PUZZLE: Unthemely #96



I must admit my enthusiasm for the traditional crossword puzzle is waning. This Unthemely puzzle had been sitting on my desktop for over a year with a single seed entry placed in the grid. I didn’t have the interest in working on it until some recent events spurred my creative impulses and my desire to clean up the back burner a bit. I also feel I should revisit the independent crossword construction process now and then to keep my skills honed and preserve the “Unthemely” brand. I ended up throwing out the original seed entry and attempted a fill more clean than flashy. Enjoy!

Queer Qrosswords 2


The organizers of last year’s Queer Qrosswords have announced a sequel. The format is the same: Make a donation of at least $10 to a LGBTQ+ friendly organization, forward a copy of the receipt, and receive a packet of 32 original crosswords created by industry luminaries. Visit the website to learn about last year’s accomplishments, get recommendations for organizations, and support a great cause while receiving top-notch puzzles — it’s win-win!

PUZZLE: Rice Milk #30


FIRST (1 1 7) / LAST (9)

With my Oculus FIRST I unfurled
A high-tech, horror-themed, open world.
In my Grim Reaper role
I LAST many a soul.
The refresh rate was sick, though I hurled.

Comments contain the answer to Rice Milk #29 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.


Mines Benders


Mrs. Peabody’s 4th Grade Class, a team comprising Arianna Guzman, Melanie Schultz, and myself, participated in the first Mines Benders puzzle hunt on the Colorado School of Mines campus in Golden. The three-hour event attracted about 30 teams, most of which were made up of Mines students. MP4GC fared well, finishing in eighth place and earning a prize and mention at the awards ceremony.


Mines Benders was organized by Golden Escape Room owners Arwen and Jason Pond. The event was modeled after Microsoft Puzzle Safari (Arwen is a former Microsoft team member) and the puzzles were actually borrowed from a previous Safari event. Each team started the hunt with a packet of 32 puzzles and a log book. Teams solve puzzles and input the answers on the puzzle hunt website. If the answer is correct, the team is given the location of a rubber stamp and, in some cases, the location of a ticket somewhere on campus. Teams can send a runner with the log book to the locations to stamp the corresponding puzzle and collect the ticket. The tickets are used to participate in bonus challenges that involve engineering, physical dexterity, or teamwork. These challenges ranged from houses of cards and tilt mazes to a blind communicate challenge in which one teammate gave instructions to another, separated by a physical barrier, to build a radio transmitter. The puzzle set also included a set of puzzles that fed into a metapuzzle. Solving a puzzle scored 1 point. Collecting a stamp scored 10 points. Completing a bonus challenge received a sticker. This sticker would be placed in the log book to score 25 points. Solving the metapuzzle scored … I think it was 25 points but I’m not sure I’m remembering that correctly. The log books needed to remain intact. Log books also needed to be submitted to the organizers before the three-hour time limit expired.


The event was designed for teams of four, and boiled down to a challenge of optimization and resource management. A typical team would not be able to solve all 32 puzzles within the time limit and need to decide how to assign its members to the solving, running, and challenge completion tasks. A team wanting to maximize score would do well to assign one member to be a dedicated stamp collector and, early on, a challenge evaluator. In evaluating challenges, the runner would inform advise the team on the challenges worth pursuing (single-participant, short-duration) and those worth skipping (double-participant, time-consuming).


So why did MP4GC finish in eighth place? We were weak in areas and strong in others. Some weaknesses were uncontrollable. We had a fourth teammate who had to bow out at the last minute. The hunt required Internet access for puzzle research and answer submission, but the guest wi-fi on the Mines campus was abominable and I had to settle on a low-bar data signal most of the time. Other weaknesse were solely based on our (bad) choices. Our team didn’t spend much time strategizing at the onset. None of use were familiar with the campus and struggled to navigate. And, because we were enjoying the puzzles, we missed some stamp and bonus challenge opportunities, so those are weaknesses that we will own. On the strength side, we ranked fourth in number of puzzles solved, which gave us more stamp opportunities.


Mines Benders was a free event! I had a fantastic time and would have gladly compensated the Ponds and the student volunteers for putting this together. I hope this is the first of many Benders for the Denver area!






Quest for the Purple Unicorn


I just played Scott Weiss’s latest virtual escape room, Quest for the Purple Unicorn, teaming up with Wil Zambole. The theme was delightful and the puzzles varied and clever. Wil and I completed the quest with shared insight and a little bit of trial and error. I highly encourage everyone to contact Scott through his website and schedule a game session. Two people seems a good number of players for the games. Scott charges $15/adult with charity options for the amount.

The Game: Miskatonic University


I first learned about “The Game” from articles in 1980s-era Games Magazine, where it was described as a puzzle-hunt format requiring teams to travel in vehicles around a specific geographical area and solve high-concept puzzles essentially nonstop for the better part of a weekend. Years later, Mark Gottlieb gave me more details based on his personal experience of The Games held in the San Francisco area. He encouraged me to try a The Game at some point, and emphasized the intriguing challenge of overcoming fatigue (physical, mental, and emotional) and hygiene while part of a solving team confined in a small minivan. I wasn’t accepted in the Ghost Patrol themed The Game in 2008 and only received postmortem reports of more recent events such as WarTron and Famine Games. Earlier this year I received an opportunity to join a team for a version of The Game based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft to be held in and around Boston. I happily accepted the invitation, excited to experience a puzzle event with vehicular travel, high concept content, and sanity-compromising conditions.


The lead-up to the event involved an application to Miskatonic University, the fictional institution central to the Lovecraftian horror novels that inspired the theme of this The Game. Dan Katz captained our team, Mystik Spiral, which was rounded out by Eric Berlin, Jenn Braun, Tanis, O’Connor, Scott Purdy, and yours truly. We solved entrance exam puzzles, found a hidden puzzle alluding to a secret fraternity, and produced a video that included elements of interest to this fraternity. After our acceptance, we spent a the next few months discussing the logistics of our The Game experience — the vehicle and equipment we would need for the event. We congregated in Dedham last weekend and, on Friday evening, set off in our van to answer the call of Cthulhu.

IMG_4348.JPGThe narrative frame of this iteration of The Game began with a Friday night freshman dinner in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Miskatonic University faculty members, portrayed by The Game organizers, revealed our academic responsibilities and guided us to exercises in nearby Hammond Castle. There we received some auxiliary responsibilities by members of the secret fraternity. After some sleep, we started fresh with academics in Newburyport, a quest for an invitation to a fraternity party in Bedford, a psychiatric evaluation in which we ended up on either a pro-Cthulhu or anti-Cthulhu team on our way back to Boston, and an endgame segment that culminated in a battle held in Boston Garden between teams that had adhered to the various Cthulhu cults. The results of the battle allowed all teams to solve one final meta puzzle that revealed the final message of the Lovecraftian deities.


The content was created by a team of puzzlewrights lead by Sarah Leadbeater. The puzzles included some impressive technological mechanics. We received academic credit in anatomy by playing a life-sized Operation game. We played word Master Mind with an automated, voice-activated Ouija board. We assembled gears to open a puzzle box and searched bushes at night (narrowly avoiding a rainstorm) for sinister, glowing eyes blinking in Morse code. I would have enjoyed seeing more puzzles with that level of sophistication, but a majority of the puzzles were handouts occasionally accented with props or small movable pieces, i.e. solid but typical puzzle hunt fare. Among the puzzles presented over the weekend, I was tickled to discover one based on Exquisite Fruit. The puzzle included a link to my CV page. It was my first call-out in a major puzzle hunt event.

IMG_4389.JPGThe puzzle set was largely facilitated by staff volunteers, which meant that teams making only casual progress were likely to skip content in order to keep up with the pack. Mystik Spiral skipped no puzzles, but a few of the puzzles slowed us down. A puzzle in which we assembled construction paper cutouts to produce ship themed mosaics (findable on obelisks lining the Newburyport waterfront) had an ingenious extraction mechanism, but we fumbled on record-keeping and eventually had to start over to derive the answer. A puzzle based on the Witch Trials Memorial in Danvers used cards depicting the victims named on the memorial. We were instructed to peel the cards to get more information, but ended up mutilating them into paper bits and needed some help from staff to get on track. Aside from these incidents, we solved aggressively and managed to stay near the front of the curve throughout the weekend.


In the main leg of the hunt between 9 a.m. on Saturday and 4 p.m on Sunday I slept for a total of forty minutes in a conference room at the overnight stop in Bedford. I did okay physically, but was happy to bow out of the Sunday afternoon Simon Says activity in Boston Garden. I’m not sure if the lack of sleep affected my mental performance as I feel that I always struggle to maintain focus in stressful puzzle situations. I noted a couple of  lapses in emotional stability. Fortunately, a few prickly moments with teammates quickly corrected course to productive puzzle solving. I went a bit longer than I would like to without a shower or tooth-brushing but managed to stay hygienically acceptable. People who were around me through the weekend are welcome to contradict. Was it fun overcoming the physical/mental/emotional/hygienic demands of The Game? Um…sort of. Puzzle events of this magnitude are going to experience hiccups: website glitches, answer-checking mistakes, shortages of puzzle materials. These issues can become volatile when both solvers and staff are sleep-deprived. I am immensely grateful for the efforts of the Miskatonic organizers, but after watching Sarah Leadbeater put out fires with a pasted-on smile I have mixed feelings about the value of the structure inherent to The Game.


I stayed in Boston an extra day. Jenny Gutbezahl, who participated on another team, put me up at her place in Somerville and after a long shower and a night’s rest I was fully recovered. I have no idea where or when the next The Game will occur, but I am always excited to expand my knowledge of the puzzle hunt genre and experience all the new twists and turns that members of the puzzle community come up with.

ETA: The organizers released a solving report indicating our team did skip one puzzle that would have been provided just before the fraternity party invitation meta.




(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.

* * *

(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.