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.

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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.

Requiem for an Escape Room: The Steal

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The Steal is the second escape room created by Denver-based Puzzah! The heist adventure opened to the public in the spring of 2015, and I played it as an off-the-street customer teaming up with three college friends. Later, as a Puzzah! employee, I briefed, debriefed, and reset hundreds of Steal sessions. I cleaned the room, fixed the props, revised the puzzles, edited the media effects, and, this week, I helped tear the room down. Puzzah! retired The Steal to make space for a new adventure at our downtown location, and we have no plans to rebuild the room because it doesn’t conform to our current reset-free philosophy. I want to share my memories of The Steal and why it’s a contender for the best escape room I’ve ever played.

Heists make very popular escape room missions, and The Steal was presented with a traditional premise of the genre. Players portray a team of thieves attempting to recover artifacts illegally obtained by the criminal organization INTERCEPT. The heist is organized by a hacker named Nox who provides the team information on the artifacts and the private gallery in which they are displayed. She later hacks into the gallery’s public address system to help the players when needed. The team must circumnavigate security systems to collect six artifacts, finishing with a rare Qin Dynasty coin. A team that trips an alarm must restore the artifact being stolen and wait for the security system to reset. If an alarm is not properly silenced, INTERCEPT is notified and the team fails the mission…until a staff member gives the team another chance by restarting the game at the point it was interrupted.

The Steal had the trappings of a classic crime caper but set itself apart from other heist rooms in key ways, starting with the scoring. The mission was designed to reward accuracy over speed. Teams had a 60-minute time limit to complete the mission but were ultimately evaluated by how many alarms they tripped. A team might complete the mission quickly using brute force, but wouldn’t earn as high a score as a time that spent more time analyzing the security systems to avoid errors. The average team tripped 20 alarms during the mission. One determined but impulsive team snagged the coin only after setting off a record 127 alarms. Over the game’s lifespan 30 or so teams made the leaderboard by completing the mission with 0 alarms. My college friends and I set off 2.

The room was richly decorated but was more notably attractive for its realism. No escape room paraphernalia broke the illusion of being in an actual art gallery. The puzzles were the authentic, functioning security systems, all plainly visible and waiting to be solved with the right insight. All the furnishings were natural to the setting, but purposeful in subtle ways. In fact, the fundamental puzzle of the mission required a holistic understanding of the surroundings. In the briefing teams learn that the artifacts must be stolen in a specific order. A team might expect to find the order revealed explicitly or as the solution to an abstract, arbitrary logic puzzle, but find nothing along those lines upon entering the room. After a bit of exploring the team will realize that every artifact is a tool to steal the next artifact and thus the order is based on practical task management. Most escape rooms use combination locks, RFID technology, and similar artifices to create a solving path. The Steal was supported by advanced technology but preserved an organic structure relying on the essential attributes of the objects. I’ve never played an escape room that combined immersive detail and puzzle savvy so well.

Not all escape room enthusiasts shared my affinity for The Steal. Some felt the organic structure was too abstract and wanted the objectives presented in more explicit terms. Some found the puzzles too task-oriented and preferred more traditional puzzles based on ciphers or mathematical calculations. The emphasis on accuracy benefited more tentative players, and Puzzah! recommended The Steal to novices and groups with children. Experienced players, used to speed-solving, dispatched the room in under thirty minutes and deemed it too easy. These criticisms are not unfounded, but The Steal also produced legions of fans who, like me, appreciate elegance over difficulty and can turn off a traditional puzzle-solving mindset to savor the experience.

A few hours before the scheduled demolition I played The Steal one last time.

3 alarms.

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Some photos from my final heist.

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Players originally entered a dimly-lit gallery armed with a flashlight, and thwarted a light sensor so they could turn on the overhead lights. The ancient cup is protected by a tilt sensor. Steady hands and good teamwork are required to steal the cup without triggering an alarm.

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Some examples of using artifacts as tools: The metal carousel is just the right size to connect the circuit leads on a display case. The antique eyeglasses can pick the lock on the wall safe.

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A set of mirrors diverts the laser and allows the coin to be removed from its case. Puzzah! allowed successful teams keep the coin as a souvenir.

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I took one more photo to remind me that reset-free rooms have some advantages.

 

Theme

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The first step for a team organizing an MIT Mystery Hunt is selection of a theme; a basic  idea that informs the story presented during the Hunt and helps inspire structure, puzzles, interactions, and characters. Theme selection is also the first step for a puzzle room designer. This month I participated in theme selection processes for both of these project types.

Members of Setec Astronomy, my Hunt team, met to brainstorm theme ideas. One topic that came up early in the discussion was whether the Hunt theme should be based on a specific pop culture property, like The Wizard of Oz Hunt in the 2000, or be in a general narrative category, like the 2006 S.P.I.E.S. Hunt. Our 2017 Hunt had references to Dungeons & Dragons but I would argue that it was a broad celebration of high fantasy role-playing games. Hunt organizers who prefer general themes tend to cite personal taste. When I select puzzle room themes I keep in mind that Puzzah!, unlike the Mystery Hunt, is a for-profit enterprise and much more susceptible to trademark infringement issues. I know a few escape room owners who have built rooms with egregious references to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. One such owner proudly displays framed copies of cease-and-desist letters on his office wall. Trademark use aside, I prefer selecting a general theme and coming up with an original story and characters.

My Setec teammates also expressed concerns about the target audience. Several theme ideas prompted the question, “Would that mean anything to a traditional MIT student?” I don have the experience of living in Massachusetts, attending an engineering school, or growing up in the 2000s, so I defer to my Setec teammates on these points of relevance. I don’t have teammates to fall back on at Puzzah! and I often struggle to design a theme that resonates with our customer base. My struggles are partly based on age but also in my affinity for traditional puzzling and my quirky pop culture tastes. An escape room owner recently told me that his two-room location will always have one tomb adventure and one sci-fi adventure because those are well-established entertainment genres that spark customer interest. If I adopted a similar approach to themes I would probably serve my employer better, but I’m a Gen-X maverick and the themes that excite me are also the ones that prompt the owners of Puzzah! to ask, “Would that mean anything to … anyone besides you, Todd?!”

The amount of story in a Mystery Hunt is topic that generated some disagreement in our Mystery Hunt theme discussion. Some feel that a rich, detailed narrative is a highlight of a Hunt solver’s experience. Others feel that heavy storytelling tends to get lost in web-page text and character interactions that only a small percentage of a solving team gets to see. I have attended several Hunt wrap-up meetings and learned surprising plot elements that never registered during the actual solving phase. In the puzzle room context, storytelling is a delicate art that I am still trying to master. I’ve written expository voice-overs that end up overlong to the point of disengaging customers. I’ve written narrative punch lines that hit the ground with a thud. My friend Cody Borst who owns Escape Realm is thoughtful storyteller and adept at weaving a compelling narrative into the structures of rooms he designs. I’m becoming a better storyteller through experience and the advice from people like Cody. I have seen many escape room business that use sophisticated fabrication and electronics to compensate for a thin plot, but feel that stronger storytelling will be a pack separator in the future of my industry.

Setec Astronomy started with about a dozen preliminary theme proposals. We voted to narrow those down to four semifinalists and then one eventual winner. At each voting stage, designated teammates drafted proposals that outlined story, structure, puzzle requirements. I wrote three theme proposals for “Room 9”, i.e. the yet-to-be titled ninth Puzzah! adventure. One is a fairly common escape room theme that Puzzah! has not used previously, one is variation on a less common escape room theme, and one is a theme that I haven’t seen done before but would have some high demands on sound and visuals. The owners and I ultimately decided on the second proposal, which could be included with reproductions of our sci-fi adventure Specimen and crime-fighting room M.A.S.K. to provide variety in a future location. Time to start developing some themes!

Choice / Damn This Traffic Jam

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I didn’t participate in last week’s MIT Mystery Hunt, but I dropped in on my team’s Slack channel throughout the weekend to monitor my team’s progress. I also accessed the Hunt website to get a sense of this year’s puzzle structure and theme. The organizing team Death & Mayhem (rebranded as Life & Order) designed a Hunt that took place inside the head of fictional puzzle enthusiast Miss Terry Hunter, with liberal references to the Pixar film Inside Out. The puzzle rounds were themed around reigning in the five anthropomorphized emotions and then retrieving four core memories, ultimately enabling Terry to go on the final runaround. The hunt, titled Head Hunters, had an engaging story and polished puzzles and metas. I was very proud of my team completing the Hunt first in a close finish with several other talented teams.

L&O used an interesting gimmick for the core memory puzzle rounds. The memories represented four different stages of Terry’s youth and adolescence. Rather than present these rounds in a uniform order for all teams, L&O allowed individual teams to choose the order. A team becoming eligible to unlock a new core memory round received cursory information on the available options and then made a selection. The structure was innovative, but also controversial. “Choose-you-own-adventure” supporters appreciated having more agency in the Hunt experience and L&O mentioned during the wrap-up meeting that the structure allowed them early vetting of the core memory rounds. Opponents of the choice system pointed out that the core memory rounds included scavenger hunts, physical puzzles, and other specialty items that are more manageable when timed with particular solving shifts. A team discovering that the chosen round is not suited to the current contingent of awake puzzlers would likely feel screwed by poor luck of the draw.

The controversy was good food for thought in my explorations of immersion and escape room design. Immersive artists would applaud the introduction of choice, but the stakes are different when the experience is a theatrical experiment or art installation such as House of Eternal Return. The Pastore home was designed to illustrate how experience is non-commutative. Impressions depend on the order in which we perceive the data. On the other hand, Pine and Gilmore in The Experience Economy warn that too much variety can be harmful in a business context because the participants become overwhelmed with choices and consequences. Business owners should strive for customization and personalize experiences with a combination of moderate client interaction and empirical research. I suspect that the Pine and Gilmore approach would have benefited Mystery Hunt teams, but it would be a dealbreaking effort for the organizing team to customize solving trajectories for a hundred participating teams.

All current Puzzah! adventures feature a strictly linear narrative. Teams must solve puzzle A before solving puzzle B. In some cases a team making good time can unlock a bonus puzzle between two puzzles on the schedule. This is an example of customization based on automated assessment of a team’s skill level. But teams still recognize that they are being leash-led down a singular path and request having more control over their journey. I have some ideas on introducing more agency in our next room, but I must keep choices manageable and benign. At the end of the day, it’s all about providing the experience of success.

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Mystery Hunt solving team Palindrome was one of the top finishers this year. Members of Palindrome constructed a practice Hunt called Damn This Traffic Jam. The Hunt was distributed among teammates earlier this month and now is publicly available on The P&A website. I finished the Hunt yesterday and enjoyed it immensely. It contains several puzzles that are suitable for beginning solvers. Check it out!

 

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.

Next

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Yesterday I kicked off the new year by joining some friends at Clueology in Loveland. The independent escape room business features three adventures. Our foursome explored the cabin of a retired intelligence office in The Fallout Room and then saved a nuclear power plant in Quake, an adventure reminiscent of a classic 1970s disaster film. Both offerings were well staged with immersive sets and sophisticated technology. The Fallout Room was particularly dense with puzzles and narrative elements, and we later learned that it was  designed for team-building groups of six or more. We held our own but required occasional nudges from the game master, generally in the form of “Take a look at the box in the front yard,” or “That desk is important.” We never needed a hint on how to solve a puzzle, rather what puzzle to solve next.

I shared the observation with my friends during lunch. They nodded in an unsurprised manner, adding that object-finding and puzzle-ordering are the escape room elements most likely to cause them difficulty. I reflected on past escape room experienced and recalled many times in which I focused less on individual puzzles and more on structural narrative. There’s an old saying that defines skill as knowing what to do and wisdom as knowing what to do next. One of my college professors adapted that saying to postmodern academics. After playing and creating a lot of escape rooms, I find it enjoyable to get into another room designer’s head and anticipate the intended solving path. I wasn’t a masterful pathfinder in The Fallout Room, but the amount of nudges from the game master suggest that the experience might have too many nonintuitive transitions. When we completed one of the puzzles, the game master, who was also the business owner and room designer, immediately jumped on the address system and suggested that we look for something that changed in another area of the room. When we completed the mission I asked about the abruptness of that clue. The game master admitted that the transition was designed to be an observational room-search challenge, but few solving groups made the connection without help. He was in the process of installing a better in-room clue for the transition.

I don’t want to come down too hard on the narrative structure at Clueology. I hear similar criticisms of my Puzzah! rooms, though in the opposite direction. Several guests have complained that the narrative path is too clearly marked, and wish they had more opportunities to discover the next puzzle rather than being told where to look. This explicitly linear narrative is a traditional requirement of Puzzah! design specifications, but I’m racking my brain for a work-around that will fit our parameters. Our next room will have a narrative structure somewhere between classic Puzzah! and Clueology, in which players can guide themselves through the story using reasonable intuition. My puzzle is to create an experience in which a team uses skill and wisdom in the right balance.