Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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Puzzled Pint, HintHunt and more

1) A couple of weeks ago, meggitymeg and I went down to London and stayed overnight, with the focus of the trip being to attend the fourth month of Puzzled Pint in London. Meg had been to the first three, and indeed is the only person to have solved at all of them; this was my first time down. The event was a glorious success, exceeding my expectations by far. It was a treat to catch up with delightful puzzle people, some of whom I haven't seen since DASH 5 last May, plus first known face-to-face meetings with i_am_magoo and [personal profile] pseudomonas, though I have long enjoyed both their blogs.

It occurs to me that I have written far more about Puzzled Pint on Facebook than in long-form blogging. Imagine taking part in a pub quiz with your friends, but swap the questions for puzzles: word puzzles, picture puzzles, maybe codes, perhaps maths or logic puzzles. They might be mysterious at first, but you'll enjoy figuring them out with your team. The atmosphere is deliberately friendly; hints are given out freely to make sure everybody has fun. This emphasis on "everyone gets as much help as they'd like" makes the event less competitive than you might think. The same puzzles are used in events in Portland (for nearly four years now!), Seattle and London, with Chicago and Missoula (!?) joining the party from March; differing standards of hint availability probably also detracts from global comparability.

The event takes place on the second Tuesday of each month. Finding the event location is the first challenge; a puzzle is posted on Monday evening, whose solution will reveal the location in each city. Hints are, again, available as required. The London event generally starts around 7pm. The puzzles are free, the pints aren't. You can listen to what a Puzzled Pint sounds like in this beautifully-made podcast if you want to hear how much fun people have.

Meg and I turned up a good half-hour early and were far from the first to arrive, with others we knew arriving in fairly rapid succession; Meg brought malachan along last month and he has become a convert, we brought another friend (M.) along for the first time and it was good to see Nick who had come some way up from the south coast as well. (Not nearly as far a journey for him as visiting us for our MIT Mystery Hunt cell, but still a trek!) Meg had also previously solved with some of the people on the next table along, and so on and so on. Very seldom do I get to see so many lovely people in the same room at the same time, short of games cons. This is effectively a monthly evening-long puzzle con.

Delightfully, this month had a rather bigger attendance than the previous three months. (I believe the figures are something like 24 in 5 teams - 14 in 3 teams - 23 in 5 teams followed by, this month, 49 in 12 teams.) This big jump did cause a problem for the London organisers who weren't expecting the number of teams to more than double, but good news all round - not least for the bar hosting us! - and everybody ended up with puzzles to solve in the end, a couple of teams after some degree of pause.

The puzzles were fun, though I think it's probably fairer to Puzzled Pint to consider the accumulated mass of puzzles over the months as a whole than to pick on individual months' puzzles. It's probably important to say that this month's was probably more of a speedwork challenge than most for people who recognised some of the themes. (See also the talk by Ian Tullis at the most recent Game Control Summit, passim.) Nevertheless the theming was particularly cute and the meta especially well-suited. Many thanks to everyone who constructed, edited and tested the puzzles, and particularly to Dan and Lisa for being lovely and running the event.

I am happy to recommend Puzzled Pint, particularly in London. It's always fun to introduce existing friends who do not consider themselves particularly puzzle-oriented (after all, Meg has really caught the bug...) and I would be happy to team up, at least once, with anyone reading this, particularly if you think you won't know anybody else there. (That is, assuming I'll be there. Meg and I should be there in March for a casino-themed event, at least.) Let me know and I shall mark my dance card accordingly.

As an aside, in other Puzzled Pint news, this weekend, Meg and I went to [personal profile] xorsyst's in-laws' holiday flat in Llandudno for the most glam housecon ever. The venue was stunning and better-appointed than even the rare-splash-out hotels we've used. (We're pretty low rollers, though.) The company was great, too; several people I hadn't seen for far too long, and delightful to get to properly spend time with [personal profile] alobear and Dave. Meg reran the January Puzzled Pint for our two teams of three, which was great fun once again, and a bigger chunk of that fun. It was also a rare and wonderful opportunity to be introduced to new board and card games of recent years; there were no immediate stand-outs, just several 7/10 games in 9½+/10 company.

2) The day after Puzzled Pint in London, Dan, Meg and I went to Hint Hunt in a rather... insalubrious part of London, a couple of minutes along the road from Euston station. We played their original "John Monroe's Office" room and escaped with a little over three minutes of our allotted hour remaining. It was tremendous fun and rather thought-provoking.

Locked room escape games have existed for a couple of years now and are reasonably familiar, so I cheerfully admit to being quite behind the times in only getting to play now. I have blogged about them in passing before, updating that post from time to time when I have more news. In London, ClueQuest's second room opened at the weekend; further ahead, Escape Hunt's ambitious-looking expansion plan calls for them to open in June.

The staff at HH were both professional and lovely, erring - if at all - on the lovely side. The young lady who briefed us on our introduction, and also hinted us through our game, was pretty much a consummate example of what you'd hope for from room escape customer service. Her accent was clearly Central European, though her English perfect; I asked her if she was Hungarian, which turned out to be an excellent icebreaker question, as she said she wasn't but that the owners of the business were.

Between us we quickly established that we knew these games were big in Hungary (there's a Exit Games site, which I suspect is brilliant; even if you don't speak Hungarian, you can see that there are currently forty-four such games in Budapest) and also in Japan. She, unprompted, suggested that she thought they came from Japan originally, which is at least some sort of second-hand primary source evidence towards resolving that particular open historical mystery. Incidentally, the Wall Street Journal suggested that there are 120 such locations in Beijing alone, so if this is "just" a craze, there's definitely evidence to suggest plenty of yet-unresolved capacity for growth yet.

Players are requested not to spoil the experience for others, so it's hard to know how much to say. However, the verbs describing the actions you will do most frequently during your hour are search, read, unlock and (to a limited extent) decode. There are a great many unusual and fun toys to play with during your hour, a strong sense of progression between the layers of the puzzle and plenty of pleasant surprises. You are kept very busy for the entire hour and it's very easy to feel you have attained a sense of flow, and I write that purely so that I can name-check Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Some of the leaps of logic feel a little arbitrary, particularly at the very end, but in practice that doesn't matter much. Was it enjoyable? Yes, hugely so.

I'm now going to wildly extrapolate based on having played one (1) locked room exit game and looked at the web sites of at least half a dozen others, and say that I suspect there is a wide variety of approaches taken, across the world, to the issue of difficulty.

HintHunt make no secret of being quite liberal with the degree of hints that they supply to participants. Your GM will send you text and picture messages aplenty to a clearly-visible video screen. The game balance is made up of there being an awful lot to get through in the course of the hour. The staff claim that the success rate is about 50% and that the fastest time that anybody has ever completed the room in is about 53 minutes. Some of the hints could be accused of being... on the pretty explicitly spoiler-y side. (Either that, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the GM thought we needed hints that were on the explicitly spoiler-y side!)

In a recent post, I quoted the saying "Everybody likes solving puzzles; nobody likes not solving puzzles"; that's a maxim I love and live by. Hints that happen to be inside the room ("look up", "look down", "turn around") for everybody to see are lovely and obviously the fairest of game. Being specific about precisely which hint is needed when could arguably be another matter.

Pip Warr wrote a lovely write-up for Shut Up & Sit Down that blends capturing the feel well against avoiding spoilers. At worst, it can start to feel a little like that the game is playing you, rather than that you were playing it. We escaped with three minutes plus left, but how well did we really do? I think we were pretty good at solving the puzzles, but (particularly me!) identifiably rather less thorough at searching for hidden objects. The problem is that it's hard to tell for sure. There's definitely a school of thought that the final destination doesn't actually matter, and the journey along the way is sufficiently hectic and engaging and delightful that the cost is justified.

Pip expresses a preference that she would prefer a room escape experience where the hints were perhaps not so explicit. That's cool; that's another approach of equal validity to take. By comparison - and I'm singling them out as merely one example, not suggesting they are unique in this approach - Keyhunter in Birmingham post details of many of their players to their Facebook page. They offer games in several levels of difficulty, and when discussing their easiest game, they sometimes have the need to report that a team solved the room using no hints, but taking as few as twenty-some minutes of the allotted hour. Sure, that's the easiest difficulty level of three and that was picked by explicit choice, but that's a timescale which might have punters feeling a little... short-changed. (I would not suggest that the fastest teams break through the hardest difficulty level nearly so quickly!)

So there is a continuum from high-content high-hints to relatively low-content low-hints and I don't think there is an overtly right or wrong place to be on that spectrum. This would probably be the appropriate place to point out that (again, picking out just one example here) Scrap, probably the first company to have offered the games, and others strike a balance by making their games - as the kids say these days - Nintendo Hard, making a virtue of their very low success rate. That's intriguing. It demonstrates great confidence in the innate entertainment value of the activity that mere partial success is sufficiently entertaining to be worthwhile for most participants.

I guess that I would find losing a game by virtue of not solving a puzzle to be a satisfying conclusion if the puzzle felt fair. I'm not sure how well I would react to "OK, you didn't get out in time, and you didn't get out in time because you didn't find this hidden object". Perhaps, in my mind, I draw a distinction that physical search puzzles are somehow not as valid as mental puzzles, probably because I don't enjoy them as much and don't feel as well-suited to them. This is all a personal preference and I'd happily agree if you argued unfair on my part.

In a mature market, there's no reason why different games couldn't deliberately advertise their different approaches so that people can play the game that best suits their need. It's very tempting to wonder which is the most commercially successful approach, and I reckon that - particularly as the first example of its type in the UK - there is very likely to be very good reason for HintHunt doing things the way they do.

Anyway, very nicely done and firmly recommended to those who think they might enjoy it, yet with a sense that playing only one room at one centre merely scratches the surface of what the genre has to offer. I will continue to look out for developments, not least because new ventures tend to be good matches for crowd-purchasing sites and you can occasionally pick up a Groupon Wowcher or somesuch to play a new centre at an attractive rate. Come on, new centres: be closer to here!

3) OK, let's rush around the other things more quickly. You've hopefully seen my post about DASH registration being open, so I won't go into detail again. Still: very cool, strongest recommendation.

3a) While looking for more English-language information about the incredible Czech-language puzzle hunt tradition TMOU, I discovered puzzlehunt.eu, an English-language puzzle hunt in, of all the places, Saarbrucken, Germany. (It's just over the border from France, a few dozen miles around from Luxembourg. If you hit Switzerland then you've gone too far.) Investigation by others suggests that it's something of a pan-European educational mecca, hence the hunt being in English.

The really remarkable thing is the independent reinvention of so many coding, encryption and other administrative properties that are very similar to the ones that evolved in the US-based puzzle hunt tradition, without me being aware of established contact between the two, and that's practically anthropology for your anthology. Disappointingly, the same investigation has suggested that the games in 2010, 2011 and 2012 were not followed up by one in 2013 and might not be followed up again in the future; "three up and three down", and I'm very sad not to have heard about these at the time. Still, at least players there would only have hundreds, rather than thousands, of miles to travel in order to play in DASH. :-/

3b) Another online hunt coming up is Puzzle Boat 2, sequel to you-guessed-it The Puzzle Boat, both by the hyper-prolific Greg ("Foggy") Brume, who also displays his exceptional creative fecundity in his P&A Magazine. Both the first and second liners are available online for solvers to have at in their own time, but the second voyage also offers a prize for the first team to solve it after the opening date of March 23rd. The first Boat is free, the second carries a $60 charge - which might seem a little sticker-shock-y at first, but the 100+ puzzles (and metas) are expected to take a sizeable team many hours, so that's an eminently reasonable price and I suspect it may well be a spectacular labour of love.

3c) If you prefer your puzzles logical, the World Puzzle Federation are staging a circuit of 90-minute logic puzzle contests, each available over the course of a long weekend every fourth week. The first contest was set by German constructors; I enjoyed it, but it was deliberately World Championship calibre. There were 12 puzzles to solve in the 90 minutes, the median performance was around four correct answers, and I came far from the bottom of just the 375 names that made it onto the scoreboard (mind you, about three times further from the top...) by getting a second puzzle correct.

The second contest is the Slovakian Grand Prix, taking place this weekend. There are sixteen puzzles rather than a dozen so fingers crossed that there are more at the relatively accessible end of things than there were in the German round. You have until the end of Monday (by central European time, GMT+1) to solve it, so don't hang around too long, particularly if you're stumbling for a humbling.

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