Crosswords LA X / LA Escape Room Binge 2

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Crosswords LA provided me an opportunity for a mini-vacation in Southern California last weekend. I constructed the opening puzzle and volunteered at the tournament as a judge and an assistant for some of the game events. The tournament had a good puzzle set this year and I encourage solvers to get solve-at-home packets once they become available. Puzzle 3 by Anna Gundlach and Erik Agard gave solvers the biggest challenge of the day, but it wasn’t as dramatic a pack separator as I predicted. Solid performance throughout the day netted berths in the finals for Jeff Davidson, Brian Fodera, and Eric Maddy. Eric took the victory with the only perfect solution of Brendan Emmett Quigley’s  championship puzzle. Congratulations to all the finalists!

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Outside of the tournament, most of my waking moments in LA were assigned to a binge of local escape rooms. Tyler Hinman organized the binge and scheduled 15 escapes over the weekend. I participated in ten of them, eight on Saturday and two following the tournament on Sunday night, and it’s safe to say that the best was saved for last. Hatch Escape’s Lab Rat is the current hot escape room ticket in LA and I have to say that it lives up to the hype. The game put solvers in a world where rats are the scientists and humans the diminutive test subjects, and this premise is realized with amazing fabrication and humorous narrative. The game-play structure features many original puzzles including one challenge revealing that Tyler and I should work on some strategies if we ever end up on a charades team in the future. The room’s intricate mechanics seem a bit risk-inviting and, in fact, we suffered two mechanical hiccups that halted our game, but game master August was on the ball and got us back on track in short order. The whimsical prediction values and great teammates made this a memorable escape room experience.

Escapades LA was another highlight of the binge. Of its two rooms in North Hollywood, my favorite was Doggy Dog World in which the solving group took on the role of an intrepid canine on a quest for a beloved red ball. The dog’s-eye-view set was inspired and the endgame was hysterical. The Laboratory in downtown LA had an intriguingly manifest structure. After a generic “save the world” briefing, the group was shown a wall-mounted diagram of all the puzzles with clear visual indications of the solving order and the confirmation locations. This was helpful information as the mission had over 30 puzzles to solve. I found the structure refreshing and enjoyed the fact that we could organize our efforts so that everyone had opportunities to make contributions. I played several 60Out rooms on Saturday and my favorite was the circus themed Hyde and Seek with a fun train car set. Abyss at Maze Rooms was a two-person experience that Tyler and I completed as our last experience on Saturday night. It featured an interesting narrative and polished set but, like Maze’s Magic Kingdom, we struggled with intuitive leaps on how precisely to use the technical elements to complete each task.

The best part of escape room binges is the opportunity to solve with new friends. The montage of victory photos below includes people such as Al, Craig, Erik, Jenna, and Wyna with whom I shared an escape experience for the first time over the weekend. Thank you for adding to my joy and reminding me that it’s all about the team!

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The Inkubator / Crosswords LA X

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Laura Braunstein is requesting submissions for an upcoming crossword puzzle subscription service. The Inkubator will feature twice-a-month publications of crossword puzzles constructed by women. Laura and Tracy Bennett will edit the puzzles and seem very open to themes and grid styles that challenge mainstream standards. Constructors may submit drafts and general questions to  inkubatorcrosswords [at] gmail.com. A crowdfunding campaign for subscriptions launches October 21.

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Crosswords LA X will be held this Sunday (October 21) at USC’s Hoffman Hall. Advance registration is closed, but a limited number of walk-in participants will be admitted on tournament day. Tournament organizer Elissa Grossman and puzzle wrangler Alex Boisvert have commissioned puzzles from some of the finest puzzlemakers in the country, and also one from me. Solve-at-home packets will be made available after the tournament and portions of the proceeds go to Reading to Kids. I’m excited to see everyone at the tournament!

 

Knight Shade

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

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

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

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

 

 

Ten Words / Bart Bonte Games

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My friend Max Woghiren has posted a web game called Ten Words.

The goal is to fill a five-by-five word grid one letter at a time so that as many rows and columns of the completed word grid contain a word of at least three letters. You have two letter placement options at each turn but don’t know about upcoming letters, so you have to be strategic about your choices. You can play one game per day for leaderboard consideration and additional games in a “practice” mode. I love the press-your-luck element to the game, though I tend to set up an ambitious letter skeleton and then crash and burn in a spate of vowels. Give it a try, and see if you have better luck than me.

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Eric Berlin recently turned me on to the app games of Bart Bonte. I’ve downloaded and completed What’s Inside the Box, Yellow, and Red. Each game comprises a series of puzzle “quickies” that involve pattern induction, logical sequencing, spatial reasoning, and occasional wordplay. None of the puzzles have instructions, but you can request hints. “Lights Out” variants are a bit overused, but the overall puzzle collections are clever and the aesthetics are very attractive.

 

Vote for Puzzah!

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

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

Las Vegas Minicon X

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The tenth Las Vegas minicon was held last weekend at the Embassy Suites east of the Strip. Michael Coleman who proposed the first minicon back in 2009 was unable to attend this year, so I guess I now have the distinction of being the only person to attend every minicon to date. I’m sure I can cash in that achievement for a personal sized can of Pringles at some point in the future.

First-timers at this years minicon included Alison Muratore, Barbara Thompson, and Wally Firlit. I knew Alison from NPL cons but enjoyed the opportunity to talk with her about work and art and life, and even brainstorm some ideas for a puzzle hunt she is writing for her work team. Barbara I met for the first time, though in conversation I discovered that we had met before at a DASH event in Denver. She and her friend David are bright and funny and both easily settled into the minicon groove. Wally stayed off-site and I only saw him at a group dinner and some of the escape rooms. I don’t recall interacting with him in the past but he recognized me from crossword tournaments in LA. I was inspired by his enthusiasm for solving puzzles.

The puzzle centerpiece of the minicon is typically the Mark Halpin Labor Day extravaganza. The eight of us staying at the Embassy Suites formed one large solving team this year’s ganza titled “It Takes Two.” It’s an excellent set of puzzles that can be downloaded here. We deduced the gimmick of the extravaganza fairly early and still struggled to make progress. We had about half the solutions by Saturday afternoon when we suspended solving for a late lunch. We didn’t resume until Sunday morning when we finally exchanged puzzles from the previous day, made some breakthroughs, and rallied to the finish.

We enjoyed some other puzzles and games around happy hour. Trip Payne presented a very fun Jeopardy! game that I hope he brings to a future event. Dave Tuller quizzed us with some pub trivia. I led some rounds of Sporculation. I got to play Decrypto, partnered with Alison in one game and Tanis O’Connor in another. Trip got annoyed with some of the clues that came up in my partnership with Tanis. I used “Uno” to clue FISH and she used “Francis” for PIG. These examples probably cross the boundaries of what some would consider ethical cluing, but we were always able to explain the semantic relationship the other intended.

I played three escape rooms over the weekend. The best of the three was Playtime, the second chapter in Lost Games’ Solitude Heights series (we played the first chapter last year). The scenic design was excellent (and creepy) and the puzzles challenging. I had some trouble coping with the dim lighting and we had a largish solving group so I opted to watch from the sidelines most of the time. Red Riding Hood at Number 1 Escape Room and The Lair of the Puzzlemaster at Trapped were fair to middling. Both had attractive fabrication but a lot of puzzle cliches. Lair had an interesting narrative branch point: A group that makes a wrong guess on the final puzzle receives a “consolation” puzzle that must be solved in four minutes. Hinting becomes progressively generous during the four minutes so most groups can complete the puzzle and, while not eligible for the leader board, end the mission with a feeling of success.

We hit several of my favorite dining establishments like Bouchon and Firefly. Based on a recommendation from Michael, we tried José Andrés’ Bazaar Meat at SLS casino hotel. We sat at the bar (which I love) and ordered mainly small plates from the Bar Centro menu, including cotton candy foie gras, deep-fried chicken croquettes, and beef and parmesan grissini. I would definitely go back. For drinks, Tanis found Bound at the Cromwell. I liked the drinks though the bar was close enough to the casino floor to lose some ambience. On Sunday night we ended up at Peppermill in the wee hours and I made the mistake of joining in on a Scorpion cocktail. I must remember not to drink anything served in a container bigger than my head.

Minicon X was on the low-key side, and that was just fine with me. August was a stressful work month and I am taking advantage of all the vacation time I can get. I would have been content lounging poolside, listening to podcasts, and working on a clipboard full of puzzles, but I was happy to put that agenda aside for more social activities with my minicon family!

 

 

Link Updates

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

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

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