That’s all, Folks

No posts for a month and a half? It’s become obvious to me that despite the fact there’s plenty to talk about, I’ve rather lost interest in saying it in this blog in its present form.

  • The UK team at the World Puzzle Championships considerably exceeded expectations, finishing a national record fifth and taking some impressive scalps along the way. Many congratulations!
  • The UK’s own Escape Room Industry Conference was a tremendous success, though I wasn’t there. However, I did meet David from Room Escape Artist when he was making a flying visit and he was very sweet; if he lived over here, he would absolutely fit in and it would be a joy to see him more frequently. That said, this is not unusual at all; I’m struggling to think of anyone I know in the UK escape game community (including those who have come to visit from abroad!) who isn’t very near the top of my list of favourite people.
  • In July I mentioned the then-upcoming Hunt for Justice; it did happen and brought great joy as well as raising a hefty four-digit sum for The Innocence Project. A good excuse for not blogging about it in more detail is that there is discussion of rerunning it, at least in person in some communities, but do see Larry Hosken’s spoiler-free piece from behind the scenes.
  • In other puzzle hunt news, I’m on a team making extremely gentle progress through Puzzle Island 4, and the puzzles there are a great deal of fun. Quite wordplay-heavy and a fair bit of US pop culture, but recommended nevertheless. Pretty sure you can still buy access, though if you care about finishing first, some of the fastest teams cracked it within a long weekend.
  • There’s also an online puzzle hunt running through December and January connected to the Solver independent movie, with a number of star constructors.
  • Pablo’s Armchair Treasure Hunt starts in December for its thirty-something’th iteration and I’m sure it’ll remain as worthy as ever of the deepest of attention; other events may be more accessible, but are also much more shallow by design, and it’s a joyous development as ever that the world of puzzles is able to reward you however near or far you choose to dive in at any particular moment.
  • There are a couple of interesting-looking Kickstarter puzzle projects on the go at the moment, which have even funded despite their high ambition, but I’m not sufficiently convinced about the ability of the unknown people behind them to fulfil their high promises to link to them.

Adding it all up, there are a lot of exciting and relevant ventures happening at the moment, maybe more than ever. That said, I don’t really feel like writing about them here, and I haven’t felt like writing about them for some time, and it’s becoming ever clearer that this blog (silly name and all!) isn’t working for me any more. The escape game industry is flourishing ever more dramatically still; its appeal for me waned considerably when it became clear that it’s more and more a marketing business these days, but it’s clear that the world at large is becoming sufficiently familiar with the escape game industry premise that there must surely yet be more of the interesting, weird, brave offshoots to come. There are a couple of dozen different little puzzle-ish hobbies out there in the UK which aren’t really interacting with each other and that number can surely only grow.

I’m building up something of a track record of starting blogs and then shutting them down, or handing them over to someone who’ll do a better job, within a year or two; more evidence that running my own blog isn’t right for me after all – at least, at the moment. There are still things to say which other people aren’t really saying, so perhaps I’ll see you around.

It’s World Puzzle Championship week

This year’s World Sudoku and Puzzle Championships are taking place in Bangalore in India. There can’t be as much coverage of this year’s event on Ex Exit Games as there has been of previous years’ events, but it shouldn’t go unmentioned altogether.

The World Sudoku Championship has finished. UK team member Tom Collyer writes: “the competition is over now, and congratulations go to Kota Morinishi who took a 3rd world title by the equivalent of a small fraction of one puzzle amongst 100s to edge out the previous champion Tiit Vunk. The team title was taken by the youthful and equally charming Chinese team. UK finished 6th overall, which I believe is an equal best showing. Individual results have David at 17th, myself at 30th, Mark at 32nd and Heather at 41st – which I think also represents our strongest showing for a while. Thanks to the Indian organisers for putting out a varied and high quality set of puzzles!

The World Puzzle Championship starts tomorrow. The UK A team is strong: Adam Bissett, James McGowan, David McNeill and Neil Zussman; James and Adam won their places at the online UK Puzzle Championship and Neil and David won their places at the in-person UK Open Puzzle Championship. (Tom Collyer, who wrote the above piece, finished third in both.) If people are in form, and the signs from both A and B teams in the sudoku event are highly promising, then perhaps an equal best showing in the puzzle championship might be within reach, which would be a highly impressive achievement. Every year I tip Japan for the team world championship and Germany win, but looking at the line-ups, I’m going to tip Japan again.

You can take a look at the instruction booklet for the World Puzzle Championship to see what sorts of puzzles they’ll face. I get the impression that the duration of the puzzles is high this year, even by World Championship standards, and the location of India has brought some teams to participate this year who appear less frequently. I think New Zealand are first-timers, Korea are sending a great number of teams, and while this may say more about my memory than anything else, I don’t recall seeing Bangladesh, Iran or the Phillipines represented (at least, in the World Sudoku Championship) in the past. Welcome!

October links

A golden chain of linksA few news stories that have been doing the rounds recently, courtesy of – in no order – Ken from The Logic Escapes Me, Dean from Escape Review and the denizens of (mostly the #uk-general channel of) the escape room Slack chat:

  • An interview with Tom Lionetti-Maguire of Little Lion Entertainment, the people behind both The Crystal Maze Live Experience venues. One crucial quote: “We will potentially be opening more Crystal Maze live venues. And we’ve got lots of new, exciting projects with Little Lion Entertainment, not just in the UK but hopefully abroad too. It’s a really exciting time for us. Hopefully we can announce some stuff early next year.
  • I really enjoyed this piece from Nowescape about ten reasonably closely-linked alternatives to escape rooms. Less closely linked, I would add Branson Tracks of Montana who permit go-karting on a track with hefty rises and falls, as a step towards a Mario Kart vibe, or at least 1988’s Power Drift.
  • There have been a couple of attempts to run events which would seem to have quite a bit in common with running-from-location-to-location puzzle hunts, sold as corporate challenges, but unfortunately neither seem to have stuck. (I don’t know why.) At least the Breakout Bristol web site is still up; the mooted We Are Not Alone event in Leeds seems to have had its tracks covered, with the only evidence for it remaining is this post on the UK Escape Room Enthusiasts Facebook group. There’s a spectrum between purely athletic, non-mental running races and purely mental, non-athletic puzzle hunts, with steps along the way including orienteering and the Intelligent Sport adventure races with incidental puzzles. These looked extremely relevant and interesting. Fingers crossed that someone can make them stick in the UK at some point down the line.
  • CluedUpp run dectective “Manhunt” games in towns across the UK, which feature city centre walking tours combined with operation of a custom Android (only, at this point) app. “On the day you’ll be competing with up to 100 other teams to track down virtual witnesses, eliminate suspects and rule-out murder weapons all across town. It’s like Cluedo meets Pokemon Go, but will your team work out whodunit?​
  • A company from East Kilbride called have a noisy web site detailing their espoinage-themed puzzle-solving games, which are apparently available to play from participating restaurants and hotels. Trouble is, it’s not clear where these might be. If you know, do comment below.
  • Professor Scott Nicholson recently appeared on episode 159 of the Ludology podcast. “Gil and Geoff are pleased to welcome Professor Scott Nicholson from Wilfrid Laurier University to discuss Escape Rooms. What are they, how do they work, and what lessons do they hold for game design?” Scott discussed Wizard Quest of Wisconsin Dells in passing, which is a long-term background interest. He is also rather more explicit in his views than most about the potential for mainstream leisure-focused escape rooms being on a bubble of popularity. I’m not sure I’d go along with that, but I have privately called the top of the UK market already several times and been wrong each time.
  • A date for the DASH 10 puzzle hunt has been announced: Saturday, September 22, 2018. The first DASH took place in September 2009 but DASHes 2-9 were all Spring events. No indication when DASH 11 might be; many thanks, as ever, to everyone who works on the project to bring the game to the people.
  • Lastly, congratulations to Tom Collyer who won the Times Sudoku Championship last month and wrote up his experience for his blog.

Coming up on Friday: RED DOT hunt, an online puzzle hunt from Singapore

RED DOT hunt logoIt’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve somewhat lost my blogging voice, so let’s ease back into things with something simple and exciting.

The RED DOT hunt is an online puzzle hunt that starts at 3pm UK time on Friday 29th September and neatly wraps up 48 hours later. The hunt is open to teams of one to four people, located anywhere in the world. “A mysterious talent contest has shown up in town. Auditions will begin in less than a month’s time and sign-ups have already begun. Do you have what it takes to win the contest?

There will be two rounds of puzzles, each with its own metapuzzle. The first round has twelve puzzles plus its meta; if you solve the round one meta, or wait until the last 12 hours of the hunt, you’ll get access to the smaller second round. There’s no hint request system, but hints will be released automatically along the way. Solving the second metapuzzle reveals access to a final puzzle; “Once solved, the final puzzle will direct teams to a physical location in Singapore. The first team to complete the task at this location (represented by any number of actual team members) will win a ~mystery prize~.” You can have plenty of puzzle-solving fun without having any members present on the island.

The FAQ page reveals a little more, notably that “We’ve aimed to make this a pretty chill and beginner-friendly hunt. Experienced teams are warned that they might end up breezing through it — though we hope all teams will have fun, regardless of how long they spend solving! Solo solvers should also find the hunt manageable.” That is a delight to read! The FAQ page also explains a (very) little more about who the organisers are and their puzzling background.

Excited? I am! If this sounds like it might be your cup of tea, especially with the self-professed “beginner-friendly” tag, you can take a look at the house style by taking on four warm-up puzzles, three of which have answers. The date for the next DASH has been announced and it’s almost a full year away – but, while you wait for DASH, get your fill of RED DOT!

Looking forward to the 2017 Mind Sports Olympiad, including a Sudoku and Kenken contest

Mind Sports Olympiad medalsOK, I do a post like this one every year, but it’s better than there not being an event to post about. (This year, I’ll even remember to put the tags back in.) If it’s the week before the August Bank Holiday, it’s time for the annual Mind Sports Olympiad. This will be the twenty-first installment of the annual mental-games-and-skills-themed multi-sports festival. This year’s event started on Sunday 21th August and will be running until Monday 28th August and is held at JW3, the London Jewish cultural centre. (Accordingly, there is no play on the evening of Friday 25th or at all on Saturday 26th, being the Sabbath.) This is the first time that the traditionally vagabond festival has stayed in the same location for four years running.

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.

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 27th 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 has won the contest for the last two years 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 Mark’s write-up to get a better feel of what it’s like in practice.

Changing the subject a little, but only a little, I touched upon the Mind Sports Olympiad and the topic of getting puzzle events at wider mind sports festivals a few months back in a “How would we get puzzles at the Olympic Games?” post, touching upon hypothetical possible membership of the World Puzzle Federation within the International Mind Sports Association. With this in mind, I note that the IMSA recently put a new set of statues in place. Section 7.2 has a clear checklist of criteria to meet:

  • History – the IF shall be fully operating for a minimum of six years;
  • Universality – the IF must have at least 40 national federations on at least 4 continents and be not dependent on any specific language;
  • Practicing skilled competitions only – there may be no luck factor in determining the competition outcome;
  • Regularly held national, regional, and international competitions;
  • Well-established rules governing the practice of each sport and mechanism to ensure the application of the rules;
  • Clear and consistent criteria of the eligibility for competitions;
  • Compliance with the General Principle of the Olympic Charter and with the IOC Code of Ethics;
  • Compliance with the World Anti-Doping Agency anti-doping code;
  • Adoption of the principle of the arbitration of the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS).

There’s also a section 10 about potential “Associate Member” status, and I reckon that the WPF could take Associate Membership up almost straight away if it wanted to, not being too far from ticking all the boxes above. It’s fun to think about other mind sports which might or might not choose to apply; Scrabble is arguably the most obvious omission from the IMSA, possibly requiring some duplicate format to get around the “no luck factor” stipulation, but the “universality” criterion could be argued to have been directly aimed at the World English Language Scrabble® Players Association and its counterparts.

Section 10.4 of the IMSA statues reads An associate member shall contribute to the IMSA finance by payment of its annual dues and other charges as deemed necessary by the Executive Committee, and that perhaps might be the most convincing reason for the WPF not to join…!

This weekend is Indian Grand Prix weekend

World Puzzle Federation Grands Prix 2017 logoThis weekend sees the final round of the World Puzzle Federation’s Puzzle Grand Prix, with puzzles written by an author for India. This year’s Grand Prix series has been a little troubled, with one round postponed and another round replaced by an unofficial contest at late notice, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the contests to date.

The Grand Prix series is a collection of eight free-to-play online puzzle contests, each set by representatives of a different country. Each round is available for 3½ days, from 10am GMT on Friday to 10pm GMT on Monday. (This is likely to translate to one hour earlier in local time, for so many of us have sprung forward but not fallen back.) During that 84-hour window, you can press the “start the timer” button at a point of your choice; you then have an hour to score as many points as you can by submitting answers to the puzzles from that round.

There are three parallel one-hour contests that take place in the same weekend each round, referred to as classes A, B and C. Puzzles in the “Class A” and “Class B” contests are culture-free language-neutral logic puzzles, of which the Class B puzzles may be slightly less exotic; puzzles in the “Class C” contest are “understandable and solvable to a general audience” but are not necessarily language-neutral or culture-free; they might require a little external knowledge, or they might require “you either know it or you don’t” instinct rather than deduction.

The precise types of puzzles in each of the three contests for a round are announced a couple of days before it starts, and the instruction booklets with the details have already been published. Take a look at all three booklets – maybe start with the Class C booklet first – and then solve the set, or sets, of puzzles that look the most fun. If you look at the Class C booklet, you’ll see that there are an unusually high proportion of relatively low-scoring puzzles; these can be picked up as quickly as you might hope, though they’re not trivial. Something for everyone this time round!

Coming to a conclusion on Kickstarter: Escape This Book!

"Escape This Book" campaign logo

In the recent post about puzzly videos and podcasts, xr kindly pointed in the comments to FLEB’s YouTube channel with sumptuously and skillfully made videos about puzzles. Most of them show puzzles being solved, and most of the puzzles being solved are wonderfully elaborate physical puzzles, featuring some of the most famous physical puzzles from the recent history of puzzle hunts along the way. Other videos touch on puzzle design and puzzle history.

As well as a highly accomplished solver, FLEB is also a designer of some note, and the currently highest-profile project in the news at the moment is Escape The Book!, a physical and/or digital book full of puzzles he has created and whimsical illustrations by Simona Karaivanova. “Escape the Book! is a physical hardcover puzzle book with elaborate puzzles, beautiful illustrations, and an engaging story. The book centers on the adventures of five children who find themselves trapped inside five fantastic books. Each of these stories (or sub-books) is a miniature puzzle hunt, and the answers to their puzzles combine to form a challenging meta-puzzle. Solving each section advances the story and allows one of the children to escape.

So you know what you’re getting into, the campaign links to a draft of one of those sections, and the child in question’s trap sees them becoming “Alice in Puzzleland”. The .pdf form of the book requires a donation of US$15, the printed copy a donation of US$25, and you can get the pair for US$30 (or signed for US$35). However, being a Kickstarter campaign, this will only happen if the campaign funds in its entirety.

At time of typing, there are 21 hours to go in the campaign, and the campaign is just over 70% funded, with just over $7,000 left to be raised of the $25,000 goal. It’s known that nearly-funded Kickstarter campaigns often see an uptick in activity in their closing hours, relying on one more renewed push of activity and promotion, but the success of this one is particularly finely balanced, right on the knuckle; the Sidekick analysis tool suggests that the project has a 47% chance of funding completely in time.

Are you the one who might push it over the edge and into reality?

Business Update

UK and Irish escape room count over the past five years
produced by Ken Ferguson of Exit Games UK

The graph above reflects part of the state of the escape room industry. We are lucky to have Ken Ferguson keeping record so meticulously, and the graph comes from a recent statistical update he wrote; he is the Google to my Yahoo!, which is why my coverage has pivoted away from escape rooms to such a large extent. The trampoline park industry appears to have grown in the UK at a comparable rate to that of the escape game industry, probably even a quicker rate still, according to very limited data quoted within this Guardian article; it would really be useful to see more granular data on the trampoline parks for a fuller comparison. (Certainly the escape game industry has done relatively well at keeping itself out of trouble in terms of adverse news stories, which the trampoline park industry hasn’t.)

Nevertheless, past performance is no guarantee of future results, as the stock market disclaimer goes. Within the last month or two, I’ve seen two very respectable, puzzly people say “Are escape rooms still a thing?” and “I kinda feel like I’m over escape rooms now? Am I just getting old?”; no names, no pack drill, no trace on Google. On the other hand, someone else made unprompted negative comments about the ubiquity of the escape room genre in public as far back as GameCamp 2016, now almost 15 months ago. As I said at the time, “one of the ways you know your genre has made it is when there’s a backlash against it“. If you’re serious about starting your own room, don’t let me put you off; keep doing your research, and you might well get a lot from this seminar on the topic – though a lot of the legal specifics are from the US rather than from the UK.

I firmly believe that (a) escape room games have an awful lot to offer that other genres don’t, (b) we’re still only really scratching at the surface of what the wider escape room game industry has to offer and (c) I don’t think you’d find many people willing to argue that the overall quality of new games hasn’t gone up over time. I also firmly believe that the wider escape room game industry doesn’t have a right to exist and keep growing, and will need to keep innovating and reinventing itself over time, sometimes in large ways and sometimes in small ones, in order to remain in good health. So far, so very very good; I’ve privately called the top of the market in the UK at least three or four times – and so far, quite happily, I’ve been wrong each time. Ken reports that the number of closures so far this year has been remarkably low; it may be harder to track closures than openings, for things can just fade away, but this is another indication still of good health.

Ever since Escape Hunt was bought and floated on the Alternative Investment Market, because they have become a public limited company, much more of their business has to be conducted in public. The shares are neatly up from the price at which they were placed, which is excellent news; the price doesn’t seem to move too much and the market for them might not be all that liquid. The company’s web site’s investors section will be worth following over time. The statement at the recent AGM is interesting – “The key metric by which we judge our franchisee business is the share of revenue which we receive from our franchisees” – and the annual accounts will always be of interest. You can always follow the details of any UK company that’s a plc or a ltd. at Companies House, whether it’s an escape game company or not; for instance, Escape Hunt plc, Tick Tock Unlock Ltd., Clue HQ Ltd. and so on, and so on. (Many small escape game companies are operated by sole traders and thus cannot be found in this way.)

Lastly, purely for completeness, if you can buy shares in any publicly traded company and build up a long position in it in the hope that the price will rise, you can quite probably find a broker who will help you build up a short position in the hope that the price will fall as well. If you are sophisticated enough to know what you’re doing and were of a mind to do so, neither of which is true in my case, the likes of SpreadEx might be able to set you up with just such a contract…

Watch and listen

Videos and podcastsA video, a channel of videos, and (saving the best for last!) a series of podcasts.

You probably know the story of Masquerade, the 1979 picture puzzle book that spawned the armchair treasure hunt genre. It’s fully discussed at Dan Amrich‘s site, and there was a BBC radio documentary about it a few years back. (Cough.) It is known that the person who won the hare did so by dubious means, and that they later on (co-)founded a company of their own to start a second competition with the same prize, distributing the cryptic clues through an unsuccessful pair of computer games rather than through a book. Dan Amrich’s site discusses the computer games briefly, but Stuart Ashen, who shoots fish in barrels through discussion of old computer games, has a charming video of a presentation he gave making the case that Hareraiser may have been the worst game ever. Well worth a view.

If you like watching people discussing puzzles and their solutions, you’ll very likely enjoy the The Aha Moment” channel on YouTube. It takes real-world puzzles (five so far, of which four came from a reasonably recent month of Puzzled Pint) and explains how they’re solved, or reasonable approaches you might take along the route to solving them. These videos fill a niche for people who think that “they couldn’t ever solve these sorts of puzzles” as they do so much more than just going down the single line that happens to work in any particular instances, and they’re lovingly made. Part of me looks forward, in time, to the same sort of approach being applied to incredibly difficult (e.g. some of the tougher MIT Mystery Hunt) puzzles, and the lines that people might go down before they find what happens to work.

Lastly, “Escape This Podcast” is something new under the sun. It’s a podcast series in which puzzlemaster Dani has designed a number of fictional escape rooms and invited her friends to play through them in the style of, roughly, a freeform tabletop role-playing game, where the real-life players describe how they would interact with the items in the room in order to solve the puzzles. More generously still, Dani publishes extensive notes for each game, so that someone who reads the notes can act as referee and run the game for other players in turn, which is hugely cool and a delightful addition to the world of escape room games at home, at a cost of zero. (I’m aware of people having used these notes to re-run the games, and it does work in practice as well as in theory.)

The podcast is skilfully made; Dani has a really good attitude and wants the players to see all the hard work she has put in. There have been five episodes to date, and I’ve listened to the first three; the players in each so far have not sprinted through trying to set an unbreakable time, so it may well be that you – as first-time listener – can solve the room more quickly than the players do on the podcast, which is always fun. Highly recommended; fingers firmly crossed that Dani keeps enjoying sharing the products of her fertile imagination with us!

Register soon for The Hunt for Justice!

Hunt for Justice logoPuzzle hunts come and go. This year, new additions include the Cambridge Puzzle Hunt and Galactic Puzzleball, though the MUMS hunt has had a year off. I long enjoyed reading about the epic weekend-long van-based hunts in the United States, and it doesn’t seem like the people who have made them over the years feel the same need to create them any more. However, the desire to create puzzle events is still there; it’s just that the focus these days seems to be to place them on the Internet where the whole world can play, not just people who happen to be in the right place at the right time. Sounds like a very practical step to me!

The Hunt for Justice is an upcoming online puzzle hunt that will take part on Saturday 21st October. The hunt will nominally take place between 1pm and 9pm Eastern, which works out at 6pm UK time Saturday 21st to 2am UK time Sunday 22nd time. (Both countries will still be celebrating daylight savings time, though not for long afterwards.) In truth, the puzzles will be available afterwards, but live support and puzzle answer nudges will be available during those hours. Experienced teams may well be able to complete the hunt in five hours or so.

The most distinguishing feature of the hunt is that teams participate online from the location of their choice, but they will be sent a box of props and physical artifacts in advance of the hunt starting which may be used during some of the puzzles. Accordingly, there is a charge to take part, which covers the cost of producing and sending out the box of props, but also covers a donation to the Innocence Project charity. The charge is US$80 for teams in the US and US$90 for teams requiring international postage. Team size is unlimited, but teams of 2-4 are recommended. Theoretically you could have a team spread over more than one location, by registering two smaller teams who each receive their own box of props and have these smaller teams work together.

The line-up of people responsible for putting the hunt together is impressive. They have extensive organising and writing credits for Puzzled Pint and local in-person hunts as well. The team compare their hunt to DASH in terms of style and difficulty – or, more precisely, a relatively tricky year’s DASH, for there has been plenty of volatility from year to year. You’ll get nine puzzles and a metapuzzle for your money.

I’m really excited about The Hunt for Justice in a way that I haven’t been for the other hunts because it has been designed to take place in a single long session – a good night’s entertainment for a team – rather than being something that hangs over a period of several days and invites you to spend an indefinite period of time over the course of a week or so. That sort of format will suit some teams better; I’m particularly attracted to this format. Registration closes August 1st, so you have only just over a week to register. Less than three months to wait!