Stuff about, you know, puzzles

Expressing disappointment in a puzzle hunt?

At the finish line of BANG 22, both Jonathan and I wandered the crowd of finished solvers and asked for some honest feedback.  Mostly, we got expressions of appreciation and "Awesome job!".  But I know it wasn't a perfect hunt, none ever is.  I'd asked teams what their least favorite part was, but got no real answers.  How can one expect to improve without knowing what could be improved?

I've heard puzzle hunts compared to pizza and that a not-so-great hunt is akin to cold pizza.  Sure, it may be cold, but heck, it's still pizza, right?  The analogy is even more apt if you only get pizza once or twice a year.  To say, "Hey this is cold!" may discourage the pizza maker from making more.  And then there'd be no pizza.  Nobody wants that.

But I know the criticism is out there.  Every team I've played on talks about the good and the bad of a hunt.  And on teams that contain "puzzle snobs" – i.e. experienced players who know what and what doesn't work – the bad can sometimes lead to anger.  In a hunt a while ago, the puzzle required ordering (as many do). Instead of using a natural ordering, however, it went with an arbitrary ordering.  This really pissed off one of my teammates and I think pretty much ruined the hunt for them. 

I've felt that anger, too.  After one of those times, I mentioned all the missteps that had been made in the puzzle hunt to some friends.  One person replied, "Yeah, but… instead of critisizing GC, we should be encouraging so they might run another one.  We've had years and years of experience to hone this art and our expectations.  Pointing out everything that went wrong is no way to say thanks."

It's true, constructive criticism should really only be given when asked for.  But when you are GC and you do want constructive criticism, how do you get it?  And if there were major flaws in a hunt, how can you express that without being discouraging and hurting feelings.  People pour tons of works into their hunts and the players often have no idea what's going on being the scenes.  Sometimes, the "right" idea just doesn't occur to GC.  On several occasions after a hunt I've run, I've thought "This clue could have been so much better if only I'd thought to…"   I'm sure I'm not alone in this.

To say, "You really screwed up" is indeed no way to say thank you.

I've seen some writeup of hunts that generally have a positive tone about their experience, but mention the difficulties in passing, sometimes as if it was the solver's fault, not GC's responsibility.  Maybe that's a good way.  It's sort of passive-agressive in it's methodology, but gets the point across without coming across as negative and/or intentionally trying to hurt feelings.

I think the best way, though, is to run your own hunt.  Make it fun, smooth, and satisfying.  Listen to playtesters, iron out kinks, and don't take shortcuts.  That way potential GCs have a model to look to so that when they decide to run something, they can say, "Let's make it good like that awesome hunt we played in."

Puzzle (Hunts) in Fiction: Elementary

I've seen TV show episodes that use the terms "scavenger hunt", "treasure hunt", "mystery hunt", and even "ARG" in reference to the type of entertainment known as "pervasive games".  However, I had never heard any of them use the phrase "puzzle hunt", even when referring to something that I would consider to be one.

That changed a few nights ago when I watched a new episode of "Elementary", the Sherlock Holmes-in-America CBS show.

In it, an overly-obsessed math genius is participating in what he calls a "puzzle hunt" with a cash prize.  The puzzle hunt in this case consists of solving a math problem that yields GPS coordinates, finding a phone number at the location, and then calling the number to get access to the next math problem.  Does this qualify as a puzzle hunt, though?

I've tried before to nail down a concise definition of what a puzzle hunt is, but my attempts have been found to either be too narrow, or so broad that making a telephone call would qualify.  In general, I find that the solve puzzle to unlock location of next clue / repeat until end of hunt works for me.  "Puzzle" is the vague part in this series:  Does a riddle qualify?  Do math problems (regardless of whether they use palindromic primes)?  Jigsaws?  Entanglements?

All of these, to one degree or another, meet the requirement of testing the solver's ingenuity to solve the problem.  That makes them puzzles.

However, if a hunt consists of all riddles, I don't think of it as a puzzle hunt, but a riddle hunt.  In other words, when a hunt is limited to only a specific type of puzzle, then a better label is "[puzzle type] hunt".  A variety of problem types would necessitate "puzzle" as being the best catch-all term.  What was shown in "Elementary" would be a "math hunt"… though honestly it sounded more like a math-based geocaching ARG. 

A so-far attempted writer myself, I've had occasion thoughts on how to construct story about a murder in a puzzle hunt setting.  None of my ideas, though, have inspired me to commit pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).  It seems that the longer a mystery show is on, the more likely it will contain a hunt, whether it be scavenger, treasure, puzzle, or ARG.  Some are entertaining, but none to date have truly satisfied what I think of a puzzle hunt.  Even this episode, which specifically called its McGuffin a puzzle hunt, fell short.

2013 in Review

Ack!  DASH 6 is tomorrow.  I had meant to do a quick writeup of each of the events I played in last year so I wouldn't forget them.  I apparently, have only done one!  Let's see if instead I can get a quick paragraph in for each one.

DASH 5 – Didn't actually play live.  My team dropped out on me the day before, real life somehow overriding puzzle events (pfui).  I did end up solving the clues with my Thrusday night puzzle group, about 1-2 a night.  Was a lot of fun, maybe even more so since we could take (nearly) all the time we wanted and didn't feel the pressure of the clock.  There's something nice about being able to fully experience a well-written clue and not try to look for ways to short-circuit it… like sipping wine instead of downing it all in one gulp.

Shinteki Decathlon 8 – My "quick" writeup from before kinda got away from me.

Berkeley Mystery Hunt 3 – Our team came in a close second to the League of Extraordinary Puzzlemen. We were actually minutes ahead of LXP – which included incredible crossword champion Tyler Hinman – as we went into the final puzzle… Which turned out to be a crossword. Giving a puzzle like that to Tyler is like give bacon to a dog: Finished in a blink. Our team could only look on with a heavy heart as we watched them defeat HAL 9000 and win the hunt minutes ahead of us.

It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed spending the day hanging out with puzzle friends like Jonathan, Brent, Rich, Eric, Laura, and more. But with a powerhouse team like that, I did not feel like I contributed much. I love the feeling of having a key insight or finding a shortcut to solve a clue, neither of which I really felt during this hunt. Not that I wouldn't play again with the same people… Just need to figure out a way to contribute more.

Palantir Hunt 3 – This one caught me by surprise and made me long for the return of the BANG.  I had skipped the first one, not knowing anything about the producers and didn't even know there was a second.  For the third one, I joined the powerhouse that is the Shinteki version of The Smoking GNU:  Jonathan, Kekoa, Cynthia, and Eric, as well as Laura.  With such a skilled team, I figured I would do a lot of watching of amazing solvers in action.  This was partially true.  For example, on one clue, we did the standard you-work-from-the-top-we'll-start-at-the-bottom method of solving a list of crossword clues.  However, the from-the-top side sub-team had finished the entire list by the time the bottom solvers (including me) got more than four.  I think our team solve time was under five minutes for that one.  

I was able to contribute some key insights on several puzzles and even figure out the technique to solving the meta.  There is something very satisfying about having the "aha" on a clue your team has been stuck on for a while.  We ended up coming in second behind "Juiced", who beat us by just thirteen points.  Still a very fun, very satisfying hunt.  I was figuring it was going to be my favorite for the year… until November.

Escape from the Bank – I was excited to see SCRAP's newest real escape game, having been working on a heist-themed hunt for a while (more on that later).  Bob invited me to join him in this one.  Our records were exact opposites:  He had never escaped from a SCRAP event, while I had always escaped.  One of us was going to have their streak broken.  SCRAP games are always well-produced and fun, and this was no exception.  I always enjoy the variety of clues.  Of the ten main clues, I was worked on two.  First one was a cinch.  Second was a Nikoli puzzle type I'd never tried before; nobody else had either, so I spent too much time trying to figure out the rules and erasing the grid several times.  By the time I solved it, the information was no longer needed.

One drawback to SCRAP's escape games is that they don't tell you if you're done.  We had gotten what we figured was the solution to the meta, but hadn't used all the information.  Turned out, the stuff we didn't use was a mid-step for another part of the clue; we didn't need it.  In the end, we escaped!  I think we were the first to do so, but it was close.

My 40th Birthday Hunt (aka BATH 5) – This really deserves its own post.  Suffice to say, my wife convinced the right people to convince enough people to throw me a Doctor Who-themed 40th birthday hunt under the guise of BATH 5 (or is it vice-versa?).  I was and continue to be very touched and amazed by all the effort that went into this hunt and being able to see such good friends.

E.D.D.I.E. – My wife's co-worker heard about my birthday hunt and asked if I could write something similar to get her husband out of the house for a surprise birthday party.  I agreed.  "What types of puzzles does your husband like?" I asked her.  "Oh, he doesn't do puzzles." was the reply.  So I used some of the heist-themed clues I had been developing and made them much much easier and gave him a two-hour hunt in the greater Sebastopol area.  It ended with a safe-cracking at his home, just in time for his surprise party.  My first paying puzzle gig!

I got a lot of positive feedback at the party.  One conversation with a lady in her 70s was "You should do this for a living!"  I told her I was currently a full-time dad.  "Keep it mind for the future then," she said.  She was by the door as I left.  "Don't forget this!  In the future, it could be what you do.  Don't forget!"

Good way to end the year.

Epilepsy and Me: The Big Bad Seizure

Purple DayI awoke and instantly it was all wrong. I was lying on my back, but not in my bed.  I tried to move my head to look around me, but found it was strapped down. The same was true of my limbs as well. I could not move.  "What's happening?" I croaked out.  Someone sitting nearby.  "Why can't I move?"

"You need to be quiet," said the person.  "Try and be calm."

"But why can't I move?" I wailed, feeling very scared.  I could tell now that we were moving, probably in a vehicle of some sort.  I felt the acceleration and turns we made.  "Let me go!"

"Just stay still," was the only response.  "Try not to move."

Softly, I began to weep in frustration and fear.

*     *     *

I was fifteen and it was a hot summer.  Having finished my sophmore year of high school, I had decided to take a summer chemistry class.  This would mean I wouldn't need to take physics in my junior year and would maybe help me get out of high school faster.  Considering that I wanted to be in computer science and the only computer class offered at Santa Rosa High School at the time was more basic than the one I took in eigth grade programming, it felt like high school was a waste of time.

Chemistry NerdIn the summer class, I found myself excelling at chemistry.  Not only excelling, but enjoying.  I understood what was being taught, including (this was the big one) logrithms.  I did all the extra credit.  I helped other students.  I was, well, kind of a chemistry nerd that summer.

Chemistry and I?  Yeah — We clicked.

The drawback was transportation.  I got dropped off in the morning, but no one was available to pick me up in the afternoon.  This meant I would take a city bus to a stop near my uncle's house, walk a couple miles to his house, find the bike that I had dropped off in the morning, and ride a few miles up a crazy country road that no bicyclist should really ever go on.  And this was during the heat wave, with temps in the upper 90s, low 100s.

Several weeks of this went on and by the next-to-last day of class, I had an impressively high grade.  Our final was on Monday, but I calculated that even if I didn't take the final, I would end up with only an A-.  

I took the normal tiring route home.  Exhausted, but no longer worried about the class, I decided to indulge in a nap.

I woke up, strapped down, in an ambulance.

*     *     *

Danger - ClumsyI've done plenty of scary things in my life: stepped on a rattlesnake, fell through the ceiling of my house, fell out of a two-story tree house, and went bunjee jumping to name a few (that last one was on purpose). But that ambulance ride was most frightening experience in my life.  I don't remember arriving at the hospital; I may have lost consciousness again.  I don't remember being in the hospital or coming home or being told I had a seizure.  The ambulance ride itself, now that I remember.

Later, my dad told me what had happened.  I had woken from my nap, went into the living room, sat down in the recliner, and started seizing.  My grandmother (understandably) freaked out, ran outside, and started screaming for help.  My dad had just got home from work and he rushed in to help, to try and keep my from swallowing my tongue (a myth we later found out).  I was pretty much done with my fit by then.

Seizure First AideI'd had a grand mal seizure.  Today, it's called (less impressively) a tonic-colonic seizure.  Regardless of the name, it's the one most people think of when it comes to seizures:  Full-body convulsions that are usually done in the space of a few minutes.  Unfortunatley, there's not much a bystander can do to help, apart from turning them on their side in case of vomiting, and protecting their head with something soft.  Never try to do anything with their mouth.  They can't swallow their tongue, though they may bite it.  There's not much that can be done about that.

Grand mal seizures also play hell with memory.  After the seizure, whatever connection there was between chemistry and I was broken.  It's as if the seizure went through and smudged all my memories of how covelence bonds work, what moles are, how to calculate atomic weights, and even how to do logrithms.  I didn't attend the chemistry final the Monday after my seizure; I wasn't up for it.  I (obviously) failed the final.  I still got the A-.  But nearly everything I'd learned was gone.  Part of me is still very resentful of this one seizure for robbing me of that.

But one seizure does not an epileptic make.  And my second grand mal was unfortunately not while I was in a recliner.

Epilepsy and Me: The Missed Beginning

Purple DayA few days ago on March 26, it was Purple Day.  This day has been set up to raise awareness of epilepsy and show support of those who have it.  Having been diagnosed with epilepsy 25 years ago this summer, I wanted to take some time to write about my experiences.

My first brush with epilepsy was not obvious, and nor did it become clear until years later that it was epilepsy.  I don't think of it as my first seizure, but it probably was.  At the time, my family and I simply had no idea what had happened.

Sixth grade at Whited Elementary was pretty fun for me.  I had become friends with Jonathan (friend to this day and fellow puzzle hunt enthusiast), was in the advanced reading program, and was an expert at playing lava tag on the playground equipment affectionatly known as the "Big Toy".  I had become a fan of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series and had just finished The Horse and His Boy.

The Magician's NephewAt the beginning of morning recess that day, I dropped by the school library and checked out the next book in the series, The Magician's Nephew.  I remember very clearly that it was the hardback edition.  This is because the classroom was locked and thus I (and others) made a habit of dropping off our books on a little ledge right outside the door.  I remember, as I put the book down, being pleased that the size of the book was almost exactly the size of the ledge.  I then headed off to the playground.

That is the last thing I remember about school that day.

I woke up at home, on the couch, with my family worriedly watching over me, a damp washcloth on my forehead.  I didn't understand what was happening, and neither did my family.  The school had called to say I had been found wandering the playground and not really responsive.  I got picked up and taken home.

I was told later by friends that I had gone to the playground and played on the Big Toy as normal.  Only, when the bell rang to bring us back to the classroom, I didn't line up.  The school eventually noticed I was missing, found me, and called my family.  I didn't get taken to the doctor; instead, we just went home to rest it out.  

Being a kid, I really took no notice of what had happened, and life went on as if nothing interesting had happened to me. 

Complex Partial SeizureToday, it's obvious I'd had a complex partial siezure.  This does not mean I fell to the ground, shaking uncontrollably for a few minutes.  A complex partial seizure means my consciousness was was impaired, but I was still able to perform routine tasks, such as walking around, chewing and other routine tasks.  I can even attempt to talk, though what I say during a complex partial usually makes no sense to me or my listener.  Loss of memory of the seizure event and surrounding time is also evidence that it was a complex partial.

It wasn't until several years later that the whole experience would fully manifest itself and I would experience my first grand mal seizure.

Old Quick Writeup – Shinteki Decathlon 8

I used to be able to write these multi-part writeups of puzzle hunts I've played in, as a way of storing those memories longer than my own pitiful brain seems capable of these days.  Now, with two kids (one under two) and maybe an hour free time a day, it's a little more challenging.  I've been reduced to writing a quick summary just so I can remember what I've even done.

It felt like I didn't participate in much in 2013.  That may have been because I missed two big ones:  DASH 5 and Elevate Tutoring 2.  It ended up that I didn't do anything the first half of the year.  The first thing I played in was…

Shinteki Decathlon 8

Technically, it was a dry run of Shinteki's annual puzzle hunt/Day Game.  Andrea, Dan, and I were joined by Trisha as we battled against fiendish puzzles and tried out ClueKeeper.  Some quick memories:

  • Running through and exploring the Computer History Museum.  Very interesting place.  Good teams might have only had to go through once or twice.  We did not fall into that category.
  • Knitted leg warms on a mannequin.  'Nuff said.
  • Trying to solve several paper puzzles in the midst of a crowded, noisy mall at lunch.  Wei-hwa stared over the shoulder of Trisha (his fiancee) and casually asked her how it was going.  The look she gave him – kind of a you-wrote-this-and-now-you're-torturing-me-with-it – caused him to say, "Um, I'm… going to go stand over here by Scott."  He didn't say that he would watch me fail to solve the Q*Bert clue, but it was heavily implied.
  • Throwing a gold chain with Dan onto a Dr. T stand-in.
  • "This better not be one of those clues where you have to look the signs in front of a bunch of roses.  I've done that nine times already and I'm over it.." – Trisha.  Dan and I underwent the torture instead, it being only my second time doing a puzzle of that type. I mentally erased any plans of writing something similar in the future.
  • Filling digital versions of cereal bowls with digital versions of milk, using these cubes to solve get-4-gallons-using-5-and-3-gallon-jug style puzzles.  Other team members didn't seem to enjoy it as much, since it was kind of a one person solve.
  • Getting more of the order-these-historic-events right (8/10?) on our first try than other teams did after several tries.
  • Realizing that "triskaidekaphobia" can be represented by Ian trying to shuffle Triskets and a deck of cards together.
  • Walking up and down a certain avenue in a certain town, using ClueKeeper's won't-unlock-next-puzzle-until-you-arrive-at-GPS coordinates option, and thinking that would be a useful tool.

I didn't take very many photos as that seems to drain my phone's battery, leading to less chance of looking up information on the web. As unexciting as they may be, here they are:

Next up:  Berkeley Mystery Hunt 3.

Is the BANG dead? (No really!)

I think I mentioned somewhere (apparently not here) that the Burninators' 2011 run of BANG 28 was so good, it pretty much killed the Bay Area Night Game.  Originally, this was my way of paying compliment to all the hard work and incredible design the Burninators had put into their BANG, and that it would be hard, if not impossible, to top.  It was not intended as a prediction of things to (not) come.

Since then, however, only one BANG has been run:  BANG 33.  Considering its scope and purpose, it really deserved to be an event in its own right… which is has gone on to do, to much success.  If one takes BANG 33 as really Elevate Tutoring Puzzle Hunt 1, it's easy to see that there hasn't been a BANG in two and a half years,  Heck, the website hasn't been updated in over a year, and the oldest announcement for an upcoming hunt is over three years old.  It certainly feels like the BANG is dead.  Is it really?

Of course not.  At any given time, some team with the gumption could put together several puzzles, find locations to put them at, announce it, and there's the next BANG.  The problem is one of demand.  The Bay Area now has several regular events that puzzle hunters can participate in:  

  • The Different Area Same Hunt (DASH) has become an annual opening to the spring season of hunts.  BTW, DASH 6 is coming up in a hundred days or so!
  • Shinteki Decathlon can always be counted on for a great solving time.
  • Bob Schaffer's Elevate Tutoring Puzzle Hunt has run several times in the past couple years and is still available online.
  • Palantir has been running their hunt annually for the past three years.
  • SCRAP has almost at any given moment their puzzle-huntish escape game to play, including the ever-popular, but least-solved Escape from the Mysterious Room, and its sequel, Escape from the Time Travel Lab.
  • The Berkley Mystery Hunt is in its fourth year and going strong.
  • Full-length Games have been popular recently, with five having been run in the past couple years (if you count the Bay Area Recast), including one that by all accounts was the greatest Game ever run (much to the disappointment of those of us unable to make it).  I'm not sure that any are coming soon, but five in two years?  Awesome!

This is not to mention the various online hunts (Order of the Octothorpean – a hunt that teaches how to play in puzzle hunts – or Ghost Patrol Reconstructed, or a rumored Puzzle Boat 2, etc.) or live hunts that can be played remotely (e.g. MIT Mystery Hunt, CiSRA, SUMS, etc.).  There's so much going on that my friend and regular teammate Jonathan, puzzle hunt addict, has said that he is almost saturated.  Seeing as his level for saturation is pretty high, maybe the highest, that's saying something.

So the BANG may not be dead and I look forward to playing new ones in the future, but right now it looks like the four reserved BANGs are going to stay in reserve.

# Cheers for Octothorpean, Puzzle Hunt Trainer!

On November 16, 2013 at 11am PST, Larry Hosken's Octothorpean Order puzzle hunt opens to the general public.  One of the (many) reasons I'm excited about this is that there at last will be somewhere to point friends, family, and random strangers who are interested in puzzle hunts but may find the current thrown-in-the-deepend-and-see-if-you-can-swim method more than a little difficult.  Like a video game that starts you off with only a basic idea of how to play and then gradually provides you with hints and instructions, the Octothorpean Order stands to provide would-be Gamers with a slow immersion into the tropes, styles, ideas, and common practices that make up a standard puzzle hunt.  Thus provided with a toolkit of solving abilities, the inexperienced become the experienced and can begin to fully enjoy other hunts.

One interesting aspect of this is that there will be badges to earn for advancing through the puzzles.  For example, I'm currently Morse Level 2 and Semaphore Level 1.  This could be a useful way to provide difficulty information for new hunts.  If someone were to ever run a new BANG, the hosts could say "Recommended:  Code Level 3, Alphanumeric Level 1, Semaphore Level 9".  That probably gives too much information away; however, if there were "Puzzlehunt Level 1 (or 2, 3, etc.)", "DASH-Ready", "Shinteki Decathlon-Qualified", I think that would be give hunt creators and potential solvers a quick and easy reference to see if they are up for the hunt.

The great thing is that Larry was able to carry through an idea that originated a few years back at the end of DASH 3.  Out of all those interested in pursuing a project dedicated to helping the newbies and beginners get up to speed, Larry has been the only one to stick with it until completion.  (More of the history of this thing can be found at this interview Larry and I did with Snoutcast nearly a year ago.)

Final reason for excitement?  Over a hundred puzzles to devour.

Adding to a Plethora of Heist Games

Tomorrow morning, I'm set to join Dr. Bob and team for a morning of fun puzzling as we try to Escape from the Bank.  Really looking forward to it, as it may have been something I inspired (aka a tiny ego trip, as detailed previously).  I'm eager to see how the game play mechanics work out and how realistic it is.  Having played in both Escape from Werewolf Village, where nearly all the action took place at the table in a room full of teams, and Escape from the Mysterious Room, where one team of eleven is given free reign to explore an entire room for clues, I'm betting more on the former.  Either way, I expect a lot of fun.

Last Saturday, I played in Palantir's Stanford puzzle hunt with The Judean GNUs (or was it the Smoking People's Front?).  I really enjoyed it, had a few key insights, and had some amazing teammates who can solve some puzzles in under five minutes (i.e. before I'm done reading the flavor text), allowing us to come in second.  The plot dealt with breaking into Las Vegas casino(s) and trying to recover some stolen money.  The hunt's title?  The H.E.I.S.T.

Then earlier this year, the 2013 MIT Mystery Hunt's plot required teams to "pull a bank heist to retrieve the coin."

Okay, so maybe three heist-themed hunts within the space of a year is not exactly a plethora.  And maybe instead of all somehow originating in my suggestion for DASH 3, a heist hunt just an idea whose time has come.  DASH 3 did decide to go the fairy tale route, and suddenly it seemed like every other movie and TV show coming out were fairy tale themed (Once Upon A Time, Grimm, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Jack the Giant Slayer, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Tangled, etc.); maybe something similar is happening with heist-themed hunts.  Sadly, though, part of me really wants to take credit for inspiring them.

Anyway, the reason I'm writing this now is that I've been slowly working on a heist-themed event and wanted to be sure that if, it ever sees the light of day, there was good evidence it wasn't a knockoff of "Escape from the Bank" that I'm playing in tomorrow.  The idea came after playing in the Great Petaluma Treasure Hunt a few months ago, before either SCRAPs game or Palantir were announced.  It was inspired by the discussion I had with the creator of how to get more Sonoma County people interested in this sort of thing.  The thought came to me that maybe I could set up a continual-running event that came in multiple difficulty levels that would be the right size for families and give them a unique experience that made them want more.  What to theme it on, though?  A heist, of course!

So far, my ratio of actual events to planned events is about 5 to 11, making odds of it happening less than 33% based on past performance.  Besides, there are two very important projects I'm working on with the one hour spare time that I have each day:  Finishing the kitchen renovation and another longer, harder project that isn't puzzle related but am keeping under wraps for now.  They need to be finished first before I can move forward with my own heist event.  Here's to hoping!