The problem with the annual convention of the National Puzzlers’ League is that there is too much to do, and not enough time to do it in. Each year, the con officially begins on a Thursday evening, and ends on Sunday morning. Each year, people arrive a day or two early, or even earlier, to do some sightseeing in the host city (this year: Portland, Oregon), because once the convention starts, there are simply too many puzzles to solve, too many games to play, too many people who you have not seen since the last convention a year ago. Sleep only occurs at an NPL con when the body absolutely demands it. Otherwise, is that a game about to begin? Is there room for one more?
The NPL con is one of the highlights of my year, no doubt about it, but each new convention does bring with it the smallest degree of anxiety: I want to do everything, and that means going full speed almost the entire time. It’s no wonder people joke about needing a vacation to recover from the con, which is itself supposed to be a vacation.
To properly recap the con — to give you the full effect of these last few days — I should write this whole essay without punctuation.
And They’re Off!
I arrived in Portland on Wednesday, and shifted into high gear almost immediately: My traveling companions and I literally stepped off the light rail and into the first event of the week, a picnic in the park outside the hotel. I socialized with people for half an hour or so before I even checked into the hotel, my suitcase and backpack still hanging from my shoulders.
At the picnic, people handed out puzzles they had created to celebrate the newly arrived convention. These puzzles would be available all weekend. They would be found in stacks in the meeting rooms. There is no possibility of missing a handout if you are determined to collect them all, as I am. Furthermore, I was not going to start solving these things right away: I was still catching up with friends I had not seen in a while. In short, there was no reason whatsoever that I needed to take these puzzles at that exact moment. I took every single one of them, of course. High gear means grabbing every opportunity at the moment it arises.
But the main reason one gets into high gear is for the “unofficial games.” Intended for small groups, there is simply no way that every person can play any given game, even if it is run multiple times. And of course, every right-thinking con-goer wants to play every single unofficial game, which frequently outshine the official events. (Designing a game for twelve or twenty people is a lot easier than designing a game for 200 people.) Thus do we puzzlers turn into stalkers and paparazzi, keeping a watchful eye on the people running the hot games. The trick is to look like you’re just standing around, in the right place at the right time: “Oh, you’re starting a game? Sure, I’d be happy to play!”
Wednesday evening I was pleased to cross a couple of games off my Must Do list. I got into a Jeopardy! game hosted by one-time Jeopardy! contestant Jeffrey Schwartz. (A crazily high percentage of the NPL has been on Jeopardy!) And Dave Shukan brought a new edition of “Split Second,” a homemade game show based on the original format, which aired back in the 70s. NPLers find almost constant inspiration from old game shows, adapting and improving them, with content that’s far more entertaining and clever than anything they ever showed on TV.
Indeed, possibly the best off-hours game of the week was Thomas Gazzola’s “Doubles Jeopardy!”, which he has been running annually for several years. It works just like the regular show, with one wonderful twist: Every player has a partner, and each question is designed in such a way that it must be answered in two parts. For example, in one category, we were played songs with numbers in the title. But we couldn’t just blurt out the actual number. Heavens, no. Instead — without collaborating in any way — the two players in turn had to say a number so that the two numbers multiplied to the correct answer.
And that’s just a simple example. This year’s version of the game showed devilish innovation. At one point, each player had to physically manipulate his or her partner’s body in order to communicate a particular kind of dance. (I apparently no longer know how the Time Warp goes.) In another round, one partner had to deliver a cheesy pick-up line in the voice of the trivia question’s answer. (I thought Miss Piggy was the Mayor of Munchkinland.)
Like almost all the games played at con, Doubles Jeopardy has a winner and several losers, and these distinctions are forgotten about three seconds after a game ends. Who cares who wins? The point is the game itself — the silly, fun, wonderfully creative spins on traditional trivia, and the sheer joy that comes from playing games like this at 2:00 in the morning.
Also, We Eat Food
Thursday morning it dawned on me that I had failed to make plans to go to a really good restaurant, as I try to do each year. Luckily, I was able to shoulder my way into a group heading to Navarre, a farm-to-table restaurant. We didn’t do more than glance at the menu: Instead, we simply ate whatever the chef sent out of the kitchen, sharing every single one of the fifteen (!) different plates. One of our party had been here before, and told us that while he was a die-hard carnivore, it was Navarre’s vegetable dishes we would remember most. He was right. We had French butter over raw radishes; snap peas with pickled cherries; bok choy with porcini mushrooms; grilled spring onions. One of the highlights of the entire meal was “cabbage gratin,” a phrase I found dubious until the first forkful.
The vegetables were indeed amazing, but let’s not forget the foie gras on cumin-spiced toast (count me among those who think California’s ban on foie gras is ridiculous). There was also head cheese, and pate, crab cakes, trout cooked in parchment, pork loin with a jalapeno jam, and a chicken-and-garlic stew which would have been more appropriately named garlic-and-chicken stew.
All that, by the way, for about $40 per person. Including tip.
The only thing to do after a meal like that is sleep for twelve hours. But, wait! No! The NPL con is officially about to begin!
While the convention goes to all hours with people playing homemade games in small groups, there are also official events for everybody to play at the same time. The best of these occurred on that first night: “Brainstormers,” a game fueled by lateral-thinking questions of the sort seen on the all-too-short-lived game show Million Dollar Mind Game:
In 1971, a golfer found his outfit to be a bit restricting so he decided to try swinging his club with one hand. By all accounts the ball traveled over 200 yards… not bad for an amateur. What was this man’s profession?
That’s one of my favorite questions from the actual show — a question that sounds totally bizarre (What was his profession?!) until you realize we’re talking about Alan Shepard, the astronaut who drove a golf ball while standing on the surface of the moon.
New Brainstormer puzzles were solicited from NPLers, and of course people came through in a big way. It was great fun sitting around with a small group of friends, trying to tease out meaning from these odd and twisty questions — though it was damn hard finding the solutions to these problems in less than the allotted sixty seconds. I was personally proud to figure out why David Merrick angered people by inviting certain ordinary people to his shows, and then running ads with their approving opinions: The people he invited shared the same names as prominent theater critics.
A handout provided still more questions to ponder over the weekend, including this one from me:
You can’t simply take this item; it has to be given to you. And it is made from a material that sounds like the item itself. What is it?
After hours Thursday, there was a period of mild consternation: My timing was off! Every game I tried to join was full! And the games were scattered all around the large hotel, so upon failing to get into one game, I had to walk seemingly a half-mile to try to find something else to do. But persistence paid off. I was able to play two original and very funny games.
First up was Dan Katz’s “Why Can’t I Own A Canadian?” Yes, that was the actual name of this game. It was based on Dan’s observation of the eccentricities of Google auto-complete. For example, if you type into the search bar, “Why can’t I…,” one of the possibilities that might automatically arise is, indeed, the title question of the game. (This is due to this popular article.) The game, then, was to try to predict what Google might suggest as you searched on various questions. Very clever, and a lot of fun.
The next game was by Todd McClary, whose track record for awesomely original puzzly games is unmatched within the NPL. This time around it was “The Unbelievable Truth,” based on a British radio show, in which players contribute sentences to an absurd essay. The player’s contributions must all be lies, preferably outlandish ones. A few equally bizarre truths then get mixed into this, and the whole thing is read aloud. As in Balderdash and other such games, the object is to sort the truth from the fiction, and to fool the most people with your own lies. I wasn’t very good at either task, though I did convince several people that Benjamin Franklin wrote erotica in his spare time.
In Which Puzzlers Get Exercise
The bulk of Friday was spent on a tour of Portland — with puzzles, of course. A local member had devised a “walkaround,” a set of puzzles designed to take the solver from landmark to landmark, in this case the city’s many fountains and statues. Six of us spent a gorgeous, sunny day walking the city, with a delicious stopover at the city’s many food trucks. And the endpoint of the tour was Voodoo Doughnuts, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything: I’m a boring plain-cake-donut kinda guy, while this place sells donuts overwhelmed with add-ons and frostings and fillings. (Later that day, I did get a chance to try a bite of somebody else’s maple-bacon donut. It was… interesting.)
Geez, this write-up is closing in on 2,000 words and I’m barely halfway through the convention. And I didn’t even mention my trip to Powell’s, the largest bookstore in the universe. I knew it was a large bookstore, but I thought that meant, oh, “slightly bigger than your average Barnes & Noble.” No. Powell’s could eat your average B&N. It’s divded up into numerous rooms — and each one of these rooms is itself about the size of a decent bookstore. Put it all together and you have a place to get pleasurably lost for hours, especially if you have another puzzle walkthrough to accompany you, which we did. (Of course we did.) Thank goodness Powell’s is on the other side of the country. I was prevented from spending WAY too much money by the fact that I didn’t want to lug a ton of books back on the airplane. I think somebody told me later that Powell’s has free shipping. It’s probably for the best that I did not know this at the time.
The highlight of the NPL convention is the Saturday-night extravaganza, in which teams compete to race through a specially made set of puzzles. This year I helped construct those puzzles, along with my friends Rick Rubenstein and Francis Heaney. Inspired by a suggestion from my sci-fi-loving wife, we took the puzzlers from Portland to Spaceportland, for a peace conference featuring famous aliens from throughout the galaxy.
Previous Saturday-night events, including several worked on by Rick, have been extremely creative, with envelope-pushing frameworks and puzzles that would not be contained by a mere sheet of paper. A few years back there was an art-themed extravaganza: One puzzle took the form of a mobile hanging overhead, and another required puzzlers to analyze paintings for missing details. And then there was the theatrical touch of putting a puzzle inside a sealed Campbell’s Tomato Soup can. In another year, the usual structure of the team-solve event was turned upside-down, as puzzlers were required to change teams every few minutes.
We went with a structure best defined as “give each team a big-ass envelope filled with puzzles.” But while we didn’t do anything groundbreaking, we had humor on our side: The conceit of our extravaganza was that each alien arriving for the peace conference was bringing a wildly inappropriate gift for a different alien. Puzzlers had to determine the list of gifts, and each gift’s intended recipient. Brainstorming that list was probably the most all-out fun part of the construction experience.
Francis was not able to attend the convention, unforunately, so that left the final logistics in the hands of Rick and me. And all I can say is, thank God we weren’t trying to do something overly ambitious, because it was challenging enough just accomplishing the bare basics, which consisted of 1) putting together the roster of teams, 2) reorganizing that roster when we realized that one person had been placed on two different teams, 3) importing all the names and teams into the spreadsheet software on Rick’s Mac, 4) realizing that neither Rick nor I know how to use that software, 5) getting outside help in creating a final, alphabetized list so that people could figure out what team they were on, 6) discovering that the hotel’s business center could not print out that final, alphabetized list, 7) [doing whatever Rick did to solve that problem, which I don't even remember], 8) setting up the ballroom, which basically amounted to moving around the tables and chairs and giving each team the big-ass envelope of puzzles. All of that took us to practically 8:00 p.m. on the nose, the scheduled starting time.
Past extravaganzas have been a flurry of activity: Teams have often needed to verify each answer, which might lead to receiving more puzzles, and there is frequently running around to view puzzles that have been set up around the room, and so forth. We had done away with all of that. For the first hour or so after the envelopes were opened, Rick and I had absolutely nothing to do. The ballroom was dead quiet. (“What’s fun for us looks like taking a test to someone else,” I commented to somebody earlier in the week.)
It’s fun, real fun, walking among the solvers, watching them work on puzzles you’ve created. Authors don’t generally get to watch people read their books, and doing so would be boring anyway. But puzzle solvers are high entertainment, especially when they are in a competition and fighting for every second. Facial expressions somehow become exaggerated — you can read them from across the room: I should probably understand this clue, but I do not. Or: I can’t write as fast as my brain is thinking! Or just a good old-fashioned 1000-watt smile of A-HA! It’s double the fun when two people are working together, acting out a silent movie of puzzlement and satisfaction.
One key part of putting together a puzzle hunt is trying to get the timing right. You don’t want a team to blaze through fifteen puzzles in twenty minutes, but you don’t want the winners to cross the finish line after three hours, either — that would mean the slow teams will be there for six hours or more. Unfortunately, there is no mathematical formula that will tell you how long your extravaganza will be. Puzzlemakers have to rely on experience and, well, guessing. We hoped that the first teams would finish Spaceportland in 90 to 105 minutes. And wouldn’t you know it but we were exactly damn right. The first-place team unraveled the final clue at just over the 90-minute mark, with the second place team coming in two minutes later. The majority of the competitive teams were out the door by 10:45 p.m. or so.
Of course, Rick and I had to stick it out to the bitter end, or at least Rick did: At 12:30 a.m. there were still two teams left, and I had to wake up a few hours later to start the long trip home. Also, I had foolishly stayed in my sandals over the previous four hours, and my legs were aching ferociously. I creaked my way down to the elevator and up to my room.
Which was, in a way, stupid, because this meant I didn’t get to say goodbye to anybody. I keep a frenetic pace over the course of the convention not just because I want to play every game and solve every puzzle: I also want to actually talk to people I only see once or twice a year. But as usual, whole crowds of friends went practically unaddressed after the initial handshake or hug on Wednesday evening — there just isn’t enough time to catch up with everybody. And then I was gone first thing Sunday morning, before the closing ceremonies.
Well, that’s the way it goes when the con is held anywhere away from the east coast, as I suppose needs to be the case every once in a while. I’ll probably have to bail early next year, too, when we’re all in Austin, TX. Nonetheless, I hope to have deep, meaningful conversations with a lot more of you next time around. Or at the very least, solve a cryptic crossword together…