Puzzle Solving Guide

This is the archive of the 2008 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 sometimes, 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. Some puzzles combine two or even all three of these modes.

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.

For examples of how the puzzles work and how to solve them, check the puzzles and worked solutions from the 2007 Competition.

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 29 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.