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Some birthdays are better than others - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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November 10th, 2013


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09:50 pm - Some birthdays are better than others
Some birthdays are better than others. Last year, on my birthday, we moved house, then went out to the supermarket. It wasn't the best. In contrast, this year was one of the good ones - the really good ones.

Most of the fun came at the weekend before my birthday. Six people came to stay with us, and a seventh came up to stay at a local Premier Inn and see us during the days. quintus_marcius and his friend D. came up from London, as did Dan from my DASH team this year. xorsyst came from Chester, though will very probably have forgotten about his long-dormant LJ, as may have fruufoo and her friend J. The non-stayer was one of the Nicks from the UK World Puzzle Championships teams, who I think may also have had a Livejournal at some point in the dim and distant past. Hey, it was acceptable in the last decade. Everyone had travelled quite a long way to get here - 110 miles at the least, 300+ miles over two days at most - for which I was, and am, very grateful.

Nick was the first to get here on Friday afternoon, and so Meg, Nick and I spent most of the afternoon and early evening playing the 2 Tone Game online puzzle hunt. While nominally it is based in and around San Francisco, it's genuinely possible to play and solve just about all of it from afar, especially if you know to try entering SCOUT as an answer if you're outside the city to get location-specific information. Over a few hours on Friday and an hour or two on Saturday, we cracked all the puzzles but one and the metapuzzle. It starts quite gently but the final puzzles are pretty complex. Recommended, and many thanks to Larry for bringing it to the world!

Also on Friday, we played a story-telling game called Fabula which was a good excuse for ridiculously convoluted puns, and once everybody had got there, the eight of us played Taboo. Meg was brilliant at this, as usual! She also cooked some delightful black bean and bacon soup for people as they arrived.

Saturday got off to a fairly gentle start, though I took D. to Thornaby train station and she took two short train journeys to Great Ayton and spent the day walking in the hills. While the rest of us brunched in a very leisurely fashion, we had a six-player game of The Settlers of Catan, introducing it to three of the six players. quintus_marcius won just after snatching Longest Road, and I finished last on just 4 after a couple of bruising and mutually destructive battles to build road networks leading to places that didn't turn out to be settlement locations after all.

After that, we made a little progress on the current Shinteki Puzzle of the Month. We didn't crack it - judging by the hints, we got a little further than half-way - and four of us went to play Carcassonne. While that was happening, Dan and Meg went and collected D. from Great Ayton, for her walk had not quite gone to plan. Happily, it stayed dry for her, though it started to rain as she returned on the car journey - and the rain turned into quite a strong thunderstorm, by local standards, with perhaps ten sets of flashes over twenty minutes. Dan is a big fan of storms but has contrived not to have seen any for over three years, by virtue of living in the wrong place, so he was delighted by the development. We all congregated in the upstairs window bay and watched the last few flashes in the dark.

After this, xorsyst arrived and we were onto the main event of the evening. For the past several years, Puzzled Pint has been running nights in Portland and Seattle which might best be described as pub quizzes minus questions plus puzzles. (Word puzzles, logic puzzles, codes, all sorts, but generally rather strongly themed.) I would be hosting the first recast outside the Pacific North West in a local pub, rerunning the February 2011 puzzles about a first date between fictional Pat and Chris.

While the Puzzled Pint style is to distribute a puzzle whose answer gives the location of the pub where the puzzles, we had left things rather late, solved the location puzzle together and drove down to the pub in two packed cars. We also had to rush to order our meals before the kitchen closed for the night. The Masham was packed pretty tightly, as reputation of its great food must have spread, and the nine of us crowded around a long, thin table for eight once food and drink were out of the way.

We negotiated a little over food availability with some dietary requirements in mind, then got started. The eight players ended up playing "one end of the table" ("Team Chipolata") against "the other end of the table" ("The Team That Can Get Out To Go To The Toilet"). The pub was sufficiently popular that it created a noisy enough environment that we could get away with that without the two teams' discussions rubbing up against each other and tipping each other off too much. (I think!)

I had deliberately picked a month of PP with puzzles that had proved to be towards the quicker end of the spectrum to solve in practice, and the two UK teams did not disappoint. Team Chipolata took about an hour and five minutes to solve all four plus the metapuzzle, and the other team took an hour and ten, but there was a puzzle armistice in the middle where both teams downed pens when the dinner came. Certainly I think the puzzles did not overstay their welcome and initial indications are that UK team times may be competitive with US ones - though the only way to really tell is to try the UK teams out on the same fresh puzzles as the US teams.

Only a little hinting was required, and that was by the team with the couple who hadn't played DASH previously. Both teams solved the four puzzles in the same order, as it happened; the puzzle that slowed people the most was the sudoku, possibly because the transportation methods and their icons were slightly unintuitive because of the localisation. That particular episode of Puzzled Pint had a metapuzzle; by odd coincidence, we had not long earlier watched the end of an episode of The Chase that inadvertently made reference to one of the facts required to solve the metapuzzle.

People seemed to enjoy Puzzled Pint... really enjoy it, and that's why Dan is running it in London, starting this Tuesday. Hurrah! If you're in London on the second Tuesday of the month, and you like the thought of puzzles, do give it a try. Solving puzzles in good company is fun, the atmosphere is deliberately friendly and the puzzles have a strong pedigree - plus it's fun to be part of an international event.

Happily it had stopped raining, so we made our way back to the house and enjoyed the Krispy Kreme doughnuts that fruufoo and J. had brought with them. While we weren't in the mood for a thoughtful game after the puzzles, we enjoyed springing spurious verbs, nouns, adjectives and other parts of speech to seed sundry Halloween-themed Mad Libs. (US readers will be most amused by this, but Mad Libs are barely - if at all! - known in the UK so proved quite diverting.) In the same vein, we next played Attribute, a judging-the-fit-of-adjectives-to-nouns game of genus mala malis, which raised quite a few laughs.

Many people called it a night at that point, but fruufoo, J. and I stayed up a little longer for Zirkus Flohkati and Chrononauts. Both were interesting, rather than catching wildly on fire - not enough action cards came out to spice up the former and the latter was won through rapid accumulation of chrono-Keepers rather than through patching the timeline as appropriate.

Sunday saw a gentle start. xorsyst was up early (his 9am awakening proving a lie-in for someone with young children!) and we nipped out for provisions. He is playing Google's global-virtual-geocaching game, Ingress, and took advantage of being far away from home to, er, verb some different nouns to the ones he normally does. Looks very interesting and anything that inspires people to get out and about can't be a bad thing, though I suspect it needs a colony of active local players (or, really, two competing such colonies) in order to make a game of it.

Armed with provisions, we made a rolling breakfast as people woke up, with bacon heavily represented among the foods and the frantic dice-rolling action quickie Temple Run Danger Chase also making an appearance. Meg had used her new badge-maker to make some cute little buttons celebrating what she had entitled "Chris-Con"; the reference is to "Sarah-Con", her sister's birthday celebration in which she got to meet an online friend, also called Sarah, in person for the first time.

The highlight of Sunday was xorsyst's music quiz, which he had previously run at Manorcon. This was not especially serious, with the rounds having imaginative, hilarious gimmicks to them. As a sample, it's probably not too much of a spoiler to say that the last round involved having to recognise twenty different languages, with a different song sung in each one. (I was hugely impressed with fruufoo's recognition of conlangs!) To my amazement, the team I was on managed to squeak the win, by virtue of playing our double-one-round's-score joker more effectively and by having more players on it.

The last official game of the con was Dixit, the popular judging-the-fit-of-beautiful-images-to-phrases game, at which I demonstrated my polite hosting by soundly finishing last by a margin. The game was of particular interest because it made a passing appearance in sensational Korean game show The Genius earlier in the year; The Genius is perhaps best described as a reality-ish elimination show where the contestants play proper, frequently puzzle-y, games. Find fansubs on YouTube and pay homage to the translator! Second series starts on December 7th!

Lots of hugs (almost) all round and people started to make their way home; happily, the journeys down on a dry Sunday afternoon seemed to prove easier than the journeys up on a wet Friday evening. xorsyst stayed back for one more game; he had never played Chrononauts, so I taught it to him. I'm reasonably happy now that it doesn't live up to the considerable promise of its premise, for me, with a few additional fiddly rules that add to the flavour without necessarily adding to the fun.

Meg and I had huge beams on our face after the house became quietened once more and our already rather brave cats had the free run of our home again. The weekend had passed all too quickly; I had prepared material that was never used. Meg described the event on Facebook that evening as "the first annual ChrisCon", without prompting from me. That's the best birthday present I could possibly have received. It doesn't hurt a bit that Meg enjoyed the puzzles enough that she has wanted to do more since then, to the point where she will be the one representing our family at the first Puzzled Pint in London. (*flails like Kermit*)

My birthday itself was rather lower-key; Meg had to go to the dentist and a meeting and I couldn't stay up too late because of work the next day. Nevertheless, it had a couple of immense highlights. Meg and I enjoyed a trip to Voodoo Café in Darlington for Mexican food; while they serve their salsa, salad and sour cream on the outside of their burritos, and the guacamole is an extra, both their vegetables and their slow-cooked beef are sensational burrito ingredients.

We had also made a frozen key lime cream (I am insufficiently expert to determine whether this is an ice cream, a frozen custard or some other sort of freezer dessert) with the intention of starring it in some Whoopie Pies, but we have been enjoying it as a standalone since then as my favourite lime ice cream ever.
Fair-use quoted from The Whoopie Pie Book by Claire Ptak of Violet, published by Square Peg, a Random House imprint.

6 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
400g sweetened condensed milk
2 tbsp grated lime zest
Freshly squeezed juice of 5 limes

Line the cups of a muffin (or Yorkshire Pudding) tin with cling-film and place in the freezer.

Beat the egg yolks and sugar on high speed in the bowl of a free-standing mixer fitted with a whisk for 5 minutes, until thickened. Turn the mixer down to medium speed and add the condensed milk, lime zest and lime juice.

Pour the mixture into the prepared muffin tin and smooth the tops with a palette knife or an offset spatula. Freeze overnight.
For my future reference, presents received this birthday and on the birthday weekend included blackberry and lime jam (so good we had to hide it), an Optical Illusion puzzle book (best enjoyed in small doses), a custom puzzle and London Underground map-themed socks (anything in the LU map style is always great), doughnuts (of the very highest quality), a scratchcard (a rare winner! - well, at least the £2 stake back, and that is a win when someone buys it for you), lemon chocolate (Green and Black's on good form), a box of chocolates (Thornton's, and very few nutty ones!) and headphones (over-the-ear ones rather than uncomfortable earbuds that fall out).

Immense thanks to everyone for coming so far and for helping make such a fantastic party! I'm delighted that people seemed to have such a good time and have gone so far as to spread the puzzle love further. The most thanks of all, as ever, to my wonderful wife, for enabling this whole dizzy, wonderful mess, for putting up with me and for jumping in whole-heartedly with me.

So, er, yeah, thinking about next year's event already! Everyone who came was lovely and is invited back and there are at least two others who have bagged places for next year already. I reckon this house can probably just about deal with as many as nine guests staying here with us if there are three pairs willing to share double beds (one an airbed) among the nine and the other three individuals all don't mind sharing a room, though not a bed, with a couple. Eleven in a house with only one bathroom does, rightly, seem like a squash, but that's part of the fun of a housecon - and being back somewhere with a more reasonable inhabitants-to-bathrooms ratio puts a smile back on a face befrowned from being away from the fun. We've also proved that it's realistic to stay in a local hotel and just come and play during the days.

Other than that, there are plenty of puzzle events coming up through the year from now to then, and already we've proved that it's practical for a team to keep in touch with Skype to work on a puzzle event together. If you've ever read stories of how spectacular these can be but thought that they were likely too difficult, I would particularly recommend the Octothorpean Order starting at 7pm GMT on Saturday 16th November (and probably clashing with all sorts of fun things like Georgia-Auburn and Schlag den Raab, so we'll need to get cracking). While it will have around a hundred puzzles, many of them will be deliberately introductory in nature so people can gain confidence in using and applying standard puzzle hunt codes and techniques. Start your own team or let me know if you want to join ours!

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: jubilantjoyful! Also, old

 


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