Consider the Pencil…

We spend a lot of time talking about pencil-and-paper puzzles here on the blog, but it’s rare for us to focus on the “pencil” part of that pairing.

Whether you prefer a regular pencil or a mechanical pencil for your puzzling, there’s no denying that having an eraser is a pretty comforting feature. (Although there is a certain confidence exuded by solving in pen.)

But how much do you actually know about everything that goes into making that classic solving tool?

Well, The New York Times has you covered. They recently posted an in-depth look behind the scenes of the production process at the General Pencil Company, and the photographs alone, like the one featured above, are fascinating.

From the article:

Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce. Since 1889, the General Pencil Company has been converting huge quantities of raw materials (wax, paint, cedar planks, graphite) into products you can find, neatly boxed and labeled, in art and office-supply stores across the nation: watercolor pencils, editing pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel chalks. Even as other factories have chased higher profit margins overseas, General Pencil has stayed put, cranking out thousands upon thousands of writing instruments in the middle of Jersey City.

The vivid, full-color photos in the gallery are accompanied by thoughtful musings on the writing process itself, making the article a quick, thoughtful read that’s worth your time.

Here’s one more snippet that stuck with me:

In an era of infinite screens, the humble pencil feels revolutionarily direct: It does exactly what it does, when it does it, right in front of you. Pencils eschew digital jujitsu. They are pure analog, absolute presence. They help to rescue us from oblivion… When you hold a pencil, your quietest little hand-dances are mapped exactly, from the loops and slashes to the final dot at the very end of a sentence.

That excerpt about simplicity reminds me of a classic exchange from The West Wing:

Leo McGarry: We spent millions of dollars developing a pen for the astronauts that would work in zero gravity. Know what the Russians did?
Toby Ziegler: Used a pencil?
Leo McGarry: They used a pencil.

And although that story about millions spent on a space pen has been thoroughly debunked, the point remains.

Pencils get the job done.


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DIY Pencil and Paper Puzzles!

pencil-paper

Picture this. You’re stuck somewhere with friends. The airport, a traffic jam, wherever. Nowhere to charge your phone, so you can’t play Trivia Crack or solve any of the great puzzles offered by the Penny/Dell Crosswords app.

All you’ve got is paper and pencils, and you’re in a puzzly mood. What do you do?

Well, you whip up some DIY puzzle fun, of course.

Now, the classic go-to pencil and paper game is Hangman. The goal is simple: guess the complete word or phrase by guessing one letter at a time. Each correct letter is filled in every time it appears (like on Wheel of Fortune), and each incorrect letter results in one piece of the Hangman being drawn. If you let too many incorrect guesses stack up before solving the puzzle, the Hangman is completed and you lose.

hangman

People have differing rules when it comes to the Hangman’s complexity. Some draw the gallows and noose as well as the Hangman, while others pre-draw the gallows and noose, only drawing the Hangman when wrong guesses occur. (I, for one, always liked drawing him a jaunty top hat before sending him to his demise.)

I can remember a time we played Hangman in high school because the professor for our physics class didn’t show up. One of the other students I didn’t know very well suggested it, and his first two puzzles were cracked pretty quickly. But then the third one had most of the class stumped.

It read: C A P T A I N ___ O ___

People kept guessing “Captain Ron,” even though there was clearly no N in that second blank. When I realized it was “Captain Lou,” I blurted out the answer, and suddenly, we were fast friends.

Because of Hangman.

mark-wahlberg-plays-guessing-game-with-a-teddy-bear

Another simple game is Guess My Word. One person chooses a word, and the other narrows it down by guessing words and being told if those guesses precede or follow the secret word in the alphabet.

For instance, if the word was QUINTET and your first guess was HALLOWEEN, I would say after. So, in one guess, you’ve eliminated every word that comes before HALLOWEEN alphabetically.

And if you’d like to give it a shot, puzzle constructor Joon Pahk created a Guess My Word feature on his website that is great fun (and sometimes pretty challenging).

tic-tac-toe

I was going to mention Tic-Tac-Toe here — another staple of the pencil-and-paper puzzle game genre — until my mother mentioned a variation she read about in Parade magazine.

In the article, Marilyn vos Savant is credited with creating Toe-Tac-Tic, a reverse Tic-Tac-Toe game wherein getting three in a row means you lose.

It’s a completely different style of game play, adding a nice twist to a classic game. (Though, quite honestly, I’m not sure we can credit vos Savant with its creation, since I can remember seeing this played in the mid-2000s. I’m not sure anyone called it “Toe-Tac-Tic,” but the rules were the same.)

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And finally, for fans of card games, you can always whip up a round of 1000 Blank White Cards.

Named for the only thing you need to play — a bunch of identical blank pieces of paper, index cards, or something similar — 1000 Blank White Cards is a game you design and play both before and during the game! You can also further refine the game in subsequent sessions.

As Wikipedia so aptly puts it:

A deck of cards consists of any number of cards, generally of a uniform size and of rigid enough paper stock that they may be reused. Some may bear artwork, writing or other game-relevant content created during past games, with a reasonable stock of cards that are blank at the start of gameplay.

Some time may be taken to create cards before gameplay commences, although card creation may be more dynamic if no advance preparation is made, and it is suggested that the game be simply sprung upon a group of players, who may or may not have any idea what they are being caught up in. If the game has been played before, all past cards can be used in gameplay unless the game specifies otherwise, but perhaps not until the game has allowed them into play.

Once your initial deck of cards is created, players draw a card from the deck and either play them, keep them, or add them to the active rules of the table so they affect everyone. In this way, gameplay is quite similar to another classic puzzle card game, Fluxx, especially with the ever-changing rules and malleable gameplay.

Not only has 1000 Blank White Cards appeared in GAMES Magazine, but it was also included in the 2001 revision of Hoyle’s Rules of Games.

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I am a huge fan of customizable games, so I have played 1000 Blank White Cards many times. From cards that can cause immediate victory to cards that can negate those cards, from point cards and rule cards to cards that requiring singing or truth-or-dare challenges, the possibilities are endless.

Some of my favorite cards are just drawings of turtles, where another card grants you special powers or bonuses depending on how many turtle cards you have. Another allows you to create a new card on your turn, either to keep for yourself or to give to another player.

And the rules can depend entirely on who you’re playing with. Sometimes, you can make a new card every round, while other times, you can only introduce a new card when you’ve drawn a card that allows it. Heck, there might even be blank cards in the deck that you can draw and customize immediately! It is literally up to you and your fellow players how to play.

Fans of Calvin and Hobbes will no doubt draw comparisons between 1000 Blank White Cards and Calvinball, and rightfully so. (Savvy card-game players may also recognize similarities to the figure-out-the-rules-while-you-play game Mao.)

But whether you’re playing Hangman or guessing a word, getting three in a row or avoiding it at all costs, or even creating your own signature game, as long as you’ve got a partner in crime and an imagination, you’re never without a puzzle.


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