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fauxklore
15 July 2015 @ 01:52 pm
This year’s National Puzzlers’ League convention was held in Vancouver, British Columbia last week and, since it was the second con there, called Recouvery. For those unfamiliar with NPL, people identify themselves there by a nom, which I will use for consistency in lieu of people's actual names.

Getting to Vancouver was slightly more challenging than it needed to be, due to the meltdown at Continental dba United. I was able to make it work by calling to get on an earlier flight to LAX than the one I was booked on and rushing off to the metro to get a cab to IAD. That flight was delayed two hours itself, but still left me with plenty of time to get over to terminal 2, get my Air Canada boarding pass (not doable on-line or via United, for reasons that were never clear), eat dinner, and relax in the lounge. The AC flight was also delayed, allegedly due to weather in the Bay Area, which does not actually make sense for a flight coming in from Vancouver to LAX, but not much I could do about it. We got to Vancouver shortly before midnight, so I opted for a cab to the hotel and pretty much collapsed when I got there.

I did not get up on Thursday morning in time to do the inaugural NPL 5K walk/run, so I had to satisfy my need for movement by walking a lot through Vancouver, primarily following Davie Street. I had one minor mission to fulfill – checking out Omnitsky’s Kosher Deli, which is somewhat south of downtown but not too difficult to get to. Or, at least, it wouldn’t be if I had a sense of direction and hadn’t started out walking 5 blocks in the wrong direction from the skytrain station. I am, frankly, not sure it was worth the effort. The tongue sandwich and kasha knish were both good, but the pickles tasted like bottled Vlasic. And the mustard on the table was Heinz yellow. (They did have deli mustard for the sandwich, but a less than generous amount of it.) In addition, the service was mediocre. Had it been conveniently downtown, I might have had a more positive reaction, but I didn’t think it was worth going out of the way for.

I went back to downtown and decided to try doing the Robson Square walk-around puzzle. There was an outside part that was, essentially, a logic puzzle. In the interest of time, I skipped that momentarily to team up with a few other people to attempt the puzzles inside the Vancouver Art Gallery. Key word is attempt, as we were not successful in completing those. In one case, we can blame a part of an exhibit being covered up, but the other two just left us feeling dumb. I should also note that it was a bad idea to start this at 3:30 in the afternoon, as the museum closed at 5 and we didn’t really have enough time to linger and enjoy the exhibits. When we left, I did go back out and do the outside puzzle, but that wasn’t enough to make up for the rest of the frustration.

The official program started Thursday evening. There was a mixer puzzle called Fitting Words, which required matching pairs of pictures to form words. The tricky part was, of course, that many of the pictures could represent more than one word. Is that a pier or a dock? You really don’t know until you try fitting things together. That was followed by Hot Plates, a quick version of the license plate game, i.e. making words which contain a given set of three letters in order (but not necessarily consecutively). Since the letters were chosen at random, it was always possible that some of the letter combinations didn’t have any solutions. There was a second part with a longer time to fill in those you missed the first time around. This was pretty entertaining, even though I didn’t do especially well at it. For the record, the best word you can make with the letters from my license plate is "jeroboam." The last game for the evening, Bringo, involved filling up a bingo card with words that met a number of different rules, then playing a bingo game (in which the numbers of the rules were called out) with them. My team tried too hard to come up with good words and, hence, ran out of time to optimize our card. But, of course, it’s really all luck because the rules were called out randomly.

There was an over-the-weekend creative competition handed out, as well as 2 cryptics for pairs solving. I won’t say anything too specific about the cryptics, since there may be people still trying to work them, but Trick’s (which I solved with Spiel) was jawdroppingly brilliant. It wasn’t super-difficult per se, but more of a "how did he ever think of that?" moment when we realized what we had to do to finish it.

After the official program, I joined a team to play Spiel’s mini-extravaganza, which was reasonably entertaining. Then I played Qaqaq’s Jeopardy game, which had, interesting categories, a nice mix of questions and a particularly satisfying Final Jeopardy. I may be biased because I won that game. I don’t remember exactly when I did which unofficial games, but I think the other one I did that night was Dart’s game, Faster, which had a very clever mechanism, which I think works best if nobody playing knows just what is going to happen. (Or, I suppose, if everybody does.)

There had been discussion on Facebook about doing an escape room, so I was signed up to play a room called Dreamscape at Smartypantz in Gastown on Friday morning. I didn’t think the puzzles to solve were particularly interesting, though it may be just the ones I worked on. In one case, we badly overthought what we had to do. But we did finish (just barely) on time, so I guess it was a success.

After that, I was off to a minor league baseball game. I believe the ballpark is officially Scotia Bank Field, but everyone calls it by its historic name of Nat Bailey Field. The Vancouver Canadians are a short-season A-league affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. They were playing the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, a San Francisco Giants affiliate. The ballpark was pretty average, while the quality of play was notably below average. For example, the starting pitcher lasted only 1 and a 1/3 innings. I was not paying attention to his ERA, but it reminded me of the time I saw a Red Sox relief pitcher’s ERA climb to something over 100 before he was taken out. And there were a couple of players with batting averages around 0.015. The Volcanoes ended up winning 8-2. On the plus side, the ballpark sells local beer.

But I was in Vancouver for puzzles and games. It was either just before or just after Friday night dinner that I played Capital R’s Jeopardy game, which started out with the categories "who," "what", "where," "when," "why" and "how" and moved on to things like "whence," "whither," "wherefore," "aintcha," and 2 others that have slipped my mind. It was a bit too pop culture heavy for me to do well at, but was still fun to play. What I am sure was after dinner was a sing along. One of my pet theories is that much of what is wrong with our culture is the refusal of large numbers of people to sing along on such occasions, so I feel obliged to sing, despite my vocal deficiencies. There were just a few songs, with some NPL specific lyrics thrown in, so the whole thing wasn’t too painful. I also thought it would be a good place for the hidden puzzle to be hidden. But, alas, no.

The official games for that evening started with Green Energy by Shrdlu. This involved listing words in various categories, with the goal of reusing letters. The game was fun, but the complexity of the scoring made it take longer than I’d have preferred. My favorite official game of the weekend was Dart’s I Don’t Wanna Be Right. The premise was, essentially, to choose the most popular wrong answer for a set of trivia questions. The catch was that you lost points if you chose the correct answer. The other catch was the usual one of group dynamics but, realistically, we would have only gotten a few more points if the rest of the team had just listened to me. The official program for the evening ended with Lieutenant Nodumbo and the Case of the Mangled Manuscript by Rubrick, Slik, et alia. This involved each person at the table writing in a sentence (or fragment) into a story (which had parts already supplied). It’s the sort of thing I rarely enjoy because: a) I am a control freak, b) I have a very particular sense of humor, c) I get impatient with people who want to do this sort of thing well, instead of quickly, and d) did I happen to mention that I’m a control freak? The results were acted out by a group of people, with the catch that there was an overlay to mangle the stories even further. The whole thing did turn out to be fun, largely because of the (deliberately) exaggerated acting.

The unofficial events that evening started with a tribute to Maso, involving charades and seeing the pictures people made for his memorial. It was a fine way to honor his memory and I get teary-eyed just thinking about it. After that, Spiel and I worked on Trick’s cryptic, which I already mentioned completely wowed me. Finally, I played Puzzling in the Dark, a game run by WXYZ. This involved a group of blindfolded players, who handled objects on a table (plus some additional ones in a box) to figure something out. It was fun to do something collaborative, but the layout of the space had some impact on the group dynamics. For example, there was really only one person who could handle the objects in the box easily. Overall, I didn’t feel like I was particularly useful. So I thought the game was a good idea and reasonably entertaining to play, but the execution could use some tweaking.

Saturday morning’s chief feature is always the business meeting. The presentation for Salt Lake City next year was excellent, with a word mine game passed around the table while a video with the official state song was played. As for the 2017 con, Boston had a strong bid and no real competition. There was, however, an excessively long conversation about costs creeping up and what less expensive cities there should be bids for, and a handful of places talked about for the future.

The Saturday afternoon competitions started with Time Test by Willz. This involved a series of wordplay puzzles, some of them far easier than others. As usual with this sort of thing, I could have used more time, like, say, a month for the back burners of my brain to churn over a few of them. Voweled Expressions by Bluff called for filling in consonants into grids to complete familiar sayings. I got most, but not all of these. Finally, there was the flat solving contest, with this year’s theme based on concrete poetry. I opted for a nap instead of attempting this.

I did make it back down for the con photo. I think I played Noam’s Jeopardy! game between that and dinner. His version is reasonably straightforward, unlike some of the more twisted ones out there. That didn’t stop me from a couple of stupid errors, for which I can blame mental exhaustion. Fun, anyway.


The big deal is always the Saturday night extravaganza, with this year’s version by Dozen and QED. The initial packet had 15 puzzles and the solutions to those netted you a meta to solve. We did, as a group, look through all of the puzzles, before people sorted out what they wanted to work on. That worked reasonably well, in general, with 2-4 people working on each. Instead of going strictly by time this year, every team that finished within 3 hours got entered into a random drawing for prizes, so my team actually ended up winning. The time constraint was driven by when gelato was showing up, by the way.

One of the essentials of any NPL con for me is what I think of Jeffpardy, i.e. the Jeopardy! game by jeffurrynpl. This year was no exception, with mock-Canadian touches like a category called "Befoure and Aftre." Not that I am necessarily good at that sort of thing, but it amuses me. I seem to think we had a very competitive match, overall, which is always a nice touch.

The other game that was an essential for me was Makeshift Jeopardy 2 by Arcs. I was really tired, I knew I’d be taking a redeye Sunday night, and I still stayed up to play. It isn’t quite Jeopardy, though it starts out looking like it. All you really need to know is that there was lots of laughter coming from that corner of the room. His twist on Name That Tune was particularly amusing. It was worth the sleep deprivation.

Sunday just meant breakfast, prizes, and socializing, including going out to lunch at the suitably named Legendary Noodles. Canadian airport security is inevitably slow and inefficient, but I had plenty of time. The hop down to Seattle was quick, but I had a longish layover there. Fortunately, there are decent food options. And, as I was on an international ticket, I had lounge access. Redeyes remain just about my least favorite thing about flying, particularly when (as in this case) there are poorly controlled children. I know parents who think redeyes are great because the children will sleep, but my experience is that the parents sleep and just don’t hear the children screaming.

Anyway, I got back to IAD on time, took the bus and metro home, showered and changed clothes, and headed straight into the office. So I was pretty much a zombie all day Monday and I probably owe an apology to somebody for something I said about a sensor. It was worth the sleep deprivation.

By the way, I have been thinking about something since I got back. Both the official program and the unofficial program are completely dominated by games and puzzles written by men. I realize this is a subject for broader discussion and there has been lots of traffic on various mailing lists on topics like whether or not crossword editors discriminate against women. I don’t think that the NPL con activities are a matter of discrimination, but of self-selection. I mention this because I have an idea for a trivia game. In fact, I have two ideas – one for a game mechanism, one for a name. I’m not convinced those two things go together, however. But the bottom line is I am, at least tentatively, planning to bring something to Salt Lake City next year.