2017 Las Vegas Minicon Notes

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The Embassy Suites on Swenson had undergone a renovation in decor since 2016. The changes were initially jarring but the basic amenities of our mincon hotel ultimately hung to tradition: same swans, same Elvis statue, same Sin in the Desrt cocktails at the complimentary happy hour. Bartender Dey is still slinging alcopop at the Suites and greeted our return with only slight confusion that we were not there on our usual Labor Day weekend.

The main new restaurant experience of this minicon was Carmine’s at Caesar’s Palace. The family style-Italian joint was our choice for a Friday group dinner. The cold antipasti was excellent, featuring small sandwiches and a seafood salad. The saltimobocca was an interesting new experience but I preferred the simpler angel hair with tomatoes. The dessert cannoli was average and the ambience a bit stadium-like but I enjoyed the meal overall. The Sunday night hangers-on tried dim sum at the off-Strip Yum Cha. We shared some nice small plates including a tasty duck, but I had some heartburn that dampened the experience.  I tried drinks at the Peach Bar at Cosmopolitan’s Momofuku. I had an awkward start with the bartender but he made me a personal cocktail with honey, ginger, and tequila that I was find of. TMI alert: The real highlight of of Momofuku was trying out the bidet in the men’s room. The Venetian’s Bouchon was our Saturday night choice. During dinner, a kitchen staffer suggested in a slightly scolding manner that I should eat the skin of my trout. Aside from that minor hiccup the meal was a delightful array of friendship and French cuisine. I enjoyed returning to B&B in the Venetian, where I had an exceptional Italian mule and a peach-and-mint bartender’s choice that I called a Chantilly after my childhood home.

Minicon games were lean this year. I had a clipboard full of NOL convention handouts so I wasn’t worried about the lack of a Mark Halpin extravaganza (slated for the end of August). Dave Shukan recently introduced me to Escape This Podcast, and I was reminded of an interactive fiction game that I wrote in college called Rat Trap. I presented it to some of the other attendees and it provided a short diversion. I also wrote an Only Connect game using the web infrastructure written by Andrew Greene. It proved to be a convenient amusement that could be played during a restaurant lunch by those with smartphones. Darren Rigby had the Only Connect games he presented a few weeks earlier in Boston. We played the “puzzle” set and I was awestruck by the Wall rounds. We played Codenames, Sporculation, and tested a drawing game called Fake Artist Goes to New York.

We scheduled the minicon in early August this year to sync with the Trivia Championship of North America. TCONA, now held in the Tropicana, is celebrating its seventh year drew about 250 trivia fans including several friends from the crossword community. The event features ample content and somewhat wonky scheduling so we didn’t attract too many of the registered members off-site for minicon activities. We did visit the Tropicana one afternoon to audit the game show marathon (I saw a few rounds of Tic Tac Dough) and play the trivia escape room devised by John Chaneski. The challenge comprised nine trivia questions each hidden in puzzle form in some item or location associated with most hotel rooms. We found and solved the puzzles, answered the questions, and then discovered a code that would allow us to escape the room. The setup was better designed than many commercial escape rooms I’ve attended, but the highlight for me was seeing John after an absence of nearly a decade, He’s a treasure. Our minicon did visit a commercial escape room in Vegas: Lost Games. The nascent business offered the first in a planned series of three serialized horror-suspense rooms with an insane asylum theme. The three owners were very personable and all participated in the preliminary skit that landed us in a medical study looking for the antidote to a poison we had ingested as a presumed prescription drug. The experience included good puzzles, a rich immersive environment, and well designed technical effects. It was easily the best escape room I’ve played in Las Vegas.

Only eleven months and change to minicon 10!

BeaCon Badges

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A week has passed since I returned home from the annual National Puzzlers’ League convention in Boston. The convention, dubbed “BeaCon” by its organizers, marked my twentieth opportunity to gather with the finest people in the universe, with whom I am most fortunate to share a passion for puzzles and games. I am immensely grateful to everyone who made the convention amazing and justified my conviction that the NPL is an essential part of my life. In particular, my sincere thanks go to convention hosts Jenny Gutbezahl (Hathor) and Ben Smith (B-Side); program committee colleagues Rick Rubenstein (Rubrick), Will Shortz (WILLz), and Fraser Simpson (Fraz); and official program presenters (listed by noms only) 42itous, 530nm330Hz, Bluff, Btnirn, Hot, Mr E, Murdoch, Navin, QED, Qoz, Saxifrage, Shaggy, Shrdlu, Spelvin, Toonhead! Tortoise, Trazom, Trick, and Zebraboy. Also, thanks go to Eric Berlin (Story) for helping younger solvers, such as my nephew Ian Chaney (Whovian), participate in activities with older solvers.

Industrial Espionage Badge
Boston currently boasts about half a dozen escape room businesses. Escape rooms continue to be popular destinations for NPLers, and groups of attendees began making plans weeks before the convention. I didn’t join any groups for traditional escape rooms but I put together a group to visit 5 Wits in Foxborough. The 5 Wits company was an inspiration to the founders of Puzzah! and my employers encouraged me to check out their operation. My red-eye flight to Boston arrived at 4:30 a.m., giving me enough time to read the news, grab breakfast, make copies at Staples, and find the Revere hotel where my 5 Wits-bound companions were gathering in the lobby. We Lyfted to Patriot Place, got our tickets from a clerk whose black polo shirt should have read “I SO don’t want to be here,” and set off on two immersive puzzle adventures titled Espionage and 20,000 Leagues. 5 Wits tickets uses public ticketing and admits up to twelve players in each session, but we managed to keep our group of eight NPLers together with no added strangers. Both adventures featured an in-character staffer who guided us through a series of rooms and directed us to complete physical and mental challenges. The production values were very high and both adventures included well-designed lighting, sounds, special effects, and architectural mechanics that played with our sense of spatial orientation. The puzzles were breezy and our group dispatched them in short order. I mainly took a professional research approach to the experience and spent time taking in the aesthetics and analyzing the experiences in terms of scheduling and reset mechanics. Brent Holman (Shaggy) was a member of the group who also works for an escape room company and afterwards we compared notes in a conversation that others compared to revealing the secrets behind a magician’s tricks. The trip was educational on an industrial espionage level and rewarding on a “have sleep-deprived fun with your puzzle peeps” level. The second item is what NPL convention is all about.

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I also returned to Boda Borg this year, thus visiting both automated, reset-free, escape room-esque businesses in the Boston area. Eric Berlin organized a Boda Borg outing for younger puzzlers traveling with adult NPL members. My 15-year-old nephew Whovian and I joined about a dozen others to try the Swedish-style puzzle challenges. Ian and I started the morning with Ben Zimmer (Elf) and his family. I volunteered to guide them through some good starting quests like Farm. Once they understood how the quests worked, the younger set wanted to tackle more physical quests. After lunch we shuffled teams, and the younger solvers worked on Superbanen and Jungle while the older set tried Infra, Pirates, and Spook House, and then eventually gathered in the upstairs lounge to visit. I could have gone for more questing, including some more physical challenges, but ultimately I was happy that Ian got a chance to interact with intelligent agemates. I also enjoyed hanging out with Scott Weiss (Squonk), Yossi Fendel ((e)met), and Jennifer Turney (Saphir). Ben Zimmer’s son Blake came up with the line of the convention during the Boda Borg outing. We were working on the Step Up room and suffered a room fail. I commented that someone must have stepped out of turn. Blake looked at me and huffed, “Nobody stepped on a turtle!”

Invisible Boy Badge
In the 1999 film Mystery Men, Kel Mitchell plays a superhero who can become invisible but only if no one, including himself, is looking at him. I had a number of solving experiences during the convention in which I felt that I choked under the scrutiny of cosolvers or spectators. I can almost feel some mechanism of mental concentration clicking off in my head, and an internal voice mumble, “just ask someone else for the answer.” This phenomenon makes me apprehensive about teaming up for cryptic crosswords or escape rooms. On the flip side, I performed exceptionally well in a couple of puzzles and games when no one was looking. The charm of these experience comes partly from the fact that they were unobserved by others so I’m won’t offer details. I will however describe one of my game successes that was unseen by me. Tony Delgado (Tablesaw) attended BeaCon after several years of convention absence and brought one as an unofficial game one of his staples: Remote Control. Tablesaw’s presentation combined 21st-century pop culture content with the disestablishmentarian silliness of the 1980s MTV game show on which it was based. Players offered puzzle-themed entries to Hashtag Wars, answered questions while eating marshmallows, and demonstrated Arrested Development chicken dances (I chose Lindsay’s dance. Because “Chee Chaw”). I played in a post-convention session when Tablesaw had already packed his signalling device. The players rang in to answer questions by simply stating the name of an Eggspert button color, and this convention led to some humorous confusion when a question involved colors (“Fill in the blank: ___ Is the New Black”) The second half of the game features an auction in which players could spend points to buy disadvantages for other players. I ended up with a green sleep mask that I was forced to wear for the remainder of the game. The mask didn’t prove to be too much of a hindrance (in fact it was rather soothing) until a game-end Beat the Bishop challenge when all players had to write a list of items while Tablesaw raced around the ballroom. The category was seasons of Survivor. I can remember a lot of the seasons but I had to write the legibly or else they wouldn’t count. A bystander guided my pen to the top of my sheet of paper, Tablesaw took off, and I begin writing. When time expired I prepared to take off my mask and expected to see a Jackson Pollock print on my piece of paper, when Kiran Kedlaya (Kray) shouted, “T McAy writes better blindfolded than I write with my eyes open!” Sure enough, my list was readable with virtually no overlap of entries, and the twelve seasons I was able to remember netted me the top score.

Duck Konundrum Badge
Ducks have a special association with Boston with the Robert McCloskey children’s book Make Way for Ducklings and the duck tour vehicles carting tourists through the North End and up and down the Charles River. The McCloskey book inspired a few of the puzzle creators at the convention, including a delightful cryptic crossword by Trazom and an enjoyable walk-around devised by the ClueKeeper team. The walk-around followed the path of the Mallard family in the book, from the Public Garden to the banks of the Charles. I completed the walk-around with a about a dozen solvers during the experience I noticed how our group behaved like the ducklings in the book. We waddled along in line with members occasionally straying off course or getting in the way of a cyclist, but we kept one another safe and achieved our goal. My life as a puzzle largely involves understanding what’s going on around me and responding in a way that makes a positive contribution. Dan Katz (Spelvin) invented a puzzle for an MIT Hunt many years ago that exploits this group dynamic challenge: the Duck Konundrum. Spelvin’s konundra are bewilderingly complex but they reward intrepid solvers who trust that order will eventually emerge from the chaos. BeaCon was a konundrum for me, but despite all the frustration of keeping my ducks in a row I came out of it feeling my trust in a positive resolution was well founded.

Next year in Milwaukee. difm

Indie 500

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I attend the National Puzzlers’ League convention every year and I make an appearance at a fair number of puzzle hunts across the country but I haven’t competed in a crossword tournament in several years. Traditional crosswords are not my favorite puzzle type and my Salieri status as a competitor is established. Still, I was missing the interactions with friends who limit their puzzle event attendance to crossword tournaments so I decided to plan a return trip to Lollapuzzoola for August and a first-time trip to the Indie 500 the first weekend June. The organizers of the tournament — Andy, Angela, Erik, Neville, and Peter who did a marvelous job — asked the participants to withhold revealing comments about the tournament for two weeks in respect of the at-home solvers who has not seen the puzzles. If plan to solve the tournament puzzles in the future and do not want to be spoiled, please read no further.

I planned a weekend visit with Dave Tuller in Maryland and the two of us took the train into D.C. on Saturday morning to join the other crossword solvers at George Washington University. We reached the registration desk early and I spotted Angela, Erik, Peter, and a long-maned Neville setting up. Sam Ezersky was among the early arrivals. I had only known him from Internet excahnges but he is just as charming in person and I wished him well on his new position at the New York Times. Throughout the afternoon I caught up with so many people that I hadn’t seen in years. Brian Cimmet told me more about family life in Syracuse and his project to listen to 100 previously unheard musical cast recordings. Evan Birnholz got down to the city after a choral rehearsal of Carmina Burana. Amy Reynaldo offered some health updates and news about Crosswords with Friends. Tony Orbach compared solving notes and shared some family memories (it’s all I can do not to break into an a cappella rendition of “Try to Remember” when I see Tony). Andrew Ries mused on the challenges of making a living in the puzzle industry. New acquaintance Laura Radloff explained how to charm yourself into the NMAAHC without a reservation. And Ade Koiki weighed in on the question, “Which sport requires the most puzzle-solving ability?”

Time, the theme of this year’s tournament, was present in the themes of  all the puzzles. Angela Halstead’s opener “Before and After”  featured long entries made of a word that could precede TIME and a word that could follow TIME to make phrases, e.g. HAMMERBANDITS. The theme was explained by a tl;dr clue in the southeast and I turned in my completed puzzle without understanding the theme. I figured out what was going on just before receiving the second puzzle, “Jam Session” by Paolo Pasco. The unusually wide grid included bigram rebus squares that compacted terms for time durations (SECOND, MINUTE, DECADE, etc.) into half the required grid squares. I was not tripped by the somewhat obscure fill entry ALIPASHA ({Ottoman ruler also referred to as Aslan}) but I hit a blind crossing in the lower left and, due to a poorly drawn Ripstein mark, turned in puzzle with a careless error. “This Mashup’s for the Byrds” by Tracy Bennett included interpretations of archly altered lyrics to the song “Turn, Turn, Turn”, as in {A time to gather stoners together} for BURNINGMAN. The “pack separator” in fourth position was a Benjamin Button themed puzzle by Erik Agard ft. Allegra Kuney titled “Non-Linear Narratives.” The long down answers were based on phrases that contained the names of animals, but the animal named needed to be replaced with the juvenile term of the animal (or vice-versa) and spelled backwards, so {1940 musical about a sleazy nightclub habitué (hopper)} produced the entry PALOORAGNAK. Once this theme was grokked the rest of the grid was relatively gentle. Neville Fogarty’s capper “In Search of Lost Time” was constructed around a substring transfer theme using ERA. So ANTONIOBANDS ({Music groups featuring the merchant of Venice?}) partnered with SHOERACKTREATMENT ({Therapy for a closet organizer?}).

Chris King and I sat at the same table during the tournament. Chris is a character and his upbeat antics crack me up and set the right tone for a puzzle event. I discovered that Chris and I share an interest in the BBC quiz show Only Connect. This discovery came after Chris and I teamed up with Peter Gordon and Ben Smith for a time-killer game led by Neville, also an OC fan, and based on the Sequences round. Our foursome outscored the ballroom, with Ben earning MVP status by recognizing song clips from musicals broadcast live on FOX. Chris would go on to win the Joon Pahk Award for Worst Handwriting. He accepted the medal with pride, but later picked up his note-taking sheet from the Only Connect game, thrust it in my face, and said in his delightful Carolina drawl, “See, Todd! That’s rea-uh-ble!”

The finalists were announced and the Inside Track threesome comprised Roger Barkan, Katie Hamill, and Dave “He-Wouldn’t-Have-Even-Been-There-If-I-Hadn’t-Come-Sorry-About-That-Fourth-Place-Sam-Ezersky” Tuller. After the finalists were ushered out of the room, constructor Andy Kravis explained the special gimmick of his playoff puzzle: The solvers would start with the down clues only! A hint in the grid gave instructions how to receive the across clues. Tournament assistants provided solvers the across clues when they followed the instructions or when nine minutes elapsed, whichever came first. The gimmick befitted a tournament that celebrates the spirit of the independent crossword community, but it led to problems in execution. The grid hint was a set of long Across entries reading THE ACROSS CLUES / CAN BE FOUND ON THE / BACK OF THE BOARD. Unfortunately, the room set did not allow the solvers to actually reach the back of the board, so the assistants simply handed the clues to the solvers when prompted. On top of this, the playoff grids were smallish printouts that spectators and commentators Brian Cimmet and Jeremy Horwitz had trouble seeing, and the finalists solved with Sharpies making grid errors more of a danger. Andy’s puzzle was pleasant but the gimmick forced the overall clue difficulty to be reined in. So the finals were a bit off the mark but I was very happy to see Katie take top honors.

For the wrap-up dinner I had pub fare with Dave, Katie, Kevin Wald, Dustin Foley, and another new acquaintance Giovanni Pagano. We laughed and drank beer and talked about escape rooms, and NPL inside jokes, and absent friends. Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” was not among the temporal references of the official tournament events, but the sentiment of that song is palpable when a puzzle gathering comes to a close.

DASH 9

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Spoilers for the 2017 DASH puzzle hunt are included in this post.

DASH, which stands for Different Area, Same Hunt, is a walkaround puzzle event held annually in various cities throughout the world. A city participates when volunteers willing handle site management contact the DASH organizers and arrange to receive the puzzle materials, establish a walking route, and so forth. My now employer Puzzah! hosted DASH when it debuted in Denver in 2015 and I joined another group to host DASH last year. I was interested in solving DASH this year but no one else in Denver expressed an interest in hosting so the Mile High City was taken off the rolls. I decided that DASH weekend would be a good excuse for a weekend getaway and I had a friend in Texas who had extended an open invitation for a visit. After checking with some local puzzle-solving friends I registered the team Dine and DASH in Austin.

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About two dozen teams assembled in a market square across the street from the University of Texas campus on the morning of May 6 to learn about the Department of Applied Synergistic Humanities, the name of the DASH 9 hunt given in advance as a thematic teaser. Steve Levy, my host in Texas, is well versed in crosswords and cryptics but didn’t have much experience in hunt-style puzzles. I assured him that he would catch on quickly. We were joined by Andy and Arielle Arizpe, a video game designer and food blogger (Arielle’s knowledge of fine food was part of the inspiration of the team name). Mingling with the other teams I noticed solvers wearing MIT Mystery Hunt t-shirts and carrying clipboards with elaborate code sheets. Packets were distributed and we began with a puzzle that revealed an overall theme of extraterrestrial communication. The symbolic algebra exercise turned out to be a primer on rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock that gave us an answer leading to a new location.

I have criticized DASH in the past for being geared too heavily toward expert solvers and missing an opportunity to spark a puzzle interest in casual solvers. This DASH set was probably the most beginner-friendly I have seen featuring many familiar puzzle types with accessible twists. I was pleased that virtually none of the puzzles incorporated classic letter-coding systems. One puzzle used a variation on ternary but that was it. DASH solvers use the ClueKeeper app for inputting answers, receiving hints, and timekeeping. When I solved DASH two years ago I remember that the ClueKeeper’s audio notifications for hints were incessant and distracting. This time I received no audio notifications, though I later discovered hints were accumulating in our app normally. I’m not sure if the lack of audio notifications was something I did or ClueKeeper did, but I registered the change as an improvement.

The puzzles included a word search variant, Star Battle grids, a chemical compound identification quiz, and some cryptic clues that made Steve happy. Several puzzles involved a collection of polygonal shards with arcane symbols. These were used to translate the alien language and employed clever variations as more and more shards were discovered along the trail. The puzzle we struggled with involved arranging strips of acetate to create a path on a sheet of paper. We carelessly missed a path option and consequently spent twice as long as we needed to. The final puzzle used a Zappar feature in ClueKeeper to produce a spaceship effect. Andy somehow figured out the pattern associated with some colorful objects and, with his instructions, I played a Close Encounters-esque musical message that prevented a military engagement with the alien race. Humanity was saved and we got pizza!

Steve was relieved that the puzzles were approachable and that he was able to make contributions. With Andy’s guidance he solved his first Star Battle puzzle. I’ve known the Arizpes for years but have rarely joined them as puzzle cosolvers, so I was happy for that opportunity. UT Austin was a lovely setting for the hunt with lots of shady spots for solving. We finished the hunt in third place among Austin teams and in the upper half overall. The Texas trip was great fun, but I want DASH to return to Denver next year, even if I need to be the host.

Puzzle Boat 4 / Escape from the Haunted Library

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Foggy Brume of P&A Magazine has launched a Kickstarter to fund creation of the fourth installment in his Puzzle Boat puzzle extravaganza series. Puzzle Boat ganzas generally involve around 100 hunt-style puzzles with associated metas and meta-metas and well suited for teams of five or six puzzlers. The project has met its goal and is estimated to roll out in October. There are many pledge levels, including ones that offer smaller extravaganza sets suitable for smaller solving teams. Check out the site here.

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The P&A site is also hosting a donation-based distribution of Eric Berlin’s pencil-and-paper escape room suite Escape from the Haunted Library. The puzzles are appropriate for younger, novice puzzle solvers. Link to the donation screen on the P&A main page.

 

Puzzle Your Kids / Hatched

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Puzzle Your Kids has been providing innovative, kid-friendly puzzles for a little over a year using a subscription service. PYK creator Eric Berlin has revamped the puzzle site to provide weekly puzzles for free, along with premiums for site supporters. Please enrich the lives of your young friends and loved ones by stimulating their interest in puzzles! Visit the Puzzle Your Kids website

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Tortoiseshell Studio puzzlemaster Nathan Curtis is expanding his online puzzle footprint with a periodical called Hatched. The project is designed to provide an editorial forum for new constructors and create a venue for pencil-and-paper puzzle types not regularly featured in mainstream media. This is a great opportunity for puzzlemakers who are looking for a supportive community in which to create and showcase their wares. Check out Hatched web page for more details on the project and a submission specifications.

AUTOFILL PROJECT: bone-in

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Default: 366022
Default with Spaces: 150961

NOTES:
The Kia Rio has been a handy automotive import for crossword constructors, and the recently introduced Kia Niro (65) is an additional boon. I predict that Kia will next produce an electric vehicle called the Orion.

Last week I met some puzzle room entrepreneurs from Canada. Their main product is virtual reality escape room experiences that they sell to franchisees. I tried a demo of one of their rooms. It was the first time I tried VR and after the fifteen-minute adventure I felt queasy for the rest of the afternoon. I did add Oculus Rift (75) to the database. The entrepreneurs also manage an Archery Tag (72) facility in Ottawa. I wonder if that would make me queasy.

I don’t celebrate the holiday, but I bought some Easter candy (75) today — gourmet jelly beans. I also notice sales on bone-in ham (70), and wondered what other bone-in (60) meats are database worthy. I’ve heard ribeyes and filet mignon described as “bone-in.” Based on length, those would be unlikely entries anyway.