This weekend is UK Puzzle Championship weekend

Latest UK Puzzle Association logoIf the in-person puzzle competition highlight of the year is DASH, then the online puzzle competition highlight of the year is the UK Puzzle Championship, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a two-hour contest of language-neutral culture-free logic puzzles and it’s free to enter. This year, there are 27 puzzles in the test, all of different types (as opposed to other years where one style of puzzle features more than once). Some of them are word puzzles, and others are styles you might recognise from some newspapers. Others still might be new to you unless you’ve gone looking for puzzles on the Internet already, or taken part in previous competitions; a few may well still be new to you even if this is far from your first such puzzle contest. The instruction booklet is already available from the official competition page – and, if there were any clarifications, they’d be on the discussion thread on the forum. ((Edited to add:)) James McGowan has collected examples of the types of puzzles used in the contest and posted them to that thread. These examples will probably be more difficult than the ones used in the contest, so don’t worry if you struggle with them!

If you finish in the top two places (excluding those who have qualified already at the live event earlier in the year…) among UK solvers then you become eligible to represent the country as part of the national team in the 26th World Puzzle Championship. This year it’ll be taking place in mid-October in Bangalore, in India. The World Sudoku Championship is at the same venue just days before; congratulations to the winner of the recent UK Sudoku Championship, Mark Goodliffe, who’s earned his spot on that team.

You can start the two hours that you have to take on the puzzles whenever you like after midday (UK time) on Friday 23rd June, but you must get your responses in by 2am on Tuesday 27th – so Monday evening is the latest time that you can start. You’ll need to register for an account at the UK Puzzle Association site, and download a file with an encrypted version of the puzzles from the contest page. You’ll get the password to open the puzzle file when you choose to start your clock.

The reason why I enjoy this contest more than all the others is that there’s always plenty to keep you occupied even if you, like me, are quite a modest puzzle-solver who tends to get put off relatively easily by tougher puzzles. (Traditionally I finish something like fourth or fifth last in the UKPC.) As a rough starting-point, if you score one-third of the possible points, then you’re likely to finish in about the top half of the contest; if you score one-half of the possible points, then you’re likely to finish in about the top third. Unless you have your eye on a national team place, it’s really all about the joy of trying some puzzles of types you might not have seen before. It’s great fun, and a great tradition; it’s my single favourite online contest of the year!

US Puzzle Championship on Saturday; Czech Grand Prix this weekend

World Puzzle Federation Grands Prix 2017 logoTomorrow’s a big day. Not only is there the Prison Escape event in Shrewsbury and the start of the CUCaTS puzzle hunt in Cambridge, there’s also the US Puzzle Championship.

This is a free-to-enter online puzzle championship, open to everyone around the world. It has a fixed timeslot, which is arguably more convenient for European solvers than its native US ones: 6pm to 8:30pm UK time. During those two and a half hours, score as many points as you can by answering culture-free language-neutral logic puzzles of differing values. Register for an account at the US Puzzle Championship site and you can already download an instruction document containing details of the puzzle styles that will be used and relatively simple examples of the puzzles. It looks like the first half of the test contains a mixture of reasonably familiar puzzle styles and less familiar but closely related styles; the second half of the test contains puzzles that are variants of some familiar styles. It’s bound to be a tough test but huge fun for those who take part.

If you don’t want to wait, or if the time slot doesn’t work out, or if you’d prefer a more accessible challenge, this weekend also sees the fifth round of the World Puzzle Federation’s Puzzle Grand Prix. As usual, this free-to-play online puzzle contests, this time set by representatives from the Czech Republic, is now available and will remain so until late Monday night, UK time. 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.

There are three parallel one-hour contests that take place in the same weekend each round, referred to as classes A, B and C. Puzzles in the “Class A” and “Class B” contests are culture-free language-neutral logic puzzles, of which the Class B puzzles may be slightly less exotic; puzzles in the “Class C” contest 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, and the instruction booklets with the details have already been published. Take a look at all three booklets – maybe start with the Class C booklet first – and then solve the set, or sets, of puzzles that look the most fun.

You can’t give your full attention to all the events going on this weekend, for the ones with fixed timeslots overlap – but, whatever you choose, there’s plenty to enjoy!

June is puzzle contest month

June 2017 calendar with fireworksI hope your June goes with a bang, much like the background of this photo!

June is an exciting month for free-to-enter online puzzle contests, with at least one every weekend:

  • This weekend (i.e., you have until, I believe, 11pm UK time tonight to finish) sees the latest round of the WPF’s Sudoku Grand Prix contest, this one written by Serbian authors. The Sudoku Grand Prix rounds consist of a single 90-minute paper, where all the puzzles are sudoku and sudoku variants; take a look at the Instruction Booklet to see precisely what will be required.
  • If that’s your thing, next weekend kicks it up a notch. The World Puzzle and Sudoku Championships take place this year in India between Sunday 15th and Sunday 22nd October. More specifically, it’s happening near Bangalore (sometimes said to be the Silicon Valley of India!) at a resort called Clarks Exotica. The UK will have a team, as usual, and there is at least one space on it available for the winner of (or top person not already qualified from) the UK Sudoku Championship, which will be a two-hour paper that happens at a point of your choice between Friday 9th June and Monday 12th June.
  • The weekend after that, it’s the fifth round of the WPF’s Puzzle Grand Prix, this time set by authors from the Czech Republic; usual format, three parallel one-hour papers, and I’ve really been digging the “C” section papers. However, that’s not all; the US Puzzle Championship also takes place that weekend – and this is one where you don’t have the latitude to schedule it yourself, for it’s a two-and-a-half hour paper starting strictly at 6pm UK time. Historically the puzzles here have been around World Championship level of difficulty; anyone who solves (at least almost) all the paper in the time limit is a genuine world championship contender, and anyone who scores 50% would be likely to be reasonably competitive in the world championship. Take a look for the instructions a little closer to the time.
  • One weekend later still, the weekend of Friday 23rd June to Monday 25th June, is the UK Puzzle Championship. Hooray! As much as DASH is my in-person competition highlight of the year, this is my online competition highlight of the year; it’s genuinely accessible but still sufficiently discriminatory at the top end to be useful in picking a representative for the puzzle team at the world championships, as discussed above. More about this closer to the time, surely. Incidentally, while we’re talking about the world championships, a tip of the hat to the Indian organisers for having the bravery to run an event without play-offs this year. Play-offs are fun, especially for spectators, but for a championship it feels much more appropriate to decide the champion in the style of a decathlon than in the style of Gladiators.
  • The weekend after that will be four weeks since the previous Sudoku Grand Prix round, so another one will tick around again, and so on the cycle goes.

This weekend is Dutch Grand Prix weekend

World Puzzle Federation Grands Prix 2017 logoThis weekend will be the fourth one since the Red Bull Mind Gamers finals. There’s an easy way to work that out; the World Puzzle Federation’s Puzzle Grand Prix events normally take place every four weeks, but the previous one was postponed because it would have happened on the same weekend as the RBMG finals. (Maybe “because” is strong; quite possibly it was coincidence.) In order to keep the series eight contests long, there’ll be an extra make-up weekend in early August.

The Grand Prix series is a collection of eight free-to-play online puzzle contests, each set by representatives of a different country. Each round is available for 3½ days, from 10am GMT on Friday to 10pm GMT on Monday. (This is likely to translate to one hour earlier in local time, for so many of us have sprung forward but not fallen back.) 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.

There are three parallel one-hour contests that take place in the same weekend each round, referred to as classes A, B and C. Puzzles in the “Class A” and “Class B” contests are culture-free language-neutral logic puzzles, of which the Class B puzzles may be slightly less exotic; puzzles in the “Class C” contest 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, and the instruction booklets with the details have already been published. Take a look at all three booklets – maybe start with the Class C booklet first – and then solve the set, or sets, of puzzles that look the most fun. So you can choose to have one, two or three hours of puzzle fun this weekend!

Remember: Galactic Puzzle Hunt starts today

Galactic Puzzle Hunt 2017 logoAs a reminder, this site previously posted about topics including the Galactic Puzzle Hunt, which derives its spacefaring name from the puzzle hunt team who are running it. The first hunt starts today! It’s an Australian-style hunt, which means that new puzzles will be released every day; this hunt will release five puzzles today and then five more daily for each of the next five days.

There is an unusual hinting scheme which will permit teams to ask their own yes-or-no questions, and a player-friendly policy that states “In addition to a “Yes” or “No” answer, we may provide additional clarification/help depending on the circumstances. 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!” Thrilled to read it and looking forward to how it works out in practice!

The puzzles will be released at 1:59 pm PDT daily. Note that that is Daylight time, for most of North America has sprung forward already, a couple of weeks before Europe; this works out as 8:59 pm UK time. (And did you see me make this post yesterday, getting the first day of the hunt completely wrong? No, no. Not at all. I’m just styling it out, as they say.)

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!

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!