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!

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The [secret society]

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Today I joined a secret society.

Well, it’s “secret” to the extent that I am not supposed to reveal its name or some of its history, but I can confirm that it exists and that it should be a lot of fun to be part of.

Several months ago I was visiting our downtown store and noticed an unusual plaque attached to the wall of the lobby. The plaque bore a simple logo and alphanumeric code. The front desk staffer wasn’t sure what it meant but assured me that the owners knew about it. Later, I heard that some strangers visited Puzzah! and asked to interview the front-of-house staff. The interviewers wanted to know if anyone had visited the store specifically to see the plaque. Our personable staff conducted themselves in these interviews with aplomb, though one admitted after the interview that the plaque was starting to freak him out.

A few weeks ago I received an email that included the logo from the plaque. The email included some coded message and a web address. The website featured a password field, so I tried the alphanumeric code from the plaque. I found an article about a possible conspiracy, or at least egregious negligence, within the world’s scientific community. Another member of the Puzzah! design team received a similar email, and we spent some time analyzing the website and discovering hidden clues, which led to contacting other Denver-area escape room businesses that had similar plaques in their lobbies. We eventually decoded the message on the original email, which revealed a date (February 10), a time, and coordinates representing a location in Denver.

ss02.jpgThe location turned out to be a music studio in the Sun Valley area. A group of people was waiting in front of the door when I arrived. The group included some familiar faces and many people who expressed utter confusion. We were led into the studio and found envelopes, locked cases, scientific instruments, and an elaborate set of crystalline towers pulsing in various colors. We were instructed to work cooperatively and share our discoveries but most participants dove hungrily into the challenges. I enjoyed the enthusiasm and clung to the sidelines. The solvers eventually found an entrance to small courtyard with a locked chest. The chest, opened with a previously discovered combination, contained packets declaring our mission was successful and inviting us to join the secret society for fans of immersive, group-oriented puzzle experiences.

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Today’s event drew from the traditions of alternate reality games and pop-up escape rooms. Puzzle fans have been enjoying these for decades, but I never made much effort to participate. I felt honored to be included in this event. My takeaway of membership in this secret society is not the joy of puzzle solving as much as the joy of collaborative creation.

Knight Shade

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I haven’t written about work lately so I thought I’d share some updates at Puzzah! We just signed a lease on a space for our new location. The third Puzzah! is set to open in Santa Fe, New Mexico in early 2019! The storefront in the Railyard district will feature clones of our Specimen and MASK games, and the debut of new game: Knight Shade.

IMG_3831.JPGIn Knight Shade, players become amateur ghost hunters investigating a villainous knight whose spirit allegedly haunts a medieval-themed pizzeria. The theme was inspired by 1970s bubblegum mysteries like Scooby-Doo, and has some humorous details that will lighten the spooky setting. The shop team did a great job on fabricated elements, such as the Castle Attack arcade game pictured right. I am finishing up effects and scheduling while the general contractor readies the New Mexico space for installation. This has been a demanding project for the last few months and I’m excited that we will soon get to offer the game to the public.

One of my design goals for Knight Shade was to introduce opportunities for open (parallel) solving. All Puzzah! games to date have featured strictly linear narratives. The structure suits the groups of 2-4 that the company founders originally targeted, but we are now trying to accommodate larger groups who have requested the option to split up rather than cluster. Knight Shade has a story line that allows acts to be presented in various orders and combinations, but we still plan to put limits on open solving, at least in the initial runs of the game. We don’t, for example, want to open multiple acts or acts with specialized reset requirements toward the end of a stage when players are pressured to resolve all tasks before advancing. We always welcome smaller groups and would not want a twosome to feel pressured to split up just because a open solving option arises. Anticipating the possibilities and translating the responses to computer code have been challenges for meeting this design goal.

Aside from Knight Shade and the Santa Fe opening, the Puzzah! team has been pitching ideas for future projects and developing more outreach programs for schools and community groups. We ranked #4 in the USA Today reader’s poll for Best Escape Room 2018 — thank you to all who supported us with votes! I also plan to represent Puzzah! as a forum participant at next month’s Denver Immersive Summit, but I’ll save the details of that event of  a future post.

 

 

Vote for Puzzah!

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USA Today 10 Best Readers’ Choice has included Puzzah! in the 2018 Best Escape Room category. This wonderful honor is due to a nomination process involving dozens of escape room reviewers, but I want to give a special shout out to Dan Kaplan and the Denver team of Esc Room Addict. The ERA team has been a huge supporter of Puzzah! and provided valuable feedback for our experiences.

Please support Puzzah! with by voting here. Voting is free and requires no registration. You can vote from each device once a day through October 2. Thanks!

Link Updates

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I took some time this morning for the long overdue task of cleaning up my Links page. I fixed addresses and deleted dead links. I also deleted links to blogs with no updates in more than two years.

I deleted the Games section, which mostly contained links to old Flash games that have been retired or converted into apps. I added new sections for Conventions and Tournaments, Puzzle Hunts, and Podcasts. The Podcast websites often refer visitors to iTunes or mobile applications and may not feature extensive media content.

I’d love some suggestions for the Links pages. Are there any current links that need revisions? Are there some other crossword/puzzle blogs I should check out. Are there other events or podcasts I can include?

NPL Convention Top Ten, Part 2

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Just before the National Puzzlers’ League convention in 2008, I made a top-ten list of NPL Con puzzles and games featured at the ten conventions I had attended up to that point. The list was posted on LiveJournal and included the following:

#10: Going to Extremes (ConGA) |
#9: A Hard Day’s Flat (Concouver)
#8: Scroggle (BosCon)
#7: No Contest! (MichiCon)
#6: Telephone Pictionary (NYNJA)
#5: Texas Jeopardy! (TexSACon)
#4: Concerto for Orchestra (IndyCon)
#3: Small-Town News (IndyCon)
#2: Puzzle Treasure Hunt (Contana)
#1: Pyramid (Contana)

ETA: In an earlier version of this post I erroneously stated that the 2008 list was posted on Friendster. I regret the error.

I am traveling to Milwaukee next week for my 21st NPL Con and decided to make a new top-ten list of puzzles and games representing conventions 11 through 20.

My list includes puzzles and games that I solved or played at the convention. I excluded (with a few exceptions) activities I presented or spectated without actually playing.  Subjective factors, such as my performance or who I played with, influenced an activity’s inclusion/placement on the list. 

10. Dilemma (SiLiCon)
Tinhorn’s elegant game, like Wits & Wagers, presents itself as a straightforward trivia exercise but is really about strategy. The task of placing correct and incorrect answers on an answer sheet seems simple at first but soon becomes fraught. Tinhorn’s vocal delivery of “A” and “B” answers, reminiscent of an eye doctor asking which lens is clearer, adds to the tension in a delightful way. Delimma debuted at an LA minicon, has been presented at several Cons after hours, and was an official game in Salt Lake City.

9. What (SiLiCon)
In What, teams try to solve a ten-word clue (the first word is always “What”), but only get to see some of the words. This limited-information theme has been used before, but Spelvin simplified the mechanics such that What could be played as an after-hours pickup game.

8. Makeshift Jeopardy! (MaineCon)
This is one of the exceptions I alluded to in the introduction. I actually played this game at a Las Vegas minicon nearly a year before it was presented in the unofficial program of MaineCon. I played subsequent installments at later NPL conventions, but the original version left the most powerful impression. Arcs sheepishly asked the Vegas group if he could run some questions from his partially written Jeopardy! game. We agreed and sat around a crudely drawn Jeopardy! game board to pass the time with some trivia questions. We chuckled forgivingly every time we selected a square for which a clue hadn’t been written, but then strange things began happening and we suddenly realized that we were being played. Everything in the game, which started with Jeopardy! but soon ventured into other classic game shows, was a deliberate and elaborately constructed puzzle suite. This was a brilliant combination of top-notch content and presentation!

7. Bar Exam (Beacon)
The Willy Wonka-themed extravaganza created by Navin, Shaggy, Spelvin, and Zebraboy had a cute opening skit and excellent puzzles, but why bury the lede: The Oomphitheatre is what everyone will remember about this event. Every participant made at least one trip to the breakout room to see the looping video presentation of ingenious cryptic clues via song parody. A Bar Exam highlight for me was being on a stroller team with Story’s daughter and my nephew. Watching the young solvers delight in the handout puzzles and the glass elevator metapuzzle was a heartwarming experience.

5 (tie). Color Ado (Conorado) and Middle of the Road (Recouvery)
I gave two cryptic crosswords on the list, constructed by Wombat and Trick respectively, the same ranking. I wrote a piece several years ago that describes both of these puzzles.

4. Suffer for Your Art (Conorado)
The extravaganzas of Manx and Jo the Loiterer always feature great puzzles, but the production values tend to be simple when the extravaganza is prompted by last-minute request from the program committee. Suffer for Your Art was no last-minute request and the results were spectacular. Manx and Jo’s collection of art themed puzzles included an actual mobile suspended from the ceiling, a wall hanging of “Birth of Venus” made by combining paint-by-numbers grids of the full set of teams, a Warhol puzzle with pieces retrieved from a sealed Campbell’s soup can, and a puzzle that required a phone call to the Rembrandt Toothpaste customer service line.

3. Puzzling in the Dark (Recouvery)
WXYZ’s team communication challenge was a feast for the senses, except sight. A group of blindfolded solvers sat around a table filled with animal noisemakers, scented markers, pieces of sandpaper, and other objects. With minimal instructions, the group worked together to make sense of the objects and find a final answer. The game was full of satisfying discoveries. WXYZ shared positive postmortem observations and encouraged participants to watch subsequent sessions.

2. Exquisite Fruit
I introduced this trivia-by-committee game at a friend’s house eight years ago. It is played in many different settings but has a manifest association with NPL Con and remains an after-hours staple. I think the Krewe embraces Exquisite Fruit because it is a vehicle for silliness that has just enough mindful game-play to make it legitimate. It’s not as profound as the cryptic crosswords or extravaganzas that appear on this list but it reflects the character of Con in a significant way, which is why I rank it so high.

1. Doubles Jeopardy!/It Takes Two
Maso was a beloved game presenter. One reason I think he was so successful in that role is that he stayed on the sidelines and allowed the players to be the stars. When Doubles Jeopardy! debuted at BaltiCon, he introduced the exercise with a casual, unassuming manner. He didn’t talk a lot during the game as many of the rounds featured clues printed on index cards. He was almost a non-presence during parts of the game, and yet he devised challenges that had players singing, dancing, drawing, doing celebrity impersonations, and consuming jelly beans with flair. Maso made new versions of Doubles Jeopardy!, later renamed It Takes Two, very year until his tragic death in 2015. Krewe continue to create It Takes Two sets in appreciation of the format and its creator who showed that game presenters don’t have to be centers of attention. The game tops the list based on how at has inspired more Krewe to share content at conventions.

I look forward to being at convention next week where I will talk to other members of the League about their favorite activities from the last ten years, and experiencing puzzles and games that will make my next top-ten list.

Absorption

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Escape room puzzles undergo several phases of testing. Prototype tests are examinations of individual puzzles for difficulty and enjoyability. Beta-tests take place after the room is built and used to check the full set of puzzles for operational integrity and interrelationship. Some elements of a particular puzzle can be revised at the beta-test phase but at that point the fundamental structure is usually baked in. I designed a puzzle for a Puzzah! room that requires solvers to discover an outside-the-box pattern in a collection of data. The puzzle performed well as a prototype but received some mixed reviews from beta-testers. Specifically, they felt the unusual solution damaged the illusion and took them out of the experience.

In The Experience Economy Pine and Gilmore use a quadrant plane to illustrate different realms of experience. One axis represents aesthetic distance with the directions of decreased and increased distance labeled, respectively, Immersion and Absorption. Absorbing experiences command attention and can successfully entertain or educate the consumer but are constructed with a clear boundary between real and artificial. Prototype testing generally takes place in a neutral space with little environmental context, and testers may approach a puzzle with lower expectations about narrative integration. The beta-testers invested in the immersive surroundings by assuming their assigned roles in the adventure and wanted puzzles that conformed to the drama rather than challenged their perspectives.

Most of my puzzle background has been firmly plotted in the absorption end of the spectrum. I learned puzzles as a form of entertainment that plays to the solver but doesn’t invite any specialized dramatic participation. Eventually I became acquainted with extravaganzas, murder mystery games, and other puzzle forms that include elaborate narratives and physical interactions, but these activities are rarely what I would consider immersive. As an escape room designer I have the opportunity to present puzzles in an immersive environment, but I still have instincts to indulge in my puzzle entertainment roots and construct challenges that sacrifice realism for cleverness.

The feedback from the immersion-deprived beta-testers makes me think about escape rooms that contain mostly scavenging and procedural tasks and very few cognitive puzzles. I’ve enjoyed a few rooms of this ilk, such as The Basement and The Steal, but the challenge of designing traditional puzzles that conform to a narrative remains an attractive personal goal.