What would, could, should an escape game world championship look like?

STOP PRESS! More DASH 9 London tickets are set to be released tomorrow!

A somewhat abstract champion among their competitorsImmediately after the Red Bull Mind Gamers finals show was broadcast, some people declared the games played on the broadcast to be “not escape games”. Most of the most excitable responses were apparently made within Facebook groups. Manda Whitney, of the Room Escape Divas, forcefully and articulately made the (small-l) liberal case for the breadth of the term.

You know how much I write about topics around escape games here: puzzle hunts, puzzle competitions and the like, as well as writing about games like Boda Borg, Koezio, The Crystal Maze, GoQuest and so on. I also note, with great amusement, that many of the best-received escape games deserve their praise in part because, rather than despite, how different they are to so many other games that reviewers have played. Accordingly, I absolutely take the viewpoint that the games which were played in the Red Bull Mind Gamers semi and final were very much on-topic here, and I would have no problem describing them as escape games. (Is there an agreed definition on what an escape game is? In some ways, I rather hope not.)

I will say that the games played did seem to have rather more in common with some escape games than others. Although I haven’t played it, I would draw comparisons in format to the global Adventure Rooms company’s Original Swiss rooms, and I’ve heard other people draw slightly more distant comparisons to Time Run‘s new The Celestial Chain. It’s probably also fair to say that the games in the final do not nearly fall in the centre of the set of games which are felt to have the escape game nature, and I don’t mind that in the least.

The impression I get is that the game was designed first and foremost as a standalone Red Bull Mind Gamers experience, and had the description of “escape room world championship” appended to it rather later. It was a competition that declared a champion, so I’m happy with the “championship” part, and it had notably decent global representation for a first try, so calling it a “world championship” is not at all unreasonable. It tested skills that could entirely reasonably be tested when playing an escape room, so I’m happy to see the words “escape room” in there. Put them all together, and do you get “escape room world championship”? Well, I can see why people feel not.

While the games at Red Bull Mind Gamers (hereafter RBMG) final was a competition testing skills that are called upon in escape rooms, it was also a competition not testing other skills that are tested in many, maybe even most, escape rooms. (Searching and prioritisation/sequencing of multiple solution elements, to name just two.) If you take the approach that an abstract escape room world championship “should” test skills relatively frequently found in relatively many escape rooms, implemented in ways similar to those found relatively frequently, you might well find it harder to get to “escape room world championship”. It seems quite possible that those complaining most strongly about the world championships adhere most strongly to those views.

I say “let a thousand world championships bloom”! There is no governing body for escape rooms; as I said in passing last June, I’m very happy about this. The term escape room refers to an experience that is, joyously, so broad that the escape room championship experience can be just as broad. At one level, every single escape room that keeps a record of which team escaped most quickly holds its own championship; should a team from the UK go across to Vienna or Budapest and break those records, then they are international championships. Trying to work out which championship might be considered most prestigious is another matter entirely.

A really interesting part of the joy and fascination of escape rooms is the way that surprise is, under most (? All? Almost all?) current implementations, part of the challenge. You don’t know what you’re going to face once you enter the room, and don’t know in advance what skills will be tested. In practice, most escape rooms will follow the good practice of somewhat trying to set players’ expectations in advance, to ensure that teams will be guided towards choosing to play the room that they will most enjoy.

As much as there can be escape rooms that have a relatively high emphasis on physical aspects, or a relatively high emphasis on horror aspects, I would not invalidate a world championship that chose to place such emphases in their own rooms. (Compare with Boda Borg‘s “Quest Master” title for a team who completes all their challenges in a single visit, or the Autumn 2015 £1,000 competition held by the three-month pop-up Panic! room.) On the other hand, they would feel like championships of some subsection of the wider escape room experience at large… and quite probably that’s how Red Bull Mind Gamers feels, as well.

Does playing in a world championship mean that participants need to be ready for anything that might come under the purview of the field in question? Suppose RBMG had heavily focused on horror elements, or even more heavily on physical elements, would that have been a problem? It’s tempting to look at the examples of courses in adventure races, which might test (from Wikipedia) “a range of disciplines including navigation, trekking, mountain biking, paddling and climbing”. Imagine that an adventure race choose to throw in, say, a tightrope walk, or a race through a cave. Would that deviate from the core adventure race experience? (This has happened in practice, as recently as last year.) Setting expectations in advance, and suggesting what skills may be tested, may well make for a player-friendly experience. If it’s intended that picking an ideal team for the test is part of the skill set to be tested, which seems reasonable, then let people know in advance if their self-selected team needs to include the fit, or the brave, or those with perfect colour vision, or the able-bodied at large.

It’s hard to know what’s on the record and what’s not, but specifically taking Red Bull Mind Gamers into account, I am inclined to give the very strong benefit of the doubt to Dr. Scott Nicholson, who was one of the principals on the creative team, but not nearly as personally responsible for the design, implementation and particulars of game organisation as the show implied. I get the impression that he included a very great deal of original, imaginative, thoughtful and player-friendly practice in his design that was not brought to life in the product that made it to the TV show. He also included a great deal of practical science, as befits the association with a science fiction movie, in the gameplay that fell along the wayside. His intentions, and the results of his tests and designs with his students, came up against the practicalities of what might be realised and what Red Bull thought might make for good TV and the results of this multi-way clash were… variable.

That said, Scott definitely deliberately designed for something that was not at the very centre of the current escape game experience, not least in terms of the extent of the involvement of story (expressed in terms of the unfamiliar associated media franchise). The inclusion of a co-operative section in the final is particular evidence of this; it’s hard to imagine many other world championship competitions with co-operative sections. (I can think of one moderately obscure one; perhaps you know others…)

I get the impression that he designed for a Red Bull Mind Gamers event first and foremost, rather than for a straight-down-the-middle escape room world championship; I’m not sure if he would have designed things the same way if he had been told to prioritise the world championship nature more highly and the movie association less highly. That’s fair enough. Crucially, I don’t know if Red Bull would have funded a relatively conventional escape room world championship without a link to a media property of theirs. Going back several paragraphs, I come down on the side of concluding that these design decisions make the event no less credible or valuable a world championship.

I don’t agree with all Scott’s design decisions. I’ll quote Scott as saying “In Escape Rooms, knowing when you are in over your head and need to get assistance is an important part of the play.” This is generally a wise, player-friendly policy, appropriate in 99% of cases. I would be inclined to say that world championships are among the 1% of cases that are an exception to that general principle and would have preferred a different treatment of the hint process in the semi-final.

It’s tempting to wonder what other approaches might work; the only explicitly competitive one I am aware of to compare against is Escape Run in Malaysia in 2014, held by the chain known here as Escape Room UK, as described at Enigmatic Escape. There wasn’t a media property to associate with; the business case for the event is that all the participants were drawn from branches of one particular business. I find it relatively easy to imagine a single chain with wide international visibility, like Escape Hunt or Adventure Rooms to name just two, hosting a championship to raise visibility of their own brand.

All the assumptions I’ve made in this post are easily capable of being played with, but this is long enough as it is. Another post to follow – possibly the next, possibly not – is one I half-finished months ago playing with one of the biggest assumptions of them all.

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!

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…

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!

“This one time at GameCamp…”: a grand day at GameCamp 8

GameCamp logoAs previously discussed, today saw the eighth almost-annual GameCamp in London, at a campus of South Bank University near Elephant and Castle. The day saw something like 200 or 300 attendees enjoying an ad-hoc programme between 10am and 5pm (and an afterparty in the pub…) with people offering talks and activities on the half-hour, along with an extensive board game library and digital game demonstration lounge and occasional social games in the hallways. There were plenty of very knowledgeable, smart people there and an awful lot of fun ideas.

I enjoyed the event not only as a random attendee but also as a student of unconferences, having had only the Leeds edition (as an attendee) and the London edition (as facilitator) of The Great Escape UK. In truth, I had rather a shy day. The night beforehand I had grandiose plans for running a chocolate-tasting game with a box of tiny Green and Black’s flavoured chocolate bars, but (a) the bars are so small that the game wouldn’t have been fair and (b) the chocolate was out of date and some way past its best. (Maybe next year, though, with more preparation and more chocolate; in context, it would have fit in quite well.) I had also thought about trying to run sessions about puzzle adventures outside locked rooms or The Genius (or, more generically, “proper games on game shows”…) but it quickly became clear that the standards were so high – session attendances varying from approaching ten to more than fifty – that I wouldn’t have been able to busk the sessions. Again, maybe next year, with proper preparation.

What I did do, though, was play one published board game (Mr. Jack, a two-player detective-vs.-Jack-the-Ripper deductive chase game… not bad, though needs more than one play for each player to get the hang of the strategy), a late-stage prototype board game (very mechanically satisfying, sort of an inside-out version of one of my favourite early Reiner Knizia games), a late-stage prototype of Fabulous Beasts (which compared very favourably to the early playtest version I enjoyed in mid-February 2015) and a handful of prototype social games: a very simple, silly card/dice game that didn’t outstay its welcome, a real-time play-via-SMS negotiation game (cute medium, well worth exploring) and the mighty, silly, playful, rule-changing Cat On Yer Head mob party game. Half an hour of each was the exactly correct bite size. I also attended a number of talks, more of which than I had expected having a common theme of mental health. (This development is to be applauded; the more talking about mental health that happens, the better.)

The talk I most enjoyed was Oubliette‘s Mink ette on Designing Escape Games. This had a few dozen attendees. Adrian Hon had spoken on the genre at GameCamp 7, two years back, as mentioned at the time, and the audience (heavy on game developers, but game developers in many media) were much more up-to-speed now than they were then. Mink had given a talk at Strange Tales to an audience who were focused on narrative; this talk – completely off the cuff – was much more development-focused, and hit the mark completely with the audience.

As this is Ex Exit Games rather than neutral old Exit Games, I can say that Mink absolutely nailed it; I had a huge smile on my face for 26 minutes, and a covered mouth and furrowed brow for the other two. By the same token, I am of the opinion that Mink’s breadth of multimedia storytelling game experiences means that she gets it much more than most – she has a variety of perspectives, approaches and understanding of the modern story game aesthetic that I have heard infrequently elsewhere. Here’s a slightly silly analogy based more on feeling than anything else, but with at least a grain of truth behind it: Punchdrunk is to Myst as Time Run is to Monkey Island as Oubliette is to Gone Home; all great, in different ways. As discussed, Oubliette won’t be around for long in its current form. It would be a terrible shame to lose Mink’s experiences and vision from the world of escape rooms (yes, this is pretty much a direct HIRE MINK, SHE’S GREAT plug) but, if it happens, we can be sure that something not very far away will gain instead.

Another interesting session was a crowdsourced instant awards show: a very simple, elegant, effective design for a facilitator and at least a couple of dozen players. The protocol is simple:

  1. a player suggests an award category;
  2. other players can make nominations for the category, offering brief reasoning in favour;
  3. after each nomination, anybody can briefly rebut it;
  4. once the flow of nominations dries up, there’s a vote among the players (today using Approval voting) to determine which nomination wins the category.

I suggested the GameCamp 8 award for GameCamp 10’s “That’s so GameCamp 9”, which I should have more neatly called this year’s next year’s last year’s thing, and which was not unreasonably elided to “flashes in the pan”. VR games were nominated first and much discussed. The fourth nomination – obviously not by me – was that of live-action escape games, described in some most unparliamentary language. Oddly enough, I rebutted the nomination, to a decorous round of applause from the nominator; when it came to the voting for the award, VR games won, but escape games did come a pretty close second. On balance, I don’t mind the nomination at all; one of the ways you know your genre has made it is when there’s a backlash against it.

If there’s a negative criticism to the day – and this, I fear, is one where the committee had worked long and hard on the practicalities – it’s that the lunch was merely serviceable (and I’ve juggled a few alternative adjectives here) with three thin slices of very moderate pizza and a merely competent salad, when previous GameCamps have had the communally broken bread as a highlight. Plus points for free water, minus points for no dessert. I nearly said in the debriefing session that “I’d have paid a higher entry fee for the budget to cover a lunch that included dessert” – but, when I went to the café afterwards and looked at the prices charged for dessert there, I internally said how much? and bought a cheap banana instead. That position of mine is not quite inconsistent, but it’s certainly incongruous. (That said, I nearly bought a cake just for the purposes of taking it to a session taking place in a room that had been renamed Cake for the day, but decided it a gag not quite worth the money.)

Many thanks to the committee for all their hard work, to the overseers of the board game library and to all those who contributed, either by leading a session or just by contributing to one. (Playing games definitely counts here.) It was lovely to see people from both Puzzled Pint and from the London The Great Escape UK unconference – no name checks, but you know who you are. (It’s also great to start to bump into people more and more frequently; that’s how you make friendships!) It was also lovely to get something that had been weighing on my mind somewhat out into the open, and it was received as well as I could have hoped.

The unexpected conclusion that I came away with from the unconference is that it was absolutely the right decision for me to move from Exit Games UK to Ex Exit Games. Just as well, really!

Did DASH 8 leave you wanting more?

whatsnext

This site has always declared its constituency to be Escape games, puzzle hunts and more and the escape games have had to take a back seat for some time. Perhaps you’re coming here for your first time, or one of your first times, as a result of DASH, or perhaps you couldn’t go but thought it sounded great; you don’t have to wait another year for DASH 9 to get your fill of puzzle fun. The idea to try to keep a calendar of such things has rather fallen by the wayside, but there are plenty of exciting-looking things coming up:

  • This site is perhaps more excited about the upcoming Raiders of the Lost Archive than anything else. It’s a version of Citydash by the esteemed Fire Hazard, but has a big twist. It takes place in the Victoria & Albert Museum; the V&A are excited about this, but it’s not an official event of theirs. The difference between this and any other Citydash is “(…)this time there’ll be nobody chasing you (and no running in the museum!). We’ll keep the pressure up with twists & turns, surprise clues and leaderboard updates, but you won’t need your running shoes for this one – and you’ll be inside throughout.
     
    If the running element of previous Citydash events has been a turn-off (*raises hand*) then this may well fit the bill and the theme is gorgeous. You can play solo, in a pair, or in a team of up to five. Tickets for Sunday afternoons in May are now listed for 15th May, 5th June and possibly 28th May. (Thanks to Ken for the heads-up!) 
     
  • The A Door In A Wall are, happily, continuing to put on their large-scale public events. The next one coming up very soon will be entitled Played to Death. “Each team will need a charged smartphone to hand and we advise you wear comfortable footwear as our story leads you out into the nearby streets in search of puzzles, clues and characters. (…) you’ll have about 45 mins to get settled and work out where to begin your investigation before the game’s opening scene. You’ll be tasked with gathering evidence to crack the case and you’ll then have two hours to explore the area outside: solving puzzles, interacting with characters and collecting clues. Once the time is up, return to the Square Pig ((pub)) where you’ll have some time to make sense of what you’ve found and identify the killer.
     
    The game will be offered on most evenings and some afternoons (particularly at weekends) between mid-May and mid-June; tickets are already available and have sold out on a number of days already. If you don’t get to play, the company are also offering the A Veiled Threat game on the third Tuesday of every month, which The Logic Escaped Me played and loved
     
  • This site’s friends at Treasure Hunts In London are also continuing to run their events; the best way to keep in touch with what’s on offer there is their calendar on Eventbrite. Three events are coming up soon: May sees the Art on the Streets Treasure Hunt at the Chocolate Museum on the 14th and the Trafalgar Square Experience at the National Gallery on the 28th; June sees the Naughty But Nice Afternoon Adventure starting at the Annenberg Courtyard of the Royal Academy on the 18th. Prices vary, depending on whether the event includes no food, a cream tea or a full dinner. 
     
  • The Cambridge University Computing and Technology Society have held a long, ambitious, advanced puzzle hunt annually for the last three or four years, normally in early June after most students have finished their exams. No word whether there’ll be another one this year, but fingers crossed. The logical place to look for more information would be the society’s Facebook page
     
  • The Manorcon board game convention (15th to 18th July at the University of Leicester) is set to feature a puzzle hunt, probably on the Sunday afternoon. This year’s hunt setters are past hunt setting veterans and multiple-time solving champions, as well as some of this site’s favourite people in the world; attend Manorcon because it’s a tremendous board game convention that started running ten or twenty years before the current breed of board games started to become popular again, rather than just for the puzzle hunt. 
     
  • Before all those, there’s dear old Puzzled Pint in London – and now also in Manchester! – on the second Tuesday of each month, so as soon as the Tuesday in half a week’s time. The puzzles here come from a rather more DASH-like background, but are deliberately accessible to all and designed to provide an hour or two’s fun for a team enjoying food, drink and good company. 
     
  • If Tuesday’s too long to wait, or if London and Manchester are both too far to go, there are online puzzle hunts which come to you. The annual Melbourne University Mathematics (and statistics) Society hunt starts at midday, local time, on 9th May. It’s designed for teams of up to ten; you’ll recognise some of the participating teams’ names from the top of the DASH leaderboard, but other teams come from the MIT Mystery Hunt tradition and more. Suffice to say that the MUMS hunt has gained an audience who like to spend hours on deep, research-y, Aha!-y puzzles, though they’re almost always brilliantly constructed. 
     
  • Staying online, if you like logic puzzle contests then the calendar also looks busy. The World Puzzle Federation’s Grand Prix season’s contests take place every four weeks, with the next starting on Friday 13th May. The next contest is set by the US authors and may be of particular interest; more soon. The move to featuring “casual” puzzles as well as the more high-powered traditional fare adds massively to the fun as well as the accessibility. That’s not all from US authors, though; the US Puzzle Championship will be on Sunday 18th June. Before that, HIQORA takes place on Saturday 28th May; more soon on that one, too. Look out (perhaps at @ukpuzzles on Twitter?) for news of the UK Puzzle Championship as well, which has rapidly become this site’s favourite of the year. Previous UKPCs have happened in May, June, July and August, so this year’s event could happen at any moment. Exciting times!

Drawing a line from one DASH to the next

DASH 008 in London needed its teams to go underground!

DASH 008 needed its teams to go underground! From @playdashlondon

This is a guest post by David J. Bodycombe, one of the UK’s foremost puzzle authors. You may know his work from The Crystal Maze and Only Connect or perhaps numerous books and periodicals. At the very least you probably know that car park puzzle; to this site’s taste, he’s written easily two thousand much more interesting ones over the years, but you can never tell what’s going to catch the public’s imagination…

Last year, as a participant of DASH 7, something didn’t feel… right. When I got home and had to explain to my wife whatever the heck I’d been doing for the day, I sensed that I hadn’t had that much fun. The company was great, but the frantic time limits, a lack of food, an unfortunate route and a brute of a final puzzle left me thinking “Maybe I won’t do it next year”. But with DASH 8 promising a Brit-friendly theme of James Bond, how could I say no?

Last year, I put down my thoughts on how DASH could improve, both as a podcast and as a summary post in the comments. I make no personal claim for any improvements made but, since it is this site’s frequent milieu, I thought it might be fun to look back and see how much of my wishlist was catered for this year.

(1) DITCH THE TRACKS.
Partially. The Junior track has gone, tailing the tracks from three to two. Frankly, the junior track was never going to be a long-term possibility in London, particularly with its 18+ pub culture being a supplier of many indoor venues. The prospect of expecting a chaperone to guide teenagers around the busy streets of London on a Saturday was a tough ask, and I agreed with a commenter last year who said that there would be better value in making the puzzles available for schools to run their own mini-puzzle drives. I still believe the differences in the Normal/Expert tracks cause more doubt and administration complexity than is worth, and that homogenisation of the tracks wouldn’t affect more than 5% of the teams.

(2) MINI-TASKS SHOULD BE IMPRESSIVE, OR GOOD JOKES, OR OMITTED.
Yes. In past years, it was hard for Londoners not to look on the DASH social media feeds with a feeling of jealousy. Somehow, DASH seemed cooler there – better themed, better spaced and better stunts. Not so, this year. If anything, London may have been *the* place to DASH – particularly with the start point a stone’s throw away from the on-theme MI6 headquarters. Imaginative mini-tasks plus the tremendous innovation of optional ‘HMSAT tests’, some of which required teams to be observant and quick-witted at all times, added immensely to the occasion.

(3) WE NEED TO BELIEVE GAME CONTROL.
and
(4) THE RULES NEED TO BE CONSISTENT FOR EACH LOCATION.
Yes. Last year, the slightly rubber-banded rules, where different locations were allowed to be flexible about when to end the hunt, led to a lot of confusion and disappointment. This particularly applied to my team last year, as we quit early not realising that the advertised “strictly-enforced 8 hour time limit” was actually no such thing. This year, the sensible thing was done – a 10-hour limit was the same for all (AFAIK) and even an overall countdown timer was there on the ClueKeeper to avoid any anxiety.

(5) IMPROVE THE SCORING.
Partially. Still some work to do, here. In particular, the scoring was not explained on an info sheet this year, so lord knows what DASH newbies thought of it. But, again, puzzle 1 was not worth anything. This means that some teams (maybe well-meaning latecomers) are simply typing in the answer that their mates have told them, meaning that ClueKeeper’s stats credit them with solving the puzzle in a world-beating 7 seconds, and thus denying the ‘real’ winning team from getting a little gold cup next to their name. I still think it should be worth something – either a flat score, or a low Par value to indicate that you shouldn’t spend too long on it. Another wish of mine from last year was to allow more opportunities for bonus points. This was indeed achieved, but only in the distinctly cheeky manner of ramping up the total Par time to a little short of 7 hours. Hmm.

(6) MAKE THE PROPS BETTER OR DITCH THEM.
Yes. A big win. You couldn’t say that this year’s DASH was “just Puzzled Pint with walking”. The advantages of DASH’s economies of scale were definitely evident this year and, more to the point, the props had a puzzle purpose to them rather than just delivering a codeword answer.

(7) MAKE THE CONTENT ACHIEVABLE BY MOST.
Yes. Though our team quit on the final puzzle this year due to taking too long on puzzle 9, looking at the general ClueKeeper statistics it’s easy to see that almost all teams had the opportunity to finish within the time allowed.

With these feedback points largely addressed, I offer up another set for discussion:

(A) EASE UP ON THE CONSTRUCTION?
This is one area that really hurts smaller teams. While DASH has never claimed to be any fairer to teams of 3 than 5, nevertheless the fairly extensive nature of some puzzles that required the teams to build paper or wooden models would have added minutes (maybe tens of minutes) to the scores. The news near the end that *every* team member was *required* to have scissors really took me aback. And, I say this slightly seriously, if I ever make it to DASH 38, I wonder how my arthritic fingers would cope with things like folding paper cranes. Does against-the-clock building further discriminate against the less physically able? As other commenters have noted, the time difference in time taken for construction often made the ClueKeeper out-of-sync with the team’s progress.

(B) CHOKE BACK ON THE PUZZLE LENGTHS
Although the average solve times seem much more in line with previous years this time around, and the overall event pacing was better too, there did seem to be an expectation that teams would have to spend 9 hours overall this time rather than 8. I would like to see the par time come back down to nearer 6 hours. This, plus an hour for eating and 90 minutes for travelling, still adds up to a pretty packed 8.5 hours. How could this be done in practice? I would say: by keeping the starter puzzle shorter (it was quite a Googling-heavy brute this year), by keeping most puzzles sub-45 minutes, and by having a slightly more robust attitude to starting on time. Puzzle 5 (par: 75 minutes) was way too long for a lunchtime activity – my usual team usually finishes an entire evening of Puzzled Pint (four puzzles and a meta) within 75 minutes!

(C) TO PREP OR NOT TO PREP?
Despite following DASH on Facebook and Twitter, somehow I missed the “Advanced Training” which gave information on two things: how to solve cryptic crossword clues, and how to fold paper cranes. If you’ve never solved a cryptic crossword, to somehow learn this skill in the week before DASH is asking a lot. What next? You have a week to speak fluent Klingon, or learn to juggle? I’ve seen some people suggest the rules to Baccarat should have been made available beforehand, to which I heartily disagree: it would have put even more advantage to the teams that have spotted the pre-game information.

(D) GIVE SOME INDICATION OF ‘DWELL TIME’
It would be appreciated if the route information could more heavily hint if teams are likely to stay in a location for a long period of time – particularly where locations ‘double up’ for two puzzles. For instance, at the morning meeting point there was a heavy sense of “Do I bother to buy a coffee or not?”. You don’t want to be mid-croissant when ClueKeeper cheerily guides you to your next location 2 miles away. No-one wants that.

(E) BEAR THE BRITS IN MIND…
DASH GC have a little more way to go to make it feel like a global-inclusive event, rather than London being a “+1”. For instance, I winced when – given the event’s British/James Bond theme – we had to release puzzle 1 on ClueKeeper by spelling the word LICENCE the “wrong” way…

Overall, my team rated this year’s DASH as a ‘solid 8/10’ which should be interpreted as a very good score for such a complex event, and a definite improvement from last year. Particular thanks should go to London’s GC who stepped in to help when all others stepped back, and added notable innovations and flair that I hope future GCs will emulate. I very much look forward to DASH 9.

(Full disclosure: due to a family medical emergency, I had to pull out half-way. As a result, some of this post uses feedback from my teammates or other third-hand information.)

Mission accomplished – DASH 8 described

DASH 8 deck of cardsThis site makes no apology for writing a considerable quantity about DASH with just as considerable delight; it’s always one of the highlights of the year. If you couldn’t attend this year, here’s what you missed… and perhaps, just perhaps, it might make you interested in taking part in a future year. If you played DASH elsewhere and were keen to know how London interpreted this year’s puzzles, you can find out here as well.

Fair warning: now that DASH has finished, we’re into potential spoiler territory. Every previous DASH has had its puzzles posted online reasonably soon afterwards. If you didn’t play DASH, it would still be a lot of fun to get a group of your friends together and try the puzzles for yourself once they’re made available. This post is going to be fairly generic, avoiding the Aha! moments for each puzzle, but the comments may be more specific. Nevertheless, if you want to avoid spoilers altogether, it may be wise to skip this post and it may be very wise to skip the comments. However, if you played and want to relive the experience, if you played elsewhere and want to compare stories or if you know you’ll never play this year’s puzzles and just want to find out what you missed, then to get to the detail you can click on the mission dossier that is the “Continue Reading” button below. Continue reading

(Almost) Everybody hates deliberately ambiguous puzzles

You might have seen these puzzles, which have been doing the rounds on social media recently. What do you think the answers are?

Ambiguous fruit puzzle

a) 15. A bunch of bananas is a bunch of bananas. Who knows how many there really are in each one?
b) 14. There are four bananas in the bunches in lines 2 and 3, sort of, and there are only three bananas in the bunch in line 4.
c) 11. Nobody cares about boring old ordinary bananas. The only reason the bunches in lines 2 and 3 have any value is because of that special double-tipped banana. Without it, the rest of the bunch is worth zero.

Ambiguous flower puzzle

a) 26. A blue flower is a blue flower, regardless of how many leaves it has. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
b) 25. The flower head and stems are distractions, this is really about leaves.
c) The answer is undefined as there is no basis to say what the relationship is between the value of a blue flower with four leaves and one with five leaves. Consider how much more highly a four-leaf clover is regarded than a three-leaf one.

How many watermelons are there?

Ambiguous watermelon puzzle

a) Five. Three-quarters times four is three, and one-half times four is two.
b) Six. The middle four are two cut in half, the other four are used to produce the outer four. Yes, four quarter-melons are missing, but they clearly aren’t used to make up the ones in the middle.
c) An indeterminate number between six and eight, because we don’t can’t tell whether or not the ones in the middle are two halves of the same melon or not.
d) Zero. Three quarters of a melon and half a melon are both different things to a watermelon, notably in terms of freshness.

You might think that the fact that they’ve got hundreds of thousands of shares suggests they’re popular and thus worth including (or, at least, adapting) in your exit game. Please don’t. They’re popular because they’re deliberately ambiguous and can be argued more than one way. That’s really not a good property for an exit game puzzle. The fact that people are likely to have seen the puzzles, or their central conceits, before is not the best starting-point.

Counting puzzles have a long history in exit games and are a core skill. They’re hardly likely to excite, though there are a few cute ways to dress them up and if you have fantastic art then they can be genuinely pretty. The last time that a counting puzzle actually made someone smile was approximately 1898 (some reports suggest 1896) when Sam Loyd sold more than 10,000,000 copies of “Get Off The Earth” (discussed in detail, though the link is old and so the pictures have rotted, at the wonderful defective yeti) – and that’s perhaps better classed as an optical illusion than as a puzzle.

Algebraic equations are also known within exit games; if you write out the equations in words, then things are unambiguous. They may be a sufficiently close reminder of school that people who didn’t like algebra at the time are unlikely to appreciate the reminder now. The first puzzle of the three is the least problematic; if the bananas were completely separate from each other, it would be unambiguous, though not particularly exciting. As it is, it gets into issues of two-dimensional depictions of three-dimensional objects; why do you assume a banana is there when you can only see part of it, when you assume there isn’t any fruit hidden behind the apples?

One big problem with the puzzles above is that if you declare one of the answers to be correct and another to be wrong, then people are unlikely to be impressed by your explanation as to what makes something right or wrong. The bigger problem is that when people try what you consider to be the wrong answer and find out it doesn’t get them anywhere, they will probably stumble on the right answer by shifting one either way and then concluding that either their arithmetic was wrong (not much fun) or that your arithmetic was wrong (even less fun). It then becomes simple trial and error rather than puzzle-solving. It’s the sort of situation where only the person setting the room thinks it’s funny and the people playing the room think it’s not.

By contrast, if the “right” and “wrong” answers were, say, six away from each other and there were a satisfying reason why the “wrong” answer was wrong, that’s a much better puzzle – and whether a reason is satisfying or not is judged by the person hearing the answer, not the person setting the puzzle. This has been a very negative article so far, so here’s a constructive suggestion instead. If you’re effectively required not just to count up items for an equation but identify each item and work out whether thematically it fits into the category to be counted, that’s fine and potentially good; at worst, it’s a “how many animals of each time did Moses take into the ark?” trick question.

In short: stay well away from this sort of gimmick. The least worst thing that could be said about them is that they anchor the creation of your room to a particular point in time – specifically, this week or so – when everyone will have moved onto something completely different next week.

And as for the division sign in this little blighter, don’t even go there

Ambiguous division puzzle