Presidential Puzzling

crossword-newspaper

The New York Times Crossword celebrated 75 years of puzzles back in February, and ever since, they’ve been commemorating that puzzly milestone with a series of established constructors collaborating with celebrity guests to create special monthly puzzles.

It started on February 15th, the 75th anniversary, with a collaboration by Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg offering some food for thought.

On March 20th, astronomer and affable Pluto slayer Neil deGrasse Tyson joined Andrea Carla Michaels in creating a punny look at the stars.

Classical pianist Emanuel Ax teamed up with Brad Wilber to pen a music-minded puzzler on April 19th.

And for the May installment of this celebrity series, none other than former president Bill Clinton tried his hand at creating a crossword alongside judge and constructor Victor Fleming for the May 12th edition of the puzzle.

clintonandhume

The puzzle was offered free online by The New York Times. Although the Friday puzzle is usually themeless, there was a link between three of the main answers, DON’T STOP, THINKING ABOUT, and TOMORROW, which of course spell out the title of his campaign song.

Will Shortz offered further details on the creative process:

In the case of today’s puzzle, Judge Fleming constructed the grid, with some input from Mr. Clinton. The president wrote most of the clues. When the judge proposed tweaks to certain clues, Mr. Clinton objected: “Too easy and boring. Might as well print the answers in the puzzle.”

I found it to be a pretty fair solve, although there were a few outlier answers that were much, much tougher than the rest of the field. (Either that or I need to bone up on my Indonesian geography.)

Shortz also offered a glimpse of the celebrity constructors to come, teasing readers with mentions of “a pop singer with a No. 1 hit, a noted fashion designer, a standup comedian, a venerable TV journalist, a morning TV host, a six-time Emmy-winning actor, and a sitting U.S. senator, among others.”

It’ll be interesting to see which celebrity solvers have accepted the challenge of constructing a puzzle of their own.


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The Connecticut Festival of Indie Games, Part 2!

And we’re back!

Yup, I attended the CT FIG event last Saturday, and there were so many great games to talk about that I simply couldn’t get the job done on Tuesday. So we’re back with the second half of my event recap.

Last time, I focused on games that are available now or will be soon; this time around, it’s all about games in development!

I’d say that more than half the games at the event were in development or not yet published. Some were clearly in beta testing or working with a prototype, hoping to gauge the interest level of puzzle and game fans. Others were gearing up for Kickstarter campaigns, or in the middle of one, or had even tried Kickstarter previously, only to go back to the drawing board. Still others were hoping to impress game publishers or make contacts to help take their games to the next level.

It was interesting and insightful to see the creative process at work here, not only to observe how crowdfunding has revitalized the puzzle-game and board-game markets, but simply to watch firsthand as designers interact with players and learn from each and every playthrough.

And, to be honest, it’s fun and invigorating to be around enthusiastic people. Virtually everyone I met at the CT FIG was genuinely excited to talk about their games, and they clearly loved what they do. For many of them, these prototype and unreleased games are their babies, their pride and joy, and they were absolutely stoked to show them off.

That’s the kind of infectious energy I can definitely get behind.

One of the first people I talked to at CT FIG was Darrin Horbal of DPH Studioz. He had three games to show off, all in varying stages of development.

His flagship game is The Guardians of AsunDur, a collaborative game where players work together as guardian angels to defend AsunDur from dark forces.

By rolling dice and utilizing colored gems, they battle back the forces of darkness in co-op game play that encourages teamwork and strong strategic planning.

That same style of game play factors into another of Darrin’s board-game projects, Starguard: The Grey Wars, a space-combat game where alien conquerers threaten six different star systems, and only a concerted team effort will prevent the invading alien forces from running roughshod across the galaxy.

I’m a big fan of co-op games, and both of these games had in-depth, elegant systems of play that offered plenty to keep experienced players busy without losing younger players in the shuffle.

The last game he brought for display was Khroma Zones, a more traditional player-versus-player card game that was easily the puzzliest of the three games. Utilizing the same color-matching game mechanic as Guardians of AsunDur in a simpler format, it’s a great game for families and younger players that might not be ready for more involved game play.

But Darrin was far from the only game designer to have multiple projects in the works.

[Ravenous River, a card game inspired by the classic cabbage-goat-wolf river-crossing brain teaser, shares space at a table with ChronoSphere, a Timeline-style card game with bluffing (recently funded on Kickstarter), and Baker Street Irregulars, a crime-solving puzzle game set in the world of Sherlock Holmes.]

I’m pretty sure Isaac Shalev of Kind Fortress set the high-water mark for the event. He had six games at his table, each with their own unique flavor. (Only one, the abovementioned Ravenous River, was available for purchase there, but I sincerely hope some of his other games follow suit soon.)

There was something for seemingly every style of card game or board game fan here, from the card-flipping game Flip the Table to the resource-management strategy game set in feudal Japan, Daimyo.

But the one that most appealed to my puzzly sensibilities was Seikatsu, a three-directional tile-placement game that mixes and matches elements from a half-dozen classic games to provide a wonderfully balanced game-play experience.

Unlike many scoring games where tile placement can easily disqualify you from gaining points, Seikatsu assigns one of three directions to each player, meaning virtually every tile on the board could score points for every player. This simple tweak adds massive game-play opportunities, making for a wonderful puzzly session that encourages, rather than discourages, new players.

Kickstarter was a recurring theme in many of the conversations I had with game designers that day. Several of the games I covered in Tuesday’s post were funded and brought to market thanks to crowdfunding, and many others would soon be following suit.

Super Hazard Quest, a card game inspired by 8-bit side-scrolling video games, is on Kickstarter right now (and recently passed its funding goal, thanks in part to the team’s impressive hustling during CT FIG, no doubt).

In the game, you take on the role of a classic video game archetypal hero — the floating princess, the spy, the alien hunter, etc. — and you build and explore a unique video game world while racing to be the first to reach the final boss.

As several event goers and I played through a spirited round of the game, co-creator Mike Mendizabal told me that the game was actually intended as a cooperative game (like Guardians of AsunDur or Forbidden Island), but the players in play testing refused to work together! So they ended up retooling the game for individual achievement.

I love learning little in-development details like that.

Christopher Bowden of Winter Moon Games shared his own story of development tribulations and lessons learned as I observed a playthrough of his company’s flagship game, Pandemonium Estate.

A board game with shifting board pieces and game play that encourages players to betray each other, Pandemonium Estate is a colorful, dark, and very fun game that indulges the more playfully mean-spirited side of board games. (You know that shamefully satisfying feeling when you play Sorry and bump another player’s game piece back to the start? Multiply that by about 50 and you get something approximating the sinister glee of Pandemonium Estate.)

Christopher told me that he and his team had already taken the game to Kickstarter, but they quickly realized they’d done so before either they or the game was ready. They took some much-needed time to retool, refocus, and get their ducks in a row, and it proved to be a valuable learning experience.

They’re looking forward to bringing their new and improved version of the game to Kickstarter sometime in the future, and I suspect they’ll have great success when they do.

One game that I expect will do quite well is This Is Only a Test, Carl Van Ostrand’s game featured at The Board Room’s table. (I also referenced The Board Room in my previous post when I covered the DNA dice game GATUCA.)

This Is Only a Test is a resource-management game fueled by ’50s nostalgia and doomsday prepping, as you and your fellow players try to gather the necessary materials to survive the end of the world. But be warned…this might be a real nuclear threat, or it might simply be a test. Neither you nor any of the other players will know which is the case until the very end of the game.

It’s an intriguing game mechanic, one I haven’t really encountered before. In most games, you might not know who will win, or how they’ll do it, or what obstacles they’ll face, but I can’t recall another game where the actual endgame is unknown until the last card is played.

Oh, and speaking of the end of days, that brings me to our next game, Pyramidia.

In this puzzly game of curses and construction, you and your fellow players are racing to build the finest Egyptian tomb possible. You gain points for your management of labor, for how much gold you save, and for how magnificent your structure is.

I think the physical building aspect, as well as the numerous ways to win the game, will appeal to puzzle solvers and board game fans both. The triangular game pieces not only added a nice touch stylistically to the game, but they created game play openings for players to either curse each other or themselves for a tactical advantage.

As the game was explained to me, it immediately became clear how much effort had gone into balancing the various styles of play, and I could easily imagine how many hours and hours of brainstorming and playtesting go into each and every one of these games.

And hey, if you’ve got a board-game idea and you’d like to meet up with fellow aspiring designers and players, look no further than CT FIG attendee Alex Wilkinson. He’s part of a group called Let’s Make Games CT based out of New Haven, and they’re always happy to participate in game testing, brainstorming, and all things game development.

He had two games to show off — a space exploration game called Hypergate that allowed for some engaging role-playing scenarios, and a hilarious card game called Misfit Monsters, where lesser-known creatures like the YOLO Phoenix and the Half-Centaur could do battle.

It’s genuinely exciting to be around people who love what they’re doing, and that positive energy was all over the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games.

I want to send a big thank you out to all of the amazing developers, designers, and game fans I talked to. I wish them all great success, and I hope to see many of these games on the shelves of game shops and retailers in the near future!


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