Recap: Mark Halpin’s Labor Day Extravaganza 2017

(This is a recap/review of Mark Halpin’s 2017 Labor Day extravaganza, When First We Practice To Deceive. Puzzles and solutions are both posted. This recap contains spoilers for some puzzles, including the final metapuzzle. If you haven’t already, go solve them first, and tip Mark generously.)

This year’s Labor Day extravaganza was another in the late-summer/early-fall series of “puzzlehunts that happen to be on a day when Dan and Jackie also have a soccer game to go to.” Mark mentioned to me beforehand that the puzzles might be a bit easier than usual, but the metapuzzle a bit more involved than usual, and I’d say that was accurate; Mark’s puzzles often have very creative but challenging extractions, and we got stuck on those steps less often than in previous years. The meta on the other hand, was something we made pretty much zero progress on until we cracked it (with most of the puzzles solved). Here’s a play-by-play of our solving experience.

I started with Rabbit, since I’m familiar with that puzzle type (having solved and written them), and getting INTETINE made it clear that the results would be body parts minus letters. Once I had about two-thirds of the letters, I started thinking about answer extraction; I expected the resulting letters to be reordered since the strings were alphabetized, and head to toe seemed natural, but I wasn’t sure where all of the body parts were, and since the thyroid essentially wraps around the windpipe, I dismissed this and got stuck.

Meanwhile, Jackie had started with Cobra, and as I started to spin my wheels, she announced she’d finished one of the three grids, so I joined her and worked on the third while she did the second. We finished them around the same time and got the answer. After I showed her where I was on Rabbit, she got a few strings, and I started drawing letters on a diagram of the human body (with the ones that were unclear to me written next to each other horizontally). From this we were able to fill the blanks at the bottom of the page, but we couldn’t work out what to do with our list of fish deletions.

To change things up, we decided to work on Ape together. It was easy to get started, and Jackie nailed the “backwards” gimmick on the areas that were giving us trouble, which led quickly to a solution.

Jackie started working on Dog (the cryptic) while I worked on Owl, which didn’t put up too much of a fight… Once I finished it, I checked in with her on the cryptic, on which she was surprised that the entries were all going in normally, since she was expecting letters to be deleted; I pointed out that several words had a letter that COULD be deleted (I think she’d noticed this and dismissed it) and we caught that the first six rows could make ANSWER. Knowing what to do, she was able to pull an answer with only about two-thirds of the grid filled in.

As we were solving puzzles, we were getting animal positions on one of the meta grids… I was filling this in as we went, but at this point, we had no insight on the meta. We did go back to Rabbit at this point and I started randomly trying fish body parts… I was surprised that FIN was right, and when I told Jackie, she thought it made sense as a fish’s “limb.” I was expecting something more akin to the other strings (my previous best guest was FIST, interpreting the string as “FISH minus a letter” = FIS and yielding, as the others did, a string one letter short of a body part).

At some point I’d picked up Pig and found a few food items for some of the largest enumerations (PINEAPPLE UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE was a break-in) and handed the puzzle off to Jackie, who got further than I did because she noticed the ones that “hopped” over letters. I was working on Cat and managed to make some ten-letter phrases associated with the villains (MR BABADOOK and BRIDEZILLA were first, though I stalled after this because some of the others had looser associations). Around now, our friends showed up to go to the New England Revolution-Orlando City game with us… I spent another half hour multitasking between finding Cat phrases and being social, and I found some more on the car ride over (thanks for driving, Jackie) but after that we took a five-hour break to watch the Revs crush Orlando City 4-0. Apologies to the Kaka fans who showed up for Brazilian Night and saw their hero get totally shut down.

I solved more Cat phrases by cell phone light on the car ride home, and when we got home Jackie and I teamed up on the rest and worked out the answer extraction (which was neat). We then worked together to finish Pig; once we had all of the food items, we were stuck on what to do and thought the flavotext clued Pigpen, but we couldn’t see how to apply that cipher. I came up with the idea of sorting the letters alphabetically by what they crossed (I figured that was unconstrained enough to be constructable) and once we shaded as directed, we realized at the same time that this was where Pigpen came in. Jackie was mildly disturbed that I could remember the Pigpen cipher without references (it’s a lot easier to remember the order of symbols than with Braille and Morse!).

Jackie broke into Gull by finding PEPPFRMINT while I worked on Horse, which I initially avoided because I thought it was a bunch of separate chess problems. Then I noticed the knight’s tour on the second page and found enough entries to realize the items were cards in Knightmare Chess, which I’ve never played but always adored as a concept. Thankfully, Mark posted a research shortcut so I didn’t have to track down the card text, and I realized why there were thirteen items/diamonds and fourteen diagrams… these weren’t fourteen different games, they were boards from the same game! Jackie was getting tired (it was close to midnight if not past at this point), so I helped her wrap up Gull and she went to bed.

Returning to Horse, I worked out that (5,11,6,14), (13,12,3,1), and (4,7) were consecutive strings, and I figured I’d apply the modifiers to the numbers in diamonds (I still wasn’t sure how those affect gameplay, but Mark explained it to me later) and index into the card names, to force the solver to know which cards were used at which points in the game. Rather than finishing the sequence, I tried those strings in different spots and Wheel of Fortuned the answer. I had also been poking at Raven on and off and had “THE MATRIX” and “HUXLEY” (the latter of which Jackie came up with as the only likely novelist/philosopher) but had little more than that. I also realized that the gray circle enumerations in Anansi’s Web fit the answers nicely, so I filled those in, but was exhausted and had no further ideas, so I went upstairs intending to go to sleep.

But then! I remembered I’d briefly thought about whether the puzzle answers were cluing things (CHANGE GEARS seemed to be pointing heavily toward SHIFT, and WYRM toward DRAGON), but I hadn’t gotten anywhere with those. On a whim I decided to go back downstairs and see if those words fit into the web, and they did like a glove. I was able to fill in most of those (albeit with INCREASE instead of SNOWBALL) and Googling “fiver rabbit” revealed the big aha. From there, each step of the meta fell like a domino, and I was able to submit the two meta answers just before 2am. We named our team The Teal Bunbury Appreciation Society in honor of Teal’s performance in that day’s Revs game (Kei Kamara scored a hat trick, but Teal worked his ass off throughout the game and deserved some recognition as well).

The next morning, I noted the full leaderboard [well, I thought it was full, but since writing this recap, I notice it’s been extended to a top twenty] and was glad I stayed up so that we could make the list, at #6… pretty good given the five-hour handicap! I then wrapped things up by working out the answer to Raven, which I’d backsolved from the meta, came from, getting the aha from SWEET POTAT/JOEY.

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