Life as a Puzzle in 2016


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

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.

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.

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.”


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)


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


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)


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


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.


“Which do you create first, the padlocks or the combinations?”: Common Questions Asked at Puzzle Rooms


I first tried an escape room in the summer of 2014. Several months earlier, friends had explained to me the premise of escape rooms in exhaustive detail. In this initial outing I was with in the company of about ten players. Some had prior experience with escape rooms and the other first-timers had an instinctive disposition to the concept based on a general interest in puzzles. Nearly all of my escape room experiences since then have been with co-solvers that fit one or both of these categories.

I’ve been working for Puzzah! for a little over six months and in my daily duties I visit with many people who are not well acquainted with recreational puzzles and know nothing of escape rooms — or “puzzle rooms,” which is the more general term that Puzzah! prefers for its live-action adventures. Customers find out about us from business-review websites or from friends and co-workers or by noticing our downtown Denver storefront. They enter our store and have loads of questions, usually starting with some variation of, “What exactly do you do here?” Once customers have a basic understanding of the puzzle room concept they will ask more questions, and many of the same questions come up frequently. Escape rooms seem to inspire shared areas of curiosity among the newly initiated public. I’m reminded of the question that many crossword constructors cite as far and away the most common one posed about the craft by outsiders: “Which do you create first, the grid or the clues?” Will the puzzle room genre eventually generate an analogous question? I can share the questions that I commonly get asked at work, and forgive me if, in discussing the answers, I lump some shameless praise on my employer.

The most common question I get asked by Puzzah! customers is, “How long have you been open?” The question is typical, business-related small talk, but for puzzle rooms it seems to carry an added significance. I believe that many Puzzah! customers use the question as a way to ask, “How long has this type of business existed (without my knowing about it), and is it a trend that will last?” I try to address this potential subtext when I respond. Puzzah! opened in 2014 and was one of the first puzzle room businesses in Denver, though similar business have been operating in other North American cities for at least five years, and in cities throughout the world for at least a decade. When I discuss the future of the puzzle room genre with customers I find the most practical approach is to be confidently optimistic.

A close second for most common question is “How often do you change the rooms?” In the case of Puzzah!, the answer is never (so far). Our rooms are elaborate and expensive installations and even the oldest of our rooms remains a popular choice for reservations, so Puzzah! has never had reason to retire a puzzle room. Because I have the advantage of this inside information, I initially found it tiresome when customers wondered if our rooms changed out with the frequency of movies at a cineplex. But I’ve come to understand that the question is completely reasonable. Many puzzle room businesses change out rooms more frequently than Puzzah!, and we will eventually retire a room to make space for another. Also, arcade adventures with virtual reality systems are becoming more sophisticated and the technology will eventually enable the possibility of puzzle rooms that are both immersive and instantly interchangeable. So the question about how often we change rooms could also be curiosity about the staying power of this entertainment genre.

Many customers ask me how I know what is happening in the rooms when a game is in progress. Puzzle room businesses have various methods of monitoring player activity: video cameras, radio communication, in-room staff (sometimes posing as characters in the story). The method generally depends on the operational concern for surveillance, be it player safety, dispensing hints, etc. Puzzah! uses computer sensors rather than cameras or in-room staff. Customers are generally relieved when I tell them that we are not watching them through cameras. Even though we are collecting data on their overall performance, the fact that they are not being “watched” seems to alleviate their self-consciousness.

Customers who ask about cameras often have a general worry about the comfort of their experience. These customers will ask if the rooms are horror-themed, if someone is going to jump out and scare them, and if an inability to solve the puzzles will trap them in the room forever. For Puzzah! the answer to all of these questions is no, though the question is reasonable for the puzzle room industry as a whole. That first escape room I played in 2014 included a moment when the proprietor donned a rubber mask,dashed into the room, blew an airhorn, and exited. The action had no practical or thematic bearing on the room’s objective. It was simply a cheap scare. Many puzzle room businesses attract customers by being mysterious, threatening, and often macabre. The rooms are interactive haunted houses in which the danger somehow enhances puzzle solving. This marketing approach has a devoted clientele, but I see a positive reaction when I answer customers’ questions with reassurance rather than intimidation.

Nine out of ten customers that visit Puzzah! for a puzzle room adventure are doing it for the first time. The price point for a puzzle room is relatively high among comparable entertainment options and the public has a right to get as much information as possible before entering a room. As time goes by I would expect the percentage of novice customers to decrease, and their questions will become more savvy. They will want to know about success rates, hint systems, scavenging rules, and so forth. That will be the day when my confident optimism in the puzzle room industry is justified and I begin to sadly miss the innocent queries about how long we’ve been in business and how often we change the rooms. Still, if I get too sad about it I can always go out and buy an airhorn.