MIT Mystery Hunt 2014 Recap – Part 2

In my last recap post, I had spent most of my Mystery Hunt so far running around campus investigating strange images, verifying data, and solving location-based clues. As Friday night became Saturday morning, my work got a bit more puzzle-centric.

It’s hard to remember exactly what happened when during those long hours of the night. We tackled a lot of different puzzles, and I’m mostly just referencing our Team Log to see what was released and when we solved it.

Solving Common Bonds opened up a few new puzzles, including one called Monster Potatoes. We figured out the first a-ha and started collecting data, but that was about as far as we got. (Little did we know that this would end up being the last puzzle our team would solve in the entire Hunt!)

Another puzzle had to be picked up from GC, which is always fun. Phil invited a few of us to go with him, but by the time that ended up happening, most of us had gotten caught up in something else, so I think it just ended up being Phil and maybe one other person who went to pick it up and ended up solving it in the other room. (This one was hilarious, though — it was just a paper puzzle, but apparently the reason you had to go get it from GC was so they could run it through the paper shredder in front of you.  Aptly titled “Obsessive-Compulsive Dickishness.”)

Shelly took up the task of a scavenger hunt puzzle, running around and gathering lots of stuff and people. (I remember hearing her say “I’m torn, because I love events, but I also LOVE scavenger hunts!” when trying to decide how to spend her next few hours.) One of the items on the list was two people who shared the same birthday, a condition which Summer and I happened to meet (and had talked about at the hotel on Thursday). So when the time came to go “turn in” the scavenger hunt (in exchange for playing cards to build a card tower), we went with Shelly and Mike on the long, long, LONG journey to some far-away room on campus. I’m not sure where it was, but it definitely felt like the farthest I had ever strayed from our classroom.  I was also impressed that Mike seemed to know exactly how to get there! It was fun to watch them bring out all the items for the hunt and try to convince the staff member that a photo of a telegraph key was technically a telegraph key, or that the kid we grabbed from Up All Night really did speak four languages. Our same birthday item was at the very end of the list, so it felt like we had to stay there kind of a long time.

Back in the room, at about 12:40am, a Tetris + crossword puzzle called Falling into Place was released, and suddenly everyone became totally distracted. The puzzle actually required you to play Tetris! That was a fun break. I wasn’t really getting anywhere with it, so I dropped out after a few minutes, followed by Todd and Phil, then Matt, leaving just Chris. The game was pretty tough and unforgiving, and Chris basically had no choice but to keep playing until he reached the end, for fear of losing his progress.

I had some fun with A Puzzle with the Answer ‘LOVE ME DO’ (this was the puzzle title format of the backwards White Queen round) which required figuring out the song being played on an instrument without the accompanying audio. I hesitantly asked the room if I could try to play the piano song on an online keyboard through my laptop speakers and see if anyone recognized it. I was super surprised when about 5 notes in, Chris T. correctly identified the song! That first song was a huge key in unlocking the a-ha of the rest of the puzzle. Neat! Some other teammates jumped on board, and we quickly got enough data that West was able to solve it (isn’t that always the way it goes?).

That puzzle was wrapped up at around 2am, maybe about the time Todd and Chris would usually be heading out and I would be starting the night shift. But Chris was still tied up in the Tetris puzzle, and it didn’t look like the end was in sight, so Todd stuck around and kept puzzling.

Todd, Summer, and I think Phil did a lot of work on a funny puzzle called The Most Dangerous Night. I spent a lot of time staring at the clues and data, but unfortunately wasn’t able to contribute much. A couple of wrong answers delayed our solve here for a long time, but eventually it was defeated!

Shelly had been out collecting some data around campus needed for a puzzle called Indie Audio Productions and successfully convinced the rest of us in the room that it would be fun to work on, and she was right! We quickly found some patterns and then got stuck for a bit until Ben and Shelly made a huge a-ha using their local area knowledge. Ben suggested the next step, which I thought was a little unlikely, but it turned out to be correct and awesome. This was a fun puzzle for me because I got to show off my Googling prowess. I wouldn’t have thought I would be any better at Googling than anyone else on Left Out, but my teammates seemed to think otherwise. (My skills are 100% the result of my time playing The Stone.)  The last step of this puzzle required leaving campus to obtain something. At about this time, Mike arrived on his bike, so Ben went on out for an early morning ride to get the last piece.

My memories aren’t matching up with our Team Log here, but Chris was eventually released from his Tetris prison and Todd managed to work out how to use the data he had collected, so they went back to the hotel at some point. (This might have been much later thought.)

We had an event coming up at 8am, but I think Mike, Ben, and I were the only ones left in the room. We decided it would be more fun for two people than one, so Mike held down the fort while Ben and I went to play Cards Against Wonderland, a variation on Cards Against Humanity where all of the cards referenced either Alice in Wonderland, the Mystery Hunt, or MIT. This event said to send your least offendable players, and as we walked to the room, I thought “I bet I know who will be at this event.” Sure enough, Tyler was there! It was nice to see a familiar face.

After we signed in, GC told us to form groups and play the game. We went with Tyler’s team and what seemed to be a young and local team. We immediately started sorting through the cards, trying to find the “puzzle,” but GC came over and insisted that we actually play and “have fun.” So we did! And it was fairly fun. I was having a good time laughing at my own submissions. There were a few too many MIT references for our team though. At one point, Ben had about three incomprehensible acronyms in his hand. Then he seemed to keep drawing more of them, and we had some good sleep-deprived giggles over that. After a while, GC handed us a slip of paper for us to enter as an answer, and we were done.

When we got back to the room, Corey had arrived. There was also a Duck Konundrum open. As much as I’d like to solve one of those someday, I knew I was planning to go to bed in the next few hours and didn’t think it would be wise to leave in the middle of such a complicated puzzle. Corey ended up starting that one on his own, poring over the several pages of instructions and chuckling to himself every few minutes at the funny parts.

Ben and I started working on a puzzle called Please Remain Seated, which involved identifying photos of roller coasters. Again, a chance to use my Google skills! A bit of work had been done on this puzzle already, but some of the data was incorrect. We managed to finalize basically all of the data, and as a few more teammates trickled in and started helping out with the solving mechanic, I decided to head out and get some sleep. Technically, I was supposed to be on Puzzle Czar duty, but we hadn’t exactly been faithful to the roles schedule, and the job seemed to be safe in Mike’s hands, so I didn’t feel too bad about leaving early.

I think I ended up in bed by noon, and planned on getting a nice chunk of sleep since I intended to stay up on Sunday night until time to leave for my flight in the afternoon.

Next time on the recap, a clever Japanese puzzle, and some Running Around!

MIT Mystery Hunt 2014 Recap – Part 1

It’s that time of the year again, time for my multi-part MIT Mystery Hunt Recap Extravaganza!  I was thinking it wouldn’t be as long this year, but since this was a much more action-packed Hunt, it will probably be just as long, or longer than last year.  As usual, this is a play-by-play account of my personal hunt experience, meant more for my own future reference than any sort of reporting or entertainment.

 

Pre-Hunt:

I was really looking forward to returning to Boston this year with all of the knowledge I had gained from last year.  This included being more familiar with the structure of the Hunt, as well as being more comfortable with my teammates.  I was even more excited when I found out that two more people I knew would be joining the team — Phil Dasler and Summer Stevens.  I worked closely with Phil over the course of the Famine Game creation process and got to play with his team for Wartron Boston, and Summer was a part of my favorite Famine Game team, The Hunger Dames.  More friends means more fun!

I didn’t feel the need to do as much preparation this year, but I did skim over our team’s internal documents on roles/responsibilities and using our in-house puzzle cataloging system.

When we first started getting flavory e-mails from [atlas shrugged], I started to get a little bit nervous.  The theme was some sort of science conference, with lots of unfamiliar terms technical jargon.  I felt mostly sure that the “joke” was that it was all incomprehensible, but I did worry that maybe it was just going over my head.

 

Thursday:

Since I was flying out from the West coast this year, I didn’t make it to Boston in time for our team’s traditional dinner at Legal Sea Foods.  With two flights and a two-hour layover, it was about 9:30pm before I made it to the Kendall to drop off my luggage.  Phil was thoughtfully keeping me updated on the group’s location via text, so I grabbed a parfait from Au Bon Pain and headed to the Marriott lobby where games were apparently being played.

There, I found Todd, Corey, Phil, and Will playing an interesting co-op card game called Hanabi.  Hugs were exchanged, and I sat and watched the rest of their game play out while I ate.  After that, Corey bowed out and I joined in a new game called Love Letter.  This game had beautiful artwork and some fun mechanics that revealed themselves as we played.  Lots of laughs already, which is one of the perks of doing anything with Todd and company.

After our game ended, we visited the other table of Left Outers, which included Matt, Asher, Chris, Craig, and Summer.  (I knew Summer and I were going to get along when the first thing she said to me was that my hair looked cute.)  We all chatted there for a while, I made some poor exhaustion-fueled incomprehensible jokes, and then we all parted ways to get some sleep before the big day.

 

Friday:

I didn’t sleep great on Thursday night, shifting over three time zones and having accidentally slept some on the plane ride.  But I still managed to get up early enough to enjoy breakfast at the Kendall again with Dan, Phil, and Will before riding over to MIT in Dan’s car and unloading supplies to our classroom.  As I vowed last year, I arranged to have a Swiffer mop ready to clean up our classroom’s floor a bit before we arranged all the desks and chairs.  There turned out to be a lot more than just chalk dust on that floor, and I wonder if I might have been better off not knowing how nasty it really was. (But I did feel a bit better about putting my stuff on the floor after I had cleaned, even if I only made a dent in the dirt.)

We arranged our tables similar to last year, with one more pair of tables to accommodate our slightly larger team.  And as usual, by the time we had the room arranged, our computers set up, and had figured out internet and printer access, it was time to start heading to the kickoff!  On our way, we made the traditional stop at the student center to buy copious drinks (a tradition I admittedly don’t understand, as our classroom is always full of drinks).  Then we headed to the location for this year’s kickoff, an auditorium right next to the student center.  GC staff told us we would need to wait in the lobby until the “conference” opened.  The lobby was pretty empty when we arrived, but it quickly filled up with fellow Mystery Hunters.

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Todd and Phil had brought the team flags used in The Famine Game cornucopia with plans to hand them out to teams who happened to be at the Hunt.  This was a fun way to see some familiar faces from our Game.  Tyler stopped by and said hello, which was way better than our brief introduction last year.  Everything about this year’s Hunt already felt a little more relaxed and familiar.

Before long, the auditorium doors were opened and we were allowed inside.  Rock music played loudly over the speakers as we found a spot for our team to sit.  I noticed a few other teams had large signs to help teammates find their seats, and I was thankful (and not for the last time during the Hunt) that our team was small enough just to organize by phone.

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After a while, a woman went up to the podium on stage and read from a book.  The microphone wasn’t on, but we deduced and confirmed that she was reading the end of Atlas Shrugged, thus introducing the team running the Hunt (the team whose name is the entire text of Atlas Shrugged, thanks to an absent character limit on last year’s registration form).  The microphone came on during her last few sentences, and then she welcomed us to the conference and introduced the main speaker, John Galt.

Galt gave a presentation about puzzles, and how we needed to have more consciousness (meaning less sleep) to handle them, or something like that.  Curiously, his presentation was interrupted part-way by a mysterious voice and a familiar smiling face on the slides.  An actress playing the Cheshire Cat appeared on a balcony above the stage, revealing the true theme of the Hunt — Alice in Wonderland.  She explained that the Jabberwock was scaring creatures from Wonderland into our world, and that we needed to find them lure them back, as well as defeat the Jabberwock.

The kickoff wrapped up shortly after the true theme was revealed, and we were instructed to pick up a bag for our team at the table outside.  In addition to log-in information for the Hunt website, we received some promotional materials from Hunt sponsors and a first-aid kit which, this year, seemed to contain a puzzle.  When we logged on to the Hunt website, there were already three puzzles posted!  This was a big shift from the planned hour (and unplanned half-hour) of downtime between kickoff and the start of the Hunt last year.  Suddenly, our room was a flurry of activity as people started sorting through the tile puzzle that came with the medical kit, building a sudoku, and identifying celebrities.

With over fifty players and only three open puzzles, things felt pretty saturated.  Instead of trying to hop on a puzzle, a few teammates and I took to inspecting the graphics on the website.  Each open puzzle was represented by a playing card on a hand-drawn map of MIT at the top of the page.  The cards also had dotted lines extending from them which lead to question marks.  A few of the cards were really close to our classroom, so Dan, Phil, Chris and I decided to print out a map and go check them out.

After searching an empty courtyard, getting blocked by construction, and going up and down several flights of stairs without finding anything card-like, we decided to head back to the classroom (though Chris went on his own tour around campus looking for more).

By the time we got back, a few (maybe all three?) of the opening puzzles had been solved and new ones opened up in their place.  Dan was working on one called Upstairs, Downstairs which seemed to require confirming or denying specific information about locations around campus.  Doing another “go-see” around campus sounded fun, so I went with new teammate Chen up to building 33 to check on a clue.  I brought a basic map of MIT campus to help us get there, but it was still a little tricky!  MIT is truly a labyrinth, and that’s kind of fun in its own way.

At the Stata Center, we went directly to the staff for help finding a specific room by its name, but since we didn’t have a room number, nobody seemed to have any idea what we were talking about.  After a bit of searching on our own, we were able to find what we were looking for, but Chen cleverly noticed that the clue text was contradicting itself.  With a little Googling, we found another room on the second floor which seemed to match the conflicting part of our clue, as well as the mechanic of the puzzle.  I called Dan to relay the info and we headed back to HQ.

After we checked back in, I went across the street to the student center to grab some lunch.  We had decided that everyone would fend for themselves for lunch on Friday, and since I was expecting a bit of downtime between kickoff and the first puzzle, I hadn’t gotten anything yet.  It seemed like a good idea to go get some food before I got wrapped up in another activity or puzzle.

When I got back to the room, I tried to help out with a neat puzzle in progress called Sneaky Fox, but by the time I gotten up to speed and solved my portion, the rest of the group had figured out the answer.  I’m glad I got to see it anyway, since it was a neat concept!

The puzzle Ring Around the Music seemed appealing, so I brought that one up and started layering the elements in Photoshop.  Phil, Chen, and some others joined in, and we found some interesting patterns, but we never made it to the a-ha.

At some point, a teammate walked in and presented the puzzle they had just picked up from HQ called Black and White, which consisted of one jumbo-sized word-find (about 3 feet square), accompanied by a micro-sized one (about 2 inches square).  That was the last I saw of it, as it was solved in the other room, but it was very funny to see.

At around 4:30pm, we solved the meta for the Spades puzzles, which included Ring Around the Music.  Chris informed me that the mechanic of the meta revealed that the answer for that puzzle would be the collective name for an animal that started with the letter G, so we started searching through the possibilities.  We both really liked a BAND of gorillas since it fit with the music theme, but it wasn’t right.  We wanted to try one more, and I liked the way a TROUBLING of goldfish sounded, so we tried that and it turned out to be right!  I solved a Mystery Hunt puzzle, haha!

Each new puzzle that we unlocked appeared as a playing card on the MIT map, replacing the questions marks from before and extending the dotted line path around campus.  Someone on our team found one of the cards in a hallway, which turned out to be a big poster with a QR code.  The code stated that we didn’t have access to that part of the Hunt yet.

For each card suit meta we solved, we had to send a few players to have an interaction with a character from Wonderland (I think we were luring each character to a rabbit hole?).  At about 5:30pm, we had solved all three suit metas and unlocked the “MIT Runaround,” which was a sort of mini-runaround to hit all the playing card posters around campus.

Before we started that, Phil and I went to do a character interaction with the White Queen, which corresponded with our team unlocking the White Queen puzzle round.  We had to bring her a red herring as a gift (ours was in the form of a printed photo).  The White Queen was very confused, saying things backwards and complaining about the Red Queen always getting her way.  Phil dutifully took notes, and we returned to our team with a message from the Queen, which I believe unlocked the puzzles for that round.

At some point between all of this, we also worked for a bit on a cute puzzle called Operator Test and made some good progress.  I also took a quick look at a funny one called Now Let’s Create Melodies and contributed maybe one piece of data.

After that, we were ready to get people together for the MIT Runaround.  For the third time in the Hunt so far, I volunteered to do some running around!  A GC member had brought us poster with a new QR code, and scanning it gave our instructions.  We needed three teams, one for each card suit (hearts were not represented).  Todd, Chris, and I took spades, and the big QR code told us which spade card on the map to start with.

When we got to our first card, we scanned the QR code and received a rhyming clue instructing us to find something nearby, very much in the style of a Ravenchase hunt.  We fumbled around with this first clue for a long time, searching up and down the hallway until Chris finally spotted what we were looking for.  Solving that clue sent us to the next spade card which had a clue in a similar style.  We had a much easier time with the rest of these once the first one confirmed what we were supposed to be doing.

This little goose chase sent us all over campus.  At one point, we crossed paths with Corey’s group in the Stata Center.  They seemed to be working on a clue that was much tougher than ours had been so far.  After we solved our clue at that location, we passed by again and they were still working!  As it happened, they had just sent out a distress call to Left Out HQ hoping for some help in cracking their code.  Since we were right there anyway, we went over and helped out with some fresh eyes. (Well, Todd and Chris helped.  I took photos. You’ll learn why you don’t get to see those photos later in the post.)

They seemed to be on the right track, so we headed off to the rest of our puzzles, ending at the Green building where we struggled way too long with a weirdly-formatted clue.  After we finally cracked it, we headed back to our classroom where we had to combine our final answer with the answers from the other two groups.  This answer sent new players to “Hunt the Beast,” a.k.a. the Jabberwock, who informed us that the real beast was Alice herself!  *gasp!*

I was surprised when we returned from our runaround to find that it had taken us 2 hours and 15 minutes to hit all the cards!  We had a good time, and it was nice to solve some lighter fare with the location-based clues.  Alice Shrugged said that the opening round and mini-runaround we had just done was purposefully designed to be something like a condensed Mystery Hunt experience that the smaller and/or inexperienced teams could enjoy, start to finish.  I thought that was a really nice idea, and well-executed.

The new White Queen and Mock Turtle rounds had opened up a lot of new puzzles, so there was a lot to see when we got back.  Unfortunately, I became extremely pre-occupied with something else.  During the MIT Runaround, my phone had mysteriously restarted and then gotten stuck on the start-up screen.  No amount of button-holding or desperate pleading was able to get it back to normal.  I was able to get to a BIOS type of screen, but none of the options there were any help, except the system format option that I hadn’t tried yet.  A few posts on forums (okay, a questionable Yahoo Answers post) said that this sometimes fixed the problem and might not delete all of your stuff.  I knew my utility and fun levels would take a big hit if I wasn’t able to use my phone for the rest of the Hunt, so I was willing to take a risk.  I was also probably a little too emotional and frustrated with it at this point, and maybe should have just given it some time to right itself.

Anyway, long story short, I did a factory reset on my phone and lost everything.  Womp womp.  This was probably my last year’s missed-lunch-haven’t-slept-wanna-cry moment.  I got super bummed out!  I sent a quick e-mail about it to Nick, and he replied with a joke that cheered me up a bit and made me feel like it wasn’t such a big deal and that I hadn’t messed up too bad.  Then Todd distracted me with a fun puzzle that we worked on as a group (Common Bonds), and eventually I was able to forget about my phone.  Actually, the funniest part was that after the formatting, since everything was gone and all my settings and programs were wiped, it almost felt like it wasn’t my phone anymore.  It was such a pain to do anything (since every program would start in tutorial/set-up mode) that I stopped using it for a long time, and even forgot to take it with me two or three times when I left the room to go investigate a clue.  The irony is not lost on me!

Luckily, I hadn’t taken too many photos of the hunt yet (and I did post a couple of those on Twitter), so I hadn’t lost too much from the event itself.  And as Phil suggested, once I got home I found that a lot of my older photos were on my PC thanks to the usually-annoying HTC sync program that I’ve used a few times.  They only go up to August, but I haven’t left the house much since then anyway!

 

Friday night is a good place to stop.  Next time on the recap, I finally sit down and work on some puzzles for a while!

Puzzle Break #1: Escape from Studio D

I was pretty excited to hear that Seattle was getting its own live action escape-the-room game, called Puzzle Break, in November.  We decided to give them a few weeks to work the kinks out, and after hearing lots of rave reviews from fellow puzzlers, Nick and I bought our tickets for last Saturday.  We invited a friend whose puzzling experience was limited to one Puzzled Pint.

We picked up our friend on Saturday and found street parking about a block away from the studio where the game was being held.  Our friend told us this was a pretty hip part of town, and a good location for this type of event, in his opinion (lots of young people in Capitol Hill, and people who live downtown tend not to like to leave their neighborhood to go do stuff).

There wasn’t any signage for the event outside, and there were a lot of Studio D’s on that block.  Luckily, Nick had read an e-mail at work that said to be sure to enter the door with the right street number above it, and at that door we found a hand-written sign to wait in the lobby for Puzzle Break.  We were the first of our 12-person team to get there, but the others started to arrive pretty soon.

Our team was made up of a group of seven co-workers who got their company to buy their tickets as a teambuilding exercise, and a couple (or maybe two friends).  The demographics were pretty similar to my Real Escape Game team — lots of young adults, but a few more men than women.  None of our teammates had done anything like this, or did any other type of puzzling, but the couple had played a lot of Flash escape-the-room games to prepare.  (And I think it did help them have an idea of what to expect and made them a little savvier in the room!)

A Puzzle Break staff member greeted us and took us down to the basement of the building to the studio where they were set up.  We signed in and read the rules, and once all of our teammates had arrived, the staff explained the rules and took us to the room.

Just like my last write-up, I won’t go into any specifics about our play-through so as not to spoil it for future players, but I can still give a general re-cap of my personal experience as well as the criticisms I have about the game.

In my (single) experience, the thing you want to do most after playing an escape game is to play it again, using what you’ve learned to try and do better.  You’re not allowed to play the same game twice, but playing a very similar game is a pretty good alternative.  Escape from Studio D was remarkably similar to the one game I have played — Real Escape Game‘s Escape from the Mysterious Room.  The similarities definitely made it feel like I was getting a second shot at Mysterious Room, and that was very satisfying.  (For anyone who has the option, I would say to play Studio D first and Mysterious Room second, as Studio D was the easier of the two.)

Ignoring the similarities between the two rooms, I certainly felt like I had an advantage simply from having already played an escape game before.  I tried to take on an expanded version of the role I had played last time, giving directions to the group, suggesting things for different people to work on, and trying to keep our clues and findings organized (this part is so tough because there is so much stuff!).  I also became sort of the go-to person for a bigger picture of what was going on.  The staff said that a lot of teams will break back up into the groups of people who know each other and then stop communicating, which leads to a lot of puzzles being solved more than once by the different groups.  This is madness to me because communication is the only way to progress in the game at all, but I guess it happens.  In our case, there were a lot of instances where someone would bring something to me to ask if it had been worked on yet, or if I knew which puzzle it was a part of, or to find out who had been working on something that we had a new piece of.  I never personally felt like I had a good grasp over what was all was going on in the room, but acting as a general coordinator seemed to be helpful.

As the player with the most puzzling experience, I was expecting to have to be the one to solve a lot of the puzzles, but instead my teammates just took up whatever puzzle was in front of them and made sense of it on their own.  (I was also surprised how uninterested I was personally in working on those puzzles!)  I think that’s a good sign for the difficulty level of the event — that the puzzles are accessible to non-puzzlers, while other aspects can be challenging to experienced puzzlers as well.

I was also pleased to find that my puzzler’s toolbox appears to have finally been fully equipped with the very basics.  I found myself quickly recognizing puzzles I had seen before, and having extraction methods practically jump out at me, as natural as anything.  I remember telling Nick how to solve the final step of the puzzle he was working on, but I don’t remember figuring that out myself.  I just saw it and knew it.  That felt pretty dang good.

Our team, Imperfect Strangers

Our team, Imperfect Strangers

Our team escaped triumphantly with 8 minutes to spare!  Everyone had a great time.  The game was enjoable and well-run without any annoying puzzle issues or red herrings as far as I could tell.  But I think there are a few areas that could use some improvement.

Now that the live-action room escape game is becoming a “thing,” it’s impossible not to compare the different games in the genre.  And unfortunately, as I mentioned, there were a lot of similarities between Escape from Studio D and Real Escape Game’s Escape from the Mysterious Room, both in content and methodology.  I’ll have to play a few more to see just how much of those similarities would be considered simply a part of that style of game, but I think I would have made more of an effort to differentiate myself from the only other escape game in the US.  (Luckily, I think the nature of the game produces a lot of people like me who would enjoy playing essentially the same game twice.)

I was kind of expecting a jail cell theme based on the name of the event and poster for the room, but it was just the standard Flash-style plain room full of random stuff (similar to, but less cohesive than Mysterious Room’s living room-style room).  Hopefully Puzzle Break will continue to follow REG’s lead with a much more thematic second room.

I think that the entire room could have used a higher level of presentation and polish.  Nick recalled feeling a little bit underwhelmed when they opened the door to the room for the first time.  The lighting was poor, the walls and floors were mostly bare, there was no feeling of theme or cohesion with the props, and the placement of items seemed grouped almost in a station-like way.  The countdown announcements were so muffled and hard to hear over our own talking that we had to have the staff repeat the time for us at every interval.  Overall, the production value just felt a little low, especially when compared to Real Escape Game.  I hope to see this improve as the company grows.

If any readers happen to have been to both events, I’d be interested in hearing your opinions (spoiler-free, of course.  E-mail me if you’d like to get into details).

Although there were things I would have liked to have seen done differently, the overall experience was still great, and I can’t wait to try the next one (which Puzzle Break staff say is currently in the works).  And of course, I absolutely recommend it to anyone in Seattle!

Tuesday Round-Up

Lots of little bits of news floating about lately…  In particular, Seattle is flush with escape-style games!

 

NEW:  Puzzle Break Seattle 
There is a new escape game in town, and it’s called Puzzle Break.  Games started in late November and ticketing is available through the end of January so far.  Word on the street is that it’s really fun and well-run.  I’ll be playing this Saturday with Mr. Cryptica and a non-puzzling friend.

 

REG: Escape from the Werewolf Village to run in Seattle
And if you want even more escaping action, Real Escape Game has you covered with their Seattle debut in January!  Escape from the Werewolf Village was REG’s first US/San Francisco Game, which has since appeared in Los Angeles and will now make a brief run in Seattle on January 18th and 19th.  (Unfortunately for me, this is MIT Mystery Hunt weekend and I’ll be out of town.  But hopefully this is good news for the future!)

 

Puzzled Pint Now in London
First it was DASH, now London is the proud host of Puzzled Pint!  Londoners can now enjoy puzzling in pubs every second Tuesday of each month.  What city will join in next?

 

New 5 Wits Location Opening Soon
5 Wits makes cool interactive adventure games/shows that I haven’t gotten to enjoy yet, but maybe you can now that they’re opening a new location at Destiny USA in Syracruse, NY.  They’ll be opening new versions of their TOMB and Espionage games, along with two new games later in 2014.

 

Open Call from Ravenchase Adventures
Ravenchase Adventures is looking for new staff and interns with creative minds and adventurous spirits.  Check their Facebook page for more info.

 

Interactive Murder Mystery Film: Contradiction
Here is a Kickstarter for a film slash game that lets you control a cinematic murder mystery story.  Seems neat!

 

Are You Watching The Genius Yet?  Why Not?  Season 2 Just Started, And It’s Really The Best
Seriously, get on that.

 

The Genius: Rules of the Game

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The Genius: Rules of the Game is a South Korean reality TV game show that pits players against each other in various games of wits and strategy.  The show debuted in April of this year, so it’s still super fresh, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is into smart TV.

The game starts off with 13 players, some are fairly well-known celebrities, others are simply bright minds, but all are selected for their particular talents and skills which might be useful in the game.  Each episode focuses on a different game, in a segment called the Main Match.  Many of these games focus on logic, reasoning, chance, and game theory, but all of them eventually boil down to effective cooperation and collusion with other players.  The end of each Main Match game results one player being marked for elimination.  This player gets to choose their opponent from the remaining players, and the two compete in the Death Match to determine who gets eliminated.

players

game

The main motivation for the players is the prize money, which is distributed throughout the game in the form of “garnets,” each worth 1,000,000 KRW (roughly 950 USD).  Players earn garnets by performing well in the Main Match, and any player that survives a Death Match receives all of their opponent’s garnets once they are eliminated.  In the end, only one player will walk away with all of the remaining garnets.  Garnets can be freely traded and can sometimes be exchanged for a slight advantage in a game.  Things really get interesting when players start using garnets as bargaining chips in negotiations with each other.  Loyalty is bought and sold, sometimes behind closed doors, and sometimes blatantly to the highest bidder.

garnet

The games are always unique and interesting, and it’s fun to watch the players find creative ways to get what they want.  While nearly all of the games rely to some extent on game theory, don’t expect to be able to pause the show and figure out the winning strategy.  Alliances between players with long-term survival in mind take the games beyond mere logic puzzles (and make a more interesting show, in my opinion).  The show also prevents you from making any accurate outcome predictions by selectively showing what’s going on between the players.  Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, some new footage will reveal a double-cross at a critical moment, or an action that wasn’t what it seemed.  This element of surprise through strategic editing was something I really enjoyed about the The Genius, and the editing in general seems to have been fine-tuned for maximum entertainment.

simple

I think the mixing of strong celebrity personalities and generally clever people was a great casting choice.  Admittedly, as a non-Korean-speaking person without any existing knowledge about the celebrity personalities, it was a little difficult to keep track of all thirteen players at first.  But after a few eliminations, it became easy enough to remember all of their names, professions, and personalities.   (Pro-tip:  Learn about Korean kinship terms before watching to reduce confusion.)  It’s definitely worth getting invested in the players as it is their actions which drive each episode, and one player’s actions toward another player can have long-term consequences.

My favorite thing about The Genius by far is the visual design.  Holy smokes!  This show is a feast for the designer’s eyes.  There is this great branding based around the garnets which carries through across all visual elements of the show.  Anything that needs an icon, symbol, or pattern in the show is marked with the familiar hexagonal shape and the letter G (which serves as a double abbreviation for both “garnet” and “genius”).  Likewise, red and gold make up the main color palette of all visuals and help to reinforce the brand.  This level of consistent and clever theming is totally inspired and rarely found in western reality TV.

branding

Another area where The Genius excels visually is in its animation sequences.  The games played on the show are often quite complex and the rules can be difficult to explain, especially to the viewer at home.  At the beginning of each game, a sleek instructional segment is shown, using simple, but polished, graphics and animations to describe the flow of the game and explain the rules.  These segments have a unique look and feel, are enjoyable to watch, and do a great job of explaining the complex systems used in the game.  This is all especially helpful for foreign viewers like me.  They even go so far as to animate explanations for players’ strategies as they describe them during the game.  Every episode also kicks off with a killer opening sequence that uses some pretty terrific imagery and has maybe definitely made me tear up a few times with its perfection.

explanation

strategy

And to extend that thought on visual design, I want to briefly mention the physical design.  I am so in love with the way the garnets are represented as physical artifacts — red acrylic cubes with a gold accent.  The in-game currency could have easily been cards or poker chips, but these translucent red cubes feel expensive and luxurious and somewhat otherworldly.  They make you feel like the players are really in this strange, mysterious realm where they deal in something greater than mere cash.  Something that tangible seems to give the proper weight to an item worth nearly $1k, so much more effective than just a piece of paper.  This expression of value is crucial for a game where the players are expected to strategically give and take to get ahead.

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Every other physical item in the show is also just as thoughtfully designed, including the set and all props needed for games.  Gold embossing, velvet-lined boxes, and crisp dealer’s uniforms — every object feels carefully crafted to exude the feeling of an exclusive, luxury casino.  The physical is so, so, so important for imparting the feeling and atmosphere of an experience, and The Genius is an inspiring example of design done very right.

And lastly, I can’t write a post about The Genius without mentioning the music.  The unexpected combination of Yoko Kanno, Daft Punk, and Skrillex somehow embodies the show’s theme perfectly, and the background tracks are used in a way that really ramps up the excitement and suspense of key scenes.  Now I can’t listen to Robot Rock without anticipating a surprising twist!  (I’ve even made a short playlist of the tracks I recognized during the show.  Let me know if you catch any more!)

I’ve only heard a few fellow puzzlers talking about this show (thanks to Myles and Alex for the recommendations!), and it doesn’t seem to be very popular on the internet.  I can’t explain the lack of buzz.  The Genius is super engaging, extremely well-made, and all of the episodes are readily available online in HD quality.  I really recommend checking it out.  Smart, entertaining, and nice to look at — what more could you ask for?

And hurry up, because the next season, The Genius: Rule Breaker, airs this month!

“The journey and the result…
The group and the individual…
Beautiful defeats and ugly victories…
Test your ability in The Genius game.”

Friday Round-Up

Seems like there are a lot of relevant bits of news and such going on right now.  Also, Puzzle Pile is taking a short hiatus, so I might try to do this type of newsy post a bit more often in the meantime (sorry though, no crossword tournament updates from me!).

 

Scary Music Playlist
Need some scary music for your Halloween party this weekend?  Or maybe a soundtrack for your Betrayal at House on the Hill games?  I put together a short playlist of scary instrumental tunes (which is made up entirely of tracks from The Ring soundtrack) that should be suitable.  Watch out, it gets a little intense at times!  I’d like to expand this playlist a bit more, and make a “just spooky” version that isn’t so intense, so give me your song recommendations in the comments!

 

Online Halloween Puzzle Hunt – Ghost Patrol: Reconstructed
I’m pretty excited about this one, it’s a print-and-play puzzle hunt being run on Halloween!  This is part of the Ghost Patrol universe (which had a Game and a BANG) and sounds like it will be some spooky fun.  You can play anytime you want, but if you want to be ranked against other teams, you need to register and play between 3pm and 3am on Halloween (this Thursday).

 

Wise Guys Developing Augmented Reality Detective Game for L.A.
Want to play an immersive augmented reality detective game around downtown Los Angeles?  The seasoned game designers from Wise Guys Events are trying to make that happen.  The game will include custom-made artifacts hidden at locations around downtown as well as high quality video footage to supplement your detective experience.  If that sounds like something you want to play, head on over to their Kickstarter.  They’ve got some pretty sweet games-as-incentives at the higher tiers!  But be quick, there are only a few days left in the campaign!

 

Presentation and chat with Real Escape Game on October 29
So the people at The Go Game have started this thing called ADVENTURE DESIGN GROUP which they describe as ‘a free monthly speaker series featuring the best and brightest in interactive experience design’ and which I think is the coolest thing ever.  This month, they’re speaking with Kazuya Iwata, the guy in charge of Real Escape Game in the US (I met that guy!).  It will probably be an interesting talk, so go check it out if you’re in the Bay Area (and make sure somebody films it and posts it online!).

 

Octothorpean Order Hunt Opens November 16
Larry Hosken‘s much-anticipated The Octothorpean Order online puzzle hunt will open on November 16, and that is coming right up!  Gather up your team, it’s sure to be a good time.

 

Obduction – Upcoming Spiritual Successor to Myst by Cyan
Wow, so the creators of Myst are planning a new game called Obduction and they’ve launched a Kickstarter to fund it.  This is interesting, and I’ll probably play, but I wonder if I would be more excited if The Witness wasn’t a thing.  I’m really looking forward to seeing how Jonathan Blow modernizes the Myst-style adventure game, and it will be very interesting to compare it to what the fathers of the genre do with Obduction.  Just a few days in, the Kickstarter is about halfway to its goal of $1.1 million.

 

Interactive Fiction DEVICE 6 is Available on iOS
This game, DEVICE 6, looks pretty neat!  Seems to be a little puzzley and mysterious and artsy.  iOS only, so I won’t be playing it, but maybe you can!  Here is an article on the game, and here is the game itself.  $3.99.

 

That’s all for now.  Enjoy your last week of October, the best month of the year!

SF Puzzle Weekend – Saturday

This is my last post covering my big puzzle weekend in San Francisco this summer.  Click to see the Thursday and Friday posts.

Saturday!  Decathlon Day!  The reason for the whole trip!  I got up early on Saturday morning to make sure I had enough time to get ready.  I was most unsure about what to wear.  The forecast had said it would be in the mid-upper 60′s in San Francisco (after reading that forecast, I almost didn’t pack shorts for the trip!), but we were in Los Altos where it was supposed to be pushing the 80′s and 90′s during the day, while getting pretty chilly at night and through morning.  I ended up wearing shorts with my new custom-made Boneless Chicken Cabaret shirt, but I also packed a sweater and jeans knowing that I tend to get cold easily.  (A good call, as I ended up changing at the after party).

As we packed the van, I had the privilege of rummaging through Rich’s puzzle hunt supplies for anything I thought we might need.  It felt like some sort of a reality TV show challenge where I had 90 seconds to grab anything I thought would be useful, but I could only take as much as I could carry.  Some of the items I grabbed included a compass, some masking tape, an almanac, a utility knife, the other kind of compass, a pair of binoculars, and a magnifying glass.  (And we used exactly NONE that stuff.  It just wasn’t that kind of a hunt!)

We got our van all configured, with one of the middle captains chairs folded down for more space and quicker movement in and out of the vehicle.  I handed off the keys to Chris and took up navigating instead.  I don’t mind driving, but I was certainly happy to let someone else do it.  And since I was definitely the rookie on our team, I was glad to add non-puzzling value by handling the navigation.  Chris also happened to know a lot of the areas we were driving through, so it was a win-win situation.

Our first stop on the way to the starting location was a non-imaginary Safeway for snacks, drinks, and deli sandwiches for lunch.  We brought a cooler for all of that, but we had the hardest time finding ice due to a power outage the day before.  Always dealing with the unexpected on a puzzle hunt!  We also fueled up the van since we had put quite a few miles on it since I picked it up on Thursday (I totally would have forgotten to do this, good thinking Chris!).

An unexpected bonus of staying at Rich’s house was that we were really close to the starting location of the event – the Computer History Museum.  I think we were only about 10 minutes away, and I was surprised when we were basically almost there after finishing our errands.  It was exciting to see all the other teams getting together, in their matching T-shirts and hats and such.  We parked our van, got out, and immediately lost Todd to the many friends and acquaintances and Famine Game applicants who were eager to say hello.  Todd is a popular guy for a lot of good reasons, and that the first of many moments that day I would feel lucky to get to be on his team.

Teams mingling at the starting location

Teams mingling at the starting location

 

The rest of us went over to the registration table, signed in, and were issued our special device for the day – a Nexus 7 tablet in a fancy case equipped with the new “ClueKeeper” Android app for clue distribution and answer submission.  Full disclosure – I had a bit of an advantage here because I’ve been helping out with the graphic and web design for ClueKeeper.  And since I was already fairly familiar with the app, we (I) decided it made the most sense for me to be in charge of the device for the day.  (But don’t worry, whatever edge that gave me was counterbalanced by how slowly my puzzle gears were turning for the rest of the day!)

Todd to re-joined us, we got our team all signed in on the app, I dutifully read through the rules out loud, and we looked through the materials we had been given.  It looked like we’d be going through the museum for the first puzzle, so we tried to study the map a bit.  I also got to meet a few new people before the start of the event, but it was mostly a blur.

Looking over our materials

Looking over our materials

 

Once 10:00 rolled around, Brent gathered us all around and gave a brief introduction (I am starting to like these very brief introductions for puzzle hunts!) .  He explained that the theme of the event would be the 80′s, and Todd got all excited.  There really wasn’t a lot to say, and before I knew it Brent was wishing us luck and my first Shinteki event was starting!

(From here on out, I’ll try not to be too specific with the puzzle details to protect their integrity for future use.  Hopefully it’s still readable despite the vagueness!)

 

Clue 1: 

It was clear that for this first clue we would need to search all around an exhibit in the museum for pieces of information to answer questions on the clue sheet.  It seemed pretty overwhelming at first, so we decided to split up.  Todd and I went left, and Chris and Andy went right.  After solving a few, Todd figured out some key mechanics of the puzzle and called the other group to let them know.  It was fun searching around for the answers, but sometimes it was a little too obvious when another team was huddled around the right one.  I liked the atmosphere of this puzzle, with lots of teams anxiously running around the exhibit.

We eventually found a message that directed us to the second part of the puzzle, and we split up individually to gather that data.  Unfortunately, I made a copying error for one of my pieces, and that threw us off track for quite a while as we tried to work out the final message.  We finally worked out the problem and submitted the correct answer.  I felt bad about my mistake, but the rest of the team was really nice about it and insisted that it happens a lot.  I felt like we took a pretty long time on this one, but it turned out we were about average.

 

Clue 2:

The next clue was outside of a community center, and good god was it sunny outside.  We had to move to a shady spot to be able to do any type of data crunching.  The puzzle involved three legs-only mannequins that were modeling brightly-colored legwarmers and shorts.

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Lots of teams were already huddled around, inspecting the leg warmers.  We observed a lot, took down some notes, and second-guessed ourselves quite a bit before Andy finally made a key realization about some of the information we had gathered.  (Andy would go on to have many more brilliant MVP moments like this throughout the day!)  The pieces started falling into place, and remembering the theme of the puzzle we were able to extract the answer fairly quickly from there.  Todd marveled at the elegance of the puzzle as we got back in the van and headed to the next site.

 

Clues 3+4:

The next clue was given out at the food court of a local mall  Chris dropped us off and got a parking space while we went and picked up the puzzle packet.  We thought about getting some food while we solved, and I think we were all a little hungry at that point, but the puzzles soon consumed us (and we knew we had sandwiches waiting in the van).  This was a mini-puzzle round, where we started off with a batch of 3 mini-puzzles, each with a different 1980′s theme.  Chris and I worked together on one, while Todd and Andy destroyed the other two.

Finishing the first set gave us another batch of three.  Again, Chris and I kind of muddled through ours while Todd and Andy crushed the rest.  I at least felt a little more helpful on our second puzzle.  After that, we got a brilliant meta for the mini-puzzles that involved a Rubik’s cube (this meta was technically Clue 4).  I focused on ClueKeeper duty since we had a lot of little answers to submit along the way, and Andy diligently updated the cube as instructed.  It was pretty cool!

We left the mall feeling good, and with good reason – we would later learn that we had the fastest time for the mini-hunt clue!

 

Clue 5:

The next clue was in a rose garden, how lovely! And we were the first team to arrive??  Even lovelier!   This one involved lots of different activities we had to do to earn points.

Playing games with Rich!

Playing games with Rich!

 

Todd unfortunately got stuck stuffing bubblegum cigars in his mouth while the rest of us played fun games.  We also had a puzzle to solve which involved using the information plaques throughout the garden.  Andy MVP moment #2 – realizing we had thrown ourselves off by mixing up 6 and 9!  This was another point in the day where the sun was pretty ridiculous.  I was definitely missing my overcast Seattle sky and great big Washington trees.  There was a girl in the garden getting her photos taken in a gigantic princess dress, she must have been burning up!

When we had collected the necessary amount of points from the activities, we were given a set of cards with pictures and text on them.  This is one of the parts of the day where I can look back and specifically note that my brain just wasn’t quite on.  I think maybe I had gotten so used to my teammates figuring out the mechanic of each puzzle so quickly that I wasn’t even thinking to look for it myself.  It took us a bit of time to figure out the mechanic of the cards, and it ended up being the code I was supposed to be responsible for that day.  D’oh!  We also overlooked a bit of flavor that might have gotten us there faster.  We must not have taken too long though, because the next team behind us was just arriving as we turned in our answer.  (That was the last team we would see until the end of the race.)

 

Clue 6:

Next, we were headed to some kind of computer maker center.  We ate our sandwiches on the way to recharge and save time.  When we arrived, GC told us that the next site wouldn’t be ready for a while, and recommended that we might have more fun and kill some time if we split up and played this puzzle separately.  We decided not to split up, and in the end I think that was the right call.

This puzzle was a series of logic puzzles using Sifteo cubes.  I had seen the TED talk on these when they were first being developed, but I had never seen them in person before.  The cubes had little faces on them, and we all got a big kick of how cute they were!  They had sad faces when we started, and then when did the correct action, they got happy faces!  Chris took command of the cubes, and being the person immersed in the activity, he was much quicker at working out the patterns of the puzzle once it started getting tougher.  We put an hour of time in the parking meter, but we were out of there in 20 minutes.

 

Clue 7: 

We got to the next puzzle site just in time for it to be open.  This one was at someone’s house, which is fun.  The puzzle had a 1984 theme and involved some fun acting from GC.  We all agreed that somehow it felt VERY Post Hunt-esque, but in a good way.  Our only regret about this puzzle was that we solved it pretty quickly and didn’t get to see all the acting bits!

 

Clue 8: 

We had to pick up a USB drive for this puzzle that was loaded with 80′s music videos that we had to identify.  Apparently, a lot of teams just Shazam’d the songs, but we didn’t even think to do that because Todd was calling out the song titles just from seeing the video file thumbnails.  A couple of data errors on our part threw us off a bit here, but we worked out the answer before too long.

 

Clue 9:

As we drove toward the next clue site, the Area 151 Arcade, I realized we had been there before.  We had turned around in the arcade’s parking lot when we were searching for the imaginary Safeway the night before!  Inside the arcade, we were given 8 tokens and told we had to earn 80 tickets before we could get our puzzle.  I thought this was super cute, and I think we all had a good time playing the games.  There was a birthday party or something going on though, so we were kind of embarrassing ourselves playing all these dinky games while a bunch of little kids stared at us.  (And one kid was totally hogging the ski-ball!)

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Todd shows us how it's done

Todd shows us how it’s done

Andy and I opt for the easier route

Andy and I opt for the easier route

 

We got our 80 tickets with a token or two to spare and were rewarded with a bag of laser-cut plastic pieces. (When we had briefly visited Brent the day before, he told us there was a puzzle that took them something like four twelve-hour days to assemble, and we would know it when we saw it.  We knew this had to be it!)

We found some big Adirondack chairs and a low table outside the arcade, so we brought them together to work on the puzzle.  That was actually one of the nicer solving spaces we had over the course of the hunt!  We made quick work of this one, and even though we stopped periodically to take photos of our progress (in case we messed up) we still came in with the fastest time of the day.

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Clue 10:

At this point we were feeling good, but nervous.  We hadn’t hit any major stumbling blocks yet, and we felt like we were overdue.  The next clue sent us to the Stanford campus, and things started to get hairy when I had a hard time navigating us to the parking area near the Oval (Google was telling me to basically drive straight through campus, which was not an option).  Then it was a bit hard to find a place to park.  Then, I didn’t clearly understand the directions to the staffers’ location and had us wandering around in the wrong place for a while.  Even the GC at the very end of the hunt commented later that we had kind of gone off their projected time table at this point and that they had wondered what happened to us!  But we got there eventually, and with our lead intact.

(I want to take a moment to point out how cool it is that I got to see such a beautiful campus, and so many other neat places, because of a puzzle hunt!  Stanford was really gorgeous, and in such a different way from UVA.  I really enjoyed being there, and I don’t know that I ever would have had a reason to visit otherwise.)

Anyway, for this puzzle we were instructed to leave all devices (except the tablet) in our van and bring only something to write with, along with some water if we thought we needed it.  “Why would we need it?” we failed to ask ourselves.  When we arrived, GC told us we would need to send some members to take a camera and go recreate a photo taken somewhere nearby before we could get our puzzle.  Andy and I were the youngest, and I had actually announced to the group earlier in the day that I was willing to run if needed, so off we went!  It took us a stupidly long time to find the location in the photo, but we got there eventually and ran back with our photo.  While we were gone, GC had explained the puzzle to Todd and Chris.  This was a Mastermind-style puzzle involving 80′s history knowledge (We thought we’d be golden on this one, but there was a “fun” twist – it wasn’t just 1980′s history, it was 1080′s, 1180′s, 1280′s, and so on!).  Each time we turned in an incorrect answer sequence, we would have to go take another photo before we could try again.

It turned out that none of us were very good with history, and after our first try Todd and Chris had to run and take another photo.  We all had visions of our team stranded at Stanford, changing our sequence, getting it wrong, trying again, still wrong, for hours.  While the other two were running, Andy and I tried to deduce the correct order based on the feedback we had received about our wrong answer.  We thought we had things pretty solid, and then Andy made one last switch just before we turned it back in.  And then…. it was right!  AH!  What a relief!  We definitely felt like we got lucky there.

 

Clue 10:

The final clue!  This one sent us to Castro Street in Mountain View for a location-based mini-hunt.  This part was pretty scary since you only got one guess for each mini-clue.  We knew that getting just one wrong answer at this point would be disastrous, so we tried to be outrageously meticulous by reading the clue text carefully, confirming as a group that we understood it, and then entering the answer very slowly.  In the end we didn’t have any mistakes, but we were on pins and needles the whole time.  The app told us where to go for the ending location and Chris headed back to get the van and pick us up.  We were a little weirded-out at this point because the last clue had been relatively simple and didn’t involve much puzzling.  We were afraid that we had missed something, or that something was going to jump out at us, but that was really the last clue!  We made it to the after party location, “Pizza Party” (what a great name), and we were the first team there! And we had perfect score!  We won!!

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(The above photo was accidentally taken in Burst mode, so click here to see a mildly entertaining animated gif of happy people having their photo taken)

I’m not really sure how our win happened, but it was a pretty amazing experience.  Everything just seemed to click for us, and as a team we got along really well.  I noticed that I couldn’t think of a single instance the entire day where I had felt frustrated or annoyed with a teammate or something we were doing (though I can’t speak for the rest of my team, haha).  I think we were all amazed that we finished so far ahead when it never really felt like we were rushing.

We may have finished the race, but the fun wasn’t over yet — there were still bonus puzzles to solve!  In the past, bonus puzzles counted for points in the competition, but this year they wanted the afterparty to feel a bit more relaxed and encourage people to mingle and enjoy themselves, so they were just for fun.  But that didn’t stop us from trying to get through all eight puzzles.

We needed our cube reset for a new puzzle, and Wei-Hwa obliged

We needed our cube reset for a new puzzle, and Wei-Hwa obliged

Most of these were a lot meatier than the puzzles in the actual hunt, and we got stumped numerous times.  We had to get a few hints along the way to do it, but we managed to finish all eight puzzles about 10 minutes before the hunt officially ended.  Woohoo!  And those were some absolutely brilliant puzzles!  One Rubik’s cube puzzle had a solution so elegant, it caused Andy to drop the cube out of fear that it was possessed.  (And was it possessed?  We later found it was mysteriously re-set while we were away from the table….)

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Everyone having a nice time

ClueKeeper leaderboard in action!

ClueKeeper leaderboard in action!

There was some delicious pizza and soda somewhere in there, and Chris had to fly home, and I met some  more people afterwards in a bit less of a blur.  After the after-party was the unofficial after-after-party back at Rich’s place where all manner of debauchery took place and puzzles of yore were re-created in sugar-filled plates.

I didn’t take any notes about Sunday, but I assume that I dropped some people off at the airport, returned the rental car, and flew home.

This turned out to be one of the most enjoyable weekends I’ve had in a long time.  I got to hang out with some of the greatest people I know and play in some truly professional and entertaining events, all in sunny California!  Can’t ask for much more than that =)

SF Puzzle Weekend – Friday

Woah, hey, remember like a million years ago when I had a big puzzle weekend in San Francisco?  And then I only wrote about the first day of it?  Time to finish the story!  Luckily, past-me has been on the ball this year and already wrote it all up on the plane ride home!  (Present-me just couldn’t be bothered to get the file off the laptop and add photos.)

It’s been four months, so I’ll briefly re-cap the last post.  The purpose of my trip was Shinteki Decathlon with Todd’s team, Boneless Chicken Cabaret.  I got in on Thursday, picked up our rental car, visited a friend from my hometown, visited Tyler Hinman, and then picked up Todd and Chris from the airport.  We drove to our lodgings for the weekend — Rich and Kiki’s house.  We let a bird fly into their house.  Everything was perfect.  Take it away, past-me!

 

On Friday morning after breakfast (with delicious fresh fruit prepared by Kiki!), Todd, Chris, Rich, and I headed back to SFO to pick up the last member of our team, Andy who had flown in from Austin.  From the airport, we decided to drive straight into downtown San Francisco for a day of casual puzzling.

Hunting for puzzles!

Hunting for puzzles!

First up was a playtest of Larry Hosken’s Octothorpean location-based puzzle trail.  We had a good time running around, and even asked a local for help!  The second part of the hunt sent us near where Tyler works, so we met up with him for lunch at a Mel’s Diner nearby before getting started on part two.

They barely let Rich in the parking garage

They barely let Rich in the parking garage

We really struggled getting started with the next part of the hunt.  We were way too stuck on the mechanic of the previous portion and totally disregarded the next clue we needed, even after looking right at it.  Once we finally figured it out, things went smoothly and we had fun following the clues.  We eventually ended up near Market St., and Todd suggested that Chris, Andy and I play some of Larry’s 2 Tone Game since part of it started nearby.  That part of the hunt was based on really vague photographs of sidewalks and sides of buildings and things like that.  I was amazed that we were actually able to find the places photographed and follow the path, it was pretty cool!  We took a short pit-stop when I spotted a Beard Papas cream puff store.  I never pass up a Beard Papas, and nobody else in the group had tried them before, so I insisted we stop and enjoy a box.

After we finished the photograph portion of the hunt, we stopped and worked on some word puzzles in the next section, but before long we had to start making plans to head to our Real Escape Game appointment.  (I knew I couldn’t miss an opportunity to play REG, so I suggested we all get tickets for Friday evening to play Escape from the Mysterious Room).  Rich left the group at about this time to do some scouting and playtesting of his own, and we decided to make a quick trip over to the Haight district to see Brent and Linda (the owners of Shinteki and head GC for the Decathlon), with another Octothorpean puzzle stop along the way.  (I’ll admit, I was way more interested in the strange abandoned estate near that puzzle than the puzzle itself.)  We only had about 15 minutes to chat with Brent and Linda before we had to head back over to Japantown for Escape from the Mysterious Room!  What a busy afternoon!

It was fun walking through Japantown since that was one of the places Nick and I visited on our honeymoon.  We didn’t have much time to look around, but I recognized a few shops and restaurants that we had been to.  Escape from the Mysterious Room is located on the third floor of the NEW PEOPLE building, which didn’t even exist when we had visited 3½ years ago.  The building was pretty neat, with a glass front spanning all three floors.  There was a cute cafe on the first floor and a boutique on the second floor.  We were instructed to wait on the 2nd floor mezzanine for our appointment, and we found some of our teammates were already there.  (They sell 11 tickets per game, and we only bought four of those, so we knew we’d be playing with some strangers.)  The players that were already there said they had just gotten the tickets from a friend who couldn’t make it after all, so we weren’t sure what to expect from them.  Surprisingly, one of the girls in the group actually recognized Todd’s Shinteki T-shirt!  Our puzzle prowess was revealed.  The rest of the group trickled in, and as the four of us introduced ourselves as being fairly seriously involved in puzzles (both recreationally and professionally), it became pretty clear that expectations were high of Boneless Chicken Cabaret.  No pressure!

The rest of our group appeared to be pretty much all people my age or younger, with maybe a few more women than men.  A wide variety of professions and backgrounds were represented, which I thought was pretty cool (and might even improve our odds of success).  Eventually, the elevator opened and our chrismatic host, Pearl, greeted us all.  She scanned our tickets, had us sign waivers, gave us name tags, and encouraged us to do introductions and discuss strategy for our time in the room.  It was a bit difficult to strategize without knowing what the room would be like, but we laid down a couple of ground rules:  1)  Don’t be shy about taking things apart and searching thoroughly (pretty much everyone had already heard this advice from friends who had played before) and 2)  If you see something, say something.  Or, if you’re doing something in the room or find something interesting, try to announce it to the group.  Communication!

Finally, it was time to enter the elevator and head up to the mysterious third floor!  The door opened to a hallway, which lead to a waiting area outside The Room.  There was a place to put jackets and bags, and we were instructed to leave everything (including cell phones) outside of the room.  We all sat down and Pearl explained the rules of the game, which again included the advice to BE THOROUGH.  She advised us that if we could take something apart with our hands, we should do so.  She also explained some of the limitations (don’t touch the things that have the Don’t Touch symbol on them, don’t climb on the furniture, don’t use tools to take things apart), and the very important No Running rule.  She also explained an interesting feature of the room – there would be “spirits” inside.  These “spirits” were the two staff members that would act as monitors to make sure we weren’t breaking any rules, and who might also give us helpful hints if they thought we needed them.  (I thought they would be distracting, but most of the time I forgot they were there!)

By the time our host was finished explaining the rules, I could barely contain my excitement.  I think I even exclaimed “I want to escape from this freaking room!” or something right before we went in.  I definitely already had the feeling that this was an activity where you could succeed as a direct result of your efforts and skill, and that was super motivating.  The door was unlocked, we went inside, and Pearl gave us one last piece of cryptic advice (which I won’t share here) before locking the door.  A voice announced that we had 60 minutes remaining, and we got started.

I can’t say anything more specific from here (I would never dream of spoiling this amazing experience for anyone else), but I think I can give a few general impressions and tell you how we did.

First of all, the room was WAY bigger than I had imagined!  I had only seen a photo online, which I think was of the Tokyo version, and this room seemed huge in comparison.  The size was definitely appropriate, though, with ten of us (we were short one player) moving around, and with all the props that were in the room.  And the amount of stuff in there was pretty overwhelming at times.

Second, it was a bit harder to stay organized than I was expecting.  Since our initial strategy kind of had to be divide and conquer, there ended up being quite a bit of overlap.  Sometimes it wasn’t clear what things had been searched, and some things got overlooked.  I think we probably organized better than the average team, but I think we could have communicated and planned a little better.

Third, communication was super important!  It helped us define what pieces of the puzzle we were still missing, and where the bottlenecks were.  There was one clue in particular that I found, but wasn’t sure where it was needed, so I announced it to the group.  Later, it was someone else in the group who found the connection that was needed, and at a critical moment.  Amazing!

I had such a good time and was riding a total adrenaline rush through the whole thing.  I liked trying to get our team organized and keep us motivated.  I felt like we were doing pretty good throughout the whole thing.  There was a point where I thought “Okay, if don’t escape, it won’t be because we weren’t thorough!”

So how did we do?  See for yourself:

We failed!

We failed!

We hit a couple of big roadblocks with clues that were really vital, and also REALLY well-hidden.  I’m talking three, four, five people have searched something and it’s only the sixth person who finally sees it.  We unlocked what I would call the Endgame with about 10 minutes to go, and then we just totally hit a wall.  We got hung up on one particular (and arguably misleading) element, started to panic, and just couldn’t advance.  I wonder if we had gotten to that part with a little more time, and had therefore been a bit less frantic, if we might have had the presence of mind to figure things out.  It was pretty disappointing to have gotten that far with a solid amount of time left and not figure out the last few steps.  But no amount of disappointment could outweigh how much fun we all had playing the game.

Pearl unlocked the door, entered the room, and walked us through the solution, pointing out the clues we had missed along the way.  We had only really failed to solve one pre-Endgame element (and boy did I hate myself for missing it after I saw what it was), but the Endgame stuff really felt like we should have been able to follow and figure it out.  There are times in puzzles and puzzle events where the solution is something that feels really out of left field, and you get annoyed, thinking “I never would have figured that out!”  But it can be even more frustrating when the answer is pretty logical, and you say “Yeah, we probably should have been able to get that.”  What’s worse — to be annoyed at the puzzle designer’s flaws or your own?  It was especially painful this time because we were so, so close.

Something we discussed after the fact was that the game was really well balanced for eleven people over 60 minutes, which is kind of amazing.  There was plenty for everyone to do the whole time, and we were right on the edge of finishing.  Maybe if we had had that eleventh person instead of playing a man down?

Afterwards, Pearl asked us our favorite parts of the room.  Mine was the part where Todd got a “No running!” warning from the spirits because what we had found was so exciting.  We also filled out a survey with our thoughts about the experience, and took the customary “We failed” photo.

Just as we were about to leave, one of the staff members asked if there was a Clavis Cryptica in the group.  That was me!  I thought that staff member had looked familiar, and it turned out to be Kazuya Iwata, the director of the US branch of SCRAP Entertainment!!  He introduced himself, and I told him how much fun I had and how glad I was that they were doing this and that I got to play.  I’m still kicking myself for not using some of my four years of Japanese classes to talk to him, but I was way too jazzed up to think clearly.  (I’m pretty sure he was one of the spirits in the room too, so now I keep thinking about all the instances where I was squatting under tables and such right in front of him, ack!)

A little starstruck!

A little starstruck!

We got a photo together, and I left with the biggest smile on my face.  (I’m still not sure how they knew I was there!  I totally forgot to tweet about it before we went.)

The four of us talked and talked about the game the whole way to our last appointment of the evening (which we were super late for), a puzzlers’ dinner at a local Thai restaurant.  The guest list included Debbie, the founder of DASH(!!), Larry Hosken, and Scott Royer.  I enjoyed listening about how Deb started DASH, and she told some great stories about her experiences.

Puzzlers' dinners are the best dinners

Puzzlers’ dinners are the best dinners

Another photo before we parted ways, and then our team headed back toward Rich’s house to get some much-needed rest before the Decathlon.  We attempted to go to a local Safeway to get some snacks and supplies so we wouldn’t have to do it in the morning, but the Safeway turned out to sort of not exist and we ended up just deciding to do it in the morning anyway.

Did I just say were were going to go get some sleep before the big day?  Not so much.  Back at Rich and Kiki’s, we ended up staying up a several more hours chatting as new friends arrived, which was a lot of fun.  Unfortunately, we had to keep telling everyone how we ALMOST escaped from the mysterious room, but not quite.  We all did eventually make it to bed, and I fell asleep with the most all-encompassing feeling of warmth and inspiration and anticipation.

Tune in next week for the main event, Shinteki Decathlon on Saturday!

I Helped Run a Game

…and that’s why I haven’t posted anything for the past two months!  (Warning, this post will probably contain some spoilers for The Famine Game.  All photos are either by Sana Malik or me unless otherwise noted.)

Last week, my husband and I flew to Washington, D.C. to help run The Famine Game, a Hunger Games-themed Game organized by Todd Etter and Philip Dasler, and the first ever Game run in Washington, D.C.  In this post, I’m just going to re-cap my personal experience with the Game.  It won’t be a comprehensive report of the Famine Game itself by any means (there are many puzzles and parts of the event that I never even saw), but it might give a bit of a behind-the-scenes look.

My Famine Game journey started just a few weeks shy of one year ago when I got lunch with Todd.  He told me he was planning a Game and asked if I’d be interested in helping out with web and graphics, and maybe a few puzzles.  I hadn’t even played in a Game myself at that point, but being a part of running one sounded exciting, so I said yes.

I got my first Famine GC email in early January, and we had the Game’s website up the next month.  At about the same time, Nick and I decided we were moving to Seattle, which was very exciting, but also a bit of a bummer.  I hated that I had just gotten involved in this great local thing with so many wonderful people, only to move cross-country with 8 months left in the project.  We got to go to one scouting/playtesting session just before we moved, and everything I did from that point on was remote.  Google Hangouts made things a bit easier as I got to see and hear my friends once a week, even if I couldn’t help with the on-site scouting, playtesting, and production processes.

In Seattle, Nick helped me develop a WordPress plugin to handle our team application process and I helped design a puzzle for that application.  We received a lot of incredible applications and agonized over which teams to select.  We announced the accepted teams via “livestream” and delivered the first taste of the flavor we wanted to inject into this Game.

That’s when the fun began for me, because once we had accepted all of the teams, I could start designing team logos!  I wanted to give each team a logo in the style of the District seals used in the movies.  I had been doing graphics and styling for the in-game app that Sana and Phil were developing, and originally I had only imagined these team logos being used in that app.  In the end, we slapped those logos on everything we could!  Car magnets, ID badges, table markers, powerpoints, a temporary tattoo puzzle, and probably more that I’m forgetting.  I hope the teams got a kick out of their logos (and if anyone wants a vector version, just let me know!).  It was fun making them, and I think they really enhanced the aesthetic of the event.

All 24 Team Logos

All 24 Team Logos

As the big day drew closer, my responsibilities expanded beyond just design work and print production, and I became a point person for our Friday night kickoff dinner, something I had been very interested in helping with.  I grew up catering weddings with my family, so event planning of that sort felt very familiar.  I found myself designing seating charts, chatting with our venue’s light and sound guy, finalizing the menu with our caterer, and curating a playlist to set just the right mood for the teams as they entered the ballroom.  I had a lot of fun working on this part, and I was pleased to identify another item (event atmosphere design) to add to my list of creative tasks that really spark my passion.

Finally, after months of hard work (well, months of leisurely work and about three weeks of ridiculous work, in my case), it was time to fly out to D.C.!  Nick serendipitously got some unexpected time off of work which happened to fall on my trip, so he ended up joining me.  (There were several moments throughout the trip where I wondered how I ever would have survived that week without him there!)  Our local friends Jen and Greg picked us up from the airport on Tuesday night, and graciously let us stay at their apartments for the whole week (me at Jen’s, Nick at Greg’s).  Jen even let us borrow her car, which we would have been completely hopeless without!

The last few days leading up to the event were a flurry of hard work and little sleep.  I still had so many printouts to prepare for Friday night and the Clock, Jen and I needed to make about 1500 leaf-shaped candies for a Friday night puzzle, and I knew there were probably an unlimited amount of tasks that could use a helping hand at Todd’s place.  Somehow, it all got done enough, and I found myself putting on my crazy Capitol makeup in the car on the way to the Artisphere for our Friday night dinner.  As we pulled up around 5:00, we saw Bloodshot hanging around outside.  Registration wasn’t supposed to open until 6:00!  Ack!  And when we got inside, we found they weren’t the only team that had arrived early.  Probably five teams were already mingling in the lobby outside the ballroom.  Panic!

Best Costumes - Disobedient Children from the Agriculture District

Best Costumes – Disobedient Children from the Agriculture District

My favorite team, The Hunger Dames from the Luxury District

My favorite team, The Hunger Dames from the Luxury District

For the rest of the evening, I ran around in my ridiculous high heels, trying to prepare this and anticipate that and make sure everything was ready to go.  (I must have looked as anxious as I felt, because people kept giving me hugs and telling me it would be okay and asking if I had eaten yet.)  Luckily, there was a room full of incredible and smart people who were eager to help make it all happen.  Nick and his brother Mike awesomely stepped up to run the projector and sound, with very little supervision required from me.  Jan and Yar let me dump 100% of registration on their shoulders, and put me at so much ease about it that I totally forgot to check in later and see if there were any missing waivers or anything.  Sana, Ann, Robin, and Melissa got all the upstairs activities ready and were always available to go grab this or that or someone I needed.  Sam somehow kept us perfectly on schedule, even when we knew the presentations were going long.  And Todd reminded me to take a deep breath and enjoy it all!

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So somehow, with our powers combined, everything that was supposed to happen happened, and as far as we could tell, the kickoff dinner was a success!  I felt good, like we had made a positive first impression on teams and maybe started to build up some of the trust that is necessary for a fun puzzle hunt experience.

At that point, the worst was definitely over for me.  The only real responsibility I had left for the rest of the weekend was the Clock, and since that area didn’t open until 11pm on Saturday night, I had plenty of time.  After I got the Friday night activity scores video up, I washed off my crazy face and went to bed.

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Cornucopia photo from Todd’s camera

Official build time for our Cornucopia started at 6:30am, but Nick and I decided to get there around 7:30 instead.  By the time we arrived, the team markers were almost finished the Cornucopia itself was about half-built.  I didn’t know anything about the latest incarnation of the Cornucopia, so I was really shocked when I saw it.  It was huge!  When it was finished (with plenty of time to spare, even), it looked incredible, and a lot like the one in the movie.  I was seriously impressed.  Chris and Charlie, who built the thing, played it off like it was no big deal.  Phil and Robin’s brilliant PVC and pillowcase team markers looked stunning as well and really gave it that arena feeling.  The weather was perfect, Hains Point looked gorgeous, and we seemed to be on track for a smooth start.

Sam and I drove down to the parking lot where we had instructed teams to gather, which was a decoy starting location so that we could do a big reveal of the Cornucopia.  Once all the teams had arrived, we gathered them around and had them enter the first start code in their app.  We instructed them to get back in their vans and follow the lead car (me and Nick) in a processional down the peninsula to Hains Point.  Nick and I barely got in front of the front vans who were eager to get out of the parking lot, and we made the slow, biker and jogger-filled drive down to the end.  It was a little nerve-wracking to be leading 24 vans, and we almost botched the parking situation, but luckily everyone found a spot and started gathering near the Cornucopia.

Panorama by Paul Chou

Panorama by Paul Chou

We split the teams into two lines, Todd gave an introduction, and then they marched to their respective starting circles.  Players reported this moment feeling kind of somber and momentous.  Mission accomplished!  Todd lead a group countdown for the Game to begin, which was very exciting, and teams opened their first puzzle.  We watched the teams run around for a while before Nick and Mike had to go to their puzzle site and Sam and I left to grab lunch and shop for Clock decorations.

I got all of my Clock materials printed out at Todd’s place, and after much more organization and some shenanigans with an old hornets’ nest, we finally got over to the Clock room where I finished up the details for the puzzles and started decorating.  I ended up having things to get done from that point until the room opened at 11pm, which I think was probably better than having to be shuttled back and forth to different places.  Phil and Robin arrived and worked for a while, and Nick and Mike made an appearance as well.

Finally, Golden SmokingJay arrived (quickly building what would be a somewhat problematic 3-hour lead on the other teams) and we got to have a nice and relaxed test run of the Clock before it started filling up with teams.  (The Clock consisted of 12 different rooms, with teams switching rooms every 15 minutes — a recipe for chaos!)  There were a few rules about traversing the Clock that we hadn’t finalized yet and debated about for several hours before coming to a conclusion.  I think we eventually settled on what to do when about the 12th team had arrived, but by then I was starting to lose cognitive function and made a few mistakes in explaining and answering questions.  I think our highest capacity was about 15 teams in the Clock at once.  There was one moment when the timer went off and all of the teams funneled through the lobby area, and I just had this dazed sense of amazement that it was actually functioning and people were getting in and out of the rooms they wanted and not getting completely angry and frustrated.  After the event, we actually heard that people liked this part of the game, and appreciated the bite-sized nature of the puzzles at such a late hour.  Somehow, frustration or neutrality were the only options in my mind!

Clock chaos

Clock chaos begins

Although things got pretty hectic at the peak, and then later on when we started running short on staff, nothing ever truly broke or fell apart.  That being said, there were a few emergencies and problems late in the night.  One player had a medical emergency and ended up going to the hospital, two GC members had a beloved pet pass away and needed to leave to address that for the remainder of the game, and at least one team’s app session data was lost and had to be recovered.  Every Game has its own share of unexpected events, and we’re thankful to all the players and staff who were patient and understanding during trying times.

Some Clock staff, photo by Linda of Golden SmokingJay

Some Clock staff, photo by Linda of Golden SmokingJay

Luckily, GC and player spirits seemed to stay pretty high, even as the sun came up.  At about 9:45am, we started encouraging the remaining four teams to try and wrap up with help from us so that they could keep to a schedule where they wouldn’t get skipped over too many of the cool puzzles on the National Mall.  Our last team left at about 10:15am, and Mark and I went into clean-up mode, getting all of the Clock stuff back into the lobby for the rest of the crew to transport later.

Almost at the end!

Almost at the end!

At this point, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with myself!  Nick and Mike had finished their puzzle site at the MLK memorial and picked me up to go to lunch.  I seemed to be half sleepy zombie, half chatterbox telling funny Clock stories.  After that, we headed toward the National Mall to see how all of that was going down.  It sounded like Sana could use some staffing help at the Capitol, but by the time we got there things were pretty much under control.  We enjoyed the weather and the sights for a while, chatted with Todd, and watched teams make their way up the Capitol steps to the finale.  Without much else to do, we decided to go back to Mike’s apartment until the afterparty.  Nick and I fell asleep for a while, and then it was off to Nando’s Peri-Peri in Old Town Alexandria.

The party was already in full swing by the time we arrived, and we got a table for the three of us.  I set up a makeshift Lost and Found with items people left in the Clock room and managed to return a jacket to a player.  Nick’s family was meeting us for dinner in a couple of hours, so we passed on the food for the time being and just chatted with players as they went by.  After a while, I went and joined Sam, Phil, and Sana at their booth and started feeling very emotional about what a great experience it had been, and how much I loved all the people in the room.  Todd gave a thank-you speech, which elicited more emotions.  Then I had to say goodbye and leave for dinner — oh no, more emotions!

And then it was basically all over.  After dinner, Nick and I went to bed pretty early to catch up on many, many lost hours of sleep.  We got lunch with friends on Monday afternoon, and I took lots of naps.  On Monday night, Todd invited us to a puzzler’s dinner with some people who were still in town, and that was just lovely.  I was crying from laughing so hard at everyone’s stories, and then I was nearly crying again from saying goodbye.  I pretty much solidified my decision to fly to Boston for Mystery Hunt again in January rather than take the short trip down to California so I can be sure to see these wonderful East coasters again soon. (Nick told me to wait a week for my post-Game sentimental feelings to wear off before deciding one way or the other, but I don’t think they are going to!)

A lot of crazy things happened between the day Todd asked me to help and the actual event itself.  I got to join Todd’s team for the MIT Mystery Hunt, I moved to Seattle, fellow Famine GC member Phil invited me to be on his WarTron Boston team (my first Game!), I started helping out with ClueKeeper, I got to be on a winning Boneless Chicken Cabaret team for Shinteki Decathlon, and I got to play Real Escape Game.  I met the smartest group of people I can imagine at MIT, I finally met “crossword champion Tyler Hinman” (as we call him in this household) in California, I grew close enough to Todd to truly call him a friend, and I continually met the most lovely and welcoming people the more involved I became in this community.  And now that many of my friendships have been forged in the fire of The Game, I feel confident that these relationships will endure despite the geographical distance between us.

A few less sappy closing thoughts:  Although I think I had originally intended to be much more involved in all aspects of our Game, I only ended up writing two puzzles (both for the Clock), and I feel like I probably had the weakest grasp of the event as a whole among the core GC (certainly weaker than any of the teams that played!).  I think part of this is due to the fact that I’m maybe a bit less interested in writing and solving puzzles than the rest of the group, but a lot of it is obviously because I’ve been working remotely.  By the end of the event, I decided this was actually a very good thing.  Being somewhat removed from everything else let me focus on just the visual design of things, and I think I made a lot more cool stuff than I would have if I had any other elements on my plate.

And a few things I wasn’t expecting when I jumped onto this crazy train:

  • I wasn’t expecting how much work it would be.  I think I had a vague idea of “oh, I bet it takes a lot of work to pull off a Game,” but since I knew I wanted to help out no matter what, and therefore never had a decision-making process, it never really crossed my mind.  Even after WarTron Boston, when we all said “Holy crap, we have a lot of work left to do,” it hadn’t really sunk in yet.  This wasn’t a problem in that I disliked having so much work to do, but rather that I wish I had realized earlier on that this would become my Big Project for the year so that I would have taken it more seriously from the start and gotten more done instead of scrambling near the end and having to let some things go by the wayside.
  • I wasn’t expecting how much people would like it.  I think because I felt a bit removed from the actual organization of the puzzles and the event as a whole, I maybe didn’t feel as responsible for whether people had fun or not, and it wasn’t something I ever wondered about.  For the elements I was responsible for, I only ever imagined scenarios where people got annoyed and frustrated.  I think I have a tendency to prepare for and focus on worst-case scenarios and I totally forget about the possibility that things will go fine and the end result will be something that people really enjoy.  The player reaction also speaks volumes to Todd and Phil’s ambitious creativity and flawless execution.
  • I wasn’t expecting how satisfied and fulfilled I would feel afterward.  Probably a result of people having a good time and saying so.  I felt like I had really been a part of something special.  It was satisfying to be working with really competent people all year, having responsibilities, helping other people, and actually creating something for others to enjoy.  (Maybe this is what some people feel like when they have a real job that they like?  Maybe I should get a real job?)
  • I wasn’t expecting to be ready to do it all again so quickly.  In the ramp up to the event, and in the middle of the 36-hour Saturday to Sunday run, I was having some of those “why does anyone ever do this” thoughts.  But before the event was even over, probably when I was standing on the West Lawn with Todd and realizing it was all coming to a close, I was already starting to feel a bit melancholy about the end.  Then the e-mails started coming in with comments like “Can’t wait for the next one.”  By Monday night, I had a text file with things I could have done better, and might improve on the next time around.  I hope I made it clear to Todd that he needs only say the word and I’ll be on board for any future endeavors, be they full-fledged Games or otherwise.

And a few special thanks:

  • Nick – For being lonely while I worked my butt off in the weeks leading up to the event, for joining me on the trip, for helping run two puzzle sites and the Friday night projector, helping set up the Clock, for helping out on things that you might not have felt completely comfortable with, and for taking care of me when I was super stressed and exhausted.
  • Mike – For helping out with the projector Friday night, running two puzzle sites (in the dark, cold morning!), helping out with the Clock, and keeping Nick company.
  • Jen – For helping me make literally thousands of candies, putting me up in your apartment, lending your car to the cause, and running a puzzle site.  We could not have made this trip without you and Greg!
  • Greg – For housing Nick for the whole week, helping run a puzzle site, and putting up with a couple of late nights while I finished things up.
  • Jan and Yar – For taking over registration on Friday and being so reliable in the Clock room.  You are the loveliest people!
  • Phil, Sam, Sana – For working so hard on all of your components and being awesome people that I’m proud to call friends!  (Not to mention, keeping me sane on Friday night.)  Sana, an extra thanks for sticking it out in the war room by yourself for who knows how many hours, and taking some great photos on Friday night.
  • Mark – For being a cool dude and fun to work with 11 hours straight in the Clock room.
  • The Etter Family – For being so generous with Todd and your home and your own time and energy to help make this happen.
  • Todd – For being practically perfect in every way and bringing me into this great project and welcoming community.

That’s about all I have to say from my perspective.  I feel so lucky to have been a part of this amazing creation, and thankful to all of the teams who put their trust in us to pull off something worth their time, money, and energy.  Run more games!

Whodunnit? – Episode 9 Review

smoke

[Watch out!  This post contains lots of spoilers for the finale of Whodunnit?, including the identity of the Killer and the winner.  I've put some spoiler tags in, but the photos are also very spoilery.  You've been warned!]

At long last, the season finale of Whodunnit?!  But whose murder would the players be investigating this week?  With a kidnapped butler, a room full of smoke, and a disappearing contestant, things were off to a very strange start.

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But even stranger was the fourth wall-breaking intro to catch new viewers up-to-speed.  Giles narrated the sequence, re-capping each murder, weirdly referencing Twitter, and using phrases like “hottest show of the summer.”  It was the first in a number of disorienting context switches between “It’s all so real!” and “It’s all just a gameshow!”

 

The Set-Up:

When Giles brought us back to the present, the smoke had cleared and Melina was missing.  So many theories at this point, but it was pretty clear that either  Melina was the Killer, or she was about to be murdered.  The players tried to figure out what to do next, and for a moment I thought they would actually end up splitting up and searching the house for clues.

voice

Instead, the Killer broadcast a creepy message over the TV that began a puzzle for them to solve.  The players had to recall the combination Ronnie found in the very first episode of the show and use it to unlock a secret door in the great room.  Nobody could remember the number, but Kam was quick to notice that various items in the parlor had been arranged in a 6-1-3 formation.  He entered the combination with Cris and Lindsey by his side, and they entered the mysterious room.

chess

Inside were the various instruments and pieces of evidence from all of the previous murders (I thought it was neat that this episode kept bringing up the fact that a player might never have seen a particular piece of evidence, as Kam mentioned when he entered the room).  Also in the room was Melina’s dead body, strangled by the necklace originally meant for Geno.  Melina was holding a large black puzzle piece, apparently meant for the player that solved the combination riddle first.  (If Kam hadn’t been followed, it might have been more clear that it was meant for him.)

piece

So Melina was not the Killer!  Maybe she really did make all of those amazing deductions about Ronnie’s death last week.  Unfortunately, they weren’t enough to keep her alive.  At this point, the team officially dissolved and there was a little montage of accusations against each player.

 

The Final Challenge:

Back out in the great room, the players found  three large boards, one for each of them, with a sort of board game track in the shape of a question mark and a monitor at the top.

boards

Giles began the complicated explanation of the players’ final task — a race to collect the nine black puzzle pieces that fill up the board and unlock the Killer’s hideout.  In the only fun twist of the episode, the gruesome re-animated corpses of each of the previous victims marched down the stairs and hobbled to different locations in and around the mansion.  The remaining players would need to visit each victim and complete their challenge to get each puzzle piece.

parade

One caveat — if players did a challenge incorrectly, they would actually receive a sort of “dud” puzzle piece, and wouldn’t find out until they had gathered all 9 pieces the board.  For any duds, players would need to go back to the challenge and try again.  Kam’s advantage for solving the first riddle was a free puzzle piece to get started.

puzzle

(I felt a little overwhelmed as Giles explained the game.  I was reminded of hearing about how The Mole was supposedly too complicated of a show for the average viewer, and I felt like this finale episode of Whodunnit? might be bad for the genre.  Then I was reminded of how Whodunnit? viewers actually thought contestants were dying on the show, and I thought “Screw it, let their brains be fried with a complex game.”  That being said, I do think they could have explained it in a more accessible way.)

instructions

The game began, and each player was directed via the monitors to a different challenge site.  Each challenge was meant to test a different skill, such as memory, perception, sensory deprivation, and logic.  I’ll list each of the sites and the players’ performance at each:

slingshot

Sheri – Skill
Challenge:  Use a slingshot to break the glass in a small fish tank, choosing the one that correctly shows which direction Sheri was facing when she was hit.
Performance:  I was surprised that a slingshot could actually break a hole in a fish tank!  Lindsey was the only player to have trouble getting enough power from the slingshot (or the only one they showed having trouble).

Dontae – Memory
Challenge:  Recall whether the Killer gave Dontae a medallion of St. Agatha or St. Elmo.
Performance:  Even Lindsey balked at how easy this challenge was.  Strange, since they had the excellent option of asking St. Agatha or St. Agnes, a lie the players concocted and couldn’t keep straight themselves.

Adrianna – Tactile
Challenge:  Re-assemble a bomb and cut the wire that corresponds to the text on the TV message Adrianna saw (red or blue).
Performance:  Another instance where Kam hadn’t actually seen the clue that was being referenced.  But all three players got this one just fine.

logic

Don – Logic
Challenge:  Arrange five pieces of a diagram to show how the Killer placed the mountain lion in the secret compartment.
Performance:  This one confused me at first since I thought it was asking how Don triggered the lion trap.  Cris had no problem, but Kam had to go back three times before he got the right order.

Ulysses – Excavation
Challenge:  In the bushes, retrieve the snake planted in Ulysses’s saddle bag and put it in a basket.
Performance:  Everyone did fine on this one besides being (acting?) a little squeamish.  I thought they might have had players need to distinguish between the poisonous and non-poisonous snakes again somehow, but no.  This challenge was weird because it didn’t really have a wrong answer.  You wouldn’t not put the snake in the basket and then expect a puzzle piece.  Seemed out of place.  Also, Ulysses was inexplicably wearing an Indiana Jones costume (complete with whip) despite dying in a plaid shirt and jeans.  (Fan service?)

twins

Dana and Sasha – Perception
Challenge: Complete a spot-the-difference photo puzzle, and submit your guess for how many differences there were (between 3 and 7).
Performance:  Cris and Lindsey both had trouble with this one and had to go back.  Kind of tough!

Geno – Sensory Deprivation
Challenge:  Go in a dark room and bring out the item that wasn’t involved in Geno’s murder (gun, night vision goggles, or flower lei).
Performance:  Kam and Lindsey had no problem, while Cris supposedly read the instructions too quickly and brought out an item that was involved in the murder.  She ended up having to re-do this one.

Ronnie – Evidence
Challenge – Identify and retrieve a castor bean from the hot tub.
Performance:  I guess everybody did okay on this one!

suspicious

Giles – Instinct
Challenge:  Read Giles’s contract and determine whether or not he is the Killer.
Performance:  This one was just weird and awkward, with Giles suddenly having escaped on his own and acting suspicious.  Kam interpreted Giles’s contract to mean he was essentially a murderer with all the things he agreed to do, but apparently in the fine print (mentioned in the riddle), an addendum relieved Giles of all liability.  Kam was the only player who had to go back (all the way up to the attic!) to try again.

fineprint

I was really excited about this big, multi-step challenge when it started.  The idea of revisiting each murder was really appealing, and I also liked the idea of testing the various skills that make someone a worthy adversary for the Killer.  Unfortunately, I think some of the challenges fell a little flat and it ended up being more of a foot race than anything.  While it would have been really frustrating for players to have to keep running back and forth any more than they did already, I think the challenges could have been designed in a way that took a little more time and thought.  I guess that would make it less suspenseful though?  Also, holy crap did that become a physical challenge!  The players were all sweating profusely by the end, after running around the house and up and down the stairs and everything else.  I like suspense and action as much as the next American TV viewer, but it made me ache for the subtle intellectualism of The Mole.

And how weird was the thing with Giles?  Suddenly, all of the narrative stakes they set up at the beginning of the episode are gone.  Melina is dead and Giles is free.  Now we keep playing this game anyway until one of us is killed?  It just felt really strange.

message1

It’s hard to tell with the editing, but it appeared that Kam kept his lead in the challenge despite having a couple of hangups along the way.  Cris followed closely behind, while Lindsey’s slingshot problems appeared to slow her down to third place.  Kam’s correct board unlocked a key and gave him a message to go upstairs to a secret room and solve another riddle.  Cris’s message was not shown, but she followed Kam.  Lindsey received a different message that was more congratulatory and pointed her back to the Killer’s storage room.

message2

Kam and Cris entered yet another one of the Killer’s hideouts, this one filled with paperwork and connection boards and surveillance monitors.  Kam and Cris huffed and puffed while they searched the room for the next riddle to no avail.  Eventually, Cris awkwardly asked Kam if “The Killer is you?” before bringing his attention to the surveillance monitor that showed the inevitable: Lindsey getting shot through the neck by an automated suit of armor wielding a bow and arrow.  Meaningful looks at each other!  Commercial break!

mysteryroom

 

The Big Reveal:

Okay, it’s the big moment!  The big reveal!  How are they going to do it??  Accusations from both sides!  Cris is speaking strangely… because she is speaking in rhymes!  A Killer is Cris!  Kam is floored!  He thought it was Lindsey!  And now a montage?  Each death with Cris smiling under the hood?  Yeah okay.  This is taking forever!  More awkward exchanges between Kam and Cris…  Okay good, Giles is here to wrap things up.  Yes, good job Kam!  You did it!  Now handcuff Cris and send her away.  Really?  Cris is completely compliant.  What?  Oh look, the cops are even here!  This all makes sense?  That cop car is going to explode and she’s going to make her big escape, right?  No?  Okay.  More congratulations for Kam!  Hooray!  Keep saying he did it!  WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON.

cuffs

My Thoughts:

The finale episode highlighted the three major problems of the entire show:  1)  It doesn’t matter who the Killer is (Kam won without ever suspecting Cris, and Lindsey lost despite suspecting Cris from the beginning), because 2) There is no way to tell who the Killer is, because 3) The Killer has no motivation whatsoever.

The Killer has no motivation throughout the show.  This means that the narrative is completely unbelievable and full of holes.  And when I say unbelievable, I don’t mean unbelievable like hey they had those corpses come back to life, and that’s totally unbelievable, and therefore my point is refuted.  I mean unbelievable like wait, what?  That doesn’t make any sense, it’s not how a real person would act, it doesn’t explain anything, and it doesn’t respect my intelligence or my investment in this show all summer.  Cris invited these players to play her Killer’s Game.  She has the money and means to coerce two maids and a butler to do her bidding in this expensive mansion.  She apparently knows from the beginning that she will be handcuffed and taken away by the police at the end of the game, despite probably being capable of some dramatic escape.  Why?  Why would she do that?  Her only goal is supposedly to find a worthy adversary.  For what?  To pine after while she rots in jail?

Nick and I (mostly Nick) came up with the following alternate ending:  Kam goes to the mystery room alone and witnesses Cris murdering Lindsey via the surveillance monitors.  Cris addresses Kam directly via the camera, congratulating him on being the one to survive, but saying that she won’t be caught so easily.  She then makes a daring escape using some exciting special effects.  By the time Kam and Giles make it back downstairs to reach her, she is already long gone, but she has left him the money she promised (she is nothing if not honorable).  Now Cris has fulfilled her motivation to find an adversary without stupidly walking herself straight into jail.  AND you have a great set-up for a cameo in later seasons.  The only thing you lose is Kam “unmasking” the Killer as promised, which, quite frankly, he didn’t even do.

It was clear throughout the season that the “the Killer is among you” catch was just being used as a gimmick with no real weight, but the finale really highlighted the holes this left in the narrative and the gameplay itself.  They put this big emphasis on the “who” but then didn’t incorporate it into the gameplay whatsoever.  They could have removed the “who” element from the show completely and just focused on deduction skills and team play (which is what the core gameplay was revealed to be).  Focusing on the “who” without following through did not serve the show in any way and only set viewers up for disappointment.

It just feels like so many of the elements that made up this lackluster finale could have been avoided.  When a show has hundreds of staff working on it and hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent per day, I want the things that don’t cost money, the things that just require someone sitting and thinking hard about it until they come up with something that works, I want those things to be rock solid.

I can understand the idea of wanting to keep the show simple and accessible to viewers.  But if there is one thing summer reality TV show viewers like, it’s feeling smarter than the TV.  It just feels like people are going to watch that finale and say “The Killer went through all that just to let herself get arrested?  That’s so stupid!” or “The person who knew who the Killer was lost, and the winner never even suspected the Killer?  What a waste of time.”  And that’s not a good way to get people interested in a second season.  If a second season was run exactly the way this one was, I’m not even sure I’d be interested enough to keep up.

 

Final Thoughts:

While the show was enjoyable overall, I kept feeling like I was being set up for something really great and exciting, only to be let down by something simple and cliched (or even nonsensical).  Die-hard fans eat this sort of show up, and viewers were all over reddit dissecting screenshots and comparing theories, going down the usual paths of this kind of show.  In spite of the show’s basic format, we looked hard for clues that were not really there.  Something extra hidden in the great room drawer.  The mention of zodiac signs on the Killer’s connection boards.  The victims’ post-death confessions.  A mysterious Rue Manor crest above the door handle.  All are now revealed as unintentional oversights or just shorthand for “mysterious” with no real meaning or consequence.

I’m very interested to see whether this gets picked up for a second season.  The Mole focused on smart, tricky gameplay, but might have lacked the action and pacing viewers like.  Murder in Small Town X was a fascinating study in narrative that was perhaps too complex for viewers.  Now, Whodunnit? tests the power of special effects and faux-drama while neglecting meaningful gameplay and a solvable mystery.  It’s hard for me to imagine this formula succeeding.  But if it doesn’t, I’m afraid it will be another nail in the old mystery/puzzle reality TV coffin, and the next attempt at resuscitation will be all the more difficult.

Maybe it’s that Whodunnit? just felt like a reality show dressed in the costume of a murder mystery, without actually offering any of the gameplay or interactivity expected of the genre?  I’d love to hear any comments from those of you who followed the show.  Were you already a fan of shows like The Mole and MiSTX, and how did it stack up to your expectations?  Or, if this was the first time you had seen a show of this type, what were your impressions having no preconceived notions going in besides the show’s own promotional materials?

In closing, it was a fun summer show with some fun surprises and fun players and fun effects.  I hope that, despite its flaws, Whodunnit? will prove to be a step forward for mystery games on TV.