The Puzzling Art of Letterlocking

letterlocking

[Image courtesy of Letter Writers Alliance.]

When you think about puzzles and personal security, what comes to mind?

Do you think of puzzle boxes, those delightfully tricky little wooden creations with all their sliding pieces and hidden compartments? Or does your mind go to encryption, the art of concealing your message in plain sight with ciphers, scytales, and other techniques meant to baffle anyone but those in the know?

Some puzzle box designs date back centuries, and ciphers can be traced back even further. (One is named after Caesar, after all.)

But there’s another centuries-old puzzly procedure you might not know about, and it kept letters and messages safe using nothing more than paper and wax.

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[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

This technique is known as letterlocking. It involves a mix of precise folds, interlocking pieces of paper, and sealing wax in order to create a distinctive design or pattern.

Although the pattern itself can work like a puzzle — requiring a particular trick to unfold it and reveal the message without ripping or damaging the letter — that’s only a secondary line of defense. The true goal of letterlocking is to reveal tampering. The folding techniques are distinctive, and the wax creates points of adhesion.

If you receive a letter and the folds are done (aka redone) incorrectly, or the wax is smeared (or the paper ripped where the wax would have held it tight), then you know the letter has been compromised.

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[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

Some examples of letterlocking trace back to the 13th century, and key figures like Queen Elizabeth I, Machiavelli, Galileo, and Marie Antoinette employed letterlocking security in the past. Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote a message and letterlocked it with a butterfly lock six hours before her beheading. (For a more modern reference, letterlocking was employed in the Harry Potter films as well, most famously in Dumbledore’s will.)

The various techniques involved are as distinctive as knots. The triangle lock. The dagger-trap. The pinwheel letter. And some historians believe that those techniques imply connections between some of the important players in history.

For instance, both poet John Donne and the spymaster of Queen Elizabeth I employed a similar letterlocking style. Did they share a common source, or even an instructor in common? Or did a particular letterlocking technique provide a clue as to the contents of the letter within?

Letterlocking is a historical curiosity that was seemingly lost to time after the proliferation of the envelope and other security techniques, but it is slowly being rediscovered by a new generation, as well as reverse engineered by scientists and scholars. Yale and MIT both have teams exploring the burgeoning field of letterlocking.

Museums are discovering treasure troves of letterlocked messages by going directly to the source: post offices. A cache of 600 undelivered letters in the Netherlands, for instance, are being analyzed by researchers.

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[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

It’s a remarkable thing, really, this union of centuries-old skills with twenty-first century knowledge. These are puzzles, frozen in time, waiting to be solved and placed into the larger picture of history.

Letterlocking is nothing less than a rare and beautiful art combining puzzles and privacy, as elegant as it is clever. There are no doubt many more secrets to be found behind the folds, slits, and wax seals of these lovingly crafted messages.


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Puzzle Furniture Meets Musical Innovation!

[Image courtesy of Praktrik.]

Puzzle furniture is an intriguing, complex subset of the puzzling world that requires skill, craftsmanship, dedication, and ingenuity working in tandem in order to create a single piece.

Now, those qualities are staggeringly common amongst puzzlers. After all, those words apply to many of the constructors and puzzle designers I know, because they all take great pride in their creations, whether we’re talking mechanical puzzles, puzzle grids, or interactive solving events like puzzle hunts or escape rooms.

But there’s something about puzzle furniture that adds an additional wow factor to the endeavor. Sometimes you’re the one assembling the puzzle, as you do with tables from our friends at Praktrik. Other times, you’re unraveling the hidden secrets of what appears, at first, to be a deceptively ordinary (yet still exquisite) piece of furniture, like the ones created by Craig Thibodeau.

Whether you’re finding hidden buttons, using magnets to reveal concealed storage areas, or sliding aside wooden pieces to reveal keyholes or additional hints, pieces of puzzle furniture like the one featured above are challenging and unforgettable solving experiences.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as unique or as mind-boggling as this creation by Kagen Sound…

A musical puzzle table.

Kagen Sound, formerly known as Kagen Schaefer, has built an impressive reputation for unusual and visually striking puzzle furniture. One piece requires you to rotate different rings on a table surface in order to form patterns that unlock other features. Another is a puzzle box that demands nineteen specific moves in the correct order before you can open the lid.

And even these difficult puzzles pale in comparison to one where music is part of the solution.

Each drawer, when opened or closed, produces a different note. But there are additional drawers that must be unlocked before you can perform the entire piece of music concealed within the table.

It’s a remarkable design that rewards patience and experimentation as well as puzzly skill, and I could easily imagine losing hours upon hours exploring the table and trying different patterns and chains of movement in order to unlock other drawers or reveal additional secrets.

I think what makes this brand of puzzling so intriguing and so charming is how it employs old-world craftsmanship with hands-on solving. Although Kagen doesn’t employ 3-D printing or computer modeling, I know that many mechanical puzzle designers incorporate modern tools into classic puzzle styles.

The creativity of puzzle designers like Kagen Sound is truly boundless, and every time I think I’ve seen every trick, every puzzle, or every variation out there, I am gladly, gleefully surprised by twists, reinventions, and fresh ideas I could never have even imagined.

[You can check out more of Kagen’s designs on his website, as well as on this Pinterest board featuring previous works of his.]


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The Fine Art of Puzzle Cabinetry

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about puzzle furniture, a small but growing niche of the puzzle world. We explored modular sofa, chair, and desk designs, as well as impressive tables designed by the puzzle wizards at Praktrik.

But what happens when you combine a designer of fiendishly clever puzzle boxes and a furniture designer with an impeccable knack for melding mechanical puzzles and beautiful woodworking?

You get the Wisteria Puzzle Cabinet, an absolute masterpiece that serves as both a stylish cabinet and an incredibly complex puzzle box.

It’s the most beautiful and complicated safe you could ever want, and it would hide in plain sight in your home.

Check out this video detailing some — but I suspect not all — of its secrets, including hidden compartments, an internal elevator, and multi-piece keys that must be uncovered, assembled, and reused:

The puzzly aspects were designed by Robert Yarger (also known as Stickman in the puzzle box world) and the actual cabinet built by Craig Thibodeau, and together, they’ve brought this mind-blowing piece of puzzle art to life.

Granted, the price of an piece like this is pretty steep.

On his website, Thibodeau states that his “latest work exploring mechanical furniture, puzzles and hidden compartments is the most expensive furniture I build due to the highly complex design and fabrication process. These pieces typically start at around $30,000 and go up from there due to the complexity of the internal mechanisms and the variety of hidden details incorporated into the design of these highly unique pieces.”

Although that’s out of my price range, it’s a testament to how much preparation, design, and labor goes into a puzzle as gorgeous and labyrinthine as this cabinet. Even at five figures, it seems well worth the price.

Oh, and if you’re looking for more puzzly furniture, you can also check out the table designs of David Lundell on YouTube, like this magic-themed coffee table:

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go check every piece of furniture in my house for secret compartments. You know, just in case.


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Designing Your Own Escape Room Event!

One of the most interactive puzzly challenges available to modern solvers is the escape room.

Although themes and scenarios vary greatly, the basic idea is this: a group of people are locked in a room, and tasked with escaping from it within a certain time frame (usually an hour).

They do so by searching for clues, completing tasks, unraveling riddles, and finally, unlocking the door to escape. Some rooms employ riddles. Others use word puzzles. Others still involve working together to overcome obstacles. (For instance, I hear about one escape room where the group was split in two and separated, and they had to work together to unlock the door that separated them.)

There are endless variations available to the intrepid puzzler. And a week or so ago, I had a go at creating my own and running it for a friend’s birthday. I’d never run an escape room per se, but having run roleplaying events before — as well as murder mystery dinners — I was excited to pit my dastardly puzzly mind against a worthy group of heroes and miscreants.

And so, I thought I’d offer a few tips on creating your own puzzly escape experience.


1.) Know your audience.

If your players aren’t engaged, the event is pointless. So you have to make sure that whatever obstacles you lay before them will interest them. If they aren’t partial to brain teasers, mechanical puzzles, or physical challenges, they’ll quickly lose any investment in completing the game.

In my case, I tried to use every puzzly tool at my disposal. There were riddles, puzzle boxes, combination locks to crack, door locks to “pick”, and tricky clues to unravel.

[I drafted two puzzle boxes from my collection into the game.]

2.) Give everyone something to do.

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to things like this. So use that to your advantage. Let the hardcore puzzlers tackle the puzzles, while the less puzzly people complete tasks like uncovering backstory, hunting for hidden items, or even doing battle with threats to the players.

Adding a live-action roleplay element like combat can not only add flavor to your game, but it allows players to contribute without having to struggle with puzzles that might not be their strong suit.

If everyone feels like they’re contributing, all successes feel shared. And shared successes are the best ones.

3.) Let imagination drive the game.

When tackling an event like this, it can be easy to splash out on locks, puzzle boxes, and all sorts of trappings for the game. After all, you want it to be an immersive experience, but that sort of immersion can grow expensive very quickly. And you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to create a great solving adventure.

[A 5-digit combination lock that lets you spell words (or mix letters and numbers), a directional combination lock, and two standard four-digit locks]

I had a small budget, so I bought a few combination locks, four small briefcases (so there was something to unlock and open), and some other bits and bobs. Locks run between $6 and $12, but there are few things more satisfying than cracking a puzzle, dialing in your answer, and feeling the lock open in your hand. The sign of a job well done.

But you can build one without spending much money at all. Get creative with it! You can replicate practically anything with a piece of paper — locks, puzzles, riddles — and a little imagination. Any box can become a treasure chest or a lockbox. Any room can become a laboratory or a dungeon or a high-security vault.

[I picked up this little lock for cheap on Amazon, drew the various characters in the combination on little slips of paper, and hid them around the room. It was up to the players to find them, put them in the correct order, and open the lock.]

The low-budget solutions are often the most satisfying. For instance, I mentioned above that, in my escape room, there were door locks to “pick.” I used quotation marks because I didn’t buy door locks to actually pick. Instead, I swapped in another, simpler method for testing someone’s digital dexterity: Jenga.

I stacked up a Jenga tower, removed 8 or 9 pieces, and then challenged the group’s lockpick to remove two or three pieces per door they “picked.” This simulated both the tension of the act and the level of skillful manipulation necessary, and for a fraction of the possible cost.

4.) Tell a story.

I’m a roleplaying fan. I love telling stories in my gameplay. And, to me, nothing adds flavor and depth to an escape room like a story. My favorite escape room experience was a Houdini-themed room that was loaded with the famous magician’s history and trappings — shackles, a straitjacket, and more — and all those little touches added so much to the atmosphere and the tension of the game itself.

So craft a story! Why are the players there? Why do they need to escape? Is there a villain? A curse? An evil artificial intelligence to battle? A diabolical millionaire or a mad scientist with an axe to grind?

All those elements can add to the experience. The escape room I designed and ran centered around a evil wizard and the aftermath of his reign of terror. My players warded off ghosts, avoided automated traps, and even held a Beauty-and-the-Beast-inspired seance — since the wizard had turned several of his staff into furniture — as they moved from place to place.

[The remains of a room well-escaped.]

With a little ingenuity, forethought, and creativity, you can craft a one-of-a-kind puzzle experience.


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The Best of All Possible Puzzle/Game Worlds?

newold1

[A sampling of the wide variety of modern puzzles and games. Fluxx cards, Bananagrams tiles, a wooden puzzle box, Pairs cards, David Steinberg’s Juicy Crosswords from the Orange County Register, Timeline cards, last month’s edition of The Crosswords Club, Puzzometry pieces, Cards Against Humanity cards, multi-sided roleplaying dice.]

This is the most exciting time in history to be a puzzler or board game enthusiast.

Think about it. If you want to play a game or solve a puzzle, you don’t have to go any farther than your pocket, since a plethora of puzzly goodness awaits you on your smartphone.

Puzzle apps are our bread and butter here at PuzzleNation, so this might feel like a cheap plug, but honestly, it boggles my mind how much more accessible puzzles and games are now than they were even five years ago.

And the app revolution is only one part of the story.

I was reading a book the other day, as I am wont to do on the long train rides to and from PuzzleNation HQ. Titled The Revenge of Analog, it was all about the cultural response to digital media, highlighting the resurgence of vinyl records, film, and other tangible alternatives to electronic formats.

In the chapter “The Revenge of Board Games,” the author discussed the social aspect of tabletop gaming, and how sitting down with people and playing a game is a far different, more rewarding experience than online gaming and other social media-based interactions. (A fine point to consider, what with International TableTop Day a little more than a week away.)

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While I do think that’s partially true, I also think that downplays the ingenuity of the puzzle/game community. I think we’re the best of both worlds.

I mentioned in my Tak review last week that puzzles are being created today that could not have been five or ten or twenty years ago. The advent of 3-D printing and laser cutters for homes and small businesses has brought design, construction, and promotion literally to the doorstep of entrepreneurial puzzlers.

Just last week I received a new edition of Puzzometry in the mail, a perk for supporting a team for a school robotics competition. This laser-cut plastic jigsaw will keep me guessing for hours (if its puzzly siblings are anything to go by), and it was designed and manufactured by a single individual.

newold2

Old and new styles are meshing as never before. Many puzzle constructors are partially or fully supporting themselves via email puzzle subscriptions and direct sales to the customer. Events like the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games are organized and advertised mostly online.

Crowdfunding has leveled the playing field for many companies and designers in both puzzles and games, allowing more products than ever before to enter the market. (According to Kickstarter, tabletop game projects raised $52 million dollars in 2013, and that number has surely gone up in the meantime.)

You’ve got a proper board game renaissance as classic games and styles of play are meshing with new technology, and games from across the world are shared on YouTube, at Friendly Local Game Shops, or even in puzzle cafes like Toronto’s Snakes and Lattes or New York City’s The Uncommons.

Whether you’re a pen-and-paper solver or a Penny Dell Crossword App devotee, a fan of classics like Chutes and Ladders or a proud tabletopper experimenting with the newest games, this is an amazing time to be a puzzler or board gamer.

So keep playing. Keep puzzling. And share that with others.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Lightbox

Puzzle boxes are among the oldest and most intricate mechanical brain teasers in the long history of puzzles, and they’re only growing more complex and ambitious. With the advent of 3D-printing, access to new materials, and computer design elements to help bring ideas to fruition, the only limit at this point is the imagination.

In today’s blog post, we look at the latest innovation in the puzzle box genre of brain teasers: Lightbox by Eric Clough.

lightbox1

This Kickstarter-funded puzzle box arrives in fairly innocuous packaging. When you remove the lid, you find a second box make of lasercut felt inside. These six pieces of this box make up its own little puzzle, as well as doubling as light-absorbing packaging for the main event.

lightbox2

Inside, we find the Lightbox, a stack of ten magnetically-connected acrylic plates, plus the thicker bottom plate containing a USB-rechargeable battery.

I plugged in the USB cord (included, naturally) in order to charge the battery, and twisted a few of the plates into different configurations, watching as the box lit up in my hands. (I only needed to charge it a little bit before pulling the plug and playing with the Lightbox for almost an hour.)

lightbox3

As you manipulate the various plates into different combinations, the lights embedded in the various plates would activate, and light would play off of the holes cut into each plate, creating 3D sculptures of light and reflection within the Lightbox itself. I’ve never seen anything like it.

You can move individual plates or stacks of plates by lifting them off the main stack, twisting, and then repositioning them. (I call it twisting, even though you’re not twisting the box like parts of a Rubik’s Cube, you’re lifting them and rotating them 90 degrees, 180 degrees, or 270 degrees.)

Sometimes, it’s fun simply to see what effect each action has on the interplay of lit plates and dark plates. Getting the entire cube to light up is a real treat.

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Eventually, the time comes when you’re ready to put the Lightbox away for a bit. (That little battery ensures that just unplugging the USB cable doesn’t do the job.) And no puzzler worth their salt is going to put it away still lit up, right?

And then, of course, another layer of puzzling begins, as you twist and place the various plates and watch them either light up or go dark, depending on their positions. It can be both amazing and frustrating when you twist a plate halfway up the stack, and suddenly the entire box lights up! Diabolical!

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Lightbox straddles the line between puzzle and art, making it a great desktop bauble. (Though I think I’ll leave mine at home. Otherwise, I won’t get anything done at work.) The smart packaging and clever design ensure you’ll return to this puzzle again and again.

Admittedly, some of the lights flicker a bit instead of shining brightly, as if the connections aren’t quite perfect, but that’s a small nitpick for something this delightful.

[You can find more information about Lightbox by clicking here, and explore its long journey from idea to product by clicking here.]


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