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!

How tough was this year’s UK Puzzle Championship?

UK Puzzle Association logoNotably tougher than usual for strong contenders – indeed, arguably the toughest yet – but only about as tough as usual for the rest of us.

It’s tempting to say “There, done” and move on, but the conclusion is an unusual one and worth explaining. As ever, the most important thing is a rousing round of thanks to everyone at the UK Puzzle Association (hereafter UKPA) for putting the championship together year after year, from the puzzle authors (from around the world!) to the test compilers to the system administrators.

How would you compare the difficulty of one year’s championship to that of previous ones? The analysis I’ve performed in the past compares what sorts of scores people are getting year on year, expressing the scores as rebased percentages, with a score of 100% representing all the puzzles being solved within the time limit. (If you do solve all the puzzles correctly within the time limit then you earn bonus points depending on how much time you have left, which rebases your score to one of over 100%.)

UK Puzzle Championship difficulty graph

Click on the image for a bigger version of the graph

The small version of the graph isn’t the clearest, but the large version is much more so. This year’s data is represented as a purple line. The purple is unfortunately fairly close in colour to the 2015 brown line, but each year uses a different shape of data marker, and the 2017 data’s marker looks more like a cross than any before it. The other way to recognise the purple line is that it’s almost always at the bottom of the graph.

I’m not too worried by this conclusion, as there’s a clear reason why it’s not comparing like with like. Previous UK Puzzle Championships have allowed participants 2½ hours to complete the paper, whereas this year’s championship only permitted participants two hours. While it would seem reasonable to assume that people will have sufficient clue about where their strengths and weaknesses lie to imagine that they would be broadly unlikely to be able to score as many points in the fifth half-hour as in the half-hours before it, I get the impression that had everyone been allowed 25% extra time, scores would have been higher across the board. Maybe not commensurately higher, but probably not far off. This would have put the line in or near the pack, rather than being a low outlier. So I asked why this year’s event was shorter, and the answer is reasonable.

There’s no particular reason why the UK Puzzle Championship has to be any particular length, and my gut feeling is that it had previously settled on a 2½ hour duration because the US Puzzle Championship that has run for almost 20 years has traditionally been 2½ hours long. (The very early days may have been longer still – but the very early days were conducted by fax, rather than online.) The longer the test, arguably the closer it comes to replicating the several hours per day of puzzles at the World Championship, and arguably the more accurate a job it does at declaring a champion; the longer the test, the more work there is involved in its creation and operation, and the more off-putting it may be to more marginal participants.

It is to be noted and celebrated that there were a record 29 UK participants on the scoreboard this year, with the previous best being 25 in two separate years. It’s also worth noting that there weren’t any UK participants who started the test and then failed to submit a single correct answer; if there’s something to moderate the joy at the UK record of 29, it’s that last year had 25 on the scoreboard plus another five zeroes. Are people who don’t answer even a single puzzle correctly of use or interest to the UK Puzzle Association? Probably not in terms of trying to pick a representative team for a world championship, perhaps more so in terms of creating a contest where people enjoy themselves, no matter how marginal the participant, and then come back year after year and tell their friends about it.

UK Puzzle Championship repeat participation graph

Click on the image for a bigger version of the graph

Again the thumbnail says little, but the larger version paints a picture. For each of the previous six years, the data from the above chart is replicated but the data points are either pluses or crosses. (There are no lines. I can’t work out how to make the lines do what I want them to, and I can’t work out how I did it last year.) A plus represents a player who came back in at least one successive year; a cross represents a player who has not yet made another appearance.

Accordingly, this year’s data is not yet included as we won’t know until 2018, or later, who will return from 2017. There are sporadic crosses towards the top from time to time, but the vast majority of crosses are towards the bottom of the chart. The other way to look at it is that the UKPA does very well at retaining the middle of the pack from year to year!

My views are largely the same as last year. I think increasing the number of participants has to be a major goal for the UK Puzzle Association, perhaps close to the most major goal. Noting that, happily, newspapers are more frequently starting to publish a more interesting variety of logic puzzles, I’d be inclined to make sure that there is reasonably heavy representation of deliberately very accessible puzzles every year, both accessible in terms of style and familiarity as well as difficulty. This is part of the reason why I so heavily promote the WPF Grand Prix’s “Paper C” puzzles.

Nevertheless, the UKPC remains my favourite online puzzle contest of the year. Thanks again to everyone for keeping it that way!

UK Puzzle Championship 2017: the stats

Latest UK Puzzle Association logoThe UK Puzzle Association have published the results to their recent UK Puzzle Championship. Did you take part? Were you happy with your result? If so, congratulations!

James McGowan won to pick up his fifth UK championship, so he gets the biggest congratulations of the lot! Adam Bissett earned second place, only the fourth person ever to make it to the top two in the seven years of the contest, and Tom Collyer finished third for the fourth year in a row, missing out on second place by one point. These best British performances were well up there with those of some very accomplished solvers from around the world. For me, the best news is that this year saw nine first-time UK solvers, to take the number of UK solvers putting points on the board up to 29. The previous best was 25, achieved last year and once previously, so this is quite a step in the right direction. There was quality as well as quantity, too!

As ever, this site continues to update a year-on-year chart of UKPC performances:

 201120122013 2014201520162017BestTimes
James McGowan112112117
Neil Zussman 21221 15
Adam Bissett  136 5224
David McNeill23     22
Tom Collyer864333337
Steve Barge3 35 4635
Michael Collins9469710447
Emma McCaughan610811481047
Thomas Powell 1257471146
Adam Dewbery 13 4   42
Ronald4      41
Roderick Grafton12510109 856
Heather Golding   12 6553
Paul Redman5      51
Nick Gardner 106    62
Saul Glasman    6  61
Mark Goodliffe7 13131512876
Nick Deller107 1511131876
Eva Myers147 1612111376
AJ Moore  971991475
Ben Neumann    816773
Chris M. Dickson10181922171819107
Paul Slater   13101515104
Gareth Moore16 11 13  113
Chris Nash  11    111
Pat Stanford      12121
Anthea McMillan  1517141315135
tom123513      131
Liane Robinson1514     142
Timothy Luffingham 14     141
Robin Walters 1718 161724165
Kenneth Wilshire18201621   164
Sam Boden 161719   163
Abigial See17      171
Daniel Hunt      17171
Alison Scott   18   181
Chris Harrison    18  181
blueingreen19      191
quixote 19     191
crayzeejim     19 191
Andrew Brown20 21    202
Neil Rickards     2022202
Laurence May 20     201
United Kingdom  20    201
David Cook   20   201
Jonathan Wilson    20  201
Hector Hirst     20 201
Matthew White      20201
Ken Ferguson     2421212
Eilidh McKemmie 22     221
Gary Male  22    221
Tomaz Cedilnik     22 221
Fuchsia A     22 221
River Edis-Smith  23    231
Daniel Cohen   23   231
David Collison      23231
Abdul Hadi Khan   24   241
shirehorse1   25   251
Mark Greenhalgh     25 251
Amber Pease      25251
remy      26261
Chris Green      27271
Joanna Drury      28281
EmmaHB      28281

The ordering is hopefully obvious: best position, ties split in favour of most appearances, ties split in favour of second (or subsequent) best position, ties split in favour of oldest better performance. Errors and omissions excepted and corrections are welcome; for cussedness, this chart 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. I’m looking forward to finding out who the UK team will be, with invitations going out to top performers both in the in-person UK Open Championship earlier in the year and in the online UK Puzzle Championship just now.

The UK Championship may be over, but the Puzzle Grand Prix rolls on; the sixth round takes place on the weekend of 14th-17th July!

Starting the biggest fans of them all

The Crystal Maze logoAt 9pm tonight on Channel 4, The Crystal Maze returns for the first episode in its new series. It will be a Stand Up 2 Cancer celebrity special, notwithstanding that (most of?) the rest of Channel 4’s programming for the strand will be happening, as usual, in October. Alternatively, if you don’t want to wait for 9pm, you can watch it on All 4, formerly known as 4oD, until the show starts – and if you’re an O2 customer, then you’ll be able to see the show two days early all series long through O2 Priority. (Apparently there’ll be a code, granting access to the impending episode, released every Wednesday at 9pm.)

Accordingly, I’m far from alone in having seen the episode already, but I’m not going to spoil anything before it airs, and will be keeping my thoughts on it to the comments to this post for spoiler-prevention reasons. Whatever you think, I remain convinced the escape room industry in this country as a whole owes a debt of gratitude to the show; while escape rooms have boomed in countries which never had the show or anything like it, it’s a convenient, widely-known point of reference that surely sped the process of public acceptance along. Will the show’s return help the industry further? Remains to be seen – but, at the very least, I don’t see how it can hurt.

In other news, the UK Puzzle Championship opens to solvers at noon today; if you want to start your clock for two and a half hours of puzzles, you can find the details at the official contest page!

This weekend is UK Puzzle Championship weekend

Latest UK Puzzle Association logoIf the in-person puzzle competition highlight of the year is DASH, then the online puzzle competition highlight of the year is the UK Puzzle Championship, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a two-hour contest of language-neutral culture-free logic puzzles and it’s free to enter. This year, there are 27 puzzles in the test, all of different types (as opposed to other years where one style of puzzle features more than once). Some of them are word puzzles, and others are styles you might recognise from some newspapers. Others still might be new to you unless you’ve gone looking for puzzles on the Internet already, or taken part in previous competitions; a few may well still be new to you even if this is far from your first such puzzle contest. The instruction booklet is already available from the official competition page – and, if there were any clarifications, they’d be on the discussion thread on the forum. ((Edited to add:)) James McGowan has collected examples of the types of puzzles used in the contest and posted them to that thread. These examples will probably be more difficult than the ones used in the contest, so don’t worry if you struggle with them!

If you finish in the top two places (excluding those who have qualified already at the live event earlier in the year…) among UK solvers then you become eligible to represent the country as part of the national team in the 26th World Puzzle Championship. This year it’ll be taking place in mid-October in Bangalore, in India. The World Sudoku Championship is at the same venue just days before; congratulations to the winner of the recent UK Sudoku Championship, Mark Goodliffe, who’s earned his spot on that team.

You can start the two hours that you have to take on the puzzles whenever you like after midday (UK time) on Friday 23rd June, but you must get your responses in by 2am on Tuesday 27th – so Monday evening is the latest time that you can start. You’ll need to register for an account at the UK Puzzle Association site, and download a file with an encrypted version of the puzzles from the contest page. You’ll get the password to open the puzzle file when you choose to start your clock.

The reason why I enjoy this contest more than all the others is that there’s always plenty to keep you occupied even if you, like me, are quite a modest puzzle-solver who tends to get put off relatively easily by tougher puzzles. (Traditionally I finish something like fourth or fifth last in the UKPC.) As a rough starting-point, if you score one-third of the possible points, then you’re likely to finish in about the top half of the contest; if you score one-half of the possible points, then you’re likely to finish in about the top third. Unless you have your eye on a national team place, it’s really all about the joy of trying some puzzles of types you might not have seen before. It’s great fun, and a great tradition; it’s my single favourite online contest of the year!

US Puzzle Championship on Saturday; Czech Grand Prix this weekend

World Puzzle Federation Grands Prix 2017 logoTomorrow’s a big day. Not only is there the Prison Escape event in Shrewsbury and the start of the CUCaTS puzzle hunt in Cambridge, there’s also the US Puzzle Championship.

This is a free-to-enter online puzzle championship, open to everyone around the world. It has a fixed timeslot, which is arguably more convenient for European solvers than its native US ones: 6pm to 8:30pm UK time. During those two and a half hours, score as many points as you can by answering culture-free language-neutral logic puzzles of differing values. Register for an account at the US Puzzle Championship site and you can already download an instruction document containing details of the puzzle styles that will be used and relatively simple examples of the puzzles. It looks like the first half of the test contains a mixture of reasonably familiar puzzle styles and less familiar but closely related styles; the second half of the test contains puzzles that are variants of some familiar styles. It’s bound to be a tough test but huge fun for those who take part.

If you don’t want to wait, or if the time slot doesn’t work out, or if you’d prefer a more accessible challenge, this weekend also sees the fifth round of the World Puzzle Federation’s Puzzle Grand Prix. As usual, this free-to-play online puzzle contests, this time set by representatives from the Czech Republic, is now available and will remain so until late Monday night, UK time. 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.

You can’t give your full attention to all the events going on this weekend, for the ones with fixed timeslots overlap – but, whatever you choose, there’s plenty to enjoy!