Puzzlecraft: a review

Screen grab from a presentationThe wonderful, if slightly fruitily-worded, sentiment above comes from a talk given by Mike Selinker. Mike has co-written a hundred installments of the PuzzleCraft series, describing how to construct puzzles of sundry types, in the US’ legendary Games Magazine over the years; Mike and co-author Thomas Snyder (whose record in the World Puzzle Federation’s global puzzle and sudoku competitions is among the very best) have also compiled a book, updating these instructions, and including sample puzzles as examples. The book, of full title PuzzleCraft: The Ultimate Guide on How to Construct Every Kind of Puzzle, is widely available online from your stockist of choice. (This site doesn’t “do” affiliate links programmes.)

Perhaps “Every” kind of puzzle is pushing it, but not actually very hard. There are well over seventy different types of puzzles discussed here: various types of knowledge puzzles, observation puzzles, manipulation puzzles, all sorts of word puzzles – all manner of types of crosswords – logic puzzles featuring numbers, patterns, paths and pure logic, plus discussion of plenty of other types of puzzles along the way.

The writing style is breezy, often funny, and very directly conversational. There’s a thorough explanation of how each puzzle works, an example – usually a really polished example of the genre – along with a set of techniques about how to break the construction down into manageable steps, and how the techniques were used in that particular example. The discussion of the specific puzzle types is pragmatic enough that you may not get much out of it unless you use it for its intended purpose and actually set puzzles, but the more general discussion of puzzles at large reflects the authors’ practically unparalleled breadth of experience and is great general reading to leave you excited about the potential of the world of puzzles at large.

One big caveat is that this book doesn’t consider exit games as such, and the embedding of paper-and-pencil puzzles within exit games would have to be handled with great care to avoid jarring. This site is not aware of either author having been involved with the genre yet, but would be delighted for that to change. The section at the start of the last chapter in which Selinker describes a puzzle hunt he ran at the PAX convention in 2009, as well as all the other events described on his Lone Shark Games site, will fill you with every confidence that he could do something quite delightful in the genre if he wanted to. As Reiner Knizia would put it, “so much to do and so few turns“!

If you do have an inclination to construct puzzles, there surely can only be a couple of very specialist types of puzzles where there might be more specific, in-depth guidance available. Even if you don’t, this book comes extremely highly recommended in the context of containing a really wide variety of very fine puzzles to solve. At a third, more general level still, it’s a wonderful, cheerleading love-letter to what puzzles can achieve at their finest. Bravo!

Checking in on work in progress

"Under Construction" road sign graphicThe happiest job that there is to do while updating this web site is to turn a red dot on the map to yellow; congratulations to Escape Land of London, who (the bookings page suggests) took their first booking today and have further bookings lined up for tomorrow and next week. The list of sites, Timeline and map have all been updated. This site hopes to learn before long if the puzzles match up to the gorgeous web site and images.

Next cab off the rank may well be Clue HQ of Warrington, taking bookings now in advance of officially opening two weeks today on Saturday 28th June, but the first weekend is already booked up with private events.

If it’s not Clue HQ, the next most likely contender – also claiming a predicted June opening – is Escape Live of Birmingham. Not much new information, and their web site still only has a splash screen, but their Facebook page has some rather interesting-looking pictures showing the degree of progress that has been made. the phrase “Dr Wilson is busy investigating a murder case at the moment but will see you in his office soon!” sets the tone for the game, too.

Also in progress is Can You Escape? of Edinburgh, which has made an early web site available (no content, though!); no official opening date yet, but discussion on Twitter points to being open in time for the Edinburgh Festival. That runs through August, which points to opening in July.

In less happy news, Cryptopia of Bristol claim to be sold out through June and July, but they’re still taking bookings for 31st July onwards. It’ll be interesting to see if there are changes installed over June and July.

The Times Sudoku championship

partly-filled partial sudoku gridTom Collyer writes:

The 5 qualifying puzzles have been in The Times every day this week – they are well hidden away in “The Register” which is a section after the business pages but before the sport. The finals will be happening in London (presumably The Times office in St. Katharine’s Dock as in previous years) on Saturday 30th August.

It is worth noting that the competitions puzzles state: “Entries must be received within seven days of the puzzle being in the paper.”
It also states that the 20 fastest times for each day will make the final (I have no idea how they’ll handle repeats – contestants may enter on each day).

So if you want to enter, then make sure you don’t hang around – get on it straight away!

Some write-ups of the finals exist from 2008, 2011 (see also…) and (briefly) 2013. It certainly sounds like people who make it to the final enjoy the day and hold the organisers in very high regard. Additionally, if you are a Times subscriber, you can find discussion of past finals in their archives behind the paywall.

If you like a wider variety of puzzles, it’s still World Puzzle Championship qualifier season, with the two-hour Dutch qualifier in a fixed slot next Tuesday evening. The instruction booklet is available, though all in Dutch without translation.

All the news

Newspaper iconThe site has been a little quieter than usual recently due to a combination of relatively little news and real life. This site never promised to be an every-day-something-new site, though there has been a reasonably long run of daily posts, and longer gaps before this. Contributions from readers would be welcome.

Here’s the news that we do know, though:

  • Escape of Edinburgh have a tremendous write-up in the Edinburgh Evening News, reinforcing the power of connecting with the local media.
  • There has been previous mention of Can You Escape? of Edinburgh. While their Indiegogo didn’t get as far as their goal, it’s very encouraging to see continued signs of progress, not least a new logo. Their Twitter comment of Lots going on behind the scenes at the minute to open in time for the @edinburghfest[…] also sounds extremely positive. This site wishes them well and hopes for more good news before long.
  • There has also been previous mention of A Door In A Wall‘s The Diplomatic Corpse. Sadly the run finishes very soon; a recent tweet of theirs says We’re sold out tonight and through the weekend! Tomorrow is your last chance to unravel the murder of Emilio Ninkash, so if you want to act, act quickly.
  • Clue HQ of Warrington are now taking bookings, though the opening date has been pushed back ever so slightly to Wednesday 2nd July. It’s a cute coincidence to see their use of the “one hour of oxygen left” motif also being used in SCRAP America’s seventh pop-up exit game in San Francisco, Escape From The Moon Base. They had 451 teams of six over five days, of which 16 won – not even a 4% success record. Gulp.

That’s all for now; more news as it arrives.

All the news, including the strange case of Brighton

Brighton Escape Room logoA quick couple of news stories:

1) Clue HQ of Warrington have announced an opening date of June 28th, and the theme of their first room, Bunker 38. After being locked in an underground bunker following a radiation leak, it’s now time to leave as you’ve limited oxygen left. Only 60 minutes of breathable air remains – will you escape in time? Sounds good! The site expects to start to take bookings from Monday 9th June.

2) Escape of Edinburgh, after their The Escape Games promotion last weekend, have a different promo on their Facebook page this weekend. Share this post of theirs by midnight on Sunday 8th (and, at a guess, this probably refers to the 23:59 sort of Sunday-to-Monday midnight, not the 00:01 sort of Saturday-to-Sunday midnight) to be in with a chance of winning a free game. Cute gimmick and looks like it’s doing well at getting the word out. Escape are running very active social media campaigns which seem to be getting results.

3) The coming soon page for Live Escape Game of Brighton is older than most of the exit games that have actually made it to business, to the point where it might be considered more mythical than not. However, the case of Brighton Escape Room is almost stranger; an address has been announced and a practically complete web site has been up for weeks, suggesting a May launch.

However, the site’s Twitter has been silent since late March, the “latest news” section is, more or less, a placeholder, and there are links to a Facebook account that hasn’t started. Attempts to contact the site have been unproductive. It’s hard to know what has happened here; it looks like the site has got most of the way to making it, then… stopped. Exit Games UK hopes that everyone involved remain in good health, that nothing worse than an inconvenient financial crisis got in the way, and that the site can make it to real life play some day.

Perhaps Brighton’s just jinxed!

(Right of reply is available to representatives of either site; we’d like nothing better than to have some good news to post about them.)

UK Puzzle Championship: the stats

Latest UK Puzzle Association logoTwo weeks ago, this site previewed the UK Puzzle Championship taking place that weekend, then reviewed UK performances in puzzle contests. The results are published and this site congratulates everyone who is happy with their result.

The biggest congratulations of all go to James McGowan, the 2014 UK champion, who matched Neil Zussman’s achievement in 2013 of being not just the UK champion but also the top global scorer; Neil finished second in the UK this year, with Tom Collyer getting a UKPC personal-best third place. The number of UK participants on the scoreboard also continued its annual increase, with 25 troubling the scorer this year as opposed to 20, 22 and 23 in the previous years.

In fact, we can produce a year-on-year chart of UKPC performances, in the style of Tim Peeters’ charts:

James McGowan112114
Neil Zussman 21213
David McNeill23  22
Tom Collyer864334
Steve Barge3 3533
Michael Collins946944
Adam Dewbery 13 442
Ronald4   41
Roderick Grafton125101054
furudo.erika 125753
Paul Redman5   51
Emma McCaughan61081164
Nick Gardner 106 62
Adam Bissett  13662
Nick Deller107 1573
Eva Myers147 1673
AJ Moore  9772
Mark Goodliffe7 131373
Chris M. Dickson10181922104
Gareth Moore16 11 112
Chris Nash  11 111
Heather Golding   12121
tom123513   131
Paul Slater   13131
Liane Robinson1514  142
Timothy Luffingham 14  141
Anthea McMillan  1517152
Kenneth Wilshire18201621164
Sam Boden 161719163
Robin Walters 1718 172
Abigial See17   171
Alison Scott   18181
blueingreen19   191
quixote 19  191
Andrew Brown20 21 202
Laurence May 20  201
United Kingdom  20 201
David Cook   20201
Eilidh McKemmie 22  221
Gary Male  22 221
River Edis-Smith  23 231
Daniel Cohen   23231
Abdul Hadi Khan   24241
shirehorse1   25251

Errors and omissions excepted and corrections are welcome; note that I decline 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!

There’s one online puzzle contest taking place this weekend: the sixth round of the World Puzzle Federation’s Sudoku Grand Prix. The instruction booklet for the 1½-hour Bulgarian round is available and the puzzles will be available to solve until Monday evening.

Coming soon to London: Escape Land

Escape Land logo

Exciting times! News has arrived of another forthcoming exit game to London, Escape Land. This one will be situated very near the Cambridge Heath train station – or, if the Underground is more convenient than the West Anglia railway, within a few minutes walk of Bethnal Green. The site is taking bookings now, with the first game available from Saturday 14th June. The site will open with one game, which is set to have a sixty-minute time limit and will host teams of three to five players. The biggest gimmick is that there is a gorgeous-looking steampunk theme.

Steampunk sculptureMannekin in steampunk gogglesA little impudence has called in these two pictures of the goodies that are set to face you, and a little more reveals a teaser for the theme.

Would you want to live in a world where time travel is possible?

In the future, technology became so advanced that scientists found a way to open gates into different parts of the timeline. But after the first tests it quickly became visible that you can’t travel in time without consequences.

Every time someone did a trip through a time gate, catastrophic events occurred in the surrounding area. The bigger the group of travellers, the bigger the tragedy. It turned out even individual souls can’t play God and change their destinies in such extreme ways. If you don’t look after your body you get sick. If you are not willing to follow your given path, nature will find a way to show you that you were wrong.

After the first months the government had to set up emergency regulations. No one was allowed to travel in time anymore. They were monitoring everybody who had anything to do with current cutting edge technology. All the studies and information became classified. Former time travellers were hunted down. A small group of rebels managed to stay hidden in 1900. After years of hiding they tried to open a gate into 2014. It never turned out what their plan was. But this time gate happened to be two-sided.

When they appeared, a small group of people got sucked into the time tunnel and travelled back into the age of steampunk. You suddenly find yourself in the home of two strange scientists. They are telling you that you should not have seen their base and you probably have one hour left until the rest of their Illuminati arrives for their weekly meetings. One hour to escape from the age of steampunk. Good luck and have fun!

That’s distinctive, evocative and exciting; fingers crossed that the rest of the content can match up to what we know so far, and that the puzzles can match the standard of dressing. (Some of the photos of players are going to be priceless.) This looks like being a valuable addition to London’s exit game landscape and this site looks forward to reports after the game opens on Saturday week.

Virus Alert

Breakout Manchester's "Virus" graphicWith the discussion of the last week, perhaps there’s reason to be grateful that this doesn’t refer to any particular dangerous, insidious computer virus and refers to the strictly fictitious virus that is the subject of Breakout Manchester‘s upcoming second exit game room, advertised on the site as being due to open on Friday 6th June. It looks like quite a few sessions have been booked already.

“Can you slow down the outbreak and find the cure? You only have 60 minutes to do so or the fate of mankind may be in jeopardy. Our 2nd and newest room in Breakout Manchester. This room is completely unique and you will not find it anywhere else in the world.” Some early construction photos suggest that there is, as you might expect, a laboratory theme. The room may well also have a great deal of natural light, which is a little unusual when many sites don’t mind, or even embrace, a hint of claustrophobia to spur you on to escape. The theme and photos seem promising; this site looks forward to seeing Breakout Manchester’s first original room.

Breakout Manchester are conscientious about posting photos of their teams; while this is by no means unique to them, the players always seem to have had lots of fun. Whilst taking these photos in front of a wall, or a window, with the site’s name on is something of an exit room cliché, Breakout Manchester’s wall always particularly brings to mind a football manager’s post-game press conference held in front of a matrix of team sponsor logos. (Not a bad thing in the least!) Perhaps the logical conclusion would be the Italian press conference approach where the sponsor logos scroll along on a loop behind the manager as they talk…

If you’re not in Manchester, there are several exciting pieces of exit game news coming up soon that this site looks forward to sharing. Before then, the New York Times yesterday featured a superb piece about exit games, particularly the interaction and crossover between games and immersive theatre. The piece touches on other work by the theatre company Punchdrunk and also Gone Home; maybe the piece’s most significant original contribution is the collation of game designers’ quotes about exit games, but it does a fine job of neatly illustrating the common points of reference. Recommended reading!

You are not alone

A scroll and some actorsOne factor that seems to apply to many exit games is that the team playing them are in the room, alone except for contact with the outside world that may be supplying hints, whether by walkie-talkie, over a loudspeaker, onto a screen or by some other approach.

This solitude needn’t absolutely be the case; in the US, the Trapped In A Room With A Zombie series of games features a real live acted undead zombie in each room, chained to the wall. Every five minutes, the zombie’s chain is extended another foot so that they might have extra shambling radius. If the zombie touches you, you are… not eliminated from the game outright (that wouldn’t be fun, considering you’ve paid for the ticket) but have to sit down, rooted to the spot, and can only communicate verbally with the rest of your team.

This site is not aware of any UK exit game sites currently looking to increase their regular “fully manned” staffing levels. However, an exit game could be distinctive if it were to feature actors or other characters to interact with as part of playing the room. Yes, the cost of labour is expensive. (TIARWAZ, referred to above, has teams of 12 playing at any one time.) It might be possible for a single site with multiple games to contrive some sort of solution, though, with actors who are present at certain points of the game but not others.

One approach could be for these intermittent actors not to physically appear in the same space as the teams, though still to be available at certain points for crucial interaction. Could a game master from another game also act as a character when they happen not to be running a game or performing setup between games? Could it be possible to contrive a reason for a game master to be out of contact temporarily, while they are acting as a character in another game?

Another approach could be for one actor to play a variety of different roles (or play several simultaneous versions of the same character), dipping in and out of several games as appropriate. The entrances and exits would have to be very carefully handled in order not to disrupt the “exit the room” metaphor – there would have to be very convincing reason why an actor could get in or out of the room but the team could not use the same route in order to do so.

A real mind game would be to play fast and loose with the concept of a single permanent benign game master per group. For instance, you might interact with your game master for 80% of the hour in one way – then the game master might physically intrude into the game and interact with you in a different fashion for the rest of the game. Perhaps a game master from another game might continue to act as master for the last few minutes of your game, while you interact with this compromised game master as part of the game.

So many things that could be done, and this is surely only scratching the surface. Wouldn’t be cheap, but surely would be distinctive and memorable!

Around the World: the Washington Post’s “Post Hunt”

Washington Post "Post Hunt" logoOver the past thirty years, US humour columnist Dave Barry (and, recently, friends) have – slightly more often than not – set a public puzzle hunt for the newspaper that published them. Originally this was the Miami Herald‘s Tropic magazine, thus inspiring the hunt to be referred to as the Tropic Hunt. The Tropic magazine folded, but the Herald itself later sponsored what was later known as the Herald Hunt. Most recently, Barry and friends have been producing the Post Hunt for the Washington Post. Andy Wenzel’s archives are a great source of information.

The hunts have a common format, set up so that a (typically) high four-digit number of participants can play. Five simple clues with numeric answers are posted in the sponsoring publication, along with an annotated map of possible locations within reasonable walking distance, with a central stage highlighted. At midday, from the central stage, it is announced how to transmute the answers to the simple clues, in a non-obvious fashion, to map entries. This indicates the locations of the five main puzzles, which must be visited. At each one, a cryptic and possibly multimedia puzzle is available, whose answer is a number.

Between midday and 3pm, teams (typically of four players, but without size restrictions, and a single player team has won) visit the locations, solve the puzzles and generate the five numbers. At 3pm, another cryptic clue is announced at the main stage which can be interpreted to a sixth location on the map, at which the final instruction is given as to how to interpret the whole of the hunt and its intermediate answers in order to generate and submit the overall answer to the hunt. First team to do so wins. This year’s prize was US$2,000 cash.

The most recent Post Hunt took place in Washington DC on Sunday and the Post has a story about this year’s event, along with this year’s puzzles and answers. They look like a great deal of fun and initial reports suggest this was as good as any previous year’s hunt.

This year’s winners included Todd Etter, a long-time mainstay of the puzzle hunt community and a popular one, for his contributions have included being one of the team putting on The Famine Game, an epic and immensely well-regarded weekend-long puzzle hunt (coincidentally also in the DC area!) last year. Todd’s team also have won one past Post Hunt and taken two other top three prizes; Todd has written about his team’s 2008 win elsewhere.

The Post Hunt has such great imagination, budget, heritage and following that it must surely be regarded as one of the world’s great games of its type. There’s no reason why a British counterpart couldn’t do something similar; considering the love shown by Britons for our own puzzle hobbies, it would surely be as distinctive and popular a hit over here.