Love Potion no. 13


Last December the curators of Denver Immersive Summit asked Puzzah! to create an activity related to puzzles and immersive experience. Our offering was Love Potion no. 13, a live action puzzle experience presented last night at our Lower Downtown location. Marilyn Dorn and I created the activity and performed it along with Nick Lawson and Deirdre Lee.


Eighteen attendees agreed to be subjects in a social experiment by sampling a dose of the compatibility enhancement drug LP-13 and then participating in a speed-dating exercise to find a perfect match. The speed-dating activity drew heavily from the structure created by Jeff Roberts for a similar event presented at the MIT Mystery Hunt in 2017. Subjects who found perfect matches learned there was more to the experiment than first advertised, and all participants eventually worked together to bring the story to a happy conclusion.

The participants included artists, musicians, designers, educators, and members of the escape room industry. The group worked well together and dispatched the puzzle set in about 20 minutes. The activity was followed by a 40-minute discussion that covered puzzles (a little) and ideas about immersive experience (a lot). My highlights of the evening were meeting new members of Denver’s immersive community and hamming it up as the nefarious Dr. Adam Rue of Blind Data Laboratories.

I hope we can reprise Love Potion no. 13 either for a DIS event or for Puzzah! but no definite plans have been made.



The [secret society]


Today I joined a secret society.

Well, it’s “secret” to the extent that I am not supposed to reveal its name or some of its history, but I can confirm that it exists and that it should be a lot of fun to be part of.

Several months ago I was visiting our downtown store and noticed an unusual plaque attached to the wall of the lobby. The plaque bore a simple logo and alphanumeric code. The front desk staffer wasn’t sure what it meant but assured me that the owners knew about it. Later, I heard that some strangers visited Puzzah! and asked to interview the front-of-house staff. The interviewers wanted to know if anyone had visited the store specifically to see the plaque. Our personable staff conducted themselves in these interviews with aplomb, though one admitted after the interview that the plaque was starting to freak him out.

A few weeks ago I received an email that included the logo from the plaque. The email included some coded message and a web address. The website featured a password field, so I tried the alphanumeric code from the plaque. I found an article about a possible conspiracy, or at least egregious negligence, within the world’s scientific community. Another member of the Puzzah! design team received a similar email, and we spent some time analyzing the website and discovering hidden clues, which led to contacting other Denver-area escape room businesses that had similar plaques in their lobbies. We eventually decoded the message on the original email, which revealed a date (February 10), a time, and coordinates representing a location in Denver.

ss02.jpgThe location turned out to be a music studio in the Sun Valley area. A group of people was waiting in front of the door when I arrived. The group included some familiar faces and many people who expressed utter confusion. We were led into the studio and found envelopes, locked cases, scientific instruments, and an elaborate set of crystalline towers pulsing in various colors. We were instructed to work cooperatively and share our discoveries but most participants dove hungrily into the challenges. I enjoyed the enthusiasm and clung to the sidelines. The solvers eventually found an entrance to small courtyard with a locked chest. The chest, opened with a previously discovered combination, contained packets declaring our mission was successful and inviting us to join the secret society for fans of immersive, group-oriented puzzle experiences.


Today’s event drew from the traditions of alternate reality games and pop-up escape rooms. Puzzle fans have been enjoying these for decades, but I never made much effort to participate. I felt honored to be included in this event. My takeaway of membership in this secret society is not the joy of puzzle solving as much as the joy of collaborative creation.

2019 MIT Mystery Hunt


I don’t have much personal commentary on the Mystery Hunt presented last weekend in Massachusetts. My participation in the content development was next to nil and I was two time zones away while my teammates on Setec Astronomy were answering phones, delivering puzzles, and staging dramatic interactions for the solving teams. I did manage to watch a live stream of the opening skit, in which my teammates declared Molasses Awareness Day to mark the centenary of the Great Molasses Flood in Boston’s North End. The new holiday caused havoc as waves of molasses flooded the other holiday towns, represented by figures from The Nightmare Before Christmas. The solving teams spent the weekend resolving conflicts between neighboring holidays, cleaning up molasses, and searching for a coin-like metal cover that would prevent more molasses from pouring out of the industrial portal of the newly formed Molasses Awareness Day Town.

Throughout the weekend I checked the progress screen to see how teams were doing. By Saturday morning, Left Out and Palindrome were the clear front runners with nearly identical counts of solved puzzles and metas. The horse race continued until Sunday afternoon when Left Out submitted correct answers to every puzzles and, in short time, solved the final meta resolving a dispute between New Years Town and Patriots’ Day Town. Forty-five minutes later, Left Out found the coin and saved the Holiday forest.

My brilliant teammates created an excellent set of puzzles, metas, events, and interactions, which can be accessed here. I want to single out one element of the Hunt for special praise. The holidays featured in the Hunt led to lighthearted puzzling and punny answers, but Setec Astronomy also noted that the weekend of the Hunt coincides with the Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Setec designed an event around MLK day but substituted the whimsy of the other Hunt holidays with a theme of service. Participants from the solving teams joined members of Boston’s Science Club for Girls to work on a science project in which they built foldscopes. I was very proud of this inclusion of service in the Mystery Hunt and hope that future organizing teams follow suit.

Congratulations to the amazing solvers on Team Left Out. Best wishes to you on the construction of the 2020 Hunt.

PUZZLE: Rice Milk #29


LEFT (7 3) / RIGHT (6 4)

My true love lost some fierce LEFTs on eBay,
Out-proposed on each swan, goose, and grebe, eh?
Lacking waterfowl, he
Bought some RIGHTs, and said, “See:
Storks and ibises in a pear tree, bae!”

Comments contain the answer to Rice Milk #28 and may contain other spoilers. For information on solving transposals and other “flat” (verse puzzle) types, visit the National Puzzlers’ League’s Online Guide to the Enigma.


PUZZLE: Rice Milk #28


ONE (9) / TWO (4 5)

Now my No Shave November is done!
And my face depicts gray, wizened ONE!
But by Saturday morn
I’ll be dyed, shaved, and shorn,
With those TWO fully plucked out — how fun!


Comments contain the answer to Rice Milk #27 and may contain other spoilers. For information on solving transposals and other “flat” (verse puzzle) types, visit the National Puzzlers’ League’s Online Guide to the Enigma.


CURRICULUM VITAE: Ottawa Catacombs


(Puzzle Room)

A team explores an ancient catacombs, solving puzzles, avoiding traps, and searching for a key to unlock a Native American burial vault filled with treasure.

* * *

In 1990 I was a sophomore studying theater at Ottawa University. My friend Tim Conard, also a theater major, was my go-to partner in crime for extracurricular creative projects. Tim was avid gamer, mainly of role-playing and adjacent tabletop strategy games, and he had a knack for staging game activities with theatrical flair. After the death of Monty Python performer Graham Chapman, Tim and I talked about creating a scaled-down version of the Dangerous Sports Club and cultivating a group of students interested in unconventional and adventurous leisure activities. We named the group the Ottawa Association of Fun and, as an initiation activity for O.A.F. prospects, concocted a late-night tomb-raiding adventure.

We set the adventure in the basement of Atkinson Hall, a dormitory that had been abandoned since the 1970s. The mildewy building was being used by the theater department for overflow storage, so we had rooms full of props to use for the activity. We took a trip to U.S. Toy in Leawood and picked up rubber bats, plastic bugs, fake spiderweb, and other decorations. We picked a Saturday date in the spring and sent invitations to a dozen students we were considering for O.A.F. membership. The first invitations did not mention an scheduled event but contained vague references to a catacombs whose entrance had recently been discovered. A later invitation instructed the group to meet at the campus gazebo dressed in appropriate costume and equipped with flashlights and other exploration gear. The recipients sought one another out to speculate on the meaning of the messages. Tim and I sent invitations to ourselves to prolong the mystery of who was organizing the event, but a spoilsport not on the invitation list spotted me with some O.A.F. materials and sent out another set of messages to let the cat out of the bag. Regardless, the invitees were intrigued and assembled at the gazebo just before midnight to see what Tim and I had planned.

We emerged a few minutes after midnight, Tim in his leather bomber jacket and me in an olive-green military field coat and an eye patch. We introduced ourselves as Oklahoma Smith and Achie Ologist, character names that elicited the intended amount of groaning from the assembled party. We set up the activity as an expedition to the recently discovered catacombs beneath the campus. The catacombs contained challenges that would test the group’s physical and mental agility. I held up a piece of a stone (Styrofoam) tablet and explained that we believed the remaining pieces of the tablet were scattered around the catacombs and, once reassembled, the tablet would lead to an Ottawa Indian treasure. The group accepted the mission and followed us to the back stairs of Atkinson Hall.

The main hallway of the basement had been converted into an obstacle course of theatrical props that the group lumbered over or crawled beneath. Gray trash bags filled with shredded paper were stuffed into closets and led to mini avalanches when the doors were opened. In some dormitory rooms members of the group retrieved tablet pieces by playing variations of “hot lava” or avoiding hordes of poisonous insects suspended by strings from the ceiling. In other rooms, the group needed to solve puzzles. In one room, Tim was possessed by an ancient riddle master and gave riddles for the group to solve. In another room I had set up an arrow maze on the tile floor. The maze included wrong turns leading to an infinite loop in the maze’s center, and if a solver got stuck in this loop another solver had to enter the maze and navigate around the stuck player. The maze was solved on the fifth attempt, with the successful solver carefully negotiating four tapped colleagues. In one of the sillier rooms, we awarded a tablet piece when every member of the group sang part of a show tune (we were very generous in evaluating this task). The final puzzle was assembling the tablet, which appeared to be one piece shy until someone in the group remembered to ask me for the piece I was holding. The restored tablet bore a message about a key hidden under the throne. The group returned to the throne room (a dormitory bathroom) and retrieved the physical key that unlocked the final room in the hallway. The room featured a coffin filled with ring pops, candy necklaces, and printed mission statements of the Ottawa Association of Fun.

Ottawa Catacombs was a bauble, a small entertainment promoting a club that would be forgotten by summer. But I find it remarkable how the event anticipated 21st-century escape room design: a goal-focused narrative, an immersive setting, orchestrated discoveries, and performance evaluation (in this case overseen by the two embedded game masters rather than mechanical or electronic devices). I’m not sure what informed the Catacombs concept back in 1990. Tim and I were not into haunted houses or LARPing, but we must have somehow tapped into those traditions, added our familiarity with stagecraft and puzzle-based interactive fiction games, and come up with an experience that decades later would become my livelihood.