The National Puzzlers' League

The National Puzzlers' League is an organization of puzzle fans, mostly in the United States, with some members in Canada and a few members elsewhere. The focus of the league is on wordplay, and there is a monthly newsletter, the Enigma, which is full of original examples (submitted by members) of "classical" wordplay -- mostly the puzzles called "flats". However, interests of the members expand out into other types of puzzles, various types of games, and other activities. At the Big Sky convention, it was discovered that there are many jugglers in the league.

NPL Gatherings

The NPL is a social organization. Local groups -- especially in the New York City, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles areas, where there are larger concentrations of members -- meet occasionally (in the Boston area, about once a month but on an irregular basis) at a member's home to play games, solve puzzles together, or just talk about topics of common interest. Often there is no set plan for these gatherings, or there is only one set activity after which the people will play whatever games interest them. When there are enough people (too many to play one game), sometimes they split into groups to play separate games.

There are also some larger gatherings. The largest is the annual NPL convention which is held in various places around the country, usually in mid-July. Big Sky, Montana; San Francisco; and Newark, New Jersey were the convention sites for 1999-2001. In 2002 the convention is in Vancouver; in 2003 it is in Indianapolis. A close second is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held each March in Stamford, Connecticut. This is not an NPL function, but so many members attend each year that it has a lot of the feel of being at an NPL convention, and people are starting to attend early to allow for more gaming time.

Other gatherings are more regional in nature. Some of them are "minicons" -- locally-run NPL events which are more structured and a bit larger than the game parties. Other regional gatherings occur at non-NPL events of interest to many members, such as the MIT Mystery Hunt and the Stanford game. In May 2002 there is a "nationwide minicon" being held, with people physically gathering in a few cities, and these and others participating together via the internet.

Yet others are borderline, not officially NPL events but run by NPL members and with NPL members as a large portion of the attendees. A lot of times the other attendees of such meetings are puzzle and game fans who simply haven't been convinced to join the league yet; these members often join when the convention comes to their area and they are invited to attend by their NPL-member friends. The NPL picked up about 20 members at the 2000 convention in San Francisco in just this way.

The Convention

The convention is a week-long gathering of NPL members from around the country. There are "official" planned events Thursday and Friday evenings, all day Saturday, and Sunday morning, which include meals, the NPL's one annual business meeting, and various group games and puzzles where everybody plays together or separately but simultaneously, or a few players play at a time, taking turns, while the rest of the group watches.

There is always a flat-solving competition at the con, in which members individually or in small groups attempt to solve a set of flats which have been specially created (by members) for this event, under the dual handicaps of being reasonably solvable, by at least some of the members, without references, and an additional constraint which changes each year. In 2000, the constraint was that each flat had to use one of 25 hard-to-rhyme words in a rhyme. In 2001, the constraint required that each flat base (answer) included a well-known commercial name (brand name).

In addition, there is always an "extravaganza." Usually, this is a "treasure hunt"-style set of related puzzles. This is an elaborate set of interlinked puzzles that lead to some final answer. Usually you must solve some puzzles to gain access to others. Often there are hidden messages to find in the solutions to puzzles, and other things you have to figure out as you go along. Teams of about 4 or 5 members work together to solve these puzzles.

There are also "semi-official" events during the day Thursday and Friday (and sometimes Wednesday), and a semi-official pre-convention party Wednesday evening. Unofficial games happen any time from Tuesday to the following Monday when nothing else is going on, and sometimes even when other things are going on that just don't interest some people.

Games NPL members play

There are many of these, some of them uncategorizable and some of them one-shot things that are not easily repeatable.

Board and card games

These are (usually) commercially published games, which members bring to such gatherings. They can range from easy to mind-numbingly complex, serious to silly, and include word games, abstract strategy games, political and war games, and other types of games.

Looney Labs - makers of Fluxx, Chrononauts, and other games. Most of these games are relatively inexpensive and are played with simple equipment. Also check out the other games from small game manufacturers which they sell.

Cheapass Games - makers of Falling, Give Me The Brain, and many other games that sell for $6 or less and usually use tokens, dice, and other equipment you probably already have from other games. A typical game comes with a deck of some sort of cards and a rulesheet. They also have rules for completely free games on their website that you can play with just common equipment.

Set Games - makers of Set, Quiddler, and other games.

Funagain Games - The official game seller for the Games 100. An online game retailer; among other things, they try to stock as much of the Games Magazine top 100 games of the year as possible. This link is included because it is impossible to list all of these games, which include every category of games. Games in this category I have played include Apples to Apples, Wordsearch, Tikal, Torres, Streetcar, (what's the name of the German amoeba game?), and Pass the Bomb.

Original games -- some of these games are invented by members with the intent to publish them commercially. These often are prototypes built by the game inventors using whatever equipment was available -- often pieces from other games. Some of the games played among NPL members serve as playtesting, so sometimes rules may change on the fly if something doesn't work the way it was intended. There is one complex word game based on bluffing that requires a huge amount of boards and letter tiles which is played often at NPL conventions; it was invented by the NPL member who owns the only sets ever constructed, and it proved to be too complex to be sold commercially, but it comes to the convention whenever he does.

"Treasure Hunt" puzzle games

These are prepared collections of interrelated puzzles. Usually teams of 3 or more people (size of teams varies by event) work together to solve the puzzles, but some are individual competitions. Often you have to solve some puzzles to get access to others, and often you aren't given complete instructions to the puzzles, and figuring out what to do is part of the puzzle. Often these are one-time events, a race to finish first, but some can be attempted later (in some form) by others.

MIT Mystery Hunt - This may be the granddaddy of Hunt games. Held each January during the Independent Activity Period (IAP) at MIT, the Mystery Hunt is nominally a competition among MIT students, but alumni and other interested people join in. The Hunt features large teams -- more than 20 members on a team on occasion, though not all of them are solving puzzles simultaneously. Each team needs some MIT affiliation, but outsiders are readily accepted on many teams. Some puzzles will require knowledge of the campus, but most will not. The winning team each year wins some small trinket that is hidden somewhere on the campus, which will eventually be revealed if you can solve all or most of these puzzles, and gets the honor and admiration of their peers, and also gets to construct next year's Hunt. Some people travel from far away to attend this event -- Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering, travels across the country to attend the Hunt each year -- but most competitors are local or at least somewhat local (New England or New York).

Stanford game - This game is distinguished from the Stanford Game with a capital G, which is a football game. The small-g Stanford game is a Hunt-style game held at irregular intervals 2 or 3 times a year by whichever groups (around the San Francisco Bay area) manage to put games together. Players compete in small teams, and the number of teams is limited since puzzles often involve physical objects that are assembled in limited numbers -- one puzzle involved a Rubik's Cube with an odd set of numbers written on the faces of all the little cubes. Since this is California, teams sometimes have to travel up to 20 miles to find the next puzzle; a car is a necessity, and, these days, a laptop computer usually is, too. This is also a limitation on the size of a team; usually they are limited to the number of people who can fit into one vehicle.

GameNY - A group of Stanford game veterans in the New York area is running occaional games there now.

NPL Extravganza - An event at the National Puzzlers' League convention each July, organized by a small group of NPL members each year. The description of this event appears in the description of NPL activities above.

Miami Herald Hunt - A hunt-style game played all over Miami, Florida, originally called the Miami Tropic Hunt and sponsored by the Tropic magazine in the Sunday Miami Herald newspaper. When the Tropic ceased publication, the Hunt disappeared with it, but it was revived in 2001.

Microsoft Game - A hunt-style game played as a charity event (once, during the dot-com boom, with a $25,000-per-team entry fee with teams sponsored by their companies), and the whole event is run by Microsoft. (I don't know of any NPL members who have actually played this game.)

Word-guessing games

This category contains well-known classic games such as Charades, lesser-known games, some of which are takeoffs on commercial games or TV game shows, and games invented within the NPL, all of which are based on some players giving clues in some form to other players to try to get them to guess a word or phrase. They usually don't require any particular equipment except pencil and paper, and can usually played by large groups of people. Usually nobody keeps score, and people just play until they have to leave, get tired of it, run out of stuff to clue, or enough other people have left that it isn't very interesting, but some of them have set endings and a scoring system.

Charades - With a large (10+) group of NPL members guessing, the kinds of words and phrases that would seem normal to most people for a charades game usually turn out too easy. As a result, NPL charades usually has some element to make it harder -- either they use long quotations from obscure songs or movies and other very difficult phrases, or they add some extra rule to make the game harder, such as limiting the charader to using only one hand, or facing away from the audience, or no number-of-word or number-of-syllable clues, etc. In whatever case, phrases to be clued are submitted by players on folded slips of paper, with names on the outside so that nobody clues or guesses their own phrases. [to do: create a separate page with Charades information].

"Pictionary" - Pictionary is a commercial game based on the concept of playing charades by drawing rather than physically acting out clues, but I've never seen an actual Pictionary game used to play this. The best Pictionary variant I've seen is "common word Pictionary" run by NPL member Dart at conventions, who brings a fairly-large whiteboard and markers, and a deck of cards each containing 10 phrases or compound words with a common word among all 10. He acts as MC, revealing the phrases on the card one at a time to a player who is drawing them for the rest of the group. He calls out whenever somebody says one of the words in the phrase being clued, and listens for the correct answer to be given. He also tells the group which word is the common word after they solve the first phrase. The cluer gets one minute to get through as many of these as possible: 6 or 7 is a good result, 8 very good, 9 exceptional, and 10 has only occurred twice that I know of.

Password - Two teams of two players (a clue-giver and a receiver) take turns giving one-word clues to a word each clue-giver is trying to get his teammate to guess. Sometimes "Password Plus"-style puzzles are prepared in advance, with several words to be guessed which are all clues (increasingly explicit clues) to a main answer. Each player who guesses one of these words can take one guess at the final answer. If it remains unsolved after the final word, all the other players get a chance to guess the puzzle. Because it requires only the communication of words to play, this game can be and sometimes is played online in the NPL chat room.

Pyramid - This game started spontaneously at one member's suggestion at the Big Sky convention in 1999. It is played like the bonus round of the $(fill in dollar amount) Pyramid. One player prepares a list of 6 categories -- usually phrased like "Parts of a ___", "Things in a ____", "Things with ____", "What ____ might say", "____ Things", etc. Sometimes "people" can replace "things" in these categories, and sometimes a category can be a more specific group that doesn't fit one of these templates. Another player clues these categories to a third player only by giving examples of things in the category. When the players get stuck, they can pass on a category and go on. On the show, this was timed, but we just played until all the categories got solved or it was apparent that either the clue-giver was stuck for clues or the guesser was never going to solve it, at which point other people help out on one side or the other. The categories usually start out serious -- one of my favorites was "things with curtains", which ran into a dead end when the cluer could only think of "windows" and "showers", but was solved easily with the clue "voting booths" -- and if it is played for too long, turn comical or nonsensical -- such as "parts of a ball bearing". Because it requires only the communication of words to play, this game can be and sometimes is played online in the NPL chat room.

Cluesome - This game was an invention of the California NPL group, but traveling members and conventions have spread it to other parts. It requires a moderately large group of people -- 7 or 8 is barely enough to keep it interesting, 10 is good, and I have seen it played with about 15 players. The object of the game is to try to give clues for words such that some of the other people will guess the answer, but not more than half. Each player writes 5 words or phrases to be clued on individual note cards, along with his name on each card, and passes them face down to the player on his left. Each player draws one card (without looking) from the ones he is passed, then passes the rest of the cards on. Each player will end up with 5 cards from the 5 players to his right. Each player, in turn, becomes the cluer. The cluer chooses one of his cards, announces whose card it is, and gives a clue. The clue can be anything at all, as long or short as the cluer wants, even using part of the answer or clues that are wrong (like "the capital of New York" as a clue for New York City). The one limitation is that the cluer can't give a clue that turns the game into a multiple-choice guess among a few choices, such as "a planet" for Saturn or "a capital in New England" for Providence. After the clue is given, each player (other than the cluer and the submitter) has a short time to write down an answer, and then everybody in turn calls out what they have written down. If nobody gets it right, the cluer has to give another clue. The cluer loses one point for each clue he gives. If anybody guesses it, the cluer tells the correct answer and each of those people score a point. If exactly one person guesses correctly, this is called a "Cluesome" and the cluer gets 3 bonus points. If fewer than half the people guess correctly, then the cluer is done and the next player becomes cluer. If too many people guess correctly, the cluer has failed and must pick another word to clue, and thus lose more points for giving more clues.

Make Your Own Taboo - This is basically the commercial game Taboo, except that some people have played the original game so much that they know all the cards and can guess them way too fast to be interesting for other people. So, each player makes up several "cards" at the start of the game. Each card contains the name of the thing to be clued, and a list of five words that cannot be used to clue it. Forms of those words and words in the name of the thing cannot be used, except common words like articles are always allowed. One of the words I had to clue was Emma Lazarus; I forget exactly what the taboo list had but I'm pretty sure it had Statue, Liberty, poem or poet, and a couple of the key words from the poem she is known for. Without violating the list, I got through "give me your" of the poem and one of my teammates started running off with the whole poem. I interrupted him with the single word "Who?" and that card was done.

Pass the Chicken, a.k.a. Celebrities - to do: description

Telephone pictionary - to do: description

Performance flats - to do: description

Body Language - to do: description

NPL Chat

description to come