A world championship for escape game teams? Red Bull Mind Gamers: Mission Unlock Enoch

Red Bull Mind Gamers: Mission Unlock Enoch, copyright Red Bull GmbH

image copyright Red Bull GmbH

Just over 18 months ago, I reported on a Escape Room Game Jam held at MIT in association with Red Bull and their associated feature film division. Things went quiet and it seemed that the trail had gone cold on this one. The trail has heated back up; it looks like it heated back up a little while ago, but I haven’t seen anyone talking about it, so here goes.

Red Bull Mind Gamers calls itself a “platform for curious minds, with games and challenges to provoke their thinking“, featuring a selection of online puzzles testing strategy, logic, creativity, visual thinking, abstract musical thought and memory to various extents. The “Brain Food” section features articles and interviews on related contemporary mental game topics.

There has been a countdown to the site’s main event, Mission Unlock Enoch, whose self-description of “global competitive mind gaming tournament” is a gussied-up way of saying “sort-of-escape-room world championship”. Hurrah! This is far more exciting and relevant to interests here than anything else recently done by any other purveyor of caffeinated chilled sugary beverages. (Unless you know otherwise…) It’s all tied up with their MindGamers movie, previously referred to in passing as DxM.

25 teams of four will receive paid travel to Budapest in February 2017 to take on the “ultimate mixed reality Escape Room Tournament”, with the overall champions earning a three-day trip to Boston. Wherever you are in the world, you can attempt to win one of four global wild card spaces by attempting to complete this single-player online game as quickly as possible. (Practising the other games on the site might help.) The other 21 spaces are awarded to national champions to parallel national qualifying competitions held in 21 different countries: Singapore, South Korea, the US, Oman, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Norway, Switzerland, and a dozen current EU nations, happily including the United Kingdom. Lots of important gaps in the list: Australia, Canada, China, Japan, and so on, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Accordingly, there is a national qualifying competition in the UK to determine our representative at the world finals. This will take place at Breakout Manchester on December 5th and at Breakout Cardiff on December 7th. “Within 20 minutes, your team of four players will have to connect their mind skills and solve a multi-player mind game in order to ‘unlock’ and leave the room. The fastest team per country gets to enter the final Escape Room in Budapest in 2017.” Each player only gets one try; you’re not allowed to play on more than one team, or to play in more than one location. It’s not clear how the company are planning to avoid spoilers here; procedurally generated puzzles might be one solution that remains reasonably fair in terms of difficulty.

It’s not quite even that simple! In order to get a place at Manchester or Cardiff, you need to rack up a score towards the top of the local chart for the single-player online game. Top scorers there will be invited to pick their team and their time of choice for the qualification day at Manchester and Cardiff. You miiiight be able to get to play in the qualifiers just by turning up on the day even without scoring well at the online game, but this isn’t guaranteed and I wouldn’t risk it.

The overall pattern looks like this: play the online game alone, do well and earn a spot at Manchester or Cardiff, do very well with your team there and win a trip to Budapest, do extremely well with your team in Budapest and win a trip to Boston. (Maybe, just maybe, the prize will be to go to Boston when the MIT Mystery Hunt is on. That would be a neat circle from the location of the original game jam.)

Not much else is known at the moment, except maybe anecdotally from past players. You can read the rules, the FAQ and the terms of participation as .pdf files, but you may get more of an insight by reading the interview with the designers. One open question: who (or, I suppose, what or where) is Enoch and why should Enoch be unlocked?

Inevitably I’ll be hundreds of miles away from anywhere useful, working the day shift on the Manchester qualification day and the night shift on the Cardiff qualification day, but it would be a joy if whoever the UK representatives eventually turn out to be were part of the community. (Or, the other way around, it would be strange if the UK representatives weren’t part of the community, by choice.) We’ll be cheering the UK team on in Budapest in February!

If you do decide to go for it, the very best of luck to you – and please tell all about it on December 8th!

My thoughts on the 2016 UK Puzzle Championship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ukpc 2

Click on the image for a bigger version of the graph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK Puzzle Championship 2016: the stats

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to break in to the 2016 UK Puzzle Championship

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

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

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Can a puzzle contest simulate an escape room?

World Puzzle Federation logoThe World Puzzle Federation‘s rolling Puzzle Grand Prix contest has its fifth round this weekend. It’s a free-to-enter online puzzle contest where you are given an hour and a half to score as many points as you can by solving paper-and-pencil puzzles. You can start at any point after 11am UK time on Friday and must conclude by 11pm UK time on Monday.

This fifth round is particularly interesting to this site because it’s being set by puzzle authors from the US who have chosen to theme some of their puzzles in the “casual” section around what they’re calling “Escape the Grand Prix”. For all intents and purposes, don’t worry about the distinction between the “casual” and “competitive” sections unless you’ve been solving every round and getting almost all the “competitive” puzzles correct; just solve whichever puzzles seem most entertaining, whichever section they’re in.

You are trapped in a room with a stack of puzzles, wondering if you’ll be able ((to)) finish all of them. Between you and the end is one Mastermind puzzle. But it seems to be in code, with twenty different letters corresponding to different digit values from 1 to 9 (e.g., X = 2 or Y = 6). Perhaps solving the other puzzles, some normal in appearance and others with some of the same code letters, will help. Not all puzzles will be useful to crack the code, but you never know where important clues will be found so search everywhere. Can you figure out what digit each letter stands for and ‘Escape the Grand Prix’ before time runs out?

Take a look at the Instruction Booklet which is a 3.3 MB .pdf file; the booklet hints at the sort of tricks it might use to secrete digits’ identities throughout and also shows you what other types of puzzles there will be on offer in the contest. The contest goes out of its way to offer puzzles in a wide range of levels of difficulty, and you know what styles of puzzles will be featured in advance so you can have a good idea whether you’ll enjoy them or not. You can even get some practice in on the types of puzzles that you know you’ll be facing in advance, if you like. The first four rounds were great fun and this one should be even more so!

Coming soon: HIQORA, the High IQ World Championships

High IQ World Championships logoThere’s an interesting and unusual-looking online puzzle contest happening on Saturday 28th May: the first round of the 2016 edition of HIQORA, the High IQ World Championships. It has an interesting structure: there will be two online rounds, with the top scorers from the first advancing to the second and the top 12 scorers from the second winning flights to, and accommodation for, the live world final in San Diego. (No clue if there’s any prize other than the trip and the title, but that’s easily good enough alone.) The first round is set to start at 4pm UK time on Saturday 28th May, and will be held simultaneously around the world, so it starts at 8am in San Francisco, 11am in New York, 6pm in Moscow and so on. (The web site suggests that it starts at 8pm in Beijing, but this may be a typo.) Can’t help feeling that this is even more of an advantage to people operating on European time already, and it does seem a shame that there won’t be many people who get to start at 1pm, 2pm or 3pm, but any time is bound to inconvenience some more than others.

The duration of the first round is yet to be confirmed. “The two Online Rounds will each be up to four hours in length, and held simultaneously around the world. Activities and questions are drawn from the HIQORA Championship Framework which explores multi-disciplinary aspects of high intelligence. Examples of these activities and questions may include: learning to play a new board game; interpreting complex literature and language passages; interactive case studies; mathematics and graphical workouts; spelling bees; memory workouts; knowledge of geographical facts and figures; and various exercises across science, technology, education and maths (STEM).

You may be given the rules to a new board game, or other pre-reading, 72 hours in advance and thus a relatively limited time to master it. That sounds like rather a fun sort of challenge. It’s tempting to wonder whether or not the championships will attempt to be culture-neutral. The signs would seem to point to that not being a top priority, and (at the risk of an interpretation, which this site would love to learn is incorrect) might seem to imply a focus on English language culture. On the other hand, this would appear to be only a small part of the focus of the overall test.

One comment in the FAQ is particularly striking: “(…) it’s important to note that HIQORA is a test of natural intelligence, so study as such is of lesser importance to success in the competition than natural abilities.” This site tends to believe that puzzle contests covered by this site generally tend not to go out of their way to make that sort of distinction, and this is the point at which it’s tempting to get a little cynical about the extent to which a contest truly could separate natural abilities from facility at, and familiarity with, IQ test puzzles. Had this been clearly marketed as, say, “an IQ puzzle championship” then this site would have embraced it with open arms. On the other hand, the wide variety of components to the challenge mean that it seems to be intended to be more than just an IQ puzzle championship. That’s fair enough and probably makes for a more interesting event, but can something culture-specific really be a fair test of natural abilities to people around the world for a true world championship?

By way of full disclosure, I’ve never taken a formal IQ test and Mensa has never seemed appealing to me. That said, the Mensa members I’ve met in person have been thoroughly convivial to a (non-gender-specific) man; when I was taken as a guest by a Mensa member to a Mensa meeting – for that is perfectly possible – I enjoyed my evening there. While I tend to be leery at best when it comes to exclusivity being sold as an inherent virtue, I am thoroughly supportive of the necessarily elitist World Puzzle Championships as adding to the jollity of the world, though much of my favourable opinion comes from the context of the WPF’s outreach and accessibility of its qualification and Grand Prix events.

Whether the trimmings and trappings of the contest appeal, you’ll know whether or not it looks like a fun way to you to spend a few hours. At worst, it would appear to have a lot in common with the sorts of contests and challenges that this site enjoys. While the inflexible timescale may hinder – for instance, I’ll be between night shifts – it’s far from the only contest to have specified a particular timeslot in an attempt to avoid some people getting to see the questions before others. While nominally some people are charged US$40 for participation, several sources online quote HIQORAHighIQ as a code for free entry.

If you take part, this site wishes you well – and please come back and tell us all about it!

Puzzle competitions coming up soon

Selsdon Park HotelThere are exciting puzzle competitions coming up soon, both in person and online. The online contests take place this weekend, the in-person ones next weekend. The online contests are free to enter and you can do so at a time and place of your own choosing; the in-person contest has a specific time and location and fees must be charged to cover the cost of booking it.

The second round of the World Puzzle Federation‘s Puzzle Grand Prix series takes place this weekend. It’s a 90-minute contest, which you can start as soon as 10am on Friday 19th February but which you must complete by 10pm on Monday 22nd February, so you have half a week in which to pick your 90-minute window. (Those times are the ones quoted in theory, the ones in practice may be an hour later.) This set of puzzles has been devised by the Slovak team. As with the previous round, the puzzles have been divided into Casual and Competitive sections, with the Competitive section more traditional constraint-based grid puzzles and the Casual section slightly more freeform, though not necessarily easier. Log in to the GP series web site then download the instruction booklet to find out the types of puzzles in advance, then plan your attack.

If you prefer Sudoku, though, then Logic Masters India have a contest for you this weekend where the puzzles have been devised by Belfast’s David McNeill, the over-50 World Sudoku Champion – and over-50 World Sudoku Champion, too! David has been a mainstay of the UK puzzle scene for well over a decade and is a very experienced puzzle setter, so this promises to be a treat. This weekend’s contest is called Triplets and Triangles; it too is a 90-minute contest, available between Saturday 20th February and Monday 22nd February at times to be confirmed. The contest has 14 puzzles, starting with classic 9×9 sudoku, running through some variants themed as the title of the contest suggests, and ending up with some brand new puzzles that seem to combine two other variants into a single new challenge.

In person, the UK Puzzle Association are running the UK Open tournaments in sudoku and puzzles on 27th and 28th February at the Selsdon Park Hotel near Croydon, pictured above; increasingly this has become the home of puzzles in this country, most famously for being the site at which the UK held the World Championships in 2014. Again the instruction booklets have been posted; most notable is Bram de Laat’s second round, “Two to Five”, with sixteen different puzzles in four general styles: room placement puzzles, split wall puzzles, division/dissection puzzles and number puzzles. In each of those four styles, there’s a puzzle that relies on two-themed properties (pairs of cells, sets of two adjacent rooms, dominoes with two digits and so on…), a puzzle themed around threes, a puzzle themed around fours and a puzzle themed around fives. Delightful design! The event is always highly convivial so do take a look and see if it’s your sort of fun.

For Schools: the 2016 Alan Turing Cryptography Competition

Black-and-white photo of Alan TuringPerhaps this article is a bit of a repeat which makes it a bit of a cheat, but some things do crop up year after year and it has been edited for fact-checking and freshness.

This site previously discussed the National Cipher Challenge, held for teams of full-time students under 18 years of age. Happily, the cryptography season is not just one competition long each year; ever since the University of Manchester’s School of Mathematics celebrated the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing in 2012, each year there has been a cryptography competition for school students. 2016 sees the fifth edition; the first chapter – and thus the first cipher to solve – is released tomorrow, probably at around 4pm or so.

Prizes are available, but only for teams consisting of no more than four pre-Sixth-Form participants, so the limit is year 11 in England and Wales, S4 in Scotland and year 12 in Northern Ireland. There is provision for non-competitive teams to take part without scoring; here there is no restriction on numbers or ages so teams featuring overage students, teachers, parents or members of the general public outside the education system can take part purely for the fun of it. This year also sees the first edition of a sibling team mathematics competition, MathsBombe, which runs along somewhat similar lines and where Sixth Form students are allowed to play.

The competition follows the story of two young cipher sleuths, Mike and Ellie, as they get caught up in an adventure to unravel the Artificial Adventure. Every week or two weeks a new chapter of the story is released, each with a cryptographic puzzle to solve (…) There are six chapters in total (plus an epilogue to conclude the story). Points can be earned by cracking each code and submitting your answer.” The more quickly you crack each code, the more points you win for each of the six chapters. The chapters are released weekly at first but slow down to fortnightly as the chapters get harder and half-terms start to get in the way.

Prizes sponsored by Skyscanner (founded by two former computer scientists from the University of Manchester!) are presented to members of the three top-scoring teams overall, but each chapter also awards additional prizes to the first team to solve it correctly and spot prizes to five correctly-solving teams selected at random.

The really interesting thing is that the top prizes are awarded in person at the annual Alan Turing Cryptography Day. A video was posted of the 2015 day, and here’s a report from 2014: “Schoolchildren who had enjoyed taking part in the online competition were invited to spend an afternoon of code-breaking action in the Alan Turing Building. Nearly 200 children (…) enjoyed a wide range of activities including: interacting with Enigma machine apps running on iPads, a talk entitled `Enigma Variations: Alan Turing and the Enigma Machine’, some maths busking, a Q&A session with the competition organisers, as well as a live cryptography challenge which involved schools having to crack three codes in a one-hour period.

This site really enjoyed the part of the video where the kids at the day emphasised how much they enjoyed the live competition and the factor of time pressure. You can see where this is going! If there’s a self-selecting audience who love cracking codes against the clock, surely – surely – this would be a fantastic opportunity for an exit game (particularly one with a branch in Manchester itself – but, really, anyone anywhere, particularly one which saw itself as a national player) to become involved with sponsorship.

What would be in it for you? Especially if you can arrange a live challenge, there could be the chance to get the word out to hundreds of children who have proved themselves not only sufficiently interested in puzzles to enter a cryptography contest but sufficiently talented to do really well at it. On a very slightly cynical note, you might think of this as a way to reach 200 families, or more, who are likely to be right in the middle of your target audience and likely to want to play again and again. Seems like such a natural fit!

Grand Prix season is GO!

WPF Grands Prix logoAs hinted at yesterday, the red lights have gone out and the first leg of the Puzzle Grand Prix season promoted by the World Puzzle Federation is now in progress. If you’re sufficiently interested in puzzles to be reading this site, even if you think you only like exit games 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 is the Indian round, the next one is the Slovakian round and so on. (There are eight rounds in the competition, each four weeks apart, and your overall score is the sum of your six best round scores.) Each round is available for 3½ days, from 11am UK time on Friday to 11pm UK time on Monday. During that 84-hour window, you can press the “start the timer” button at a point of your choice and then have 1½ hours to score as many points as you can by submitting answers to the puzzles from that round.

The types of puzzles are introduced a couple of days beforehand in an instruction booklet. The big distinction between this year’s contest and that of previous years has been an addition to the types of puzzles that are featured in the contest. Specifically, this year, each round will feature “competitive puzzles” and also “casual puzzles”. Competitive puzzles tend to be grid-based constraint-satisfaction puzzles where, as the name suggests, “the objective is to fill in information on cells in a grid, based on logic or numerical constraints“. The typical form is that there will be 6-8 types of puzzles per round, and usually 3-4 of each of those puzzles; usually the levels of difficulty will vary, but the baseline is pretty tough. However, as you know what sorts of puzzles are on offer in advance, you can get some practice in advance and see if you enjoy solving them.

Specifically, this time round, the competitive puzzle types are Four Winds, Spiral Galaxies (see half-way down the page), Nurikabe, Skyscrapers, Slitherlink, Place by Product and a variant of the Tapa genre. It is expected that the best solvers in the world will be able to finish all 22 of these puzzles with a little time left over.

However, the “casual puzzles” are an innovation by this year’s Puzzle Grand Prix director, four-time World Puzzle Champion and (as personally certified) Generally Smashing Bloke Wei-Hwa Huang. Wei-Hwa writes: “If the WPC is going to be like the Olympics of puzzle-solving, I think this ((the focus on grid-based Constraint Satisfaction puzzles)) is the equivalent of having only one area of Olympic events, maybe Track & Field, and slowly removing all other Olympic events year after year. I find this very sad. I would like to reverse this trend and add a ‘casual’ puzzle section to the Puzzle GP. The puzzles in this section are explicitly allowed to be non-culture-neutral; the main requirement is that the puzzles here be easily understandable and considered fun by most solvers.

He suggests that sorts of puzzles that might feature could include:

  • observation puzzles (find the differences, find pairs)
  • word (or non-word) searches
  • arithmetic puzzles
  • counting puzzles
  • next-in-sequence puzzles
  • brainteasers
  • jigsaw puzzles
  • manipulation/mechanical puzzles
  • logic puzzles (“who owns the zebra?” types)
  • crosswords and variants
  • logistical/operational puzzles
  • insight puzzles (such as seen in an escape room or a puzzle hunt)

…and you can find examples of some of these types at his sample casual puzzles page. In practice, the casual puzzles in this first round are fill in the blank sequences, “Lights Out” puzzles, counting puzzles, arithmetic puzzles, word searches and Battleships puzzles. They won’t be easy, but they may be accessible to more people than the competitive puzzles. (That said, this round’s competitive puzzles are far from the most obscure genres and there are plenty of examples available for almost all of them, so it’s a relatively accessible round all the way through.)

This site commends the decision to add these extra puzzles, looks forward to taking part if time permits (for today is an anniversary and tomorrow is a travel day…) and would recommend the series to all readers. The more people who can find their style and level of competitive puzzling fun, the merrier!

Dates for your diary

weekly calendarThis site has got somewhat slack with updating its events calendar to the point where even linking to it in this article would feel wrong. Nevertheless, there are a few things worth looking ahead to already.

  • The first leg of this year’s WPF Puzzle Grand Prix is in progress already, starting about half a day ago. You have until Monday evening, UK time, to identify a clear block of 90 minutes and earn as many points as possible by solving pencil-and-paper puzzles set by a team from India in the first leg of a metaphorical race around the puzzling world. Some of you may know that the puzzles are always very fine and the contest is reliably great fun; this year’s competition has an added twist to make it more accessible and help more people find their level of fun. More about that very soon, hopefully while the first leg is still in progress.
     
  • The Coney troupe of interactive theatre makers are holding a Scratch and Salon session at the Camden People’s Theatre from midday on Sunday. The “Scratch and Salon is an open event making play on the line between public space and corporate space, and exploring the ideas around the commons“. At midday, “A map will be unfurled of scratch adventures and other playful experiences to be discovered in the neighbourhood of CPT. You’ll need a mobile phone with credit to send text messages in order to play. From 3pm – We’ll reconvene in the Theatre and host a salon – first curated with provocations from speakers segueing into an open space discussion – on what it means to make play in this space, and the politics of public space and the commons“. Not immediately puzzly, but very likely to be relevant somehow; their shows always inspire interesting thoughts.
     
  • February 27th and 28th see the UK Open Puzzle and Sudoku Tournaments taking place at the Selsdon Park Hotel in Croydon; since the World Championships were held here a couple of years ago, this has surely become the spiritual home of competition puzzles in this country. The company is always excellent and it’s as close to the World Championship experience as you’re going to get.
     
  • Closer to the usual core of this site, Can You Escape? of Edinburgh are hosting a Disabled Access Day on Saturday 12th March. “Join us on Disabled Access Day between 10.30 and 12.00 to take a look around Operation Odyssey our space themed mission, giving you a chance to check if the room is suitable and have a go at some puzzles (not the ones in the room – that would be cheating!) ((…)) People taking part in Disabled Access Day can also get 30% off bookings on the day or bookings made on the day.” Clearly Can You Escape? takes accessibility seriously; see the entry in the FAQ, but also the site’s inclusion in Euan’s Guide for disabled access reviews. While it’s far from the only site to do so, Exit Games UK is not aware of anything quite like this Disabled Access Day before and this would appear to be an instant example of best practice, well worth consideration by sites up and down the country. If you want to see whether the site is right for you, e-mail Can You Escape? first because only a limited number of spaces are available.
     
  • April is set to be busy, busy, busy, though in a very good way. From 1st to 3rd April, Now Play This returns to the New Wing of Somerset House in London. It’s not clear what will be on the line-up this year as the open call is in progress; “This year we’re particularly keen on things with interesting controllers, games which deal with utopias, play in a city context, and work which encourages player creativity – but games outside these themes are also welcome.” The event is part of the larger London Games Festival, “running from 1 to 10 April 2016, the festival includes 15 official events across 10 different locations” – perhaps something exit game-related might be appropriate for the Festival Fringe?
     
  • The Canadian Caper will be running on April 9th at the Arts & Letters Club in Toronto. “A one-day only escape experience for up to 15 teams of six ((though it’s not immediately clear whether it’s 15 teams per show or 15 teams total over the three shows.)) This is very much an escape game. There will be puzzles to solve. Solving puzzles will allow you to progress through the space into new rooms where you will find new challenges and new puzzles. Ultimately your goal is to physically escape the space. Unlike a traditional escape game though there will also be actors that teams will need to interact with to gain information.” The first episode in the series was put on by a number of bloggers and their very talented friends; us UK types can just dream and be jealous, for it sounds hugely cool and it is delightful that the first episode is not just a one-off.
     
  • We don’t have it so bad in the UK, though; Saturday 16th April sees the Springtime Hunt in Shrewsbury organised by the Armchair Treasure Hunt Club. “Everyone is welcome to come along and compete, whether you are a member of the club or whether you just enjoy competing in treasure hunts. Gather for the hunt at 10am for an 11am start, and it’ll probably be about tea time when the treasure is unearthed. The £25 entry fee includes lunch as well as the hunt and its prizes. Go to the club’s website for more details of how to book your place.
     
  • Never enough, never enough; Up The Game happens two days later. “On the 18th of April Amsterdam will host the first international Escape Room & Real Life Gaming Conference.” Their speaker list is extremely exciting with speakers from several countries. While the early bird tickets have sold out, you can still buy Advance tickets at €100 each, plus a small booking fee, plus the Dutch version of VAT, which by the way has the charming acronym of BTW.
     
  • Last year, this site proposed an industry meeting at the forthcoming live The Crystal Maze attraction; while all 32 tickets have been sold (and there are already names at the top of the waiting list) it’s going to take place on Tuesday 26th April. Maybe something else interesting might be happening around that time too, you never know
     
  • And that’s not even referring to DASH 8, set to take place in cities around the world on Saturday 30th April!

What other events is this site missing?