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.

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2 thoughts on “Bar Exam, Part 3: Extravaganza Team Dynamics

  1. I don’t see how you can have extravaganza solvers sign up full teams for non-casual solving but not have both a) the same teams, more or less, sign up year after year together, and b) have a stratum of those same teams finish in the top N positions year after year, likely with a gap between the lead pack and the other teams. (Think SUMS/MUMS/etc.) There would undoubtedly be some people caught in the middle, who may never be able to break into one of what I’ll call the well-oiled machine teams in the non-casual division, but for whom it feels wrong to solve in a division where you don’t have some idea how you and your team measure up and they would not be well-served by the system.

    I personally, as a non-casual solver, am happy with the non-casual solvers being forced to sign up in 1’s and 2’s, because under those circumstances I actually get to a chance to solve an extravaganza with people who I would not ordinarily find myself solving with, if those solvers defaulted to solving the extravaganza with their closest friends and/or longest-standing puzzle associates.

    I think it is also fair to say that, even with the program committee being careful to seek out activities for the Thursday night which help people meet people, the social inertia of personal comfort zones over the course of con can make it harder for newcomers to find their way socially. Having a second de facto mixer as part of the marquee Saturday night event is totally fine with me.

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  2. With regard to experienced solvers forming their own Casual teams, I don’t think you need to be as worried as you seem to be. I know a lot of solvers who are capable of solving competitively, but for something like the Con extravaganza, where they’re not very worried about their ability to finish and not having much to gain by solving quickly, like to be able to solve puzzles from excellent constructors like you and Zebraboy and Navin and Shaggy without feeling pressured to solve them quickly. One of them described the speed-solving mentality as being akin to buying a bottle of fine champagne and then chugging it. Granted, there is still the question of why they should gravitate to all be on the same team, so maybe there is something to worry about. But honestly, I don’t see much wrong with letting casual teams self-select to a greater degree, since for many people this may be their only opportunity to solve with friends they see roughly once a year.

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