Puzzah! Flatiron Crossing: The Final Pieces

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I haven’t shaved my face since Halloween. No-Shave November is an opportunity to raise cancer awareness and check on the gray and patchiness in one’s potential goatee but that’s only part of the reason why I decided to put aside the razor for a few weeks. I’m also indulging in the superstition of a “playoff beard” to bring good luck to my team, and in this case the team is Puzzah! My puzzle room employer is scheduled to open its second location on Black Friday and we’ve been working hard this week to get our space in Flatiron Crossing mall ready for patrons who may want a puzzle break during their post-Thanksgiving  shopping sprees. This new location is a significant financial risk for the company and if scruffy face will bring us success then I’m willing to do what I can.

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Puzzah! Flatiron Crossing in Broomfield, Colorado, has spaces for four adventures. Two adventures will be available on opening day: the science fiction-themed Specimen and archaeology-themed The Curse. The adventures for the other two spaces are in development and will be installed early next year. Our general contractor has been prepping the space for the last few months. This week the drywall, flooring, ceiling tiles, wiring, fire inspections, and lease paperwork were all completed, and we began loading in all the things that will turn this blank canvas into a set of live-action puzzle adventures.

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The load-in went smoothly. I was reminded of hauling set pieces from the workshop to the auditorium during tech week of college theater productions. As we started organizing things at Flatiron Crossing we encountered the typical laundry list of installation snags. A prebuilt piece turned out to be a hair to wide for a doorway it needed to go through. An electrical outlet was not at the right wall height for a display. A light fixture transformer was faulty. The team addressed these issues one by one and gradually the rooms looked less like construction zones and more like spaceship interiors and Mesoamerican chambers.

The development team was smart enough not to entrust me with any power tools, and I kept out of the way during the heavy-duty installation. When the equipment was in place I began primary alpha-testing, which was essentially making sure that players could access the puzzle elements comfortably and envisioning the solving process of teams. Later I worked with team members to test the light and sound systems in the room. The systems allow us to implement some theatrical effects for the first time, and it was fun to play around with light and sound cues for the various parts of the puzzle room narratives. One of the highlights of the A/V review was my initial glimpse of a light effect that our engineers have fondly named the “furtle.”

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The origin of its name is reasonably easy to deduce. If you’re curious why we have a furtle then I recommend you make a reservation to play our room adventures once we’re open.

Alpha testing resumes on Saturday and beta testing begins on Sunday. If everything continues in a positive trajectory then I anticipate have much to be thankful for next Thursday. And, with the holiday season underway, I can relax a bit and start counting the days until I can shave.

 

 

 

CURRICULUM VITAE: Fresh Freestyle Crosswords

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Fresh Freestyle Crosswords, my new book of themeless, or freestyle, crossword puzzles, is currently available for preorder and will officially drop on November 1!

Over the weekend I received a box with advanced copies of the book. It was like Christmas in October, which I guess is the way everybody experiences Christmas these days. The cover design is eye-catching, if a bit edgy for the author in question, and the inside layout is slick and attractive as is the case with all Puzzlewright titles.

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The material from the book comes from the Autofill Project, which I started several years ago. The project was a label for my pastime of improving the wordlist database that I reference for crossword construction. Part of the project involved creating puzzles to test autofill quality, as well as highlight interesting database additions. I dubbed these puzzles “unthemelies” because they were themeless and a bit unseemly, at least at the onset, due to the rawness of the database. The project and the puzzles improved and I began offering the Unthemely crossword puzzles on my blogs for solver feedback. Peter Gordon at Puzzlewright Press offered to publish the collection when I had enough for a book and I agreed.

About two-thirds of the puzzles in the book appeared on one of my blogs at some point in the past. The rest are original puzzles or heavily revised versions of Unthemely puzzles. In one case, I kept an Unthemely diagram structure, deleted every entry except one (which was not the original seed entry) and refilled the grid. I submitted the puzzles to Peter in an order that is basically chronological and I believe an arc of fill improvement is noticeable as one works through the book.

I hope all you themeless crossword puzzle fans will enjoy the book. If you choose to manually type the title on your favorite online bookseller website rather than use the link at the top of this post, beware that “Fresh Freestyle” may lead you to a manual on swimming and triathlon exercises. On the other hand, if you are into honing the body as well as the find, put both books in your virtual shopping cart and reap the benefits!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Piece of Cake Crosswords/Son of the Crypt/DCPHR

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Patrick Blindauer has launched a Kickstarter for a weekly series of easy crossword puzzles. Piece of Cake Crosswords will be delivered electronically and contain no obscure vocabulary, including crutch entries like APSE that make the cut in many early-week crosswords because of handy letter patterns. Subscription tiers include copies of Patrick’s Puzzlefest crossword suites and master classes with Patrick on crossword construction.

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Patrick Berry has released a sequel to his The Crypt cryptic crossword collection.  Son of the Crypt is a set of 13 never-before-published cryptic crosswords including five block-style diagrams and eight are variety cryptics. The collection is available exclusively on Patrick’s A-Frame Games website.

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Registration has already closed but I want to make a late announcement for the DC Puzzle Hunt Race, or DCPHR (pronounced “decipher”), being held on October 15 in the DC area. Todd Etter of The Famine Games fame organized the event and I expect that puzzle hunt will have some excellent production values.

 

CURRICULUM VITAE: Drawing Conclusions

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DRAWING CONCLUSIONS
(Visual Trivia)

Teams of three begin the game separated. Each player is equipped with a writing utensil and a “drawing sheet”: a piece of vellum marked off into numbered squares. Players are independently shown collections of lines and shapes that they must re-create by drawing them in the squares on the drawing sheets. The team then reunites and stacks the drawing sheets on top of each other in various ways to create recognizable images when the individual drawings are combined. The team answers trivia questions that reference the combined drawings.

Draw Conc Answers bw.ai

 

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I devised a cooperative drawing game called Drawing Conclusions for a birthday game party in 2007 and presented it again at a minicon in Los Angeles. In this version of the game, the artist produced a large based on verbal instructions from a series of “communicators” and then answered questions related to the completed picture. The game was intended as a variation on the classic picture memory quizzes in puzzle magazines. The game was not successful due to the difficulty of the drawing task and large amount of down time players endured when not participating in a drawing round. I brainstormed a bit more on the game mechanics and developed a new system in which combined drawing would be incorporated by see-through paper rather than verbal instructions. I also replaced the single large picture with a series of smaller images. I proposed this new version of Drawing Conclusions as a main program activity for the 2009 convention in Baltimore and was accepted.

While coming up with ideas for images, I quickly realized that dividing a whole into three parts was generally inefficient. A better approach was to pick a basic shape, e.g. a triangle, and finding two other shapes that the first could combine with to make two complete images, e.g. another triangle to make the star of David and a series of lines to make the light prism on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I also strove to find ways to use all possible pairings of three part images to create three wholes. The golf green/musical note/fried egg triad was the most successful of these attempts. The three drawing sheets, each marked off into twelve squares, produced images for 24 trivia questions. The game was well received at the Baltimore convention. Many recall that the game received a standing ovation for its instructions. The part of the instructions that received accolades was the revelation that the drawing sheets would be stacked in various combinations and not simply as in unified stack of three sheets. Lance Nathan also praised the game for the diversity of the subject matter, noting that every member of the team had an opportunity to have an aha moment in recognizing a combined image and tying it to the trivia question. I reran Drawing Conclusions once for a birthday game party and also provided moderator sets for others to run at game events.

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’.”