Last week I attended the convention of the National Puzzlers’ League in Salt Lake City Utah. It was my nineteenth overall convention and sixth as a member of the program committee. The convention coincided with the release of the Niantic/Nintendo smartphone app Pokemon Go. I didn’t spend my time in Utah capturing Pikachu and Squirtle but I did collect a few more badges, and as with my post on last year’s convention I thought I would share some of the badges I earned as my SiLiCon report. I will refer to other NPL members by civilian name followed by “nom” (League nickname) in parentheses.
Krewes Control Badge
For the first time since 2008 (the convention in the Denver suburbs that I hosted) I chose to drive to the convention rather than fly. Salt Lake City is only eight hours from Denver and with my nephew Ian Chaney (Whovian) coming along a road trip was a no-brainer for saving money on travel. The drives were very scenic and having a car at the convention allowed Whovian and I to do some sightseeing at Loveland Living Planet Aquarium and Red Butte Garden. One thing I didn’t take into consideration was the return trip. I typically use the plane flight home from convention to catch up on the accumulation of sleep deprivation over the convention days, but I didn’t have that luxury when driving with a fourteen-year-old. And I was coaxed into staying up until 4:30 a.m. on Sunday to play and present after hours games. When we left Salt Lake City on Sunday afternoon I started feeling nervous about my ability to stay alert. We stopped at a gas station where Whovian bought a sandwich and I bought a large double-caffeine coffee. When we returned to the road I asked Whovian to start naming NPL members that he wanted to know more about. “Murdoch,” was his first reply. I started babbling for ten minutes covering everything I knew about Andrew Chaikin (Murdoch): all of his various, interesting jobs, how he discovered the NPL, how we met, etc. Whovian kept mentioning other puzzlers and I would babble, keeping my mind occupied and keeping awake. By the time we reached I-70 the caffeine had kicked in and we were fine all the way to Glenwood Springs where we could crash (in the safe sense) for the night at my sister’s house. In addition to keeping me alert, the game also let me know which NPL members made an impression on Whovian, for whom SiLiCon was convention number three. It also provided a fun secondary game where I got to identify Krewe, with noms Whovian couldn’t remember, simply by visual description, as in, “Who is the guy who has glasses and looks like Seth Rogen?”
Play the Percentages Badge
Escape rooms have replaced used bookstores as the popular commercial destinations for puzzlers in convention cities. Businesses that operate escape rooms often advertise the success rates of their rooms so that players can weigh their success or failure against the average. This success rate is meaningful only if the room is fairly designed with skill-based puzzles and objectively dispensed hints. Dave Shukan (Tinhorn) often jokes about the “perfect” escape room that contains one lock and a ring of a thousand keys. The room is perfect because the operators can accurately adjust the success rate simply by adding or subtracting keys. Tinhorn’s perfect room illustrates the flaw in the design of many escape rooms: too much emphasis is placed on establishing a low success rate and not enough on making sure the room is fair or fun. I joined a group for a pair of escape rooms played on Friday afternoon. The first titled En-Twained was a search for Mark Twain’s hidden treasure with puzzles based on Twain’s novels. It was a decent room and our group finished with a record time. The second room was titled Mystery Impossible and it was unapologetically advertised as a room that had never been solved. Tinhorn, who made the group reservation, had asked the operator earlier if the room were impossible due to poor puzzle design but received assurance that its puzzles were fair. The theme of the adventures was a bank heist and it looked like the room contained some interesting challenges such as a water transfer puzzle and the equipment to make a fake security badge. We eventually stumbled upon the “ring of keys” elements such as an puzzle that required players to count letters around the room to plug into an equation. The tricky hiding places of the letters made it difficult to determine when the correct amounts were reached, and we later learned that a group of dalmatians on a wall poster were intended to be added to the “D” count. Another puzzle required a four-digit code to be entered into a computer by trial and error (or “trail and error” as was printed on the clue). Entering 24 possibilities was not a deal-breaking burden, but the Windows 10 system on the computer throttled our efforts with a one-minute delay after every five failed attempts. After our time ended and we joined the ranks of the unsuccessful teams, we visited with the room operator offering constructive criticism through clenched teeth. She was receptive to our frustrations and had wished that she could initiate more help during our mission (we had requested no unsolicited hints). She also confessed that the room was her least favorite to operate because of the understandable poor reception. We returned to the hotel and I asked Whovian, who was part of the escape room group, what he thought of Mystery Impossible. He said that he had fun, that he valued the opportunity to cosolve with some great people, and felt that the negativity expressed by some in our group was a bit excessive. “It’s just an escape room,” he observed. I like Whovian’s attitude and choose to focus on the enjoyment I had being with an awesome group of friends.
It Takes Two (or More) Badge
As with the escape room excursion, the highlight of NPL Con is the opportunity to work on puzzles and games with a partner or a team. Joe DeVincentis (/dev/joe) and I formed a solid team for the game What invented by Dan Katz (Spelvin) (this intuitive trivia game was my favorite of all the after-hours offerings). Tanis O’Connor (Sidhe) and I got the band back together for a partnership in the well-crafted Doubles Jeopardy! game presented by Nathan Curtis (Tortoise). And I had great teams for Overtime and Secret Fortune led by Darren Rigby (Dart), Todd Etter’s (Navin) trivia tour de force The Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, and the sequel to the inventive Puzzling in the Dark created by Wil Zambole (WXYZ). I undertook a few activities as a solo competitor, such as the fine Jeopardy! sets presented by Adam Cohen (Noam) and Ben Smith (b-side), but I find more and more that I prefer working with a partner or a team as it puts more emphasis on camaraderie than competition. For the Saturday afternoon handout puzzles I solved the Mike Shenk (Manx) puzzle Urban Renewal with Amanda O’Connor (Aardvark). We took a leisurely pace, both made contributions to the puzzle, and didn’t care about turning our papers in for scoring. Similarly, I had an amazing time solving the flats in a large group organized by Jenny Gutbezahl (Hathor). We read the flats aloud and collaborated on all of the solutions while enjoying local craft beers. On the first night of my trip a group gathered in the hotel lobby to play the board game Concept, and we marveled at how much we enjoyed the dynamics that favored cooperation over competition. I like the collaborative trend in convention activities and, when I presented my variation of Dictionary Race on the main program, I made a last-minute decision to encourage players to form teams of two and eliminate the option of playing solo. Some of the tables had uneven numbers and a few chose to play solo but in an equal number of cases team of two took on a third.
Bee Charmer Badge
At an early point in the convention I had a vision, which I shared with a handful of people. In the vision I was at the podium during the Sunday morning awards presentation and I addressed the Krewe. “Raise your hand,” I said in the vision, “if you won a prize at the prize table. Now raise your hand if you won an after hours game over the weekend. Now raise your hand if you solved one of the handout puzzles from the hospitality suite. And now raise your hand if at some point during the convention you made a new friend.” NPL convention is a time for me to see a hundred or so of my second family members but I’m never sure if I will be meeting anyone new. A planned an activity for Thursday evening in which I invited first-time conventiongoers to meet in the main ballroom after the main program for an orientation to the unofficial program that included some of the impromptu games we play in the after hours. I met several new Krewe at that activity and one tagged along for a Coordination game that I ran, in which he managed to achieve the top score. I signed up for a “racer” team in this year’s Saturday night extravaganza. In recent years I have been a “stroller” as that gives me the freedom to choose my teammates and leave nothing to chance, but I had a feeling that Erin Rhode (Colossus), the chief constructor of the multi-puzzle event, would somehow see that I would be okay. I was blessed with a wonderful team. In addition to good friend Gary Sherman (Eddy) I was partnered with new-to-me cosolvers Kevin Schraith (Tronic) and Asher Walkover (Team Asher). We hummed along through the delightful, apian-themed extravaganza (Colossus was dressed as the queen bee). All in all, I made six new Facebook connections based on meetings at SiLiCon.
Like Button Badge
The benefits of attending an NPL convention are described in many ways: an escape from the stressful world, a reunion with one’s tribe, a rejuvenation, a psychological necessity. The chief source of my Weltschmerz of late has been social media. I once considered Facebook to be a marketplace of ideas in which diversity could be embraced, but that feeling has changed over the last few months. Discussion of art, politics, social attitudes, and tragedies have been combative and more Facebook users seem to be balkanizing their social media experience by unfriending and disconnecting all opposing views. I came to convention needing harmony, and I got what I needed. The shootings in various cities during the convention numbed those who peeked at news feeds between puzzles and games but we kept our spirits up. Donald Trump’s name was brought up a few times but that was the extent of the political topics that I was exposed to. And while I have been posting very little on Facebook lately, intimidated by the contentious discourse, I found several Krewe at Con that I felt safe opening up to. One such conversation led to a tacky joke, but I’ll share it anyway. After a soulful conversation with Nancy Coughlin (Uncanny), I told her that felt very comfortable sharing part of myself with her and that I could consider her a “horcrux.” She replied, “Well, as long as I’m more than just a ‘whore’.”