August 2007 Archives

Yes, the money. No question. But the other reason to go on a television game show is for the thrill ride of the experience. It's fun. It was just as much fun at the Play It! attraction at Walt Disney World. The crowd, the music, the drama, the tension-- that's juice, baby. As thrilled as I was to win big bucks, I couldn't help but be disappointed about not reaching the top prize. Not just for the money, but for the potential loss of future opportunities to play. The better I did, the greater the chance of being invited back for a tournament of champions or as a Wise Man. A chance to win more money would be great, but I'd do it even with no prize at stake. Playing a high-tension game in front of a live, cheering audience is exhilirating. For a game player like me, it doesn't get much better.

That tournament of champions may never happen, but Millionaire producer Michael Davies is behind a meta-tournament on Game Show Network called Grand Slam. Sixteen of the best players from game show history compete for $100,000 and bragging rights in a terrific high-pressure showdown. Sadly, despite winning more than some of the competitors, I wasn't invited. A shame, because I'd be really good at this format.

The game is played in four rounds-- trivia, numbers and logic, words and letters, and a final round combining all three. Players each get a minute on their chess clock, and time inexorably ticks away from one side or the other. A correct answer stops a player's clock and starts his opponent's. Incorrect answers, including "Pass!", incur no penalty beyond the time it takes quizmaster Pat Kiernan to read the correct answer and move on to another question. When one player's clock expires, the other carries his remaining time over to round four. Whoever wins that final decisive round advances in the tournament.

This is not a game for the faint of heart. It calls for extremely quick thinking, recall, and the ability to triage questions on the fly and recognize which are time sinks better passed than deliberated over. The numbers and logic round is particularly troublesome for many players, having earned their cash on the merits of their trivia or word skills. The roster reads like a Who's Who of modern game shows, and it's been fascinating to watch top players duke it out.

The broadcast could use some trimming. They seem to be going for the Iron Chef effect of comedically overwrought gravitas, but it doesn't really work. Dennis Miller seems out of his element calling the play by play, and his co-host Amanda Byram rarely has anything insightful to offer. Kiernan is stellar as always, but his banishment off-screen is baffling. In his recent stint on The World Series of Pop Culture he's demonstrated some great timing and charm, loosening up quite a bit since his run on the ill-fated Studio 7. If we can't trim out all the fluff and pack more game into the show-- expanding each player's clock by 30 seconds would make me very happy-- I'd love to see Kiernan in the booth as Miller's foil.

The rules could also use a little tweaking. Each player begins the match with three Switches which bounce a question to the other side. An opponent is allowed to Switch right back, however, and strategically that's going to be the right play virtually every time. They'd be far more interesting if a player couldn't Switch back, but rather had to give a correct answer before he could use a Switch of his own.

Game Show Network is running these every Saturday, and will run the whole shebang as a marathon before the final match on September 8, which should be a doozy. I hope GSN brings this back next year for another season, because it's got great drama and a high play-along factor. And hey-- Michael Davies-- put me in, coach-- I'm so ready to play!

Comments (4) | last by Nathan, Aug 28, 3:58 PM

What's in a Name?

I have to choose a gamertag, and I'm coming up empty. I've already rejected "Static Zombie" as being too long and unwieldly-- I'd rather have something a little pithier. Suggestions welcomed. Save me from being Peter2488.

Comments (10) | last by Other Jeff, Sep 17, 6:53 AM

Shinteki Decathlon III

Another year, another Shinteki. This was the third Decathlon so I won't belabor the format-- see my report on the first Decathlon for details.

As usual, the organizers continued to tweak the format to good effect. This year we were told in advance when certain sites would close, so we could budget our time accordingly if we wanted to make it to all the clues. Partial answers now awarded partial credit, and some hint prices decayed over time so that the longer you worked on something, the cheaper it became to get unblocked.

As in the last Decathlon, each puzzle had a hidden bonus puzzle associated with it. Some bonuses were given in plain sight, others were hidden at the clue location, others had to be ferreted out by careful investigation, and still others were merely implied by the clue data. Each bonus was 15 points (regular puzzles were worth 100), and gave teams something extra to do during drives or if they found themselves idle at a clue site. I thought these were a great idea, and they were executed much better than last time, but I'd have liked to have known in advance if a bonus was obtainable only at the clue site (as at sites 4 and 7) so that a) we could decide to look for it before leaving, and b) we wouldn't waste time searching for it later. Notes for Decathlon 4.

I thought this event was solid from every angle, but especially in its theming. There was no story, but the overall theme of "time, space, and multiple dimensions" came through in virtually every clue, often in clever ways. As always it ran smoothly, the puzzles were fair and entertaining, and the overall vibe was mellow and social. And sending six of the 24 teams (three of which finished in the top 5), Seattle was there to Represent.

Sprint: "String Theory": Three teams were tied together by colored ropes, and everyone had to work together to untangle themselves. We might have finished sooner, but one team in our group was short-handed and so a fourth member was supplied by the organizers and instructed to just stand there and not help. Having one person anchored in place is handicap enough, but when that person is six foot fourteen, comedy ensues.

Knowledge: A stack of Trivial Pursuit-like cards. The questions on each card resolved to either a synonym of antonym of one of the Decathlon events (KNOWLEDGE, AIM, etc). The Shinteki symbol appeared on the back of each card, with each color of the symbol matching the color of a question category. Coloring in only those sections matching the colors of questions resolving to synonyms, and leaving the antonyms blank, created (highly stylized) letters spelling the answer. The trivia fell easily and we found the bonus in no time. We realized each card had two groups of answers quickly, but the puzzle answer eluded us. We took longer than we should have because when we first tried the correct approach we didn't see them as letters, so we spent a lot of time trying to make the data into binary values.

Teamwork: A set of four mini-puzzles at Golden Gate Park. Three were easy: a set of digital clocks with their states inverted, a word puzzle with a spiral grid and overlapping answers, and a table holding objects whose cross-sections form letters. The stereocube-- four stereograms taped to each side of a central square, was what gave us trouble. The images popped easily for me, and gathering the data-- each stereogram showed a 4x4 grid with circles at four different heights, spelling the word DOWN-- was simple. Interpreting it, on the other hand, was a problem. It was presented as a cube, which suggested to us that the four sides would work together somehow. We wanted to project the depth information back into the cube, but nothing we tried made any sense. Once we finally caved and took a hint to tell us to treat each side separately, we were able to see that if each side was a physical object and you looked down on it from above, the projections formed another set of letters. We were essentially doing the right thing, but we were only looking at the combination of all the data instead of each side separately. By the time we got to the final puzzle, a series of clue pairs to phrases with POINT, LINE, PLANE, SPACE, or TIME in them (representing 0-4 dimensions) our time for the entire site was nearing expiration. We tried creating a 5x5 alphabet grid and using the values as coordinates, but when that didn't work we took hints rather than waste more time. I'm not sure if we'd have hit upon the right approach-- base 5-- on our own, since base 5 is rarely used in puzzles (but it's totally fair game). So we finished this site wondering when we were going to bring our game, because we'd clearly left it somewhere else thusfar.

Enigma: Volunteers grilled hot dogs for everyone at a park while we solved a contraption made of PVC pipes holding various colored marbles. By picking up the object and rotating it freely, we could see the marbles pass by small holes in the pipes. Each marble was locked into a letter-shaped subsection of the maze-like device, and we needed to figure out those letters. This was really just a two-person puzzle, with one person rotating the maze and another inserting a pen into a hole to trap marbles as they rolled past and record the data. But while two people worked the gizmo, the other two could eat. Andrew and Dave developed a system and got irritated when Jeff and I tried to help, so I broke out TEA and started plugging in letters as they got found. The order of the letters was given to us by a string of balloons nearby, so once we had 5 letters we fuzzed the other 3. We might have been done sooner, but the orange and red balls got confused under the gray skies and our data was corrupt until we sorted that out. I didn't love this clue. Physical puzzles are always good, but this one suffered from two main problems-- it wasn't possible for all of us to work on it at once, and there wasn't much of a puzzle. We knew from the get-go what we needed to do, we just had to go through the process and do it. That's fine when the process is fun or interesting, but this was more tedious than entertaining. Something bigger that required two people to manipulate, one to trap marbles in holes, and a fourth to record the data would have been more successful, I think.

Classic: A packet of four mini-puzzles and a bag of interlocking plastic cubes. Each mini was a three-dimensional variation on a classic puzzle form: a maze, paint-by-numbers, minesweeper, and crossword. Solving each was fun in itself, and then we needed to recreate each solution's shape with the cubes and fit them together to determine how to use the leftover pieces to make a final shape to complete the cube. That final shape, when viewed from three different angles, formed three different letters (HAT). Very Gödel Escher Bach. I really enjoyed this clue. The minis were fun individually, the cubes were fun to play with (and we each took home a set!), and the finish was both elegant and thematic. Our team crushed this one, and finally seemed to be gathering some momentum.

Orienteering: Located on the top of a hill with a stunning 360-degree view of the Bay area, this was a great use of the environment. This hilltop featured a number of ~8 foot concrete circles in the ground, each one crosshatched into a 3x3 grid. Seven of them were numbered by GC, and then further annotated with many numbers in tri-colored chalk. Each number was oriented toward one of the four cardinal directions of the grid. The puzzle was called Conferencing, and given grid on each circle it wasn't hard to leap to phone-spell. We were decoding in minutes. At each circle, you had to stand on each side of the grid and look at only those numbers that were right-side-up from that vantage point. Each orientation contained an unbroken sequence from 1 up. The location of the number indicated a phone key, and the color indicated a letter from that key. Each circle therefore yielded a four-word clue, like CRUSTACEAN FRIED INTO PATTIES (CRABCAKES). Highlighted letters in the answers spelled BUTTONS. This, to us, seemed like the final answer, but it was just a partial. We were stumped about where to go next. Fortunately, the next hint became free after a few minutes and got us on the right track. Each answer contained the letters from a phone key (CRABCAKES). Using different letters from the same keys, we could form a different word which was the final answer. This last step was certainly tightly related to the rest of the puzzle, but since the entire puzzle involved phone buttons the partial of BUTTONS felt more like a final answer than a clue. I'd have liked it much better if the clue had been something like FIND BUTTONS or USE BUTTONS. That said, this was a terrific puzzle and an excellent example of how to incorporate the features of a location into puzzle design. We rocked it.

Wild Card: Masters of Space and Time. More an activity than a puzzle, this site had teams split in half. The masters of time needed to count to 100 seconds without the help of a chronometer. The masters of space had to walk to a target blindfolded. The former was pretty easy for Andrew, our man with rhythm, who used Stars and Stripes Forever as his mental metronome. The latter would have been close to impossible if the target hadn't been set up on the edge of a patch of dry grass, which let us "feel" our way to the right place. Meh. It was what it was, and I was happy to move on after each half of our team got a perfect score on our third tries.

AIM: Though we were given a copy of the game Laser Battle with this clue, we wound up not needing it. Cards depicted a game board configuration of mirrors and an arrow showing where the laser was firing. We needed to add a mirror somewhere to create a 10-bounce sequence ending at the indicated target. The locations of these mirrors mapped to letters on a final grid, spelling FLAGS OVER X. There was only one X on the letter grid, and each board's laser path crossed it. Treating the laser beam at that spot as semaphore gave us our final answer. We solved this in an hour at Red Robin, including eating time. Since the puzzle was so solveable without the game, I think including the game formed more of a distraction than an asset and made the whole thing seem less elegant.

Manipulation: Construct a polyhedron from a set of numbered squares and triangles. Put on the supplied 3-D glasses and see a path connecting the faces. Read Braille on the tabs connecting the faces in the order of the path. Done. This puzzle was something of a let-down. There was nothing about the 3D in this puzzle that couldn't have been done with a stereogram (which we'd already seen earlier in the event), so it felt anticlimactic. If you're going to use 3-D glasses, the payoff should be better. The path was visible even without glasses, so the 3-D effect added nothing to the puzzle. This was another case of being told exactly what to do and then just needing to plug through it, with very little creative thinking required. This would have been a great opportunity to hand us 3-D glasses and tell us to review our past puzzles, where we could have discovered 3-D data popping out all over the place that we hadn't been equipped to see before. The puzzle just wanted some better reason for using 3-D.

Endurance: Two lists of clues for 9-letter answers, two fill-in grids. The answers in each list were in alphabetical order, an essential aid in disambiguating possibilities. Once the grids were filled, nine words remained. Flavor text suggested these words would go "between dimensions" and connect the two grids, and sure enough at nine key intersection points you could bridge the grids with the leftovers-- some running from grid A to B, others from B to A-- and read the letters in the third positions of the resulting dimensional bridge. A solid, thematic puzzle, you say? Absolutely, but it gets better. All of the answers that fit horizontally had exactly one D. All the answers that fit vertically had exactly two Ds. And the nine answers bridging the grids had exactly three Ds. A brilliant bit of highly constrained puzzle design, to not only find enough nine-letter words with the correct properties but to arrange them so the grid could be completed unambiguously even if the solver didn't know about the 1-D / 2-D / 3-D property. Our time management fell apart here-- as we neared the end of the event, we should have started taking hints to ensure we finished in time. Instead, we were so focused on solving that the idea didn't occur to us until it was too late to capitalize on the information. We finished about 30 minutes after time expired. If we'd taken the hints right away, we might have solved it in time, which would have given us the points we needed to take first place. D'oh! After all the spatial puzzles, I was thrilled to finally get a meaty word puzzle squarely in my wheelhouse and only wish it had come a little earlier in the event so we'd have had the satisfaction of finishing before the deadline. Despite its familiarity-- it was essentially a standard fill-in puzzle with an impressive construction constraint and a final twist-- this was probably my favorite puzzle of the event.

Kudos to Just Passing Through for another terrific event. It's been years since Jackpot, folks-- aren't you itching to run another full-length Game? We'll be the first to sign up.

Comments (4) | last by Derek, Aug 7, 11:25 AM