Ghost in the Machine

Sneaking into the run-down carnival at the edge of town seemed like an easy way to get a cheap thrill; certainly more of a thrill than was ever on offer when the carnival was still in business. Wandering the backstage areas, you just finish adding “J. Kilroy was here” to the end of a long list of similar graffiti when you are briefly blinded by a sudden light.

After regaining your bearings, you head back to the midway and notice perhaps a halfdozen attractions running at full tilt. Your natural curiosity to see what’s going on struggles with your desire to not be that character in a bad horror movie, and loses. As you turn toward the hole in the fence that got you into this madhouse, you discover that the fence is now complete. Moving closer, you discover that the fence is also very sharp, and now very electrified.

While lying dazed on the ground, you hear the loudspeakers sputter into life: “You have entered my limbo, my temporary place of abode which is becoming distressingly permanent. The price for your freedom is my freedom. Work, and work hard, and work without fail. Set me free, and you may get a good night’s sleep.”

As the silence descends, you decide that even if you are in a bad horror movie, your only choice is to obey. You begin to explore. . . .

This is the introduction to the new puzzle suite by Andrew Feist called Ghost in the Machine.

These puzzles are free, and you can confirm answers (to individual puzzles and the final answer) by email to If you want hints, or answers, that’s a dicerent story. To receive the hint file for this suite, send Andrew a copy of a receipt for a $5 donation to the American Cancer Society; for the hints and answers, make it a $10 donation. Don’t send him the money; just send him (at a copy of the receipt.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Andrew sends his thanks to his playtesters Brian Cimmet and Charlie Reams. Also thanks to the puzzle community, especially the ones from whom he has subconsciously,  unconsciously, and unknowingly stolen puzzle ideas.

Ghost in the Machine home page • Direct download

All Aboard the Puzzle Boat!

Confused and disoriented, you stagger through doors marked “Two Second Cruises” and find yourself in a travel agency. Surveying the office, you find yourself with a choice of different travel agents. Of the four, only one looks friendly. Ignoring a woman in an spotted animal print, a man with a fierce mane of hair, and a woman hungrily devouring a Subway combo meal, you opt for the man wearing a Virgin Airlines button.

He somehow knows exactly what’s on your mind. “Puzzles you want, puzzles you’ll get!” With quick keystrokes, he reserves you a spot on a cruise to a tropical island. When you stand up to thank him, you lose consciousness.

Waking up, you find yourself on the deck of the cruise ship. There’s noise coming from behind you and the island itself. The travel agent has left a note for you however.

Enjoy the island as long as you want. If you want to know where to go, try looking for some helpful individuals. Flag them down, and they’ll not only show you the hottest spots on the island, but help you decide what to do next.

What is the Puzzle Boat?

The Puzzle Boat is an online puzzle extravaganza, similar to the MIT Mystery Hunt or Microsoft Puzzle Hunts. It can be solved entirely online.

Puzzles (red links on the map) are in PDF format (with one exception). Puzzle types include cryptograms, crosswords, and visual puzzles. Some puzzles are traditional, others are unconventional, others defy categorization. The use of outside references are acceptable, and absolutely necessary in some cases.

As you solve puzzles, new puzzles will become available. Some puzzles require solutions to other puzzles. Solving these meta-puzzles will give you the names of several individuals on the island. Finding all of these individuals will allow you to complete the extravaganza.

You can solve the Puzzle Boat with others. To register a team, click Register above and enter a team name, password, and team members. Others on your team can use this name and password to access puzzles, and see how far the team has progressed. You can also solve on your own, but it’s not as much fun…for most.

If you have questions regarding the Puzzle Boat, write to Foggy Brume at

On Building a Geo-Puzzle Community

Dastardly Onyx Pathtag
Blueprint for the "Onyx" level Dastardly Pathtag

I haven’t met many puzzle constructors who don’t want their puzzles to be solved.  Yes, there may be a few sadistic souls out there who revel in creating impossibly obscure puzzles.  But most of us are like authors or directors – we’ve poured our creative energies into something, and once it’s finished we want people to enjoy it.

I have a number of geocaches published in New York City, some of them traditional (coordinates posted on the site) and some of them puzzles (to be solved before the location is revealed).  It’s not hard to notice how much less attention the geo-puzzles receive.  In 2007 I published two caches in Central Park, less than half a mile apart.  One is a puzzle that has been found 4 times in the last six months.  The other is a traditional that has been found 316 times in the same time frame.

I talked about it with another local constructor in the area, childofatom.  How can we change this?  What could we as puzzle creators do to interest more people in solving puzzles?

We talked about borrowing the Puzzle Solving 101 concept.  We talked about hosting an educational seminar for new solvers.  Finally we took a cue from the growing popularity of Pathtags and batted around the idea of creating a special solver tag, available only to cachers who solve a number of the area’s geo-puzzles.  Pathtags are custom metal coins that can be collected and traded, and tracked online.  They’re similar to geocoins, but smaller (about the size of a quarter) and (importantly) much cheaper to produce.

We collected some of the best geo-puzzles in New York into a bookmark list of “Dastardly Puzzle Caches”.  We hashed out a “Dastardly” design and minted it in two finishes.  There were just over 30 puzzles, so we decided that one tag would be earned for solving 15, and another tag for hitting 30.  We picked out a pub and a date two weeks in the future.  We generated a list of people who had solved at least a handful of them and sent out an email telling folks when and where we’d be, and that we’d be handing out tags to any qualified solvers.

Then we sat back.

And watched the “Great Puzzle Solving Flood of 2010” start to roll in.

In the two weeks before we sent out our email, the Dastardly puzzles on our list collected a grand total of 16 finds between them.  In the two weeks afterward?  Over 100!  When we showed up to the pub it was crowded with eager geo-puzzle solvers happily introducing themselves to each other and swapping hints.  We quickly handed out tags and joined in the conversation.  One geocacher had published a puzzle that morning in honor of the gathering, using the pub’s coordinates as a starting point; another resolved to start writing his first NYC puzzle cache as soon as he got home.  We all promised to have another gathering soon where we could hand out more tags to people who had leveled up in that time.

The tags have created a spark in our community, and we’re building on it.  Interested in seeing if it might build interest in puzzles in your area?  Feel free to contact me through my profile and let us know if you’d like to adapt the tag design – there could easily be a whole series of “Dastardly” pathtags representing different puzzle communities all around the country (or around the world).

Recap Boston Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Before I begin, let me first apologize for the delay in updates here at Puzzlehead Industries. Apparently, my employer believes that this site deals with entertainment and games instead of software and work, and it is therefore blockable. *sigh*

The Boston Crossword Puzzle Tournament was held this past April 11 (which was a Sunday in April), hosted by Joon Pakh. The contest included 150 registered participants as well as 500 Oreo cookies. Contestants solved four soon-to-be-published puzzles from the New York Times using American Crossword Puzzle Tournament scoring rules.

The winner was Eric Maddy, who not only won the Boston tournament but (as I am led to believe) also won the Brown University tournament the day before. And he’s not even from New England, but hails from California. Impressive!

ISIS: The Most Difficult Puzzle Ever

Today I have a few questions for you, Gentle Reader:

1. Are you really a puzzlehead?

2. Do you have £200?

3. Do you want to win £10,000?

If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, then the ISIS Platinum Pyramid Challenge is for you!

What is ISIS?

The ISIS puzzle was first made available to the public on July 7, 2006. ISIS is a spherical puzzle box made of precision-engineered anodized aluminum. The individual components of the puzzle box can be rotated or pressed.

The ISIS is not only beautiful (comes in many colors, even a custom patriotic USA theme) but also maddening – the solution to each one is unique (although the mechanism for obtaining the solution is common to all).

Unlocking the box reveals unique codes that can be redeemed for prizes (such as gold or silver coins) or to reveal further clues.

In 2008, the RAMISIS (or ISIS 2) puzzle was released. Instead of a sphere, RAMISIS is a pyramid with rotating layers – but the goal is similar. Find the right sequence for manipulating the device in order to access the codes inside.

What is the Platinum Pyramid Challenge?

On September 25, 2006, the Platinum Pyramid Challenge was announced. Solve all five ISIS puzzles, find the Platinum Pyramid, and win £10,000.

Good luck with this one, fellow puzzleheads!

Only Connect

I heard mention recently (on Ryan and Brian Do Crosswords) of a new quiz show on the BBC called Only Connect. The tag line is amazing: “A quiz show in which patience and lateral thinking are as vital as knowledge”. Here’s the links to the three segments published so far:

At first I was a bit put off by the show’s look and feel, mostly because I was expecting the typical array of flashing lights, catchy background music, and so forth. (I think the exact opposite of Only Connect would be something along the lines of Press Your Luck.) And the teams had me spooked – Oxford collegians vs. Cambridge librarians? And they use Greek letters as names for categories? (Is that a sigma or a delta?) I have no chance of answering anything!

Or so I thought. I watched the three clips, and I was surprisingly more successful at them than I expected. There were some questions that made me feel totally inept, but a few that I answered before either of the teams did.

The show’s premise is simple – find the common thread that ties four seemingly unrelated clues together. For instance, if the clues were: Rose, Sarah Jane, Tegan, and Ace, the correct answer would be Companions of Doctor Who.

Best quote of the show: “Everyone can do S-O-S in Morse Code, I hope? If not, we’re all going to hell in a hand cart.”

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

On Friday, February 21, 2010, in Brooklyn, New York, Dan Feyer ended the 5-year winning streak of Tyler Hinman to become the A Division Champion at the 33rd annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT).

Click here to discuss the ACPT in the Puzzlehead forums.

Part 4 – Competition

In 1978, the director of marketing of the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut, was searching for a way to sell the services of the brand new hotel during the winter – typically a slow season. He came up with the idea of running a crossword puzzle tournament using this logic: lots of people live in the Stamford area and commute to New York City by train, and many commuters like to solve crossword puzzles on the route, so a tournament might appeal to that crowd.

He called the then-editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle Eugene Maleska who suggested a constructor in Stamford might be interested in running it. That constructor also declined, but he recommended a 25-year-old puzzle whiz named Will Shortz who might be interested.

Shortz had restarted the National Puzzlers League (NPL) conventions just two years earlier, and jumped at the chance to create it, and with that the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was born. In its first year, 149 contestants showed up and had such a great time solving and socializing that the tournament has become an annual event. The 2005 ACPT was documented in the motion picture Wordplay (which was selected for screening at the Sundance Film Festival) and was lucky to capture one of the most exciting conclusions to the tournament in ACPT history.

The tournament is a full weekend event. There are five divisions to the tournament that allow people to compete with others at approximately the same skill level (E Division is for beginners, A Division is for expert solvers). Six puzzles of varying size and difficulty are solved on Saturday (with Puzzle 5 being the most difficult), followed by one puzzle on Sunday morning. The top three finishers in each of C, B, and A divisons then compete head to head with each other on stage in front of the tournament audience. (Trophies are given for finishers in all divisions as well as age groups and geographic regions.)

You never know what kinds of puzzles will appear at the tournament – one puzzle had every single clue written as a spoonerism (if the answer is HUMERUS, the normal clue would be “Funny bone”, but the spoonerism clue was written as “Bunny phone”). Another featured a story with numbered blanks – you had to figure out the words that went in the blanks from the context of the story, then place those words into the corresponding places in the puzzle. Crazy stuff!

Dan Feyer, Winner of the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament
Dan Feyer, Winner of the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Tyler Hinman won the 2005 tournament and went on to win the next four in a row in an unprecedented streak of competetive solving. The question of who would unseat Hinman was wanswered this past weekend as Dan Feyer (who won C Division in 2008 and B Division in 2009) dominated the competition, finishing first in the points standing and first in the A Division final.

Even if you can’t get to New York City for the tournament, you can still play online. All of the puzzles from the past several years are available, and you can solve them while on the clock, just like the tournament players do in person. (I played along online this year and my score would have put me in 468th place if I was there in person.)