CURRICULUM VITAE: Specimen / The Curse


Instead of writing my own summary of the recently opened puzzle rooms at Puzzah’s Flatiron Crossing location, I am providing links to reviews of Specimen and The Curse written by Dan Kaplan, a staffer for Esc Room Addict. I respect the fact that the reviews are even-handed and constructive, pointing out both the strengths of the experiences and the elements that were not as successful. I’m particularly flattered by the plausive call-out that Dan gives me in the review for The Curse.

As a side note: Dan told me that he is a descendant of a David Kaplan who competed in crossword tournaments in the past. Does anyone recognize that name from ACPT or the U.S. Open?



(Audio Trivia)

The game features nine audio clips assigned to the cells of a three-by-three diagram. The three clips in each horizontal row and the three clips in each vertical column have a thematic connection; in other words, the diagram comprises six themes and each audio clip belongs to two of them. The clips are played one by one, and players try to guess the themes. Players score more points by correctly guessing themes with less revealed information.

Clip Joints was created in 2013 shortly after I downloaded the audio-editing freeware Audacity. I wanted to come up with an audio-based game as a way to practice using the program. I thought of the Picture Tic-Tac-Toe puzzles that appeared in classic issues of Games Magazine and decided to create a audio analogue. I was a bit concerned about the amount of information that I could convey in a sound clip so I did not give myself the added constraint of themes on the two main diagonals. The biggest challenge was finding themes that exploited the audio gimmick and were not simply categories of three words presented explicitly or implicitly in a verbal clip. My best example was a “clarinet” theme: the three clips simply featured a clarinet being played, but each clip contributed to an intersecting theme. This type of puzzle, whether visual or audio, often requires some contrivances in tricky intersections. I did have a space that needed to join “German” and “transportation” and I chose a segment from a conversational German language lesson (“the bus station is ‘der Busbahnhof’).” It was flagrant choice but I hoped it would get some laughs.

Clip Joints was presented at a LA minicon and then at a few subsequent gatherings. It was fairly easy to present as I the sound clips are playable on my smartphone and players simply need a piece of scratch paper.

CURRICULUM VITAE: Fresh Freestyle Crosswords


Fresh Freestyle Crosswords, my new book of themeless, or freestyle, crossword puzzles, is currently available for preorder and will officially drop on November 1!

Over the weekend I received a box with advanced copies of the book. It was like Christmas in October, which I guess is the way everybody experiences Christmas these days. The cover design is eye-catching, if a bit edgy for the author in question, and the inside layout is slick and attractive as is the case with all Puzzlewright titles.


The material from the book comes from the Autofill Project, which I started several years ago. The project was a label for my pastime of improving the wordlist database that I reference for crossword construction. Part of the project involved creating puzzles to test autofill quality, as well as highlight interesting database additions. I dubbed these puzzles “unthemelies” because they were themeless and a bit unseemly, at least at the onset, due to the rawness of the database. The project and the puzzles improved and I began offering the Unthemely crossword puzzles on my blogs for solver feedback. Peter Gordon at Puzzlewright Press offered to publish the collection when I had enough for a book and I agreed.

About two-thirds of the puzzles in the book appeared on one of my blogs at some point in the past. The rest are original puzzles or heavily revised versions of Unthemely puzzles. In one case, I kept an Unthemely diagram structure, deleted every entry except one (which was not the original seed entry) and refilled the grid. I submitted the puzzles to Peter in an order that is basically chronological and I believe an arc of fill improvement is noticeable as one works through the book.

I hope all you themeless crossword puzzle fans will enjoy the book. If you choose to manually type the title on your favorite online bookseller website rather than use the link at the top of this post, beware that “Fresh Freestyle” may lead you to a manual on swimming and triathlon exercises. On the other hand, if you are into honing the body as well as the find, put both books in your virtual shopping cart and reap the benefits!










CURRICULUM VITAE: Drawing Conclusions


(Visual Trivia)

Teams of three begin the game separated. Each player is equipped with a writing utensil and a “drawing sheet”: a piece of vellum marked off into numbered squares. Players are independently shown collections of lines and shapes that they must re-create by drawing them in the squares on the drawing sheets. The team then reunites and stacks the drawing sheets on top of each other in various ways to create recognizable images when the individual drawings are combined. The team answers trivia questions that reference the combined drawings.

Draw Conc Answers


* * *

I devised a cooperative drawing game called Drawing Conclusions for a birthday game party in 2007 and presented it again at a minicon in Los Angeles. In this version of the game, the artist produced a large based on verbal instructions from a series of “communicators” and then answered questions related to the completed picture. The game was intended as a variation on the classic picture memory quizzes in puzzle magazines. The game was not successful due to the difficulty of the drawing task and large amount of down time players endured when not participating in a drawing round. I brainstormed a bit more on the game mechanics and developed a new system in which combined drawing would be incorporated by see-through paper rather than verbal instructions. I also replaced the single large picture with a series of smaller images. I proposed this new version of Drawing Conclusions as a main program activity for the 2009 convention in Baltimore and was accepted.

While coming up with ideas for images, I quickly realized that dividing a whole into three parts was generally inefficient. A better approach was to pick a basic shape, e.g. a triangle, and finding two other shapes that the first could combine with to make two complete images, e.g. another triangle to make the star of David and a series of lines to make the light prism on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I also strove to find ways to use all possible pairings of three part images to create three wholes. The golf green/musical note/fried egg triad was the most successful of these attempts. The three drawing sheets, each marked off into twelve squares, produced images for 24 trivia questions. The game was well received at the Baltimore convention. Many recall that the game received a standing ovation for its instructions. The part of the instructions that received accolades was the revelation that the drawing sheets would be stacked in various combinations and not simply as in unified stack of three sheets. Lance Nathan also praised the game for the diversity of the subject matter, noting that every member of the team had an opportunity to have an aha moment in recognizing a combined image and tying it to the trivia question. I reran Drawing Conclusions once for a birthday game party and also provided moderator sets for others to run at game events.

CURRICULUM VITAE: John Ratite’s Custodia Islands Getaway



Players compete in a trivia competition set on a fictional chain of tropical islands. Each island contains locations where players can answer trivia questions to earn coins. Coins are used to purchase a various game advantages as well as tickets for a ferry that transports players to the next island. The players begin the game assigned to “tour groups,” similar to the tribes in the reality series Survivor, and the last group to have all its members reach the ferry with tickets must vote a member out. The tour groups diminish and players eventually compete as individuals. The last player to avoid elimination wins.

* * *

Custodia Islands Getaway was presented in the early part of 2013 as a sequel to John Ratite’s Fun House. The game, like its predecessor, was presented on the message boards of the Grey Labyrinth website. 23 players “made reservations” for the Getaway and Qaqaq (Trip Payne) edged out mole and Tahnan in the final round to become the overall game winner.

The trivia game was structured in a similar manner to Fun House with alternating movement and action rounds. While the game play was principally influenced by Survivor the islands were themed by a variety of personal interests such as game shows and The Simpsons. The terrain was riddled with obstacles that could be circumvented by the purchase of climbing ropes, spelunking kits, and other items. The trivia question were pitched at a moderate level and the challenges experienced by most players involved navigation and coaxing teammates to participate in a timely manner in order to avoid elimination votes.

CURRICULUM VITAE: National Denture


(Puzzle Hunt)

Teams are sent on a quest to find the lost wooden teeth of George Washington. Each team starts with a map with locations marked as brands of candy. Puzzle answers suggest the candy locations and help teams navigate a trail. Solving the all of the puzzles yields a clue to a final location, where teams can discover the missing dentures as well as a deep dark secret about the Father of Our Country.


* * *

National Denture was played by the Operations staff of my then employer Dex Media in November 2009. Management learned of my interest in puzzles and commissioned me to create a puzzle hunt as a Halloween team-building event. The hunt was designed to use locations around our office building, with the false teeth hidden in a box in the third-floor library. Participation in the hunt was not mandatory and the response was weak during the initial sign-up phase. But management cajoled employees into participating and offered mp3 players as prizes. Ten four-person teams ultimately competed.

I chose subject matter for the puzzles based on topics that I thought coworkers would enjoy such as popular culture and sports, while minimizing wordplay challenges. I also emphasized that I would be willing to confirm answers and give hints in a generous manner. A puzzle involving U.S. presidential trivia prompted the most hint requests. The top team, which prophetically gave themselves the nickname at the outset “The Winners,” recovered the false teeth in about 20 minutes without a single hint. The lower-ranking teams were put in a raffle for bonus prizes, and everyone received Halloween candy and souvenir teeth.


CURRICULUM VITAE: Street Smarts 2: Codewalkers


(Puzzle Hunt)

Teams are given a packet that contains a map of the Cherry Creek North shopping district and a series of puzzles. The map shows several marked locations and each puzzle can be completed with information findable at one of the locations. The final puzzle is a long series of instructions that use the solutions to the previous puzzles as data inputs. A team that successfully completes all of the instructions receives an answer phrase identifying the accomplishment.


* * *

After the positive reception of the original Street Smarts event in 2008 I planned a sequel the following year. The hunt coincided with my 39th birthday so I chose “The 39 Steps” as a final answer and included references to other Hitchcock films throughout the 39 word transformation instructions comprising the meta puzzle. I was overambitious in designing the early stages of the event as I created eight puzzles to solve in various locations throughout the Cherry Creek North area. Few teams were close to completing all eight before the scheduled wrapup at California Pizza Kitchen, so I encouraged teams to combine and share information in order to complete the meta during dinner. The early puzzles included a word grid formed from a knickknack shelf in the JW Marriott lobby, a face carving identification puzzle at a plaza fountain, and a rainbow-themed letter extraction puzzle using a statue of a child reading a Wizard of Oz story book. My favorite puzzle involved a series of storefronts that needed to be identified from aerial-view photos taken from a rooftop parking lot. The starting point for the event was a Starbucks coffee shop that is about four blocks from another Starbucks, so I posted an “alternate universe” puzzle in the second Starbucks location. A word search puzzle solution directed solvers to find a compartment next to the drive-thru lane of a bank. On the day of the hunt I had hidden slips of paper in the compartment underneath a stack of bank deposit envelopes (the slips of paper had holes cut out, and overlaying the paper on the word search revealed the puzzle answer). One solver had to leave the event early, but he returned to Cherry Creek North about a month later to see if he could finish the puzzles. He reported that the paper slips were still in the bank compartment. Some slips could still be there today for all I know.