An 80-Year-Old Literary Mystery Returns!

[The Doctor, of Doctor Who fame. No stranger to nonlinear stories.]

Avid readers and television watchers are probably familiar with the concept of nonlinear storytelling.

Whodunits often bounce forward and backward in time so that readers and detectives alike can reconstruct the events of the crime, and of course science fiction is filled to bursting with time-travel stories that tie the readers’ minds in knots. Bookworms are used to getting their story elements out of order.

But what if the entire novel was out of order? Imagine every single page out of place. Could you reassemble the story and solve the murder?

That was the question posed by Cain’s Jawbone, a 1934 novel by famed cryptic crosswords constructor Edward Powys Mathers, who published under the pseudonym Torquemada.

Readers were tasked with identifying the six victims of the killers, as well as who killed each victim. Not only that, but a successful solve also needed to include the correct order of all 100 pages of the novel.

A prize of 15 pounds was offered to the first reader who could unravel the mystery. That is no small feat, given that the number of possible page combinations is in the millions.

And yet, two solvers did submit solutions and get their prizes, even if the solution was never shared publicly.

85 years later, Cain’s Jawbone is returning to publication, allowing a new generation of puzzlers the chance to solve one of Torquemada’s greatest puzzles.

From publishing company Unbound’s announcement page:

Subscribers to Cain’s Jawbone will receive its 100 pages unbound in a box. This means that they can be spread out and placed next to each other – so much easier than when pages are bound, as in the original publication.

A space for notes is provided as well as a page to submit with the answer. Only solutions submitted on a page from the box will be eligible.

The competition is returning as well, and a prize of 1,000 pounds is being offered.

With a release date of September of this year, it will be fascinating to see how quickly modern solvers can unravel this classic mystery.


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How Far Away Are Computer-Generated Crosswords?

[Image courtesy of ESLTower.]

There’s no denying that computers play a large role in the world of crosswords today.

Some companies use computer programs to generate their unthemed crosswords, no human intervention necessary. Computer programs like Crossword Compiler aid constructors in puzzle design and grid fill, allowing them to build and cultivate databases of words with which to complete their grids.

And, of course, with those little computers in your pocket, you can solve all kinds of crosswords (like those in our Daily POP Crosswords and Penny Dell Crosswords apps).

Heck, computers are even getting pretty good at solving crosswords — just look at Matt Ginsberg’s evolving crossword program, “Dr. Fill.

An article in Smithsonian Magazine posed the question, “why haven’t computers replaced humans in crossword creation?”

The answer, as you’d expect, is simple: computers are just fine at plugging words into established grids and generating basic, unthemed crosswords.

But unthemed is the key word there.

When people think of The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Values Club, The Crosswords Club, or any of the other well-respected crossword outlets in the market today, I doubt unthemed puzzles are what comes to mind.

And when it comes to creating themes, innovating, and playing with the conventions of crosswords in order to create puzzles that surprise and challenge solvers, computers simply don’t have the chops.

They might be able to solve puzzles, but as far as I can tell from my research, there’s no program out there capable of generating and executing a theme with any sort of wordplay element involved.

[Image courtesy of Crossword Compiler.]

There is an art to creating an exciting grid, an intriguing theme, or a new puzzle mechanic that solvers have never seen before. The creativity of constructors is truly boundless.

And, it seems, the potential for crossword grids is just as boundless.

Recently, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight challenged the puzzle fans in his readership to calculate how many different crossword puzzle grids were possible.

He offered the following conditions:

  • They are 15-by-15.
  • They are rotationally symmetric — that is, if you turn the grid upside down it appears exactly the same.
  • All the words — that is, all the horizontal and vertical sequences of white squares — must be at least three letters long. All the letters must appear in an “across” word and a “down” word.
  • The grid must be entirely connected — that is, there can be no “islands” of white squares separated from the rest by black squares.

Now, obviously, all of those rules can be violated for the sake of an interesting theme. We’ve seen grids with vertical symmetry, islands of white squares, and more. Heck, plenty of grids allow words to go beyond the grid itself, or allow multiple words to share puzzle squares.

[“Cutting Edge” by Evan Birnholz. A puzzle where answers extend
beyond the grid. Image courtesy of The Washington Post.]

But assuming these rules are standard, what total did solvers come up with?

None. They couldn’t find a total.

One solver managed to calculate that there were 40,575,832,476 valid 13-by-13 grids following the above conditions, but could not apply the same technique to 15-by-15 grids.

40 billion valid grids. For a comparison, there are 5,472,730,538 unique solutions for a 9×9 Sudoku grid, and I previously calculated it would take 800 years to use every possible 9×9 Sudoku grid.

Of course, that’s 40 billion 13-by-13 grids. The number of possible 15-by-15 grids must be orders of magnitude larger.

Consider this: There were 16,225 puzzles published in The New York Times before Will Shortz took over the NYT crossword. The current number of NYT crosswords in the XWordInfo database is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 puzzles.

And they’re one of the oldest crossword outlets in the world. Even when you factor in the number of newspapers, magazines, subscription services, and independent outlets for crosswords there are these days, or have been in the past, we barely scratch the surface of a number like 40 billion.

Maybe by the time we’ve run through that many, AI constructors will have caught up.


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How Tweet It Is!

Crosswords occupy a curious niche in popular culture.

They’re a part of everyday life, appearing in newspapers, apps, puzzle books, mysteries, and more. That simple patterning of black and white squares, no matter where it appears, brings them to mind.

And yet, despite their ubiquity, they’re not always viewed as something for the everyman. Some consider them off-putting or intimidating, steeped in obscure cluing and peculiar verbiage intended to keep casual solvers out.

That mix of familiarity and unfamiliarity makes crosswords the perfect fodder for comedians. The crew at HuffPost proved this by compiling a list of humorous tweets focusing on crosswords.

Some of them referenced the odd letter combinations you encounter in grids…

Or the difficulty some clues offer…

Or just the general difficulty of the puzzle…

But other tweets had fun with specific puzzles…

Or with the act of solving itself…

And, given how often wordplay finds its way into crosswords, it’s only appropriate to close out with a pun…

(That last one wasn’t in the HuffPost article. There’s plenty more puzzle humor out there, I just happened to stumbled across it yesterday before writing this post.)

Have you encountered any funny crossword-themed tweets recently? Let us know in the comments section below! (And be sure to follow us on Twitter, where we share little gems like these whenever we can.)


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Puzzles… in… Space!

When you’re a puzzle enthusiast, you never know where your interest might take you, or what interesting and unexpected people you’ll encounter along the way. All sorts of folks enjoy puzzles, after all.

If you enjoy puzzles with trivia, you could bump into Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? winners or Jeopardy! champions like Ken Jennings. The New York Times has introduced us to several famous crossword enthusiasts. The British government is publishing puzzle books. Heck, actors Joel McHale and Neil Patrick Harris both included puzzles in their autobiographies!

Even astronauts are getting into the puzzly spirit!

Astronaut Tim Peake spent half a year in one of the most fascinating places in the solar system: the International Space Station. He was the first British astronaut to serve under the banner of the European Space Agency, and the first British astronaut to perform a spacewalk.

Upon returning to Earth, he turned his attention to more literary efforts, penning three books about space. The third, published last year in partnership with the European Space Agency, takes readers behind the scenes of the ESA screening process for astronauts.

Yes, puzzles are part of the screening process for the ESA.

Would you like to try your hand at solving some of them?

How did you do? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you

And if you’d like, you can find more of these puzzles in Peake’s delightful book The Astronaut Selection Test Book: Do You Have What it Takes for Space?

Do you have what it takes? I suspect that you do, fellow puzzler.


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Science Says Board Games Are Good For Your Relationship?

[Image courtesy of Medium.com.]

One of the hallmarks of a healthy relationship is enjoying the same activities. If you’re spending time together doing something you both find engaging, then you’re golden.

But, as it turns out, there are some activities that offer greater benefits than others.

According to a recent study published by Baylor University, couples who play board games together are actually strengthening their relationships chemically.

[Incidentally, there is a hilarious world of photos dedicated to couples with chess boards out there. Here are just some of my favorites.]

From the article on Baylor.edu:

For the study, Melton and Maria Boccia, Ph.D., professor of child and family studies, recruited 20 couples ranging in age from 25 to 40. Couples were randomly assigned to participate in one of two couple dates — game night or couple art class — for one hour.

One group played board games in a familiar home-like setting. Couples were alone. These couples chose familiar games that would not require them to read instructions.

The study was designed to examine any increase in levels of oxytocin in the couples’ hormone levels. Oxytocin, often referred to as the hugging hormone, plays a role in building social connections.

[Image courtesy of Daily Mail.]

Here’s the breakdown on oxytocin release increases:

  • men in the art class
  • women playing board games
  • women in the art class
  • men playing board games

Curiously, while there wasn’t a significant difference between the latter three categories, men in the art class released 2 to 2.5 times more oxytocin than the other groups.

There were measurable increases in the oxytocin levels for both men and women playing board games, lending credence to the idea that playing together is good for your relationship.

Some of the games used in the study: cards, checkers, chess, dominoes, and Monopoly. Given some of my unpleasant experiences playing Monopoly, I’m surprised that one didn’t throw off the curve somewhat.

[Image courtesy of Grey Mass Games.]

It does make me wonder, though, if some games would provoke greater oxytocin releases than others.

Would cooperative games like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, or Castle Panic! lead to increases, or is the type of game irrelevant? Are more stressful games, like those with timers or ones where quick reaction time is integral to winning, less likely to build those chemical connections?

Sounds like a field ripe for further study. Of course, I’m a little biased. I’ll take any excuse to play more games. =)


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The Maze of Games: Conquered?

There’s nothing like an unsolved mystery or puzzle to pique the imagination.

Sometimes, it’s a treasure hunt that has gone unsolved for decades, like Forrest Fenn’s treasure poem or the secret locations concealed in the artwork of Bryon Preiss’s The Secret.

Other times, it’s a masterfully constructed puzzle or series of puzzles that demands a Herculean collaborative effort to solve.

And one of the most recent, and most ambitious, unsolved puzzles in recent memory has just been removed from contention.

The Maze of Games has been solved!

The Maze of Games is an interactive puzzle novel, first published in 2014, designed by Mike Selinker of Lone Shark Games.

In the novel, siblings Samuel and Colleen are swept into the realm of the Gatekeeper — a dapper, witty, and unforgiving skeletal game master who delights in challenging the unsuspecting to fiendish puzzle challenges — and they’re left to navigate the first of the book’s mazes: the Castle Maze.

As you roam the labyrinth with Colleen and Samuel, you encounter puzzles to be solved, each of which provides you with a keyword you’ll need for later. From word searches and crosswords to logic puzzles and code-breaking challenges, your puzzly chops will be put to the test and then some by the Gatekeeper’s many mind-bending obstacles.

But the Castle Maze is just the first labyrinth. Five mazes stand between you and victory over the Gatekeeper, all of them steeped in mythology, genre storytelling, and adventure-tinged backstory. (And several of which offer some wickedly barbed humor.)

For more than four years, many puzzlers have tackled the mazes and interconnected puzzles that make up Selinker’s masterpiece.

Selinker even offered a tie-in guide to help solvers with the final maze!

[The guide, the original book, and a tie-in map were all featured in
last year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide as The Gatekeeper’s Bundle.]

But, as far as anyone knew, no one had made it through all five mazes.

Until last weekend, that is.

In an announcement on Facebook, Selinker confirmed that he’d been contacted by a team of puzzlers who wanted to verify their answers, and he quickly confirmed that they were correct. They had completed The Maze of Games!

It took a talented 13-person team to finally conquer the Gatekeeper and free the Quaice siblings from his clutches.

It’s an impressive feat of puzzly skill and determination. As someone who has tackled The Maze of Games myself, I can tell you it’s a thoroughly challenging, demanding solving experience. Kudos to those intrepid puzzlers that cracked all five of the Gatekeeper’s Mazes!

Oh, and if you’re looking for a puzzly challenge of your own to accomplish, there’s a rumor that a devious puzzle is lurking within the Apocrypha Adventure Card Game, also developed by Selinker and the crew at Lone Shark Games.

Just something to think about.


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