A Mysterious Message, Inscribed on a Sword, Found in a River

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A few years ago, a very curious news story broke about an 8-year-old girl pulling a thousand-year-old sword out of a lake in Sweden.

Saga Vanecek — which sounds like the heroine of a YA novel series begging for a Netflix adaptation — discovered the sword while playing in the lake. The Jönköpings Läns Museum estimated that the sword is at least a thousand years old, and could be as old as 5th or 6th century.

No one is sure how it got there, but everyone agrees it’s an amazing find. (And many agree that Saga should now be queen. Hey, there are worse ways to choose a ruler.)

But there’s another story about a sword found in a body of water with an even stranger mystery attached: the River Witham sword.

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There are actually two River Witham swords — it’s just the right river to go sword-hunting in, I suppose — but we’re talking about what’s known as the River Witham “knightly sword.”

It was discovered in the river in 1825 and turned over to the Royal Archaeological Institute. It is now in the hands of the British Library.

And for more than two centuries, the meaning of the inscription has remained a mystery.

Inlaid along one of the sword’s edges, spelled out in gold wire, curious eyes find the following chain of letters:

+NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+

Is it an abbreviation? An encryption? Or simply patterning in the shape of letters? No solid answers emerged during decades of study.

Eventually, the British Library decided to crowdsource the puzzle in the hopes of finding a solution. In 2015, officials from the library officially reached out to the public to finally crack the code detailed along the blade.

All sorts of amateurs and professionals weighed in, exploring possibilities in Latin, Welsh, German, Irish, Sicilian, and others. They compared it to the medal of St. Benedict and other medieval engravings in search of patterns.

And the British Library shared one contributor’s thoughts as an addendum to their original post about the River Witham sword.

alphen blade

[The Alphen aan den Rijn sword-blade.]

Historian Marc van Hasselt compared the sword to others from the same time period, roughly around the year 1200, and believed it was safe to assume the language was Latin.

He compared the inscription from the River Witham sword — +NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+ — with an inscription on a Dutch sword-blade found in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands. That blade was inscribed on both sides:

+BENEDOXOFTISSCSDRRISCDICECMTINIUSCSDNI+

+DIOXMTINIUSESDIOMTINIUSCSDICCCMTDICIIZISI+

He explains his thought process:

To elaborate, let’s compare the River Witham sword to the sword from Alphen: both start with some sort of invocation. On the River Witham sword, it is NDXOX, possibly standing for Nostrum Dominus (our Lord) or Nomine Domini (name of the Lord) followed by XOX.

On the sword from Alphen, the starting letters read BENEDOXO. Quite likely, this reads as Benedicat (A blessing), followed by OXO. Perhaps these letter combinations – XOX and OXO – refer to the Holy Trinity. On the sword from Alphen, one letter combination is then repeated three times: MTINIUSCS, which I interpret as Martinius Sanctus – Saint Martin. Perhaps a saint is being invoked on the River Witham sword as well?

Unfortunately, the British Library’s investigation seems to have stopped there after the intriguing contributions of van Hasselt.

But, thankfully, there is always SOMEONE on the Internet trying to solve a seemingly unsolvable mystery. I did a bit of sleuthing and found a post on medium.com, originally posted in February of 2017, with a very through breakdown of a potential solution to the River Witham sword!

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[A closer look at the River Witham sword inscription.]

The author of the piece, Stieg Hedlund, started by focusing on the W in the inscription, since the classical Latin alphabet didn’t have a W. Surmising that the inscription was an initialism — which is common for Latin inscriptions — he started looking for an aristocratic name starting with W.

Why aristocratic? Well, not just anyone in the 1200s or 1300s could afford a sword with gold wire inscriptions.

He quickly settled on some variation of William for the W, and then narrowed his search to Willem II of Holland, a count, and the initialism CHW on the sword could mean Comes Hollandia Willelmus, his name and title in Latin.

william of holland

Following that line of thought and digging into the history of Willem II revealed that he ruled not only Germany, but the southern Belgian region of Hainault as well.

This gives him “Comes Hollandia Willelmus Dei gratia, Rex Germania et Hainault Dei nutu” to cover CHWDRGHD in the inscription.

When he turned his attention to the first five letters, he agreed with the supposition of Marc van Hasselt and others that it referenced “in Nomine Domini” and the XOX represented the Holy Trinity.

So that covers NDXOXCHWDRGHD, approximately two-thirds of the inscription. What about XORVI?

Well, Hedlund believes the solution lies in Laudes Regiæ, a Catholic hymn most famous for its opening words: Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! (In English: Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ commands.)

Abbreviated versions of these words were often used by kings and royalty to solidify their position by tying themselves to the church. On a coin issued by Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in 1384, you can read one rendition of the phrase: XPiσtoC VinCIT XPiσtoC RegnAT XPiσtoC InPERAT.

He believes XORVI is an abbreviated version, reading “XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!” where the capital letters form the inscribed message.

So, the completed message would read:

(in) Nomine Domini
Comes Hollandia Willelmus Dei (gratia), Rex Germania et Hainault Dei (nutu)
XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!

Or, in English:

In the Name of the Lord; of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost
Count of Holland Willem by the grace of God, King of Germany and Hainault by the will of God
Christ reigns! Christ conquers! Christ commands!

It’s a compelling case, and certainly the most complete interpretation and explanation I’ve been able to find.

Imagine. All of that in that brief, beautiful, confusing inscription. It’s fascinating, and makes the mind positively whirl with possibilities.

Oh, and if you find any centuries-old swords while you’re perusing the nearby waterways, let me know! We might have a new mystery to solve.


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The Man Who Found Forrest Fenn’s Treasure

One of the biggest stories in puzzles last year revolved around Forrest Fenn’s treasure hunt, which had left treasure hunters and puzzle fans baffled and searching for almost a decade.

The hopes of thousands of would-be rich treasure seekers were dashed when Fenn announced that his treasure had been found.

It was under a canopy of stars in the lush, forested vegetation of the Rocky Mountains and had not moved from the spot where I hid it more than 10 years ago. I do not know the person who found it, but the poem in my book led him to the precise spot.

I congratulate the thousands of people who participated in the search and hope they will continue to be drawn by the promise of other discoveries.

So the search is over. Look for more information and photos in the coming days.

But in the days and months that followed, controversy ensued. The identity of the hunter who found the treasure was kept secret, only referenced as someone “from back East.” Some treasure hunters demanded more proof, positing that Fenn had retrieved the treasure himself, or that he’d never hidden it at all.

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Lawsuits were filed, alleging that the mysterious treasure hunter had stolen his solution from someone else, or that Fenn had faked the entire decade-long endeavor.

In September, a few months after the announcement that the treasure had been found, Forrest Fenn passed away. Depending on what you believed, it was either oddly poignant or terribly convenient that his passing would follow the discovery of his long-hidden treasure.

Eventually, though, as these things go, the story grew quiet.

A reader of the blog recently asked me if there had been any updates on Fenn’s treasure. As it turns out, there had, but they’d flown relatively under the radar.

Back in December, a gentleman named Jack Stuef came forward as the finder of the Forrest Fenn treasure.

According to an article on NPR, Stuef claimed he pored over Fenn’s poem for two years, as well as interviews with Fenn, “teasing out clues from his words to understand what kind of person he was and where he might be inclined to hide his riches.”

As for why he remained anonymous, he further stated:

For the past six months, I have remained anonymous, not because I have anything to hide, but because Forrest and his family endured stalkers, death threats, home invasions, frivolous lawsuits, and a potential kidnapping — all at the hands of people with delusions related to his treasure. I don’t want those things to happen to me and my family.

The U.S. District Court for New Mexico has ruled that Forrest’s estate must provide some of my personal information to a woman I do not know and with whom I have never communicated who has brought a meritless lawsuit against me. This would make my name a matter of public record, so I chose to come forward today.

The entire piece is interesting, sharing his solo efforts to solve the mystery and find the treasure, as well as debunking a number of false reports, accusations, and various attempts at conspiracy theorizing.

fennfound6

But he also refuses to disclose where he found the treasure or how he arrived at that solution, which will no doubt frustrate and confound some of the more obsessive folks that spent the last decade trying to find Fenn’s treasure. (As for people claiming he was working with Fenn or that the treasure being found is still a hoax, I doubt they will ever be satisfied with ANY answers, short of them finding the treasure themselves.)

Still, with the expectation that any and all lawsuits related to the Fenn treasure hunt will be thrown out, this brings one of the strangest and most interesting puzzle mysteries of the last decade to a close.

Jack Stuef apparently managed to do what thousands of armchair adventure seekers (and more than a few real-life wildlife trekkers and treasure hunters) failed to: unravel Fenn’s riddle.

As a closing thought, I do hope that Stuef or someone connected to Fenn’s estate place some sort of marker where the treasure was found, if only to offer something for future treasure hunters to find. It would be a nice way to keep the spirit of the mystery alive, hopefully without the rancor or nonsense involved.


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Learning How to Drive From a Board Game?

ipgsycot_elearning-board-games

You can learn a lot from board games.

You can test your dexterity with games like Flick ‘Em Up, Flipships, or Pitchcar. You can test the steadiness of your hand with Jenga or Operation. You can test your deduction skills, your memory, your trivia, your tactical ability, your pattern matching, and your luck in all sorts of games. And along the way, you can learn history, strategy, negotation, and deception.

But, according to an article sent in by a fellow puzzle fan, there’s a board game out there that teaches you the rules of the road as well.

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It’s called The Driver’s Way, and in the African country of Sierra Leone, it became law that you had to purchase and play this board game to learn road safety.

The game was actually designed by the assistant inspector general of police in Sierra Leone, Morie Lengor, and he designed the game in the hopes that it would reduce the accident rate for drivers in his country.

Now, this is a pretty cool idea, and I think more skills should be taught through board games. Do detectives need to play Clue or Deception: Murder in Hong Kong in order to learn their trade? Should we have exterminators playing Mousetrap and virologists playing Pandemic?

Just imagine if a court could order someone to play Sorry until they respected the meaning of the word.

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Anyway, I thought this was a weirdly fascinating factoid, so I went on the hunt for more details. There weren’t many.

The news regarding this story broke in 2013, and the vast majority of articles about the game date back to that initial media blitz. Practically all of them carry the headline “You Have to Play a Board Game Before You Can Get a Driver’s License in Sierra Leone.”

Moreover, almost all of the articles were in some way factually incorrect, because they were thirdhand or worse reports, copying and paraphrasing from another article which did the same from another article which MIGHT have linked to the original.

Recent search results (and by recent, I mean 2018, which is the latest reference I found to it) are scarce, and parrot the same information from 2013. Most articles don’t even have an actual image of the game, using any image with a road — be it The Game of Life or just one of those small town rugs from kindergarten class with roads drawn all over.

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Descriptions of the game vary. Some refer to “spotlight-themed dice” and answering questions, while others compared the game to “a cross between Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders, as well as Scrabble.” I have no idea what form that game would take, and I suspect the person who wrote it has even less of a clue.

I can’t find anything that verifies this became a widespread tool for driver safety. A planned global production expansion appears to have dried up quickly, and I can’t find anything on the 3000 copies of the game articles claim were already manufactured and distributed. There’s not even an entry for the game on Board Game Geek, which is an otherwise exhaustive resource of board game info.

And yes, I did go as far as to actually reach out to the Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority about this, but they haven’t gotten back to me.

So, sadly, until we can find out more, we must consider this story a delightful flash-in-the-pan and not the start of a board game-learning revolution that could transform us all into Battleship-hunting, Forbidden Island-exploring, Kerplunk masters of a thousand different legally-bonded skills.

For now, anyway.


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PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: Terminal Descent

Almost two years ago, the first Crossword Mysteries movie debuted. A Puzzle to Die For introduced the puzzle world (and the mystery world) to crossword editor Tess Harper and NYPD detective Logan O’Connor, as the unlikely duo unraveled the murder of an art dealer with a crossword puzzle in his pocket.

During the final commercial break, three more Crossword Mysteries films were announced for the fall of 2019. The second Crossword Mysteries film — Proposing Murder — debuted on schedule on October 13th.

The third film — Abracadaver — was originally scheduled to air one week later, but was suddenly pushed to January of 2020 to make room for more Christmas movies. In October. At some point, any mention of the promised fourth film simply vanished.

Naturally, folks couldn’t help but wonder what happened. I even pitched ideas for a fourth movie! Fans waited the whole year to find out.

Finally, I heard from a fellow puzzler that the fourth film would be debuting on Valentine’s Day.

crossword mysteries td 0

Our first taste of Crossword Mysteries in over a year? Marvelous! Let’s get to it, shall we?

But first, a heads-up. I’ll recap the story below, and then give my thoughts on the whole endeavor. If you’d like to read my conclusions but skip the full recap, scroll down to the next solid black line.

Ready? Okay, let’s dig in!


FILM RECAP

The film opens on a Wednesday at 3:30 PM.

Businessman Morgan Daniels disconnects a hard drive from a laptop, then tucks it into his pocket as he leaves the conference room. He awkwardly bumps into a staffer, and by bumps into, I mean full-on chest-to-chest sumo-collides with her. Morgan apologizes and continues on, stopping to say goodbye to crossword editor Tess Harper and head for the elevator.

He speaks to the elevator, asking for the parking garage, and the elevator actually answers him. But instead of going down, it starts ascending. It suddenly stops, then plummets downward. In a panic, Daniels cries out to the interactive computer programming that runs the elevator, BB, as he falls.

Everyone, including Tess, hears the crash. Once again, Tess simply being in the vicinity has caused another death. We are approaching Jessica Fletcher levels of coincidence here.

Also, if we’re getting a murderous crossword-obsessed supercomputer villain in this Crossword Mysteries movie, I am totally on board.

crossword mysteries td 1

Cue a very brief intro with the Crossword Mysteries logo, but none of the usual main character introductions or trappings. We get right down to business.

The story starts six hours earlier.

Tess speed-solves a puzzle in 2 minutes, 13 seconds. She’s prepping for a showdown with BB, the XCAL Communications supercomputer. New crime desk reporter Frank, who shares a workspace with crossword editor Tess, comments on how the chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue and the Jeopardy!-quizzed Watson both defeated humans. We know, Frank. We’ve tried to warn people about this.

Tess’s new assistant Sonia highlights that Tess is a woman and all the previous human vs. computer showdowns have featured men, which is an interesting point.

Tess asks Sonia to cook up a list of “computer and tech jargon” to do a series of tie-in puzzles for the week of the exhibition. (We later see Tess working on one of these puzzles, and the jargon includes TERABYTE. Which, if she is symmetrically placing themed answer words, is opposite either PRIME RIB or SPARE RIB for some reason.)

Tess then leaves to meet the competition.

We jump to the police station, where Detective Logan O’Connor is chatting with new detective Amrita Kapoor. He’s then called into the chief’s office where his father (the chief) is having tech trouble with the new filing system. We’re only a few minutes in, and we’re already getting John Kapelos, because Hallmark knows what the audience wants. The chief talks about possible retirement. NOOOO, don’t you dare, Hallmark.

We then jump to Tess and Aunt Candace, walking and talking. Tess mentions being slightly overwhelmed with her deadlines and her Crossword Club newsletter — I think Patti Varol and Penny Press might have something to say about that — and a singles charity event that she’s helping with that never gets brought up again.

At the XCAL building, Tess chats to old friend Viv Banks, who helped put together this woman vs. machine promotional showdown. Viv shows Tess how they can talk to BB to use the elevator, which is totally not faster than just pushing a button yourself. INNOVATION.

They meet the XCAL VP Paul Redford and talk about XCAL and the upcoming exhibition. 

crossword mysteries td 5

They introduce Tess to a giant interactive monolithic version of BB, and she’s invited to ask it a few puzzle clues to test it out. (BB is very loud. Is everyone in the building hearing this demonstration?)

BB answers two simple clues, and Tess immediately has doubts about her performance. She seems to be half-joking, although she mentions potentially getting replaced at The Sentinel by BB.

Tess has a meet-awkward with a maintenance worker over a nearby plant that Tess seems to know more about than him. Tess and the audience are immediately suspicious.

She meets CEO Morgan Daniels, and asks him why he decided to test BB’s programming with crosswords. He tells a charming story about his father’s contentment sitting at home solving crosswords. In pen, of course. This pleasant moment is immediately ruined when plot intervenes in the form of Jesse Alexander, a woman who warns Morgan against taking a government contract, fearing the obvious Big Brother implications.

Morgan goes off with Jesse, and Tess shrugs this off, continuing to chat with VP Paul, who mentions that her voice is in the system. This means BB will respond to her elevator commands, and would even set off the alarm if she chose. This will definitely not come into play later in the movie. This is absolutely not foreshadowing.

crossword mysteries td 3

At this point, time has caught up to the opening scene where Morgan enters the elevator. It’s only a brief distraction by Viv that prevents Tess from entering the same elevator as Morgan and plummeting to certain doom.

Also, Tess mentions to Viv that tomorrow’s crossword waits for no one. SHE HASN’T FINISHED THE PUZZLE FOR TOMORROW YET?!

There’s a brief jump in time, and we’re looking through the broken elevator doors at Logan and Amrita, who have arrived at the behest of the Mayor, who is demanding action. It turns out the elevator’s safety protocols were overridden. The NYPD’s Computer Crimes department are investigating how this could have happened.

Tess and Logan meet up, asking why each other are there. I would think Logan’s reason for being there is obvious, Tess.

She mentions the maintenance man, and then tries to shrug it off as irrelevant. (We know it’s not.) Logan awkwardly compliments her hair. What a charmer.

Amrita starts interviewing nearby staff members, and Logan talks to VP Paul. VP Paul claims that Morgan is the only one who could have disabled the safeties. And in fact, Morgan is the only person who can modify BB and her impressive data-mining and searching abilities. WHAT?!

crossword mysteries td 6

They do bring up the possibility of hacking, and VP Paul mentions that someone would have to be in the office to make any system changes to BB. They claim Morgan’s firewall is impenetrable, so the tampering could only be internal.

Tess finally connects the very large dots regarding the maintenance man, and confirms with building security that he was an impostor. There’s only one plant guy for this entire building. That must be one busy dude. She tells Logan when they bump into each other again, and they check the plant.

Logan unearths something metallic from the soil, which Tess immediately recognizes as a listening device. (How? Has this come up previously at her shared crime/crossword desk at work?)

Logan receives confirmation from Computer Crimes that the elevator was, in fact, tampered with. This was a murder.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan meets with VP Paul and Viv, and asks about potential threats made and enemies accumulated by the company. A rival company, Eisner Industries, immediately comes up, as they’ve been behind corporate espionage, hiring ex-employees, the works.

crossword mysteries td 4

Amrita shows up with a picture of the fake maintenance guy, which from the angle and resolution, appears to have been taken from the cameras filming this movie.

While waiting in line near a food cart, Tess chats with Frank, mentions the woman vs. machine exhibition has been cancelled, and then immediately starts sharing crucial information about the case and the maintenance man in public. She remembers a tattoo the man had on his forearm. Frank says he might be ex-military, and runs a few potential images past her, but no luck.

crossword mysteries td 7

[I love the subtle grid patterning on Tess’s clothes.
It’s one of my favorite stylistic touches in the series.]

Back at the office, Tess searches for the image and gets it on her very first click. It’s a motorcycle club. Tess goes to investigate.

Meanwhile, Logan and Amrita have turned up nothing on fingerprints and gotten no hits on facial recognition. Thankfully, Tess calls to inform him she’s putting herself in wildly stupid danger by heading to the motorcycle clubhouse herself.

She walks into the club, gets called “honey,” and drops some motorcycle knowledge, impressing the bartender. Then she immediately blows it by asking for details on a club member in the narc-iest manner possible. She looks around, sees a polaroid of the man from XCAL, and the bartender says his name is Eric. We get a swell of music to tell us a tense moment is approaching.

Logan arrives to find Tess charming the bikers with a story. Oh movie, you tricked us. She shares what she learned with Logan and he calls it in. Logan again warns Tess about putting herself in dangerous situations, then informs her that her new bartender friend is called Hammer because he committed felony assault with a hammer. Tess shrugs it off.

crossword mysteries td 13

The film cuts to Logan meeting Eric Ogden as he drives a van into an alley. He tries to bolt, but Amrita magically teleports into his path and stops him.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan is interrogating Eric. Eric stays silent until Logan accuses him of conspiracy to commit Morgan’s murder. Eric then confirms that Eisner Industries hired him, but claims he knows nothing about the murder. He has a hard drive in his apartment with all the audio he recorded from XCAL.

At The Sentinel, Frank thanks Tess for offering to introduce him to Viv, getting him a crucial in at XCAL. Frank offers some exposition on XCAL’s early days, including a partner named Gregory Sackett that Morgan booted from the company before they went public and became a cash cow.

At the police station, surveillance footage confirms Eric was never near a computer, so he couldn’t have been the one who reprogrammed BB and killed Morgan. He and Amrita talk suspects, and rule out Viv, but mention Jesse, who turns out to be lead programmer. They also mention the insane idea that Daniels was the only person who could make changes or maintain BB, and how that doesn’t make sense. Good call, movie. We were all thinking it.

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Logan sees the police commissioner is talking to the chief. I swear, movie, if you are writing out John Kapelos, I will fight you.

One visit to Jesse’s apartment yields no Jesse, but a neighbor confirms she left a few hours ago with a duffel bag.

crossword mysteries td 8

Meanwhile, Tess is finally crosswording, in the lobby of XCAL for some reason. She better have finished Tuesday’s puzzle by now. Logan bumps into her there. SHE MENTIONS HER PUZZLE IS DUE IN TWO HOURS. Tess, seriously?!

They banter back and forth about people skills. It’s pretty cute, honestly.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan crosses paths with reporter Frank and fires off a friendly “no comment” before talking to Viv. They observe VP Paul having a heated phone call with the board of directors. Eisner has put in a bid on XCAL, swooping in during the chaos. It turns out XCAL didn’t get the government contract because all the programming for it was on a personal hard drive Daniels was carrying, which Viv presumes was destroyed.

Yeah, it surely wasn’t nabbed from his pocket during the incredibly awkward bump-into earlier in the movie. I SEE YOU, MOVIE. I SEE YOU.

Frank and Tess are in the parking garage, and it turns out Tess’s vehicle knowledge also includes cars, as she correctly identifies the problem Viv is having with Morgan’s car. Viv is  trying to return it to his wife. Tess volunteers to drive it back with her.

crossword mysteries td 10

At the police station, the chief talks retirement with Logan after finding out from the commissioner that a colleague died at his desk. Amrita arrives to inform them that the audio files weren’t on the hard drive from Eric’s apartment. Someone erased them. The chief deduces that the killer is mopping up after their crime.

Eric confirms that Keith Eisner, the CEO of the rival company, was the one who hired him. Eric offers up that he overheard a heated argument Morgan had with someone named Patricia about a government contract and that “he’d sign the papers over his dead body.” Logan begins forming a theory connecting the missing Jesse with Patricia, and heads out to talk to the latter, who it turns out is Morgan’s wife.

But guess who is already on the way…

Tess and Viv chat en route. In Morgan’s messy car, she finds evidence that he was spending a lot of time at New York General Hospital. They talk about Jesse and Viv mentions how much Morgan trusted her input.

Logan has somehow beaten Tess and Viv to Patricia’s house, and it turns out the papers he wouldn’t sign were divorce papers. Patricia had fallen in love with someone else: Keith Eisner.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess and Viv arrive in Morgan’s car. She mentions the hospital to Logan, who is baffled by their increasingly unlikely meet-ups across New York. She cons a ride home with Logan. WAIT, HOW WAS SHE PLANNING TO GET BACK TO THE CITY? THAT CAB FARE WOULD BE OUTRAGEOUS.

[Tess adds “grand theft french fry” to her long list of previous crimes and indiscretions.]

Over lunch, Logan and Tess talk about Patricia and Eisner possibly orchestrating Morgan’s demise. Logan conspires with Tess to have socialite extraordinaire Aunt Candace test the chief’s interest in actually retiring.

Amidst their chatting, Tess reveals she was once engaged, but called off the wedding. Logan is about to share something, but is interrupted by a call. Turns out there’s no link the police can find between Patricia and Jesse.

Tess and Logan visit the hospital. But the nurse, a true professional, won’t divulge who Morgan was visiting. Tess doesn’t get a chance to try out her biker-soothing charms, because Logan gets a call, and there’s no sign of a hard drive in the elevator wreckage. Audience suspicions of pickpocketing confirmed.

Tess herself confirms this when Logan asks if she remembers anything, and she mentions the pre-elevator bumping-into. They go looking for the bumpee at XCAL, and it turns out she was a temp, so she wouldn’t have been on the employee list Viv gave the police.

[The temp, right after bumping into Morgan.]

Amrita looks up the temp, Layla Barnes, and she’s got a record. Apparently Jesse recommended her for the job.

In a coffeeshop, Aunt Candace and Tess chat about Logan and the chief, and Candace agrees to help Logan find out his dad’s thoughts on retiring. Tess gets a call. Frank has located former XCAL founder Gregory Sackett. He offers to bring Tess with him to talk to Sackett.

Logan arrives at Layla’s apartment building and hears a scream. Behind the building, he finds Layla on the ground, checks her pulse, and gets struck from behind by an unknown black-clad assailant.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Lots of flashing lights as we return to the alley behind Layla’s apartment. Amrita and the chief are there to check on Logan. He has a headache and a serious bump on the noggin, but otherwise he’s alright.

Amrita reports that Layla was killed by a single gunshot. Her laptop is there, along with a bunch of burner cellphones, but there’s no sign of Morgan’s missing hard drive.

Meanwhile, Frank and Tess chat, theorizing that Morgan and Sackett patched things up, and Sackett was the person Morgan was visiting at the hospital. It turns out that Morgan found out about Sackett’s illness through BB’s search algorithm, and that’s what made him reach out and mend fences.

At Sackett’s home, the ailing man mentions there was a third founding member of XCAL, Guinevere Rice. Tess puzzles out that XCAL is a reference to the sword Excalibur from Arthurian legend, and Sackett confirms the company was named in her honor. He also mentions that Guinevere and Morgan had been dating, and split at some point around the same time Sackett got booted.

At the police station, a phone call between Aunt Candace and the chief wraps up just as Logan and Amrita arrive. One of the burner phones they found at Layla’s apartment had call listings to all the biggest tech companies. She was trying to sell Morgan’s hard drive. Most of the phone calls were a minute or less, indicating no luck. The only long phone call — eight minutes long — was with Eisner Industries.

As soon as Logan arrives at Eisner, all of the computers in the lobby — because employees work in the lobby for some reason? — are hacked and start displaying the word CONFESS with seven exclamation points.

Now, we all know that three exclamation marks or more are the sign of true insanity, so seven is incredibly dangerous territory.

Logan meets with Keith Eisner upstairs as the hacking chaos continues. Eisner claims that the bugs were the result of an overzealous employee and that he only listened to Layla’s call for eight minutes to get details to report to the police. He admits that he and Morgan were rivals, but claims that their rivalry pushed each other to greater heights.

I really liked this touch. So often, antagonists — either actual bad guys or just red herring suspects — are cartoonishly mean or evil. To have their rivalry painted as a positive is a nice take that adds much-needed depth to what could have been a bland boilerplate suspect.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At dinner, Aunt Candace and the chief chat about retirement and making changes when you’re older. He takes an interest in the cooking class she mentions.

At The Sentinel, Frank has no luck locating Guinevere Rice. Tess suggests reaching out to the alumni organization at the college Morgan, Guinevere, and Sackett all attended. Tess spins an obvious lie to the alumni office, but manages to find out Guinevere died in 1993 in a car accident. She is given contact information for Guinevere’s daughter. It leads to the voicemail of Jesse Alexander.

Jesse is Guinevere’s daughter. GASP.

At the police station, Logan confirms that Eisner filed a report with the NYPD, and the chief reveals that Layla and Jesse were in the same work-release program. Jesse used to be known as Stephanie Rice, and got in trouble after some major hacking she did back in the day.

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And in the saddest of the three revelations, the chief confirms that he’s retiring. YOU EVIL MOVIE. IF WE DON’T GET A CRIME-SOLVING RETIRED JOHN KAPELOS SPINOFF, I WILL RIOT.

We cut to a random sidewalk, where a black-clad individual is shadowing Tess. (We can see it’s Jesse, but Tess cannot.)

Tess, showing much greater awareness than in previous movies, notices she’s being followed and ducks into a store. Jesse stares through the front door, unsure of what to do next.

Tess then somehow emerges from the subway stairwell behind her pursuer, reveals herself, and is stunned to discover that Jesse was the person following her.

While this is going on, Amrita and Logan are searching Jesse’s apartment, and Amrita finds a hard drive. They assume it’s Morgan’s. Logan gets a call from computer crimes that confirms Morgan gave access to XCAL’s systems to Jesse a week ago. The net around Jesse tightens.

Meanwhile, Jesse and Tess talk in the park. Jesse reveals that Morgan was her father but he didn’t know that when he hired her. She disappeared because she’s been trying to find his killer through less-than-legal means. But before he died, Morgan found out her true identity when he searched her name in the increasingly unsettling and hyper-efficient BB search program.

Logan finds out Jesse has been spotted in the park talking to an unidentified woman. It’s surprising the entire police force doesn’t know Tess by now. She’s the famous crossword lady who interferes in all the best and puzzliest investigations!

He shows up and arrests Jesse for the murder of Layla Barnes. He also quite testily shuts down Tess’s attempts to explain, reminding her how dangerous it is to interfere in a police investigation, and leaves with Jesse in tow.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

In interrogation, Jesse claims she didn’t know Layla took the hard drive from Morgan and she’s shocked that it was found at her apartment. She believes she’s being framed. When Logan asks about her hacking Eisner Industries and posting the Confess!!!!!!! message, she lawyers up.

Tess shows up at the station to explain, and the chief gives her a kinder version of the dressing down Logan offered earlier. He mentions that if anything happened to Tess, Logan would never forgive himself. He alludes to Logan being attacked at Layla’s apartment — to highlight how dangerous this case is — and Tess is concerned, only just now hearing about the attack. Still, she presses on, making a case for Jesse’s innocence to Logan and the chief.

The trio soon joins Amrita at her desk. Computer Crimes can’t get into Layla’s laptop, but has determined there’s a seven-digit password. Tess suggests “1234567” because it is insanely common. She also casually mentions that there are 33,000 possible seven-letter words that could also be the password.

The chief suggests Layla might’ve kept a list of passwords nearby (because he does), and Logan finds some 7-digit numbers in a notepad she kept on her desk. One of the numbers works, and they’re in. Logan tries to use this success to convince his father not to retire.

The detective offers to give Tess a ride home en route to returning the hard drive to XCAL. Tess rightly points out it’s evidence, but apparently Viv made a call to the Mayor’s office. This is very sus, as the kids would say.

Our dynamic duo arrives at XCAL, and plot intervenes to separate them in the form of a phone call from Tess’s editor. SHE HAS NOT SUBMITTED TOMORROW’S PUZZLE YET. COME ON TESS, WHAT THE HELL?!

Logan turns over the hard drive to VP Paul, who asks about Jesse, confirming that she’s been apprehended. Logan gets a call from Amrita, who finds copies of Eric’s audio files on Layla’s computer. She listened to some of them, and it turns out that Morgan and VP Paul disagreed about the government contract in the days leading up to Morgan’s death. Morgan sided with Jesse.

(This seems out of the blue, given Jesse publicly chiding Morgan for the contract right before he died, but it’s possible when he pulled her aside, it was to appease her before breaking the bad news to everyone. Jesse clearly didn’t know in interrogation, so he couldn’t have told her then. Anyway, I digress.)

Logan, now realizing that VP Paul has been playing him this whole time, baits Paul with references to Layla and the hard drive. We see Paul has a gun concealed behind him, and he draws on Logan when Logan confirms that Paul murdered Layla.

FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess finishes her call, and considers going to look for Logan, but then mumbles to herself, “Stay out of it, Tess,” and sits back down. Oh movie, look at you, making us disregard otherwise prudent advice for the sake of drama. I see you, movie.

Paul gets Logan to put down his gun, then starts monologuing about selling the hard drive on the black market and leaving for a country without an extradition treaty. Classic villain stuff.

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Then the elevator opens and Tess emerges, ignoring the prudent advice. She sees Logan being held at gunpoint.

Remembering the alarm thing from her earlier visit to XCAL, she yells, “BB, activate the alarm!” and Logan manages to put some distance between himself and VP Paul after a shameful scuffle where he fails to disarm the bad guy.

VP Paul orders BB to shut down the alarm, but this gives Tess time to slide Logan his gun. Paul fires toward Tess, and Logan puts a bullet in Paul’s shoulder.

Later, we see Tess, Logan, and the Chief for the loose-ends wrap-up.

Morgan’s hard drive was empty. Presumably Morgan erased it before he died. And apparently Paul saw Morgan enter his password one time and that’s how he gained access to the system. (So the impenetrable system only Morgan could operate was foiled by something someone could memorize after seeing it once. Huh.)

Logan and the chief thank Tess for saving Logan’s life. She is humble about the whole thing. Is that the end?

No! We cut to the police station, where Logan needs to grab his wallet before taking his dad out to dinner. The chief deduces that Logan has lured him here for a retirement party, but Logan claims that’s wrong.

The chief reveals he’s not ready to retire yet. The people rejoice!

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As it turns out, Logan has organized an UNretirement party for the chief, because he knew the chief wasn’t ready yet. Good job, Logan.

During the festivities, Logan and Tess share a quiet moment, and Logan reveals that he was married before and it ended because of his job. (This was what he wanted to tell her during their lunch.)

He thanks Tess for helping him realize that he shouldn’t keep people at arms length. They clink glasses. And the camera drifts away from the couple.

The End.

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[SORRY, ROMANCE LOVERS. YOU’LL HAVE TO WAIT AT LEAST ONE MORE CROSSWORD MYSTERIES FILM FOR THE GOOD STUFF.]


CONCLUSION

I confess, I’m torn on Terminal Descent. The mystery is interesting and well-constructed, and the twin reveals of a third founding member and her secret daughter actually worked quite nicely. (It does tend dangerously close to “secret twin” territory, but overall, I enjoyed the twist and how the characters played off each other.)

But then again, these are the Crossword Mysteries, and this was the least puzzly entry in the series yet! The first had an actual crossword at the center of the story, the second a cipher, and the third had a riddle and all sorts of twisty magic happenings that encouraged some brain teaser-like deduction.

But this one had no puzzle element at all. We lose the woman vs. machine bit about ten minutes into the movie; it would’ve been nice to close with that, just to give Tess a chance to prove her puzzly mettle.

Yes, I obviously had some fun joking about the plot elements in my review, but any criticisms were made with tongue placed firmly in cheek. I quite liked the cast of potential suspects — Eisner in particular was a nice reinvention of a tired trope — and would have enjoyed spending more time with these characters.

Tess and Logan remain immensely likable, and I enjoyed that moments of tension between them moved from the “Tess, you’re interfering AGAIN?!” gimmick of the earlier movies to Logan’s genuine concern that Tess not be harmed and sincere appreciation for what she brings to the investigation. It feels like movement forward, which is always welcome in any relationship. Sure, it was borderline ridiculous how many times they bumped into each other during the movie, but at this point, it’s practically a trope of the series.

And, of course, John Kapelos shined as the police chief and father figure of the film, funny and distracting in equal measure. He is just the best.

In sort, the movie is light, frothy, slightly murdery fun. You can’t go wrong with that.

Fair warning, though: the film did lack a Will Shortz cameo as far as I could tell, but given that it was filmed in late 2020, it’s totally understandable while filming under COVID-safe conditions. Still, we potentially missed out on Biker Will Shortz, which would have been fantastic.


Crossword Mysteries Terminal Descent Final Image Assets

Plus, there’s more to come!

There is at least one more Crossword Mysteries movie scheduled for 2021. The fifth entry in the series is entitled Riddle Me Dead and has a scheduled release date of April 11th, 2021.

So do not fret, puzzle fans. There’s more of Tess and Logan to come!


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New Puzzly Mystery Series? Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady Headed to TV!

parnell-hall-puzzle-lady

Some exciting news broke recently if you’re a fan of puzzle-fueled mysteries on television.

A few days ago, it was announced that a team of production companies have acquired the rights to Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady mystery series and are looking to develop it into a new mystery drama series.

The series centers around the grumpy Cora Felton, a nationally syndicated crossword puzzle editor who prefers to spend her time investigating crimes and nosing around police investigations than worrying about grid fill or witty cluing.

And, of course, each novel includes crosswords from Will Shortz that are woven into the narrative.

Although there are a host of colorful supporting characters to fill out the cast — one that will adapt nicely to the screen, in fact — the other major player worth noting is Cora’s long-suffering niece Sherry, a clever young woman who both handles the crossword side of things and tries to keep her aunt’s detective shenanigans in line.

Most of the press releases refer to Cora as “Miss Marple on steroids.” Personally, I don’t see it, unless they’re referring to Cora’s penchant to ignore social niceties in order to solve the case. I suspect that her combination of hardheadedness, determination, and keen observation skills will make her a favorite of mystery fans.

After all, who can’t get behind a sharp-tongued older woman who tolerates no guff and happily sidesteps the authorities in order to make sure justice is done?

two more options

As for the production side of things, they’ve assembled a solid team. ZDF Enterprises, which is headlining the project, recently sold crime drama The Bridge to the BBC. (One production company involved, Canada’s December Films, is a relatively new entity.)

The other production company, North Yorkshire’s Factual Fiction, already has several successful projects to their credit, producing The Curse of Ishtar and Agatha and the Midnight Murders. (Another entry in the Agatha series, Agatha and the Truth of Murder, was produced by the founding members of Factual Fiction for Channel 5 in the UK.)

Although they have acquired the rights to all twenty books in the series, the plan right now is for a six-episode run, and members of the production staff, including top execs and screenwriter Dominique Moloney, are already in place.

There’s no word yet on casting or when production will start, but we’ll keep you posted as soon as we know more.

Naturally, this makes one wonder about the OTHER crossword mystery series we’ve come to enjoy over the last year or two: the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries’ series The Crossword Mysteries.

A fourth film is still listed as forthcoming on IMDb, but the latest updates (posted back in June, as far as I can tell) show no movement on that front.

Astonishingly, the last one (Abracadaver) aired only back in January. It feels like it was a hundred years ago in 2020 time, doesn’t it?

Well, it sounds like cruciverbalist Tess Harper and detective Logan O’Connor might soon have some stiff competition in the puzzly sleuthing market.

Are you excited about the Puzzle Lady mystery series announcement, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Who would you like to see cast in the series? And can we expect some Will Shortz cameos? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

All this week, we’ve been discussing different ways to enjoy escape room-style solving from home. We’ve measured each style against the various elements present in most escape rooms — searching the space, finding clues, interacting with the environment, solving puzzles, and experiencing the narrative — to see which ones help scratch this particular puzzly itch from the comfort of your own house.

Today, we continue that journey as we look at ThinkFun’s most elaborate and engaging escape room puzzle game yet. Join us as we accept the challenge of Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse.

Now, unlike our typical reviews which are absolutely loaded with pictures showing you the art, the puzzle layout, different solving styles, and so on, this review may feel a little sparse on the details. But unfortunately, when you’re talking about an escape room puzzle game that’s this involved, this elaborate, and this labor-intensive to bring it to fruition, I wouldn’t want to ruin a single moment of puzzle-solving fun for one of our readers.

So instead, let’s get into the spirit with a nice, spooky little intro.


Every neighborhood has that one house, the one kids whisper about. The one that inspires spooky stories and dares to see how far you can progress into the yard before you panic and run back to your friends.

Your neighborhood is no different. Mr. Garrity’s house has become that mysterious house, ever since his young daughter went missing. Now there are strange lights coming from the shed in his backyard, and other children have been reported missing.

What is going on in that mysterious shed? You decide to find out.

You sneak in, and you’re baffled to find nothing suspicious at all. Just a dollhouse sitting on the work table.

Except it’s glowing…

Drawing you closer…

Until you take one step too many…

Suddenly, the real game begins. And your puzzly skills are the only thing standing between you and a monstrous curse!


A three-dimensional interactive puzzle-solving experience, Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse is one of the most impressive puzzle games I’ve ever seen from ThinkFun. (And when you consider their previous efforts involving magnets, lasers, and other fantastic elements, that’s really saying something.)

Designed for solvers 13 and older, The Cursed Dollhouse is expected to take upwards of two hours to solve, and between the setup, exploring the various rooms, and tackling the numerous different puzzles inside, that feels like a very fair assessment.

After sliding the box from its protective (spoiler-preventing) sleeve, both the top and bottom of the box itself open up to form the frame of the dollhouse. Thick punch-out boards provide the floor, roof, and various pieces of furniture for the house, and an envelope full of different materials await eager solvers to challenge their minds with mechanical puzzles, riddles, deduction, and outside-the-box thinking.

Furniture, walls, ceiling, floor… every inch of the playspace is utilized in some form or fashion, creating one of the most immersive escape room game experiences I’ve ever played. Heck, some puzzle apps aren’t this engaging, and that’s with no physical barriers or restrictions when it comes to the puzzles.

One of the hardest things to replicate from the escape room experience is the tactile sensation of puzzle solving. The sheer joy and satisfaction of physically manipulating pieces, moving objects, finding secrets, fitting pieces together, and completing tasks is very difficult to simulate in miniature.

But this game has that solving fun in SPADES. Virtually every piece has to be handled or used in some way, and getting to play around with these pieces puts all sorts of solving skills to the test, whether it’s jigsaw-style puzzling, pattern recognition, brain teasers, or logical deduction.

And anyone who experienced their fair share of escape rooms knows the feeling of dealing with puzzles in stages. Some of the game pieces and items you find are relevant to the puzzles at hand, while others must be tucked aside or saved to be carried forward into different areas. The Cursed Dollhouse is no different, offering puzzles for each room in the house as well as information and game pieces to keep with you that will prove vital later.

It can be a bit overwhelming to have so much at hand at once, but it’s immensely satisfying to slowly assign different pieces to their particular puzzles and eliminate them one by one. It’s like whittling down the puzzliest to-do list of all time, and it’s great fun.

They’ve even added a new spin to a classic puzzler’s tool.

Anyone who has bent their brain with one of ThinkFun’s earlier Escape the Room games, as well as readers of yesterday’s post, will be familiar with one of the key solving elements: the decoder ring.

Utilizing a system of symbols for every puzzle, the decoder ring even has a locking feature to add a touch more suspense to the proceedings. Once you’ve turned each wheel and lined up your symbols, you slide the locking lever to the side, and several small windows open in the center of the disc. If the symbols revealed match the puzzle symbol, you’ve got the correct solution!

It’s a nice little touch that adds a lot to an age-old solving trope, and seeing the faces of younger solvers light up when the ring confirms their solve is a terrific moment of puzzling to treasure.

Similar to the Exit: The Game products, The Cursed Dollhouse also has a guidebook. It offers descriptions of the narrative as you progress and instructions on when you can proceed. For younger solvers, it’s a solid framework for the sometimes chaotic and undirected energy of escape room-style solving.

The Cursed Dollhouse offers fewer moments of frantic running around, but you won’t miss it; you’ll be too busy poring over every inch of the house and the gameplay pieces to miss all the skittering about you’re used to.

Be careful, though; younger solvers and older alike should be wary of the tape and sticky substances holding many of the various gameplay elements in the house in place. I worried on more than one occasion that I might damage one of the gamepieces just trying to free it. They’ve traded a bit of user-friendliness in service to keeping the puzzle elements in their places.

The game also offers an online resource to print and recreate any puzzle elements you manipulate or destroy in the course of your solve, so that you can reset the game for other players. It’s a nice touch that ensures more players get a chance to tackle this devious series of puzzles, and also helps mitigate a price point that’s a little higher than the average at-home escape room set.

The webpage also offers solving hints and solutions for any puzzles that flummox you, complete with visuals and videos, so you can not only progress forward, but learn precisely how the puzzle works (so if you encounter a similar puzzle in the future, you’ll know what to do).

I really can’t say anymore with giving something away, so I can only hope this review has managed to convey just how impressed I am by this puzzle game. The amount of thought, detail, and care that has gone into it is staggering, only matched by the ingenuity and deviousness of the puzzle designers. It brings the escape room experience home like never before, and young solvers and older alike will find plenty to enjoy in this meticulously crafted package.

Plus it’s gloriously spooky, which makes it perfect for fall and Halloween solving.

Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse will be available on October 1st from Amazon for $42.99, and it’s worth every penny.


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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!