Coming up this weekend: the Manorcon board games convention

Manorcon board games convention logoThis weekend sees the thirty-second annual Manorcon board games convention at the John Foster Hall in the University of Leicester, near Oadby. (The event gets its name from its original home, the Northfield Manor House at the University of Birmingham.) From 2pm on Friday 18th to 2pm on Monday 21st, probably a couple of hundred attendees or so will be there. The majority of games played will be from the last 20 years or so, but there will be plenty of classics as well – most notably, the late-’50s negotiation classic Diplomacy, though no one game comes close to dominating the event.

It’s reliably a great event – I went every year from about 1994 to 2002 or so – and registration will still be available at the door. (Some single rooms should still be available too if you want to stay over.) It’s particularly relevant to this site because every year since 2001, there has been a puzzle-based Treasure Hunt, normally for three hours or so on the Sunday afternoon. I ran the first event in 2001 and co-ran the second one in 2002; since then, it’s often been the previous year’s winners who go on to run the next year’s event.

This year’s ManorCon Treasure Hunt is being run by Dave Durant, Mark Fox and Annie Percik. This year’s theme is a Pirate Quest located in the island city of Bandar Lanun, famed for its cliff-side rope bridges and hanging prison cells. Trust in your crewmates and come armed with your wits. Five teams of up to six welcome – put yourself down on the sign-up sheets displayed all weekend.

A delightful theme, and Dave and Annie enjoyed learning what types of puzzles are suitable for team solving at DASH 6. If you’re not far from Leicester, you might well enjoy turning up between 2pm and 5pm on the Sunday for the Treasure Hunt – and, if you like board games, it’s very likely you’ll enjoy the whole weekend. (One other particularly interesting event is the Pop Quiz at 10pm on Saturday in the bar, run by site co-writer Phil Hannay. His event last year was delightfully off-beat, imaginitive and yet very accessible; it’ll be interesting to learn what he has this year…)

Coming soon to London: Lock and LOL

Lock and LOL graphicEdited 24/10/14: please be aware that Lock and LOL has gone out of business. There has been a more recent post detailing some of your options in case you have lost money to them. The rest of the post is quoted for completeness only.

It’s always a delight to hear about forthcoming exit game sites, though sometimes it’s a slight stretch to know what to be able to say about them in advance. This one looks exciting and has a very distinctive twist. London, prepare for the October 10th opening of Lock and LOL.

Lock and LOL describes itself as “the invisible live escape game” – more specifically, as clued by the graphic, “a unique interactive journey to an invisible world, where you have to find your way out in total darkness using only your senses of touch, hearing and smell […] This is the first escape game in the world which provides the same experience to blind and sighted teams alike. They can even race against each other with the same chances!” This site has never heard of something quite like that before. There has been passing mention of a dark start as the first challenge to one room, but playing the entire room in darkness will be a challenge to first-time exit game players and multi-site veterans alike. The degree of accessibility designed in is also extremely cool.

The web site points to a Kickstarter campaign, as well. Now the full truth is that crowdfunded campaigns for exit games have not been tremendously successful in the past, though we know of two sites that look like they’re making good progress after their crowdfunding campaign. (Fingers firmly crossed that we’ll have more to report from Edinburgh really soon, before Festival season starts in anger.)

The good news is that Lock and LOL has advanced plans for its first room even without crowdfunding; the site quotes an address (which has been added to the map), as well as a start date. The crowdfunding campaign would be for work on additional rooms and an improved lobby area “so guide dogs have a more comfortable space to wait while their owners are having fun“, which makes great sense. This is creative and delightful; do, please, consider doing your own research and think about backing the campaign if you can. More news on the site as it becomes available.

London is clearly very well served for exit games. Everyone knows how big a success HintHunt and clueQuest have been; Escape Land has also got off to a very strong start, selling out days in advance and already getting compliments on TripAdvisor, particularly for its staff.

We’re looking forward very much to Lock and LOL, but also to Escape Hunt, whose opening is now scheduled for September. And yet, and yet, this site is confident (read this with a conspiratorial *wink*!) that there will be least one more by the end of the year. Looking at the map and thinking about how non-trivial transport across London can be, there’s definitely room in west and south London for others.

Some might start to wonder whether the market might be oversaturated; this site thinks there’s a loooooong way to go before that. now quotes Budapest as having as many as 57 games, as well as the occasional citations of Beijing being into triple digits. If that’s too much of an outlier for you, this site very much enjoyed this list with fourteen sites (totalling 44 rooms) in the province of Ontario, Canada, eight of which claim to be in Toronto alone. If you can get the word out, there’s clearly a lot of demand out there!

Around the World: the Mystery Box

The Mystery Box from the outsideA tip of the hat to David J. Bodycombe, of very considerable credentials in the puzzling world, and his contacts for this one.

It might sound like an “In Soviet Russia…” joke, but consider a game of the sort covered by this site – except that you don’t visit a physical location to play the puzzles, the puzzles come to you. That’s the principle behind The Mystery Box, currently in private beta-testing within downtown Toronto, Canada.

The titular box “contains a challenging puzzle with a unique mystery. The box contains seemingly random everyday items such as a pen, notebook, photos, deck of cards, etc. However, if you look closely, you’ll find clues and puzzles which will lead to closely guarded secrets!” Here’s a photo of the first iteration of the box’s contents. Click on either photo to find higher-resolution versions on the official Pinterest account.

Prototype contents of Mystery Box #1

Very cute and extremely interesting. The enterprise’s web site also suggests that We have multiple stories. Each one has different clues, puzzles and levels of difficulty. We’re also planning to introduce series – where one box opens another box – to allow you to experience longer, more exciting stories and puzzles which hints at these boxes doing things that exit games cannot currently do.

It is not yet clear whether the “downtown Toronto” restriction will be lifted (inter?)nationally in time, as it’s tempting to wonder if some physical puzzles could be included within the box that are so intricate that the postal services of the world might not be trusted with them. It’s well-known that some mechanical puzzles include all manner of sensors, which might not play well with a long-distance postal service. Either solution is possible; a strictly local service might feature the most advanced boxes, a more wide-ranging service might spread the fun to people who live outside convenient travel radius of an exit game. (Particularly in Canada, where the distances involved can be vast.)

“Puzzles through the post” games are not completely unprecedented; there have been passing mentions of the Black Letter Game from 2012, which has quite a heritage. People have been playing chess by mail for at least 200 years, quite possibly much longer, and more interesting games since at least 1970 (OK, arguably since at least 1963). As for, more specifically, puzzle games: that’s a topic for another day.

Milestone 100: a quick survey

Milestone showing the number 100Depending on whether you count the post with the map or not, either there have been 100 posts on this site already or this is the 100th post to this site. This has taken about four months, though this site has always been a “posts every now and again” site rather than a “new post every day” site. Grateful acknowledgements are due to Iain and Phil for their excellent posts along the way and potential contributors are warmly invited to get in touch.

It’s hard to know quite how many visitors the site gets. We have hit count statistics, but – for all WordPress blogs – it’s difficult to know how many of them arise as the result of automated spammers, whose attempted contributions are largely blocked; it might be 75% of our many hundreds of visitors per day, it might be 99.75%. Accordingly, it would be very much appreciated if you would take 45 seconds or so to fill in this anonymous survey, and a hundred posts is as good a milestone point as any. Tick as many or as few boxes as you like for each question; all the questions are completely optional, though participation may set a cookie on your computer.

Thank you for considering it!

Milestone 100: a quick survey

Milestone showing the number 100Depending on whether you count the post with the map or not, either there have been 100 posts on this site already or this is the 100th post to this site. This has taken about four months, though this site has always been a "posts every now and again" site rather than a "new post every day" site. Grateful acknowledgements are due to Iain and Phil for their excellent posts along the way and potential contributors are warmly invited to get in touch. It's hard to know quite how many visitors the site gets. We have hit count statistics, but - for all Wordpress blogs - it's difficult to know how many of them arise as the result of automated spammers, whose attempted contributions are largely blocked; it might be 75% of our many hundreds of visitors per day, it might be 99.75%. Accordingly, it would be very much appreciated if you would take 45 seconds or so to fill in this anonymous survey, and a hundred posts is as good a milestone point as any. Tick as many or as few boxes as you like for each question; all the questions are completely optional, though participation may set a cookie on your computer. Thank you for considering it![wwm_survey id="0"]

Chess Puzzle Solving Championship

Chess problem by RetiYou may recognise the Réti endgame study above, argued to be one of the most famous chess problems of them all, or you may not. (White to play and draw against any defence.) This site contends that there are many – dozens? hundreds? – of little puzzle hobbies out there already, and that people who enjoy one may enjoy others that they did not previously know about. One of the best-developed of them all is that of chess problems, as codified in the UK by the British Chess Problem Society.

Their introduction to chess problems starts by arguing that there is much more than the puzzle element in a chess problem, then dissects the elements involved. (Could it be possible to take a similar approach to the sorts of puzzles more familiar to this site? It would be fascinating to see someone try; readers’ opinions on this would be most welcome.) The bottom of the introduction links to pages with more specific information about the types of chess problems which exist, of which the page on fairy chess problems is the most imaginative. This 2010 contest, by Serbia’s celebrated Nikola Zivanovic, organised through Logic Masters India of whom more before too long, uses the functionality of chess pieces in a more familiar puzzle context – almost approaching the issue from the reverse direction.

The British Chess Problem Society has a well-defined infrastructure, with an annual weekend-long convention, but arguably its focus is the British Chess Solving Championship, hereafter BCSC, which has been sponsored since 2009 by Winton Capital (also Mind Sports Olympiad solvers this year, so a tip of the cap to them). The BCSC has a starter puzzle as the (relatively!) gentlest of barriers to entry, then a correspondence round of eight puzzles to be completed and returned by post, this year by mid-August, with top solvers qualifying for an in-person final at the end of the following winter.

This in-person final consists of, usually, six short-ish rounds of (usually) two problems each, over the course of a long afternoon. The BCSC has over thirty years of history – and, to win it, you’ll have to beat not just Grandmasters but Grandmasters who have represented their country, over the board, at very high levels. From there, top performers advance to the World Chess Solving Championship, at which Britain has done extremely well in recent years, both in terms of individual solvers and also the national team. There is a great deal of classification and celebration of the best solvers – but also, possibly more importantly, the most prolific and accomplished problem constructors. While every mind sport is unique and holding up one as a template for others to follow seems unwise, that seems like excellent practice that could be usefully replicated in the world of puzzles.

So the chess problem hobby has intense depth; their championship begins with the starter problem, which attracts many hundreds of entrants and is free to enter, as of this year. The starter problem is widely distributed among the chess press, with a degree of competition between editors as to which one can inspire most entries, so look at your favourite source and you’ll find it. (For instance, one starting point could be Leonard Barden.)

Around the World: the Dark Ages

A monochrome image of a dark forestAround The World is an occasional series in which this site release its self-imposed general restriction of a focuses upon the UK and Ireland. There are have been a couple of really interesting stories about exit games in other countries recently, too good to miss, particularly when thinking about what exit games could be.

A news story about an exit game from Manila in the Philippines starts “Imagine yourself and a friend blindfolded, handcuffed and trapped in a room. You are being held hostage by a psycho killer who gave you an hour to solve his riddle so you can set yourselves free.” The images show the blindfolds are literal, though there is no evidence either way about the handcuffs.

This possibly should not come as a surprise, as another exit game from the country, Breakout Philippines, similarly blindfolds its players at the start. This site is not aware of any connection between Breakout Philippines and Breakout Manchester, or any other UK site that yet blindfolds its players, but never say never. That said, as it’s been in the Edinburgh Evening News, it’s probably not a spoiler to suggest that Escape’s Prison Break room sees teams start off quite literally in the dark, and the first challenge is to find out how to switch on the lights – a puzzle that has eluded some groups for up to 15 minutes.

This site also really enjoyed this New York Times article about exit games in Budapest; the latest count from suggests that Budapest alone has 56 exit games – or at least 56 rooms, for there seem to be some sites with multiple one-room locations in the city. Either way, it’s a lot, and suggests how much room there remains for growth closer to home.

The New York Times article also lets this site put together more pieces of the jigsaw together that could be a history of the exit game tradition. Para Park (“Fear Park”) opened in Budapest in 2011, with this English-language article narrowing it down to June 2011 and claiming that Para Park was Budapest’s first. (It also suggests that founder Attila Gyurkovics was inspired by online room escape games, rather than directly by the original Asian in-person eit games that share the same inspiration.) A little further research on LinkedIn points to Istvan Rusvai opening the original, Hungarian, HintHunt early in 2012, before the London branch opened in April 2012. The rest is history.

The NYT article also provides another part of the trail by suggesting that many exit games have a Hungarian connection, either because they were started by an émigré, or because they’ve been designed and licensed by one. The Room, scheduled to open in Berlin in September, is one of the few exceptions; its chief executive, Jochen Krüger, is German. He got the idea from his partner, who had visited a live-action game in Tokyo. Together they went to Budapest, where, over the course of two days, they played eight different games. Sounds like a plan!

The International Puzzle Party

Possible International Puzzle Party logo, in the style of "Godel Escher Bach"There’s a huge global puzzle event taking place in London this August. The kicker is that it’s not the 23rd World Puzzle Championship, which the site has mentioned in at least a dozen posts to date. As the subject line suggests, it’s something quite different.

The focus is on physical, mechanical puzzles, and the International Puzzle Party web site explains the event as follows:

The purpose of the International Puzzle Party is to provide an annual forum for serious puzzle collectors for the exchange and sale of puzzles, books and related items, as well as for fun and fellowship. In short: puzzling fun for puzzling enthusiasts. International Puzzle Parties have been held almost every year since 1978. IPP’s are usually organized in three-year cycles in the USA, the Far East, and Europe.

Attendance at any International Puzzle Party event is by personal invitation only, from the hosting team. This is why the web sites of future IPP’s require a password. Please do not advertise future IPP’s to people who are not invited; do not even mention the exact locations nor dates.

Accordingly, the Puzzle Place calendar suggests that the next IPP will take place in London in August, but is no more specific than that. This secrecy is… well, it’s their business and nobody else’s, but as barriers to entry go, it’s pretty high. Perhaps it might be relevant that being a “serious puzzle collector” is not at all a cheap hobby – for instance, one of the few other resources about the event, Karl Scherer’s page, suggests people with only 500 puzzles might call themselves “small” collectors. These puzzles are precision craftsmanship, at the very least, so it seems reasonable to expect these collectors to be, perhaps, well-heeled, and the actual makers to be tremendously talented with their tools.

Part of the joy of the puzzle hobby (or, rather, the dozens of parallel little puzzle hobbies) is that you can engage with them in as much or as little depth as you like, and it seems surely likely to be accurate for mechanical puzzles as well. While the International Puzzle Party might choose to be exclusive, it has inspired other puzzle parties that are much more accessible. This site has mentioned the Midlands Puzzle Party in the past, with the Puzzle Place calendar quoting two more this year in early August and late October; additionally there’s the London Puzzle Party monthly, at 7pm on the second Tuesday of each month, at a Holiday Inn in Camden Town. The whole of Martin H Watson’s site is well worth a read; lots of good, mechanical-puzzle-focused, things to enjoy there.

Of course, it is probably just historical accident that Puzzled Pint also happens in London, starting at 7pm on the second Tuesday of each month; it seems very likely that people who enjoy one would also enjoy the other, though people would surely have a preference, probably for whichever one they were familiar with first. What are the chances of both events picking the same day of the month? One naive guess is “about 1 in 31”, but perhaps “about 1 in 15” is a more likely estimate; after all, people are likely to have competing demands giving them less time for such fun gatherings at weekends (and, perhaps, shoulder weekdays) – and maybe it’s somehow just too obvious to aim for the first week of the month…!

DASH stats 2: the difference between Experienced and New tracks

Close-up of plastic yellow lemon

After looking at whether there was a cultural gap, I next consider the difference between New and Experienced tracks. Here, I’m only going to look at those puzzles where there was a difference in content.

“First sale”, “Advertising”, “Viral marketing”, and (after compensating for the London difference), “Buyout” will be control puzzles. On these four identical puzzles, Experienced were significantly better players. The gap is least if New scores are increased by 4 or 5 points per puzzle.

Again, I think that a Student t-test is an appropriate method, comparing New to Experienced. My chosen data sets are the raw scores for teams completing each individual puzzle. Teams dropping out part-way through the day will contribute data for puzzles they solved.

Collecting Ingredients II” involved solving cryptic clues. These cryptics were different between the tracks – New had a word in a sentence; Experienced had a partial anagram. Experienced needed to fully resolve the sudoku, New only needed the middle three letters, but I think that’s a marginal difference. The evidence suggests that Experienced teams performed worse than New, and the discrepancy goes away by allowing 2 points to Experienced. Given the advantage of Experienced teams on identical puzzles, we might add 6 to Experienced scores.

In “End of the First Day“, Experienced had a longer route to the answer, more letters to decrypt from ternary, and weren’t given the partial hint that there was decryption (but didn’t need to solve that partial hint). Many sides who got this puzzle got it very quickly (though I’ve discarded a team credited with the answer in 40 seconds), and it appears New sides were behind by 1 point. However, we might expect New to be further behind on equal puzzles, so add another 3 points to Experienced scores.

For “Practicing the Sales Pitch“, New had a much clearer hint that semaphore was involved, *and* a time limit more generous by 10 minutes. Experienced were clearly behind, by about 8 points. For our notional parity, try adding 12 to Experienced scores.

In “Mass Production“, there was a small difference – New were explicitly told there’s a word chain. Don’t think that’ll have altered the scores, and this proves to be the case – Experienced were up by 3 points. I can’t reject the hypothesis that there was no additional advantage to either track, so no change.

Finally, for “Memoirs“, New were told that these were rebuses, and given one of the least obvious initial answers, but penalised with a 10 minute shorter time limit. Experienced appears to have benefitted by about 9 points, so we might deduct 4 from their score.

Solely to compensate for differences in the puzzles, I suggest that New teams might deduct 17 points from their score and compare with Experienced sides. That would put the top New team, Colleen Werthmann, in a tie for 31st place; six New teams crack the overall top 100.

The Gr8 Escape

The Gr8 Escape logoSo the fourth city to have two or more exit games is Belfast. Exit Games UK didn’t see this opening coming, but as the official opening was only last Saturday (and historians may enjoy noting this wasn’t the first day with two different exit games opening) then a reaction time of five days is acceptable.

Unusually, The Gr8 Escape has chosen to launch with its physical site before its web site. However, the Facebook page has all the information you need (this post in particular has details of address, parking, pricing and timing) and plenty of information from the site as it was created. The Twitter feed is pretty active as well. All the social media content is unusually friendly, which is a plus point. This blends well with the lovely logo and the tagline (“Can you Craic the code?”) which sets the atmosphere well. Some exit games go for an air of tension; this is explicitly in contrast. Cool!

What else is known? The first game’s title of “Life’s a game of cards – will you have a winning hand?” gives another sense of the prevailing style. Refreshments are complimentary, and escaping the room within the 60-minute time limit earns a 50% off voucher for a future room, a free glass of bubbly or orange juice and a “I craic’d the code” certificate. The venue seems to have plenty of room to host further rooms in the course of time. The game is set to cater for teams of two to eight and prices vary from £30/team to £40/team depending on team size, with family and student discounts on top. The location seems to be reasonably central Belfast and games will be available seven days per week – to begin with, through this booking app.

And yet, and yet, despite the image this site might have given, the proprietors seem to be taking rather a degree of delight at how difficult the game has proved. Among the playtest teams taking part in the soft launch, the score was “room 8, teams 0”. So if the kudos of being the first team to beat a particular exit room appeals, maybe best to get in sooner rather than later!

DASH stats 1: London’s “Buyout” problem

Lemonade stand

Chris has already written about the DASH audio I’ve put together. The best audio deals with topics that work as audio. Clips of what it was like to be there, experiences of solving puzzles, that works in your ears. Hardcore statistical nerdery, that needs to come out through your eyes.

In a later post, I’ll be looking at the difference between the New and Experienced tracks, from analysis of the results. Here, I’m considering whether the UK players in DASH 6 were disadvantaged by one of the puzzles.

London had a problem. Players in Britain mostly spoke in British English. It’s a dialect similar, but not identical, to American English. Spellings alter, words have other meanings, and there are major differences in commercial culture.

These differences came to the fore in the “Buyout” puzzle, which attempted to clue to a commercial company. It’s an American brand, unfamiliar in Britain. The organisers had attempted to reduce this problem, by substituting a similar but different puzzle, but this hadn’t quite worked out.

London players experienced a different puzzle, each clue resolved to a verb-noun combination. Other players got a verb-noun combination that makes a commercial product. Were London players at a disadvantage by not getting the branded nature of the puzzle?

A Student’s t-test is appropriate to compare the performances between London (where 13 teams took New and 8 Experienced) and All Other Locations (84 New, 300 Experienced). The t-test compares the difference of each value in a set from the set’s mean, and works out the probability that the two data sets have the same mean – the “null hypothesis” in this test. It’s especially useful for sets of different sizes.

Technical points: I’m only considering those teams that recorded a solve time for “Buyout”. Also, note how London had more New than Experienced teams: I can conjecture that, if anything, London teams may have under-estimated their abilities, and could prove better than All Other Locations.

For the “Buyout” puzzle, analysis suggests that I can reject the null hypothesis, and there probably *was* a difference between London teams and all others. On the Easy track, there’s a 3% chance that the observed scores come from the same population. These probabilities are even lower for the Experienced track, where the small sample set might not be representative.

If we boost the scores of London teams by 2 points, we can accept the null hypothesis on all measures. So, yes, the teams of London appear to have been disadvantaged by the cultural gap, but only by a minute.

As a control, I’ve repeated this analysis for the other puzzles. We can easily accept the null hypothesis in all cases, and assume that there was no trans-atlantic difference.