Puzzling Virtually at Norwescon 43!

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Over the weekend, I participated in an online version of the celebrated sci-fi, fantasy, and horror convention Norwescon.

Although many of the convention’s panels and events have a writerly focus, plenty of attention is also given to art, films, games, and pop culture, so there was plenty for puzzle and game fans to enjoy at the event.

Naturally, since the convention was being held virtually rather than in person, some creativity was required to redesign events to be enjoyed from the comfort of attendees’ homes.

For instance, costumes were shown off through video or submitted photos — there was even a closet cosplay challenge held where participants had twenty minutes to create a costume based solely on what they could find in their closets!

As for my contributions, each year I host a themed scavenger hunt and an escape room for teen attendees to enjoy.

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The scavenger hunt adapted to the format easily. We cast volunteers to portray different characters from the film The Princess Bride, and players had scheduled times to actually interact with them through Zoom chats. Players downloaded a PDF of the rules and some puzzles to be solved, and they would receive a code phrase upon completing each of their assigned tasks.

(The code phrases, when properly combined, revealed a secret word which would “trigger” a surprise video.)

Their more puzzly tasks included using instructions to whittle down a list of 40 possible ingredients down to the three Miracle Max would need for his miracle pill for Westley, as well as solving a logic puzzle to find evidence that an ROUS was innocent of a royal guardsman’s disappearance.

And on the last day of the convention, they attended the wrap-up panel where we explained the hunt in full, thanked the cast, announced the winners, took suggestions for a theme for next year’s scavenger hunt, and even played a Cameo video from a member of the film’s cast as a surprise for all the attendees!

It was a rousing success.

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Adapting the Star Wars-themed escape room for a virtual format was far more daunting. After all, one of the most satisfying aspects of escape room solving is to actually physically solve puzzles, unlock containers, open doors, and defeat all sorts of key locks, combination locks, and more.

My solution to this problem was to still allow players to “unlock” and open something, just something virtual: password-protected PDF files.

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[This “panel” required a 5-digit code and a 3-digit combination to unlock.]

I created a webpage with images of all the “locked” panels for them to virtually open, each of which had symbols to indicate what sort of lock there was, as well as links to the password-entry screens. As they found keys and solved puzzles, they coordinated to try different panels and see which keys and codes unlocked the PDFs, which then opened to give them new tools and puzzles to solve.

It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but once players got the hang of it, they were soon racing through the room, using a built-in chat window to keep track of items they hadn’t used and working out passwords in real time.

One of the players even started livestreaming her efforts to solve a pipe puzzle on Twitch so everyone could solve along with her. It was a very cool and innovative way to virtually solve!

Hopefully, we’ll be back in person for next year’s convention and we can get back to opening locks and running around for a proper scavenger hunt. But either way, it’s nice to know we’re adaptable and creative enough to still pull them off in the virtual space when circumstances arise.

After all, as long as the players had fun, we can definitely call it a win.


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What’s Better in Puzzles and Games – Loud or Quiet?

One of my favorite things about puzzles is how peaceful they are.

Sure, escape rooms can be cacophonous, and dropping a jigsaw puzzle can be infuriating, but for the most part, puzzles are soothing.

The satisfying scratch of pencil on paper as you fill in a word, watching the pile of unplaced jigsaw pieces slowly dwindle as the picture continues to form, getting a little victory chime when you solve a puzzle in your favorite app…

Board games, on the other hand, tend to get loud.

Sometimes, it’s good-natured debate or enthusiastic contributions, like when things get tense in a cooperative game, or when the game generally encourages rambunctiousness, like Throw Throw Burrito.

Other times, it’s a by-product of the gameplay itself. There’s a fair amount of frenzied clacking in Hungry Hungry Hippos, for instance, but I never hear people complain about the noise that comes along with a round or two of marble-chomping.

[Image courtesy of Grey Mass Games.]

Of course, that increase in volume can be for reasons that are a little more heated. Maybe someone betrayed someone else in a game like Sheriff of Nottingham. Monopoly famously inspires people to flip the board in frustration.

Social deduction games where identities are secret, or where there’s some level of deception involved, also tend to get pretty loud. Whether it’s Mafia, Ultimate Werewolf, Secret Hitler, Blood on the Clocktower, or others, raised voices are common.

But when it comes to loud board games, I think we can all agree that one particular dexterity takes the cake.

Say it with me now…

JENGA!

Yes, Jenga — by design — is loud. The only way the game can end is with a toppling tower of wooden blocks. CRASH! I know several board game cafes that have banned it for that specific reason.

Sure, KerPlunk can be loud, but even a stack of falling marbles doesn’t seem to compare to the jarring clatter of a stack of Jenga tiles hitting the table and/or the floor.

Sure, Perfection can be loud, but that’s kind of the point. You’re trying to complete the task BEFORE the buzzer. So it is possible to play without the cacophony.

Jenga is so infamously loud that there are other games that sell themselves on being quieter than Jenga but offering the same stacking mechanic. Rhino Hero and Rhino Hero Super Battle employ cards instead of wooden blocks, so the collapse is less more tolerable, while Catch the Moon employs ladders, which makes for an oddly soothing yet still stressful game experience.

But where do you stand on noise-making games and puzzles? Do you like them soothing and soft or calamitous and crashing? And just what is the loudest game? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you.


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Monopoly Opens Up the Community Chest to the Community!

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Monopoly has been around for more than 80 years, and over the decades, they’ve made all sorts of attempts to modernize or update the product. They’ve ditched paper money for electronic banking and credit cards, they’ve utilized motion sensors, and even released Millennial, political, and cheaters’ editions in the hopes of freshening up the game.

This time around, they’re asking for the public’s help in changing the game. Specifically, they’re looking to update the Community Chest cards.

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According to the Hasbro press release:

Covering topics like beauty contests, holiday funds, and life insurance, there is no denying the Monopoly game’s Community Chest Cards are long overdue for a refresh. And, coming out of the tumultuous year of 2020, the term “community” has taken on a whole new meaning. Hasbro is counting on their fans to help reflect what community means in their real lives, into the Monopoly game, by voting for new cards like “Shop Local”, “Rescue A Puppy” or “Help Your Neighbors.”

Naturally, because of the Internet, this is already being reported in some outlets as a desperate attempt by the company to appear “woke” or more socially aware. And that seems a tad pessimistic in my view.

Sure, this could be a cynical corporate strategy, but it doesn’t mean updating the game is a bad idea. I mean, when’s the last time the bank actually made an error in your favor and you got $200?

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This isn’t even the first time they’ve crowdsourced an update to the game. A House Rules edition of the game was published with five house rules suggested by fans.

In 2017, Hasbro launched an Internet poll to determine a new lineup of tokens for editions of the game, which resulted in the boot, wheelbarrow, and thimble being removed from the game (and replaced with a rubber duck, a penguin, and a Tyrannosaurus rex).

So they’ve posted a poll where you can choose between two possible options for each of the 16 cards.

For instance, one pairing let me choose between “You go to the local school’s car wash fundraiser — but forget to close your windows! Pay $100” and “You held a neighborhood party — but you didn’t recycle your trash! Pay $100.”

Other cards mention bake sales, video chatting, running for charity, volunteering, community gardens, donating blood, and more.

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So, this begs the question: what suggestions would you make?

Would you replace the beauty contest with second place in a hot wings-eating contest? Would you help a friend secure a small business loan? Would you contribute to an off-the-grid community?

Let us know your ideas for new and fresh Community Chest card ideas in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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PuzzleNation First Look: Letters to Margaret, an interactive puzzle novel

Some of the coolest puzzle experiences of the last decade have come from the team at Lone Shark Games. Not only have they spearheaded numerous puzzle packs connected to various charitable causes, but they also created Puzzlecraft, a one-stop shop for learning how to construct dozens of different puzzles!

Their masterpiece, though, is The Maze of Games, a wonderful story-driven series of puzzles that took literal years to finally be unraveled by dedicated solvers.

These days, The Maze of Games encompasses an audiobook version read by Wil Wheaton, an accompanying radio show full of audio puzzles, a poster map, The Keymaster’s Tome, The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze, and the main book featuring hundreds of pages of story and puzzles detailing the epic adventure of the Quaice siblings and their quest to escape the clutches of the diabolical Gatekeeper. It’s an entire world to explore.

So, when I heard that there was a new narrative puzzle project on the horizon for this talented team, you better believe I was excited.

And that project is going live on Kickstarter today!

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Letters to Margaret is a solvable, double-sided 128-page comic book loaded with crossword puzzles. Yes, there are two overlapping narratives here, exploring the story from two perspectives, each with its own puzzles and insights.

Knowing what they pulled off with The Maze of Games, I’m already psyched to see the final version of Letters to Margaret, but I’m even more intrigued knowing that Lone Shark Games is working with artist Hayley Gold on this project.

Hayley is an incredibly talented artist who previously combined her creative spark with an wry insightful look at the puzzles published in The New York Times in her webcomic series Across and Down. Each comic focused on a particular puzzle, offering a delightful mix of humor, tongue-in-cheek wordplay, and savvy commentary from an experienced solver, discussing themes, crosswordese, and pop culture all in one fell swoop.

Honestly, this is a can’t-miss pairing. Both Hayley and the Lone Shark team have plenty of experience crafting engaging visual narratives, and each brings a keen understanding of puzzles to the table in their own unique ways.

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The first chapter alone opens with a crossword to solve, delves a bit into crossword history, introduces our main characters, and gets the narrative rolling, all with some smartly snarky commentary on college life, modern media, and crossword solvers (and their blogs). It’s a brilliant whirlwind of an opening, and you genuinely won’t want to wait to read (and solve!) the rest of the book.

But you don’t have to wait! We’ve been granted an early look at some of the art for the comic book. One picture is featured above, but here are two more exclusive images! (They are missing any dialogue and the notations from the omniscient commenters that appear throughout the book. But you can’t fault the team for keeping gems like those tucked away for now.)

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But that’s not all!

We’ve also got an exclusive puzzle preview for you to enjoy!

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[Click this link to download a copy of this puzzle!]


You can click here to check out the Kickstarter campaign for Letters to Margaret, which includes information on the puzzles, Hayley’s perspective on the story, and much more!

It’s a really smart, sincere story told from two sides, loaded with top-notch puzzles and a lot of humor and worthwhile commentary. It would be cliche to call it a love letter to crosswords, and incorrect to boot. It’s more like a slyly subversive wink to crosswords and crossword culture through a thoroughly modern lens. I really dig it, and I think you will as well.

Thank you to Mike Selinker, Hayley Gold, Andy Kravis, and the entire Lone Shark Games team for giving us an early look at the project. I think it’ll be a grand success!


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Learning How to Drive From a Board Game?

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You can learn a lot from board games.

You can test your dexterity with games like Flick ‘Em Up, Flipships, or Pitchcar. You can test the steadiness of your hand with Jenga or Operation. You can test your deduction skills, your memory, your trivia, your tactical ability, your pattern matching, and your luck in all sorts of games. And along the way, you can learn history, strategy, negotation, and deception.

But, according to an article sent in by a fellow puzzle fan, there’s a board game out there that teaches you the rules of the road as well.

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It’s called The Driver’s Way, and in the African country of Sierra Leone, it became law that you had to purchase and play this board game to learn road safety.

The game was actually designed by the assistant inspector general of police in Sierra Leone, Morie Lengor, and he designed the game in the hopes that it would reduce the accident rate for drivers in his country.

Now, this is a pretty cool idea, and I think more skills should be taught through board games. Do detectives need to play Clue or Deception: Murder in Hong Kong in order to learn their trade? Should we have exterminators playing Mousetrap and virologists playing Pandemic?

Just imagine if a court could order someone to play Sorry until they respected the meaning of the word.

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Anyway, I thought this was a weirdly fascinating factoid, so I went on the hunt for more details. There weren’t many.

The news regarding this story broke in 2013, and the vast majority of articles about the game date back to that initial media blitz. Practically all of them carry the headline “You Have to Play a Board Game Before You Can Get a Driver’s License in Sierra Leone.”

Moreover, almost all of the articles were in some way factually incorrect, because they were thirdhand or worse reports, copying and paraphrasing from another article which did the same from another article which MIGHT have linked to the original.

Recent search results (and by recent, I mean 2018, which is the latest reference I found to it) are scarce, and parrot the same information from 2013. Most articles don’t even have an actual image of the game, using any image with a road — be it The Game of Life or just one of those small town rugs from kindergarten class with roads drawn all over.

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Descriptions of the game vary. Some refer to “spotlight-themed dice” and answering questions, while others compared the game to “a cross between Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders, as well as Scrabble.” I have no idea what form that game would take, and I suspect the person who wrote it has even less of a clue.

I can’t find anything that verifies this became a widespread tool for driver safety. A planned global production expansion appears to have dried up quickly, and I can’t find anything on the 3000 copies of the game articles claim were already manufactured and distributed. There’s not even an entry for the game on Board Game Geek, which is an otherwise exhaustive resource of board game info.

And yes, I did go as far as to actually reach out to the Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority about this, but they haven’t gotten back to me.

So, sadly, until we can find out more, we must consider this story a delightful flash-in-the-pan and not the start of a board game-learning revolution that could transform us all into Battleship-hunting, Forbidden Island-exploring, Kerplunk masters of a thousand different legally-bonded skills.

For now, anyway.


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Prose, Poetry, and Puzzles: Multiple Ways to Look at the Same Text!

Puzzle fans are used to searching for multiple avenues of entry when it comes to solving.

Crosswords have the across and down clues. Some people go straight for the pop culture clues, while others seek out fill-in-the-blank clues. Diagramless crosswords add an additional challenge by removing the black squares and set numbers that guide you.

Fill-Ins and Word Seeks have all sorts of entries you can start hunting through the grid for. Logic problems have several clues you can use to whittle down possibilities and utilize the information you have.

Heck, Rubik’s solvers are positively awash in potential paths to success.

[Image courtesy of Gizmodo.]

Fans of more complicated jigsaw puzzles are also familiar with this concept. The standard approach is to find the edges and work your way in, but I know plenty of solvers who either sort by color or build from the middle around recognizable figures in the image.

Of course, jigsaw puzzle companies know this and they abandon the traditional rules of jigsaw puzzles, creating some diabolical ways to force you to change your tactics and find new ways in. There are jigsaw puzzles with no edge pieces (meaning no flat edges), so-called “infinite” puzzles like the one pictured above, and brain-teaser jigsaws where the pieces can be assembled in many different ways, but there’s only one correct solution.

And as it turns out, there are a few historical items that prove this sort of multi-approach thinking isn’t limited to puzzles.

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[Image courtesy of This Is Colossal.]

Say hello to a marvelous variation on the dos-à-dos book concept that resides in the National Library of Sweden.

Normally, dos-à-dos books (or back-to-back) books are just what they sound like: two books bound together at the spine. But this religious text is six books in one. Depending on which clasps you have open and shut, you can read this book six different ways.

Each book is a devotional text printed in Germany during the 16th century — including Der Kleine Katechismus by Martin Luther — and it’s a masterwork of craftsmanship, skill, and design. It boggles my mind just looking at it.

And yet, a single book with six ways to read it seems like a drop in the bucket when you compare it to a poem that can be read thousands of different ways.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

This is Star Gauge, also known as Xuanji Tu (Picture of the Turning Sphere). It is a palindrome poem by Su Hui, a 4th-century female Chinese poet whose most famous creation still amazes to this day.

Written in the form of a 29 x 29 grid of characters, Xuanji Tu can be read forward or backwards, horizontally or vertically or diagonally, or organized by its color-coded grids.

As you might have guessed, it’s called a palindrome poem because it can be read backwards or forwards, though some scholars have estimated more than 2,800 different rhyming poems can be produced by reading it different ways.

Most of her other works have been lost to history, but this one piece alone leaves an incredible legacy.

Whether it’s a six-fold book, a puzzle with an infinite number of arrangements, or a poem with thousands of different interpretations, it’s amazing what you can create with a puzzly mindset and the insight to approach things from a unique perspective.


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