Friday 25 September 2020

Virtual Midlands Puzzle Party

[Apologies for the rubbish quality of the pics in this post - they're virtually all captures from my video recording of the sessions.]

COVID-19 has well and truly played havoc with our well-planned puzzle party timetable – not only has it forced the postponement of our International Puzzle Party, but it’s also caused the cancellation of not one, but two Midlands Puzzle Parties. Things were getting dire. It’d been months since we’d seen one another and enjoyed one another’s “encouragement” and I was missing my mates… so we mooted the idea of a virtual MPP and a fair few people thought that might be a fun idea… so we set about organising something that would mean there’d be something for everyone around the puzzling time zones to participate in.

Nick offered to draw up a custom puzzle hunt for the day, Frank chipped in a couple of print-cut-and-solve puzzles, Ali came up with a fun puzzle challenge that we were sure that everyone would be able to join in on, I pulled together a somewhat-puzzle-based quiz from some of the games a bunch of us have been playing on Sunday evenings, the guys produced a few scavenger hunts, and I arranged a couple of video tours that I thought would interest pretty much every puzzler I knew. We decided that we’d hold the first VMPP on the next planned MPP date and then planned out three two-hour sessions, each with a “main event” and a few supporting acts to keep the gang amused. I deliberately spaced the three sessions out during the day so that we could include folks from Australia and the US in some of the sessions without them having to get up or stay up until silly o’clock… although several of our US  friends ended up joining pretty much every session anyway – starting at very-stupid-o’clock in the morning for most of them!

The first session kicked off at 9am UK-time and we ran through the rough order of events and Nick introduced the puzzle hunt that he’d cooked up for us – it’s over at if you’re also interested… and at the same page, there’s a small collection of print-and-solve puzzles from Markus Gotz, Kohfuh Satoh (thanks Kohfuh!!) and our own Frank, for you to have a bash at. I really liked all the folding puzzles and heartily recommend them – and they’re there for free! What’s not to like.

Nick’s puzzle hunt consisted of three chapters themed to our MPP hero-on-the-run, Chico Banan, with a final meta chapter to be released after the afternoon session. Having play-tested the hunt during the week before, I was seriously encouraging folks to team up and have a go at it with some friends! (And ask for hints if you get stuck… I know, blasphemy!) The puzzle hunt and the answer-checking / leader board are still up at the URL above – have a go if you haven’t already tried – it will make use of your mechanical puzzle knowledge and test the little grey cells.

After the introduction of all the puzzles and the hunt, we ran a short scavenger hunt with points awarded pseudo-randomly in expert fashion by Big-Steve – there were several steward’s enquiries and the scoring of the random entry of a sock will probably enter MPP-lore – that none-too-contentious act did result in people being encouraged to take part in the subsequent scavenger hunts on the grounds that by not yet taking part, they were already beating Shane and his sock.

The main event in the morning session was Brian and Sue Young giving us a guided tour of Brian’s Puzzle Room, the floodlit giant puzzles in the garden (courtesy of the floodlights especially rigged-up for the tour!) and then Brian’s workshop and order processing stations. <There’s a YouTube video of the morning session over here.> It was lovely to see the very first puzzle Brian ever got: a wire heart & stirrup puzzle that his grandad had made for him while down the mine he was working in, and then to see Brian presenting his favourite three (or four!) puzzles. It was really special hearing the story behind Big Ben produced for his friend John’s only ever exchange – it obviously still means such a lot to Brian that he was able to do that for John.

Heading down to the workshop they stopped to show us the full-sized Telephone Box puzzle, the gigantic Big Burr at the bottom of the garden and the massive chicken disentanglement, before heading into the workshop itself and working progressively around all the different processing stations, with Brian stopping to show us how he makes his jigs and sets up the processes to make sure that he can design out any chances of error in the process. (He’s clever, that man!)

Brian gave us a sneak peak at his latest sequential discovery puzzle still in development and then settled down for a Q&A session, where Tomas was quick on the draw to ask about the progress on Brian’s ’66 Mustang (spoiler: not a lot – he’s been too busy making puzzles for the past twenty years!). We also got a little peak at the ’48 Ford that’s also on the list for some improvements.

Brian fielded all manner of questions about his approach to designing puzzles, his opinions on expensive table saw accessories and how the shop-side of things runs… it was wonderful being allowed in behind the curtain, as it were, with Brian and Sue being wonderful hosts and tour-guides – thanks guys!!

The afternoon session kicked off at 1pm after an hour or two to recharge, grab some lunch and get the final few things organised for the next session. Big-Steve gave us a catch-up on the scavenger hunt leader board, reminding everyone who’d just joined for the day that they were all in front of Shane already thanks to his -1 for the random sock picture.

We ran a short Soma Cube Challenge that Ali had dreamed up for us for a bit of a laugh: we described a series of challenges and the first few puzzlers to complete the challenge got points… normally points would mean prizes, this time they did not, they were in fact pretty pointless, but it did make for some good laughs along the way. It also resulted in quite a number of folks playing along with exactly the same Soma Cubes: the original versions in rosewood made in Denmark for Parker Brothers.

After the excitement of the Soma Challenge, Steve Canfield took us on a tour of his Puzzle Library, showing us shelf upon shelf of wonderfully collectible puzzle Boxes and beautifully crafted mechanical puzzles. By popular demand the tour took a bit of a detour at the end to travel via the magical (and also puzzling!) cabinet of Booze – the other important part of Steve’s regular blog posts. <There’s a YouTube video of the afternoon session over here.>

George and Roxanne were the main attraction in the afternoon session taking us on the full walking tour of the Puzzle Palace – starting outside and then heading in between the floating shelves of mini Berrocals (stunning idea, George!) before embarking on a room-by-room tour with Rox talking about the contents along the way. Room after jaw-dropping room of puzzles seemed to just keep coming with several parts of the collection being absolutely magnificent on their own – like the endless shelves of exchange puzzles and the - quite literally complete – collection of the Berrocal multiples.

Rox is clearly really passionate about the collection and seems to love nothing more than to share it with others! Including taking us up into the loft that serves as even more puzzle storage and display area, and the beginnings of a printer farm for George.

Popping out of the loft into the garage was the cue for Rox to hand over to George for a tour of his workshops, with George showing us around the big machinery in the garage (including several demos along the way) before heading inside to the 3D printing lab with all manner of printers set up for a variety of different tasks, ready and waiting. 

George and Rox then sportingly answered all our questions about the puzzles and about the 3D printers they’d chosen for George’s new farm – thanks guys – it was super being able to hang out with you in the Puzzle Palace.

Before breaking for the afternoon, we issued a big scavenger hunt challenge for everyone to have a bash at during the break until the afternoon session, and we released the final chapter in the Chico Banan puzzle hunt – and at this stage I think there was only one team on the leader board, although they’d managed to break it and had had to enter themselves three times in order to record their completion of the first three chapters. (But we won’t remind Taus and Rod that they broke it, promise!) ;-)

We had a good few hours between the afternoon and evening sessions so a couple of teams managed to get themselves onto the leader board and even finish off the final chapter in the Banan saga – it’s somewhat epic and the final meta is an absolute joy to solve – well worth the effort IMHO… and if you want to have a go at it, feel free to ask for clues if you get stuck…

At the start of the evening session Big-Steve gave us a quick round up of the scavenger hunt scores (Yup, Shane was still safely behind even those who hadn’t bothered to take part!) before we headed into the Pu(B)zzle Quiz – the evening’s “main event” – styled after a classic British pub quiz, we had a lot of puzzle-related questions not-so-cunningly woven in among some standard trivia-fare. We started out with a relatively simple round of True/False before heading into the eponymous Cheese or Train Station round (you had to be there!). The next round was the heavily puzzle-related “Soma Chanted Evening” round with trivia questions about the classic puzzle and a West End musical. Several rounds of Puzzle Links led up to the eagerly-awaited IcoNick Movie Scenes round before we broke for an intermission and a final round blitz scavenger hunt...with Big-Steve taking care of all the scoring again. 

The second half had more of the same, along with a round of Spot the IPP logo (harder than it sounds!). We tested their artistic talents with a round where we asked them to draw the flags of some of our IPP and MPP friends – where we learned that puzzlers do not make good sketchers of flags! The second round of IcoNick Movie Scenes may have left some images indelibly seared into some puzzlers’ minds – sorry about that!

Amusingly, as I sit writing up this blog post a couple of weeks later, I cannot even remember who got the top score on the quiz or on the scavenger hunts, but I do remember very vividly having a lot of laughs along the way… and that made all the schlepp of getting everything set up, massively worthwhile… and judging by some of the comments afterwards, I wasn’t the only one who had a good time that day, so I guess we should do this again sometime… maybe even on the date we’d planned for the next real-world MPP.

[Thanks to all the folks who helped out behind the scenes to get things organised, contributed to the quiz and all the other games we lined up, and generally provided encouragement. See you in November...]

Links to the videos: 

Afternoon session:

Morning session: