Watch Celebrities Tackle an Escape Room for Charity!

I know the last few months have been hard for a lot of people. But it’s also been inspiring to see communities rally and work together, even while social distancing, to take care of each other. And loads of creative folks out there have been raising money for charity in clever and entertaining ways.

In the last few weeks alone, we’ve seen examples like the cast of the TV show Community reuniting on behalf of World Central Kitchen and Frontline Foods, Twitch streamer Rachel Howie supporting St. Jude through gaming, and a puzzle bouquet to support safe maternity care worldwide, masterminded by Andrew Chaikin (with puzzles by Mike Selinker, Kid Beyond, Alison Muratore, and Sandor Weisz) and distributed through Lone Shark Games.

One of the biggest annual fundraisers is Red Nose Day, a yearly international event dedicated to eradicating child poverty. There are often special TV events tied into the Red Nose Day, and this year was no exception.

NBC employed a more puzzly route than most participating networks, as they presented an hour-long show dedicated to a celebrity-filled escape room.

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[Image courtesy of EOnline.]

Musician and actor Jack Black hosted, serving as the exuberant and maniacal gamemaster for the event. Ben Stiller, Adam Scott, Courteney Cox, and Lisa Kudrow were the celebrity players, and they had one hour to escape Jack’s series of rooms. For each puzzle they successfully solved, they would earn $15,000 in charitable donations from the event’s sponsor, M&Ms.

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[Image courtesy of NoReruns.net.]

Jack explained the rules, and then informed them that they were allowed three hints to help them solve the puzzles. Each hint was represented by a red clown nose, the official symbol of Red Nose Day.

You can watch the entire special video below, or continue reading for a recap of the show and a breakdown of each puzzle:


RECAP

The celebs were escorted into an elevator and sent on their way. The team immediately started trying to figure out how to escape.

But the elevator wasn’t a puzzle room. Jack was just messing with them, sending the elevator up and down before opening it.

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The group’s first actual challenge was an 80’s themed room, which contained not only numerous references to the decade (posters, movies, decor, etc.), but references to each actor’s career to serve as a distraction. Jack Black informed the audience of two key locations to pay attention to — a photo wall and the table with pizza on it — but didn’t explain the actual puzzles.

Courteney Cox stumbled upon a clue — a recorded message from Jennifer Lopez — that sent the celebs to their yearbooks on one of the shelves. Inside, they each found a different variation of a picture of people sitting on a couch, each one with more people in it.

Ben Stiller not only realized that they needed to be placed somewhere in order, but spotted where to do so.

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The photo wall was a 3×4 grid, with 8 photos already placed and 4 open spaces. My first instinct would have been to place the photos in order of the rows (as if reading the photos in storyboard order from left to right, row to row).

But the photos had to be placed in column order from left to right, ignoring the rows. Courteney figured this out, and a couch folded out from the wall. Having successfully completed a puzzle, $15,000 was added to the team’s charity total.

By all sitting on the couch, they activated the TV, which aired a commercial for Rubik’s Cubes. Ben realized the pizza and tablecloth in the center of the room were covering a giant Rubik’s Cube. (Instead of being rotated and twisted, this one had removable magnetic blocks, which made solving it easier.)

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[Image courtesy of WhatsNew2Day.]

By completing the puzzle (and earning another $15,000), the room’s window opened onto a school hallway set.

Jack directed the audience’s attention toward a clue on the floor, a mascot head in the trophy case, and to the lockers along the corridor.

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[Image courtesy of WhatsNew2Day.]

The celebs immediately started checking the lockers, but they were all locked. While searching for their next puzzle, the celebs misinterpreted a banner that said “Let’s get loud” and started screaming.

It’s silly, but hey, in an escape room, sometimes you’ll try anything.

Ben spotted the clue on the floor, and Courteney realized that some of the floor tiles could be pulled up, revealing a picture puzzle to be assembled. They solved the puzzle — a picture of Jack in a mascot costume — and it opened the trophy case. That made their charity total rise to $45,000.

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When Adam put the mascot head on, the lights dimmed, and he began looking for the next clue. Three of the celebs tried the mascot head on, but they couldn’t find anything. So they used one of their red noses and asked for a hint.

Jack intervened and told them to direct the mascot head’s vision toward the lockers. On certain lockers, the mascot’s head revealed in invisible ink the birthdays of the four players. After some difficulty, Adam realized they should open the lockers in birthday order, which caused all four to open. (Four puzzles completed, $60,000 earned.)

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As the other players removed letterman jackets from the lockers, Courteney stepped into her locker (which was larger inside than the others) and Jack shut it behind her, seemingly locking her in. While trying to figure out how to free Courteney, they all decided to put their jackets on.

Jack directed the audience to pay attention to the janitor’s closet, the trophy case, and the cubby area for the next puzzle.

Courteney discovered her locker secretly led into the locked janitor’s closet. Meanwhile, the other players found prom tickets in their jackets.

The Red Nose Day Special - Season 2020

[Image courtesy of TV Insider.]

Unable to free Courteney (the inside door handle came off in her hand), the celebs were flummoxed again, even trying to play rock-paper-scissors to open the door. (Bafflingly, Ben doesn’t know how to play.) They decided to ask for their second Red Nose hint. Jack pointed them toward the janitor’s to-do list, which has four tasks on it, three completed.

The unfinished task referenced the water fountain, and upon investigating it, Adam found the door handle for the janitor’s closet, freeing Courteney (and earning another $15,000).

Doing so activated the TV in the trophy case, and special guest “Principal” Kelly Clarkson provided a year-in-review that recounted the trophy won by each celeb, and suggested they hang up their jackets on the Wall of Fame (the cubby area).

The celebs missed the trophy clue and just hung their jackets up (not realizing that the trophies — first place, second place, third place, and fourth place — indicated the order of the jackets).

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They tried birthday order again, then headed back to the trophy case, realized their mistake, and put the jackets in the correct order, earning another $15,000 for charity.

Part of the locker wall then opened up to reveal a room decorated for prom, complete with balloons and a space for couple/group photos. Jack directed viewers to pay attention to the clock on the wall, the photos of couples on the wall, and the photography setup.

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Relying on the clue “it’s almost time for crown the king and queen,” they puzzled out that there are clocks on all of the photos, but it reads 9 PM for the crowned couple.

Courteney eventually realized there was a stepladder that would allow her to reach the clock, and rotated it until it read 9 PM. (Their charity total was now $105,000!)

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Completing the puzzle activated the lights in the photo area. They posed for their picture, and when they snapped it, the balloon wall burst, revealing a gym decorated for prom. (It also scared the daylights out of them, which made for a great prom photo.)

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Jack then fully explained the next puzzle to the audience, as the celebs had to match the images on their prom tickets to certain champagne bottles (filled with M&Ms) on the refreshments table, which would then point them to particular light-up squares on the electronic dance floor.

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The celebs immediately zeroed in on the symbols on the champagne bottles, but didn’t know what to do with them. Jack taunted them, hoping to goad them into using their third and final hint, until Courteney spotted the matching symbol on her prom ticket.

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Now finally pairing up bottles of M&M champagne, Courteney again figured out that the colors of each pair of bottles should combine to match the color of the podium they’re placed on. It’s a pretty impressive bit of puzzling, I must admit.

Each time they placed a pair of bottles correctly, part of the dance floor lit up.

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Unfortunately, they confused the colors required to make pink with the colors needed to make orange, which slowed them down. Fixing their mistake and completing the puzzle, they ran to the dance floor with another $15,000 for charity.

The dance floor was a 4×4 grid, with each player standing in a different colored square in the bottom row. As the dance floor lit up in a sequential pattern of lights, the team realized they were playing a Simon-style game where they had to step forward in a certain order to match the pattern of colored lights displayed on the floor.

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There were three rounds of the game. The first (and simplest) required a single step each onto the second row. The second required two steps (meaning eight total moves in order), and third required three steps (meaning a more complicated twelve-step order).

Once they sorted out their timing issues in the first round, they flew through the second and third rounds, solving the puzzle and earning another $15,000.

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Jack then instructed the group to go onstage and sing their way out of the room as their final challenge. He noted they only had 9 and a half minutes left to escape.

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A video wall across the room activated, and Adam and Mike, the two remaining Beastie Boys, wished them luck. When Jack started playing guitar over the intercom, Ben recognized the song as “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party),” which they’d have to sing karaoke-style to escape.

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But Lisa didn’t know the song, and she consistently botched the rhythm on each of her turns. Thankfully, that didn’t hinder the group too much, and after being startled one last time (with victory confetti), they escaped the prom with a total $150,000 for charity, and a little over 6 minutes to spare.

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Honestly, as a fan of escape rooms, I really enjoyed this. It’s a great — if highly budgeted — example of this puzzle genre, and a strong introduction for anyone who has never tried them.

The puzzles ranged from simple to moderately hard, but for the most part were fairly intuitive. Also, while it’s embarrassing in the moment to try silly things and draw dumb conclusions while trying to solve puzzles, it’s also very entertaining to watch someone else do the same.

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[Image courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.]

All in all, it was a fun event hosted for a great cause, and the four celebrity players (plus gamemaster Jack) made an engaging cast of characters. The little interviews interspersed throughout also added a lot. (Plus, at the end, we found out Courteney loves escape rooms, which explains her mad puzzle skills.)

If you’d like to contribute to the fine charity work Red Nose Day represents, please click here for more details.


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The Strange Mystery of Florida’s Coral Castle

coral castle entrance

[Image courtesy of Bitter Southerner.]

At the center of every great mystery, there is a puzzle. When people look at the pyramids of Egypt or the Moai statues of Easter Island, the puzzle at heart is obvious: how? How were these incredible objects created?

A similar, and no less puzzling mystery, can be found much closer to home for most Americans: the Coral Castle of Florida.

The-Coral-Castle-14

[Image courtesy of The Bohemian Blog.]

Less a castle and more a varied arrangement of stones into walls, shapes, doorways, and more, the Coral Castle is composed not of coral, but of oolite limestone blocks weighing literal tons. More than 1,000 tons of rock are part of the Coral Castle’s elaborate layout, which was assembled and expanded from 1923 to 1951.

Some of those monstrous stones are seamlessly joined into different structures. Others are so perfectly balanced that they can open like a revolving door with the gentlest push.

There is a sundial, a telescope, and even stone rocking chairs carved from single pieces of rock.

coral castle moon

[Image courtesy of Bitter Southerner,]

It’s an engineering marvel, to be sure, but what separates the Coral Castle from some of those other creations we mentioned above is the fact that we know who built the Coral Castle.

One man. Ed Leedskalnin.

coral castle tools

[Image courtesy of LiveScience.]

Using basic tools like picks, winches, ropes, and pulleys, Leedskalnin created the Coral Castle in secret, allowing visitors to ponder just how he was accomplishing this remarkable feat.

It’s particularly remarkable when you consider that Leedskalnin only had a fourth-grade education, having gone to work at a young age.

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[Image courtesy of The Bohemian Blog.]

Of course, it’s also worth noting that Leedskalnin was a bit of a kook, claiming he had learned the secrets of the architects of King Solomon’s temples by studying books about the pyramids at the local library.

And yet, he created something amazing. So amazing, in fact, many people attribute the Coral Castle to supernatural efforts, not merely the engineering prowess, cleverness, and determination of a hardworking man.

coral castle stairs

[Image courtesy of LiveScience.]

Over the years, many peculiar theories have circulated surrounding the Coral Castle and Ed Leedskalnin. Unreliable eyewitnesses claimed to see coral blocks floating in the air like balloons while Leedskalnin worked at night.

Some believe Leedskalnin levitated the blocks with telekinesis or psychic powers, or by singing the stones into place. Others attribute the Castle to some sort of strange manipulation of gravity, antigravity, magnetism, ley lines, or earth energies. And, of course, alien technology has been floated as a possibility as well.

(Some people even believe there’s a hidden cipher lurking in several tracts written by Leedskalnin, just waiting to be found to reveal his secrets.)

coral castle chairs

[Image courtesy of Bitter Southerner.]

A friend of Leedskalnin’s wrote a book about the physics and engineering of the Coral Castle, entitled Mr. Can’t Is Dead. It’s one of many books that claims to explain how the Coral Castle came to be.

To me, the Coral Castle seems like one giant mechanical brain teaser, a math problem more about leverage and patience than the paranormal.

And yet, I can’t help but stare at some of these creations with awe. Maybe this one of those puzzles that’s better left unsolved.

The-Coral-Castle-1

[Image courtesy of The Bohemian Blog.]


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The New York Times Crossword Now Accepts Online Submissions!

Photo by Matt MacGillivray, licensed via Creative Commons

There’s good news for aspiring and established crossword constructors out there, as The New York Times crossword is now accepting online submissions.

I could be cynical and say it’s about time for a change like this, given that The Los Angeles Times has been accepting online submissions for at least a decade now, and many of the other major outlets made the transition well before 2020.

But I won’t. This is a moment worth celebrating.

True, it was inevitable that the Times would move in this direction. I don’t know if the tipping point was the pandemic, given how many other companies and businesses have been forced to adapt to a paperless/lower-contact way of doing business, or if the department was simply following a directional shift the industry had already taken.

But I’m glad they have. This may seem like a relatively small change, but it’s significant for several reasons.

1.) It’s simply easier

People send emails, attach documents, and share files every day. How often do you hit the post office?

2.) Electronic submission encourages younger solvers to get involved

New blood is a necessity for any industry, crosswords included, and when the standard-bearer makes a shift toward inclusivity (even if it’s just a matter of technological familiarity), it’s a step in the right direction.

3.) Electronic submission helps level the playing field

Having to mail submissions has a price attached, through envelopes, paper, and postage, whereas electronic submissions don’t. Yes, the price of crossword construction programs is still a hindrance, limiting access to some, but again, this is a step in the right direction.

The submission page is loaded with information, including specs on puzzles, file formats for submission, and the submission form itself.

Plus NYT-savvy constructors and staff like Joel Fagliano have already posted answers online to Frequently Asked Questions in forums like the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, and have offered to answer any other questions constructors have.

Hopefully this change means not only an influx of new talent, but greater accessibility for underrepresented groups in crosswords.


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Game Conventions Moving Online Soon!

san diego comic con

[Image courtesy of coolduder.]

Although some businesses and public spaces are beginning to open up, there’s no denying that the coronavirus is still having a devastating effect on large public gatherings.

For example, San Diego Comic Con, one of the premiere destination events for film, TV, and comic book fandom, is trying to figure out how to move the convention, or some significant aspect of it, online. But with so many participants and vendors to wrangle into some shared virtual space, things aren’t looking good for one of the biggest events on the entertainment calendar.

Maybe they can take a few pointers from the puzzle and game industry, because it seems like those fields are way ahead.

Not only did crossword fans get to enjoy Crossword Tournament From Your Couch back in March, but several gaming conventions are moving online in the hopes of bringing fans together and salvaging at least part of the year’s usual revelry and profit.

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Over Memorial Day weekend, the team at Paizo are hosting PaizoCon Online, a celebration of roleplaying games under the Paizo banner!

Six days of gaming — spanning May 26th through May 31st — allow for fans to stay safe at home as they play Pathfinder and Starfinder games.

If you’re looking to explore some D&D-style fun, either as an experienced player or a newcomer, click here to check out the full details on PaizoCon Online!

renegade con

And not long after that, the team at Renegade Game Studios is hosting Renegade Con: Virtual Edition.

Running from Friday, June 5th, to Sunday, June 7th, this free event (just sign up here!) brings together digital demos of new Renegade games, workshops, and panels featuring game designers and artists!

Everyone who signs up for a free ticket will have access to:

  • Shop the convention specials during the event
  • Get into free panels and workshops including The State of Renegade where we’ll talk about future projects on the horizon!
  • Demo upcoming and new games!

Origins-Online-Event-Cover

A few weeks after Renegade Con, GAMA is hosting Origins Online. From June 19th to June 21st, you can virtually check out this annual gaming convention for board game, card game, LARP, and roleplaying fans.

You can check out the full details here!

Several of these events are also serving as fundraisers for various companies and event organizers that have suffered losses during the pandemic — including the Con of Champions fundraiser this weekend for Tabletop Events — so if you want to support the games industry, be sure to sign up and check out one of these events.

Maybe the folks at San Diego Comic Con will do so as well and pick up a trick or two along the way.


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A Conway Puzzle Solution (And Some Hints for the Other Puzzle)

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Two weeks ago, in honor of mathematician and puzzly spirit John Horton Conway, we shared two of his favorite brain teasers and challenged our fellow PuzzleNationers.

So today, we happily share the solution for puzzle #1, The Miracle Builders.

I had a window in the north wall of my house. It was a perfect square, 1 meter wide and 1 meter high. But this window never let in enough light. So I hired this firm, the Miracle Builders, who performed the impossible. They remodeled the window so it let in more light. When when they’d finished the window was a perfect square, 1 meter high and 1 meter wide.

How did they do it?

Both windows are perfect squares, 1 meter wide and 1 meter high. So how can there be a difference in the amount of light?

The trick of this puzzle is in the description. Although the original window was a perfect square, the dimensions of the square aren’t 1 meter by 1 meter. No, it was a square placed like a diamond, with one corner directly above its opposite. So the 1 meter dimensions were the diagonals, not the sides.

All the Miracle Builders had to do was build a square window in the usual arrangement (two sides horizontal, two sides vertical) with dimensions of 1 meter by 1 meter. That creates a larger window (with a diagonal of √2m) and allows more light.

Very tricky indeed.


We had several solvers who successfully cracked the Miracle Builders puzzle, but there was less success with puzzle #2, The Ten Divisibilities.

So, in addition to the original puzzle, we’re going to post some solving hints for those intrepid solvers who want another crack at the puzzle.

The Ten Divisibilities

I have a ten digit number, abcdefghij. Each of the digits is different, and:

  • a is divisible by 1
  • ab is divisible by 2
  • abc is divisible by 3
  • abcd is divisible by 4
  • abcde is divisible by 5
  • abcdef is divisible by 6
  • abcdefg is divisible by 7
  • abcdefgh is divisible by 8
  • abcdefghi is divisible by 9
  • abcdefghij is divisible by 10

What’s my number?

[To clarify: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, and j are all single digits. Each digit from 0 to 9 is represented by exactly one letter. The number abcdefghij is a ten-digit number whose first digit is a, second digit is b, and so on. It does not mean that you multiply a x b x c x…]

Here’s a few hints that should help whittle down the possibilities for any frustrated solvers:

-If you add all the digits in a number, and the total is divisible by 3, then that number is also divisible by 3.
-If the last two digits of a number are divisible by 4, then that number is divisible by 4.
-If the last three digits of a number are divisible by 8, then that number is divisible by 8.

Good luck, and happy puzzling!


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Famous Director Stumbles Into Trivia Trap!

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[Image courtesy of Buzztime.]

It’s no secret that I love trivia. I enjoy bar and pub trivia nights, I compete in an online trivia league (Learned League), and I’ve served as a quizmaster myself. I delight in slipping trivia into puzzles — from encrypted content to tricky crossword clues — and I happily peruse trivia books whenever I find them.

Recently I was reminded of one of my favorite trivia stories, and I thought I’d share that story with you today.

It all starts with a few tweets by filmmaker Rian Johnson, director of Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Knives Out.

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He then shared this text from Wikipedia:

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Yes, as many fans and readers had commented, keen-eyed Columbo viewers had discovered the name “Frank” on Columbo’s ID, but the famous detective’s first name was never spoken or mentioned onscreen.

I had encountered a similar problem with a trivia game years ago that asked for the first name of the character Gilligan from the TV show Gilligan’s Island. I had no idea, and got the question wrong.

But as it turns out, Willy, Gilligan’s first name, was never mentioned on the show. The show’s creator always envisioned the character with that name, but it was never officially canon. (Bob Denver, who played Gilligan on the show, often joked that the character’s name was actually Gil Egan, but it ran together when yelled, as it so often was.)

GilligansIsland_74.jpg

[Image courtesy of Gilligan’s Island Wiki.]

As far as I know, the Gilligan error was simply that, a mistake. But the Columbo error, as mentioned in the Wikipedia article, is an example of a copyright trap.

A copyright trap is an intentionally false, seemingly trivial piece of information in a larger work, intended to help demonstrate plagiarism if the larger work is ever stolen or copied. (After all, anyone who had done their own research would have discovered it was incorrect and left it out, or at the very least, not included it as part of a wholesale act of plagiarism.)

And the more you learn about copyright traps, the more ridiculous and intricate they become.

There have been:

  • false cities (aka paper towns) on maps, like Agloe, New York, and the paired cities of Beatosu and Goblu in Ohio, as well as trap streets, fake mountain peaks, and more
  • false dictionary entries (like esquivaliance in the second edition New Oxford American Dictionary)
  • false encyclopedia entries (like the story of a photographer named Lillian Mountweazel who exploded on a shoot for Combustibles magazine)
  • false movies (like Dog of Norway, a fictional film mentioned in The Golden Turkey Awards, a book I actually own, alongside its sequel, Son of Golden Turkey Awards)
  • a false member of the German parliament
  • false Google searches (which were used to purposely expose the search engine Bing for copying Google’s search results)

columbo

[Image courtesy of RadioTimes.]

Although Mr. Worth’s Columbo trap did reveal the thieving nature of the designers of the original Trivial Pursuit, it failed to protect him. It also failed to protect trivia fans, as this and other spurious bits of trivia continue to percolate throughout trivia books, webpages, and other sources. (I’ve found easily misproven false trivia everywhere from IMDB to Ripley’s Believe It or Not books.)

So enjoy your trivia, but keep your eyes peeled, fellow puzzlers and trivia-hounds. You might just get tripped up by a copyright trap one of these days.


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