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!

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Life as a Puzzle in 2016

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I attended my first NPL convention in 1998, where I first met and initiated friendships with people who earned a full-time living from creating puzzles. I worked in publishing at the time and enjoyed a corporate structure with predictable work hours and benefits, but was curious about a life in which my career and primary hobby would be the same. Over the years I received opportunities for puzzle-related side gigs but held onto the security of my corporate “day job.” I got laid off in 2015 and in a few months found work at a Denver-based puzzle room called Puzzah! 2016 marks my first full year in which my income was solely based on puzzle work. Now that my 18-year-old curiosity has been appeased, I find it difficult, and perhaps unimportant, to call my life as a puzzler good or bad. It is simply what I have.

My job as a game designer at Puzzah! is bit like being a tightrope walker. I risk my life every day to entertain spectators, only to watch them leave and be replaced by new spectators who don’t know or care about my past accomplishments. The added challenge is that I am walking a tightrope by teaching myself. Puzzah! has philosophical and technical specifications unlike any other puzzle or escape room company I know. The formula produces a successful product, based on the on-site reactions and online reviews of a majority of our patrons. We do get the occasional unhappy customer. Some negative reviews come from escape room enthusiasts who prefer a more traditional approach to puzzle design. But first timers who don’t click with the concept can also register a bad experience. They leave the room defeated and rue the time and money invested. I take in all the reviews and assess the feedback for possible avenues to improvement. For every bad review I read, I need ten good reviews to restore my balance.

Puzzah! opened a second location this fall at a local shopping mall. The high-rent location represents a big risk for the company. We have benefited so far from the heavy foot traffic associated with the holiday season and hope that the trend continues into the new year. I was tasked with designing two rooms to be operational at the time of the store’s opening. I’m proud of these room adventures — Specimen and The Curse — but feel that both rooms could have been more polished on opening day if I had a bit more time for idea development and testing. All of the puzzle are solid but several called for adjustments based on observations of the rooms in action. My colleagues understand that I am learning but they cannot afford a lengthy education.

In all respects, Puzzah! is an astoundingly good fit for my skill set. I am thrilled to be a part of the company but recognize that its less than healthy aspects. I have trouble limiting work to 40 hours a week when I see unfinished projects or puzzles in need of fixing. I endure a lot of stress based on the aforementioned customer reviews and company expectations. Still, I believe that I will overcome these issues with time and eventually find comfortable footing with this current line.

Crossword puzzle construction represents a significant secondary income. The release of my book Fresh Freestyle Crosswords was my major crossword headline of 2016, though the work on the book was completed over a year ago. I had a handful crosswords published by CrosSynergy this year, but those puzzle were also constructed in 2015. The Wall Street Journal and Fireball Crosswords gave me a few chances to showcase meta crosswords. I continued as a contributor for Daily Celebrity Crosswords. The development team there is a fantastic group of people, but the task of finding new, acceptable themes remains a challenge. I regret the fact that I did not attend any crossword tournaments in 2016. I don’t care about the competitive solving per se, but I enjoy seeing puzzle friends who attend a crossword events in lieu of the NPL convention. That convention, held in Salt Lake City in July, produced several happy memories, particularly ones associated with my nephew who uses the puzzle moniker, or “nom,” Whovian. I didn’t mention this in my convention report, but Whovian asked during the drive home if he could present a game at the next convention.

My MIT Mystery Hunt team Setec Astronomy was first to find the hidden coin at the event presented over MLK weekend. Our prize was to organize the hunt that will be presented in about two weeks from this posting. My involvement was intially active, but once my responsibilities for the new Puzzah! location kicked in I found it necessary to reduce my Hunt participation drastically. I am very impressed with what my teammates have come up with for the Hunt, and I will be on campus to help run the event. Perhaps I will be on an organizing team in the future and circumstances will allow be to be more of a contributor.

As a full-time puzzler in 2016 I have often spread myself too thin, and my work for Puzzah!, crossword outlets, and the Mystery Hunt has suffered. I have a tendency to rush a puzzle idea to editorial review before spending adequate time exploring alternatives and consequences. As a result, I spend twice as much time as necessary on puzzle development due to revisions and rejections. Some amount of editorial adjustment is expected in this industry, but I need to work on better first drafts or else I’m not going to have much of a life outside of puzzles. My first resolution for 2017 is to be a stronger puzzler. I want to exercise better forethought and higher standards, and not be distracted by pride or impatience. My second resolution is to maintain better relationships with my friends. Work has been isolating in 2016 and I need to strengthen my social bonds in order to preserve my sanity. Any suggestions or general support on these resolutions will be appreciated.

Courage and comfort to you all in 2017.

 

 

 

 

Puzzah! Flatiron Crossing: The Final Pieces

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I haven’t shaved my face since Halloween. No-Shave November is an opportunity to raise cancer awareness and check on the gray and patchiness in one’s potential goatee but that’s only part of the reason why I decided to put aside the razor for a few weeks. I’m also indulging in the superstition of a “playoff beard” to bring good luck to my team, and in this case the team is Puzzah! My puzzle room employer is scheduled to open its second location on Black Friday and we’ve been working hard this week to get our space in Flatiron Crossing mall ready for patrons who may want a puzzle break during their post-Thanksgiving  shopping sprees. This new location is a significant financial risk for the company and if scruffy face will bring us success then I’m willing to do what I can.

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Puzzah! Flatiron Crossing in Broomfield, Colorado, has spaces for four adventures. Two adventures will be available on opening day: the science fiction-themed Specimen and archaeology-themed The Curse. The adventures for the other two spaces are in development and will be installed early next year. Our general contractor has been prepping the space for the last few months. This week the drywall, flooring, ceiling tiles, wiring, fire inspections, and lease paperwork were all completed, and we began loading in all the things that will turn this blank canvas into a set of live-action puzzle adventures.

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The load-in went smoothly. I was reminded of hauling set pieces from the workshop to the auditorium during tech week of college theater productions. As we started organizing things at Flatiron Crossing we encountered the typical laundry list of installation snags. A prebuilt piece turned out to be a hair to wide for a doorway it needed to go through. An electrical outlet was not at the right wall height for a display. A light fixture transformer was faulty. The team addressed these issues one by one and gradually the rooms looked less like construction zones and more like spaceship interiors and Mesoamerican chambers.

The development team was smart enough not to entrust me with any power tools, and I kept out of the way during the heavy-duty installation. When the equipment was in place I began primary alpha-testing, which was essentially making sure that players could access the puzzle elements comfortably and envisioning the solving process of teams. Later I worked with team members to test the light and sound systems in the room. The systems allow us to implement some theatrical effects for the first time, and it was fun to play around with light and sound cues for the various parts of the puzzle room narratives. One of the highlights of the A/V review was my initial glimpse of a light effect that our engineers have fondly named the “furtle.”

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The origin of its name is reasonably easy to deduce. If you’re curious why we have a furtle then I recommend you make a reservation to play our room adventures once we’re open.

Alpha testing resumes on Saturday and beta testing begins on Sunday. If everything continues in a positive trajectory then I anticipate have much to be thankful for next Thursday. And, with the holiday season underway, I can relax a bit and start counting the days until I can shave.

 

 

 

Puzzle Pieces (August 2016)

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Puzzle Room Adventures
My second year at Puzzah! is underway and my role the Denver-based puzzle room company is shifting from corporate marketing to content development. Up until now I have been contributing ideas and sweat equity for our puzzle adventures as a side activity, but in September if will be my full-time job. Puzzle room development is an exciting new challenge but it has caused me a lot of stress over the last few months. The life-puzzle I am discovering is that this job may be the right choice for me — a “calling” if I fully subscribed to that concept — but that doesn’t mean that the job is easy or a source of instant success. Many of my concepts are rejected based on difficulty, variance, or budget. I generate puzzles with upsetting flaws that are discovered in peer review and testing. I want to perform well in this new role and every misstep crushes me. I’m gradually recovering from period of insomnia and anxiety attacks by reminding myself that it’s okay to fail. Regardless of my background in the puzzle world, I am in new territory with this line of work and I need time and practice before finding my stride.

My experience with puzzle rooms as a consumer has been moderate, at least compared to my friends in Southern California who seem to plan escape room outings every other weekend. In Salt Lake City I played two experiences at Mystery Escape Room: Entwained has a cute literary theme and Mystery Impossible is … er … well named. In Denver I tested the Mission Improbable experience at Sprightly Escapes. I had a nice time and really enjoyed the enthusiasm of the two business owners, but can see that they have a lot of work ahead of them to make the rooms suitable for mass consumption. Cody Borst has done some excellent work since taking over as manager and lead designer for Denver Escape Room. His Pipe Works experience has an intriguing multi-room structure inspired by the competitive dynamic of the Science Channel’s Race to Escape. Friends have asked if I follow escape room-related blogs or podcasts. I look at the Escape Room Enthusiasts forum on Facebook but haven’t found the discussions very compelling. If you have other media suggestion please post them in the comments.

Crossword Puzzles
Fresh Freestyle Crosswords drops in about three months. I’ll promote the collection of themeless crosswords more heavily closer to the release date. My main constructing venue is Daily Celebrity Crosswords available on Facebook. The puzzles are targeted for beginners but are produced by an immensely talented stable of crossword pros. My next Daily Celebrity Crossword puzzles are scheduled for September 2 and September 24. Beyond that, my time and interest in making crossword puzzles is limited. I am not actively producing content for any other commercial venues and the time I once spent constructing Unthemely puzzles for the blog is now consumed by work for Puzzah! and other projects. I may find the opportunity to make and upload the occasional puzzle but I am not adhering to the same level of commitment or regular schedules as my crossword blog colleagues.

Puzzle Events
I was gratified to read the positive reviews of the 2016 National Puzzlers’ League convention inasmuch my work on the program committee may have contributed to the happiness of the reviewers. My Dictionary Triathlon game helped round out the offerings of the main program and I was pleased that more players got to sample my latest Coordination game in the after-hours.

Setec Astronomy is making good progress on the MIT Mystery Hunt to be presented in January 2017. My contributions have been modest so far, due to the priorities of Puzzah! and Daily Celebrity Crosswords. I haven’t been involved in the construction of individual puzzles so much as brainstorming ideas for events and narrative. I am excited to be in Cambridge next year and join in the presentation of a Hunt for the first time.

My big trip of the year is a two-week tour of Ireland in September. The money and vacation days allocated for the trip have prohibited my on-site participation of several destination puzzle events this year. I did enjoy the home-solving packets provided by Indie 500 and Lollapuzzoola crossword tournaments and look forward to participating in the Washington Post Hunt in the future. I am holding true to my annual engagement in Las Vegas for the Labor Day weekend minicon. The puzzle suite by Mark Halpin combined with good food, some escape rooms, and the company of extraordinary friends will be just the tonic I need to get all my puzzle pieces in place!

Netflix Mystery Game

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For several years I’ve been playing something that I call the “Netflix Mystery Game.” It might be more apt to call it a personal pastime than a game, and, unlike other movie trivia games, it relies more on ignorance than knowledge. The “game” is based on my personal inattentiveness with the film industry. I find very few new movies compelling and avoid going to movie theaters due to ticket prices and volume levels. I have a Netflix account that I use mainly for television series but I add movies to my queue occasionally. My media habits are such that I manage to miss a good amount of movie press and, as a result, I have some trouble finding ideas for DVDs to request. Movies tend end up in my Netflix queue for one of the following reasons:

  1. The movie is prominent or unusual enough to earn a mention in my media feeds.
  2. The move was nominated for an award (a cachet that I adhere to).
  3. The movie has an actor or director that I am exploring based on the enjoyment of a previously viewed film.
  4. The movie was recommended by a friend.

Netflix gives users the option of adding movies to their queues before the movies have been released for home viewing. Many months may separate a request for a movie and its delivery, by which time I may fail to recognize the title on the disc sleeve and have no memory of why I added it in the first place. This is how the Netflix Mystery Game begins. When a mystery DVD arrives I don’t check my account or look up the movie on IMDb. I throw it in the DVD player, press play, and see how long it take to figure out which of the four aforementioned queue-addition categories it belongs to.

Yesterday two Netflix DVDs arrived in the mail. I wasn’t expecting a second disc but reasoned that it was a complimentary bonus generated by a waiting-list delay at the top of my queue. One disc contained television episodes and the other a movie. Nothing about the movie rang a bell but the elusive title suggested it was a perfect candidate for the Netflix Mystery Game. The movie was Project X.

I started watching the movie and eliminated Category 2 in the first 30 seconds. Category 3 was eliminated shortly after that. It was rather underwhelming to watch but I’ve sat through bad movies before and I still wanted to solve the mystery. Category 4 seemed the most likely but I couldn’t think of a friend who would have recommended it. I considered a number of ironic and meta-appreciation theories for which one might advocate the movie but none of them led me to a suspect.

Once the movie ended (at least it was rather short) I skimmed the Wikipedia article for clues that validate one of the eliminated categories but to no avail. Then I went to my online Netflix account. I discovered that Project X was not in my queue not had it ever been. I had already thrown away the mailing label and taken the trash to the dumpster so I couldn’t check to see if the disc was intended for me or for a neighbor. But even without concrete evidence I am ruling the movie as Category 5: Delivery error. Mystery solved.

On the other hand, if any of you have another theory, or clearly remember recommending Project X to me, please let me know. 🙂

 

 

REVIEW: 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament Puzzles (SPOILERS)

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The second Indie 500 Crossword Tournament was held on Saturday, June 4 on the George Washington University campus. Roger Barkan took top honors in the event that featured prom theme and pies aplenty. Crossword fans who couldn’t make it to Washington, D.C. last weekend to participate in person have the option of ordering the puzzles online and solving at leisure. I ordered the puzzles and created my own “tournament” of a sole, untimed competitor. In lieu of the prom night, my tournament theme was solving on a commuter train wile listening to podcasts. The tournament organizers produced a great set of puzzles this year. My solving review follows.

1 – Canned Music by Peter Broda & Lena Webb
As I flipped through the puzzles to check the bylines I noticed that most of the puzzles were credited to multiple constructors. I assume that the use of constructor couples tied in with the prom theme. The opener puzzle features three song titles ties together with the punchline entry combo THATS / MYJAM. The titles are start with words that can precede JAM in phrases: SPACEODDITY, RASPBERRYBERET, and PAPERPLANES. Two of the songs were recorded by artists who recently passed away (was there a recent death in M.I.A.?) Aside from the theme, the puzzle contains clever fill such as BIKERBAR clued {Watering hole where you might find hogs?} and the new-to-me BUTTDIMPLE clued {Dent in the rear?}

2 – A Modest Promposal by Andy Kravis & Neville Fogarty
Puzzle 2 is a Reagle-esque pun-fest in which familiar phrases are humorously tied to a prom night scenario. The theme opener {We told our dates that our limo would be, without a doubt, the most mind-blowing vehicle they had ever seen; …} leads to ITWASASTRETCH. A non-theme clue that tickled me, because the approach was one I’d never thought about, is {Wilson that Tom Hanks talks to a lot} for RITA. I spent a bit too much time trying to figure out a four-letter term for a sports ball.

3 – I Now Pronounce You… by Sam Trabucco
The clue-writing narrator of the puzzle is trying to contact the solver via a poor cellphone connection and, as a result, entries to asterisked clues need to be respelled as if their silent letters are pronounced. {Military subdivision} is CORPSE, {Was aware of} is CANOE, and so on. The central across answer ties together the cellphone theme and the no-longer-silent letters: CANYOUHEARMENOW. A had a minor confusion with the clue to this entry, {Question from someone with a bad connection…or from the silent letter(s) in the original answers to the starred clues?} I wondered if Sam intended solvers to arrange the silent letters into an additional meta answer. The grid contains some nice fill such as SKYPEDATE and DOTHEMATH, though the clue for latter of those two entries, {Put two and two together} doesn’t quite work for me. Both phrases refer to the performance of calculations and mental reasoning but “doing the math” has the implication of working without the help of another and “putting two and two together” tends to mean drawing a conclusion not immediately evident.

4 – Do I Hear a Waltz? by Erik Agard & Joanne Sullivan
When I participate in crossword tournaments I usually avoid trying to deduce themes from clues because I find that it wastes too much time. I focus on nuts-and-bolts down entries and grok the themes from intersections of the long acrosses. I had heard some rumblings about this puzzle on social media so I decided to break from my normal pattern and start attacking the puzzle around the central theme entry, which turned out to be COUNTINGOFF, i.e. {Keeping time, in a way, and a hint to a few lines in this puzzle}. Getting this info early on, and remembering the title, proved extremely helpful. Some of the horizontal rows of the puzzle contain three entries. In four or these rows the corresponding clues for the three entries are missing the initial words “One,” “Two,” and “Three” respectively. And, of course, the clues are deliberately written to prevent the missing words from being obvious. {Horse town}, {Face opposition}, and {Card ___} lead to PODUNK, BATMAN, and MONTE. One one instance the “Three” clue is {Down payment}, requiring the solver to note the 3-Down entry IRS to deduce the answer TAX. This is my favorite type of tournament puzzle gimmick. It’s clever and makes the the puzzle challenging but doesn’t overload the experience with additional “ahas” or unnecessary metas that have no place in a timed solving situation. Great job!

5 – Group Dance by The Indie 500 Team
A camel is a horse designed by committee, but camels have their charms as does this capper of the first round puzzles. Each of the four theme entries is a possible addition to the theme in one of the four previous puzzles. Each theme entry contains circled cells and shaded cells. The letters in the circled cells spell items that can TAKEONWATER and the letter in the shaded cells spell words that can complete the phrase LETIT ___. I didn’t notice the connection to the previous puzzles’ themes until I had completed the grid. Even with that added significance, the puzzle felt … just okay. I did get a chuckle from the clue “You might hear radio “ga-ga” on it” for BABYMONITOR.

6 – The Dance-Off by Angela Olsen Halsted & Kameron Austin Collins
The playoff puzzle contains two versions, an Outside Track and an Inside Track. I got confused and figured that since the inside track of racecourse is shorter and gives the racer an advantage it must be the easier of the two puzzle. So I chose the Outside Track and took a bit too much pride in completing the grid quickly. I also made an error on 1-Across, {“My scheme is working!”}. I entered BWAHAHAHA, but unless “The BOD Squad” is the title of something I chose the unintended spelling. (Just Googled and….oooh, The Bod Squad is an alternate title of the 1974 Hong Kong martial arts film Virgins of the Seven Seas, so I think I have a claim here!) The grid contains some tricky fill including AAONLINE, PROMDJ, and TRENTONNJ. A few of the clues are shared between the two versions, such as {One whose priorities are in order?} for NEATFREAK. Nice puzzle.

Congratulations to Roger and the other top finishers at the live event, and thanks to all of the tournament organizers and constructors who made the  puzzles available after the tournament. I now have the Indie 500 Meta Suite to work on.

It’s a Living

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I have a new addition to my modest press portfolio. Yesterday (April 22) I appeared on local talk radio show. I was a guest on Mandy Connell’s “It’s a Living” segment and chatted with Mandy about my job at Puzzah! and puzzlemaking in general. You can listen to the interview here. Note that you may need to provide social media credentials to access the clip. Also, Mandy and I do not discuss politics during my segment.