Tag Archives: Gaming

That’s A Puzzlin’: Part 2


In my entry last week [That’s A Puzzlin’: Part I], I chronicled a little about the curious puzzle-box that Pete and I put together for a holiday I took with a two handfuls of friends at an impromptu board games retreat out in Devon last month.

In that post, I covered the first three of the five puzzles which made up the quest; so it seems only fair to document the final two, and apply some closure to what it all led to. Let’s find out:


Puzzle #4: Rings

The purpose of Puzzle #2 (Lovecraft) was, in essence, to lead the player’s brains to think about using the Study as a hint mechanism for future clues involving books. Pete had always wanted to put in book cipher as one of the puzzles; so, having pre-prepped a candidate book with which to hide a cipher in the form of coordinates to specific page numbers, lines and words, we dropped the envelope containing Puzzle #4 on the hallway calendar on Friday evening.

I’d already hidden a copy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit on the bookshelf in the study when I placed the Lovecraft code within Puzzle #2, so all the players had to do for this one was to interpret the riddle and hunt for a copy of the book – which they dutifully did after a minor amount of head-scratching. Then, using the three-number combinations, they would then need to construct a sentence (to be even more accurate, a question) using the specified coordinates; likely using a bit of trial-and-error to work out what the number combinations meant before stumbling on the correct structure: [PAGE NUMBER] [LINE NUMBER] [WORD NUMBER].


Doing so would, eventually, translate the following trivia question, giving the solution to Puzzle #4 (and on which we had banked on our player’s Lord of the Rings knowledge to come up with the correct answer; an assumption which stuck):


The answer, of course, is nine; giving the directional combination (←↑) corresponding the runic ‘H’ symbol on the original “combination lock clue page”.

Now, I haven’t (yet) explained the importance of this so, before I introduce the fifth (and final) puzzle of the game, I’ll briefly go into the meaning of it all.


Early on, Pete and I had identified that, if we dropped the various directional combinations in order across the weekend, it wouldn’t be impossible for a brute-force method (of trying all of the combinations for the last code) to bear fruit once four-fifths of the code had been ‘unlocked’. To counter this, we aimed to drip-feed the combination parts not in order, such that the risk of brute-force entry would be minimised. To add an extra layer of puzzling to the game, the players would be given clues which associated with five directional combinations (associated with five symbols) which then would then need to work out what was linked with what.

The symbols for each would be hinted at in the form of small markings on each of the initial clue envelopes containing each puzzle: Puzzle #1 (Jigsaw) had a rudimentary London Underground symbol; Puzzle #2 (Lovecraft) was a love-heart for obvious reasons; Puzzle #3 (Pigpen) had a ‘#X’ representing the two pigpen keys; Puzzle #5 (Limes) had a five-pointed star for reasons that will be revealed in the next section; but Puzzle #4 (Rings) had a runic ‘D’ because this is the symbol which is drawn on Tolkien’s map in The Hobbit marking the secret door on the Lonely Mountain. When placed all together, they would lead to a string of directions to be entered into the padlock, eventually releasing the goodies within.

Puzzle #5: Limes

The fifth, and final puzzle, drew experience from a meme that has been orbiting our circle of friends for many years: the meme of hiding limes in each other’s houses.

This tradition kind of started at the annual party at Dan’s house (“OckFest”) whereby limes would be hidden in bizarre places in Dan’s kitchen, intending them to be uncovered while performing unrelated tasks; for example: finding a lime in the box of Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes when pouring out the morning cereal; discovering a lime hidden inside the tube of kitchen roll when reaching to mop up a spillage; hearing a lime fall out of a hollowed-out French baguette when beginning to make a sandwich.

Without wishing to blow one another’s trumpets too heavily, Pete and I are professionals when it comes to the international sport of Lime-Hiding. It was inevitable that we would initiate this tradition at The Winter Games 2017, but I forget which of us had the genius of incorporating it into the Puzzle Box game. Either way, the task for the players would be to figure out how many limes were hidden in a particular room, and then to use that number as the final directional combination.

The initial clue was provided in riddle form:

How many of I
Are plucked from the tree
And made into pie
You’ll find that’s the key

See? It’s a pun. KEY LIME PIE. Like, a key to a box that’s also a hint for the players to try and find some limes somewhere.

On each lime, we drew a five-pointed star and a number specified in Roman numerals: however, the trick was that the limes would not be numbered consecutively. Overall, four limes would be hidden, with numbers I, II, IV and VI; the twist being that, if the players simply entered ‘six limes’ as the solution, they would be incorrect. Y’see, we had circled the ‘I’ in “How many of I”, indicating that the players should not – in fact – be counting the number of limes, but instead the number of ‘i’s in the numerals written on the limes; equaling five, yielding the directional combination (↓↑).

Furthermore, the missing numerals (III and V) were simply a red herring designed to make the players hunt even harder. Yes; I know I’m a meanie.

Because our original plan to hide limes in the kitchen became untenable because of the sheer people traffic that would be present in the kitchen at any one time, we were forced to change tack to hide limes in the games room annex where it was much easier to steal away time to distribute some fruit about the place. Hence, to do this, and while deployed at #TheWinterGames, I hastily mocked up an additional sheet of paper giving a hint towards the players looking in the games room by scribbling “Want to play a game?” and including it in the envelope right before deployment.


However, due to a simple lack of properly thinking through the implications of that phrase, we kind of didn’t realise that that’s also a quote from the movie Saw, spoken by the main antogonist, ‘Jigsaw’; causing everyone to suddenly barrel down the hallway into the Dining Room (where Puzzle #1 [Jigsaw]) was still set up, frantically searching for an answer. Secondly, everyone appeared to miss the “key lime pie” solution to the clue and instead immediately leapt to the solution of “four-and-twenty blackbirds”; since, like limes, these are also a Thing™ which can be found in a tree but also baked into a pie, according to the nursery rhyme. In retrospect, it was actually a little satisfying to have the players burrow down the wrong rabbit-hole in search of this unintentional red herring [let’s call this “Winter Games Puzzle Box Stroke of Luck #2”] but, at the time, it was immensely stressful to have to watch them struggle down a futile path and yet not be able to interfere, lest I give the game away.

However, some gentle nudging highlighted that the solution was in fact ‘limes’; at which point, several reconnaissance groups were despatched to the various rooms of the house to hunt for round, green objects. After a short while, one of the search  parties returned with four limes, and fairly swiftly cottoned on the Roman Numerals code; arriving at the answer of ‘five’.

So, our players now had everything they needed to open the box; and open the box, they did. Also: I’d love to say that I’d planned to paint the box green to match the limes, but that was simply happy coincidence.


Puzzle #Z: Endgame

So, with great expectation and encircled by a perimeter of excited (if still confused) faces, one plucky adventurer keyed in the winning combination (↓↑↓↓↑↓←↓→←↓←↑), undid the chains and, with mild trepidation, lifted the lid of the confusing green box.

Inside was a map.


A map of the house, with an ‘X’ marked on in big, black pen. (Which Pete and I had to scribble in on location, after we’d figured out a good place to hide the prize).

The ‘X’ on the map led the participants out to the back garden where, under the cover of darkness in the late hours of the previous night, I had wrapped the final prize booty in an old carrier bag under stone lawn roller in the approximate location of the ‘X’ marking. Following a brief period of scurrying and scouting, the booty was located by a tall, loud Spaniard and brought inside to the metaphorical sound of bugle-horns heralding the arrival of a monarch returning from a crusade.


And so, with the ‘pop-thmph’ of the cork ejaculating from the bottle and reverberating off the living room’s wall, the adventure was over; the puzzle was solved. I’ll be honest: it was a heck of a lot of fun putting it all together and I adored the act of thinking to think laterally to come up with mysteries and conundrums that would (hopefully) confuse, but enthuse, an odd assortment of my friends.

Undoubtedly, there will be another #TheWinterGames; where Pete and I join forces to do something like this again remains to be seen. Perhaps it’d be not quite as fun if the players knew who was doing it all, but perhaps that would give us even more scope to add complexity given that – in event of them getting “stuck” – they’d be able to ask for help. I don’t know, we’ll have to see what the future brings.

Either way, it’s been mighty enjoyable recapping and documenting what happened in a wonderful house a month or so ago; and I hope it has been for you, too. Godspeed, puzzlers.


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That’s a Puzzlin’: Part 1


Almost a month ago now, myself and thirteen other board game fanatics whisked ourselves into the wilderness a house in rural Devon to spend five days (#TheWinterGames) playing board games, chilling out and having a good time.

With the above in mind, and knowing that our cohabitants were the type(s) of people to appreciate a good mystery, my friend Pete and I hatched a plan to make a series of puzzles; beginning with a simple box locked with a directional padlock and a series of cryptic clues, that would entertain throughout the weekend.

Our initial aims of this endeavour were as follows:

  1. Make an interesting puzzle-box, treasure-hunt thing to amuse people during #TheWinterGames
  2. Have a series of puzzles, each yielding a number with which to punch into a combination lock; roughly one per day
  3. Have something interesting/rewarding to find once all the puzzles have been solved and the box has been opened

To complete the above three objectives, we proceeded to put together a spiffy wooden box, some chain and a wonderful combination lock (that you unlock using a combination of directions and which looks enthusiastically like the D-pad from a video game controller) which would serve as the booty for a treasure hunt-slash-escape room-style puzzle that would blossom over the long weekend.

After sourcing a plain, pine wood box and decorating it colourfully using some bright green ink, we had a serviceable lockbox that would mysteriously appear after everyone had arrived for the weekend and, hopefully, prove sufficiently interesting to pique their curiosity. For all of the puzzle materials (letters, envelopes, etc.) I wanted to give it an ‘aged’ feel to it to sort-of imply that it was all spooky and mysterious and done by some sort of benevolent ghost, so went to great efforts to tea-stain and crinkle the paper to make them look like aged manuscripts, and used a fountain pen (and my best joined-up, slanty-posh handwriting) to make it look old and not easily identifiable as mine. It worked.

We came up with five puzzles in total, each one of which would yield a directional code which, when all put together, would each lead to a letter or number; equating to a two- or three-digit combination of UP-DOWN-LEFT-RIGHT directions when cross-referenced on a cheat sheet (see above). Discovering the complete code and entering it into the padlock would, eventually, unlock the box and reveal its clandestine contents; but not before the previous five puzzles had been solved.

Thus, at circa 1800 on Wednesday night, the lockbox (and first clue) was deposited in the study. Game on.


Puzzle #1: Jigsaw

We’d always wanted to include a jigsaw puzzle in the remit, but had some initial difficulties in figuring out how to make it lead to a single number for input into a combination lock.

While visiting family over the Christmas holidays, I stumbled upon a jigsaw puzzle of the classic (modern) London Underground map in my parents’ games cabinet and hatched an idea to have the players identify a single station on it to find the solution. The plan was to leave out a piece showing Camden Road, and then for the players to look that up on a sheet to get the right code; see below. So far, so good.


Except: in my eagerness to make the puzzle not quite as time-consuming as it could be, I went through the jigsaw bag removing all the blank white pieces of the jigsaw, so that only the map itself was there, and two things happened:

  1. I accidentally took out some parts of the map itself, including the whole of Leicester Square station, and
  2. When writing the list of stations with associated letters/symbols, I kind of forgot to write Camden Road, because I’m an idiot.

However, because (1) and (2) happened at the same time [let’s call this “Winter Games Puzzle Box Stroke of Luck #1”], we could change the first solution to be “Liverpool Street” (giving an ‘R’ and therefore ↓↑↓) and pretend that it was always supposed to be like that. So, taking great effort to be VERY QUIET INDEED, we snuck downstairs very early on Thursday morning while everyone was still sleeping and re-programmed the lock suck that the new code made sense. Thanks to good fortune that no-one walked in at the wrong time to find us fiddling around, I think we got away with it. Bingo.

Puzzle #2: Lovecraft

We’d kind of figured that it made sense to put the most time-intensive puzzle (the jigsaw) at the beginning, just in case it took longer than expected for the players to finish it; from which point we could drip-feed the following, smaller, puzzles which would be less mandraulic to solve. In reality, we needn’t have worried at all, because the keen-fingers badgers had smashed it out before the end of the first night.

So, with that in mind, the next puzzle was dropped mid-morning on Thursday, where an envelope bearing a love-heart was left on the mantelpiece of the sitting room. In contrast to the speed at which the jigsaw was complete, the envelope sat above a wooden love-heart dangling in the fireplace and which NO-ONE SPOTTED for TWO WHOLE HOURS, despite Pete even setting up a Nerf gun target range trying to pew-pew at the dangling heart immediately below it.

When it was finally discoverd, the players found a riddle, in French, thus:


Dans le Salle de Dessin,
La clé que vous trouverez,
Ou l’Ombre Jette,
Dans le Métier d’Amour

Loosely translated (I used Google Translate, so don’t judge me), this says:

In the Drawing-Room,
The key you will find,
Where the Shadow is Cast
In the Craft of Love

Earlier that morning (whilst also re-programming the padlock code), I’d planted a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories on the bookshelf in the Study, in amongst a bunch of other books belonging to the house. In essence, the clue aimed to lead the players to the drawing-room, and find where a shadow is cast in the Craft of Love – i.e., find a Lovecraft book on the shelf and turn to the chapter for The Shadow Over Innsmouth; one of the most famous Lovecraft stories and which we banked on at least some of the players knowing.


After some brain-racking and some book-searching, the players eventually deciphered the clue and found the book; identifying a little ‘26’ mark at the bottom of the first page of The Shadow Over Innsmouth and giving them the direction key ↓←↓. With that, Puzzle #2 was complete.

Puzzle #3: Pigpen

I always wanted to weave in a traditional cipher into the puzzle series, and Pete liked the idea of having an “X Marks The Spot”-type puzzle with a treasure hunt inside the house, so we opted to combine the two:

Having found the blueprints for the house on the interwebs, we tried to figure out a clever place to hide something and lead to with a map. Realising that the Study and the Apple Store bedroom were identical and size and shape, this seemed a logical place to roughly sketch a room and get players to figure out a) which one it is, and b) to search inside it for the next clue.

The clue they had to find was a small, square envelope on which a “#X” was drawn on the front, matching one on the map sketch. Once found, they would open it to find a pigpen alphabet key, and a series of symbols which they must decode. The “clever” bit [note: author’s inverted commas] was making the code upside-down, meaning that the players would have to rotate the code by 180 degrees and then translate it, else it would not make sense if translated directly. To hint at this, I drew a little rotate-y arrow and a line, which had the added bonus of players thinking that they had to translate the code’s mirrored reflection instead of rotating it by π radians. I love red herrings.

Anyway; translate it correctly, and the players would reveal the solution:


giving ‘X’ (←↓) as the solution, and Puzzle #3 complete.



And with that, and because I’m all out of words for one week, I will leave the second half of the story ’til Part 2, which I’ll post in a weeks’ time. All that’s left to say is: good puzzlin’, y’all.


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A Lament for the Video Game Manual


Next time you’re playing a new video game on one of those spangly-new, current-generation consoles, spare a thought for the poor, humble, forgotten video game manual. In this age of digital releases where physical copies of games are more at a premium, and pieces of floating paper coming bundled with the game disc are becoming more and more unwieldy and rare; the presence of printed DLC (Downloadable Content) codes, etc. aside. Even then, where disc-based games still come with some sort of instruction booklet, in many cases it’s woefully inadequate in providing context to the main game, given that many AAA-franchises now have so many complex facets of gameplay and control mechanics that you’d need most of a rainforest’s-worth of papyrus to catalogue them all. The days of gaming instructions being “press right to move right, press x to jump; jump on the enemy’s head to kill the enemy” are, sadly, behind us.

So: given that it’s someone’s job to reminisce about these archaic forms of printed communication and – in the absence of anyone else – that ‘someone’ may as well be me, let me take you on a journey of discovery and revelation about the mythical artform of the video game instruction manual. Together, perhaps, we can reclaim this forgotten land for the generations ahead.


In the distant past, the instruction manual supplied with a video game was there to do one thing: to teach you how to play the game. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a game would rarely have any introductory backstory, let alone hints as to how to get along, before thrusting you headlong into some gameplay. Haunting back to the idea of the game being a machine and the means operation of that machine needing to be communicated to the user by means of some sort of instructive text, manuals were included in video game boxes as the conduit by which the user understood what the game was and how it worked, and also where to find contact information and telephone numbers to call when the software inevitably failed or caused her ZX Spectrum to spew out little bits of cartridge tape in a very violent manner.

As video games grew and became more cinematic and three-dimensional during the 1990s, the instruction manual became a way for more information about the plot, characters and universe to be documented, in addition to how to press the right buttons at the right time. Perhaps the reasons for this are down to the increasing ambition of video games to rival full-blown movie entertainment in terms of story and lore, and perhaps to save the developers time and money on creating extra hours of Full-Motion Video (FMV) cut-scenes or expensive animation by filling the instruction booklet with bonus information and history in written form (cf. Final Fantasy VII, Puppeteer, Chrono Trigger).

As a player who has passionately grown up amongst video games for twenty years now, I still reminisce about the thrill of buying a new video game at the shops and devouring the instruction manual (not literally; I’m not a monster) during the car ride home because, until I got home and could boot it up, reading the manual was the next closest thing to actually playing the game. This heritage naturally inspires me to view a game’s instruction manual more as a taster for the game itself than a simple set of operation codes for playing it; whetting the appetite with exciting artwork, design and (sometimes) additional game lore. As an aside, it’s worth noting that I’m like this with music, and physical media, too – I love leafing through an album’s sleeve flyer, awaiting what music will to come meet my ears and throwing myself headlong into the band’s artwork and lyrics.

However, whenever I’ve bought a pre-owned console game, particularly from the last couple of console generations, the manual is – with alarming regularity – often in mint condition and unsullied by human hand(s). It’s equally alarming how many pre-owned games are still delivered with pristine DLC/download codes hidden away in/with the user manual: a broad conclusion that may be drawn is that their owners are simply unaware that they exist; a symptom of gamers simply too impatient to get playing to investigate the other manual guff before they dive in. In these modern times, if a game isn’t packaged with an in-game tutorial teaching the user, step-by-patronising-step, how to do every little thing in the game, many players are likely to head to the internet at the first sign of confusion rather than consult the manual; or worse, ragequit and abandon the game entirely. Gamers expect a playable tutorial; not a written set of the rules and limits of the game and the primary operators and actions used to navigate it (unless it’s an in-game version that can called up from a start menu prompt). As a result, I’d wager that only a small proportional of video game manuals ever feel the touch of human flesh; merely the fleeting fondle of an excited gamer’s fingers as they scrabble through it.

Ain't Nobody Got Time Fo' That

In the last decade, I’ve noticed an increasing propensity for video game manuals (particularly from Western developers and publishers) to exist merely as a few sheets of paper held by some ragged staples; hastily thrown together to print the primary control mappings but with scant pickings of game-enhancing content. They’re now no longer a necessity, but a luxury; perhaps supplied in order to meet console licencing requirements or out of some, long-forgotten obligation to give the player something to look at before they properly delve into the game itself.

A manual is, by and large, one of the last things that will be created for a game’s release. It’s something to be done at the end, and with little effort spent on it in order to maximise the man-hours that are spent on the game itself. This means that plans for an engaging, informative instruction manual are often the first things to be cut from a development budget that’s pushing its time or financial deadline; with publishers typically finalising their printed material at the very last minute (right before shipping), seemingly assigning the task to the resident intern or work experience kid. Some culprits may be guilty of throwing a user guide together seemingly at random, with random or out-of-date concept art presented as the real thing, out-of-date screenshots and typos still embedded in the text, with no quality control. Also, some developers/publishers may eschew the opportunity to publish more of the games’ development/etc art in the manual; instead, choosing to use such content in coffee-table ‘art’ books for which the consumer may often pay a pretty penny for (Ubisoft, I’m looking at you).

Of course, game manuals must serve an important, legal purposes – details of guarantee, warranty, licencing details, epilepsy warnings, [ yada yada ] must all be presented to the consumer. For health/safety/Quality Assurance reasons, it is still – largely – necessary for every major video game to be packaged with something paper-based on which warranties, blah etc. are written for the consumer’s benefit. As such, a large number of manuals are merely this; no frills, just the facts. And, often, not even any facts about how to play the game at all: the user manual for the PlayStation 3 version of the BioShock – Ultimate Rapture Edition simply says: “Consult [url] for game instructions,” somewhat defeating the purpose of encouraging players to engage with the complex, rich world and artwork of the BioShock and Rapture universe. THANKS, 2K.


But, despite the bleak message of this post so far, it’s good to see that some developers still like go to town on the accompanying user guide; seeing the instruction manual as a part of the game’s package and an equal part of the art and aesthetic of it as the game itself. Although this adds time and cost to the production of the final game, as a conscientious (and academic) gamer, this adds to my experience of the game and the value that I obtain from its universe:

Assassin’s Creed II (PlayStation 3 version tested) uses its instruction manual to enhance the experience of the game as a whole, being laid out in the form of a set of research notes from Abstergo Industries explaining how to operate the Animus 2.0 (the in-game ‘machine’ allowing Desmond Miles access to the memories of the historical assassin, Ezio Audiotore da Firenze) and annotated by Desmond’s Abstergo refugee, Lucy Stilman. For example, in one such annotation, the AC II manual makes fun of its preceding game and the insta-death the player experience upon landing in water by mentioning: “Please make sure to remove that annoying bug preventing swimming.” It may be just a small in-joke, but it rewards the stolid adventurer that delves into the user manual, and adds some local colour to an otherwise perfunctory explanation of the game’s operations and features.

More archaic instruction manuals also reflect other curiosities of gaming’s history: the ‘Notes’ section of pages which are common in many instruction guides, for example. These hark back to a time when it was necessary for players to write down level passwords or codes, when savegame functions weren’t a widespread feature of most console games and in-game cheat modes were abound. Back in the day, the instruction manual was also an important barrier against software piracy – I recall the efforts of publishers like LucasArts doing their best to stop pirates from distributing pirated games (copied from floppy disks) by requiring users to look up a code in the manual (randomised each time you play­; e.g. “page 34, line 3 ……….”) in order to access the game. Of course, there would be nothing to stop large-scale pirates simply reproducing the manual, as well, but it may have halted the disk-copying of bedroom pirates.

"Piracy harms consumers as well as legitimate developers, publishers and retailers."

Page one of the manual for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag ~ “Piracy harms consumers as well as legitimate developers, publishers and retailers.” /FAIL

What place do instruction manuals have, though, in a world where control schemes for many video games can be edited and mapped to a player’s particular tastes? If the primary operators for in-game control are not fixed, then what worth is there in publishing a list of them in hard copy form? Furthermore, with future consoles likely to ditch physical game discs altogether (Microsoft nearly managed to get away with doing it in the current console generation, but not quite), will we see an absence of all printed materials, with a reliance purely on download-only games a la PC gaming on Steam?

Of course, I have nothing against tutorials an in-game manuals per se – if they can be presented in the context of the coherent storyline and with due care and attention, then a tutorial is a highly effective way of inducting the user into the gameworld and setting up the rest of the game. But why waste the opportunity to present extra content to the consumer? Maybe I’m in a minority. Perhaps the evidence that many players don’t look at modern game manuals is evidence that they’re an archaic artform that should be retired; perhaps alongside physical copies of videogames altogether, I don’t know. But if I’m a last bastion of a bygone era where the physical world still musters a round of applause, then I’m happy to be its final pillar of support. Godspeed.


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