This Cons In Wisconsin Badges

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I wrote some memories of the 2018 National Puzzler’s League Convention in “badge” format, I may add more later on.

Con Queso Badge
I didn’t sample much of the local cuisine while I was in Milwaukee, yet I still found opportunities to enjoy Wisconsin cheese. On Monday night I joined a group at a restaurant about a block from the hotel called the SafeHouse. The restaurant has a spy theme and requires a password for entry. If you don’t know the password you can earn it by completing a stunt in the lobby. Our group danced a simple can-can and we were soon escorted through a false bookcase to a table underneath a Cold War-themed Sam Loyd wall puzzle that shifted between displaying 12 and 13 agents with the touch of a button. The food was okay, the drinks were not as okay, and the decor was full of 1960s kitsch whose political incorrectness left me a little queasy. A printed card that appeared to be a walkaround puzzle turned out to be a scavenger hunt encouraging patrons to find the gift shop and post photos to social media. I appreciated Trip Payne’s assessment of SafeHouse: TGI Spy Days. On Tuesday I took a day trip to Wisconsin Dells, a town constructed entirely of cheese. Every block of the town boasted a water park or rope course or go-kart track or funnel cake stand or some similar carnivalesque tourist trap. Our group playe miniature golf, had a meal at a Sprecher’s restaurant, and visited some “$5 Today Only” walk-through tours of an Aztec temple and rat maze. The SafeHouse and Wisconsin Dells satisfied my hunger for cheese, and I did not need to pick up any squeaky curds on the road trip back to Milwaukee.

Escape the Expectations Badge
I played three escape rooms during the vacation. One was Wizard Quest in Wisconsin Dells, which featured high-concept fabricated sets and playground amusements (including a ball pit that one of my teammates was temporarily stuck in). The other two were traditional escape rooms in corporate suites. None had remarkable puzzle content, but the two traditional rooms had interesting approaches used by the game masters. Sherrick at Escape MKE had an elaborate comedy routine for the briefing followed by a very detailed debriefing report that included calling out individual players by name for their contributions. I was impressed by the diligent note-taking but the report went on a but long for my taste and I noted that a player whose name did not get mentioned in the report might feel slighted. Shlomo Levin at Save MKE was the most committed game master I have ever encountered. His briefing for the “Device” escape room was the first I’d encountered with jump scares, caused by his intense narration punctuated by bursts of anxiety-ridden emphasis. Our mission was a success and after our celebratory photo I shop-talked about business and room design and so forth. He adamants stayed in character claiming no knowledge of an escape room “business” or any artifice of the world-saving experience. We shrugged and departed, with teammate Todd Etter whispering to me, “Maybe there’s such a thing as TOO immersive.” In escape rooms good staffing is more important than good puzzles so I was glad to get some field data to bring back to Puzzah!

Be Lucky or Be Around Badge
I had the good fortune to play most of the hot-ticket after-hours games this year. Darren Rigby’s What’s the Big Idea is a very creative reimagining of the board game Concept. My teammate Gary Levin and I took a while to break in but made some successful insights toward the end of the game. Dave Shukan’s Dilemma (featured my most recent top ten games list) was a delight as always, and I managed a respectable second place to Ken Stern’s perfect score. Adam Cohen’s Jeopardy! was solid though it didn’t feature a category I could get a firm toehold in. Katherine Bryant and Ken Stern’s Last Minute Jeopardy! was explained early on as a “Celebrity” version, though I didn’t understand what that meant, or how amazingly inventive the theme was, until after the final clue. Sandor Weisz presented his tabletop escape room Galleries in Denver on the Wednesday before Con. I thought I was going to miss it, since I was already going to be Milwaukee, but Sandor flew from Colorado to Wisconsin with puzzle sets in tow and presented his artistically rendered and beautifully constructed game for the NPLers! Todd Etter and Evan Davis, with bartending support from Jonathan McCue and delightful lounge singing from Summer Herick, offered sample rounds from a DCPHR puzzle hunt. The puzzles all had top-notch production values and answer extractions. Jen McTeague has presented suitcase escape rooms at previous con that I have missed, so I was immensely excited to secure a spot in Escape the Jeopardy!, which combined a trivia round with escape room puzzles that required information from the trivia to be solved. I spent most of my time at the escape room table but was able to hear the trivia questions when I spectated a subsequent round. I didn’t get to play all of the after-hours games that I wanted but was delighted to find seatings for so many of them.

Code of Conduct Badge (pending)
Mike Selinker and Gaby Weidling drafted a Code of Conduct statement and presented it at the business meeting on Saturday. The statement represents a standard amenity of conventions in the modern era (and I extend my appreciation to Mike and Gabby for their work on the document) but in the case of the NPL it is also a reaction to specific and awful incidents in which the safety of attendees has been violated. I saw a draft of the statement several months before the convention and appreciated the diligence but dismissed it as unimportant reading for a supposedly enlightened and inclusive individual like myself. Wow, I sure became aware during the Con how easy it is for me to initiate a handshake or embrace that makes another feel uncomfortable or use an improper pronoun. My suggestion is that we all need to review the Code of Conduct and realize that we may not have the opportunities in our daily routines to practice the sensitivity required for occasions such as NPL Con. I will do better.

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Equinox 66

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The San Francisco puzzle community has been organizing biannual puzzle miniconventions for 33 years. I learned about these Equinox parties about the same time I attended my first LA minicon and contacted local organizer Henri Picciotto to get on the mailing list. I never found an opportunity to attend until this year when my friend Myles Nye, who recently moved from LA to Bay Area, invited me to stay at his place in Berkeley. I made my plans for a quick weekend getaway that would include an evening puzzle program at the Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists.

When I contacted Henri and told him I was planning to attend, he invited me to contribute an activity for the party. Equinox puzzle content favors wordplay challenges over trivia or logic, but the activities include wall puzzles, mixers, handouts, group games, and extravaganzas. The parties traditionally have themes that inspire the puzzle content. Since this was the 66th party, the chosen theme was “Road Trip,” as a reference to Route 66. I agreed to present a group game and devised a “Travel Bingo” activity in which players would come up with answer words that share a wordplay connection (anagram, letter change, etc.) and then place those answers on a bingo card. Each space on the card had a category and players would try to place answers to match the categories. Play-testers enjoyed generating answers but were confused by some of the rules governing valid answers. I did my best to simplify the rules without making them trivial.

About 70 people attended the Equinox party, and about a quarter of them were also members of the National Puzzlers’ League. I was happy to visit with friends that I see at the NPL conventions as well as people I don’t often get to see like Andrea Carla Michaels, Rosa Quiñones, and NeilFred Picciotto. The program started with a large-group word ladder puzzle created by Roger Wolff. The attendees solved clues on sheets of paper and then arranged themselves based on the letters of the answers to create a long chain that spelled an answer message. NeilFred presented a creative challenge based on a classic wordplay game of finding words that contain license plate trigrams. At each table, the players needed to find words and then use those words in a story that was created by passing a folded sheet of paper around exquisite-corpse style. Andrew Chaikin’s Interstate Roadtrip contained clues leading to answers that could be made of U.S. State postal abbreviations plus one extra letter. The extra letters spelled a clue to the final answer. I cosolved with a new acquaintance Ruth and we worked well filling one another’s knowledge gaps to complete the puzzle in short order. Myles led a game show called Spoonbenders in which a player tried to deduce a phrase from a teammates verbal clues of a spoonerized version of the phrase. I offered up Travel Bingo and made some adjustments on the fly since many of the players were not familiar with NPL terminology. Finally, Rick Rubenstein and Joshua Kosman gave us a very fun extravaganza in which the solvers were hitchhikers working out puzzles to get across the country. It was a puzzle-packed evening that sated my solving muscles.

House of Eternal Return / 19 Crimes

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Immersion is one of my new topics of interest. I want to learn more about immersion and apply that knowledge to my puzzle room design work. I want to participate in immersive experiences to broaden my aesthetic sensibilities. It’s a little bit daunting, but I’ll post my insights and journeys, starting with my recent trip to House of Eternal Return.

DISCLAIMER: My description will include some mild spoilers. These will only be harmful to purists who want to visit House of Eternal Return with no advance knowledge. Most readers will be fine.

Two years ago the art collective Meow Wolf purchased an abandoned bowling alley in northern Santa Fe. A group investors, including George R. R. Martin, commissioned dozens of artists to collaborate on a massive immersive installation for the new space. I heard about the project from two Denver-based Meow Wolf organizers who are friends of Puzzah! I also got some details from other friends who visited the installation shortly after it opened. My colleagues and I agreed on the business research benefits of the site, so we planned a road trip and made our way down to New Mexico in early December.

The Meow Wolf installation, titled House of Eternal Return, begins in the front yard of a Victorian house constructed inside the former bowling alley building. A mailbox reveals that the house belongs to the Pastore family. Visitors find no prescribed route and wander through the house in the manner they choose. The house interior features pleasant furnishings and walls decked with family photos, but no sign of the actual Pastore clan. There is evidence of supernatural disturbance that beset the home sometime in the recent past. Visitors can explore the living room, dining room, kitchen, and climb the stairs to the second-story bedrooms, but the doors and hallways eventually lead to areas that … one would not expect to find in a Victorian house.

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The people exploring House of Eternal Return seemed to fall into two categories. First-time visitors, like me, and groups with young children were drawn to the exotic environments. The installation contains over 50 “rooms” with amazing visuals and sophisticated technological interactions. People who had presumably been to House before took a more investigative attitude. They stayed in the house proper and combed through newspapers, desktop computer files, and diaries looking for clues. Who left this business card for a self-help cult? Why was the government surveilling the house? These carefully placed bits of data are meant to fuel speculations over the fundamental mystery of the experience: What happened to the Pastore family?

The road trip group compared notes as we drove back to Colorado. The installation contains a lot of authentic detail, but the use of fragile materials (paper, glass, textiles) in a hands-on space with thousands of weekly visitors must be a maintenance nightmare. Several of the technology elements are worth incorporating in future escape rooms. The installation contains a couple of “puzzles” but most of the experience was passive. The narrative structure is not perfect but the immersive qualities of the space are definitely memorable. I would enjoy a return visit, and I’m excited that Meow Wolf announced a new immersive installation will open in Denver in 2020!

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And on the subject of immersive technology: A friend game me a bottle of 19 Crimes wine as a holiday gift. I learned from a recent post in the escape room technology Facebook group that 19 Crimes wine bottles have a fun augmented reality feature, which you can see in this video. As a possible escape room element, it sure beats blacklights and ultraviolet paint.

Monsters et Manus Documentary

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The 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt was a role-playing themed puzzle quest called Monsters et Manus. I was part of the team that organized and presented this Hunt last January. Tom Buehler, one of my teammates, filmed the activities of the Hunt and edited a short documentary film. Even if you’re not a puzzle fan, I recommend that you scrub through the documentary to some of the highlights, such as the Hungry Hungry Hippogriffs event and Racing Techies (in which I am costumed as mathematician Norbert Wiener). Great job, Tom!

CrosswordsLA / Escape Room Binge

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I was in Los Angeles last weekend for CrosswordsLA held on the USC campus. I was a tournament volunteer once again, helping in the tabulation room in the morning and collecting puzzles in the afternoon. I didn’t have the opportunity to solve the qualifying puzzles in advance, but I reviewed the completed puzzles handed in by the contestants and was impressed with the work of the constructors. I especially liked the chewy Puzzle 3 created by Erin Rhode. When the finalists were announced I grabbed a copy of Patti Varol’s championship puzzle and bolted out of Fertitta Hall auditorium to complete it. My head start gave me just enough time to return to the auditorium and see fellow Coloradan Al Sanders finish at the big board ahead of co-finalists Eric LeVasseur and Eric Maddy. I was glad to see Al win another tournament!

The rest of Crosswords LA was fairly routine. Dave Shukan presented a fun opening game and John “Doppler” Schiff concocted an afternoon mini-extravaganza. Tournament organizer Elissa Grossman kept things running smoothly, though she occasionally needed to be reminded of what a great job she was doing. She also wrangled really nice desserts as usual. The tournament was my first time to see the USC campus. After the tournament, a few of the puzzlers walked across the street to a gastropub for a light dinner. Shukan and I talked shop while Tyler Hinman focused on the Trojans getting whipped by Notre Dame.

CrosswordsLA was the primary purpose of the trip, but the personal highlight was the marathon of escape rooms that Tyler organized. He got recommendations from locals, mainly Trip Payne who maintains a detailed spreadsheet, and devised an itinerary of 13 rooms for the weekend. The itinerary included two rooms on Friday, two on Saturday, and an ambitious sequence of nine rooms in the Hollywood-Koreatown area scheduled for a twelve-hour span on Sunday. Tyler alerted local puzzlers of the schedule and invited them to participate in as many as the wished. He played all 13 and I played 11. I was curious to see how such glut of escape room immersion would test my limits of cognitive stability. I was pleased with my personal results and happy with my solving companions throughout. We completed every room and set some (asterisked?) record times at the last location on Sunday.

The rooms were all superior quality. The technological devices that registered puzzle answers and popped open doors to new parts of the adventure were amazingly sophisticated. Tech can be unreliable, especially in a wear-and-tear environment like an escape room. We experienced a fair number of tech glitches and delays that resulted in heel-cooling diagnostic conversations with game masters. My favorite rooms of the weekend were relatively light on tech, but featured compelling narratives, theatricality, live actors, and unconventional game-play structures. The room Smugglers Tunnel at North Hollywood’s Escape Chronicles is a heist-themed experience that evaluates players not strictly by speed but by optimization of the stolen items. That’s an element that draws me in more than a string of RFID-maglock set pieces.

The ultimate value of completing a marathon of escape rooms is the opportunity to analyze trends that I can incorporate into my own work. Puzzah! operates with some challenging design parameters, but I’m motivated to find a way to apply the positive elements of the LA rooms into future Puzzah! projects. That motivation may involve lobbying to change our parameters — we’ll see. In any case, I’m content with going back to an escape room regimen of about one a month.

By the way, you can purchase packets of the CrosswordsLA puzzles online here. Proceeds go to the organization Reading to Kids.

Lollapuzzoola 10

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The 10th Lollapuzzoola crossword tournament was held in New York on August 18, 2017. That was a Saturday in August. I wanted to include comments on the puzzles in my memories post, which is why I waited until at-home puzzle packet sales closed. Still, if you have not yet solved the 2017 crossword puzzles and plan to in the future, note that THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!

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I hadn’t attended a Lollapuzzola in a few years, but knew that the tournament had been steadily gaining popularity and was likely to sell out. When I registered, I told tournament co-organizer Brian Cimmet that I would be willing to give up my seat and be a tournament assistant is he needed volunteers. Brian contacted me a week before the Lollapuzzoola Saturday and said he would take me up on the offer. I asked for an advance copy of the puzzles and Brian graciously obliged.

Being a volunteer didn’t cause any significant changes in the plans I was making with my host Jeffrey. We planned to get to the All Souls Church as early as possible where he would find a solving table and I would report to the assistants’ coordinator Mike Nothnagel for a duty assignment. I opted to collect completed puzzles and deliver them to the judging table. As a collector, I was also responsible for redeeming “Google tickets.” At the halfway point of each puzzle round, a solver could write the clue number of a non-theme entry on a ticket and hand it to an assistant who would write the corresponding entry on the ticket and return it to the solver. I positioned myself in the team-solving section for most rounds and didn’t have many Google ticket requests.

The Lollapuzzoola 10 subtitle was “Passing The Torch,” and an Olympic Games theme was reflected in the puzzles and general atmosphere. Brian Cimmet’s orgnaizing partner Patrick Blindauer opened the tournament by playing “Bugler’s Dream” on kazoo and later ran through the solving area draped in an American flag. Patrick also presented a trivia game in which solvers identified sports movies with as few clues as possible. I did pretty well joining a sidelines team with sports-savvy Ade Koiki and Doug Peterson. Francis Heaney and Ben Tausig presented another group game in which solvers guessed phrases with acronyms that matched three-letter country codes. A large Olympic flag was hung above the tournament stage, and the flag contained information that could have helped the finalists during the playoff puzzle. But before the playoffs, solvers needed to test their Olympic mettle on five preliminary puzzles.

The morning kicked off with Paolo Pasco’s “Let the Games Begin!” The organizers put it in the first slot based on its title, but the puzzle was unusual for a tournament opener in that it was not the easiest nor had the smallest grid. Five shaded rows in the puzzle started with names of Olympic sports and were followed by entries that could become new words if a letter or pair of letters in the sport were added. The entries were clued as the added-letter versions. So (J)(U)(D)(O) was followed by ABS {Quick boxing hits}, FAST {Original deal-with-the-devil maker}, RIPS {Features of runny noses or leaky faucets} and GODS {Merchandise}. The supplemental fill and clues were not especially difficult but the time required to parse the theme and complete the 23 x 13 grid could have been demoralizing for solvers used to a breezier Puzzle 1. C.C. Burnikel constructed the next puzzle, which competitors seemed to have the least trouble and most fun solving. “Crossword De-cat-hlon” contained theme entries inviting solvers to literally MEOWFORSOMEMILK and SCRATCHTHETABLE. A few tournament attendees remembered that I constructed a similar solver-performance puzzle based on John Cage for the second Lollapuzzoola tournament. I don’t think C.C. was an active constructor at that time so I assume she devised the theme concept independently. Puzzle 3 was “Gym Playlist” by Erik Agard. The payoff phrase UNEVENBARS split across two entries was suggested by three song titles similarly split across multiple entries in the grid. This was my favorite of the tournament puzzles as the split clues for the theme entries added to the overall challenge. This puzzle received a fair number of unwitting Google ticket requests for theme entries. While solvers did not receive grid content for these requests, they did gain insight on which entries belonged to the theme. “New Biathlons” by Francis Heaney featured theme entries in which two Olympic sports were inserted into a word to form an invented phrase. So {Short-lived trend + new biathlon = excellent computer systems manager assessed by a toy car company} clued the entry FA(BADMINTON)(KARATE)D. The invented phrases were fun, but this is a difficult theme to enjoy in a speed-solving environment. “Stick the Landing” by joon pahk closed the preliminary puzzles. The pole vaulting theme was represented by three phrases placed in the grid as a pair of entries separated by a black square. The square stood for the central letter(s) in a word that could be clued as a type of pole. {Frontiersman’s headgear} clued COONS [black square] INCAP; a cross-reference clue {___ pole} produced the link SKI.

Once the finalists were determined and sequestered, the organizers started setting up the large solving boards. Spectators were surprised by the reflectional symmetry of Mike Nothnagel and Doug Peterson’s puzzle grid, and they were intrigued when assistants began passing out packages of crayons. The puzzle contained a thematic gimmick tied to five grid squared. Each square required an O for the entry in one direction and a rebus of a color, either BLUE, YELLOW, BLACK, GREEN, or RED, in the other direction. The solver reconciled these squares by drawing an appropriately colored letter O and the grid positions of these special squares created the rings of the Olympic flag. I wasn’t clear on the tournament Olympic theme when I solved this at home, so I had some trouble understanding what was going on. The finalists onstage, who were furnished with colored dry-erase markers, were all standing beneath the Olympic flag and could possibly have an aha moment if they chose to look up. Andy Kravis took the top spot in the Express division and Simon McAndrews finished first in the Local division. I congratulate both of them as well as pairs champions Michael Sharp and Penelope Harper.

My chief enjoyment of the tournament was socializing with crossword enthusiasts and in many cases continuing conversations from the Indie 500 tournament. I met John Lieb who organized the inaugural Boston crossword tournament Boswords earlier in the month. Mike Shenk made a surprise appearance to spectate and publicize his upcoming Bryant Park crossword tournament (which concluded as I was writing this post — congratulations again, Andy!) The only downside is that, due to awkward volunteer scheduling and improvised post-tournament activities, I didn’t really get to eat anything that day. But a small price to pay for an afternoon spent with fine people and puzzles.

 

2017 Las Vegas Minicon Notes

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The Embassy Suites on Swenson had undergone a renovation in decor since 2016. The changes were initially jarring but the basic amenities of our mincon hotel ultimately hung to tradition: same swans, same Elvis statue, same Sin in the Desrt cocktails at the complimentary happy hour. Bartender Dey is still slinging alcopop at the Suites and greeted our return with only slight confusion that we were not there on our usual Labor Day weekend.

The main new restaurant experience of this minicon was Carmine’s at Caesar’s Palace. The family style-Italian joint was our choice for a Friday group dinner. The cold antipasti was excellent, featuring small sandwiches and a seafood salad. The saltimobocca was an interesting new experience but I preferred the simpler angel hair with tomatoes. The dessert cannoli was average and the ambience a bit stadium-like but I enjoyed the meal overall. The Sunday night hangers-on tried dim sum at the off-Strip Yum Cha. We shared some nice small plates including a tasty duck, but I had some heartburn that dampened the experience.  I tried drinks at the Peach Bar at Cosmopolitan’s Momofuku. I had an awkward start with the bartender but he made me a personal cocktail with honey, ginger, and tequila that I was find of. TMI alert: The real highlight of of Momofuku was trying out the bidet in the men’s room. The Venetian’s Bouchon was our Saturday night choice. During dinner, a kitchen staffer suggested in a slightly scolding manner that I should eat the skin of my trout. Aside from that minor hiccup the meal was a delightful array of friendship and French cuisine. I enjoyed returning to B&B in the Venetian, where I had an exceptional Italian mule and a peach-and-mint bartender’s choice that I called a Chantilly after my childhood home.

Minicon games were lean this year. I had a clipboard full of NOL convention handouts so I wasn’t worried about the lack of a Mark Halpin extravaganza (slated for the end of August). Dave Shukan recently introduced me to Escape This Podcast, and I was reminded of an interactive fiction game that I wrote in college called Rat Trap. I presented it to some of the other attendees and it provided a short diversion. I also wrote an Only Connect game using the web infrastructure written by Andrew Greene. It proved to be a convenient amusement that could be played during a restaurant lunch by those with smartphones. Darren Rigby had the Only Connect games he presented a few weeks earlier in Boston. We played the “puzzle” set and I was awestruck by the Wall rounds. We played Codenames, Sporculation, and tested a drawing game called Fake Artist Goes to New York.

We scheduled the minicon in early August this year to sync with the Trivia Championship of North America. TCONA, now held in the Tropicana, is celebrating its seventh year drew about 250 trivia fans including several friends from the crossword community. The event features ample content and somewhat wonky scheduling so we didn’t attract too many of the registered members off-site for minicon activities. We did visit the Tropicana one afternoon to audit the game show marathon (I saw a few rounds of Tic Tac Dough) and play the trivia escape room devised by John Chaneski. The challenge comprised nine trivia questions each hidden in puzzle form in some item or location associated with most hotel rooms. We found and solved the puzzles, answered the questions, and then discovered a code that would allow us to escape the room. The setup was better designed than many commercial escape rooms I’ve attended, but the highlight for me was seeing John after an absence of nearly a decade, He’s a treasure. Our minicon did visit a commercial escape room in Vegas: Lost Games. The nascent business offered the first in a planned series of three serialized horror-suspense rooms with an insane asylum theme. The three owners were very personable and all participated in the preliminary skit that landed us in a medical study looking for the antidote to a poison we had ingested as a presumed prescription drug. The experience included good puzzles, a rich immersive environment, and well designed technical effects. It was easily the best escape room I’ve played in Las Vegas.

Only eleven months and change to minicon 10!