Puzzle Solving Guide

This is the archive of the 2007 Puzzle Competition. Please visit the current competition site for information about the latest Puzzle Competition.

About the puzzles

The puzzles in this competition consist of three distinct parts:

  • The puzzle title. In some cases this is simply a descriptive name with no further significance. But sometimes the title is a cryptic reference to something about the puzzle - often such references only become clear after you have solved the puzzle. In any case, the title is never a necessary part of the puzzle.
  • An introductory story text. This serves mostly to set a scene, revealing a fictional setting in which you come across the puzzles and need to solve them. This text is not part of the puzzle itself and can be ignored completely when solving the puzzle. It often, however, contains cryptic hints that might refer to something in the puzzle, or odd word choices that may make more sense once you have solved the puzzle.
  • The puzzle itself. This is a graphically distinct section of the page, below the story text, containing all the essential elements of the puzzle. Every puzzle can be solved with this information alone, without the title or story text.

Some of the puzzles are essentially pure logic problems, requiring nothing more than detecting and unravelling the patterns present in the puzzle itself - like a sudoku. Some require a little bit of cultural or language knowledge, but can still be solved by most people with nothing more than a pencil and paper - like a crossword puzzle. And finally, some of them need broad or deep cultural knowledge that most people will need to look up in reference material before they can reach the solution - like a trivia quiz.

Solving the puzzles

The puzzles are not your standard crossword puzzle or word jumble that most people are familiar with. In particular, these puzzles give you no instructions as to what you need to do to solve them. So how do you go about solving them?

  • Look for similarities to other puzzles you know about. If something looks a bit like a maze or a connect-the-dots, maybe it is. Try tracing a path or connecting the dots and see if that helps.
  • Look for patterns in the puzzle. If some elements seem similar to each other, it's likely that the similarity is intentional, and will lead to further correspondances or insights.
  • Look for words or phrases that seem familiar from other contexts. If you recognise a line from a Star Wars movie, maybe there are other movie quotes in the puzzle.
  • Look for anything that might encode information: something that resembles binary code, a suspicious series of numbers, lengths of words, anagrams, etc.
  • Remember that the answer to each puzzle is a word, short phrase, or name. So look for things that might lead in that direction.

The puzzles have been designed so that when you are on the right track, it should suddenly become clear that you are doing the right thing. Patterns will become apparent and things will fall into place. For a while. Many of the puzzles have further stages that may require more thought to progress further. Apply the same sort of searching as before.

While you are making progress, you can pretty much ignore the puzzle title and story text. If you get intractably stuck, however, it might be worth looking over the title and story text, to see if an odd word choice sparks a new line of thought.

When you've reduced the puzzle to the answer, it should be reasonably obvious that you've done the right thing, because it will make everything coalesce into just a word or short phrase. The answers often don't have anything to do with the intermediate puzzle steps, since that would make guessing them too easy. For example, if the puzzle uses Shakespeare quotes, the answer almost certainly won't be "to be or not to be".

It doesn't matter if you submit an answer with or without spaces, or what capitalisation you use. Prior to checking your answer, we will strip any spaces and non-letter characters from your answer, and convert it to lower case. So if the answer to a puzzle is "fortytwo", submitting "Forty Two" will also get you the points.

This puzzle is impossible! Help?

Most of the puzzles require an intuitive leap at some point in their solving process. There are a bunch of things that we've found helpful in solving puzzles:

  • Take a break for a few minutes or hours. Don't think about it for a while. Work on a sudoku, a cryptic crossword, or something unrelated. Do some unbounded free-associating.
  • Work with a team. Brainstorm ideas. Fresh eyes and different perspectives can be vital. If it seems like the answer is all slog and no intuitive leap, you're probably on the wrong track. Probably.
  • We will publish three hints for each puzzle. The first hint will be released 24 hours after the puzzle is released (or on 17 April, for Group 1). The second and third hints will be released 24 and 48 hours respectively after the first hint. Remember that you won't get as many points for solving a puzzle once the clues are released, but it's still worth points!
  • Sometimes the Internet can help - search engines, crossword solvers, anagram servers, and Wikipedia are all good resources in any puzzle solver's toolkit.

Having said that, some of the puzzles are quite difficult and they all require different approaches. We don't expect any teams to solve all of them without any hints. So if one puzzle is giving you grief, try another one. And try them again when the hints are released.

Worked example

The Puzzle

You find an interesting scrap of paper. On it is a cartoonish figure that looks a bit like a Roman soldier. A speech bubble containing garbled phrases is drawn above the figure. Some of it sounds familiar, but where have you heard it before?

Making my way downtown, walking fast but we're not the same, and I realized she probably was right - when I wake up, well, I know I'm gonna be on the run to wherever you are, wearing some brown underpants.

You're listening to...

The Hints

  • Try singing the puzzle.
  • What do the titles of each part have in common?
  • How do you convert the numbers to the answer? Remember who's talking.

Worked Answer

The puzzle consists of two parts: an introductory piece of story text, and the puzzle itself. All our puzzles contain story text to provide a theme. It is not a necessary part of the puzzle - all puzzles can be solved without the story text - but sometimes it contains minor clues, or refers to things that may be related to the solution once you know what the answer is. In this case, there's a hint that the sentences in the puzzle might be something you've heard before, and a strange reference to a Roman soldier (we'll come back to that).

The first step in solving this puzzle is realising that it's a medley of song lyrics. This is a good example of why it's a good idea to have a group of people working together - it helps if you have somebody who recognises at least one of the songs! But even if you don't recognise any of the phrases, you could still make progress on this puzzle by realising that the last line sounds a bit like a radio station identification announcement, and then turning to a web search engine.

Once you've worked this much out, you should be able to use the web to find the artists, song titles, and the rest of the lyrics. Not all puzzles require you have external knowledge, but for those that do, the knowledge should be readily available on the Internet.

The songs are:

  • "Making my way downtown, walking fast" - Vanessa Carlton, One Thousand Miles.
  • "but we're not the same" - U2, One.
  • "and I realized she probably was right" - Paul Simon, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.
  • "when I wake up, well, I know I'm gonna be" - The Proclaimers, Five Hundred Miles.
  • "on the run to wherever you are" - Scissor Sisters - Land of a Thousand Words.
  • "wearing some brown underpants." - The Beatles, Revolution Number Nine.

So, where do we go from here? There are several possible directions - we could see if there's a pattern in the artist names, or try to construct a sentence from the next lyrics, or look at the initials or word lengths of things. One thing, however, that should leap out here is that all of the song titles contain numbers. We have:

1000, 1, 50, 500, 1000, 9

Now to get the next stage, we need another intuitive leap. The solutions to these puzzles are usually a short word or phrase, and always consist of the letters a-z with no spaces, all lower-case. When solving a puzzle we should always be on the lookout for something that looks like a short word or phrase. Sometimes it will be a last, easy clue - for example, "The Red Wiggle", which would then produce "murraycook". We could waste a guess with "onethousandonefiftyfivehundredonethousandnine" and variants, but that's nastily long, doesn't really mean anything, and it does seem like there's another step. And there is.

Could it be a numerical sequence? What would the next number be? This is a valid avenue of enquiry, but it doesn't lead anywhere. The clue here is the look of several of the numbers, along with the Roman soldier from the story text. If you convert the numbers into Roman numerals, you get:


Which is a feasible name for the radio station: mildmix.

About the example puzzle

This puzzle is about Medium difficulty. It has a few steps: Identifying that the sentence is made up of fragments of song lyrics; identifying every song (probably using the Internet); realising there is a number in each song title; and replacing the numbers with the Roman numeral equivalents.

It's worth stressing that not all puzzles require external knowledge (such as looking things up on the Internet), it just happens this example puzzle did. Other puzzles require nothing but the puzzle itself, brainpower, and maybe some scrap paper. In general, though, a web search engine is a useful tool in any puzzler's bag of tricks.