Puzzles, creativity, games, shifting careers, and being incapable of bullshit.
Sandy is the creator of The Mystery League and creates puzzles at any chance he can get.
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Simone Salis (host): Sandy, how do you label yourself?
Sandor Weisz (guest): I guess professionally I would say I'm a puzzle maker. Professionally, my job is mostly putting on events. The capacity in which I make puzzles is, usually, team building events. I'm in the business of team building. I didn't go into it because I like to schedule events. I did it because I like making the products that I put on at the events, which are games.
Sim: Although, that's probably a have... I don't think of that as being your profession until like... your only one full-time profession. It has probably been a path.
S. Weisz: Path is a generous way to put it. I mean, I certainly... Yes, you're right, I did not even think of puzzle making as a career... for most of my life. And I still don't, really think of it as a career. But yeah, anyway, I wouldn't even call that a path. I think I was on a path for a while, and I hopped over to a different path.
Sim: What was the path?
S. Weisz: Web design, web making. So, I graduated college in '98, and that was right when it was the right time to turn into a web designer, so I did that. I got a degree in computer science, and so I started out programming, and then I moved over into more of the visual design and-
Sim: Where are you originally from?
S. Weisz: Indianapolis.
Sim: And you moved to Chicago...
S. Weisz: I went to school at Northwestern.
Sim: Okay. So, you moved for school.
S. Weisz: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. I would say, two, four, 15, 16 years ago or so s- between graduating college and, and leaving that world, although I didn't leave it entirely for another year or two after that. But, I started the Mystery League in 2015. Yeah, so like 17 years.
Sim: Well, it was a quick jump from founding the Mystery League to making it, full-time.
S. Weisz: Yes. Yeah. So, it was probably a couple of years before I was able to say, "This is my full-time thing." I took the risk when I quit my job and didn't have anything lined up. But, that was mitigated because I had a freelance web design career before. And so, when I quit my job, I thought, "Well, at the very least I can make more websites. I know how to do that." So, there was that risk, like, I didn't have anything lined up. I did not quit thinking I would start making puzzles for a living. People I talked to to ask for advice overwhelming suggested, encouraged that I do this because I had been doing it as a, as a hobby for so long. And I didn't, didn't think there was anything there. I thought I'd give it a try and maybe take a year to, to see if it worked. And, after a year, it was clear there was plenty of business out there for this. And so then I started to wind-down freelance web design and, and ramp up.
Sim: Has this made you happier?
S. Weisz: Oh, for sure. I mean, I make puzzles for a living. I mean... Yeah, no, I, I'm not being coy when I say like, you know, I make a living making puzzles. That really is what I do.
Sim: That's pretty amazing. Not a lot of people can claim to do that. [laughs]
S. Weisz: No. I mean, again, I don't make puzzles every day. I'm mostly dealing with l- logistical stuff and business overhead. But, yeah, I'm... Yeah, I'm making a living doing it.
Sim: Is it searching a little bit more of happiness or flexibility with your family, what drove you to this decision of...
S. Weisz: I was done making websites.
Sim: That's it.
S. Weisz: I was really frustrated with the world of making websites. I found it was getting needlessly complicated, and I was tired of being in that world. Also, I knew I wasn't going to be able to compete with people younger than me. Like, people who... I remember being young and learning how to code and learning the new technologies very quickly. You just can't do that as well when you get into your 40s. And so either I was going to have to build a business around hiring younger people and making an agency, which was an option, or become like an ex- like a middle manager or an executive, which is an option. Or, or could do this other thing, which again, I did not consider, but once it was suggested, I as like, "Oh, huh." 'Cause like my entire network was like the tech world in Chicago. And so, they were the p- kind of people who would be paying for someone to come in and do team building. And so, they were like, "Oh, yeah, we're always looking for something different.” There's plenty of money to go around for this kind of work. you just need to like figure out what your product is and sell it, and I'm sure... and I was like, "I don't know if I want to deal with that kind of business where I'm constantly hustling for, for clients." Then they were like, "No, no, no, it's, it's worth it." So, so I tried it out. And it's taken me a while to figure out like what the model is, but, but yeah, no, they're right. Like, there's, there's a lot of people who work in the city and there's a lot of... There's only so many things you can do to like... Team building is a terrible phrase, but- let's just call it that. For lack of a better term. There's only so many team building options, right?
S. Weisz: And so, people see see what I do and, are really excited because it's totally different and it brings people joy in a way that like, nothing against ax throwing, but that ax throwing doesn't. [laughs]
Sim: Yeah, usually, it's the escape room, the improv class, the…
S. Weisz: …Ax throwing.
Sim: Yeah, ax throwing, yeah, and... I guess…
S. Weisz: … bowling night. I don't know. Open bar.
Sim: Pizza, the open bar thing.
S. Weisz: The escape room is actually... That rose in popularity alongside my track. And, alongside my path in this world. And so, 2014, escape rooms were still pretty new. 2015. And yes, now they've become, a staple of esc- of team building. However, they have one very, limiting fa- one concrete limiting factor, which is there is a maximum number of people that you can have in a room at a time. Let's say you have a company of 50 people. How do you go to an escape room together?
Sim: Multiple rooms.
S. Weisz: It's hard. Well- If they... if you can find a place with multiple rooms and schedule them at the same time- And then, even then, even you... e- e- even assuming you have... and I'm not trying to do a pitch here, but just to give you an understanding-
Sim: Yeah, no worries. I'm interested because I worked in an escape room for like a year.
S. Weisz: You did?
Sim: I did, yes.
S. Weisz: Where?
Sim: In Chicago. A Sherlock Holmes based thing.
S. Weisz: Oh, okay.
Sim: I'm not necessarily endorsing them, but we would have like, groups of 50 people, and, and it was a nightmare, to, to have like... [laughs]
S. Weisz: Right. So, even if you have 50 people- multiple rooms at the same time, they come out of it, they can't talk about their experiences with each other because they didn’t share. So, what I do is I have a ga- I have a games that I bring to companies that scale up for as many people as needed. So, if you have 50 people, if you have 200 people, if you, you have 700 people, I can bring the same game multiple times... multiple copies of the same game to you, so first of all, you don't have to leave the office. You don't have to like schlep everyone somewhere. You could do it in a bar if you prefer, at a restaurant, whatever. But anyway, I bring the... I bring the games to them, and then everyone plays the same game in teams of six or so.
Sim: Where do you start from to build a puzzle?
S. Weisz: It's very hard to build a puzzle from nothing. You need something. You need some constraint. So, I try to start with theme. And, and, and just to be clear, puzzle is such a big term, right? I know what you're asking, I think, is, is how do I start these... how do I build these games? Like, where do I start when I build these games?
S. Weisz: I start with theme, and that really is a nice guiding, factor. When I have themes, then I can decide about material and mechanics that suit the theme. So, there's a... there's immediately a filter in place. You know, what can fit in this game now that I know it's about blank, and then let's say the blank is, you know, space travel. The first game I built in this, in this, manner was, centered around a briefcase. So, I was like, what can go in a, in, in a, business person's briefcase? and I just made a list of everything that I could think of. And then I narrowed that down to items that I could build a puzzle out of, and then I just kept building puzzles out of these items as much... as best as I could. You have to start at the end, when you build a puzzle hunt. So, the, the answer to the question is blank.And then I go for, from there, but after I have the theme, it's best to start at the very end, and say like, what is everything resolving to? What's the narrative, and what's the conclusion to the narrative? Even if it's a very thin narrative.
Sim: In, the- So, you, you start... It's easier to get, to start from the solution, and eventually, a theme, a theme give you a better idea of the kind of constriction. So, if you have like limits, then it- you can start to play with the elements within the limits.
S. Weisz: For sure. That's true of any creative process.
Sim: Can a game tell a story? Do you usually have narratives in your games?
S. Weisz: Yeah. They're not too deep, just to be clear. And the reason, the reason is, and I've toyed with this, the... I feel pretty strongly that the narrative needs to get out of the way for the, for the puzzle to work. And that's simply because when you, when you're trying to solve a puzzle, you're thinking purely about mechanics. You're thinking, "What are the tools that I have?" Like, if I'm doing a... Well, a crossword puzzle might not be the best example because there's never been a n- narrative in a crossword puzzle. There might be themes. There might be like an extraction at the end where you're trying to find an answer. But let's just say I'm doing a puzzle like, like an escape room. When you're trying to put together... I'm trying to think of an escape room now just that so I can use an example. When I'm trying... I have a bunch of pieces that I may put together. Right? I'm thinking mechanically, how do these pieces fit? when I'm trying to figure out like the solution to a lock, I'm looking for examples around the room, items around the room that can fit this that have the, the numbers I need to fit into this lock, right?
S. Weisz: And I'm thinking purely in terms of mechanics. And that's because puzzles, the definition of a puzzle is that there's a right answer, and if you're thinking about narrative, narratives all- often have answers, but it's... I d- I don't think it would be fair to say narratives all often have correct answers. It's like, that's part of the, the ni-... The, the appeal of narratives is that you can draw your own conclusions or an author who writes the narrative can draw their own conclusions, or the reader can draw their own conclusions, and that's part of the appeal. But a puzzle is not that. A puzzle has to have a right answer. That's how you know you've done it right.
S. Weisz: And so, when you're solving a puzzle, you know that implicitly. It's helpful for the narrative to get out of the way. But, it's good overall to go into experie- to go into an experience, whether it's an escape room or one of my games, and be told off the... from the start, either through the aesthetics or through some sort of, storytelling device, this is what's happening. It's just fun to put yourself in a world.
Sim: Spicing it up, like the spices on top of it?
S. Weisz: Yeah, I didn't want to make it sound... Maybe I'm making it sound superficial, and maybe it is superficial.
Sim: No. Well, I mean... even if it is superficial, in this case, would, would that be necessarily negative?
S. Weisz: No.
Sim: You can have a wonderful drawing that it's black and white, but color doesn't make it superficial, even though you don't need it strictly to do an illustration.
S. Weisz: Well, and I would say that any kind of color... I think you were talking about metaphorically color, but-
S. Weisz: ... I would say literally, if you bring aesthetics into it, and color, use them as best as you can to make the puzzles better, to make them part of the puzzle mechanics.
Sim: Hm. So, you can leverage that to become a part of the puzzle itself.
S. Weisz: I try to do that all the time.
Sim: Okay. So, it doesn't just become a decoration, but it can be a functional part, even though it's not open to inter-... The, you, it can be open to many different interpretations-
S. Weisz: For sure.
Sim: Like a movie or a book would be.
S. Weisz: Like, my latest game is about art. So, I had an illustrator design art that worked within the constraints of the game. They serve a purpose in the game- I need this piece to look this way. I needed this piece to have these colors or this many shapes. I need this piece to, look like a certain letter. I need this piece to look like this kind of image. And those constraints were there, but then beyond that, I had the... I let the artist, or I let the illustrator kind of, make his own aesthetic choices about how that art would be done.
S. Weisz: Every piece of art has- serves a purpose mechanically in the game. And then beyond that, it's just lovely to look at.
Sim: I would notice inside the escape rooms, but what I would do, I would be inside the room with the players, and, I started to recognize different kinds or types. Definitely the person that wants to solve it and, be the best at it is not necessarily the person that is having the most fun. Quite the opposite usually.
S. Weisz: Oh, oh, having the most fun. I didn't think that's what you were going to say.
Sim: Well, what did you think I was going to say?
S. Weisz: I think you were going to say the piece... the person who's the... wants to solve it the most doesn't necessarily have the best ideas.
Sim: Oh, for sure. Yes. Sometimes they're convinced that they do- because they, they believe, they're like, "Oh, this is the right solution. Let's all do this." They try to take charge of it, but it's clearly wrong. There'd be usually a more shy person in the background that has a very much clearer idea [laughs] of what is going on, but they do not have the voice to speak out loud and, and, and, [laughs]
S. Weisz: I see that all the time.
Sim: Oh, you do see that all the time! [laughs]
S. Weisz: Oh, I can predict it, all the time.
Sim: Yeah. You see like a person, you go like, "That person is really smart," but they're shy and modest, and so they're not sharing their idea.
S. Weisz: Yeah. I say at the beginning of my s- of my, e- events now, especially if there's a lot of people, I say, "If you are talking a lot but don't have the best ideas, give r- give space for the people who aren't talking a lot but who have the, who have the better ideas.” I say it more eloquently at the t- in the moment. I, you know, I say like, "If you're talking a lot, shut up. Because you're probably not doing your job. And if you're not talking a lot, speak up." Now, it's hard for the person who's quiet to speak up. So, you really have to put the onus on the person who's talking a lot to shut up. And that's hard for them to do. But, I say it upfront as a way to say like, "Be aware of this, because if I walk around and I see you doing this," I don't say this, but like, you know-
In your mind, your head.
S. Weisz: In my head, yeah, now, now that I've said it out loud, I can walk around, and if they... if I see people violating this, I can be like, "What did I tell you?” Because I have heard someone at this table giving the right answer. I heard it. And they'll be like, "What? Who said it?" I'm like, "No, that's not for me to say.” You've got to figure that out. And so, it really is learning how to work together as a team. It's not just bl- I'm not just blowing smoke about that. I can't necessarily make people better team players, but I can definitely identify the places where they're not communicating well. This kind of material, this kind of game, kind of game play, really highlights and clarifies quickly, the kind of people that talk too much with the bad ideas. And the kind of people who have the good ideas but don't talk enough.
Sim: Yeah. And, I- usually, looking at them, I translate that mentally into their work environment, and, if it is a manager or somebody high up that talks a lot but doesn't have the right solutions, I just immediately, it must be a nightmare for the people who are shy or modest. [laughs]
S. Weisz: Yeah, and I would say like if you were a manager, you spend your whole day telling people what to do and having people implement your ideas. If... I mean, you can. I don't... Not everyone doe- I'm not... You can... You're in a position of power.
Sim: Yeah, of course.
S. Weisz: Okay?
S. Weisz: All day. Here you go out with your team to go to something that l-... I would imagine for most teams, solving puzzles is not part of their daily routine. Not... You know, not in the literal sense, the way that you're doing an escape room. Right? So, you're all doing something that's outside of your, let's say, skillset, or at least prescribed skill set for work, right? It's a level play-... It's an opportunity to be a level playing peefle- field. Let other people talk. Let other people take charge. You don't have to do it. Like, for one hour- get out of the way.
Sim: Just give up for a second. Just try to enjoy. [laughs]
S. Weisz: Well, yeah, just like, be like, "Hey, you know, this other coworker or employee of yours might be really good at puzzles.” This is their chance. Give them a chance to shine.
Sim: How was your passion born out of making puzzles, and how did it develop, like, to become a person that makes them and don't just play them, doesn't just play them?
S. Weisz: I was into that as a kid, and then I went to summer camp, and in summer camp I joined a gang of kids who would put on programming in the evening. That were ga- like, games for the other, campers. So, it wasn't always this, but maybe once a week, we'd put on... Not necessarily puzzle hunt, but, but some kind of game, like a murder mystery game, or trivia night, or something like that. And then when I went to college, I remember committing myself to the idea that I would put on pranks. Now, this isn't necessarily puzzles. But it's in the same kind of like world, in the same kind of like mentality of like making a play space out of the world. I was, I was really committed, like, MIT has a huge prank culture. They call them hacks. And, Cal Tech, on the, on the west coast, does as well. And there's books about this stuff, and I'd re- I read the books. And I committed. Now, I went to Northwestern. Which is in the Midwest, and is not... e- is not... has neither of those cultures. But I was like, "I, I'll bring this culture to, to Northwestern.” And I didn't. I failed.
Sim: Did you try?
S. Weisz: No, I didn't even try. I thought about it the whole the time I was there, and I never did it. Also, I mean, the problem is like the, the countervailing, influence is that I'm just like too, too well-behaved. You know? I'm an oldest child and too responsible, so I wasn't going to do anything that got me in trouble. And then in my 20s, I just sat on it for a while. I don't remember doing anything really in this vein except being... looking afar, from afar at people, who were doing it and reading about them online, people who were making puzzle hunts. I mean, like, that's the kind of thing I really want to do, but I didn't know how to do it.
S. Weisz: I was turning 30. I had gotten married in September, and I was turning 30 in November, and I was like, this is it, this is my last chance to do something before I get too old to like- to start this hobby. I have to start now."
S. Weisz: So, I was like, I'm turning 30 and this is the last... big chance I have to-
S. Weisz: ... to make something. Well, I mean, it was self-imposed pressure. So, it was five weeks away from my birthday, and I was like, I don't know what the heck I'm going to do, but I'm going to send out the invitations, and then once I do that, I can't not do it. I can't back down. And that's what I did. I sent out invitations to this mysterious birthday party. I didn't explain what it was because I didn't know what it was. And, I spent the next five weeks trying to figure out how to make a, a hunt. And, I did it for like 25 or 30 people. It was a shit show. I wouldn't say a disaster. I felt that it was a disaster. People had fun. But I felt it was like, it failed on so many levels. So, for one thing, I didn't test it. In fact, I didn't test it for... I didn't test my hunts for years because I didn't... it didn't occur me. Didn't think it was necessary. So, I didn't test it, so I didn't know where the fault lines were. Two, I put the, the hunt across a geography of about two miles by one and a half miles, which required driving. I didn't consider like how dangerous and frustrating that would be. I did it in the evening in November, so outside, so it's cold and it's getting dark.
Sim: And it's Chicago.
S. Weisz: Yeah. Afternoon, evening. Yeah, so it's cold and it's getting dark. And then the worst thing was, and I don't know why this never occurred to me, I'm building this game, which is sending people all over in the neighborhood, and I start the game, and I explain what's happening, and I send them out. And everyone leaves my house with their material. And then I'm like, oh my god, what am I supposed to do?
Sim: [laughs] Happy birthday.
S. Weisz: Yeah, happy birthday to me. I want to watch people solve these puzzles. So, you know, so I would, I would... and I was just a mess. Like, I was just, just a n- like a stress ball. So, there were some other problems, too. Like, we put some signs up on telephone poles, which was illegal, and like they got stripped down in the mi- between when I put them up- and when, when people went there. So, so anyway, we were all congregating at the bar afterwards, and I, I was just like s- sure that people would be throwing tomatoes at me as they walked in. But they had a good time. It was really fun. And that was the first one. And then I did it again a year later. By then, like, I knew what not to do. And it was m-... It was better. It was still not... like, no one's... no one solved it the first year and no one solved it the second year... completely. Only by the third year of doing this did someone actually get through the whole thing. so I did them every year for my friends, either for my birthday or like for... I changed it to be in the summertime. so I did one a year for, for eight years, and then, around the eighth, I think the eighth one, or ninth one, is when I, I was quitting my job and I was like, "Well, this is a kind of a trial balloon to see if making it, making a game that'll work for, for clients work." And so, I felt like it was a successful game, and, I took it from there. And it became a prof- profession, and I'm still doing it for my friends, but I'm not creating new ones. I'm sort of using the same material, because it's like-
Sim: You have a library.
S. Weisz: It's like a holiday now. It's like, I don't need to make puzzles on the side. I'm doing it every day.
Sim: [laughs] Your goal is for people to solve it. You don't want to create something that is 100% unsolvable. I mean, even if it doesn't have a solution, I believe that there is like a work of calibration, considering the time and what they need to do in the audience for that.
S. Weisz: Yes.
Sim: How do you find a good balance for people to solve it and have fun during process?
S. Weisz: Yeah. Just to, just to p- put a finer point on what you said, not everyone agrees with y- with you. Especially in escape rooms. So, a lot of escape rooms will boast of their low, success rate. And, yes-
Sim: That's marketing.
S. Weisz: But I think it's bad marketing. [laughs]
Sim: Oh, no, no, I think it's bad marketing too, but they think that's the approach, that it's like-
S. Weisz: They think it's the appeal.
Sim: Yeah. They go to the niche of people that are like, "Oh, that's hard, I want to win that because I'm smart." That's-
S. Weisz: Correct. And I don't... I don't play to that niche. A lot of escape rooms... Now, okay. Okay. D- The business model of escape rooms necessitates that not everyone will win. You only have an hour because they need to have a sch- a regular schedule. They need to sell tickets. I get it. That's fine. And if not everyone wins, that's, that's, that's, that's an unfortunate byproduct of the, of the business structure. But I can structure mine differently, because I don't have a hard stop at the end of a game. And so, I make sure that everyone who plays my games finishes. Every team. Now, there's a winner, of course, whoever finishes first. But, I let every other team finish if they want to. Pushing them along, give them as many hints as possible. Because, that's what you're there for. You're there to solve puzzles and, and finish. Like, why would I deprive that of people? Unless they're done on their own. So, your question was about how to calibrate it. It's hard. It's very hard. and I think I've done a bad job of it. I've gotten better over the years. It's one of my f-... It's hard enough to calibrate it for yourself. You know, and I'm a strong puzzle solver, so, I want something to be hard for me, but it's not an accurate way to look at what my audience... or my core solving, audience would like. So, definitely testing. So, you know, you test and you measure and you're like, "Does this fit the... Does this hit like the right spot of frustration?" You know, when you, when you're doing a puzzle, there's this like... a frustration index, I guess... and you're like, you know, you want, you want that frustration index to ramp up right before it breaks you. You know... you want to ramp up up until right before it breaks you. And then you breakthrough, and, and, and solve it. And so, it's... that's different for everyone, of course. You know, you want to, you want to calibrate it. Okay, that's fine, but you're still making a guess. You know, you sh- you only have one puzzle that you're giving to people, and it's got to work the s... well for everyone. And so, one way to build calibration and one way to build in a spectrum of experience is to make it hard, so like err on the side of difficulty. And then offer release valves, you know, for, for less experienced teams, a release valve in the form of hints. So, hints can either be like, like I'm walking around giving hints that are custom because I'm watching your experience, but if it's a really, really large group, like hundreds of people that are playing my games, I have prescribed hints that I give out to all the teams at the same time. But usually it's me walking around being like, "Oh, tell me where you're at. Oh, have you tried thi..." Not... Actually, I don't even say, "Have you tried this?" Giving hints is, is, is almost entirely getting them to talk… and then as soon as they say the thing out loud, they can hear, "Oh, that's the path for us f- to figure it out." Or, or, "There's a, there's a match, there's a, a connection there that I didn't realize until I said it out loud."
Sim: But, what is the biggest puzzle you worked on? You say, when, when it is hundreds-
S. Weisz: The biggest, the biggest single event I did was for a c-... I was a subcontractor to help build an escape room out of a suite at a Motor Speedway. So, there was a row of suites at the top of a Motor Speedway. There were 36 of them. We converted them all into escape rooms. And then, the same escape room, and then, I don't know, 18 people or so in the room, I think. And so, we had, over the course of the day, 1,400 people flow through these rooms, in batches of like 350 at a time. And that was, that was wild. So, we had to build a game that could scale without too much cost, and then a game that we could manage by deputizing other people to like run it, because you needed 18 [inaudible 00:23:12]. and that could reset rather quickly and it would be fun, and it was great. it worked out. It was 1,400 people, but it's at a speedway that fits tends of thousands, hundreds of thousands. It's a speedway. So, you walk into the place and you're like, "What am... What am I doing with my life? This is wild."
Sim: [laughs] What are some parts of the process that you enjoy?
S. Weisz: The initial creation. Once I get past the hump of what the heck is this thing about, just doing massive, just, idea dumps on the project and saying like, "What..." w- like, just spitting out as many possible ideas as possible. As many, as many ideas as possible, is really fun. Building puzzles, like building the actual like f- making the puzzle work, like finding the right words and designs to make it work is satisfying to me.
Sim: Do you create objects, like physical objects for-
S. Weisz: Yes.
Sim: ... for it? How do you do the props part?
S. Weisz: It's really hard because when you're asking me these questions, like, the answer is different for, like, every-
Sim: For each puzzle?
S. Weisz: Each kind of puzzle I make, and I'm focusing mostly on these like tabletop games. But like I've also built an escape room. I've built an escape room... slash immersive theater experience with the House Theater in Chicago, called The Last Defender. And that's probably... Actually, that probably touched more people than anything else that I've done, because... it, it lasted for like eight months, and it was, you know, it was a, it was an escape room, so hundreds or... of thousands... or not hundreds of thousands. Thousands of people came through. And we'll g- we'll relaunch it soon, and then more people will get to see it. And that's... that was a whole different breed of, of game because first of all, it was an escape room. Like, it was a li-... it was a, it was a physical space. It was a l-... theater experience, so it had all the production quality of a real show. And it was just a heck of, of fu-... of a fun game, that I built with, with other people, with the House Theater. And so, and so that was-
Sim: It was with scripts? Like, how do you wri- It wasn't scripted. There was no actors. so, you were... It was, it wasn't immersive in the sense that you were talking to actors at all. It was immersive in the sense that you were in a room that was designed to look like a s- like a mission control for like an '80s style like video game, aesthetic type, missile command center.
S. Weisz: And, you are preventing nuclear war from, from happening, because the computer has glitched out and it thinks that missiles are coming from, from overseas. And so, your job the whole time is to like shut the computer down. Basically tell the computer that it's, that the missiles aren't coming and, and, and, and prevent nuclear war, and if you can't do that, then you have an option at the very last minute to self-destruct, which prevents the world from dying, but kills, you know, Chicago, you know? And,
Sim: That's dark.
S. Weisz: Yeah. It gets really dark. But it's so fun. It's so fun. So, you'll have to play that one when comes back. And so, the props for that were built by prop masters, like people who are in, in, theater production. For my games, I have built a couple games that are... that have props, and I... if it's not something I can just send off to print, like I've made little computers, we have a laser cutter at the office, so I've cut the box... cut the paper, cut the wood for the box. I've made little props that... in the same way that are made of wood that I can laser cut, or are acrylic that I can laser cut. I have a s-... We have a... I have access to a CNC machine, so I can like make, other... any, any kind of shape that I can make out of word or MDF. I, I know how to do that. I have 3D printed some stuff.
Sim: You also build yourself some of the props.
S. Weisz: Some of it.
Sim: So, you have that, that kind of knowledge.
S. Weisz: Yeah, but more and more I'm building games that are entirely paper-based because... they need to scale, and so when you're building prop-based games, it just takes up more space… to store them, more space... more time and money to make them. More opportunity to break things. So, I just try to get out of that as much as possible for these kinds of corporate events. But, you know, in the future, who knows? Like, I might decide to get into more prop-based stuff. When you're doing it at a small scale... like five, six, seven teams at once/ Then, it's not as hard, and I can do that. But I'm not building new games for that scale. I'm building new games for 50, 100, 200 people.
Sim: Is the... The community part of this game seems to interest you a lot. Is your family into the puzzle thing too?
S. Weisz: Yeah. I mean, if I wouldn't... I don't think I would've been able to build this company if... or do this as a hobby without the support of my wife, Sarah, who likes doing puzzles as well. So, we solve puzzles together all the time. We do puzzle hunts together all the time. There's a lot of puzzle hunts that come out online, and so, so we'll do those together via PDF or websites. But also, there's something every year called DASH, which is in lots of cities. It's called Different Area, Same Hunt. That's what DASH stands for.
S. Weisz: There's been 10 of them, and she helps run... help play... he's play that with me. She's on my team. She helps me build the puzzles, as a tester, but also, like, she's, she's a writer, professionally. She helps write anything made of prose or poetry. She, she does the writing on that.
Sim: Yeah. So, the narrative part, and the cre-
S. Weisz: Oh, yeah.
Sim: Your awesome creative part, she [laughs]... she pours into that.
S. Weisz: Uh-huh [affirmative]. And then my kids, to some extent, they're into it. My kids are nine and a half and eight, and, they're getting to a point where they can start solving some puzzles that are fun and not just silly stuff. So, they've been into different kinds of puzzling over the years. I've built a few puzzles for them, but not a lot, but I think we're getting to the point where I can start giving them stuff and they can... they have the, the brain power to get it.
Sim: Building a puzzle gives you control over an experience, and usually the outcome if you want the person to solve it, right?
S. Weisz: That's interesting. Does it give you a control? Yeah. I guess I tend to think of having a bit of control over the experience, for sure. Yeah.
Sim: Mm. That's great power.
S. Weisz: Yeah.
Sim: In that situation.
S. Weisz: I guess that's why I like it.
Sim: [laughs] Is it?
S. Weisz: Yeah. I like... I mean, I'm n... Yeah. I need... I'm very particular. I need things to happen... I need things to be happening in a predictable way in my life, and so I think having that kind of... control over experiences is, is something that suits me. I think that would not be an unfair thing to say. I've never thought of it that way, but I think, I think it's totally fair to say that-
Sim: Mm... that's what appeals to me about it.
Sim: You know, puzzles give you control a little bit, and they... in theory, they are predictable, if you want to reach the goal. There is a specific path to follow. Are you a person that is relaxed also with being able to not control those components in life?
S. Weisz: I try to be. I think I... I think I'm trying harder, and I think I'm getting better about being fatalistic about most the things in life. yeah, I think I'm pretty chill about... Here's what it is. If I can recognize that I have no control over a thing, then I will do my best to remove my intention about it as best as possible. But it's about that recognition. And, and sometimes I just don't... I refuse to recognize it.
S. Weisz: Well... Do you know what I mean?
S. Weisz: You know? So, like, I'm being... speaking in the abstract. Well, you know, that... it's like that expression, right, and I can't... I'm not going to quote it precisely, but it's like no... have the wisdom to m- understand that you can't control all things and know when that's true and when it's not. That's not the quote, but you understand what I'm saying?
Sim: I know what you're talking about.
S. Weisz: It's understanding the distinction between the things you have control over and the things you don't, and for the things you don't, just let it slide off.
Sim: I think there is like the God version of that-
S. Weisz: There must be a-
Sim: ... like, God, God give me the strength to be the best at whatever I do, and the will to accept what I can't control, or something like that.
S. Weisz: Yeah.
Sim: something like that.
S. Weisz: It's about improving your own, position in the world. Being satisfied with where your influence can have an effect and where it can't, and when it can't, you're not really helping yourself if you stress about it because you can't have any control over it. You're just inviting stress into your life. So, better to-
S. Weisz: ... to chill out.
S. Weisz: Let things be as they may, and worry about the stuff that you can control. And I, I try to live that way.
Sim: Where do you... You have the puzzles here in Chicago, but also online. Where do you share those, and how can people see you and play those puzzles?
S. Weisz: I put games on wherever people want them. Typically, my clients are in Chicago, but I'll... I travel when... when, when people ask me to, so it's not hard for me to g- b- pack my stuff and go. You can learn about everything at mysteryleague.com. And learn about the games I have. And the games I don't have. I'm happy to build stuff... custom, like I do that all the time. That's mostly what I do, right?
Sim: That is your job, right? That's what it is.
S. Weisz: Yeah, building new stuff.
Sim: You also have a dispatch, like a newsletter.
S. Weisz: I have a... I have a newsletter. That, you can see that on the website. It's dispatch.mysteryleague.com is the direct link. I send that out every couple of weeks, and there's a new puzzle in there as well as links to puzzle stuff that I find online. It's fun. I have put a new puzzle on Twitter every day, every weekday.
Sim: Oh, man. How do you do that? [laughs]
S. Weisz: Except for a couple... except for a couple weeks in... for winter break. I honestly have no idea how I do it. I, I started doing it... It suits Twitter perfectly, because I... you can ask I-... the way that I do it is I give you five items and I ask you to add something to the list of items because they all share a certain quality. And so, you have to figure out, a, what the quality is, and then b, another thing that can fit that quality, and what's so great is you're not giving away the answer when you do that. You're just adding more data points for people who are trying to solve the puzzle.
Sim: So, it's sort of a self...
S. Weisz: It's a self-perpetuating puzzle. They start off ea-... like, on Mondays, they're, they're pretty easy, and it's usually like, all of these words can be followed by the word house. I don't say that out loud. That's the pu-... That's the answer to the puzzle. But, here's five words. What do they have in common? And the answer is, they can all be followed by the word house. So, you could respond by saying... You wouldn't say house. You'd respond by saying... Now I can't think of one. [laughs]
S. Weisz: White! You'd say white. If I didn't use white, you'd say white house, or you could say cider house, or you could say…
Sim: Oh, okay. Anything like... Okay.
S. Weisz: Yeah.
Sim: Perfect. Okay.
S. Weisz: and then they get harder from there over the course of the week. And, to answer your question, every day I wake up and I think, "Well, this is the day I run out of ideas.” And somehow I'm still pumping them out. I don't know.
Sim: How long does it take you?
S. Weisz: Sometimes it takes me a couple minutes. Sometimes it takes me like 20 minutes. It shouldn't take me too long because I have... [laughs] I have work to do. But, it's really fun, and, and there's a lot of people who play. I'm on Twitter @pzlr, like puzzler.
S. Weisz: But... with some of the letters missing. And that's where I post that stuff.
Sim: Thank you so much for being here today.
S. Weisz: Thank you so much.