Paparazzi was a strange game for me. Once my allergy kicked in, my focus shrank to encompass my nose and very little else. I'm not even sure I've remembered the clues in the proper order. My perceptions of the Game come through a mucus-tinged filter.

Aside from my discomfort, there were a few noteworthy things about this Game. My team, Briny Deep, finally scored a first-place finish (and what a boost for my ego that it happened in a Game where my level of contribution was lowest). Let me tell you, it is far more exciting to be in the lead than to be anywhere else in the pack. We're used to arriving at a clue site and finding the Scoobies, Burninators, Blood and Bones, or Advil already there or there-and-gone. Nothing gets the blood pumping as much as arriving first at a clue site, except perhaps leaving first. We were strong right out of the gate, and were nipping at Blood and Bones' heels for much of the pre-dinner Game. We didn't rush dinner, so we left after some other teams, but we caught up to and passed them at the late-night poker clue and stayed in first place from then on. It was a real thrill to arrive at a clue site, solve the clue, and leave before any other team arrived.

Most of the puzzles in this Game were simple. By that I don't mean that they were easy per se, but rather that they didn't require obtuse leaps of insight, masochistic levels of grunt work, or multiple stages to navigate. While some were a bit too basic or familiar, most felt elegant in their simplicity. Most importantly, they were fun to solve. Solving a puzzle quickly-- without being at a site for over an hour, say-- is both satisfying and energizing. You feel like you're moving forward, making progress, and not falling behind.

For the first time in our experience, a Game faced the problem of the top teams getting way, way ahead of GC's expected schedule. Games typically end around 4-6 PM on Sunday. We arrived at the finish around 10:40 AM. The Burninators were only ten minutes behind us, and by 12:30 six other teams had arrived. But I don't think the next wave of arrivals started until about 3. There was a very large and distinct gap between the front and the rest of the pack. There have always been teams who have outperformed, but when they stop becoming the anomaly and the field splits into two clearly separated groups, that's a huge problem for organizers to deal with. Teams start arriving at sites that aren't open yet, or a GC equipped to handle five sites simultaneously finds itself with teams at seven or eight. For most GCs, the big problem is what to do about teams that are falling too far behind the expected schedule. Now they'll also have to plan for teams who get too far ahead.

XX-Rated handled this as best they could. They skipped trailing teams over some sites, which is the standard way to close the gap. A couple of clues were designed to be adjustable to slow teams down or speed them up. GC took full advantage of this, holding teams at one location for over four hours with hyper-accelerated dance pad puzzles. In one case things just slipped through the cracks, and the top team idled for an hour (and another team-- us-- waited twenty minutes) until a site could be staffed. Everyone on XX-Rated felt terrible about the scheduling snafus, but as part of a team that was always on the front lines of the problem it never really bothered us. There was some waiting, but we understood why and we'd much rather be breaking things from the front of the pack than be skipped from the back.

I know what it's like to have things in your Game go differently from how you planned them. I beat myself up over things that didn't go quite right in The Mooncurser's Handbook, but the truth is that those things didn't matter to most players. The little bumps are forgotten amid the overwhelming number of other things that go right. XX-Rated did a terrific job. Did everything go perfectly? No. But players had fun, and that's what's important. This was a solid Game, and everyone on our team enjoyed themselves a lot (modulo allergy problems-- future GCs, please no more Napa!). We're grateful to XX-Rated for all their hard work.

Here's a rundown of the clues.

Fashion Show: A series of LED displays that seemed to be blank. In fact they were infrared, and could only be seen on the LCD screens of digital cameras. Our team couldn't help but laugh because we had planned a puzzle for Mooncurser's that took advantage of this same property, but the location got cut. Unfortunately, with all teams present at the same time, there was little in the way of "aha" here-- any team that didn't know about this property of a digital camera was able to pick it up easily from the activities of everyone else.

Headlines: Sets of newspaper headlines. Each headline described a movie, and each movie title contained either a number or a mathmatical operation, allowing each set to resolve to a number in the 1-26 range. This was a fun puzzle well-suited to group solving.

Passport: After filming a brief bit of dialogue (obviously to be used later in a puzzle), we received a passport stamped with circular and rectangular visas from many foreign airports. These formed a Morse message hinting that the duration of each stay was important. When sorted in chronological order, the length of each stay could be converted to letters (1-26), instructing us to remove the Opec countries. Doing so and reading the 3-letter airport codes from those left over yielded the final answer. This was also a very good and thematic puzzle, with each step internally clued and leading to a satisfying finish.

Shoots and Ladders: A checkerboard with letters and velcro dots, onto which variously-sized velcroed "shoots" and ladders had to be properly attached. Playing the game according to provided die rolls spelled out our next destination. This was nicely conceived, although the assembly proved more difficult than we expected until we got the hint that the position of the velcro dots within their squares indicated the direction that the attached shoot or ladder would go.

Grape-stomping and encrypted word search: In an I Love Lucy moment, one of us had to stomp "grapes" (water balloons) while a teammate collected the water until three jugs were filled. Popping those balloons was much harder than it looked-- those suckers kept sliding out from underfoot. Once done, we received a bottle of wine with an encrypted word search on the label and a list of search terms on the inside. Unfortunately an old version of the wordsearch with a spelling error snuck in which slowed us down, and frankly I've seen encrypted wordsearches many times before and this particular version put no new twists on the genre.

Wine menu: A nice multilayered puzzle in the form of a wine menu. Adjectives in the wine descriptions could be paired with adjectives in the names of the wines (e.g. SPICY and KICKIN'). The relationships of these sets can then be mapped onto a watermark of grapes in the background of the menu, which acts as a key to the subtly highlighted grapes around the perimeter. The set graph was an innovative approach that I hadn't seen before, and everything you needed to solve the puzzle was there to be discovered. Very nice.

Discs: The biggest clunker in the Game consisted of a set of seven segmented, transparent discs which had to be colored in and then rotated atop each other such that no transparency remained. Unfortunately there was no system to follow here, just a brute force search among many, many combinations. So many, in fact, that our team finally resorted to writing a computer program to find the right one. Any puzzle that can be solved faster by writing a computer program than by hand-solving has serious problems in this kind of event. For one thing, only one person can manipulate the discs at a time, leaving the rest of the team to watch, wander off, or try to simulate the discs in another medium (or write a computer program...). Each disc had one radial line that was thicker than the rest, and the puzzle would have been tractable if none of the thick lines overlapped each other in the correct configuration, but that wasn't the case. The result was a puzzle that far outstayed its welcome. Many teams got mercifully skipped over this one.

Jigsaw: A jigsaw puzzle and accompanying spaceless cryptogram that was fundamentally broken-- even without spaces, the crypto fell in seconds when plugged into SCBSolver. We assembled the jigsaw before even trying the crypto, but Blood and Bones attacked the code immediately and was gone in two minutes. The image on the puzzle was intended to provide the key to the cipher. Teams definitely got ahead of GC's schedule here.

Marina: At a marina with views of multiple shipyards and engraved monuments all over the place, we received digitally altered photos of these engravings and had to perform the same modifications to another piece of text to produce an answer (so if one photo had a word with the R replaced with ON, we had to do the same to all Rs in our text before applying the next alteration). A nice divide-and-conquer to find the right engravings, then a satisfying solve as we applied the changes.

Typesetting: Four-word sets in which one letter of each word could be changed to form another word, with the resulting changed words having something in common (ex: BED, GREED, MELLOW, BLUR). A four-column grid appeared at the sides of the page, and shading the boxes corresponding to the words whose changed letters are part of PAPERAZZI (a step clued by a message formed from some words that were printed every so slightly bolded) created letters in the grid to form our answer. A good group puzzle to solve over dinner.

Fashion Set: A customized game of Set with five tableaus. A Set tableau is 4x3, making it possible to encode Braille letters by looking at which cards are or aren't used in any sets in the tableau. I felt like I'd seen this puzzle before-- I believe there was a Set puzzle in a recent Microsoft Intern Puzzle Day-- but it was nevertheless fun to do and nicely conceived.

Baseball: At the statue of Willie Mays in front of the SF Giants' stadium we received a baseball "autographed" by many famous players, and a story which put various world cities in a sequence. Close examination of the ball revealed that each signature had a star by it, and that if the baseball was treated as a globe those stars corresponded to the cities in the story. Listing the players in the order of their associated cities and taking the first letter of the first player, the second letter of the second, and so forth produced the answer. Using the baseball as a globe was clever and this was a satisfying solve.

Letters to the Editor: We were given a copy of the current issue of Shape magazine, and a bunch of letters to the editor that didn't make it into print. We had to count the number of words in each letter, then turn to that page in the magazine and find a photo matching the description of the letter's author ("Jumping for Joy", "Reaching for the Stars", etc). Treating that person's arms as semaphore flags yielded the answer. Counting words was a pain, but could at least be parallelized across the team and was something even I, in my allergy daze, could help with.

Girlz Dance Mix: An empty CD case with thirteen sets of four words on the back. Each set had some common characteristic, and one word in each set didn't belong. Each of those words, when the right letter was added, could be anagrammed into a woman's name. Those extra letters could then be arranged to form the answer. It was here that the nicer clothes we'd been told to bring came into play, as our team was ushered into a limousine and driven to a downtown dance club where we had to find and dance with the right person to get the CD that went along with the initial case. Each track on that CD contained a woman's name, giving you a hint about what to do with the odd-man-out words and an order in which to read the added letters. Our team, however, solved the puzzle without the CD-- but we went along for limo ride anyway. For one thing, GC needed us to so we wouldn't get even farther ahead of schedule. For another, we'd all brought the nicer clothes as felt like we'd might as well use 'em. And who's going to turn down a nice limo ride? The payoff for all that effort was lacking, though. Once at the club, we spent very little time inside and didn't have to do anything interesting. We felt like there should have been something more involved going on at the club to warrant all the extra effort taken to get there. A dance marathon, karaoke, an embarrassing group dance, a back-room rendezvous... you get the idea. The puzzle itself was great, but the trappings didn't live up to the promise.

pr0n: A video CD of various animals mating. Each clip's length was in multiples of 5 seconds. Divide the length of each clip by 5 and index into the word for that animal's offspring to get the answer. The clues came a little too quickly here-- I think we'd barely got all the data entered into Excel before the device told us that offspring were important. It would have been nice to have had more time with the puzzle on our own before the hint pushed us into the puzzle's major aha.

photo rebus: At Walgreen's we got a packet of photos culled from teams' applications, with elements of each photo highlighted and notations in the margins. This was a photo rebus, and was pretty easy but fun to solve.

ILM film strip: A film canister retrieved from the campus of Industrial Light and Magic contained a long strip of paper with photos on them, with each photo representing a letter from the phonetic radio alphabet (ALPHA, BRAVO, CHARLIE, etc). This fell in minutes and seemed too basic for a Game.

poker: One team member got some chips and played limit hold 'em against other teams and house players while the rest of the team solved some Paint By Numbers puzzles and the start of a logic puzzle. The Paint By Numbers supplied some info that was missing from the logic puzzle, but not everything. The rest-- parts 2, 3, and 4 of the logic puzzle-- could be purchased for 100 chips, and every so often each team was given a chip infusion-- 10 chips the first time, 20 the next, etc. This was a great stop for our team, since our player had a great run at the table and we managed to guess the info that part 4 would provide, solving the puzzle without ever buying that part. This is where we took the lead, arriving in third place but leaving in first. The activity design had some problems, though, mainly in that only one player could play poker while the rest of the team, once they'd done all they could do on the logic puzzle, sat idle. Since teams were at this site for a couple of hours, that wasn't ideal. Generally you want to keep players busy, not have them sit around waiting. When the waiting is because you're excelling at the Game and are ahead of GC's schedule, you don't really mind. But when the waiting is designed into the very nature of the puzzle, it's much more frustrating. My frustration, of course, was with my nasal passages.

Starcrossed crossword: A simple, star-shaped crossword puzzle in which all occurrances of "STAR" needed to be filled into a single square. The squares adjacent to each star always contained the same letter, and these letters could be anagrammed to spell the answer. Another puzzle that was almost too simple for a Game, but coming right after the marathon poker site it was just the right length to get our energy up again.

Donuts: At a donut shop we got a box of fresh donuts and a newspaper story listing a bunch of actors and their diet plans, each of which contained a number. Each actor had appeared in a movie whose title could be matched to one of the donuts (TWISTER for a twisted donut; BLUE CRUSH for a blueberry donut; etc). The numbers indexed into the movie titles, and the arrangement of the donuts gave us the order in which to read them. And then we ate the donuts. The puzzle required IMDB, but the donut shop had free wireless (supposedly-- it wasn't working when we were there, but we hitched a ride on The Burninator's mobile network. Thanks, guys!).

Stanford: The slowdown from hell. Upon arrival we found a room full of computers set up with dance pads, and were told we needed to complete five different dance games (traditional DDR, a Simon-like memory game, Whack-a-Mole, trivia, and a maze). Only one person from each team could be dancing at a time, but our team could have a second dancer thanks to our nifty application. The problem? Each of the games was hellaciously fast. Andrew's almost good enough at DDR to pass as an Asian teenager, and even he had trouble nailing the dance game. Not only did you have to succeed, but you had to record the series of arrows so you could transcribe them onto a map of the Stanford campus, where each path led you to a bag of tiles. We arrived at 4 AM. We were the first team to leave, at 8:20 AM. That's a LONG time. GC needed to keep teams there for logistical reasons, which is why the games were set to such a high speed. But it was very frustrating, and I imagine it was even more so for teams who could have only one dancer. As more teams arrived and all the stations filled, teams had to switch off to give each other a turn. It would have been agonizing, except that no teams were being allowed to leave anyway-- so even if we'd been able to solve everything, it wouldn't have done us any immediate good. Knowing that made repeated failure tolerable. At 7 AM they reduced the speed a bit, and they planned to do so again at 9. After all the practice at insane speeds, we finished the games we were missing as soon as the speed dropped. The tiles were a straightforward, 4-sided domino assembly puzzle that went smoothly. Once assembled and inverted, the other side showed a photomosaic of Donkey from Shrek composed of real and cartoon animals. Each title contained six tiny photos in 2x3 grid, and the animated/real status of each photo created Braille letters spelling the final clue.

Word association strips: A set of vertical and horizontal strips with word chains, with some words missing in each chain. When properly filled in, some words appeared on multiple strips. Overlap those strips to form letters. This puzzle bugged me because I would have designed it such that all the overlaps happened on words that needed to be filled in, and in this puzzle the overlaps were inconsistent. Some were with two provided words, some with two filled-in words, and some with one of each. That inconsistency was like nails on the chalkboard of my sense of puzzle elegance, and my teammates had to drag me along kicking and screaming. "I see... FOUR... lights!"

Book store: At Borders we got a marked up table of contents where five chapters had been highlighted and annotated to form titles of other books. We had to find those books in the store, where we discovered bookmarks in each one at a certain page. Those five 2-digit numbers could then be strung together to form an ISBN number (my big contribution to the team, with my allergies feeling a little better) of another book, which contained another bookmark with the answer. The concept for this puzzle seemed problematic. There was nobody else in the bookstore when we did this puzzle so we had no problems, but with multiple teams there at once it seemed like it would be impossible to solve this without giving it away to other teams nearby.

Erin T's gossip: A gossip column in which the Scrabble hook EINRST was anagrammed multiple times, along with one other letter, into words incorporated into the text. This one fell in minutes and was just a blah puzzle. We've seen the same basic concept of spotting anagrams within a larger text before (Shinteki: Untamed, for example), and like the encrypted word search this puzzle simply added nothing new. It was also a pure aha. Our team saw it very quickly, but if a team didn't spot the anagrams there was no internal cluing to guide them. I'd have cut this one (but then, having too many puzzles wasn't a problem this time).

Casting call video: All of the snippets videotaped the day before got spliced together to create an argument between two characters. Each snippet contained a quote from a movie, and we had to identify the actor or actress who was doing the talking and read the first letters of their last names. We nailed the last 7 solidly but had a bunch of misidentifications up front. We were very solid on _OLLF_______ACTRESS though, and Kenny just focused on that and pulled MOLL FLANDERS ACTRESS out of his butt, and sure enough ROBIN WRIGHT was correct. It's always fun seeing your teammates and friends on film and identifying the quotes was fun, but this was the third IMDB puzzle in the Game and that's really too many, even for a Game with a paparazzi theme. Note to future GCs: In a Game environment, where wireless access can be spotty and not necessarily available to all team members, puzzles where the gating function is database access are perhaps not the best idea.


Your reviews are always a pleasure to read, and highlights of the Game experience in their own right. I pretty much agree with everything you've said here; my own review is up at

It's really hard to plan for the faster teams. I was astonished when Snakes on a Plane chewed through every single puzzle in TAZ, including all of the "slowdown" puzzles, and I was relieved that they never truly got ahead of the schedule. (Darcy and I had joked about an emergency "now you sit quietly for an hour" puzzle for the Burninators, although they didn't turn out to be the problem reptiles that time.) I also learned that a lot of teams hate being skipped, especially when it's explicit. It's a tough balance to strike, and I don't have a great solution, short of giving the fastest teams a figurative or literal giant rubber band ball to gradually undo whenever they're waiting for a new puzzle. And, even then, you know Blood and Bones would demolish it with a rubber band ball solver or just sheer Blood-and-Bones-ness. :)

Congratz on your first place finish!

There was a very large and distinct gap between the front and the rest of the pack.

I haven't run any Games before, but one of my puzzlehunt teammates often puts all the solve times into excel and makes a nifty chart of solves-over-time out of it. What is relevant here is that there's always a small pack at the top, a big gap, and then the rest of the teams. The lead pack has been growing in recent years, but the effect remains.

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