By the late 2000s and early 2010s, NBC’s Must See TV Thursday lineup was a thing of the past, but they were still putting out quality comedy content. My Name Is Earl, The Office, Community, Scrubs, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock all had loyal followings.
And you’d be surprised how much puzzle and game content ended up on those shows.
The Office featured in-house Olympics and betting games, as well as a Da Vinci Code-esque prank. Community had two Dungeons & Dragons-inspired episodes (which I should really cover at some point).
But those last two shows — Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock — both featured made-up games that either spoofed or were inspired by modern board games.
Parks and Recreation had The Cones of Dunshire, and 30 Rock had Colonizers of Malaar. Both of these games are much more elaborate takes on Settlers of Catan, a board game about resource management that is considered one of the top titles in modern board games.
In one episode of 30 Rock, executive Jack Donaghy is struggling with his position, given that NBC is under new ownership with Kabletown, and he finds refuge in a game of Colonizers of Malaar with the writers for comedy show TGS.
Jack believes his business acumen will make the game an easy victory, only to find the play experience strangely similar to his current problems at work. He flees the game for some fresh air.
Later, Jack returns to the game, inspired. He makes a seemingly ill-advised move — playing a fire card in a desert wasteland — that turns the game on its head. The fire turns all the sand into glass, a much-needed resource, and suddenly he’s back in control.
His success in the game inspires him to do the same with his new employers, and Jack leaves, reinvigorated.
The game itself allowed for a few silly throwaway lines, but Jack’s gaming experience was a clever way to allow him to reach rock bottom and rebound. Like many newcomers to a game, he struggled, found his way, and later triumphed, his day improved by playing the game.
Plenty of board game fans have had similarly joyful experiences.
Colonizers of Malaar, as far as we can tell, is a marketed game in the 30 Rock universe. The Cones of Dunshire from Parks and Recreation, on the other hand, is created by character Ben Wyatt and initially treated as a mistake, a nonsensical result of his boredom and frustrations.
The game becomes a running gag in the show. Ben leaves it as a gift at an accounting firm that he has been hired by (and walked away from) several times.
Later, we find out the game has been produced, and Ben stumbles across it when dealing with a dotcom company. He mentions that he invented it, but is shrugged off. He then proves not only his gaming skill but his authorship of the game when he beats the dotcom bosses in a tense playthrough.
It’s mentioned once that a gaming magazine called Cones of Dunshire “punishingly intricate,” a point that makes Ben proud.
Part of the fun of Cones of Dunshire is that the viewer never really understands what’s going on, so supposedly dramatic moments can be played for laughs. (I also appreciate that the name of the game is basically a fancy way of saying “dunce hat.”)
And, in the sort of cyclical storytelling that could only happen in a nerdly pursuit like board games, the company that made Settlers of Catan — Mayfair Games — produced a giant version of the game as part of a charity event at GenCon.
A Kickstarter campaign for a limited run of the game was launched twice, with copies costing $500 due to the insane complexity and number of pieces for the game, but it ultimately failed to reach its goal.
Nonetheless, these two fictional games made an impact on both the characters of the show and the fans as well. What more could you ask for?
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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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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).
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.
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!)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Well, lo and behold, last night I stumbled across a video clip from Monday night’s episode that I simply have to share with the PuzzleNation audience.
In this brief clip, host Alex Trebek gives us a rare glimpse into a rap career that never was — and channels William Shatner’s peculiar rhythmic cadence — as he sings a bit of the theme song from the beloved NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
And, in the spirit of the day, I thought I’d do a crowdfunding round-up of some of the interesting puzzly projects on Kickstarter right now.
First off, I want to talk about Unspeakable Words, a Scrabble-style word-building game with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft.
The game went out of print a while ago, and remaining copies have been in high demand since the game was featured on Wil Wheaton’s board game webseries TableTop. The goal is to print a deluxe version of the game (originally allowing for seven players instead of six, but with several stretch goals reached, they’ve expanded to eight!), with additional stretch goals allowing for better game components.
Now, this is already a Kickstarter success story, because the game funded the first day, so you’re guaranteed to see a finished game before it hits stores.
For a taste of something different, Facets is a wood-and-magnets constructing puzzle toy that allows you to make various shapes based on the Platonic solids. Whether you’re interested in 3-D geometry or just like wooden building toys with a twist, Facets is right up your alley.
Facets has just crossed its funding goal with less than two weeks to go, and it looks like this might be the start of the next generation of Tinker Toys-style constructing toys.
Alyssa’s Puzzle Project is the brainchild of a young lady named Alyssa who is 12 years old and wants to educate the world — and her fellow students — about the dangers of moral and governmental corruption. So she’s created an awareness-building activity around a jigsaw puzzle, designed for classrooms and students to assemble together. It’s symbolic group problem-solving to raise awareness and spark conversation.
You can read more about Alyssa’s project and her ambitious goals here.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the phenomenal success of Exploding Kittens, a strategy card game that launched with a goal of $10,000 and has raised over 4 MILLION dollars in its first eight days.
It is now the most backed Kickstarter campaign in history, with more than 100,000 backers, and the sky truly appears to be the limit for this card game based on art from The Oatmeal.
I’ve been watching and funding Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns for a few years now, and I (and the rest of the world) have never seen anything like it.
Did I miss any puzzly Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns you’ve seen launched recently, fellow puzzlers? Let me know!