Could there be a really good puzzles and games pub?

Scenario bar in Dalston by Loading. Used without permission, adapted from unknown photographer.I took a bus, earlier today, that went down little White Lion Street, right past The Crystal Maze; this will always make me smile.

I’m dreaming out loud here, but is the world now ready for a really good puzzles and games pub? If someone were to make one, would it be able to stay in business? This flight of fancy comes from observing a number of different, apparently successful, business models:

  • Loading Bar, as pictured above, has a couple of examples which support a business model which intersects “games” and “pub”;
  • Lady Chastity’s Reserve has a couple of examples which support a business model which intersects “escape room” and “pub”;
  • Draughts and Thirsty Meeples, among others, support a business model which intersects “board games” and “licensed cafe”;
  • Noughts and Coffees doesn’t have a fully developed web site, but has two locations, one of which is a straightforward board game cafe, and the other of which hosts escape games and also features a board game cafe, though currently only at the weekends.

Putting it all together, I’m envisioning something that isn’t a pub but is in fact a licensed cafe with board (and potentially, subject to appropriate soundproofing, digital) games very readily available, at least one escape game on the premises, at least a couple of regular quizzes, room enough to host interesting events like a Puzzled Pint and encouragement and sponsorship of game-themed clubs who want to meet there – chess, Scrabble and the like – and so on.

A licensed cafe would mean that there would be no minimum age restrictions on the participants, and it’s not unknown for cafes to host the types of event commonly known as pub quizzes. There’s also a cultural difference in that a bar (and, even more so, a pub) has a connotation of the function of the trip being repeated purchase of drinks, whereas a themed cafe has a connotation of the function of the trip being purchase of food and drinks, as well as participation in enjoyment of the theme – here, by playing games. Could you hang out at a cafe in good company for hours? Certainly so.

Could this survive and make money in the long term? Certainly it would need the right hand at the tiller, and that hand is not mine. Getting the atmosphere right would take some careful balance; the atmosphere would need to support playing games – quite possibly, people who are at the venue with quite different sorts of games in mind – and also support the continued existence of the venue as a cafe, selling enough food and drink (and paid-for gameplay, and games, and other ancillary products) in mind.

You’d also have to be very careful about whether the venue were to develop regulars or not, and what effect regulars might have on those who are attending and less familiar with what the world of games offers. This is a known and solved problem at board games cafes already, so I don’t consider it insurmountable. It would definitely need some deliberate welcoming policies to keep the atmosphere convivial and accessible to those who consider themselves more casual attendees. In my mind, I don’t want an exclusive Private Members’ Club – and, as much as I enjoy reading about the likes of San Francisco’s Jejune Institute (see also HuffPo and The Bold Italic; the cardhouse.com write-up is amazing), that’s not what I’m after either.

There’s also the potential that I could be falling for at least one or two of the Geek Social Fallacies – would people who regard themselves as gamers of one sort or another really want to share a space with gamers of a different sort? That might be trickier. I used to attend a games club which featured people playing minatures wargames, RPGs, trading card games and board games under the same roof – often, in the same large hall. I get the impression that that’s pretty rare. Adding more into the mix – escape games, quizzes, clubs for specific games – might only make things trickier. While there are plenty of examples of business models with the intersection of two different things, perhaps there’s good reason in practice why the limit seems to be two.

Lastly, what might be a good name for the whole thing? How I Met Your Mother got there first with a fictional bar called Puzzles

A world championship for escape game teams? Red Bull Mind Gamers: Mission Unlock Enoch

Red Bull Mind Gamers: Mission Unlock Enoch, copyright Red Bull GmbH

image copyright Red Bull GmbH

Just over 18 months ago, I reported on a Escape Room Game Jam held at MIT in association with Red Bull and their associated feature film division. Things went quiet and it seemed that the trail had gone cold on this one. The trail has heated back up; it looks like it heated back up a little while ago, but I haven’t seen anyone talking about it, so here goes.

Red Bull Mind Gamers calls itself a “platform for curious minds, with games and challenges to provoke their thinking“, featuring a selection of online puzzles testing strategy, logic, creativity, visual thinking, abstract musical thought and memory to various extents. The “Brain Food” section features articles and interviews on related contemporary mental game topics.

There has been a countdown to the site’s main event, Mission Unlock Enoch, whose self-description of “global competitive mind gaming tournament” is a gussied-up way of saying “sort-of-escape-room world championship”. Hurrah! This is far more exciting and relevant to interests here than anything else recently done by any other purveyor of caffeinated chilled sugary beverages. (Unless you know otherwise…) It’s all tied up with their MindGamers movie, previously referred to in passing as DxM.

25 teams of four will receive paid travel to Budapest in February 2017 to take on the “ultimate mixed reality Escape Room Tournament”, with the overall champions earning a three-day trip to Boston. Wherever you are in the world, you can attempt to win one of four global wild card spaces by attempting to complete this single-player online game as quickly as possible. (Practising the other games on the site might help.) The other 21 spaces are awarded to national champions to parallel national qualifying competitions held in 21 different countries: Singapore, South Korea, the US, Oman, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Norway, Switzerland, and a dozen current EU nations, happily including the United Kingdom. Lots of important gaps in the list: Australia, Canada, China, Japan, and so on, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Accordingly, there is a national qualifying competition in the UK to determine our representative at the world finals. This will take place at Breakout Manchester on December 5th and at Breakout Cardiff on December 7th. “Within 20 minutes, your team of four players will have to connect their mind skills and solve a multi-player mind game in order to ‘unlock’ and leave the room. The fastest team per country gets to enter the final Escape Room in Budapest in 2017.” Each player only gets one try; you’re not allowed to play on more than one team, or to play in more than one location. It’s not clear how the company are planning to avoid spoilers here; procedurally generated puzzles might be one solution that remains reasonably fair in terms of difficulty.

It’s not quite even that simple! In order to get a place at Manchester or Cardiff, you need to rack up a score towards the top of the local chart for the single-player online game. Top scorers there will be invited to pick their team and their time of choice for the qualification day at Manchester and Cardiff. You miiiight be able to get to play in the qualifiers just by turning up on the day even without scoring well at the online game, but this isn’t guaranteed and I wouldn’t risk it.

The overall pattern looks like this: play the online game alone, do well and earn a spot at Manchester or Cardiff, do very well with your team there and win a trip to Budapest, do extremely well with your team in Budapest and win a trip to Boston. (Maybe, just maybe, the prize will be to go to Boston when the MIT Mystery Hunt is on. That would be a neat circle from the location of the original game jam.)

Not much else is known at the moment, except maybe anecdotally from past players. You can read the rules, the FAQ and the terms of participation as .pdf files, but you may get more of an insight by reading the interview with the designers. One open question: who (or, I suppose, what or where) is Enoch and why should Enoch be unlocked?

Inevitably I’ll be hundreds of miles away from anywhere useful, working the day shift on the Manchester qualification day and the night shift on the Cardiff qualification day, but it would be a joy if whoever the UK representatives eventually turn out to be were part of the community. (Or, the other way around, it would be strange if the UK representatives weren’t part of the community, by choice.) We’ll be cheering the UK team on in Budapest in February!

If you do decide to go for it, the very best of luck to you – and please tell all about it on December 8th!

New year, new unconference

"The Steam Room" at Drink, Shop and Do in London2016 has undoubtedly been a spectacular year for escape games, but it has been such a bad year in terms of the way has gone that I’m looking forward to 2017 already. There’s something very specific to look forward to at the start of 2017.

Start 2017 with a fantastic meetup with like-minded Escape Room owners and enthusiasts. Your lunch and welcome and wrap-up drinks are included. In a gorgeous themed bar just five minutes from Kings Cross we can host up to 70 folks for the latest in our series of escape game unconferences. We will then segue neatly into Happy Hour (which goes on for three hours here, apparently)

The fourth UK escape game unconference, and the second in London, will take place on Tuesday 10th January 2017, at The Steam Room bar within Drink, Shop and Do, which legitimately is about five minutes’ walk from King’s Cross station. (Depends which exit you use; two minutes from the closest exit, seven or eight from the furthest one.) It’s just down the road from ClueQuest, Omescape and doubtless others. It’s also quite an interesting area in its own right, but more of that another day.

Tickets are now on sale. If you book very, very soon (by the end of October?) then there are still a very small number of tickets available for £28 + booking fee, representing a 20% cut on the standard charge of £35 + booking fee. That’s not a trivial sum, but as well as excellent company and incisive discussion that you’re not going to get elsewhere, the sum pays for lunch and drinks. (Take a look at the Drink, Shop and Do web site; the sum pays for pretty pricy lunch and drinks.) If you’re interested enough in the genre to be reading this, you’d very probably have a whale of a time, whether you’re a player or a professional. Take a look at posts about the first three unconferences to get a sense of what to expect.

The other interesting thing about Tuesday 10th January is that it’s the second Tuesday of the month, so it will be a Puzzled Pint night as well, once the unconference has finished. If you’re come from afar for the unconference, why not make a full day of it in London, and see what Puzzled Pint is about as well?

Quick results from the World Championship

World Puzzle ChampionshipThe 25th World Puzzle Championship has been taking place in Senec in the Slovak Republic this week. Considering how many participants there were, the organisers deserve a lot of credit for posting results either as .pdf files or on an automated system as frequently as they have.

The results of this year’s World Puzzle Championship is, to some extent, maybe not a complete reverse but at least something of a counterpart to last year’s. Last year, Germany’s Ulrich Voigt was a convincing leader in the main body of the competition but Japan’s Ken Endo won the play-off to take the championship; this year, Ken Endo scored most points in the main body of the competition – in fact, his dominance over the rest of the field may be one of the biggest that the competition has ever seen – but Ulrich Voigt ended up winner after the play-off. Congratulations to Ulrich on his eleventh championship! Palmer Mebane climbed from third to second in the play-off and Ken Endo finished third.

In the team contest, the Japanese team won the main body of the event by a very healthy margin – but, once again, the play-offs proved decisive and the team podium finished Germany – Japan – USA for the fourth time in five years. (Glad nobody did take me up on my offer of a small bet.) The UK A team finished eleventh, about which I think they have every right to be pleased; Neil Zussman was on red hot form and finished twelfth of the 104 official competitors. Congratulations!

There were play-offs for the Under-18 and Over-50 championships and it’s not immediately clear who won those, but I enjoyed seeing that the US team’s Walker Anderson was not only top ten overall and (presumed) number two under-18, but also best newcomer. I wasn’t aware of Walker previously, but the line of this 2½-year-old news story that’s available to the public implies that he can now only be somewhere between 15½ and 16½ years old, so not just barely under-18. Wow. Future world champion? Perhaps.

In other puzzle competition news, this Tweet suggests that Mark Goodliffe won the Times Crossword Championship today. This is Mark’s tenth title, tying him all-time with John Sykes whose titles came between 1972 and 1990. Congratulations there, too!

It’s World Championship time

World Puzzle ChampionshipThe 25th World Puzzle Championship, and its younger sibling the World Sudoku Championship, will take place next week in Senec in the Slovak Republic. You can find the details at the official web site. It’s a competition featuring rounds and rounds of culture-free, language-neutral (mostly logic) puzzles. The final version of the instruction booklet has been posted, so you can see examples of the sorts of puzzles that are going to be faced.

I’m not quite energetic enough to do as in-depth a preview as I have done in previous years, but here are some quick notes. The World Puzzle Championship this year will have 25 full national “A” teams, one up from last year; welcome to Austria and Belarus, farewell (hopefully briefly!) to Romania. There will also be participants – if not full teams – from Belgium, Canada and Luxembourg, the first two of which have had podium-placed full teams in the WPC’s early years. With the make-up of sundry “United Nations” teams, as well as nations’ “B” teams (and, unusually, five “C” teams and even a “D” team) there will be fifty teams in total. This is hugely impressive, though it’s to be noted that this means teams are split over a number of different hotels, which is a slightly different way of doing it than most years – though a very practical one. It’s a particular thrill for me to see that Berni and Silke of Croco-Puzzle are getting to play on the German “B” and “C” teams.

The UK team retains Neil Zussman and Tom Collyer from last year, though substitutes in Adam Bissett and Thomas Powell for James McGowan and David McNeill. (David can’t make it to defend his over-50 titles in both sudoku and puzzles; a pity, not least because it neatly blows up one of my predictions.) The UK team would be doing very well to finish in the top ten of national “A” teams this year.

For the last two years, this site has tipped Japan to win and they’ve finished second. The German “A” team is missing Florian Kirch, for the saddest of reasons, and Michael Ley (who finished eighth in the main rounds) is on the German “B” team once again. The Japan “A” team has last year’s champ Ken Endo and last year’s fifth-placed Kota Morinshi, but also has Taro Arimatsu and Hideaki Jo who finished 1st and 3rd in 2010. That’s too scary a line-up to ignore, and thus this site tips Japan once again, and would be prepared to back it up with a small bet at even money.

The Crystal Maze is coming to Manchester

The Crystal Maze logoThe one-off revival of The Crystal Maze is being broadcast on Channel 4 at 9pm this Sunday – perhaps this might be a slightly updated logo, perhaps not – and is apparently set to feature a cheeky cameo or two. It’s been filmed at London’s The Crystal Maze live experience and it’ll be a challenge for a set that is designed to see a couple of hundred players per day match up to the demands of a TV set. It also remains to be seen how the games come across on TV.

Whether it’s a hit or a miss, the live experience has proved such a hit in London that, as previously hinted, a second maze will be opening in Manchester. The Manchester Evening News suggests the location will be the “old Granada studios”, as predicted by a detective on the Bother’s Bar forum. Sales opened today; currently, tickets are available for April 2017; the opening date of April 1st is possibly a tad inauspicious.

There are many similarities to the London site, but a few exceedingly curious differences. It’s still a game for teams of eight, and it’s still closed on Mondays (except Bank Holidays). However, instead of four teams starting at the same time, the starts seem to be staggered at five- and ten- minute intervals, so eight teams start every hour. This has me wondering how this will work. (Is it possible that they plan to build two copies of each zone, just to double throughput? Could they even build two different mazes, with different games for replay value, in parallel?) One interpretation is the possibility that all the teams will play the zones in the same order – or, if the “two copies” hypothesis is correct, conceivably there might be different, but fixed, starting points in the two mazes. Another difference is that the experience is suggested to take two hours, which is longer than the London equivalent. There will be differences and it’ll be a treat to find out what they are.

The pricing has been announced, and games on Tuesdays to Thursdays are £45 per player (plus 5% booking fee). That’s pretty tempting. Earlier this year, I organised for 32 people, mostly site owners and staff but also enthusiasts, to take over The Crystal Maze for an hour, the day after the London edition of the unconference. Should we do it all again in Manchester next year?

Instant reaction from the Unconference in Leeds today

Photo by James Curtis

Photo posted to Twitter by James Curtis

I very much enjoyed my time at the latest “The Great Escape UK” Unconference in Leeds today. There were about 27 attendees by the end of the day; I enjoyed catching up with some from previous events and just as much enjoyed meeting others for the first time, some of whom had been on my “it’d be nice to meet some day” list for quite a while. The venue was Dock 29 in the Leeds Dock area, which looks very smart; while there is a water taxi giving free rides from (very near) the train station, there isn’t a good system for letting people know when the water taxi isn’t running, and sadly this contributed towards me only being able to attend the last four and a bit hours or so. (Unconferences are a little stranger when you can’t attend the planning-on-the-day stage at the beginning… though I probably could have stuck a session note onto the board if there was something burning that I had wanted to discuss.) Jason Stroud of Thinking Outside The Box was the only known person to travel from the UK to Chicago for the Room Escape Conference last month and I was disappointed to miss him presenting his findings; the rest of us will have to settle for this review video.

I believe that organiser Liz Cable will be putting together a more formal description of the sessions at some point, as well as co-ordinating the collation of the notes that people took. After a buffet spread that looked as good as it tasted, Liz took eight or nine of us around her Code-X pop-up game, a few doors down, that sadly has to close on Sunday 18th and clear out shortly after. The aesthetic is distinctive and likely very effective, and there are as many surprises as you’d hope for. A tour can never match up to playing the game for real, but this did look like a treat.

In the afternoon, there was a session on potential for interaction between escape rooms and academia; without wanting to get too “one weird trick” about it, there do seem to be revenue streams that might be able to be tapped by escape room creators who can reframe the advantages of what they offer in ways that universities will want to hear, far aside from the obvious one of having students coming and playing your regular open-to-the-public game. There was also a fascinating session comparing academic models proposed over the years for game players’ motivations, discussing the extent to which they may or may not apply, and giving practical applications of the most promising-looking of these models to the escape room context. Escape game web sites often tend to promote their offerings in fairly similar fashions, which may be relatively generic when something more tailored to differently motivated groups of players may speak more directly to them.

Past unconferences have often generated a spirit of “sure, it would be great to work together!” which has not generated practical activity. The end of the day had some attempts to be slightly more concrete about initiatives which seem to have common purpose: a smarter approach to insurance (are some people paying too much? Do companies’ insurance policies really cover you?) as well as potential to investigate group buying where it makes sense, and places where the industry as a whole might promote itself more usefully than individual brands doing so.

Exciting times! Lots to think about; many thanks to Liz and the attendees for putting the day together. The next unconference will be on Tuesday 10th January 2017 at The Steam Room, part of “Drink, Shop and Do” near King’s Cross Station in London; it too should be a treat and booking is already open. Being the second Tuesday of the month, of course, that will be a Puzzled Pint night, so don’t forget about one really good, relevant opportunity to socialise afterwards!

Puzzle hunts and puzzle competitions right about now

Here Comes The Sun! ...from a T-shirt credited to "Pablo Bustos aka Wirdou"
That rather fun image (adapted, without permission, from this shirt credited to “Pablo Bustos aka Wirdou”) sets the tone for some of the things happening at the moment which may be of interest.

It’s Labor Day, without the u, in the United States today. As he has previously done for nine of the ten previous Labor Days, Mark Halpin has posted an extravaganza: a hunt-like collection of puzzles to solve at home. They are principally word and picture puzzles; Mark has a glorious reputation for setting devious cryptic crossword variants. E-mail individual puzzle answers to Mark for verification; one team who solves within the first two and a half weeks, chosen at random, will win a $25 gift certificate prize. (Alternatively, e-mail Mark for hints and tips.) The theme for this year’s hunt inspires the title of this article.

If this hunt doesn’t fit into your schedule, or if you want a hunt designed for a larger team and with possibly a slightly broader style of puzzles, then a good option is the mezzacotta puzzle competition taking place from Monday 10 October, 2016 onwards. This is the direct descendent of the CiSRA puzzle hunt which gave a great deal of fun to many people over the years. The format is expected to be very similar to the CiSRA hunt, as well as the MUMS and SUMS puzzle hunts of the mathematics societies of Australian universities; many people are looking forward to seeing the precise specifics of the form to be taken by this year’s hunt.

Alternatively, there are some competitions which test the ability of a solver – or a team – to set puzzles, as well as to solve them. This post comes too late to feature timely details of Iron Puzzler of Southern California, just over a week ago, but Germany will be hosting the Puzzle Decathlon competition in Wuppertal (just east of Dusseldorf, so not far from the Dutch border) in November. Some rounds feature puzzles to solve; other rounds see you set puzzles for your fellow competitors!

Unconferences past and future

unconferenceJust quickly:

The second “The Great Escape UK” unconference took place in London on April 25th. People took notes from many of the sessions at the time. A few sessions remain unscribed and attempts to chase the sessions’ scribes have proved fruitless. However, as something is much better than nothing, please enjoy the notes that have survived from most of the sessions; if you are in a position to add to them, please do so.

The third “The Great Escape UK” conference will take place in Leeds on September 6th, also known as next Tuesday; specifically, it will take place at Dock 29 between 11am and 7pm. Take a look at previous unconference coverage on this site to see whether it sounds like your cup of tea; if so, book your ticket now. You’ll need to pay for your ticket at the time of booking because (a) booking includes lunch and (b) there were many people who booked free tickets and didn’t turn up last time, so there were plenty of other people on the waiting list who wanted to go but couldn’t.

This third meet-up for the UK Escape Room Industry welcomes anyone involved in running, designing, or creating Escape Room Games in the UK, or associated industries. We also welcome keen players, as long as they promise not to rip out the fixtures and fittings in search of clues. We also allow suppliers to attend in the spirit of sharing not selling. ((…))

Our quarterly Unconference returns to Leeds. Everyone can propose a session on the day, on anything they like, people signup for whatever tickles their fancy, then the agenda is decided as we go along. ((…))

Some offerings include a report back from the first Chicago Escape Room Conference, and an offering (from me) on Curiosity and Player Motivation and how it impacts Room Design – a summary of a week-long symposium on Game Design at Utrecht University (actually more fun than it sounds).

Unrelatedly, but still excitingly, on the day after the London unconference, 32 escape room owners, staff and players visited the The Crystal Maze attraction in London. Yesterday The Sun suggested (and, today, reports have reached as far as the BBC) that there will be a one-off revival of the show on Channel 4 for their Stand Up To Cancer night on October 21st. There won’t be a full-scale maze made for a single show; Buzzfeed report that the event will be filmed at the attraction in London. This is an extremely spectacular setting for an event you’ve paid tens of pounds to play in person and a somewhat unspectacular setting for a TV show featuring a team of celebrities. We shall see, and hope that it proves a prelude to a full-scale, big-budget soup-to-nuts revival of the series at a later date.

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.