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!)



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