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Coming soon: the Croco-League, season two! - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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August 22nd, 2013

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05:00 pm - Coming soon: the Croco-League, season two!
Three highlights of my involvement in puzzles over the past year have been the UK Puzzle Championship, DASH and the Croco-League. I've written in detail about DASH, an in-person team-competition sequential mostly-word-puzzles hunt held in London and in fourteen US cities. This year I didn't write about the UK Puzzle Championship, an online individual 2½-hour contest with, this year, 26 puzzles (mostly logic, some overtly words or maths) and a track record of an accessible difficulty level. There was certainly plenty to keep me entertained and I came pretty near the bottom.

I wrote a preview of the Croco-League last June, before the league started, and have mentioned it in passing from time to time ever since. The first season completed without unexpected hitches and exceeded my expectations about how much fun it might be in practice. The second season is due to start soon. Accordingly, if you had even tangential passing interest in reading about either of those two puzzle events, consider yourself warned about a puzzle event that can provide fun from September through to June, on and off.

I'm going to adapt what I said about the league last year with the benefit of a season's experience.

The league consists of four divisions. The top three divisions are each made up of sixteen teams who participated last year. The bottom division is made up of the worst performers in last season's third division and teams joining the league between seasons; it will contain 4-19 teams in order to permit all teams to play.

Teams can consist of up to six players; teams will be unable to properly compete with fewer than four players and will suffer flexibility problems with fewer than the full complement. Teams should have some sort of geographic or affiliation tie, rather than just being "half a dozen solvers who want to be on the same extremely strong stacked team". That said, I have a strong grumble that the winners of the first division in the first season probably are just such a stacked team - or, if they aren't, they haven't made their connection clear.

The season consists of fifteen rounds and a final promotion/relegation play-off. Rounds consist of matches between pairs of teams, so a 16-team division will be a single round-robin and fixtures for a non-16-team division will be organised through the Swiss system.

Each round lasts two weeks. The league takes breaks for the WPC/WSC week, the winter holidays and the summer holidays. In the first week of each round, twelve puzzle types are published, and each team determines which of its members will solve each puzzle in the second week.

The puzzle types come from a selection of about three dozen. They are all culture-free logic puzzles. Grandmaster Puzzles' Dr. Thomas Snyder has identified five families of puzzle that many specific styles fall into: number placement, object placement, region division, shading and path/loop; all five are well represented.

Crucially, no player may solve more than three puzzles in each round, so a four-player team will have all four players solving three puzzles every time. However, larger teams may have the flexibility to deal with the situation where one or two team members are unavailable, or have stronger solvers taking on three puzzles and weaker solvers taking on fewer.

In the second week of each round, each player solves the puzzles which they have been assigned at a time of their choice. For each of the twelve puzzles, the performance of the solvers in each match are compared to each other; whichever solver has made the fewer incorrect submissions wins that puzzle, with the time taken between starting and correctly solving the puzzle breaking a tie (ideally, a zero-zero tie). An error-free slow performance beats a fast performance with any number of errant submissions before the correct one. Ties are possible, most likely to occur if both solvers in a match fail to complete the puzzle.

Whichever team in each match has won more puzzles wins the match; the match will be tied if the two teams win the same number of puzzles. Winning a match earns three league points; a tied match awards one league point to each team. (In a Swiss system division with an odd number of teams, the odd team that does not have a match earns two league points.) At the end of the season, the bottom two teams in each division swap with the top two teams of the division below, with the third bottom team defending its place in the upper division through a play-off with the third team in the division below. (Not sure what happens if this play-off match turns out to be a tie...)

Accordingly, playing in the league commits you only to solving no more than three puzzles every two weeks, and each team gets to assign certain puzzle types to people who particularly enjoy solving them. Site owner Bernhard Seckinger ("berni") generates the puzzles by hand and they are generally elegant. They vary in difficulty and it's hard to know in advance how difficult they're going to be.

In general, the level of difficulty is pretty sociable and manageable. Reasonably generally, each set of twelve tends to contain a couple of short puzzles (fastest time under a minute, median time a minute or two, slowest time 3-5 minutes), a couple of long puzzles (fastest time five minutes, median time 10-20 minutes, slowest time close to an hour) and the remaining puzzles are somewhere in between - but generally towards the shorter end of that difficulty range. Even if you end up with a long puzzle to do, it's generally one of a type that you know you enjoy.

The first season was great fun and I'm really looking forward to the second season. The discussions about dividing the puzzles up were fun; solving the puzzles themselves was fun; sharing successes and failures with team-mates was fun. Often we would solve our week's puzzles quickly and see the other team's times roll in as their team members completed the puzzles, and that was fun as well. (A bit nerve-wracking, by that point, as things were outside your control, but nevertheless fun.)

Our team were... well, pretty darn average. There is a cross-divisions team ranking built up, and at the end of the season, we were ranked 27th out of 52 teams. (Well, 49½ serious teams; two teams joined very late and one other team were serial defaulters.) We were expected to finish something like tenth of 16 in the second division and we finished... eleventh.

At least partly due to the deliberate organisation of the fixtures to attempt to make the final matches of the season the most competitive - a brilliant idea, though one sadly unlikely to be repeated - we had a long run of losses at the start, flirted with relegation, and had a string of results late in the season which went draw-win-win-win-win-draw. Realistically I think we'll be doing well to escape the drop again this season. However, our team is only five solvers strong, so a strong sixth solver could improve our chances considerably.

Many of the teams are national, with the Czech, Japanese and Slovakian teams especially strong; I look forward to seeing how well the Finnish, Serbian and Chinese teams can compete this year, among others. There are several regional German teams.

I consider it much more satisfying to face the (at least nominally) best team from a relatively small location than to face a second (or third, etc.) best team from a larger location, and I'm glad that the UK have Northern and Southern teams, with the potential for more to develop over time. To me, it would be much more interesting to face, say, a team representing Bohemia and a team representing Moravia than to face a Czech XY team and a Czech Z team. (Or some other geographic separator, should the division in practice happen not to be so neat.)

Some familiarity with the Croco-Puzzle interface would be helpful but is by no means essential - after all, you can practice with several years' worth of prize puzzles, in conjunction with the English-language translations of the puzzles' rules. If you've ever wanted to be part of a logic puzzle team in a meaningful team competition, but (like me) have no chance of getting on one of the national teams for the world championships, there are no better opportunities.

The standard of opposition is variable. The best Croco-Puzzle solvers are among the very best in the world. That said, some of the best puzzle solvers have played at Croco-Puzzle to the point where they decided that Croco-Puzzle was not necessarily the best form of practice for puzzles in the "outside world" - there's a point, especially in relatively short puzzles, where mastery becomes mastery of the interface, not of the puzzle. However, if you hadn't decided that this applies to you weeks before reading this, it doesn't apply to you.

At the other end, players on teams towards the lower end of the third division - and, probably, this season's new fourth division as well - are performing relatively well to complete the puzzles at all. The league, and the site at large, are genuinely accessible to those who are just getting their feet wet in the sea of puzzles, as well as those like me who have been swimming for some time without ever properly being able to manage the butterfly. (Don't forget, seeing as you get to choose what types of puzzles you solve, you can be a great contributor to your team even if you're only proficient at - say - six or ten of the thirty-some types of puzzles.)

There is a spot available on the Northern UK team, and also a spot available on the Southern UK team as well. I wouldn't presume to speak on behalf of my friends in the South (who managed to win their way up to this season's first division through the play-off!) but I do note that both teams are listed as having a spot free and welcoming new additions.

That said, I imagine we would apply some sort of rough UK-ish-ness test in practice so not to make a mockery of the sheen of representation, though I imagine residency would count as well as citizenship. The division line between north and south is "feeling Northern", for a reason. I don't know if the Southern UK team will require some sort of track record for membership - they are in the first division, after all - but I guess a primary requirement is just being as good as your word. It's fine to tell your teammates that you're going on holiday and need not to be given puzzles; while emergencies do spring up on us all, it's less fine not to find a spot in your week to even try to solve a puzzle.

The deadline for application is the end of August - though, in practice, this is the softest of deadlines as new team members and new teams can be accepted as the season progresses. If you're interested, register with the web site, go into the Liga section, go to the Team List page and click on the "Team beitreten" button by the team of your choice, or the "Neues Team erstellen" button at the bottom of the page to start a new team. Then just get talking to your potential team-mates and perhaps I'll see you once the season starts!

So who is this contest for? If you like logic puzzles and can get over the fact that the interface is solely in German, I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you like puzzles, have an established team and like solving puzzles with a particular group of your puzzling friends, I think you'd find it well worth the effort to learn these puzzles and this interface. I have a slightly old walkthrough of the interface - it's changed, but not all that much - and am happy to answer questions.

Possibly the biggest draw: if you like team sports at large and want to join a team for the purpose of playing a team sport and getting to know your teammates, but are happier with it being a thought sport than a physical sport, again it comes strongly recommended as well worth the effort. I've enjoyed getting to know the rest of my team better as a result and am really looking forward to the second season!

Please redirect any comments here, using OpenID or (identified, ideally) anonymous posting; there are comment count unavailable comments to the post already. Thank you!
Current Mood: excitedexcited


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