WarTron

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It's been a while since I've posted about a Game.  To be honest, I'm not sure how the Game creators feel about my write-ups.  It may seem unappreciative or rude to say anything critical or negative about an event that volunteers put hundreds of hours into over the course of a year.  The event's over, so why dwell on the negative?  It's a fair question.  I don't want to make people feel bad about things that didn't work out.  I've been there.  I'm my own worst critic.  And I believe that honest analysis, critique, and discussion is the best way to learn and improve.  Even if the organizers of a Game never run another, other people will.  Perhaps the discussion of what did and didn't work can help make future Games better.  "Focusing on the positive" feels like lying by omission.  I think it's healthier and more productive to hold something up to the light and speak honestly.  I'd love to hear what other people think on this subject.

This weekend I participated in WarTron, a mashup of WarGames and Tron, in and around the Portland area.   This was the first Game held in Portland, and it served as a terrific tour of the area.  We visited a lot of beautiful locations with spectacular views, and it felt like we must have only scratched the surface-- Portland is ripe for more Games.  The many sweeping vistas and breathtaking panoramas of the Columbia River, Mt. Hood, and Mt. St. Helens to which we were treated made braving the absurdly hot weather (which prompted "extreme heat warnings" from the weather service) worth it.  Really top-notch job on GC's part choosing locations (bonus points for Voodoo Doughnuts, but a deduction for not taking us to Powell's).

When a friend texted me early Sunday morning asking how things were going, I replied that they were very Snoutish-- by which I meant lots of skipping, some fun character interaction, generally solid puzzles, a custom gizmo, and a relentlessly positive GC dedicated to helping teams have fun.  Unfortunately the Game was also plagued by technical and logistical snafus that sometimes got in the way, many of which seemed of the sort that could have been avoided and were therefore surprising coming from such an experienced team of organizers.

Friday Night: The event began with a Friday night get-together, an approach we used in The Mooncurser's Handbook and continued in World Henchmen Organization.  I love it when Games do this, because it's basically a social event.  All the teams are able to gather, meet / catch up with each other, and get in the mood for the main event to follow.  GC can take care of all the administrivia that would otherwise delay the actual Game start-- establishing story and characters, answering questions, troubleshooting electronics, etc.  They can also take advantage of all teams being in one place (and not expecting to leave in a hurry) to stage activities that wouldn't be practical during the event itself.  In this case, that meant a concert from geek folk duo The Doubleclicks while we puzzled over some coasters and familiarized ourselves with the BITE, the Game's custom electronic device.

Right away, the BITE had me concerned.  Snout has created gizmos for past games, like the DRUID from Justice Unlimited and the wand from Hogwarts, and they've always come as lovingly-crafted, finished designs with a custom case.  The BITE, by contrast, was a circuit board hot-glued to a white cardboard box (containing batteries and other electronics).  It was unabashedly ghetto, and that hadn't been Snout's style.  That immediately suggested to me that someone ran out of time, and the devices were hot off the presses (I don't know if this is true).  While the device had a single-character readout, it was intended to connect to a laptop via USB for input and output.  That baffled me.  If I'm going to have to connect the thing to a laptop in order to use it, why not just do it all via software and eliminate the device entirely?  This seemed to be the worst of both worlds.  And in fact, except for the Friday night activity (see below) and the grand finale, the device never did anything that couldn't have been done with a less cumbersome Flash app.  Perhaps the device was intended to do more during the Game itself, but it didn't pan out during development and features got cut.

My concern increased when things went awry during everyone's first interaction with the device.  In keeping with the WarGames-meets-Tron theme, the device had the ability to "dial" other devices in the vicinity and transfer data by listening to the output from their speaker.  Very cool, actually, and it had teams meeting up throughout the ballroom to have their devices handshake with each other and exchange data.  We were supposed to get 19 snippets of data, but most (all?) devices stopped at eleven, regardless of how many different devices you paired with.  GC had to tweet the missing data to everyone.  Not a big deal by itself-- with all teams in one place, it was easy to get everyone the info they needed so nobody was banging their head for too long.  But it was definitely a harbinger of things to come as far as the BITE was concerned.  Later that night, our BITE started beeping in the middle of the night while its caretaker was trying to sleep.  During the event the clock got out of whack and started giving us information from the future of the Game.  It crashed and dumped its core, forcing us to reset it.  Eventually it stopped working entirely and we had to swap it out.  And that's just one team-- I know other teams had issues as well.  I don't hold that against GC-- gizmos are cool, they're difficult to make, and it's pretty awesome that they even attempted this at all.  And I think it worked correctly every time we actually needed it to work.  But I do have two other issues with the way it was used in this Game.  The nature of any device tends to be that one person handles it for the whole Game, and nobody else worries about it.  In this case, that meant that 5 of our 6 teammates had no real idea of what the BITE was capable of.  If any puzzles depend on us capitalizing on a BITE feature, but most of the team doesn't know that feature exists, we're liable to get tripped up.  One could argue that's our own fault for not familiarizing everyone with the device, but when you're not handling it yourself it's pretty easy to just forget about it.  The other issue is that GC relied on entering codes into the BITE to generate key information during the Game-- sometimes entire puzzles.  I'm not sure why they went that way instead of just printing out the puzzles, which is a better form factor for solving anyway and prevents any snafus.  In addition to the BITE, we had to manage a SSH client for answer submission/verification, which meant there was a whole lot of tech that could go wrong.

I also thought it was odd for GC to offer teams a stockroom of water, Gatorade, fruit and snacks to plunder.  They were already providing dinner and drinks that night, so these were supplies for the next day.  Are there really teams that don't load up their van with their own supplies?  And would they really take enough supplies from this location to carry them through the entire event?  It seemed like a nice idea that wasn't fully thought through.  If GC wants to give us food and drink, I'm all for it!  For future GCs, the biggest bang for the buck comes from providing cold drinks and substantial food along the route.  We love it when the Shinteki team grills up hot dogs for us at the inevitable park location.  I've cooked food for teams at Mooncurser's and DASH, and teams were always very appreciative.  Since coolers take up space, most vans are loaded with crappy food that will survive in a van-- pretzels, chips, cookies, jerky, etc.  We don't need GC to give us more of that.  But it's absolutely delightful to show up at a site and find that GC is giving us something healthy and/or filling to grab on the go, and you can really never go wrong with chilled drinks.

The Main Event: The previous evening we were introduced to Prof. Goto, creator of a revolutionary new game we'd be testing over the weekend, armed with our BITE debugging device and BUGME online entry system.  Shortly after arriving at Chanticleer Point-- the first of many spectacular views-- Prof. Goto's assistant was taken away for questioning by military police, and Prof. Goto was nowhere to be found.  The hunt to find them was on!

One of the hallmarks of a Snout game is a LOT of skipping-- when a team solves a puzzle, the team is directed to the next location based on the current time.  Snout's schedule is aggressive, with no expectation that seeing all puzzles is reasonable or likely for any one team.  My impression is they flag certain locations as vital, and skip players through the rest as needed in order to get them to the vital locations on schedule.  This lets Snout keep fewer locations active at a time, reducing staffing requirements.

This has a number of effects as a player.  First, it means there's no real notion of being in front of the pack or in the back, because being first at a location means only that-- you might be first because you were just skipped over the other teams.  This can be a bummer if you're competitive, but it also prevents any crushing despair at flubbing a puzzle and dropping behind.  Nobody gets too far out in front or too far behind, so you wind up seeing other teams at clue sites instead of being alone, which makes for a more social feel.  In the rundown below, some puzzles will therefore be skipped, since my team didn't encounter them.

Chanticleer Point: After entering a code into the BITE device, we were shown a set of 6-letter words which constituted the first puzzle.  The BITE came preloaded with a bunch of reference information-- encodings, lists, etc.  On the way to the start location, we reviewed all this info on the theory that if it's given to us, we might need to recognize the need for it later.  So when we saw these words, we immediately noticed that they were all composed of three 2-letter country codes.  Each word gave us three ordered map points which could be viewed as semaphore.  When decoded, it read AWJMSONG.  We liked SONG, but what was AWJM?  We double-checked both our country code lookup and our semaphore translation before someone noted that AW was the country code for Aruba, and JM was Jamaica.  That gave us ARUBA JAMAICA SONG, which is of course KOKOMO.

Multnomah Falls: A brief hike to the bridge across the falls got us a fun paper puzzle called Gamesmanship.  Rather than spoil it, why not just solve it?  Click on the photo at left for a larger version.  We really enjoyed this one-- a great group solve with satisfying answer moments.

Bonneville Dam: The puzzle at the dam rather needlessly required players to find four plaques and gather information from those plaques to allow you to associate words with certain positions on a menu puzzle (a menu puzzle, whose name derives from old-school American Chinese restaurant menus offering your choice of one from column A and one from column B, is a puzzle where you connect items in the left column to items in the right column by drawing a straight line).  Matching items could be prepended with the same national term (COFFEE and DELIGHT = TURKISH, JOB and ICE = ITALIAN, etc).  Count the number of intersections for each line, then index into the national term.  We had a number of data-gathering puzzles in Mooncurser's, but since then I've been won over to the Burninators' point of view that gathering data is almost always tedious and not fun.  If you're going to make me gather data, make sure the act of gathering it is fun.  If it's not, just give me the data and let me get to the fun part of the puzzle sooner.

Rooster Rock Park: Here we picked up six bead necklaces and a CD of snippets of Madonna songs.  The flavor text that came along with it made it clear that the bead colors should be interpreted as resistor values, and the resulting numbers as sound frequencies.  Our BITE came preloaded with a translation table of frequencies to notes, so once we'd decoded all the necklaces we were able to play the songs on a keyboard app on my iPad and match them with songs from the CD.  Woe be to the team who lacked any way to play music.  One could argue that such a tool should be part of every team's standard equipment, but this is something GC really should have listed in their pre-Game advisory so that all teams would be sure to have it.  It's possible that the BITE was able to play music if you gave it the list of notes, in which case I retract my previous sentence.  The last step of this puzzle, however, tripped us up.  The last number on each necklace wasn't part of the song, but was clearly an index.  Indexing into the song titles gave garbage, however, as did indexing into the lyrics.  You had to index into the lyrics of the clips, not the whole songs.  It took us far too long to find the right approach, but in retrospect I'd say it was fair.  What I liked most about this puzzle is that with six necklaces it was a great team solve, with everyone able to decode a necklace and then identify the songs together.

McMenamins Edgefield: This puzzle was almost not worth getting out of the van for.  We got lucky, in that GC found us while we were parking the van and handed us the puzzle.  I suspect other teams were wandering the grounds for quite a while just trying to figure out where the puzzle was.  The puzzle was presented as a description of someone's journey through the grounds, and it looked like some teams actually ran around and followed that journey.  But all you needed to do was grab a map and plot out the path to create four letters spelling the answer.  Once we found a map to use, we were on our way again in about two minutes.

Rocky Butte: This was an amazing location with a stunning 360-degree view, including Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens.  Spread around the grounds were 17 propaganda-style posters representing classic video games, with graffiti scrawled across each one saying "A.B. was here!!!".  The initials on each poster were different, and one letter in each graffiti was replaced with the corresponding 1337 (leet) character from 1-5.  Identifying the games was easy.  Figuring out what to do next was not.  A bunch of teams stacked up there, banging their heads on the puzzle with no progress.  It took a call to GC to find out that the key to the puzzle was pre-existing information embedded in the site-- a plaque with a list of 17 people, all listed with two initials and a last name.  Our failure to find this plaque was entirely our own fault.  The plaque was on one side of a four-sided plinth.  Video game posters were placed on each of the other three sides.  While we were gathering data, at least two of us noticed that they hadn't put posters on all four sides, but we shrugged it off.  And since the posters were actually placed on the ground, we never looked at eye level to see the plaque.  We just went right by it, despite noting the oddity.  Totally our bad-- GC had placed enough breadcrumbs, we just failed to follow them.  Once you had all the info, you used the 1337 numbers to index into the person's last name and sorted by video game to get the final answer.

Union Pine: This puzzle had us searching a loft space for... 31?... QR codes hidden in books, posted on walls, taped under tables, etc.  In the center of each code was a unique picture.  Scanning each code generated a text message with a single letter and a series of Xs and dots representing one row of a master QR code we needed to assemble.  We also got a map of sorts, with values 1-31 connected by paths, each path showing a triangle with a single vowel.  The major AHA here was that the complete set of QR code images represented words with all possible unrepeated vowel sets (so there was one word that used all 5 vowels; one that used AEIO but not U; one with AEIU but not O; etc).  The map had GRAPEFRUIT filled in for us.  From there, you could plot all other words on the map by toggling the state of the vowel you cross as you travel each path.  So from GRAPEFRUIT, if you take the path with an O on it, you would add an O to your vowel set, giving you AEIOU: CAULIFLOWER.  If instead you took the A path, you'd remove the A to leave you with EIU.  Once all the words are mapped, you could then sort the QR results by number, which told you to remove anything that wasn't an action.  So words like ANCHOR, FOIL, and COMBINE would stay, but CAULIFLOWER, LADYBUG, and SHUFFLEBOARD would not.  You were left with 21 rows which could then be assembled in order to form a QR code that produced the final answer when scanned.  Phew!  The mechanic of this puzzle was actually very nice, but the scavenger hunting to get all the data was a pain in the ass.  Some codes wouldn't scan on my Windows Phone (Microsoft #fail!).  We did a lousy job of organizing ourselves, so that it was hard to know which codes we had and which we didn't.  Other teams started getting in the way.  In the end we missed one code completely.  Our best decision, by far, was to leave Union Pine and find food.  We wound up a few blocks away at Burnside Brewing Company where we all had outstanding meals.  I had the cubano sandwich and grilled broccoli, both of which were stellar.  I would happily have returned there the next day to get exactly the same thing.  Properly fed, we were able to get our brains working again and finish the solve.

Tualatin Commons: Text adventures make horrible Game puzzles.  It's very difficult for multiple people to crowd around a computer to read the screen, and only one person per PC can actually drive the experience.  If you've got multiple PCs you can parallelize, but if not, the PC is a bottleneck.  Cryptic crosswords are terrific Game puzzles, because everyone can contribute to solving the clues.  Text adventures that are really a 3-D cryptic crossword, therefore, are something of a mixed bag.  First you have to navigate through the adventure to discover the grid configuration and clues.  Meanwhile, the rest of the team can be solving the clues and filling in the grid.  Perhaps on a whiteoard you brought along, so everyone can see and contribute.  Our team enjoyed this puzzle quite a bit, but felt like the text adventure aspect detracted from the fun because it bottlenecked our progress.  The whiteboard, however, was awesome.

Water Treatment Plant?: A cryptogram in the form of playing cards, with each letter represented by two different cards.  To decode, we also had a set of words.  Beneath each word was a set of cards "spelling out" a synonym for that word.  The catch was that the words were pretty broad, offering a number of possible synonyms. We crushed this one pretty quickly thanks to an efficient system of recording the ciphertext (a grid with suits down the left and ranks across the top, enabling easy cross-reference), and our willingness to just jump in and try things, backing out guesses that didn't pan out.

Canby Ferry: I don't know how other teams solved this puzzle.  I don't know how our team would have solved it without Andrew.  He's one of those people born with a RainMan-like musical ability to recognize and replicate pitch and rhythm.  So when we heard a recording of a series of touch tones, we just handed him the headphones and kicked back.  A few minutes later he had the answer and we moved on.  On the downside, this would have been incredibly frustrating without Andrew.  On the upside, if you're going to have a puzzle that requires special talent and is best solved by one person while everyone else takes a powder, thank you for making that puzzle short.  It would actually be kinda cool to have a series of short puzzles that played to different people's strengths, but of course each team has different strengths and gaps so it's not very practical as a design goal.

Canby Country Inn: We turned a hotel room upside down to find a locked box, a key, six numbered circles, and a decoder key that let us open the combination lock on the box.  Inside was another box with another lock and another decoder key.  This lock worked backward-- instead of right-left-right, we had to go left-right-left.  Apparently, every lock works that way-- one combination works RLR, while a different combo works LRL.  The two combinations are mathematically related to each other.  Cool fun fact!  There were also a bunch of magnets, batteries, and wires hidden in the room, intended to be used to create an electromagnetic field that told you which polarity you should use for each color in the final step, but that was all completely unnecessary-- that information was already provided to us in the decoder key.  We spent a lot of time trying to produce a sensible text answer, but it turned out they wanted us to just enter a numerical string into the BITE  But our BITE wouldn't recognize our answer.  So we spent over an hour banging our heads against this puzzle, only to discover that our instance of it had a bug, either in the software or in the math used to build the puzzle itself.  There were just too many points of failure here.  The redundancy of information had us splitting our focus unnecessarily.  The format of the correct answer was an arbitrary numerical string, so even if we got it right it wasn't satisfying.  When things didn't work, we had no way to know that we had the right answer and were just hitting a bug.  This kind of thing really sucks the wind out of a team's sails, and we were pretty disgruntled.  It was fun to toss the hotel room looking for stuff.  It was fun to discover that all locks can work in both directions, which we never knew.

At this point sundown was approaching, and the story moved from WarGames to Tron with us getting digitized into the computer world of BIG MAC, an AI created by Prof. Goto and now trying to take over the world.  From this point forward until sunrise, all the GC characters we encountered wore suits lined with glowtubes, giving them the appropriate Tron look.

Oregon City Municipal Elevator: Here we received our identity disk-- a frisbee with nested wheels on the back adorned with words and pathways.  Dialing the wheels so the paths lined up and then following the paths allowed us to phonetically sound out computer-related terms like CENTRAL PROCESSING UNIT and RANDOM ACCESS MEMORY, which we filled into a template to extract an answer.  The main point of this puzzle was to delay us while our vans were transformed into data transport vehicles through the application of glowtubes to the front and rear windshields.  Who doesn't love glowtubes?  I think there was a CD in our van's CD player too, but I can't recall what was on it.

Statue of Liberty Replica: Here we collaborated with other teams on a game of light cycles.  Three of us rode red, white, and blue light cycles (bicycles adorned with glowtubes and colored LEDs) around a track.  After each lap, staffers held up a 3-bit display indicating which cycles finished the lap in the correct order.  Essentially, this was Mastermind with only 3 colors and 3 positions.  If the bits were 111, we received a glowstick token.  After eight tokens, we received the next puzzle.  This would have been more fun to do with just our own team.  With four teams stacked up there at once, there just wasn't anything for most of us to do.  With a single team, all of us could have been involved.  And yet, I'd say it would not have been worth waiting to do on our own-- so letting all the teams gathered there collaborate was the right call.  Having multiple stations available would have been better.

The puzzle we received at this location tripped us up with its presentation, which had a very similar look to the QR code map.  Specifically, it had boxes connected by pathways with triangles on them.  This led us to believe we would use a similar state-toggling mechanic.  If that had been true, it would have been a very clever usage of graphic design to reinforce the correct solving path.  Instead, it was a horrible red herring that had us spinning our wheels for quite a while.  We also had 8 sets of happy faces in 3 different colors, and 8 sets of 3-digit numbers with a similar color scheme.  We guessed the faces were ternary early on, but what was unclear was that a) the face/digit pairs were, in fact, pairs, but the triangles with letters in them were not matched up with the other data (this would have been crystal clear if they'd cut them up so that each pair was on a single shared slip, or if they'd drawn a box around each pair), and b) we wanted to start with the highest number, 888, and gradually work our way down to 000.  To do this, you subtracted the ternary value of each letter from the running total.  If my description is sketchy, it's because this was another instance where we were hunger-impaired, and so we stopped at Burger King to get food.  I grew up with Burger King.  It was the closest fast food restaurant to my house.  I ate there quite a lot.  The Whopper was an awesome sandwich.  The Whopper I had this weekend was not.  Time plays tricks on one's memory, but I'm pretty sure the patty was smaller in both diameter and thickness than it was in the 80s.  It wasn't nearly as satisfying, and it cost quite a bit more.  Boooooooooo!  My teammates ordered a bacon sundae, but I refused to have any part of such a monstrosity.  The conclusion, by the way, was that everything is not in fact better with bacon.

Battleship Oregon Memorial: Amazingly, the puzzle we received here was not a Battleships variant!  Instead, it was a set of six equations which did not produce any meaningful results, and a set of brief newspaper articles.  Each article featured a different number from 1-6 prominently in the headline, so the mapping back to the equations was obvious.  What to do next was not.  It took a while of staring at the flavortext over and over and over before I noticed that LATEX contained a phonetic 8, and TOOTHPASTE contained a phonetic 2.  Further, the equation scrawled beneath that text, 8 X 2 = 50, worked out correctly if you replaced each number with the number of letters in the word containing the phonetic number.  Applying this rule to the other equations yielded values in the expected 1-26 range, giving us our final answer.  This was a pure aha puzzle, and I can imagine lots of teams staring at this without getting the aha.  Some flavortext hinting at phonetics or containment would have helped.

Mill Ends Park (officially recognized by Guinness as the world's smallest park): Here we retrieved a set of Marvel superhero trading cards depicting various Marvel heroes as if they were in the world of Tron. A series of ternary values ran down the right side of each card, and text on the back of each card made reference to binary and had a unique bolded word.  The ternary on the front spelled out the hero's name, but with some letters replaced with others (GHOST BIGOT, IRON MEH, etc).  All of the changed letters were in the last 5 bits, and treating these bits as binary as hinted by the card backs yielded letters, but they were garbage.  Sorting the bolded words alphabetically by hero yielded an acrostic message telling us to shift each letter by four, which turned the garbage into a final answer.  This was a completely straightforward but enjoyable solve that took us virtually no more time than it took to enter the data into Excel.  Since two of our team members were sleeping at this point, we solved it on the hood of our van in the relatively cool night air (did I mention that this event happened to coincide with an extreme heat warning for Portland, with the temperature cracking 100 during the day and remaining warmer at night than most Seattle summer days?).

Collective Agency: First, a note about the space, which was terrific-- a collaborative loft workspace with lot of breakout rooms to solve in, warm brick walls, an open floor plan-- it seemed like a very cool place to work.  The puzzle was to assemble a Tron bit.  To do that, we first had to fold a LOT of paper squares into the correct shape.  Each shape had a number of words on it, some on the outside of the shape, others inside the folds.  It didn't take long to realize that words paired up to make phrases of the form ______ IN ______ or various variations-- BATS in the BELFRY, PUSS in BOOTS, REST in PEACE, etc.  By tucking the flap with BATS on it into the pocket with BELFRY in it, we could unite those two pieces together, gradually assembling a fabulous paper bit.  Each face of the bit had five rows of letters which, reading around the five faces of each point, spelled out a related set (e.g. PACIFIC, ATLANTIC, INDIAN, ARCTIC, and SOUTHERN for OCEANS).  One letter in each word was bold, and all the bolded letters for each set were at the same index (so they were all the 2nd letter in their word, or all the 5th letter).  Indexing into the name of the set gave us the letter we needed, and each point was numbered, allowing us to order our letters and get the final answer.  We could certainly have solved this puzzle without putting the whole thing together, and probably saved a bunch of time, but that would have been like ending the national anthem at LAND.

Voodoo Doughnuts: We arrived at Voodoo Doughnuts around 2 AM, walking there from Collective Agency through city streets practically overrun by drunken revelers.  It felt like Mardis Gras.  It was insane.  I hate drunk people like Indiana Jones hates snakes, and it was like walking through the Well of Souls.  But Voodoo Doughnuts are awesome, and the thought of a fresh dirt doughnut (which I eventually got and enjoyed quite a lot) kept me going.  Upon arrival-- and it seemed like all of Portland was there as well-- we were rewarded with a voodoo doll doughnut impaled by a straw containing the URL to our next clue, a video of a color wheel with colors changing every couple of seconds.  I'm not entirely sure how this puzzle worked-- I was busy getting hopped up on sugar-- but I believe it had something to do with treating the red, green, and blue values as points on the wheel and mapping those points to ternary (there was quite a bit of ternary in this Game).

Ground Kontrol: This classic arcade was our next stop.  They appeared to have an entire upstairs loft devoted to pinball machines.  I never got a chance to go up and check it out, which makes me sad.  I did, however, represent our team in a game of Discs of Tron, racking up the #2 high score and earning our puzzle: a Mario cube full of coins.  On one side were replicas of state quarters, and on the other were characters from video games.  We solved this puzzle the hard way.  Instead of turning the coins to the back side and grouping them by video game (which we did eventually do as a confirmation step), we just skipped directly to step two.  On the front side, each coin also had the front, middle, or end of an arrow pointing in some direction.  We separated the coins by arrow type-- 8 fronts, 16 middles, 8 ends.  We concluded each arrow had 2 middles, and began putting them together.  A clue in the Mario box said to target state capitals, so we began at the capital of the state shown on one of the arrow ends.  Then we aimed in the direction of the arrow on a map, finding a middle whose capital was along that path.  From there we connected to another middle, and finally to an end (with the end having the additional constraint of having its notch pointing in the same direction as the incoming arrow).  We assembled about 5 of the 8 sets before noticing that each set was made up of characters from the same game, at which point we turned them all over to verify we had no errors and then assembled the remaining sets.  Once done, tracing the paths on a map spelled out letters, just as in the McMenamins puzzle.  This was a great example of a puzzle's theme matching its location without any data-gathering.  The solve was satisfying, the location evocative, and fun was had by all.

Courthouse Square: Here we got a chess set, and Briny Deep groaned.  We don't like chess puzzles.  Our history with them has not been great.  But like the inevitable tic-tac-toe puzzle, we knew it was coming ("Wouldn't you prefer a nice game of chess?"), so we grit our teeth and dug in.  Some spaces of the board had words (or partial words) written on them.  That's it-- there was nothing else unusual about what we were given.  We noticed that we could make an opening move by moving a white pawn onto PSHW, which if we added an A to it became PSHAW.  Black could then move onto a space that formed a word when adding a B.  But it fell apart after that, and we spent a long time trying to figure out how to get into this puzzle.  We weren't alone.  None of the teams were making progress.  It turns out that GC forgot to tell us to enter a code into the BITE that spat out a long set of instructions, without which the puzzle was unsolvable!  Arrrrrggh!  You win again, chess puzzle.  Which is a shame, because this was possibly the most fun chess puzzle we'd yet encountered.  We had a full set of moves leading to a mate for black, with each move represented by a crossword clue.  The answer to each clue was an anagram of a chess piece and the letters of the space that chess piece moved to ("Highlander beheading effect": KING + CINQUE = QUICKENING).  Once we had all of the moves identified, we were told to remove one of each piece, and then remove another set of letters, to get something a dieter does and something BIG MAC might do while playing Global Thermonuclear War.  After removing all the letters of PAWN, ROOK, BISHOP, KNIGHT, KING, and QUEEN from the set of letters on the spaces we'd used, then removing the additional letter set, we got a set of letters that could be anagrammed into SACRIFICE.  It's a bummer that we built up so much bile towards the puzzle during our time without the full instructions, because once we had the whole thing it was fun to solve.

Ira Keller Fountain: Sunrise was nigh, so it was time to turn over our vans for de-Tronification, throw our identity disk at a guard, and get our next instructions.  We had to learn a sequence of hand movements by matching those of a GC member, in a kind of choreographed game of pattycake.  If we failed to execute the right move in time with him, he terminated his sequence and we had to start over.  Once we got it-- and captured it on video!-- we realized there were only 5 moves and a break.  Between the breaks, each of the 5 moves acted as a bit toggle, turning on the corresponding bit to produce a 5-bit binary value which, strung together, spelled out our answer.

International Rose Test Garden: Entering a code into the BITE produced a list of seemingly nonsensical phrases, each of which was a transdeletion of a Portland-area tourist attraction, many of which we'd visited in the previous 24 hours.  The transdeleted letters spelled out FIRST QUEEN ON WALK.  At the bottom of the rose garden was a paved walk with the name of every ueen from Portland's rose festival, leading back to 1907.  The first queen's name was FLORA (not her real name).  We crushed this one pretty quickly, and were pleasantly surprised that we didn't need to use any of the very intriguingly-named roses listed on placards throughout the garden's rose beds.

I slept through the next two locations, so I can't tell you anything about them other than one was a tic-tac-toe Sudoku, and the other involved Braille.

Cathedral Park: This may have been my favorite location of the entire Game.  The struts of a bridge were built to resemble arches of a cathedral, and they're all perfectly aligned so that standing at one end, you can look down the entire line.  Meanwhile, you're surrounded by verdant greenery and a gorgeous arboreal backdrop.  It's surprisingly peaceful considering there's a highway over your head, and an utterly unexpected pocket of urban tranquility.  Really happy to have been there!  The puzzle at this location was a hex grid, with each hex having one letter per side.  Most of the hexes spelled a color in some language, but the only ones that mattered were the ones that spelled some version of red.  All such hexes were connected in one contiguous blob.  Following instructions on the top and bottom edges of the grid, we cut out that blob and taped the edges together to create a soccer ball, then read a message through the taped edges to extract our final answer.  My favorite moment: while the rest of the team debated the meaning of the somewhat cryptic instructions, one teammate grabbed a pair of scissors and started cutting out the red hexes.  No consensus, no debate-- she just started cutting while the rest of us dithered.  Awesome!

I'm running out of steam here, so I'm going to skip over a couple of minor puzzles and jump to the end.

Ft. Vancouver Artillery Barracks: There were some more puzzles to solve while all the teams filtered in to the final location.  Once everyone was there, we shared information among ourselves to determine what letter each team had to set their BITE to display.  That done, all teams had to connect their BITE to BIG MAC via a bunch of chained USB ports, and then play a game of Simon using the LEDs and buttons on their BITE.  Once a team played well enough, their portion of the BIG MAC display went green, and when all sections turned green, BIG MAC self-destructed and GAME OVER.  Huzzah!

Some thoughts on the ending: We felt like we arrived at the end location too early in the day (10:30 AM!) and stayed there too long (about 2.5 hours), despite having puzzles to solve there.  Once we got there we just ran out of gas, where if we'd still been mobile we'd have been more energized.  This was also the second game (Hogwarts being the first) where Snout has used the "get everyone together at the end and have one person from each team participate in a final climax" mechanic, and it felt a little tired this time.  The space was a little too small and crowded, only one person per team could participate, there was no real drama because BIG MAC was never going to win, even if GC had to fake it.  So it all felt a little anticlimactic.  Compare this to Dr.When, whose climax was every bit as pre-ordained but was still satisfying to see play out because it was set up more as theater, much as the Hogwarts ending was.  It didn't work for me, unfortunately.

It was also unusual to have so many different ways of verifying answers, instead of one consistent method.  We used the BITE, the SSH client, talking to an on-site staffer, calling a phone number, and sending email, and possibly more.  I think Snout tried to use the method that was most thematically appropriate for that point in the story, but there were times where we got a bit confused ("Are we done?") and would have welcomed a consistent, simple way to verify each answer.

Gripes aside, we had a great time.  Portland was the real star of this Game, and it put in a virtuoso performance.  We visited some great locations, had a lot of fun with the puzzles, and really enjoyed ourselves.  Huge applause to Snout for all of their hard work in putting the Game together!  There were a lot of cute WarGames and Tron references, we loved having a Game we didn't have to fly to, and hope to see more Games in Portland in the future.

Thanks to Troy Barnes and Merrie Morris for the photos used in this post!

75 Comments

Canby Ferry: The BITE had a command "listen" that would detect DTMF tones and print out their values. That's how you solve that without Andrew.

Canby Country Inn: We had the same troubles as you - the arbitrary numeric answer didn't work, and so we tried other stuff for an hour.

Rocky Butte: Totally our bad-- GC had placed enough breadcrumbs, we just failed to follow them. Yeah, well, we and Bloodshot had the same problem, and I'm pretty sure nobody else passed us while we were stuck. It didn't seem unfair to us per se, but if hardly anybody winds up figuring it out on their own, it still seems like it warrants a bit more clueing.

Voodoo Doughnuts: It wasn't ternary - you just had to draw lines between the points in the color wheel visited to make letters.


My theory about the BITE (which I haven't confirmed with anyone on GC or anything) s that the original plan was to use it instead of the SSH answer system, but then Acorn started running out of time, and so they pulled features off that other people could do in other ways. If that's true that was certainly the right choice, but having both the ssh session and the serial port session was a little confusing and eroded the interestingness of the BITE. Even though I colored my two terminal windows differently!

I have to assume that the housings fell through pretty late on, because otherwise radio shack project boxes would have worked great, but not felt like they were about to break if you put them in a backpack.

So there was actually a lot of drawing letters in this Game. We'd just run a couple puzzles in that vein in Intern Game two weeks ago, so we noticed it the connection between the DTMF and color wheel puzzles (which were both five-minute solves since we noticed the "listen" command). But I guess the Ground Kontrol puzzle also fell into that category, plus the McMenamins one which we skipped.

Apparently there was a Powell's clue which we missed. Wei-Hwa mentioned it on Facebook.

Great write up, Peter. I would just mention that I'm pretty sure you're seeing Mt. Saint Helens from places like Rocky Butte, not Mt. Rainier. Also, I'm amused that my hands (and never face) appear in two of your five selected photos. :)

Up front I'll say: much like Peter, I enjoyed the event immensely, but am about to gripe about everything that we experienced that I did not like. Let me say up front: Team Snout, I love you guys, and your event was awesome, and I had a great time, and I'm very happy that I got to play. This comment is about to be overly-negative and frank, with the hopes of extracting things that people can learn from for future events.

Chanticleer Point: I was a little annoyed that AW and JM were intentionally left off of our (we assumed) canonical data set. That cost us (and other teams I talked to) quite a bit of time. I think this was to make it a bit harder to solve the puzzle, but it was unexpected, and there was nothing to indicate the data set coming off of BITE wouldn't be complete - we assumed the data sets were there to cover for bad internet signal along the route.

McMenamins Edgefield: We wandered around here for about 30 minutes before finding the staffer (who was walking up from the parking lot - had she just arrived?) When we ran into the Burninators (who themselves had been at the location for 15 minutes or so) we called GC and they told us to "look around for five more minutes and then we'll email you the puzzle if you don't find her." Talking to Roadkill, they also got the opportunity to wander all around edgefield in the 90-degree heat. Either GC didn't know where teams were (don't see how that's possible), or knew but decided to let us wander around with no staff to 'slow us down'. Either way, that was incredibly frustrating and demoralizing. And there were a bunch of great restaurants there! Why not put us on hold and let us eat lunch? Also - bug in this puzzle: the compass rose on the map showed that the bottom vineyard was the NORTH vineyard; but you had to treat it as the south one in order to extract the correct answer.

Tree In the Middle of Nowhere: only the Burninators and us (REDTaPE) saw this location. It was slotted between Tualitin Commons and the Water Treatment Plant. There was accidentally no feedback from the text adventure app to GC to inform them that we'd solved the puzzle, so we headed to an unstaffed location. One which involved a quarter-mile shadeless hike through a desert-like field, only to call GC and discover the snafu. We ran into Burninators, who were halfway out there and implored them to turn back. I think this goes back to your earlier comment about there being a thousand and one ways in this event to 'submit' an answer, and the lack of feedback from the ssh text adventure was the direct cause of the fail here, and could have been avoided if instead the text adventure gave you an answer phrase which you plugged back into the primary solve mechanism (the SSH client). Long story short; only have one way to submit an answer and route teams. (Also: if a site looks abandoned, call GC before hiking for 20 minutes in 100-degree weather.)

Canby Ferry: as mentioned by someone else, the BITE had a mechanism to listen to touch-tones, so Andrew was not required. :)

Canby Country Inn: there isn't a single team I talked to who managed to directly solve this puzzle. We had the locks open in about 15 minutes, then we struggled with the 'extract a random string of digits and punch them into the BITE' portion for a long time before finally relenting and calling GC. While on the phone with GC we started finding the magnets, and decided to follow that path. Cue 30 minutes of wire-wrapping, self-administered mild shocks (and cursing) only to finally discover the information the simple motor provided was superfluous and we were already well past that point! Back to the extraction: phone staff and on-site staff (acorn) discussions suggested that we were doing the right thing. It was only when we were ushered out of the room with our collected data (to allow other teams to access this puzzle) and were talking with onsite staff that we discovered our room setup was completely invalid and didn't match any data row in their spreadsheet. Oops. Our best guess is that sometime during the previous hour we had tried the correct technique for extracting the data, but were doing so against a broken puzzle. DEFINITELY the low point of our adventure.

High-scores puzzle (some bar? near road construction?): I believe most teams got skipped over this wholly BITE-delivered puzzle. We and Grey Goo (last two teams at the site) were stuck when we extracted an answer, punched it into the SSH client, and were told to contact onsite staff (who had left the location!) GC couldn't figure out what had happened, and after about 15 minutes of waiting for a staffer that would never come back, we eventually had to tell GC to just send us to the next location. I believe this is another snafu caused by there being multiple different submission systems attempting to work in parallel (requiring the human interaction here was probably a plot-related thing).

Ira Keller Fountain: HUGE bottleneck going through the plot conversation with CLU. I understand the desire for immersion, but when there are six teams stacked up, and one of your training instances is open, you need to cut the plot discussion short and get people moving through the pipeline.

Man, that was so negative. Other than the puzzles mentioned above, I loved pretty much all of the other ones. The QR code puzzle, the BIT construction, and even the text adventure (though usually I don't like cryptics) in particular stand out for me as great puzzles. And the LOCATIONS: my god, what fabulous locations throughout the Portland area. Even in the scorching heat I could appreciate the natural beauty of many of those spots.

Caleb: D'oh! Fixed!

Powell's was used in the game -- one of two skippable puzzles after Courthouse Square and before Ira Keller Fountain. We (the Burninators) didn't get to it, but I heard of how it worked from Team RoadKill. In short, it was an activity involving a laser pointer that wasn't very puzzle-y.

We solved the Canby Ferry puzzle by using software to decode the phone tones. One of our team members was coding with tone-detection libraries, another of our team members found an online site that took tones, and a third of our team member was using the BITE (which, yes, had a telephone tone decoder if you were paying enough attention to the commands). Often that's how our team functions on non-parallelizable puzzles -- we all try different approaches at the same time and whomever gets a result first "wins". In this case it was the online site. So, arguably, this was definitely not a "best solved by one person" puzzle for our team.

The CD in the van after the Tron transition was the soundtrack to Tron: Legacy. Unlike other "driving music", we actually liked this one.

As a cute joke, Mill Ends Park was a CLU-site -- there was a little action figure of CLU (from Tron).

The color wheel at Voodoo Doughnuts didn't have any trinary. The path of the changes along the color triangle drew letter shapes.

Ground Kontrol: fun was not had by all. We didn't have a clear sort key and we had the letters CLPSTUY?. Eventually we cried uncle and were told the sort key (an idea we had thought of earlier but rejected by saying "GC would never expect teams to look up something that obscure") and that the Ps were As. We were also a bit grumpy at the preceding puzzle (a skippable puzzle with video game screenshots that had a REALLY arbitrary extraction mechanism).

When you say the climax "didn't work for me", are you referring to Dr. When, Hogwarts, or Wartron?


Obviously I can't speak for all players on all teams. In the case of the Ground Kontrol puzzle, I believe everyone on our team had fun (except Merrie, who napped!).

The climax that didn't work for me was WarTron. We knew exactly what was going to happen, it happened exactly that way, only one person per team could participate, and it wasn't interesting to watch. The ending to Dr. When was no less predictable-- obviously we were going to unite the two time travelers to consummate their unrequited love-- but we didn't know exactly how that would manifest in the altered timeline, and finding out was entertaining because it was staged as participatory theater.

DeeAnn said in the last pre-Game SnoutCast that the snacks provided were a compromise between the faction that wanted to feed us all weekend and the faction that considered us capable of stocking our own vans. I did miss the three squares or so a day I'm used to getting from Seattle-based Game Controls. I also missed an automated hint system; too often when we called the GC phone number nobody answered.

Was there any team that noticed the plaque at Rocky Butte without prompting?

Shane from our team (REDTaPE) did eventually find the plaque at Rocky Butte without hinting. I think one reason we didn't see it sooner was the blistering heat. Very few people were willing to walk around more than was absolutely necessary to collect data from the obvious posters and we were all camped out in the shade trying to make sense of incomplete data.

Automated hint systems are a relatively new innovation. Back in the day, there were no fancy gizmos or custom-written apps. You carried almanacs and reference books with you in the van, and you called GC on the phone for answers, directions, and hints. Technology has improved Games in many ways, but I actually like it when hints are available directly from GC, keeping that element of human contact. It works especially well in non-competitive Games like Snout's, where GC doesn't have to worry about keeping anything "fair" and can just focus on giving you the help you want to get you having fun again.

Yeah, I found the plaque without prompting and at least one team got it because they noticed me notice it (I did a huge double-take walking by it, and got impatient and just snapped a photo instead of waiting for the other team there to move along). It was a total accident as I just wanted to get up and walk around since we were stuck.

In retrospect, it was probably also clued by the fact that the Mario poster said there were 18 posters but there were actually only 17. We'd assumed the Mario one counted but I bet it was supposed to be another hint to look for the plaque.

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