PUZZLE: Rice Milk #29


LEFT (7 3) / RIGHT (6 4)

My true love lost some fierce LEFTs on eBay,
Out-proposed on each swan, goose, and grebe, eh?
Lacking waterfowl, he
Bought some RIGHTs, and said, “See:
Storks and ibises in a pear tree, bae!”

Comments contain the answer to Rice Milk #28 and may contain other spoilers. For information on solving transposals and other “flat” (verse puzzle) types, visit the National Puzzlers’ League’s Online Guide to the Enigma.


PUZZLE: Rice Milk #28


ONE (9) / TWO (4 5)

Now my No Shave November is done!
And my face depicts gray, wizened ONE!
But by Saturday morn
I’ll be dyed, shaved, and shorn,
With those TWO fully plucked out — how fun!


Comments contain the answer to Rice Milk #27 and may contain other spoilers. For information on solving transposals and other “flat” (verse puzzle) types, visit the National Puzzlers’ League’s Online Guide to the Enigma.


CURRICULUM VITAE: Ottawa Catacombs


(Puzzle Room)

A team explores an ancient catacombs, solving puzzles, avoiding traps, and searching for a key to unlock a Native American burial vault filled with treasure.

* * *

In 1990 I was a sophomore studying theater at Ottawa University. My friend Tim Conard, also a theater major, was my go-to partner in crime for extracurricular creative projects. Tim was avid gamer, mainly of role-playing and adjacent tabletop strategy games, and he had a knack for staging game activities with theatrical flair. After the death of Monty Python performer Graham Chapman, Tim and I talked about creating a scaled-down version of the Dangerous Sports Club and cultivating a group of students interested in unconventional and adventurous leisure activities. We named the group the Ottawa Association of Fun and, as an initiation activity for O.A.F. prospects, concocted a late-night tomb-raiding adventure.

We set the adventure in the basement of Atkinson Hall, a dormitory that had been abandoned since the 1970s. The mildewy building was being used by the theater department for overflow storage, so we had rooms full of props to use for the activity. We took a trip to U.S. Toy in Leawood and picked up rubber bats, plastic bugs, fake spiderweb, and other decorations. We picked a Saturday date in the spring and sent invitations to a dozen students we were considering for O.A.F. membership. The first invitations did not mention an scheduled event but contained vague references to a catacombs whose entrance had recently been discovered. A later invitation instructed the group to meet at the campus gazebo dressed in appropriate costume and equipped with flashlights and other exploration gear. The recipients sought one another out to speculate on the meaning of the messages. Tim and I sent invitations to ourselves to prolong the mystery of who was organizing the event, but a spoilsport not on the invitation list spotted me with some O.A.F. materials and sent out another set of messages to let the cat out of the bag. Regardless, the invitees were intrigued and assembled at the gazebo just before midnight to see what Tim and I had planned.

We emerged a few minutes after midnight, Tim in his leather bomber jacket and me in an olive-green military field coat and an eye patch. We introduced ourselves as Oklahoma Smith and Achie Ologist, character names that elicited the intended amount of groaning from the assembled party. We set up the activity as an expedition to the recently discovered catacombs beneath the campus. The catacombs contained challenges that would test the group’s physical and mental agility. I held up a piece of a stone (Styrofoam) tablet and explained that we believed the remaining pieces of the tablet were scattered around the catacombs and, once reassembled, the tablet would lead to an Ottawa Indian treasure. The group accepted the mission and followed us to the back stairs of Atkinson Hall.

The main hallway of the basement had been converted into an obstacle course of theatrical props that the group lumbered over or crawled beneath. Gray trash bags filled with shredded paper were stuffed into closets and led to mini avalanches when the doors were opened. In some dormitory rooms members of the group retrieved tablet pieces by playing variations of “hot lava” or avoiding hordes of poisonous insects suspended by strings from the ceiling. In other rooms, the group needed to solve puzzles. In one room, Tim was possessed by an ancient riddle master and gave riddles for the group to solve. In another room I had set up an arrow maze on the tile floor. The maze included wrong turns leading to an infinite loop in the maze’s center, and if a solver got stuck in this loop another solver had to enter the maze and navigate around the stuck player. The maze was solved on the fifth attempt, with the successful solver carefully negotiating four tapped colleagues. In one of the sillier rooms, we awarded a tablet piece when every member of the group sang part of a show tune (we were very generous in evaluating this task). The final puzzle was assembling the tablet, which appeared to be one piece shy until someone in the group remembered to ask me for the piece I was holding. The restored tablet bore a message about a key hidden under the throne. The group returned to the throne room (a dormitory bathroom) and retrieved the physical key that unlocked the final room in the hallway. The room featured a coffin filled with ring pops, candy necklaces, and printed mission statements of the Ottawa Association of Fun.

Ottawa Catacombs was a bauble, a small entertainment promoting a club that would be forgotten by summer. But I find it remarkable how the event anticipated 21st-century escape room design: a goal-focused narrative, an immersive setting, orchestrated discoveries, and performance evaluation (in this case overseen by the two embedded game masters rather than mechanical or electronic devices). I’m not sure what informed the Catacombs concept back in 1990. Tim and I were not into haunted houses or LARPing, but we must have somehow tapped into those traditions, added our familiarity with stagecraft and puzzle-based interactive fiction games, and come up with an experience that decades later would become my livelihood.

Denver Immersive Summit Notes / Eric Berlin’s “Escape Room” Crossword


The Denver Immersive Summit drew nearly 300 creators, technologists, and businesspeople to the CU-Denver campus on Saturday. The summit opened with a mission statement by co-organizer David Thomas and a high-level history of immersive art presented by Lonnie Hanzon. No Proscenium founder Noah Nelson delivered the keynote speech titled “Presence,” which explored the opportunities for artistic expression in the immersive space. The rest of the day comprised three breakout sessions in which participants could choose between various open forums, panel discussions, and demonstrations.

In many ways, the summit only scratched the surface. The inability to understand or agree on the meaning of “immersive” was general theme of the discourse. Still. I was heartened by the “Year Zero” turnout and enjoyed the opportunity to network with other members of the community. David Thomas plans on expanding the conversation with a series of postscript events starting in 2019.

In the keynote Noah Nelson made a brief reference to a rivalry in the escape room community between “high puzzle” and “high immersive.” I wasn’t aware this rivalry but realized it might apply to the afternoon panel discussion in which Cody Borst and I discussed escape room design challenges. I am clearly of the High Puzzle camp and Cody, whose rooms are astoundingly rich sensory experiences, is the delegate for the Immersives. We expressed no antagonism as it tuns out, and instead shared common concerns about making escape rooms that are accessible to participants with a wide variety of abilities and expectations. The conversation was a bit dry at fist as Cody and I kept things on a theoretical level. Once we started giving examples of design successes and failures in actual rooms, the audience began to perk up. Among the audience members were Puzzah! coworkers, my former coworker Noreen, and friends Arianna and Winter. The Q&A session ended with a powerful question from Winter: Why do escape rooms reward strong performance with a shorter experience?

Puzzah! agreed to host one of the Summit followups with a event in February based on puzzles. I hope to address Winter’s question and other puzzle topics related to escape rooms and other immersive experiences.

* * *

Eric Berlin has a great crossword puzzle in today’s (Sunday’s) New York Times. “Escape Room” is a contest crossword with a hidden bonus answer. Solvers can submit this answer for a chance to win a 2019 crossword calendar. Check it out!

Denver Immersive Summit


Denver Immersive Summit will be held at the University of Colorado Denver Science Building on Saturday, November 10. The daylong event will feature creative artists and designers demonstrating their wares and speaking about the past, present, and future of immersive experiences. Tickets are $25 for the full event and students can apply for “scholarship” admission.

So, why should you attend an immersive summit? If you are a theatergoer and your tastes lean toward the experimental, you should attend. If you’ve been hearing about this Meow Wolf installation coming to Denver in  few years and want to know what that’s about, you should attend. If you’re interested in augmented and virtual reality technology, you should attend. If you watch Westworld and want to know how close the premise of that show is to being a reality, you should attend. And if you like escape rooms and want to join a discussion about inclusive escape room design led by Cody Borst and me, you should attend.

Whether or not you can attend the summit, I’m interested in your take on the escape room topic. Have you played an escape room and felt disconnected from some element of the experience? What are the the most important ways an escape room can engage with a wide group of players? Are there drawbacks to an escape room being too inclusive? Please share your thoughts.

Crosswords LA X / LA Escape Room Binge 2


Crosswords LA provided me an opportunity for a mini-vacation in Southern California last weekend. I constructed the opening puzzle and volunteered at the tournament as a judge and an assistant for some of the game events. The tournament had a good puzzle set this year and I encourage solvers to get solve-at-home packets once they become available. Puzzle 3 by Anna Gundlach and Erik Agard gave solvers the biggest challenge of the day, but it wasn’t as dramatic a pack separator as I predicted. Solid performance throughout the day netted berths in the finals for Jeff Davidson, Brian Fodera, and Eric Maddy. Eric took the victory with the only perfect solution of Brendan Emmett Quigley’s  championship puzzle. Congratulations to all the finalists!

* * *

Outside of the tournament, most of my waking moments in LA were assigned to a binge of local escape rooms. Tyler Hinman organized the binge and scheduled 15 escapes over the weekend. I participated in ten of them, eight on Saturday and two following the tournament on Sunday night, and it’s safe to say that the best was saved for last. Hatch Escape’s Lab Rat is the current hot escape room ticket in LA and I have to say that it lives up to the hype. The game put solvers in a world where rats are the scientists and humans the diminutive test subjects, and this premise is realized with amazing fabrication and humorous narrative. The game-play structure features many original puzzles including one challenge revealing that Tyler and I should work on some strategies if we ever end up on a charades team in the future. The room’s intricate mechanics seem a bit risk-inviting and, in fact, we suffered two mechanical hiccups that halted our game, but game master August was on the ball and got us back on track in short order. The whimsical prediction values and great teammates made this a memorable escape room experience.

Escapades LA was another highlight of the binge. Of its two rooms in North Hollywood, my favorite was Doggy Dog World in which the solving group took on the role of an intrepid canine on a quest for a beloved red ball. The dog’s-eye-view set was inspired and the endgame was hysterical. The Laboratory in downtown LA had an intriguingly manifest structure. After a generic “save the world” briefing, the group was shown a wall-mounted diagram of all the puzzles with clear visual indications of the solving order and the confirmation locations. This was helpful information as the mission had over 30 puzzles to solve. I found the structure refreshing and enjoyed the fact that we could organize our efforts so that everyone had opportunities to make contributions. I played several 60Out rooms on Saturday and my favorite was the circus themed Hyde and Seek with a fun train car set. Abyss at Maze Rooms was a two-person experience that Tyler and I completed as our last experience on Saturday night. It featured an interesting narrative and polished set but, like Maze’s Magic Kingdom, we struggled with intuitive leaps on how precisely to use the technical elements to complete each task.

The best part of escape room binges is the opportunity to solve with new friends. The montage of victory photos below includes people such as Al, Craig, Erik, Jenna, and Wyna with whom I shared an escape experience for the first time over the weekend. Thank you for adding to my joy and reminding me that it’s all about the team!




The Inkubator / Crosswords LA X


Laura Braunstein is requesting submissions for an upcoming crossword puzzle subscription service. The Inkubator will feature twice-a-month publications of crossword puzzles constructed by women. Laura and Tracy Bennett will edit the puzzles and seem very open to themes and grid styles that challenge mainstream standards. Constructors may submit drafts and general questions to  inkubatorcrosswords [at] gmail.com. A crowdfunding campaign for subscriptions launches October 21.

* * *

Crosswords LA X will be held this Sunday (October 21) at USC’s Hoffman Hall. Advance registration is closed, but a limited number of walk-in participants will be admitted on tournament day. Tournament organizer Elissa Grossman and puzzle wrangler Alex Boisvert have commissioned puzzles from some of the finest puzzlemakers in the country, and also one from me. Solve-at-home packets will be made available after the tournament and portions of the proceeds go to Reading to Kids. I’m excited to see everyone at the tournament!


Knight Shade


I haven’t written about work lately so I thought I’d share some updates at Puzzah! We just signed a lease on a space for our new location. The third Puzzah! is set to open in Santa Fe, New Mexico in early 2019! The storefront in the Railyard district will feature clones of our Specimen and MASK games, and the debut of new game: Knight Shade.

IMG_3831.JPGIn Knight Shade, players become amateur ghost hunters investigating a villainous knight whose spirit allegedly haunts a medieval-themed pizzeria. The theme was inspired by 1970s bubblegum mysteries like Scooby-Doo, and has some humorous details that will lighten the spooky setting. The shop team did a great job on fabricated elements, such as the Castle Attack arcade game pictured right. I am finishing up effects and scheduling while the general contractor readies the New Mexico space for installation. This has been a demanding project for the last few months and I’m excited that we will soon get to offer the game to the public.

One of my design goals for Knight Shade was to introduce opportunities for open (parallel) solving. All Puzzah! games to date have featured strictly linear narratives. The structure suits the groups of 2-4 that the company founders originally targeted, but we are now trying to accommodate larger groups who have requested the option to split up rather than cluster. Knight Shade has a story line that allows acts to be presented in various orders and combinations, but we still plan to put limits on open solving, at least in the initial runs of the game. We don’t, for example, want to open multiple acts or acts with specialized reset requirements toward the end of a stage when players are pressured to resolve all tasks before advancing. We always welcome smaller groups and would not want a twosome to feel pressured to split up just because a open solving option arises. Anticipating the possibilities and translating the responses to computer code have been challenges for meeting this design goal.

Aside from Knight Shade and the Santa Fe opening, the Puzzah! team has been pitching ideas for future projects and developing more outreach programs for schools and community groups. We ranked #4 in the USA Today reader’s poll for Best Escape Room 2018 — thank you to all who supported us with votes! I also plan to represent Puzzah! as a forum participant at next month’s Denver Immersive Summit, but I’ll save the details of that event of  a future post.