CrosswordsLA / Escape Room Binge

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I was in Los Angeles last weekend for CrosswordsLA held on the USC campus. I was a tournament volunteer once again, helping in the tabulation room in the morning and collecting puzzles in the afternoon. I didn’t have the opportunity to solve the qualifying puzzles in advance, but I reviewed the completed puzzles handed in by the contestants and was impressed with the work of the constructors. I especially liked the chewy Puzzle 3 created by Erin Rhode. When the finalists were announced I grabbed a copy of Patti Varol’s championship puzzle and bolted out of Fertitta Hall auditorium to complete it. My head start gave me just enough time to return to the auditorium and see fellow Coloradan Al Sanders finish at the big board ahead of co-finalists Eric LeVasseur and Eric Maddy. I was glad to see Al win another tournament!

The rest of Crosswords LA was fairly routine. Dave Shukan presented a fun opening game and John “Doppler” Schiff concocted an afternoon mini-extravaganza. Tournament organizer Elissa Grossman kept things running smoothly, though she occasionally needed to be reminded of what a great job she was doing. She also wrangled really nice desserts as usual. The tournament was my first time to see the USC campus. After the tournament, a few of the puzzlers walked across the street to a gastropub for a light dinner. Shukan and I talked shop while Tyler Hinman focused on the Trojans getting whipped by Notre Dame.

CrosswordsLA was the primary purpose of the trip, but the personal highlight was the marathon of escape rooms that Tyler organized. He got recommendations from locals, mainly Trip Payne who maintains a detailed spreadsheet, and devised an itinerary of 13 rooms for the weekend. The itinerary included two rooms on Friday, two on Saturday, and an ambitious sequence of nine rooms in the Hollywood-Koreatown area scheduled for a twelve-hour span on Sunday. Tyler alerted local puzzlers of the schedule and invited them to participate in as many as the wished. He played all 13 and I played 11. I was curious to see how such glut of escape room immersion would test my limits of cognitive stability. I was pleased with my personal results and happy with my solving companions throughout. We completed every room and set some (asterisked?) record times at the last location on Sunday.

The rooms were all superior quality. The technological devices that registered puzzle answers and popped open doors to new parts of the adventure were amazingly sophisticated. Tech can be unreliable, especially in a wear-and-tear environment like an escape room. We experienced a fair number of tech glitches and delays that resulted in heel-cooling diagnostic conversations with game masters. My favorite rooms of the weekend were relatively light on tech, but featured compelling narratives, theatricality, live actors, and unconventional game-play structures. The room Smugglers Tunnel at North Hollywood’s Escape Chronicles is a heist-themed experience that evaluates players not strictly by speed but by optimization of the stolen items. That’s an element that draws me in more than a string of RFID-maglock set pieces.

The ultimate value of completing a marathon of escape rooms is the opportunity to analyze trends that I can incorporate into my own work. Puzzah! operates with some challenging design parameters, but I’m motivated to find a way to apply the positive elements of the LA rooms into future Puzzah! projects. That motivation may involve lobbying to change our parameters — we’ll see. In any case, I’m content with going back to an escape room regimen of about one a month.

By the way, you can purchase packets of the CrosswordsLA puzzles online here. Proceeds go to the organization Reading to Kids.

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