The Mystery #5 Is Resolved: Northern Lights, Windmills And The Game Of The Century

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Vitaly Friedman loves beautiful content and doesn’t like to give in easily. When he is not writing, he’s most probably running front-end & UX … More about Vitaly ↬

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This time we decided to turn our mystery riddle into an exercise of patience and stubbornness — beyond problem solving, of course. To achieve just that, we had to hide the right answers properly and provide subtle hints that attentive readers would need to discover first. So, what if we looked closely at the things around us and introduced a riddle that would reflect those experiences?

So you find yourself somewhere in a little tourist station in Northern Sweden — with a few adventurous tourists, 86 surprisingly happy inhabitants, and a remarkably good Internet connection. There is nothing but breathtaking nature around you, with blueish mountains and bright red skyline blurring endless horizon — and Northern Lights dancing in the sky right above you. What do you do? Obviously, you come up with an idea for those sneaky ‘lil Smashing Mystery riddles.

In our previous riddles, we turned our little challenges into quests for creative solutions. However, as we try to level up every new Mystery to keep it quite difficult to solve, with a new riddle this time we decided to turn it into an exercise of patience and stubbornness — beyond problem solving, of course.

Surprisingly, the new mystery riddle, dedicated to the launch of SmashingConf NYC, took much more time than usual to complete, adjust, refine, test and redesign than the previous ones. To be honest, the very first drafts of the riddle couldn’t be solved by anyone, but we still wanted to keep them quite advanced, and we knew that many participants would already have enough “riddling” experience, so they would know what to expect and how it might work. Animated GIFs, changing file names or finding hashtags, constructing words and counting objects. We had to slightly change the rules of the game to keep it challenging — in fact, our goal was to ensure that finding a solution would require at least 1 hour on average.

A very early mock-up of the labyrinth for the first level. Large view.

To achieve just that, we had to hide the right answers properly and provide subtle hints that attentive readers would need to discover first — unless they’d be willing to try out a number of options on their own (which would probably take way too much time). And what’s better hidden than your personal experiences and things you’ve discovered recently? So, what if we looked closely at the things around us and introduced a riddle that would reflect those experiences?

That’s exactly how the riddle came to be. As usual, the task was to watch out for the file name and construct the right hashtag. We created a series of animated GIFs, and each GIF contained (at least) one hidden hashtag. The job was to discover the hashtag as soon as possible. And if the guess for a hashtag was right, you would find a tweet with that hashtag leading you to the next level. Once you’ve reached the last level, you’d need to tweet out all the hints in one single tweet to @smashingmag.

Overall, we would accept at least 5 correct hashtags. Sending out more our way wouldn’t really help, but obviously it wouldn’t hurt either. And to make it a little bit harder, we had to ensure that we’d accept only correct answers — unlike over 45 “correct” combinations of answers we had in our previous riddles. This would not only give a chance to people who didn’t manage to be online when the riddle went live, but it was also supposed to reward readers who invested a lot of time into solving the riddles. Being one of the winners wasn’t easy, but it would be easier to get a reward if you worked hard enough. We didn’t expect many people to solve it (perhaps 50 at most), but apparently there are more keen and stubborn people out there than we had thought!

We also noticed that many people dropped off very quickly in our previous riddles, so we wanted to level down the entry barrier a little to capture readers’ attention first, and then introduce more difficult challenges along the way. The first level shouldn’t be a piece of cake, but it should be easily manageable within a few minutes at most. You can see it as a “trap” (cheeky, I know!) to get people interested, and oh my, the number of tweets we saw then was quite remarkable! Not so much for the other levels though.

Level 1: Finding The Right Path

When you are thinking about something very important, it’s so easy to get distracted, isn’t it? Well, we hoped you wouldn’t get distracted by our character getting distracted! We see a few letters scattered across a labyrinth, and the file name is find-the-right-path.gif, so apparently you’d start out in the left upper corner (where the mouse starts) and would need to find your way to the exit the labyrinth. And as you go, you’d collect letters along the way. These letters (if collected correctly), would construct a word, or words, and, when put together, build up a hashtag.

Hint: watch out for the file name. Construct the right hashtag. View large version.

The most difficult part about this level was probably not about finding the right path, but the orientation of the labyrinth. Once you’ve tried out a few combinations, you can quickly eliminate a few dead ends, such as B and P and S, and find your way to I. Once you are at I, you can almost sense ICECREAM (everybody does, right?) and WINDMILL. Two words, one hashtag? Well, ICECREAMWINDMILL is the only option you could go with. Easy? Absolutely. And now you are in the game. Tricky? Abso-luuuutely!

So, what do you do? Well, let’s see if we can find any meaningful tweet with the hashtag ICECREAMWINDMILL (are there any non-meaningful tweets with that hashtag)? Bingo! Here we go:

"When icecream and windmill look right to you, Sweden is where the maze will lead you to." Pretty much correct every single time, isn't it? The tweet.

Okay, now that was actually the easy part. Now let’s move on to the more interesting (and definitely more time-involved) parts, i.e. our quest through Northern Sweden.

Level 2: Somewhere In Sweden

Once you’ve discovered both icecream and windmill, isn’t it perhaps time for, you know, an icecream in front of a windmill? Indeed, it is! We see a (big — no, actually huge) “old school” windmill, a few chirping birds (that one on the top of the windmill looks particularly suspicious!), a character on a bench with an ice cream in its hand, a scarf with an obscure emblem and, last but certainly not least, a book with an “Aurora” bookmark. The file name says somewhere-in-sweden, so we’re probably looking for a location… well, in Sweden.

Somewhere in Sweden. That bird on the top of the windmill looks particularly suspicious! Large view.

So let’s try to make sense of it all. Obviously, the windmill is surprisingly distracting and gets most attention right away. Is the (big) windmill in fact a (big) distraction designed to trick you into a dead end? Should you be looking for smaller details instead? For example, that scarf. Could it be the emblem of a region, town, or perhaps a club, a band, or even a brand?

We also see an “Aurora” bookmark on the book next to the character enjoying a tasty ice cream. Taking a closer look at the cover of the book, well, perhaps “Aurora” may stand for a Hungarian punk band, or an Australian TV channel, or a Marvel comics character? Well, probably not in this case. As displayed on the cover of the book, it’s more likely to stand for a natural light display in the sky — also known as Aurora Borealis, or “Northern Lights”, predominantly seen in the high-latitude (i.e. Arctic and Antarctic) climate zones.

This map shows the midnight equatorward boundary of the Aurora phenomena at different levels of geomagnetic activity.
This map shows the midnight equatorward boundary of the Aurora phenomena at different levels of geomagnetic activity. Auroras happening in Southern Sweden are very unlikely.

Well, okay. So, good ol’ Northern Lights then. Those Auroras rarely occur in latitudes below the auroral zone, and since the character has a book on Aurora, it’s likely to assume that he is at a specific location, well, in Sweden, with a sheer goal to observe that dance of light in the sky. So that should eliminate Southern Sweden because it’s way under the auroral zone; besides, there is an Arctic Circle going right across Northern Sweden. Not that Arctic Circle, of course — this one.

So, we are now looking for a windmill in Northern Sweden which also happens to be a good location to observe Northern Lights. And perhaps that location has the logo that the character has on its scarf? Well, what if we searched for a list of windmills in Sweden and just boiled down our search to the ones that only exist in the North?

Oh, that’s disappointing since there appears not to be an extensive list, at least not on Wikipedia. However, with a bit of luck, we could end up at an overview of old Swedish windmills, but that list is quite comprehensive — and we don’t really have the time! What about <a href="">windmill northern lights northern sweden</a>? Well, lots of photos of course, but not exactly what we are looking for. Hmm, tricky.

Okay, what else can we do? Well, the easiest way would be to find and grab yourself a Swede, and try to figure it out with them — preferably one who knows his/her way around Northern Sweden, and even better, with expertise in windmills and Aurora areas in Sweden. If that’s not an option, then what if we just check out what the Northern counties of Sweden are, and select the ones that might be a good fit (keep in mind that they should be located in the auroral zone)? After all, we need to boil down the number of options to a minimum. Alright, so now we’ve got Jämtland, Ångermanland, Västerbotten, Norrbotten and Lappland.

Unfortunately, there aren't many Auroras to be seens in Skåne or Blekinge. Image source.

We still don’t know if we’re looking for a specific location, or a city, or a town, or perhaps a tourist station. It could be pretty much anything — big or small. Well, we have to try things out and do some research until we find something. Obviously, this may take a while, but eventually we’ll find just what we need.

So if you keep digging, you will notice that a few locations appear more often in search results than others. The more you go your way up to the North, the more often you’ll see well (and not so well) crafted infomercials on northern lights observation points.

Apparently, Lapland is quite well known for Aurora observations. But that’s not the only clue we have, since we still have to somehow connect it with windmills. So what if we tried searching for “Ångermanland arctic circle windmill”? Hmm. “Västerbotten aurora windmill”? Hmmm. “Windmill Lapland”? Oh, could it be… Is it?..

Meet August 1963 issue of the magazine "The Rotarian".
The article "Lapland Saves a Mill That Saved The People" features a windmill, built up in the parish of Gällivare in 1861.

We end up at an obscure issue of “The Rotarian” magazine, or more specifically, an article titled “Lapland Saves a Mill That Saved The People”, written by Arvid Johanson and published in August 1963. If you read that article, you’ll find out that the construction of a rustic windmill was initiated by inhabitants of Yrttivaara, in Gällivare (Northern Sweden), in 1861. Built during a famine, that windmill ground out a strange flour that kept hundreds of farmers and villagers from starving. In fact, it has become a historic shrine.

So could it be the city that we are looking for? After all, Lapland is the county located in the very North of Sweden.

"Aurora lights dance in the sky, and #Gällivare is that windmill place you had to find. Now, how about good ol’ chess?" The tweet.

Bingo! Searching for the hashtag #Gällivare on Twitter (which is for some reason not the most popular trending hashtag out there), we’ll find a tweet leading us to the next level.

Admittedly, finding that specific location would require a lot of experimentation and luck, so we introduced a few other hashtags which, however, would be equally difficult to find. Some of you may have even stumbled upon another route, which would have lead you to a university chess club called “Aurora Borialis” in Umeå (also in Northern Sweden) that actually just ran a chess tournament last month. It is absolutely possible that our mysterious character attended that tournament back then, and used the opportunity to observe the Northern Lights while visiting!

But what about that emblem on the scarf? Well, it looks like it isn’t the logo of that club. Indeed, it’s a logo of SFT, which is the Swedish Tourist Association. A little tourist station in Sweden, called Abisko, with exactly 86 inhabitants, with one of the best observation points in Northern Sweden to observe Northern Lights, belongs to them — a place where the idea was the riddle was brought to life in the first place. You might find some similarities between the logo on the scarf and SFT’s crest.

A surprisingly good-looking logo for a location with 86 inhabitants. Image source.

To be honest, at some point we weren’t quite sure if we were doing the right thing. Obviously our Swedish readers would have a native advantage over other readers, but eliminating Swedish participants from the riddle wasn’t an option, of course. We sincerely hoped that the first correct answer wouldn’t be tweeted out by one of our readers from Sweden, and we indeed had luck — but more on that later on.

The reference to the next level was tweeted out with a few “correct” hashtags, i.e. #Gällivare, #Yrttivaara, #Abisko, #Umeå, #Kiruna and #Lapland. All of these were signs that somebody has been working hard to find the right answer. However, the first hashtags mentioned here had more “weight” than the others, so we’d prefer #Abisko over #Lapland, for example.

All tweets with those hashtags now helped you to get to the next level that had a little chess quest waiting for you. Phew, this one wasn’t easy. Let’s see about the next one.

Level 3: What’s The Right Move?

Well, perhaps that chess club guess wasn’t too way off after all. After the observation of the Northern Lights (as the Aurora book under the table and the Northern Lights on the picture hanging on the wall now suggest), we are back home and testing our skills at a game of chess.

Our mysterious character seems to never get a break, now spending day and night learning chess. Large view.

We see a character studying a book day and night long, touching a chess figure and putting it back — perhaps thinking about the next move. Oh, in fact, the file name is what-is-the-right-move, so it’s probably the move that we are searching for here. But is it a chess move, or is it a general move, or an action we have to take here? Studying the position of pieces in the game might be, again, time-consuming, and while our mysterious character picks the white Queen to play, it doesn’t have to mean that this figure is on — after all, he places it back on the board.

But, wait a second. We also see “Fischer” written on one of the pages in the book as the character considers the next move, and we also see a clock on the wall. But the clock isn’t moving. Isn’t that a bit strange? While we clearly see the sun rising and setting, the clock seems to be kind of stuck. But where? Or, to be exact, when? Well, the clock shows 7:56AM — does it mean something? Oh, could it be 19:56 (or 7:56PM)? Hold on. It could be a reference to a year? Did something happen in 1956? Is it somehow related to chess?

Wait a second. Isn’t 1956 the year when a 13-years old Brooklyn school boy Bobby Fischer enter his first major chess tournament and famously outfoxed a chess master Donald Byrne with bold, surprising moves? The game has been discussed in chess books and collections and was famously proclaimed as the “Game of the Century”. Could it be that our character is studying exactly that game?

What if we compared the board position on this picture with the board positions in our riddle? If you look close enough (and long enough), you’ll find out that the position in the animation is exactly the last position in the game before checkmate. (Image credit)

Well, it does look like the game is already in its late stage, so what if we compare the board position on the picture with the board positions in the game? If we look close enough, and long enough, we’ll find out that the position in the animation is exactly the last position in the game before checkmate.

Bobby Fischer made the news in 1957. (Image credit)
The original score sheet from 1956 with Bobby's handwriting. (Image credit)

But something is wrong — very wrong, in fact. Our character is planning to move the white Queen next, but according to the game protocol, it’s the black player who should be playing next! Now, how tricky is that? Yes, it’s a little trap — an obvious one. Let’s just say that our character is considering different optional moves. He’ll get it right eventually, of course!

So what is the right move? Well, it could have been the famous Be6 (the move that made Fischer famous), but the constellation of figures isn’t right. So, it has to be the last move: rook going to c2. This means that the correct answer would be… #rookc2 or #rc2? Indeed, we accepted both hashtags. In fact, if we were sure that you were on the right track, e.g. with #centurygame, #gamecentury, #gameofthecentury, #fischervsbyrne or #byrnevsfischer, then you’d receive a point as well.

"In chess, you never know if there's a hook; sometimes #Rc2 is the right move. Welcome to the good old times." The tweet.

Okay, that wasn’t too hard, but it took a bit of close examination of the hints, or looking into Fischer’s biography. Let’s move on to the next one. And since we were studying 1956 at this point already, what if we keep going to the good old times? Well, at least that’s what the file name in the next challenge is telling us to do!

Level 4: When Are You Coming Back?

It looks like our friend here never really gets a break. First a labyrinth, then some wild Aurora lights, then a game of chess, and now a super-duper complicated math equation! Okay, step by step… what have we got here?

Doesn't this scene somehow remind you of the recent episode of the Big Bang Theory? Perhaps it should. Large view.

We see a math equation, and if somebody from your circles has studied physics, they will tell you that it’s Einstein’s field equations that describe gravitation as a result of spacetime being curved by matter and energy. The equations were postulated by Einstein, so what is our character trying to figure out here? Well, he obviously appears to be quite well equipped. Apart from a sleepy cat, we have a calendar on the table, the Interstellar poster on the wall (could it be related to wormholes?) as well as what appears to be a Back to the future movie sign and a good ol’ DeLorean DMC-12.

So all of these clues really try to convince us that we are looking at time travelling here, but what exactly do we have to search for? Right, the file name says when-are-you-coming-back.gif — but coming back where? Is it possible that we are trying to get back in January since it’s what the calendar on the table says? But why does the file name say “coming back”? Could it be a reference to the Back To The Future movie? Perhaps we should be looking for a date… in the future?

Let’s figure it out. Well, the attention of the character is focused on the equation on the board. There is nothing unusual on that board, although… Hold on. The multiplication sign with (2110) in the first line — where does it come from? Is it a constant? Not really — in fact, if you compare the original equation with the one written on the board, you’ll notice that they’re not the same. Could that be a hint perhaps?

What could 2110 stand for? Well, looks like we’re now looking for a date, so perhaps that’s what we should be looking closer into? Hold on. If we look into the details of the Back To The Future movie, wasn’t… wasn’t October 21st the exact day when Marty McFly, Jennifer Parker and Dr. Brown traveled to the future to stop Marty’s future son from committing a crime? Bingo! In fact, it’s October 21st, 2015, 04:29PM. Wow, time flies by quickly — the future is almost here then!

So could this be the right answer? Indeed, #oct212015, #10212015 and #21102015 are all correct hashtags, and are all accepted! We’ve seen lots of tweets mentioning DeLorean, 1.21 Gigawatts, hoverboard, holo lens and references to Dr. Brown, but that’s not what we were looking for, and so these answers cannot be accepted — sorry!

"(1/2) You can't go back in time, but you can anticipate the future. #oct212015 is right! But you're still missing the bonus hashtag." The tweet.
"(2/2) Hint: find what #oct212015 really stands for. The hashtag will be revealed in plain text. Then, tweet all the hashtags @smashingmag!" The tweet.

Okay, but why would our character want to so desperately go to the future? What exactly does the date stand for? And again, why is it “coming back”, rather than “going to the future”? Besides, the original challenge said that we are looking at 5 hashtags, but so far we’ve collected only 4. What are we missing? Well, if you look into the tweets for our current level, it actually says that we have to find out what the date actually stands for, and that the hashtag will be written in plain text. This isn’t getting easier, is it? Well, we need to figure it out anyway.

Level 5: Welcome Back To The Future

In the previous level, we saw a few people looking into connecting the dots between our previous and upcoming SmashingConf NYC, by tweeting out the hashtag #jun172014 which was the date of the very first SmashingConf in NYC last year. Well, that was indeed a good idea, and it was quite close, but unfortunately, it isn’t the right answer. Bret Sutherland somehow found Smashing NightConf happening in Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, which was also very close. Again, it doesn’t make sense to make assumptions about the hashtag since we are supposed to see it in plaintext.

So what can we do? Well, let’s think. Obviously, we have to circle around October 21st 2015, so perhaps this date stands for something that has been mentioned in the riddle or was a repeating theme throughout it? A windmill from 1861, a chess game from 1956, and an obscure event in 2015. Could it be related to numbers? Doesn’t look like it. Did something happen in 1861, 1956 and scheduled for 2015? Or perhaps there is a connection between locations? Doesn’t really look like it either.

Well, that last hint was sent out by the @SmashingConf account, and the riddle is dedicated to the SmashingConf NYC 2015, so maybe the reference for “coming back” is related to SmashingConf? But if you’ve never been to a SmashingConf, how can you come back to it? Well, you can come back to the future with DeLorean, so perhaps we are looking for the clue of a future event? In fact, maybe our mysterious character is so eagerly waiting for that next event that it stubbornly attempts to solve an equation to get back to 2110?

Counting down to the 21st of October, 2015. (Image credit)

SmashingConf NYC is taking place on June 15–18, 2015, so it can’t be right. But wait a second… perhaps there is something else happening on October 21st? With a little bit of experimentation, luck and clever search requests, you should be able to end up on a Lanyrd page for SmashingConf Barcelona 2015, taking place on October 21–23, 2015. Now, that escalated quickly! This could all make perfect sense, wouldn’t it? Could this be the final clue that we’ve been looking for the entire time?

Oh yes, SmashingConf is coming to Barcelona. And the hidden hashtag was indeed #BarcelonaFuture.

In fact, the Lanyrd page contains a short hint stating “Welcome to the mysterious #BarcelonaFuture”. Perhaps it’s just us, but it looks like a hashtag written in plaintext. (For the record: when the mystery was launched, it was just #future, and we corrected it shortly afterwards to avoid occasional winners — we monitored both hashtags though!) Now, that’s been quite a journey! Time to tweet away everything we’ve got!

As you’ve seen in this post, there are a number of accepted solutions, and one of the typical ones would be:

@smashingmag #icecreamwindmill #Abisko #Rc2 #oct212015 #BarcelonaFuture


@smashingmag #icecreamwindmill #Yrttivaara #gameofthecentury #oct102015 #BarcelonaFuture

In our observations, over 70% of attendees weren’t able to resolve the mystery within 40 minutes (which is the time frame we were looking for in the first place), and most of the participants needed by far more than 1 hour to figure it all out. This also set our expectations once the mystery went live, and for the first 20 mins we only saw a few tweets with the right hashtags, and it took more than an hour for the first person to tweet out the first correct answer.

Alright! Now we are done. We sincerely thank everybody who sacrificed the integrity of their Twitter accounts for sending out totally unrelated, weird, confusing and potentially annoying tweets from their thoroughly curated Twitter accounts. We appreciate your participation very, very much!

Mystery Solved! And The Winners Are…

As mentioned above, you didn’t have to discover all the hashtags, but we were looking specifically at the most important hashtags and have prioritized the answers of the winners accordingly.

The first correct hashtag was tweeted by Martin Rädlinger 1h 22 minutes after we hit that shiny “Publish” button, with more and more tweets containing the right answer shortly after that. In fact, it turned out that our dear readers are absolutely smashing indeed: #abisko, #centurygame and #oct212015.

The first place was earned by the person who was the quickest to solve the riddle. The other lucky winners may select a prize of their choice (a Smashing Library account, any of the Smashing printed books, our online webinars, or anything else that’s Smashing-related, of course). All winners will be contacted shortly.

The winners are:

Congratulations! And thanks again to everyone who participated! We hope we didn’t waste too much of your productive work time (and didn’t cause too many headaches either).

The winners won't win a trip to Northern Lights, but perhaps you could award yourself and your loved ones with a similar trip. You won't regret it.

Behind The Scenes

Guillaume Kurdjian
Guillaume Kurdjian is a 22-year-old freelance illustrator and animator from Nantes, France. Guillaume likes to experiment with stuff on his computer and climb trees.

Just like in all the previous riddles, we worked with talented Guillaume Kurdjian on a series of animated GIFs for the riddle. This time the discussion thread wasn’t very long, but we had quite a number of conversations on how to find digits properly, and how many objects would have to be hidden within the GIFs. This time, we ended up with 18 different GIFs, drafts, and ideas that were thrown away, as well as the ones that made it to the final stage.

As usual, all designs were a series of iterations to make the overall riddle not necessarily perfect, but just right. And I made sure to drive Guillaume nuts with all the little crazy variations, from letters to the speed of the windmill and hints within the math equation on the board. In total, we had 46 (!) sub-levels of the good ol’ email quoting. Using Basecamp next time might be a good idea. So a big “Thank You!” to Guillaume for following through and being so enthusiastic and kind about all the changes made.

An early draft of the chess scene. We had to add the clock on the wall because our poor testers experienced major troubles with finding the solution. Large view.
It was difficult to keep the chess pieces small and recognizable, and it took a lot of design, redesign, refinement and simplification to get it right. Large view.

So this is it! It was quite a journey, but we hope it was worth it. Again, we are really sorry about all the unproductive hours that you had to spend trying to solve this riddle (well, kind of, hehe). Now, are you ready for the next round? ;-)

The next Mystery Riddle, in fact, is coming up in just a few weeks, but it will be quite different and original. We have a few ideas, and as usual, we have a few interesting prizes, and no — we won’t make it easy. Get ready, and prepare your front-end skills for a quite nifty, and tricky front-end challenge. Stay tuned!

Waiting for the next round already?
Are we waiting for the next round already?

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (vf, mrn)