November 15, 2012
I decided to cross-post this behind-the-scenes look at the way the contest went down from my own blog. If you liked the Great American History Puzzle, you might also enjoy the occasional word puzzles and trivia quizzes I post over there, typically on “Wordplay Wednesday.” Please stop by.
(WARNING: SPOILERS HO! If you still want to attempt the contest, read this blog post after. Give it a try! We’ve posted a series of hints for every puzzle now, to amp up the fun-to-frustration ratio.)
(WARNING: LONG! This is probably a little more detail than you want unless you actually played along with the contest. And possibly not even then.)
The Great American History Puzzle started (for me) with a phone call from Bill Allman, the Chief Digital Officer for the Smithsonian. Apparently Smithsonian magazine was planning a “Secrets of American History” issue and there was some talk about including a puzzle contest of some kind in the issue. Did I know anything about puzzles?
Well, no, in the sense that I’d never done anything like this before. I’d been a fan of all kinds of nerdy pencil-and-paper games and puzzles since I was a kid, but I’d never even constructed a crossword. But despite that, I immediately had an inkling of how much fun this could be: a series of cool hidden messages in august old Smithsonian magazine, like the “hidden contests” that used to run in Games magazine when I was a kid. The possibilities for mysterious stage trappings would be hard to beat: the secret corners of American history, full of Masonic symbols, occult architecture, and possible Illuminati conspiracies, as personified by the cavernous, treasure-filled vaults of the nation’s largest museum. It could be the perfect backdrop for a byzantine armchair treasure hunt, like the ones that the Brits used to put in lavishly illustrated puzzle books.
The magazine puzzle came together fairly quickly. Bill, knowing that the cover was going to be an elaborate photo mosaic of Thomas Jefferson, suggested including a hidden image Waldo-style amid the detritus. I realized that a Jefferson theme meant great possibilities to include all kinds of National Treasure-type Founding Father minutiae: the Declaration of Independence, the Bible verse on the Liberty Bell, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dying on the same Fourth of July, two Jefferson Memorials (the one on the Tidal Basin and the one where you’ll find the St. Louis Arch), and so on. I made a quick run to the public library to look for good places in a typical issue of Smithsonian magazine where you could stow away hidden messages, and realized the “folio” text at the bottom of each page would do nicely. In the end, the puzzle got simplified a little to get rid of the Gateway Arch angle, but apart from that, it ran essentially as I drew it up and pitched it that first afternoon.
The web puzzle was trickier: how should it work? I wanted it to have all manner of subtle connections and historical allusions and red herrings, but that’s easier said that done. I also wanted it to feel like an old-timey marking-off-paces treasure hunt from Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew, and that’s not easy to do with pixels. I originally proposed a thirteen-puzzle quiz (thinking of the numerology of the thirteen original U.S. colonies, I guess) which soon got scaled down to ten. I was fine with ten: I realized ten puzzles could be structured as a three-by-three grid whose answers somehow combined to make one final puzzle. To make the treasure hunt angle work, the first nine “passwords” would be actual artifacts players would “collect” from the bowels of the Smithsonian. Then, somehow, those passwords would combine to give you an elegant final answer. The final puzzle would tell you how to make that combination work–and a double-crostic seemed like the right way to conceal a short encoded message like that.
In one of our very first phone conversations about Smithsonian lore, Bill had mentioned a neat bit of trivia that Dan Brown had leveraged when he set a novel at the Smithsonian: that two barn owls called Increase and Diffusion used to live in one of the museum’s castle towers. (James Smithson, who founded the institution for reasons that are still a mystery today, intended that the museum would promote “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”) I remember jotting that down immediately, loving the symbolism (wise old owl = knowledge…and the word “knowledge” actually hides the word “owl”!) as well as the historical resonance and most of all the word-manipulation potential of “increasing and diffusing” things.
(The owls, incidentally, later made cameo appearances in the final two puzzles, as well as in an acrostic that I hid in the nine “treasure” descriptions. I thought of them as the spirit animals of the puzzle contest.)
The puzzle started from there. The final answer, I decided, would come from “increasing and diffusing” (that is, alphabetically incrementing and then anagramming) letters from other answers. I spent literally days trying to figure out what a settle on the perfect nine-letter answer. It had to be American but universal, meaningful but not guessable. (“Knowledge” was out, obviously.) I went through notepads full of possibilities–lots of Latin phrases about light and science and so forth, I remember–before hitting on Walt Whitman’s famous confession “I contain multitudes,” which seemed emblematic of American history and the Smithsonian collection. Even better, it had eighteen letters: two from each password. Another week went into selecting a variety of Smithsonian artifacts (again, iconic but not guessable, which was tricky) with the right letters in the right places.
The most exciting part of this process was the unlooked-for serendipities that kept cropping up. I had already thought of doing a cryptogram puzzle where the answer was hidden not in the plaintext but in the key, which I didn’t think I’d ever seen before. But this meant finding a famous Smithsonian artifact with no repeated letters in its name, which turned out to be harder than it sounded. I also knew that one of my treasures would need to have a ‘Z’ in the name, to “increase and diffuse” into the lone ‘A’ in “I CONTAIN MULTITUDES.” Bingo, “FONZ’S JACKET” solved both problems. And I liked that the elusive ‘A’ would come from the guy who always said, “Aaaaaaayy.”
Along the same lines, I wanted to do an aviation puzzle built around airport codes, and I discovered that “GLAMOROUS GLENNIS” (a) was a famous Smithsonian plane, (b) had the right letters in the right places for the final answer, and (c) could be spelled out using valid IATA codes. (It turns out that many plausible three-letter abbreviations are not used for airports.) I wanted a crossword that would have a code concealed in it even after the grid was filled in…and presto, “MORSE TELEGRAPH” had the right letters, and was 15 characters including the space (typical crossword grid size) and worked out neatly with a code-based solution. I wanted to do a spatial puzzle, but wasn’t sure how that would work online…but then realized that origami was the perfect fit for the animals in the Smithsonian’s natural history wing. The iconic “HOPE DIAMOND” was the perfect fit for a 19th-century-style riddle with oblique hints about hope and diamonds, inspired by memorizing all of Gollum and Bilbo’s riddles from a very young age. (Also by this still-unsolved Samuel Wilberforce “enigma,” which I can still recite verbatim.) “MOON ROCK” turned out to be a great choice for a space-themed logic puzzle, because all the O’s and the C looked like phases of various heavenly bodies. This took over a month to come together, but it’s hard to convey how exciting it was when something actually worked. (Or how frustrating it was when I couldn’t quite make something work. Designing a logic puzzle whose answer had to conceal “MOON ROCK” took days before I finally had the right idea.)
With all nine treasures accounted for, I waded into the actual construction of the puzzles. The biggest time commitments turned out to be the crossword and the hidden picture, for pretty much the same reason: these were both things I liked very much, but didn’t (yet) have the chops to put together myself. Crossword construction is a very unforgiving art, and I have friends who are very good at it, but I’d literally never even tried to make one. And this one was going to be a doozy: every single ‘O’ and ‘A’ in the grid had to be in the right spot, and the theme answers had to hold instructions as to how to decode the grid (again, without over- or underusing O’s and A’s). It was a real baptism by fire. (Originally there was going to be an acrostic message in the clues as well. Reader, I bailed on that idea fast.)
The hidden picture was even worse: I like to draw, but haven’t been serious about pen-and-ink in years. And yet suddently I needed to produce an intricate drawing of the Smithsonian with 21 state outlines hidden there in the proper order. (Some solvers, I believe, never realized that the left-to-right order of the hidden states was needed to spell out the answer perfectly. It wasn’t just an anagram.) Oh, and I had to write a 50-letter poem about the Smithsonian with very precise word lengths and 21 letters that fell just so, and it would be nice if it rhymed. Ugh. Both puzzles took well over a week each. I had no idea what I was doing.
But the little origami elephant, which I’d been dreading, turned out to be a cake walk. I generally suck at these kinds of spatial puzzles and had never even tried origami before, so I outsourced the job to my origami-savvy sister, explaining the basic idea. Was it even possible, I asked, to show a crease pattern and have people fold it start-to-finish with no explanatory diagrams at all? The next day she had me come over and showed me a finished pattern, including ideas on how to label stuff and where the word ‘MAMMOTH’ and all the red-herring letters would go. She’d watched a bunch of elephant-folding videos on YouTube, and prepared prototypes of three different designs. Unbelievable.
Not every puzzle turned out perfectly. I intended the airport-code puzzle to be one of the easiest of the nine, thinking that of course a list of nine aviation destinations would inspire solvers to look at IATA codes first thing. But the fake narrative I wrote to embed the code in turned out to have just too much forest for the trees, and even my very puzzle-savvy test-solvers didn’t hit on the solution right away. I intended the flight log to read as simple period pastiche, but solvers unpacked every detail of it, scouring it for clues, and were upset when some details turned out to be historically impossible. (Modern-day Namibia, it turns out, was never called “German South-West Africa” during the time period when one of the planes I mentioned was being produced. Players seized on this anachronism as Potentially Very Important, which made me feel bad. I just thought “German South-West Africa” had a cooler, more old-timey sound. I could imagine Mr. Burns from The Simpsons saying it.)
While I’m confessing to my Great American Puzzle Crimes: the last couple folds in the mammoth also weren’t labeled as consistently as they should have been, I discovered. If you looked up an origami “reverse fold,” there was really only one way to do it along the creases specified. But I made the mistake of using the “mountain” and “valley” descriptors in this step to refer to the side of the paper facing “up” to the solver, whereas in past steps they’d always referred to the printed side of the paper. (These were the only two steps where those two orientations weren’t one and the same.) Probably leaving out “mountain” and “valley” altogether on this step would have been less confusing. Ken Jennings Origami Puzzles Inc. regrets the error. (Which was mine, obviously, and not my sister’s.)
The hardest/least popular puzzle for solvers, as intended, turned out to be the presidential portrait mosaic. I knew early on I wanted a puzzle that functioned as a presidential trivia quiz, and I wanted a picture puzzle as well (using only public-domain materials where possible) and a presidential portrait mash-up seemed like a good way to accomplish both. I knew that this was going to be a slog for solvers, straining their eyes over Web versions of Smithsonian portraits for hours on end, but I thought that was okay. If the contest was really going to separate the most dedicated puzzles, not every step should be solvable by half an hour of pencil agility or five minutes of insight. At least one was going to have to be labor-intensive. This one reminded me of some old Games magazine contests (The National Scavenger Hunt, “Calculatrivia”) that were all about the research hours.
One of the contest’s top finishers, whose puzzles I normally like very much, was vehemently against the way I’d set this one up, quibbling that many of the presidential identifications don’t contribute to spelling out the final solution, which he found inelegant. I’m not sure I agree. Spelling out a message using the numbering of presidential terms only works for presidents 1-26, and it seemed a shame to leave out the most novel and recognizable presidential portraits just because they had the misfortune to come after Teddy Roosevelt. In addition, I saw that I could make the answer (“LINCOLN’S STOVEPIPE HAT”) actually take the shape of a top hat, a twist I just couldn’t say no to. But that meant there needed to be some kind of “negative space” around the hat shape. Presto, use presidents 1-26 for the hat, and president 27-44 for the background. (Since the elements from the recent presidents could appear in any order, I was free to choose cool, recognizable bits from their portraits: a vase here, a Norman Rockwell signature there. I think I played fair.) This wasn’t wasted effort, because solvers did still have to source all the picture elements. Otherwise there was no way to know (at first) which presidents were signal and which were noise.
But yes, that one was a slog. It was supposed to be. I’m sorry.
Will there be another Great American Puzzle from Smithsonian and myself? I think it’s very possible. Ideas have already been tossed around. From my point of view, everyone on the digital team was a pleasure to work with and we were all very pleased with the way the contest came together and people responded to it.
We also learned a lot, of course. Speaking only for myself here, I don’t know if we really nailed the transition between the magazine puzzle and the Web end. It turned out the subscriber base for a print magazine and the kinds of people interested in tricky Web puzzles were two very different audiences, and it was hard to bridge that gap. (We made a full scan of the issue available to Web readers arriving late, but that wasn’t as convenient as it could have been.) If there’s a next time, and we try to capture both print and digital audiences again, I’d put a lot more thought into a two-pronged approach that would smoothly involve both.
We also learned how careful we had to be at all times to keep a very astute solver base from getting one step ahead of the puzzles. The double-crostic elements turned out to be much more legible at their final screen size than I’d originally planned, which meant that people could get a head-start on solving the final message. I worried a little about this, but not as seriously as I should have. After all, I reasoned, even early-bird solvers would have to wait and finish the ninth puzzle to submit a correct solution, so it would come down to a race on the hidden-picture. But I’d forgotten that I’d also planted a clue in the double-crostic (“FORT MCHENRY”) that would let a sufficiently clever puzzle back-solve the ninth puzzle without having to wrestle with it much. I still feel like this wasn’t optimal, since (a) it made the final day of the puzzle more of a sprint than we’d intended, and (b) it meant players could totally bypass the hidden picture, one of my favorite puzzles. If we ever do anything like this again, rest assured that everything will be even more carefully genius-proofed.
But despite these small hiccups, I’m proud of the way the contest turned out. Players seemed to be going down the exact rabbit-holes and blind alleys I’d planned, and feeling the exact same flush of pride once a wall fell. Temporary frustration may have been “increased and diffused,” but so was knowledge.
If nothing else, at least a few thousand people now have a nice origami mammoth to display for friends and family. NO CHARGE!
October 31, 2012
The contest is over, but The Great American History Puzzle lives on!
If any of you got stumped on a puzzle or two — or are just getting started — and would like some help to get to the finish, we’ve put up a series of hints for each puzzle on the main puzzle page. Don’t worry, you can hit that link without fear of seeing spoilers–you need to click on the links listed there to reveal each hint in turn.
There are three hints for each puzzle, starting with a gentle nudge and escalating to a pretty muscular shove. You can also see full, comprehensive solutions for each puzzle as well.
I’m told that 49 solvers submitted a correct set of answers between Jeffrey Davidson’s winning entry and our announcement closing the contest. Very impressive!
Here’s the official Honor Roll listing all 49 people who submitted correct answers and the order in which we received them. Like Jeffrey, some of these solvers had figured out the final puzzles in advance, and so there was a dramatic sprint to the finish line, as you can see. The first 20 runners-up will receive one-year subscriptions to Smithsonian magazine in special recognition of their accomplishment.
While we’re naming names, I also wanted to give a shout-out to the people who helped me with the contest: Eric Berlin, Peter Gordon, Stanley Newman, and Trip Payne, who helped test-solve the puzzles; Bill Heller, who gave me a crash course in Logic Puzzles 101; and Miranda Jennings (my sister!) who was my very patient origami coach. And of course to the Puzzle Team at Smithsonian. My deepest thanks to everyone! (Any mistakes in the puzzles, of course, are my responsibility and not theirs.)
But my most heartfelt thanks go to all you solvers who have spent this month grappling with the twists and turns of these puzzles. I had a blast working on them, and I hope this new round of hints means that they’ll continue to entertain and challenge a whole new audience in their post-contest afterlife. Tell your friends.
Is this good-bye? Well, maybe, but maybe not forever. We had so much fun that the Smithsonian Great American Puzzle might just return next year. Stay tuned…meanwhile, tell us what you think.
October 22, 2012
- 2:00:20 PM — Jeff Davidson – Winner
- 2:00:25 PM — Dan Katz
- 2:00:26 PM — Stan Park
- 2:00:27 PM — Francis Heaney
- 2:00:30 PM — Scott Rogoff
- 2:00:30 PM — Jeffrey Harris
- 2:00:32 PM — Michael Sylvia
- 2:00:35 PM — Patrick Blindauer
- 2:00:36 PM — Christopher Denault
- 2:00:36 PM — Mark Halpin
- 2:00:39 PM — Sandy Weisz
- 2:00:39 PM — Carrie Temple
- 2:00:50 PM — Nathan Curtis
- 2:01:11 PM — Craig Harman
- 2:01:23 PM — Joon Pahk
- 2:01:25 PM — Anonymous
- 2:01:45 PM — Ed Seiler
- 2:01:46 PM — Anonymous
- 2:02:49 PM — Jennifer Kidder
- 2:04:15 PM — Andy Bouwman
- 2:37:24 PM — Yar Woo
- 2:52:11 PM — Robert Cook
- 3:10:52 PM — Jan Chong
- 3:22:57 PM — Christopher Michaud
- 6:06:28 PM — Matt Pavlovich
- 6:37:43 PM — The Beaky Family
- 7:31:28 PM — The Who Do You Think You Are? Research Team
- 9:04:19 PM — Kelly Wade
- 10:57:11 PM — Diana Yost
October 23, 2012
- 2:31:06 AM — Joe Bain
- 6:02:41 AM — J. T. Williams
- 11:32:52 AM — Robert Yost
- 1:42:30 PM — Nancy Taubenslag
- 2:56:00 PM — Mykal Duffy
- 3:48:38 PM — Mike Tice
- 4:43:05 PM — Barbara J. Martin
- 5:45:46 PM — Edward Samuels
- 5:46:00 PM — Jennifer and Richard Galas
- 5:51:05 PM — Coreen Steinbach
- 10:45:38 PM — Kiran MacCormick
October 24, 2012
- 10:11:44 AM — Wendy Mulligan-Steckler
- 12:38:24 PM — Bob, Kimberly, Max, Nick & Jack Dabagia
- 5:40:39 PM — Clive Dawson
- 5:51:37 PM — Jeffrey Shih
- 9:25:44 PM — Mark & Emily Horansky
October 25, 2012
- 8:48:38 PM — John Sokolovic
- 8:51:19 PM — Stephanie Brubaker
- 8:58:55 PM — William Smith
October 26, 2012
- 10:48:41 AM — Susan Day
October 26, 2012
I’m pleased to announce the now-official winner of the Smithsonian’s Great American History Puzzle: Jeffrey Davidson of Mountain View, California! When we notified Jeff of his win, he replied by telling us the story of how he first got into puzzles. Apparently it’s partially my fault!
Jeff says that, when he was just sixteen, he attended the the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut. I was actually at the same tournament (my one and only personal peek into the world of competitive crosswording!) hosting a little trivia night and handing out the trophies to the tournament winners at the final awards ceremony. Jeff says, “I credit that night for hooking me on puzzles and introducing me to the community of puzzle addicts that I’m now a proud part of. So it’s truly great to come full circle and be a part of another contest of yours.”
I also sent out a congratulatory email to the other solvers who, like Jeff, deduced the correct answer in remarkably quick fashion…but didn’t submit it quite as speedily as he did. I’d like to reiterate my congratulations here: my sincerest admiration to everyone who defeated The Great American History Puzzle, either as a whole or in part. In my mind, that’s something to be proud of, and I hope you all had fun.
With that in mind, we’re hoping new solvers will discover and take a shot at these puzzles at their leisure in the days and weeks ahead, even if the Grand Prize has officially been won. So I’m going to give away the first password, the one from the in-magazine puzzle that opened the contest and unlocked the puzzle website. Tell your friends they can now try all nine of the Web puzzles without having to meander through a past issue of Smithsonian magazine.
Here’s how the first puzzle worked. The coded message could be deciphered using “Jefferson’s greatest creation”–that is, the Declaration of Independence, which invented America as a nation. The clue about Jefferson “measuring his words carefully” meant that the solution lay in counting words and letters in the Declaration, and the instruction “When first, finish with Honor” meant that “When” had to be the first word and “honor” the last in your count. For example, the coded symbol 5-2 represented the second letter of the fifth word in the Declaration: the ‘f’ in “of.” Once deciphered, the message read:
FAMOUS LAST WORDS WILL HELP YOU TRACE THE HIDDEN AMERICAN ICON ON THIS MAGAZINE’S COVER. THE BIBLE VERSE ON THE ICON LEADS TO TWO PAGE NUMBERS. READ THE RED CHARACTERS THERE BACKWARDS TO UNCOVER THE PASSWORD.
The “famous last words,” hidden in small letters in the cover Jefferson mosaic, read, “THOMAS JEFFERSON SURVIVES.” (These are the purported last words of Jefferson’s onetime political rival John Adams, who died on July 4, 1826 — the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration! — unaware that Jefferson had died only a few hours before.) Tracing those words in connect-the-dots fashion did indeed produce the outline of an American icon: the Liberty Bell (which, incidentally, was used to toll out news of Adams’s and Jefferson’s deaths).
The Bible verse on the Liberty Bell (“Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”) is from Leviticus 25:10. Sharp-eyed readers who examined pages 25 and 10 of the magazine found red characters scattered in the “folio” information at the bottoms of those pages, where the magazine’s name and date typically appear. When read backwards, they spelled out
(An appropriately Jeffersonian password!)
So, the Web puzzles can be unlocked with the password “1NATION,” entered here. If you haven’t tried the puzzles yet, you now have the password, so there’s no excuse: get cracking! We’ll be updating the puzzle site with a series of hints, as well as a list of the contest runners-up, next week; watch this space for updates.
October 22, 2012
The folks at the Smithsonian magazine website tell me that we had a flurry of correct entries this afternoon, so the contest part of the Great American History Puzzle is officially over! We still need to verify some niggly eligibility stuff for our first respondent before we officially announce our winner, but congratulations to everyone who was there with us right at the end today. I know it’s been a long, confusing journey.
Today’s sudden rush of correct entries was mostly due to a small group of very sharp solvers who deciphered the final double-crostic even before they’d seen all nine parts of it–and then managed to “back-solve” the ninth puzzle sight unseen! The double-crostic wasn’t necessarily designed to be so legible so early, but in a way, I’m even more impressed by the lateral thinking required to solve everything three days early and in the wrong order!
If nothing else, I think the ninth puzzle was a lot of fun, so I hope you take a shot at it even if (a) there’s no grand prize on the table anymore and/or (b) you already know the answer going in because you are a super-smart rocket scientist who can do a Saturday New York Times crossword blindfolded in seven minutes.
The contest may be “officially” over, but I know many of you are still deep in the Smithsonian vaults working on the puzzles, so I’ll continue to blog here for a little while. The next post will give away the first password to unlock the website, in hopes of getting a new group of solvers to try out the Web puzzles even if they didn’t want to muck around will all the in-magazine rigmarole at the start. Then I’ll publish a set of hints for the nine Web puzzles, if there are a few you’re still butting your head against. Finally, detailed solutions will follow.
The penultimate grid puzzle was unlocked on Friday–hopefully a nice break for your overheated eyes and brain after Puzzle #8.
A commenter wondered how other puzzlers were coping with the recent puzzles. Here are some approximate numbers as of last night:
- The most-answered web puzzle is still Puzzle #2, the riddle. More than half of all people who saw it answered it.
- Puzzle #5, the crossword, is a distant runner-up. More than a third of solvers who unlocked the web puzzles entered the correct crossword answer.
- The hardest puzzle overall seems to be Puzzle #4, the airplane story, which surprised me a bit. Less than one-quarter of all puzzlers have the answer to that one. The three most recent puzzles (the logic puzzle, the “Hail to the chief!” mosaic, and the rebus) are still less-solved than the airplane story, but that’s probably because they’re newer.
- It’s already clear that the rebus, Puzzle #9, is easier than the mosaic, Puzzle #8, but how much easier remains to be seen. A few hours after its publication, the rebus had already been solved 25 times. The previous puzzle only had 17 solutions, even though people had two or three days to work on it. (Twenty-five is still pretty low, though. Is the rebus harder than I thought, or have we lost puzzlers to attrition?)
The last grid puzzle will be unlocked today, and I’ll tell you right now: it’s a doozy. At that point, you’ll see the final puzzle in all its glory, and the email address to send your solutions to. The first set of correct answers we receive is our grand prize winner!
I know it’s been a long hunt through some of the darkest corners of the Smithsonian vaults, but the light at the end of the tunnel is at hand. I hope to see you some of you there at the finish!
October 17, 2012
We’re in the last week of the Great American History Puzzle, and if you’ve passed every obstacle and dodged every arrow, all is (hopefully) starting to become clear. The treasure may seem to be almost in sight.
But at least two of the last three puzzles in the grid (including today’s!) may be among the hair-pullingest yet. I’m not a sadist, mind you. I genuinely think you’ll have fun with them. Maybe only in occasional moments of insight, or even hindsight. But that’s sort of how puzzles work, my friends.
Don’t give up! Not so close to your goal.
October 11, 2012
We’re past the midpoint of the Great American History Puzzle now, friends. By this point, the plot has thickened. For some of you, I’m guessing, it’s positively congealed.
Puzzle Six was unlocked an hour ago, which probably means everyone wants to kill me. I’ll be hiding at a secret undisclosed location over the weekend until we unveil Puzzle Seven.
Several solvers have asked if complete answers to the puzzles will be made available when the contest is finished. Yes! We’ll probably use this very blog to post them, since–thank goodness–we no longer live in the age of the self-addressed stamped envelope. My colleagues on the Puzzle Team have suggested posting the answers in several waves: first a series of helpful hints, then dramatic nudges, then the complete answers. That sounds like fun to me, so that’s probably what we’ll do in a couple weeks, once we’ve crowned our grand prize winner.
October 9, 2012
The fifth puzzle was unlocked over at the Great American History Puzzle website this afternoon! But if you’re reading this blog…I’m guessing you already knew that. That’s five down, and six to go. Almost halfway to the end of the quest.
Thanks for all your blog comments–the compliments are very nice, but even the desperate pleas for hints and the death threats make me feel like we’re doing something right. The Puzzle Team and I read them all, and we get almost as excited as the player does when someone finally cracks a tricky puzzle.
If I may wax philosophical for a moment: I’ve always been a big fan of puzzles that don’t look like puzzles. Not the kind where you can immediately pick up a pencil and dive in, but the kind where you need to deduce the rules for yourself–through analysis, through trial and error, maybe even through psychoanalyzing the puzzle’s designer. Puzzles three and four, which have caused much frustration for many solvers, are of that genre. In both cases, there is an indisputable answer hiding in plain sight…but, as you’ve discovered, it’s hiding very well. I’m afraid this lack of rules is by design: both are obviously codes, of a kind, and in life as well as in art, the most successful codes are always the ones that don’t even look like codes.
I enjoy puzzles with clear-cut rules and instructions as well, and the second half of the Great American History Puzzle will feature several puzzles like that (with twists of their own, of course). But when you see a crossword (hi, Puzzle #5!) you immediately have a clear idea in your head of how to solve it. This is a treasure hunt, and I think a treasure hunt needs mystery. A crossword isn’t a mystery; it’s a routine. A mysterious newspaper fragment presented without context or comment? Now that’s a mystery.
Enjoy the mystery. Embrace it. It’ll make the relief of eventually solving a puzzle so sweet that you’ll almost be able to taste it.
Our little puzzle has been featured in various corners of the Interwebs over the last few days, so I also wanted to welcome those just starting out on the contest. Since most of you newcomers are probably using the digital copy of the October Smithsonian, let me reiterate something I’ve said in this space before: look closely. The limitations of pixel resolution make the first puzzle a little harder to solve online than it was in the print edition. If you think you have the right first password but the website disagrees, you’re probably very close…but not quite there.
October 5, 2012
As you’ve probably noticed, the fourth puzzle was unlocked a few hours ago. Have at it!
For what it’s worth, I think it’s easier than the last one. But that’s the hard part about being the guy who actually made the Puzzle: you’re never quite sure…
Some of you have expressed concerned about trying multiple answers. The Puzzle Rules do not prohibit trying more than one answer — but, as I said yesterday, the rest of the puzzles do have clearly defined answers, so you won’t need trial and error.
Remember, you can solve the puzzles in any order — except the first, magazine-based puzzle and the final puzzle. And we’ll be rolling out new puzzles all month. So if you get stuck on one, move on and come back to it later.
October 4, 2012
Some commenters have asked how others are doing on the puzzles that have been revealed so far. I don’t want to get too specific about the scorecard, but here’s a high-level overview (which is an appopriate overview, given the format of Puzzle #4, coming tomorrow!).
Hundreds and hundreds of players have found the magazine password and also solved the second, Web-based puzzle. Puzzle #3, however, is proving a little more, er, challenging. Thirty times harder than Puzzle #2, in fact, at the moment! (But I expect that to change, since people have had two more days to think about Puzzle #2 than they’ve had for Puzzle #3.)
Many people seem worried about the consequences of making multiple guesses. Let me give you some advice along those lines that, I think, will also help you think about Puzzle #3.
Because the first of the ten Web puzzles was a riddle, I think some solvers may have gotten the idea that the other answers are “best-guess” , intuitive answers as well, which may require multiple guesses. This is not the case. Every puzzle except for the riddle has been designed to give you its precise answer, letter for letter.
In other words, I have some good news and some bad news for you. If you think you “might have a guess” about one of the forthcoming answers…you don’t. If you had seen the answer, you’d know.
When you see it, you’ll know.