BeaCon Badges

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A week has passed since I returned home from the annual National Puzzlers’ League convention in Boston. The convention, dubbed “BeaCon” by its organizers, marked my twentieth opportunity to gather with the finest people in the universe, with whom I am most fortunate to share a passion for puzzles and games. I am immensely grateful to everyone who made the convention amazing and justified my conviction that the NPL is an essential part of my life. In particular, my sincere thanks go to convention hosts Jenny Gutbezahl (Hathor) and Ben Smith (B-Side); program committee colleagues Rick Rubenstein (Rubrick), Will Shortz (WILLz), and Fraser Simpson (Fraz); and official program presenters (listed by noms only) 42itous, 530nm330Hz, Bluff, Btnirn, Hot, Mr E, Murdoch, Navin, QED, Qoz, Saxifrage, Shaggy, Shrdlu, Spelvin, Toonhead! Tortoise, Trazom, Trick, and Zebraboy. Also, thanks go to Eric Berlin (Story) for helping younger solvers, such as my nephew Ian Chaney (Whovian), participate in activities with older solvers.

Industrial Espionage Badge
Boston currently boasts about half a dozen escape room businesses. Escape rooms continue to be popular destinations for NPLers, and groups of attendees began making plans weeks before the convention. I didn’t join any groups for traditional escape rooms but I put together a group to visit 5 Wits in Foxborough. The 5 Wits company was an inspiration to the founders of Puzzah! and my employers encouraged me to check out their operation. My red-eye flight to Boston arrived at 4:30 a.m., giving me enough time to read the news, grab breakfast, make copies at Staples, and find the Revere hotel where my 5 Wits-bound companions were gathering in the lobby. We Lyfted to Patriot Place, got our tickets from a clerk whose black polo shirt should have read “I SO don’t want to be here,” and set off on two immersive puzzle adventures titled Espionage and 20,000 Leagues. 5 Wits tickets uses public ticketing and admits up to twelve players in each session, but we managed to keep our group of eight NPLers together with no added strangers. Both adventures featured an in-character staffer who guided us through a series of rooms and directed us to complete physical and mental challenges. The production values were very high and both adventures included well-designed lighting, sounds, special effects, and architectural mechanics that played with our sense of spatial orientation. The puzzles were breezy and our group dispatched them in short order. I mainly took a professional research approach to the experience and spent time taking in the aesthetics and analyzing the experiences in terms of scheduling and reset mechanics. Brent Holman (Shaggy) was a member of the group who also works for an escape room company and afterwards we compared notes in a conversation that others compared to revealing the secrets behind a magician’s tricks. The trip was educational on an industrial espionage level and rewarding on a “have sleep-deprived fun with your puzzle peeps” level. The second item is what NPL convention is all about.

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I also returned to Boda Borg this year, thus visiting both automated, reset-free, escape room-esque businesses in the Boston area. Eric Berlin organized a Boda Borg outing for younger puzzlers traveling with adult NPL members. My 15-year-old nephew Whovian and I joined about a dozen others to try the Swedish-style puzzle challenges. Ian and I started the morning with Ben Zimmer (Elf) and his family. I volunteered to guide them through some good starting quests like Farm. Once they understood how the quests worked, the younger set wanted to tackle more physical quests. After lunch we shuffled teams, and the younger solvers worked on Superbanen and Jungle while the older set tried Infra, Pirates, and Spook House, and then eventually gathered in the upstairs lounge to visit. I could have gone for more questing, including some more physical challenges, but ultimately I was happy that Ian got a chance to interact with intelligent agemates. I also enjoyed hanging out with Scott Weiss (Squonk), Yossi Fendel ((e)met), and Jennifer Turney (Saphir). Ben Zimmer’s son Blake came up with the line of the convention during the Boda Borg outing. We were working on the Step Up room and suffered a room fail. I commented that someone must have stepped out of turn. Blake looked at me and huffed, “Nobody stepped on a turtle!”

Invisible Boy Badge
In the 1999 film Mystery Men, Kel Mitchell plays a superhero who can become invisible but only if no one, including himself, is looking at him. I had a number of solving experiences during the convention in which I felt that I choked under the scrutiny of cosolvers or spectators. I can almost feel some mechanism of mental concentration clicking off in my head, and an internal voice mumble, “just ask someone else for the answer.” This phenomenon makes me apprehensive about teaming up for cryptic crosswords or escape rooms. On the flip side, I performed exceptionally well in a couple of puzzles and games when no one was looking. The charm of these experience comes partly from the fact that they were unobserved by others so I’m won’t offer details. I will however describe one of my game successes that was unseen by me. Tony Delgado (Tablesaw) attended BeaCon after several years of convention absence and brought one as an unofficial game one of his staples: Remote Control. Tablesaw’s presentation combined 21st-century pop culture content with the disestablishmentarian silliness of the 1980s MTV game show on which it was based. Players offered puzzle-themed entries to Hashtag Wars, answered questions while eating marshmallows, and demonstrated Arrested Development chicken dances (I chose Lindsay’s dance. Because “Chee Chaw”). I played in a post-convention session when Tablesaw had already packed his signalling device. The players rang in to answer questions by simply stating the name of an Eggspert button color, and this convention led to some humorous confusion when a question involved colors (“Fill in the blank: ___ Is the New Black”) The second half of the game features an auction in which players could spend points to buy disadvantages for other players. I ended up with a green sleep mask that I was forced to wear for the remainder of the game. The mask didn’t prove to be too much of a hindrance (in fact it was rather soothing) until a game-end Beat the Bishop challenge when all players had to write a list of items while Tablesaw raced around the ballroom. The category was seasons of Survivor. I can remember a lot of the seasons but I had to write the legibly or else they wouldn’t count. A bystander guided my pen to the top of my sheet of paper, Tablesaw took off, and I begin writing. When time expired I prepared to take off my mask and expected to see a Jackson Pollock print on my piece of paper, when Kiran Kedlaya (Kray) shouted, “T McAy writes better blindfolded than I write with my eyes open!” Sure enough, my list was readable with virtually no overlap of entries, and the twelve seasons I was able to remember netted me the top score.

Duck Konundrum Badge
Ducks have a special association with Boston with the Robert McCloskey children’s book Make Way for Ducklings and the duck tour vehicles carting tourists through the North End and up and down the Charles River. The McCloskey book inspired a few of the puzzle creators at the convention, including a delightful cryptic crossword by Trazom and an enjoyable walk-around devised by the ClueKeeper team. The walk-around followed the path of the Mallard family in the book, from the Public Garden to the banks of the Charles. I completed the walk-around with a about a dozen solvers during the experience I noticed how our group behaved like the ducklings in the book. We waddled along in line with members occasionally straying off course or getting in the way of a cyclist, but we kept one another safe and achieved our goal. My life as a puzzle largely involves understanding what’s going on around me and responding in a way that makes a positive contribution. Dan Katz (Spelvin) invented a puzzle for an MIT Hunt many years ago that exploits this group dynamic challenge: the Duck Konundrum. Spelvin’s konundra are bewilderingly complex but they reward intrepid solvers who trust that order will eventually emerge from the chaos. BeaCon was a konundrum for me, but despite all the frustration of keeping my ducks in a row I came out of it feeling my trust in a positive resolution was well founded.

Next year in Milwaukee. difm

Indie 500

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I attend the National Puzzlers’ League convention every year and I make an appearance at a fair number of puzzle hunts across the country but I haven’t competed in a crossword tournament in several years. Traditional crosswords are not my favorite puzzle type and my Salieri status as a competitor is established. Still, I was missing the interactions with friends who limit their puzzle event attendance to crossword tournaments so I decided to plan a return trip to Lollapuzzoola for August and a first-time trip to the Indie 500 the first weekend June. The organizers of the tournament — Andy, Angela, Erik, Neville, and Peter who did a marvelous job — asked the participants to withhold revealing comments about the tournament for two weeks in respect of the at-home solvers who has not seen the puzzles. If plan to solve the tournament puzzles in the future and do not want to be spoiled, please read no further.

I planned a weekend visit with Dave Tuller in Maryland and the two of us took the train into D.C. on Saturday morning to join the other crossword solvers at George Washington University. We reached the registration desk early and I spotted Angela, Erik, Peter, and a long-maned Neville setting up. Sam Ezersky was among the early arrivals. I had only known him from Internet excahnges but he is just as charming in person and I wished him well on his new position at the New York Times. Throughout the afternoon I caught up with so many people that I hadn’t seen in years. Brian Cimmet told me more about family life in Syracuse and his project to listen to 100 previously unheard musical cast recordings. Evan Birnholz got down to the city after a choral rehearsal of Carmina Burana. Amy Reynaldo offered some health updates and news about Crosswords with Friends. Tony Orbach compared solving notes and shared some family memories (it’s all I can do not to break into an a cappella rendition of “Try to Remember” when I see Tony). Andrew Ries mused on the challenges of making a living in the puzzle industry. New acquaintance Laura Radloff explained how to charm yourself into the NMAAHC without a reservation. And Ade Koiki weighed in on the question, “Which sport requires the most puzzle-solving ability?”

Time, the theme of this year’s tournament, was present in the themes of  all the puzzles. Angela Halstead’s opener “Before and After”  featured long entries made of a word that could precede TIME and a word that could follow TIME to make phrases, e.g. HAMMERBANDITS. The theme was explained by a tl;dr clue in the southeast and I turned in my completed puzzle without understanding the theme. I figured out what was going on just before receiving the second puzzle, “Jam Session” by Paolo Pasco. The unusually wide grid included bigram rebus squares that compacted terms for time durations (SECOND, MINUTE, DECADE, etc.) into half the required grid squares. I was not tripped by the somewhat obscure fill entry ALIPASHA ({Ottoman ruler also referred to as Aslan}) but I hit a blind crossing in the lower left and, due to a poorly drawn Ripstein mark, turned in puzzle with a careless error. “This Mashup’s for the Byrds” by Tracy Bennett included interpretations of archly altered lyrics to the song “Turn, Turn, Turn”, as in {A time to gather stoners together} for BURNINGMAN. The “pack separator” in fourth position was a Benjamin Button themed puzzle by Erik Agard ft. Allegra Kuney titled “Non-Linear Narratives.” The long down answers were based on phrases that contained the names of animals, but the animal named needed to be replaced with the juvenile term of the animal (or vice-versa) and spelled backwards, so {1940 musical about a sleazy nightclub habitué (hopper)} produced the entry PALOORAGNAK. Once this theme was grokked the rest of the grid was relatively gentle. Neville Fogarty’s capper “In Search of Lost Time” was constructed around a substring transfer theme using ERA. So ANTONIOBANDS ({Music groups featuring the merchant of Venice?}) partnered with SHOERACKTREATMENT ({Therapy for a closet organizer?}).

Chris King and I sat at the same table during the tournament. Chris is a character and his upbeat antics crack me up and set the right tone for a puzzle event. I discovered that Chris and I share an interest in the BBC quiz show Only Connect. This discovery came after Chris and I teamed up with Peter Gordon and Ben Smith for a time-killer game led by Neville, also an OC fan, and based on the Sequences round. Our foursome outscored the ballroom, with Ben earning MVP status by recognizing song clips from musicals broadcast live on FOX. Chris would go on to win the Joon Pahk Award for Worst Handwriting. He accepted the medal with pride, but later picked up his note-taking sheet from the Only Connect game, thrust it in my face, and said in his delightful Carolina drawl, “See, Todd! That’s rea-uh-ble!”

The finalists were announced and the Inside Track threesome comprised Roger Barkan, Katie Hamill, and Dave “He-Wouldn’t-Have-Even-Been-There-If-I-Hadn’t-Come-Sorry-About-That-Fourth-Place-Sam-Ezersky” Tuller. After the finalists were ushered out of the room, constructor Andy Kravis explained the special gimmick of his playoff puzzle: The solvers would start with the down clues only! A hint in the grid gave instructions how to receive the across clues. Tournament assistants provided solvers the across clues when they followed the instructions or when nine minutes elapsed, whichever came first. The gimmick befitted a tournament that celebrates the spirit of the independent crossword community, but it led to problems in execution. The grid hint was a set of long Across entries reading THE ACROSS CLUES / CAN BE FOUND ON THE / BACK OF THE BOARD. Unfortunately, the room set did not allow the solvers to actually reach the back of the board, so the assistants simply handed the clues to the solvers when prompted. On top of this, the playoff grids were smallish printouts that spectators and commentators Brian Cimmet and Jeremy Horwitz had trouble seeing, and the finalists solved with Sharpies making grid errors more of a danger. Andy’s puzzle was pleasant but the gimmick forced the overall clue difficulty to be reined in. So the finals were a bit off the mark but I was very happy to see Katie take top honors.

For the wrap-up dinner I had pub fare with Dave, Katie, Kevin Wald, Dustin Foley, and another new acquaintance Giovanni Pagano. We laughed and drank beer and talked about escape rooms, and NPL inside jokes, and absent friends. Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” was not among the temporal references of the official tournament events, but the sentiment of that song is palpable when a puzzle gathering comes to a close.

DASH 9

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Spoilers for the 2017 DASH puzzle hunt are included in this post.

DASH, which stands for Different Area, Same Hunt, is a walkaround puzzle event held annually in various cities throughout the world. A city participates when volunteers willing handle site management contact the DASH organizers and arrange to receive the puzzle materials, establish a walking route, and so forth. My now employer Puzzah! hosted DASH when it debuted in Denver in 2015 and I joined another group to host DASH last year. I was interested in solving DASH this year but no one else in Denver expressed an interest in hosting so the Mile High City was taken off the rolls. I decided that DASH weekend would be a good excuse for a weekend getaway and I had a friend in Texas who had extended an open invitation for a visit. After checking with some local puzzle-solving friends I registered the team Dine and DASH in Austin.

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About two dozen teams assembled in a market square across the street from the University of Texas campus on the morning of May 6 to learn about the Department of Applied Synergistic Humanities, the name of the DASH 9 hunt given in advance as a thematic teaser. Steve Levy, my host in Texas, is well versed in crosswords and cryptics but didn’t have much experience in hunt-style puzzles. I assured him that he would catch on quickly. We were joined by Andy and Arielle Arizpe, a video game designer and food blogger (Arielle’s knowledge of fine food was part of the inspiration of the team name). Mingling with the other teams I noticed solvers wearing MIT Mystery Hunt t-shirts and carrying clipboards with elaborate code sheets. Packets were distributed and we began with a puzzle that revealed an overall theme of extraterrestrial communication. The symbolic algebra exercise turned out to be a primer on rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock that gave us an answer leading to a new location.

I have criticized DASH in the past for being geared too heavily toward expert solvers and missing an opportunity to spark a puzzle interest in casual solvers. This DASH set was probably the most beginner-friendly I have seen featuring many familiar puzzle types with accessible twists. I was pleased that virtually none of the puzzles incorporated classic letter-coding systems. One puzzle used a variation on ternary but that was it. DASH solvers use the ClueKeeper app for inputting answers, receiving hints, and timekeeping. When I solved DASH two years ago I remember that the ClueKeeper’s audio notifications for hints were incessant and distracting. This time I received no audio notifications, though I later discovered hints were accumulating in our app normally. I’m not sure if the lack of audio notifications was something I did or ClueKeeper did, but I registered the change as an improvement.

The puzzles included a word search variant, Star Battle grids, a chemical compound identification quiz, and some cryptic clues that made Steve happy. Several puzzles involved a collection of polygonal shards with arcane symbols. These were used to translate the alien language and employed clever variations as more and more shards were discovered along the trail. The puzzle we struggled with involved arranging strips of acetate to create a path on a sheet of paper. We carelessly missed a path option and consequently spent twice as long as we needed to. The final puzzle used a Zappar feature in ClueKeeper to produce a spaceship effect. Andy somehow figured out the pattern associated with some colorful objects and, with his instructions, I played a Close Encounters-esque musical message that prevented a military engagement with the alien race. Humanity was saved and we got pizza!

Steve was relieved that the puzzles were approachable and that he was able to make contributions. With Andy’s guidance he solved his first Star Battle puzzle. I’ve known the Arizpes for years but have rarely joined them as puzzle cosolvers, so I was happy for that opportunity. UT Austin was a lovely setting for the hunt with lots of shady spots for solving. We finished the hunt in third place among Austin teams and in the upper half overall. The Texas trip was great fun, but I want DASH to return to Denver next year, even if I need to be the host.

Monsters et Manus

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The 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last weekend. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was on a Hunt organizing team for the first time. I also mentioned that I didn’t participate in the pre-Hunt preparation as much as I wanted to due to work and some other issues. Once I arrived in Boston on Thursday night I planned to devote my efforts to the Hunt full-bore. I made my way to our team headquarters in Building 10 (a more team-friendly, central location than our usual digs in the Stata Center) and helped the team get things ready for the kickoff skit on Friday afternoon.

The theme of the Hunt was revealed in the skit. A group of MIT students playing a fictional role-playing game Monsters et Manus (a riff on the MIT motto Mens et Manus) accidentally conjure an eeeeevil sorcerer who possesses the dungeon master and traps the the other players in a medieval fantasy realm. The Hunt solving teams figured out puzzles that would level-up the role-playing characters to be powerful enough to face the sorcerer. The theme idea was proposed by my teammate T K Focht as a way to give solvers more transparency and control over the way that puzzles became available. Solvers would see that a puzzle in a particular round could be unlocked if a certain character were at a certain level, and then make other actions to expedite level-ups for that character. Traditional role-playing games have frequently been referenced in past Hunt puzzles but have never been the overall theme. When my teammates playing the MIT students in the opening skit opened their dice bags, the spectators reacted in hearty approval.

All of the Monsters et Manus puzzles, with solution links, can be found here. The Character puzzles, which were written to have the lowest difficulty, can be accessed by clicking on the icons on the left. The more difficult Quest puzzles can be accessed by clicking the icons on the map on the right. I have construction credits for the following puzzles that can be found on the master list: The Fighter (meta puzzle), Adactyly, Attention Span (just artwork), Epic Raft Battles of History, Maniacal Merchants, and Replenish the Treasury.

The Hunt also featured several live interactions and events. I was on the team that developed the events and I, along with many of my teammates, facilitated these events through the course of the weekend. Three of these events were rescues of the trapped MIT Students. The Linguist could be rescued by a pair of solvers by verbally communicating long, intractable computer passcodes (sample attempts can be seen in this video starting at the 58:55 mark). The Economist was trapped in a endless loop playing Bob Barker in the bidding game of The Price is Right. They could be rescued by bidding a preassigned, exact price of some random item in a team’s headquarters. The Chemist needed a potion to be rescued from a foul mood. Solvers mixed non-alcoholic cocktails inspired by adjectives and nouns drawn from three decks of cards, as in “Enchanted Elfin Stinger.”

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The scheduled events included a Super Speed Dating activity in which solvers were given cards with personality types and needed to find another solver with the same type by sitting down for multiple speed dating encounters. The Running Techies event was a series of footraces featuring notable alumni of MIT. Solvers won by successfully selecting a trifecta before the race, and they increased their odds of doing this by noting the placement of the runners in earlier races (and never betting on Richard Feynman). In the photo below I am the racer dressed as Norbert Wiener, third from the left. Hungry Hungry Hippogriffs combined Bananagrams and Hungry Hungry Hippos (see 103:08 in the previously linked video). Pub Quizardry was a game I wrote and presented on Saturday night. I read trivia questions that the solvers found easy on first hearing, but then realized that the answers needed to be transformed in various ways.

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Our team planned to run the Hunt through Sunday evening and we expected the first team to find the coin, or two-sided die, in about 35 hours. We underestimated the drive of the solvers and had three level-up their characters before the sun rose on Saturday. This caused a problem because teams needed to participate in the scheduled events before being eligible to face the sorcerer, and we realized that it would be unfair to force these teams to wait while other teams caught up. So, we put together single-team versions of the events and led the them at reasonable increments throughout Saturday. The endgame of the Hunt had two parts. A Character endgame was a puzzle that a solving team performed on a board designed to resemble a hexagonal role-playing mat. Teams answered trivia questions to uncover a group ability under the game-board hexagons: HIVE MIND. The Hunt endgame involved a life-size role-playing surface, and under the hexagons were instructions to convert the previous ability into a new one: GROUP HUG. At this point a solving team went on a campus runaround to find the actual D2 hidden outside the Management building.

My experience at the Hunt as an organizer was similar to my experience as a solver. I had brief interactions with almost all of my teammates while at headquarters, but then found a comfortable place to set down my laptop and worked solo. I ate a lot of junk food because it was there and I have little self control. I did enjoy the opportunity to see the headquarters of other teams, meet people on teams that I wouldn’t ordinarily interact with, and learn more about navigating the campus.

Congratulations to Death and Mayhem, the team that first completed the Hunt! I wish them well on their new quest: to design the Hunt for 2018.

 

SiLiCon Badges

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Last week I attended the convention of the National Puzzlers’ League in Salt Lake City Utah. It was my nineteenth overall convention and sixth as a member of the program committee. The convention coincided with the release of the Niantic/Nintendo smartphone app Pokemon Go. I didn’t spend my time in Utah capturing Pikachu and Squirtle but I did collect a few more badges, and as with my post on last year’s convention I thought I would share some of the badges I earned as my SiLiCon report. I will refer to other NPL members by civilian name followed by “nom” (League nickname) in parentheses.

Krewes Control Badge
For the first time since 2008 (the convention in the Denver suburbs that I hosted) I chose to drive to the convention rather than fly. Salt Lake City is only eight hours from Denver and with my nephew Ian Chaney (Whovian) coming along a road trip was a no-brainer for saving money on travel. The drives were very scenic and having a car at the convention allowed Whovian and I to do some sightseeing at Loveland Living Planet Aquarium and Red Butte Garden. One thing I didn’t take into consideration was the return trip. I typically use the plane flight home from convention to catch up on the accumulation of sleep deprivation over the convention days, but I didn’t have that luxury when driving with a fourteen-year-old. And I was coaxed into staying up until 4:30 a.m. on Sunday to play and present after hours games. When we left Salt Lake City on Sunday afternoon I started feeling nervous about my ability to stay alert. We stopped at a gas station where Whovian bought a sandwich and I bought a large double-caffeine coffee. When we returned to the road I asked Whovian to start naming NPL members that he wanted to know more about. “Murdoch,” was his first reply. I started babbling for ten minutes covering everything I knew about Andrew Chaikin (Murdoch): all of his various, interesting jobs, how he discovered the NPL, how we met, etc. Whovian kept mentioning other puzzlers and I would babble, keeping my mind occupied and keeping awake. By the time we reached I-70 the caffeine had kicked in and we were fine all the way to Glenwood Springs where we could crash (in the safe sense) for the night at my sister’s house. In addition to keeping me alert, the game also let me know which NPL members made an impression on Whovian, for whom SiLiCon was convention number three. It also provided a fun secondary game where I got to identify Krewe, with noms Whovian couldn’t remember, simply by visual description, as in, “Who is the guy who has glasses and looks like Seth Rogen?”

Play the Percentages Badge
Escape rooms have replaced used bookstores as the popular commercial destinations for puzzlers in convention cities. Businesses that operate escape rooms often advertise the success rates of their rooms so that players can weigh their success or failure against the average. This success rate is meaningful only if the room is fairly designed with skill-based puzzles and objectively dispensed hints. Dave Shukan (Tinhorn) often jokes about the “perfect” escape room that contains one lock and a ring of a thousand keys. The room is perfect because the operators can accurately adjust the success rate simply by adding or subtracting keys. Tinhorn’s perfect room illustrates the flaw in the design of many escape rooms: too much emphasis is placed on establishing a low success rate and not enough on making sure the room is fair or fun. I joined a group for a pair of escape rooms played on Friday afternoon. The first titled En-Twained was a search for Mark Twain’s hidden treasure with puzzles based on Twain’s novels. It was a decent room and our group finished with a record time. The second room was titled Mystery Impossible and it was unapologetically advertised as a room that had never been solved. Tinhorn, who made the group reservation, had asked the operator earlier if the room were impossible due to poor puzzle design but received assurance that its puzzles were fair. The theme of the adventures was a bank heist and it looked like the room contained some interesting challenges such as a water transfer puzzle and the equipment to make a fake security badge. We eventually stumbled upon the “ring of keys” elements such as an puzzle that required players to count letters around the room to plug into an equation. The tricky hiding places of the letters made it difficult to determine when the correct amounts were reached, and we later learned that a group of dalmatians on a wall poster were intended to be added to the “D” count. Another puzzle required a four-digit code to be entered into a computer by trial and error (or “trail and error” as was printed on the clue). Entering 24 possibilities was not a deal-breaking burden, but the Windows 10 system on the computer throttled our efforts with a one-minute delay after every five failed attempts. After our time ended and we joined the ranks of the unsuccessful teams, we visited with the room operator offering constructive criticism through clenched teeth. She was receptive to our frustrations and had wished that she could initiate more help during our mission (we had requested no unsolicited hints). She also confessed that the room was her least favorite to operate because of the understandable poor reception. We returned to the hotel and I asked Whovian, who was part of the escape room group, what he thought of Mystery Impossible. He said that he had fun, that he valued the opportunity to cosolve with some great people, and felt that the negativity expressed by some in our group was a bit excessive. “It’s just an escape room,” he observed. I like Whovian’s attitude and choose to focus on the enjoyment I had being with an awesome group of friends.

It Takes Two (or More) Badge
As with the escape room excursion, the highlight of NPL Con is the opportunity to work on puzzles and games with a partner or a team. Joe DeVincentis (/dev/joe) and I formed a solid team for the game What invented by Dan Katz (Spelvin) (this intuitive trivia game was my favorite of all the after-hours offerings). Tanis O’Connor (Sidhe) and I got the band back together for a partnership in the well-crafted Doubles Jeopardy! game presented by Nathan Curtis (Tortoise). And I had great teams for Overtime and Secret Fortune led by Darren Rigby (Dart), Todd Etter’s (Navin) trivia tour de force The Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, and the sequel to the inventive Puzzling in the Dark created by Wil Zambole (WXYZ). I undertook a few activities as a solo competitor, such as the fine Jeopardy! sets presented by Adam Cohen (Noam) and Ben Smith (b-side), but I find more and more that I prefer working with a partner or a team as it puts more emphasis on camaraderie than competition. For the Saturday afternoon handout puzzles I solved the Mike Shenk (Manx) puzzle Urban Renewal with Amanda O’Connor (Aardvark). We took a leisurely pace, both made contributions to the puzzle, and didn’t care about turning our papers in for scoring. Similarly, I had an amazing time solving the flats in a large group organized by Jenny Gutbezahl (Hathor). We read the flats aloud and collaborated on all of the solutions while enjoying local craft beers. On the first night of my trip a group gathered in the hotel lobby to play the board game Concept, and we marveled at how much we enjoyed the dynamics that favored cooperation over competition. I like the collaborative trend in convention activities and, when I presented my variation of Dictionary Race on the main program, I made a last-minute decision to encourage players to form teams of two and eliminate the option of playing solo. Some of the tables had uneven numbers and a few chose to play solo but in an equal number of cases team of two took on a third.

Bee Charmer Badge
At an early point in the convention I had a vision, which I shared with a handful of people. In the vision I was at the podium during the Sunday morning awards presentation and I addressed the Krewe. “Raise your hand,” I said in the vision, “if you won a prize at the prize table. Now raise your hand if you won an after hours game over the weekend. Now raise your hand if you solved one of the handout puzzles from the hospitality suite. And now raise your hand if at some point during the convention you made a new friend.” NPL convention is a time for me to see a hundred or so of my second family members but I’m never sure if I will be meeting anyone new. A planned an activity for Thursday evening in which I invited first-time conventiongoers to meet in the main ballroom after the main program for an orientation to the unofficial program that included some of the impromptu games we play in the after hours. I met several new Krewe at that activity and one tagged along for a Coordination game that I ran, in which he managed to achieve the top score. I signed up for a “racer” team in this year’s Saturday night extravaganza. In recent years I have been a “stroller” as that gives me the freedom to choose my teammates and leave nothing to chance, but I had a feeling that Erin Rhode (Colossus), the chief constructor of the multi-puzzle event, would somehow see that I would be okay. I was blessed with a wonderful team. In addition to good friend Gary Sherman (Eddy) I was partnered with new-to-me cosolvers Kevin Schraith (Tronic) and Asher Walkover (Team Asher). We hummed along through the delightful, apian-themed extravaganza (Colossus was dressed as the queen bee). All in all, I made six new Facebook connections based on meetings at SiLiCon.

Like Button Badge
The benefits of attending an NPL convention are described in many ways: an escape from the stressful world, a reunion with one’s tribe, a rejuvenation, a psychological necessity. The chief source of my Weltschmerz of late has been social media. I once considered Facebook to be a marketplace of ideas in which diversity could be embraced, but that feeling has changed over the last few months. Discussion of art, politics, social attitudes, and tragedies have been combative and more Facebook users seem to be balkanizing their social media experience by unfriending and disconnecting all opposing views. I came to convention needing harmony, and I got what I needed. The shootings in various cities during the convention numbed those who peeked at news feeds between puzzles and games but we kept our spirits up. Donald Trump’s name was brought up a few times but that was the extent of the political topics that I was exposed to. And while I have been posting very little on Facebook lately, intimidated by the contentious discourse, I found several Krewe at Con that I felt safe opening up to. One such conversation led to a tacky joke, but I’ll share it anyway. After a soulful conversation with Nancy Coughlin (Uncanny), I told her that felt very comfortable sharing part of myself with her and that I could consider her a “horcrux.” She replied, “Well, as long as I’m more than just a ‘whore’.”

DASH 008

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The annual DASH puzzle hunt was took place on Saturday in 17 cities throughout the world, including Denver. A late-spring snow shower in the Mile High City did not deter 60 brilliant solvers on 13 teams from having an enjoyable afternoon solving puzzles in various downtown locations.

My local puzzle hunt friends all had conflicts this year. I considered traveling and joining a team with friends in another city but I wanted to support the event in my hometown so I decided to volunteer. I contacted Melanie Schultz, the lead coordinator for Denver DASH, and she added me to the organizing team. The opening location for Denver DASH was my workplace Puzzah! so I proved an asset by knowing where chairs, tables, and event materials are stored. I played “BOSS” in the opening skit that established the secret agent theme of this year’s hunt. I played a baccarat dealer in the lobby area of Puzzah!, which served as the second puzzle locations, and then I resumed my role of BOSS to hand out puzzles at Union Station later in the hunt.

The international DASH committee commissions the puzzles and dictates the hunt structure but the local coordinators need to determine puzzle locations in the host cities. Outdoor parks and shopping areas are popular selections because they are free to the public and have ample solving space. Inclement weather causes challenges because some cities do not have a wealth of indoor locations that are free to the public, commodious to puzzle solving, and in close, walkable proximity. The Denver DASH bad-weather route had a few hiccups. Representatives of the Performing Arts Complex rescinded the use of indoor space that was previously granted and the bar that agreed to host the endgame puzzles became disagreeable when the solving session ran long and extended into the Stanley Cup playoff broadcast. But the solvers were positive and adaptable, making efforts to patronize retail locations that were generous enough to offer shelter from the snow.

The volunteers were given the opportunity to test the DASH puzzles a few weeks beforehand. I was unable to participate in the test-solving because the Denver session was scheduled for the same day as my nephew Ian’s stage performance in Tarzan. Melanie sent me a link to the puzzle print sheets a few days before DASH. I solved the first seven puzzles before Saturday event and the last two on Sunday morning (puzzle 8 requires the assembly of 27 wooden cubes with stickers covering the cube faces, and I decided it would be better to solve the puzzle after collecting the physical materials at the event rather than printing and constructing hollow paper cubes in advance). DASH solvers use the ClueKeeper phone app to check puzzle answers, receive hints, and register solving times for scoring purposes. I didn’t have ClueKeeper for my solo solve so I did my best without answer confirmations or hints, though I did check the “Normal” version of the intro page (i.e., easier than the “Expert” version) on several puzzles. I didn’t set any time records but I did manage to complete all nine puzzles.

The narrative of DASH008 involves an international criminal organization called GHOST that has manufactured a doomsday device. Solvers play spies who are tasked with intercepting a double agent, finding GHOST headquarters, and destroying the device. The puzzles include many clever elements related to James Bond-style plots. The aforementioned 27-cube puzzle is a marvelous construction. The baccarat puzzle, in which solvers analyze a stacked deck in order to beat the dealer, is also fun (in the test version I simply received an ordered list of the cards in the deck but on-site solvers received an actual marked deck of cards!) Some puzzles require Internet research for no particularly good reason and others lean heavily on cipher tropes but the overall puzzle set is solid. I do sense that DASH is becoming more focused on high-production-value puzzles. It makes sense to cater to the primary solving demographic but I fear this mission creep will discourage novice puzzlers who were attracted to DASH for its simplicity, both in solving challenge and design. The puzzle I handed out at Union Station followed a particularly diabolical one that involved folding origami cranes, noting symbols that became aligned on the completed cranes, and then subjecting those symbols to progressively complicated coding schemes. As I handed out the Union Station puzzle, several teams reported that the origami puzzle was interesting but too confusing and time consuming so they opted to skip it due to time budgeted for the overall activity.

One fun side activity associated with being a DASH volunteer was co-solving Puzzled Pint puzzles with Melanie in the bar while the DASH solvers were finishing up the final spy puzzles. Melanie mentioned that she was pursuing a Denver presence for the puzzle activity played in bars in other world cities. We worked on puzzles written by my friend Wil Zambole and talked about puzzles and games in general. Even though my old puzzle friends were out of town for this year’s DASH I was glad to make some new friends.

ETA: The results have now been posted and I see that only two of the Denver teams skipped the origami puzzle and all but two of the teams that completed it finished faster than the par time of 75 minutes. I apparently misinterpreted the reactions from the solvers in the moment.

 

 

Boda Borg / 2016 MIT Mystery Hunt

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My recent trip to Boston opened with a visit to Boda Borg in Malden. The facility, which is the first North American installation of a Swedish franchise, contains sixteen live-action adventures, or “quests,” that could be played repeatedly with the purchase of a day pass. Each quest requires three to five players and comprises a series of rooms. Players must solve a puzzle or complete a physical challenge within each room in order to proceed to the next room. Players reaching the final room gain access to a stamp pad and can mark the name of the quest on a scorecard to indicate success. When players fail any part of the quest they must leave through an exit door and start over from the beginning.

The overall space is a bit labyrinthine. Hallways are lined with countless nondescript exit doorways to the various quests and the group I was with often struggled to find starting doors. The game play architecture within the quest areas is very impressive. The challenges are all reset-free and the doors to subsequent quest areas fully automated. The quests offered a variety of themes and environments that are all whimsically fabricated and decorated. Each quest is color-coded to indicate its type of challenge, ranging from purely mental to purely physical. A majority of the quests are physical and, often, strenuous or potentially injurious. The waiver I was required to sign before embarking on the quests was well justified.

A good group of puzzle people were at Boda Borg when I was there. We shuffled questing teams a few times but I played most of the rooms with Trip Payne and Tyler Hinman. We tried all sixteen quests and earned success stamps for about half of them. The mental challenges were fair to medium, and in a few cases we managed to learn a method of progressing through a quest without understanding the logic of the puzzle. I managed the physical challenges better than I expected and I was very lucky that I left Boda Borg with nothing more than sore muscles and a couple of bruises (some other puzzle friends were not so lucky). My favorite quests included Farm, Rats, Alcatraz (unfinished), Jungle (unfinished), Spider (unfinished), Platoon, Tough/Tougher/Toughest (only the Tough portion finished), and Dansa Pausa (a relatively simple but fun music/dance quest). We finished the Pirates quest but it took so many attempts (due to a struggle with a particular puzzle) that I found it unsatisfying. The trivia quest Quiz Show was not a favorite but we completed all three versions (Sports, Entertainment, and Grab Bag) just to ironically appreciate the poorly written and misspelled questions. I would definitely visit Boda Borg again.

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The main event of my Boston weekend was the annual Mystery Hunt on the campus of MIT. On Friday I met with my Setec Astronomy teammates in our Stata Center headquarters to prepare for 48 hours of puzzle solving. Organizing team Luck presented what initially looked like a dog show themed Hunt but what was later revealed to be a structure loosely based on the science fiction film Inception. Each Hunt round feature a noted fictional character associated with sleeping or dreaming, and the round’s puzzles led to a meta answer that indicated how to wake the character. The rousing methods were often punny; I especially enjoyed the “Vote for Opus” round with the meta answer SLAM RIGHT WING.

I had a lead role in a small number of puzzle, such as the Christmas carol-themed Rhythm of the Season, and I joined the Google Spreadsheet feeding frenzy for several pop culture data collection puzzles, but the weekend had long stretches in which all available puzzles were above my pay grade. A highlight of the weekend was a Saturday afternoon event called The Trivial Pursuits of Walter Mitty. Solver from various Hunt teams formed two-person partnerships to collect wedges representing the six categories in the Genus edition of Trivial Pursuit. Each category had a special gimmick: In Entertainment players communicated the answers to their partners using charades. Arts & Literature used a Pictionary communication method. At the History station, partners needed to provide the answer to whatever was asked two questions earlier. Science & Nature required answers to be incremented by one (Water freezes at 33 degrees Fahrenheit and the Greek root “geo-” means “Mars”). Sports & Leisure featured a Ping Pong table and partners spelled out the answer while batting the ball back and forth. The gimmicks were very clever and at the end of the event I suspected that the idea was a tribute to Tom Gazzola, a member of the Luck team who was killed last June, since the game resembled Tom’s personal invention It Takes Two. I later learned that the event was not a deliberate tribute, but Tom was recognized at the end of the weekend as a dedicatee of the entire Hunt.

The organizing team had announced at the onset that solutions would be accepted up until 6 p.m. on Sunday. By 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon Setec Astronomy had made significant progress but still had a few unsolved metas. A contingent from Luck stopped by and made some remarks suggesting that most teams were struggling to finish and that Setec was still in the running. We rallied and managed to finish our last two metas simultaneously, and then completed one more puzzle round, with references to puzzles in the previous rounds, right before 6 p.m. We received instructions for the final runaround. Our team needed to divided up, go to specific locations on campus, and take photos representing the waking methods of fictional characters. All of the photos needed to be emailed to Luck headquarters within five minutes of each other. The subgroups then met at Lobby 7 and solved a puzzle that revealed the location of the hidden coin: the Alchemist statue by the student center. We crossed the street and found the coin taped to the inside of the statue. Setec Astronomy won the Hunt, and with the second place team, Left Out, less than fifteen minutes behind us.

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The victory means that Setec will construct the 2017 Hunt. It is the first Setec victory since 2004 and the first time that I have been on a winning team. I will be interested to see what it is like to be on an organizing team. I may come to appreciate the standard greeting I received from several people at the Hunt wrap-up event: “Congratulations and condolences.”