Puzzalot – Stuff about, you know, puzzles

Cryptography Before Puzzles

Before a certain time period, coded messages were almost exclusively used to communicate secret information – usually military or political – between two parties, hoping to prevent other parties from getting that information. They were not, generally, a source of entertainment.

All that changed with Edgar Allan Poe in 1840.

I hadn’t known of his interest in cryptography, how he changed it from a necessary part of secret communications to a form of intellectual fun. He challenged his readers – who at the time looked on cryptographers with a sense of awe and those who could break codes as magicians – to send him their own encoded text and he would decipher it. This proved an amazingly popular feature and became the source of the modern newspaper cryptogram.

First Printed Cryptogram

The very first cryptogram sent in after Poe’s challenge was by one Clarence S. Brigham and was printed on January 15, 1840. The text of the cryptogram was as follows:


O 9? 9 2ad; as 385 n8338d— ?† sod—3 —86a5: —8x
8537 95: 37od: o— h—8shn 3a sqd?8d— ?† —og37
—8×8539 95: Sod—3 o— 9 ?o—1708xah— 950?9n ?†
50537 —8×8537 95: Sod—3 o[[—]] 378 n9338d— 858?†
?† 38537 —8×8537 95: sod—3 H!!ads3— nos8 ?† sahd37
sos37 —8×8537 95: —og37 o—9 Sdho3 ?† sahd37 95:
80;737 o— 9 !a28dshn o?! n8?853 ?† 27an8
o5:otg38— 9 2038 ?95

Poe had encouraged his readers to send in “hieroglyphical writing”, not just simple alphabetic ciphers. He claimed he could break all the codes sent him and backed his claim by actually doing it. The first one he solved to an interesting riddle (spoilers!):


I am a word of ten letters. My first, second, seventh and third is useful to farmers; my sixth, seventh, and first is a mischievous animal; my ninth, seventh, and first is the latter’s enemy; my tenth, seventh, and first supports life; my fourth, fifth, seventh and sixth is a fruit; my fourth, fifth and eighth is a powerful implement; my whole indicates a wise man.

As a rule, I don’t like riddles. They end up being a “what have I got in my pocket?” conundrum or basically, guess what the riddler is thinking. This riddle, though, has several checks built-in, so I’d say it’s fairer than most. One or two right guesses, especially about the animals, will set you on your way. (I’m not sure how the thing useful to farmers could be specific enough to warrant a solution, but I don’t have the historical context.)

In the end, this cryptogram solves to a single word, “TEMPERANCE”. That format, an encoded message that solved to a single word, rang a bell.

Self-Confirmation Bias

By coincidence, I’ve been trying to write a How To Write A BANG Puzzle article for the BANG website3 and in it described how to write a simple BANG puzzle: “Create a simple substitution cipher, encode a crossword clue, and have the answer to that clue be the answer to the puzzle.”

Crazy how similar that description ended up being like Clarence S. Brigham’s little clue. It compares almost exactly the admittedly bare and almost “I’ll know it when I see it” example of a puzzle-hunt style puzzle that I presented in a separate location and time.

It’s hard to argue with myself.4 I am fairly confident that this is the very first publically printed puzzle hunt-style puzzle in history. His puzzle was at the dawn of the age of hidden messages being used for fun. Of course, it was not intended to be part of a puzzle hunt; it’s more similar to the Shinteki Puzzle of the Month. A version used in an actual hunt would have to wait a few years.

1The subject of my original conjecture for the earliest puzzle hunt puzzle is planned as a post for next week.

2 Monks in medieval times also played around with encryptions as a form of entertainment, but I could find no details on their workings, apart from that they liked to anagram things a lot.

3 Not that I am anywhere close to being a qualified expert to write such an article; I am hoping such experts will take a look at said page and remove/rewrite/improve it to give better advice to a beginning puzzle writer.

4 Actually, it’s all too easy. I do it all the time.

BATH 5 – A Quick Retrospective
There’s a draft sitting in my queue titled, “My Birthday Hunt aka BATH 5 – Part 1”. As of today, it’s been two years since I started my attempt at an old-fashioned multi-part detailed write-up of the hunt that was put together for my birthday. Unfortunately, being a stay-at-home dad of a one year-old (now three) left little time for writing and I only ended up jotting down a few paragraphs. I regret not having done more.

I had also planned to put together a website with copies of all the puzzles on it. That never happened either. I think there are a few puzzles I’ve yet to see, let alone solve. Best laid plans and stuff.

I will always be grateful for that day and thankful to everyone who was involved. It was a tremendous blast, roaming San Francisco and solving unique, fun, crazy puzzles. But even better… I got to see a lot of friends and family that I only get to see a few times a year, if at all. That day was defintely special.

Found: One thing wrong with me
I am humbled and truly thankful for all the support and help that my family and I received after writing about the physical and psychological problems I’ve been having since August. The good news is, things recently began to change.

Expressing disappointment in a puzzle hunt?
At the finish line of BANG 22, both Jonathan and I wandered the crowd of finished solvers and asked for some honest feedback. Mostly, we got expressions of appreciation and “Awesome job!”. But I know it wasn’t a perfect hunt, none ever is. I’d asked teams what their least favorite part was, but got no real answers. How can one expect to improve without knowing what could be improved?

I’ve heard puzzle hunts compared to pizza and that a not-so-great hunt is akin to cold pizza. Sure, it may be cold, but heck, it’s still pizza, right? The analogy is even more apt if you only get pizza once or twice a year. To say, “Hey this is cold!” may discourage the pizza maker from making more. And then there’d be no pizza. Nobody wants that.

But I know the criticism is out there. Every team I’ve played on talks about the good and the bad of a hunt. And on teams that contain “puzzle snobs” – i.e. experienced players who know what and what doesn’t work – the bad can sometimes lead to anger. In a hunt a while ago, the puzzle required ordering (as many do). Instead of using natural ordering, however, it went with an arbitrary ordering. This really pissed off one of my teammates and I think pretty much ruined the hunt for them.

I’ve felt that anger, too. After one of those times, I mentioned all the missteps that had been made in the puzzle hunt to some friends. One person replied, “Yeah, but… instead of criticizing GC, we should be encouraging so they might run another one. We’ve had years and years of experience to hone this art and our expectations. Pointing out everything that went wrong is no way to say thanks.”

It’s true, constructive criticism should really only be given when asked for. But when you are GC and you do want constructive criticism, how do you get it? And if there were major flaws in a hunt, how can you express that without being discouraging and hurting feelings. People pour tons of works into their hunts and the players often have no idea what’s going on being the scenes. Sometimes, the “right” idea just doesn’t occur to GC. On several occasions after a hunt I’ve run, I’ve thought “This clue could have been so much better if only I’d thought to…” I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

To say, “You really screwed up” is indeed no way to say thank you.

I’ve seen some writeup of hunts that generally have a positive tone about their experience, but mention the difficulties in passing, sometimes as if it was the solver’s fault, not GC’s responsibility. Maybe that’s a good way. It’s sort of passive-aggressive in its methodology but gets the point across without coming across as negative and/or intentionally trying to hurt feelings.

I think the best way, though, is to run your own hunt. Make it fun, smooth, and satisfying. Listen to playtesters, iron out kinks, and don’t take shortcuts. That way potential GCs have a model to look to so that when they decide to run something, they can say, “Let’s make it good like that awesome hunt we played in.”

Puzzle (Hunts) in Fiction: Elementary

I’ve seen TV show episodes that use the terms “scavenger hunt”, “treasure hunt”, “mystery hunt”, and even “ARG” in reference to the type of entertainment known as “pervasive games”. However, I had never heard any of them use the phrase “puzzle hunt”, even when referring to something that I would consider to be one.

That changed a few nights ago when I watched a new episode of “Elementary”, the Sherlock Holmes-in-America CBS show.

In it, an overly-obsessed math genius is participating in what he calls a “puzzle hunt” with a cash prize. The puzzle hunt in this case consists of solving a math problem that yields GPS coordinates, finding a phone number at the location, and then calling the number to get access to the next math problem. Does this qualify as a puzzle hunt, though?

I’ve tried before to nail down a concise definition of what a puzzle hunt is, but my attempts have been found to either be too narrow, or so broad that making a telephone call would qualify. In general, I find that the solved puzzle to unlock the location of the next clue / repeat until the end of the hunt works for me. “Puzzle” is the vague part in this series: Does a riddle qualify? Do math problems (regardless of whether they use palindromic primes)? Jigsaws? Entanglements?

All of these, to one degree or another, meet the requirement of testing the solver’s ingenuity to solve the problem. That makes them puzzles.

However, if a hunt consists of all riddles, I don’t think of it as a puzzle hunt, but a riddle hunt. In other words, when a hunt is limited to only a specific type of puzzle, then a better label is “[puzzle type] hunt”. A variety of problem types would necessitate a “puzzle” as being the best catch-all term. What was shown in “Elementary” would be a “math hunt”… though honestly, it sounded more like a math-based geocaching ARG.

A so-far attempted writer myself, I’ve had occasion thoughts on how to construct a story about a murder in a puzzle hunt setting. None of my ideas, though, have inspired me to commit pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). It seems that the longer a mystery show is on, the more likely it will contain a hunt, whether it be scavenger, treasure, puzzle, or ARG. Some are entertaining, but none to date have truly satisfied what I think of a puzzle hunt. Even this episode, which specifically called its McGuffin a puzzle hunt, fell short.

2013 in Review
Ack! DASH 6 is tomorrow. I had meant to do a quick writeup of each of the events I played in last year so I wouldn’t forget them. I apparently have only done one! Let’s see if instead, I can get a quick paragraph in for each one.

DASH 5 – Didn’t actually play live. My team dropped out on me the day before, real-life somehow overriding puzzle events (pfui). I did end up solving the clues with my Thursday night puzzle group, about 1-2 a night. Was a lot of fun, maybe even more so since we could take (nearly) all the time we wanted and didn’t feel the pressure of the clock. There’s something nice about being able to fully experience a well-written clue and not try to look for ways to short-circuit it… like sipping wine instead of downing it all in one gulp.

Shinteki Decathlon 8 – My “quick” writeup from before kinda got away from me.

Berkeley Mystery Hunt 3 – Our team came in a close second to the League of Extraordinary Puzzlemen. We were actually minutes ahead of LXP – which included incredible crossword champion Tyler Hinman – as we went into the final puzzle… Which turned out to be a crossword. Giving a puzzle like that to Tyler is like give bacon to a dog: Finished in a blink. Our team could only look on with a heavy heart as we watched them defeat HAL 9000 and win the hunt minutes ahead of us.

It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed spending the day hanging out with puzzle friends like Jonathan, Brent, Rich, Eric, Laura, and more. But with a powerhouse team like that, I did not feel like I contributed much. I love the feeling of having a key insight or finding a shortcut to solve a clue, neither of which I really felt during this hunt. Not that I wouldn’t play again with the same people… Just need to figure out a way to contribute more.

Palantir Hunt 3 – This one caught me by surprise and made me long for the return of the BANG. I had skipped the first one, not knowing anything about the producers and didn’t even know there was a second. For the third one, I joined the powerhouse that is the Shinteki version of The Smoking GNU: Jonathan, Kekoa, Cynthia, and Eric, as well as Laura. With such a skilled team, I figured I would do a lot of watching of amazing solvers in action. This was partially true. For example, on one clue, we did the standard you-work-from-the-top-we’ll-start-at-the-bottom method of solving a list of crossword clues. However, the from-the-top side sub-team had finished the entire list by the time the bottom solvers (including me) got more than four. I think our team solve time was under five minutes for that one.

I was able to contribute some key insights on several puzzles and even figure out the technique to solving the meta. There is something very satisfying about having the “aha” on a clue your team has been stuck on for a while. We ended up coming in second behind “Juiced”, who beat us by just thirteen points. Still a very fun, very satisfying hunt. I was figuring it was going to be my favorite for the year… until November.

Escape from the Bank – I was excited to see SCRAP’s newest real escape game, having been working on a heist-themed hunt for a while (more on that later). Bob invited me to join him in this one. Our records were exact opposites: He had never escaped from a SCRAP event, while I had always escaped. One of us was going to have their streak broken. SCRAP games are always well-produced and fun, and this was no exception. I always enjoy the variety of clues. Of the ten main clues, I was worked on two. First one was a cinch. Second was a Nikoli puzzle type I’d never tried before; nobody else had either, so I spent too much time trying to figure out the rules and erasing the grid several times. By the time I solved it, the information was no longer needed.

One drawback to SCRAP’s escape games is that they don’t tell you if you’re done. We had gotten what we figured was the solution to the meta, but hadn’t used all the information. Turned out, the stuff we didn’t use was a mid-step for another part of the clue; we didn’t need it. In the end, we escaped! I think we were the first to do so, but it was close.

My 40th Birthday Hunt (aka BATH 5) – This really deserves its own post. Suffice to say, my wife convinced the right people to convince enough people to throw me a Doctor Who-themed 40th birthday hunt under the guise of BATH 5 (or is it vice-versa?). I was and continue to be very touched and amazed by all the effort that went into this hunt and being able to see such good friends.

E.D.D.I.E. – My wife’s co-worker heard about my birthday hunt and asked if I could write something similar to get her husband out of the house for a surprise birthday party. I agreed. “What types of puzzles does your husband like?” I asked her. “Oh, he doesn’t do puzzles.” was the reply. So I used some of the heist-themed clues I had been developing and made them much much easier and gave him a two-hour hunt in the greater Sebastopol area. It ended with a safe-cracking at his home, just in time for his surprise party. My first paying puzzle gig!

I got a lot of positive feedback at the party. One conversation with a lady in her 70s was “You should do this for a living!” I told her I was currently a full-time dad. “Keep it mind for the future then,” she said. She was by the door as I left. “Don’t forget this! In the future, it could be what you do. Don’t forget!”

Good way to end the year.

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