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Mystery Hunt 2013

The first round of the Hunt can be found here, and the rest of the Hunt here.

There's a lot of chatter about this year's MIT Mystery Hunt, which was the longest one on record at 73 hours.  They usually begin on Friday morning and wrap up on Sunday afternoon after the coin has been found.  This year, the coin wasn't found until Monday afternoon, and even then only after aggressive hinting, wholesale distribution of puzzle answers, and reduction of endgame requirements.  This has led to much hand-wringing about the Hunt being broken and despondent posts from Hunt organizers who are taking the outcome and backlash very hard.

If you've never run a puzzle event like this, you may not realize the toll it takes on the organizers.  People who put Hunts together pour their hearts and souls into it.  They give up not only all of their free time for the year leading up to the event, but they sacrifice other things to create more free time they can throw onto the Hunt pyre as well.  It takes an enormous toll on friendships, families, work-- every aspect of your life.

I absolutely understand the depth of sacrifice involved in stepping up to make a Hunt happen.  And that understanding makes it all the more painful when fundamental decisions at the core of the event seem predestined to undermine all that work by making players unhappy.  And it all comes back to one thing: make it fun.

As an event creator, you're not there to show how clever you are.  You're not there to outwit the players.  You're not, I'd argue, even there to make things fair.  You're there to make things fun for the hundreds of people who are trusting you with their leisure time (and in some cases vacation time, plane fares, hotel fees, etc).  When you sign up to run an event like this, you're agreeing to provide fun.

A problem is that fun is not absolute.  There's no Unified Fun Theory that satisfies everyone.  A physical obstacle course might be tremendous fun for some people and loathsome to others.  Some people like manipulating numbers, while others like manipulating words.  Some people like to stand hip-deep in running water holding a pole for hours at a time, others like aligning pixels to be just right.  Nobody's going to get everything right for everybody.  So you need to try to maximize the fun for the most people.  Which means you make some assumptions, put some stakes in the ground, and try to hew to those guiding principles as you create your event.

And if those principles turn out to be wrong... your event's in trouble.

This happened with Puzzle Hunt 123.  I still believe there's a viable model in having teams self-sort into competitive or recreational divisions.  The impact of that division was too stark in 123-- an all-or-nothing switch that made people feel like pulling it was crying uncle and dropping out of the competition.  We did that because if you can get unlimited hints-- even answers to puzzles-- how do you score things fairly?  How can you maintain a competition when anyone can decide to just get all the answers at will?  We prioritized fairness.  Our players prioritized competition.  The feeling of contending for something, of jockeying for position on the leaderboards, was an essential element of the fun for them.  Without it, they had no motivation.  Had we thrown fairness to the winds and just moved teams from one leaderboard to another, instead of dropping them from the leaderboard entirely, I think teams would have been perfectly fine with that.  So what if there would have been no way to tell the difference between a team that solved a puzzle on their own and one that got hinted all the way through it?  The teams' own pride at wanting to solve without hints would probably have provided all the regulation we needed.  Maybe we could have reduced the value of a puzzle a token amount for taking a hint.  There were any number of things we could have done.  But our assumption-- that people wanted to see puzzles and be unblocked more than they wanted to compete-- was wrong.  People wanted both.  And since we weren't aligned with our players, our event had trouble.

The Hunt this year was too hard.  That manifested in many ways.  There were too many puzzles to solve in the time allotted.  The puzzles got unlocked too quickly, by a failsafe timer rather than team achievement, so that teams were flooded with puzzles (making it hard to focus on what you had).  Many puzzles went one, two, or a few dozen steps too far, overstaying their welcome.

Here's an example of the latter case.  The idea of a fractal wordsearch is interesting.  Solving it through one or two levels is fun.  Solving it through three or four is pushing it.  Going WAY beyond that, beyond even the ability of most computers to solve the problem in the allotted time without superior programming skill, it going way beyond the fun.  There were probably a few people at the Hunt for whom writing an efficient fractal wordsearch solver was an enormously fun challenge.  But I think it's reasonable to assume that such a person won't be found on many teams, and therefore many teams won't find that puzzle fun.  Moreover, teams will probably expend quite a bit of work on the puzzle before getting to the point where they realize the need for a programming solution, and abandoning all of that work is a bitter pill.  Including such a puzzle in the hunt, therefore, sets your players up for unhappiness and un-fun.

Another puzzle consisted, in its entirety, of 263 MP3 files.  It's hard for me to imagine that listening to 263 MP3 files-- even at only a few seconds each-- sounds like fun to anyone.

The difficulty problem is foreseeable and solvable.  It usually requires a trusted editor (or editorial board) empowered to make decisions about whether or not something makes it to the final event, and a team that agrees to trust their judgement (or at least abide by their decisions).  That's a very difficult thing in a volunteer event.  People get disappointed or disgruntled.  Egos get bruised.  But if it's done in the best interest of the event, it's the right thing to do.  At the end of the day, if you're running the event to serve your own ego, you're there for the wrong reason.  It's not about you.  It's about your players.

I think the principle that wasn't aligned with players here was that the Hunt had to be longer and not end as early as it did last year (late Saturday night).  But I'm not sure that's true.  If the Hunt continues even after the coin is found, giving more teams the chance to see all the goodness, then you actually want an event that ends earlier for the top teams so that other teams-- slower, smaller teams-- still have a chance to finish.  Worrying overmuch about length means you're focused on a small percentage of your players.  There's no cap on team size.  If a team finishes too early for their taste, that's not the organizers' fault-- it's the team's problem.  If winning is most important to you, join a big team that races to the end.  If puzzling into Sunday is more important to you, join a smaller team.  The event can hardly be expected to gracefully scale up along with the sizes of the teams.  That just isn't tenable long-term.  Players have to take some responsibility themselves and self-organize into teams that align with their interests.  Don't join a team of 150 people and then complain that the event ended too soon.

Comments (151) | last by register company cyprus, Feb 12, 10:45 AM


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!
Comments (75) | last by Gertie, Jan 13, 9:52 AM

Puzzle Hunt 123

The Microsoft Puzzle Hunt, which I've been working on for about 15 long months, is now over. This event broke me. It is probably the last puzzle event I will ever run with a volunteer committee.

We tried some big, risky things in this event, and I'm very happy about that. I'd rather fail spectacularly for trying something different than do something safe that doesn't push the envelope. At least one of our innovations-- timed puzzles that teams were encouraged to solve as a team as an in-conference-room event-- was a resounding success. This concept was born from my feeling that out-of-conference-room events represent a tremendous amount of overhead for something that a small percentage of players ever see. From a cost/benefit perspective, they're a horrible investment. I wanted to find a way to create special moments the entire team could partake in. Timed puzzles, specifically constructed to be conducive to group solves, were a great low-cost, high-impact solution, and they seem to have been universally adored.

Some experiments work, some don't. In retrospect, it's clear how different decisions would have made the event better. I take the blame for all the problems that didn't get corrected. There was no one leader-- the hunt was essentially run by committee. That doesn't excuse me from responsibility for poor design or execution. We had a chance during the event to correct the biggest problem-- players being blocked from accessing more puzzles-- and I pushed the wrong priorities. Instead of looking at the evidence that teams just didn't want to use our existing release valve of moving from the Competitive to the Recreational division, I stood by it under the belief that any change of course at 3 AM would represent a breach of trust to the Competitive teams that had moved beyond the blockage, and to the teams that had already switched to Recreational to get around it. I still believe that to be true, but breaching that trust and unblocking players may have been the lesser evil.

I feel deeply disappointed that, after 15 months of planning, the event we ran was not the event people wanted to play. I grossly misjudged what people wanted from Puzzle Hunt. Competition is deeply ingrained in the DNA of its players, and they accepted enormous amounts of frustration rather than give that up. Some people on the organizing committee thought that might happen, but I didn't believe it. I was wrong. I accept the blame. I deeply apologize to all the players whose fun was compromised as a result. I also feel terrible for all the puzzle authors whose work got less exposure because of it.

The event was created when two teams, each planning a Hunt, ran out of steam on their own and merged (the events merged; almost all of my original team simply bailed). That was reflected in many ways in the event, and usually not for the better. Elements conflicted with each other. Problems compounded each other. And mostly, the creators were just tired and ready to be done. It frustrated me to be the front man for an event that I didn't entirely believe in, and it depresses me to feel so defeated by the experience. I don't intend to put myself in that position again.

Comments (92) | last by, Jan 31, 5:01 AM

City Chase Seattle

Every muscle in my body aches.

Yesterday I participated in City Chase, an "urban adventure" competition running in multiple cities around the world this year. Teams of two have 6 hours to complete 10 challenges (from a menu of 14 choices) located all around the city.

When my teammate and I arrived and met up with a pair of friends-- with whom we traveled the entire day-- we quickly realized as we surveyed the crowd of young, athletic competitors that we had signed up for a very different event from the rest of them. Many of the other teams, with their camel packs and lycra, were clearly there for the "race" aspect of the event. When the perky hosts got on stage to lead the group in a series of warm-up exercises and received about a 95% participation rate, I had an acute feeling of culture shock. These people were serious. We were there to have fun. And to be fair, so were they. Our definitions were just a little different.

The event kicked off with a tiny scavenger hunt as a way to stagger teams out from the start-- answer some trivia, find a couple of goofy things (a stranger the same height as you, a live animal, etc), that kind of thing. Then you received your list of "ChasePoints" and could begin planning your own route for the day, restricted to travel by foot or public transportation. The winner of the event did the smart thing and immediately ran themselves in the opposite direction from the closest ChasePoints, thereby avoiding crowds and experiencing no wait times. The key word there was "ran". Our foursome was on a strict no-running plan, so we want with the path of least resistance and hit the closest sites first.

Here's the rundown of what we did:

  • A photo safari using the provided Palm Centro phone-- both teammates and 2 non-participants doing the can-can for 30 seconds; a teammate kissing a fish; etc.
  • Roll a die. On a 1, eat a Swedish fish and be done. We didn't roll a 1. Our teams rolled a 5 and 6. We had to eat two raw fish. Each. Not skinned, not filleted, not beheaded. Whole fish. 'Nuff said.
  • Kayak around a course on Portage Bay
  • Walk a certain distance on stilts, juggle five balls with your teammate, and either climb a 25-ft rope or successfully walk a tightrope (we did the rope climb, which I never thought I'd be able to do).
  • Take a 14-question SAT prep test at a Kaplan center and get 10 right.
  • Answer some Seattle-centric trivia
  • Draw a nude model at an art academy
  • Complete an exercise obstacle course including 25 push-ups, 25 burpees, 50 jumping jacks, and 50 jump ropes
  • With provided Palm Centros, text trivia questions to your partner who must run around REI and text back the answers

    The winner finished the course in 3.5 hours. We barely made it in 6. And even without any running, I ache in places I didn't even know I had. We had a lot of fun doing it together-- more fun with four of us than we would have had with just two. It was a great way to get some exercise on what turned out ot be a terrific day, with the forecast rain kind enough to wait until after we arrived at the finish. I'll admit, though, that I certainly prefer a Shinteki or SNAP, and after dabbling in this aberrant world of the physically fit, I appreciate our little Game community all the more.

  • Comment (1) | last by Jack, Aug 11, 10:01 AM

    Shinteki: Decathlon 4

    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?

    Comments (3) | last by online shop philippines, Jan 9, 8:17 PM

    Last weekend was the latest Bay area Game, Midnight Madness: Back to Basics, and possibly the final one to be run by Snout now that team captain Curtis is moving to Portland (although a Portland-based Game would be many kinds of awesome). As with their last Game, Hogwarts and the Draconian Prophecy, Snout hit the ball out of the park on theme and story. Midnight Madness was a cheesetastic Disney film from 1980, notably mainly for the screen debuts of Michael J. Fox and Pee-Wee Herman and the scene-chewing performances of virtually everyone else in the cast. There's little to recommend the film otherwise, except that the plot revolves around a puzzle-filled road rally and inspired Joe Belfiore to create the first incarnation of what we now call The Game at Stanford, and later again in Seattle.

    This Game followed the basic plot of the film, and as with The Apprentice: Zorg which aped The Fifth Element, this proved to be a tremendous amount of fun. The route of the Game echoed that of the movie as much as possible (given that the former took place in the Bay area and the latter was set in Los Angeles), and many of the clues themselves took their cues from the film. It was fun to know that our next stop should be a mini-golf course, a diner, or a brewery, and sure enough, we wound up at one. The one-to-one mapping of Game to film has multiple side effects. It creates a narrative without one being explicitly laid out within the Game itself. It increases the payoff to some clues, their alignment with the movie increasing the sense of elegance and craftmanship of the overall event. It centers the player, giving them a sense of progress and advancement. Briny Deep has already decided to follow this model for our next Game, whenever that might be (and we know the film that will form our template).

    It's unfortunate, then, that so many of the clues themselves were disappointments in one way or another. Many felt arbitrary. Some flat-out misled us unfairly. At least one was broken. If the Game's artistic program scored a 10, its technical merit only rated half that. There were few brilliant aha moments, no clues that felt revelatory, no intriguing handouts or manipulatives, and nothing that felt truly fresh. Snout used completely standard, off-the-shelf puzzle forms more than once. The clues often felt like afterthoughts, rushed together because something was needed rather than crafted for their own sake.

    The game began with a delightful a cappella rendition of the Midnight Madness theme song, but instead of a tear-open-the-clue high-energy start, Snout opted for a Midnight Madness pub quiz. Teams were called at random-- some getting called multiple times before other teams got called at all (which, while "fair" in a mathematically pure random-is-random sense, was not a great experience for teams waiting to be called). No team waited too long, and the gap was unlikely to mean much overall, but it was kind of a downer to be all geared up and ready to go only to stall out and have to wait our turn to answer a question correctly and earn the starting clue.

    Start clue: The opening clue, just as in the movie, was a card with a few cryptic lines and a row of numbers at the bottom. The text was straightforward wordplay, and the numbers a simple decimal-to-hex-to-calculator-spelling conversion (if I remember right, the card read "249973 ==> 773d5", nicely suggesting what to do). We were gone in no time. We liked this clue-- it was easy, everyone contributed to cracking it, it mapped directly to the corresponding movie clue, and gave us good positive energy to lead off with. All of which got sapped at the next location.

    Binoculars: The idea for part one of this clue was terrific. At this point in the film, teams went to an observatory and looked through the telescope to find the next clue. A bratty kid was using the telescope before them, however, to spy on women as they got undressed. This location was atop a hill with a panoramic 360 view for miles. Forewarned to bring binoculars (thanks to an eagle-eyed teammate who saw the information hidden in the Captain's Meeting presentation), we were able to use them to find two female silhouettes and accompanying data posted in the windows of far-off buildings. The problem was, nobody could find the third. And the GC members staffing the location didn't seem to know anything about the clue. I specifically asked one of them if we could see everything we needed to see from that spot at the top of the hill, and she said we could. I later found out that the third was only visible from a location below and to the side of the hilltop. The way the clue was set up, with a box (bearing a combination lock) at the summit, there was no reason to think we had to venture off the hilltop. Time passed. Team after team arrived, and none left. If I'm GC, at this point I make some kind of announcement about the general vicinity of the third data set. Maybe a 60-120 degree arc to narrow it down for teams. Perhaps a nudge, at least, that we'd have to leave the hilltop. But GC remained mum and allowed teams to collect there, shivering in the cold, frustration mounting. Finally, sunlight gone, they distributed tubes (simulated telescopes) with the data embedded.

    About that data. Each set consisted of three equations, one atop another, along the lines of X-X-X, (X^X)/X, X*X+X, and so forth. Each set had a total of nine exes. We got excited at the idea of replacing each X with a different digit from 1 to 9, so that each equation solved to the same value. But that was wrong. Instead, we were supposed to replace the X with a single digit-- the same digit for every X in every data set. Then we were supposed to solve each equation and sum the results within each set. That would give us the correct values to use on the combination lock. There was nothing to indicate what the correct value of X was, or that we needed to sum the equations. With no way to confirm either the value or the approach, the puzzle was essentially intractable. It could have been solved with minor changes to the notation they used, adding a horizontal line below each stack of three equations to suggest a sum. Instead, most teams needed guidance from GC to hit upon the right approach. By the time we left this site, we were testy and disheartened. We didn't understand why GC hadn't provided help on the hilltop when NO teams were able to make progress, and we were crushed when the puzzle itself proved so arbitrary and unsatisfying.

    Pianos: The film brought teams to a piano museum where the clue was the Pabst Blue Ribbon jingle painted on a tiny piano. We arrived at a GC member's home filled with pianos and were handed a bundle of strips on which musical scores were inscribed. Immediately Andrew, our resident musical prodigy, perked up as the rest of the team shrunk back. But as he played one of the scores and looked at us quizzically, the rest of the team brightened as we realized it was a commerical jingle. And so we set to, Andrew playing the music and the rest of us identifying the products. We made short work of it and were puzzling over what to do next, when Andrew noted that each of the scores had a mistake. Aha! I'd already sorted the music alphabetically by product, so it was quick work to copy the wrong notes onto a blank staff in that order and identify the Klondike bar jingle. What would we do for a Klondike bar? Apparently, we'd hop around like kangaroos while singing an incredibly bad version of the Friends theme. This was a great clue for us-- we destroyed it in record time, leaving well ahead of all other teams, thanks entirely to Andrew's musical ability. I shudder to think about what this clue would have been like for teams without musical aptitude. But for us, this was a fun, high-energy clue that tied in to the movie beautifully.

    Brewery Nonograms: This was just a clue drop at a brewery, but even so the location was a little wonky-- instead of finding it behind the brewery as advertised, we instead found it in the alley beside the brewery. A small detail, perhaps, but when you're told to find the clue behind the brewery, you expect to find it behind the brewery. I was expecting some kind of block assembly puzzle (in the film, the (very lame) clue was on the side of cartons of beer, revealed as a forklift moved them into place), but instead we got a trio of completely standard Paint By Numbers puzzles. We divided and conquered. I got about halfway through one and knew it was going to resolve to a NULL symbol. When another puzzle solved to a CARD, I put them together to make CARDINAL. Then I looked at the partially-solved last puzzle and saw it was a coffee cup. "Is there a CARDINAL COFFEE in the area?" Sure enough. This clue worked perfectly well, but was nothing special. We were shocked to get standard nonograms, and explicitly opted to solve them by hand even though plugging them into a solver might have been faster. The rebus aspect seemed out of place, since the visual rebus in the movie came much later in the story.

    Melons: Another great thematic fit. At this point in the film, teams are sent to a diner and told to look between the giant melons. A large-breasted waitress wore a necklace with a HUG ME charm, which anagrammed into HUGE M and sent teams to a minigolf course. when we arrived at the diner, we saw a large-breasted woman at the back of the restaurant. Upon closer examination [ahem], we saw she wore a necklace that said "HOT METER", which anagrammed into THE METRO. Tucked inside copies of The Metro newspaper in the diner's vestibule were a completely standard word search puzzle which, when all words were found, provided a message in the grid's unused letters. Once again, an off-the-shelf puzzle form with no twists. To their credit, however, the content of the puzzle was both thematic and fun-- a list of dozens of euphemisms for "breasts". There was much mirth in the van as we solved, with cries like, "I can't find PAWPATTIES!" Nevertheless, it was disappointing to find no hidden layer or extra depth to the puzzle. We also heard that at least one team found the Metro puzzles without ever going further into the diner to find the necklace, which is a shame.

    Hitchhiking: At this point in the film the protagonists separate, and two of them hitch a ride with an extremely slow-moving elderly couple. Upon arriving at our next destination, we were met by a convertible driven by a pair of GC members dressed as old people. They invited us to go for a ride with them, and once two of us got in, proceeded to drive around the parking lot VERY slowly, while the rest of the team walked alongside the car. The two of them rambled on and on in that stereotypical old person way, getting tripped up on certain words that we needed to fill in for them. Totally fun and thematic way to gather the data, and the GC actors were terrific. Shame about the puzzle. One of the fifteen words in the list was SCRABBLE, and the narrative made a point of mentioning how RATTLESNAKE hit multiple triple word score spaces. So we immediately tried to reconstruct a Scrabble game with these words. But a little analysis showed that the letter distribution was completely wrong, and the first word in the list was too long to be an opening Scrabble play. Even so, the Scrabble vibe was strong enough that we kept looking for a way to make the puzzle Scrabble-related. No luck. The puzzle was much simpler and weaker. Completely unclued, we were supposed to notice that the first letter of each word appeared somewhere in the following word. Aligning the repeated letters in a single column revealed a message spelled in the next column. Huh? How exactly were we supposed to notice that? There was no context, nothing to guide us to that observation amid so many other potentially interesting properties of the words individually or the list as a whole. The first letters of the words weren't unusual-- there was nothing noteworthy about the first letter of EMBEZZLED reappearing in the next word. Start the list with ZERO, and populate the rest of the list with XYLOPHONE, QUESTION, JOURNAL, and the like. Make me notice the repeated letters. They certainly didn't pop from words like RATTLESNAKE, SCRABBLE, ALOE, and PITCHFORK. The Scrabble puzzle we invented as we solved seemed far more interesting than the puzzle we actually had.

    Minigolf: Another location that tracked perfectly to the film, in which teams had to play through a minigolf course to discover a message hidden on the drawbridge on the 14th hole. Merely skipping to the end or browsing through the course wasn't enough to get the clue. So too for this clue. Each hole had a picture on it which, thanks to the iPhone, we gathered quickly and translated into a list of words. But then what? Nothing leapt out at us, so-- mindful of the corresponding clue in the movie-- we went back to the course. Two holes stood out. In one hole, as the ball passed underneath the lighthouse a recorded voice shouted "Fore!" In the other, upon entering the windmill a recorded voice said, "How about a game of air hockey after this round of golf?" Both seemed reasonable in context, but a trip to the air hockey tables still seemed in order. Eureka-- taped to the side of the table was a solving grid. But none of our words seemed to fit-- each was smaller than their corresponding grid row. We had to be missing something. What if there usually wasn't any recording at the windmill at all, and instead of changing an existing recording GC had added it? That suggested that they did the same thing at the lighthouse, which meant "Fore!" was important. Bingo. Each of the words in our list could be prepended with FORE to form a new word that fit the grid. This was a terrific puzzle from start to finish. We loved that the snack bar was open and we could grab some food. The fact that, as in the movie, you had to play through the course to get the information you needed was fantastic. The insights were very satisfying. My only criticism would be that once the place got more crowded, it would be very hard for teams to get the info from the air hockey tables without giving it away to other teams, and having that aha spoiled for us would have been a bummer. This was my favorite clue in the Game.

    Radio Station: The next clue in the movie came from going to LAX and tuning in to the AM radio station that normally provides airport information. The times we live in make it impractical to put any clues near a major airport, so a train station filled in. Incongruously, the pointer to the clue was hidden on a lone Obama '08 sign on the lawn in front of the station. We might never have found it without calling GC, and I'm not sure why they chose that form, which was so unlike how we found clues in the rest of the Game. Regardless, we dutifully tuned our radio to the far end of the FM dial and identified a series of song pairs playing simultaneously in the left and right channels. The on-air bumper made a point of saying "It's Midnight Madness-- as in the movie, not the band," so we ignored the bands believing they didn't matter. Wrong! Every team we talked to were likewise mislead by this. Fortunately we called GC to verify our data and specifically asked for confirmation that the artists were irrelevant, so we didn't spend too long looking at the wrong data. Since the songs were presented in pairs, we knew we needed to combine info from the left song with info from the right. The proper way to do so was arbitrary and unclued. For each pair, we had to notice that one syllable of the song title on one side was the same as one syllable of the artist from the other (eg, Adam SANdler and SANta Claus is Comin' to Town). Even when someone suggested it, it sounded wrong to me because it was so arbitrary and messy. The other half of the data-- the other artist and song title-- was completely unused. The overlapping syllables weren't in consistent places, such as the last syllable of the left title and the first syllable of the right artist-- they were random. The whole effect was deeply unsatisfying, not so much a puzzle as "guess what we're thinking."

    Hare Krishnas: In the movie, the next clue was disguised as the literature distributed by Hare Krishnas in the airport. Here, a couple of GC members costumed as Hare Krishnas pressed their literature on us as well. We later found out that only three teams were given this clue (the rest were skipped over it), which was probably a good thing-- it required a high level of attention to detail which wasn't easy to apply at that time of night. We received multiple copies of a religious screed full of typos. Close examination revealed that the copies weren't identical-- while some typos were shared, others were not. We had to find all the unique typos and highlight their locations on a master sheet. Those highlights formed a very good rendition of the Greyhound logo-- our next stop. This was a grind-- once we knew what we had to do, it took quite a while to actually do it. On the bright side, it lent itself well to parallelization and cooperation, so it was at least a good team puzzle. But shorter would have been better.LOLCats: At the Greyhound station we found a stack of LOLCat photos with edit marks in the margins. Obeying the edit marks allowed us to extract certain letters from the LOLCat text to get our next destination. I say "we", but I checked out on this puzzle and grabbed a few Zs while other pirates huddled in the back and forced an answer out of the LOLCats.

    Pinball City: In the movie, Michael J. Fox plays a Star Fire videogame until he "beats" the game (which wasn't really possible), triggering a custom video telling them where the finish line was (also not possible). The house of a GC member stood in for Pinball City. No pinball machines, but three computers were set up running Star Fire via MAME. The ROM had been hacked to produce some incongruous sound effects under certain conditions. We needed to identify the videogames those sounds came from and, by observing the scores when those sounds got triggered, put them in the proper order and enter their initials into the high score screen. A for faithfulness to the film (although achieving a certain score would have been more accurate and, frankly, more fun), but much lower marks for the clue itself. Again, this felt arbitrary, and a long way to go for "name these three videogames". What if nobody on the team recognized them? Worse, entering the correct answer triggered a video that everyone in the room could see. This puzzle was only solved by a couple of teams-- everyone else just rode the solvers' coattails and eavesdropped on the video. Blech. Our team saw the video when another team solved the puzzle, but some of us felt dirty about leaving the site without having "earned" it. We had a little internal debate about it, but ultimately we decided to stick around until we figured out the right approach and solution ourselves. Making solvers wear headsets and providing key info through audio would have been one way around this problem, although there was no real way to prevent players from seeing the correct letters get entered into the high score board. Ultimately, the free ride was a better solution than some kind of turn-taking system would have been, but redesigning the puzzle to remove the problem would have been even better.

    Hissy Fit: To reflect Michael J. Fox's character jumping out of his brother's Jeep and running away when he felt unwanted, we had to send our whiniest team member away, then try to entice him back via a cell phone game of Mastermind. We could only talk in 4 word sentences, and our teammate's response was dictated by the number of "correct" words we used. The magic phrase was "Jeff, you are special." You'd think that with an almost infinite domain space it would be exceptionally hard to zero in on the right words to say, but we locked on the "Jeff, you are" within about 5 minutes. Some fun playing around with filling in that fourth blank ensued, until someone hit on the right word. Amazingly, three teams-- none within earshot-- solved this puzzle within about 5 seconds of each other. We've had Mastermind puzzles before, but this was a fun twist.

    Don't Get Hammered: This was a perfectly good puzzle wrapped in a frustrating form factor. Each of six inflated balls had about 14 pieces of data on them. Only two players from each team were allowed on the field at once, to gather the data or bat the balls toward the sidelines so teammates could read them. Meanwhile, GC members wielded inflatable hammers; when tagged, a player had to leave the field and tag in a teammate. Sounds chaotic and fun in theory, but was more chaotic and frustrating in practice. For starters, most of the balls were quickly punctured and deflated. There was a huge amount of data to gather, and strategy only got you so far amidst the chaos. Once we had the data, we completely blew the analysis phase by using the Post-Its GC provided instead of doing the smart thing and going directly to Excel, which is what we ultimately converted to. Once the spreadsheet was fired up, sorting the data into sets and putting each set in the right order fell out quickly-- hooray for the iPhone! The puzzle would certainly have been too simple had we just been given all the data, but this particular method of gathering the data was, I think, just a little too wild for my taste.

    So where does that leave us? Overall the clues were disappointing-- there was too much unclued arbitrariness, too many instances where, in the course of solving, we created a more interesting puzzle than what we were given. There were too many opportunities for teams to skip their own ahas and get spoiled by the progress of other teams. On the other hand, the tight binding to the film made Midnight Madness: Back to Basics a lot of fun and solidified my belief in that model of Game structure. Snout has a lot of talent in acting, performance, and theatrics that was showcased quite well in this Game, and I'm glad I got the opportunity to play.

    Comments (3) | last by Matt J., Apr 14, 8:20 PM

    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


    On June 9-10, the gf and I went to sunny CA for PiratesBATH. Although she'd played in past Puzzle Hunts, this was the gf's first Game. She didn't play with Briny Deep, however, but with The Bonny Wenches, a new team comprised of various lady friends of Briny Deep. I'll not comment on the Wenches' experience, since I wasn't in their van, except to say that at least two of them, including the gf, had enough fun that they're now talking about playing in the next Shinteki event in August.

    This Game distinguished itself from others in three main ways. First, most of the main puzzles were contributed by the teams themselves, each of whom was invited to submit one for inclusion. The advantage for doing so, aside from having an opportunity to impress fellow teams, was that when you encountered your own puzzle you'd get to skip ahead to the next clue immediately. Second, clues were provided not via live phone support from GC or a PDA, but an ultra-low-tech scratch-off and envelope system wherein teams purchased pre-canned hints for points. Third, there was no overnight leg; instead, teams roughed it at a campground (we were told in advance to bring tents and sleeping bags).

    Things have been so crazy busy since returning from the Game that it's taken me this long to find time to write about it. So please forgive me for resorting to bullet lists.

    What I liked

  • The majority of clues were fun, well-constructed, and highly thematic. When each team only needs to create one puzzle, they're able to focus all of their piratey ideas into one concentrated burst of freebooting goodness. We had puzzles themed around messages in a bottle, walking the plank, skulls and daggers, lovelorn pirates, sea chanties, sea battles, pieces of eight, treasure maps, and more.
  • Many of the locations, especially the coastal spots on day two, were spectacular-- and quite appropriate for a pirate-themed event. The weather was perfect, allowing us to enjoy stunning clifftop vistas and gorgeous sandy coves. If you're going to have a Game where most locations are just clue drops, this is the way to do it.
  • Our site at the campground was just a few paces away from the edge of a cliff overlooking a beach, so the gf and I were able to fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing to the shore-- one of my favorite things in the world.
  • The mini-puzzles. In addition to the main puzzles, we got a total of 36 mini-puzzles throughout the event. These minis were designed to be solved in the van between clue stops, in our tents at the campground, or whenever we wanted to work on them. Some of them were so trivial they almost solved themselves, others involved a little more thought. For our team they provided a welcome drive-time diversion, and I hope other Games pick up on this concept as a new area worth developing further.

    Things I Didn't Like

  • The hint system. In the past, the idea of purchasing hints has come up regarding the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt, and I've always been passionately against them. This event underscored why. With pre-canned hints of increasing cost for increasing information, it's really frustrating to purchase a hint that tells you something you already know. Often you'll get all the way through the puzzle and be stuck on the final step, but there's no way to get a hint for just that step-- you have to pay for everything leading up to it. Shinteki ameliorates that problem by letting you enter partial answers to demonstrate progress. A scratch-off system can't do that.
  • The skull economy. Teams were given a purse of skulls, each worth a point, and were free to barter them with other teams. Some teams scratched off hints and sold them for a profit. Some teams banded together when stuck and used skulls to spread the cost of hints evenly among them. The skull economy worked perfectly well, and gave teams license to collaborate when normally that kind of thing is (informally) frowned upon. But I found it to be a distraction, and that kind of negotiation wasn't why I was there. Rather ironic, really, since the trading game in Mooncursers added a similar element, but this is the first time I've played in a Game with such a system. As with so many things, it comes down to managing expectations properly. I think I'd have been fine with it if I'd known about it in advance. I'd have come to the Game with a different mindset and gotten myself psyched up to make a profit and embrace the economy (or, perhaps, to ignore it completely). There's a tendency to keep secret as many details about the event as possible until it begins. While that's certainly desirable for clues and locations, I'm not sure I agree when it comes to structural elements. Experimentation is good, but tell us in advance so we can be ready for it.
  • One broken clue and one horribly, disastrously located clue. The broken clue wasn't a big deal-- we were told before beginning that it had a problem, and so we were able to adjust accordingly. The other clue cost us about an hour and was completely avoidable (see below).
  • Timing. The Game got off to a late start and as a result teams arrived at the campground fairly late, leaving many with no time to both get dinner and participate in the activities GC had planned at the campground. Dinner wasn't as well-executed as it could have been. GC kindly provided food in the form of burgers, hot dogs, chips, and potato salad, but the burgers and dogs were uncooked and the grills were cool by the time people arrived-- so hungry players had to load 'em with charcoal and wait for the coals to heat. Cheers for providing dinner, jeers for not having it ready to go when players arrived.
  • Many of the sites on day one had also been used three weeks earlier in No More Secrets. This was a very unfortunate coincidence, completely out of GC's control. We've played in every Game for the past three years, and none had used those locations. Then, WHAM!-- back-to-back Games overlap. It was an odd sense of deja vu.
  • Starting day two with a completely pointless three-legged race on the beach. Note to future GCs (including the Shinteki folks): when you're about to start a long, steamy day of being in a cramped van with a bunch of other people, the last thing you want to do is get hot and sweaty right out of the gate. When that exertion is gratuitous, that's just adding insult to injury. I have nothing against three-legged-races per se, but activities need to fit the event and venue. Some kind of beachfront treasure-hunting activity would have been perfect. But a sack race? This was PiratesBATH, not a company picnic.

    The bumps, however, were minor and easily overshadowed by the positives. Great locations, many great clues, and terrific people all around. We had a fantastic time. Many thanks to Captain Bloodbath and crew for all their effort in staging the event!

    And now, the clue-by-clue rundown. Apologies in advance if I say horrible, mean things about your baby. Kudos to EVERY team who created a puzzle for this event, even the ones I hated. I appreciate the time, effort, and creativity that went into them. But I nevertheless offer my honest opinion, because I believe honest feedback is the only kind that's of any value. If my words are too blunt, I hope you'll forgive me.

  • Comments (7) | last by Derek, Jun 28, 10:03 PM

    P&A Magazine Issue 9

    Nobody seems to talk about P&A Magazine anywhere, so... consider this the official thread for issue #9, which was released last weekend. Please be sure to preface any spoilers with a warning.

    The gf and I are starting to work our way through it, and while we've solved puzzles 2-5, 7, and 8, we're currently stuck on 1 and 6. We've got the center hive filled in for #1, but haven't extracted anything from it. We have all the answers for #6 and have done the next obvious thing, but can't figure out where to go from there. We haven't yet started on the others.

    We've stared at our data for #6 for quite a while and have no inspiration-- anyone have a nudge to give?

    Comments (5) | last by Scott Weiss, Jun 5, 5:41 AM

    Shelby Logan's Trial

    Last Sunday night I landed in Seattle around 11:30 PM after a weekend of sleep deprivation, and seven hours later I headed back to the airport for a day jaunt to Las Vegas to testify in a civil case against one of the organizers of Shelby Logan's Run. For some reason the idea of flying from San Jose to Seattle and then to Las Vegas seven hours later seemed better to me than taking an extra bag with me to No More Secrets and flying directly to Vegas from San Jose. It actually worked out fine, and I can report that the desert is far more allergy-friendly than California.

    Shelby Logan's Run was a Game run in Las Vegas in 2002 by some Microsofties. It was, in many senses, the Game to end all Games. While this event had puzzles, the focus was on over-the-top experiences (and where better to offer them than Vegas?). In the course of the event some or all of us camped in a dry lake bed during a torrential thunderstorm; powerboated and scuba dived on Lake Mead; shimmied up a rock chimney; captured, cared for, and ultimately scanned a living rat; fired a semi-automatic weapon; drove ATVs across sand dunes in the black of night; rode a free-fall ride atop the Stratosphere tower; performed a song in drag at a gay bar; got pierced ears; explored an abandoned prison by flashlight; and more. It was my first Game, and no Game since has delivered anything close.

    The Game ended prematurely when one player fell thirty feet down a mine shaft and became paralyzed from the neck down. A clue sent teams to a site where there were multiple abandoned mines, and in plain, unencrypted text told teams to enter a specific number and no others. This player entered the wrong mine (without a flashlight, I believe), and fell. A very real tragedy.

    Inevitably, perhaps, lawsuits followed. I don't know who exactly sued-- the player, his family, or his insurance company-- but all organizers of the event were named in the suit, and all but one settled out of court. The last holdout finally got to trial, and I was asked to testify for the defendant which I was only too happy to do.

    Every player signed a waiver when they sent in their fee to participate. A scary waiver. It explicitly called out that players might be called upon to perform strenuous activities (and listed many examples), with possible consequences including death. I remember talking about that waiver with my teammates before signing it-- it was hardcore. I don't know how that waiver holds up under Nevada law, but it wasn't vague and it wasn't perfunctory. I took notice.

    I was in the van when the unfortunate player's team arrived, and the defense wanted me to testify as to their behavior and to provide the jury with a first-time player's perspective about the Game. I agreed for many reasons, the most important of which being philosophical-- people in our society don't take enough responsibility for their own actions. Were there things the organizers could have done to prevent the accident? Yes. But ultimately, the tragedy was the man's own fault. Americans don't like saying that. We like pointing fingers and finding someone else to blame. But every single player signed that waiver. They knew the event involved operating on very little or no sleep. They knew physical activity was involved.

    Earlier in the event I drove an ATV at night and opened up the throttle a bit-- until I hit the next dune. I sailed over the crest and my headlight illuminated... nothing. I had absolutely no idea where the ground was. I could have been catapulting into an abyss for all I knew. It was terrifying. Not in the casual sense the word is commonly used, either-- I mean heart-stopping, pit-of-my-stomach, images-of-snapping-my-neck raw terror. When my wheels touched down, I immediately eased up on the throttle and took a safer, more sedate pace. I took personal responsibility for my own safety. Nobody told me how fast to go. That was up to me. I chose the level with which I was comfortable.

    Players were given specific, explicit instructions about where to go at the mine site. What happened was terrible and tragic, but ultimately someone didn't follow instructions, went somewhere he'd been told not to go, did so alone and entered a dark tunnel without a flashlight. People in our society need to accept more responsibility for their own actions, even when those actions are tragically wrong. And in this case, I didn't believe the event organizers should be held responsible.

    Philosophically, I wish that all the organizers had gone to trial instead of settling. I understand the desire to just have it all be over with, though, and not wanting to endure the stress or risk of a trial. The one defendant who went to trial was mainly responsible for programming the hand-held electronic device used throughout the Game, which had nothing to do with that particular clue site. My understanding is that, while the plaintiff attacked the waiver, the defense strategy had nothing to do with it but rather that the defendant simply had no part in planning, organizing, or executing that particular clue or clue location. Yesterday I found out that the jury returned a verdict that the defendant did not act negligently, which I assume means he's off the hook.

    I understand the plaintiffs are still going after the owners of the mine, and there I think they have a much stronger case. Why on earth wasn't that mine shaft sealed? It seems so obvious. And so, while I think the plaintiff bears responsibility for what happened, the mine company unquestionably shares in it. I hope the plaintiff has better luck going after those deeper, and more culpable, pockets.

    Comments (5) | last by cheap giuseppe zanotti shoes, Jan 10, 1:03 AM

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