Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Recap and Analysis

Catch up with Puzzles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and the final puzzle.

As a fan of puzzlehunts, history, and Ken Jennings, this Great American History Puzzle was pretty much custom-made to be something I'd enjoy. As soon as I read about it on Ken Jennings' blog, I bought a copy of Smithsonian magazine and was off to the races, knowing that I was never actually going to win but enjoying the hell out of it anyway.

The toughest puzzle was by far Puzzle 8. Some of the puzzles required serious tricks to figure out an approach but came into focus when you figured out the approach (looking at you, puzzle 4). Others had an obvious approach but a non-trivial implementation to that approach (puzzle 9, for instance). Puzzle 8 managed to combine both a cryptic method of solving and a tough implementation, plus a disappointingly misleading reference to the Hall of Presidents, which was one of the few design flaws in the whole puzzle.

Meanwhile, the easiest puzzle was either Puzzle 5 or Puzzle 6, which were straightforward in both method and execution. Surprisingly, a few people on Twitter described Puzzle 6 as the one they found most difficult, making me wonder how impossible I might have found it if I hadn't done so much origami as a kid. On the other hand, it took a couple hours of concerted effort from me and my girlfriend to solve Puzzle 9, even though some Twitter people described solving it in only a few minutes.

It was great to see so much variety in the puzzle. So many classic puzzle types--riddle, cipher, crossword, logic, rebus, and acrostic--were represented that I felt like I was exercising a whole lot of puzzle skills and learning some great history trivia in the process.

On the other hand, the worst aspect of the puzzle was probably the timing. I'm luck enough to have a "job" (i.e., grad student) that lets me basically set my own hours and devote a little down time in the middle of a day to solving a puzzle. For people who don't have that luxury, the timing might have gone from slightly inconvenient to downright frustrating. On top of that, the decision to award the grand prize to the person who submitted the very first correct answer seemed odd, especially in the light of the five seconds between first and second place.

On the whole, Smithsonian: well done designing a set of puzzles that were both fun to solve and taught me something about history. Hope to see you again next year.