On Being Willing To Learn…For Fun

I run Jeopardy games at PAX whenever I can. These are custom-built game shows in every sense of the word — handmade buzzers, bespoke software, and custom-created questions by and for the PAX attendees. It’s trivia, so it’s not all going to be stuff that you know immediately — but my question team and I take great pains trying to create content that geeks in attendance might be able to recall with a little hint or some mental effort.

This year at PAX Prime, after one of the questions went unanswered, a contestant (who passed an entrance exam before they were selected) complained, “But I wasn’t alive then!”  Continue reading

The blog puzzle heats up

So a few people have taken the bait on the blog puzzle in earnest, and I realized that it might be less fun to solve than I had intended. (I do like stumping people, but I really like it when people come up with the right answers — impossible stuff is simply no fun, because there’s no sense of accomplishment from failing forever.)

Another thing to keep in mind is that the puzzle was designed for people who know me fairly well in real life. I really only intended this blog to be of interest to old friends from high school and college and other long-lost contacts on the east coast. This was before Facebook made staying in touch annoyingly easy, but the puzzle was written in 2006 and did assume personal familiarity in its context.

I have therefore added a little more information to the page, which will hopefully help. Or perhaps it will simply confuse you more.

The previous hint stands: Consider the source.

On the BBC again today (tomorrow?)

As a bit of a followup to The Grand Masquerade radio documentary last month, the local BBC Three Counties station serving Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, and Buckinghamshire is working on its own Masquerade segment tomorrow morning, and I’ll be doing a short call-in to talk about Masquerade’s history and impact with Stephen Rhodes. The segment airs live Friday morning between 6 and 6:30am in the UK, which is 10 to 10:30pm Thursday night here in California. You can listen online if you like!

The Grand Masquerade & interview

A few months back I was contacted for an interview by the BBC. They were working on a radio documentary about Kit Williams’ Masquerade, for which I run a fan site. I headed to a local recording studio and did an hour-long interview, telling the story and some personal anecdotes. That program, The Grand Masquerade, finally aired this week, and you can hear it online as a streaming file for the next seven days.

I learned stuff I didn’t know about Masquerade, and it was great to hear that everyone (except the villain) agreed to be interviewed. Fascinating story if you are not familiar with it, and it’s only a half-hour to learn all about it. But listen within the next week or it’s gone!

PUZZLE: Sinister Digits

I wrote this some time ago for Perplex City, but it didn’t get picked (a few of my others did, but then season 2 went on indefinite hiatus). So far nobody’s gotten it without help or a hint. If you know the answer, don’t post the spoiler in the comments — email me and I will confirm/deny.


I was doing a lot of data entry at work when I suddenly noticed a pattern.

Fewest     Greatest
Sex     Teaser
Braggart     Zebra
Arcade     Fracas
Career     Wasted
Earwax     Sweater
Degraded     Restart

Which of these words fits?

Digger      Quest
Scavenge       Wanted
Crazed      Secure
Weirdest     Danger

The Wired Mystery Issue

This issue (May 2009) makes me so happy. J.J. Abrams is the guest editor, which gave the Wired team an excuse to fill the magazine with small puzzles, coded messages, and a metapuzzle that runs throughout the mag.

I tried to do something like this back at GameProtwice — and it was the wrong magazine with the wrong audience at the wrong time — twice. But I always felt that magazines could do things like this. They could be more than just a collection of articles, if you gave the audience enough credit. You could truly dig into what the print medium does well, with design and type and frankly the expected banality of print conventions, to make for a very rewarding experience for your reader. And of course — and this is the message I keep trying to preach — you create interest in a form of media a lot of people take for granted, and would like to believe is dying altogether. Despite my personal love of puzzles, the marketing angle seems like a slam-dunk if you’re trying to build product awareness, particularly buzz for an impulse-buy print magazine. It’s certainly working for Wired, and I am absolutely thrilled to see them pull it off. As a reader, no single of Wired made me happier, ever. Not even the ones where I wrote some of the articles.

I have more to say on this topic but I think you’ll have to buy me a drink in person to get me ranting about it.

Go buy this issue of Wired you still can. It simply isn’t the same experience if you’re reading all these articles online.

A Fool and His Money

If you were alive in 1991 and you had a Macintosh, you played The Fool’s Errand. It is, still today, one of the mind-warpiest puzzles games you will ever see, a monochrome, Tarot-themed labor of love from a true puzzle master, Cliff Johnson. With a little emulation wrangling, you can play the original game for free at that link, and I highly recommend that you do. (Don’t do the DOS version; this was envisioned on Mac and is best on Mac). I suspect you will scream and curse and love it like I do.

When it comes to making metapuzzles — that is, puzzles that you solve that add up to reveal the answer to a bigger puzzle — Cliff is on another level entirely. Cliff made several other computer games (details on his site) and got some recognition a few years back for engineering the treasure hunt found within David Blaine’s autobiography, Mysterious Stranger. But the mark left by The Fool’s Errand is indelible, and he is proud of his legacy.

A few years ago Cliff Johnson announced a sequel, A Fool and His Money, with more verbal, visual, and gambling puzzles. I preordered. And waited. It has taken six years for CJ to bring his project to where he wants it to be, and I support him wholeheartedly in the age of “let’s get it out there” software publishing. For everybody who says they support gaming as an art form, here’s an independent creator who knows what he wants, and needs the community to support him as he does it. (Hence my speedy preorder.)

A teaser is now up with some of the puzzles, and this one has been built from the start for both Windows and Macintosh, so you can choose either flavor and not feel like you’re missing anything.

If you’re looking for the real deal in indie development — a guy and a computer and a great idea — this is worth watching, if not worth ordering outright via PayPal. (Preorder now and get your name in the credits alongside mine!)

Few puzzles will give you the solving satisfaction that Cliff’s do. I think that’s because they’re impossible.

A Dorito Called Quest

Finally, someone has made snack food mysterious. Anybody who knows me and my puzzle nature will not be surprised to learn that I was thrilled to find a glossy black back of Doritos called QUEST in the grocery store last night. There was some sort of code embedded in the bag’s graphics — some of the triangles are colored, some are not. Some are inverted, some are not.

Cryptic chips? Oh hell yes. Sign me right the fuck up.

Sure enough, you start by guessing the flavor. Go to the website and you don’t even have to guess if you sit there long enough. The site starts giving you letters in the word, Hangman-style. Kat and I tried the chip (after reading the ingredients, which made it clear that there was something citrus involved) but didn’t even get a chance to figure it out before the site spoiled it.

After rolling our eyes at the answer, we got into Myst-style puzzles. I won’t spoil anything because it’s free to play and those of you out there who like puzzles the way I do will want to just have a go at them. But the bottom line is that it’s a treasure hunt contest with $100,000 at the end of it, and while I know I’ll never win, I love playing. Even when it’s just marketing.