Puzzle Solving Guide
About the puzzles
The puzzles in this competition are not standard types that most people are familiar with, such as crosswords or sudoku. Instead, each puzzle is unique, and we give you no instructions as to what you need to do to solve them.
The puzzles come in three broad types:
- Self-contained logic problems. You need to detect and unravel the patterns present in the puzzle itself, a bit like a sudoku.
- Puzzles requiring a bit of cultural or language knowledge, like a crossword puzzle.
- Puzzles needing broad or deep external knowledge, like a trivia quiz. For these, some research will likely be needed.
Each puzzle has:
- A puzzle title. This may be simply a descriptive name with no further significance, or a cryptic reference that only becomes clear after you have solved the puzzle. But sometimes the title may provide a useful insight or hint.
- The puzzle itself. This contains all the necessary elements of the puzzle. Every puzzle can be solved without knowing the title. We mention this so you don't form the misleading impression that the title is an essential part of the puzzle, even if it might provide a hint.
Solving the puzzles
So how do you go about solving a puzzle with no instructions?
- Look for similarities to other puzzles you know about. If something looks a bit like a maze or a find-a-word, maybe it is. Try tracing a path or looking for words and see if that helps.
- On the other hand, try not to be too constrained in your thinking - sometimes looks are deceiving. If looking for words doesn't seem to be helping, try to see what else you could do with the letters.
- 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, phrases, or images that seem familiar from other contexts. If you recognise a line from a song, maybe there are other song lyrics 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. Some knowledge of ciphers such as Morse code or substitution ciphers might help.
- Does it look like you might need to cut something out to rearrange or fold it? Get the scissors out!
- The answer to each puzzle is a word, short phrase, or name. Look for things that might lead in that direction.
The general idea is to reduce the amount of information in the puzzle, ultimately down to the final word or phrase which is the solution. When you're on the right track, it should suddenly become clear that you're 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're making progress, you can ignore the puzzle title. But if you get stuck, look at the title again, to see if it 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 obvious to do with the intermediate puzzle steps, since that could make guessing them too easy. For example, if the puzzle uses Beatles lyrics, the answer almost certainly won't be "strawberryfields".
For examples of how similar puzzles work and how to solve them, check the puzzles and worked solutions from similar competitions, such as:
Advanced solving techniques
Here are some additional things to keep in mind:
- Puzzle solving is about reducing the amount of information in the puzzle down to a single answer. At each stage of working, you'll probably end up with less information than you began with. This is a sign that you're making progress. If there's any information in the puzzle that you haven't used yet, then it might pay to look at it more closely. It's rare for a puzzle to have superfluous information.
- Sometimes the main working step of a puzzle produces the solution directly as its output. However, often the working step produces not the final answer, but a short message or other clue as to what the final answer is. You need to be wary of just entering the first thing you discover, and think if there might be another step. For example, if the puzzle contains a list of authors, and the working step produces "Harry Potter", then the answer is more likely to be "jkrowling", and not "harrypotter".
- The order in which things are sorted can often be important. If clues or pieces of a puzzle are given to you in what seems to be a random order, that order may actually turn out to be important! If you extract information from each chunk, try ordering in the same order as the clues were given. On the other hand, if a bunch of clues is given in alphabetical order, this is a hint that the given order is probably not important - but you might need to reorder them somehow.
- Recursion is a common puzzle construction technique. If you perform a certain operation to extract answers from a bunch of clues, you might need to combine those answers to form a new clue, and then apply the same step to that to produce a final answer. Sometimes the recursion won't be exact - you'll need to modify the process in some way for the second round.
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. Don't think about it for a while. Watch TV, listen to music. Do some unbounded free-associating. Sleep. We've made crucial insights into puzzles from other competitions in our dreams.
- 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.
- Wait for the hints. You won't get as many points for solving a puzzle once hints are released, but it's still worth points! Even if a hint looks like it's only giving away stuff you already knew, don't dismiss it - it may also hide something useful to you.
- 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, knowledge, and skills. 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.