Denver Immersive Summit Notes / Eric Berlin’s “Escape Room” Crossword

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The Denver Immersive Summit drew nearly 300 creators, technologists, and businesspeople to the CU-Denver campus on Saturday. The summit opened with a mission statement by co-organizer David Thomas and a high-level history of immersive art presented by Lonnie Hanzon. No Proscenium founder Noah Nelson delivered the keynote speech titled “Presence,” which explored the opportunities for artistic expression in the immersive space. The rest of the day comprised three breakout sessions in which participants could choose between various open forums, panel discussions, and demonstrations.

In many ways, the summit only scratched the surface. The inability to understand or agree on the meaning of “immersive” was general theme of the discourse. Still. I was heartened by the “Year Zero” turnout and enjoyed the opportunity to network with other members of the community. David Thomas plans on expanding the conversation with a series of postscript events starting in 2019.

In the keynote Noah Nelson made a brief reference to a rivalry in the escape room community between “high puzzle” and “high immersive.” I wasn’t aware this rivalry but realized it might apply to the afternoon panel discussion in which Cody Borst and I discussed escape room design challenges. I am clearly of the High Puzzle camp and Cody, whose rooms are astoundingly rich sensory experiences, is the delegate for the Immersives. We expressed no antagonism as it tuns out, and instead shared common concerns about making escape rooms that are accessible to participants with a wide variety of abilities and expectations. The conversation was a bit dry at fist as Cody and I kept things on a theoretical level. Once we started giving examples of design successes and failures in actual rooms, the audience began to perk up. Among the audience members were Puzzah! coworkers, my former coworker Noreen, and friends Arianna and Winter. The Q&A session ended with a powerful question from Winter: Why do escape rooms reward strong performance with a shorter experience?

Puzzah! agreed to host one of the Summit followups with a event in February based on puzzles. I hope to address Winter’s question and other puzzle topics related to escape rooms and other immersive experiences.

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Eric Berlin has a great crossword puzzle in today’s (Sunday’s) New York Times. “Escape Room” is a contest crossword with a hidden bonus answer. Solvers can submit this answer for a chance to win a 2019 crossword calendar. Check it out!

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Crosswords LA X / LA Escape Room Binge 2

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Crosswords LA provided me an opportunity for a mini-vacation in Southern California last weekend. I constructed the opening puzzle and volunteered at the tournament as a judge and an assistant for some of the game events. The tournament had a good puzzle set this year and I encourage solvers to get solve-at-home packets once they become available. Puzzle 3 by Anna Gundlach and Erik Agard gave solvers the biggest challenge of the day, but it wasn’t as dramatic a pack separator as I predicted. Solid performance throughout the day netted berths in the finals for Jeff Davidson, Brian Fodera, and Eric Maddy. Eric took the victory with the only perfect solution of Brendan Emmett Quigley’s  championship puzzle. Congratulations to all the finalists!

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Outside of the tournament, most of my waking moments in LA were assigned to a binge of local escape rooms. Tyler Hinman organized the binge and scheduled 15 escapes over the weekend. I participated in ten of them, eight on Saturday and two following the tournament on Sunday night, and it’s safe to say that the best was saved for last. Hatch Escape’s Lab Rat is the current hot escape room ticket in LA and I have to say that it lives up to the hype. The game put solvers in a world where rats are the scientists and humans the diminutive test subjects, and this premise is realized with amazing fabrication and humorous narrative. The game-play structure features many original puzzles including one challenge revealing that Tyler and I should work on some strategies if we ever end up on a charades team in the future. The room’s intricate mechanics seem a bit risk-inviting and, in fact, we suffered two mechanical hiccups that halted our game, but game master August was on the ball and got us back on track in short order. The whimsical prediction values and great teammates made this a memorable escape room experience.

Escapades LA was another highlight of the binge. Of its two rooms in North Hollywood, my favorite was Doggy Dog World in which the solving group took on the role of an intrepid canine on a quest for a beloved red ball. The dog’s-eye-view set was inspired and the endgame was hysterical. The Laboratory in downtown LA had an intriguingly manifest structure. After a generic “save the world” briefing, the group was shown a wall-mounted diagram of all the puzzles with clear visual indications of the solving order and the confirmation locations. This was helpful information as the mission had over 30 puzzles to solve. I found the structure refreshing and enjoyed the fact that we could organize our efforts so that everyone had opportunities to make contributions. I played several 60Out rooms on Saturday and my favorite was the circus themed Hyde and Seek with a fun train car set. Abyss at Maze Rooms was a two-person experience that Tyler and I completed as our last experience on Saturday night. It featured an interesting narrative and polished set but, like Maze’s Magic Kingdom, we struggled with intuitive leaps on how precisely to use the technical elements to complete each task.

The best part of escape room binges is the opportunity to solve with new friends. The montage of victory photos below includes people such as Al, Craig, Erik, Jenna, and Wyna with whom I shared an escape experience for the first time over the weekend. Thank you for adding to my joy and reminding me that it’s all about the team!

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Las Vegas Minicon X

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The tenth Las Vegas minicon was held last weekend at the Embassy Suites east of the Strip. Michael Coleman who proposed the first minicon back in 2009 was unable to attend this year, so I guess I now have the distinction of being the only person to attend every minicon to date. I’m sure I can cash in that achievement for a personal sized can of Pringles at some point in the future.

First-timers at this years minicon included Alison Muratore, Barbara Thompson, and Wally Firlit. I knew Alison from NPL cons but enjoyed the opportunity to talk with her about work and art and life, and even brainstorm some ideas for a puzzle hunt she is writing for her work team. Barbara I met for the first time, though in conversation I discovered that we had met before at a DASH event in Denver. She and her friend David are bright and funny and both easily settled into the minicon groove. Wally stayed off-site and I only saw him at a group dinner and some of the escape rooms. I don’t recall interacting with him in the past but he recognized me from crossword tournaments in LA. I was inspired by his enthusiasm for solving puzzles.

The puzzle centerpiece of the minicon is typically the Mark Halpin Labor Day extravaganza. The eight of us staying at the Embassy Suites formed one large solving team this year’s ganza titled “It Takes Two.” It’s an excellent set of puzzles that can be downloaded here. We deduced the gimmick of the extravaganza fairly early and still struggled to make progress. We had about half the solutions by Saturday afternoon when we suspended solving for a late lunch. We didn’t resume until Sunday morning when we finally exchanged puzzles from the previous day, made some breakthroughs, and rallied to the finish.

We enjoyed some other puzzles and games around happy hour. Trip Payne presented a very fun Jeopardy! game that I hope he brings to a future event. Dave Tuller quizzed us with some pub trivia. I led some rounds of Sporculation. I got to play Decrypto, partnered with Alison in one game and Tanis O’Connor in another. Trip got annoyed with some of the clues that came up in my partnership with Tanis. I used “Uno” to clue FISH and she used “Francis” for PIG. These examples probably cross the boundaries of what some would consider ethical cluing, but we were always able to explain the semantic relationship the other intended.

I played three escape rooms over the weekend. The best of the three was Playtime, the second chapter in Lost Games’ Solitude Heights series (we played the first chapter last year). The scenic design was excellent (and creepy) and the puzzles challenging. I had some trouble coping with the dim lighting and we had a largish solving group so I opted to watch from the sidelines most of the time. Red Riding Hood at Number 1 Escape Room and The Lair of the Puzzlemaster at Trapped were fair to middling. Both had attractive fabrication but a lot of puzzle cliches. Lair had an interesting narrative branch point: A group that makes a wrong guess on the final puzzle receives a “consolation” puzzle that must be solved in four minutes. Hinting becomes progressively generous during the four minutes so most groups can complete the puzzle and, while not eligible for the leader board, end the mission with a feeling of success.

We hit several of my favorite dining establishments like Bouchon and Firefly. Based on a recommendation from Michael, we tried José Andrés’ Bazaar Meat at SLS casino hotel. We sat at the bar (which I love) and ordered mainly small plates from the Bar Centro menu, including cotton candy foie gras, deep-fried chicken croquettes, and beef and parmesan grissini. I would definitely go back. For drinks, Tanis found Bound at the Cromwell. I liked the drinks though the bar was close enough to the casino floor to lose some ambience. On Sunday night we ended up at Peppermill in the wee hours and I made the mistake of joining in on a Scorpion cocktail. I must remember not to drink anything served in a container bigger than my head.

Minicon X was on the low-key side, and that was just fine with me. August was a stressful work month and I am taking advantage of all the vacation time I can get. I would have been content lounging poolside, listening to podcasts, and working on a clipboard full of puzzles, but I was happy to put that agenda aside for more social activities with my minicon family!

 

 

Lollapuzzoola 11 (Brief Recap)

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I just got home from a four-day trip to New York and wanted to express my appreciation to Brian Cimmet, Patrick Blindauer, and all the tournament volunteers and puzzle constructors for Lollapuzzoola 11. The tournament drew nearly 400 attendees and the new location accommodated the solvers very well. The group games were fun and the snacks were tasty … while they lasted. I enjoyed mixing puzzle friends who I don’t see at NPL or MIT, though I regret not getting to say hello to everyone I wanted to.

The puzzles are still available for at-home solving at the tournament website.  I’ll discuss the puzzles in a later post but for now I will observe that they were all fun and well-constructed. If you couldn’t attend the tournament in New York, please support these talented constructors by picking up the puzzles for solving at home!

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.

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.