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17 July 2018 @ 10:38 am
This Con's in Wisconsin  
I’ve been out of town for a few days, this time in Milwaukee for the National Puzzlers’ League Convention. This was my tenth time attending this event, which moves around every year. I normally try to come in a few days early to do some additional touring. This year, however, I have been rather swamped at work and I had been to Milwaukee a few times before. I flew into ORD on Wednesday night (after a brief, weather-related delay at DCA) and stayed at an airport hotel that night. The Courtyard by Marriott in Des Plaines is right next to the Rivers Casino and you may take it as a sign of how exhausted I was that I did not go there at all. Alas, I was not really any less exhausted in the morning, as the hotel’s sound-proofing was inadequate and there was a lot of traffic noise.

I got a ride to Milwaukee with a couple of other puzzle people (Gotcha and Fork – I should mention that NPL members use noms instead of their real names and I will refer to them as such here). We got to the con hotel, the InterCONtinental, about noonish. Fortunately (and a bit surprisingly) my room was available. I left my bag there and went down to the 2nd floor, where there was a table for handouts. I put out the puzzle I had brought and picked up a bunch of puzzles others had provided. I also did assorted socializing, which culminated in having a quick lunch with a few people and then going off to do a walk-around puzzle, involving a mixture of puzzles and trivia questions centered on a pub crawl down Old World Third Street. When we got back to the hotel, I went to my room to rest for a bit. Then I went down to the lobby to meet up with a group to go out for dinner. There is a pre-arranged opportunity for people to go out in groups to interesting restaurants and I ended up with 7 other people at Mader’s, a nearby German restaurant. The menu is a bit meat-heavy, but I was able to order trout, which was quite tasty. I also had an interesting grapefruit kolsch, which was a sweeter beer than I would normally drink, but went well with the trout – and with the warm weather. It was an excellent couple of hours of good food and good conversation.

The official program started Thursday evening. Things started with first time attendees introducing themselves. That was followed by Krewe by Two by Joey and Kryptogram, in which we were divided in pairs and had to come up with yes/no questions which we thought half of the people would answer each way to. There was also voting on which were the most interesting questions. My favorite question had to do with whose zodiac sign ended in the letter "o." It didn’t come anywhere near a 50-50 split as we had a disproportionate number of Virgos at the table. I enjoyed this game, except that most of the teams were moving around between tables and that is always a bit challenging in a crowded room. That was followed by Three of a Kind by Bluff. In that game, teams tried to guess words in a category and predict the third one from the first two clues. We did reasonably well, but not brilliantly at this. The final game of the official program that night was Four-Letter Follies by WXYZ. This involved pairs listing four-letter words in various categories, with the catch that the two people were trying not to use any of the same letters. We also changed partners after every round. I came up with a good strategy in which one of us would try to use the vowels A, O, and Y, while the other would use E, I, and U. We didn’t plan anything about the consonants, but this worked well enough for me to end up with one of the high scores on the game.

But there is also the unofficial program. I played two Jeopardy! games – one by B-side (Milwaukee Jeopardy!) and one by Cazique and Saxifrage (Last Minute Jeopardy!) Both were rather too pop-culture heavy for me to do particularly well and I caught on to a key aspect of the latter way too slowly, but I had fun. I think I went to bed about 2 a.m.

I started Friday with a Volksmarch around downtown Milwaukee. There’s some pretty cool architecture, but I was limited in time to enjoy it as I was meeting a local friend for lunch. TJ and I had a reasonably good meal at Shah Jee’s, which serves cheap Pakistani food. We also walked around Bastille Days a bit before she had to go back to work. Then I went back to the hotel and decided I needed a nap before doing much of anything else. I was supposed to co-solve one of the conference cryptics with Carpe Diem, but she was looking for me while I was napping. And when I got up to look for her, she was napping. I ended up co-solving Mr. E’s cryptic with Dugeel, after which Carpe Diem and I got started on Fraz’s. We got fairly far, but there were other things to do – like eat dinner and do more puzzles.

The official program on Friday started with Points of Order by Jangler and Noam, which was a trivia game involving ranking a set of answers in a given order. For example, one question required listing a series of cities in order of population. My team was sure that Miami was the largest city, but I guess the standard metropolitan statistical areas are not what one would expect, as both Memphis and Milwaukee turned out to be larger. We also ended up failing to score on one question just because we didn’t manage to copy our answers from scratch paper to the answer sheet in time. Next up was Dropdown by Arcs. This involved listing answers that fit various categories, with the catch that you had to try to use the same letters in each answer as in the longer one below it. For some reason, this was hard for me to get my head around, though I did contribute a few useful answers. Finally, there was Swap Quiz by Rubrick, in which a set of trivia questions had words swapped between them, making ridiculous questions you needed to try to answer. I could answer most of them by the second question, but I did forget what was going on a couple of times, so didn’t score particularly well.

As for the unofficial program Saturday night, I played Noam’s Jeopardy! game, which was excellent. I did quite well, largely because he had some categories that were right up my alley, e.g. Centenarians, a subject of great interest to those of us who play in a ghoul pool. Then I played two of Dart’s games. Faster is always fun, albeit difficult. New this year was The Big Idea which involved guessing answers from a series of icons, which were revealed in groups. I was terrible at this, because I am just not a good visual thinker. We finished about 2:30 a.m. and I went to bed by 3.

After breakfast on Saturday, Carpe Diem and I finished Fraz’s cryptic. Then came the business meeting. The good news is that 2020 will be in Toronto. The bad news is that I won’t be able to be at next year’s con in Boulder, Colorado, as it is going to conflict with an eclipse cruise I will be on in South Pacific. That’s disappointing, but the con scheduling was driven by a significantly cheaper hotel rate and I can't fault people for voting in accord with their financial interests. And, of course, the cruise scheduling was driven by the sun and the moon. Oh, well, it’s not like I’m not already used to my life being a schedule conflict.

After lunch, there were a few official program games. That started with Time Test by Willz, which consisted of seven wordplay puzzles. I did not quite finish these in the allotted half-hour. I did better with Meshing Around by Manx. After that was the flat-solving competition, which I barely glanced at before opting for a nap in lieu of attempting it. Flats are a sort of puzzle, essentially cryptic clues in verse, which have a lot of variant forms, only a few of which I am really comfortable with. I am considerably better at napping.

There was a glitch with the con photo as we had to change locations, supposedly for insurance reasons. I am not sure how having a lot of people on narrow steps is better from any liability standpoint. I really have no interest in these things, so I should probably have just tried for a longer nap. Then came dinner, including the Golden Sphinx Awards (given for contributions to The Enigma), and a bunch of waiting around for the extravaganza, a set of linked puzzles, which is generally one of the highlights of con.

This year’s theme was Charm School, which had each time attempting to graduate from a school of magic. There were 9 puzzles to start with, with the twist that each answer had to be decoded using a set of five "magic wands" with letters on them. Each solved puzzle got you an additional puzzle, but the important part was that solving all of the first 9 got you a metapuzzle. My team could have been more efficient with how we approached some of the puzzles, particularly Puzzle 9, which had a very confusing conclusion, not helped by our getting bad advice when we asked for help. (That’s the catch with having multiple authors of an extravaganza, not all of whom apparently understood all aspects of it.) While this wasn’t my favorite set of extravaganza puzzles ever, there were some good ones and I did think the final payoff from the meta was very clever. I also felt that everybody on our team did contribute to solving, which is important to me.

After the extravaganza, I co-solved another cryptic with Capital R. I ended up going to bed relatively early (maybe 1:30 a.m.?) since I had an early-ish flight Sunday morning. It’s a good thing I believe in getting to airports early, as my 8:30 flight from MKE to ORD was delayed and I would have missed my connection had I not been there early enough to switch to the 7 a.m. flight. That even gave me time to eat breakfast at ORD before my flight to DCA. Our landing got delayed about 20 minutes as they put us in a holding pattern to clear the air space for a VIP. Still, I got home at a reasonable hour and promptly collapsed.

I feel like I did less stuff than I have at many previous cons. I also feel like I barely spoke with a few people who I usually spend more time hanging out with. I have no idea where some of the time went. But I did have a lot of fun and it was good just to get away from work for a couple of days.

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Julie: Blood C ★ crossroadsragnarok_08 on July 17th, 2018 07:36 pm (UTC)
Sounds like quite a time!
maju: pic#125542182maju01 on July 18th, 2018 05:34 pm (UTC)
This sounds like so much fun!