Puzzle Patreons

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Nathan Curtis’s Hatched Magazine is getting its footing with its second issue released this week. The magazine features 4-5 variety puzzles per issue. Hatched features some familiar names in the puzzle world but focuses on the work of nascent constructors. You can support the magazine at several levels. Higher levels of support make you eligible for reward and bonus material

And if you’re not currently a patron, check out Nathan’s own Patreon-sponsored variety puzzle magazine Tortoiseshell Studio.

Each issue of Topple Magazine features about a dozen variety puzzles including abstract logic, wordplay challenges, and visual brainteasers. The magazine’s name comes from founder Gregory Gray’s mission to topple conventional offerings of mainstream puzzle periodicals. You can download a puzzle sampler on the website.

Got your own favorite puzzle website? Please share in the comments.

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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.

 

PUZZLE: Unthemely #94

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DOWNLOADABLE PUZZLE: Unthemely #94 (PUZ) (PDF)

I’ve been taking a break from social media lately. My main concern was the time-sink, but I was also growing fatigued at Facebook and Twitter sessions that turned into acknowledgment clickfests. I still follow notifications that are directed to my email account, but I’m not sure what to do about other social media functions such as promoting the occasional puzzles and games that I post to this blog. I’ll rely on RSS feed subscriptions for now, and maybe I’ll see about easing back into social media in the future.

CrosswordsLA / Escape Room Binge

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I was in Los Angeles last weekend for CrosswordsLA held on the USC campus. I was a tournament volunteer once again, helping in the tabulation room in the morning and collecting puzzles in the afternoon. I didn’t have the opportunity to solve the qualifying puzzles in advance, but I reviewed the completed puzzles handed in by the contestants and was impressed with the work of the constructors. I especially liked the chewy Puzzle 3 created by Erin Rhode. When the finalists were announced I grabbed a copy of Patti Varol’s championship puzzle and bolted out of Fertitta Hall auditorium to complete it. My head start gave me just enough time to return to the auditorium and see fellow Coloradan Al Sanders finish at the big board ahead of co-finalists Eric LeVasseur and Eric Maddy. I was glad to see Al win another tournament!

The rest of Crosswords LA was fairly routine. Dave Shukan presented a fun opening game and John “Doppler” Schiff concocted an afternoon mini-extravaganza. Tournament organizer Elissa Grossman kept things running smoothly, though she occasionally needed to be reminded of what a great job she was doing. She also wrangled really nice desserts as usual. The tournament was my first time to see the USC campus. After the tournament, a few of the puzzlers walked across the street to a gastropub for a light dinner. Shukan and I talked shop while Tyler Hinman focused on the Trojans getting whipped by Notre Dame.

CrosswordsLA was the primary purpose of the trip, but the personal highlight was the marathon of escape rooms that Tyler organized. He got recommendations from locals, mainly Trip Payne who maintains a detailed spreadsheet, and devised an itinerary of 13 rooms for the weekend. The itinerary included two rooms on Friday, two on Saturday, and an ambitious sequence of nine rooms in the Hollywood-Koreatown area scheduled for a twelve-hour span on Sunday. Tyler alerted local puzzlers of the schedule and invited them to participate in as many as the wished. He played all 13 and I played 11. I was curious to see how such glut of escape room immersion would test my limits of cognitive stability. I was pleased with my personal results and happy with my solving companions throughout. We completed every room and set some (asterisked?) record times at the last location on Sunday.

The rooms were all superior quality. The technological devices that registered puzzle answers and popped open doors to new parts of the adventure were amazingly sophisticated. Tech can be unreliable, especially in a wear-and-tear environment like an escape room. We experienced a fair number of tech glitches and delays that resulted in heel-cooling diagnostic conversations with game masters. My favorite rooms of the weekend were relatively light on tech, but featured compelling narratives, theatricality, live actors, and unconventional game-play structures. The room Smugglers Tunnel at North Hollywood’s Escape Chronicles is a heist-themed experience that evaluates players not strictly by speed but by optimization of the stolen items. That’s an element that draws me in more than a string of RFID-maglock set pieces.

The ultimate value of completing a marathon of escape rooms is the opportunity to analyze trends that I can incorporate into my own work. Puzzah! operates with some challenging design parameters, but I’m motivated to find a way to apply the positive elements of the LA rooms into future Puzzah! projects. That motivation may involve lobbying to change our parameters — we’ll see. In any case, I’m content with going back to an escape room regimen of about one a month.

By the way, you can purchase packets of the CrosswordsLA puzzles online here. Proceeds go to the organization Reading to Kids.

Lollapuzzoola 10

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The 10th Lollapuzzoola crossword tournament was held in New York on August 18, 2017. That was a Saturday in August. I wanted to include comments on the puzzles in my memories post, which is why I waited until at-home puzzle packet sales closed. Still, if you have not yet solved the 2017 crossword puzzles and plan to in the future, note that THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!

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I hadn’t attended a Lollapuzzola in a few years, but knew that the tournament had been steadily gaining popularity and was likely to sell out. When I registered, I told tournament co-organizer Brian Cimmet that I would be willing to give up my seat and be a tournament assistant is he needed volunteers. Brian contacted me a week before the Lollapuzzoola Saturday and said he would take me up on the offer. I asked for an advance copy of the puzzles and Brian graciously obliged.

Being a volunteer didn’t cause any significant changes in the plans I was making with my host Jeffrey. We planned to get to the All Souls Church as early as possible where he would find a solving table and I would report to the assistants’ coordinator Mike Nothnagel for a duty assignment. I opted to collect completed puzzles and deliver them to the judging table. As a collector, I was also responsible for redeeming “Google tickets.” At the halfway point of each puzzle round, a solver could write the clue number of a non-theme entry on a ticket and hand it to an assistant who would write the corresponding entry on the ticket and return it to the solver. I positioned myself in the team-solving section for most rounds and didn’t have many Google ticket requests.

The Lollapuzzoola 10 subtitle was “Passing The Torch,” and an Olympic Games theme was reflected in the puzzles and general atmosphere. Brian Cimmet’s orgnaizing partner Patrick Blindauer opened the tournament by playing “Bugler’s Dream” on kazoo and later ran through the solving area draped in an American flag. Patrick also presented a trivia game in which solvers identified sports movies with as few clues as possible. I did pretty well joining a sidelines team with sports-savvy Ade Koiki and Doug Peterson. Francis Heaney and Ben Tausig presented another group game in which solvers guessed phrases with acronyms that matched three-letter country codes. A large Olympic flag was hung above the tournament stage, and the flag contained information that could have helped the finalists during the playoff puzzle. But before the playoffs, solvers needed to test their Olympic mettle on five preliminary puzzles.

The morning kicked off with Paolo Pasco’s “Let the Games Begin!” The organizers put it in the first slot based on its title, but the puzzle was unusual for a tournament opener in that it was not the easiest nor had the smallest grid. Five shaded rows in the puzzle started with names of Olympic sports and were followed by entries that could become new words if a letter or pair of letters in the sport were added. The entries were clued as the added-letter versions. So (J)(U)(D)(O) was followed by ABS {Quick boxing hits}, FAST {Original deal-with-the-devil maker}, RIPS {Features of runny noses or leaky faucets} and GODS {Merchandise}. The supplemental fill and clues were not especially difficult but the time required to parse the theme and complete the 23 x 13 grid could have been demoralizing for solvers used to a breezier Puzzle 1. C.C. Burnikel constructed the next puzzle, which competitors seemed to have the least trouble and most fun solving. “Crossword De-cat-hlon” contained theme entries inviting solvers to literally MEOWFORSOMEMILK and SCRATCHTHETABLE. A few tournament attendees remembered that I constructed a similar solver-performance puzzle based on John Cage for the second Lollapuzzoola tournament. I don’t think C.C. was an active constructor at that time so I assume she devised the theme concept independently. Puzzle 3 was “Gym Playlist” by Erik Agard. The payoff phrase UNEVENBARS split across two entries was suggested by three song titles similarly split across multiple entries in the grid. This was my favorite of the tournament puzzles as the split clues for the theme entries added to the overall challenge. This puzzle received a fair number of unwitting Google ticket requests for theme entries. While solvers did not receive grid content for these requests, they did gain insight on which entries belonged to the theme. “New Biathlons” by Francis Heaney featured theme entries in which two Olympic sports were inserted into a word to form an invented phrase. So {Short-lived trend + new biathlon = excellent computer systems manager assessed by a toy car company} clued the entry FA(BADMINTON)(KARATE)D. The invented phrases were fun, but this is a difficult theme to enjoy in a speed-solving environment. “Stick the Landing” by joon pahk closed the preliminary puzzles. The pole vaulting theme was represented by three phrases placed in the grid as a pair of entries separated by a black square. The square stood for the central letter(s) in a word that could be clued as a type of pole. {Frontiersman’s headgear} clued COONS [black square] INCAP; a cross-reference clue {___ pole} produced the link SKI.

Once the finalists were determined and sequestered, the organizers started setting up the large solving boards. Spectators were surprised by the reflectional symmetry of Mike Nothnagel and Doug Peterson’s puzzle grid, and they were intrigued when assistants began passing out packages of crayons. The puzzle contained a thematic gimmick tied to five grid squared. Each square required an O for the entry in one direction and a rebus of a color, either BLUE, YELLOW, BLACK, GREEN, or RED, in the other direction. The solver reconciled these squares by drawing an appropriately colored letter O and the grid positions of these special squares created the rings of the Olympic flag. I wasn’t clear on the tournament Olympic theme when I solved this at home, so I had some trouble understanding what was going on. The finalists onstage, who were furnished with colored dry-erase markers, were all standing beneath the Olympic flag and could possibly have an aha moment if they chose to look up. Andy Kravis took the top spot in the Express division and Simon McAndrews finished first in the Local division. I congratulate both of them as well as pairs champions Michael Sharp and Penelope Harper.

My chief enjoyment of the tournament was socializing with crossword enthusiasts and in many cases continuing conversations from the Indie 500 tournament. I met John Lieb who organized the inaugural Boston crossword tournament Boswords earlier in the month. Mike Shenk made a surprise appearance to spectate and publicize his upcoming Bryant Park crossword tournament (which concluded as I was writing this post — congratulations again, Andy!) The only downside is that, due to awkward volunteer scheduling and improvised post-tournament activities, I didn’t really get to eat anything that day. But a small price to pay for an afternoon spent with fine people and puzzles.

 

PUZZLE: Unthemely #93

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DOWNLOADABLE PUZZLE: Unthemely #93 (PUZ) (PDF)

Speed has recently become topic of relevance in my life as a puzzle. I often take a leisurely approach to puzzles constructed in my spare time — the Unthemely crosswords published this year being an exaggerated example. But the puzzles constructed for my livelihood are all associated with deadlines, and I sometimes struggle to decide whether to spend a short amount of time creating something acceptable or spend more time to give more exceptional quality to the final product. In either approach, I realize that I’m slow and easily distracted.

Speed is also a relevant issue in solving puzzles, as in this weekend’s Lollapuzzoola tournament in New York. Competitive solvers are evaluated on both speed and accuracy, though accuracy is rarely a pack separator in the qualifying rounds. I secured a seat in the tournament but didn’t have a particular competition agenda. My finish in June’s Indie 500 tournament suggested that I’m on the same plateau as my last ACPT performance in 2008. With nothing to prove, I told the LPZ organizers that I would forfeit my seat and serve as a tournament assistant if they needed more volunteers. Brian Cimmet contacted me saying that he could use more help and there were certainly plenty of stand-bys hoping for competitor seats in the sold-out tournament. So I’ll employ “be more speedier” skills as a runner and judge rather than a solver, and I’m happy to see Manhattan and the tournament regulars after an absence of several years. To all those competing, Godspeed! (and not Toddspeed).

2017 Las Vegas Minicon Notes

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The Embassy Suites on Swenson had undergone a renovation in decor since 2016. The changes were initially jarring but the basic amenities of our mincon hotel ultimately hung to tradition: same swans, same Elvis statue, same Sin in the Desrt cocktails at the complimentary happy hour. Bartender Dey is still slinging alcopop at the Suites and greeted our return with only slight confusion that we were not there on our usual Labor Day weekend.

The main new restaurant experience of this minicon was Carmine’s at Caesar’s Palace. The family style-Italian joint was our choice for a Friday group dinner. The cold antipasti was excellent, featuring small sandwiches and a seafood salad. The saltimobocca was an interesting new experience but I preferred the simpler angel hair with tomatoes. The dessert cannoli was average and the ambience a bit stadium-like but I enjoyed the meal overall. The Sunday night hangers-on tried dim sum at the off-Strip Yum Cha. We shared some nice small plates including a tasty duck, but I had some heartburn that dampened the experience.  I tried drinks at the Peach Bar at Cosmopolitan’s Momofuku. I had an awkward start with the bartender but he made me a personal cocktail with honey, ginger, and tequila that I was find of. TMI alert: The real highlight of of Momofuku was trying out the bidet in the men’s room. The Venetian’s Bouchon was our Saturday night choice. During dinner, a kitchen staffer suggested in a slightly scolding manner that I should eat the skin of my trout. Aside from that minor hiccup the meal was a delightful array of friendship and French cuisine. I enjoyed returning to B&B in the Venetian, where I had an exceptional Italian mule and a peach-and-mint bartender’s choice that I called a Chantilly after my childhood home.

Minicon games were lean this year. I had a clipboard full of NOL convention handouts so I wasn’t worried about the lack of a Mark Halpin extravaganza (slated for the end of August). Dave Shukan recently introduced me to Escape This Podcast, and I was reminded of an interactive fiction game that I wrote in college called Rat Trap. I presented it to some of the other attendees and it provided a short diversion. I also wrote an Only Connect game using the web infrastructure written by Andrew Greene. It proved to be a convenient amusement that could be played during a restaurant lunch by those with smartphones. Darren Rigby had the Only Connect games he presented a few weeks earlier in Boston. We played the “puzzle” set and I was awestruck by the Wall rounds. We played Codenames, Sporculation, and tested a drawing game called Fake Artist Goes to New York.

We scheduled the minicon in early August this year to sync with the Trivia Championship of North America. TCONA, now held in the Tropicana, is celebrating its seventh year drew about 250 trivia fans including several friends from the crossword community. The event features ample content and somewhat wonky scheduling so we didn’t attract too many of the registered members off-site for minicon activities. We did visit the Tropicana one afternoon to audit the game show marathon (I saw a few rounds of Tic Tac Dough) and play the trivia escape room devised by John Chaneski. The challenge comprised nine trivia questions each hidden in puzzle form in some item or location associated with most hotel rooms. We found and solved the puzzles, answered the questions, and then discovered a code that would allow us to escape the room. The setup was better designed than many commercial escape rooms I’ve attended, but the highlight for me was seeing John after an absence of nearly a decade, He’s a treasure. Our minicon did visit a commercial escape room in Vegas: Lost Games. The nascent business offered the first in a planned series of three serialized horror-suspense rooms with an insane asylum theme. The three owners were very personable and all participated in the preliminary skit that landed us in a medical study looking for the antidote to a poison we had ingested as a presumed prescription drug. The experience included good puzzles, a rich immersive environment, and well designed technical effects. It was easily the best escape room I’ve played in Las Vegas.

Only eleven months and change to minicon 10!