine that we’re enjoying the same mental and puzzly challenges generations and generations of others have tackled in the past.
It’s a humbling and heartening thought.
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