Shinteki Decathlon III

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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.

4 Comments

Thanks, as always, for the detailed writeup, Peter. I'm especially glad that you enjoyed the game; the chefs hope that everyone will enjoy their restaurant, but it's an especially nice bonus when the food critic is pleased. :) A few observations:

Knowledge: The questions that produced the synonym answers formed an acrostic: GREAT NOW EARN YOUR VICTORY PIECE BY PIECE. It was supposed to suggest putting the synonym "pieces" into the logo just as one would put colored pieces into the wheel in Trivial Pursuit. I'm surprised that more people didn't notice this, since the awkward beginnings of many of the questions were painfully obvious to me after massaging them to produce this message. :)

Teamwork: The intersections of the pairs of answers spelled out FIFTH BASE.

Enigma: Yeah, I agree that this wasn't a four-person puzzle, and that it was pretty straightforward. I think that a lot of the top teams, who are used to solving by having flashes of insight rapidly, were caught off guard by this one. I probably wouldn't have done especially well on it either. The teams that arrived at this site later seemed to do the puzzle faster on average, though I'll have to see if the official stats bear this out.

Manipulation: We did think about putting bonuses that could only be seen with 3D glasses in earlier clues. The problem, as you observed, is that most "hidden" 3D stuff is painfully obvious or can at least be interpreted without the glasses. Our GC member who was working on 3D stuff was swamped with outside work, so in the end, we ended up going with a campy presentation with cheap glasses rather than a WOW presentation with the expensive polarized glasses (and, again, I'm not even sure it's possible to write a puzzle where putting on the glasses gives you some WOW that you couldn't have had otherwise. If someone can do it, my hat will be off to them many times over.) I do like that the 3D at least made the Braille dots pop out visually, which is kinda cool.

Teamwork: D'oh! We found that message and were baffled by it. I'm ashamed. Like I said, we had not yet brought our Game. We should totally have been able to parse FIFTH BASE into BASE FIVE.

Manipulation: I did appreciate the "raised" nature of the Braille dots, but stereograms do the same thing. I feel like if you're going to take the trouble to make a 3-D puzzle, you've got to make the payoff worth the fussiness. If all the puzzles had come in color, you might have easily hid 3-D data since teams wouldn't have been looking for it yet. But I also understand how some ideas get simplified by deadlines and other obligations.

Oh, yeah, the other thing I forgot to mention was that we intended teams to solve the Wild Card bonus *after* leaving the site, since the time app was still on the Palm and you could use a stopwatch to get it exactly right. We have one confirmed instance of this - SharkBait did it on their way back to the van, and Jessica called me so I could do a live update of the leaderboard. :)

But yeah, clearly indicating which bonuses were environmental would have been good. In week 1, one team wanted to search the whole beach for bonuses, and I took pity on them and told them not to bother.

As far as bonuses go, assuming someone kept one of the napkins from site 4, all of them (that we saw, at least) were possible off-site. Site 7's bonus was in the Time program, and was available on the PDA after leaving Wild Card.

Knowledge: We were hurt by finding the bonus first. It didn't help at all that the free hints kept pointing us back at the bonus letters, so it was difficult to jump tracks. Also, the majority of the cards broke down into a 4/3 pattern, so we were confused by the one or two that didn't. I eventually figured out the shading step, but even then some of the shapes didn't look like letters.

Teamwork: FIFTH BASE seemed like an attempt at a clever trivia reference, so we tried all sorts of word associations as answers. We spotted this message way before making the dimensions -> numbers connection, so the leap required a hint for us too. Seems like it just should have read BASE FIVE instead.

Classic: (Teamwork too) - we really liked the mini puzzle idea. Having exactly as many puzzles at once as team members is a great way to distribute paper puzzles. It was very natural to finish one or two individually, then collaborate for the remaining minis. The 3D variations of the standard puzzles at classic were tons of fun to work on. We were kind of hoping that the final 4x4x4 cube would come into play for the final answer. We shaded in the pieces and figured out which shapes were represented on the outside faces - this gave us a few extra letter shapes to play with (some Ls and Fs, I think). When someone finally plugged HOT in, there was a bit of "that's it?" here.

Orienteering: Beautiful location, and a nice twist on a normal puzzle. We also thought that BUTTONS seemed like a final answer, since we got it with 4 of the 7 circles decoded. We then were a little annoyed to have to go decode the other 3. When the free hint appeared about looking for commonalities in the answer phrases, I noticed that all but one started with Roman numerals (and we could easily force that one to conform by swapping UNDEFEATED with INVINCIBLE). When that went nowhere, another scan of the answer list exposed the actual solution.

Manipulation: I was having a bad 3D day. I knew better than to try and see the stereograms at Teamwork, but the red/blue glasses didn't work for me either. It turned out to be much faster to just ignore them and look at the direction of the blue shadow on each dot manually. I do like construction puzzles, so mostly enjoyed this one - just wanted a bit more solving than simply "doing".

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