Because you (yes you, Wei-Hwa) demanded it, a recap of the fourth Shinteki Decathlon, which the fiancee and I played in a couple of weekends ago (on different teams).
This was unquestionably the easiest Decathlon yet. Briny Deep solved all regular clues without taking any hints, missing only two bonus clues. Which isn't to say the event was easy. I think the difficulty level was just right, and most of the clues were solid. In the past, bonus puzzles were hidden inside each other puzzle. While intriguing in concept, in practice they were often very difficult to find and, due to the constraints such a scheme places on their construction, sometimes not very good. The new system dispensed with the hide and seek and gave us a booklet of bonus clues outright, leaving it to us to figure out which ones linked to which main clues and how. This worked out much better, giving teams something tangible to chew on between main clues. Definitely a keeper going forward.
As always, a big thanks to Brent, Linda, Martin, and the entire JPT crew for running the event.
The theme this time was Child's Play, and all of the clues hewed nicely to that theme.
Shintekimon: Teams faced off in rounds of Shintekimon using the traditional Shinteki Palm devices. After naming their Shintekimon, teams could battle each other by using the Palm's beaming ability. The result was anywhere from 0 to 5 rounds of battle, with wins, losses, and ties reported for each round. When we thought we were ready, we could fight the reigning champion, Superstar. Defeating him opened the gate for the team to move on to the next clue. Shintekimon could be renamed at any time, and the more battles you fought, the faster you got hints. We were just converging on the preponderance of Rs and Ss in the various champion names when the hint dropped revealing were were playing Rock Paper Scissors by comparing the names of the two competitors and ignoring all letters except R(ock), P(aper), and S(cissors). Another few minutes and I'm confident we would have hit it on our own. We spent a little too much time blindly battling and not enough analyzing our data. Or too much time analyzing our data and not enough battling and earning hints. Take your pick. A nicely-conceived puzzle that leveraged the presence of all teams and got everyone interacting.
Nursery Rhymes: A long climb up a hill to a scenic view, thus continuing the Shinteki tradition of getting teams sweaty at the start of the event for maximum van ambience. Along the way we encountered reworded nursery rhymes we had to recognize, and at the top we got a double crostic to make sense of them. Entirely straightforward, it would have been nice to have some kind of twist here to spice up the puzzle. Other than recognizing the rhymes, of course, which were all pretty obvious.
Connect Four: A travel Connect Four set with letters written on both sides of the checkers. Each checker indicated which column it belonged to, and the board itself had word separators. A rather clever use of Connect Four, turning a game about dropping checkers in columns into a two-sided drop-quote. Noticing that the blank-on-one-side checkers had only once place they could be gave us our start point, and we made pretty short work of the grid by solving from the bottom up on one side and using the back as a sanity check. The next leap-- recognizing the grid itself as a calendar-- was satisfying, making good use of the seven-column grid size and neatly explaining the blank leading/trailing checkers. A solid puzzle and a fun one to solve as a group.
Red Light, Green Light: To obtain the next clue we played a quick game of Red Light Green Light with a human traffic light-- some quick, childish fun. The clue itself was a set of eight cards, each with a set of eight transinserted (scrambled, along with an extra letter) items. Unscrambling the items identified the extra letters, which themselves formed transinserted members of a ninth set. A classic, recursive puzzle form, and one that is marvelously suited for team solving (unlike, say, a cryptogram or sudoku). I'm a big fan of puzzles composed of self-contained micro-puzzles for that reason. Lay out all the cards and everyone on the team can contribute, calling out answers and filling in the blanks.
Gashlycrumb Tinies: At the Winchester Mystery House we received a copy of Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies and a puzzle derived from it, a set of word balloons containing strings of letters and numbers that looked like cryptic crossword enumerations. No coincidence, that, because each balloon was the result of running a word through a cryptic-style transformation suggested by the manner in which one of the children in the book died. This part of the puzzle was nifty, fun, and a good group solve. The next step-- taking the resulting sequence of children and reading them as binary based on their gender, felt arbitrary and an unnecessary extra layer. The hint for it was on page one of the book, which I looked at in the very beginning and then completely forgot about by the time we needed it. Even had we been staring at the hint the entire time, the puzzle would have been more satisfying without the shift from cryptics to binary. This feeling was exacerbated by the choice of message generated by the first step-- a series of children's names from the book-- which suggested a form of recursion. In fact it was completely arbitrary and could have been many different letter sequences, but the apparent signal of names from the book kept us from searching the book for other clues and rediscovering the binary hint.
Jenga: A set of Jenga blocks and an algorithm for manipulating them. Once we'd completed the algorithm, the blocks themselves formed letters when seen from two of the four sides (since the letters, YAHOO, are left-right symmetrical). Less a puzzle than an exercise in following directions. Fun to work through together, but just meh overall because of the extremely low difficulty.
See 'n' Say: At a farm-themed park we faced a giant See 'N' Say depicting eight farm animals. Answering an animal trivia question allowed us to set the initial position of the dial and see where it wound up pointing and what animal sound it made (which weren't the same). Once we'd collected all eight data points-- sets of two locations at 45 degree increments on a circle-- we immediately knew we had eight semaphore letters. But the data gave us garbage. Fortunately the trusty Palm device recognized the garbage as a partial answer and told us to use all the data. We'd been using only the endpoint of each spin and the sound it produced, but the start point also gave us information-- an orientation. Viewing each semaphore pair with the start point of the spin as "up" gave us the real answer. We knocked this one out in very little time, and it was quite cute, but simple. Shame they weren't able to hack real See 'N' Says, which would have been teh awes0me.
Coloring Books: A great idea marred by its form factor. We received a small, staple-bound booklet with grids of numbers on the back pages and photos of childrens' book covers-- titles digitally removed-- on the front pages. Since this was conveniently distributed at a library, we went inside to use the internet to help identify the books we didn't recognize. The key was that all of the books had a color in their title, thus mapping their page number in the booklet to a color. The number grids were therefore paint-by-numbers (in the original sense!) artwork. Correctly identifying the art and reading the first letters in order gave the final answer. The big problem with this puzzle is that, distributed in book form, it was highly serial. With a team of four, serial is bad. I'd be surprised if any team didn't tear the book apart, if not for the identification step, then certainly for the coloring step. But the grid pages weren't numbered, and until you solve the grids you don't know that the order is important, so taking the book apart effectively destroyed a key bit of data. Plus, when something is presented as nicely as the booklet was, there's a natural resistance to disassembling it. Coloring books. I get it. Very clever. Now figure out how to distribute the puzzle in a way that helps solvers instead of hindering them. Aside from that gripe, the process was quite fun and I enjoyed this puzzle.
Monopoly: Located at San Jose's Monopoly in the Park, the world's largest Monopoly board, this puzzle involved solving crossword-style clues whose answers consisted of two word phrases-- a color matching a property group, and a four or six letter word. The second word was then broken into bigrams and the bigrams mapped to each property in the color group. Finally, a bigram sequence served as a guide to how to fill in an 11x11 grid, pointing us back to the giant Monopoly board to extract a final answer. Everything flowed pretty naturally despite the excessive flavor text. Our team really nailed this one, which always feels good. Neat location to visit, although I have to say that the world's largest Monopoly board isn't really all that large.
Candy: A bunch of different kinds of candy, each modified into its own puzzle that contributed an answer to a meta puzzle on a Tic-Tac-Toe grid. The nature of the meta required some pretty unsatisfying answers to the micro-puzzles, however, which severely detracted from the solving experience. And some of the puzzles were just... bad. One puzzle, for instance, consisted of a bag of M & Ms with a sticker on it showing a 4-digit number. Some of the M & Ms were normal. Others said "arhsall" and others said "athers". Ok, we get it, it's hinting us toward Eminem. Then what? Like every other team, we counted the candies in each color and tried to make sense of them, but we already had the answer-- Eminem. Just index each digit of the sticker into Eminem to get the answer, NEEM. Of course! Neem! Everyone knows neem is a large, semi-evergreen tree of the East Indies, right? Ugh. Neither the answer nor the path to getting there felt good, and some of the other candy puzzles suffered from similar problems. They were just too micro and terse. The meta came together nicely, but the cost of admission was rather high.
Finally, a note to the Shinteki crew. We always love the Shinteki schwag we get after each event, but after the genius of the clipboards from Decathlon 3, the Jenga sets this time out were a disappointment destined to gather dust somewhere. Perhaps more gear for the stylish Shinteki player in the future-- sunglasses, bucket hats, utility belts, insulated bags-- stuff we might use at future events. Or a giant SHINTEKI dark chocolate bar. Because who doesn't need more dark chocolate?