CURRICULUM VITAE: John Ratite’s Interplanetary Palooza



Players form teams of two and participate in an “Amazing Race”-styled competition that takes place in various fictional planetary systems. Teams pilot spaceships and visit planets where they are given trivia questions. Teams that answer questions correctly receive rewards that help them on the race: fuel, navigation information, weapons that can be used against opponents, etc. Trivia knowledge is the principal skill, though teams can also form alliances and employ strategy to gain an advantage. The main goal in each planetary system is to find a stargate to the next system. The last team to find the stargate in each system is eliminated. The last team to avoid elimination wins the competition.

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Interplanetary Palooza is the third John Ratite trivia game that I organized and presented on  the Grey Labyrinth website. Registration opened on February 2, 2005, and the game started a week later with twenty registered teams. Nine months and over 4,000 posts later, the team of Matt Jones and Trip Payne planted a flag on the final planet and were declared the winners. The thread is preserved on the Grey Labyrinth site, albeit with now broken links to images.

The game was richly detailed with countless inside jokes woven into selected trivia questions, planetary system themes, and overall narrative. Shortly after the game concluded I wrote a lengthy post that covering these fine points; the post is on page 104 of the thread. Looking back at Palooza after many years and focusing on the broad strokes, two things remain notable: the size and the drama. Palooza comprised more man-hours and creative content than any other project of my career. I generated material at an even pace throughout the experience, and didn’t think about the total number of trivia questions and planet descriptions I had written until it was all over. The drama largely involved a player with the screen name LoudmouthLee. Lee performed well in the trivia but less so in the social game due to his arrogance and unusually convenient rationales for knowing the answers to difficult questions. At one point he casually mentioned that his non-playing girlfriend helped him with a question. When other teams observed that this was a violation of the “no outside references” rule, Lee claimed a misunderstanding of the rule and I chose to be merciful. LoudmouthLee was eventually eliminated as a result of a sabotage perpetrated by a team that was out of the running but in a rare “kingmaker” position. Lee proclaimed that the sabotage, while not a violation of the rules, was unsportsmanlike and clearly motivated by personal rather than strategic motives. His comments spurred a heated exchange that included insinuations of cheating and favoritism based on real-life friendships between players. The situation was uncomfortable at the time but became an interesting case study on gameplay morality that I could share at cocktail parties.

The size and drama attracted many non-player spectators to the Interplanetary Palooza thread on Grey Labyrinth. It was the first game thread inducted into the Grey Labyrinth hall of fame.



(Visual Trivia)

Players are given assignments to draw things from various disciplines. The drawings are judged not on artistic ability but on a set of details that represent a basic visual familiarity with the thing to be drawn. Players are randomly given cards before they begin drawing. Some cards reveal one of the details that will be judged and other cards have no information; player receiving those cards have “drawn a blank.” The completed drawings are shown to all players. Before the judging, each player must secretly vote for an opponent that they believe drew a blank. The judges then announce the details and the players who did draw blanks. Players score for including the judges details in their drawings, for voting correctly, and for garnering incorrect votes from opponents.

At one of my early ACPT appearances I presented an after-hours game called Thingamadoodles, which was a drawing based Balderdash variant. The game played poorly and I pulled the plug after a single session. Years later I mentioned the game to Darren Rigby. I admire his game design and wondered if he might have a remedy. Darren said that the game was similar to an idea that he was working on called Drawing a Blank. He invited me to collaborate on an after-hours game for the 2011 NPL convention in Providence and I agreed.

The game logistics were almost completely based on Darren’s original concept. I contributed by helping with the content, i.e. ideas for well known and drawable items that players could have fun with. Many of the judged details involved spatial memory: In Grant Wood’s American Gothic, is the male farmer on the left or right? In which part of Australia’s coast is the island of Tasmania? Darren was also very thoughtful about designing elements that improve gameplay efficiency, such as voting cubes that players could use to keep track of votes for scoring purposes. At the convention Darren and I took alternated between being the primary presenter and the assistant. A memorable bit of comic ad-lib occurred when I was presenter and Darren assisted. I explained to players that they did not need to be proficient artists to score points, and used Darren’s “crude rendering” of the art school admissions test character Tippy the Turtle as an example. When I said “crude,” Darren turned to me with dramatic indignation. It was a fun bit that we used in several sessions.

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


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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.

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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.