Shinteki: Decathlon II

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The pirates of Briny Deep made port in the east Bay area of California last weekend for the latest 12-hour puzzle event from the good people of Shinteki: Decathlon II. And the operative word for the weekend was HOT. The west coast is in the throes of a heat wave (even here in Seattle, where it's a balmy 90 degrees by day and a scant 82 at midnight). The heat dragged all teams down, making it difficult to find a comfortable place to sit down and solve. While everyone would have preferred a few clouds, the overbearing heat didn't deter players from enjoying the well-organized event.

Briny Deep fell victim to a classic (for us) blunder, letting a single bad data point deter us from pursuing the correct path. The 60-90 minutes we lost on that puzzle wound up being costly, as we ran out of time and failed to reach the final puzzle or solve the penultimate one. That sent us from a possible first place finish to third.

But enough about us. You want to hear about the puzzles.

Sprint: A four-part relay on the athletic field/track of Merritt College. One team member had to work with players from three other teams to solve an oversize jigsaw puzzle, then run a lap. Yes, even in the absurd pre-noon heat. The next team member had to solve a Rubik's cube (we'd been prewarned about this and provided with solving algorithms), then run a lap. The third team member (me) had to eat twelve saltines without any water, then run a lap. The final team member had to research six facts in a provided World Almanac, but no lap was required. Aside from the cube, which some teams had great trouble with (Andrew solved ours in about 4 minutes), none of the tasks was very hard and it was fun to heckle from the stands and cheer on our teammates. I could have done without running the laps, however-- really, the last thing I want to do before spending the rest of the day in a van with three other people is get all of us sweaty. Good times. To their credit, the Shinteki crew spent less time than normal on an introductory spiel (and the heat silenced any hecklers in the crowd, who probably sensed that their rapier wit played better to an audience that wasn't medium rare) and got us going as soon as possible.

Classic: An acrostic. I do loves me the word puzzles. The twist to this one was that the grid consisted of the names of gold medalist decathletes (for which the alamanc from Sprint came in handy). Making that connection was a nice little aha moment, and since three copies of the puzzle were provided, it was easy for everyone on the team to contribute.

Orientation: The delivery for this clue was a little odd. We received it at the Berkeley Rose Garden, but the text of the clue included a conceptual street map of nearby Emeryville. With all of the intriguing placards of rose species throughout the garden, it seemed very bizarre to us that we'd just pick up a clue at this location and then immediately leave without doing anything else. But that's exactly what we were expected to do, and 5 minutes later a free hint told us as much. Why not send us directly to Emeryville and give us the clue at one of the places on the map? A cool thing about the puzzle itself is that it had us doing something we'd never done before-- gather data by driving around the city. We cruised the designated area in search of utility boxes bearing stick figures engaged in various mysterious activities. When we found an intersection that had such a box, we extracted a letter from the corresponding square of the map grid. A simple puzzle but one that all of us in the (blissfully air-conditioned) van were able to contribute to without leaving the (blissfully air-conditioned) van. Woohoo!

Manipulation: This was a really nice puzzle. We were given a set of hard plastic strips and ball-shaped connectors, and we had to assemble them into an icosahedron. Each strip was numbered and had something written on each end-- a city, food, mayor, year, or landmark. When properly assembled, all the items related to the same Olympic city would be attached to the same connector. Once that was assembled, we had to identify each face of the icosahedron by the sum of the values on its three edges. An accompanying clue had lists of these values, and we needed to roll the die from value to value according to that list to draw letters in the final answer. A very good team puzzle and a fun way to construct an object. It also contained a good implied puzzle-- once the die was assembled, how do you associate each sum with a face to facilitate rolling? After chuckling at the Burninators' frenzied attachment of numbered slips of paper to the struts, we wound up doing the same thing.

AIM: More Rubik's Cube fun. Now that we all had an unscrambled cube, we needed to label it in a certain way and then manipulate it to duplicate 18 patterns. As it turned out, each pattern could be created by finding the appropriate face (which, on a Rubik's cube, is always the color of the center square) and then rotating the rightmost column 1-3 turns. We initially tried finding a message on the final cube, and one face read "EXIT". But the hint device told us that was inconsequential. Next we reset the cube and tried to extract a message from the new letter brought into view to create each pattern, but that gave us garbage. Finally we tried the right approach, which was to look at the old letter being rotated off of the designated face, instead of the one being rotated onto it.

That brought us to a new location where we were given a reflective, filmy square and told to use it to look inside our problem. Also at the site was a giant metal cube, each face a solid color matching a Rubik's Cube. Three other teams were also at the site, and none had yet figured out what to do. Within seconds of getting our film, Andrew slapped the thing down on the surface of the giant cube and PRESTO-- letters appeared on the film, which reacted to magnets inside the cube. By moving the film around the cube, we revealed different letters beneath the surface at the same positions as the letters on our smaller cube. Unfortunately, we made another classic blunder-- leaving the van without a writing utensil or clipboard. By the time we rectified that problem, the other teams had gravitated toward the cube and there was no way for us to get our information without revealing the secret to the other teams. So we just shrugged, told the other three teams they owed us, and slapped down the film to start taking notes. Once we had that info, all we needed to do was replace the letters in our initial answer from the small cube with the letters from the same locations on the bigger cube to get our final answer.

Knowledge: A CD contained "news broadcasts" describing fictitious Olympic scandals in which medal winners in various events were found guilty of cheating. Their countries of origin weren't stated directly, but were clued obliquely. We had to transcribe the key data-- events, medals, and clues-- and then solve for the countries. Then we were stumped. We knew the medals were indices-- 1 for gold, 2 for silver, 3 for bronze. But indexing into the countries or the event names produced garbage. We banged our heads on this for over an hour, finally stopping to get a bite to eat and try to figure out what we were missing. We listened to the messages again and I noticed that "platform diving" had been transcribed as just "diving". When the event indexing looked like garbage (IILEDGEAL), Andrew had abandoned that approach partway through the data. This changed the second indexed letter from I to P, giving us IPLEDGEAL, which suddenly looked more promising. We finished the indexing and got I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE, kicking ourselves for not being thorough in the first place since we would have spotted ALLEGIANCE at the bottom of our data had we just completed the process. I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE clued us in to look at the flags of the clued nations. The fact that RINGS was the only repeated event in the puzzle and was clearly set apart from the others by spacing suggested that Olympic Rings were important. Putting two and two together, we realized that each flag contained some of the 5 colors of the Olympic rings, and that allowed us to convert the flag into 5-bit binary values, and thus letters.

Enigma: A yellow piece of paper curled inside a sealed tube, meant to suggest a urine sample, held our next clue-- seemingly a cryptogram. The flavor text about drug tests had us trying to decrypt the text as names of steroids or other drugs, but that went nowhere. Then Dave and I simultaneously noticed that in the two lines of flavor text, "justify" happened to be directly over "right". The light bulb went off, and we typed in each word of the puzzle text and justified everything to the right. Sure enough, one column of the text gave us a message, telling us how to decrypt the text. Doing so revealed a message in another column, telling us to Caesar shift all the letters in yet another column. That gave us instructions to shift yet another column, and so on, until we finally got an answer string.

Wild Card: A stash of arcade tokens led us to mini-golf course where we had to earn 400 tickets in redemption games to earn our next clue, a pack of baseball cards with Shinteki players on them (each team had been asked to send in photos of their members in baseball poses), and the scorecard for a fictional baseball game. We immediately set about extracting all the key data from the cards: the players' fake names, their positions, the numbers they were assigned, and the location of the baseball icon on their card (left, center, or right). There were 26 players, and their first names all began with a different letter of the alphabet. Eureka, an order. Now for their last names. If their baseball was on the left side, take the first letter of their last name. If it was on the right, take the last letter. Players with a ball in the center had the same first and last letters, so it didn't matter which one was used. That gave us a message telling us to construct a sudoku grid. The two numbers assigned to each player represented grid coordinates, and in baseball each position is associated with a number from 1 to 9. Plugging each player's position number into the grid at their given coordinates gave us our givens, and then we had to solve the grid. We'd used all our baseball card data, so now it was time to look at that scorecard, which showed the score for each inning. We noticed that only one team scored per inning. If the top team scored, say, 4 runs in inning 1, we needed to extract the 4th number down from column 1. If the bottom team scored 6 in inning 2, we needed the sixth number from the bottom in column 2. This gave us a 9-digit number. The final step was realizing that the digital font used for the scoreboard values was a hint-- we needed to turn our 9-digit number upside-down like a calculator and read the digits as letters for our final answer. We liked this puzzle right up until the scorecard. Unless you knew that you had to read the number upside-down, there was no way to be sure that you were doing the right thing with your number extraction. I'm sure many teams just extracted the nth number from each column from the top down-- going bottom-up for the bottom team was an arbitrary and unnecessary wrinkle. And our first guess was that each number would turn into a letter from A-I, so nothing seemed like it was working. An additional built-in hint for the calculator trick was called for here, I think, instead of relying on teams to make that leap from just the font.

Endurance: We had less than an hour remaining when we got to this puzzle, so we took more hints than we would have normally (and still finished about 5-10 minutes too late to get credit), so it's hard for me to judge the puzzle's fairness. I loved the presentation, which was an album-like sheet of poster board with a 10x10 grid of photographs. If you correctly identified the 10 photos across the top, the first letters spelled CATEGORIES. The idea was that the photos could be divided into ten different categories, with ten photos per category. Each picture had a ten-letter name. Create a 10x10 grid for each category, with each item listed in the order found in the grid, and the main diagonal of each grid gave you another 10-letter word. Recurse, putting all of these new words into another 10x10 grid, and you got the final answer. We had a number of problems with this puzzle. We never got all the categories correct, we had no idea who some of the people in the photos were, and some pictures could have gone into multiple categories. Differentiating became a matter of "the only way for us to get 10 items in category A is if photo X is an A instead of a B," which isn't very satisfying and feels messy. Category-based puzzles are very hard to construct without this kind of ambiguity. This ambiguity made the photos we couldn't identify even more frustrating, because we couldn't say for sure what category they went into. This seemed like it would have been a better puzzle for a puzzle hunt environment. The group-participation phase of identifying the photos was much less than half the solving time. Once that phase ended, the Excel phase began and it was hard for more than 2 people to be engaged. That's fine in a puzzle hunt with multiple puzzles happening in parallel, but in a Game I want the Excel phase to be small so that everyone on the team is having fun.

Teamwork: Time ran out before we could get to the final puzzle, although we took a copy home with us and look forward to solving it later-- possibly as a warm-up the night before Hogwarts in September.

Despite the withering heat, I thought this was a great event. The puzzles were a varied mix and generally excellent, and the entire course was packed into a manageably small area for minimal drive times. I was somewhat disgruntled after Shinteki: Untamed a year and a half ago, but Shinteki: Decathlon and Shinteki: Decathlon II were both solid, entertaining events. The easy availability of hints at your own pace make the Shinteki events very newbie-friendly, so if you've been intrigued by my puzzle event exploits I encourage you to find a trio of like-minded friends and take a weekend vacation to the Bay Area the next time the Shinteki wagon pulls into town (although with Shinteki principals Linda and Brent's impending baby, that might be a while). I continue to look forward to future Shinteki offerings.

2 Comments

"...[W]e realized that each flag contained some of the 5 colors of the Olympic rings..."

Every national flag contains at least one of the five Olympic ring colors, by design: That's how the ring colors were selected. Using that to encode a letter as a five-bit value is absolutely brilliant. Now I'm going to go make a list of everything else that comes in sets of five.

Taft had a very good time playtesting. I'm in exactly the same boat (yarrrrr!) as you; I was kinda disappointed with Untamed, but I've had a blast with the two Decathlons. I missed the element of friendly competition this time around, though. Don't be surprised if we show up as your ninja rivals sometime (and yes, I know it has been done before!)

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