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.

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