Mines Benders

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Quest for the Purple Unicorn

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

The Game: Miskatonic University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Maso Award

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It’s Tuesday evening and all of my house guests who were in town for the 180th convention of the National Puzzlers’ League have departed. I’m alone in my condo to reflect on the events related to my 22nd reunion with my chosen family. I won’t bury the lede. The highlight of my weekend, and perhaps my entire NPL experience to date, took place on Sunday morning when Kristy McGowan and Wil Zambole stepped to the podium to announce the Maso Award. This is an award named for the “nom” (NPL nickname) of Thomas Gazzola who was taken so unfairly from the puzzle community in 2015. Wil approached me at last year’s convention with the idea to create an annual award in Maso’s honor to recognize the NPL member who showed the true spirit of the convention. I fully supported the idea as well as the suggestion to appoint Eric Berlin as the inaugural recipient of the award. At the Sunday awards ceremony this year I was sleep deprived and wondered why Wil had not sought my input on a Maso Award winner for 2019. And then it hit me. And then it really hit me.

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Eric was taken off guard when he was announced as last year’s winner. I was similarly stunned and unable to offer any kind of address beyond an emotionally hampered “thank you” as I accepted my certificate. Now that I have my bearings I want to share some thoughts on the honor and the convention.

Maso was an immensely positive force in my life as a puzzle creator. I am not a spiritual person but I still have “conversations” with Maso. My impressions of him as a vital force in the puzzle community remain very strong, and in our conversations he gives me comfort, keeps me honest, and guides me in the direction of being a better person. After the wrap-up of this year’s activities, I was included in a discussion of possibly renaming the award to something more general, so Maso’s nom would not be elevated above other great NPL members who are no longer with us. I respect that sentiment and hold memories of departed Krewe firmly in my feels, but Maso was special to me and the award as it was presented to me will remain dedicated to him.

Eric Berlin posted an excellent summary of the convention that includes a mention of my award. He describes the decision he reached with Kristy and Wil by stating “nobody else really comes close.” That is flattering, but I respond in all seriousness that I want more members of the League to “come close.” The growth of the convention is both exciting and concerning. We need more people to step up and help keep the convention running functionally in the wake of the expanded attendance. I know that many members of the Krewe look upon the convention as a vacation, but we need more contributions from the them to maintain the quality of the event. Even little things like volunteering to pass out answer sheets for large group games are helpful and greatly appreciated. Please contact me if you want ideas of how you can benefit the League through service.

ETA: I wrote the above in a slightly heated state and regret the way I used the quotation from Eric’s summary. Many people exhibited the spirit of the Maso Award to make RockOn a fantastic convention. I want to thank the members of the board, my colleagues on the program committee, the ambassadors, the code of conduct committee, and all of the presenters for their hard work. And I especially want to applaud Kristy McGowan for doing an amazing job hosting a seamless convention!

Immersive Theatre Pop-Up

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Immersive Theatre Pop-Up is performance event that took place this afternoon at the downtown branch of Denver Public Library. The event featured six pieces and was overseen by the creative teams at Off-Center, a division of Denver Performing Arts Center. The event was experimental and each small team behind one of the six pieces faced the same goal: to collaborate on creating a repeatable performance piece that lasted 6-8 minutes, addressed a relevant library topic, and offered active participation opportunity for every individual who attended the piece. The time span between conceiving the piece and striking the set after the final performance was just under 24 hours.

I volunteered to be an actor in the event and was assigned to a team that would create a piece on the topic of banned books. Our team of five actors and director Leigh Miller met at the downtown library on Saturday afternoon to tour the performance space and then relocated to a DCPA rehearsal room to hash out a concept. We noted that books are rarely banned in the U.S. but many are challenged, and we used the DPL’s book challenge form as the inspiration for the piece. We would prompt attendees to choose a word they dislike, ask them what they disliked about it, and then submit this information to an unseen judge who would ban it based on the attendees comments. We felt a printed except from a familiar literary work would be useful as a source for attendees to pick words, and one of my castmates came up with the inspired idea to use an excerpt from The New Colossus. After a word was banned, attendees would be led to a “redaction room” to mark out the chosen word as well as adjacent, corrupted text. The attendee would be invited to keep the redacted copy of the poem, “as a record of what would now appear at the base of the Statue of Liberty.” We drafted a basic script, ran some table reads, came up with a prop list, and called it a night at 10 p.m.

On Sunday morning we met at the library to set up our space. The main set piece was a mountain of books piled on a round table in a conference room where we would read the Judge’s ruling. The five of us rehearsed, taking turns as the “advocate.” We also went to the spaces of the other five performance pieces to experience their works. At 1:30 we opened to the general public. Our piece, titled “Banned Together,” attracted about 100 audience members, and I led about dozen groups made up of 1-4 individuals. The concept was admittedly blunt and manipulative, but many attendees seemed quite affected by the gut-punch line of the redaction scene. Our piece was often the last of the pieces experience by attendees because we performed on the seventh (highest) floor of the library. I regretted this and wished more people has finished on lovely “Soñadores/Dreamerswhich explored the library as a refuge for persons of different cultural backgrounds. The last “Banned Together” groups finished at 3 p.m. and the teams met for a debrief before going our separate ways.

I enjoyed being in an acting role again, though a lot of the advocate’s dialogue was giving instructions, something I do a lot in the puzzle community. The abbreviated creation process was more remarkable than the actual performance, and I hope Off-Center will try this experiment again in the future.

Overlook Film Festival

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Two weeks ago my friend Ryan, one of the Puzzah! founders, asked me if I wanted to join him at the Overlook Film Festival. I’m not a fan of horror films but I looked at the festival website and was intrigued by the immersive, virtual reality, and puzzle/game events included on the Overlook schedule. I was also in need of a vacation and imagined New Orleans, a city I had never visited, as a great change of scenery. We spent the next few days making flight and hotel arrangements and registering for the festival events. Last Wednesday we arrived in The Big Easy and our haunt-scene adventure began.

Over two dozen films were screened at Overlook this year. The marquee offerings were the premieres of Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die and Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s The Lodge. I prioritized live events over screenings and in the end the only films I saw were a selection of horror shorts. I met one of the short film directors, Meredith Alloway, at festival registration. Her film Deep Tissue was technically adept and its theme of gender power dynamics was provocative. Fire Escape was an virtual reality narrative requiring special signup due to the limited number of headsets. The experience is a high-tech version of Rear Window set at a Brooklyn apartment building. The viewer watches the action from a fire escape across the alley and can select windows to eavesdrop on scenes in particular apartments. Afterwards I compared notes with some of the other viewers and got some insight on apartment scenes I had missed. Overlook had a free VR Lounge at the registration area and I experienced two short VR pieces: Campfire Creepers and Wolves in the Walls based on a Neil Gaiman story. I experienced very little motion sickness, confirming that refresh rates are improving since my last VR attempt two years ago.

I attended my first immersive piece of the festival on Thursday night. The Pumpkin Pie Show was a one-on-one storytelling experience performed by Clay McLeod Chapman. I met Clay at one of the theaters and he led me to an upstairs storage room, sat me in a chair, and told a creepy fifteen-minute story called “Rest Area.” The story was good and Clay’s first-person narration was powerful. On Friday I signed up for Home of Enchantments, another one-on-one experience. Belle (played by Ava Lee Scott) texted meeting instructions at the Olivier House Hotel. I sat beside Belle in the period-furnished and otherwise deserted hotel lobby and, unlike the explicitly non-interactive Pumpkin Pie, I was prompted to join her in conversation and … do other things. It was a mesmerizing and intense performance — the highlight of my festival experience. My Saturday night show was Room Service created by the team at JFI Productions. Ryan and I were ushered into a guest room at the Olivier, tucked into the bed, and told a bedtime story. The experience left a strong impression.

I learned that the Overlook organizers traditionally present a walk-around puzzle game that can be solved in free time throughout the weekend. This year’s game was built around the story of a pair of young artists who become consumed by a dark conspiracy. The structure was similar to an MIT Mystery Hunt. The organizers scheduled a series of events over the weekend where solvers viewed a plot-advancing “skit” and received puzzles that could be solved by visiting locations in the French Quarter. Festival attendees who registered at the premium level had access to more skits and puzzles. The project was ambitious and the skits had impressive production values, but the locations and times of the skits, which were revealed during the game, often involved a ride-share several miles from the festival sites and/or conflicted with other scheduled events. Ryan and I eventually abandoned the puzzles and sought out more dedicated solvers to get story updates. I hope the organizers continue developing games of this type, but give more logistical details in advance to help solvers prepare. Saintsbone was a two-hour puzzle event scheduled at various times throughout the weekend. Small teams attended a will reading in Jackson Square and then roamed the nearby streets meeting characters connected to dearly departed. Each character posed a puzzle and then gave a clue to the meta once the puzzle was solved. Ryan and I signed up for a Saturday evening slot and the parades and tourist traffic made the streets difficult to navigate. The game creators may have misjudged the navigation time and the character frequently rushed us through puzzles to ensure the event was moving at the right pace. Still, the characters were all very fun and the story invited solvers to consider issues of life and death and make a choice at the game’s climax.

Ryan and I took some time away from the festival to visit local escape rooms. We found two other festival attendees, Elaine and Rob, to help us make the four-person minimum for the games at 13th Gate Escape in Baton Rouge. Dwayne Sanburn and his team of film industry world builders have created games with amazing sets and effects. We played Tomb of Anubis and Cutthroat Cavern and were blown away by the spectacle. Back in New Orleans, Ryan and I formed a solving duo for Escape My Room. The games created by owner Andrew Preble and his team represent rooms in the mansion of the fictional DeLaporte family. Once you open Escape My Room’s door and step off the street you are immediately in the story. We played Smuggler’s Den and Inventor’s Attic. Both had clever puzzles and visually attractive period decor … well, I suppose I can vouch more for the visuals in Attic than Den.

Ryan did some advance research and scouted out some great restaurants and bars. Weekend highlights: Felix’s (great grilled oysters!), Bennachin (African comfort food), Loa (the Jean Lafitte cocktail contains “Spanish moss pillaged from city park”), Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 (I now want to make macadamia nut liqueur), and Manolito (intimate cafe with Cuban snacks and daiquiris — we went there four times!)

 

Love Potion no. 13

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Last December the curators of Denver Immersive Summit asked Puzzah! to create an activity related to puzzles and immersive experience. Our offering was Love Potion no. 13, a live action puzzle experience presented last night at our Lower Downtown location. Marilyn Dorn and I created the activity and performed it along with Nick Lawson and Deirdre Lee.

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Eighteen attendees agreed to be subjects in a social experiment by sampling a dose of the compatibility enhancement drug LP-13 and then participating in a speed-dating exercise to find a perfect match. The speed-dating activity drew heavily from the structure created by Jeff Roberts for a similar event presented at the MIT Mystery Hunt in 2017. Subjects who found perfect matches learned there was more to the experiment than first advertised, and all participants eventually worked together to bring the story to a happy conclusion.

The participants included artists, musicians, designers, educators, and members of the escape room industry. The group worked well together and dispatched the puzzle set in about 20 minutes. The activity was followed by a 40-minute discussion that covered puzzles (a little) and ideas about immersive experience (a lot). My highlights of the evening were meeting new members of Denver’s immersive community and hamming it up as the nefarious Dr. Adam Rue of Blind Data Laboratories.

I hope we can reprise Love Potion no. 13 either for a DIS event or for Puzzah! but no definite plans have been made.