Intuitive vs. Non-Intuitive Puzzles

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[Image courtesy of The Spruce Crafts.]

Sometimes, when you look at a puzzle, you know immediately what to do and how to solve. In my opinion, a great deal of Sudoku’s success is due to its intuitive nature. You see the grid, the numbers, and you know how to proceed.

Crosswords are similarly straightforward, with numbered clues and grid squares to guide new solvers. (The “across” and “down” directions also help immensely.)

That’s not to say that these puzzles can’t be off-putting to new solvers, despite their intuitive nature. I know plenty of people who are put off by crosswords simply by reputation, while others avoid Sudoku because they’re accustomed to avoiding ANY puzzle that involves numbers, assuming that some math is involved. (I suspect that KenKen, despite its successes, failed to replicate the wild popularity of Sudoku for similar reasons.)

But plenty of other puzzles require some explanation before you can dive in. A Marching Bands or Rows Garden puzzle, for instance, isn’t immediately obvious, even if the puzzle makes plenty of sense once you’ve read the instructions or solved one yourself.

The lion’s share of pen-and-paper puzzles fall into this category. No matter how eye-catching the grid or familiar the solving style, a solver can’t simply leap right into solving.

Thankfully, this won’t deter most solvers, who gleefully accept new challenges as they come, so long as they are fair and make sense after a minute or so of thought. Cryptic crossword-style cluing is a terrific example of this. At first glance, the clues might appear to be gibberish. But within each clue lurks the necessary tools to unlock it and find the answer word.

Brain teasers often function the same way. You’re presented with a problem — a light bulb you can’t see and three possible switches for it, for instance — and you need to figure out a way to solve it. It might involve deduction, wordplay, or some clever outside-the-box thinking, but once you find the answer, it rarely feels unfair or unreasonable.

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[Image courtesy of Deposit Photos.]

But, then again, there are also puzzles that can baffle you even once you’ve read the instructions and stared at the layout for a few minutes. Either the rules are complex or the solving style so unfamiliar or alien that the solver simply can’t find a way in.

In short, puzzles as a whole operate on a spectrum that spans from intuitive to non-intuitive.

Want an example of baffling or non-intuitive? You got it.

GAMES Magazine once ran a puzzle entitled “Escape from the Dungeon,” where the solver had to locate a weapon in a D&D-style dungeon. A very small crossword puzzle was found in one room on a paper scroll.

But the solution had nothing to do with solving the crossword.

The actual solution was to take the crossword to a magician who removed letters from the fronts of words. Removing the C-R-O-S left you with a sword, completing the overall puzzle.

That sort of thinking is so outside the box that it might as well be in a different store entirely. Video games, particularly ones from the point-and-click era, have more than their fair share of non-intuitive puzzles like this. You can check out these lists for numerous examples.

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And as escape rooms grow in popularity, more of them seem to be succumbing to less intuitive puzzling as a result of trying to challenge solvers.

For example, in one escape room I tried, various fellow participants uncovered two stars, a picture of the three blind mice, and four different items that represented the seasons. Amidst all the locks to open, puzzles to unravel, and secrets to find, it never occurred to any of us that these three unconnected numbers would have to be assembled as a combination to a lock. By asking for a hint, we were able to figure out to put them together and open the lock, but it’s not a terribly intuitive puzzle.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a puzzle constructor — be it a pen-and-paper puzzle, an escape room scenario, or a puzzle hunt dilemma — is not creating a dynamite, unique puzzle, but ensuring that finding the solution is fair, even if it’s difficult or mind-boggling.

This sort of thinking informs not only my work as a puzzlesmith, but the designs for my roleplaying games as well. If my players encounter a gap, there’s some way across. If there’s a locked door, there’s a way through it. Oftentimes, there’s more than one, because my players frequently come up with a solution that eluded me.

In the end, that’s the point. All puzzles, no matter how difficult, exist for one reason: to be solved. To provide that rush, that a-ha moment, that satisfaction that comes with overcoming the clever, devious creation of another sharp mind.

And non-intuitive puzzles are tantamount to rigging the game.


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A Puzzly Scholarship Opportunity!

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Puzzles make the world better. They entertain us, they challenge us, they make us think, rewiring our brains to look for solutions in innovative, creative ways. Over the years, we’ve chronicled how puzzles have launched people on quests, brought couples together, and raised money for worthy causes.

And now, a puzzle could lead to a scholarship for one enterprising applicant out there.

The crew at Mission Street Puzzles — a delightful outfit that specializes in puzzle hunt-style brain teasers that all lead to different San Francisco locations — are offering financial aid to a promising young puzzler.

From the announcement page:

We’re excited to announce that Mission Street Puzzles will be hosting a scholarship for student puzzle-writers! The winner of this scholarship will receive $2000 toward higher education.

How do you apply? Well, you fill out the form and compose a puzzle (and walkthrough solution) that leads to a landmark as the final answer.

Applicants have until Monday, May 18th, 2020 to enter, so be sure to share this info with students you know! The scholarship is open to students who are or will be (in the upcoming school year) attending higher education in the U.S. or Canada.

This is such a cool opportunity for a puzzle-minded student out there to earn some cash to help with school expenses. Kudos to the folks at Mission Street Puzzles for creating this marvelous program, and good luck to any applicants in the PuzzleNation readership!


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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A Puzzle Hunt at a Wedding Reception?

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We’ve seen our fair share of puzzly romance here on the blog over the years, particularly when it comes to proposals. There was the Rubik’s Cube proposal, the Monopoly proposal, and of course, the two proposals facilitated by our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles.

Heck, just recently, YouTuber and author Hannah Witton proposed to her partner using some Fluxx cards she created especially for the occasion!

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But in today’s blog, we’ve got a new twist on things. We’ve seen puzzly proposals… but how about a puzzle-fueled wedding reception?

When Laser Webber (half of the wonderful musical duo The Doubleclicks) and Richard Malena got married, they decided to celebrate the day with a puzzly reception, since they love puzzles and games, and they knew some of their guests were diehard puzzle/game fans as well.

So, what’s the perfect hook for a wedding reception puzzle?

Simple. Their rings had gone missing, and it was up to the puzzlers in attendance to find them!

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Each table at the reception had a theme — Dungeons & Dragons, Oregon, Lord of the Rings, etc. — and on the back of each placemat was a letter. The letters spelled out a word related to another table’s theme, leading to certain tables teaming up. (There were also bonus letters on some of the placemats, which would be used in the next clue.)

So, say there were nine tables, and those nine tables boiled down to three teams (three tables per team), those teams could then combine the bonus letters from their tables to spell a bonus word.

The three bonus words, when combined, formed the phrase “ringing present interior.”

A-ha! A clue must be lurking on the present table!

The solvers made their way there, and shook the presents. Although several of them made interesting noises, only one contained a bell that rang out in suspicious fashion. The guests paused for a second, then tore into the paper and opened the box, revealing a Rubik’s Cube.

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Naturally, this one had been personalized for the event, with letters or star stickers on it in addition to the usual colors. When solved, from left to right, the cube read:

THESECRETCOD
EBEHINDTHECO
NSTELLATIONS

or

“the secret code behind the constellations.”

The eyes of solvers immediately turned to the paintings of constellations that decorated the reception area. Or, more specifically, to what was behind the paintings. With a touch more destruction — paper backings to the paintings, rather than wrapping paper this time — a number of playing cards were revealed, each with bits of a message painted on.

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When properly arranged, the message on the cards read, “What did that hobbits ask when he tricksed me?”

How clever is that? Not just a Lord of the Rings reference (one sure to delight LOTR fans in attendance), but a reminder of what they were looking for… the lost rings of the newly married couple.

The solvers then confronted the emcees and asked the crucial question, “What have I got in my pocket?” and the emcees revealed they had the rings all along.

The guests had triumphed and reunited the couple with their rings!

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It was a really unique way of celebrating being together with friends and loved ones — and doing something you love in a big, fun, silly, personalized way as well — and we here at PuzzleNation Blog are forever impressed by the creativity and puzzly ingenuity of our fellow puzzlers.

[For the full story, including a hilarious mishap during the placemat portion of the puzzle hunt, check out Richard’s blog post about the reception here.]


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Beer + Puzzles = Viral Marketing Hijinks

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[Image courtesy of Busch]

We recently discussed the art of viral marketing in our post about an upcoming Cartoon Network show. This year alone, we’ve seen some very clever viral marketing techniques — the Game of Thrones promotion that had people scouring the globe for replicas of the Iron Throne comes to mind — and last week, the folks at Busch Beer got in on the puzzly fun.

The concept was simple: launch a pop-up shop (a short-term retail venue where the location and the brief duration are selling points for the store) in a secret location and leave clues for interested customers to follow in order to find it.

News stories like this one hyping the Busch Pop Up “Schop” began appearing all over the Internet on July 15th and 16th.

The promises were intriguing. Limited-edition merchandise. Free beer. The commitment to plant a hundred trees in a national forest for every visitor who makes it to the Schop. Plus, a random drawing where one lucky visitor wins Busch Beer for life.

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[Image courtesy of Busch.]

After the launch video, additional clips with clues were posted once or twice a day from the 17th to the 19th.

On the 17th, solvers received this clue: Kansas to the left of me / Illinois to the right / here I am stuck in ____ with you. Can you guess what state I’m in?

On the 18th, they received this clue: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” I’m actually in the forest. Can you guess which one?

Later the day, another clue appeared: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Which is why I can tell you I’m in an area with a lot of vertical wooden objects.

On the 19th, they offered a final clue: First syllable: Abel’s brother. Second syllable: Rhymes with duck. Can you guess where the trailhead starts?

Later that day, they made things less opaque: Ok, final clue. If you were hypothetically hiking to the Busch Pop Up Schop, you might hypothetically start at the Kaintuck Hollow Trailhead. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

So, from the clue on the 17th, we got the state: Missouri. By the 18th, we knew it was the Mark Twain National Forest. And the day before the event, we even knew where to start hiking: Kaintuck Hollow Trailhead.

On the day of, the Busch Twitter account shared the following advice:

-No need to hurry, you do not have to be first to arrive to win, it will be a random draw after we close
-We’re open 10AM-5PM
-Bring your hiking boots
-Stay hydrated, it’s going to be a hot one

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[Image courtesy of Ryan James Hausmann.]

Unfortunately, the “No need to hurry” line looked quite bad in retrospect.

It seems that Busch severely underestimated the number of people who would be attending. (The expected number seemed to be between 75 and a few hundred people.) Though the event was scheduled to run from 10 AM to 5 PM, they reportedly closed off the Pop Up Schop by 10:30 AM because they’d already reached capacity. (Some online reports said they closed the shop by 9:30 AM, before the event had even officially started.)

Naturally, since these are anecdotal reports, details are contradictory, but the vast majority claim that the merch was gone quickly, attendees either got a warm beer or no beer at all, and the only consolation rested in the fact that you could still sign up for the free beer for life contest before being turned away.

According to one attendee on Twitter:

We walked there and were told we couldn’t go up the trail because they were at capacity and out of beer and merchandise. We got to enter for the drawing, hike back to the car and attempt to turn around on a one lane road.

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[Image courtesy of Nick Schmidt.]

A few later reports suggest the Pop Up Schop was restocked at some point, given that there are stories of attendees arriving between 1:30 and 3:30 and getting drinks. Perhaps they were simply overwhelmed by the early morning onslaught… or maybe the promotional team was doing damage control and seeding a few positive reports in with the negative feedback. It’s hard to say given the general lack of coverage for the event. (Despite the many reports hyping the event, as far as I can tell, none followed up with the results of the promotion.)

Either way, a viral marketing campaign with great traction and excellent turnout had a lackluster result. Hopefully those who made the journey had fun and the marketing team learned something from all this.

And, in their defense, it does seem that many people enjoyed the adventure, even if the end result didn’t exactly meet their expectations. The staff was routinely praised for their professionalism and grace under tough conditions (especially in 100 degree weather).

There’s always next time. I mean, a summer day, a nice hike, a puzzle, and free beer? That sounds like a recipe for major turnout to me.


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Complex Puzzles and the Importance of Double-Checking

Puzzles are constantly evolving, and in the age of the Internet, the only thing more impressive than the multi-stage brain-melting complexity of some puzzles is the ability of people to work together to solve them.

There are the in-person examples, like escape rooms, scavenger hunts, and puzzle hunts, where people gather together to unravel a series of puzzles in order to accomplish a task.

But when it comes to the hidden challenges concealed within some video games, the Internet itself becomes the gathering place for dedicated puzzlers to come together and crack these ingeniously devised brain teasers.

We’ve talked about several of these puzzle hunts in the past. There was the Gravity Falls cipher hunt that led to an actual statue of the show’s villain Bill Cipher in the woods of Reedsport, Oregon. (And a mayoral position for the first person to find him and shake his hand!)

There was the puzzle-turned-global-scavenger hunt from Trials Evolution that won’t be completed until 2113 at the base of the Eiffel Tower. And there was the Destiny 2 puzzle hunt that led to a replica of one of the game’s most famous weapons.

[Just one of the codes employed in the Trials Evolution puzzle.]

What’s amazing about these elaborate puzzly challenges is the complexity involved. There are different codebreaking techniques applied, levels upon levels of deduction, bits of word association, pattern recognition, and more, all of which must be executed to perfection in order to arrive at the correct solution.

But as a puzzle editor myself, I can’t stop focusing on how that complexity only increases for the puzzlesmiths themselves. After all, they have to create these clues, reverse engineering a challenging, multi-layered series of puzzles resulting in the answer they want, and along the way, make sure that it’s actually solvable.

I mean, creating a challenge is one thing. But striking a balance is remarkably difficult. You have to offer breadcrumbs and clues so that solvers know how to proceed (or that they’re on the correct path), and you can’t make it too easy, or it doesn’t feel like a worthy challenge. But make it too hard, and you risk solvers becoming frustrated, or worse, not discovering your creation at all, which feels like a wasted effort.

Threading the needle in this fashion is an awesome task in every sense of the word, and every time I see one of these puzzle hunts unearthed and completed blows my mind. The folks who solve them are the coolest, and the folks who create them are badasses.

But with all these elaborate puzzles, I couldn’t help but wonder… what happens when something goes wrong?

I mean, we’ve all seen crosswords with incorrect clues, or cases where more than one answer to a riddle or a puzzle makes sense. These things can happen, no matter how hard you try, or how often you test-solve and beta-test.

Recently, that question was answered.

The crew behind Destiny 2 — the same game that featured the impressive Warmind puzzle from last year — unleashed a new fiendish puzzle as part of their Black Armory content pack. That puzzle, Niobe Labs, served as a lock, and until the puzzle was solved by at least one player, none of the online players could access the adventures that lay beyond it.

The puzzle was released last Tuesday, and last Thursday — less than two full days after the release — the company decided that it was unfair to have regular players waiting for those with world-class puzzly skills to unravel the secret behind the puzzle, and they opened the full download for everyone.

Now, that might seem like a knee-jerk reaction, given that it was less than two days afterward. But it’s worth noting that these online crowd-solving efforts can work remarkably quickly, since so many people are not only trying it, but sharing their discoveries with each other.

In fact, in less than 24 hours after the original release, players had completed six out of the seven puzzles in Niobe Labs, involving complex ciphers, visual patterns, and references to sources as disparate as “Frere Jacques” and Victor Hugo.

Level Seven had the entire community stymied. And with good reason.

The puzzle was broken.

As it turns out, a piece of coding connected to the Level Seven puzzle had been deleted from the game’s code, making the puzzle unsolvable.

The Destiny 2 designers offered a new hint late Friday night to solvers, consisting of six cryptic sentences. And within hours, the intrepid solvers pooled their collective skills and knowledge to crack the final puzzle.

It never ceases to amaze me what puzzlers can accomplish when they put their minds to it, particularly when they work together.

And, of course, it makes me grateful for the test-solvers and beta-testers out there making sure our puzzles actually work as intended. Although this might’ve been embarrassing for the crew behind Destiny 2, it’s a valuable lesson.

Don’t be afraid to have someone check it one more time.


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