by Benjamin Monreal and Sarah Bagby
Problem:

Solvers are presented with four word-search grids. The first three have an empty 5 × 5 block in the middle, holding (respectively) one, two, or three silhouettes, of different colors; the fourth has this block filled in with black. The first grid is accompanied by seven black silhouettes; the second, by eight blue and eight red; the third, by three pink, four green, and three orange. Otherwise, the grids are identical. It should be noticeable that they use the Ĳ digraph but never I or J alone.

### Path to Solution

1. Treat the first grid as plaintext. You will certainly find OLDGREENGRASSHOPPER across the bottom, and you should also find MISSSPIDER running down in the southeast; these are readily recognizable as two members of the crew who travel in James and the Giant Peach. In all, seven members of the peach’s crew are here, matching the seven silhouettes that accompany this grid. Notably, however, JAMES, EARTHWORM, CENTIPEDE, GLOWWORM, and LADYBUG all extend into the blank middle square. This allows you to place seven letters in the square.
2. One member of the company is still missing: SILKWORM. The newly placed letters suggest that this missing friend should be found in the blank square, wrapping from the first to the second line. What goes in the rest of the blank square? The Ĳ digraphs, the 5 × 5 square, and the flavortext (town square, finding a friend to play with) should suggest that this square is to be treated as a Playfair square, for which SILKWORM is a valid key. The C and G that protrude into the square (from CENTIPEDE and GLOWWORM, respectively) should confirm that the rest of the square can be filled in alphabetically, with I and J sharing a space.
3. Use the SILKWORM square to start decrypting the second copy of the grid. Since the Playfair cipher works on bigrams, there are a couple of possible reading frames in each direction. Try the first frame, i.e., grouping columns 1 and 2, 3 and 4, etc. The first row is gibberish, but the second decrypts to FXFLEWDXDURXARAGORNXKYLP, and the third begins TARAN. It should be easy to spot Taran (from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles) and Aragorn (Tolkien) here. (FFLEWDDUR is there too, but harder to spot because the double letters have to be broken up for Playfair encryption.) So this is a little different: instead of one group of friends, in this second grid we seem to be looking for two groups, both the core group of adventurers from Prydain and the Fellowship of the Ring. This is also clued by the fact that there are two silhouettes in the central blank in this grid, by the two colors of silhouettes accompanying the grid, and by flavortext (“it’s a challenge just finding one friend to play with, much less two or three”).
4. Rather than continuing to decrypt the grid in multiple reading frames, encrypt the characters you’re looking for and search the grid as given. You should find all the major Prydain characters but EILONWY, and all of the Fellowship but SAM (new groups of friends highlighted in green). The letters protruding into the empty block are consistent with a second Playfair square with key EILONWYSAM.
5. Group Character Prepped for Playfair Encrypted
Prydain Taran TARANX QBMBPV
Prydain Fflewddur FXFLEWDXDURX EYEKGLEVCVMV
Prydain Gurgi GURGIX CZBDLV
Prydain Doli DOLI CRKL
Prydain Gwydion GWYDIONX TBVFSRPV
Prydain Coll COLXLX HCMLML
Prydain Dallben DALXLBEN FRMLWMDP
Prydain Hen Wen HENWEN PCTIDP
Ring Aragorn ARAGORNX BMBFRMPV
Ring Frodo FRODOX DARCMU
Ring Merry MERXRY EPMVAV
Ring Pippin PIPXPINX NLXLNLPV
Ring Gandalf GANDALFX FBVNMKEY
Ring Gimli GIMLIX DWEMLV
Ring Legolas LEGOLASX MPCBKMLU
Ring Boromir BOROMIRX ORMRRLMV
6. Use the EILONWYSAM square to start decrypting the third copy of the grid. This time the first row, first reading frame holds WEDNESDAY, while the third holds EDMUND and HOMER. So in grid three, with its three silhouettes in the grid and three accompanying groups of silhouettes, we have three sets of friends: the Addams Family, the Pevensies (Narnia), and the Simpsons. Once again, encrypt the names to search the grid as given rather than trying to decrypt the grid in multiple reading frames. You should find all the Simpsons but BART, all the Addamses but GOMEZ, all the Pevensies but LUCY (new groups of friends highlighted in purple). The two letters protruding into the empty block are consistent with a third Playfair square with key BARTGOMEZLUCY.
7. Group Character Prepped for Playfair Encrypted
SimpsonsHomerHOMERXQEWNQZ
SimpsonsLisaLISAOLAM
SimpsonsMaggieMAGXGIEXWMFZCNOT
SimpsonsMargeMARGEXWMZROT