Looking forward to the 2016 Mind Sports Olympiad, including a Sudoku and Kenken contest

Mind Sports Olympiad medalsIf it’s the week before the August Bank Holiday, it’s time for the annual Mind Sports Olympiad, and it’s time for me to roll this post out again. (Don’t worry; this year I’ll add some fresh bits.) This will be the twentieth installment of the annual mental-games-and-skills-themed multi-sports festival. You know how a certain major thing happening in Brazil at the moment, which I choose not to name because you can’t be too careful these days, has some of the world’s most prestigious contests in many different physical sports? The principle behind the Mind Sports Olympiad was to try to emulate that for brain games. The budget has never really been there to attain this at the very top level, but the event has kept going year after year and developed its niche. (Given how careful we are encouraged to be regarding the O-word, you might have thought that the Mind Sports Olympiad was skating on thin ice, but it survives through the traditional use of the word in long-established context, following the pattern of the Chess Olympiad and the Bridge Olympiad.)

Some people prefer to focus their efforts on a single mind sport at the highest level they can attain, others take a much broader view that it’s more fun to compete at many different games, and the Mind Sports Olympiad is a great place for those who take the second viewpoint. This web site has a lot of sympathy with the principle. By analogy, some people like only exit games, others only logic puzzle contests, others only cryptic crosswords or mechanical puzzles or geocaching or one of maybe a dozen other things; this site tends to believe that if you like one but haven’t been exposed to the others then it may well be that you turn out to enjoy the others as well.

This year’s event runs from Sunday 21st August to Monday 29th August and is held at JW3, the London Jewish cultural centre. (Accordingly, there is no play on the evening of Friday 26th or at all on Saturday 27th, being the Sabbath.) The most immediately relevant event to readers of this site is the contest in sudoku and kenken (also known as calcudoku – think killer sudoku, but with other mathematical operations as well as addition) on the morning of Sunday 28th August, which this year has £140 of prize money provided by sponsors. However, there are contests in scores of other mind sports as well, plus an open play room with a well-stocked games library open each day. You might well recognise some of the attendees.

Neil Zussman won the contest last year and Mark Goodliffe won the contest for each of the last two years before that, so expect competition to be fierce – but if the event sounds interesting at all, you can read his write-up to get a better feel of what it’s like in practice. Perhaps the You-Know-What taking place at the moment are putting you in a competitive mood!

As a side note, another particularly interesting event at the MSO is the Decamentathlon, a three-and-a-half-hour test of skills in ten different mental events. (The memory test involves a physical pack of cards and a long number to memorise, the rest can reasonably be compared to written exam papers.) Originally the ten skills tested were bridge, chess, creative thinking, draughts 8×8 (“checkers” if you’re from the US), go, intelligence, mastermind, memory skills, mental calculations and othello, but these have varied over the years. This year, bridge, mental calculations and othello are out; backgammon, sudoku and kenken are in. If this appeals, Thursday morning will let you try to win the game of many games!

Lastly, The Guardian are posting puzzles every fortnight, though they don’t make you hang around for the answers; the most recent set is nicely thematic.

Puzzle e-books for charity donations

The Maze of Games front cover, copyright Lone Shark Games

You probably know about this already, but just on the off-chance you hadn’t heard about it:

Humble Bundle currently have a bundle of puzzle e-books available. Humble Bundle work on a “pay what you want, and you can choose to donate it to a charity of your choice” system; as far as I can tell, any charity with a UK charity number is eligible for your donation, though I like the look of the three defaults which are suggested.

Pay/donate US$1 or more and you receive links to download .pdf versions of seven books, notably including “Logical Leaps and Landings: An Adalogical Ænigmas Collection” by Pavel Curtis, descirbed as follows: “Think you’re up for a truly serious test of your logical-reasoning powers? Every month, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, often credited at the world’s first computer programmer, presents to the solving public (with clerical assistance from Pavel Curtis) a new logical “ænigma”. This book collects the first two years of Ada’s series, 24 logic puzzles ranging from challenging to exceedingly difficult. Each puzzle is accompanied by author commentary and a full solution, along with explanations of how to read any Easter eggs that Ada might have concealed somewhere on the page. NEW FOR THIS BUNDLE.”

Pay/donate US$7 or more and you get eight more books in the same way for a total of fifteen, headlined by Dr. Thomas Snyder’s “The Art of Sudoku” and Mike Selinker’s “The Maze of Games”. Increase your payment/donation to US$15 and up for a total of twenty-one books plus the audiobook version of “The Maze of Games” and one more, containing puzzles pointing to hints to a super-meta for “The Maze of Games”, once it is written in a couple of months’ time. Increase your payment/donation to US$42 or more and US$25.01 of it will cover the cost of a hardback copy of “The Maze of Games”, but you have to pay shipping on top… and shipping a hardback book overseas is seriously expensive, raising the effective price past the GBP 50 mark.

Being cynical to a fault, it looks like several of these books could not actually have previously been bought as dead-tree books (except possibly via print-on-demand services…?) and it’s possible that several of the puzzles may well have been published elsewhere previously, but you’re still getting an awful lot of high-quality puzzles for a remarkably low cost…. which could be entirely a charity donation if you wanted it to be one. The star attraction is probably “The Maze of Games”, and it’s likely that you might have backed it when the Kickstarter campaign was in progress. However, if you didn’t, you can get a wealth of wonderfully well-realised ideas at an extremely attractive price.

Highly recommended!

My thoughts on the 2016 UK Puzzle Championship

UK Puzzle Association logoFor this final post in the short season of posts about the UK Puzzle Championship, everything I say below should be taken as being less important than a hearty vote of thanks to everyone at the UKPA for putting the championship together year after year, from the puzzle authors to the test compilers to the system administrators.

It’s easy to criticise a puzzle contest when you feel that you did worse than you deserve because puzzle styles at which you are particularly strong are, in your view, underrepresented. I’m going to do something different; I’m going to criticise this year’s UK Puzzle Championship for overrepresenting puzzle styles at which I was relatively strong.

This time, I did relatively well by being able to apply variants on one technique to several different puzzles. There were a lot of puzzles which essentially relied on adding together a subset of integers 1+2+3+…+n, for some value of n, to meet a given total. (Or, nearly equivalently, adding all those numbers together and deducing what must be missing to reach a given total.) The same technique was required for Bank Note, Last Digit, Sum Skyscapers, Kakuro (more or less) and Sumpix. Some years some puzzle styles are heavily represented; other years, other puzzle styles get lucky.

I don’t think it’s possible for there to be a reference distribution of puzzle styles (which might look like “one of these, one of those, one of the other…”) against which a UK Puzzle Championship would be measured. It’s one of the joys of the world of puzzle competitions that the constituency of possible puzzles from which source material can be drawn is so wide.

The closest to a taxonomy of (even only culture-free, language-neutral) puzzles that springs to mind is a classification put together by Dr. Tom Synder’s The Art Of Puzzles: “number placement puzzles (such as Sudoku and TomTom), object placement (such as Battleships and Star Battle), region division (such as Fillomino and Cave), shading (such as Nurikabe and Tapa), path/loop (such as Slitherlink and Masyu)“. That page gives plenty of other examples of puzzle styles that fall into each of those broad categories. It’s also key to note that even that page notes the number of other puzzle styles that don’t meet that categorisation. Alternatively, look at Mike Selinker and Tom Synder’s amazing Puzzlecraft on puzzle construction, which considers the wider world of puzzles at large; by a certain definition of the purpose of the UK Puzzle Championship, it would be reasonable for the UK Puzzle Championship to focus upon the culture-free language-neutral puzzles that are the World Championship’s focus.

It’s an open question what the UK Puzzle Championship is for. I can think of at least three motivations: to declare a UK champion, to select (part of) a UK team for the World Puzzle Championship and to raise awareness of organised logic puzzle competitions. Of those three, the selection seems to be the most important in practice; there is seldom much mention after the fact of competition winners as being national champions. (I can think of a few exceptions, all of which so far have been done in good taste, but it’s not the most prominent accolade in practice.)

I take a stronger view than most that the UK Puzzle Association should be using the potential to take part in the World Puzzle Championship as a very strong attraction and should be promoting that at every opportunity. Furthermore, I take the (somewhat radical) view that team selection should be through as many different routes as possible, so that more events can be promoted as qualification opportunities as excuses to get the word spread far and wide. I would promote this ahead of the apparent patriotism of making the UK Championship (and the in-person UK Open Championship) as important as possible. Further still, I would go further than most (though not all the way!) towards prioritising using the UK Championship as an awareness-raising tool over using it to be discriminatory at the elite end to crown a champion.

ukpc 2

Click on the image for a bigger version of the graph

There have been six UK Puzzle Championships to date; the above graph compares anonymised solvers’ performances on them. The dark blue line represents performances in 2011, the orange line in 2012, the yellow line in 2013, the green line in 2014, the brown line in 2015 and the light blue line in 2016. The horizontal axis represents the position of the solver relative to the cohort (the best performing finisher far left, the worst performing finisher who scored at least one point on the right, the median solver midway and so on) and the vertical axis represents the score of the solver, expressed as a percentage of the nominal perfect score assuming no bonus. Accordingly, an all-correct solution with a time bonus earns more than 100%.

It’s clear that the 2016 competition was relatively difficult, or at least that the quantity of material on the paper was rather higher than in the two previous years. The raw number of points possible were rather higher this year than in previous years; it’s not clear that a, say, 15-point puzzle this year directly correlates to a 15-point puzzle in previous years. The spread of point distributions between relatively low-valued and relatively high-valued puzzles varies considerably from year to year, too.

On the chart above, the data points from 2011 to 2015 have each been marked with a + or a X. Data points marked with + symbols refer to solvers who have participated in the contest in later years. Data points marked with X symbols refer to solvers in their last year of participation. Obviously the participants from 2016 have not been marked either way as it is not clear whether they will participate from 2017 onwards or not. Two conclusions I have drawn:

1) Every year from 2011-2015, there has been at least one top-six solver who hasn’t participated in future years. While you can’t make people participate if the date and time don’t suit, or if their interest in UKPC puzzles has waned, the potential UK team at the WPC would surely benefit strongly from their participation in the UKPC – and I would recommend proactively reaching out to them individually.

2) If you finish in the bottom 20%, you are no more likely (and, in three of five years, strictly less likely) to participate than not to participate in future years. Speaking as a self-certified, long-established “crap ‘un”, there have been years where I’ve been practically (and at least one year where I’ve been literally) the only bottom-feeder to come back and participate in future years. Now perhaps this would have less of an impact on the potential UK team at the WPC, but it doesn’t strike me as an indicator of robust health from metaphorical nose to tail.

The logic puzzle competition hobby in the UK has an unusually skewed distribution of skill levels. We are fortunate enough to have very strong solvers at the top end. The standard of the best solvers, around the world, is improving over time. (Conversely, the highest end of championship play requires increasingly difficult puzzles over time.) The dear Croco-Puzzle site once did an experiment by posing the same, otherwise unremarkable, series of daily puzzles a couple of years apart, and noted an improvement in performances over time.

The standard of the UK’s best solvers varies from year to year, but we certainly have very strong solvers at the top end. I tend to believe that a championship with the same cohort of top solvers at the top end, similar mid-tables and a rotation in the lower order, who try a championship and largely decide that it’s not for them rather than sticking with it and (hopefully!) improving over time, does not represent strong health. There are other mind sports which spring to mind, where there are competitions with the same, very few, extremely strong participants again and again, and no real infrastructure for the less accomplished to play and improve.

I do tend to believe that strong participants are made rather than born, simply by the degree of practice that the best solvers put in. On the other hand, they tend to be found rather than produced; perhaps my biggest hope is that some more people with the UKPC sort of smarts and a strong sense of competition find the championship. I’d really like to try to tap into the well-established mathematics competition infrastructure that keeps the best solvers engaged before university… but relies on university to give them chances to compete after that. Where do past International Mathematics Olympiad students go for their competition fix? In theory it could be the (seemingly similar) International Mathematics Competition for University Students, which happens to be in progress in Bulgaria this week, but in practice it doesn’t seem to be that way for UK universities. Certainly there have been some past IMO participants who’ve translated to the WPC very well; I’d love to try to grab other UK IMO team members to try out for the UKPC, if that were their sort of fun.

That said, the logic puzzle competition hobby is so much better off than it once was; originally, the season was just a single qualifying competition long – and up to 2010, the UK used the unforgiving US Puzzle Championship as that qualifier. The addition of the WPF’s Puzzle Grand Prix represents a considerable improvement, with relatively accessible puzzles included in every contest and a less-daunting 90-minute duration. The addition of the “casual” division to the WPF Puzzle Grand Prix papers represents a second considerable improvement to accessibility, even if it’s an experiment which might not quite have turned out in the way that was intended.

I’ll emphasise again that I offer profound gratitude to everyone at the UKPA for putting the championship together year after year; at the end of the day, it’s for the UKPA to decide their priorities and for them to devise a championship to do what they want to do. I’m not a UKPA member, not least because I know my opinion on this matter is an outlier, and I think it works well for them to do their thing and for me to do my thing separately.

There are, after all, many, many little separate puzzle hobbies – and, by and large, they’re all happy keeping themselves to themselves and doing their own little thing. (Which is not the way I would like it to be, but there is much in life that fits that description.) And yet if there’s one situation where one little self-contained puzzle hobby could do with making itself known to other little puzzle hobbies and trying to tap smart people who throw time and effort into puzzle hobbies, it’s for the purpose of trying to get a strong UK puzzle team together. At heart, this is a big part of the reason why I want to try to bring the little puzzle hobbies together, to try to get more brilliant people trying out for the UK team.

Dr. Gareth Moore puts it really well. Excerpting what he has to say: “The barrier to entry is certainly high, since you need to be familiar with so many different types in order to compete at a certain level. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that – but if the aim is to get new people involved, I would certainly say it’s important to always have a significant number of puzzles that are approachable to anyone. Similarly, it’s important to include puzzles that ‘everyone’ will be familiar with, so the kind of puzzles you might find in a newspaper.

To me, a big part of the aim should be to get new people involved, and that should include a strong representation of familiar puzzle styles, including “casual” puzzles (as opposed to grid-based Constraint-Satisfaction puzzles) such as picture puzzles, wordsearch-style puzzles, numerical puzzles, crossword-style puzzles and insight puzzles, at a genuinely accessible level of difficulty. This year’s UKPC did fit that bill to a limited extent and the UKPC – while I’ve seldom (if ever?) enjoyed it more than I did this year – certainly has done better in this regard in previous years. I’d like to see future UKPCs make that a higher degree of focus, while still remaining the ability to discriminate between the most capable and experienced solvers at the top end of the competition.

And I’d also like the moon on a stick while we’re at it, please…

UK Puzzle Championship 2016: the stats

Latest UK Puzzle Association logoThe second post in the short “UK Puzzle Championship” season is the annual statistics post. The UKPC results have been published and this site congratulates everyone who is happy with their result.

The biggest congratulations of all go to Neil Zussman on his second UK championship after winning three years ago. James McGowan was a strong second place and Tom Collyer picked up a third successive bronze, though finished closer to second than ever before. Globally, these performances (and that of fourth-placed Steve Barge) were very competitive and took some impressive scalps. The number of UK participants on the scoreboard bounced back up to a joint record 25, with seven first-timers this year – and only five solvers on the scoreboard for all six of the UKPCs to date.

As ever, this site continues to update a year-on-year chart of UKPC performances, in the style of Tim Peeters’ charts:

 201120122013 201420152016BestTimes
James McGowan11211216
Neil Zussman 2122115
David McNeill23    22
Tom Collyer86433336
Steve Barge3 35 434
Michael Collins946971046
Emma McCaughan6108114846
Thomas Powell 12574745
Adam Dewbery 13 4  42
Ronald4     41
Roderick Grafton12510109 55
Adam Bissett  136 553
Paul Redman5     51
Nick Gardner 106   62
Heather Golding   12 662
Saul Glasman    6 61
Nick Deller107 15111375
Eva Myers147 16121175
Mark Goodliffe7 1313151275
AJ Moore  9719974
Ben Neumann    81682
Chris M. Dickson101819221718106
Paul Slater   131015103
Gareth Moore16 11 13 113
Chris Nash  11   111
Anthea McMillan  15171413134
tom123513     131
Liane Robinson1514    142
Timothy Luffingham 14    141
Robin Walters 1718 1617164
Kenneth Wilshire18201621  164
Sam Boden 161719  163
Abigial See17     171
Alison Scott   18  181
Chris Harrison    18 181
blueingreen19     191
quixote 19    191
crayzeejim     19191
Andrew Brown20 21   202
Laurence May 20    201
United Kingdom  20   201
David Cook   20  201
Jonathan Wilson    20 201
Hector Hirst     20201
Neil Rickards     20201
Eilidh McKemmie 22    221
Gary Male  22   221
Tomaz Cedilnik     22221
Fuchsia A     22221
River Edis-Smith  23   231
Daniel Cohen   23  231
Abdul Hadi Khan   24  241
Ken Ferguson     24241
shirehorse1   25  251
Mark Greenhalgh     25251

Errors and omissions excepted and corrections are welcome; note that this site declines to split places between players on equal scores on the “time left” tie-breaker. Many thanks to everyone who has been involved with setting the puzzles or organising the contest over the years, especially Liane Robinson and Alan O’Donnell, the most frequent contest compiler and administrator.

Just two more weeks until the eighth and final round of the World Puzzle Federation’s Puzzle Grand Prix!

How to break in to the 2016 UK Puzzle Championship

Latest UK Puzzle Association logoA short “2016 UK Puzzle Championship” season begins with a piece about how to get started with the puzzles in the competition. The piece needs context, however; participants have frequently commented that there weren’t many easy puzzles in the contest, yet participants’ scores tended to skew relatively high, compared to previous years’ contests. It’s also worth pointing out that I tend to come near the bottom of the rankings table, typically beating about 20% or so of the other competitors. Accordingly, take what I say with a considerable pinch of salt – but, on the other hand, there aren’t many people talking about the puzzles. Considerable credit goes to James McGowan for posting links to practice puzzles in advance.

You are strongly recommended to download the puzzles, open them using the password 20_S3n3c_16 and look at them in parallel with this commentary. First and foremost, thanks to the puzzle authors for their contributions and to Liane, Alan and David for putting the contest together and making sure that it happened at all. I thoroughly enjoyed the event.

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Thank you… and I’m so, so sorry

brexit graphic (CC0 but by stucco on pixabay)Speaking purely personally…

I like the vast, vast majority of people who run escape rooms. It doesn’t have to be a great room, you’ve just not got to rip people off in order for me to like you. Don’t rip off the paying public, don’t rip off your employees and don’t consciously rip off other games. (Similarities are inevitable and there are only so-o-o-o-o many different accessible puzzles in the world.) Thank you for taking the chance and setting up your game; I think you have done a good thing for the world and I wish you every success.

Many of the first few escape rooms in the UK were founded by people who had run games in other countries and emigrated to these shores. I don’t know everybody’s story; many games don’t make their owners clear, and – in a sense – it doesn’t matter all that much. Some of the earliest game owners are immigrants from Hungary, some (I believe) are immigrants from an east Asian country (probably China, but I wouldn’t swear to it), some are people who played games overseas and thought “why couldn’t this happen in the UK?” and many I don’t know about.

Two days ago, a UK referendum voted by a margin of 52% to 48%, with pretty good turnout, for the UK to leave the European Union. This makes me horribly sad. Nobody can know what the consequences will be as a result of this vote, though some sets of consequences are a lot more plausible than others. It would seem logical that companies who pay their staff well moving from the UK would lower the amount of disposable income in the UK economy. One of the things I really hate is the way that people seem to have responded to a campaign that encouraged them to turn their back on expert opinion, apparently purely for the sake of doing so.

There is already evidence of people taking the result of the referendum as an excuse to be ever more overtly hateful than before. It’s definitely a sign that large parts of the UK are not welcoming to those who have come, and those who would come, from overseas and made our lives better. I voted to remain in the EU, and I particularly want to thank – and ashamedly apologise to – those who brought their games from overseas, particularly in the early days. You fully deserve your very considerable success; your bravery, imagination and competence have made our lives better, and this is a horrible way to repay you for it.

As a counterfactual, I tend to believe that escape rooms would still have been a success in the UK if they had been started only by those who had played them overseas rather than those who brought their expertise from EU countries to the UK, but not nearly such of a success yet. At a guess, we’d be perhaps twelve months behind where we are today without them… without you.

I would imagine that some UK escape room enthusiasts and owners may not feel the same way as me, particularly those for whom self-interest must take a much higher priority over a global perspective. I don’t know quite what the impact of the EU is on small business owners, though I have a strong suspicion that much will be blamed on the EU that is not actually the EU’s fault. Nobody can know what the impact of the vote will be, but I find it likely that the sad, horrifying and counter-productive consequences may have a much bigger impact than any good ones that might arise.

To all honest escape room owners: thank you. To all honest escape room owners who came from overseas: thank you especially, and I’m so, so sorry for the way we’ve reacted.

(Comments are off for this article. Maybe some day I’ll be in a mood to discuss the issues, but I’m just hurting at the moment, and will be for a long time to come.)

This weekend, your country needs you

UK Puzzle Association logoThis weekend, the UK Puzzle Association will be holding its annual UK Puzzle Championship. This takes place online, it’s free to enter and it’s open to everyone in the world. You should enter; if you read this blog, I’d bet bitcoins against baht that you like puzzles enough that you’d get a kick out of taking part.

Clear yourself a 2½ hour window at a time of your choosing between noon on Friday 24th June and 2am on Tuesday 28th June. (Both times are quoted as British Summer Time; you can start at any point up to 11:30pm on Monday 27th June, so you have 3½ days.) During that time, you aim to score as many points as possible by solving the 28 puzzles, submitting your answers on a web form as you go.

The puzzles are mostly logic puzzles, but there are some arithmetic puzzles and word puzzles. Go to the contest page and download the instruction booklet which tells you what sorts of puzzles that there are on offer this year. Maybe you can find ways to practice some of them, or puzzles like the ones in the contest, but most are original twists on possibly familiar themes and working out how to solve them is part of the fun. ((Edited to add:)) Someone has put together a list of sources of practice puzzles of many of the types.

There are plenty of online puzzle contests in the calendar. The UK Sudoku Championship took place the weekend before last; congratulations to Heather Goulding on her victory. The second round of HIQORA took place recently; the announcement of the twelve making it to the World Finals included a UK representative at one point (Chris Bryant – surely not the Labour MP for the Rhondda?) but it looks like the real world has intervened and someone else will be taking the spot.

That said, the UK Puzzle Championship has been my favourite (or, rarely, second favourite) contest of the year for several years running. It’s deliberately accessible, instead of seeking to emulate World Championship difficulty, so as many people as possible can enjoy the thrill of proving to themselves that they really can solve puzzles that looked impossible at first. Normally I finish about three or four places from the bottom (which used to be good when there were only half a dozen UK entrants at the start, but these days there are something like two dozen, so it’s rather less good) but even so I have had a great deal of fun along the way – and you can too, no matter how little you rate your own puzzle solving skills.

Why does your country need you? Well, the UK Puzzle Association uses this as a qualifying tournament to select about half of its team for the World Puzzle Championship, which this year will be held in Senec in Slovakia between 16th October and 23rd October. The 2014 event was in Croydon here in the UK; this site covered the event extensively. Opportunities to represent your country in meaningful global competition come rarely; puzzle fans, there are no better ones!

The Crystal Maze live: what a rush!

This is how you do a team photo“What a rush!”, as the wrestlers used to say a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps it was a little more like “Oooohhuurrgghh what a rush”.

The second most frequently asked question I had in the Exit Games UK years racked up all its appearances in a single day: when I organised the industry-wide trip to the live The Crystal Maze attraction in April, I was asked remarkably frequently which team I was playing on and people were surprised that I had sold all 32 spaces and wasn’t playing myself that day. I had long known that I would be playing in a group on Saturday June 18th. It was well worth waiting for; the game left me beaming with joy for a good hour afterwards. No wonder everyone had been buzzing so much on the day in April!

The recent two tickets left post bore fruit; Shasha and Avi completed the team of eight. The operation at the site is labour-intensive, but clearly a very tightly-organised ship. We were the green team, which meant that we entered through the Medieval zone, but also that we made it to the Crystal Dome last and got to see everybody else play the Dome before we did. (The photo above wasn’t my team; it was another team playing at the same time, but one who led to an utterly boss photo.)

I was first up, playing a physical game, and I got to play the one I hoped; no spoilers here, but it’s an authentic game from the (fairly spoiler-heavy) official trailer. I fairly threw myself into it (the top of my shoulders and the back of my neck did rather hurt later, but probably due to lack of sleep rather than due to the maze) and escaped with the crystal, feeling modestly heroic, with an announced twenty seconds remaining. Later on, I successfully solved a maze in an unfamiliar-feeling mental game in the Futuristic zone.

Our team was great fun and did well; nobody got locked in. In total, we played seventeen games and took thirteen crystals to(-o-o-o-o-ooo) The Crystal Dome. Here we earned a score of 390 gold tokens, which tends to point to a different sort of exchange rate to the one found at the industry-wide trip – for instance, our 390 was only good enough for third place and the winning score was not far off 500. (Our crystal total and token score would have beaten all four teams in the next game, so I felt happy enough about it.)

Our maze master was Jezebel, not one of the eight I had seen at the Dome on the industry trip. The different maze masters interpret their role in ways between the authentic O’Brien (or Tudor-Pole) and factual or fictional members of the Village People; while Jezebel is a name with its own cultural baggage that I wouldn’t want to disparage, the way Jezebel played the position had something of the manic pixie dream girl to it, which definitely worked for me. The hosts worked really well, particularly in the set piece at the Dome, to set an appropriate tone; it was clear that the hosts were here to sell success throughout and the level of refereeing was rather more… generous than the famously rigorous show, but the level of competition was not quite toned down but put firmly into the appropriate context with a wink in its eye. It’s a fine line to tread and the hosts manage it well.

Playing seventeen games between the team was slightly fewer than I was hoping for, having first-hand evidence of a team going 15/19 on the industry day (and hearing that there has been a team who brought 18 crystals to the dome from some unknown number of games). In part, it seems very likely to be that we weren’t all that quick at the games. In part, it seems very likely to be that we definitely weren’t all that quick transitioning between the zones. In part, it seems a little likely that Jezebel didn’t completely prioritise trying to fit as many games in as possible… and that may well have be a decision that arose as a result of her reading our team and our body language to see what sort of team we were, not being the team in the biggest rush of them all.

It’s worth noting that the levels of fitness varied heavily through the team, from experienced obstacle race runners to those with joints that didn’t work all that well, bordering on mild mobility issues. In practice, it wasn’t an issue, though a few more ups and downs and it might have started to approach becoming one. On the other hand, the ups and downs were fun (at the time, though they started to add up and tell later on through the day…) and added considerably to the adventure playground feeling aspect of exploring the landscape.

Some non-spoiler-y tips: in the darker zones (and that’ll make sense in context), there are things to look out for outside the cells, to give you something to do other than watching the game and shouting suggestions. Talk to your maze master and see if you can get some hints. Another tip is that with time being so critical, if you’re in a game with an automatic lock-in on a third failure, that’s a borderline invitation to make two failures just to save time. A risky tactic but one which may save tens of seconds.

The whole experience felt convincingly thematic, barely stopped moving and was an absolute thrill. Some of the games were less brilliant than others; the ones that were of the form that we would consider similar to what we know as an escape room now and were not the most wonderful examples of the genre. If part of the attraction is being surprised by something you’ve never seen before and having to work it out on the spot, as well as to execute it within the time limit, then if you’ve seen a lot of episodes of the show recently, you might not quite get everything you want here. On the other hand, Challenge have been giving lighter emphasis to the show on their schedules recently, so it might not be so much of a problem.

For another view on the whole enterprise, I’d recommend the review at Bother’s Bar – there’s nothing there to disagree with, even if the whole experience adds up to something moderately closely approaching practicable perfection for me and marginally less so there. The Dome is the best sort of mayhem, full of completely benign sensory overload, to the point where I wouldn’t recommend it to the overly sensitive or easily overwhelmed. I’m glad to note that more and more theatre shows are occasionally staging deliberately calm performances of plays from time to time for the neurodiverse; a deliberately calm performance here would appear to be a contradiction in terms. (On the other hand, I would be delighted to hear from a knowledgeable expert who knew better.)

Does the experience offer good value? This is going to be an intensely personal decision; the experience is so unique and benefits so much from authenticity (noting the points at Bother’s Bar that it cannot be completely authentic and so does not even try to be a replica) that you may find the premium worthwhile. Would you get more from playing two really good, high-end escape games, some time apart? If you’re not bitten by the nostalgia, quite possibly so. The prices offered at the Kickstarter (£1,000 for 32 players; £300 for 8 players) definitely seem entirely justified in context, simply because there is so much really cool stuff to play with; the prices available now are a step higher still. In terms of smile duration and happy memory per unit cost, this certainly does well. It was an utter adrenalin rush and joy rush, as well as a non-stop frantic dash.

It’s tempting to play a game where you can imagine what the rent and rates bills for the Maze might be (for commercial properties’ rental prices can often be found online, at least until soon after the property goes off the market – though there’s no guarantee that the listed rental price is actually the price at which the deal was struck), try to look for counterpart commercial property in – say – Manchester, estimate the number of players over the course of a year, try to amortise the lower bills over the number of players and then conclude that the whole enterprise could be done for x pounds per head fewer in Manchester than in London. The economics probably bear much closer comparison to that of a high-end theatre show, though; not many shows will play in both London and Manchester at once, and the concept of travelling to London to see a show is so well-established that this should be considered more as an attraction than an activity.

It’s very tempting to wonder how much more there is that we didn’t get to see. Certainly there seemed to be more cells that we didn’t get to explore than I was expecting, the trailer video points at unfamiliar-looking games, and I wasn’t quite cheeky enough to start looking behind random windows to see if there really were lots of other games that were good to go at no notice, or if there’s some magic going on. (Surely maze masters and black-clad game resetters would not approve, but there’s definite scope for stealth.) If you played a second time, would you get to play different games? How does the experience compare for teams who start in different zones; what exactly happens to the team who get to the Dome first?

Lots of open questions to enjoy thinking about, and it would be great fun to know a little more about how things work behind the scenes. It’s highly intriguing to ponder how the maze will change over time; it’s noticeable there have been changes already – teams went around the Maze wearing the bomber jackets in late April, but were advised to wear a single light layer only when playing in June and only wore the bomber jackets for the photos. Looking at the tickets site, there’s an extended break over Christmas and the New Year, and perhaps the contents of the maze might be refreshed at that point. I’m definitely very idly thinking about a second trip at some point, but – of course – it’s booked out so far ahead that that might be a problem.

Or might it not be so much of a problem? Looking at that tickets site, you may spot a gap on June 30th when no tickets are apparently being sold. A little detective work suggests that that is not the case.

Gay Times suggests that The Crystal Maze is due to be taken over on June 30th. “The Crystal Maze Pride Takeover will commence on 30 June, and will see a host of characters from London’s cabaret scene guiding guests through the recently revitalised maze. HIV-awareness charity Terrence Higgins Trust will collaborate with the venue ((…)) Drag superstar Jonny Woo will host the event alongside The Family Fierce, a collective of quirky queer cabaret stars who will act as ‘maze masters’ during the event.” Richard O’Brien would surely approve wholeheartedly – if you look at O’Brien’s work, it’s hard to imagine he would choose it to happen any other way. It wouldn’t be a surprise for this even to be a personal O’Brien initiative.

There are tickets going for this unusually special day at The Crystal Maze, so perhaps you might only be waiting until the Thursday after next to play, rather than months and months. Tickets for this one day are the special price of £69, plus 5% booking fee. I imagine that it will be one of the best days of some people’s lives!

Summer 2016: where are the gaps in the UK market?

Regions of the UK

From the National Archives; contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

In case anyone’s in any doubt, I’m absolutely thrilled with the job that Ken is doing with Exit Games UK since I handed it over to him. He’s definitely doing a better job of it than I could right now and may very well do a better job of it than I could do at my best. Certainly some of the changes he’s made to the administration of it are very smart, far better than I knew how to do. I’m thrilled that he’s brought the map up to date and also done a wonderful job revamping and improving the list of games, after a point at which I waved the white flag. His articles have also been top-notch, too. All that and it’s not even his first site!

I’m particularly glad that he’s brought the list of games up to date because it means I can catch up with this post. Every six-ish-ish months or so, this site looks at a snapshot of the UK market for exit games and analyses where the gaps are at that time. (See the older versions from September 2015, March 2015, September 2014 and March 2014.)

It’s possible that some of the first exit game room proprietors might have started business in the closest big city to where they happened to already live. However, if you had a choice as to where to set up business, where are the most obvious gaps in the market? Alternatively, where might people expect to see exit rooms coming soon? In mid-2016, now that some of the most successful operations have started two or more locations in different towns, where remains up for grabs?

The Brookings Institution analysed 300 of the largest metropolitan economies in late 2012 and identified 15 of them as being in the UK. Because it’s the same list I’ve been using previously, here are the 15 largest metropolitan economies in the UK, alongside the number of exit rooms featured in each one. If there’s a large metropolitan economy without an exit room, there’s arguably a gap in the market there. You can find details of which sites are in which locations on the Exit Game details page.

Metropolitan economy Sites operating Also consider
1. London ~27 2 under construction, Gravesend (1) is close
2. Birmingham 3 Nuneaton (1) is close
3. Manchester 6 Macclesfield (1), Warrington (2), Stockport (1), Atherton (1) all close
4. Leeds-Bradford 3 1 under construction
5. Liverpool 5 Warrington (1) is close
6. Glasgow 6 1 under construction
7. Nottingham-Derby 4 1 under construction, Mansfield (1) is close
8. Portsmouth-Southampton 2 Bournemouth (1) and Salisbury (1) are close
9. Bristol 4 Bath (1) is close
10. Newcastle 4 Sunderland (1) is close
11. Sheffield 3  
12. Cardiff-Newport 4 1 under construction
13. Edinburgh 7 Livingston (1) is close
14. Leicester 1 2 under construction
15. Brighton 2 1 under construction

For comparison, the Dublin metro area with 3 sites open would come just below number three in the above list.

So where are the gaps in the market? Er, there aren’t really any, any more. Too late! OK, that’s unduly flippant. I’ve linked to this before, even recently, but I really like Puzzle Break‘s Nate Martin’s take on competition between escape rooms.

Let’s use a different list, along the same lines: list of UK cities by their Gross Value Added. A more recently updated version of the data is available from the ONS, but that breaks it down almost too much. That list on Wikipedia does display some editorial judgment by amalgamating some sections together, but does so in what I consider to be a helpful fashion. Don’t read too much into the ordering as there’s a great deal of “well, it depends on what you count” – how great (for instance) Greater Manchester might be, and so on. Is it wrong to count Leeds and Bradford as distinct? How about Coventry and Nuneaton? How about Newcastle and Whitley Bay? How about Manchester, Altrincham and Bury? …and so on.

Metropolitan economy Sites operating Also consider
1. London ~27 2 under construction, Gravesend (1) is close
2. Manchester 6 Macclesfield (1), Warrington (2), Stockport (1), Atherton (1) all close
3. Birmingham 3 Nuneaton (1) is close
4. Leeds 3 1 under construction
5. Glasgow 6 1 under construction
6. Edinburgh 7 Livingston (1) is close
7. Tyneside 4 Sunderland (1) is close
8. Bristol 4 Bath (1) is close
9. Sheffield 3  
10. Cardiff 4 1 under construction
11. Liverpool 5 Warrington (1) is close
12. Belfast 2 1 under construction
13. Bradford 0 Leeds (2) and Huddersfield (1) are nearby
14. Nottingham 3 1 under construction, Mansfield (1) is close
15. Derby 1  
16. Leicester 1 2 under construction
17. Coventry 0 Nuneaton (1) is close
18. Wakefield 0 Leeds (2) and Huddersfield (1) are nearby
19. Brighton 2 1 under construction
20. Southampton 0 Portsmouth (2) is close
21. Portsmouth 2 Bournemouth (1) and Salisbury (1) are close
22. Plymouth 1  
23. Peterborough 1 1 under construction
24. Wolverhampton 0 Birmingham (3) is close
25. Hull 0 1 under construction
26. York 2  
27. Stoke 1  
28. Swansea 2  

Very roughly, this points to West Yorkshire and the West Midlands being underserved. Bradford is definitely a pretty plausible-seeming place, Wakefield somehow less so. Coventry and Wolverhampton have potential and Birmingham still has room to grow. Southampton and Hull look very plausible. The Home Counties still also look promising: moderately-sized mid-distance commuter towns like Reading, Watford, Luton, Dartford, where getting into London (or up to Oxford or Milton Keynes, or down to the Guildford area) may still be annoyingly far. This site remains positive about seaside resorts: Margate, Whitby (or Scarborough), Great Yarmouth and so on.

I would say that I was much more cautious about the market than I was last year, but the number of sites continuing to open just goes to show how little I really know!

2 The Crystal Dome

A pentakis dodecahedronVery quickly:

This Saturday afternoon, my better half and I will be going to the The Crystal Maze attraction in London with a team of four lovely people, three of whom you might know from past puzzle hunts. As the game is designed to be played by teams of eight, this leaves two places on the team spare and the tickets are available at cost price.

The Crystal Maze is essentially booked out for months and months, barring stray cancellation places. For instance, there’s a rare space for five at 3pm tomorrow as I type, then nothing until three individual spaces dotted around August. Accordingly, this is a pretty unusual opportunity, and the company should be rather good as well.

Are you interested? If so, please get in touch ASAP. The places might have gone by the time you do!

P.S. Too late!