Saving Puzzle Games for Posterity

warehouse

[Image courtesy of Medium.]

One of the coolest things about the Internet is how it facilitates the gathering of information. Not only does it connect you to valuable sources around the world — experts, researchers, scholars, and collectors — but it grants you access to libraries and repositories of knowledge unlike anything the world has seen before.

I mean, think about it. Looking for a famous text? Google Books or Project Gutenberg probably has you covered. A movie? The Internet Movie Database is practically comprehensive. Different fandoms and franchises have their own individual Wikis that cover episodes, characters, and more.

Although there’s no single repository for all things puzzly — though we here at PuzzleNation Blog certainly try — there are some online repositories of puzzle knowledge available, like XwordInfo, the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and Cube Index.

And other place online that’s helping to preserve puzzle history is The Internet Archive.

archivepulley

[Puzzling out a jailbreak in The Secret of Monkey Island with a curious piece of equipment. Image courtesy of Final Boss Blues.]

The Internet Archive is a nonprofit digital library that archives computer games, books, audio recordings and videos. In terms of computer games, that means everything from text adventures to more well-known ’80s and ’90s games, and even early experiments with 3D modeling.

Recently, more than 2,500 MS-DOS games were added to the Archive. Adventure and strategy games were among the numerous entries included in the latest update, as well as a fair amount of puzzle games, both famous and obscure.

“This will be our biggest update yet, ranging from tiny recent independent productions to long-forgotten big-name releases from decades ago,” Internet Archive software curator Jason Scott wrote on the site’s blog.

In addition to Sudoku, Chess, and Scrabble games, there were loads of Tetris variants (like Pentix), a crossword-inspired game called Crosscheck, and even TrianGO, a version of the classic game Go played on a hexagonal field.

archivetim

[Image courtesy of Google.]

In this update alone, you can find virtually every kind of puzzle to enjoy. If you like building Rube Goldberg devices, there’s The Incredible Machine 2. If you’re looking for a puzzly version of the beloved Nintendo game Bubble Bobble, then try Puzzle Bobble.

You can building dungeon romps with The Bard’s Tale Construction Set or crack challenging cases in Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel. You can find your way out of maze-like platforming traps in Lode Runner or enjoy the tongue-in-cheek humor and devious point-and-click puzzles of one of my personal favorites, The Secret of Monkey Island.

There are even iconic horror puzzlers like Alone in the Dark and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream if you’re looking for something a bit spookier and more sinister.

This is a treasure trove of old puzzle-game content, and it’s all available with the click of a button. These games will be joining such previously archived classics as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and The Oregon Trail in the Internet Archive’s vast and ever-growing library.

And thanks to their efforts, more than a few puzzle games will be saved from obscurity or oblivion.


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The Oldest Puzzle in History?

archimedes

[Archimedes, looking disappointed for some reason. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Imagine the first puzzle. The very first one. What form would it take? Would it involve words? Numbers? Pictures? Would it be a riddle? A jigsaw? Would there be pieces to move around and place? Would it require scratchings in ink and quill to solve, or marks on a clay tablet?

It’s hard to visualize, isn’t it?

The subject of today’s blog post was probably not the first puzzle, but it’s the oldest puzzle that we can trace back to its origins. And those origins are more than two thousand years in the past.

Fellow puzzlers, allow me to introduce the Ostomachion.

ostomachion2

[The puzzle can be found in paper, wood, plastic, and other forms. The original was supposedly made from bone. Image courtesy of Oh So Souvenir.]

The Ostomachion, also known as the Stomachion, the Syntemachion, the Loculus of Archimedes, or Archimedes’ Square, consists of 14 shapes that can be arranged to fill a square.

Created by Archimedes in the 3rd century B.C., the Ostomachion might’ve vanished from history if not for the clever investigative skills of researchers. You see, the Ostomachion was among other writings by Archimedes that were transcribed into a manuscript in 10th-century Constantinople. The manuscript was then scraped clean and reused in the 13th-century as a Christian religious text (becoming a palimpsest in the process), where it remained until at least the 16th century.

archimedespalimpsest

[Image courtesy of Harvard. Yes, that Harvard.]

Thankfully, the erasure was incomplete, and in 1840, a Biblical scholar named Constantin von Tischendorf noted the Greek mathematics still visible beneath the prayer text. Another scholar recognized it as the work of Archimedes.

After changing hands multiple times, being sold (most likely illegally), modified by a forger, and then finally allowed to be scanned with UV, infrared, and other spectral bands, revealing the full mathematical text (as well as other works, all of which are now available online).

This palimpsest is the only known copy of both the Ostomachion and another Archimedean work, “The Method of Mechanical Theorems.”

ostoshapes

[Shapes to be solved. Image courtesy of Latinata.]

So, all that trouble for a place-the-pieces puzzle? Obviously there’s a bit more at play here.

After a solver has managed to fill the square , they are invited to use the pieces to make a variety of different shapes (similar to tangram puzzles). Players could compete to see who could use all of the pieces to form the different shapes first. It’s believed that this is where the name Ostomachion came from, as it translates to “bone fight” in Greek.

But, naturally, Archimedes didn’t stop there, delving into the mathematics of the puzzle itself, and trying to calculate how many unique solutions there were to the Ostomachion square. How many different ways could you fill the square?

osto-loculus17

[Cutler’s 17th solution. Image courtesy of MathPuzzle.com.]

That question wouldn’t be answered until 2003, when Bill Cutler — a mathematician with a doctorate in mathematics from Cornell — and some brute-force computing figured out that there were 17,152 solutions.

Seventeen thousand.

But, wait, it’s a square. So, technically, there must be quite a bit of overlap in those solutions, since some of them would be rotations or reflections of other solutions.

So what’s the real answer?

536. 536 distinct solutions. (You can view them all here.)

And it only took 2200 years to find out.

That, my fellow PuzzleNationers, is quite a puzzle.


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The Beale Ciphers: A Puzzly Treasure Hidden Since the 1800’s?

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There’s nothing quite like a treasure hunt to spark the imagination. From The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to the adventures of Indiana Jones, from tales as far back as Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” to stories as recent as an episode of NCIS: New Orleans last year, a treasure hunt can turn a crime story or an adventure tale into an irresistible narrative for the ages.

Thankfully, there are a few treasure hunts lurking out there in the real world, offering clever solvers the chance to live out their own adventure. In the past, we’ve explored the mystery of Forrest Fenn’s Rocky Mountain treasure, we’ve chronicled efforts to locate all of Byron Preiss’s The Secret treasures, and we’ve suggested tactics for cracking Jason Rohrer’s A Game for Someone hunt.

But as intriguing as those hunts are, none of them have spanned more than a century of searching. (Without resulting in unfortunate demises, that is. We’re looking at you, Oak Island.)

No, that singular honor belongs to a treasure hunt known as the Beale Ciphers.

beale_papers

As the story goes, a man named Thomas J. Beale buried a treasure trove of gold and silver somewhere in Bedford County, Virginia, in the early 1800s. Beale then encrypted the location of the treasure, the contents of the treasure, and the names of those he wished to have the treasure. Beale handed off those encryptions to an innkeeper, then vanished, never to be seen again. (His promise of later providing the key for the ciphers was never fulfilled.)

The innkeeper failed to crack the ciphers, then held onto them for decades before passing them along to an unnamed friend before his death. The unnamed friend spent twenty more years trying to unravel the encryptions (managing to solve the second of the three encrypted messages). Eventually, the friend published the encryptions and the story of Beale’s treasure in a pamphlet he began selling in 1885.

So, how do the ciphers work?

It’s simple, really. Take a book, pick a given page, and number all of the words on the page. (Or just start at the beginning of the book.)

If you’re using A Tale of Two Cities, for instance:

1 It
2 was
3 the
4 best
5 of
6 times,
7 it
8 was
9 the
10 worst
11 of
12 times…

So, using the first letters of each word (and the corresponding number), the word BOW could be encrypted 4 11 8 or 4 11 2 or 4 11 10.

This grants people in the know two advantages. The code is incredibly difficult to break on its own, because unlike a cryptogram (or any other message encrypted with a Caesar cipher or a one-to-one relationship between coded letters), each appearance of a given letter could be a different number, not the same one over and over.

Plus, if you know the key (the book and page number), decoding it requires no puzzly skill at all.

It’s diabolical and effective, as proven by Beale’s trio of ciphers, since only one has been cracked (because the solver stumbled upon the Declaration of Independence as the key).

[The second Beale cipher.]

The decrypted text from the second cipher:

I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford’s, in an excavation or vault, six feet below the surface of the ground, the following articles, belonging jointly to the parties whose names are given in number three, herewith:

The first deposit consisted of ten hundred and fourteen pounds of gold, and thirty-eight hundred and twelve pounds of silver, deposited Nov. eighteen nineteen. The second was made Dec. eighteen twenty-one, and consisted of nineteen hundred and seven pounds of gold, and twelve hundred and eighty-eight of silver; also jewels, obtained in St. Louis in exchange to save transportation, and valued at thirteen thousand dollars.

The above is securely packed in iron pots, with iron covers. The vault is roughly lined with stone, and the vessels rest on solid stone, and are covered with others. Paper number one describes the exact locality of the vault, so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.

bealemap

Of course, there are some problems there, even with the cipher that treasure hunters consider solved. You see, there are some irregularities with the solution. Not only are there four misspellings in the translation, but a variation on the original Declaration of Independence must be used or the cipher doesn’t decode correctly.

Now, mistakes happen. (As we learned with the story of Brian Patrick Regan.) But if there are mistakes in the two unsolved ciphers as well, that only makes the chances of finding the proper key even slimmer, because a mistake in the early numbers of the code might convince someone that they’ve got the wrong key, even if they have the right one!

Do you find that challenge daunting, fellow puzzlers? It’s understandable if you do. The other two ciphers have resisted the best efforts of even master cryptographers and cryptanalysts.

Given that the Declaration of Independence was the key for the second cipher, many aspiring treasure hunters have tried using other famous historical documents as possible keys for the other ciphers, including the Magna Carta, the Constitution, the Monroe Doctrine, and more, as well as the plays of Shakespeare and the Lord’s Prayer.

bealemontvale

There are also plenty of reasons to doubt that this treasure exists at all. (The same question marks hang over some of the other treasure hunts we’ve mentioned, like Forrest Fenn’s.)

There are questions regarding the language in the pamphlet, where the gold was supposedly found, why Beale would bother encrypting the names of the people he wanted to inherit the treasure, and even whether Beale himself ever existed in the first place. (Famous skeptic and investigator of the supernatural Joe Nickell believes the pamphlet is a fraud.)

But does that mean the ciphers are? Not necessarily.

An analysis in 1970 by Dr. Carl Hammer of Sperry-UNIVAC indicated that the number patterns are not random. He believed that further attempts at cracking the ciphers would be worthwhile.

Heck, even our old codebreaking friends Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband William tried to unravel the Beale ciphers, but without success. She called the ciphers “a diabolical ingenuity designed to lure the unwary reader.”

And, of course, not every hunter has come away empty-handed. One team of treasure hunters stumbled upon a cache of Civil War artifacts while hunting for Beale’s trove.

So what do you think, PuzzleNationers? Is the Beale treasure real? Will it ever be found? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Answers to our Fourth of July Deduction Puzzle!

13starflag

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Last week, we celebrated America’s birthday in puzzly fashion by offering a custom-made Pair Off-style deduction puzzle for our fellow PuzzleNationers to solve!

Our setup was simple: a group of five enthusiastic vexillologists — devotees of the study of flags — decided to stage five days of presentations about different flags from American history.

Each person presented a different flag’s history each day (the thirteen-star flag, the fifty-star flag, the Don’t Tread on Me flag, the Marine Corps flag, or the Coast Guard flag), and the presentations were performed in a different order each day (first, second, third, fourth, or fifth).

Each vexillologist presented one flag per day, and none of them repeated a flag presentation across the five days. Similarly, none of the flag presentations happened in the same order each day. So, for instance, if a flag was first in the order on July 3rd, it wouldn’t be first in the order any other day.

And we challenged our solvers to complete the schedule of flag presentations.

If you want to try the puzzle for yourself, this is your last chance.

.

..

….

….. you’ve been warned…

….

..

.

Okay! Let’s take a look at the solution grid:

7-4pairoffans

How did you fare in our Independence Day puzzle challenge? Did you enjoy any other puzzles or games over the holiday? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to her from you.


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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.

butterflylock

[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.

daggertrap

[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.

trianglelock

[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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PuzzleNation Blog Looks Back on 2018!

2018 is quickly coming to a close, and as I look back on an eventful year in the world of puzzles and games, I’m incredibly proud of the contributions both PuzzleNation Blog and PuzzleNation made to the puzzle community as a whole.

Over the last year, we explored board games and card games, strategy games and trivia games, dice games and tile games, do-it-yourself puzzlers and pen-and-paper classics. We met game designers, constructors, artists, YouTubers, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and diabolical brain teasers. We pondered optical illusions, Internet memes, and more, even questioning our place in the world of puzzles as AI and solving robots continued to rise in capability.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about ancient board games from centuries ago, Edgar Allan Poe’s secret codes, and the legacy of influential female codebreakers and spymasters previously lost to revisionist history like Elizebeth Smith Friedman and the Countess Alexandrine. We brought to light valuable examples of puzzles in art, comic strips, animation, music, television, film, and popular culture.

We spread the word about numerous worthwhile Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, watching as the puzzle/game renaissance continued to amaze and surprise us with innovative new ways to play and solve. We shared worthy causes like Queer Crosswords and Women of Letters, as well as amazing projects like new escape rooms, puzzle experiences like The Enigmatist, online puzzle quests, and long-running unsolved treasure hunts.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, offered up puzzly suggestions for Valentine’s Day, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and dove deep into an ever-expanding litany of puzzle events like the Indie 500, BosWords, and Lollapuzzoola.

We found puzzly ways to celebrate everything from Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas to Star Wars Day and the anniversary of the Crossword, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you.

It’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to explore the world of puzzles and games with you, my fellow puzzle lovers and PuzzleNationers. We marked six years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I’m closing in on my 1000th blog post, and I’m more excited to write for you now than I was when I started.

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2018 went well beyond that.

Every month, we delivered quality content for both the Penny Dell Crosswords App and Daily POP Crosswords. Whether it was monthly deluxe sets and holiday bundles for PDCW or the world-class topical puzzles by some of the industry’s best constructors for Daily POP, hundreds of topnotch crosswords wended their way to our loyal and enthusiastic solvers.

And a little more than a week ago, we launched our newest puzzly endeavor — Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate — bringing you a unique, story-driven puzzling experience, complete with gorgeous visuals, atmospheric music, and an immersive mystery to keep you solving!

But whether we’re talking about crosswords, Sudoku, or Wordventures, I’m proud to say that every single puzzle represents our high standards of quality puzzle content crafted for solvers and PuzzleNationers.

And your response has been fantastic! Daily POP Crosswords is thriving, we’re very excited about the response to Wordventures, the blog has over 2300 followers, and with our audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms continuing to grow, the enthusiasm of the PuzzleNation readership is both humbling and very encouraging.

2018 was our most ambitious, most exciting, and most creatively fulfilling year to date, and the coming year promises to be even brighter.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. The new year looms large, and we look forward to seeing you in 2019!


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