(Puzzle Hunt)

An audio tour guides solvers to specific locations along Pearl Street Mall in downtown Boulder, Colorado. Solvers use information from the audio clips and locations to solve puzzles and eventually discover a final answer phrase that compared Pearl Street Mall to actual pearls.

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(NOTE: the puzzle can be accessed at this website and is still solvable as of July 2019. Minor spoilers are included in the description that follows.) Kristy McGowan sent out a request a few weeks before the National Puzzlers’ League convention she was hosting. She wanted walkaround puzzles for the Boulder area. I’d written puzzle hunts but never for the NPL Con and with Boulder close by it seemed like a good opportunity. I wanted to come up with a paperless hunt since I had committed to a fair amount of printing for other convention activities. An audio tour interested me as a way to be paperless and introduce auditory elements to the puzzle structures. I thought of a final answer phrase and a meta extraction mechanism that required six 5-letter answers. I spent an afternoon in Boulder making notes and taking pictures of items that lent themselves to puzzles. I then worked for a week and a half on the final puzzle formats, the tour script and the sound editing. Kristy and her friend Jenny tested the first draft and helped me with revisions for the final version. I created a website and posted a link. The hunt was ready for the convention attendees.

Each puzzle featured an element that exploited the audio format. Some are obvious, such as the pitch adjustments for the older and younger brothers in the Boulder County Map puzzle and the insect sound effects in the Little Bug Bridge puzzle. The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse audio gimmick is subtler. The sound shifts from the left to the right channel as the crossword-style clues shifts from the roses on those sides of the garden. The guitar songs played by the “street musician” (six different YouTube clips) were difficult for some solvers to identify, so I provided the song titles along with the entire tour dialogue in a series of transcript files that solvers could reference.

The puzzle hunt had a few execution hiccups. Despite a lot of research and assistance offered by Internet-savvy friends I couldn’t find an embedded audio player that worked consistently on various mobile device operating systems. Many solvers linked to the source files on my Google drive and then found the audio difficult to hear from a smartphone speaker. So most solving groups stuck with the transcripts. In retrospect I could have used Cluekeeper but I wanted to maintain control of the content after the convention. I was happy to discover that solving groups managed to complete the hunt using only scrap paper so smartphone hunts, with or without audio, is a form I will continue to explore.


Maso Award


It’s Tuesday evening and all of my house guests who were in town for the 180th convention of the National Puzzlers’ League have departed. I’m alone in my condo to reflect on the events related to my 22nd reunion with my chosen family. I won’t bury the lede. The highlight of my weekend, and perhaps my entire NPL experience to date, took place on Sunday morning when Kristy McGowan and Wil Zambole stepped to the podium to announce the Maso Award. This is an award named for the “nom” (NPL nickname) of Thomas Gazzola who was taken so unfairly from the puzzle community in 2015. Wil approached me at last year’s convention with the idea to create an annual award in Maso’s honor to recognize the NPL member who showed the true spirit of the convention. I fully supported the idea as well as the suggestion to appoint Eric Berlin as the inaugural recipient of the award. At the Sunday awards ceremony this year I was sleep deprived and wondered why Wil had not sought my input on a Maso Award winner for 2019. And then it hit me. And then it really hit me.


Eric was taken off guard when he was announced as last year’s winner. I was similarly stunned and unable to offer any kind of address beyond an emotionally hampered “thank you” as I accepted my certificate. Now that I have my bearings I want to share some thoughts on the honor and the convention.

Maso was an immensely positive force in my life as a puzzle creator. I am not a spiritual person but I still have “conversations” with Maso. My impressions of him as a vital force in the puzzle community remain very strong, and in our conversations he gives me comfort, keeps me honest, and guides me in the direction of being a better person. After the wrap-up of this year’s activities, I was included in a discussion of possibly renaming the award to something more general, so Maso’s nom would not be elevated above other great NPL members who are no longer with us. I respect that sentiment and hold memories of departed Krewe firmly in my feels, but Maso was special to me and the award as it was presented to me will remain dedicated to him.

Eric Berlin posted an excellent summary of the convention that includes a mention of my award. He describes the decision he reached with Kristy and Wil by stating “nobody else really comes close.” That is flattering, but I respond in all seriousness that I want more members of the League to “come close.” The growth of the convention is both exciting and concerning. We need more people to step up and help keep the convention running functionally in the wake of the expanded attendance. I know that many members of the Krewe look upon the convention as a vacation, but we need more contributions from the them to maintain the quality of the event. Even little things like volunteering to pass out answer sheets for large group games are helpful and greatly appreciated. Please contact me if you want ideas of how you can benefit the League through service.

ETA: I wrote the above in a slightly heated state and regret the way I used the quotation from Eric’s summary. Many people exhibited the spirit of the Maso Award to make RockOn a fantastic convention. I want to thank the members of the board, my colleagues on the program committee, the ambassadors, the code of conduct committee, and all of the presenters for their hard work. And I especially want to applaud Kristy McGowan for doing an amazing job hosting a seamless convention!