The Best Puzzle Solvers on Television

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Halloween by compiling a list of the best puzzlers in horror movies. The goal was to highlight characters who stood out, the ones you’d want on your side, because they’re clever, decisive, and immensely capable.

But it’s not just horror movies that feature characters with these rare qualities. Television dramas and comedies both have their fair share of top-notch puzzlers, and today, we turn the spotlight on them.

True, I certainly could have listed more detectives/investigators/crime scene techs, but honestly, they’re often part of a big team of solvers. (The casts of CSI and Bones, for instance, are effective teams, but rarely does one particular puzzler shine brighter than the rest.)

These individuals (and the occasional duo), however, most definitely perform puzzly feats under pressure.


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Batman, Batman: The Animated Series

[Image courtesy of Polygon.]

Yeah, we’re getting an obvious one out of the way first. He’s not called the World’s Greatest Detective for nothing, after all. Although the ’60s Batman leapt wildly to conclusions that turned out to be right, we’d rather lean on the cunning cartoon version of the character from the ’90s FOX show.

This Batman outwitted the Riddler, foiled the Joker, and defeated Ra’s al Ghul, all while remaining age-appropriate for the kiddies. His comic-book counterpart might get to show off his puzzly detective skills more frequently, but when it comes to TV, it’s hard to ignore the Caped Crusader.

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Sherlock Holmes / Mycroft Holmes / Jim Moriarty, Sherlock

[Image courtesy of Tumblr.]

Again, this trio is too obvious to ignore. It’s hard to pick the sharpest knife out of this particular drawer. Moriarty proves himself to be Holmes’s equal throughout the show, though Sherlock does defeat him in the end. Similarly, Mycroft is often regarded as Sherlock’s equal (or perhaps superior) when it comes to sussing out evidence.

But we always return to the often imitated but never duplicated Great Detective when we think of someone who can put together tiny details and suddenly realize the stunning whole of the case. Call it deduction or just great jigsaw skills, Sherlock has it in spades.

(Oh, and an honorable mention here goes out to Dr. Gregory House, who was based on Holmes.)

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Angus MacGyver, MacGyver

[Image courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.]

When you think of this iconic character, it’s likely that one of two things comes to mind: either his trusty Swiss army knife or his incredible knack for getting out of jams with jury-rigged, home-built, improvised equipment.

The man cobbled together a cannon from cigarette butts and built a functioning glider out of bamboo and trash bags. Any brain teaser, no matter how specious or obtuse, would fall before the mighty outside-the-box thinking of Mr. MacGyver.

Leslie Knope / Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

My first instinct was to mention Ron Swanson here, given his love of riddles and his impressive efforts to solve the Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt created for Ben in a famous episode. But one cannot honor a master puzzle solver and not give a fair shake to the woman who designed the devious scavenger hunt being solved.

Leslie Knope’s 25-clue puzzle hunt involved riddles, anagrams, a cryptex, and more, and not only did she amaze viewers, but she got Ron to admit his love of riddles to the world. They both merit mentioning in today’s list.

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The Doctor, Doctor Who

[Image courtesy of Vocal.]

When your life is spent traveling through time and space, experiencing events out of order, you’d have to be a pretty decent puzzler just to keep cause and effect straight, let alone to battle threats that endanger the whole of creation. And this alien with two hearts and a police box that travels through time is one heck of a puzzle solver.

He has outwitted Daleks, demigods, and the devil himself. He has defeated aliens that move every time you blink or look away, or that you forget about as soon as you lose sight of them. I assure you, no riddle or brain teaser stands a chance against someone who thinks in four dimensions.

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Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons

[Image courtesy of SketchOK.]

No, I haven’t mentioned too many actual puzzle solvers in this list — but just because people like puzzles, that doesn’t mean they’re the best solvers. Lisa, however, fits both sides of the equation.

We’ve seen her skills as a crossword whiz and her ability to crack a Da Vinci Code-esque mystery, all while navigating the perils of elementary school and a father whose choices often defy belief. Lisa is thoughtful, diligent, observant, and clever. She not only loves puzzles, but applies her puzzly mind to making the world around her a better place.

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Walter White / Gus Fring, Breaking Bad

[Image courtesy of Breaking Bad Wiki.]

From schoolgirls to drug kingpins we go. It’s hard to pick who is the better strategist between the devious Walter White and the tactical Gustavo Fring. Granted, White does defeat Fring in the end, but not before Gus outmaneuvers old rivals and new, drives a wedge between Walt and Jesse, and builds an entire empire under the noses of the local authorities.

Walt, like a sinister MacGyver, often rigs up surprising solutions to problems, but Gus is probably the superior puzzler, someone who can plan his game three moves ahead and make the best use of his resources.

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Penny and Brain, Inspector Gadget

[Image courtesy of Sassy Mama in LA.]

With the bumbling, insufferable bionic detective by your side, you almost have to be twice as good a puzzler to get anything done. And yet, the insightful Penny and her loyal canine companion Brain usually manage to foil the plans of Dr. Klaw despite the doltish antics of the show’s title character.

Penny is an able researcher, able to assess a situation and find the missing pieces with ease. Brain, on the other hand, is the one who puts Penny’s plans into action and adapting on the fly when things (inevitably) go awry. As puzzling duos go, they’re among the best around.

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[Image courtesy of Monk Wiki.]

Adrian Monk, Monk

A knack for observation will always serve a puzzler well. Maybe you notice a pattern, or something missing from a room that everyone else missed. Maybe you can draw connections faster than others. All of these qualities apply to Adrian Monk, the fearful obsessive investigator from USA’s Monk.

Monk is the ultimate logic problem solver, drawing out the tables in his head and neatly placing information in each box, then finally drawing his conclusion once he has enough detail. And he’s never wrong. A master of observation and deduction, Monk is a world-class puzzler (even if he probably doesn’t solve the daily crossword often for fear that the newspaper will smear ink on his hands).


Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from television? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!

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A Logic Puzzle Mystery, Brought to Life!

Halloween might be over and done with, but there’s still plenty of spooky puzzling to be found if you know where to look.

For instance, if you’re looking for a game that takes the traditional logic puzzle in a new direction, let’s talk about Return of the Obra Dinn, a PC game that has received some rave reviews recently.

In 1802, the merchant ship “Obra Dinn” set out from London for the Orient with over 200 tons of trade goods. Six months later it hadn’t met its rendezvous point at the Cape of Good Hope and was declared lost at sea.

Early this morning of October 14th, 1807, the Obra Dinn drifted into port with sails damaged and no visible crew. As insurance adjustor for the East India Company’s London Office, find means to board the ship and recover the Crew Muster Roll book for assessment.

With that intense historical premise to work with, you know you’re in for a few scares and some sinister storytelling.

So the game centers around a first-person perspective of this ship as you explore what happened to the crew. You’re armed with two items: a book that contains the ship’s manifest and other documents, and a pocketwatch that, when worn near a corpse, magically reveals what happened at the moment of the character’s death.

The book works like a standard logic problem’s puzzle grid, where you can fill in the information you know and deduce, say, the last names of five people in a marching band, their ages, and what instrument they play. Except, in the case of the Obra Dinn, instead of the details of a fictional marching band, you need to uncover the identity of every person on the ship, how they died, and who killed them.

The pocketwatch sequences are the centerpiece of the puzzle, giving you a static scene of the moment of death, the characters frozen in place, along with the sounds and dialogue that accompanied the person’s demise. You can walk around the frozen scene and examine details, using the book to help document what you discover and slowly eliminate possibilities from the list.

It’s a bit like a scene from Sherlock or Hannibal, as you play the detective walking through the death scene, trying to tease out the key information lurking within.

So the book is both a solving tool and the main body of the puzzle itself, a place for storing information, making guesses, and confirming when you have the correct chain of events for a given character’s death.

The Obra Dinn is one giant, interconnected puzzle, built out of many little moments like this, and only when you’ve taken the time to examine all of it, exploring the ship and the crew from all angles, can you fill in the story of what happened.

It’s essentially a murder mystery novel, but only the first chapter and the finale are in place; it is up to you as you piece together disparate fragments and assemble the narrative. In the end, it’s a simple story, but one told backward, forward, and out of order.

Return of the Obra Dinn is the kind of storytelling that takes puzzles off the page and plants them smack-dab in the center of your imagination. And that’s pretty cool.

If you’d like to try out the game for yourself, Return of the Obra Dinn is out now on PC and macOS for $19.99.

[For more information, check out these reviews from Kotaku and Screen Rant, as well as the creator’s homepage.]


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New Puzzle Book Roundup!

It’s been a while since we’ve done a roundup of new puzzle books and packets available from top constructors, so I reached out to the puzzle community on Twitter and asked for recommendations for my fellow PuzzleNationers! Let’s see what we’ve got!


First off, Patrick Blindauer has a new PuzzleFest available, and this one is Broadway-themed!

Now, if you’re not theater-savvy, don’t worry. You’re not required to know anything about Broadway, it’s simply the unifying link between all the themed puzzles. So there’s some theatrical wordplay afoot!

Click here for more information. Patrick is charging $20 for a downloadable and easily printable PDF, and based on his track record of terrific PuzzleFests, this should be another great one!

Along a similar line, the puzzles from both this year’s Bryant Park puzzle tournament and last year’s tournament are available for download as a package deal for only $10! You can’t go wrong with two year’s worth of puzzles for such a low price!

Turning our attention to puzzle books, Foggy Brume has a collection of One-Word Word Searches available.

It sounds simple. All you have to do is find one word in a field of letters. How hard could that be? Well, it’s more challenging than you might expect!

This puzzle book is priced to move at $7.50 on Amazon.

Friend of the blog Cynthia Morris has a new edition in her long-running American Acrostics puzzle book series, and Volume 5 is all about American holidays and celebrations!

Did you know there’s a special day set aside each year to be in a bad mood? Or a day to do everything in reverse? There’s even a day to celebrate ice cream…

This puzzle book will run you $9.95 on Amazon.

And finally, puzzle book master Pierre Berloquin has a collection of puzzles centered around the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in Victorian London. Based on the classic novels and short stories, the world of Holmes comes alive with all sorts of puzzly fun wrapped in Sherlockian trappings.

This puzzle book and walk down Memory Lane for mystery fans is available on Amazon for $14.95.

Hopefully one of these puzzle books or puzzle sets piques your interest, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers! Let us know if you snap any of them up!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Sherlock Holmes (a.k.a. The puzzle is afoot!)

Mystery novels and stories are catnip to puzzlers, because they’re an entertaining way to exercise our deductive skills and enjoy puzzling outside our usual fare of apps, games, and paper puzzles.

And surely there’s no greater boon to the mystery-loving puzzler than the ongoing adventures of Sherlock Holmes in all his forms. Not only is there are series of feature films starring the Great Detective, but there are two television programs focusing on his singular brand of puzzling: Sherlock and Elementary.

[Note: I will be discussing both seasons of Elementary, seasons 1 and 2 of Sherlock, and the season 3 premiere. So consider this your spoiler alert.]

Beyond the normal whodunnit storytelling that frames both shows — a staple of the genre that traces back to the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories and novels — there are smaller puzzles to unravel.

Perhaps the most famous from the Doyle canon is “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” where Holmes solves a curious pictographic code in the hopes of preventing a heinous crime.

And both Sherlock and Elementary frequently return to this cryptographic trope, for both dramatic tension and storytelling twists and turns.

Episode 2 of Sherlock, “The Blind Banker,” has a cryptographic mystery at the heart of the story, one that echoes “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” and its similarly perilous stakes.

Codebreaking is also at the core of the season 2 premiere, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” as Sherlock attempts increasingly complex ways of cracking the code of Irene Adler’s phone. (There’s a marvelous scene where he introduces a dummy phone in order to copy her keystrokes is foiled when Irene realizes the dummy phone is a fake, and in turn types in a fake passcode. It’s a terrific exchange of gamesmanship.)

The cipher used in the season 3 premiere, “The Empty Hearse,” is another prime example, and one that quick-witted viewers could solve alongside Sherlock, as he and Mary decipher the message and pursue Watson’s kidnappers.

Elementary has had its fair share of codes as well. The season 2 episode “The Diabolical Kind” featured numerous techniques for coding information — from hidden spaces in seemingly innocuous drawings to elaborate letter-shifting codes akin to the Caesar cipher — all of which Holmes unraveled with ease. (Sadly, the puzzlers in the audience aren’t given much opportunity to crack the codes themselves.)

But each show has also played on the natural human ability to find meaningless patterns in chaos and interpret them as hidden messages. Sherlock‘s season 2 episode “The Hounds of Baskerville” had Watson chasing down a Morse Code message that turned out to be nothing more than flashes of light.

And Elementary‘s most recent episode had an excellent sequence where Watson read too much into a former mobster’s statement about “a mutt” who would be “in the ground tomorrow.” (Watson suspected the “mutt” referenced a suspect’s mixed ancestry, while “in the ground tomorrow” would point toward the suspect’s Jewish heritage and burial traditions.) Holmes correctly dismissed both as red herrings.

Both Sherlock and Elementary had a bit of fun exploring characters fixating on small clues, only to be misled. It’s an intriguing path to take when the main character of each show bases so many conclusions on similarly minuscule bits of data.

With such a richness of Sherlockian material on television these days, both mystery fans and puzzlers have plenty to sate their appetites.

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