Puzzle Pieces (August 2016)

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Puzzle Room Adventures
My second year at Puzzah! is underway and my role the Denver-based puzzle room company is shifting from corporate marketing to content development. Up until now I have been contributing ideas and sweat equity for our puzzle adventures as a side activity, but in September if will be my full-time job. Puzzle room development is an exciting new challenge but it has caused me a lot of stress over the last few months. The life-puzzle I am discovering is that this job may be the right choice for me — a “calling” if I fully subscribed to that concept — but that doesn’t mean that the job is easy or a source of instant success. Many of my concepts are rejected based on difficulty, variance, or budget. I generate puzzles with upsetting flaws that are discovered in peer review and testing. I want to perform well in this new role and every misstep crushes me. I’m gradually recovering from period of insomnia and anxiety attacks by reminding myself that it’s okay to fail. Regardless of my background in the puzzle world, I am in new territory with this line of work and I need time and practice before finding my stride.

My experience with puzzle rooms as a consumer has been moderate, at least compared to my friends in Southern California who seem to plan escape room outings every other weekend. In Salt Lake City I played two experiences at Mystery Escape Room: Entwained has a cute literary theme and Mystery Impossible is … er … well named. In Denver I tested the Mission Improbable experience at Sprightly Escapes. I had a nice time and really enjoyed the enthusiasm of the two business owners, but can see that they have a lot of work ahead of them to make the rooms suitable for mass consumption. Cody Borst has done some excellent work since taking over as manager and lead designer for Denver Escape Room. His Pipe Works experience has an intriguing multi-room structure inspired by the competitive dynamic of the Science Channel’s Race to Escape. Friends have asked if I follow escape room-related blogs or podcasts. I look at the Escape Room Enthusiasts forum on Facebook but haven’t found the discussions very compelling. If you have other media suggestion please post them in the comments.

Crossword Puzzles
Fresh Freestyle Crosswords drops in about three months. I’ll promote the collection of themeless crosswords more heavily closer to the release date. My main constructing venue is Daily Celebrity Crosswords available on Facebook. The puzzles are targeted for beginners but are produced by an immensely talented stable of crossword pros. My next Daily Celebrity Crossword puzzles are scheduled for September 2 and September 24. Beyond that, my time and interest in making crossword puzzles is limited. I am not actively producing content for any other commercial venues and the time I once spent constructing Unthemely puzzles for the blog is now consumed by work for Puzzah! and other projects. I may find the opportunity to make and upload the occasional puzzle but I am not adhering to the same level of commitment or regular schedules as my crossword blog colleagues.

Puzzle Events
I was gratified to read the positive reviews of the 2016 National Puzzlers’ League convention inasmuch my work on the program committee may have contributed to the happiness of the reviewers. My Dictionary Triathlon game helped round out the offerings of the main program and I was pleased that more players got to sample my latest Coordination game in the after-hours.

Setec Astronomy is making good progress on the MIT Mystery Hunt to be presented in January 2017. My contributions have been modest so far, due to the priorities of Puzzah! and Daily Celebrity Crosswords. I haven’t been involved in the construction of individual puzzles so much as brainstorming ideas for events and narrative. I am excited to be in Cambridge next year and join in the presentation of a Hunt for the first time.

My big trip of the year is a two-week tour of Ireland in September. The money and vacation days allocated for the trip have prohibited my on-site participation of several destination puzzle events this year. I did enjoy the home-solving packets provided by Indie 500 and Lollapuzzoola crossword tournaments and look forward to participating in the Washington Post Hunt in the future. I am holding true to my annual engagement in Las Vegas for the Labor Day weekend minicon. The puzzle suite by Mark Halpin combined with good food, some escape rooms, and the company of extraordinary friends will be just the tonic I need to get all my puzzle pieces in place!

Humble Puzzle Bundle / Son of the Crypt

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Lone Shark Games announced this week that it is releasing a collection of digital and print edition puzzle books with a special pay-what-you-want offer, and part of the payment can be allocated to charities such as It Gets Better and Worldbuilders. The Humble Puzzle Bundle includes titles from Patrick Blindauer, Pavel Curtis, Francis Heaney, Matt Jones, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Patrick Berry, Thomas Snyder, and more. As a stretch goal, Lone Shark is producing The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze, a companion to the Mike Selinker / Pete Venters puzzle tome The Maze of Games. Additional hints will be added to Theseus Guide based on the amount collected for the Humble Puzzle Bundles. The offer is available through August 3.

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One of the puzzle works available in the Humble Puzzle Bundle is Patrick Berry’ The Crypt. A sequel to this collection of original cryptic crossword puzzles, titled Son of the Crypt, is due to be released soon. Check out Patrick’s website for updates.

SiLiCon Badges

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Last week I attended the convention of the National Puzzlers’ League in Salt Lake City Utah. It was my nineteenth overall convention and sixth as a member of the program committee. The convention coincided with the release of the Niantic/Nintendo smartphone app Pokemon Go. I didn’t spend my time in Utah capturing Pikachu and Squirtle but I did collect a few more badges, and as with my post on last year’s convention I thought I would share some of the badges I earned as my SiLiCon report. I will refer to other NPL members by civilian name followed by “nom” (League nickname) in parentheses.

Krewes Control Badge
For the first time since 2008 (the convention in the Denver suburbs that I hosted) I chose to drive to the convention rather than fly. Salt Lake City is only eight hours from Denver and with my nephew Ian Chaney (Whovian) coming along a road trip was a no-brainer for saving money on travel. The drives were very scenic and having a car at the convention allowed Whovian and I to do some sightseeing at Loveland Living Planet Aquarium and Red Butte Garden. One thing I didn’t take into consideration was the return trip. I typically use the plane flight home from convention to catch up on the accumulation of sleep deprivation over the convention days, but I didn’t have that luxury when driving with a fourteen-year-old. And I was coaxed into staying up until 4:30 a.m. on Sunday to play and present after hours games. When we left Salt Lake City on Sunday afternoon I started feeling nervous about my ability to stay alert. We stopped at a gas station where Whovian bought a sandwich and I bought a large double-caffeine coffee. When we returned to the road I asked Whovian to start naming NPL members that he wanted to know more about. “Murdoch,” was his first reply. I started babbling for ten minutes covering everything I knew about Andrew Chaikin (Murdoch): all of his various, interesting jobs, how he discovered the NPL, how we met, etc. Whovian kept mentioning other puzzlers and I would babble, keeping my mind occupied and keeping awake. By the time we reached I-70 the caffeine had kicked in and we were fine all the way to Glenwood Springs where we could crash (in the safe sense) for the night at my sister’s house. In addition to keeping me alert, the game also let me know which NPL members made an impression on Whovian, for whom SiLiCon was convention number three. It also provided a fun secondary game where I got to identify Krewe, with noms Whovian couldn’t remember, simply by visual description, as in, “Who is the guy who has glasses and looks like Seth Rogen?”

Play the Percentages Badge
Escape rooms have replaced used bookstores as the popular commercial destinations for puzzlers in convention cities. Businesses that operate escape rooms often advertise the success rates of their rooms so that players can weigh their success or failure against the average. This success rate is meaningful only if the room is fairly designed with skill-based puzzles and objectively dispensed hints. Dave Shukan (Tinhorn) often jokes about the “perfect” escape room that contains one lock and a ring of a thousand keys. The room is perfect because the operators can accurately adjust the success rate simply by adding or subtracting keys. Tinhorn’s perfect room illustrates the flaw in the design of many escape rooms: too much emphasis is placed on establishing a low success rate and not enough on making sure the room is fair or fun. I joined a group for a pair of escape rooms played on Friday afternoon. The first titled En-Twained was a search for Mark Twain’s hidden treasure with puzzles based on Twain’s novels. It was a decent room and our group finished with a record time. The second room was titled Mystery Impossible and it was unapologetically advertised as a room that had never been solved. Tinhorn, who made the group reservation, had asked the operator earlier if the room were impossible due to poor puzzle design but received assurance that its puzzles were fair. The theme of the adventures was a bank heist and it looked like the room contained some interesting challenges such as a water transfer puzzle and the equipment to make a fake security badge. We eventually stumbled upon the “ring of keys” elements such as an puzzle that required players to count letters around the room to plug into an equation. The tricky hiding places of the letters made it difficult to determine when the correct amounts were reached, and we later learned that a group of dalmatians on a wall poster were intended to be added to the “D” count. Another puzzle required a four-digit code to be entered into a computer by trial and error (or “trail and error” as was printed on the clue). Entering 24 possibilities was not a deal-breaking burden, but the Windows 10 system on the computer throttled our efforts with a one-minute delay after every five failed attempts. After our time ended and we joined the ranks of the unsuccessful teams, we visited with the room operator offering constructive criticism through clenched teeth. She was receptive to our frustrations and had wished that she could initiate more help during our mission (we had requested no unsolicited hints). She also confessed that the room was her least favorite to operate because of the understandable poor reception. We returned to the hotel and I asked Whovian, who was part of the escape room group, what he thought of Mystery Impossible. He said that he had fun, that he valued the opportunity to cosolve with some great people, and felt that the negativity expressed by some in our group was a bit excessive. “It’s just an escape room,” he observed. I like Whovian’s attitude and choose to focus on the enjoyment I had being with an awesome group of friends.

It Takes Two (or More) Badge
As with the escape room excursion, the highlight of NPL Con is the opportunity to work on puzzles and games with a partner or a team. Joe DeVincentis (/dev/joe) and I formed a solid team for the game What invented by Dan Katz (Spelvin) (this intuitive trivia game was my favorite of all the after-hours offerings). Tanis O’Connor (Sidhe) and I got the band back together for a partnership in the well-crafted Doubles Jeopardy! game presented by Nathan Curtis (Tortoise). And I had great teams for Overtime and Secret Fortune led by Darren Rigby (Dart), Todd Etter’s (Navin) trivia tour de force The Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, and the sequel to the inventive Puzzling in the Dark created by Wil Zambole (WXYZ). I undertook a few activities as a solo competitor, such as the fine Jeopardy! sets presented by Adam Cohen (Noam) and Ben Smith (b-side), but I find more and more that I prefer working with a partner or a team as it puts more emphasis on camaraderie than competition. For the Saturday afternoon handout puzzles I solved the Mike Shenk (Manx) puzzle Urban Renewal with Amanda O’Connor (Aardvark). We took a leisurely pace, both made contributions to the puzzle, and didn’t care about turning our papers in for scoring. Similarly, I had an amazing time solving the flats in a large group organized by Jenny Gutbezahl (Hathor). We read the flats aloud and collaborated on all of the solutions while enjoying local craft beers. On the first night of my trip a group gathered in the hotel lobby to play the board game Concept, and we marveled at how much we enjoyed the dynamics that favored cooperation over competition. I like the collaborative trend in convention activities and, when I presented my variation of Dictionary Race on the main program, I made a last-minute decision to encourage players to form teams of two and eliminate the option of playing solo. Some of the tables had uneven numbers and a few chose to play solo but in an equal number of cases team of two took on a third.

Bee Charmer Badge
At an early point in the convention I had a vision, which I shared with a handful of people. In the vision I was at the podium during the Sunday morning awards presentation and I addressed the Krewe. “Raise your hand,” I said in the vision, “if you won a prize at the prize table. Now raise your hand if you won an after hours game over the weekend. Now raise your hand if you solved one of the handout puzzles from the hospitality suite. And now raise your hand if at some point during the convention you made a new friend.” NPL convention is a time for me to see a hundred or so of my second family members but I’m never sure if I will be meeting anyone new. A planned an activity for Thursday evening in which I invited first-time conventiongoers to meet in the main ballroom after the main program for an orientation to the unofficial program that included some of the impromptu games we play in the after hours. I met several new Krewe at that activity and one tagged along for a Coordination game that I ran, in which he managed to achieve the top score. I signed up for a “racer” team in this year’s Saturday night extravaganza. In recent years I have been a “stroller” as that gives me the freedom to choose my teammates and leave nothing to chance, but I had a feeling that Erin Rhode (Colossus), the chief constructor of the multi-puzzle event, would somehow see that I would be okay. I was blessed with a wonderful team. In addition to good friend Gary Sherman (Eddy) I was partnered with new-to-me cosolvers Kevin Schraith (Tronic) and Asher Walkover (Team Asher). We hummed along through the delightful, apian-themed extravaganza (Colossus was dressed as the queen bee). All in all, I made six new Facebook connections based on meetings at SiLiCon.

Like Button Badge
The benefits of attending an NPL convention are described in many ways: an escape from the stressful world, a reunion with one’s tribe, a rejuvenation, a psychological necessity. The chief source of my Weltschmerz of late has been social media. I once considered Facebook to be a marketplace of ideas in which diversity could be embraced, but that feeling has changed over the last few months. Discussion of art, politics, social attitudes, and tragedies have been combative and more Facebook users seem to be balkanizing their social media experience by unfriending and disconnecting all opposing views. I came to convention needing harmony, and I got what I needed. The shootings in various cities during the convention numbed those who peeked at news feeds between puzzles and games but we kept our spirits up. Donald Trump’s name was brought up a few times but that was the extent of the political topics that I was exposed to. And while I have been posting very little on Facebook lately, intimidated by the contentious discourse, I found several Krewe at Con that I felt safe opening up to. One such conversation led to a tacky joke, but I’ll share it anyway. After a soulful conversation with Nancy Coughlin (Uncanny), I told her that felt very comfortable sharing part of myself with her and that I could consider her a “horcrux.” She replied, “Well, as long as I’m more than just a ‘whore’.”

Netflix Mystery Game

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For several years I’ve been playing something that I call the “Netflix Mystery Game.” It might be more apt to call it a personal pastime than a game, and, unlike other movie trivia games, it relies more on ignorance than knowledge. The “game” is based on my personal inattentiveness with the film industry. I find very few new movies compelling and avoid going to movie theaters due to ticket prices and volume levels. I have a Netflix account that I use mainly for television series but I add movies to my queue occasionally. My media habits are such that I manage to miss a good amount of movie press and, as a result, I have some trouble finding ideas for DVDs to request. Movies tend end up in my Netflix queue for one of the following reasons:

  1. The movie is prominent or unusual enough to earn a mention in my media feeds.
  2. The move was nominated for an award (a cachet that I adhere to).
  3. The movie has an actor or director that I am exploring based on the enjoyment of a previously viewed film.
  4. The movie was recommended by a friend.

Netflix gives users the option of adding movies to their queues before the movies have been released for home viewing. Many months may separate a request for a movie and its delivery, by which time I may fail to recognize the title on the disc sleeve and have no memory of why I added it in the first place. This is how the Netflix Mystery Game begins. When a mystery DVD arrives I don’t check my account or look up the movie on IMDb. I throw it in the DVD player, press play, and see how long it take to figure out which of the four aforementioned queue-addition categories it belongs to.

Yesterday two Netflix DVDs arrived in the mail. I wasn’t expecting a second disc but reasoned that it was a complimentary bonus generated by a waiting-list delay at the top of my queue. One disc contained television episodes and the other a movie. Nothing about the movie rang a bell but the elusive title suggested it was a perfect candidate for the Netflix Mystery Game. The movie was Project X.

I started watching the movie and eliminated Category 2 in the first 30 seconds. Category 3 was eliminated shortly after that. It was rather underwhelming to watch but I’ve sat through bad movies before and I still wanted to solve the mystery. Category 4 seemed the most likely but I couldn’t think of a friend who would have recommended it. I considered a number of ironic and meta-appreciation theories for which one might advocate the movie but none of them led me to a suspect.

Once the movie ended (at least it was rather short) I skimmed the Wikipedia article for clues that validate one of the eliminated categories but to no avail. Then I went to my online Netflix account. I discovered that Project X was not in my queue not had it ever been. I had already thrown away the mailing label and taken the trash to the dumpster so I couldn’t check to see if the disc was intended for me or for a neighbor. But even without concrete evidence I am ruling the movie as Category 5: Delivery error. Mystery solved.

On the other hand, if any of you have another theory, or clearly remember recommending Project X to me, please let me know.🙂

 

 

KICKSTARTER: What’s That Spell?

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Nathan Curtis of Tortoiseshell Studio fame has launched a Kickstarter campaign for an upcoming puzzle hunt. After being funded, the hunt titled What’s That Spell will debut as an installment in the BAPHL walkaround puzzle hunt series in the September-October and then distributed to at-home solvers in November. The Kickstarter features pledge tiers for the BAPHL version (for solvers who will be in the Boston area to participate) and for the at-home version (which includes postal delivery of physical props that are involved in the completion of puzzle metas). If you’re a fan of finely crafted puzzle hunts please visit the website to pledge and make this campaign a success.

REVIEW: 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament Puzzles (SPOILERS)

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The second Indie 500 Crossword Tournament was held on Saturday, June 4 on the George Washington University campus. Roger Barkan took top honors in the event that featured prom theme and pies aplenty. Crossword fans who couldn’t make it to Washington, D.C. last weekend to participate in person have the option of ordering the puzzles online and solving at leisure. I ordered the puzzles and created my own “tournament” of a sole, untimed competitor. In lieu of the prom night, my tournament theme was solving on a commuter train wile listening to podcasts. The tournament organizers produced a great set of puzzles this year. My solving review follows.

1 – Canned Music by Peter Broda & Lena Webb
As I flipped through the puzzles to check the bylines I noticed that most of the puzzles were credited to multiple constructors. I assume that the use of constructor couples tied in with the prom theme. The opener puzzle features three song titles ties together with the punchline entry combo THATS / MYJAM. The titles are start with words that can precede JAM in phrases: SPACEODDITY, RASPBERRYBERET, and PAPERPLANES. Two of the songs were recorded by artists who recently passed away (was there a recent death in M.I.A.?) Aside from the theme, the puzzle contains clever fill such as BIKERBAR clued {Watering hole where you might find hogs?} and the new-to-me BUTTDIMPLE clued {Dent in the rear?}

2 – A Modest Promposal by Andy Kravis & Neville Fogarty
Puzzle 2 is a Reagle-esque pun-fest in which familiar phrases are humorously tied to a prom night scenario. The theme opener {We told our dates that our limo would be, without a doubt, the most mind-blowing vehicle they had ever seen; …} leads to ITWASASTRETCH. A non-theme clue that tickled me, because the approach was one I’d never thought about, is {Wilson that Tom Hanks talks to a lot} for RITA. I spent a bit too much time trying to figure out a four-letter term for a sports ball.

3 – I Now Pronounce You… by Sam Trabucco
The clue-writing narrator of the puzzle is trying to contact the solver via a poor cellphone connection and, as a result, entries to asterisked clues need to be respelled as if their silent letters are pronounced. {Military subdivision} is CORPSE, {Was aware of} is CANOE, and so on. The central across answer ties together the cellphone theme and the no-longer-silent letters: CANYOUHEARMENOW. A had a minor confusion with the clue to this entry, {Question from someone with a bad connection…or from the silent letter(s) in the original answers to the starred clues?} I wondered if Sam intended solvers to arrange the silent letters into an additional meta answer. The grid contains some nice fill such as SKYPEDATE and DOTHEMATH, though the clue for latter of those two entries, {Put two and two together} doesn’t quite work for me. Both phrases refer to the performance of calculations and mental reasoning but “doing the math” has the implication of working without the help of another and “putting two and two together” tends to mean drawing a conclusion not immediately evident.

4 – Do I Hear a Waltz? by Erik Agard & Joanne Sullivan
When I participate in crossword tournaments I usually avoid trying to deduce themes from clues because I find that it wastes too much time. I focus on nuts-and-bolts down entries and grok the themes from intersections of the long acrosses. I had heard some rumblings about this puzzle on social media so I decided to break from my normal pattern and start attacking the puzzle around the central theme entry, which turned out to be COUNTINGOFF, i.e. {Keeping time, in a way, and a hint to a few lines in this puzzle}. Getting this info early on, and remembering the title, proved extremely helpful. Some of the horizontal rows of the puzzle contain three entries. In four or these rows the corresponding clues for the three entries are missing the initial words “One,” “Two,” and “Three” respectively. And, of course, the clues are deliberately written to prevent the missing words from being obvious. {Horse town}, {Face opposition}, and {Card ___} lead to PODUNK, BATMAN, and MONTE. One one instance the “Three” clue is {Down payment}, requiring the solver to note the 3-Down entry IRS to deduce the answer TAX. This is my favorite type of tournament puzzle gimmick. It’s clever and makes the the puzzle challenging but doesn’t overload the experience with additional “ahas” or unnecessary metas that have no place in a timed solving situation. Great job!

5 – Group Dance by The Indie 500 Team
A camel is a horse designed by committee, but camels have their charms as does this capper of the first round puzzles. Each of the four theme entries is a possible addition to the theme in one of the four previous puzzles. Each theme entry contains circled cells and shaded cells. The letters in the circled cells spell items that can TAKEONWATER and the letter in the shaded cells spell words that can complete the phrase LETIT ___. I didn’t notice the connection to the previous puzzles’ themes until I had completed the grid. Even with that added significance, the puzzle felt … just okay. I did get a chuckle from the clue “You might hear radio “ga-ga” on it” for BABYMONITOR.

6 – The Dance-Off by Angela Olsen Halsted & Kameron Austin Collins
The playoff puzzle contains two versions, an Outside Track and an Inside Track. I got confused and figured that since the inside track of racecourse is shorter and gives the racer an advantage it must be the easier of the two puzzle. So I chose the Outside Track and took a bit too much pride in completing the grid quickly. I also made an error on 1-Across, {“My scheme is working!”}. I entered BWAHAHAHA, but unless “The BOD Squad” is the title of something I chose the unintended spelling. (Just Googled and….oooh, The Bod Squad is an alternate title of the 1974 Hong Kong martial arts film Virgins of the Seven Seas, so I think I have a claim here!) The grid contains some tricky fill including AAONLINE, PROMDJ, and TRENTONNJ. A few of the clues are shared between the two versions, such as {One whose priorities are in order?} for NEATFREAK. Nice puzzle.

Congratulations to Roger and the other top finishers at the live event, and thanks to all of the tournament organizers and constructors who made the  puzzles available after the tournament. I now have the Indie 500 Meta Suite to work on.

PUZZLE: Unthemely #90

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DOWNLOADABLE PUZZLE: Unthemely #90 (PUZ) (PDF)

For the past eight months all of my income has been derived from the puzzle industry, with the exception of some monthly contributions to the household-expenses kitty made by my mother and condo-mate Sybil. I’ve had aspirations to be a full-time “professional puzzler” for decades but I don’t feel like I’ve made deliberate efforts to attain that particular status. It’s a life that I fell into by serendipity. The responsibilities of puzzle room development for Puzzah!, crossword construction for professional outlets, and program coordination for the National Puzzlers’ League drain my creativity. Working on the Unthemely crossword series is something of a busman’s holiday. The grid for Unthemely #90 sat half-filled on my desktop for over two months. Over the last two weeks I finally got around to finishing the grid and writing the clues.

On the subject of Unthemely crosswords, I want to remind you that my book Fresh Freestyle Crosswords will be released later this year. I recently received the first review copy and am very pleased with