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Brian Enigma

Brian likes to build with bits and atoms when he's not reverse-engineering. Read about his latest cool projects at netninja.com.

Review: The Ordnance Survey Puzzle Book

It’s not often that Puzzled Pint receives a product to review. In fact, this marks the first time we’ve ever been sent a book to review! Today I’ll be examining The Ordnance Survey Puzzle Book [Amazon UK/ Amazon US (preorder)].

Slipping the book from its mailer, I could instantly see its amazing production quality. It is technically a softcover, but it’s paperback masquerading as hardbound. The glossy full-color cover is made of several layers of cardstock, giving it a firm feel. Instead of the cover being cut flush to the size of the pages, it’s a little larger. It overhangs the pages in the same way a hardcover book does. On the front was a detailed topographic map, with colors that pop — orange elevations, green parks, blue waters, red roads. On the back was the typical book blurb, but also a little Morse code above the ISBN number. A hint of things to come? Riffling through the pages shows that same beautiful style of map throughout. The vast majority of the book consists of a beautiful map on the right-hand page, with a series of questions on the facing page on the left.

My partner and I sat down with this book for an hour one evening. We thought we’d try a few and see how it stacks up to some of our favorite puzzle and game pastimes. As I mentioned above, each set of facing pages has questions on the left and a map to refer to on the right, preceded by an introduction to the history or relevance of the selected map. The questions rank from Easy, Medium, Tricky, to Challenging. We skipped around the book. There are 40 maps to choose from, which were “selected for a significant reason — whether that is a noteworthy moment in national history, a rare geographical feature or a site of special cultural interest.” As best as we could tell, there was no specific order or grouping. They seemed to all be of relatively the same difficulty, letting you skip around.

We picked one toward the front that looked interesting — Hotel Metropole, Blackpool, 1912 — and sat down to answer the questions. This is where we ran into a few snags. For all the beauty in product design this book offers, the “puzzles” fell into two categories: tedious searching for a thing we knew and tedious searching to match a thing we didn’t.

The experience felt a little “Where’s Waldo” (or Wally, for our British friends). Instead of combing through quirky side-characters in humorous situations to find Waldo, you’re scanning through beautifully illustrated elevation lines to find the second-highest peak. Or whether “back” or “bank” appear more times. Or a place that shares a name with a famous physicist.

The easy questions tended to be straightforward activities like “find a thing on the map” or “count things on the map.” The medium questions often pulled in some basic piece of trivia, adding challenge if you are not entirely confident in an answer — but comparable to the easy questions if you do know the answer (or look it up in a search engine). Ultimately, though, you’re still skimming through the map trying to find a word.

The Tricky and Challenging questions added puzzle elements. These were things like cryptic clues, anagrams, words with a common theme, sound-alikes (“royals hide things underground” ⇒ Queensbury), and so on. If you’re good at cryptics, you might end up with a word you can scan the map for. The other puzzle types don’t have great confirmers. Anagrams of place names, for instance, are much more difficult than anagrams of common English words (of the non-proper-noun variety), and often the anagram puzzles we typically see have some kind of confirmer structure. You end up having to go back and forth between the anagram (or other puzzle) and the map, trying to see if you can get a word to fit.

While beautiful, the whole exercise felt a little tedious, not terribly fun, and with a serious lack of “ah-ha” moments. The puzzles we’re used to will often have interlocking or thematic answers (giving good confirmations along the way). We’re not big fans of word searches, and this felt like it tread into word search territory (though I didn’t see it on any map). Ultimately, I have to admit that I may not be the target demographic for this book.

That said, it is a beautiful book, and could very well be a good choice for someone in your life. Nowhere does it define an age range, but it does feel like it might work well for someone that skews older than “Where’s Waldo” but younger than adult. Do you know a teenage puzzle fan? It’s also a book that I wouldn’t mind having out on the coffee table. It’s a great few minutes for you or a guest to browse through and to poke at an easy question. And at only £14.99, you’re not going to break the bank, if this sounds like something you have even the mildest curiosity about.

Last but not least, if you enjoy The Ordnance Survey Puzzle Book, you can look forward to the follow-up volume, The Ordnance Survey Puzzle Tour of Britain, coming this October [announcement]!

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DASH 11

You probably know this, but we strive to make Puzzled Pint a beginner-friendly event. Our charter is to to grow awareness of puzzle events, which we partially achieve by running Puzzled Pint every month. We see PP as a stepping-stone to more advanced events such as BANGs, MIT Mystery Hunt, and weekend-games. But informally, since the beginning, we have always kept DASH in mind as the “next step” for puzzlers after honing their puzzle skills with Puzzled Pint.

“DASH,” you ask? “What is DASH?” DASH, or Different Area Same Hunt, is an afternoon-long puzzle event that’s played on the same day in cities around the world. With regard to its “simulcast” nature, it is very much like Puzzled Pint. The puzzles are a little more advanced — though an easy track is available, and no matter what your level, hints unlock as you solve. It takes the shape of a walk around your city. But at its heart, it is solving puzzles with friends, just like Puzzled Pint.

DASH 11 happens soon, and we’d be neglecting our duties if we didn’t share the information. With luck, it’s playing in a city near you — but there’s still time to volunteer to help run it in your city.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

A patient has come down with a variety of mysterious ailments, and your team has been called to investigate. You’ve dealt with puzzle-related illnesses before, but this time you’ll be working at a much smaller scale. Diagnose! Assemble! Shrink! Heal!

Registration closes Monday July 1

A Call for Puzzle Authors — Write for Puzzled Pint!

The puzzles you see every month at Puzzled Pint don’t just materialize out of the aether. They all start as rough prototypes, often just a simple draft thrown together in a Word document, with little flavor text and no graphic design. The puzzles take several trips through the feedback loop — as first Headquarters, and later playtesters, help polish the rough edges. At the end of this process, we have a month’s puzzles ready to print.

At the moment we have the rest of 2016’s puzzles scheduled. We currently have nothing on the books for 2017. There are a few folks with theme ideas, but we’re not able to put people on the calendar until the first draft of puzzles is ready. We roughly know how long it takes to go from draft puzzles to final puzzles, but “I think I maybe have this idea for a theme and this really cool coding mechanism” is a little too vague to reliably schedule.

So this is an official call! Have you thought about writing puzzles for Puzzled Pint? It’s easier than you expect and this is your chance! While we’re happy to get puzzles from anyone, we would particularly like to see more:

  • authors who are women
  • authors who are people of color
  • authors outside the United States

And although collaborations are fine, we prefer if a single author is responsible for the month’s puzzles. This helps align them editorially, balances difficulty across the whole set of puzzles, and helps ensure two puzzles don’t accidentally use similar mechanisms. (Plus, the folks at PP headquarters would rather manage a single cat than a herd of cats.) If you’re interested in writing only a single puzzle then scroll down to where we talk about bonus puzzles.

The puzzle-writing process is simple. If you have a specific theme in mind, you can (optionally) ping HQ and we’ll let you know if we’ve heard of anyone else also thinking about the same theme. Write some puzzles: a location puzzle, puzzles played at the event, and (optionally, but strongly encouraged) a meta puzzle. Send those our way (with solutions). The solution part is important, especially for new puzzle authors. Puzzles in their draft stage often have unpolished edges, like leaps of logic that are obvious to the author but may need a little flavor text or examples before being visible to others. Once we have puzzles and answers, we’ll put you on the calendar and work with you to help refine the flow of the puzzles, over the course of a couple rounds of playtesting. You can find a lot more detail about the process and requirements at http://www.puzzledpint.com/info/author/.

If you’d like to get your feet wet by writing a single puzzle, as opposed to a whole month of them, we’re also looking for bonus puzzle authors. Some authors like to write a whole set of puzzles, including location, meta, and bonus. Some want to focus on just the main set, without a bonus. We find that players enjoy having a bonus puzzle available, but we cannot always offer one every month. If you’d like to submit just a single puzzle, we’d be happy to work with you on getting it ready for a bonus. (Hey! Here’s a dirty little secret: one can make an arbitrary puzzle fit just about any month’s theme by simply changing flavor text and graphic design.)

This is your call to action! Write puzzles for Puzzled Pint!

Your theme suggestions

Puzzled Pint is always looking for authors — both seasoned veterans and people who want to get their first taste at puzzle design. Because we do one set of puzzles per month, our waitlist is about a year out, but that’s a good thing for all. It means we have to time to work with draft puzzles, provide direct feedback, bounce the puzzles off of playtesters in the US and abroad, and route that feedback to the author as suggested revisions.

Some authors like to come up with a theme first, then see what sorts of puzzle mechanisms that theme inspires. Others like to come up with mechanisms first and then wrap them in story and theme. Both ways are equally valid. For what it’s worth, bonus puzzles are often — but not always — in the latter camp.

This month we asked a Question of the Month to our Puzzled Pint attendees. We asked you to suggest themes for upcoming months. Our hope was that this could provide a source of inspiration to future authors. We would like to share the results here. There were 374 total suggestions from 23 cities. The top suggestions (with 3 or more votes) are:

  • Star Wars (14)
  • Harry Potter (13)
  • Disney (10)
  • board games (9)
  • geography (6)
  • video games (6)
  • Pokemon (6)
  • Alice in Wonderland (5)
  • Game of Thrones (4)
  • Doctor Who (4)
  • Star Trek (4)
  • Dr. Seuss (4)
  • Lord of the Rings (3)
  • superheroes (3)
  • space (3)
  • Carmen Sandiego (3)
  • pirates (3)
  • alcohol (3)
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (3)
  • Olympics (3)
  • food (3)
  • X-Files (3)
  • pizza (3)
  • Breaking Bad (3)
  • James Bond (3)
  • Shakespeare (3)

We happened to do Disney Star Wars back in 2012 when the Lucas/Disney sale was first announced, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t do Disney, Star Wars, or another Disney Star Wars. We also did board games back in May of 2011, Doctor Who a little more recently in September, and James Bond in 2013. But these are all good themes, and as long as the puzzles are unique, fun, and challenging, we’re open to revisiting past motifs.

The remaining suggestions are as follows (highlights added strictly for humor value I’ve highlighted a few unique entries to better stand out):

30 Rock, 7 Wonders, 80s, 80s action movies, 90s, a salute to gingers, AA Milne, Adventure Time, ALF, anagrams, Ancient Rome, Angry Birds, astrology, Austin, automobiles, Back to the Future, backpacking, bad Scifi movies, Barbie, Beatles songs, beer, Best of the MIT Mystery Hunt, birdwatching, Blade Runner, Bones, boy bands, branches of the Armed Forces, Britney Spears, Broadway shows, butts, Calvin and Hobbes, cats, cheese (A Brie Encounter, Cheddar Off Dead, etc.), childhood, childhood games, chocolate, circus, classic cinema, classic literature, Clue, Clue (the game), Coca-Cola, college football conferences, colors, comic books, Comics, composers of classical music, conspiracy theories, crosswords, cryptology, cuisines, cultures around the world, David Bowie + The Muppets = Labyrinth, David Bowie/labyrinth, DC, dessert, dinosaurs, Disney Princesses, dogs, donuts, Downton Abbey, Edgar Allan Poe, Egypt, emoji, escape rooms, Ex Machina, exploring, fairy tale, fairy tales, famous cathedrals, famous Chicagoans/landmarks/history, famous crossroads, Fargo, Firefly, Firefly/fireflies/“Firefly”, fish, flowers, Follow that Bird, football (soccer), Futurama, G. I. Joe, Ghostbusters, Gilmore Girls, grade school, Gravity’s Rainbow, hair metal, hair metal bands, Hamilton, He-Man, Hello Kitty/Sanrio, history, holidays, Hollywood/directing a film, hot cheese, House MD, HP Lovecraft, Hunger Games, Jeopardy, Jim Henson, John Hughes movies, Keep Austin Weird, Labyrinth (the film), Lady Gaga outfits, Larry Bird vs. Dr. J, Law & Order SVU, League of Legends, Lego, libraries, Limburger, literature, logic puzzles, Looney Toons, Mad Magazine, magic, March Madness, Mardi Gras, Marvel, Mass Effect, math, mazes, MegaMan, Mel Brooks, Michael J. Fox, Miyazaki (Totoro), moar robots, Monty Python, movies, Muppets, museums, music, music, sheet music, musicals, mythical creatures, Nickelodeon, Nintendo, Orphan Black, outer space, Parks & Rec, Party Down!, pinball, Pixar, Portal, Portlandia, Post Apocalyptia, presidents, pro wrestling, psychology, Pulp Fiction, pumpkin everything, QI, raccoons, Rambo, Red Dwarf, Rocky Horror, Roman, Roman numerals, RPGs, running, running a newspaper, science, scifi, scifi movies, Scooby Doo, seas on Earth, seas on the moon, secret agent, Seinfeld, Sesame Street, sharks, Sharktopus, Sherlock Holmes, Simpsons, Smurfs, solar system, songs by a famous band, space/planets/astronomy, spies, spies/spying, sports, Steven King, Story Lords (on YouTube, created in 1984, children’s reading educational program produced in Wisconsin), stupid laws (e.g. emergency Sasquatch ordinance), summer camp, Super Mario, Terry Pratchett works, the (fictional) Martians, The Big Bang Theory, The Birdman of Alcatraz, the elements, The Hateful Eight, the impressionists, The Legend of Zelda, The Martian, The Matrix, the movies of Gene Kelly, The Office, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, the presidents, The Smashing Pumpkins, the victorian era, The World Series, time travel, Tom Cruise, Tour de France, transportation, trash pandas, travel/flights, traveling, TV game shows, TV shows with initialisms, Twin Peaks, twitter, US presidents, varieties of tomatoes, Walking Dead, War of 1812, We care more about good content. Anything can make a good theme if handled well., weather systems, Weird Al, Whedonverse, who-dunnits (Like Jan 2016), wilderness survival, Winnie the Pooh, women scientists or musicians, World of Warcraft, xkcd, Yo-yos, “don’t be such butts”, “less poetry, more math”, and “one that does not require scissors

A few of the suggestions are funny in context (such as the one team that suggested Angry Birds, birdwatching, Follow that Bird, The Birdman of Alcatraz, and Larry Bird vs. Dr. J, or the team that suggested The Martian as well as sci-fi martians in general). A few of the suggestions might not resonate in all countries globally, such as US presidents. Several suggestions all orbited around David Bowie, Labyrinth, the Muppets, and Jim Henson. It was tough to normalize them down to one specific word or phrase, but any of those ideas could be fun.

If you’re interested in writing a whole month or simply contributing a bonus puzzle or two, please contact us and we’ll point you to the author guidelines. And if you’d like to perform your own analysis, you can download the raw data.

Do you check standings?

Since the beginning, Puzzled Pint has logged team standings each month — a table of which teams attended, solve times, and so on. It was a fun idea in the beginning, but as Puzzled Pint matures, there has been friction about the published standings. Internally, we use them as a rough gauge of how hard we thought the month’s puzzles were vs. reality. But publishing them on the site is extra work and their value has recently been called into question.

From a player’s point of view, they are entirely artificial. “Solve time” means very little when local Game Control freely gives out hints. It’s also highly variable based on play style. Some cities eat dinner first and then jump into puzzles undistracted. Some solve puzzles more casually over food and drink. A few larger teams split the packet up, solving puzzles in parallel. Most teams focus on one puzzle at a time so that all players can savor the a-ha moments.

From Puzzled Pint Headquarters’ point of view, the public standings page is extra work and additional moving parts when producing events each month. For legacy reasons, most of the standings are manual operations, split between local GC and HQ. This was fine with one or two cities, but hasn’t scaled up well. HQ must wait until all the local city GC have entered their data, then an HQ volunteer finds time to clean up and normalize the entries for public consumption, copying between spreadsheets. We like to focus on finding authors, playtesting puzzles, helping with feedback and editing, onboarding new cities, and running events. Compared to the other responsibilities, updating standings often feels like busywork.

There’s also the philosophical angle in which Puzzled Pint is meant to be a beginner-friendly event. Some see standings as fostering a competitive environment by keeping score and highlighting the more experienced teams. Our Puzzled Pint Charter specifically states that we’re non-competitive with no prizes and no scoring. Are standings a form of score?

With that in mind, we presented teams with a related Question of the Month (QotM) in January: “After the event, do you check the standings?” with the following results:

Answer Team Count Percent
Yes 121 38.4%
No 53 16.8%
What standings? 61 19.4%
No answer / bad answer 80 25.4%

The majority of answers in that last row were from teams not filling out the question. A few were from teams checking multiple conflicting answers, effectively throwing out simultaneous Yes and No answers (there were only a few). Teams that checked both No and What were counted as What.

Plotting the raw percentages gives us this chart:

image

We can probably lump together the No and most of the What answers. There’s a chance that a few Whats might convert to Yeses after becoming aware of their existence, but it’s likely only a small number of teams. The non-answers could go either way, but my experience in hearing from teams, local GC, and Twitter comments is that the folks that love standings are very vocal about loving the standings (and about getting them posted in a timely manner). The people that don’t care or outright don’t like them tend to be a little more apathetic or quiet. Given this, I could make a broad sweeping assumption that the Yes folks all said yes and that the non-answer folks are probably in the No or What category:

image-assumptions

But do remember that this makes some sweeping assumptions that may not be entirely valid.

Looking at city-by-city data, the locations in which the Yes crew took the majority are: Austin, Chicago, Detroit, London, Phoenix, Eastside Seattle, and Washington DC.

So what does this all mean? It means we have better visibility into who likes standings. In the short term, probably not much will change. The person that has been responsible for updating standings is stepping away from them — we’re looking for a new volunteer, preferably a local GC member from a Puzzled Pint city. In the long term, we have to decide if we’re going to spend the time and effort to better automate the process. Or decide that what standings has become is now counter to the tenets of Puzzled Pint.