What makes a great riddle?

[Image courtesy of PNG Find.]

I have always suspected that riddles were our first experiments with puzzles and puzzly thinking. Long before crosswords, Sudoku, codebreaking, and magic squares, the potential for wordplay and outside-the-box thinking would have appealed to storytellers, teachers, philosophers, and other deep thinkers.

Who doesn’t enjoy unraveling a riddle, parsing the carefully constructed sentences for every hint and nuance lurking within, and then extracting that tiny purest nugget of a solution from the ether?

Riddles appeal to our love of story and adventure, of heroes with wits as sharp as their swords. Riddles are the domain of gatekeepers and tricksters, monsters and trap rooms from the best Dungeons & Dragons quests.

And so, for centuries upon centuries, even up to the modern day, riddles have been a challenging and intriguing part of the world of puzzling.

We can trace them back to the Greeks, to Ancient Sumeria, to the Bible through Samson, and to mythology through the Sphinx. Riddles abound in literature; we find riddles in Shakespeare, in the works of Joyce, Carroll, and Austen, all the way up to the modern day with The Hobbit and Harry Potter. Every locked room mystery and impossible crime is a riddle to be unraveled.

[Image courtesy of Campbell County Public Library.]

But this raises a crucial question: what makes a good riddle?

At first glance, it should be confusing or elusive. But after some thought, there should be enough information within the riddle to provide a solution, either through wordplay/punnery OR through looking at the problem from a different perspective.

Let’s look at an example. In this instance, we’ll examine the riddle from Jane Austen’s Emma, which is posed to the title character by a potential suitor:

My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!

The answer is “courtship.”

The first half of the riddle refers to the playground of royalty — court — and the second half to the domain of her suitor — ship — and when combined they form the suitor’s desire. This riddle is confusingly worded, to be sure, but it makes sense when analyzed and it’s totally reasonable when the clever Emma figures out the answer… and turns down the suitor’s attempt at riddly courtship.

[Image courtesy of Yale.edu.]

So, what’s an example of a bad riddle? Well, unfortunately, we don’t have to look too hard for an example of one. Let’s examine Samson’s riddle from The Book of Judges in the Old Testament, which he poses to his dinner guests (with a wager attached):

Out of the eater,
something to eat;
out of the strong,
something sweet.

The answer, bafflingly, is “bees making a honeycomb inside the carcass of a lion.”

This is borderline nonsense unless Samson actually told you the story of killing a lion with his bare hands and later returning to the corpse to find bees building a hive inside. So, basically, this riddle not only screws over his dinner guests — who lost a wager to buy fine clothing if they couldn’t solve the rigged riddle — and serves as an excuse to brag about killing a lion. Samson is a jerk.

This is a bad riddle, because it’s designed to be confusing, but does not offer enough information to get to the desired solution. It’s purposely unsolvable, and that sucks. Riddles shouldn’t be arbitrary or nonsensical.

James Joyce pulled this in Ulysses. Lewis Carroll pulled it in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And each of these examples give riddles a bad name. (Even if they do serve a literary purpose, as scholars claim they do in the Joyce and Carroll examples.)

Even if you want the hero to seem (or be) smarter than the reader, the riddle should still make sense. When confronted with five riddles by Gollum in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins solves four of them (and answers the fifth through charmingly dumb luck). It doesn’t hurt his character or make the reader feel like they’re being cheated when these riddles are resolved.

That’s another quality of a great riddle. Even if you don’t solve it, when you DO find the answer, it should feel like you were outwitted and you learned something, not that you were involved in a rigged game.

Oh, and speaking of learning, that reminds me of another example of a challenging yet fair riddle, one that comes from Ancient Sumeria (now, modern-day Iraq):

There is a house. One enters it blind and comes out seeing. What is it?

The answer, as you might have puzzled out, is “a school.”

Riddles can be devious or tricky; they can rely on misdirection, our own assumptions and biases, or careful word choice to befuddle the reader. But they should always be learning experiences, like the house you enter blind and leave seeing.

What are some of your favorite riddles, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Updates From Alex Trebek on His Health and Plans for Jeopardy!

One of the biggest news stories of the last few years in the world of puzzles and games has been Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek’s ongoing battle with pancreatic cancer.

If you somehow don’t already know, Trebek was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer early last year, and he has been giving fans and well-wishers periodic updates on his condition.

Back when he first announced his diagnosis, Trebek stated, “I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease,” then joked, “I have to because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years.”

Despite the hardships both obvious and unseen during his treatment, Alex has continually proven to be a beacon of strength and support for those suffering with similar ailments.

Recently, Alex has been offering updates on both his health and the future of Jeopardy! during the pandemic.

In this video, he discusses his optimism regarding returning to his hosting duties, as well as plans to open the vault for the first time and re-air old episodes of the show:

In fact, last night, the very first episode of Jeopardy! Alex hosted was aired. (To be clear, I mean the official debut episode from September 10, 1984, not the 1983 pilot.)

It’s quite a blast from the past:

And that’s not all he shared with his loyal viewing audience.

Yesterday, in an exclusive interview with Good Morning America, Alex opened up about several topics, including his ongoing cancer treatment, looking forward to resuming his hosting duties, and what comes next.

He revealed some details on his upcoming memoirs. Not only will the autobiography beat an unauthorized biography to market, but the proceeds from the book’s advance and sales will all go to charity.

Although Trebek was honest — devastatingly so, at points — about the bad days he has endured, there is a strong thread of optimism throughout the interview. When the interviewer asked if Trebek had ever considered that he might have already hosted his last episode of Jeopardy!, Trebek replied that the thought had never crossed his mind.

You can watch the full video here:

No matter what the future holds for one of television’s most prolific hosts, you can be sure that we’ll be watching.

All our best wishes to you, Alex.


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Intersections of Puzzle and Poetry

The more you look, the more you can find puzzles in all sorts of interesting places. We find them in literature, in historical documents, and in popular culture.

So it should come as no surprise that puzzles can be found in the world of poetry as well.

We’ve covered a few examples where poetry and puzzles have overlapped in the past, whether it’s the creations of Peter Valentine, the works of Edgar Allan Poe, or the art of carmina figurata.

carminafig7

But that’s only scratching the surface.

One of the most common ways that puzzly techniques find their way into poetry is through acrostics. Acrostics spell out messages with the first letter of each line or verse.

One of the most famous is a poem by Lewis Carroll at the end of Through the Looking-Glass where he reveals the identity of the girl who inspired his famous stories:

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

Carroll certainly offers the most famous example, but I must confess that my favorite example comes from a story on Wikipedia. Poet Rolfe Humphries was banned from Poetry Magazine for life for an acrostic aimed at a diplomat and former president of Columbia University. The acrostic quite bluntly read “Nicholas Murray Butler is a horse’s ass.”

Of course, the message reading down — also known as an acrostich — isn’t the only way these messages can be hidden.

There are also examples of mesostich — where the word or message is spelled with letters in the middle of the verse — and telestich, where the last letters of each line spell a name or message.

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[Image courtesy of Twitter.]

These techniques were also used in ancient Greek inscriptions, where one particular example, AL205, featured acrostich, mesostich, and telestich messages at the same time.

Other puzzly stylings have also allowed poets to flex their wordplay muscles.

For instance, David Shulman wrote a 14-line sonnet about George Washington’s famous river crossing where every line is an anagram of “Washington crossing the Delaware”:

A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
“How cold!” Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general’s action wish’d “Go!”
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands – sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens – winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can’t lose war with’s hands in;
He’s astern – so go alight, crew, and win!

There are also ABC poems, a form where the goal of each poem is to use words starting with each letter of the alphabet in order. You can find some entertaining and impressive examples here.

Some poets, however, have flipped the puzzle poem on its head by treating the poems like puzzles. The folks at UVA’s Puzzle Poetry group utilize Tetris-like puzzle pieces with words on them to assemble poems.

poetry_puzzle_da_header_3-2

[Image courtesy of the University of Virginia.]

The concept dates back to 2017, a creation of Neal Curtis and Brad Pasanek, serving as a way to both explore and deconstruct the art of poetry itself by making a puzzle out of it.

It’s a very cool idea, reminiscent of how magnetic poetry sets allow you to turn your fridge into a canvas by assembling and reworking the order of the various available words.

Puzzles by their very nature are about finding a solution, bringing order out of chaos, whether it’s assembling puzzle pieces, answering devious crossword clues to fill a grid, or unraveling a tricky brain teaser that pushes you to think in a different way.

And since poetry is all about expressing truths in a personal way, it makes a lovely sort of sense that puzzly techniques would intertwine with this thoughtful, elusive form of art.


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Did a Typo Help Defeat the Enigma Code and Win World War II?

During World War II, the Enigma code was one of the most daunting weapons in the German arsenal. Cracking the code would be the key to intercepting crucial information and outmaneuvering the Nazi war machine. In fact, unraveling the secrets of Enigma was so important that both England and the United States poured massive resources into building their own codebreaking operations, Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall, respectively.

Loads of fascinating information about the day-to-day operations of Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall have emerged over the last decade or so, and one of the most peculiar anecdotes to make the rounds recently claims that a typo is partially responsible for cracking Enigma.

As the story goes, a man named Geoffrey Tandy was recruited by the UK Ministry of Defense to work at Bletchley Park as part of their growing team of cryptography experts. Scholars and professions from all over the country were being enlisted in the war effort, and cryptographers (or cryptogramists) were at the top of the list.

But Tandy wasn’t a cryptogramist. He was a cryptogamist, aka an expert on mosses, algae, and lichen.

Despite the error, Tandy remained at Bletchley Park, and a year or two after his mistaken hiring, his expertise proved invaluable when a German U-boat was sunk and cryptographic documents relating to Enigma were recovered. You see, his experience preserving water-damaged materials and specimens helped salvage the water-logged documents so they could be used to crack the German code.

And thus, a typo helped end World War II.

cryptogam

[Image courtesy of Did You Know Facts.]

It’s a great story. And like many great stories, there’s a hint of truth to it. There’s also a lot of exaggeration to make it a tale for the ages.

It was no fluke that Tandy was recruited for Bletchley Park. In addition to his cryptogamist credentials, he was assistant keeper of botany at the National History Museum of London. His work included managing the voluminous library, working with fragile documents and samples, and a facility with multiple languages.

Those linguistic skills and organizational talents made him a perfect choice for Bletchley Park, since they were recruiting all sorts of experts. Remember that the field of cryptography was in its early stages. You couldn’t just go looking for cryptographers. You had to build them from scratch, as well as the folks who would be support staff for those codebreakers-in-training.

That would be Tandy’s role. He was part of a division known as NS VI, responsible for archiving foreign documents and helping the cryptographers deal with any technical jargon they might encounter, particularly in foreign languages.

tandy

[Image courtesy of the National Museum of Australia.]

So where did the typo idea come from?

Well, it’s entirely possible it came from Tandy. The cryptogram/cryptogam mistake is just the sort of joke that would appeal to linguists and other professorial types, so either another member of the Bletchley Park team or Tandy himself could have downplayed his credentials in tongue-in-cheek fashion with the story of an erroneous typo.

As for the other part of the story — where he saved the documents — there is some debate as to whether that happened. As the story goes, he used his knowledge of preserving documents to save a waterlogged set of cryptographic codes from a sunken U-boat.

[Image courtesy of Military Factory.]

The anecdote as reported usually cites the year 1941, whereas many books about Bletchley Park’s codebreaking efforts reference a U-boat from 1942, U-559, where documents AND a working Enigma machine were recovered.

I believe he DID participate in rescuing/preserving documents from a U-boat because it’s not some great heroic deed, it’s literally part of why he was hired in the first place. The crux of the anecdote is on the wordplay and the faux-fortuitousness of his employment, not on the actual events.

So, in the end, no, a typo didn’t help end World War II. But Geoffrey Tandy certainly did.


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Farewell, Kazuhisa Hashimoto, Creator of the Konami Code

We talk about codes a lot in this blog. We’ve discussed codebreaking, hidden messages, encryption, spycraft, and password protection in the past. But we haven’t talked much about another kind of code, the sort that grants secret access to new abilities, powers, and other benefits.

In the video game world, these are commonly known as cheat codes. There are various famous ones from different eras of gaming, but one code stands head and shoulders above the rest: the Konami Code.

konamicode

[Image courtesy of Newegg.]

Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start.

Ubiquitous in the 1980s and 1990s, the Konami Code was named for Konami, the video game publisher whose games utilized this code. It was first used in the Nintendo version of the arcade game Gradius in 1986, giving the player the full set of power-ups (rather than forcing the player to earn them throughout the game).

You see, the video game designer and producer working on converting the game, Kazuhisa Hashimoto, found the game too difficult to play during his testing phase. He then created a cheat code to make the game easier, allowing him to complete his testing. The code he chose became known as the Konami Code.

It’s most famously associated with the game Contra, a side-scrolling platformer that pitted Rambo-inspired heroes against an invading alien force. The game was famously difficult because one hit could kill you, and you only had three lives for the entire game. Entering the Konami Code granted the player 30 lives and a much greater chance of success.

(I, of course, could beat it without the Konami Code. But this article isn’t about me and my old-school video game wizardry.)

The code became part of video game pop culture, continuing to appear not only in Konami games, but all sorts of other games, up through the modern day. Often with different results.

In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, you got extra lives. But if you used it in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, it would unlock a playable version of Spider-Man. If you use the code in Assassin’s Creed 3, a turkey will wear the character’s famous hood, weirdly enough.

The code has transcended gaming as well, not only becoming the name of a famous wrestler’s gaming-centric YouTube channel, but appearing everywhere from Family Guy and Wreck-It Ralph to Dance Dance Revolution and Rocket League.

It even allows for a bit of festive fun on the website for Bank of Canada. On the page revealing the new $10 bank note, inputting the code hilariously activates a rain of money-confetti and plays the Canadian National Anthem.

konamicanada

Sadly, the reason that I’ve got the Konami Code on my mind today is that Kazuhisa Hashimoto passed away this week. The veteran game designer was 61 years old, and after being hired by the company in his twenties, spent nearly 30 years working for Konami, first on coin-operated games and later on console titles.

There’s not a huge amount of information readily available about Hashimoto or his life outside the world of video games. In fact, some articles about Hashimoto claim he was 79 years old at the time of his death. And the one photo I can find that’s attributed to him appears to be a picture of Star Trek actor George Takei instead.

konamitakei

We here at PuzzleNation mourn the loss of this influential designer and contributor to pop culture. May both his games and his famous code live on as fine, smile-inducing examples of his hard work and playful nature.


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PuzzleNation Blog Looks Back on 2019!

Numbers And Hourglass On Table Against Window

[Image courtesy of Kiplinger.]

2019 is rapidly coming to a close, and as I look back on another 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 untangled metal puzzles, wove together puzzle rings, locked our messages securely with letterlocking, and unlocked the puzzly secrets behind carnival games. 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 and mythology with posts about the labyrinth builder Daedalus, the decades-old puzzle book Cain’s Jawbone, the still-unsolved (and possibly fake) Beale Ciphers, and what might be the oldest puzzle in the world, the Ostomachion. We brought to light valuable examples of puzzles in art, comic strips, animation, music, television, film, and popular culture.

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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 The Inkubator, as well as amazing projects like new escape rooms, puzzle experiences like The Enigmatist, online puzzle quests, long-running unsolved treasure hunts, and even baffling ideas, like a role-playing game created by fast-food chain Wendy’s.

We celebrated International TableTop Day (despite the confusion over when to celebrate), hosted our yearly Tabletop Tournament, 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 cheered as LGBTQ-friendly language made its way into Scrabble, marveled as The Maze of Games was finally conquered, raced around the world chasing the Iron Throne in a Game of Thrones scavenger hunt, enjoyed two new crossword-themed murder mysteries (and anxiously await the third), and watched with wonder at the strange phenomenon that was James Holzhauer dominating Jeopardy! like never before.

We found puzzly ways to celebrate everything from Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas to the sad losses of the Opportunity Rover and crossword icon Rip Torn, and we were grateful 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 seven years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I’ve written over 1100 blog posts, 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 2019 went well beyond that.

As the year began, we were already heavily into the launch for Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate, our unique, story-driven puzzling experience. It was a terrific experiment, a learning experience, and another sign of how PuzzleNation was continuing to grow and evolve, both in our puzzle development and in our creativity.

In August, we launched our newest puzzly endeavor — Daily POP Word Search — offering a brilliant word-looping companion to Daily POP Crosswords. The responsive grid, the various themes, and the flavorful, current content represents our commitment to keeping puzzles fun, fresh, and engaging.

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.

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

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[Plus there’s still our Deal of the Day every day through the end of the year!]

And your response has been fantastic! Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search are thriving, the blog has over 2400 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.

2019 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 2020!


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