Bar Exam, Part 3: Extravaganza Team Dynamics

(These posts will discuss the creation of Bar Exam (aka Willy Wonka and the Puzzle Factory), which was the extravaganza presented at the 2017 National Puzzlers’ League convention in Boston at the Revere Hotel. Puzzles are posted via the link above; future parts will include puzzle spoilers, but this one will not.)

I really am going to try to have this recap done before I start teaching in the fall. (Originally I was intending to post all four or five parts once a day over the course of one week… You can see how that plan worked out.)

I mentioned previously that the NPL Con extravaganza poses an interesting challenge in puzzlehunt-writing, in that people come for the convention, not just the extravaganza, and thus they’re not necessarily excited about puzzlehunts. Another side effect is that they come to the Con individually, rather than in pre-selected groups, which means somehow they have to be divided into teams. To be frank, this process is not fun… and this is coming from someone who enjoyed figuring out the table assignments for his wedding.

Since I started attending the convention in 2001, in most years solvers have been asked to self-identify as Runners (teams that want to race to the finish as quickly as possible) and Strollers (teams that want to savor the puzzles). This was intended to prevent bad dynamics within a team, where, for example, one team member might want to submit an answer or help solve a puzzle faster while someone else might want to complete that puzzle at his/her own pace. Despite this effort, I know multiple people who have been on runner teams with teammates who wouldn’t accept help or show them the puzzles they were working on, so that self-identification is not always accurate. (I should emphasize the two levels are not intended to be skill divisions, though some people think of them that way.)

On top of that, like almost any organization, the NPL has many members who don’t get along with each other due to various interpersonal issues. When competing in most puzzlehunts, it’s easy to avoid these sort of issues by choosing not to be on a team with someone you don’t like; but again, when solvers are showing up solo and need to form teams, you have a veritable minefield of personality clashes on your hands.

A couple of years ago, the extravaganza designers just let solvers form their own teams, and I don’t actually know how that turned out, apart from the fact that the next year a first-time group constructed and were encouraged to build the teams (as far as I know, since that’s what they did). For my part, I really liked the compromise Mark used when he constructed with Darren Rigby and David Shukan (hey, I just noticed that extravaganza is online!), in which solvers could sign up either solo or as a pair. That way you could guarantee yourself the opportunity to solve with at least one person you like, but you’d still likely solve with some people you don’t normally solve with. We were going to assemble these solos and pairs into teams of four, but test-solving indicated we should have teams of five instead if we wanted teams to complete the event in the intended period of time.

Once you have solvers signed up, the most effective team-generation process seems to be:

Step 1: Randomly sort everyone into teams.

Step 2: Look for personality conflicts (both known and suspected) and switch people to fix these issues.

Step 3: Look for teams that seem particularly strong or weak in terms of solving ability and switch people to fix these issues.

Step 4: If you’ve changed anything, repeat Steps 2 and 3 until you don’t see any issues.

As noted in a previous post, we renamed our divisions Competitive and Casual rather than Runners and Strollers. Since we were forming fivesomes, we also tried to avoid making competitive teams that were two pre-selected pairs and an individual, for fear that the individual might feel like a fifth wheel. To guarantee the competitive teams were equally sized, we asked for a few volunteers to be willing to be in either division, and we formed a few sixsomes on the casual side.

After announcing the signup sheets were live, I was approached by a solver who said they wanted to sign up a full group of solvers who would be a casual team who could be competitive if they wanted to, but would be casual so they could solve together. They asked how they could all be on the same team, and I said they couldn’t under our current plan, since it would be unfair to other teams. After feeling (unnecessarily, in retrospect) guilty about this, we announced a restructuring of the rules where casual teams could sign up groups of more than two if they wanted to.

Shortly after opening that flood gate, about a half dozen full teams of five solvers, many of whom have won Mystery Hunts and have consistently been runners in the past, signed up as casual solvers. Based on previous years we expected about twice as many competitive teams as casual teams, and in practice we had the opposite. This bothered me a lot, since I thought the point system was one of the most unique elements of our event, and I think a lot of people opted out of it to avoid solving with random partners. For the most part I was thrilled with how our event turned out, but this aspect of things definitely left a sour taste in my mouth.

I don’t know the right answer to formatting signups for future extravaganzas. If the divisions are intended to be differentiated by solving style, and people are instead choosing a division based on whether they get to pick their teammates, the divisions are broken. Now having said that, if choosing their teammates is a priority for solvers, that’s an argument for the “just choose your own teams” model. But if solvers who know and like each other all team up, that leaves the new members who don’t know people and the people who cause the most personality conflicts left over to be grouped up… that doesn’t seem like the best model to ensure that new members have a good time and come back to future conventions. As you can see, I have a lot of opinions about this, but I’m also grateful it won’t be my problem to solve over the next few years.

I hate last-minute setup, and we spent lots of time discussing all of these dynamics and planning for them before the event, but unfortunately we couldn’t actually build the teams during that process; we didn’t freeze the team registration sheets until Saturday afternoon, which means that we didn’t get to start building teams until after the flat competition. Delighted to have a legitimate excuse to miss the Con photo (otherwise my excuse would have been “I hate the Con photo”), I retreated to Todd’s hotel room on the almost-top floor of the hotel to start building the teams, while my partners loaded up a luggage cart to bring our equipment to the ballroom, and Kelyn Rowe scored his first assist for the US national team. (Note: If deciding who should be sent home after the Gold Cup group stage were a puzzlehunt, Bruce Arena would come in DEAD LAST. Curse you, Bruce Arena. Curse you.)

Once we had a viable team arrangement, we needed to format it and print it in a way that would allow teams to figure out what team they were on. Unfortunately, I needed to go to the front desk to print, and the elevators in our hotel were notoriously slow… so I’d like to thank the concierge for being helpful and patient when she was approached by a panting, sweaty puzzlesmith who had just run down twenty flights of stairs with a USB thumb drive. After I finally made it back up to the 6th floor where the event was happening and posted the team lists, I momentarily panicked when several people walked up to me saying they weren’t on a team… Thankfully, they were all on a single team that had somehow been left off the printouts, so we only had to fix the sheets rather than our team plan.

(At a recent crossword tournament in Boston, when I was telling this story, Andrew Greene suggested buying a cheap printer, using it to print the team sheet, and disposing of it. I’ve been on a Mystery Hunt team that did this for a weekend, and I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it for this; I definitely would have paid thirty bucks to be able to print in Todd’s hotel room without extra steps.)

We hoped to start right at 8pm (plus time for entry), and because of the frenzy to print team lists and ready the room, we didn’t. But the good news is, most things went much better and faster than the worst-case scenario we were planning for, so the delayed start didn’t matter much in the end. Also, I misplaced my laptop bag during said frenzy, and I was too panicked about finding it to look at a clock and get annoyed about time.

On the bright side, after all this work, not a single solver complained to me, before or after the event, about their team. So everybody was either happy or too polite to tell me they weren’t, and I hope it was the former. Next post, let’s actually talk about some puzzles.

Bar Exam, Part 2: Structure

(These posts will discuss the creation of Bar Exam (aka Willy Wonka and the Puzzle Factory), which was the extravaganza presented at the 2017 National Puzzlers’ League convention in Boston at the Revere Hotel. Puzzles are posted via the link above; future parts will include puzzle spoilers, but this one will not.)

Celebrating my birthday (in lieu of gifts, please vote against ignorance in 2018) by continuing my NPL extravaganza breakdown, which last paused in the middle of what I thought was going to be the “theme and structure” post. Before I move on to structural stuff, a few loose ends in the theme department:

1) If you weren’t at the Con, you might wonder why we had such a generic title. As it happens, the extravaganza title and a brief blurb appear in the official Con program, and being showmen, we wanted a big reveal… so we named the event Bar Exam, and gave a very law-flavored description that was technically accurate (referencing things like “becoming a partner” and having a “good defense” that also apply to the children’s journey through the factory). So much like a Mystery Hunt, most solvers didn’t know the theme until Wonka was introduced.

2) One of my favorite ways to contribute to a puzzlehunt is writing the opening skit, and (to pat myself on the back) between Mystery Hunt and Bar Exam, I’m on a roll this year. But with both events, the script wouldn’t have worked if the performers hadn’t sold it, and Mark, Brent, and Todd did a great job with their characters, and Todd wrote a lovely parody of “Pure Imagination” that we edited down for time.

This is also the second event in a row where multiple people came up to me and said, “You just did that theme so you could play [Character X], huh?” when in fact the character I played was not my first choice! (Though Wonka was a really fun character to improvise at the answer-checking table, especially when actual kid solvers came up to me. I was originally going to do an Ed Wynn voice like I used for the Mad Hatter in the 2014 Mystery Hunt, but fortunately I tried it in the privacy of my home and determined I would have been hoarse after three minutes.)

One of the biggest challenges of any puzzlehunt is creating an event that will work for solvers of varying goals and skill levels. Anyone who’s written the Mystery Hunt will tell you it’s virtually impossible to hit a target, even if you can agree on what the target should be. Many Hunts have gone controversially long before the first team finishes, and this year plenty of solvers were surprised by how early the first team found the coin; I’ve been on construction teams in both instances, and the outliers don’t happen on purpose.

The NPL convention extravaganza is like an extremely scaled down version of this problem; the extravaganza begins at 8pm plus epsilon, where epsilon depends on how long it takes the constructors to ready the room and for people to find their seats, and most solvers proooobably want to finish some time between 10 (maybe even 9:30 depending on taste?) and midnight, with the target varying based on how much people like to struggle, how much they like to sleep early, how much they want to play after-hours games and/or drink, and so forth. The audience is also a little unusual in that they’re not as targeted as you’d see in the Mystery Hunt and regional puzzlehunts. People who participate in DASH probably have some specific interest in puzzlehunt-style puzzles, whereas many (not all!) NPLers are more crossword enthusiasts than anything else, and they may scowl at you if they think you’re forcing them to solve something that’s too logicky or too aha-based. And from previous extravaganza-writing experiences, I can tell you that some (not all!) of them are not shy about complaining if they don’t get what they’re hoping to get.

Last year’s event, written by Erin Rhode and her partners in crime (I’m not sure exactly who helped because I think some initial participants dropped out) erred on the easier side, which reduced the danger of things running long (probably a good direction to err for a first-time group) but also meant my team polished off the puzzles in a little over an hour. So we approached this year’s extravaganza with one primary goal: Can we create an event that satisfies solvers that want something light or something heavy, and in particular, can we do that without our having to linger in the ballroom past midnight?

It was pretty clear that we weren’t going to keep both a super-solver team and a more casual team busy for the right amount of time unless those teams potentially solved different amounts of puzzles while still feeling satisfied with what they accomplished. There was a food-themed extravaganza years ago that dealt with this by providing “snacks.” If a team finished their puzzles early, they were given snack puzzles, which were less puzzlehunty and more Weekend Editiony, in the style of “solve as many of these twenty things as you can without extracting a final answer.” But that year, ranking was still based around solve time… the snacks were just for fun. We wondered if we could make those snacks matter for the teams that wanted to work on them, without overwhelming teams that might not have time to complete them. I’ve also been recently interested in hunt mechanics where you have a main tier/map/round that branches off as you solve stuff, as we looked at structures of this flavor for rejected themes in both the 2014 and 2017 Mystery Hunts.

I forget who proposed a point system, but perhaps it was natural that it arose since all four of us had been prolific writers for Shinteki’s Puzzle of the Month. For anyone who wasn’t at the event, here’s the structure we ended up with: Rather than the traditional “racer” and “stroller” team designations, which are intended to prevent people who like to aim for the finish line from solving alongside people who want to finish puzzles completely and savor them, we named the teams using the relatively isomorphic terms “casual” and “competitive.” (Solvers didn’t form teams in quite the way we expected… much more on the task of creating teams and some opinions about handling it in the future will come in a future post.) We told teams that competitive teams would have an opportunity to earn points to determine their ranking, while casual teams would just be working to finish and would not be racing.

We gave teams all nine “main” puzzles in their initial packet. These nine main puzzles had answers that could be used to solve Mark’s beautiful “great glass elevator” metapuzzle, which featured a physical elevator for teams to interact with. Each time a team solved a main puzzle and submitted the answer, they earned one of nine corresponding “bonus” puzzles. Bonus puzzles didn’t require any knowledge of the main puzzles that spawned them, but we tried to relate them thematically when possible (for example, solving Wonkavision Labs unlocked a puzzle about the Gum-Stretching Room, which is similar to the taffy-puller where Mike Teavee is sent after Wonkavision shrinks him). Teams would also receive the metapuzzle when they solved seven main puzzles; we intentionally wanted to give this out before all main puzzles were solved because the metapuzzle begins with a transcription step that might not be easily parallelizable, and we didn’t want team members to be stuck watching.

Casual teams could solve the bonus puzzles if and when they wanted (so we weren’t withholding any content from them), but their main goal was to solve the nine main puzzles and the meta. Competitive teams, on the other hand, had an incentive to solve those main puzzles and solve them quickly: Bonus puzzles would each be worth 20 points to the first team that solved them, then 19 for the next, and so forth, until they would stay at 10 points for all teams after the tenth. This is a scaled-down version of the scoring system from Shinteki POTM, and from my perspective, that system isn’t that interesting for a single puzzle, but when you combine it into annual standings, it creates an interesting dynamic challenge that rewards solvers for consistent accomplishment. In a sense, we set up nine simultaneous unlockable POTMs for competitive teams, which a “big board” showing everyone how many points were still available for that puzzle. This created an interesting strategy option, since teams could see which puzzles were ticking downward in real time, which would help them determine paths of least resistance… but on the other hand, those paths of least resistance were becoming less valuable as they became more evident. Competitive teams still had to finish the meta to “qualify,” but their ranking would be determined purely by point total.

Competitive teams that solved seven main puzzles may have been surprised to be given a “redemption ticket” for the meta rather than the meta itself. Some of the constructors became concerned that, with the structure we’d chosen, it would benefit competitive teams to put off solving the meta until they were finished earning points. We worried that teams might not realize that (which I felt was just part of strategy) and/or that teams would be tempted by the cool elevator sitting on their table that they shouldn’t touch yet (which I acknowledged could be an issue). The compromise was to *allow* competitive teams to get the meta, but to force them to give up their ability to earn bonus points if they wanted the meta. This meant that, as intended, competitive teams generally didn’t redeem this ticket until they solved all the bonus puzzles or the “bonus puzzle time limit” expired, whichever came first). I initially thought this was a silly thing to worry about, but as it turns out, this was a really elegant compromise, and I’m glad my wiser colleagues convinced me it was worth introducing one extra step per team.

Still to come in the future: Team dynamics, puzzle commentary, and how this whole thing went in practice. (Spoiler: Really well from our perspective, thankfully!)


Bar Exam, Part 1: Theme (and NOT Structure yet)

(These posts will discuss the creation of Bar Exam (aka Willy Wonka and the Puzzle Factory), which was the extravaganza presented at the 2017 National Puzzlers’ League convention in Boston at the Revere Hotel. Puzzles are posted via the link above; future parts will include puzzle spoilers, but this one will not.)

At the 2015 NPL convention, when it was decided that the 2017 convention would be in Boston, I found myself itching to write another Con extravaganza, despite my pledge to write fewer puzzles for free, which I’ve broken a lot lately (see my four-part series on the 2017 Mystery Hunt). I figured it would be convenient to be local so that I could scope out the hotel in advance and deliver equipment by car if needed. So at the 2015 convention, I asked several members of the program committee whether I could “reserve” the slot in advance, and I’m thankful that they were willing to let me do so.

For the second time in a row, I intended to write the extravaganza with two people I’d barely worked with, and we ended up recruiting a fourth I had more experience with. For the Seattle convention, I was excited to try writing something with Kevin Wald and Todd McClary, both of whom I’d never constructed with, and through various events we ended up joining up with Mike Selinker, whom I’d collaborated on several events with (some for his company, Lone Shark Games). Of course, having written with someone before is not a negative, and Mike’s contributions were invaluable.

Similarly, for Boston, I identified Mark Halpin and Todd Etter as my wish list of awesome puzzlehunt constructors I’d never worked with. Todd was interested in joining but had been vaguely talking to Brent Holman about writing an extravaganza; Brent is also a fantastic constructor, but he wasn’t on my “never worked with” list because he’s edited some of my work for his company, Shinteki. In addition to being phenomenal puzzle authors, all three of them are very adept at making their work (and the work of others) visually appealing; if, like me, your aesthetic formatting skills are weak, I cannot emphasize enough how good an idea it is to surround yourself with people who speak fluent Adobe Illustrator.

The four of us started discussing theme ideas in 2016, while I was still working on the Mystery Hunt; the idea was that we would finalize a theme early (with me subtly arguing against “role-playing game” as a theme if it came up) and nail down structure after Hunt, so that I wouldn’t have to keep mum about any structural elements of the Mystery Hunt. Before the Summer Olympics, we were less than a year from when Boston had dropped out of bidding for the Olympics in 2024, and all signs were pointing to Rio being a total disaster, so our first theme idea was a rather cynical take on the Olympics; solving teams would represent different countries bidding, but rather than trying to get the Olympics, their goal would be to try to AVOID hosting the Olympics. Some of us really loved the bait-and-switch of this idea… but then as most Olympics do, Rio generally came off well despite the organizational issues, and the country seemed pretty pro-Olympics, so we weren’t convinced this would go over well. Plus, it’s the sort of theme that has a great initial impact, but doesn’t lend itself tremendously well to puzzle theming. (And now, the water pollution word search!)

Willy Wonka, on the other hand, is a puzzlehunt theme I’ve had in my back pocket for a few years now. Like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, it’s a story that essentially consists of a series of colorful encounters in a fantasy world with minimal constraints. That sort of story structure lends itself very well to puzzlehunts, since every puzzle is in a sense its own encounter, and if the elements of the world have lots of variety, your puzzles can too. I threw it in as an early contender for Setec’s 2017 Hunt, and I said if we didn’t use it, I’d probably use it somewhere else eventually.

That “somewhere else” was potentially going to be the solo-written multi-phase crowdfunded puzzlement my brain keeps telling me is going to make me rich when I have enough free time (my brain is wrong both about the money and the chances of ever having enough free time), but I brought this up with the extravaganza team, and the other seemed to get really excited about it, so we never really entertained a third option.

That’s partially because the Wonka theme tied nicely into one thing we wanted to do with the event structure, given some challenging elements of the audience for NPL Con extravaganzas. I initially called this post “Theme and Structure,” because those two things are massively intertwined when it comes to puzzlement creation, but the post is pretty long already. So let me cut this off here, and I’ll touch on the structure we chose and why we chose it (and how that tied into the theme and story) next time around.

Bar Exam (NPL Con 2017) Available Online, P&A Issues 65-67 Recaplets

(After the first couple of paragraphs, this post includes spoilers for P&A issues 65-67 from January, March, and May 2017. Solutions to these issues have already been posted on the P&A website.)

Hi all! Over the last two months, most of my puzzlehunt attention has gone not to blogging but to constructing Bar Exam, the very well-received “extravaganza” (evening puzzlehunt) that was presented at the 2017 NPL Convention in Boston. I look forward to posting in detail about our creative process in the near future, but those posts will almost certainly involve spoilers, so you should go solve those puzzles if you haven’t already.

But before I get to that, I’ve been meaning to post about recent P&A issues. When I started this blog, one thing I figured would allow me to post regular content was that I solve P&A every two months and could talk about my solving process. But I’ve run into the obstacle that I don’t like to post spoiler content on online puzzlehunts until the solutions have been posted. For P&A, by the time that happens, I have generally forgotten about the last issue and am more focused on the new issue about to drop. For Issue 68, I was finally disciplined and took notes about what I solved in what order, so I should actually be able to post a decent recap in September. But for the sake of completeness, particularly because this year’s issues fit into a themed set of six (presumably with some sort of uber-meta coming), I thought I’d comment on the first three issues of the year in terms of the shreds I remember.

P&A 65 (Jane Austen): This was the second year in a row that I happened to be giving a talk at the AMS/MAA Joint Mathematics Meetings on the Saturday on which P&A was released. (For the next three years, the Joint Meetings will coincide with Mystery Hunt weekend, which prevents the P&A problem but opens an entirely different can of worms.) Since we were on the East Coast this year and my talk was in the morning, I was able to get my part out of the way before puzzle-solving started, but I had a lot of talks to attend in the afternoon, so a lot of solving happened in the ten-minute breaks between talks.

The ordering for the metapuzzle was pretty clear, and I remember locking into the mechanism pretty quickly, as I was convinced at one point that the answer was COMMON COUPLE, meaning I must have been solving from ?OM??? ?O????. I really liked that answer, because it fit the storyline but also described the matching pairs of letters that the meta revolved around, but there’s presumably an additional constraint this had to fit, since the meta answers this year have been a bit clunkier than usual and all the same length. The actual answer fell once I managed to solve the puzzle yielding the Z.

It’s been a long time since I looked at the puzzles, but I remember particularly enjoying Faults and Faultiness (the interpretations of pictures were funny and pleasing to work out), and that Decks and Detectives was challenging but satisfying. I believe Jackie did the heavy lifting on the traditional big-ass logic puzzle (as she often does), and Gliding and Gladiators was the last holdout in achieving a complete.

P&A 66 (Edgar Allan Poe): I solved this one solo, and it was a rare issue where I had all the puzzle answers for quite a while before cracking the meta. The symbols were pretty clear, and the ordering fell after spending way too much time trying to order by publication date, but the problem is that the pair of parentheses in the symbol string made the string look like it MUST be an emoticon, and I spend much too much time trying to interpret it as a picture rather than a coded message. Thankfully at some point it occurred to me that there might be a code associated with Poe, and once I had the key the answer (and complete) came instantaneously.

Purloined Letter was a lot of fun, and a good example of an identification puzzle where identifying some answers gives you traction with some others, which is a great thing to aim for since it makes the last stages fun rather than frustrating. Masque of the Red Death was a nice variation on a standard type, and Cask of Amontillado was a great example of a puzzle that fully reflects its theme.  I never fully understood how The Tell-Tale Heart worked (and according to the solutions, that’s because it still had errors at publication) but was able to chip away at it enough to solve it… and as usual, I avoided the cryptogram puzzle as long as possible, since those quickly devolve into typing chunks of code into Quipqiup.

P&A 67 (Agatha Christie): If I remember correctly, Cards on the Table caught my eye first, and I ended up solving it early even though I don’t think it was one of the easiest puzzles. (I generally scan the set for something that looks approachable, and after solving it, I check the current stats to determine the “low-hanging fruit” lots of people are solving and prioritize that.) For both And Then There Were None and Dumb Witness, Jackie did a lot of the solving and I joined in to help with the pieces she was having trouble finishing. Five Little Pigs was tedious but had a nice aha, and we tried doing the right thing on The Mirror Puzzle almost immediately, but I messed things up by incorrectly parsing which instructions were intended to go with which pictures.

As for the meta, we had lots of names early, but we needed most of them before we decided the first names were likely what was important and happened to web-search the right ones as a group; at that point, I think we had all but two or three answers, and so the result followed quickly. I didn’t understand the final answer until I read the comment in the solutions, which is embarassing since I think that’s one of the last episodes of the series I watched before I got bored with it and stopped. (I started with the “modern era” series, so the only Doctors I know are Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith; of those, Tennant was my favorite by a country mile.) We solved most of the puzzles forward either before or after solving the meta, but we never figured out A Murder Is Announced; the answer to that one was readily backsolvable from the metapuzzle, and even after knowing the answer, I couldn’t make any solving progress before I read the solution two months later.

Upcoming: P&A 67, Puzzle Boat 4

P&A Issue 67 will be released tomorrow (Saturday the 13th) at 10am Arizona time, which is probably an hour off of what you think it is because the Arizonans are weird about daylight savings. P&A is currently $10 an issue, and well worth it given that you not only get a hearty mini-puzzlehunt, but also some fun bonus variety puzzles. I don’t solve those while the clock is running, but sometimes I return to them later.

I was planning on posting a recap of the last issue to get people psyched, but I see that P&A 66 solutions aren’t up yet, and I don’t want to interfere with stats if answer submission is still active. So I’ll try to write that in advance and plan to post it once solutions go public.

What I will do in the meantime is plug the Kickstarter for Puzzle Boat 4 which has seventeen days to go but has already reached its goal! (Yay!) For anyone who hasn’t participated before, the Puzzle Boat by Foggy Brume, the creator of P&A, but it’s more Mystery Huntesque in scope (well, more like the Mystery Hunts in the 2000s before the size really blew up) and usually has an interesting unlock system and cool meta-meta structures. The planned release date is some time in October, and for $100 you can register a full team and get your hands on a Kickstarter-exclusive puzzle suite. (There are also higher tiers if you want a P&A subscription or three, and/or if you want to get a picture of you wedged into the hunt.)

I’ve written this post during the first twenty minutes of my “this is when you can look at your graded Calculus I exam” office hour. Students seen so far? Zilch. This is what teaching a pass-fail course in the spring is like…

Recap: DASH 9

(This is a recap/review of the DASH 9, which happened this past Saturday in all of the cities. Puzzles and solutions are not yet posted. This recap may contain spoilers, but I’ll try to avoid them where possible, especially for puzzles I recommend.)

Once Boston registration opened for DASH, I immediately registered a Mystik Spiral team with the intention of filling it up later. As it turns out, many of our MS regulars were busy, so for a long time our team was me, Jackie, and Jenn Braun. After a successful run at Escape Rhode Island (where Mystik Spiral XL set a record that has since been broken by Dan K. Memes, which is a team I am not on but which I *think* is named after me? It’s complicated) we picked up Matthew Gardner-Spencer and his infant as a fourth and fourth-and-a-half member, though some time between then and event day, we lost the two of them and gained Scott Purdy. The max team size was six, but in retrospect, I’m really glad we ended up with four, because that seemed like the optimal number of solvers for many of the puzzles.

For anyone who doesn’t know, DASH stands for Different Area, Same Hunt; a central group writes a one-day linear puzzlehunt and recruits local organizers to assign the puzzles to locations and administer the event. Solves are entered into ClueKeeper and time between solves doesn’t count toward your score, so if two puzzles are half a mile apart in my city and a block apart in yours, the competition is still fair because the walking time doesn’t count. (Not that it should actually count for anything, but if you rank teams by total start-to-finish time, we had the fastest time. Lunch breaks are for the weak.)

This year’s theme had shades of Indiana Jones to begin, but a few puzzles in, it became clear that the actual theme was based on Arrival. That’s actually an ingenious theme for a hunt the size of DASH, because (a) it’s one of the few recent successful movies that is essentially about a protagonist spending the whole time trying to solve a puzzle, and (b) it really didn’t have enough plot to sustain more than nine or ten puzzles. We had on-and-off rain throughout, but since we were ahead of the pack in Boston, we generally had our first pick of a solving area at every location, so we were usually able to find a protective awning. (Puzzle 3 was probably the most weather-affected, as there was enough wind and rain to get us from the side… naturally it stopped right after we finished solving.) After we finished, we had lunch at Granary Tavern, and when we emerged the weather was absolutely gorgeous, proving the event should have been moved to 2pm. (As a side note, shout-out to the Zinneken’s food truck, where a fellow Revs fan served us really delicious waffles for dessert.)

We were in first place in the country when we finished, but we figured we would probably be passed by other teams as they finished; in the end we placed fifth, and only second in Boston as we were passed by one of a swarm of Galactic-Trendsetters-affiliated teams (another finished in second on the other side of the country).

= = = = =

Puzzles I especially liked:

* Explore The Chamber, What Did We Miss?

The recurring thread of the event was a set of polygonal tiles that were assembled in various configurations to translate symbols into words. Explore The Chamber taught us how to use drawings of the configurations to extract those letters… mostly, they taught Scott and Jenn this while Jackie and I split up two mini star battles. The organizers helpfully gave us two pages with copies of both star battles, which is good because I broke mine, and then Jackie managed to solve both of them before I fixed mine. Perhaps this is why she kicked my ass in last year’s USPC.

Then What Did We Miss? revealed that all of our translations had been wrong because we were missing a third of the tiles, and “mistakenly” using the wrong translation system! Adjusting our interpretation of the language felt very thematic, and it was neat to use the information we’d produced earlier in an entirely different way.

Incidentally, I thought hints came a bit too fast on some of this year’s puzzles. For example, on What Did We Miss?, we figured out the tiles needed to form a 3-D object and were very excited to figure that out; my phone gave us that information for free about two seconds later. We’re a pretty fast team, so I imagine that most teams ended up being told that rather than figuring it out on their own. I get that you want hints to flow continuously so that teams don’t get stuck for too long, but I thought the hint curve felt too aggressive on some puzzles.

* Wide Field Array

This was a word search variant that didn’t set the world on fire, but I thought it was a great example of a puzzle where everything you need to do is elegantly contained within the elements of the puzzle itself. (I think there was a hint in the flavortext to the final extraction that we used, but we probably didn’t need to.) We had the second-fastest time on this puzzle, so maybe it was less clear to others, but I enjoyed it.

= = = = =

Puzzles I especially disliked:

* Radio Telescope

“Dislike” is unnecessarily strong here (I used it in my first recap and am trying to be consistent in terms of format… I should probably change it). This was still an enjoyable puzzle, but it didn’t feel as tightly constructed as the day’s other puzzles. Why was the criss-cross on a cube? Why were the numbers presented the way they were? How were we supposed to know for sure that the fourth item on the list was a five-letter-word and not the more specific seven-letter-word? All of these elements were solvable, but for me they felt like a lot of interesting ideas combined with a staple gun.

* Prevent Hostilities

ClueKeeper now has built-in Zappar support to allow augmented reality in their hunts. This is a really cool idea… that felt misused here. We were told to point our phone at a target, and that process revealed a 3-D rocketship, that we looked at and got very little information out of. Eventually we focused on the puzzle element of the puzzle and got a sequence of colors… After a while someone noticed we had colored buttons, so we could enter that sequence! Which we did. Over and over. We were checking our work yet again when we got our first “hint”… which explained that what looked like a window on the rocketship was actually a button, and that until we pressed it, all our colors were disappearing into the void. This seemed more like instructions than a hint, and I didn’t love that part of the puzzle was guessing how to use the app.

Meanwhile, at least one of our teammates couldn’t see my phone easily and was getting really annoyed by this. Now granted, if it was more clear how we could start the code entry, we wouldn’t actually have had to look at the phone for as long as we did. But it wasn’t ideal to have the big finish reveal (which honestly wasn’t much of a reveal) happen on a small screen. The idea of translating a message into symbols (instead of the other way around) in the last puzzle was a good one, and I liked the makeshift objects gimmick. But entering the encoded message into Zappar didn’t really add much, and the lack of guidance in how we should interact with the object subtracted a lot.

= = = = =

So that was DASH. I have to admit that the linear puzzlehunt is not usually my favorite format… If I’m stuck on something, I like to be able to look at something else and/or try to solve around the obstacle by solving enough other puzzles. But I found this DASH to have better continuity than the others I’ve solved, and we were never stuck long enough to stop having fun. I wish the weather had cooperated more, but it was a great day. Seven tentacles up.



Now Available: Escape from the Haunted Library

First off, a quick apology for being a terrible blogger, as it’s been almost a month and a half since I last posted. Next week I’ll finish up my teaching for the semester, so I should have more time for some random non-recap articles… and on the recap front, I owe you reports on this past weekend’s DASH, and the last issue of P&A since the next one drops this Saturday. (I’m giving all of you a 30-minute head start while I finish up Google Code Jam Round 2.)

Before any of that, I want to nod to a good friend, Eric Berlin. He’s been my teammate for several of my top ten puzzlehunts, and if you have/know any youngsters interested in puzzles, please point them toward Puzzle Your Kids and the Winston Breen book series posthaste. His latest puzzlehunt, a virtual room escape called Escape from the Haunted Library that he created for the Connecticut Library Association is now hosted on the P&A website on a pay-what-you-wish basis. Enjoy!