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Post Script: How I Constructed the Great American History Puzzle

Post Script: How I Constructed the Great American History Puzzle

I decided to cross-post this behind-the-scenes look at the way the contest went down from my own blog. If you liked the Great American History Puzzle, you might also enjoy the occasional word puzzles and trivia quizzes I post over there, typically on “Wordplay Wednesday.” Please stop by.

(WARNING: SPOILERS HO! If you still want to attempt the contest, read this blog post after. Give it a try! We’ve posted a series of hints for every puzzle now, to amp up the fun-to-frustration ratio.)

(WARNING: LONG! This is probably a little more detail than you want unless you actually played along with the contest. And possibly not even then.)

The Great American History Puzzle started (for me) with a phone call from Bill Allman, the Chief Digital Officer for the Smithsonian. Apparently Smithsonian magazine was planning a “Secrets of American History” issue and there was some talk about including a puzzle contest of some kind in the issue. Did I know anything about puzzles?

Well, no, in the sense that I’d never done anything like this before. I’d been a fan of all kinds of nerdy pencil-and-paper games and puzzles since I was a kid, but I’d never even constructed a crossword. But despite that, I immediately had an inkling of how much fun this could be: a series of cool hidden messages in august old Smithsonian magazine, like the “hidden contests” that used to run in Games magazine when I was a kid. The possibilities for mysterious stage trappings would be hard to beat: the secret corners of American history, full of Masonic symbols, occult architecture, and possible Illuminati conspiracies, as personified by the cavernous, treasure-filled vaults of the nation’s largest museum. It could be the perfect backdrop for a byzantine armchair treasure hunt, like the ones that the Brits used to put in lavishly illustrated puzzle books.

The magazine puzzle came together fairly quickly. Bill, knowing that the cover was going to be an elaborate photo mosaic of Thomas Jefferson, suggested including a hidden image Waldo-style amid the detritus. I realized that a Jefferson theme meant great possibilities to include all kinds of National Treasure-type Founding Father minutiae: the Declaration of Independence, the Bible verse on the Liberty Bell, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dying on the same Fourth of July, two Jefferson Memorials (the one on the Tidal Basin and the one where you’ll find the St. Louis Arch), and so on. I made a quick run to the public library to look for good places in a typical issue of Smithsonian magazine where you could stow away hidden messages, and realized the “folio” text at the bottom of each page would do nicely. In the end, the puzzle got simplified a little to get rid of the Gateway Arch angle, but apart from that, it ran essentially as I drew it up and pitched it that first afternoon.

The web puzzle was trickier: how should it work? I wanted it to have all manner of subtle connections and historical allusions and red herrings, but that’s easier said that done. I also wanted it to feel like an old-timey marking-off-paces treasure hunt from Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew, and that’s not easy to do with pixels. I originally proposed a thirteen-puzzle quiz (thinking of the numerology of the thirteen original U.S. colonies, I guess) which soon got scaled down to ten. I was fine with ten: I realized ten puzzles could be structured as a three-by-three grid whose answers somehow combined to make one final puzzle. To make the treasure hunt angle work, the first nine “passwords” would be actual artifacts players would “collect” from the bowels of the Smithsonian. Then, somehow, those passwords would combine to give you an elegant final answer. The final puzzle would tell you how to make that combination work–and a double-crostic seemed like the right way to conceal a short encoded message like that.

In one of our very first phone conversations about Smithsonian lore, Bill had mentioned a neat bit of trivia that Dan Brown had leveraged when he set a novel at the Smithsonian: that two barn owls called Increase and Diffusion used to live in one of the museum’s castle towers. (James Smithson, who founded the institution for reasons that are still a mystery today, intended that the museum would promote “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”) I remember jotting that down immediately, loving the symbolism (wise old owl = knowledge…and the word “knowledge” actually hides the word “owl”!) as well as the historical resonance and most of all the word-manipulation potential of “increasing and diffusing” things.

(The owls, incidentally, later made cameo appearances in the final two puzzles, as well as in an acrostic that I hid in the nine “treasure” descriptions. I thought of them as the spirit animals of the puzzle contest.)


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