The GCHQ Puzzle Book [Review]

logo-4Publisher: Penguin
Genre: Cryptic puzzles, decryption.
Year released: 2016
Difficulty: 7 to 10.

The British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is UK’s signals intelligence agency. They are also the proud inheritors of a legacy spanning all the way back to World War 2 when their predecessors from the Government Code & Cypher School, then located in Bletchley Park, spearheaded Allied efforts to break German military encryption enabled by Enigma machines.

img_9309The people in this field, as exemplified by those such as Alan Turing, were intelligent, driven, determined and sometimes considered misfits of their time. They certainly provided a juxtaposed archetype of the British Spy, who is normally stereotyped as a suave action hero (martinis shaken not stirred). It should perhaps be no surprise then that GCHQ would launch a puzzle book. Apparently their workforce loves solving puzzles. Who would’ve thought?

Last Christmas, Pa and I bought a copy to try out and see just how the brains of these people tick.

The GCHQ Puzzle Book opens with a note from the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and a foreword from the Director of GCHQ. In them, it is explained how the proceeds from the sale of the book would help the Heads Together campaign, which supports efforts in the UK to help those with mental health issues. It also turns out that the Duchess’ grandmother was also a code breaker at Bletchley Park. The things you learn…

Readers are then introduced to the tradition of puzzle solving at the organisation and the types of logic involved. As can be seen throughout the book, many of these puzzles have cryptic elements which require readers to use pattern identification, logic and generally mixed with a healthy dose of general knowledge. From what we saw from the GCHQ’s 2015 Christmas puzzle challenge (also in the book), these puzzles can also involve lateral thinking especially when trying to decipher staged puzzles.

If this all sounds a tad too difficult, don’t despair…yet! The puzzles gradually increase even more in difficulty throughout the book, introducing new cryptic concepts as players adjust to this line of thinking. There is also a helpful hint section in the back along with well laid out solutions. Furthermore, not all the puzzles are word based:

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Although some of the puzzles do require general knowledge that is British-centric, we’ve found the external knowledge required is typically easily found through Google. You will need a pen and paper to work through some of them though.

The book also contains some pictures which give colour to the history of GCHQ and its predecessors. It even includes the original January 1942 cryptic crossword puzzle used to recruit would-be code breakers!

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As of 30 January 2017, this book could still be bought from Book Depository for less than $20 Australian. The GCHQ Puzzle Book is also available at Amazon. If you like puzzles, this is a bargain. However, be aware that the difficulty is very high! These people would work over the same code for days or months… Why would any of the puzzles be simple, right?  We are still walking baby steps though the “Easy” chapter, but loving it!

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