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.

How would we get puzzles at the Olympic Games… or something like it?

International Mind Sports Association logo (presumably their copyright)This is a post I’ve been working on in the background, on and off, for a while; every time we discuss competitions, especially international championships, it comes back to mind.

The direct answer to the question is that it would seem vanishingly unlikely to ever get puzzles at the Olympic Games before other mind sports: games like chess, bridge, go and so on. It’s a subject that has been raised in the past by these mind sports’ governing bodies, but there has never been substantial progress on this front. (The highest-profile examples of mind sports at a festival of otherwise physical sports that I can find is that chess has had a couple of appearances at the Asian Games and the Universiade.) So let’s focus on the “…or something like it” instead, where there may be more to consider than you think.

(This is a long old piece; not far off three thousand words, hence the cut.) Continue reading

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!

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!

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!

Quick results from the World Championship

World Puzzle ChampionshipThe 25th World Puzzle Championship has been taking place in Senec in the Slovak Republic this week. Considering how many participants there were, the organisers deserve a lot of credit for posting results either as .pdf files or on an automated system as frequently as they have.

The results of this year’s World Puzzle Championship is, to some extent, maybe not a complete reverse but at least something of a counterpart to last year’s. Last year, Germany’s Ulrich Voigt was a convincing leader in the main body of the competition but Japan’s Ken Endo won the play-off to take the championship; this year, Ken Endo scored most points in the main body of the competition – in fact, his dominance over the rest of the field may be one of the biggest that the competition has ever seen – but Ulrich Voigt ended up winner after the play-off. Congratulations to Ulrich on his eleventh championship! Palmer Mebane climbed from third to second in the play-off and Ken Endo finished third.

In the team contest, the Japanese team won the main body of the event by a very healthy margin – but, once again, the play-offs proved decisive and the team podium finished Germany – Japan – USA for the fourth time in five years. (Glad nobody did take me up on my offer of a small bet.) The UK A team finished eleventh, about which I think they have every right to be pleased; Neil Zussman was on red hot form and finished twelfth of the 104 official competitors. Congratulations!

There were play-offs for the Under-18 and Over-50 championships and it’s not immediately clear who won those, but I enjoyed seeing that the US team’s Walker Anderson was not only top ten overall and (presumed) number two under-18, but also best newcomer. I wasn’t aware of Walker previously, but the line of this 2½-year-old news story that’s available to the public implies that he can now only be somewhere between 15½ and 16½ years old, so not just barely under-18. Wow. Future world champion? Perhaps.

In other puzzle competition news, this Tweet suggests that Mark Goodliffe won the Times Crossword Championship today. This is Mark’s tenth title, tying him all-time with John Sykes whose titles came between 1972 and 1990. Congratulations there, too!

It’s World Championship time

World Puzzle ChampionshipThe 25th World Puzzle Championship, and its younger sibling the World Sudoku Championship, will take place next week in Senec in the Slovak Republic. You can find the details at the official web site. It’s a competition featuring rounds and rounds of culture-free, language-neutral (mostly logic) puzzles. The final version of the instruction booklet has been posted, so you can see examples of the sorts of puzzles that are going to be faced.

I’m not quite energetic enough to do as in-depth a preview as I have done in previous years, but here are some quick notes. The World Puzzle Championship this year will have 25 full national “A” teams, one up from last year; welcome to Austria and Belarus, farewell (hopefully briefly!) to Romania. There will also be participants – if not full teams – from Belgium, Canada and Luxembourg, the first two of which have had podium-placed full teams in the WPC’s early years. With the make-up of sundry “United Nations” teams, as well as nations’ “B” teams (and, unusually, five “C” teams and even a “D” team) there will be fifty teams in total. This is hugely impressive, though it’s to be noted that this means teams are split over a number of different hotels, which is a slightly different way of doing it than most years – though a very practical one. It’s a particular thrill for me to see that Berni and Silke of Croco-Puzzle are getting to play on the German “B” and “C” teams.

The UK team retains Neil Zussman and Tom Collyer from last year, though substitutes in Adam Bissett and Thomas Powell for James McGowan and David McNeill. (David can’t make it to defend his over-50 titles in both sudoku and puzzles; a pity, not least because it neatly blows up one of my predictions.) The UK team would be doing very well to finish in the top ten of national “A” teams this year.

For the last two years, this site has tipped Japan to win and they’ve finished second. The German “A” team is missing Florian Kirch, for the saddest of reasons, and Michael Ley (who finished eighth in the main rounds) is on the German “B” team once again. The Japan “A” team has last year’s champ Ken Endo and last year’s fifth-placed Kota Morinshi, but also has Taro Arimatsu and Hideaki Jo who finished 1st and 3rd in 2010. That’s too scary a line-up to ignore, and thus this site tips Japan once again, and would be prepared to back it up with a small bet at even money.

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!