A Video Game Puzzle Hunt Reaps Real-World Rewards!

We’ve written about some pretty amazing and elaborate puzzle hunts here 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 now, a massive crowdsourcing effort has cracked another masterpiece, a puzzle hidden in an expansion pack for the video game Destiny 2. Destiny 2 is an online first-person-shooter loaded with sci-fi trappings and in-depth storytelling where players explore a shared environment while engaging in their own personal plot and adventures.

The most recent expansion to the game, Warmind, was released last week, and players noticed an elaborate symbol on a wall in the bunker of Rasputin, a sentient robot. The symbol appeared to be a lock surrounded by keys and curious symbols.

This Kotaku post went live on Friday, three days after the Warmind release, revealing the incredible online effort already in motion to unravel the secrets of the Rasputin puzzle. The subreddit r/raidsecrets was ground zero for the puzzle-solving efforts, and players compiled their theories and discoveries there.

Players quickly determined that each of the keys had a symbol that linked back to other imagery from the game, and by following those breadcrumbs, they had a chance to crack the cipher.

The first symbol was found in several places, each time with a set of digits and a bar in a particular position. Solvers theorized that these symbols represented the word “reverse.”

The second symbol appeared beside a Braille grid, leading hunters to crates with Braille lettering on them: OEAARRTFWTH. This anagrams to The Art of War, Sun Tzu’s famous tome. In this case, The Art of War was used as the source material for an Ottendorf Cipher. (That particular cipher was made famous by Nicolas Cage’s National Treasure movies.)

This type of cipher uses numbers in groups of three, and these numbers correspond to positions of letters in a book. Most often the numbers refer to Line, Word, and Letter. Decoding the number-combinations in the image above led to the answer “Destroy all second A and B. Then destroy all third C and R.”

These two clues were assumed to be instructions for what to do with the encoded ciphertext others had discovered in the game:

This encrypted message was the heart of the puzzle. But there was more to uncover first.

As it turns out, the last three keys in the image represented different words to apply to the ciphertext in order to properly decode it.

The fourth symbol was found near a Morse Code sequence that spelled out “NTEHNMLNEEGIT,” an anagram for “Enlightenment.”

The fifth symbol pointed toward a monitor with some peculiar code on it. It turns out the code was actually Jianpu, an ancient form of Chinese notation for writing music. When translated into actual music, a player identified the piece as an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

One intrepid codebreaker then tried to decrypt the ciphertext given the clues everyone had assembled thus far.

He reversed the ciphertext, according to the instruction of the first key. He then removed every other A and every other B from the text, then every third C and every third R, according to the instructions of the second key.

Then, employing a Vigenere cipher, he used the two key words he had — “enlightenment” and “swan lake” — to begin decrypting the text. He managed to decrypt the entire text, but more incredibly, he also reverse engineered the missing third key word — “mechanized” — while doing so.

And what was the final message, after all this?

thank you for taking the time to piece together this message, friend. the time of our final conflict is drawing closer and you and ana have an important role to play in the events to come. so watch over her, guardian. i would have no life without ana or the exoprogram. i regret that we have become strangers, but we each have a path that we must walk. and, ironically, there never seems to be enough time. tell her, rasputin’s first attempt was in the right location, but the wrong moment. look here: 43.549573, -73.544868 – e

As you might suspect, those numbers at the end are GPS coordinates, which correspond to Sleeping Beauty Mountain in upstate New York. (The company that developed Warmind, Vicarious Visions, is based in upstate New York.)

A small treasure trove of prizes awaited the brave soul who trekked out to Sleeping Beauty Mountain on Saturday morning. The centerpiece was a giant spear, a replica of a weapon from the game known as the Valkyrie.

From the Kotaku article following up on the puzzle’s resolution:

There was also a box of gold coins (along with instructions asking the finder to only take one), a set of notes, and a journal for recording visitors. The note, from Warmind design lead Rob Gallerani, encouraged the finder(s) to share photos of this discovery and told them that there are only three spears like that in existence — one at Vicarious Visions, one at Bungie, and this.

The spear, shown above (alongside the visiting team from Vicarious Visions) now resides at a comic shop called The Freakopolis Geekery.

As for the gold coins and the geocache Vicarious Visions had set up for others who make the trip, unfortunately, park rangers removed it because the designers didn’t get a permit. The coins have been returned to Vicarious Visions, who are currently reaching out to all the folks at r/raidsecrets who contributed to the solution of the puzzle, hoping to get them the coins they so richly deserve.

And, as if all that wasn’t amazing enough, it turns out… this might not be the end of the adventure.

Because a sharp-eyed observer noticed some text embossed on the upper portion of the replica Valkyrie spear:

At the moment, no one knows what the letters mean. But if I had to wager, I’d say the master puzzle solvers at r/raidsecrets should keep digging. Who knows what they’ll find next?


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: NCIS: New Orleans

Last week, a murder investigation turned into a puzzly treasure hunt for a group of NCIS investigators, a team who investigates criminal cases involving members of the military. So join us as we rundown the events of “Treasure Hunt,” episode 17 of season 4 of NCIS: New Orleans.

The episode opens during a pirate-themed festival, as two women search for the secret entrance to an exclusive costume party. Unfortunately, instead of drunken revelry, they stumble upon a dead body, strung up inside a warehouse on the waterfront.

The NCIS team soon arrives, and the coroner identifies the victim as an oceanographer, Lt. Commander Elaine Dodd. Dodd was beaten before her death, and her arm was partially skinned, perhaps as part of an interrogation.

Dodd’s oceanographic work centered around Grande Isle, the former stomping grounds of the infamous pirate Jean LaFitte. The team makes contact with Dodd’s father, Tom, a former Green Beret. He expected her to show up at his house in Florida after an excited phone call, but she never arrived. This leads the team to believe that Dodd’s death had something to do with a treasure hunt, one of the things she and her father bonded over.

Forensic analysis reveals that her arm was skinned to remove a tattoo, but they’re able to reconstruct the image: a simple compass and some coordinates. These confirm the treasure hunt theory: Dodd had apparently made some progress in locating the lost Napoleon Fleur de Lis, a jewel-encrusted emblem stolen by Jean LaFitte and hidden away.

Following the coordinates to a church, Special Agent Pride and lab tech Sebastian search the area, finding their way upstairs to a lofted storage area. But someone has beaten them to the punch, opening fire and sending the agents scurrying for cover.

Pride chases the two suspects, but they get away, and when he doubles back to the loft, he finds Sebastian examining a statue stored in the church attic. Once the statue is removed from its pedestal, a secret compartment opens, revealing a wooden puzzle book wrapped in cloth.

The puzzle book is marked with a fleur de lis and bears an inscription of Jean LaFitte’s signature. The investigation of Dodd’s murder has officially become a treasure hunt.

Back at the field office, Agent Gregorio would prefer to use a knife to crack open the book, but Sebastian insists on solving the cipher to open the book, as some puzzle books include a vial of acid inside that would destroy the book if tampered with.

While he works on the puzzle book, cameras outside the church help the agents ID one of the suspects, a mercenary for hire. Dodd’s father Tom enters the office, hoping for progress, and recognizes the suspect. He points the agents toward the mercenary’s usual employer, a specialist in deep-sea diving and sunken galleons. Dodd’s father offers to arrange a meeting, and the team is wary, but takes him up on his offer.

Meanwhile, Sebastian and Gregorio check Dodd’s phone records and find several calls to a local professor, Michelle Faucheux, an expert in LaFitte and pirate history, who they believe helped Elaine find the coordinates. But when they arrive at her home, it has been ransacked, the professor locked in a closet. After they release her and calm her down, she confirms she’d been talking to Elaine.

Tom makes good on his word and lures his contact to a bar with the agents in tow. But the man, Walton, claims he hasn’t worked with either of the suspects in months. He warns Tom and the team away from the treasure hunt, clearly spooked by the ruthlessness he’s observed.

Sebastian and Gregorio bring Michelle back to the office, and she’s stoked to see the puzzle book. The cover of the puzzle book is encrypted, and they have to turn a dial in order to unlock it. But they need a key word to help solve the cipher. After trying out various words, they focus on LaFitte’s brother, Pierre — the most likely person to be hunting for LaFitte’s treasure. This leads them to try the word “Cabildo,” the jail in which Pierre had been incarcerated.

Using that as the key word — and a Vigenere cipher to crack the code — leads them to the answer “fleur de lis”, and they unlock the puzzle book’s cover. The iris in the center opens, revealing a latch, and they open the puzzle book.

On the left page is a clock puzzle, and on the right is a map with smaller code dials beneath it, along with a plate reading BLF6.

Agent Pride calls them, informing Gregorio that the two suspects are camped out right down the street from the office. He and the team are en route, but they expect trouble soon.

Oddly enough, the suspects simply hang back and wait as the team reunites. The agents suspect the mercenaries are waiting for the team to lead them to the fleur. So the team focuses on the riddle, hoping for a chance to gather more info on whomever is bankrolling the gun-toting baddies.

The riddle “Move as the clock” offers a hint for how to find which code letters to enter, but they’re not sure where to start. Pride theorizes that BLF6 could point toward Barthelemy Lafon, an architect and city planner from the 1700s who also palled around with the LaFitte brothers. He is buried in a local cemetery, in a crypt located at F6 on the map.

Gregorio, Sebastian, and Michelle head to the crypt while Agents Percy and LaSalle keep their eyes on the suspects, getting close enough to clone their phones and gain access to their calls and text messages. Pride and Dodd’s father are back at the field office, trying to figure out who would literally kill to have the artifact.

The puzzle book trio spot an engraved fleur de lis over the letter L in “Lafon”. They try “moving as the clock” by moving clockwise to the next crypt. Another fleur de lis over another crypt engraving gives them the final letter they need, unlocking a compartment in the book and revealing both the suspected acid vial and a piece of paper. It’s a partial map with another riddle written in French. Michelle quickly translates it as “enter this last crypt to find the fleur de lis” and runs off.

At this point, all of the viewers become very suspicious of Michelle. I mean, come on, the riddle was four lines long, and given how tough the puzzle book had been to crack thus far, this seemed too easy.

Meanwhile, the suspects leave after receiving a text that the fleur is NOT in the cemetery. As you might have suspected, Michelle texted the suspects and has been behind everything the whole time. But the viewers are clearly one-up on the agents, who blindly follow Michelle to another crypt, where Michelle traps them inside and runs off.

We get some unnecessary backstory on Michelle involving a dead brother and being scammed out of treasure by the Spanish government, but who cares, what about the treasure hunt?

Pride and Tom go after Michelle while Percy and LaSalle hunts for the easily bamboozled agents, who are trapped in the crypt and running out of air. Pride and Tom head out to Fort Macomb, a repurposed, then abandoned, base which was formerly known as Chef Menteur. (It’s unclear whether they solved the map clue that Sebastian photographed and sent them before being trapped or if they just followed the hired goons.)

But nonetheless, they’re en route to the treasure while Gregorio and Sebastian set a fire inside the crypt, hoping the smoke will escape and lead their fellow agents to them before they suffocate. Their plan works, and they’re rescued.

At Fort Macomb, Pride orders Tom to stay with the car, and heads into the fort, getting the drop on Michelle. Unfortunately, her goons capture Tom, and Pride loses the standoff. In classic villain fashion, Michelle has Pride dig up the treasure for her.

At her moment of triumph, Tom puts his Green Beret training to work, taking out one of the hired thugs as Pride dispatches the other. Since we’re running on full cliche at this point, Tom has a chance to kill the woman who killed his daughter, but spares her after a speech from Pride. The better man and all that.

The episode closes with the team admiring the bejeweled source of everyone’s consternation. Tom decides to donate the fleur to the city, because that’s what his daughter would have done. Nice closer.

All in all, I was a little underwhelmed by the episode, because the plotline twists failed to keep up the same interest level that the treasure hunt did. Once they were done with the puzzle book, the cliches rapidly took over.

Who stops in the middle of a treasure hunt to tattoo a clue on themselves? Why wasn’t the tattoo artist a suspect? That would have been a nice touch. Also, Michelle’s transparent villainy wasn’t nearly as fun as her geeky schoolgirl excitement at cracking puzzles alongside Sebastian. That was easily the show’s highlight.

I do want to give a special shout-out to the Codex Silenda team, who created the specially weathered-looking puzzle book for the episode. I wrote about them back in August of 2016 when their wildly-successful Kickstarter campaign originally closed. They’ve been busy fulfilling orders for Kickstarter backers ever since, and they were clearly excited to see one of their puzzle books on a national stage like this.

What’s more amazing is that the puzzle book cracked by the NCIS team in this episode was only a few pages deep. The full Codex Silenda is much larger and more intricate! No doubt the real Jean LaFitte would’ve splashed out for the complete Codex in order to bamboozle potential treasure hunters.

Still, it’s always nice to see crime shows explore the possibilities that puzzles offer. Splicing up the occasional murder with a puzzle (or better yet, a treasure hunt) is a pleasant change of pace for the procedural genre. Nicely done, NCIS: NO.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this person had terrible spelling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were his insurance plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Gravity Falls Cipher Hunt!

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It’s sad when your favorite show goes away, particularly when it feels like there could have been so much more to enjoy. As someone who routinely seems to discover hidden gems on TV, only for them to vanish a season or two into promising runs, I know this better than most. (Alas, Brimstone, Now and AgainTwin Peaks, Better Off Ted, and others…)

The fans of the Disney Channel animated series Gravity Falls endured similar sadness when the show wrapped up its two-season run earlier this year. (Although it was the decision of the showrunner to end the show and not the network in this case, it was still a sad day for fans.)

From the Wikipedia article on this Twin Peaks-fueled program:

For their summer vacation, 12-year-old twins Dipper and Mabel Pines are dropped off from their home in Piedmont, California to the fictitious town of Gravity Falls, Roadkill County, Oregon to live with their Great Uncle Stan Pines (often shortened to Grunkle Stan), who runs a tourist trap called Mystery Shack. Things are not what they seem in this small town, and with the help of a mysterious journal that Dipper finds in the forest, they begin unraveling the local mysteries.

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The show was big on supernatural storytelling and puzzles to unravel, even including ciphers at the end of each episode that incorporated classic encryption techniques like Caesar ciphers, Vigenere ciphers, and others. This is pretty high-level stuff for a show that’s supposedly for kids. (Then again, plenty of adults enjoy a quality animated show, and Gravity Falls was critically acclaimed for good reason.)

In the series finale of the show, there was a brief shot of a statue of the show’s villain Bill Cipher, but it appeared to be a photograph rather than an animated image.

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Speculation immediately ran rampant as fans wondered if there was really a Bill Cipher statue somewhere.

And there was.

Cue the Gravity Falls Cipher Hunt, a world-spanning puzzle hunt launched on July 20, 2016, where fans teamed up to crack clues offered by show creator Alex Hirsch, all in the hopes of tracking down this mysterious statue.

Although the main thrust of the hunt was centered around the United States, clues appeared in places as far-flung as Russia and Japan, requiring a truly global effort of cooperative fandom to crack each mystery.

And the creator himself was astonished when the entire hunt was solved in just two weeks, as fans pieced together the last fragment of the puzzle on August 2: a missing section of parchment that corresponded to a map of a forest in Reedsport, Oregon.

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[Click here for a rundown of the entire puzzly saga.]

Awaiting the intrepid solvers was not only did the statue of Bill Cipher, but a treasure chest with messages that could only be read under black light. Also, in a truly brilliant bit of fan service, there was a sash and crown inside the chest that would anoint the wearer as the mayor of Gravity Falls! (Hirsch even went on to say that this appointment is now canon for the show!)

And, as it turns out, they found the statue just in time, as a property dispute between neighbors has led the statue to be taken in by police until the situation is resolved!

This is not only an outstanding example of real-world puzzling in its own right, but a wonderful thank you from a creator to his fans, providing one last challenge, one last story, to the people who’d most appreciate it. Nicely done, Mr. Hirsch, and nicely done, Gravity Falls fans!

[Also, nicely done to Owen, and his mom, friend of the blog Chris Begley, for bringing this story to my attention.]


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The Mystery of the Kryptos Sculpture

[Image courtesy of Kryptos.arcticus.com.]

If I told you that one of the most famous unsolved encrypted messages in the world isn’t lurking in the works of Da Vinci or in some vast government warehouse like the Ark of the Covenant, but rather as part of a sculpture only twenty-five years old, you might be surprised.

You’d probably be less surprised to discover that said sculpture is located in front of the headquarters of the CIA, though.

Kryptos, a flowing sculpture made of petrified wood and copper plating over a small pool of water, was revealed to the world in 1990. Masterminded by artist Jim Sanborn, it was apparently designed to both challenge and honor the Central Intelligence Agency. And for decades now, it has proven to be a top-flight brain teaser for codebreakers both professional and amateur.

From an article on Wired.com:

It all began in 1988 when the CIA Fine Arts Commission commissioned local artist James Sanborn to create a cryptographic sculpture for a courtyard on the CIA campus. Sanborn completed the two-part sculpture in 1990, which included stones laid out in International Morse code near the front entrance of the CIA campus, and a 12-foot-high, verdigrised copper, granite and petrified wood sculpture. The latter, which is the more famous part of Kryptos, was inscribed with four encrypted messages composed from some 1,800 letters carved out of the copper plate.

[Image courtesy of The Magazine.org.]

There are four distinct sections, utilizing different forms of encryption. And amazingly, the fourth section continues to elude codecrackers to this very day.

It took nearly a decade before anyone announced a solution to the first three encryptions. A computer scientist named Jim Gillogly announced in 1999 that he had cracked passages 1, 2, and 3 with computer assistance.

The CIA, not to be one-upped, then revealed that one of their own employees, an analyst named David Stein, had solved those same three passages the year before, using only pencil, paper, and lunchtime man-hours.

But a 2013 Freedom of Information Act request into records of the National Security Agency revealed that an NSA team actually cracked those same three passages back in 1993 as part of a friendly rivalry between the NSA and CIA, provoked by former NSA director and then-deputy CIA director William O. Studeman.

[Image courtesy of G.A. Matiasz.]

Passage 1 employs a Vigenère cipher, a letter-shifting cipher that has been used for centuries, also known as a periodic polyalphabetic substitution cipher, if you want to get fancy with it.

The message, penned by Sanborn himself, reads Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion. [Iqlusion is an intentional misspelling of “illusion.”]

Passage 2 also employs a Vigenère cipher, but utilizes a different keyword than Passage 1. The message, also composed by Sanborn, points toward something hidden nearby:

It was totally invisible. How’s that possible? They used the earth’s magnetic field. x The information was gathered and transmitted undergruund to an unknown location. x Does Langley know about this? They should: it’s buried out there somewhere. x Who knows the exact location? Only WW. This was his last message. x Thirty eight degrees fifty seven minutes six point five seconds north, seventy seven degrees eight minutes forty four seconds west. x Layer two. [Again, there’s an intentional misspelling here with “undergruund.”]

Passage 3 uses a transposition cipher, which relies on the positioning of given letters in order to properly spell out a message. The message is inspired by the words of Howard Carter, the archaeologist who opened King Tut’s tomb:

Slowly, desparatly slowly, the remains of passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway was removed. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner. And then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in. The hot air escaping from the chamber caused the flame to flicker, but presently details of the room within emerged from the mist. x Can you see anything? q [Again, there’s an intentional misspelling with “desparatly.”]

[Image courtesy of Unmuseum.org.]

Although some codebreakers believe the misspellings of “iqlusion,” “undergruund,” and “desparatly” are simply Sanborn’s crafty attempts at misdirection, others believe they are clues hinting at how to crack Passage 4, which is only 97 characters long.

Sanborn has even offered hints to help frustrated solvers in their efforts to unravel the mystery of Passage 4. In 2006, he revealed that letters 64 through 69 in the passage, NYPVTT, decrypt to “Berlin.”

And in 2014, Sanborn revealed that letters 70 through 74, MZFPK, decrypt to “clock.” So the message has something to do with the Berlin Clock, although Sanborn has stated “there are several really interesting clocks in Berlin.”

[Image of the Berlin Clock courtesy of Secret City Travel.com.]

Amazingly, even if someone does crack Passage 4 someday, that’s not the end of the journey. All four passages are part of a riddle to unravel to truly solve the Kryptos puzzle, and apparently, doing so requires you to be on CIA property. That’s no small feat.

Jim Sanborn has truly created a beautiful, diabolical puzzle for the ages here. I wonder who will step up to finally solve this masterpiece.


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Let’s crack some Confederate codes!

[A table for cracking Vigenere ciphers.]

Cryptography is probably the only puzzly skill in history upon which lives have depended. The movements of troops, plans for invasion, locations of key officers, spies, and personnel… all of these vital pieces of information have been encoded numerous times across numerous conflicts, all in the hopes of keeping that data from prying eyes.

It’s not as if anyone has to solve a crossword to prevent a Dennis Hopper-esque madman from wreaking havoc on Los Angeles, or the outcome of a pivotal battle hinged on someone finding all the words in a word seek faster than the enemy.

But cryptography is both a delightful diversion and deadly serious, depending on the context.

Which makes it all the more curious that it took more than a hundred years for a Confederate message from the Civil War to be decoded.

The coded message was first displayed in The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia in 1896, after being donated by Captain William A. Smith, a member of Walker’s Greyhounds, a division of Texans fighting for the Confederacy.

The actual message was unknown. The rolled-up slip of paper was tied with a linen thread and placed in a small glass vial along with a .36-caliber lead pistol bullet, and stoppered shut. (The bullet was included in order to make the vial heavy enough to be tossed into the river and sink if the scout carrying it was in danger of being captured.)

The mysterious message was meant for General John C. Pemberton, the Confederate general attempting to protect and defend Vicksburg from the army of Union Major General Ulysses S Grant. The same general who would surrender Vicksburg to Grant on July 4, 1863 after 47 days under siege.

But the message never got to Pemberton. Instead, it ended up as part of a Civil War museum, its message undelivered, its code unbroken.

Until 2008, when curiosity among museum staff led to an unveiling a century later than intended. The message was photographed and then returned to the glass vial, which itself was then returned to its display.

And the message intended for General Pemberton?

SEAN WIEUIIZH DTG CNP LBNXGK OZ BJQB FEQT FEQT XZBW JJOA TK FHR TPZWK PBW RYSQ VOWPZXGG OEPF EK UASFKIPW PLVO JKZ HMN NVAEUD XYE DWRJ BOYPA SX MLV FYYRDE LVPL MEYSIN XY FQEO NPK M OBPC FYXJFHOHT AS ETOV B OCAJDSVQU M ZTZV TPJY DAW FQTI WTTJ J DQGOAIA FLWHTXTI QMTR SEA LVLFLXFO.

Unlike many simple coding techniques, this is not a Caesar cipher where each letter is simply another letter of the alphabet in disguise. (Every E is actually an L, every F an M, etc.)

This is a Vigenere cipher, where a key word or phrase is required to unlock the letter substitution involved. For centuries, this cipher was considered unbreakable, though this was no longer the case by the time of the Civil War. (The Union regularly cracked coded Confederate messages.)

By 2008, Vigenere ciphers were easily cracked by amateur and professional cryptographers alike, and the Confederate message was finally revealed to the world:

Gen’l Pemberton, you can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen’l Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy’s line. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some caps. I subjoin despatch from Gen. Johnston.

Essentially, the message means that the reinforcements Pemberton was hoping for to shore up Vicksburg’s defenses weren’t coming.

But the message never got to the general, because before the scout arrived with the bad news, Vicksburg had already fallen, and Pemberton had surrendered.

So instead, the scout, having somehow realized from afar that Vicksburg was lost, returned to his camp and handed the unopened message to a Captain Smith, the same man who would later donate the message to the Museum.

And an enduring mystery was born.

[I learned of this story in the book Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t or Won’t Show You by Harriet Baskas, which also inspired my post a few weeks ago about the Morris Museum music box.]

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