August 23, 2010

The Cruciatus Curse

Each year, we begin the planning process for the Microsoft Intern Puzzleday in the same way, with an evening of training in puzzle design. This is primarily aimed at the folks who've never helped put on such an event before, but it's a good refresher for everyone. The best part, though, comes after our training lead, Kenny Young, works through his PowerPoint slides. At that point, we break up the group into smaller sections of 5-8 people each, and each section does some slightly directed brainstorming on puzzle ideas. Not only does this help the newbies get a sense of how the process works, and provides a safe environment for tossing out ideas, but we often get three or four puzzles from this that survive all the way to the final event.

I said "slightly directed" brainstorming, and that describes it pretty well. Each section gets a brief visit from Kenny, who imparts a little germ of an idea to kick things off. My first year, the theme of the event was to be Hogwarts, the school for wizards from the Harry Potter books. Kenny came to our section and looked a little sheepish.

"Um, this is going to be pretty sketchy, even moreso than usual; I'm sorry about that, but I'm also sure you'll be able to do something with it."

Oh goodie, I thought; this should be good.

"OK, Hogwarts is in England, right? Well, I've noticed that the British seem to have a lot of interesting pairs of things. For example, Marks & Spencer, the department store in London. Or bangers and mash, which is apparently something you can eat. Got it?"

We all stared at him.

"Well, that's it. Go for it!" And then he left, presumably to go torture the next section, too.

As I said, the brainstorming is only "slightly" directed.

As a kind of temporizing maneuver, we first spent some time trying to come up with a bunch more such "pairs". After a while of that, the ideas started flowing for how to make use of them. Over the course of the next half hour or so, we played around with a lot of ideas, but just one of them had any staying power, and Cruciatus Curse was the result. The actual detailed puzzle design work was a collaboration between me and Stacey Eck, but we probably wouldn't have gotten that far without all of the ideas flowing around that initial brainstorming session.

The answer to Cruciatus Curse, like all of the puzzles in Puzzleday, is a single word or short phrase.

Well, that's it. Go for it!

September 16, 2007

The Spelling Hex

The theme of this year's Microsoft Intern Puzzleday was the Harry Potter books; we told the interns that they were attending the summer residential session (Redmond Campus) of the Kwikspell (TM) Correspondence Course in Beginners' Magic.

Because Microsoft gets summer interns from all over the world, we couldn't assume that they'd even heard of Harry Potter, let alone devoted themselves to its arcana. We could refer to Hogwarts all we liked, we just couldn't require them to know what it was. The result was that we named all of the puzzles after various spells (from the books or otherwise) and all of the live mini-events after Hogwarts classes (e.g., Charms, Potions, etc.).

The original idea for this puzzle came from a Perplex City card, but I wanted to avoid the non-sequitur in my own version. (Also, I wanted to use the "hex" pun.) Pretty much all of the intern teams ended up solving this one.

June 25, 2006

A reprise and an inspiration

Returning to the subject of my very first blog enty, Kathleen and I went back to the Harvard Exit yesterday, to see the new crossword-puzzler documentary Word Play with our friends Natasha and Norman. It was a fine and beautiful day, if a bit on the warm side, and all was going fine driving there until we hit the police roadblock at 10th Ave. and E. Highland Dr. Apparently, we were wrong: the Raise Your Voice March, part of Pride weekend, was not going to be limited to the southern end of Broadway. It took us a while, but we finally backtracked enough to find a way down to the near vicinity of the theater, only to discover that (duh) it was all parked up solid. It turns out, though, that you can pretty easily find a parking spot on the street that only costs $35, paid to the municipal court system...

Anyway, the Harvard Exit remains a very comfortable place to see a movie, and the cafe across the street, Joe Bar, has changed their ways and now sells both sweet and savory crepes in the evenings. On the negative side, though, Joe Bar no longer appears to offer their "PB & J" crepe (formerly served with a glass of milk), so I never got to try out that delicacy.

The movie centers around Will Shortz, the crossword-puzzle editor at the New York Times, and various contenders in the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. It's a fun, quirky look at some really fun, quirky people and their passion for puzzles. The latter third of the movie gives good feel for the action and the ambience at the championships and the twists and turns of final rounds are surprisingly exciting.

Inspired by the movie, I suppose, I didn't skip over the Sunday Times crossword puzzle in the paper this morning. I'd never tried any of the NYT puzzles before, let alone the hardest one of the week, but somehow I couldn't resist attempting it. At first, as I slowly worked my way down the Across clues, looking for any that I could fill in (in pencil, I admit: I'm not totally rash), I began to despair: I could only fill in maybe half a dozen answers, and I wasn't particularly sure of some of those. I got a couple Down answers right off, though, and that opened up the upper-left corner, and that led to the answer to the first of the "theme" clues, and finally I was making real progress. I'm pleased to say I finished the puzzle in pretty good form, with only a few answers that I didn't understand (who knew there was a "Brooklyn-born rapper" named NES?), after about 45 minutes of work. Along the way, there were several wonderful groaners ("German crowd?" was DREI), some very nice bits of misdirection ("Tower, often" was REPO MAN), and of course a fun theme (recontextualized advice from "Dear Old Dad").

Boy, standard crosswords have certainly changed while I've been off focusing on cryptics! I may just have to check out this Sunday puzzle next week, too.

October 13, 2004

A very impressive cryptic

A couple of years ago, knowing my interest in the Penrose "kite" and "dart" tiles, my friend Derrick gave me a paper copy of this cryptic crossword puzzle, photocopied from "The Enigma", the newsletter of the National Puzzler's League.

(If you've never heard of cryptic crosswords, you may not want to start with this one. The NPL has a nice guide to solving cryptics, and you can find puzzles of this sort all over the web. There are three cryptics every month in Games magazine, and there's a nice introductory book on them, too.)

For one reason or another, it took me until quite recently to finally get around to attacking this puzzle. It's pretty hard (or at least I found it so), but quite remarkable for its many layers of complexity and constraints. I recommend it to your attention (and, if you solve it, I have a couple of questions for you).

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