Cryptogram Tips, Tricks, and Strategies

Posted by Conor Murphy on August 26, 2011 in Tips and Tricks -- Share:

CryptogramIf you’ve played games such as Safecracker, Azada: Ancient Magic, or Hidden Magic, you’ve likely come across cryptograms.

A cryptogram is a puzzle that features a piece of encrypted text, often a famous quote, location, or person. Or, in the case of a game, an important message pertaining to the game.

The text is encrypted through a series of defined steps that can be followed as a procedure. This series of steps is known as a cipher and in most cryptogram puzzles, is simple enough that the cryptogram can be solved by hand.

Cryptograms can be traced back thousands of years. The earliest known cryptograms were non-standard hieroglyphs carved into monuments from the Old Kingdom of Egypt circa 1900 BC. They were famously used in World War I and World War II to safely send encrypted messages pertaining to troop movements and other critical intelligence.

While there are varying levels of complexity in cryptography, in casual games, the most frequently used cipher is the substitution cipher where each letter of the message is replaced by a different letter or number. For one to solve the cryptogram, one must extract the original lettering to define the cipher.

While the goal of all cryptograms is to hide the true meaning of the message, it’s impossible to disguise every telltale characteristic of the language and still be writing sensible English.
Cryptograms

Hidden Magic Cryptogram

We’ll take a moment to analyze some tips, tricks, and strategies you can use to solve cryptograms more readily. Before we get started with our more advanced cryptogram strategies, we offer those of you who are just looking for basic cryptogram tips our top five:

Top 5 Cryptogram Tips
If you are looking for a simple checklist to help you get started and through basic cryptograms, here are five great strategies:

  1. Letters that are frequently doubles: ll, tt, ss, ee, pp, oo, rr, ff, cc, dd, nn
  2. The most common words found in cryptograms: the, of, are, I, and, you, a, can, to, he, her, that, in, was, is, has, it, him, his
  3. The most common letters found in cryptograms: e, t, s, d, n, r, y
  4. Look for prefixes like ex-, over-, un-, or up-
  5. Look for suffixes like -ed, -er, -man or -men, or -ful

One-letter Words
Because cryptograms often use quotes from people, the word “I” is almost as common as the word “a,” so be careful before making assumptions. The trick to figuring out if it’s “I” or “a” is to experiment with the letters in other words.

If there is a three-letter word beginning with that same letter, the letter is almost certainly the word “a.” There are a number of common three-letter words beginning with “a” and very few which start with “i.”

Identify Vowels
Of course, we all know vowels are present in nearly every word in the English language. In fact, they represent approximately 40% of the letters in English text. But, did you know vowels rarely are found in groups of three and almost never in groups of four?

If you think you’ve identified a vowel in the encrypted text, here are three tips for checking:

  1. First, the obvious…the only single letter words formed by vowels are “a” and “I”.
  2. Double vowels are almost always “ee” or “aa”.
  3. The most commonly found vowel is “e” while the least commonly found is “u”.

The, That, Then, and There
The, that, then, and there are very common words that share several characteristics. If you think you’ve found these words in your cryptogram, you can use them to gain insight into each other. For example, if your cryptogram contains, “JKWE” and “JKP”, you can be pretty sure you are dealing with “that” and “the”.

In that same cryptogram, “JKRC” would be “then” and “JKIZI” would be “there”.

Cryptograms

Safecracker Cryptogram

Apostrophes
If you are lucky enough to spot an apostrophe in your cryptogram puzzle, the letter following it is most likely “t” or “s” (and more infreqently, “m” or “d”).

If there are two letters following the apostrophe they are most likely “re” or “ve” if the letters are different or “ll” if they are the same.

Lastly, another apostrophe trick is spotting “n’t”. If you see multiple places where the letter before the apostrphe and the letter after the apostrophe are the same, you’re likely dealing with an “n’t” situation.

Punctuation
Some phrases, of course, contain punctuation. You can use such punctuation as a clue to help you zero in on probable words. Conjunctions like “but” or “and” frequently follow commas. A question mark, on the other hand, often implies a “wh” in the clause preceding it.

Shared Letters
Look for pairs of two-letter words, one beginning and the other ending with the same letter such as “LK” and “PL”. That letter has a good chance of being “n,” “o,” “s,” “l,” or “t,” and the second letter of the word which starts with the shared letter is likely to be “f,” “n,” “o,” “r,” “s,” or “t.”

If your cryptogram contains two two-letter words with reversed letters such as “MV” and “VM” you’re dealing with “no” and “on”. The trick is figuring out which is which!

Repeating Letters
If you run into lots of repeating letters in a long word, it’s likely that letter is a vowel. However, if adjacent letters repeat, they’re more likely to be “n,” “o,” “s,” “l,” “f,” or “t.”

Cryptograms

Azada: Ancient Magic Cryptogram

Authors
Cryptograms featuring famous quotes are often referred to as cryptoquotes. Such puzzles may include the author’s name as part of the puzzle. If so, you may be able to leverage this to your advantage. Consider the following four tips when decrypting an author’s name:

  1. Some author’s hold doctorate degrees. If the author’s name starts with a two-letter word it’s probably Dr.
  2. If you see a two-letter word at the end of the author’s name, consider “Jr” or “Sr”.
  3. Short words as middle names may be one of the common nobiliary particle like “de” or “von”.
  4. “Anonymous” wrote a lot of great quotes.

Common Patterns
Sometimes, you just need to look for word patterns found in common words. Consider the following list and notice the positions of the repeating letters – both consonant and vowel.

  • That, high, says, else, dead, died
  • There, where, these
  • People
  • Always
  • Everywhere, somewhere, elsewhere
  • William or Kennedy
  • Million, letters
  • Never, state, fewer, color, level

While it is unlikely that any one of the cryptogram tips shown above will be sufficient in solving a puzzle with an advanced cipher, for most of the cryptograms you’ll see in casual gaming, the tips here will be more than enough. Best of luck!

Written by

Conor is a Marketing Manager with Big Fish, working out of the Seattle office. In his spare time he enjoys watching science documentaries and playing old school adventure games. Get in touch with him on Twitter! or Google+