Netflix Mystery Game


For several years I’ve been playing something that I call the “Netflix Mystery Game.” It might be more apt to call it a personal pastime than a game, and, unlike other movie trivia games, it relies more on ignorance than knowledge. The “game” is based on my personal inattentiveness with the film industry. I find very few new movies compelling and avoid going to movie theaters due to ticket prices and volume levels. I have a Netflix account that I use mainly for television series but I add movies to my queue occasionally. My media habits are such that I manage to miss a good amount of movie press and, as a result, I have some trouble finding ideas for DVDs to request. Movies tend end up in my Netflix queue for one of the following reasons:

  1. The movie is prominent or unusual enough to earn a mention in my media feeds.
  2. The move was nominated for an award (a cachet that I adhere to).
  3. The movie has an actor or director that I am exploring based on the enjoyment of a previously viewed film.
  4. The movie was recommended by a friend.

Netflix gives users the option of adding movies to their queues before the movies have been released for home viewing. Many months may separate a request for a movie and its delivery, by which time I may fail to recognize the title on the disc sleeve and have no memory of why I added it in the first place. This is how the Netflix Mystery Game begins. When a mystery DVD arrives I don’t check my account or look up the movie on IMDb. I throw it in the DVD player, press play, and see how long it take to figure out which of the four aforementioned queue-addition categories it belongs to.

Yesterday two Netflix DVDs arrived in the mail. I wasn’t expecting a second disc but reasoned that it was a complimentary bonus generated by a waiting-list delay at the top of my queue. One disc contained television episodes and the other a movie. Nothing about the movie rang a bell but the elusive title suggested it was a perfect candidate for the Netflix Mystery Game. The movie was Project X.

I started watching the movie and eliminated Category 2 in the first 30 seconds. Category 3 was eliminated shortly after that. It was rather underwhelming to watch but I’ve sat through bad movies before and I still wanted to solve the mystery. Category 4 seemed the most likely but I couldn’t think of a friend who would have recommended it. I considered a number of ironic and meta-appreciation theories for which one might advocate the movie but none of them led me to a suspect.

Once the movie ended (at least it was rather short) I skimmed the Wikipedia article for clues that validate one of the eliminated categories but to no avail. Then I went to my online Netflix account. I discovered that Project X was not in my queue not had it ever been. I had already thrown away the mailing label and taken the trash to the dumpster so I couldn’t check to see if the disc was intended for me or for a neighbor. But even without concrete evidence I am ruling the movie as Category 5: Delivery error. Mystery solved.

On the other hand, if any of you have another theory, or clearly remember recommending Project X to me, please let me know. 🙂



KICKSTARTER: What’s That Spell?


Nathan Curtis of Tortoiseshell Studio fame has launched a Kickstarter campaign for an upcoming puzzle hunt. After being funded, the hunt titled What’s That Spell will debut as an installment in the BAPHL walkaround puzzle hunt series in the September-October and then distributed to at-home solvers in November. The Kickstarter features pledge tiers for the BAPHL version (for solvers who will be in the Boston area to participate) and for the at-home version (which includes postal delivery of physical props that are involved in the completion of puzzle metas). If you’re a fan of finely crafted puzzle hunts please visit the website to pledge and make this campaign a success.

REVIEW: 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament Puzzles (SPOILERS)


The second Indie 500 Crossword Tournament was held on Saturday, June 4 on the George Washington University campus. Roger Barkan took top honors in the event that featured prom theme and pies aplenty. Crossword fans who couldn’t make it to Washington, D.C. last weekend to participate in person have the option of ordering the puzzles online and solving at leisure. I ordered the puzzles and created my own “tournament” of a sole, untimed competitor. In lieu of the prom night, my tournament theme was solving on a commuter train wile listening to podcasts. The tournament organizers produced a great set of puzzles this year. My solving review follows.

1 – Canned Music by Peter Broda & Lena Webb
As I flipped through the puzzles to check the bylines I noticed that most of the puzzles were credited to multiple constructors. I assume that the use of constructor couples tied in with the prom theme. The opener puzzle features three song titles ties together with the punchline entry combo THATS / MYJAM. The titles are start with words that can precede JAM in phrases: SPACEODDITY, RASPBERRYBERET, and PAPERPLANES. Two of the songs were recorded by artists who recently passed away (was there a recent death in M.I.A.?) Aside from the theme, the puzzle contains clever fill such as BIKERBAR clued {Watering hole where you might find hogs?} and the new-to-me BUTTDIMPLE clued {Dent in the rear?}

2 – A Modest Promposal by Andy Kravis & Neville Fogarty
Puzzle 2 is a Reagle-esque pun-fest in which familiar phrases are humorously tied to a prom night scenario. The theme opener {We told our dates that our limo would be, without a doubt, the most mind-blowing vehicle they had ever seen; …} leads to ITWASASTRETCH. A non-theme clue that tickled me, because the approach was one I’d never thought about, is {Wilson that Tom Hanks talks to a lot} for RITA. I spent a bit too much time trying to figure out a four-letter term for a sports ball.

3 – I Now Pronounce You… by Sam Trabucco
The clue-writing narrator of the puzzle is trying to contact the solver via a poor cellphone connection and, as a result, entries to asterisked clues need to be respelled as if their silent letters are pronounced. {Military subdivision} is CORPSE, {Was aware of} is CANOE, and so on. The central across answer ties together the cellphone theme and the no-longer-silent letters: CANYOUHEARMENOW. A had a minor confusion with the clue to this entry, {Question from someone with a bad connection…or from the silent letter(s) in the original answers to the starred clues?} I wondered if Sam intended solvers to arrange the silent letters into an additional meta answer. The grid contains some nice fill such as SKYPEDATE and DOTHEMATH, though the clue for latter of those two entries, {Put two and two together} doesn’t quite work for me. Both phrases refer to the performance of calculations and mental reasoning but “doing the math” has the implication of working without the help of another and “putting two and two together” tends to mean drawing a conclusion not immediately evident.

4 – Do I Hear a Waltz? by Erik Agard & Joanne Sullivan
When I participate in crossword tournaments I usually avoid trying to deduce themes from clues because I find that it wastes too much time. I focus on nuts-and-bolts down entries and grok the themes from intersections of the long acrosses. I had heard some rumblings about this puzzle on social media so I decided to break from my normal pattern and start attacking the puzzle around the central theme entry, which turned out to be COUNTINGOFF, i.e. {Keeping time, in a way, and a hint to a few lines in this puzzle}. Getting this info early on, and remembering the title, proved extremely helpful. Some of the horizontal rows of the puzzle contain three entries. In four or these rows the corresponding clues for the three entries are missing the initial words “One,” “Two,” and “Three” respectively. And, of course, the clues are deliberately written to prevent the missing words from being obvious. {Horse town}, {Face opposition}, and {Card ___} lead to PODUNK, BATMAN, and MONTE. One one instance the “Three” clue is {Down payment}, requiring the solver to note the 3-Down entry IRS to deduce the answer TAX. This is my favorite type of tournament puzzle gimmick. It’s clever and makes the the puzzle challenging but doesn’t overload the experience with additional “ahas” or unnecessary metas that have no place in a timed solving situation. Great job!

5 – Group Dance by The Indie 500 Team
A camel is a horse designed by committee, but camels have their charms as does this capper of the first round puzzles. Each of the four theme entries is a possible addition to the theme in one of the four previous puzzles. Each theme entry contains circled cells and shaded cells. The letters in the circled cells spell items that can TAKEONWATER and the letter in the shaded cells spell words that can complete the phrase LETIT ___. I didn’t notice the connection to the previous puzzles’ themes until I had completed the grid. Even with that added significance, the puzzle felt … just okay. I did get a chuckle from the clue “You might hear radio “ga-ga” on it” for BABYMONITOR.

6 – The Dance-Off by Angela Olsen Halsted & Kameron Austin Collins
The playoff puzzle contains two versions, an Outside Track and an Inside Track. I got confused and figured that since the inside track of racecourse is shorter and gives the racer an advantage it must be the easier of the two puzzle. So I chose the Outside Track and took a bit too much pride in completing the grid quickly. I also made an error on 1-Across, {“My scheme is working!”}. I entered BWAHAHAHA, but unless “The BOD Squad” is the title of something I chose the unintended spelling. (Just Googled and….oooh, The Bod Squad is an alternate title of the 1974 Hong Kong martial arts film Virgins of the Seven Seas, so I think I have a claim here!) The grid contains some tricky fill including AAONLINE, PROMDJ, and TRENTONNJ. A few of the clues are shared between the two versions, such as {One whose priorities are in order?} for NEATFREAK. Nice puzzle.

Congratulations to Roger and the other top finishers at the live event, and thanks to all of the tournament organizers and constructors who made the  puzzles available after the tournament. I now have the Indie 500 Meta Suite to work on.