Take Puzzles to the Next Level with a Puzzly Experience!

Hey there, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and naturally, our thoughts turn toward the upcoming holiday season. (Particularly with all the Black Friday advertising!)

Sure, we could use this opportunity to talk about our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, which went live Tuesday and features all sorts of marvelous games, puzzles, and products.

We could also talk about our fantastic lineup of apps, from Daily POP Crosswords and the Penny Dell Crosswords App to Penny Dell Sudoku and Classic Word Search. Of course we could do that.

But instead, today we’d like to talk about puzzly experiences.

If you’re looking for an engaging and interactive puzzly adventure to share with the puzzlers in your life, there are all sorts of options available to you.

There are yearly puzzle hunts like BAPHL, the Boston Area Puzzle Hunt League. There are crossword tournaments like Lollapuzzoola and the Indie 500 (plus local ones all over the country!). Murder mystery dinners, scavenger hunts… not only are there places that host all of these, but there are even kits available online that let you host your own!

More Escape Rooms pop up every year — from Breakin Escape Rooms in London to our friends at Escape 101 in Connecticut — and one near you is just a Google search away.

But there’s one particular puzzly experience I want to highlight as an option for you this holiday season.

Magician and crossword constructor David Kwong is launching a one-of-a-kind puzzle experience, The Enigmatist, at the High Line Hotel in New York City during the month of January.

Advertised as “an immersive evening of puzzles, cryptology and illusions,” the show is based on the experiences of William and Elizebeth Friedman’s work at Riverbank, a peculiar hotbed for codebreaking in the early days of the twentieth century.

David is a master at melding the world of puzzles with illusions, magic, and sleight of hand, deftly employing both humor and skill to wow audiences, and I expect he has outdone himself with this show.

The Enigmatist sounds like a unique and amazing puzzly experience, and if you’re interested, you can get tickets here.

For full details, visit the Enigmatist website. I think the show will be something truly special.


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A Logic Puzzle Mystery, Brought to Life!

Halloween might be over and done with, but there’s still plenty of spooky puzzling to be found if you know where to look.

For instance, if you’re looking for a game that takes the traditional logic puzzle in a new direction, let’s talk about Return of the Obra Dinn, a PC game that has received some rave reviews recently.

In 1802, the merchant ship “Obra Dinn” set out from London for the Orient with over 200 tons of trade goods. Six months later it hadn’t met its rendezvous point at the Cape of Good Hope and was declared lost at sea.

Early this morning of October 14th, 1807, the Obra Dinn drifted into port with sails damaged and no visible crew. As insurance adjustor for the East India Company’s London Office, find means to board the ship and recover the Crew Muster Roll book for assessment.

With that intense historical premise to work with, you know you’re in for a few scares and some sinister storytelling.

So the game centers around a first-person perspective of this ship as you explore what happened to the crew. You’re armed with two items: a book that contains the ship’s manifest and other documents, and a pocketwatch that, when worn near a corpse, magically reveals what happened at the moment of the character’s death.

The book works like a standard logic problem’s puzzle grid, where you can fill in the information you know and deduce, say, the last names of five people in a marching band, their ages, and what instrument they play. Except, in the case of the Obra Dinn, instead of the details of a fictional marching band, you need to uncover the identity of every person on the ship, how they died, and who killed them.

The pocketwatch sequences are the centerpiece of the puzzle, giving you a static scene of the moment of death, the characters frozen in place, along with the sounds and dialogue that accompanied the person’s demise. You can walk around the frozen scene and examine details, using the book to help document what you discover and slowly eliminate possibilities from the list.

It’s a bit like a scene from Sherlock or Hannibal, as you play the detective walking through the death scene, trying to tease out the key information lurking within.

So the book is both a solving tool and the main body of the puzzle itself, a place for storing information, making guesses, and confirming when you have the correct chain of events for a given character’s death.

The Obra Dinn is one giant, interconnected puzzle, built out of many little moments like this, and only when you’ve taken the time to examine all of it, exploring the ship and the crew from all angles, can you fill in the story of what happened.

It’s essentially a murder mystery novel, but only the first chapter and the finale are in place; it is up to you as you piece together disparate fragments and assemble the narrative. In the end, it’s a simple story, but one told backward, forward, and out of order.

Return of the Obra Dinn is the kind of storytelling that takes puzzles off the page and plants them smack-dab in the center of your imagination. And that’s pretty cool.

If you’d like to try out the game for yourself, Return of the Obra Dinn is out now on PC and macOS for $19.99.

[For more information, check out these reviews from Kotaku and Screen Rant, as well as the creator’s homepage.]


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Sometimes, Puzzles Can Be… MURDER

[Image courtesy of Carriageway.com.]

If you’re looking to host a puzzly event, but a crossword tournament or puzzle hunt isn’t for you, then I highly recommend hosting a murder mystery party.

It’s an instant icebreaker if you have new people you’d like to introduce to an established group of friends, it’s a great activity that encourages communication and interaction, and it’s a fun opportunity to flex your puzzly chops in a fresh and exciting way.

Now, as you might expect, there are plenty of websites that not only offer tips for creating your own, but entire scenarios you can purchase and run right out of the box. A simple Google search (or looksy on Pinterest) will reveal a wealth of possibilities out there if you’d rather get a running start with the help of experienced hands.

Naturally, your friendly neighborhood PN Blogger has to start from scratch, because that’s just my nature. I like to tailor puzzly events specifically to the people attending, in the hopes of evoking a greater connection with the material and investing the players in the story and gameplay.

This past weekend, I ran a murder mystery by special request for a 30th birthday party, and I thought I’d share a few tips for any aspiring murder mystery party hosts out there.


#1 Help for solvers

Optimally, you’d like the solvers to put their deductive skills to the test, observing the scene of the crime as well as the behavior of any actors you’ve recruited in order to play characters/suspects and act out various scenarios.

But sometimes, you need to go beyond that. I highly recommend offering some sort of system that allows the solvers to gain more information, even info they might not normally be able to gather with their own senses.

In my games, I have what I call “Holmes Tickets.” They’re just pieces of paper with a silhouette of the iconic detective on them, and when cashed in, a solver can learn additional information about a piece of evidence.

For instance, a solver would probably be able to tell if an object has fingerprints on it. But by spending a Holmes ticket, they can notice something more — a smell, a distinct flaw, a connection to one of the characters — or they can ask me if a specific person’s fingerprints are on the item.

Always make sure that extra information feels worthwhile, because you don’t want them to feel like they’ve wasted a ticket. If they want to know something that someone could reasonably glean from the object, I just tell them without taking away one of those helpful little prompts.

#2 In-game vs. Out-of-game

If people are searching a crime scene for clues, it can be hard to know what’s important and what’s not. During the event I ran this weekend, one of the solvers found a pen that matched a suspicious note found near the body. Since the pen was found on a bookshelf, that solver fixated on the books nearby, looking for more clues.

That’s a natural reaction, but there were no more clues to be found there, and you don’t want solvers to waste their time on false paths (unless those are intentional red herrings). So I mark any item that’s part of the investigation with the little detective symbol above, meaning that it’s “in-game,” or part of the narrative.

Not only does that give the solvers something to look for, but it prevents them from wasting time on random objects they might otherwise assign value to.

In addition, I’ve found that laying out ground rules at the start of the event helps with this. Let solvers know which rooms of the house are off-limits or outside the game, and which could potentially contain clues. In my game, I didn’t want people rifling through kitchen cabinets or drawers or anything, so I made sure to note than everything important was in plain sight (even if camouflaged a bit).

This prevented people from pawing through the host’s personal items, as well as protecting items I didn’t want revealed until later. (For example, a key piece of evidence was hidden under a couch cushion, but I didn’t want that revealed until the third act, so I specifically said “you won’t need to open drawers or lift couch cushions or move furniture or anything like that.”)

[Some of the trappings of a well-planned murder. Red ribbon for blood, a sparkly murder note, Monopoly money, fake jewels, fake badges, a torn-up Holmes Ticket, and a European miniature poisonous hippo. You know, the usual suspects.]

#3 Expect the unexpected

Without a doubt, the hardest part of planning a murder mystery party is trying to anticipate how solvers will interpret the evidence, what conclusions they will draw, and how quickly they will find certain key pieces of the story.

No matter how thoroughly you plan, no matter how meticulous your clues are laid out, solvers will invariably catch you off-guard at one point or another. That’s just the nature of the game. People make intuitive leaps, they find some clues and not others, and they stumble upon big revelations. You need to be able to adapt.

(Thankfully, as someone who has been running role-playing games for more than a decade, I’m accustomed to thinking on my feet.)

During the event this past weekend, there was a bag on the gift table with a card attached, and both card and gift were from one of the storyline characters. The card asked that the gift not be opened until this guest arrived at the party. That was intentional, so that we could put off that reveal until later in the event.

I figured the solvers would be curious, but honor that request. It never occurred to me that the solvers would instantly conspire to open the gift, search for clues, and then reset the bag as best they could before that character arrived! Yup, the solvers were more devious than I expected. One of the big revelations I’d planned for later in the game — some “precious gems” hidden at the bottom of a seemingly innocuous gift bag filled with packing peanuts (and an actual gift on top) — were about to be revealed much, much earlier than intended.

I went to plan B in my head as they opened up the gift — a red herring — and one of the solvers began digging through the packing peanuts. I readied myself to move to the second act earlier than planned, hoping to distract the solvers with a second murder.

And then… I got lucky. Despite being elbow-deep in this gift bag, the solver had somehow missed the five gemstones at the bottom of the bag. I breathed a quick sigh of relief as the players reset the gift bag and card back on the table, and went back to trying to solve the murder.

(At the end of the event, the players were astonished that the gems had been in the bag the whole time. We all shared a good laugh over it.)

[Image courtesy of Marketing Diva.]

#4 Have a backup plan

I didn’t have to use mine, but it never hurts to be prepared. Always be ready to advance the plot forward if needed, to ignore plot elements that don’t engage the solvers (if they’re not crucial to the murder mystery itself), and to change your gameplan to fit the players.

It’s fine to let the players sit for a bit and chew on what they know, but never let them become bored or frustrated. Adapt the events to keep them invested.

For example, I purposely planned the second murder of the night to be slightly random. A package would arrive at the door, and the person who opened it would instantly be poisoned. There was a strong possibility that the host would open the package, so I planned for there to be an antidote nearby that would save them (it’s rude to kill the host at their own party, after all), making it an attempted murder.

But if one of the other players — out of protectiveness or out of zeal to find a new clue — opened the package first, they would be poisoned, and in all likelihood die, propelling the story forward.

Allowing for several scenarios helps the game feel more natural and spontaneous. Although there has to be some level of guidance to the storytelling, solvers don’t like to feel railroaded into making certain choices, so whenever possible, allow them to follow their instincts and pursue the investigation as they see fit.

The more that the solvers feel like detectives or contributing members of the group, the more likely they are to enjoy the solving experience.


There you go, folks. Just a few helpful tips for running your own murder mystery event. Do you have any advice for fellow puzzly party planners? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!

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The PN Blog 2017 Countdown!

It’s one of the final blog posts of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2017 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


#10 Farewell, David

I don’t mean to start off this countdown on a sad note by mentioning the loss of fellow puzzler and Penny Dell colleague David Lindsey. But it was an incredibly rewarding experience to talk to those who knew him better than I did, and put together a memorial piece in his honor. I learned so much, and it was a valuable part of the healing process for all of us. I had two different opportunities to get to know David, and that’s a rare gift.

#9 The Puzzle of the Bard

Puzzle history, codes, and wordplay are three common topics around here. So when I found a story that neatly covers all three, I simply couldn’t resist. Although this one is more conspiracy theory than verifiable puzzle history, it was great fun to do a deep dive into the ongoing debate surrounding Shakespeare’s identity and put a puzzly spin on the subject. The research alone made this one worthwhile.

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#7 Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords

Sadly, crosswords in general, and New York Times crosswords in particular, have a reputation for being stodgy, steeped in arcane vocabulary, obscure facts, and antiquated cultural references. As part of the ever-evolving narrative surrounding cultural sensitivity — not just ethnic, but in terms of gender and sexuality as well — it’s important to do more than acknowledge the debate. You have to participate in it.

#6 Puzzles in Unexpected Places

One was tucked away on a university website. Another sat in plain sight on a tombstone. The third came to light in a music fan’s collection. What did all three have in common? They represented a simple fact: puzzles are everywhere, a part of the cultural fabric in innumerable ways. I’m cheating a bit by mentioning three posts here, but they all fit the pattern. And it’s so much fun to discover puzzles in unexpected places.

#5 Puzzles for Pets

April Fools Day pranks are an Internet tradition at this point. Some websites go all out in celebrating the holiday. (Heck, ThinkGeek has started using the holiday to tease the public’s interest level in “fake” products, going on to actually release some of those April Fools pranks as real items later in the year!)

So when the idea was floated for PuzzleNation to get in on the pranking fun, I couldn’t resist. The result — Puzzles for Pets — was as layered as it was silly, complete with fake quotes, splash pages, and more. I even got my own dog, Bailey, in on the gag.

#4 Design Your Own Escape Room

Bringing a puzzle-solving mindset into other social activities has always been a passion of mine. I’ve written in previous blog posts about using my puzzly experiences in designing murder mystery dinners and other events. This year, I had the opportunity to try my hand at designing an escape room-style experience for a friend’s birthday, and sharing some of what I learned with you was a genuine treat.

#3 ACPT, New York Toy Fair, and more

There are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was supporting new creators and exploring established companies at New York Toy Fair or cheering on my fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, getting out and talking shop with other creators is invigorating and encouraging. It really helps solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#2 Puzzle History

I mentioned puzzle history as a frequent blog post topic in #9, but recent revelations by government agencies in both the United States and Great Britain have allowed puzzlers greater access than ever before to the history of codebreaking over the last century or so.

In fact, so much information has come to light that I was able to do a three-part series on the history of the NSA and American codebreaking post-World War II. This was a labor of love that took weeks to put together, and I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done for the blog.

#1 Daily POP Crosswords

There’s nothing more exciting than getting to announce the launch of a product that has been months or years in the making, so picking #1 was a no-brainer for me. It had to be the announcement of Daily POP Crosswords.

But it’s not just the app, it’s everything behind the app. I’ve had the opportunity to introduce you to several of the terrific constructors we’ve recruited to make the puzzles as fresh and engaging as they can possibly be, and you’ll get to meet a few more in the weeks to come.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

And it’s part of the evolution of PuzzleNation and PN Blog. Even as we work to ensure our current products are the best they can be, we’re always looking ahead to what’s next, what’s on the horizon, what’s to come.

Thanks for spending 2017 with us, through puzzle scandals and proposals, through forts and festivities, through doomsday prepping and daily delights. We’ll see you in 2018.


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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

The Great Escape (Room)!

room

For years now, Headless Horseman in Ulster Park, New York, has been one of the premiere haunted houses in the country, complete with hayrides, a corn maze, and hundreds of employees working to surprise and spook you. Celebrated for their immersive storytelling, as well as scares designed to delight and terrify all at once, it’s a Halloween tradition in the Northeast.

But recently, they’ve turned their creative energies toward a more puzzly experience: escape rooms.

This weekend, my siblings and I (plus some friends) tackled one of Headless Horseman’s escape rooms, Houdini’s Workshop, and it was an absolute blast.

houdinis-workshop

Here’s the story behind Houdini’s Workshop, courtesy of the Headless Horseman website:

Houdini, the world’s greatest escape artist and famous magician, made a pact with his wife Bess to try and make contact from beyond the grave upon his death. They also set a deadline by which they would give up and Bess was to move on with her life.

As the hour approaches for the deadline, you and your friends are their last hope. You have one hour to discover the final item so that Bess may make one last attempt to contact her beloved husband.

And so, the ten of us piled into Houdini’s parlor and set out to explore… and there was plenty to explore! Hidden panels, riddles, brain teasers, and red herrings galore, not to mention a plethora of locks that would take cleverness, deduction, and teamwork to crack open.

How did we do? Well, I’m proud to announce that we escaped with 4 minutes, 30 seconds left on the clock. Everyone contributed to the solve, and everyone had a fantastic time.

Now, I can’t give you details on specific puzzles or anything like that, because that would ruin the experience for others who might accept the challenge of Houdini’s Workshop.

But it occurred to me that I could give you suggestions for other ways to exercise your puzzly mind and flex your mental muscles in the real world.

1.) Puzzle Hunts

fantasticrace

[Game Master Bob Glouberman instructs a batch of competitors
in the Fantastic Race. Image courtesy of The LA Times.]

Puzzle hunts are interactive solving experiences that often have you wandering around a certain area as you crack codes, unravel riddles, and conquer puzzles. Some only run at certain times each year as annual events, while others (like the Fantastic Race or the Great Puzzle Pursuit) run for a longer time before being retired.

2.) Murder Mystery Dinners

[Image courtesy of Vancouver Presents.com.]

Murder mystery dinners thrive on the theatricality of the event. Attendees can overhear arguments, catch snippets of banter and exposition as they walk around, and engage characters in conversation to learn more. The more you interact with the story, the better chance you have of solving the mystery, but even passive players will get the big picture.

Some restaurants and nightly cruises run murder mysteries, but there’s a growing trend of people running their own as party events. I ran two in the office last year for fellow puzzlers!

3.) LARPing

LARPing, or Live-Action RolePlaying, takes the fun and imagination of a tabletop roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or Legend of the Five Rings, and puts it into the real world.

It might sound a bit bizarre if you’ve never done it, but as a longtime D&D fan, some of my favorite puzzles I’ve ever solved were physical puzzles I encountered during a LARP session.

Whether it’s reassembling a shattered piece of tablet to read the message on it or a mechanical puzzle where a door will only open after I’ve pulled a series of levers in the correct sequence, a tangible puzzle-solving experience gains another dimension of fun and challenge when it’s part of a greater narrative.

In fact, engaging in some of these activities gave me a lot of confidence going into the Houdini’s Workshop escape room. I’d never done an escape room before, but as a veteran of both murder mystery dinners and dungeon romps in Dungeons & Dragons, I was optimistic that my puzzly chops would prove useful.

And I hope my fellow puzzlers get a chance to do the same in the very near future.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: 2016 Countdown edition!

It’s the final Follow-Up Friday of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2016 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


#10 Doomsday Prep

One of the big surprises for me this year was discovering that crosswords and puzzle books were hot-ticket items for doomsday preppers. The idea that crosswords belong next to necessities like food, water, shelter, and knowledge was a revealing one, something that gave me great hope for the future, whether we need those caches or not.

#9 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#8 A Puzzly Proposal

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles once again pulled off a heck of a puzzly coup when an intrepid fellow puzzler asked them for help proposing to his girlfriend with a special Simon Says puzzle.

I reached out to the lucky fiancé and got his permission to share the story with the PuzzleNation readership, and as I learned more about who was involved and how they’d managed to make it happen, I enjoyed the story more and more. Here’s hoping for many happy puzzly years ahead for the young couple!

#7 Puzzle Fort

For International Puzzle Day, I built a fort out of puzzle books.

It was awesome. Definitely one of my favorite puzzly moments of the year.

#6 The End of Sudoku?

The Sudoku boom may be over, but Sudoku remains one of the most popular puzzles in the world, and I got to thinking… when would we run out? I mean, eventually, statistically speaking, every single Sudoku puzzle permutation would get used at some point, so when would that happen?

So, I crunched the numbers, and it turns out, we’ve got centuries before that happens. Still, it was a fun mental puzzle to unravel.

#5 Murder Mystery

At some point this year, I let slip to my fellow puzzlers that I’d written and staged murder mystery dinners in the past, but it had been a while since I’d done anything like that. Naturally, they volunteered to be participants, urging me to stage something in the office.

Eventually, I accepted their challenge, pitting myself against a half-dozen or so of my fellow puzzlers, allowing some of them to investigate while others played a part in the mystery. It was an enormous undertaking and an absolute blast that lasted three days, and it was definitely a highlight of the year for me.

#4 Puzzle Plagiarism

There was probably no bigger story in crosswords all year than the accusations of plagiarism leveled against Timothy Parker. The editor of puzzles for USA Today and Universal UClick. After numerous examples of very suspicious repetitions between grids were discovered in a crossword database compiled by programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig, Parker “temporarily stepped back from any editorial role” with their puzzles.

Eventually, Parker was removed from any editorial influence on USA Today’s puzzles, but it remains unknown if he’s still serving in a puzzle-related capacity for Universal Uclick. But the real story here was about integrity in puzzles, as many puzzle and game companies rallied to defend their rights as creators. That’s a cause we can all get behind.

#3 Interviewing the PuzzleNation Team

Our recurring interview feature 5 Questions returned this year, but what made it truly special to me was being able to turn the spotlight on some of my fellow puzzlers here at PuzzleNation as part of celebrating 4 years of PuzzleNation Blog. Introducing readers to our programmer Mike, our Director of Digital Games Fred, and yes, even myself, was a really fun way to celebrate this milestone.

#2 ACPT, CT FIG, and Other Puzzly Events

There are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was supporting local creators at the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games or cheering on my fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, getting out and talking shop with other creators is invigorating and encouraging. It really helps solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#1 Penny Dell Sudoku and Android Expansion

Those were our two biggest app releases this year, and I just couldn’t choose one over the other. This has been a terrific year for us as puzzle creators, because not only did we beef up our library of Android-available puzzle sets to match our terrific iOS library, but we launched our new Penny Dell Sudoku app across both platforms, broadening the scope of what sort of puzzle apps you can expect from PuzzleNation.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

Thanks for spending 2016 with us, through puzzle scandals and proposals, through forts and festivities, through doomsday prepping and daily delights. We’ll see you in 2017.


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!