Coming up this spring

a series of metal springs making up the word "love"In springs, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love“, as Lord Tennyson absolutely definitely meant to write. Over here, I’ll be attempting to convince myself that winter might be about to be coming to a conclusion, perhaps, by listing some events and insisting that they’re happening this spring.

This weekend, it’s the second round of the WPF’s free-to-enter online Puzzle Grand Prix competition, this time hosted by Slovakia. Once again, there will be three separate one-hour papers available, and the instruction booklets are already available. The Class C booklet is set to be an absolute old-school beauty, with puzzles in seven different styles and three examples of each, with varying levels of difficulty. The Class B and A booklets contain puzzles in five different styles; the class B booklet has two examples of each, one longer than the other, and the class A booklet has a single very difficult example of each. Do whichever paper or papers take your fancy. Last time I did about half of Class C in one hour and tackled a few of Class A in another, leaving Class B completely alone, which felt rebellious. Start your hour(s) whenever you like from half-past Friday, finishing by the end of Monday.

As kindly pointed out in a comment last time but also seen elsewhere, the first Galactic Puzzle Hunt is being organised by the wow-I-hope-this-copies-and-pastes ✈✈✈ Galactic Trendsetters ✈✈✈ MIT Mystery Hunt team. This is an online puzzle hunt in what previously would have been called the Australian style but now should perhaps be considered the Australian/Cantabrigian style. Teams of up to ten will be given five online puzzles each day for six days from (reasonably late UK time on) Tuesday 14th March to Sunday 19th March, and have until Thursday 23rd March to submit the answers. The hint system is different to the standardised hints of the Australian hunts, with teams being able to ask limited numbers of yes/no questions of their choice for the help they need, but “Roughly one week into the hunt, we will start giving out additional hints, and we may be more generous with clarifications; we want teams to be able to solve most or all of the puzzles by the end!” This sounds very public-spirited and gets me very excited about taking part.

So that’s something to look forward to in March. For April there will be the third Now Play This games festival. The site is succinct: “Now Play This is a festival of experimental game design, showcasing some of the most interesting games and playful work being made around the UK and the world. It will run for the third time at Somerset House in London from 7-9 April, 2017, as part of the London Games Festival. There’ll be an exhibition of games running throughout, plus special events including a board games afternoon, a strange controllers showcase, and, on Friday, a day for discussion between practitioners. Tickets will be available from February 2017.” Admittedly I’m not aware of anything puzzle- or escape- specific on this year’s agenda quite yet, but the programme is yet to be announced and surely should be up before long; the people behind it are the very best of eggs and the weekend is a very safe bet to be an excellent one whether there is or not.

As for May, the ninth instalment of the DASH puzzle hunt is set to happen on Saturday 6th May. Now there hasn’t been anything absolutely explicit saying “yes, DASH is happening in London” this year, but there are two very strong clues: first, one of this month’s London Puzzled Pint teams was called “Play DASH on 6th May”; second, an exciting and authoritative Facebook comment suggests that much as both London and Manchester in the UK enjoy Puzzled Pint, both London and Manchester may get to enjoy DASH this year. Definitely one for your diary – and, perhaps, you won’t have so far to travel!

On podcasts

A microphone by a computerI recently very much enjoyed an old podcast about escape rooms and haunt attractions. (Haunt attractions are the generic name for haunted houses, noting that they’re not necessarily restricted to houses, whereas the term “escape room” seems to have won out over “escape game”, despite a related issue.) It’s episode 11 of No Proscenium, and one of the reasons it’s delightful is because it dates back to July 2015 and yet people who don’t seem to be in the escape room community seem, even then, to have independently reached the same conclusions as the rest of us.

It also has some really exciting ideas at the end, which I’m reasonably sure haven’t caught on in the UK and I’m not sure have caught on elsewhere. If you own a game, or series of games, and pride yourself on a continuous narrative, or set of characters, or game world in which they take place, there are interesting things that could be done to provide what this podcast refers to as “additive narrative”; your games would still stand alone, but there could be optional extras for people who want to dive further into the game world if they wanted to. The podcast suggests the possibility of an optional scavenger hunt beforehand, visiting a series of local businesses or locations, with the promise of extra information about the game world. It also points to the different escape-room-like-boxes-by-mail / puzzle-crate games that exist, and suggests that this could be a good way to extend a game world and hence a brand. There’s at least one game world where I’d love people to try this and surely others as well.

No Proscenium covers all manner of immersive entertainment, thus features escape rooms, their creators and their bloggers reasonably frequently, though the other topics they cover – while less familiar – are often at least as enticing. I discovered the podcast first through episode 73, an interview with Lisa and David from Room Escape Artist; they go in-depth on a particularly interesting room which I’ll never get the chance to play. They’ve cropped up on other podcasts in the past and are always worth listening to, notably the most recent episode (at time of writing) of Room Escape Divas.

Speaking of which, the previous episode of Room Escape Divas features an interview with Ken, who runs The Logic Escapes Me and also runs Exit Games UK much better than I ever did, and me. There are points in it where I give Ken quite a hard time for no good reason whatsoever. Sorry about that!

Dyson with death

Dyson "Smart Rooms"Dyson, manufacturer of remarkable cyclone-generating motors and devices in which they might be found such as vacuum cleaners, have been involved in some unusually interesting projects over the past few months. The first was a deliberately short-lived ARG called Rethinkers and the credit list contains some of the most celebrated names when it comes to integrating stories and games, one of whom was responsible for a very highly celebrated escape room. While the game is now history, probably the best place to find out about it is the appropriate subreddit.

This isn’t Dyson’s only adventure, though. At least some of the people involved in that campaign are also involved in a follow-up campaign called The Smart Rooms. This saw Dyson release a video featuring snippets of code that could be assembled (both literally and figuratively) to generate a password which might earn you access to visit The Smart Rooms themselves. These rooms will be in place in Brixton over the coming two days and every place has been booked. In context, these rooms are set to bear some similarities to a traditional escape game, but there will be an “Internet of things” / “connected house” theme and an unusually heavy focus on software engineering challenges. Indeed, the presumed reason why Dyson are going to these lengths is to capture the attention of talented software engineers and inviting them to apply to work for them. Success in either game does not guarantee employment but would surely be a feather in the cap.

This weekend’s play has another twist – and, very unusually, the best place to find out more is an article in The Sun. The players’ progress will be streamed live on Twitch as they take part; struggling players may ask viewers for help, indirectly, by indicating four words or four objects and inviting the world to vote on which appears the most relevant in the situation. Hopefully the world will decide to be helpful.

So even if you aren’t getting to play in person this weekend, perhaps you can still get to play along. Follow Dyson and their social media this weekend for the action as it happens!

Two cheerful things

You can’t have too many cheerful things, especially with the developments in the world this week, so here are two more.

Firstly, the team behind the splendid Room Escape Divas podcast played a pop-up escape room in Canada a while back. The exciting thing is that they did so wearing GoPro head-mounted/chest-mounted cameras, and have edited the four different perspectives on the same room into a video. It’s fascinating to see them play, the room looks fun and the production values in the video are spectacular. Well worth forty minutes of your time:




Secondly, this weekend sees the first leg of the WPF Puzzle Grand Prix season, as discussed in more detail in the previous post. So far I have only solved the Class C puzzles, but they were everything that I hoped for from them. I didn’t get nearly everything solved that I wanted to solve within the time, but I was pleased with what I did get solved. Unusually, when the hour ran out, I kept going on some of the other puzzles just for fun. I felt like I cracked some techniques that might help me in the future should the same (or, at least, similar) puzzles ever crop up again. If amazing yourself with what you are able to achieve during a puzzle contest (be those accomplishments big or small) is the emotional buzz from a puzzle contest, this paper delivered with aplomb. Recommended… and I haven’t even tried the other two available papers yet!

New year, new Puzzle Grand Prix season

World Puzzle Federation Grands Prix 2017 logoThe World Puzzle Federation has launched another year of its annual series of online puzzle competitions! This year sees the fourth Puzzle Grand Prix season, which starts this weekend. (The fifth Sudoku Grand Prix season started two weeks ago.) If you’re sufficiently interested in puzzles to be reading this site, even if you think you only like escape rooms and have never taken the time to enter a puzzle contest before, you should get excited about this season and think seriously about taking part. The puzzles are fun and there’s no charge for taking part.

The name Grand Prix is an allusion to the tradition of motor races, for there are a series of rounds set by teams of setters from different countries; for instance, this weekend’s contest is the Serbian round, the next one will be the Slovakian round and so on. (There are eight rounds in the competition, each four weeks apart, and your overall score in the competition is the sum of your six best round scores.) Each round is available for 3½ days, from 10am GMT on Friday to 10pm GMT on Monday. 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.

One difference between this year’s contest and that of previous year, is that every competition weekend there will be three parallel competitions in which to participate, each with its own one-hour paper. The three papers are not primarily graduated by difficulty but by the nature of the puzzles involved. Each paper includes puzzles of a variety of different difficulties, with higher credit awarded for puzzles that are expected to take longer to solve.

  • Starting in the middle, “Class B” puzzles are culture-free language-neutral logic puzzles drawn from well-established World Puzzle Championship formats. Typically these will be grid-based constraint-satisfaction puzzles where “the objective is to fill in information on cells in a grid, based on logic or numerical constraints“.
  • “Class A” puzzles may be new types, or new variants, that might be encountered at a World Puzzle Championship, and may be less accessible to people who aren’t familiar with the World Puzzle Championship standards.
  • “Class C” puzzles 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 in instruction booklets. Entertainingly, the “Products” puzzle format in the upcoming Class C contest (see C16 to C18 of the instruction booklet) is not a million miles away from a puzzle style that I once constructed a few years ago!

There’s only one other wrinkle and it’s a slightly strange one. If you have played sufficiently many Grand Prix rounds in the past, or if you have been sufficiently successful when you have played in previous Grand Prix competitions, you will be declared a Class B participant and your score for any Class C contest you participate in will be regarded as unofficial. (If you have been particularly prodigiously successful in the past in previous Grand Prix competitions, you will be declared a Class A participant and your scores for both Class A and Class B contests will be regarded as unofficial.) This makes sense in that it means that the leaderboards for all three contestants will not be crammed with the same names – at least, unless a new solver massively overperforms! – but it may be disappointing for those solvers who are forced into a higher class and are most interested in the puzzles in a lower class. The advice has to be to solve the sets of puzzles that look the most fun and don’t worry too much about the classifications.

Nevertheless, this is another very exciting development. You only need to find one hour over the course of a long weekend in order to have a meaningful competitive experience, and you can choose from three different styles of puzzles, making the series more accessible than ever. If you want to dive deeply in, you could solve all three papers if you wanted to. The series is recommended to all readers; the more people who can find the style and level of competitive puzzling fun that’s right for them, the merrier!

The 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt happened last weekend

"MIT Mystery Hunt" Indian head penny1) Before addressing the main topic of the piece, a quick heads up to say that one of the lead organisers of DASH 8 in London has enquired whether anyone is willing to run DASH 9 in London this year. Interpret this as you see fit, but there must be reason why that question is being asked in that fashion.

2) If today’s current affairs have got you down, Dan Katz (see below) points to Puzzles for Progress; donate to your choice of ten US causes that might need your attention more today than they did yesterday and receive a bundle of puzzles by a collection of highly-regarded authors. It’s something concrete that anyone can do wherever in the world they are.

3) The annual MIT Mystery Hunt took place in at said Institute of Technology in the greater Boston area last weekend. A quick summary is that it’s, arguably, the world’s most extreme open-participation puzzle hunt; a couple of thousand or so players form several dozens of teams, each of perhaps as few as five players or as many as 150. These solvers spend up to two-and-a-bit days solving puzzles non-stop, taking as little sleep as they dare. There is no limit to the difficulty of puzzles; many of the world’s very best solvers take part, and some of the puzzles are written with this in mind. It’s a practical assumption that most teams will be able to directly or indirectly be able to contact the equivalent of a postdoctorate academic in virtually every subject under the sun, high-brow or low-brow, whether in person or online. For a longer description of the hunt, see my 2015 article on the topic, complete with links to write-ups of what it feels like to participate and to some of the most spectacular puzzles.

This year’s seems to have been extremely well-received. It’s also distinctive in that the winning team found the coin in under fifteen and a half hours. This is definitely on the short side as MIT Mystery Hunts go, possibly even the shortest in recent memory. In recent years, the trend has been for the hunt organisers to accept answers between the start of the hunt, shortly after midday on Friday, until typically early Sunday evening. In this regard, more than one team can have the fun of seeing everything that there is to see and finding the coin. It’s on the record that this year’s hunt was designed to be relatively accessible in this regard; a record seventeen teams each got the fun of finding the coin, many of whom had their first ever complete solution. Congratulations to all the teams who found the coin, but most of all to Death and Mayhem who found the coin first!

One of the team of organisers, Dan Katz, who it’s fair to say is more well-known (or, at least, notorious) than most hunt participants has started an exciting hunt-themed blog with reflections on the hunt-writing process and what this year’s event felt like from the organisational side. Discussion of the hunt and related topics has become somewhat more disparate than in previous years (though, to some extent, a subreddit fulfils some of the role that dear old LiveJournal did five or more years ago) though Jennifer Berk has kindly been collating links relating to this year’s event. It’s also worth looking at four-time World Puzzle Champion Wei-Hwa Huang’s Facebook post on the subject of the duration of the hunt as well.

You can see the puzzles from this year’s hunt, along with their solutions, and they’re well worth reading as amazing pieces of craftsmanship, even if you don’t try to solve them yourself. You’ll see that there are some puzzles associated with fictional characters, introduced in the context of the hunt, and others with the quests in which they participate. The character puzzles are intended to be less challenging than the quest puzzles, and it’s a delightful development that there are deliberately more accessible puzzles in hunts these days – indeed, it’s on the record that the hunt organisers had deliberately intended to make this hunt more accessible than many in the past. On the other hand, these relatively accessible puzzles are still intended to take an entire team half an hour, or an hour, to solve – so still daunting challenges.

To get a further flavour for this year’s hunt, the kick-off pastiche and the wrap-up meeting have both been posted to YouTube. These make fascinating viewing. I particularly enjoyed learning the stats quantifying the success that the organisers had in their attempt to make the hunt relatively accessible. Not far off a hundred teams registered in the first place, but some of these registrations may have been less than serious, small teams might have merged before the event began, or some teams might have been registered more than once. Of the teams that took the event seriously:

  • 83 teams submitted at least one answer
  • 82 teams submitted at least one correct answer
  • 70 teams solved at least five puzzles
  • 58 teams solved at least one quest puzzle
  • 55 teams rescued the linguist in person
  • 49 teams solved at least one character meta-puzzle
  • 29 teams completed the character endgame
  • 28 teams solved at least one quest meta-puzzle
  • 17 teams completed the hunt and found the coin

Some past hunts are more forthcoming with their stats than others, and of course every hunt has a different structure, but these figures compare very favourably to what I remember from previous years and reflect the degree of success that the hunt team achieved in its aim of relative accessibility.

I would be inclined to believe that if the most famous attribute of the MIT Mystery Hunt is the very considerable difficulty of its puzzles, its second most famous attribute is the traditionally considerable size of its teams. Another part of the wrap-up video addresses this fact. It’s true that there are half a dozen teams around the 100-150 solver mark, many of which are surely not present in person at the venue. It’s also true that some of the other 17 teams to find the coin are just (“just”!) fifty strong, with a notable outlier around the 35 mark. It’s also true that some teams of 25 or so, or even down to around a dozen, can solve around a hundred or so of the just over 150 puzzles to be solved – but those must be power-packed teams indeed. Dan Katz touches on the topic, but it’s something that comes up every now and again in Mystery Hunt discussions. It is MIT’s event, after all, and some people like the “you bring your puzzle-solving army, we’ll bring ours, no quarter asked or given” arms race of it – or, if there’s any event in the world with that spirit, the MIT Mystery Hunt seems to be the one where people have settled on.

Very occasionally, write-ups will mention that some team or other have remote cells of solvers working together on puzzles from afar, and some teams mention that they have remote cells in the UK. A couple of times, I’ve spent a weekend here in the UK with two or three other solvers working very hard on a small number of puzzles. It’s fun, though I suspect it can only be a fraction as much fun as solving on-site, and there’s so much that you have to miss from solving remotely – but it may be much more practical, as well as tens of degrees warmer some years. As the interest in puzzle hunt puzzles and puzzle hunts increases in the UK – see the last post as evidence! – it would be fascinating to know just which teams have remote cells in the UK, and whether any of those cells are actually open to potential new participants.

Thanks to the setters and congratulations to the winners. The rest of us can just follow the countdown until next year!

Coming up next week: the Cambridge Puzzle Hunt

cambridge-puzzle-hunt

I’ve posted about the CUCaTS in-person puzzle hunt organised by the Cambridge University Computing and Technology Society annually, at the end of the academic year, for the last five years. Happily, this isn’t the only puzzle hunt interest at Cambridge University, for members of Trinity College’s Mathematical and Science societies are working together to put on the first (and, hopefully, not the only) Cambridge Puzzle Hunt. Hurrah!

The hunt takes a very similar format to the MUMS, SUMS and mezzacotta hunts of Australia: there will be puzzles released on each of five four days; after each set of releases, each of the successive three days sees hints released to the that day’s puzzles. It’s not immediately clear from the rules if there is a scoring system, a metapuzzle and/or a physical object within Cambridge; if anything, signs point to no. Teams can have up to five members; unusually, there is the option to register as a solo solver.

It’s not clear what the level of difficulty can be expected to be, but first hunts often tend to be pretty hard, and Trinity College has a fearsome academic reputation. For mathematics, at least, the saying goes – or used to go? – “there are other universities, there is Cambridge, and there is Trinity College, Cambridge”. I went to another university!

Registration does not appear to be open yet, but ((Edited a second time:)) registration is now open and a registration deadline of the end (UK time) of Saturday 28th January has been announced, with the rules and Facebook pages now agreeing that there will be four sets of puzzles released from Wednesday 25th January onwards. Accordingly, if this is of interest, better not hesitate in starting to follow the hunt’s progress. There’s a mailing list and a Facebook page, so keep looking out for more information really soon.

What an exciting start to the year!

Live from the latest Unconference in London!

It’s the biggest unconference in the UK yet! The attendance number is to be confirmed but possibly around ninety. Certainly there is too much fun to contain on a single floor! We have four sessions today, each offering six different options to choose from:


H and S, legal matters

Design for unusual groups

Sourcing

In game Monitoring and clue giving

Sales and marketing tips

Venues

Bad competition and crisis plans

Designing great experiences

Finance: pricing and costs

In-game automation technology

General marketing: what games rooms are

Pop-ups

Insurance

Suppliers and Premade Rooms

Scaling Up

Booking systems

Social media

Non-room games
Copyright information
Cyber security

Franchises

Using client information

Cross Promotion

Future of the industry

An exciting, busy day! ((Edited to add:)) Sadly too exciting and busy for me and I have had to call it a day at lunchtime, but I look forward to hearing more about it for those who could stick around for the whole day.

It’s the most puzzleful time of the year

"Bob Schaffer's puzzles"Don’t take that title literally; you could make claims for both the World Puzzle Championship week or the MIT Mystery Hunt weekend. Do they have songs, though?

The short version of this post is that Dr. Bob Schaffer has launched his fifth annual short online holiday-themed puzzle hunt, which you can start at any point of your own choice after 8pm GMT today. Everything that this site said on a post on the matter two years ago remains true; this year, the hunt is hosted via ClueKeeper and costs US$7.99 to play, plus completely optional charity donations with no impact on gameplay.

Here’s the longer version.

This site loves puzzle hunts: trails of interconnected puzzles, whether online or in person, commonly solved in teams. If the idea sounds enchanting, even if you have no prior experience, this site thoroughly recommends a free online play-wherever-whenever game called the Order of the Octothorpe as a genuinely accessible starting-point that makes no prior assumptions and starts from first principles.

Once you’ve got your teeth into that, an excellent option for a bite-sized second step is Dr. Bob’s Online Holiday Puzzle Hunt. Bob Schaffer is a senior research engineer who, as a sideline, runs Elevate Tutoring. This non-profit public benefit corporation trains small numbers of disadvantaged US college students to become excellent tutors, and requires these tutors to use their training to provide free tutoring to disadvantaged school students. He has run puzzle hunts, both online and in person, partly as a fundraiser for his tutoring organisation.

For the past four years, he has run small such puzzle hunts online from each December 24th. These, too, are deliberately accessible; the 2012 hunt sets expectations with the comment “The puzzles in this hunt are meant to be enjoyed by all. The experience is meant to take 1-2 hours. Those new to these types of puzzles may need to click on the free hints. Experienced puzzlers should get through hint-free in an hour or so.” The 2013 hunt is similar, with the fastest solutions being matters of tens of minutes.

The 2014 hunt was launched with the comment “This hunt has three main puzzles and a simple meta puzzle. The puzzles are geared toward beginner puzzlers, but were designed to entertain newbies and experts alike. I would say that this hunt is a bit more challenging than the 2012 and 2013 hunts. Beginners can take advantage of the hint system to overcome hurdles while experienced puzzlers can challenge themselves to solve the puzzles as quickly as possible.” There’s an online interface which can provide hints on demand; participation is timed, but scoring is optional. (The scoring system is essentially that of DASH.) The 2015 hunt follows the same pattern. All four hunts can be played on demand. There is no charge for playing, though you are gently invited to tip the Elevate Tutoring in return. The 2013 hunt was great fun and is recommended by this site and the other hunts are likely to be just as good.

2016’s hunt is marginally different. “This year, I am hosting the hunt through the ClueKeeper website. With this, you will experience smoother scoring, a better hint distribution system, and an improved answer submission process. ((…)) to play in the hunt this year, it will cost you $7.99. ((…)) This also supports ClueKeeper – and, for those in the puzzling community, I hope you can respect this as well – ClueKeeper is awesome! I also made the hunt a bit longer than usual to hopefully help further justify the cost. ((…)) if you really want the puzzles for free and you have no interest in receiving any hints or being scored in any way possible (or supporting ClueKeeper) – send me an email and I will send you the PDFs in February after all of the paying competitors have had a chance to participate.” This doesn’t sound unreasonable in the least.

From there, where next? There are many options, not least Dr. Bob’s other work. As well as these deliberately very accessible events, he has several longer and more advanced works to his credit, some of which can still be played online. Great work and a great cause!

Industry advertising at the UK Games Expo

UK Games Expo 2017The UK Games Expo describes itself as the largest Hobby Games Convention in the UK. It has taken place in Birmingham for each of the last 11 years and attendance is in the low tens of thousands annually. It’s a three-day event, so the figure might have some triple-counting, but that’s still very impressive. It features organised tournaments and open gaming across a wide variety of genres: board games, trading card games, miniatures war games and RPGs, both tabletop and live action. Increasingly it features game-themed entertainment events as well. (It’s almost easier to define it in terms of what sorts of games it doesn’t focus upon: traditional mind sports, physical games and digital games.) While far from all exit games players have interests in these fields, enough of them do that this seems to pose an obvious opportunity: people who go to the UK Games Expo have a much larger-than-average chance of being interested in exit games.

There is a plan to have some sort of industry-wide presence at the event. Potentially there will be a bespoke game to play, showcasing what a number of different exit games have to offer, but which will need considerable manipulation to fit into a convention context. There would also be the scope to heavily advertise your exit game brand at the event. More on this may emerge at the next unconference on 10th January, as previously discussed, but there may be no spaces left for it, so the best way to find out more would be to get in touch with Liz Cable.