Looking back on 2016: predictions for the year

Peering into a Crystal Ball

In early January of 2016, this site posted an article predicting what would happen in 2016. It didn’t attempt to predict the results of the referendum or the US presidential election but it did talk about puzzling and escape rooms. Since then, Chris, who ran the site at the time has moved on to exexitgames.co.uk but that doesn’t stop us taking a look at how those predictions panned out. Since the site has taken a fairly firm focus on escape games since his departure, this article looks at the escape side of those predictions.

Prediction: “This site will become aware of more than 51 exit game openings in the UK and Ireland in 2016.”

Actual: In case you were in any doubt, this prediction came true. In much the same way as “Leicester City won’t be relegated from the Premiership” came true last season. On 1 January 2015 there were, to this site’s knowledge, 103 venues across the UK and Ireland. As 2016 draws to a close there are now 238 venues open. All in all, there were 152 venue openings in 2016 – almost exactly three times the prediction. Wow!

Prediction: “This site will become aware of more than 13 exit game closures in the UK and Ireland.”

Actual:  A total of 16 escape rooms closed in 2016, although (as the prediction made clear) it’s not always lack of business that prompts the shutters to come down. In fact, since this site is often asked why escape room closure occur, it’s worth going into a bit more detail.

  • 1 owner emigrated (Fathom Escape)
  • 1 lease expired (Enter the Oubliette)
  • 4 temporary hiatus – expected to re-open (Clockwork DogClue CrackerEnd GameTime Trap Escape)
  • 4 planned closures – game was temporary (A Curious Escape, Hide and Shriek, Code-X, Milestones Museum)
  • 6 permanent closures – reason unclear (Hidden Rooms London, The Lock and Key, Dr. Knox’s Enigma, EVAC, Sherlock Unlock, A Great Escape)

Prediction:  “At least one brand will have at least nine locations open in the UK and Ireland in 2016.

Actual: Achieved. In fact, two separate brands made it to nine locations:

  • Clue HQ with nine locations in: Warrington, Brentwood, Blackpool, Sunderland, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Leicester and Coventry
  • Escape with eleven locations in: Glasgow, Edinburgh (two), Blackpool, Hull, Doncaster, London, Chester (Escapism), Livingston, Newcastle and Dublin. Even if you argue that Escapism is branded separately and Edinburgh is just a single location that’s still a healthy nine.

For the record, no other company made it past five locations.

Prediction: “Crowdfunding will get harder; no reasonably traditional exit game based in the UK or Ireland will attract more than £5,000 in funding in 2016 unless the people behind it have an established track record in this or another closely related industry.

Actual: Several companies launched crowdfunding campaigns this year with varying degrees of success but this site couldn’t have seen Hugo Myatt on the horizon which helped catapult Bewilder Box’s campaign to £5216, just breaking the prediction.

Prediction: “At least one exit game will open in 2016 within eight miles of the main train station in at least four of the seven following locations: Reading, Portsmouth, Milton Keynes, Hull, Middlesbrough, Coventry and Peterborough.”

Actual: Well, given that the prediction for the number of new escape rooms opening was beaten by a factor of three, it’s perhaps not surprising that this prediction was also beaten, and some! In fact, of the seven locations suggested only one of them failed to open two venues and, even there addresses have been confirmed for a couple more that would fall inside the eight mile radius specified in the predictions.

Prediction:  “The exit game industry will continue to grow sufficiently quickly that this site’s estimate for the number of unique players in the UK or Ireland by the end of December 2015 reaches or exceeds 750,000.”

Actual: This site has stopped making predictions but it’s safe to say that this has been beaten unless the slots at all these additional venues are being filled by experienced players!

Prediction: “There will be a meeting in the UK or Ireland in 2016 with exit games as its focus which attracts more than 50 attendees.”

Actual: The biggest meeting, to this site’s knowledge, was in London with just under 50 participants. Within a couple of weeks of the new year, this site is confident that the 50 will be achieved with the unconference in London.

Prediction: “This site will become aware of someone that it does not already know at the time of making this prediction running an exit game for friends and family on an amateur basis within the UK and Ireland in 2016 using something more elaborate than, say, a Breakout EDU kit or similar.”

Actual: No one that this site is aware of but it would be great to hear otherwise.

Prediction: “This site loves stories of marriage proposals taking place at exit games and there have been at least ten customer proposals on record. A more interesting prediction is that by the end of 2016, this site will become aware of at least one proposal between a couple who got to know each other by both working at the same exit game.”

Actual: Escape game staff couples definitely exist – this site isn’t aware of any proposals but would love to be contradicted!

Prediction: “Some company may bring larger-scale live escape events to the UK, with relatively many teams playing the same game at once. (This is inspired by SCRAP’s Real Escape Game events playing in France and Spain as well as other continents, and is surely slightly more likely than last year.)”

Actual: Sort of. Locked in a Room opened up in London with up to 8 teams playing the same game in parallel. That isn’t quite like SCRAP but, under the letter of the law, it probably meets the above prediction.

Prediction: “An exit game brand in the UK and Ireland may take over at least one other existing game, or maybe even another exit game brand altogether.”

Actual: This looked like a possibility with both A Great Escape in Milton Keynes and Enter the Oubliette in London closing their doors but neither appear to have sold on their game to another company (STOP PRESS: There’s a strong hint on A Great Escape’s site that a sale may have taken place!). When Escape Land in London shut up shop, Hidden Rooms took on some of their IP but since then the roles have reversed with Escape Land re-opening and Hidden Rooms closing their doors for good.

Prediction: “There may be some interactive transmedia storytelling (or an Alternate Reality Game, as people called them a decade and a bit ago) to promote a new exit game or a new room at an exit game.”

Actual: Sadly no, as far as this site is aware.

Prediction: “This site may become aware of an Irish exit game community.”

Actual: Still none that this site is aware of.

Prediction: “Someone might start an overtly humorous blog about the genre in the UK and Ireland: two-thirds serious content, one-third shtick.”

Actual: Not that this site is aware of.

Prediction: “Someone might start an attraction just north of Heathrow called The Crystal Hayes or in South Essex called The Crystal Grays.”

Actual: Again, sadly not. We’ll have to make do with the Bristol Maze.

Did DASH 8 leave you wanting more?

whatsnext

This site has always declared its constituency to be Escape games, puzzle hunts and more and the escape games have had to take a back seat for some time. Perhaps you’re coming here for your first time, or one of your first times, as a result of DASH, or perhaps you couldn’t go but thought it sounded great; you don’t have to wait another year for DASH 9 to get your fill of puzzle fun. The idea to try to keep a calendar of such things has rather fallen by the wayside, but there are plenty of exciting-looking things coming up:

  • This site is perhaps more excited about the upcoming Raiders of the Lost Archive than anything else. It’s a version of Citydash by the esteemed Fire Hazard, but has a big twist. It takes place in the Victoria & Albert Museum; the V&A are excited about this, but it’s not an official event of theirs. The difference between this and any other Citydash is “(…)this time there’ll be nobody chasing you (and no running in the museum!). We’ll keep the pressure up with twists & turns, surprise clues and leaderboard updates, but you won’t need your running shoes for this one – and you’ll be inside throughout.
     
    If the running element of previous Citydash events has been a turn-off (*raises hand*) then this may well fit the bill and the theme is gorgeous. You can play solo, in a pair, or in a team of up to five. Tickets for Sunday afternoons in May are now listed for 15th May, 5th June and possibly 28th May. (Thanks to Ken for the heads-up!) 
     
  • The A Door In A Wall are, happily, continuing to put on their large-scale public events. The next one coming up very soon will be entitled Played to Death. “Each team will need a charged smartphone to hand and we advise you wear comfortable footwear as our story leads you out into the nearby streets in search of puzzles, clues and characters. (…) you’ll have about 45 mins to get settled and work out where to begin your investigation before the game’s opening scene. You’ll be tasked with gathering evidence to crack the case and you’ll then have two hours to explore the area outside: solving puzzles, interacting with characters and collecting clues. Once the time is up, return to the Square Pig ((pub)) where you’ll have some time to make sense of what you’ve found and identify the killer.
     
    The game will be offered on most evenings and some afternoons (particularly at weekends) between mid-May and mid-June; tickets are already available and have sold out on a number of days already. If you don’t get to play, the company are also offering the A Veiled Threat game on the third Tuesday of every month, which The Logic Escaped Me played and loved
     
  • This site’s friends at Treasure Hunts In London are also continuing to run their events; the best way to keep in touch with what’s on offer there is their calendar on Eventbrite. Three events are coming up soon: May sees the Art on the Streets Treasure Hunt at the Chocolate Museum on the 14th and the Trafalgar Square Experience at the National Gallery on the 28th; June sees the Naughty But Nice Afternoon Adventure starting at the Annenberg Courtyard of the Royal Academy on the 18th. Prices vary, depending on whether the event includes no food, a cream tea or a full dinner. 
     
  • The Cambridge University Computing and Technology Society have held a long, ambitious, advanced puzzle hunt annually for the last three or four years, normally in early June after most students have finished their exams. No word whether there’ll be another one this year, but fingers crossed. The logical place to look for more information would be the society’s Facebook page
     
  • The Manorcon board game convention (15th to 18th July at the University of Leicester) is set to feature a puzzle hunt, probably on the Sunday afternoon. This year’s hunt setters are past hunt setting veterans and multiple-time solving champions, as well as some of this site’s favourite people in the world; attend Manorcon because it’s a tremendous board game convention that started running ten or twenty years before the current breed of board games started to become popular again, rather than just for the puzzle hunt. 
     
  • Before all those, there’s dear old Puzzled Pint in London – and now also in Manchester! – on the second Tuesday of each month, so as soon as the Tuesday in half a week’s time. The puzzles here come from a rather more DASH-like background, but are deliberately accessible to all and designed to provide an hour or two’s fun for a team enjoying food, drink and good company. 
     
  • If Tuesday’s too long to wait, or if London and Manchester are both too far to go, there are online puzzle hunts which come to you. The annual Melbourne University Mathematics (and statistics) Society hunt starts at midday, local time, on 9th May. It’s designed for teams of up to ten; you’ll recognise some of the participating teams’ names from the top of the DASH leaderboard, but other teams come from the MIT Mystery Hunt tradition and more. Suffice to say that the MUMS hunt has gained an audience who like to spend hours on deep, research-y, Aha!-y puzzles, though they’re almost always brilliantly constructed. 
     
  • Staying online, if you like logic puzzle contests then the calendar also looks busy. The World Puzzle Federation’s Grand Prix season’s contests take place every four weeks, with the next starting on Friday 13th May. The next contest is set by the US authors and may be of particular interest; more soon. The move to featuring “casual” puzzles as well as the more high-powered traditional fare adds massively to the fun as well as the accessibility. That’s not all from US authors, though; the US Puzzle Championship will be on Sunday 18th June. Before that, HIQORA takes place on Saturday 28th May; more soon on that one, too. Look out (perhaps at @ukpuzzles on Twitter?) for news of the UK Puzzle Championship as well, which has rapidly become this site’s favourite of the year. Previous UKPCs have happened in May, June, July and August, so this year’s event could happen at any moment. Exciting times!

Drawing a line from one DASH to the next

DASH 008 in London needed its teams to go underground!

DASH 008 needed its teams to go underground! From @playdashlondon

This is a guest post by David J. Bodycombe, one of the UK’s foremost puzzle authors. You may know his work from The Crystal Maze and Only Connect or perhaps numerous books and periodicals. At the very least you probably know that car park puzzle; to this site’s taste, he’s written easily two thousand much more interesting ones over the years, but you can never tell what’s going to catch the public’s imagination…

Last year, as a participant of DASH 7, something didn’t feel… right. When I got home and had to explain to my wife whatever the heck I’d been doing for the day, I sensed that I hadn’t had that much fun. The company was great, but the frantic time limits, a lack of food, an unfortunate route and a brute of a final puzzle left me thinking “Maybe I won’t do it next year”. But with DASH 8 promising a Brit-friendly theme of James Bond, how could I say no?

Last year, I put down my thoughts on how DASH could improve, both as a podcast and as a summary post in the comments. I make no personal claim for any improvements made but, since it is this site’s frequent milieu, I thought it might be fun to look back and see how much of my wishlist was catered for this year.

(1) DITCH THE TRACKS.
Partially. The Junior track has gone, tailing the tracks from three to two. Frankly, the junior track was never going to be a long-term possibility in London, particularly with its 18+ pub culture being a supplier of many indoor venues. The prospect of expecting a chaperone to guide teenagers around the busy streets of London on a Saturday was a tough ask, and I agreed with a commenter last year who said that there would be better value in making the puzzles available for schools to run their own mini-puzzle drives. I still believe the differences in the Normal/Expert tracks cause more doubt and administration complexity than is worth, and that homogenisation of the tracks wouldn’t affect more than 5% of the teams.

(2) MINI-TASKS SHOULD BE IMPRESSIVE, OR GOOD JOKES, OR OMITTED.
Yes. In past years, it was hard for Londoners not to look on the DASH social media feeds with a feeling of jealousy. Somehow, DASH seemed cooler there – better themed, better spaced and better stunts. Not so, this year. If anything, London may have been *the* place to DASH – particularly with the start point a stone’s throw away from the on-theme MI6 headquarters. Imaginative mini-tasks plus the tremendous innovation of optional ‘HMSAT tests’, some of which required teams to be observant and quick-witted at all times, added immensely to the occasion.

(3) WE NEED TO BELIEVE GAME CONTROL.
and
(4) THE RULES NEED TO BE CONSISTENT FOR EACH LOCATION.
Yes. Last year, the slightly rubber-banded rules, where different locations were allowed to be flexible about when to end the hunt, led to a lot of confusion and disappointment. This particularly applied to my team last year, as we quit early not realising that the advertised “strictly-enforced 8 hour time limit” was actually no such thing. This year, the sensible thing was done – a 10-hour limit was the same for all (AFAIK) and even an overall countdown timer was there on the ClueKeeper to avoid any anxiety.

(5) IMPROVE THE SCORING.
Partially. Still some work to do, here. In particular, the scoring was not explained on an info sheet this year, so lord knows what DASH newbies thought of it. But, again, puzzle 1 was not worth anything. This means that some teams (maybe well-meaning latecomers) are simply typing in the answer that their mates have told them, meaning that ClueKeeper’s stats credit them with solving the puzzle in a world-beating 7 seconds, and thus denying the ‘real’ winning team from getting a little gold cup next to their name. I still think it should be worth something – either a flat score, or a low Par value to indicate that you shouldn’t spend too long on it. Another wish of mine from last year was to allow more opportunities for bonus points. This was indeed achieved, but only in the distinctly cheeky manner of ramping up the total Par time to a little short of 7 hours. Hmm.

(6) MAKE THE PROPS BETTER OR DITCH THEM.
Yes. A big win. You couldn’t say that this year’s DASH was “just Puzzled Pint with walking”. The advantages of DASH’s economies of scale were definitely evident this year and, more to the point, the props had a puzzle purpose to them rather than just delivering a codeword answer.

(7) MAKE THE CONTENT ACHIEVABLE BY MOST.
Yes. Though our team quit on the final puzzle this year due to taking too long on puzzle 9, looking at the general ClueKeeper statistics it’s easy to see that almost all teams had the opportunity to finish within the time allowed.

With these feedback points largely addressed, I offer up another set for discussion:

(A) EASE UP ON THE CONSTRUCTION?
This is one area that really hurts smaller teams. While DASH has never claimed to be any fairer to teams of 3 than 5, nevertheless the fairly extensive nature of some puzzles that required the teams to build paper or wooden models would have added minutes (maybe tens of minutes) to the scores. The news near the end that *every* team member was *required* to have scissors really took me aback. And, I say this slightly seriously, if I ever make it to DASH 38, I wonder how my arthritic fingers would cope with things like folding paper cranes. Does against-the-clock building further discriminate against the less physically able? As other commenters have noted, the time difference in time taken for construction often made the ClueKeeper out-of-sync with the team’s progress.

(B) CHOKE BACK ON THE PUZZLE LENGTHS
Although the average solve times seem much more in line with previous years this time around, and the overall event pacing was better too, there did seem to be an expectation that teams would have to spend 9 hours overall this time rather than 8. I would like to see the par time come back down to nearer 6 hours. This, plus an hour for eating and 90 minutes for travelling, still adds up to a pretty packed 8.5 hours. How could this be done in practice? I would say: by keeping the starter puzzle shorter (it was quite a Googling-heavy brute this year), by keeping most puzzles sub-45 minutes, and by having a slightly more robust attitude to starting on time. Puzzle 5 (par: 75 minutes) was way too long for a lunchtime activity – my usual team usually finishes an entire evening of Puzzled Pint (four puzzles and a meta) within 75 minutes!

(C) TO PREP OR NOT TO PREP?
Despite following DASH on Facebook and Twitter, somehow I missed the “Advanced Training” which gave information on two things: how to solve cryptic crossword clues, and how to fold paper cranes. If you’ve never solved a cryptic crossword, to somehow learn this skill in the week before DASH is asking a lot. What next? You have a week to speak fluent Klingon, or learn to juggle? I’ve seen some people suggest the rules to Baccarat should have been made available beforehand, to which I heartily disagree: it would have put even more advantage to the teams that have spotted the pre-game information.

(D) GIVE SOME INDICATION OF ‘DWELL TIME’
It would be appreciated if the route information could more heavily hint if teams are likely to stay in a location for a long period of time – particularly where locations ‘double up’ for two puzzles. For instance, at the morning meeting point there was a heavy sense of “Do I bother to buy a coffee or not?”. You don’t want to be mid-croissant when ClueKeeper cheerily guides you to your next location 2 miles away. No-one wants that.

(E) BEAR THE BRITS IN MIND…
DASH GC have a little more way to go to make it feel like a global-inclusive event, rather than London being a “+1”. For instance, I winced when – given the event’s British/James Bond theme – we had to release puzzle 1 on ClueKeeper by spelling the word LICENCE the “wrong” way…

Overall, my team rated this year’s DASH as a ‘solid 8/10’ which should be interpreted as a very good score for such a complex event, and a definite improvement from last year. Particular thanks should go to London’s GC who stepped in to help when all others stepped back, and added notable innovations and flair that I hope future GCs will emulate. I very much look forward to DASH 9.

(Full disclosure: due to a family medical emergency, I had to pull out half-way. As a result, some of this post uses feedback from my teammates or other third-hand information.)

Mission accomplished – DASH 8 described

DASH 8 deck of cardsThis site makes no apology for writing a considerable quantity about DASH with just as considerable delight; it’s always one of the highlights of the year. If you couldn’t attend this year, here’s what you missed… and perhaps, just perhaps, it might make you interested in taking part in a future year. If you played DASH elsewhere and were keen to know how London interpreted this year’s puzzles, you can find out here as well.

Fair warning: now that DASH has finished, we’re into potential spoiler territory. Every previous DASH has had its puzzles posted online reasonably soon afterwards. If you didn’t play DASH, it would still be a lot of fun to get a group of your friends together and try the puzzles for yourself once they’re made available. This post is going to be fairly generic, avoiding the Aha! moments for each puzzle, but the comments may be more specific. Nevertheless, if you want to avoid spoilers altogether, it may be wise to skip this post and it may be very wise to skip the comments. However, if you played and want to relive the experience, if you played elsewhere and want to compare stories or if you know you’ll never play this year’s puzzles and just want to find out what you missed, then to get to the detail you can click on the mission dossier that is the “Continue Reading” button below. Continue reading

(Almost) Everybody hates deliberately ambiguous puzzles

You might have seen these puzzles, which have been doing the rounds on social media recently. What do you think the answers are?

Ambiguous fruit puzzle

a) 15. A bunch of bananas is a bunch of bananas. Who knows how many there really are in each one?
b) 14. There are four bananas in the bunches in lines 2 and 3, sort of, and there are only three bananas in the bunch in line 4.
c) 11. Nobody cares about boring old ordinary bananas. The only reason the bunches in lines 2 and 3 have any value is because of that special double-tipped banana. Without it, the rest of the bunch is worth zero.

Ambiguous flower puzzle

a) 26. A blue flower is a blue flower, regardless of how many leaves it has. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
b) 25. The flower head and stems are distractions, this is really about leaves.
c) The answer is undefined as there is no basis to say what the relationship is between the value of a blue flower with four leaves and one with five leaves. Consider how much more highly a four-leaf clover is regarded than a three-leaf one.

How many watermelons are there?

Ambiguous watermelon puzzle

a) Five. Three-quarters times four is three, and one-half times four is two.
b) Six. The middle four are two cut in half, the other four are used to produce the outer four. Yes, four quarter-melons are missing, but they clearly aren’t used to make up the ones in the middle.
c) An indeterminate number between six and eight, because we don’t can’t tell whether or not the ones in the middle are two halves of the same melon or not.
d) Zero. Three quarters of a melon and half a melon are both different things to a watermelon, notably in terms of freshness.

You might think that the fact that they’ve got hundreds of thousands of shares suggests they’re popular and thus worth including (or, at least, adapting) in your exit game. Please don’t. They’re popular because they’re deliberately ambiguous and can be argued more than one way. That’s really not a good property for an exit game puzzle. The fact that people are likely to have seen the puzzles, or their central conceits, before is not the best starting-point.

Counting puzzles have a long history in exit games and are a core skill. They’re hardly likely to excite, though there are a few cute ways to dress them up and if you have fantastic art then they can be genuinely pretty. The last time that a counting puzzle actually made someone smile was approximately 1898 (some reports suggest 1896) when Sam Loyd sold more than 10,000,000 copies of “Get Off The Earth” (discussed in detail, though the link is old and so the pictures have rotted, at the wonderful defective yeti) – and that’s perhaps better classed as an optical illusion than as a puzzle.

Algebraic equations are also known within exit games; if you write out the equations in words, then things are unambiguous. They may be a sufficiently close reminder of school that people who didn’t like algebra at the time are unlikely to appreciate the reminder now. The first puzzle of the three is the least problematic; if the bananas were completely separate from each other, it would be unambiguous, though not particularly exciting. As it is, it gets into issues of two-dimensional depictions of three-dimensional objects; why do you assume a banana is there when you can only see part of it, when you assume there isn’t any fruit hidden behind the apples?

One big problem with the puzzles above is that if you declare one of the answers to be correct and another to be wrong, then people are unlikely to be impressed by your explanation as to what makes something right or wrong. The bigger problem is that when people try what you consider to be the wrong answer and find out it doesn’t get them anywhere, they will probably stumble on the right answer by shifting one either way and then concluding that either their arithmetic was wrong (not much fun) or that your arithmetic was wrong (even less fun). It then becomes simple trial and error rather than puzzle-solving. It’s the sort of situation where only the person setting the room thinks it’s funny and the people playing the room think it’s not.

By contrast, if the “right” and “wrong” answers were, say, six away from each other and there were a satisfying reason why the “wrong” answer was wrong, that’s a much better puzzle – and whether a reason is satisfying or not is judged by the person hearing the answer, not the person setting the puzzle. This has been a very negative article so far, so here’s a constructive suggestion instead. If you’re effectively required not just to count up items for an equation but identify each item and work out whether thematically it fits into the category to be counted, that’s fine and potentially good; at worst, it’s a “how many animals of each time did Moses take into the ark?” trick question.

In short: stay well away from this sort of gimmick. The least worst thing that could be said about them is that they anchor the creation of your room to a particular point in time – specifically, this week or so – when everyone will have moved onto something completely different next week.

And as for the division sign in this little blighter, don’t even go there

Ambiguous division puzzle

The latest links

A golden chain of linksRather than contrive a connection, perhaps it’s best to be blunt and just say that this site thinks the subjects of these links are cool and hopefully you may do too. Let’s start with some interactive theatre.

  • The Lowland Clearances has been running at the Camden People’s Theatre daily at weekends for the last two weeks and does so again this weekend; indeed, the Sunday performance is sold out already, so it’s Saturday or bust, hoping for repeats down the line. This is explicitly playable theatre, happy to describe itself as live role-playing, safe in the knowledge that the intended audience knows that live role-playing doesn’t necessarily imply rubber weapons in the woods, as fun as that is. It’s a game about city-building and use of space and this review makes it sound spectacular. Kudos to Hobo Theatre for putting it on and to Camden People’s Theatre for hosting it; more, please!
  • Further down the line, A Door In A Wall Have announced an attractively-priced preview for their next public event. This one is set indoors, rather than being a trail around town as they have used in the past. This preview has no marking of answers and declaration of a winner, which hints that you will effectively be invited to decide whether your interpretation and understanding of the story is sufficient for you as a metric for success. It’s not yet clear whether this non-scoring system is a one-off for the preview or the plan for the final version of this piece.
  • Further still, the Sedos theatre company are putting on Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On for two weeks in mid-April, billing itself as an “immersive adventure through Shakespeare’s final play“. In this, “The Docklands Shakespeare Society has invited respected Shakespeare historian Dr. Bianca Corbin to speak at an evening of recitation, interpretive dance and song ((…)) Four hundred years after William Shakespeare’s death, his final play, The Tempest, and the Bard himself both come to life on a lost and forgotten island… only, not quite in the way he remembers writing it… ((…)) Sedos’ first immersive theatre production takes 15,000 sq ft of a building in London’s Docklands and brings the world of The Tempest to life in a celebration of Shakespeare’s life and works. Audiences will be able to explore the island unguided, hear its sweet and sinister noises, sit in Prospero’s armchair, drink with Stephano and Trinculo and follow the spirits of the island as they torment and entertain the island’s mysterious inhabitants.” Sounds like this may pack a punch. *blows dog-whistle*

What else is cool right now? This little lot:

  • A Kickstarter campaign that has recently funded but still has a week left to go is Puzzle Your Kids! promoted by Eric Berlin, who has a long and storied track record. Subscribe and receive weekly word puzzles for kids aged nine and up! Might be a little US culture-specific, but that’s the worst thing that’s likely to be said about it. If the campaign reaches a stretch goal, everyone will get weekly logic puzzles as well, and there are occasional kid-friendly puzzle hunts (six to ten thematic puzzles plus a meta-puzzle) planned as well.
  • This site wasn’t aware that there was such a thing as a preview site for crowdfunding projects, but apparently there is and a crowdfunding project called Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment is coming soon. (Very soon, depending on time zones and how quickly Kickstarter move.) US$45 plus potentially considerable shipping and you’ll get a box of puzzles sent to you for you to solve with your friends in a self-assessed hour time limit. The makers have anticipated replay concerns and are heading them off at the pass with plans for a refill pack so that multiple teams might each be able to enjoy the same single box. As Liz Cable pointed out, this is something of a renaissance of play-by-mail gaming. Back in The Day, if you wanted to play a game designed to be played by far more people than you could fit around a table, you had to play games postally; it was a little like a MMORPG with a latency measured in days rather than tens of milliseconds and bandwidth measured in… well, in elastic bands. These days games are playing to their strengths by sending through serious physical artefacts that cannot be transmitted electronically. Looks exciting, anyhow. Many thanks to Ken for pointing this out.
  • World of Escapes is another UK exit game directory with the distinguishing feature that you can provide user ratings, not for sites as a whole but for individual rooms at each site. It also looks rather smart. Many thanks to Ken for pointing this out.
  • It would be an exaggeration to suggest that this site has wish-grumbled this into existence, but an entertaining exaggeration. The Logic Escapes Me now has a beta version of a reviews aggregator for London escape games – and, if you’ve played more than a handful of them, you can have your ratings included in the aggregation as well. This is a very exciting development and a suggestion of what the future might look like – perhaps a more critical TripAdvisor where you can have reason to take the reviews without a large pinch of salt. Many thanks to Ken for working this out.
  • Intervirals recently pointed to Somewhere Secret in Fort Collins, Colorado; this pay-what-you-want exit game (cool for the pricing alone!) sees people try to open a treasure chest. Inside the chest is a map; winning teams get to take a copy away and are then invited to follow it to obtain a token hidden somewhere in Colorado that might be exchanged for a real prize. This doesn’t need monetary value; by the height of adventure alone, this is beautifully cool already.

Surely something there to tickle your toes!

Looking ahead to 2016: predictions for the year

Peering into a Crystal Ball

This site has ran predictions features over the second half of 2014 and over the whole of 2015, assessing the accuracy of the predictions each time so that the world can have a giggle at just how wrong the guesses were in the first place. Let’s have another go for 2016, more because it’s fun than for any other reason. (Compare to the 2016 predictions for London by The Logic Escapes Me.)

That said, predictions are only so-o-o-o interesting. It’s more fun to think about plausible edge cases; it’s more fun to predict a long shot than something more obvious, but who’s to say what’s obvious and what isn’t? This list of predictions will also attempt to minimise the extent to which it covers previously-trod ground, as “this was an entertaining long-shot that didn’t happen last year and remains an entertaining long-shot this year” isn’t particularly exciting. A couple of other starting-points for predictions: this site will steer clear of predicting things it believes to be foregone conclusions already, and this site will attempt to make the most ambitious predictions that it feels confident making; this site would set over-under lines for the numerical predictions only a little above the figures quoted.

This site considers each of the following to be at least slightly more likely than not:

  • This site will become aware of more than 51 exit game openings in the UK and Ireland in 2016. (Not part of the prediction, but this site suspects that at least 40% of the openings will come from brands and people already in the business in 2015, with a decreasing number of people starting from scratch. Deliberately short-lived pop-up games are not included in the count.)
  • This site will become aware of more than 13 exit game closures in the UK and Ireland. Not every closure is a catastrophe: some businesses have decided to deliberately run a game with a finite duration, possibly with later sequels in mind.
  • At least one brand will have at least nine locations open in the UK and Ireland in 2016. (This is perhaps the most marginal of predictions, but eight seems just a little too safe to predict.)
  • Crowdfunding will get harder; no reasonably traditional exit game based in the UK or Ireland will attract more than £5,000 in funding in 2016 unless the people behind it have an established track record in this or another closely related industry.
  • Many of the biggest gaps in the market will close. At least one exit game will open in 2016 within eight miles of the main train station in at least four of the seven following locations: Reading, Portsmouth, Milton Keynes, Hull, Middlesbrough, Coventry and Peterborough. (This site has heard people talk about possible sites in two of these, but that’s far from a done deal. Other possible cities have been rejected from the list for being too safe a prediction.)
  • The exit game industry will continue to grow sufficiently quickly that this site’s estimate for the number of unique players in the UK or Ireland by the end of December 2015 reaches or exceeds 750,000.
  • There will be a meeting in the UK or Ireland in 2016 with exit games as its focus which attracts more than 50 attendees.
  • This site will become aware of someone that it does not already know at the time of making this prediction running an exit game for friends and family on an amateur basis within the UK and Ireland in 2016 using something more elaborate than, say, a Breakout EDU kit or similar.
  • London and at least two other UK towns will each hold at least four Puzzled Pint events in 2016. (This site has six possibilities in mind.)
  • There will be a UK DASH event and it will sell at least 25 team spaces – or sell out completely if the organisers choose a lower capacity – within 12 days.
  • There will be at least 18 locations in at least three countries around the world at this year’s DASH.
  • Ulrich Voigt will win the World Puzzle Championship this year for his eleventh victory in seventeen years.
  • David McNeill of Northern Ireland will defend his over-50s title in at least one of the World Sudoku Championship and the World Puzzle Championship; hopefully both!
  • This site will finally predict the WPC winning team after picking second place for the last two years.
  • This site loves stories of marriage proposals taking place at exit games and there have been at least ten customer proposals on record. A more interesting prediction is that by the end of 2016, this site will become aware of at least one proposal between a couple who got to know each other by both working at the same exit game.

This site considers each of the following to be less likely than not – maybe something like 30% likely each? – but nevertheless these are interesting possibilities.

  • Some company may bring larger-scale live escape events to the UK, with relatively many teams playing the same game at once. (This is inspired by SCRAP’s Real Escape Game events playing in France and Spain as well as other continents, and is surely slightly more likely than last year.)
  • An exit game brand in the UK and Ireland may take over at least one other existing game, or maybe even another exit game brand altogether.
  • There may be a single-day puzzle hunt in the UK and Ireland that is not the continuation of a series run in previous years and that attracts at least a hundred players.
  • There may be some interactive transmedia storytelling (or an Alternate Reality Game, as people called them a decade and a bit ago) to promote a new exit game or a new room at an exit game.
  • This site may become aware of an Irish exit game community; the rooms do exist, as well as the Boda Borg centre at Lough Key and doubtless other things far too cool to exist in the UK yet, so it would be a delight for someone to start a blog with an Irish focus and maybe even get meetings going as is starting to happen in the UK.

This site considers each of the following to be much less likely than not – maybe something like 15% likely each? – but nevertheless these are entertaining outside possibilities.

  • There might be a TV puzzle show made in the UK or Ireland to match up with the best puzzle shows that we’ve had in the past; if someone were to commission a local version of The Genius and it were to live up to its potential, that would count, or if someone were to make a really good exit game TV show, that would count too.
  • There might be a puzzle competition (as opposed to an armchair treasure hunt or puzzle hunt) launched in the UK or Ireland which is designed to be played in teams – maybe even an inter-town league or an inter-university championship. This site really misses the Croco-League.
  • Someone might start an overtly humorous blog about the genre in the UK and Ireland: two-thirds serious content, one-third shtick.
  • Someone might start an attraction just north of Heathrow called The Crystal Hayes or in South Essex called The Crystal Grays

Mechanics Monday: if you had to invent The Crystal Maze, would you?

A pentakis dodecahedron

A few days ago, this site was delighted to see job adverts for the exciting-looking position of Maze Master at the forthcoming The Crystal Maze live attraction opening in London in a double handful of weeks’ time. It might seem a shade strange at first to see them go down the acting recruitment route to fill the positions, but any customer-facing position in either an exit game or any other live entertainment game is definitely a show business position, playing to the audience of (usually) a single team at a time. Don’t forget, Richard O’Brien was (among many other things) an actor before he became so familiar to audiences in this particular role.

The hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of Kickstarter campaign pre-orders are an excellent indication that people are very, very excited about getting the chance to play the game – and, from there, it doesn’t seem too implausible to suggest that there may be many other people who would like to get the chance to do so but might not, for geographic reasons or many other possible causes. The number of other games that have made either explicit reference or implicit allusion to The Crystal Maze when trying to explain their appeal, or just as a familiar point of reference, also goes to reference the strength of the show as a cultural touchpoint at the very least.

It’s public knowledge that one of the distinguishing advantages of the live The Crystal Maze attraction is its authenticity, not least from the work they have done with the rights holders and the people who made the show in the first place. It’s also true that some part of the appeal of the show, to a (presumably reasonably large) part of the audience, was the wonderful and elaborate environment that the show worked so hard to create. It would seem unlikely to implausible that any other site might ever be able to match this; if people want to play the show they loved, they have no other alternative – and are delighted that the live attraction exists as a possibility at all. In case it’s unclear at all, getting to play the live attraction is one of the things that this site is most looking forward to in 2016.

However, it could be possible for a game to describe itself as “like The Crystal Maze but better” and then provide a number of reasons why it makes that remarkable claim. It’s certainly true that The Crystal Maze was designed to be watched rather than to be played by a mass audience. Some of the distinguishing properties of The Crystal Maze are not necessarily conducive to being an ideal experience when played live; the live experience has hinted at some concessions to authenticity for a better live experience and it will be fascinating to see, in time, whether further such concessions will have been made.

For instance, this site tends to believe that nobody really wants to be locked in and to have to, at least nominally, wait to be bought out. Playing a game is more fun than not playing a game, which is why player elimination mechanics have fallen out of fashion in modern game designs. With this in mind, the suggestion that “locked in” players in the live attraction will also be able to rescue themselves by solving additional puzzles rather than by waiting to being bought out – or not – by their team seems like a wise one in terms of the gameplay experience. A friend made a suggestion to the effect of “If you pay £60 to go round The Crystal Maze and end up being locked in on game one then it’s your fault for being so rubbish”, which is fair enough on one level and the roughest of justice on another.

So if you were designing a live experience to be played by the self-selecting near-mass audience, rather than to be watched on TV, what differences would you choose to make from The Crystal Maze as we know it? While it makes sense for there to be a penalty for failing at (at least some) games other than opportunity cost, perhaps there could be other ways to express this penalty other than the “miss a turn” aspect of a lock-in. The whole aspect where only one player could play any particular game and everyone else just had to watch them play and (usually) shout suggestions might also be worth reconsidering; while shouting suggestions is one way to play a game, for many it will be more vicarious and less vicious than might make for the most compelling experience. Lastly, why couldn’t players have a free choice of physical, mental, mystery or skill genres and the ability to play more than one of a particular type in a particular zone if that’s what would make the game the most fun for them?

At this point, it’s tempting to imagine a rather freeform game. Imagine that your team might get to spend (e.g.) 15 minutes in each of four themed zones, gaining para-crystal currency units. In each zone, there are perhaps 25 opportunities to gain currency units, with each one designed to be possible to win by a single player, with teams having complete flexibility to deploy players to opportunities as they see fit – so possibly lots of people playing one-player games, or people advising other people how to play their games, or maybe even two people teaming up on a single game, or so on. Budgeting time and assigning players to challenges would be the major challenge; the only time limit could be the 15 minute limit in each zone. The currency won from each zone would then be used in some endgame to generate an overall score, which might or might not involve analogues of flying tokens and/or geodesic domes. This site is unsure what the intellectual property laws of the land would dictate.

Is this a game you would like to play? Is this a landscape that looks commercial to you?

Reviewing this site’s predictions for 2015

Crystal ballAt the start of 2015, this site made a number of predictions as to what might happen over the course of of the year. The accountability department declares it time to go back, review those predictions and have a good laugh. Expect counterpart predictions for 2016 early in the new year.

There is a 5% chance that an exit game business sufficiently motivates and enthuses its staff to vote it into the top twenty of the next Sunday Times “Best Small Company to Work For” list.

No. Apparently this was never likely to happen in the first place as companies have to be at least three years old even to be eligible for nomination. Companies have won local business awards, though.

There is a 10% chance that the newspapers will find a new style of puzzle that attracts half as much public attention as sudoku. There is a 80% chance that the newspapers will claim they have done, but only a 10% chance that it will actually stick in close to the way that sudoku has.

Not the 10% chance, at least. A quick search for "the new sudoku" points to Hidato in The Guardian, which hasn’t caught on.

There is a 15% chance that the world will gain a second global monthly puzzle event. There’s a definite reason for one to exist: the wonderful Puzzled Pint is for the benefit of the community, which (generally) goes to visit a different venue each month in each city. Suppose there were a second event run for the benefit of the venues; individual bars (etc.) could adopt the event, pledging to host a puzzle night in their location each month. There are places that would find that a compelling attraction!

Not to this site’s knowledge. The closest is Puzzle Night, which has yet to spread beyond Minneapolis – St. Paul in the US.

There is a 20% chance that some company brings larger-scale live escape events to the UK, with relatively many teams playing the same game at once. (For those who get the distinction, think Real Escape Game as opposed to Real Escape Room.)

Couldn’t really say so in the way this was intended. Corporate entertainment companies have games which come close to fitting the bill, but they’re not (to this site’s knowledge) selling team tickets to teams of all-comers. Compare to this Irish event or this Dutch event. On the other hand, exactly those sorts of events are happening in France and in Spain, so it’s definitely possible that they’ll come to the UK at some point.

There is a 25% chance that the 25th anniversary of The Crystal Maze, which will happen on 15th February this year, will see a reawakening of interest and the show will catch the public mood once more.

Yes; yes, with bells on! £927,252 worth of yes!

There is a 30% chance that one of the big players in the leisure industry starts a chain of exit games within its own facilities, or teams up with an existing exit game business which wants to expand rapidly by opening in a number of facilities. For instance, if you’re going to go to either of the branches of the real-snow indoor ski slope Xscape, you know you’re prepared to spend money, and the chance to play “Escape at Xscape” would surely be irresistible…

Not yet proven. The escape room at Namco Funscape would count (though is, perhaps, one-fifth the size of what this site had intended) but this site has not yet seen evidence that it’s available at more centres than the London County Hall centre. If it is available more widely among the chain, then it counts.

There is a 35% chance that the UK team produces its best performance in the next World Puzzle Championship, beating its previous best of sixth from the twenty national “A” teams in Beijing in 2013.

Not quite. As recently discussed, the team were so-o-o-o close to matching their previous sixth place finish, but seventh it will have to be.

There is a 40% chance that another UK city develops a puzzle community like that of London, with at least one regular monthly event and at least one larger annual event – maybe as simply as hosting its own Puzzled Pint and DASH events, maybe something of its own. All it takes is someone willing to be the first onto the dancefloor.

A very honourable mention to the wonderful Exit Games Scotland and their exit game binges, which is something that even the community in London does not have. It would be very prescriptive (to put it far more kindly than it would deserve) to suggest that the community in London is, in any sense, the only way to have a community.

There is a 45% chance that the UK mass media will catch on to just how cool exit games are. Maybe the “The One Show” team will go and play, or someone will take the idea to Dragon’s Den, or The Apprentice might consider them to be sufficiently zeitgeist-y to take an interest. At the top end, this site might dream of a revival of The Adventure Game, which effectively featured (among other things) room escape games a good thirty years ahead of the time.

Only to a very technical extent, what with the UK version of the Discovery channel signing up to show repeats of the US Race to Escape show, and not actually starting to air them until 2016.

There is a 55% chance that at least one exit game will earn the Living Wage Employer mark. Perhaps there is at least one out there which pays the stipulated wage already. This site doesn’t believe that every exit game can afford to pay the stipulated level; indeed, many owners, especially of very new games, will be some way from covering costs, and consistent wage rises might force them out of business outright. However, perhaps there’s a business out there who would take pride from going down this route.

Not as far as this site is aware.

There is a 60% chance that the next World Puzzle Championship will be won by Ulrich Voigt of Germany, which would be his eleventh overall and the first time anyone has ever won four in a row.

While Ulrich was the very clear leader going into the play-off, he was only second place coming out of it, so that prediction pays out on “no”.

There is a 65% chance that the exit game industry continues to grow sufficiently quickly that this site’s estimate for the number of unique players in the UK or Ireland by the end of December 2015 reaches or exceeds half a million… and this site will not attempt to fix the figures just for the sake of proving this relatively weakly-held prediction correct.

You’ll see soon. (SPOILER! Nearly, but not quite.)

There is a 70% chance that at least one exit game will start to advertise itself using a formal endorsement from a reasonably well-known, mainstream national or international celebrity.

Not yet. The Escape Room of Manchester have posted several photos of Manchester United’s Daley Blind playing there, but that stops short of a formal endorsement.

There is a 75% chance that the Puzzled Pint community of London will continue to grow, flourish, with teams getting to know each other ever more closely and look forward to meeting each other at the other puzzle events that exist through the course of the year.

Puzzled Pint in London was getting about 50-60 attendees late in 2014. It has grown so large that it has had to split into two locations and now attracts 90-110 attendees most months. That’s a definite yes.

There is a 80% chance that eleven or twelve of the calendar months of the year will see at least one new site open for business in the UK or Ireland.

Very much so, and any fault here in the prediction was one of a lack of ambition.

There is a 85% chance that there will be a UK-based exit game review blog set up this year, to which this site will very happily link. There are many different sites out there who want the publicity from the reviews that they might get; be any good (goodness knows, this site doesn’t set the bar high) and proprietors will be climbing over themselves to invite you to play!

Yes, hooray! QMSM, Escape Game Addicts and The Logic Escapes Me fill this site with joy every time they post. Still room for plenty more, though!

There is a 90% chance that the London leg of DASH 7 will expand from 8 teams in 2013 and 21 teams in 2014 to at least 25 teams for 2015. The London capacity for 2013 and 2014 was 25 teams, so it’s quite possible that London DASH might well sell out.

The London leg of DASH did indeed sell tickets to 25 teams within the space of about two weeks, so this prediction counts as fulfilled (in an airline sense) even if only 23 teams did turn up on the day.

There is a 95% chance that at least two existing exit games covered by this site will officially call it a day.

Sadly so, ending on a downbeat note, but the strength in depth of the market as a whole is something that causes this site great delight.

Time for the 2015 World Puzzle and Sudoku Championships

World Puzzle and Sudoku Championships 2015 logoWay-oh, we’re going to Sofia!

This week’s highlight is the World Puzzle and Sudoku Championships. After last year’s triumph in Croydon here in the UK, the 24th World Puzzle Championship and 10th World Sudoku Championship are being held in the capital of Bulgaria. The sudoku championships as such are held on Monday and Tuesday; the puzzle championship starts on Thursday and crowns its champion on Saturday. As ever, the puzzle writing is likely to be of the highest quality, but it has a tremendous way to go to live up to that of last year; you can see what sorts of puzzles will be featured in each one in the sudoku instruction booklet and puzzle instruction booklet. The actual puzzles themselves will need to be solved quickly enough to pose a challenge to befit the best solvers in the world; most mere mortals (hello!) would struggle to solve many of them given a whole day.

It’s a fascinating championship and doesn’t receive a great deal of coverage as the global sporting event that it is. Exit Games UK covered last year’s championship intensely, being a home championship that will surely not be repeated for years, though all the signs point to the UK having done as good a job as any first-time host. This year’s event might not get quite the same extent of coverage as last year’s, but it’s far too much fun not to cover at all. The preview article is arguably the most fun of all to write – compare to last year’s! – though almost the most uncomfortable in the knowledge that you’re writing about real people and just possibly they might read what you say. For the avoidance of doubt, this coverage concerns the puzzle championship rather than the sudoku championship.

As ever, one starting-point for treating the World Puzzle Championship as the sport that it is, is the Wikipedia article, but the motherlode is Tim Peeters’ site. You can get the results from the four most recent championships within the World Puzzle Federation‘s newsletters for 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, each with the results from the previous year’s championships. This year’s participants list points to there being representation from 30 nations in the puzzle championships; it looks like there will be (subject to confirmation) 23 full national teams of four solvers, plus another dozen or so “B” teams, possibly a couple of “C” teams and some number of transnational “United Nations” teams made up of assemblages of national teams that happen to be smaller than the full complement of four. It’s no secret that it’s cheaper to attend an event in Bulgaria than it is to attend one in the UK, and that has evidently made a difference.

The 23 years of the World Puzzle Championship have only seen four different national teams win. The Japanese team won one, the Czech team won three, the German team have won five and the team from the United States of America have won the remaining fourteen. The US team has a 23/23 record at finishing in the top three places, though last year was probably about as close as it has ever been, the German team have finished on the podium 13 times in the last 15 years and the Japanese team’s unbroken run on the podium stretches back ten years. The Czech team were on the podium seven times in the first ten years; the Hungarian team have made four podium appearances and the Dutch team three, including two second places. Other teams on the podium have included Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Poland and Turkey.

At this point, it’s worth pointing out that these championships surely represent an amazing sponsorship opportunity for an exit game brand who wanted to present themselves as the global leader and attract attention from a great number of puzzling communities at a single stroke. All eight G8 countries are represented at the WPC, so is India, so is China, so are all manner of other exciting and relevant nations. The Escape Room Directory points to eleven exit games in Sofia, reportedly one practically across the road from the hotel. One can imagine that most of the games in town will be played in a wide variety of languages over the course of the coming week and word will get round as to which are the best.

Let’s take a look at the top contenders, in descending order of last year’s finish.

Germany won last year, though it was closer than the scoreboard might suggest because Japan entirely reasonably went for a go-for-broke strategy in the final team round. On the other hand, the German line-up have real strength in depth, with the German B team scoring enough to beat all the A-teams outside the top three, and the four German B team members all outscored the fourth-place German A team solver! This year’s A-team is starred by Ulrich Voigt, looking to add an eleventh world championship and to be the first ever to win four in a row. He is more than ably supported by Florian Kirch who finished third last time, Philipp Weiß (unofficial 27th last time, though unofficial 17th two years previously) and Robert Vollmert (unofficial 18th two years running). Michael Ley has a real chance at being the best B-team solver for a third time. If you can make it through the super-stacked German trials, you’re definitely good enough to be a play-off contender. A hugely strong line-up.

Japan also has remarkable strength in depth; looking at the Grand Prix results, with seven of the top eighteen finishers over the course of the series (to Germany’s four!), arguably even more so. Yet there were questions over the Japan Puzzle Championship that settled the Japan line-up; when the dust settled, this is how the chips fell. Ken Endo (who wrote that article) was second going into last year’s play-off and finished handily ahead of the pack in the Grand Prix, so is clearly a very serious contender for the individual championship. Kota Morinshi has finished ninth two years running and has also been excellent in the Grand Prix. Ko Okamoto finished fourth in 2007 and 2010 and almost matched Ken Endo as a guest two years ago. Maho Yokota finished 12th four years ago and 17th two years ago. This is again exceptionally powerful, though it’s tempting to wonder how much they might miss Hideaki Jo.

The US team are powerhouses once again. Palmer Mebane has a four-year streak on the podium and was the last person to beat Ulrich Voigt, in 2011. Wei-Hwa Huang has won it all four times. William Blatt has finished in the top ten for the last two years, and the fourth member this time is Roger Barkan, who has three podium places to his credit. All four have shown that they know what it takes and there is nothing like a weak link here; this bodes very well for the team rounds.

At this point, time to speed up and concentrate principally on the highlights of some of the other teams. Peter Hudak has earned three playoff places in the last four years for Slovakia and they’ll miss him badly this year, though Matej Uher, Matúš Demiger and Štefan Gašpár are all reliable top-30 solvers. From the Czech Republic, Jan Novotný and Jana Vodičková have had years where they’ve been well in the top fifteen; Hungary have three-quarters of their 2013 line-up who finished fourth, featuring 2007 world champion Pál Madarassy, five-time top-ten finisher Zoltán Horváth and Zoltán Gyimesi. Bram de Laat has a four-year top-ten streak for the Netherlands and is backed up with experience.

What of the United Kingdom team? Exit Games UK is bullish. There’s something of a running theme above; nations with strong line-ups where it’s easy to think of one or two very strong solvers who would add considerably. On the other hand, this is the UK line-up that this site has long hoped for, as discussed; for this site’s money, it’s the strongest UK team yet. Neil Zussman and James McGowan have been top-15 solvers for the last two years, with this year’s Grand Prix form guide putting them on par with some very strong names. Tom Collyer has been improving year on year and being instrumental in hosting last year’s championships surely being a great way to get involved. David McNeill has five WPC appearances and has been top among the UK team for four of them. If you want a form guide that’s less than a month old, the team’s performances at LMI’s Puzzle Ramayan again hints at people being there or thereabouts.

Apologies to the Polish, Turkish, Canadian, Chinese, Indian and other teams who do have strong solvers, but you have to draw the line somewhere. It would be a delight for any of them to take this as inspiration to prove this preview wrong, especially if that sentence has swept them aside into just the “and other teams”! Part of the fascination is looking for breakout stars who come from nowhere. It’s always thrilling.

How well can the UK team do? At the start of the year, this site predicted a 35% chance that the UK team might beat its previous best performance of sixth place. Knowing the participant lists now, 35% may be a shade too slim. Four finishes in or around the top quarter, particularly with a couple close to the play-offs, would probably be good for fourth or fifth place, if the team round performances match up to the individual performances. It’s going to be very exciting to follow the team’s progress in Bulgaria!

Coming in to writing this preview, the presumption going in was that Germany were going to be strong favourites. On reflection, Germany might have the strongest top half of the line-up and Japan may have the strongest bottom half. If the US perform close to their strongest throughout, they would surely be very hard to stop as well. For the sake of punditry, the call is going to be Japan, but it’s got to be really close!

For the purposes of entertainment only, here are the Exit Games UK odds:
Japan 11/10
Germany 11/8
USA 7/2
Hungary 16/1
Slovakia 33/1
United Kingdom 50/1 (or 14/1 against a top-3 finish, or 5/4 against a top-5 finish)
Czech Republic 66/1
Netherlands 66/1
China 80/1
Canada 80/1
India 80/1
Poland 80/1
Turkey 80/1
Any other named country 100/1