Justice Unlimited

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Last weekend I went to San Francisco for the latest Bay area Game, Justice Unlimited. The SF Game community is much larger and more active than Seattle's, and frankly seems more fun. In Seattle all the team names are colors which, while faithful to the source material, aren't much fun. SF teams get more creative with both naming and costuming, with teams like Orange Crush (clad in bright orange), Blinded By Science (wearing sunglasses and lab coats), and the Scooby Doobies (their van is, of course, a replica of the Mystery Machine). The Games themselves are also more publicized, without the cloak-and-dagger don't-talk-about-Fight-Club attitude prevalent in Seattle. All of these things are, in my opinion, Good Things which help make the experience more fun. We are team Briny Deep, the puzzle pirates, complete with pirate shirts, Jolly Roger head wraps, an anchor to toss overboard whenever we pulled up to a clue site, and a hearty "Yarrrrrr!" for all we meet.

At the start of the event, each team was given a groovy custom-made device that strapped to your forearm. It contained a two-line dot matrix display, a knob/button, and an infrared sensor. The device came preloaded with potentially useful information (Morse code, Braille, Semaphore, tide data, ASCII codes, etc), thereby ensuring that each team had any decoding data they might need. Each clue also contained a code which, when input into the device, yielded supplemental information (mostly just for flavor, unfortunately, but very occasionally containing a hint). Puzzle answers were intended to be input into the device as well to produce the next clue location, but sadly that aspect of the device didn't work and teams had to phone in our answers instead.

The event ran from 10 AM Saturday though about 4 PM Sunday and took us all around the Bay area starting at the SF Municipal Pier a stone's throw from Ghiradelli Square. Location-wise, the next stop was one of the coolest: the Bay Model, an enormous scale model of the Bay area used to simulate tidal and other natural effects. Teams had to identify parts of the map by matching line drawings of topography to the right part of the model-- a fun scavenger hunt activity that got all teams moving amongst each other.

Other highlights included the Bat Blinker, a custom-made electronic persistence of vision gizmo supplying an elegantly-designed AHA puzzle; searching the beach at night for a hidden clue, flashlight beams cutting through the mist to create an X-Files-like vibe; a wonderfully collaborative solve on an audio puzzle where high and low sound effects overlaying dialogue from the Daredevil movie mapped to-- what else?-- Braille; a clever puzzle in which multicolored plastic strips had to be threaded through like-colored metal connectors to create letters; and a very nice balancing puzzle involving coins and a ruler.

With very few exceptions (the beach, Bay Model, a mountainside, a park, and a rooftop), however, the locations were largely unremarkable and underutilized. We rarely had to really search for a clue, and consequently our out-of-van exposure at any given location was minimal. I'd have preferred the clues to either be better integrated with the environment or better concealed, so that we interacted with each location instead of just hopping out to grab the clue and then piling back into the van.

A couple of clues really spanked us hard. One, a rainbow jigsaw that had to be cut out and assembled, was just poorly designed. When the pieces were properly assembled, the resulting shape had the same number of rows as the letter grid we were to use to extract an answer, and the shape had irregular square gaps that just screamed to be utilized. Was the shape a physical mask to be overlain on the letter grid? Were the gaps some kind of mathematical encoding to determine which letter to extract from each row? No. They were just noise. Each piece of the puzzle was a different color, and each row of the grid was a color. If the color sequence was red, yellow, purple, orange, purple, green, blue, red, we were supposed to take the first letter from the red row, the second letter from the yellow row, the third from purple, and so forth. That's it. We wasted a lot of time analyzing the gaps which had absolutely no purpose in the puzzle. That's just poor puzzle design-- in this kind of event, where you're working without instructions, you don't throw false leads in front of people that can rathole them for an hour. In fact, you remove as much of that noise as possible to help funnel solvers to the correct approach. This puzzle aggravated us and left us disgruntled when we finally hit on the solution.

We also got spanked by a puzzle incorporating Heroclix figurines. The puzzle itself might have been fine a few hours earlier, but it hit us around 4 AM when our energy was at its lowest ebb. Four of our six players were asleep, and the other two were barely staying conscious. It was ugly-- especially coming off a semaphore puzzle that also spanked us because it appeared to be a completely different sort of puzzle, and consequently we overlooked an important bit of information.

There were some nice opportunities to draw on useless superhero knowledge gained through years of comic collecting in my adolescence-- a crossword puzzle where the clues were superheroes and the answers were their secret identities, and a quiz on superhero origins. I pray no Game ever has a Pokemon or gangsta rap theme.

Team Snout, Game Control for Justice Unlimited, generally did a terrific job. Aside from the DRUID problems (the whole infrared sensor thing never really worked right, either), the puzzles appeared to be error-free and Snout staff were unerringly upbeat and helpful when reached on the phone-- impressive, considering 25 teams were playing the Game (for comparison, only 9 teams played in Shelby Logan's Run in Vegas, the last Seattle-based game). Aside from reporting our answers, we generally called under two circumstances: when we were about to embark on a lengthy decoding process and wanted to make sure it wasn't going to be a blind alley; and when we were stumped and collectively agreed we weren't having fun anymore. Game Control was always happy to unblock us and keep us energized, which was exactly the right attitude.

I look forward to playing in the next Bay area game. If you'd like to join, Briny Deep may have a couple of spots available...

13 Comments

Curse my being on the wrong coast! I loved my Stanford Games, which saw many of the same teams. I dont' suppose anyone knows of a DC/Baltimore Game community? You'd think, with all the government brainiacs around here, we'd have a shot at it...

Thanks for sharing! Fine write-up. :-)

How would you compare this to the other Games you have played - and, if you're feeling daring, the one you have run? I happily remember your lengthy report of one - your first one? - inside TGR.

Wow! That sounds amazing. How did I manage to miss the fact that games like this were going on? I am facinated and must find one on the east coast!

Do you know my friend Mason Kong? He was playing as well on one of the other teams - sorry, not sure which one. Anyway, he has linked to another write-up of the Justice Unlimited Game.

Jodi: I know there's a Game community in New York City, but my Google-fu isn't sufficient to locate it ("ny 'the game'" doesn't exactly narrow the field very well). I'll ask around in other places and see if I can find somewhere to point you.

Chris: Afraid I don't know Mason, but I enjoyed his report.

I know Mason, he plays on the team Puzzle Fighters, captained by a friend of mine, Paul Chou. Great guy!

Peter, you posted on Orkut's games community requesting some info about NYC games; I replied with some stuff (there's a Midnight Madness coming up on August 21st). Looks like it's traditional in the NYC game community for each team name to be a color. If the Red team is the one I'm thinking it is, that's Brett Humphreys of the Crimson Crusaders from JUG.

There will be a full-blown game site dedicated to JUG, with lots of stats, puzzles, solutions, etc. I've seen a preview, will link to it when they go public.

(This is Alexandra of Mystic Fish writing.)

Oh, I didn't realize that the link Mason posted was to a writeup on *my* site - written by the same Brett Humphreys of the Crimson Crusaders of NYC. He actually was going to produce a weekend game in NYC in the summer of 2002, but due to lack of interest, scheduling conflicts, and babies being born, it got shelved. I heard he had written most of the puzzles, maybe with a little encouragement he could be persuaded to put one on!

Forwarding a message from Chainsaw, a member of the NPL, who can be reached at chaneski (at) aol.com. Note that he has room on his team for new people.

[snip]

The Midnight Madness puzzle hunt is an annual late summer event; I don't know who runs it or if it is the same people every year. It has similar elements to both the MIT Mystery Hunt and the Haystack. And differences, duh.

Midnight Madness has no set end time. It begins approx. 8 or 9pm; MM5 ended 2am, MM6 ended 9am. The hunt is generally unthemed, save for a sort of "tour of NY places". It begins at a different starting location every year; MM5 began in Bryant Park, MM6 began at Sara Delano Roosevelt Park. The organizers contact team captains to let them know the starting point a day or two before the event.

The geographic limits are revealed on the night of the hunt. MM is generally limited to a particular section of Manhattan (tho last year's ended in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn). There are approx 20 teams; anywhere from 5-30 people per team. Teams solve puzzles on the run.

Most importantly, the puzzles are generally well done, with an eye toward variety and production values; i.e. puzzles hidden in a bouquet of balloons, a fake "scientist" testing East River water samples, fake newspapers hidden in real newspaper vending machines, etc. The puzzle difficulty about the same as the Haystack or the NPL con extravaganzas.

Like MIT hunts there is sometimes a tendency to overreach. Last year's MM involved a sort of circuit board with LED lights that received instructions from small electronic devices along the route. The LED would flash messages. Great gadget; lousy execution, tho.

The teams seem to me to be composed mostly of college students or slightly older. I daresay, at 39, I was the oldest competitor last year. Maybe I'm wrong.

The team I've registered is Team Purple Haze. We've so far got about 6 people, but more are always welcome.

cheers,
chainsaw

[/snip]

Alexandra: Thanks for the info!

So what skills besides puzzle solving would be necessary for an experience like this? It sounds like fun, but other than the semaphore puzzle you mention, and sports terms that you didn't mention - I'm not sure I would have the experience necessary. I do know SF pretty well and could drive!

-- Danielle

These things are done in teams of 5-6 players, and different team members contribute different skills. More physical members are able to climb hills and dash around at each location searching for the next clue, while more cerebral members wait in the van. There are a bunch of skills that are helpful in a Game. Among them are:

* Recognizing various encoding schemes. Confronted with a series of superhero-related symbols, for example, someone needs to
a) notice there are five groups of symbols (one for each of five heroes)
b) notice there are three different symbols in each group
c) postulate that each symbol might represent a dot, dash, or letter break in Morse code
d) translate the symbols from Morse to English.
The same person does not need to do all of the above. It's a group effort. Making that "aha" leap from "random series of symbols" to "Morse code" is something that becomes easier to do the more experience you have. Certain encoding schemes like Morse pop up again and again, and over time you begin to recognize them even when they're obfuscated.
* Organization. This runs from managing the team's preparations before the game (flights, van rental, gear assembly, etc) to keeping the van from becoming a disaster area during the game, to tracking what ideas the team has tried for a particular puzzle.
* Navigation. It helps if someone knows the local area well, and is fluent in the use of Streets and Trips.
* Brainstorming. Often the biggest part of a puzzle is figuring out what the puzzle is.
* Analysis. See above.
* Focus. Once you know what to do, someone's got to actually do it. Sometimes that's trivial. Other times, it requires maintaining concentration on a set of cryptic symbols by light of your headlamp as the van gets jostled by potholes, painstakingly working from one end of a code to the other.

The best way to get exposed to these kinds of events is to find a group of people already involved with them and ask if you can play on their team in the next one. That way you're piggy-backing on their experience and you're more likely to be successful, and therefore to have a good time. Bear in mind, however, that you'll be cooped up in a van for 30 hours with these folks, so you should find a group that won't drive you insane!

Hey, I enjoyed your writeup of Justice Unlimited.

I wanted folks who are interested in this type of game to know about another spin-off that we play down south (in Arkansas to be exact).

Midnight Madness in Arkansas happens every winter, usually late December, early January. There are typically 8-10 teams of from 4-6 people each. Some teams are seriously dedicated, some are just there for the ride. But the Game Control always puts a ton of time and energy and thought into the game each year.

The tradition is that the winners of the game are charged with designing it for the next year.

If you go to www.meatmachine.org, you'll see some photos and writeups. I am in the process of editing a really cool movie of the last two games, and if Im not done by the end of the year, will wait and edit in this year's game and get it up online sometime early next year.

So anyone in the South around Christmas who wants to stay up all night with rowdy Southern nerds and solve puzzles, give me an email and lets hook it up!

Dave Hill
Team Meat Machine

So Peter, would you consider letting me "tag along" the next time it is the Bay Area? Is there a # of players per team limit? The skills all seem to be things I can do - and to top it, I am super competitive! Okay, so maybe I wouldn't be the best at "keeping the van from becoming a disaster area", but the rest of it I would think I could handle.

Well, keep me in mind if you are hunting for players - it seems like tons of fun!

-- Danielle

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