Thank you… and I’m so, so sorry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This weekend, your country needs you

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crystal Maze live: what a rush!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regions of the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 The Crystal Dome

A pentakis dodecahedronVery quickly:

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

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

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

P.S. Too late!

Missed cue

CUCaTS logoOne of the things that I got most excited about during the Exit Games UK years was the Cambridge University Computing and Technology Society’s puzzle hunts, which have been running since 2012 at about this time of year. The best way to find out about them is looking at the society’s Facebook page, and I have been doing so every week or two for a month or two. Except that I have just realised that I haven’t checked for a while, so I checked just now and… this year’s hunt is happening right now as I type. It appears to be 9 hours and 40 minutes in – people are probably enjoying the tail end of the midnight pizza party right now – and will run until 4pm on Saturday.

The Puzzlehunt is a team puzzle-solving and treasure-hunting competition. Your team will navigate its way through a mental and sometimes physical obstacle course of challenging and fun computational, mathematical and linguistic puzzles scattered throughout Cambridge, seeking to cut its way through to the goal before everyone else. No preparation is necessary, just come along on the day!

Teams may be made of up to three members. It is envisaged that most participants will be (affectionately known as Camacuks) and it is encouraged that each team should have at least one Camacuk. However, teams not meeting this criterion may be allowed to compete by prior agreement (drop us an email). If you’re looking for more team members, hit us up and we’ll try to match you up!

The puzzles are pretty Cantabrigian in style, by which I mean they have something of the feel of some of those from Cambridge, MA’s MIT Mystery Hunt. There are rumoured to be at least one or two cells of MIT Mystery Hunt solvers in the UK Cambridge each year – I don’t know the specifics, though have guesses – so it’s quite possible that the CUCaTS hunt solvers and setters have direct experience and inspiration there. The levels of difficulty are variable but both floor and ceiling are, er, somewhat high.

Even though I imagine it’s too late to get involved this year, as funny as the idea of people high-tailing it to Cambridge in the early hours of the morning an looking for an in-progress puzzle hunt is, I would be tempted to take a look at the recently-updated hunt archives page and click through to the puzzles from previous years. Some have solutions, others don’t. You can judge for yourself from these past puzzles whether this hunt is for you or not.

It is a wonderful thing that hunts like this exist in this country at all, and clearly the good burghers of CUCaTS should (and evidently do!) set their hunt to suit themselves and their own wants and needs, noting the second quoted paragraph that most (but, evidently, not all) hunters are expected to be of the variety. The announcement that this year’s hunt would be happening was not made until June 5th. Evidently my checking was not quite frequent enough.

Fingers crossed that this year’s hunt is a huge success and that there are more such hunts in future years. Looking at the commonality between when previous years’ hunts have been, the strong favourite for when any putative future hunt might happen has to be the weekend immediately after the conclusion of Cambridge’s Full Easter Term. Pencil it into your 2017 diary now!


Generic arcade game graphicThere may be less distinguishing the world of escape rooms from the world of coin-operated arcade games than appears at first glance, at least if you can stretch to accepting partial manual operation of the games, and if you can consider notes to be fungible to lots and lots of coins. (Isn’t there at least one game that claims to be completely free of manual operation? The line there must surely be less distinct still.) It’s almost an application of the reverse of “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“. This thought was inspired by Tim Hunkin on running an amusement arcade, albeit one like no other.

Part of the reason that I feel happier blogging at Ex Exit Games than at Exit Games UK is that the number of UK games has gone remarkably quickly from 50 to 80 to 109 to a-hundred-and-I-dread-to-think. As it has done so, I feel less and less comfortable with any sort of viewpoint that could be taken as a recommendation without increasing – and already considerable – amounts of qualification that people plan to try to make their living from the industry. People still can, and still will, beat the odds, but the odds are increasingly not in your favour. (Seattle’s Puzzle Break‘s Nate Martin has a really good – and nuanced – take on the effect of competition between sites.) Every game that starts, struggles and folds is a disappointment from the player’s perspective, but a tragedy from the proprietor’s perspective.

About six months ago, I heard a cracking quote that has stuck with me. Naomi Alderman quoted her Mum on the excellent The Cultures podcast (episode 126-ish) saying words to the effect of “Almost nobody can make a full living just from making and selling their art, but almost anyone who wants to can make a life in and around the art form that they love.

Can escape rooms be art? Can escape rooms, like coin-operated games, be considered more-effectively-monetised-than-most forms of art? I’ll leave the distinction between art and craft, and where escape rooms might fit into the spectrum, to people who have a clue what the hell they’re on about concerning the topic. Not me!

Nevertheless, I wonder if there’s merit in considering creating and operating your own escape room to be, first and foremost, an artistic job? (The second half of the quote might refer to working on someone else’s escape room… or whatever escape-room-like game business might come to follow in the years to come.) What sorts of artistic jobs that have existed for decades, or longer, might offer lessons to proprietors of escape rooms?




Puzzle competitions coming up

weekly calendarTwo competitions coming up this weekend, there’s a gap on the weekend of the 18th-19th (which suits me down to the ground, as I’m actually playing The Crystal Maze on the 18th) and two more on the weekend of the 25th-26th.

The weekend of the 10th-13th sees the sixth (“Serbian”) round of the World Puzzle Federation’s Puzzle Grand Prix and the instruction booklet is already available. Usual drill: 90 minutes, free to play, score as many points as you can by solving puzzles, start no earlier than midday European time on Friday 10th and finish by midnight European at the end of Monday 13th. Take a look at the types of puzzles in advance; I’d say these look pretty tough, but every round is delicately balanced on the tough-to-accessible spectrum and it’s just that this round has puzzles that don’t play to my strengths.

This weekend also sees the online UK Sudoku Championship – you can click through there for the link to the instruction booklet – and that runs in a somewhat similar fashion. Two hour time limit, free to play, score as many points as you can by solving sudoku and sudoku variants, start no earlier than midday UK time on Friday 10th and finish by 11:55pm UK time at the end of Monday 13th.

On the weekend of the 25th-26th, it’s the other way around: another round of the Sudoku GP and also the UK Puzzle Championship. The UKPC is expected to be 2½ hours long. It’s been my favourite puzzle championship of the year for a few years now and it deliberately contains more identifiably accessible material than just about all of the rest of the contests. If you’re going to enter only one contest, I’d recommend the UKPC above the rest. Participation is free and open worldwide. The top two UK participants from each of the UK championships qualify for the UK team for the World Sudoku Championships or World Puzzle Championships, as appropriate.

I may have taken a pot shot at sports’ governing bodies at large in my previous entry, whether physical or mind, but many thanks to all those who have created these contests, tested these contests, or created and maintained the infrastructure to make them available to the public at large.

Mechanics Monday: Quizcape

Globe with question marks emerging from itThe World Quizzing Championships happened this weekend, and they were won by Kevin Ashman for his fifth championship, which is his first for seven years. Apparently there were something like 2,000 competitors from 25 nations, which is very respectable. It’s tempting to take a rather Going For Gold attitude to this (can a pan-European quiz hosted in the UK and conducted in English truly be fair?) but the WQC team do seem to go out of their way to make it a truly global contest, which deserves approval. The rostrum list may look a bit embarrassingly British (and the separate use of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland always smacks of needing to try too hard; this is neither the nineteenth century nor the Commonwealth Games) but the 2016 results table makes for much better reading. Even counting the UK as one, the top 16 is more global than the current top 16 rankings list for those notoriously British physical sports snooker and darts. Thumbs up.

At this point I’m going to get my retaliation in first and say that I dearly hope that there is never a counterpart global governing body for escape game competitions. Are there any global sporting organisation bodies that are actually popular with participants in their sport? (Genuine question, and I’d be delighted to be surprised to learn that there are.) It takes a certain sort of type A personality to declare yourself an authority, perhaps a type AA personality to declare yourself a global authority and a type AAA personality to make a career and a living for yourself by doing so. There’s a nuanced distinction here; if you contribute to a community and consequently others regard you as an authority, that’s a different, beneficial thing.

I like the thought of there being escape game competitions – even, theoretically, global ones – either to determine the most delightful designs or the most adept solvers, but there’s a difference between (1) people creating competitions and content for the benefit of the world at large then being well-regarded as a result of it and (2) people assuming authority first then using that authority to create competitions and content for their benefit. The puzzle world and puzzle hunt community generally do relatively well at staying on the right side of the distinction. Based on a mixture of first- and second- hand reports from people who have floated through my life, I tend to believe that there are elements in the world of competitive quiz organisation who are not on the side of the angels. No names, no pack drill.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that it’s a reasonably generally accepted truism that people like all the information to be required to solve an escape game to be available within that escape game. A recent Room Escape Divas podcast (specifically, episode five) had a glorious and righteous rant about a room that relied on terrible trivia questions, then expected people to search online for the answers once the game had concluded and use this information to play a second time. It also counterpointed this against a room that included a trivia puzzle but in an interesting way; if you didn’t know the answers then it was still a reasonable elimination-of-the-wrong-answers puzzle.

From there, I take the view that as much as escape games grow and spread and try different things, I tend to believe that there is scope to crossover and try to capture slightly different markets, if you can set people’s expectations in advance and then go out to attempt to appeal specifically to people who would enjoy this and would be less likely to enjoy a traditional escape game without the additional leanings. (The argument against this runs along the lines of “not many people buy picture books of horses; to buy one, you have to both be a person who buys picture books and who likes horses”. I do have a fab picture book of old pinball tables.) Quizcape would be an attempt to appeal to people who like quizzes first and foremost, escape room activities second.

An assumption of quizzes is that either you know (or can work out) the answer to a question, or you can’t. It’s generally considered cheating to use outside technology to look up the answer to a question if you happen not to know it. It could be fun to play with that assumption.

Quizcape sees a team of players stand under a spotlight in a room. Secondary spotlights point to a number of information resources (encyclopediae, phones, tablets, but maybe also some slightly more off-beat ones like PCs running Windows 3.1 with very old copies of Encarta…), each of which are available but obsetructed. A phone might be in a (transparent) box with an obvious lock. A computer might have a password that needs to be cracked. A book might be behind bars; manipulating it might be a physical puzzle, and so on.

The team are posed a series of questions against the clock. Ideally they will know the answers and can answer them. If they don’t, they can attempt to go to the resources, solve the puzzle obstructing use of the resource and, having done so, use the resource to look the answer up and then move on to future questions.

That’s the very simple principle behind Quizcape. I have thoughts of elaborations like a structure of rounds with meta-puzzles, rules for how the timer might work and so on, but it’s more fun to make them up for yourself. It’s the principle of the thing that counts.