CURRICULUM VITAE: Specimen / The Curse


Instead of writing my own summary of the recently opened puzzle rooms at Puzzah’s Flatiron Crossing location, I am providing links to reviews of Specimen and The Curse written by Dan Kaplan, a staffer for Esc Room Addict. I respect the fact that the reviews are even-handed and constructive, pointing out both the strengths of the experiences and the elements that were not as successful. I’m particularly flattered by the plausive call-out that Dan gives me in the review for The Curse.

As a side note: Dan told me that he is a descendant of a David Kaplan who competed in crossword tournaments in the past. Does anyone recognize that name from ACPT or the U.S. Open?

Puzzles for Progress


Francis Heaney has put together a collection of word and variety puzzles titled Puzzles for Progress. The collection includes works made by many heavy-hitters in the industry the website credits: Erik Agard, Patrick Berry, Patrick Blindauer, Emily Cox & Henry Rathvon, Peter Gordon, Andy Kravis, Robert Leighton, Andrea Carla Michaels & Jonathan Gersch, Mark Halpin, Tony Orbach, Joon Pahk, Erin Rhode, Mike Selinker, and Ben Tausig.

The collection is intended to support organizations that work for advocacy and civil rights. To receive the collection, make a donation to one of the organizations listed on the project website and send the receipt to Francis. He will send the puzzle collection in PDF format, and additional materials for charitable donations of higher amounts.

For more information on the project and a list of organizations visit the Puzzles for Progress website.


Monsters et Manus


The 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last weekend. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was on a Hunt organizing team for the first time. I also mentioned that I didn’t participate in the pre-Hunt preparation as much as I wanted to due to work and some other issues. Once I arrived in Boston on Thursday night I planned to devote my efforts to the Hunt full-bore. I made my way to our team headquarters in Building 10 (a more team-friendly, central location than our usual digs in the Stata Center) and helped the team get things ready for the kickoff skit on Friday afternoon.

The theme of the Hunt was revealed in the skit. A group of MIT students playing a fictional role-playing game Monsters et Manus (a riff on the MIT motto Mens et Manus) accidentally conjure an eeeeevil sorcerer who possesses the dungeon master and traps the the other players in a medieval fantasy realm. The Hunt solving teams figured out puzzles that would level-up the role-playing characters to be powerful enough to face the sorcerer. The theme idea was proposed by my teammate T K Focht as a way to give solvers more transparency and control over the way that puzzles became available. Solvers would see that a puzzle in a particular round could be unlocked if a certain character were at a certain level, and then make other actions to expedite level-ups for that character. Traditional role-playing games have frequently been referenced in past Hunt puzzles but have never been the overall theme. When my teammates playing the MIT students in the opening skit opened their dice bags, the spectators reacted in hearty approval.

All of the Monsters et Manus puzzles, with solution links, can be found here. The Character puzzles, which were written to have the lowest difficulty, can be accessed by clicking on the icons on the left. The more difficult Quest puzzles can be accessed by clicking the icons on the map on the right. I have construction credits for the following puzzles that can be found on the master list: The Fighter (meta puzzle), Adactyly, Attention Span (just artwork), Epic Raft Battles of History, Maniacal Merchants, and Replenish the Treasury.

The Hunt also featured several live interactions and events. I was on the team that developed the events and I, along with many of my teammates, facilitated these events through the course of the weekend. Three of these events were rescues of the trapped MIT Students. The Linguist could be rescued by a pair of solvers by verbally communicating long, intractable computer passcodes (sample attempts can be seen in this video starting at the 58:55 mark). The Economist was trapped in a endless loop playing Bob Barker in the bidding game of The Price is Right. They could be rescued by bidding a preassigned, exact price of some random item in a team’s headquarters. The Chemist needed a potion to be rescued from a foul mood. Solvers mixed non-alcoholic cocktails inspired by adjectives and nouns drawn from three decks of cards, as in “Enchanted Elfin Stinger.”


The scheduled events included a Super Speed Dating activity in which solvers were given cards with personality types and needed to find another solver with the same type by sitting down for multiple speed dating encounters. The Running Techies event was a series of footraces featuring notable alumni of MIT. Solvers won by successfully selecting a trifecta before the race, and they increased their odds of doing this by noting the placement of the runners in earlier races (and never betting on Richard Feynman). In the photo below I am the racer dressed as Norbert Wiener, third from the left. Hungry Hungry Hippogriffs combined Bananagrams and Hungry Hungry Hippos (see 103:08 in the previously linked video). Pub Quizardry was a game I wrote and presented on Saturday night. I read trivia questions that the solvers found easy on first hearing, but then realized that the answers needed to be transformed in various ways.


Our team planned to run the Hunt through Sunday evening and we expected the first team to find the coin, or two-sided die, in about 35 hours. We underestimated the drive of the solvers and had three level-up their characters before the sun rose on Saturday. This caused a problem because teams needed to participate in the scheduled events before being eligible to face the sorcerer, and we realized that it would be unfair to force these teams to wait while other teams caught up. So, we put together single-team versions of the events and led the them at reasonable increments throughout Saturday. The endgame of the Hunt had two parts. A Character endgame was a puzzle that a solving team performed on a board designed to resemble a hexagonal role-playing mat. Teams answered trivia questions to uncover a group ability under the game-board hexagons: HIVE MIND. The Hunt endgame involved a life-size role-playing surface, and under the hexagons were instructions to convert the previous ability into a new one: GROUP HUG. At this point a solving team went on a campus runaround to find the actual D2 hidden outside the Management building.

My experience at the Hunt as an organizer was similar to my experience as a solver. I had brief interactions with almost all of my teammates while at headquarters, but then found a comfortable place to set down my laptop and worked solo. I ate a lot of junk food because it was there and I have little self control. I did enjoy the opportunity to see the headquarters of other teams, meet people on teams that I wouldn’t ordinarily interact with, and learn more about navigating the campus.

Congratulations to Death and Mayhem, the team that first completed the Hunt! I wish them well on their new quest: to design the Hunt for 2018.




(Audio Trivia)

The game features nine audio clips assigned to the cells of a three-by-three diagram. The three clips in each horizontal row and the three clips in each vertical column have a thematic connection; in other words, the diagram comprises six themes and each audio clip belongs to two of them. The clips are played one by one, and players try to guess the themes. Players score more points by correctly guessing themes with less revealed information.

Clip Joints was created in 2013 shortly after I downloaded the audio-editing freeware Audacity. I wanted to come up with an audio-based game as a way to practice using the program. I thought of the Picture Tic-Tac-Toe puzzles that appeared in classic issues of Games Magazine and decided to create a audio analogue. I was a bit concerned about the amount of information that I could convey in a sound clip so I did not give myself the added constraint of themes on the two main diagonals. The biggest challenge was finding themes that exploited the audio gimmick and were not simply categories of three words presented explicitly or implicitly in a verbal clip. My best example was a “clarinet” theme: the three clips simply featured a clarinet being played, but each clip contributed to an intersecting theme. This type of puzzle, whether visual or audio, often requires some contrivances in tricky intersections. I did have a space that needed to join “German” and “transportation” and I chose a segment from a conversational German language lesson (“the bus station is ‘der Busbahnhof’).” It was flagrant choice but I hoped it would get some laughs.

Clip Joints was presented at a LA minicon and then at a few subsequent gatherings. It was fairly easy to present as I the sound clips are playable on my smartphone and players simply need a piece of scratch paper.

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.




CURRICULUM VITAE: Fresh Freestyle Crosswords


Fresh Freestyle Crosswords, my new book of themeless, or freestyle, crossword puzzles, is currently available for preorder and will officially drop on November 1!

Over the weekend I received a box with advanced copies of the book. It was like Christmas in October, which I guess is the way everybody experiences Christmas these days. The cover design is eye-catching, if a bit edgy for the author in question, and the inside layout is slick and attractive as is the case with all Puzzlewright titles.


The material from the book comes from the Autofill Project, which I started several years ago. The project was a label for my pastime of improving the wordlist database that I reference for crossword construction. Part of the project involved creating puzzles to test autofill quality, as well as highlight interesting database additions. I dubbed these puzzles “unthemelies” because they were themeless and a bit unseemly, at least at the onset, due to the rawness of the database. The project and the puzzles improved and I began offering the Unthemely crossword puzzles on my blogs for solver feedback. Peter Gordon at Puzzlewright Press offered to publish the collection when I had enough for a book and I agreed.

About two-thirds of the puzzles in the book appeared on one of my blogs at some point in the past. The rest are original puzzles or heavily revised versions of Unthemely puzzles. In one case, I kept an Unthemely diagram structure, deleted every entry except one (which was not the original seed entry) and refilled the grid. I submitted the puzzles to Peter in an order that is basically chronological and I believe an arc of fill improvement is noticeable as one works through the book.

I hope all you themeless crossword puzzle fans will enjoy the book. If you choose to manually type the title on your favorite online bookseller website rather than use the link at the top of this post, beware that “Fresh Freestyle” may lead you to a manual on swimming and triathlon exercises. On the other hand, if you are into honing the body as well as the find, put both books in your virtual shopping cart and reap the benefits!