Five exciting news stories make a post

"Top News" newspaperLittle or no connection between these, but they’re all good news. In no order:

  • Tick Tock Unlock have been rocking Leeds for most of 2014, and after the gentlest of wild goose chases, they have announced that they will be opening a second location, this time in Liverpool. Liverpool has long been one of the biggest gaps in the market waiting to be filled (though certainly partly served by a short train ride to Warrington for Clue HQ) and if Tick Tock Unlock can serve up something that gets as good reviews at the other end of the M62 as they have done in Leeds then Merseyside is in for a treat. More news as soon as it becomes available.
  • One of the “more likely than not” predictions for 2015 has come true already with the tremendous development that Asa and friends have started the Escape Game Addicts weblog, which has got off to an enticing start. One day and two posts old, this looks extremely promising. It’s clear that the team are having great fun and this site looks forward to them putting it into words. They’ll be doing something slightly more hands-on than this blog can do at the moment, by necessity, and are based in a really happening part of the country. See the above post! The site goes straight into the blogroll and further posts are awaited with bated breath.
  • Speaking of blogs, Toronto Room Escapes has been absolutely crushing it for a while. The Year In Review post is an excellent place to start and the Themed Thursday series of really in-depth (and well-thought-out, and showing the benefit of considerable experience, and just plain smart) theoretical game ideas (with, even better still, occasional feedback from others in the industry) is already a highlight of the week. Tomorrow is Thursday; excellent!
  • This weekend’s MIT Mystery Hunt was won in just under 40 hours by team Luck, I Am Your Father, the evolution of the Beginner’s Luck team who won in 2009. (57 teams took part, possibly with as many as 11 getting through the metapuzzles and having the fun of finding the hidden coin.) Initial reports suggest that this year’s event is likely to be remembered favourably even by the MIT Mystery Hunt’s off-the-charts standards. The theme was, loosely, “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”, and some wit noted that the promised 20,000 puzzles were exactly delivered… if you take 20,000 in base 3! Many thanks to the setters, team One Fish Two Fish Random Fish Blue Fish, principally associated with MIT’s small Random Hall dormitory. If you want more familiarity with the MIT Mystery Hunt and its conventions, this presentation is as good as it gets and is far too good to save for another 359 days.
  • Finally, coming up later in 2015, BBC Two will be launching Beat The Brain, where dear old Uncle John Craven will give teams of four contestants “logical problems, visual puzzles and memory challenges, rather than trivia questions“. Some puzzle TV shows in the past have been spectacular; others have relatively missed the mark. Fingers crossed that this one proves another critical and popular hit!

Quiz The Nation

Quiz The Nation(Logo copyright The Challenge Factor IPTV Ltd.)

Sunday night saw the first episode of Quiz The Nation; as previously discussed, this is a nationwide quiz show where the questions are broadcast over satellite TV (or streamed online) to players at home or in a pub, who can respond to the questions through special apps on their phone or tablets. The player with most correct reponses, with response speed taken as a tie-breaker, wins the quiz. Scores and positions (both in your particular location and nationally) are displayed at the end of each round.

The app is free to download and comes with five tokens at no charge. Playing the quiz costs two credits; there are four additional optional “spot prize” one-question shootouts per show, as an additional optional extra between rounds (if you don’t need to go to the bar or the loo?) where the fastest correct answer nationally earns a £50 bonus prize. The overall quiz winner is promised a £1,000 cash prize, with players in positions 2 to 50 also sharing another £1,000 of prizes; possibly cash, possibly paid as tokens – the specifics have not yet been confirmed but are expected imminently.

The prizes are funded, in part, by selling additional tokens after the first five; it’s cheaper if you buy them in bulk, but roughly each one costs a little over a pound. The spot prizes do have something of the feel of a premium rate phone number quiz, but two tokens for a full hour’s interactive quiz seems like a very reasonable price, especially in light of the prizes on offer. It is believed that only something like 160 players took part in week one, so with prizes paid out exceeding the cost of tokens purchased, even if people were purchasing tokens in the first place, in poker terminology there is quite a handsome overlay. As the old jopke goes, Plus EV!

The quiz itself consists of five rounds: “odd one out” (a cute take on a picture quiz), mental agility, intelligence (which will definitely be grist to puzzle fans’ mills), observation and general knowledge (again, inspired by pictures). The older among you may recognise resemblances to The Krypton Factor on TV, and there is crossover in the personnel as well, most notably with the questions being read out by Granadaland TV journalism legend Gordon Burns. The questions neatly ramp up in difficulty within each round; while they never become unsociably difficult for pub play, the questions towards the end of each stanza do start to tickle.

The main question: how well does it work? Sadly, listening to the show over the online stream, the app wouldn’t sync with the audio from the stream here and thus it’s not possible to judge. That said, at least one friend of mine did manage to make the streamed version sync with the app, and I’m not aware of people watching the satellite broadcast (as intended) having problems. Similar technology has been used on other TV shows, notably Ludus. Minor server-side bug fixes are promised from one week to the next; the strength and reliability of the tech will make the venture sink or swim overall.

The closest comparison will not sound very flattering, but is intended as a high compliment. Back in 1995, a service called Two Way TV started, promising the ability to play along with shows (principally quiz shows!) on live TV. The service started regionally in 1996, though it’s not clear whether the national rollout ever really made it. (A single viewing of a TV ad for the service still looms large in the mind.) Perhaps the system was two decades ahead of its time and the world is ready for it now. Playing this feels somewhat like how that might have been. (The company responsible survived and evolved to, effectively, app developers long before there were ubiquitous app platforms.)

Fingers crossed that Quiz The Nation proves a hit and can grow from strength to strength… though if it takes a little longer and some more lovely puzzle people can take advantage of the relatively small crowds to take the early prizes, so much the better. 😉 If the tech continues to work well and prove popular, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used for more specialist sorts of games. Music quizzes and sports quizzes are well-established – but how about broadcasting play-along-at-home puzzles to the nation at large? Why not?

Around the World: The Genius

"The Genius" garnet and logoThis site contends that the most interesting new TV show of the last couple of years or so comes from South Korea, is broadcast on the Total Variety Network, tvN and is generally referred to in English as the Genius. Summarising it in one short sentence, it’s “like Big Brother except with properly interesting, puzzly games”. To substantiate the claims of its brilliance, this site would point to the results of the global category of the 2013 Poll of the Year voted upon by readers, who ought to know a thing or two.

Each season, thirteen contestants start the first of twelve shows. Each show has a Main Match, which generates at least one winner and exactly two elimination candidates who play in the Death Match. (Usually, this will be the loser of the Main Match plus an opponent of their choice, though the winner or winners of the Main Match are immune from selection.) The loser of the Death Match is eliminated, and all the contestants but that eliminee survive to play the next week’s show. The final show starts with only two contestants, so just consists of a single match, playing best-of-three different games, to find an overall winner of the series.

Each contestant starts with one garnet, the main scoring mechanism of the show, and may earn additional garnets through winning, or performing well in, the Main Matches along the way. In the first two seasons, the survivor of the Death Match also inherits the eliminee’s garnets. The overall winner is paid a million won (currently nearly £600) per garnet, which will add up to enough to buy, say, a low-end but brand new sports car.

The true star of the show is the variety, quality and originality of games that are played. Not every single game sings, but at their best, they redefine how accomplished and sophisticated game-playing on television can ever become. Some of the games are principally social, sometimes with groupthink and group dynamics being key. Others have the puzzle nature even more directly, with hidden depths and even solutions, or tricks, that the best players might find. (The best players sometimes do, and it’s glorious when it happens. It’s as satisfying as seeing someone work out how to perform a magic trick, or as glorious an Aha! as you get from solving a particularly ingenious puzzle.)

There are many other reasons why the show is spectacular, too. The presentation is world class: the sets atmospheric, the graphics exceptional, the soundtrack (particularly in the first season) frequently superb. The soundtrack heavily features electronica, both Western and K-pop. (The band Idiotape is heavily represented and work splendidly in context.) The contestants are entertaining, usually very likeable and often genuinely talented at solving the games – though in a “choose who to eliminate” game, standing out from the crowd can be a bad tactic. When the show is good, it’s as good as puzzle TV ever gets, and even the relatively weak episodes are entertaining.

The one downside is that it’s a Korean show, almost entirely in the Korean language. A fan has ensured their place in legend by producing subtitled translations that are extremely easy to follow; with immense thanks to Bumdidlyumptious, you can covertly download the shows, with translations, from links provided at their Tumblr. It’s worth starting with season one; it starts a little slowly, but when it hits the ground running, it really hits the heights. This site is posting about the show now because a translation has just been posted for the first show of the third series, and it’s the best start to a series yet.

The show gets this site’s highest recommendation. If you’re not yet convinced, you can see what the tremendous, if sporadic, Clavis Cryptica had to say about the first series, posted just before the second series started, and a preview of the third season. Another excellent place to discuss the show is Bother’s Bar, probably the de facto hangout of choice; see old discussions of the first and second seasons, then the brand new third season; comments for each episode start after the subtitled version of each episode is released.

It would be lovely for there to be an English-language version of this some day, but the subtitled show is easily enough to enjoy as it is.

One-day game coming to London next month: MOLE

"The Mole logo from Channel 5Two posts in one day after a bit of a gap, but this one is very exciting. It’s not clear whether it’s time-sensitive or not, but perhaps best not to hang around in case it is.

In 1999, the game show De Mol was first broadcast in Belgium. It documented the progress of a team of contestants, solving challenges from week to week in order to earn money for the communal prize pot. However, one of the contestants was secretly the titular Mole and had a secret mission to attempt to stop the challenges from succeeding. At the end of each episode, all the contestants would be set a quiz about the identity, appearance and behaviour of the Mole, with the least successful contestant eliminated from the game. The player who won the final quiz won the communal prize pot.

The show has aired in well over a dozen versions around the world. The UK had a version that ran for two series in 1999 and 2000 and was named the greatest UK game show ever in a poll of UK Game Shows readers, so pretty hardcore game show fans; the show has run for fourteen series, and counting, as Wie is de Mol in the Netherlands. Is it a puzzle show? The central puzzle of identifying the show runs through its heart, and some of the challenges can be spectacular puzzles, such as the first one of this episode of the Australian version.

Gareth Briggs has announced that he will be running a one-day interpretation of the show at a central London location, to be later revealed, on at least Saturday 25th October. (Sufficient demand might inspire a second game on Sunday 26th October as well.) There will be some changes to the format; while it remains an elimination game at its core, there’s a considerable difference between an elimination game as part of a TV show and as part of a fun fan game as a day out.

There have been attempts to run The Mole as a fan game in the past, notably those of Erin Sparks, well worth watching. Given that there have been fourteen series of the show in the Netherlands, it seems virtually certain that there will have been fan versions held there as well. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the game only really works when it’s played with full contact; part of the challenge of some games may involve working out how people will react when they are pushed close to their limits. The fact that there’s a stake (albeit a small one) will help, but it may well be that a ready-for-anything, take-no-prisoners attitude is required as to what you might be required to do during the day. Gareth Briggs‘ track record is pretty aggressive – a high compliment – so this may well not be a walk in the park.

There are some people for whom this will be the game of the year; while the show had the play-along aspect of finding the mole, part of the appeal is wondering how you might cope with the challenges. This is a very rare chance to find out whether you can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Gareth describes this as a prototype game, and has hinted at a possible repeat, but at this point it’s not clear whether it might not just be a glorious one-off. Accordingly, if you’ve ever thought you’d like to give the game a try, or even be the Mole, can you afford to miss this opportunity? No deadline for the application is listed, but best not find out the hard way!

Act fast! Lord Fear’s Midnight Hunt

Knightmare helmetReaders of a certain age will recognise the picture at once as the iconic Helmet of Justice from the legendary UK puzzle show Knightmare, a staple of ITV during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The show overtly featured riddles and transportation puzzles; even navigating the real human player around the computer graphical dungeons could be a puzzle in itself. Changes in TV channel demographics meant there wasn’t a place for the show from the mid-’90s, but it remains fondly remembered, with probably the hub of the fandom, and repeats still stand the test of time better than many other shows celebrating their silver anniversary, even if partly as a period piece.

The show has come back into the public consciousness over the last year or two, most notably with a Knightmare Live theatre game show that proved popular at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival in 2013 and has been touring successfully ever since. There was also a one-off revival as part of YouTube’s Geek Week, and a convention, set to take place in Norwich, where the show was originally filmed, on Friday 9th May to Sunday 11th May. Saturday and Sunday night sees a convention expected to attract some of the original actors and offering teams a chance to play a single room of the dungeon. The Friday night will feature the Knightmare Live stage show, and I can imagine no better company in which to see the show.

This is exciting enough to merit discussion in the context of a beloved puzzle show alone, but even more exciting still is mention of Lord Fear’s Midnight Hunt running from 11:30pm on the Saturday night until 3am (!!) on Sunday morning.

Come join us for an exclusive opportunity to be chased around the the streets of Norwich by Mark Knight, a.k.a Lord Fear himself! You will be joining a team of ten others as you all search through Norwich City Centre for clues to save both yourself and your team from Lord Fear as he attempts to hunt you down. […] The hunt will last for at least a couple of hours – please note that there will be a lot of movement on foot (walking, running etc) involved.

I’m not sure to what extent the hunt will attempt to recapture and celebrate the puzzle content of the show, but it sounds like a spectacular, possibly unique, opportunity all the same – and with only one team of ten players getting to play, you might well think it worth taking a chance on a £20 ticket for the hunt; con tickets are not too dear either. Sadly I won’t be able to attend the weekend, but I’d love to hear reports from the convention, and possibly even its hunt, from any attendees.

The UK’s puzzle show tradition

"Treasure Hunt" UK tv show logoYesterday, I hinted that the then-upcoming Schlag den Brig would be spectacular; happily, this proved to be the case. The two contestants were mailed a package of several envelopes that they were not to open until directed by the appropriate game. Having opened envelope “A” for game one and been required to set up a short chain of dominoes while blindfolded to topple, and having been required to write poetry against the clock for game two, game three was a treasure hunt. Specifically, a treasure hunt through a book contained in envelope “B”. If you’ve got just over 20 minutes, it’s well worth a watch.

If you have less time and want to skip to the exciting conclusion of the treasure hunt game, skip forward to about 1:03 or so. On the other hand, if you’re not in a rush, scroll back to 0:00 because the entire just over five hours is well worth watching; there’s a great deal of inventiveness from start to end and the ordering of the games marvellously jumps from the light of inherently silly games taken very seriously to the shade of serious quizzes and strategy, then back again as the tension mounts. Contestants Nick and Dan play with skill, style and great humour; Game devisor/curator David J. Bodycombe has a real grasp of originality and comedy. The variety required of the contestants, and the play-along value for viewers at home during several of the games (in a way demonstrating how watching live shows over the Internet can enable richer participation than watching regular TV) were tremendous. The conclusion is delightful for its unlikeliness… and, yet, it works marvellously in context.

Over time, one of the other running themes of this blog is likely to be the UK’s puzzle show tradition, “puzzle shows” being a subsection of “game shows”. I don’t claim that the UK is unique in this regard, but this, arguably incomplete, list of shows demonstrates that the UK is well-served in this regard.

Speaking of which, Only Connect has thrilled viewers for eight series on BBC Four. It features lateral-thinking “connect this series” and “what’s next in this series” puzzles, the wonderfully interlocking Connecting Walls and the exciting turbo-charged wordplay of the Missing Vowels round to complete each show. The ninth series starts at 8:30pm tomorrow night on BBC Four.