Puzzle e-books for charity donations

The Maze of Games front cover, copyright Lone Shark Games

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended!

My thoughts on the 2016 UK Puzzle Championship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ukpc 2

Click on the image for a bigger version of the graph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK Puzzle Championship 2016: the stats

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to break in to the 2016 UK Puzzle Championship

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

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

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