Those Sudoku Puzzles Can Be Criminally Tough!

Even when I’m not thinking about puzzles or intending to learn about puzzles, puzzles find me.

I was reading one of the most recent editions of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, those delightful compendiums of all things amazing, weird, and unlikely. Everything from world records and peculiar habits to once-in-a-lifetime events and mind-bending coincidences are found between the covers of these collections.

And one particular fact caught my eye:

Eighty-six prisoners at Exeter Jail in Devon, England, signed a formal letter of complaint claiming that a Sudoku puzzle in the local newspaper — the Exeter Express and Echo — on May 21, 2015, was impossible to solve.

I was instantly intrigued.

[Image courtesy of The Telegraph.]

Here is the message the prisoners sent to the editor of The Exeter Express and Echo:

Dear Sir/Madam, I am sadly writing this letter in A LOT of disappointment.

As you will see, I’ve enclosed last week’s Sudoko [sic] page and we (along with 84 other prisoners) believe you printed a ‘hard’ Sudoku which is IMPOSSIBLE to complete.

As being prisoners we are only aloud [sic] access to Thursday’s issue, so we couldn’t verify the truth.

Yours FAITHFULLY,

Michael Blatchford
Shane Smith

Yes, The Exeter Express and Echo is printed twice a week, and since the answers to Thursday’s puzzles appear on Monday, and the inmates don’t have access to Monday’s issues, they were unable to check their own work.

So, naturally, I had to see whether this Sudoku puzzle was as unsolvable as the inmates claimed.

Finding a copy of the puzzle wasn’t hard. Here, I’ll post it here, in case you want to try your hand at it yourself:

[Image courtesy of The Telegraph.]

So, is it impossible?

Well, no.

In all honesty, I’m not the strongest or the fastest Sudoku solver. But I did complete this puzzle, difficult as it was. I suspect, given time, you would complete it as well. I don’t mean to impugn the Sudoku skills of the Exeter Jail population. I’m just saying.

As it turns out, the inmates had made a few key mistakes, mostly in the middle section, and since they apparently solve in ink, it made things much harder.

But, in a lovely response, the staff at The Exeter Express and Echo promised to make Monday papers available to the inmates as well, so they can double-check their answers next time. That’s nice.

And here’s hoping their Sudoku solving has been smooth sailing ever since. Apparently, it has been, since Ripley’s has yet to mention them a second time.


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Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Codebreaker and Scourge of Nazi Spymasters

[William and Elizebeth Smith Friedman, hard at work.
Image courtesy of National Geographic.]

Last year, I rather ambitiously attempted to summarize the early history of American codebreaking and the NSA in a series of blog posts spanning World War II through the modern day. One of the names I cited in that series, William Friedman, is synonymous with American cryptography, thanks to his contributions to the cracking of the German ENIGMA code and his efforts to establish the National Security Agency.

Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole in the narrative I constructed. Because none of my sources made any reference to another crucial Friedman: Elizebeth Smith Friedman, William’s wife and partner in code-cracking.

Yes, she was name-dropped in my post about the book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, but she had to share those pages with a host of underappreciated women who were codebreaking geniuses.

[Image courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.]

As The Woman Who Smashed Codes explains, she wasn’t just a talented codebreaker. She literally wrote the book on it. Eight of them, in fact. The Riverbank Publications — although often credited to her husband — covered new codebreaking techniques in rich detail, and they are still referred to today as part of the foundation of modern cryptography.

She also started the first and only American codebreaking unit ever run by a woman, serving as Cryptanalyst-in-Charge while jointly working for both the Treasury and the Coast Guard during and after World War II.

A history of American codebreaking without Elizebeth Smith Friedman is woefully incomplete, and in today’s post, I hope to rectify that oversight.

[Image courtesy of the Marshall Foundation.]

Elizebeth’s work with codes started in a most peculiar way. While seeking a job as a librarian after college, she was recruited by eccentric millionaire George Fabyan to live and work at Riverbank, his palatial estate that doubled as a self-funded research center for all sorts of scientific endeavors.

Elizebeth’s deep knowledge of Shakespeare was put to work attempting to prove Fabyan’s theory that there were secret messages encoded in the writings of Shakespeare. Although her work failed to uncover any hidden pattern in Shakespeare’s words or font choices, it did lead to two unexpected developments: a career in codebreaking and a budding romance with fellow Riverbank recruit William Friedman, whose own interest in codebreaking was sparked by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Thanks to the proliferation of radio, there was a seismic shift in how information was being passed between military units, governments, and other organizations, so the ability to listen in on one’s enemies (and allies) was not only a new strategic opportunity, but it was a relatively new science.

In short, America needed codebreakers who could crack the secret messages being transmitted (and intercepted). The military didn’t have them. The government didn’t have them.

But Riverbank did. And for the first eight months of World War I, the small group of William, Elizebeth, and those they trained handled ALL of the codebreaking for every part of the US government, from the State Department to the Army to the DOJ. William and Elizebeth began running a codebreaking school out of Riverbank, even embedding a secret message in a photo of the class taken on the last day of the course.

[Images courtesy of Elonka.com.]

In the aftermath of the First World War, codebreaking had become so important that countries were turning to machines to help develop uncrackable codes. And yet, at this point, American cryptography as a whole consisted of about 50 people. William went to work for the government, establishing the American version of Bletchley Park — Arlington Hall — and setting the stage for the creation of the NSA.

Elizebeth, on the other hand, cracked codes from home. And she did so for both the Treasury Department and the Coast Guard, who would send her sealed packages of intercepted encrypted intel and communications. In her first three months hunting down rum-runners during Prohibition, she solved two years’ worth of backlogged messages.

During World War II, Elizebeth’s Coast Guard Cryptography Unit turned their attention from smuggling (which waned during wartime) to cracking German codes. Under her tutelage, they would crack three different variations on the Enigma codes, each more complex than the last. (The British also cracked ENIGMA, independently of American efforts.)

Sadly, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the US military didn’t want civilians in charge of sensitive operations, so Elizebeth was demoted. Yes, she was no longer in charge of the group she started, trained, and cultivated, instead answering to a new boss of dubious cryptographic talents.

(Of course, the sexist dimwits making decisions like this had to grin and bear it when numerous other organizations and agencies continued to asked for Elizebeth’s assistance by name.)

And stealing Elizebeth’s credit was practically a cottage industry over at the FBI. We have them to thank for erasing Elizebeth’s role in particular — and the Coast Guard’s role in general — in hunting down, exposing, and compromising Nazi spy networks in South America, even though the FBI’s hamfisted blundering actually served to expose codebreaking operations in the past, forcing Elizebeth to crack new codes in order to regain the advantage the FBI had squandered.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that both during AND after World War II, Elizebeth continued to hound the Nazi forces in South America who sought to destabilize the region?

As one historian put it, referring to the thousands of pages of decryptions Elizebeth produced:

These pieces of paper saved lives. They almost certainly stopped coups. They put fascist spies in prison. They drove wedges between Germany and other nations that were trying to sustain and prolong Nazi terror. By any measure, Elizebeth was a great heroine of the Second World War.

The British knew it. The navy knew it. The FBI knew it. But the American public never did, because Elizebeth wasn’t allowed to speak.

[Image courtesy of Find a Grave.]

Even in their retirement, the Friedmans continued to contribute to the world of cryptography. They returned to the subject of Shakespeare with The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined, thoroughly debunking the whole idea of hidden codes in the Bard’s works.

When William died, Elizebeth even hid a secret message on his tombstone, for those who knew how to look. (It was Bacon’s cipher, something they both studied extensively during their time at Riverbank.) What a touching tribute to how she met her partner and husband.

And although the accolades and appreciation for Elizebeth’s incredible contributions have been slow in coming, they are trickling in. In the 1990s, the NSA renamed its auditorium from the William F. Friedman Memorial Auditorium to the William F. Friedman and Elizebeth S. Friedman Memorial Auditorium. A Justice Department building also has an auditorium bearing her name.

More information about the massive expansion of codebreaking worldwide is coming to light with every passing year. Hopefully that will mean greater attention for minds like Elizebeth, who used her puzzly mind to protect the world. That’s someone worth celebrating.

[Much of the information in this post comes from a wonderful book on Elizebeth, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, and it’s well-worth your time to check out her story in full.]


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The Voynich Manuscript: Finally Cracked?

[Image courtesy of BBC.com.]

A year and a half ago, I introduced my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers to the Voynich Manuscript, a cryptologic curiosity unlike anything else we’ve seen before. Discovered over a hundred years ago but believed to date back to the fifteenth century, the Voynich Manuscript is a hand-written book that has baffled linguists and puzzlers for decades.

The writing, which reads from right to left, has yet to be identified. It’s unclear if this is some sort of sophisticated code, an unknown or lost language which was then encoded, an invented language, an example of glossolalia (a written equivalent of speaking in tongues), or simply an elaborate hoax.

The only known copy of the text resides in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, although Yale has printed replica texts.

From the Yale University website:

Many call the fifteenth-century codex, commonly known as the “Voynich Manuscript,” the world’s most mysterious book. Written in an unknown script by an unknown author, the manuscript has no clearer purpose now than when it was rediscovered in 1912 by rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich. The manuscript appears and disappears throughout history, from the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to a secret sale of books in 1903 by the Society of Jesus in Rome. The book’s language has eluded decipherment, and its elaborate illustrations remain as baffling as they are beautiful.

[One of several fold-out pages in the manuscript.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

But computer scientists at the University of Alberta believe they’ve finally unraveled some of the mysteries behind the Voynich Manuscript.

They designed an artificial intelligence program with the intent of figuring out the language in the manuscript. The AI analyzed versions of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 400 different languages in order to establish different linguistic patterns to compare against the text of the Voynich Manuscript.

And according to the AI, the text was most likely written in Hebrew.

Now that they had a language to work with, they needed to begin deciphering precisely how that language was encrypted.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

There have been many theories regarding what form of encryption was employed in the Voynich Manuscript. Some investigators theorized that vowels had been removed from the words in the text in order to obscure their meaning further, while others have suggested writing that has been mirrored or otherwise written backwards. Anagrams and other forms of word manipulation are a common theory, and the University of Alberta team went with a variation on the anagram idea.

They theorized that the encoded words were alphagrams, anagrams where the letters in a word are placed in alphabetical order. (For instance, if VOYNICH was encoded this way, it would read CHINOVY.)

Turning loose the AI once again under these parameters, they found that 80% of the words in the Voynich text could be anagrammed into Hebrew words. They managed to cobble together a possible opening sentence for the text:

“She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”

Is it clunky? Sure. But it’s also a partial translation that has held up to some scrutiny, which is better than most amateur AND professional attempts to crack the Voynich Manuscript have done.

The team is currently hoping to team up with experts in ancient Hebrew and continue the process, but until then, they’re excited to apply their AI to other ancient manuscripts to see what it uncovers.

Although we are a long way from calling the Voynich mystery solved, this is a very intriguing step forward for cryptographers and codebreaking enthusiasts everywhere.


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The PN Blog 2017 Countdown!

It’s one of the final blog posts of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2017 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


#10 Farewell, David

I don’t mean to start off this countdown on a sad note by mentioning the loss of fellow puzzler and Penny Dell colleague David Lindsey. But it was an incredibly rewarding experience to talk to those who knew him better than I did, and put together a memorial piece in his honor. I learned so much, and it was a valuable part of the healing process for all of us. I had two different opportunities to get to know David, and that’s a rare gift.

#9 The Puzzle of the Bard

Puzzle history, codes, and wordplay are three common topics around here. So when I found a story that neatly covers all three, I simply couldn’t resist. Although this one is more conspiracy theory than verifiable puzzle history, it was great fun to do a deep dive into the ongoing debate surrounding Shakespeare’s identity and put a puzzly spin on the subject. The research alone made this one worthwhile.

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#7 Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords

Sadly, crosswords in general, and New York Times crosswords in particular, have a reputation for being stodgy, steeped in arcane vocabulary, obscure facts, and antiquated cultural references. As part of the ever-evolving narrative surrounding cultural sensitivity — not just ethnic, but in terms of gender and sexuality as well — it’s important to do more than acknowledge the debate. You have to participate in it.

#6 Puzzles in Unexpected Places

One was tucked away on a university website. Another sat in plain sight on a tombstone. The third came to light in a music fan’s collection. What did all three have in common? They represented a simple fact: puzzles are everywhere, a part of the cultural fabric in innumerable ways. I’m cheating a bit by mentioning three posts here, but they all fit the pattern. And it’s so much fun to discover puzzles in unexpected places.

#5 Puzzles for Pets

April Fools Day pranks are an Internet tradition at this point. Some websites go all out in celebrating the holiday. (Heck, ThinkGeek has started using the holiday to tease the public’s interest level in “fake” products, going on to actually release some of those April Fools pranks as real items later in the year!)

So when the idea was floated for PuzzleNation to get in on the pranking fun, I couldn’t resist. The result — Puzzles for Pets — was as layered as it was silly, complete with fake quotes, splash pages, and more. I even got my own dog, Bailey, in on the gag.

#4 Design Your Own Escape Room

Bringing a puzzle-solving mindset into other social activities has always been a passion of mine. I’ve written in previous blog posts about using my puzzly experiences in designing murder mystery dinners and other events. This year, I had the opportunity to try my hand at designing an escape room-style experience for a friend’s birthday, and sharing some of what I learned with you was a genuine treat.

#3 ACPT, New York Toy Fair, and more

There are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was supporting new creators and exploring established companies at New York Toy Fair or cheering on my fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, getting out and talking shop with other creators is invigorating and encouraging. It really helps solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#2 Puzzle History

I mentioned puzzle history as a frequent blog post topic in #9, but recent revelations by government agencies in both the United States and Great Britain have allowed puzzlers greater access than ever before to the history of codebreaking over the last century or so.

In fact, so much information has come to light that I was able to do a three-part series on the history of the NSA and American codebreaking post-World War II. This was a labor of love that took weeks to put together, and I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done for the blog.

#1 Daily POP Crosswords

There’s nothing more exciting than getting to announce the launch of a product that has been months or years in the making, so picking #1 was a no-brainer for me. It had to be the announcement of Daily POP Crosswords.

But it’s not just the app, it’s everything behind the app. I’ve had the opportunity to introduce you to several of the terrific constructors we’ve recruited to make the puzzles as fresh and engaging as they can possibly be, and you’ll get to meet a few more in the weeks to come.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

And it’s part of the evolution of PuzzleNation and PN Blog. Even as we work to ensure our current products are the best they can be, we’re always looking ahead to what’s next, what’s on the horizon, what’s to come.

Thanks for spending 2017 with us, through puzzle scandals and proposals, through forts and festivities, through doomsday prepping and daily delights. We’ll see you in 2018.


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PuzzleNation Blog Looks Back on 2017!

2017 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, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and tackled the Crossword from Hell. We accepted the challenge of diabolical brain teasers, optical illusions, Internet memes, and more, even pondering our place in the world of puzzles as electronic solvers like Dr. Fill and AlphaGo rise in capability.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about the legacy of female codebreakers in World War II, game dice from centuries ago, theories about Shakespeare’s secret codes, and the long history of cryptography and the NSA. We brought to light valuable examples of puzzles in art, popular culture, famous quotations, and even the natural world as we pondered whether bees are verifiable problem-solvers like crows and octopuses.

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 Puzzles for Progress, as well as amazing projects like new escape rooms, dazzling corn mazes, and the ongoing Kubrick’s Game interactive experience.

We cheered the 75th anniversary of the New York Times Crossword, and chronicled the many celebrations that marked the occasion, from guest crossword constructors like Bill Clinton and Lisa Loeb to a puzzle-centric cruise across the Atlantic!

We also mourned as friends and fellow puzzlers passed on. We said goodbye to David Lindsey and Raymond Smullyan, two underappreciated giants of the field. The pun-fueled show @midnight this year, which inspired our monthly hashtag game, also closed up shop, sadly.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, made puzzly bouquets in honor of International Puzzle Day, marveled at the records broken at the Rubik’s Cube World Championship, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and New York Toy Fair, and dove deep into an ever-expanding litany of puzzle events like the Indie 500, BosWords, Lollapuzzoola 10, and Crosswords LA.

We found puzzly ways to celebrate everything from Pi Day, the Super Bowl, and Star Wars Day to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you. We even discovered Puzzle Mountain!

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 five years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I recently penned my 800th 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 2017 went well beyond that.

Every month, we delivered quality content for the Penny Dell Crosswords App. From monthly deluxe sets and bonus boxes to Dell Collection sets and holiday bundles, dozens upon dozens of topnotch puzzles wended their way to our loyal and enthusiastic solvers.

And just last month, we launched our newest puzzly endeavor — Daily POP Crosswords — bringing you fresh, up-to-date cluing and relatable themes in world-class puzzles created by some of the industry’s best constructors! (Many of whom you’ve gotten to know in our recent interview series, Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors!)

But whether we’re talking about the Penny Dell Crosswords App or Daily POP Crosswords, 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, the blog has over 2200 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.

2017 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 2018!


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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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