Unthemely #95

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DOWNLOADABLE PUZZLE: Unthemely #95 (PUZ) (PDF)

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While working on this Unthemely puzzle, I started thinking about traditional crossword specifications and the rationale behind them. Some specs serve a practical purpose. Checking all letters in a grid, for example, reduces the chances of a solver getting stuck on a single unknown answer. Some specs reflect the standards used in adjacent journalistic and entertainment practices. The rules about obscure and indelicate vocabulary fall in this category. Some specs are simply aesthetic choices invented for the medium. The rotational symmetry of black squares is such a choice.

Rather than putting crosswords rules in specific categories, suppose we rank them on a “rationale” scale of 0 to 10, where 0 represents practical/derivative and 10 represents arbitrary. The “No two-letter words” rule might rank a 3 on this scale, while “No more than 72 entries in a themeless grid” might be an 8 or 9. I have a question based on this hypothetical scale: where would you rank the rule that discourages or prohibits the duplication of words or word forms (e.g. EATS and ATECROW) in the same grid? Remember that a ranking reflects how much the rule serves a practical purpose or represents an artistic standard that extends outside the world of crossword puzzles.

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Puzzle Your Kids Videos

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Puzzle Your Kids creator Eric Berlin posted a YouTube instructional video titled How to Make a Word Search. Eric narrates the video and mentions that this will be followed by more videos related to puzzle construction and wordplay. It’s definitely worth a view if you want to learn the basics of word search construction, but also to hear Eric’s avuncular narration and his reactions to unusual bird names. Check it out!

Themed Crossword: Back Drops

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Themed Crossword: Back Drops (PUZ) (PDF)

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I’m making slow but steady progress on the Autofill Manual Fill Project. I adjusted scores on my Default with Spaces wordlist and have started fortifying it with entries from the all-caps default list. I recently completed entries through eight letters in length, bringing Default with Spaces to 146,000 entries. The crossword in this post was a test of the word list in progress.

Roughly 40% of the entries in all-caps default are deleted or scored as unusable. The unusable entries are not added to Default with Spaces but kept in Default for administrative purposes. I adjust formatting in Microsoft Word, which has a decent interface for changing letter case. I do need to watch Word’s auto-formatting settings, particularly for apostrophes. CCWIN has some problems handling “smart” quotation marks.

The conversion process gets more laborious at this point. The Default with Spaces list is based on a list that was thoroughly developed through the eights not not much beyond that. My default list contained about 3,000 eight-letter entries not already in the Default with Spaces list. It contains over 32,000 unmatched nine-letter entries! Default with Spaces is usable for themed puzzles that don’t have many long entries in general fill but it is far from adequate for an Unthemely.

 

Women of Letters

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If, like me, you’ve gone through the Queer Qrosswords puzzle packet and are looking for a new set of crosswords that supports underrepresented puzzle creators and allied charities, visit the Woman of Letters website. The talented Patti Varol along with an equally talented slate of constructors who “happen to be women” have produced a packet of 18 puzzles. The puzzles are available to those who make a donation of at least $10 to one or more of the participating charities linked on the site. These puzzles lead to solutions that are more than just correct arrangements of letters in a grid. Keep supporting these projects!

Absorption

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Escape room puzzles undergo several phases of testing. Prototype tests are examinations of individual puzzles for difficulty and enjoyability. Beta-tests take place after the room is built and used to check the full set of puzzles for operational integrity and interrelationship. Some elements of a particular puzzle can be revised at the beta-test phase but at that point the fundamental structure is usually baked in. I designed a puzzle for a Puzzah! room that requires solvers to discover an outside-the-box pattern in a collection of data. The puzzle performed well as a prototype but received some mixed reviews from beta-testers. Specifically, they felt the unusual solution damaged the illusion and took them out of the experience.

In The Experience Economy Pine and Gilmore use a quadrant plane to illustrate different realms of experience. One axis represents aesthetic distance with the directions of decreased and increased distance labeled, respectively, Immersion and Absorption. Absorbing experiences command attention and can successfully entertain or educate the consumer but are constructed with a clear boundary between real and artificial. Prototype testing generally takes place in a neutral space with little environmental context, and testers may approach a puzzle with lower expectations about narrative integration. The beta-testers invested in the immersive surroundings by assuming their assigned roles in the adventure and wanted puzzles that conformed to the drama rather than challenged their perspectives.

Most of my puzzle background has been firmly plotted in the absorption end of the spectrum. I learned puzzles as a form of entertainment that plays to the solver but doesn’t invite any specialized dramatic participation. Eventually I became acquainted with extravaganzas, murder mystery games, and other puzzle forms that include elaborate narratives and physical interactions, but these activities are rarely what I would consider immersive. As an escape room designer I have the opportunity to present puzzles in an immersive environment, but I still have instincts to indulge in my puzzle entertainment roots and construct challenges that sacrifice realism for cleverness.

The feedback from the immersion-deprived beta-testers makes me think about escape rooms that contain mostly scavenging and procedural tasks and very few cognitive puzzles. I’ve enjoyed a few rooms of this ilk, such as The Basement and The Steal, but the challenge of designing traditional puzzles that conform to a narrative remains an attractive personal goal.

Requiem for an Escape Room: The Steal

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The Steal is the second escape room created by Denver-based Puzzah! The heist adventure opened to the public in the spring of 2015, and I played it as an off-the-street customer teaming up with three college friends. Later, as a Puzzah! employee, I briefed, debriefed, and reset hundreds of Steal sessions. I cleaned the room, fixed the props, revised the puzzles, edited the media effects, and, this week, I helped tear the room down. Puzzah! retired The Steal to make space for a new adventure at our downtown location, and we have no plans to rebuild the room because it doesn’t conform to our current reset-free philosophy. I want to share my memories of The Steal and why it’s a contender for the best escape room I’ve ever played.

Heists make very popular escape room missions, and The Steal was presented with a traditional premise of the genre. Players portray a team of thieves attempting to recover artifacts illegally obtained by the criminal organization INTERCEPT. The heist is organized by a hacker named Nox who provides the team information on the artifacts and the private gallery in which they are displayed. She later hacks into the gallery’s public address system to help the players when needed. The team must circumnavigate security systems to collect six artifacts, finishing with a rare Qin Dynasty coin. A team that trips an alarm must restore the artifact being stolen and wait for the security system to reset. If an alarm is not properly silenced, INTERCEPT is notified and the team fails the mission…until a staff member gives the team another chance by restarting the game at the point it was interrupted.

The Steal had the trappings of a classic crime caper but set itself apart from other heist rooms in key ways, starting with the scoring. The mission was designed to reward accuracy over speed. Teams had a 60-minute time limit to complete the mission but were ultimately evaluated by how many alarms they tripped. A team might complete the mission quickly using brute force, but wouldn’t earn as high a score as a time that spent more time analyzing the security systems to avoid errors. The average team tripped 20 alarms during the mission. One determined but impulsive team snagged the coin only after setting off a record 127 alarms. Over the game’s lifespan 30 or so teams made the leaderboard by completing the mission with 0 alarms. My college friends and I set off 2.

The room was richly decorated but was more notably attractive for its realism. No escape room paraphernalia broke the illusion of being in an actual art gallery. The puzzles were the authentic, functioning security systems, all plainly visible and waiting to be solved with the right insight. All the furnishings were natural to the setting, but purposeful in subtle ways. In fact, the fundamental puzzle of the mission required a holistic understanding of the surroundings. In the briefing teams learn that the artifacts must be stolen in a specific order. A team might expect to find the order revealed explicitly or as the solution to an abstract, arbitrary logic puzzle, but find nothing along those lines upon entering the room. After a bit of exploring the team will realize that every artifact is a tool to steal the next artifact and thus the order is based on practical task management. Most escape rooms use combination locks, RFID technology, and similar artifices to create a solving path. The Steal was supported by advanced technology but preserved an organic structure relying on the essential attributes of the objects. I’ve never played an escape room that combined immersive detail and puzzle savvy so well.

Not all escape room enthusiasts shared my affinity for The Steal. Some felt the organic structure was too abstract and wanted the objectives presented in more explicit terms. Some found the puzzles too task-oriented and preferred more traditional puzzles based on ciphers or mathematical calculations. The emphasis on accuracy benefited more tentative players, and Puzzah! recommended The Steal to novices and groups with children. Experienced players, used to speed-solving, dispatched the room in under thirty minutes and deemed it too easy. These criticisms are not unfounded, but The Steal also produced legions of fans who, like me, appreciate elegance over difficulty and can turn off a traditional puzzle-solving mindset to savor the experience.

A few hours before the scheduled demolition I played The Steal one last time.

3 alarms.

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Some photos from my final heist.

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Players originally entered a dimly-lit gallery armed with a flashlight, and thwarted a light sensor so they could turn on the overhead lights. The ancient cup is protected by a tilt sensor. Steady hands and good teamwork are required to steal the cup without triggering an alarm.

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Some examples of using artifacts as tools: The metal carousel is just the right size to connect the circuit leads on a display case. The antique eyeglasses can pick the lock on the wall safe.

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A set of mirrors diverts the laser and allows the coin to be removed from its case. Puzzah! allowed successful teams keep the coin as a souvenir.

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I took one more photo to remind me that reset-free rooms have some advantages.

 

Default 2018

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I recently decided to take another look at my stalled Crossword Compiler word list project. I thought it would be worthwhile to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the Autofill Project and modify my word list management to serve the specifications of my current primary puzzle construction outlet: Crosswords With Friends. Also, tinkering with word lists is always a good way to feel productive while procrastinating on other projects.

Autofill opponents generally cite lousy grid entries as the fundamental and inevitable problem of delegating construction duties to a computer. I was reluctant to jump on this bandwagon and believed that autofill could perform satisfactorily with a well designed word list. I groomed my list for years using a complex word-scoring protocol and eventually developed a data set that could reliably autofill small to medium grid sections. But among the lively fill I noticed subtle word duplications (ATECROW and EATERY), proper names with blind crossings, and grids with disproportionate sets of entries related to entertainment, science, or some other category. I couldn’t think of a way to fine-tune CCWIN to address all of these personal and industry-sanctioned aesthetic standards, so I finally accepted that grid fill requires human oversight.

In the new default word list I am confining entries to five scoring categories. A sophisticated scoring system with a 2-point differentiation between singular and plural nouns is not very important when I am manually reviewing all entries before they go in the grid. The simplified scoring system is making the conversion process easier, and I am already halfway through the scoring adjustments for six-letter entries. The other major change in the new default is reformatting entries to mixed case with spaces. Of the 366,000 entries in my all-caps default list, about 155,000 have been converted to mixed case. The unformatted entries are mostly long phrases and garbage that I don’t need for Crosswords With Friends, but I do want to convert the salvageable material from this list eventually.

While I am making these changes to my default list, I am not making efforts to add a lot of new entries. My current word list suits me fine. I add about a dozen entries a month from my notepad and I will gradually go through the lists that other constructors have sent me, but I don’t plan to search Google for theme lists or start mining AcrossLite files of published crosswords.