The Weird, Wonderful World of Dice

[Image courtesy of ThoughtCo.]

Dice have been an integral part of gaming for centuries. They’re the simplest way to introduce randomness to a game.

The six-sided die is, by leaps and bounds, the most familiar die. The d6, as role-players call it, is a staple of classic board games like Yahtzee and Clue, as well as the centerpiece of role-playing systems like GURPS.

But the d6 is hardly the only kind of die you see in gaming. Plenty of games and role-playing systems rely on dice of other shapes in order to run smoothly.

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia.]

If you play World of Darkness role-playing games like Werewolf or Vampire: The Masquerade, then the d10 is your friend. If you enjoy updated editions of Dungeons & Dragons (or even board games like Unspeakable Words or Scattergories), the d20 is a familiar sight, whether it has letters or numbers on it.

A standard dice set for beginners Dungeons & Dragons contains six different dice shapes: a pyramid-shaped d4, a d6, a d8, a d10, a d12, and a d20. (Many come with 2 d10s, one with single digits and one with double digits, allowing you to calculate percentages).

[Image courtesy of Instructables.]

Heck, if you think about it, flipping a coin to decide something is simply rolling a two-sided die.

But when you start delving into the history of games, it’s amazing to see just how far back some of these traditions and conventions go.

Did you know that The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a d20 in its collection?

Dating back to Roman times (somewhere between the 2nd century BC and the 4th century AD), the above die is inscribed with Greek letters. It’s not certain if this particular die was used for games or religious divination, but there’s no doubt it’s a beautiful example of craftsmanship.

And this is just scraping the surface. One of my favorite dice in my collection is an oversized 3D-printed d20 with Braille markings for every number. Such a cool piece.

Can you think of any strange dice in favorite games of yours, fellow puzzlers? We’d love to hear about them! (Unless they’re fuzzy dice hanging from your rearview mirror. Those don’t make reliable rolls in regular gameplay.)


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These Puzzly Puns Will Echo Through Eternity…

Oh yes, it’s that time again! It’s time to unleash our puzzly and punny imaginations and engage in a bit of sparkling wordplay!

You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or the Hashtag Wars segment that used to run on @midnight on Comedy Central.

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzleHistory, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles with historical figures, historical moments, and historical quotations!

Examples include: Daisy Defeats Truman, V-Words-Day, or “Ask not what your mystery country can do for you…”

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


Penny Dell Puzzle Historical References!

Oregon Word Trails

Monrows Garden Doctrine

Woodstock Flower Power

Right of Wayflower Compact

Christopher Explore-a-word Columbus

Samson says and Dilemma

Lucky Star of Bethlehem

Lincolnwords

Federalist-a-Crostic Papers

Hannibal Crisscrossing the Alps

Washington Cross Pairs the Delaware

Military Sudo-coup

Alan Turing’s Codebreaking and Cryptocrossing during WWII

Fancy Ninety-Five Theses / Ninety-Five of Diamonds

Transcontinental Railroad Ties

Circles in the Tiananmen Square

Enigmatch-up Machines (for making Codewords)

Middle of the Silk Road

Boston Three-D Party

Sum Totals of ’69

Spanners Armada

The Treaty of Versyllability

The Stars-Spangled On Parade Word Search Banner


Penny Dell Puzzle History Quotes!

“Four Letter Score and seven years ago” / “Plus fours scorewords and seven-up years ago…”

“Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the Word Play?

“Read my Blips: No new text messages…”

“The Buck Stoplines Here” / “The Buck Stops Here & There”

“Ich bin ein Berlinkworder…”

Napoleon: “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a Give-and-Take.”

Churchill: “The Battleship of Britain is about to begin.”

“Letterboxes them eat cake!”

Bill Parcells: “No matter how much you’ve won, no matter how many games, no matter how many championships, no matter how many Super Bowls, you’re not winning now, so you stink.”

Even Shakespeare can get into the hashtag game! From The Tempest:

ALONSO
And Trinculo is reeling ripe. Where should they
Find this grand liquor that hath gilded ’em?—
How camest thou in a pickle?

TRINCULO
I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last that,
I fear me, will never out of my bones. I shall not fear flyblowing.


There were also several submissions that deserve their own section, as these intrepid puzzlers went above and beyond.

One player offered this historical summation: HubCaptain Smith Who Became More than a Blip When He Ventured Across and Down with His Ship: A Titanic Tradeoff

Another player created his own puzzly Pledge of Allegiance:

“I pledge Accordion Words, to the flag, of the Untied Mystery States of America.
And to the republic, for which it Anagrams, one nation under Guess Who,
in Decisions, with liberty and Jigsaw Puzzles for all.”


Have you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle History entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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Unsung Tales of Women in American Code Breaking!

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Dot Braden. Agnes Driscoll. Betty Hyatt. Elizebeth Friedman. Genevieve Grotjan. Ann Caracristi. Virginia Aderholdt. Ruth “Crow” Weston.

You don’t know these names, but you should. Everyone should. They’re bona fide American heroes who dedicated their time and energy to protecting not only our country, but also every soldier in the Allied forces during World War II. And they did so when they should have otherwise been continuing their collegiate studies.

That’s right, these women who came from majors as diverse as botany, math, psychology, and English, were recruited out of college in order to build a dedicated code-breaking unit for the US armed forces.

Thankfully, their stories are now being told in Liza Mundy’s new book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. And these are some amazing stories.

It all started in early 1942, as secret letters began showing up in college mailboxes. Schools like Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Barnard, Radcliffe, and more posed two questions to prospective female recruits:

1. Did she like crossword puzzles?
2. Was she engaged to be married?

All of these women replied yes, they like crossword puzzles, and no, they’re not engaged or soon-to-be engaged.

After answering these questions, the women began attending introductory meetings. They were issued manila envelopes containing “a brief introduction to the arcane history of codes and ciphers, along with numbered problems sets and strips of paper with the letters of the alphabet printed on them.”

Their orders? Complete the problem sets every week.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Each packet contained one problem that could not be solved, to show that sometimes, a jumble of letters or numbers doesn’t stand for anything. Sometimes, gibberish remains just that, because sometimes a code-breaker fails.

They developed working knowledge of foreign languages they didn’t speak. They memorized the most common English letters — E, T, O, N, A, I, R, S — and took frequency counts.

And that’s how America built its answer to England’s Bletchley Park code-breaking operation. (The American effort, known as Arlington Hall, was considered by their Bletchley Park rivals as “just a lot of kids playing at ‘office’.”)

College presidents like Ada Comstock, the president of Radcliffe College (the women’s counterpart to Harvard), were recruited to identify candidates to learn cryptanalysis to help shorten the war.

And make no mistake, they did shorten the war. They helped crack Enigma, which was key to decimating the German U-boat fleet, and their code-breaking efforts were instrumental in defeating Japan as well, providing valuable intel on the island-to-island battles of the Pacific theater.

[Image courtesy of Military Factory.]

Of the US Army’s World War II code-breaking force, nearly 70 percent was female. We’re talking 7,000 female code-breakers. When you factor in US Navy recruits as well, that number jumps to 11,000 women out of 20,000 code-breakers.

From Code Girls: “Code breaking required literacy, numeracy, care, creativity, painstaking attention to detail, a good memory, and a willingness to hazard guesses. It required a tolerance for drudgery and a boundless reserve of energy and optimism.”

Genevieve Grotjan was key to cracking the Japanese cipher known as Purple, and William Friedman, the man who initially ran the Arlington Hall operation, described the Purple cipher as “by far the most difficult cryptanalytic problem successfully handled and solved by any signal intelligence organization in the world.” He specifically pointed to the contrbutions of Grotjan, Mary Louise Prather, and other women in the Arlington Hall group.

Codes used by twenty-five different nations were analyzed by Arlington Hall, including codes of friends and foes alike. “There was a French code called Jellyfish, a Chinese enciphered code they called Jabberwocky, another they called Gryphon.”

But even their staggering efforts in code-breaking weren’t all they contributed to the cause. They were also crucial to the success of the D-Day invasion, as many of the women were put to work reverse-engineering messages in order to create false information about imaginary troop movements and landing areas. And in order to create fake signal traffic, they had to know the real traffic backward and forward.

I could go into more detail, breaking down how they cracked some of the war’s most important code languages, or exploring their personal lives and how life changed for these college students-turned-military operatives, but I don’t want to reveal more than I have already.

Read Code Girls. You won’t regret it. It’s another terrific entry in a year of books full of revelations about wartime puzzle history. We’ve been taken behind the scenes of the NSA, Bletchley Park, and now Arlington Hall.

And once more, important and influential female voices are getting the limelight far later than they deserve. It’s about time.


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The Story of Puzzle Mountain!

So two weeks ago, I was working on a blog post. I do that quite often these days, since there are three blog posts a week to write.

And I was looking for a way to refer to not only the many puzzles available to solvers these days, but how they would rank in terms of importance and popularity. I settled on the following:

Crosswords sit comfortably at the apex of the proverbial puzzle mountain, atop worthy also-rans like word searches, cryptograms, and Sudoku.

And when I went looking for images to use for “puzzle mountain” to illustrate my point, I was flabbergasted to discover that there is, in fact, a Puzzle Mountain.

[The view from atop Puzzle Mountain. Image courtesy of Guthook Hikes.]

I immediately wanted to know more. Where was it? How tall is it? And how did it come to be called Puzzle Mountain in the first place?

Some questions were easier to answer than others.

Oxford County, Maine, is the home of Puzzle Mountain, part of the Mahoosuc Range. It’s a 3.2 mile climb to the peak of the mountain, and it takes approximately three and a half hours to reach the summit, assuming you’re not misled by the false peak known as Little Puzzle Mountain.

The mountain is part of the popular Grafton Loop Trail, which is included in several top lists of the best and most scenic hikes in Maine.

According to Maine Trail Finder, “The Grafton Loop Trail leaves the parking lot and ascends to the open summit of Puzzle Mountain after passing several ledges with fine views of the Bear River Valley, the Mahoosuc Range and the Presidential Range beyond.”

[The start of the climb to the top of Puzzle Mountain. Image courtesy of 1 Happy Hiker.]

But why is it called Puzzle Mountain? I still had no idea.

I had to search high and low across the Internet for this information, since most sites were focused on either the hiking aspects of the mountain or some of the local stores. Apparently, the strawberry rhubarb pie at the Puzzle Mountain Bakery is to die for.

I eventually discovered the answer to my question in Steve Pinkham’s book The Mountains of Maine: Intriguing Stories Behind Their Names, which detailed the curious anecdotes and history behind the names of many Maine landmarks.

As the story goes, according to Pinkham:

An old man from Bethel was once out hunting on the mountain and became hopelessly lost. In descending a ledge, he dropped his ax over the lip to a shelf below to avoid any accident while he climbed down. Upon reaching the spot, he was amazed to see the head of the ax apparently wedged into solid rock. Taking a closer look, he found that the hatchet was embedded in a soft rock that he quickly figured to be plumbago or graphite.

Cutting out a sample, he carried it home, dreaming of money he could make by selling the mineral to pencil manufacturers. The story goes that he spent the rest of his life trying unsuccessfully to relocate that deposit and the mountain was subsequently named Puzzle Mountain because he never did find where the deposits were located.

And that, fellow puzzlers, is the story of Puzzle Mountain. Weird. You’d think there was some connection between the graphite and the pencils so many puzzlers use to solve puzzles! That’s where I thought the story was going, anyway.

Perhaps, one day, a member of the PuzzleNation team will scale the heights of the mountain and proudly place the PuzzleNation flag at the summit.

Until then… it’s still fun to think about, isn’t it?


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5 Years of PuzzleNation Blog!

This week, we’re celebrating five years of PuzzleNation Blog.

That’s kind of amazing to me. Five years. Almost seven hundred and fifty posts I’ve written here.

I’ve unraveled brain teasers and explained pop culture references. I’ve accepted the challenges of fellow puzzlers and foreign governments alike. I’ve delved into history and tried to predict the future. I’ve celebrated the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle, and learned more about them than I ever could have imagined.

I’ve had the privilege of announcing new puzzles for the first time ever. I’ve gone to crossword tournaments and conventions, I’ve interviewed all sorts of amazing, creative people. I’ve spread the word about brilliant puzzles, fantastic games, and numerous worthy causes and crowdfunding efforts. I’ve even reported on important news in the puzzle-game industry.

During my time as a puzzler, I’ve seen puzzles leap from pen-and-paper to apps in your pocket. I’ve seen Sudoku rise up and sweep across the globe as a genuine cultural phenomenon.

I’ve engaged in scavenger hunts that crossed oceans and tried to crack riddles from the past. I’ve wondered what the next century holds for crosswords, and if we’ll ever run out of Sudoku.

When I pushed for PuzzleNation to start a puzzle blog, my goal was to create a place that would become a hub for all things puzzly. Yes, obviously, I wanted to recruit users for our puzzle apps and sell puzzle sets galore, but I also wanted to play a role in building and contributing to the puzzle-game community.

Puzzlers come from all walks of life. They like all sorts of puzzles, from mechanical brain teasers to pen-and-paper classics. Some channel their puzzly energies into art, or music, or games. Some seek ever-more-challenging conundrums to solve. And some just enjoy a fun little puzzle in their pocket during a cup of coffee.

I’m proud to have welcomed all of them to PN Blog as fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. It’s been a blast, and I have no doubt it will continue to challenge and engage me for years to come.

Thanks for taking this ride with us. Happy puzzling, friends.

And stay tuned. We’ve got something fun and festive in store for you Thursday to celebrate. =)


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Puzzles Endanger, Then Save, a Nation: The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell

While working on our multi-part series of posts about the history of codebreaking in America during the 20th century, I mentioned that some of the recent revelations about the National Security Agency were the result of Edward Snowden’s actions during his time as a government contractor.

What you might not know is that he has not been the only contractor to sneak information off of government computers in that fashion: a decade before Edward Snowden, there was Brian Patrick Regan.

Regan was a career soldier in the Air Force who eventually reached the rank of Master Sergeant and worked in signals intelligence.

Buried under hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, Regan decided his only way out of financial ruin was to try to sell US government secrets to a foreign government. He copied page after page of sensitive documents from national defense systems and snuck them out of his office, eventually amassing more than 15,000 pages, CD-ROMs, and other material in his home.

He would later bury bundles of these documents in various locations, including state parks, concealing the GPS coordinates of these valuables caches through a complicated series of encryptions where letters and numbers became three-digit sets.

You see, Regan had spent a fair amount of time studying cryptography, and fancied himself a top-shelf codemaster.

Regan used another set of encryptions of lesser complexity when he attempted to contact agents of the Libyan, Iraqi, and Chinese governments in order to sell off the treasure trove of secrets he’d amassed during his time at the National Reconnaissance Office.

One of these packets — a collection of three parcels intended for Libya — ended up in the hands of an FBI agent named Steven Carr.

From The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee:

In the first envelope was a four-page letter with 149 lines of typed text consisting of alphabets and numbers. The second envelope included instructions on how to decode the letter. The third envelope included two sets of code sheets.

One set contained a list of ciphers. The other, running to six pages, listed dozens of words along with their encoded abbreviations: a system commonly known as brevity codes. Together, the two sets were meant to serve as the key for the decryption.

Some of the document had already been decrypted by FBI agents, and it revealed a member of the US intelligence community — claiming to be CIA, which was unverified, but definitely someone with top secret access — was trying to sell government secrets.

And this person had terrible spelling.

Brian Patrick Regan suffered from severe dyslexia. And, despite concerted efforts to perfect both his encryptions and his plan to net millions by selling government secrets, that dyslexia would be one of the clues that led Steven Carr to Regan’s doorstep.

It took Carr six months to connect Regan to the Libyan package, but once he did, surveillance on Regan began immediately.

When Regan attempted to board a plane to Zurich in 2001 — intending to meet with Iraqi and Libyan embassy officials — he was nabbed by the FBI and taken into custody.

Again, excerpted from The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell:

On searching Regan, officials found a piece of paper tucked between the inner and outer soles of his right shoe, on which were written addresses of Iraqi and Chinese embassies in Europe. The other materials they found on him and in his belongings were more mystifying. In a trouser pocket, Regan was carrying a spiral pad containing a page with 13 words that didn’t add up to anything: like tricycle, rocket and glove.

He had another 26 random words scribbled on an index card. Among the contents of Regan’s wallet was a piece of paper with a string of letters and numbers that read “5-6-N-V-O-A-I …” And in a folder he was carrying in his duffel bag were four sheets with handwritten lines of three-digit numbers.

FBI cryptanalyst Daniel Olson decoded some of the messages found on Regan when he was captured, but he had failed to unravel the multi-stage encryptions that concealed where Regan had buried his secret parcels. The government knew which state parks, but with acres and acres of possible hiding places, they needed more precise information.

And those parcels were the key, because they weren’t just packages to be sold to the highest bidder. No, those parcels doubled as a ransom in order to secure a better deal for himself with the US government. He wanted to blackmail the government for a reduced sentence.

They were his insurance plan.

As Thomas G. West said in Seeing What Others Cannot See, a book about visual thinking and dyslexia, “It’s not hard for a dyslexic to think ‘out of the box’ because they have never been in the box.”

Thankfully, Regan eventually realized that cooperation was in his best interest, and he revealed that each of the elaborate three-digit codes concealed a backdoor key built into the code itself.

Regan designed them this way so that, if he forgot the actual details of the encryption, all he would need is the starter word, a spark that would unlock the built-in key and help him decode the entire message.

This backdoor key system worked in a similar fashion to the Vigenere cipher, where a keyword or key phrase served as the entry point for a longer string of encrypted text. The trouble is… you need to know the cipher word or source in order to crack the code.

For example, during World War II, German agents in Europe used Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as the basis of a code for transmitting intelligence from Cairo to support a campaign by the Axis powers against the Allies in North Africa.

The discovery of the book among the possessions of two German radio operators who didn’t read English ultimately led to the breaking of the code, which in turn led to the capture of the German spies in Cairo.

Regan revealed the cipher words for the various hiding spots in state parks — which used cipher words from sources as peculiar as Regan’s own high school yearbook — and soon, the FBI recovered all but one of the buried parcels.

But Regan couldn’t remember the cipher word for the last one.

Daniel Olson would then step in, having learned some of Regan’s techniques as they uncovered the other parcels, and partially decrypting the remaining message enough to spark Regan’s memory. Regan finally came up with the last cipher key, and the final parcel was recovered.

Yes, once again, puzzly perseverance had saved the day!

Regan was found guilty on two counts of attempted espionage and one of gathering national defense information, and sentenced to life imprisonment with parole. Which, quite honestly, is getting off easy, considering that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for his treasonous acts. (If prosecutors had gotten their way, he would’ve been the first person executed for espionage since the Rosenbergs in the ’50s.)

For the full story, including more in-depth explanations of Regan’s elaborate encryptions, check out The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.


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