Cracking the GCHQ Christmas Card!

As you may recall, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, a few months ago, a government organization in England called the GCHQ — Government Communications Headquarters — released a puzzly Christmas card designed to tax even the savviest puzzle solvers.

They’ve finally released the answers to this mind-blowing series of puzzles, and I’d like to go over some of them with you. Partly to marvel at the puzzle wizardry necessary to solve this challenging holiday gift, and partly to gloat about the parts I managed to solve.

So let’s get to it!


Part 1 was a logic art puzzle where you have to deduce where to place black squares on an open grid in order to form a picture.

Each column and row has a series of numbers in it. These numbers represent runs of black squares in a row, so a 1 means there’s one black square followed by a blank square on either side and a 7 means 7 black squares together with a blank square on either side.

This is mostly a deduction puzzle — figuring out how to place all the strings of black squares with white spaces between them within the space allotted — but no image immediately emerged, which was frustrating. Once the three corner squares started to form though, I realized the answer was a QR code, and the puzzle started to come together nicely.


Part 2 was a series of six multiple-choice brain teasers. I’ll give you the first three questions, along with answers.

Q1. Which of these is not the odd one out?

A. STARLET
B. SONNET
C. SAFFRON
D. SHALLOT
E. TORRENT
F. SUGGEST

Now, if you stare at a list of words long enough, you can form your own patterns easily. Here’s the rationale the GCHQ used to eliminate the odd ones out:

STARLET is an odd one out because it does not contain a double letter.
SONNET is an odd one out because it has 6 letters rather than 7.
SAFFRON is an odd one out because it ends in N rather than T.
TORRENT is an odd one out because it starts with T rather than S.
SUGGEST is an odd one out because it is a verb rather than a noun.

SHALLOT is our answer.

Q2. What comes after GREEN, RED, BROWN, RED, BLUE, -, YELLOW, PINK?
A. RED
B. YELLOW
C. GREEN
D. BROWN
E. BLUE
F. PINK

After playing around with some associative patterns for a while, I realized that somehow these colors must equate to numbers. First I tried word lengths, but 5-3-5-3-4-___-6-4 didn’t make any sense to me. But then, it hit me: another time where colors and numbers mix.

Pool balls. Of course, the colors and numbers didn’t match, because this is a British puzzle, and they don’t play pool, they play snooker.

So the colored balls in snooker become the numbers 3, 1, 4, 1, 5, -, 2, 6. The numbers of Pi. And now the blank makes sense, because Pi reads 3.1415926, and there’s no 9 ball in snooker.

So the next number in the chain is 5, and 5 is the color BLUE.

Q3. Which is the odd one out?
A. MATURE
B. LOVE
C. WILDE
D. BUCKET
E. BECKHAM
F. SHAKA

This one came pretty quickly to me, as the names Oscar Wilde and Charlie Bucket leapt out. And if you follow the phonetic alphabet, you also get Victor Mature, Romeo Beckham, and Shaka Zulu. (I didn’t get Mike Love, however.)

Since Shaka Zulu was the only one where the phonetic alphabet word was the surname, not the first name, SHAKA is the odd one out.

(The other three questions included an encryption puzzle, a number pattern (or progressions puzzle), and a single-letter puzzle.)

Granted, since you could retake this part as many times as you wanted, you could luck your way through or brute force the game by trying every permutation. But managing to solve most of them made this part go much faster.


Part 3 consisted of word puzzles, and was easily my favorite section, because it played to some strengths of mine.

A. Complete the sequence:

Buck, Cod, Dahlia, Rook, Cuckoo, Rail, Haddock, ?

This sequence is a palindrome, so the missing word is CUB.

B. Sum:

pest + √(unfixed – riots) = ?

This one is a little more involved. To complete the formula, you need to figure out what numbers the words represent. And each word is an anagram of a French number. Which gives you:

sept + √(dix-neuf – trois) = ?

Dix-neuf is nineteen and trois is three, so that’s sixteen beneath a square root sign, which equals four. And sept (seven) plus four is eleven.

The French word for eleven is onze, and ZONE is the only anagram word that fits.

C. Samuel says: if agony is the opposite of denial, and witty is the opposite of tepid, then what is the opposite of smart?

This is a terrific brain teaser, because at first blush, it reads like nonsense, until suddenly it clicks. Samuel is Samuel Morse, so you need to use Morse Code to solve this one. I translated “agony” and tried reversing the pattern of dots and dashes, but that didn’t work.

As it turns out, you need to swap the dots and dashes, and that’s what makes “denial” read out. This also worked with “witty” and “tepid,” so when I tried it with “smart,” the opposite was OFTEN.

D. The answers to the following cryptic crossword clues are all words of the same length. We have provided the first four clues only. What is the seventh and last answer?

1. Withdraw as sailors hold festive sing-song
2. It receives a worker and returns a queen
3. Try and sing medley of violin parts
4. Fit for capture
5.
6.
7. ?

Now, I’m not a strong cryptic crossword solver, so this part took FOREVER. Let’s work through it one clue at a time.

1. Withdraw as sailors hold festive sing-song

The word WASSAIL both reads out in “withdraw as sailors hold” and means “festive sing-song.”

2. It receives a worker and returns a queen

The word ANTENNA both “receives” and is formed by “a worker” (ANT) and “returns a queen” (ANNE, reading backward).

3. Try and sing medley of violin parts

The word STRINGY is both an anagram of “try” and “sing” and a violin part (STRING).

4. Fit for capture

The word SEIZURE means both “fit” and “capture.”

Those four answers read out like this:

WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE

And with three more answers to go, it seemed only natural that three more seven-letter answers were forthcoming. Plus, when you read the words spelling out downward, you notice that the first four letters of WASSAIL, ANTENNA, STRINGY, and SEIZURE were spelling out.

If you follow that thought, you end up with the start of a 7×7 word square:

 WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE
ANNU___
INGR___
LAYE___

And the only seven-letter word starting with INGR that I could think of was INGRATE.

WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE
ANNU_A_
INGRATE
LAYE_E_

And if the last word is LAYERED…

WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE
ANNU_AR
INGRATE
LAYERED

Then the missing word must be ANNULAR. The original question asked for the last word though, so our answer is LAYERED.


This brings us to Part 4, Number Puzzles, where I must confess that I finally tapped out, because I could only figure out the first of the three progressions involved.

Fill in the missing numbers.

A. 2, 4, 8, 1, 3, 6, 18, 26, ?, 12, 24, 49, 89, 134, 378, 656, 117, 224, 548, 1456, 2912, 4934, 8868, 1771, 3543, …

B. -101250000, -1728000, -4900, 360, 675, 200, ?, …

C. 321, 444, 675, 680, 370, 268, 949, 206, 851, ?, …

In the first one, you’re simply multiplying by 2 as you go.

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, and so on.

But you begin to exclude every other number as you move into double-digits, triple-digits, quadruple-digits, and beyond.

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, and so on.

So the answer, 512, becomes the real answer, 52.

But, as I said, I couldn’t crack the other two, and I’m already exhausted just running through these four sections!

And, based on the answers they released recently, Part 5 only got more mindbending from there.

As a matter of fact, not a single entrant managed to get every answer in Part 5 correct. Prizes were awarded to the three people who came closest however, and it turns out a staggering 30,000+ people made it to Part 5. Color me impressed!

This was, without a doubt, the most challenging puzzle suite I have ever seen, and I offer heartfelt kudos to anyone in the PuzzleNation Blog readership who even attempted it!

You’re welcome to try it out for yourself, though. I highly recommend using this link from The Telegraph, which allows you to skip to the next part if you get stumped.


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A puzzly British Christmas card!

One government agency in England celebrates Christmas a little bit differently than most.

The GCHQ — Government Communications Headquarters — provides security and intelligence services for the British government. Back when they were known as GC&CS — Government Code and Cypher School — they were responsible for funding the Bletchley Park successes cracking the German “Enigma” code during World War II.

And for Christmas this year, they’ve released a puzzly Christmas card that’s sure to challenge even the staunchest puzzlers.

Step 1 of the puzzle is a logic art puzzle where you have to deduce where to place black squares on an open grid in order to form a picture.

Each column and row has a series of numbers in it. These numbers represent runs of black squares in a row, so a 1 means there’s one black square followed by a blank square on either side and a 7 means 7 black squares together with a blank square on either side.

Once you’ve solved this puzzle, you can use it to unlock the next puzzle in the chain.

From an article on GCHQ.gov.uk:

Once all stages have been unlocked and completed successfully, players are invited to submit their answer via a given GCHQ email address by 31 January 2016. The winner will then be drawn from all the successful entries and notified soon after.

Players are invited to make a donation to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, if they have enjoyed the puzzle.

This is one majorly challenging Christmas card. After you’ve conquered the logic art puzzle, you’ll confront brain teasers, palindromes, pattern-matching, deduction, number progressions, codebreaking, cryptic crossword-style cluing, and more.

I would highly recommend teaming up with another puzzle-minded friend (or more) and trying your luck. Let us know how far you get! (And you can hit up this article from the Telegraph for aid as well.)


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DIY Wordplay!

[The word “wordplay” presented as an ambigram, meaning it can be read in more than one direction.]

Wordplay has been an integral part of puzzles since the very beginning. Over the last few years, I’ve written about wordplay in the blog numerous times, whether we’re discussing clever crossword cluing, how rebus and cryptograms hide messages in plain sight, or how palindromes were once used as magical incantations to ward off threats.

I mentioned several forms of wordplay in my Yogi Berra post earlier this year, like mondegreens, Wellerisms, and Spoonerisms, and today I’d like to explore a few more. And none of these require anything more than a creative mind, something to write with, and something to write on.


Palindromes

Palindromes are a classic — and challenging — form of wordplay. Essentially, you’re trying to come up with phrases or entire sentences that read the same backwards and forwards.

Perhaps the most famous palindrome is “a man, a plan, a canal… Panama!” But I suspect it was a game of palindromic one-upsmanship that led to this ambitious expansion:

A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal — Panama!

A fun way to make a game of these is to see if you can incorporate a friend’s name into a palindrome. For instance, this one I concocted for a buddy is a particular favorite of mine:

My friend Sean has a really weird last name: Emantsaldriewyllaerasahnaesdnierfym.

Heck, there are even awards now for impressive acts of palindromic wordplay: The SymmyS Awards.


Acronyms

Acronyms are abbreviations where each letter represents a full word in a phrase or sentence, and the acronym is pronounced like its own word. NATO, laser, MoMa, ALF… these are all fairly well-known acronyms.

(Acronyms are often confused with initialisms, where each letter of the abbreviated word is pronounced, like ATM, MVP, and CEO.)

But there’s a simple wordplay game lurking here. Pick a word (or better yet, someone’s name) and see if you can come up with what it means.

For example, if your friend Dwayne enjoys sailing, you might create the acronym “Doesn’t Work, Always Yachting, No Exceptions.”


Portmanteaus

Much like the namesake bag with dual functions, portmanteau words combine two words in one, like smog for “smoke” and “fog” or spork for “fork” and “spoon.”

One game fellow puzzlers and I have played with portmanteaus is describing a situation that has no word to summarize it, then seeing if there’s a portmanteau that can sum it up succinctly and humorously.

(A common variation of this is coming up with one-word names for celebrity couples or fictional pairings in TV shows. Brangelina is perhaps the most famous example.)

Let me give you an example. My friend has started a blog where she reviews the made-for-TV Christmas movies they do on the Hallmark Channel, and she asked for suggestions for what to call the project. So, being the portmanteau enthusiast that I am, I suggested Christmasterpiece Theater.


Tom Swifties

My favorite pun-delivery system by far is the Tom Swifty. You describe a scene or offer a statement, and then use a punny adjective, adverb, or verb to close out the joke. Examples:

  • “I have to keep this fire lit,” Tom bellowed.
  • “I dropped the toothpaste,” said Tom, crestfallen.
  • “I have a BA in social work,” said Tom with a degree of concern.
  • “I used to command a battalion of German ants,” said Tom exuberantly.

Coming up with new ones can be great puzzly fun, or you can create a game by giving someone the quotation and seeing if they can complete the joke, as we did in a live game a while back.


Kangaroo words

How many times have you looked at a word and seen the smaller words spelled out lurking inside it? Plenty, I’d bet. Well, these words are known as kangaroo words (or marsupial words), and finding the words hidden inside can be a puzzly game in itself.

Let’s look at a word like ANATOMICAL. This is definitely a kangaroo word, since you can see ATOM, MIC, and MICA reading out in order, as well as other words like ANT, ANTI, AMI, TOIL, and NAIL reading out by skipping the occasional letter.

Just imagine how many you could find in SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS!


Anagrams, Aptigrams, and Antigrams

Finally, you can’t have a post about wordplay without talking about anagrams. An anagram rearranges the letters in a word or phrase to make other words or phrases. LEAST anagrams into STEAL, STALE, SLATE, TALES, TESLA, and others, for instance.

But there are more ambitious variations of anagrams out there for enterprising puzzlers to uncover. Two diabolical ones are aptigrams and antigrams.

Aptigrams, as you might expect if you’re a portmanteau pro, are anagrams that are particularly apt descriptions of a given word or phrase.

For instance, CLINT EASTWOOD anagrams into OLD WEST ACTION and ALEC GUINNESS anagrams into GENUINE CLASS. Both are terrific examples of aptigrams. (Friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough conjured up another good one: GEORGE BUSH anagrams into HE BUGS GORE.)

Antigrams can be a bit more challenging, since these anagrams bear the opposite meaning of the original word. FUNERAL, for instance, becomes REAL FUN and ANTAGONIST becomes NOT AGAINST.


What are your favorite forms of wordplay, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know and they might become the subject of a future post or puzzle game on the blog!

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Letter rip! It’s lipogram time!

[Building words and phrases, one letter at a time.]

This week I did something a little different in the preview for today’s blog. Usually on Mondays, I post a brief preview of the week’s blog posts, Facebook and Twitter content, et cetera.

But instead of a short teaser about the entry, I posted the following clue:

How quickly can you find out what is unusual about this paragraph? It looks so ordinary that you would think that nothing was wrong with it at all and, in fact, nothing is. But it is unusual. Why? If you study it and think about it you may find out, but I am not going to assist you in any way. You must do it without coaching. No doubt, if you work at it for long, it will dawn on you. Who knows? Go to work and try your skill. Par is about half an hour.

Did you figure out what’s curious about it? It’s missing the letter E!

[A keyboard displaying the most commonly used letters in the language in delightful bar-graph form. It should come as no surprise which letter appears most frequently.]

That paragraph is a terrific example of a lipogram, a written work that purposely avoids or leaves out a given letter. Lipograms are part writing challenge and part puzzle, taxing your vocabulary and your creativity.

(Removing any letter can make things tougher. I remember when my friend’s L key on his keyboard stopped working. “I think it will do well” became “I think it wi do we” until he started using the 1 key as a substitute L.)

And if you think writing a paragraph without the letter E is tough, imagine writing an entire novel without it. Ernest Vincent Wright did just that in 1939 with his 50,000 word novel Gadsby. He even went so far as to rephrase famous lines by William Congreve and John Keats in order to keep the letter E away.

Gadsby partially inspired a French author named Georges Perec to do the same, and his novel La Disparition (also known as A Void) doesn’t feature a single E over the course of three hundred pages.

There are numerous other lipogrammatic works and puzzles, but I think my favorite is the novel Ella Minnow Pea by author Mark Dunn.

Not only is the novel told through letters or notes shared by several characters, but the narrative grows increasingly lipogrammatic as the story progresses.

Check out this summary from Wikipedia:

The novel is set on the fictitious island of Nollop, off the coast of South Carolina, which is home to Nevin Nollop, the supposed creator of the well-known pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This sentence is preserved on a memorial statue to its creator on the island and is taken very seriously by the government of the island.

Throughout the book, tiles containing the letters fall from the inscription beneath the statue, and as each one does, the island’s government bans the contained letter’s use from written or spoken communication. A penalty system is enforced for using the forbidden characters, with public censure for a first offense, lashing or stocks (violator’s choice) upon a second offense and banishment from the island nation upon the third.

So as the book progresses, fewer and fewer letters are used! It’s both an impressive linguistic feat and a wonderful work of totalitarian satire. (And how can you not love a character’s name sounding like LMNOP?)

[In a Christmas episode of the ’90s cartoon Animaniacs, Wakko keeps spelling Santa “Santla,” inspiring a rousing, punny version of “Noel” to correct Wakko’s spelling.]

Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have a lipogram puzzle: Dittos. In Dittos, you’re given a series of letters, and then told to spell five common words using those letters AND a given letter. You can repeat the given letter as many times as necessary.

For example, if you were given the letters AAENRY and then told to make 2 five-letter words, using D as many times as necessary, you might come up with DREAD and DANDY.

But what about the flip side? What if you decided you were only going to use one vowel? Well then, my ambitious friend, you’ve accepted the challenge of creating a univocalic.

I’m not familiar with any longer works that are univocalic. You usually see them in paragraph form or, occasionally, palindrome form. “A man, a plan, a canal… Panama!” is probably the most famous univocalic in history.

(Univocalics are not to be confused with supervocalics, which are words that include all five vowels, like sequoia or abstemious.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at a curious subset of puzzles and wordplay. One of my fellow puzzlers suggested I pursue lipograms as a follow-up to my post a little while back about single-letter puzzles, and I couldn’t resist.

Have you ever tried to write a lipogram or univocalic, PuzzleNationers? Let me know! I’d love to see them!

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Palindromes and Magic Words

[Palindrome, written as an ambigram.]

Regular readers of PuzzleNation Blog know that I am a history buff. I love delving into the past and exploring the myriad ways that language and puzzles have evolved over the centuries. Whenever puzzles tie into a moment in history, whether it’s wartime cryptography or rumors of crossword espionage, I’m immediately hooked.

And it turns out that palindromes have been around far longer than I previously suspected.

Palindromes, as you probably know, are words, phrases, or sentences that can be read the same way backwards and forwards. From “race car” to “Madam, I’m Adam” to “Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog,” palindromes are a classic example of wordplay.

One of the most famous palindromes is dated all the way back to 79 AD in Pompeii (though it has been found in other places throughout history), and is known as the Sator Square:

SATOR
AREPO
TENET
OPERA
ROTAS

Not only is this a working palindrome, but its use of five-letter words makes it a word square as well, since it can be read left-to-right in rows and top-to-bottom in columns, as well as in reverse in both directions.

Another ancient palindrome has been uncovered recently on the island of Cyprus, and the amulet on which it appears dates back nearly 1500 years!

The amulet has multiple pieces of religious iconography on one side, including references to Egyptian and Greek mythology.

On the other side, there is a palindrome written in Greek:

According to LiveScience.com, it roughly translates to “Iahweh is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.”

It’s believed that the amulet was meant to protect the wearer from danger, illness, or harm. And the palindromic nature of the inscription was key to the amulet’s supernatural potential.

Although word games and wordplay have seemingly always been popular in one form or another throughout the ages, it’s worth mentioning the power many assigned to words.

These weren’t simply displays of linguistic trickery or deftness, these were incantations or wards.

These were magic words.

In Jewish mysticism, words were said to give life to the Golem. The word “abracadabra” was originally used to ward off malaria. Invoking the name of a god and utilizing these carefully chosen words to do so combined some potent magical elements.

And once again, a puzzly moment in history offers an opportunity for greater understanding. Aren’t puzzles great?

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“Do nine men interpret?” “Nine men,” I nod.

I’ve written about Bletchley Park and the efforts to crack the German ENIGMA code several times now, both from a historical standpoint and a cinematic one with the recent release and Oscar success of The Imitation Game.

Bletchley Park was the home of world-class codebreakers, chess players, and crossword solvers, but as it turns out, there was one more type of puzzle that the Bletchley Park crew mastered: palindromes.

In their spare time, they had competitions to create new sentences that could be read both backward and forward — like the title of today’s post, one of my all-time favorites — and mathematician Peter Hilton was far and ahead the most gifted when it came to crafting these palindromes. (His penchant for the puzzle was even mentioned in his obituary in the British online magazine The Independent.)

Perhaps you’ve seen his most famous creation, one of the world’s longest palindromes, composed during one sleepless night at Bletchley Park:

Doc note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

From an article on Vocabulary.com:

Incredibly, the young codebreaker did not use paper or pencil while composing his epic palindrome. He simply lay on his bed, eyes closed, and assembled it in his mind over one long night. It took him five hours.

It all started, apparently, with a contest to best a well-known palindrome: Step on no pets.

Two days later, Hilton responded with the cheeky “Sex at noon taxes.”

And they were off to the races, competing to create longer and more elaborate palindromes. It’s not known how many of the Bletchley Park alums were involved — whether Alan Turing played remains a big question mark — but it’s been said that the competition, instigated by mathematician John Henry Whitehead (nephew of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead), helped spawn the golden age of palindromes.

Some estimate that more palindromes were written in the ten years after Bletchley Park’s competition started than were published across the world in the more than three hundred years that preceded them.

That’s one heck of a legacy.

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