MaineCon – 2014 National Puzzlers’ League Convention


Readers who are members of the National Puzzlers’ League know that our annual convention is a few weeks away. For those not in the League, MaineCon will be held at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel in Portland, Maine from Thursday July 17th through Sunday July 20th. Convention host Jennifer Braun, or Wesley (her NPL nom), is posting registration information to the website. The site contains a FAQ that gives a general description of NPL conventions. The FAQ lauds the praises of con unequivocally, but I will add that NPL con is, hands down, the best bang-for-the-buck annual puzzle event in North America.

I’m on the program committee for MaineCon so I’m aware of the puzzles and games that will be presented during the official solving sessions. I work mostly with the presenters of the group games and the Saturday night extravaganza while my partners Will Shortz (Willz) and Fraser Simpson (Fraz) work with pencil-and-paper puzzles and cryptic crosswords respectively. I’m very excited about the offerings on the MaineCon official program but I’m equally excited about the “unofficial” program, perhaps more excited because I know very little about these games. The unofficial games are run at times when official program events are not scheduled — often late into the night and early morning. Presenters of unofficial games have the option of posting a preview on the convention website, and based on the current postings I can tell that I will be a challenge to get a seating for everything I want to play.

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The DASH 6 puzzles have been posted. Some puzzles require components that are either non-assembled or missing in the download files. The files appear to be structured for the local organizers and it is not always clear what is clueful and what is incidental. I’ve been working on the puzzles gradually over the week, solving what I can and glancing at the rest.

PUZZLE: Rice Milk #6


FIRST (3 2 4) / SECOND  (4 5)

You’re a family meal planning beginner
And they’ve FIRST for a Mexican dinner?
You can scratch that with ease
With some shells, meat, and cheese.
Make your once-a-week SECOND a winner!

Comments contain the answer to Rice Milk #5 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.




In each round players are blindfolded and given a series of objects to identify simply by touch. Players then remove blindfolds and try to answer a series of questions that reference the touched objects.

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Touch and Go originated from a lunchtime conversation with Adam Cohen at Bouchon in Las Vegas. The conversation concerned games using the senses; we recalled past games involving sound and smell identification but not touch. Some ideas about a touch identification game eventually turned into an after-hours activity for the 2008 NPL convention in Colorado. The location was ideal because the collection of objects would have been difficult to schlep on a plane trip to another convention city. Players could play individually or as teams of two, and Burger King cardboard crowns (one of the touched objects in the first round) were given as prizes to the top scorers over the weekend. Tyler Hinman was the top individual with 80 points out of a possible 90, and Greg Pliska and Guy Jacobson were the top team with 83 out of 90. The YouTube link features segments of some of the rounds played at Conorado.

AUTOFILL PROJECT: jumbo paper clips


Default: 346495
Default with Spaces: 129426

NOTES: New York’s Comedy Cellar (75) was added while watching an episode of Louie. The location inspired a recent visual puzzle on the blog. Supervocalic Facebook group additions include jumbo paper clips (73), Capuchin monkey (75), and Plaxico Burress (75). I added a few names from ERDr Lewis (55) and Sherry Stringfield (60) –– but I’m finding the shows on the long-running prime-time television list less interesting for entry gathering purposes. Some probationary entries of the week include digital tattoo (72)tweetstorm (72), and Pharell’s new single Come Get It Bae (72), which includes some interesting partials.

LISTS: Dave Shukan’s latest sharedoc post included some breakfast cereal memorabilia: The wizard Cookie Jarvis (50) was the original mascot for Cookie Crisp; Cornelius Rooster (55) fronts Kellogg’s Corn Flakes; and Oops All Berries (55) is a Cap’n Crunch variety. Recent additions from the Diehl 10s include Elko Nevada (55), flying kick (75), and fruit snack (75).

GRIDS: I haven’t written for some time about the new entries picked up from solved puz grids. I still solve crosswords on my computer, mostly indie puzzles, but I find fewer and fewer entries not already in Default. Last week’s puzzles provided a few holes in well established phrases: chamber orchestra (75), base unit (70), and two-stepped (63). Some modern phases include Wi-Fi hotspot (80), lamesauce, (70), and MMA (40), an abbreviation for mixed martial arts.

PUZZLE: Unthemely #52



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Stray observation and a minor spoiler on last week’s MGWCC #311, “We Built This City”: The clue for 1 Across is {A 103-year-old one was recently in the news}. I had the four-letter answer’s first two letters, O and R, from the down entries and initially wrote in the answer was OREO, but it turned out to be ORCA. The OREO idea had such a ring of validity. The math is slightly off, but I could imagine that one of the cookies from the original 1912 batch was found in some Nabisco storage facility. It would just as newsworthy a discovery as a centenarian whale. Then I remembered a similar confusion in an ACPT playoff puzzle from the late ’90s — the clue was {Black and white killer} and Doug Hoylman initially wrote in OREO instead of ORCA.

Did anyone else make my misstep on the Gaffney puzzle? Can anyone else think of another good clue for ORCA that might trick a solver into guessing OREO, or vice-versa?

LA Minicon, May 2014


When I arrived at Marc Spraragen’s home last Saturday, I was put to work immediately carrying stacks of books from the bedroom to the dining room. Marc had been cleaning out his bookshelves and chose what amounted to several bagfuls as candidates for donation. He was also hosting the miniconvention in the party room of his condo complex so he decided to put the books out for the minicon guests, initially as a prize table and then as a take-what-you-want table. The set of books contained many puzzle collections and paperback novels, but the item that caught my eye was a copy of the Don Freeman children’s book Dandelion.


This was a favorite from my childhood library and I was tickled to see it among the other prize table offerings. After we arranged the stacks of books just so around Marc’s dining room table we went downstairs to the party room where the puzzlers had begun to arrive.

This was my first LA minicon of 2014. I’ve been conservative with travel this year due to some vacation cutbacks at my company, but I managed this trip without missing any work days by flying in on Saturday morning. I mingled and got to hear about Kiran’s Guggenheim fellowship and David’s Pre-Shortzian crossword project and Todd’s acting work and Elissa’s business school curriculum development and Myles’s consulting work and so on. Our host Marc has just been hooded for his doctoral work in artificial intelligence and was celebrating his birthday on the day of the minicon. There was a goodly amount of celebration and accomplishment in the room, and my inner “Dandelion” started getting a little self-conscious.

The minicon began with introductions and the invocation poem, and then we jumped into the first activity: a solo-solve handout “Puzzle in the Round” constructed by Chaos.  The puzzle is a classic type seen in magazines, but the disparity in crossword skill among the solo solvers led to a significant gap in finishing times. Whimsy’s “Boxcars” was next; another handout puzzle but one that I co-solved with Myles Nye. The puzzle featured a chain of compound words/phrases and Myles and I divided the task of solving clues and then worked together to assemble the chain. After finishing the puzzle we noted that Chaos’s puzzle included the answer word TRAFFIC at the bottom of a clockwise path, making the letters FART prominent, and Whimsy’s puzzle included the clue {Fart} for the answer PASS GAS. We wondered if there were a meta theme running through the afternoon’s offerings. Later someone suggested that this meta theme could be adapted to a hidden contest for convention: “Remember that one one time when the hidden contest involved going up to Will Shortz and giving him a bagel? Well…..”

Marc presented the third puzzle of the party, a multipart handout called “Reverse Polarity,” I tackled it with David Steinberg. David doesn’t have a raft of experience with hunt-style puzzles but he held his own with contributions and insights. Despite our best efforts we needed some nudges from Marc to make progress, but the revelation of the final stage, which explained the meaning of the puzzle’s title, was very satisfying.

I presented the final activity, a team game called “Sporcurling.” This was a variation on the game “Sporculation,” which uses trivia quiz statistics from the Sporcle website. My original design had some added elements analogous to the sport of curling but I eliminated the curling elements to simplify the game. My revision instincts turned out to be sound and the simplified version went well. Players pointed out that I misspelled the word “booklet” (“booket”) on the cover of the game handout, and that caused some redux laughter when I reached the part of the rules mentioning that “spelling doesn’t count.”

The minicon ended with a clean-up session and a dinner trip to Jerry’s Deli. Several puzzlers returned to Marc’s place for the after-party, which included a trivia optimization game from Dave Shukan and a 1965 proto-Scattergories board game from Todd Rew’s collection. We played a few rounds and joked about the dated categories and cumbersome scoring system. When the after-party broke up, I bid my Southern California puzzle friends farewell and set up my sleeping arrangements in Marc’s living room. I thought a bit about how I tend to obsess over my absent-mindedness: making typos or struggling to remember a name. Mental lapses can be embarrassing, but I decided that I need to work on not worrying so much about it. Better to own it and make it work than stress myself out trying to be something I’m not.

Then I grabbed that copy of Dandelion, put it in my backpack, and went to bed.





Eight or more players sit in a circle. Each starts with a piece of paper and writes an “answer” at the bottom. Papers are passed clockwise and players write the first three words of a question that would lead to the answer on the new paper; words are written in a series of rows with two words per row. Players fold the papers so that only the last written word is visible and pass papers clockwise. Players add two words the question on the new paper, fold the paper so only the last word is visible, and pass. The rotation of papers continues for a set number of passes, at which point the player writes the final word of the question. Players in turn unfold the papers and ask the questions to the player seated clockwise.


Exquisite Fruit came from a dream featuring Greg Pliska hosting a quiz show. The show featured a series of clue givers in soundproof isolation booths simultaneously offering 30-second clues leading to a target answer. The audio output from the booths was presented one at a time, for a few seconds each, in a random order, so the hope was that these audio segments could combine to form a solvable clue. The concept was interesting and I simplified it to an Exquisite Corpse variant. The game debuted at Jenny Gutbezahl’s house after Intercoastal Altercations event in 2004, with the name “The Greg Pliska Game.” Katherine Bryant suggested renaming the game “Exquisite Fruit,” which combined “Exquisite Corpse” and the question in the photo above, created in the first round of the game for Lance Nathan’s answer “Apricot.”

Update (August 2014): At an Exquisite Fruit game played at MaineCon, “Exquisite Fruit” was chosen as an answer phrase for one of the rounds. The resulting question turned out to be an entertaining meta-description of the game: WHAT PARTY GAME WRITING CLUES ARE WRITTEN BY PLAYERS WRITING REPETITIVE INFORMATION TO HILARITY?