A week has passed since I returned home from the annual National Puzzlers’ League convention in Boston. The convention, dubbed “BeaCon” by its organizers, marked my twentieth opportunity to gather with the finest people in the universe, with whom I am most fortunate to share a passion for puzzles and games. I am immensely grateful to everyone who made the convention amazing and justified my conviction that the NPL is an essential part of my life. In particular, my sincere thanks go to convention hosts Jenny Gutbezahl (Hathor) and Ben Smith (B-Side); program committee colleagues Rick Rubenstein (Rubrick), Will Shortz (WILLz), and Fraser Simpson (Fraz); and official program presenters (listed by noms only) 42itous, 530nm330Hz, Bluff, Btnirn, Hot, Mr E, Murdoch, Navin, QED, Qoz, Saxifrage, Shaggy, Shrdlu, Spelvin, Toonhead! Tortoise, Trazom, Trick, and Zebraboy. Also, thanks go to Eric Berlin (Story) for helping younger solvers, such as my nephew Ian Chaney (Whovian), participate in activities with older solvers.
Industrial Espionage Badge
Boston currently boasts about half a dozen escape room businesses. Escape rooms continue to be popular destinations for NPLers, and groups of attendees began making plans weeks before the convention. I didn’t join any groups for traditional escape rooms but I put together a group to visit 5 Wits in Foxborough. The 5 Wits company was an inspiration to the founders of Puzzah! and my employers encouraged me to check out their operation. My red-eye flight to Boston arrived at 4:30 a.m., giving me enough time to read the news, grab breakfast, make copies at Staples, and find the Revere hotel where my 5 Wits-bound companions were gathering in the lobby. We Lyfted to Patriot Place, got our tickets from a clerk whose black polo shirt should have read “I SO don’t want to be here,” and set off on two immersive puzzle adventures titled Espionage and 20,000 Leagues. 5 Wits tickets uses public ticketing and admits up to twelve players in each session, but we managed to keep our group of eight NPLers together with no added strangers. Both adventures featured an in-character staffer who guided us through a series of rooms and directed us to complete physical and mental challenges. The production values were very high and both adventures included well-designed lighting, sounds, special effects, and architectural mechanics that played with our sense of spatial orientation. The puzzles were breezy and our group dispatched them in short order. I mainly took a professional research approach to the experience and spent time taking in the aesthetics and analyzing the experiences in terms of scheduling and reset mechanics. Brent Holman (Shaggy) was a member of the group who also works for an escape room company and afterwards we compared notes in a conversation that others compared to revealing the secrets behind a magician’s tricks. The trip was educational on an industrial espionage level and rewarding on a “have sleep-deprived fun with your puzzle peeps” level. The second item is what NPL convention is all about.
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I also returned to Boda Borg this year, thus visiting both automated, reset-free, escape room-esque businesses in the Boston area. Eric Berlin organized a Boda Borg outing for younger puzzlers traveling with adult NPL members. My 15-year-old nephew Whovian and I joined about a dozen others to try the Swedish-style puzzle challenges. Ian and I started the morning with Ben Zimmer (Elf) and his family. I volunteered to guide them through some good starting quests like Farm. Once they understood how the quests worked, the younger set wanted to tackle more physical quests. After lunch we shuffled teams, and the younger solvers worked on Superbanen and Jungle while the older set tried Infra, Pirates, and Spook House, and then eventually gathered in the upstairs lounge to visit. I could have gone for more questing, including some more physical challenges, but ultimately I was happy that Ian got a chance to interact with intelligent agemates. I also enjoyed hanging out with Scott Weiss (Squonk), Yossi Fendel ((e)met), and Jennifer Turney (Saphir). Ben Zimmer’s son Blake came up with the line of the convention during the Boda Borg outing. We were working on the Step Up room and suffered a room fail. I commented that someone must have stepped out of turn. Blake looked at me and huffed, “Nobody stepped on a turtle!”
Invisible Boy Badge
In the 1999 film Mystery Men, Kel Mitchell plays a superhero who can become invisible but only if no one, including himself, is looking at him. I had a number of solving experiences during the convention in which I felt that I choked under the scrutiny of cosolvers or spectators. I can almost feel some mechanism of mental concentration clicking off in my head, and an internal voice mumble, “just ask someone else for the answer.” This phenomenon makes me apprehensive about teaming up for cryptic crosswords or escape rooms. On the flip side, I performed exceptionally well in a couple of puzzles and games when no one was looking. The charm of these experience comes partly from the fact that they were unobserved by others so I’m won’t offer details. I will however describe one of my game successes that was unseen by me. Tony Delgado (Tablesaw) attended BeaCon after several years of convention absence and brought one as an unofficial game one of his staples: Remote Control. Tablesaw’s presentation combined 21st-century pop culture content with the disestablishmentarian silliness of the 1980s MTV game show on which it was based. Players offered puzzle-themed entries to Hashtag Wars, answered questions while eating marshmallows, and demonstrated Arrested Development chicken dances (I chose Lindsay’s dance. Because “Chee Chaw”). I played in a post-convention session when Tablesaw had already packed his signalling device. The players rang in to answer questions by simply stating the name of an Eggspert button color, and this convention led to some humorous confusion when a question involved colors (“Fill in the blank: ___ Is the New Black”) The second half of the game features an auction in which players could spend points to buy disadvantages for other players. I ended up with a green sleep mask that I was forced to wear for the remainder of the game. The mask didn’t prove to be too much of a hindrance (in fact it was rather soothing) until a game-end Beat the Bishop challenge when all players had to write a list of items while Tablesaw raced around the ballroom. The category was seasons of Survivor. I can remember a lot of the seasons but I had to write the legibly or else they wouldn’t count. A bystander guided my pen to the top of my sheet of paper, Tablesaw took off, and I begin writing. When time expired I prepared to take off my mask and expected to see a Jackson Pollock print on my piece of paper, when Kiran Kedlaya (Kray) shouted, “T McAy writes better blindfolded than I write with my eyes open!” Sure enough, my list was readable with virtually no overlap of entries, and the twelve seasons I was able to remember netted me the top score.
Duck Konundrum Badge
Ducks have a special association with Boston with the Robert McCloskey children’s book Make Way for Ducklings and the duck tour vehicles carting tourists through the North End and up and down the Charles River. The McCloskey book inspired a few of the puzzle creators at the convention, including a delightful cryptic crossword by Trazom and an enjoyable walk-around devised by the ClueKeeper team. The walk-around followed the path of the Mallard family in the book, from the Public Garden to the banks of the Charles. I completed the walk-around with a about a dozen solvers during the experience I noticed how our group behaved like the ducklings in the book. We waddled along in line with members occasionally straying off course or getting in the way of a cyclist, but we kept one another safe and achieved our goal. My life as a puzzle largely involves understanding what’s going on around me and responding in a way that makes a positive contribution. Dan Katz (Spelvin) invented a puzzle for an MIT Hunt many years ago that exploits this group dynamic challenge: the Duck Konundrum. Spelvin’s konundra are bewilderingly complex but they reward intrepid solvers who trust that order will eventually emerge from the chaos. BeaCon was a konundrum for me, but despite all the frustration of keeping my ducks in a row I came out of it feeling my trust in a positive resolution was well founded.
Next year in Milwaukee. difm