Vancouver, British Columbia, was the setting of Recouvery, this year’s National Puzzlers’ League convention. I spent five days in the downtown area near Stanley Park puzzling, gaming, sharing, and shouting with the members of my second family, followed by three days in Victoria for a bonus vacation with my first family. I started a conversation during one of the convention breakfasts about a hypothetical “badge” system, similar to the one used on the Sporcle website, with which an NPL convention attendee could note various achievements. These achievements could be straightforward, such as “Successfully Co-solved an Official Convention Cryptic Crossword” or “Presented an After-Hours Jeopardy! Game.” They could be rare, as “Won Alcohol from the Official Prize Table” (I’m among the few and perhaps only one with that badge), and they could be silly, as “Struggled to Read an ‘Exquisite Fruit’ Clue Due to Uncontrollable Laughter” (I’m looking at you, Katie Hamill ($8.90)). I’ve decided to use this hypothetical badge system to organize my thoughts about this year’s family reunion.
Note: I will refer to other NPL members by civilian name followed by “nom” (League nickname) in parentheses.
Street Smarts Badge
Last year in Portland, Maine, I earned the Hit the Ground Running badge by arriving in the convention city at eight in the morning (following a redeye flight and bus shuttle from Boston) and immediately taking on my sightseeing agenda without rest or companionship. I was prepared to duplicate the badge requirements this year but since I was arriving in the afternoon (redeyes don’t enter the equation when flying west) I made arrangements to meet a small group of friends near the Yaletown train station. We solved a walkaround puzzle set along the Seawall and enjoyed celebratory drinks before I was even checked into the hotel. The walkaround was constructed by Darren Rigby (Dart) as part of a three-puzzle set; the other two were located at Gastown and Robson Square. All contained great puzzles that incorporated local landmarks and all provided enjoyable walking opportunities in the downtown area. While I was comfortable doing all three walkarounds alone I ended up having solving companions in all cases: I solved with Adam Cohen (Noam), Katherine Bryant (Saxifrage), and Trip Payne (Qaqaq) at Robson Square and started with Jeffrey Schwartz (Jeffurry) and Fraser Simpson (Fraz) in Gastown but finished with Joseph DeVincentis (/dev/joe), Roger Wolff (Wolff) and William Zambole (WXYZ). In all cases the solving groups were not too large and close to my planned schedule so I was very satisfied with all the experiences. Aside from the Dart walkarounds I also made a solid trek through Stanley Park and various areas on Vancouver Island (Inner Harbour, Butchart Gardens, etc.) Susan Glass (Sue++) organized a 5K run on the Seawall near English Bay. I did not participate (I’d like to if the event is repeated in future convention cities, which I assume it will based on the populzrity of this event) but have no qualms about the amount of pedestrian exercise I got during the trip.
Keep [Insert City] Weird Badge
The 2012 and 2013 conventions were held in Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, respectively; both cities that have “Keep [City Name] Weird” slogans. Since then I’ve noticed that every convention host city, whether or not it has a similar slogan or reputation, is weird. Somehow, an NPL presence attracts weirdness or throws weirdness into sharp relief, but it is weirdness in a good way. The Dart walkaround in Robson Square included puzzles in the Vancouver Art Gallery featuring an exhibit of Geoffrey Farmer artworks titled “How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?” — Weird and compelling. The Gastown area is the site of a puzzle room business called Smarty Pantz. Several NPLers booked sessions in the Smarty Pantz rooms, including Dreamscape where the solvers needed to solve puzzle to escape the mind of Dr. Whom — Weird and fun. Then, of course, Patrick Berry (Trick) and I seem to have odd experiences involving restrooms. This year, I was using the men’s room at a pub near English Bay beach and the guy next to me started hitting on me in four languages — Weird and … weird. Note to that guy: Silence doesn’t necessarily mean an inability to understand English; it can mean “I’m just trying to pee.”
When in Rome, Avoid Roaming Charges Badge
This was my first international trip in many years, and I was warned ahead of time that I would pay exorbitant fees if I used Canadian cellular towers for smartphone data. I set my phone to block cellular transmissions just before boarding my Denver-to-Vancouver flight and planned to scout out wifi for the entire vacation. That turned out to be more of a challenge than I realized. The wifi signal in the Vancouver hotel was spotty for the first few days and when walking about I had no reliable means of texting friends to plan meetups. I reached the point where I would visit a restaurant and ask for the wifi password first and order a drink second. Even though I managed to have data access everyday for short periods I lost my Duolingo streak and got behind on podcasts and Sporcle quizzes. When the plane touched down in Seattle on the first leg of my return trip I clicked on my phone’s cellular access and gasped a sigh of relief. Yeah, I’m pathetic.
Meal Plan Badge
Many members of the Krewe arrive at convention with a food agenda and plan excursions to destination eateries. I don’t consider myself a foodie and wasn’t looking for excuses to make this trip more expensive that it was inevitably going to be, but I will report that I had gelato three times (which is more than enough for me), three different kinds of poutine (the salmon and pulled pork “non-poutine” poutine variations were interesting but the traditional style was the best), and a nanaimo bar from Blenz Coffee. The nanaimo bar remains my favorite Canadian food delicacy. The local craft beers I tried were fair to middling but I had some wonderful craft cocktails at the Bengal Lounge in Victoria’s Empress Hotel. I especially liked the Manhattan variant that included Campari. I’ve had a similar Manhattan with Grand Marnier but the bitter blood orange of the Campari paired with the rye in a superior way.
Grope Dynamics Badge
I’m not going to talk too much about Recouvery’s official program because I am a member of the organizing committee. I am interested to receive feedback from other attendees about the program offerings, and, since he posted it on his website, I will recommend that variety cryptic fans try Trick’s “Middle of the Road“. The unofficial program was packed with wonderful handout puzzles and homemade games. I didn’t get to play all of the games that I wanted to and I still have a stack of puzzles to sift through. One game I did play and wanted to comment on was Puzzling in the Dark by WXYZ. In the game a group of six players sits around a table and puts on blindfolds. The group is given a story about the elements of a game that were engulfed by a black hole. By solving a series of four puzzles the group could determine the game elements and retrieve them from the black hole (a box) where they were mixed with irrelevant decoy objects. The puzzles used to identify game elements were manifested by a series of items placed on the table, which the players explored without sight and without any other specific instructions. The members of the group spoke to one another about their findings and eventually discovered that table items fell into four categories themed on the nonvisual senses: animal noise buzzers (sound), scented magic markers (smell), cut-out alphabet letters in various tactile materials (touch), and Jelly Belly jelly beans (taste). Each theme comprised an identification puzzle and yielded as an answer the name of one of the game elements. The game elements retrieved from the black hole clued comprised a metapuzzle leading to a thematic punch line. The game was innovative in concept, clean in execution, and entertaining in presentation. There was definitely a learning curve to working with teammates without any poking injuries (sorry, Jenn Braun (Wesley) but our group seemed to get an organizational rhythm fairly quickly in which every member made an insight.
Music Appreciation Badge
The 2002 NPL convention, also in Vancouver and in the same hotel, included flats (verse puzzles) that parodied Beatles songs, and members of the Krewe gathered around a piano for a post-solving singalong. Music was a theme at this year’s convention as well. Our host Jonathan Berkowitz (Witz) led a singalong of Canadiana following the Friday dinner. A hotel server snatched my lyrics sheet while busing the table, but I sat and listened to the rest of the room. At the business meeting Eric Suess (Lirath) presented information on Salt Lake City (the site of the 2016 convention) using the newly adopted state song “Utah, This Is the Place!” as a soundtrack. The pleasant but earwormy melody has taken permanent residence in my brain. The best musical moment from the con occurred when Dean Sturtevant (D. Ness) walked by an area where Scott Weiss (Squonk) was presenting his Lazy Jeopardy! game. D. and I unconsciously started duetting “Up a Lazy River” while riding in the elevator. The elevator provided accompaniment by being slow.
Sometimes a Jeopardy! is Just a Jeopardy! (and Sometimes It’s Not) Badge
Jeopardy! remains a popular format for after-hours trivia, but it is also a popular launching point for games that are initially Jeopardyesque but soon twist in unexpected directions. It is a badge-worthy skill to know the difference and react accordingly. Noam and Qaqaq presented games in the former style, with categories that referenced Canada, the U.S., and other parts of North America generally in punny ways, For example, Qaqaq’s Haiti category turned out to be a “Hate Tea” category all about coping with brewed beverages (and not yours truly). Jeffurry’s game was similarly traditional in structure but full of whimsical categories inspired by the setting. I did well with the Canadian spelling bee clues. We thought that the spelling words might involve -er/-re or -our/-or variations, but they were actually words like “maharaja,” spelled “m-eh-h-eh-r-eh-j-eh.” The game Answer in the Form of a Question written by Denis and Marc Moskowitz (Capital R and G2znii) and presented by the former included categories themed on the common words that begin questions…and then some uncommon ones such as “Whither,” “Wherefore,” and “Aintcha.” And then there’s Makeshift Jeopardy! by TK Focht (arcs), which is “Jeopardy!” and a lot of other game shows and also none of them. Even though I’m terrible at identifying pop songs I enjoyed the surprise gimmick behind the Name That Tune round and the Press Your Luck board, while unusually heavy on Telegraph prizes, supported a very nicely hidden puzzle.
Chauncey Gardner “I Like to Watch” Badge
The NPL convention website features page for after-hours game presenters to announce their wares in advance. In the weeks leading up to Recouvery I watched this page fill up with interesting game descriptions and I experienced both excitement and dread. I knew that I would be unlikely to play all of the games, particularly when I was running an after-hours game of my own, so I could feel the pangs of FOMO. I posted on Facebook proposing a system of gamemaker priority but knew that such a system wouldn’t guarantee that I would be able to play everyone’s game. Toward the end of the convention I had an epiphany: I am getting just as much satisfaction watching most of these games as playing them, so why don’t I accept the fact that I am not going to play everything and choose to watch some game at the outset, even if opportunities for later play are possible and even if a game is stumbled upon in the middle. In some circumstances I could be a scorekeeper or offer assistance in another way, and in many circumstances I could “play at home” and get a rough idea of how I would have fared as an actual player. As many other NPLers have observed, WXYZ’s Puzzling in the Dark is extremely enjoyable to watch, though it is a game best appreciated by playing it first. So help me earn this badge next year by reminding me of my decision to both watch and play. And on the subject of watching I would like to make an observation/suggestion to other NPL convention attendees: When an after-hours game is in progress the active participants have an instinct to protect uninitiated spectators from being spoiled, as in “You might not want to watch this game because you won’t be able to play it later.” The instinct is natural and well-meaning but it has become a bit militant in execution and I worry that curious newbies might interpret being shooed off as cliquishness rather than protection. So, my suggestion is not to warn approaching spectators at all. If the approaching spectator has attended several conventions then they know the drill and would approach a game session because 1) they have already played, 2) they want to watch rather than play, or 3) they just want to get a quick confirmation of the activity and will not stay in the vicinity long enough to be spoiled. If the approaching spectator is a less experienced convention attendee then they may benefit from being invited to stay and watch and interact with the group when the game is at a stopping point. We should provide fair opportunities for playing games but also make sure that new members feel welcome and included.
About two weeks before the convention the following four-word phrase appeared in my head.
Do it for Maso.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the phrase at the time and I wasn’t comfortable talking about it with too many people, but I derived a comfort from the words and kept it in the back of my mind during the convention. Several people brought activities to Recouvery that were tributes to our late friend Thomas Gazzola (Maso). Of particular note was an adaptation of a game presented at Maso’s service. The original game was designed by Matt Jones (Maelstrom) and the convention version, which involved some very entertaining simultaneous charades, was led by Mike Selinker (Slik), Gaby Weidling (SparkOwl), Chad Brown (Shebang), and Rubrick (Rick Rubinstein). Throughout the charades game, Gaby displayed panels drawn by Maso’s family and friends and arranged the panels in such a way that a message formed.
The mural and the game were beautiful to experience. They made me think about Maso and they made me think about the qualities he exhibited: a love of learning, a respect for sharing ideas, a flair for showmanship, a creative outlook on the world, and a compassion for all people. In a way, Maso represented the better virtues of the League, and I realized that I was thinking about him, fondly, not only in response to the explicit tributes but in response to seeing people co-solve cryptics or play a round of Exquisite Fruit or exchange puns across a lunch table or hug each other goodbye in the hotel lobby. I guess I’ve come to understand the phrase in a different way than when I first thought of it and I will try to earn the DIFM badge every year.
If any of you who attended the convention have any ideas for badges that you earned or hope to earn someday, please share them in the comments.