Monday, December 24, 2012

Board Game Design: Identifying Multiple Paths to Victory (Part III)

Conclusion of Part I & Part II.

Card games offer a special approach to game driven chaos through a randomized deck. An individual card will often have a range of usefulness relative to the other cards in your hand. In a game of five card draw, there is a straightforward desire for higher value cards and a single deuce can often be discarded without thought. If given an initial hand beginning with a pair twos, suddenly an additional two would add tremendous value. Card games all utilize this to some degree.

In Dominion, many players are impressed with the ability to “build your own machine” deck construction mechanics. I was enamored with the idea that it embraced the aspect of unproductive cards with an all or nothing approach of victory cards. In the base game victory cards are a hindrance for the duration of the game until final scoring in which they are the only means in order to win. Everyone who has played even one game of Dominion has experienced the dreaded mostly green hand for which the actions on a turn are severely diminished. Dominion was the first instance of an all-or-nothing approach to the usefulness of cards I had observed in game design.

The brilliance of the design of the Pokemon Trading Card game is often overshadowed as it was glanced over by many and dismissed as merely an extension of the Pokemon brand. Cards were collected and traded based on the notoriety of the Pokemon, the holographic Charizard being the Holy Grail for many. If you were anything like me in the 1990’s, you never played a game of the Pokemon TCG by the written rules. If that is the case, chances are that trainer cards were passed over and energy cards were trashed completely.

Many collectible card games require an element of structure in the pregame ritual of deck building. Pokemon was unrestrained as the only requirement was that the deck must be comprised of 60 cards. A balance deck needed several categories of cards but there were no restrictive guidelines as to what could be included. Cards ranged from basic pokemon who were your primary method of representation in the battle arena; energy cards which fueled attacks and special actions and trainer cards which allowed common card game actions such as access to your discard pile and drawing additional cards for future use.

The Pokemon TCG is another prototypical example that falls within our framework for multiple victory conditions. Over the course of the game basic pokemon cards are played into your "bench", of which one is selected as an active pokemon. The primary strategy involves switching your active pokemon with those on your bench in order to utilize key advantages and minimizing weaknesses. Upon depleting the hit points of one of your opponent's pokemon, you receive one of six "prizes" which consist of 6 random cards dealt from your deck before the game.

Our first victory condition in this series of articles is our tactical victory, taking advantage of the primary actions in the game. In the Pokemon TCG this victory condition is met by knocking out all of your opponent's active and benched pokemon, in such a way that they have none available during a game. This condition can be more easily achieved with a deck designed to get a lot of pokemon out quickly onto your bench that have moderate attack strength in order to take down an opponent who builds up to that powerfully evolved Charizard. An interesting risk is made if a deck is based on a low quantity of powerful basic pokemon, risking those cards being stuck as an out of reach "prize" or on the bottom of the draw deck.

The prize function operates as an interesting method of facilitating chaos in the game. As not all cards can be drawn through normal play, for the risk averse players it insists upon a deck built on duplication and multiples of the most crucial cards for a given strategy. Achieving all six of the prizes is a simplified element of the set collection victory path in our design structure. It certainly doesn't express the expected aspects of set collection such as like-kind accumulation and zero-sum depletion but it does fit the criteria in a loosely defined manner and satisfies the basic requirement of set collection of a particular item.

Our final strategic pathway of an hourglass victory is a common structure in card games in one form or another. In many collectible card games when a player's deck is depleted this triggers victory for this player or more often, the opponent. In the Star Wars Collectible Card Game, when a powerful character card is defeated it has a "damage" number which causes additional attrition beyond that card. This function consists of discarding a number of cards equal to the "damage" number indicated on the card, usually relative to strength and functional as a balancing mechanism. In Pokemon, this is much more simpler and deck management is more often under control of each player based on drawing and reshuffling discarded cards back into the deck with special actions. Once a players deck has been exhausted, that player has been defeated.

I look forward to seeing how these three primary methods of victory will continue to be explored and expanded going forward in game design. I thank you for reading and I hope this series of articles has enriched your analysis of these game types, and thus encouraging a bright gaming future. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

December Board Game of the Month: Puerto Rico

After an online narrative RPG, a party-oriented card game, and a month of gaming totally devoted to history puzzle-hunting, Board Game of the Month is back with the Euro-gamiest of all Euro games: Puerto Rico. Despite its reputation and prominence among board gamers, I didn't play it for the first time until a recent game night hosted by my friend Phil. After playing for the first time, I quickly developed a love-hate relationship with it: though it's very difficult for a first-time player to make any headway with Puerto Rico, it's easy to see why the game is so well-regarded in the community.

Style and Gameplay

Puerto Rico is a turn-based city-building game. You play the role of a territorial governor in colonial-era Puerto Rico, and your task is to build your city and its farms to become the most prosperous. The game uses a standard "victory point" mechanic, and both goods from your farm and buildings in your city count for victory points in the final scoring. There are strong similarities to both Agricola and Race for the Galaxy, and in many aspects, Puerto Rico plays like a middle ground between those two games.

The actual mechanics of Puerto Rico's gameplay are mostly straightforward: to build your city, you can create buildings and grow crops in plantations. Buildings cost money to create and require citizens to operate; you make money by selling the crops you grow, and a limited number of citizens immigrate to the island every turn. Certain buildings allow growing more expensive crops, while others make it easier to attract citizens or to build even more buildings.

Much of Puerto Rico's decision-making comes in deciding which crops to grow and when to sell them. Sometimes it makes sense to invest heavily in expensive crops, while other times, it's better to move quickly through lower-value ones; sometimes you need to sell crops for money, and sometimes it's better to trade them for victory points. Other strategies can get by without growing crops at all. Like all the best games in the genre, Puerto Rico strongly rewards formulating a consistent strategy and pursuing it through the end of a game; like all the best games in the genre, that's particularly difficult.

Analysis and Anecdotes

A (possibly apocryphal) story about Puerto Rico's development is that it and Race for the Galaxy grew out of the same development process and a disagreement between the designers. That's especially plausible having played both games. One core mechanic shared between the two is "phase selection," where each player chooses an action to perform (like "Explore" to draw cards or "Develop" to make a new building), and every player performs each selected action, with a bonus to the player who selected that action. For example, if one player chooses to "Explore," everyone draws cards, but the player who picked "Explore" gets an extra card. The result is a free-form and largely non-interactive game where each player can develop a strategy and not have other players interfere with it.

In contrast, Agricola, another game that has plenty in common with Puerto Rico, limits each action to one player per turn: only one person can take stone, only one player can build fences, and so on. Puerto Rico lies somewhere in between: while only one player can get the "bonus" from any given phase, all players can play in all phases. That makes Puerto Rico a less frustrating game in general than Agricola but one that requires more anticipation of other strategies than Race for the Galaxy.

Puerto Rico is not an easy game to learn, even for a player who's had experience with similar games. That was reflected in the scores of the very first game I played, with Raphael (who had the most experience with the game) winning easily and me (the only person playing for the first time) bringing up a miserable rear. Although it's easy to appreciate that winning the game requires a consistent strategy, it's not so easy to get an idea of what that strategy might be until you've played through the game a few times.

Something in particular that got me into trouble was not building toward the end-game buildings aggressively enough, and then not accounting for the need to move my citizens into my end-game building to "activate" it. Like Race for the Galaxy, 7 Wonders, and a host of other Euro games, Puerto Rico's scoring ramps up in later turns, making end-game plays generally more valuable than early-game plays. The consequence is that it's important to anticipate the end of the game coming and to prepare for it in time to maximize the value of your late plays, another skill that's difficult having never played the game before.

Overall Impressions

There's a whole lot to Puerto Rico, and the most clever part of its design is that two players can be pursuing completely independent strategies and be successful in both--but interact just enough to impact how successful each of those pursuits are. Fans of Race for the Galaxy should appreciate all the similarities between Puerto Rico and Race; fans of Agricola or of stiflingly low-variance board games in general will be drawn to the utter lack of randomness in Puerto Rico. Along the lines of Agricola, it's a more proactive game than the more reactive Race for the Galaxy, so even though the mechanics are similar, the approaches to winning Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy are very different.

Regardless of personal preferences for proactive vs. reactive, or moderate vs. low variance, or interactive vs. isolated-strategy games, Puerto Rico is consistently in BoardGameGeek's top five best board games for a reason. At the very least, it's worth playing because it's a mainstay in the genre; at best, it's a game whose depth of strategy and multiple viable approaches will draw you in enough times to actually become good at it.

2-5 players, 90 minutes (or 120 if there are new players), $45 at a game shop or $29 on Amazon

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Recap and Analysis

Catch up with Puzzles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and the final puzzle.

As a fan of puzzlehunts, history, and Ken Jennings, this Great American History Puzzle was pretty much custom-made to be something I'd enjoy. As soon as I read about it on Ken Jennings' blog, I bought a copy of Smithsonian magazine and was off to the races, knowing that I was never actually going to win but enjoying the hell out of it anyway.

The toughest puzzle was by far Puzzle 8. Some of the puzzles required serious tricks to figure out an approach but came into focus when you figured out the approach (looking at you, puzzle 4). Others had an obvious approach but a non-trivial implementation to that approach (puzzle 9, for instance). Puzzle 8 managed to combine both a cryptic method of solving and a tough implementation, plus a disappointingly misleading reference to the Hall of Presidents, which was one of the few design flaws in the whole puzzle.

Meanwhile, the easiest puzzle was either Puzzle 5 or Puzzle 6, which were straightforward in both method and execution. Surprisingly, a few people on Twitter described Puzzle 6 as the one they found most difficult, making me wonder how impossible I might have found it if I hadn't done so much origami as a kid. On the other hand, it took a couple hours of concerted effort from me and my girlfriend to solve Puzzle 9, even though some Twitter people described solving it in only a few minutes.

It was great to see so much variety in the puzzle. So many classic puzzle types--riddle, cipher, crossword, logic, rebus, and acrostic--were represented that I felt like I was exercising a whole lot of puzzle skills and learning some great history trivia in the process.

On the other hand, the worst aspect of the puzzle was probably the timing. I'm luck enough to have a "job" (i.e., grad student) that lets me basically set my own hours and devote a little down time in the middle of a day to solving a puzzle. For people who don't have that luxury, the timing might have gone from slightly inconvenient to downright frustrating. On top of that, the decision to award the grand prize to the person who submitted the very first correct answer seemed odd, especially in the light of the five seconds between first and second place.

On the whole, Smithsonian: well done designing a set of puzzles that were both fun to solve and taught me something about history. Hope to see you again next year.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Puzzle 10 and the Final Puzzle

Catch up with Puzzles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

Puzzle 10 and the Final Puzzle

Throughout the Great American History Puzzle, there was a lot of conversation on Twitter at #historypuzzle, but the chatter really heated up in the last few days of the hunt. As puzzles were finished, parts of the final puzzle, a double acrostic, were gradually revealed. But the reveals were structured such that you had no idea what was going on until you solved the first four puzzles, and you couldn't make any real headway until you'd finished all nine. Or so I thought.

Apparently, people had figured out how to solve the double acrostic with only clues A-G and N-P present. It hadn't seriously occurred to me to try to do that, and even though I knew along I wouldn't realistically be winning the Great American History Puzzle, I started working the double acrostic about three hours before the release of the final puzzle. Clue A, "Site of the first major battle of the revolution," was a bit of a trick; the answer was "Breed's Hill" even though the battle is popularly known as Bunker Hill.

"Utter" and "Utter rabble" took a little quality time with a thesaurus (and some guess-and-check with what made sense in the acrostic) to get "out and out" and "riffraff," and "National flower" was easily enough Googled to get "rose". The Grafton, Ohio and Newport, Minnesota clue was actually pretty clever; once you saw the pattern, it was easy to get to Oskaloosa, Kansas. The "Famous last word" was "wrought," which we learned in the flavor text from solving the Morse Telegraph puzzle, while "Former home of one of your treasures" didn't seem to have a clear answer from any flavor text.

"Anagram of a US state" was basically impossible at first--it made sense that the state was Minnesota, but which order to put the letters in was unclear at first (it ended up being "nominates"). "The US Capitol has 850" was another date with Google, which gave the answer "doorways". "Maintenance workers on one of your treasures" was too ambiguous to get at first (the answer was "linemen"), and "Easternmost national park" was yet another Google project to get "Acadia".

From that point, there actually was enough to piece together most of the puzzle. One of the keys was to spell out the word "knowledge," a common motif throughout the larger puzzle. The phrase "diffusion of knowledge" was a particularly important one; Googling that gave the mission statement for the Smithsonian: "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge". Lucky guessing and thematic intuition decoded the rest of the puzzle:

"Years ago, James Smithson's legacy founded an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Borrow two letters from each of all your nine treasures. Increase and diffuse those letters to obtain your final answer, taken from a great American poet."

That was fine and good, but it didn't tell us which two letters. Since it was already well past the time when I would have been able to submit answers, I knew I had probably missed my window to win, and I decided to focus on Puzzle 10 for a bit. From the finished double acrostic, the former home of this treasure was Fort McHenry, so it seemed the answer to Puzzle 10 was likely some variation on the American flag.

Puzzle 10 itself turned out to be another "attention to visual detail" puzzle. The clue "Twenty-nine are missing" plus the conspicuously arranged grid of letters at the bottom implied that the puzzle involved the fifty states somehow, and New York poking its head out at the bottom of the picture was all the impetus needed. Identifying all twenty-one states hidden in the picture was a lot of fun, and the next step was to map them to the grid of letters. The fifty letters corresponded to the fifty states on order of statehood: Hawaii was hidden in the picture, so we needed the fiftieth letter in the grid; Alaska was missing, so we didn't need the forty-ninth, and so on.

Those letters turned out to be a nearly impossible anagram, but given that I knew the solution was twenty-one letters that somehow related to the American flag, "The Star-Spangled Banner" seemed likely and turned out to be correct.

That answer unlocked the rest of the final acrostic, and from there, it was simply a task of plugging in letters to the acrostic clues. But there still wasn't an obvious choice for which two letters to pick from each treasure. I turned back to the discussion at #historypuzzle, where someone had provided the gentle nudge "if you've solved all 26 acrostic clues, the answer should be right there." Having never really solved an acrostic, I had to hit up Google for some inspiration, and apparently, the first letter of every acrostic clue usually spells out a secret message. In this case, the secret message was "Borrow fourth and last letters."

Taking the fourth and last letters from each treasure gave a nonsense string, something we were used to seeing by this point in the puzzle: HDZTMSSHMHNKCTBLSR. "Increase" was an easy clue to use a +1 Caesar cipher and produce IEAUNTTINIOLDUCMTS. Then, it was a "simple" matter of "diffusing" or de-scrambling that to get the final answer.

As luck would have it, the phrase "contain multitudes" is sort of an inside joke I have with a co-worker to describe the sad state of conflicting results and incomplete understanding in our field, and I'm a fan of Whitman, so it was not too tough to arrive at "I contain multitudes," probably the most famous line in his masterwork Leaves of Grass and the answer to the final puzzle.

I sent off an email as fast as I could--which of course ended up being about four hours too late. Still, it was gratifying to see my name on the leaderboard, right at position number 25. And it was a great way to end an incredibly satisfying and engaging puzzle hunt.

Check back for one last post, where I'll recap the whole puzzle and give my opinions and impressions.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Puzzles 8 and 9

Catch up with Puzzles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Puzzle 8

Way back when I was confronted with Puzzle 3, I thought it was by far the most difficult one we'd seen so far. That was true, in the same way that fractions are by far the hardest math you learn in elementary school. Puzzle 8 was the tensor calculus of the Great American History Puzzle.

This mess of a photo collage came with only one cryptic hint referring to the Smithsonian's Hall of Presidents. A few cursory glances through the Hall's portraits made it pretty obvious that some, but not all, of the squares in the collage came from portraits in the Hall. All of them were clearly presidential--two of the pictures of folded hands near the bottom of the collage belonged to Lincoln--but only the one in the center of the third row from the bottom came from the Hall of Presidents.

At that point, the squares seemed to map most closely to "true" and "false," and the lure of binary was too tough to resist. And, as luck would have it, every letter can be represented by a string of seven binary values, and conversion from ASCII binary to letters to form an eight-letter word seemed so obvious and elegant that I figured that had to be how to solve the puzzle. Assign each square to "1" (if the square's portrait was in the Hall of Presidents) or "0" (if it wasn't), convert each sequence to a letter, and that would be it. Best of all, on first inspection, all of the squares in the first row and none of the squares in the second row seemed to be represented in the Hall, and every uppercase ASCII  string starts with "10". I was convinced: there was no way this solution could be wrong.

Almost as soon as I became convinced, though, cracks started to appear in my solution. There were too many Q's and Y's, and when one of the rows corresponded to the character "]" I abandoned my approach. (But that's totally how I would have designed the puzzle if it were up to me, and it's a really clever approach that I might use if I were do make a puzzle hunt.) I abandoned my approach, and much like in Puzzle 4, I started writing down each piece of pertinent information about each president: order, party, even initials.

Without bothering to identify the portraits that weren't among those in the Hall, I now had a grid of random information about various American presidents. On a whim, I decided that the numbers gave the best chance of pulling out some useful information, with each number possibly corresponding to a letter. I decided to ignore every number after 26 and fill in the blanks later if it was necessary, and I ended up with "LISHOLNSOBPIEH," which is of course nonsense, but looks just a little like "Lincoln's stovepipe hat," which is 1) real and 2) an object that the Smithsonian might have in their collection, in the style of the previous answers. And it was correct!

It turns out I had misidentified three of the photos I thought I had correct, and that I would have needed to look elsewhere than the Hall of Presidents to identify all the pictures. (Both the Lincoln pictures were actually part of the solution, even though only one was in the Hall proper.) This was one of the more frustrating puzzles, simply because it required intense attention to visual detail and a lot of time spent scouring each portrait to find tiny patterns or motifs. And it seemed strange to reference the Hall of Presidents specifically when a significant portion of the solution wasn't able to be found there.

And I still think my own solution was more elegant.

What I learned about American history: quite a lot about once-popular American artists, including the portraitist George P. A. Healy, apparently the most widely renowned painter of American people for a huge chunk of the 19th century. Plus a few fun facts about the presidents themselves; apparently Congress so disliked James Buchanan that they refused to pay for Healy's portrait of him.

Puzzle 9

Next, we were faced with the second in as many puzzles that required examination of pictures, but fortunately Puzzle 9's rebus was much less tedious to decode.

The first row came easily enough: LAMB plus NEST plus ROBE minus N minus MAESTRO gave LLABE.

The rest wasn't so simple, so I consulted my girlfriend Stephanie for help. A couple of hours on Skype gave us the following.

  • Row 2: STARBOARD minus T plus EARTH minus (something) minus (something) minus R. We became convinced the first "something" was a "dart," but that seemed wrong because "DART" didn't show up continuously in the string of letters.
  • Row 3: (something) plus LAMB minus (something) minus B. The first "something" was clearly the Eiffel Tower, but "EIFFELTOWER" seemed a little clunky for a rebus clue. And the second "something" looked like an Islamic flag, but the closest we came to matching it to a real one was the short-lived Republic of the Rif, and nowhere did "RIF" show up in our string.
  • Row 4: ADOBE plus R plus MANGO minus DOBERMAN minus A plus TUBAS minus B, or GOTUAS.
  • Row 5: E plus BABY plus ARMFUL minus F plus KEROSENE minus YARMULKE minus ROSE minus N plus HAT minus A, or EBABEHT. I'm so, so glad that Steph got "ARMFUL" because there was no way I was ever going to get it. At first, we wanted to use "collar" for "kerosene," but we quickly realized there was no way to subtract "yarmulke".
I stared at Row 3 a bit longer, and I was pretty sure "Rif" wasn't right. What if I was being too specific, and it wasn't a particular country, but just "ISLAM"? Then, if I assigned "PARIS" to the first picture, I could subtract "ISLAM" and get "PAR".

I had made no headway on Row 2, so I started to see if I could make any sense of the solutions. Reading them forwards gave nonsense, but reading them backwards gave "THEBABESAUTOGRAP(blank)EBALL". It wasn't too drastic a leap to come up with "The Babe's autographed baseball" as the answer, and it turned out to be correct. (It fit the rebus's title, "Sports and Games," too.) I had back-solved Row 2 as "SABDEH," but being a completionist, I felt compelled to get the entire answer. I knew I needed to subtract "OARARTR" from "SARBOARDEARTH," which meant that the last two images were "OAR" and "ART".

What I learned about American history: nothing from the puzzle itself, but the Babe's autographed baseball is really cool, and I'll be sure to find it next time I'm at the Smithsonian.

Check back for the last two puzzles, and a final post summarizing the hunt and giving my overall impressions.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Puzzles 6 and 7

Catch up with Puzzles 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Puzzle 6

Another day, another surprisingly straightforward puzzle. Puzzle 6 was a lovely origami-themed puzzle, the second in a row where we actually has a set of instructions to follow and a clear path to a solution. (Maybe it was Puzzle 4 backlash.) The template was even marked with lines where folds would eventually be required, and it was covered in letters that would eventually spell out a solution, once the folding was complete.

Eight-year-old me had a pretty pronounced origami phase, and though I hadn't seen the term "valley fold" in years, it all came back to me quickly enough. The folds required in this puzzle were extremely simple for a puzzler who had any experience in origami, though it likely would have been significantly more difficult for someone who had never folded before.

There wasn't much strategy to this one, just a series of twenty-six instructions that eventually produced an elephant-shaped figure. One side read "TURNOVER," or actually "T, sideways C, R, sideways Z, O, V, E, R." The other side spelled out "MAMMOTH," the puzzle's solution, rendered as "M, upside-down V, M, upside-down W, O, T, sideways I." The position and orientation of the letters was easily the most clever part of this puzzle--once you'd folded it correctly, there was no ambiguity as to what the answer was. But it would have been exactly impossible to brute-force the solution by looking at the letters beforehand, because what you read in one direction as an I was actually an H in the solution.

What I learned about American history: that we had mammoths in America at all... although, to be fair, the mammoth in question (and in the Smithsonian's collection) was originally from Canada.

Puzzle 7

I was thrilled to see a good old logic puzzle show up, the second puzzle in a row that hearkened back to things I used to geek out over in elementary school. It wasn't exactly the "three adjacent grids of checks and X's" format I used to love, but it used a lot of the same techniques to solve.

The first step in solving it was to decide which four of the six photos we were interested in, and that answer lay in rules 2, 6, and 7. Probably the most clever part of this puzzle was rule 2: since the four photos were taken from the professor's observatory, the photo of Earth was immediately ruled out. (That one actually took a few reads of rule 2 to understand its significance.) Rule 7 then mandated that the photo of the crescent moon was one of the four we did want, and rule 6 ruled out the other photo of the Moon. That left the crescent moon, Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune as the four photos.

Next, the photos had to be ordered. There are 4! = 24 ways to order 4 objects, but fortunately rule 8 eliminated most of them. Because the two gas giants had to be in the middle, the number of possible orders was reduced to four:
  • Moon, Jupiter, Neptune, Mars
  • Moon, Neptune, Jupiter, Mars
  • Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, Moon
  • Mars, Neptune, Jupiter, Moon
Rule 6 says that the Moon was labeled with a kappa, and rule 4 says that the first two pictures had consecutive Greek letters. But (the seemingly irrelevant) rule 9 says there was no lambda label, meaning the Moon couldn't be first. And rule 5 specified that the body with a gamma was immediately to the right of Jupiter, so the Moon couldn't be immediately to the right of Jupiter, and therefore Jupiter couldn't be the third body. Therefore, the correct order of the objects was Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, Moon.

The next step was to assign letters. Some of them were already determined: kappa for Moon, and gamma for Neptune (as the body to the right of Jupiter). Rule 3 specified that exactly one body was labeled with a capital Greek letter that looked like the English letter that started the body's name. There's no Greek letter that looks like English capital J, but mu for Mars's M works just fine. Going back to rule 4, the body to the right of Mars had to receive the next Greek letter. That meant the order of letters was mu, nu, gamma, kappa.

Finally, there was one more piece of information: the side of the celestial object where the Greek letter was located. Rule 6 said that the Moon's kappa was to its right, and Rule 1 said that the letters alternated position, so the final reconstruction was
  • mu, Mars, Jupiter, nu, gamma, Neptune, crescent moon, kappa
The solution to the puzzle required a puzzle 6-style leap, recognizing that the shape and appearance of objects sometimes matched the shape of letters. Taking all the celestial bodies and Greek letters to look like English letters--and not caring about what the Greek equivalents translated to--gave "MOONrOCK" (where Greek capital gamma looks like an English lowercase r), the solution to this puzzle.

What I learned about American history: nothing! If it seems like the puzzles were getting light on America lessons by this point, I thought so too... and then Puzzle 8 came.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Puzzles 4 and 5

Catch up with Puzzles 1, 2, and 3.

Puzzle 4

A riddle, a cipher, and a crossword can all make challenging and enjoyable puzzles. But a scrap of newspaper, completely lacking context, describing a pilot's trek around the world at the dawn of aviation? Now that's a proper treasure hunt clue. I think some puzzlers were put off by the lack of an obvious method for attacking this puzzle, but if there's one thing the puzzle hunt culture has taught me, it's that at least half the challenge--and half the fun--is figuring out what the puzzle wants you to do in the first place.

The first thing that jumps out as you read this clue is the list of very specific locations: Glasgow, Morristown, Ourinhos, and so on. It's obvious--or as close to "obvious" as Puzzle 4 ever comes--that the solution somehow involves these locations. My first instinct was to plot all the locations on a map of the world and see if any obvious pattern emerged. It did not. Next, I wondered whether the latitude and longitude of each was significant, so I started writing down coordinates for each of the places.

I soon ran into a problem, though: some of the cities are so large in area that they span significant fractions of a degree. Where was I supposed to designate as Glasgow's location? The city center? The Google Maps arrow? Fortunately, it didn't take me too long to realize what the obvious commonality was among all the cities: each had an airport. I dutifully started writing down airport coordinates, then it struck me that I should also be writing down anything that might be pertinent: hub airlines, year of founding... and airport codes.

At that point, the puzzle fell into place pretty quickly. The first three airport codes spelled the word "GLAMOROUS," and I knew I was on to something. The entire solution turned out to be "Glamorous Glennis is this password," with the ORD at the end coming from Chicago-O'Hare.

What I learned about American history: a little about Chuck Yeager and the airplane he used to break the sound barrier. Even though it was a bit light on history trivia and complexity, Puzzle 4's novelty made it probably my favorite of the entire hunt.

Puzzle 5

Compared to its predecessor, Puzzle 5 was incredibly straightforward. When you're puzzle-hunting, and you see a crossword puzzle, you solve it! The crossword would have been pretty tough on its own merits--I certainly didn't know who Otto III or Sheena Easton were--but as soon as I gave myself permission to use Google to find answers, it got a lot easier. When a crossword is an end in itself, using the internet is completely missing the point; when it's but a component in a larger puzzle, us crossword solvers can't let our ideals get in the way of the big picture.

The crossword's theme clues spelled out how to solve the puzzle. 17-Across, "The task," became "Decoding each row"; 36-Across, "The O's," became "Represented dots," and 56-Across, "The A's," became "Converted dashes". That's an obvious reference to Morse code (there is always Morse code in puzzle hunts), and once the whole crossword was solved, the only thing left to do was to write down a dash for each A and a dot for each O. Each row represented a letter (except for the sixth row, which was a space), which yielded the solution "Morse Telegraph". That refers to the original telegraph that Samuel Morse attached to his patent application, laying the foundation for the entire telecommunications industry.

What I learned about American history: the telegraph was invented by the same guy who developed Morse code. That's a seriously cool "history of technology" fact that I think might be underappreciated. I certainly didn't know it, and I'm a fan of both history and technology.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Puzzles 2 and 3

Be sure to start with my account of Puzzle 1 to get caught up!

Puzzle 2

This was the first puzzle in the "main" part of the challenge, a series of nine puzzles that, when solved, each revealed a fragment of the final puzzle. Puzzle 2 was a riddle, a type of puzzle that's often tough for me to solve. That's because (unlike crosswords or ciphers or many other popular types) there's no mechanistic, systematic way to solve them--there are certainly nudges in the right direction, but at some point, you have to rely on an intuitive leap.

From a cursory inspection, it was obvious the solution was a two-word phrase, with the two words gaining some sort of significance in combination that they lacked by themselves. The easiest approach was probably just to identify the entire phrase from the last stanza, but that proved easier said than done. So I read the riddle through a few times, trying to find something to latch onto, and finally had a line resonate with me. The phrase "best friend to half the world," if taken sufficiently idiomatically, could refer to either dogs or diamonds. Mentions of "ice" (slang for diamonds) and "treasure" pointed toward diamonds, but the "king with no sword" clue really sealed the deal.

I turned back to the first part of the riddle, and though I couldn't make sense of the notion of "floating" or the "six paths" story, the idea of a jar once infested by sorrows and pains was an obvious pointer towards "hope". That meant the phrase as a whole was "Hope Diamond," something that made a whole lot of sense as the answer to a Smithsonian-based challenge. More importantly, it set a pattern for the answers to the more difficult puzzles down the road: all the puzzle answers were items in the Smithsonian that had ties, obvious or subtle, to American history.

What I learned about American history: basically the entire history of the Hope Diamond. I had been to the Smithsonian a few months before and seen the Diamond, but I missed all the incredible intrigue in its history. The Order of the Golden Fleece was entirely new to me, and I had no idea that the Diamond exhibited red phosphorescence (not strictly a history fact, but cool science anyway).

Puzzle 3

Oh, Puzzle 3. This one was by far the most difficult in the first two-thirds of the puzzle. Literally everything until Puzzle 8 paled in comparison. Upon opening the puzzle to find an obvious substitution cipher, my spirits sank just a little. I'm terrible at cryptography, and I'm the first to admit it.

But even I found myself thinking "oh, to brute-force a substitution cipher, you start with frequency analysis," and I almost convinced myself I knew what I was talking about. The 3-letter combination "QCS" showed up far more often than it should have from random chance, so I took a shot in the dark and assigned it to "THE". The letter P appearing after an apostrophe clearly mapped to S, "QH" had to be "TO" given that Q mapped to T, and so on. I had to make a few educated guesses (for example, the K in "KP" could either be A or I, and after a little trial and error, I made more sense) but the cryptogram got solved pretty easily, to my great surprise.

The beginning of knowledge, wrote Frank Herbert, is the beginning of something we do not understand. To discover this treasure in the museum's TV collection, remember how broadcasting began in the west, past the great river. Your key is to go just to far, and no farther.

Now came the real head-scratching. I knew that the clue about how broadcasting began referred to the letter K from a summer living in Alton, Illinois: I could get to the great river by walking about a mile, and I was perplexed to hear radio stations whose call signs started with both W and K. (The Frank Herbert quote is also a clue to the letter K, if a bit more obtuse.) The question: what to do with the letter K?

I scoured the Museum of American History's Popular Entertainment collection about a dozen times for something that seemed likely. I was particularly taken with Kermit the Frog for a while--it started with K, so it had to be the correct answer, right? But the answer wasn't Kermit, or Seinfeld's puffy shirt, or any of the dozen '60s lunch boxes in the museum's collection. Nor was the answer "KDKA," the easternmost radio station with a K--- call sign.

I gave up for a moment; this was one of only three puzzles that I had to leave and come back to because I was genuinely stuck. Even the approach seemed wrong: Hope Diamond hadn't needed any a priori knowledge of what was in the museum, and Ken Jennings had told us that we should never need to guess, and each puzzle was designed to tell us the right answer, letter by letter.

While walking through Berkeley later that day, a brilliant idea hit me basically out of nowhere: what if I needed to take "key" more literally? As soon as I got home, I pulled out my key to the cipher, encoded the string "ABCDEFGHIJK"... and got "GLHMJANOPFI" back out, clearly garbage. On the other hand, when I decoded the same string, I got "FONZSJACKET," or "Fonz's jacket," the correct answer. Having never watched an episode of Happy Days, this one was less immediately significant to me (and likely to a lot of my fellow Millennials solving the puzzle), but it's still a pretty cool piece of TV history.

What I learned about American history: entirely accidentally (and red herring-ly) a whole lot about the early history of radio broadcast in the US.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Great American History Puzzle: Puzzle 1

About a month ago, Ken Jennings (of Jeopardy fame) and Smithsonian Magazine (of museum fame) began the Great American History Puzzle, a month-long online puzzle hunt with an American history theme. Given my newfound love of the puzzle hunt and my longtime Ken Jennings fandom, I knew I had to participate.

Here's my recap of the puzzle, including all the stupid things I tried along the way, the eventual solution and how I arrived at it, and whether I learned anything awesome about American history from each one (usually yes). Obviously, this series of posts contains spoilers, so read at your own risk if you haven't finished the puzzle yet and still want to on your own.

Cover puzzle

The first step was to buy a copy of the magazine and get to decoding a secret message. "Consult Jefferson's greatest creation," we were told, to decipher the message, a series of paired numbers in the form (x-y). Wondering if "Jefferson's greatest creation" was a well-known phrase that I was supposed to recognize, I Googled it. One thing led to another, and eventually I started reading all about the wheel cypher, or Jefferson disk. Yes, I thought, this makes sense because we're solving a cipher. But the more I tried, the less I could make the puzzle code fit the form of a Jefferson disk.

After again consulting the Wikipedia page for Thomas Jefferson, I decided I was perhaps making the puzzle too difficult. To an average American, Thomas Jefferson's greatest creation wouldn't be an obscure (though advanced for its time) cryptographic tool, it would be the Declaration of Independence. Even better, the Declaration begins with "When" and ends with "Honor," another of the puzzle's clues. Converting each number pair to a letter, where x was the number of the word in the Declaration and y was the number of the letter in the word (so 5-2 meant the second letter of the fifth word, and so on) gave the complete decoded message:

Famous last words will help you trace the hidden American icon on this magazine's cover. The Bible verse on the icon leads to two page numbers. Read the red characters there backwards to uncover the password.

I searched for Jefferson's last words to no avail: they're commonly purported to be something along the lines of "it is the Fourth" or "is it the Fourth of July?" but no two sources seemed to agree. The search did turn up a related set of last words: John Adams', which were "Thomas Jefferson survives." Tracing those letters on the magazine cover gave an outline of the Liberty Bell. From there, a quick search for "Liberty Bell Bible verse" pointed to Leviticus 25:10, and the red characters on pages 25 and 10 of of the magazine, taken backwards, spelled out "1NATION," the first password.

In fact, before I decoded the message, I did notice conspicuous red characters on a few of the pages of the magazine. It would have been tough to brute-force the answer based solely on those red numbers and letters, but it may have been possible for an especially motivated puzzler.

Though this wasn't one of the hunt's more difficult puzzles, it was one of the more involved, sending me from the magazine to the Declaration of Independence, then to a search for famous last words, back to the magazine, to the Liberty Bell, and finally to the magazine for a third time. That complexity allowed for a few cool American history tidbits, including the Bible verse on the Liberty Bell and Jefferson's hobby as a cryptographer.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

D&D Encounters: Council of Spiders

I was incorrect when I called the last season of D&D Encounters "the Drow Season". That moniker should have been reserved for this season, the drow-iest thing that Wizards possibly could have conceived. As a sort of sequel to Web of the Spider Queen, Council of Spiders had us take a look at the same events and conflict from the other side. It was actually a nice storytelling move, tying two seasons of Encounters together with the same plot thread, and it gave both seasons a narrative consistency unprecedented in Encounters so far.

It also called for the characters all to play as drow.

My Character

Okay, playing as a drow wasn't per se required. We could have also played as one of the drow "servitor" races--svirfneblin, goblin, duergar, and the like. But I wasn't about to mess around with any of that. If we were playing a drow campaign, it was time to go big or go home and play my first drow character ever. Striker was the next role in my character rotation, and obviously the drow aren't well-suited to be the sort of striker that swings around a massive two-handed greatsword. Plus, it was whispered that this season was going to be a bit more roleplaying-heavy than the recent seasons. I decided to go with a rogue, a stealthy character just as comfortable her stabbing enemies in the back as sneaking around and stealing treasure or secrets.

Ilivara Melarn, I decided, would be the daughter of Garam Melarn, a great captain who slew many elves in the wars a hundred years ago. A female of the noble House Melarn, she was originally intended for the priesthood, but (as the proud owner of 8 Wisdom) she was pretty terrible at it, decided to enroll in Melee-Magthere, and followed in her father's martial footsteps. She had a bit of an authority problem, thinking that being a female of noble blood, she should be in control of every situation, and she pointedly acted in the interests of her House, even if it meant going against the rest of the party.

And, I have to admit, I really enjoyed playing her. She did insane amounts of damage, befitting her role as a 4E striker. She didn't get to steal as many things as I might have liked, but it was a lot of fun to act out her sass and rebellious streak. And it was hilarious to be able to play up every drow stereotype that exists, a chance I haven't gotten often but really dug into with some delightful irony. Even if we're enjoying the game ironically, we're still enjoying it!

The Season

It was a short season, only eight sessions instead of the usual eleven to thirteen, but it didn't feel like much was missing. By now, every Encounters player has gone through the levels-1-through-3 motions enough times that it seems routine if not necessarily stale. Rather than padding an eight-session story with extraneous encounters to bring it up to "normal" length, this season told a faster-paced (if slightly shorter) story, and it worked out well.

Definitely the most original and fun part of Council of Spiders was the "secret orders" mechanic. New to Encounters, these orders came up as part of which of three factions each character decided to align himself (or herself!) with. The secret orders led to a lot of chicanery among the party, and our DM was kind enough to provide us with "skullduggery" index cards where we could write actions unseen by the rest of the table and accomplish our goals unbeknownst to anyone else.

The combat encounters were pretty unremarkable, but it's worth pointing out that unlike many seasons, Council of Spiders had a pure-roleplaying session, when our characters were trying to convince the eponymous Council of the right course of action toward the end of the season. It was a refreshing change from the pure-combat nature of most Encounters seasons, but at the same time, it felt unorganized, an obvious departure from the style of the system. Those obvious departures are only going to become more frequent next season, as Encounters clearly gears up for a full-blown transition to D&D Next.

Final Thoughs (and Outlook)

It wouldn't be too dramatic to say that the drow arc of Encounters (spanning last season, this one, and next season) is the beginning of the end of 4th Edition. We're seeing the freest experimentation with the format in Encounters' history coupled with a storyline that purports to create actual permanent change in D&D's most iconic campaign setting. These three seasons have been devoid of any new "crunch" content for new character classes, races, or anything else. All of that put together suggests that the times are changing in Encounters. It's exciting to be part of it.

Given that the days of 4E Encounters might be numbered, I'm taking the opportunity to make a change of my own: I'll be DMing the next season! I've DM'ed exactly one session of 4th Edition, and that was about four years ago. Next season, War of Everlasting Darkness (yep, it's actually called that), promises to feature the "exploration" and "interaction" pillars of D&D in equal measure with "combat," which sounds like exactly my thing.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Board Game Design: Identifying Multiple Paths to Victory (Part II)

In Part I we reviewed some multifarious victory conditions in board games, specifically victory conditions that complemented one another and allowed for a deeper strategy as players attempt to achieve victory.

As a quick summary, we assessed three primary conditions often used in board game design that allow for overlap and multiple paths to victory:
  • Tactical Victory - The Tactical Victory path often utilizes a map and offers an opportunity to win in a war of attrition (Having the last pieces on the board in checkers) or by achieving a high standard control over the board (Running your opponents out of business in Monopoly or capturing your opponent’s flag in Stratego).
  • Set Collection - The set collection mechanic can consist of either a carefully orchestrated set of requirements (Completion of each category in Trivial Pursuit and collecting all the different colored wedges) or an agglomeration of sorts (The frantic collection and redistribution of the right cards to teammates in Pandemic)
  • Hourglass Victory - In Part I we identified the Hourglass victory as a means to bring a tightly contested game to conclusion, often consisting of a turn limit or an inevitable achievement that a player will make within a designed duration the game is intended to last.
In Part II we will take a look at the first of two games that utilize all three conditions and examine the differences in the application of each victory condition.

Rarely  have the opportunity to enjoy a game as finely crafted for a specific player count as End of the Triumvirate. Designed and balanced ideally for three players, it has often been described as “A knife fight in a phone booth” and its description does not disappoint. End of the Triumvirate is always fiercely contested until the end and by structural design does not suffer from runaway leader syndrome or the complementary apathetic loser syndrome.

End of the Triumvirate consists of each of our predefined victory conditions: a militaristic dissection of a map of the Roman Empire, a scale of military & political prowess and an annual Roman Senate election of which a player attempts to win twice over the course of the game.

In every design I've ever worked on I've found that it takes more than to develop great mechanics, adding an interesting theme or making players feel empowered. A game needs tension. The easiest way to do that always seems to be "add a map".

The End of the Triumvirate has a very well defined map that as one my expect takes up the majority of the game board as well as the majority of the game play. Consisting of 15 provinces, the Roman Empire is separated during set-up and each player begins with 5 provinces. Players lead large armies around the board gathering additional provinces and gold using a limited quantity of action points each turn.

Over the coarse of the game, provinces change hands many times and empires rise and fall. In order to achieve the tactical victory, a player must control 9 of the 15 territories during their turn. I have rarely seen this achieved and although it is certainly possible, it requires one of the three players to nearly bow out of the tactical victory condition entirely. When I have seen it achieved, often one or both of the other players are about to win using another victory condition in their very next turn; a wonderful sign of an intensely competitive game.

Our second victory condition for examination is the Senate election. Depending on how players plan out their turns, they may use their gold in order to persuade influence in the Senate. This can involve moving (yellow) unaligned citizens into their section of the forum or out of an opponents forum and back into the unaligned section. After each player has made two or three turns, the player with the most influence wins the election and their citizens are "reset" for the next election.

After winning one Senate election, a player can win the game by either winning another election or by positioning six citizens in their forum. This is the hourglass victory condition of The End of the Triumvirate. No matter how the game has played out, the game will not last more than four elections, and would only reach that point if all three players are active in the Senate. The majority of games I have participated in have ended with the third or fourth election delivering victory for a particularly politically active player, and it is a neat method to ensure a timely finish without a confusing turn limit (I'm occasionally left underwhelmed when a game ends after X number of turns without any really thematic reason).

The End of the Triumvirate offers two competence tracks in the subjects of military and political mastery. These function surprisingly well as mechanics to demonstrate the power advantage of someone who chooses to specialize and the competence tracks also allow for deeper player interaction.

Players have the ability to advance their abilities at their discretion which strengthens their actions and more importantly increases the costs of their opponents. For instance if I advance my position to "III" on the political competence my opponents behind me at "II"  or "I" must pay two extra gold in order to move citizens around in the Senate. Alternatively they can match my level or exceed it in order to remove this additional cost. The competence track adds an interesting additional element in order to assist players who are really pushing for a tactical victory or political victory in order to "protect their lead" by essentially placing bananas behind them on the final lap of a race in Mario Kart. Naturally as players attempt to outperform one another in competence, they spur this set collection victory condition to completion by reaching level "VII" in both competences.

The End of the Triumvirate offers three very diverse ways to seek victory but all three intertwined with the actions a player makes. In Part III we'll take a look at an old favorite that is entirely overlooked for its design brilliance and we'll see very quickly how it fits into our design analysis of diverse paths to victory.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

October Game of the Month: Anomia

After the conclusion of last Saturday's mini-puzzlehunt, we wanted to play a game that we could all participate in. Someone suggested Anomia, a quick party-friendly card game. I had never played before, but I enjoyed it enough to make it October's Game of the Month.

Style and Gameplay

Anomia is a word-association game with a card-collection mechanic. Each card is printed with the name of a category (such as "TV shows" or "cleaning products") and a symbol (for instance, a yellow diamond or a purple wavy line). On your turn, you flip over a card from a central deck and put it face-up in front of you. The next person draws the next card and so on, until two players have face-up cards with the same symbol.

That triggers a "face-off" between the two players: the first person to name an item that fits into the other person's category wins, takes the card, and gets a point. For example, say I'm showing the card "US presidents" with a blue pound sign, and you flip the card "lakes" with a blue pound sign. If you say "Thomas Jefferson" before I say "Superior," you take my card and get a point. There are a few more rules about cascading face-offs and wild cards, but that's the basic gist.

Once the entire deck has been run through, the game is over. Each game lasts only about 20 or 30 minutes, so it's easy to play multiple games. It works especially well to play two or three games each using a different deck so the decks don't get "stale".

The most obvious stylistic comparison to Anomia is Scattergories, another word-oriented game that involves quickly and creatively putting objects into categories. There's a memory-game component to Anomia as well: the more of the board state you've committed to memory, the better chance you'll have of reacting to a face-off trigger. And there's even a hint of Fluxx, as you might have to act off your turn, and the rules can change dramatically without any warning.

Something non-obvious that Anomia does well is that even though it claims to support 3-6 players, we played with 7, and it worked just fine. Possibly even more than the 4-to-5 player threshold, 6-to-7 players is a line that board games don't often cross. Aside from the awesome 7 Wonders, Anomia is one of the few games I've played recently that supports seven players and doesn't lose anything.

Analysis and Anecdotes

There isn't much "strategy" around in Anomia, but that's not the same thing as saying there's no skill. Being good at Anomia definitely requires being skilled at word-association and having a fast mental reaction time, and a little outside-the-box thinking doesn't hurt either. About the only strategy that works is to immediately shout out an answer when a face-off triggers, even if it's based on an incomplete or altogether incorrect reading of a card. Probably the most hilarious moment in our game came when the card "condiment" was drawn... and I gleefully shouted "Asia!", having misread it as "continent". I was assured there's no penalty for it, other than shame--and shameful it was.

Most of the categories are pretty well-designed, requiring a second or two of thought before someone nails it. Some of them, though, are so narrow they're difficult. We were playing with a rule that a given answer could only satisfy a category once, even across multiple games. After "Grand" and perhaps "Bryce," how many "famous canyons" are there?

But by far the most interesting categories were so broad they were difficult to solve. "First name" should be trivially easy--everyone has one--but Claire and I both stared at the card in horror for at least three seconds before she realized she could just say "Claire". Even worse was "noun," which might as well be a Saturday Night Live Celebrity Jeopardy category, and still took several seconds for an answer to come out.

The biggest drawback to Anomia is its replayability. Any given session of Anomia is realistically limited by the number of cards you have--once you've seen them all once or maybe twice, it's time to move on to a different game. And it's not the sort of game you can play every night and have it feel different every time--the mechanics and cards are always the same. Where the game does feel different is when it's played with different people, who might be able to give a hilarious or insightful answer you've never heard before.

Overall Impressions

Anomia excels in having incredibly simple rules that lead to fast-paced and amusing situations. It's light on optimization decisions or classic strategy, but it's a nice change of pace from Euro-style games and manages to test skills that the "heavier" strategy board games often ignore. Anomia is also a rare game that lasts exactly as long as it claims to last (or even clocks in slightly shorter) and that you get excited about the idea of playing again once you've finished your first game.

The replayability issue probably prevents Anomia from being the sort of game that you play at every weekly game night with the same group of people and have it stay engaging. But as a game to get to know people, as an occasional "palate-cleanser" between deep-strategy board games, or at a party/with family/with friends who aren't necessarily avid gamers, Anomia can be a whole lot of fun.

3-6 players, 20-30 minutes, $16 at a game shop or $13 on Amazon.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Puzzle Hunt Debrief: Cultists of Cthulhu (Part 2)

Be sure to read Part 1 if you haven't already! I'll pick up from yesterday's post and describe the second half of the puzzlehunt.

Puzzle 4: "Power Word Chores"

Like I mentioned, when we first started the hunt, we didn't quite understand how the meta puzzle worked or how the smaller puzzles fit together. When we deciphered "ill," we weren't sure if maybe it was a clue to the location to the next puzzle. "Where would you go if you were ill?" "The medicine cabinet?" There wasn't anything in the medicine cabinet except a box of Benadryl and a handful of bandages, so we started turning the place upside down. Nothing in the shower curtain, ditto for the linen closet. "Maybe if you're really ill, you go to the toilet?" And to our vast surprise, there was a puzzle taped to the bottom of the tank's lid.

We felt less bad about "brute-forcing" this one, because only a few minutes after we found the puzzle, we found the clue that should have led us there. Written on a chalkboard in the hallway was "Tanked? Use the toilet down the hall."

It was pretty obvious from the puzzle's wording that it had something to do with Dungeons and Dragons, and having spent basically every weekend of my undergrad career playing D&D, I quickly took the lead on this one. There was a list of "chores" that some wizard had assigned to us in pairs, and most of the chore names were distinctive enough that I recognized them immediately as wizard spells from the old version 3.5 of D&D. I pulled some D&D rulebooks off the shelf and wrote down pertinent information--page number, spell "level," school of magic--for each one.

After staring at that information for a while, I got a minor hint from Lauren, who assured me that the spell levels were important, and that there was a code involved, but a really easy one. I finally saw it after a bit of trial and error: all it took was adding the spell level of each pair, which conveniently gave five numbers between 1 and 26. I converted each number to a letter, which spelled out "gnome," the solution to the puzzle.

Having such extensive D&D experience definitely helped in this puzzle because I knew where to look in the rulebooks and what information might be pertinent. Given the circle of people who might be puzzlehunting, someone knowing a lot about D&D was a pretty fair assumption anyway. Of course, it would have been possible to complete the puzzle without any D&D experience at all, but it would have been a bit tougher or at least time-consuming.

Puzzle 5: "Sticky Situation"

Although we got a head start on this one by misinterpreting the "It starts you up" clue, we figured out the real clue too. One of the clues we got to start was a few words written in a weird loopy language that looked somewhere between Hebrew and Georgian. It turned out, naturally, to be Elvish, specifically Quenya (though there was some thought at first that maybe we were dealing with Sindarin.) We grabbed Joe and Lauren's three copies of The Lord of the Rings and got to translating. Quenya to English wasn't trivial, particularly because the vowels in the Elvish languages are a little ambiguous, and constructing a double vowel is nearly impossible. But we got the message quickly enough: "drink more tea."

The clue in the tea cabinet contained six pieces of origami paper with numbers and words written on them, directions for how to make origami rabbits, and the instruction "contacting the primal rabbit is difficult." Making the rabbits wasn't too difficult, and we knew modular origami when we saw it, but the tricky part was figuring out how to fit (or "stick," going off the puzzle's theme) everything together. We got the hint that the number six should inform what shape we were supposed to make, which we interpreted as a cube. Also, there were numbers on some of the modules, and the hint "primal rabbit" pointed us in the direction of matching up the modules such that when two numbers overlapped, they added up to a prime number.

We became convinced that there were multiple configurations that would have satisfied that condition, but Lauren assured us there was one unique solution, and we eventually found it after a few iterations. The last part of the puzzle was to examine the words at each vertex (except for one blank vertex) of the cube, identify a letter in common among all the words at the vertex, and finally unscramble those letters to form one last word: "paste," another clever call-back to the puzzle's name. It took a few hints, but this one was satisfying because we worked all the way from the first clue to the solution without accidentally skipping a step or needing a major hint.

Puzzle 6: "The Story So Far"

Our third clue that we got at the very beginning of the hunt was a blank sheet of paper. There was clearly something written on it, but the invisible ink was invisible enough that we couldn't tell exactly what it said. We knew that the most basic invisible inks are written with acid, often lemon juice, and developed under heat. So we found and lit a candle, held our note over it, and watched the message "what wrote me?" appear. Easy: lemon juice! We found a lemon, put it on the table... and stared at it intermittently over the next hour.

Eventually, we got a pity clue from Joe and Lauren's roommate: "real lemons are for chumps." We went back to the kitchen and got a bottle of lemon juice from the fridge, which had the next puzzle rolled up inside it. The puzzle was a series of vignettes featuring characters and monsters from the board game Arkham Horror, a favorite of Joe and Lauren's. Each story contained one character, one monster, and one attribute, which we were supposed to match up on the board game's character sheets and find a hidden message. Unfortunately, there were a couple of typos in the puzzle that rendered it basically unsolvable.

It was still a really nice idea for a puzzle, and it was balanced well between clever references to the game (which would have been even more entertaining for people familiar with the game) and mechanics that would have been possible to solve even for people who had never seen the game before. Much like the D&D puzzle, knowledge of Arkham Horror would have helped but wouldn't have been necessary. But as soon as Lauren figured out that we probably couldn't solve the puzzle as written, she advised us to work on the meta-puzzle, which we already had enough information to solve.

Meta-puzzle: The Elder Sign

Once we realized that we no longer needed the "tank" clue from the chalkboard, we erased it and wrote our answers to the individual puzzles: "he," "moon," and so on. We stared at it for a few minutes and eventually figured out that we were supposed to combine the nth letter from the nth puzzle answer to form a word: the "h" from "he," the "o" from "moon," and so on. It spelled "HOLME_," and given that we were solving clues, it wasn't much of a logical leap to assume that the 6th letter from the 6th puzzle answer was an "s".

Telling the password "Holmes" to Lauren and Joe, we got the final clue: four number-cardinal direction pairs and instruction to begin at the top of the stairs. From here, it was basically a formality to finish out the puzzle. We started at the top of the outside stairs, walked the given number of paces in each direction around the house, and ended up in a corner of the porch. Under the porch at that spot was the Elder Sign, the seal we needed to banish Cthulhu for good.

My only criticism of this part of the hunt was that giving the password to Lauren and Joe in exchange for the last clue felt a little artificial in a game that otherwise had an excellent sense of verisimilitude. Perhaps we could have been given a cipher that matched up each letter of the alphabet with a direction-number pair, and only by mapping "Holmes" to the cipher would we have had any idea which of those direction-number pairs we actually needed. But it's only a minor complaint, and it didn't make the end of the game any less exciting.

Overall Impressions

Wow, this was fun. The best part of the game (and of well-designed puzzlehunts in general) was that any problem-solving skill you could think of was relevant and useful. Terrible at mathematical ciphers (like I am)? No problem, just work on the lateral thinking puzzle. Concrete spatial puzzles more your thing than abstract linguistic ones? There's call for that too. It wasn't even necessary for every member of the team to have a puzzle-solving "specialty". It's always rewarding to have one of your suggestions end up contributing to a puzzle's solution, regardless of whether it was a reasoned attempt to understand the puzzle's mechanics or simply an off-the-wall hypothetical.

In addition to everyone being able to contribute, the team-based aspect of the puzzlehunt helped everyone work together and get to know each other. I'm notoriously wary of the "here's a bunch of people who already know each other; go make friends with them" social setting, but given that we were all trying to help each other accomplish the same thing, it felt much more collaborative than awkward. Lauren liked the team collaboration for a different reason. Some of the larger puzzlehunts she'd been to (MIT's Mystery Hunt particular) had some hyper-competitive teams that cared far more about winning than about solving the puzzles.

For instance, instead of working through the Caesar cipher, one of these hyper-competitive teams might estimate the length of time it would take to try every combination to the padlock. If it would take less time to try every combination than it would to solve an average puzzle, they would assign one guy to brute-force the lock while everyone else moved their brainpower to a different puzzle. That might be the optimal method if you're actively trying to "win," but it goes against the spirit of the hunt just a little. For the smaller, cozier environment we were puzzling in, solving the puzzles was an end in itself, and that was much more rewarding for both us and the puzzles' creators.

Lauren's criticism of her own puzzlehunt was that she felt a little segregated from us--it was a fun excuse to have a bunch of friends over, but at the same time she couldn't really hang out with us. We brainstormed a few ways to fix that issue, including an interview or "interrogation" puzzle, a "prisoner rescue" scenario, or a game of cards or dice or chess where a clue was embedded in the game pieces.

Since my first puzzlehunt was so enjoyable, I'll definitely try to do more in the future, including the Berkeley one next year. I'd highly recommend participating yourself if this sounds like your scene, and let me know if you're interested in puzzlehunting in the Berkeley area.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Puzzle Hunt Debrief: Cultists of Cthulhu (Part 1 of 2)

My friends Joe and Lauren first introduced me to the concept of the puzzlehunt a few months ago, and it seemed like a ton of fun. I hadn't been able to participate in one (this is apparently the "off season") until Joe and Lauren decided to host a mini-hunt at their house. The hunt happened last Saturday, and the rules were simple. Each puzzle was "open anything you want"--unlike pub trivia, the internet is completely fair game--but the necessary components to solve the puzzles were all present in the house.

The "theme" of the hunt was the Cthulhu mythos. Joe and Lauren are big fantasy/roleplaying/board-gaming fans in general, and fantasy-horror is one of their favorite genres. I'm not as up on Cthulhu as they are, which they assured me was totally okay; the worst that would happen was that I might miss a joke or two. Once everyone had arrived, we got a little back story: some cultists had tried to summon Cthulhu in Joe and Lauren's house. The cultists had been driven off, but some of their magics lingered still, and it was necessary to uncover a seal hidden somewhere in the house to completely cleanse the place of Cthulhu's taint.

Some of the rooms has been "sealed" already (roommates' bedrooms), and those were off-limits, but everything in the house was fair game. And it was decorated superbly: red streamers hung on the walls to suggest dripping blood, and we had a pan of "red herring" cupcakes to enjoy when the puzzles were getting the better of us. We were presented with a folder containing three clues and a useful translation guide for converting between various representations of letters, including numbers, Morse code, and (my personal favorite) semaphore. With that, the hunt was on! (It's important to note that we didn't actually understand the structure of the puzzles at first, but it makes more sense to organize the debrief by puzzle than by the chronological order of what we actually worked on.)

Puzzle 1: "The Evidence Against Him"

One conspicuous feature of the room was a plastic crate, chained and padlocked closed. The padlock, no pedestrian numerical lock, had four wheels, each with twelve letters, so it was obvious we needed a four-letter "word" to unlock it. The crate had a clue on top: "Julius would, it is said, sigh for play by the sea." The name Julius immediately struck us as significant; it's an uncommon enough name that it can only refer to a few things, and given that there were no orange drinks or basketball fans around, we narrowed it down to Julius Caesar pretty quickly.

The other part of the clue that jumped out was "sigh for play," which is just ungrammatical enough to draw attention. Our first inclination, which turned out to be totally incorrect, was to connect Julius Caesar with "play" and assume the puzzle was talking about Shakespeare, where"play by the sea" could refer to The Tempest. In a delightful coincidence, there happened to be a Shakespeare compilation on the bookshelf, though after opening to Julius Caesar and The Tempest and seeing nothing, we figured we were probably on the wrong track.

Eventually, after letting old Julius sit around for a while, someone tried saying the clue out loud, exactly like it suggested. Phonetically, "sigh for play by the sea" is a bit like "cipher 'play' by the [letter] C". Cryptography is not my strong suit, but fortunately the other puzzlers knew that a Caesar cipher is a simple cryptographic method. (Even if nobody had known that, another book sitting in the bookshelf would have described the cipher in more detail.) Encoding "play" by assigning "A" to "C" and so on gave "RNCA", the combination to the lock.

But that was only half the puzzle. Inside the crate was a cooler, and inside the cooler, there were five numbered "drug samples" (actually diluted apple juice) and five numbered baby shoes. The puzzle text instructed us that the prosecution had built a "truly strong" set of exhibits against one of the cultists, but it's possible he was "falsely hooked" into the whole business. We stared at the "drug samples" for a long time. We had (jokingly) suggested a while back that maybe we needed to drink the sample, but only resorted to it when Lauren asked us why we never followed through with our idea.

It turned out that two of the samples, the "truly strong" ones, were diluted not with water but with vodka. And four of the shoes used Velcro (a bunch of tiny hooks) to fasten. We assigned "true" to the vodka samples and "false" to the Velcro shoes, and after some serious prodding by Joe, eventually converted our "trues" and "falses" to binary and the binary to the corresponding letters. The letters spelled "he," the answer to the first puzzle.

Although the cryptography wasn't anything I necessarily would have picked up on, and putting a logical string into binary is surely more obvious to Joe (a PhD student in math) than to me, this was a really well-designed puzzle. The aesthetic of opening the padlock and having the chain crash to the floor was one of the most rewarding parts of the entire hunt.

Puzzle 2: "Party Atmosphere"

One of the clues we got at the very beginning was "It starts you up." "Okay, a key starts an engine--are there any keys around here?" Nope. "How about an alarm clock?" Nope. "Maybe it's just telling us to go upstairs?" We looked around up there for a while and actually did find a clue! But it wasn't the one we were supposed to find (more on this later). "Joe and Lauren drink a lot of tea, so how about we raid their tea cabinet?" Another clue! Also the wrong one. So "It starts you up" also sat around for a while.

A few hours later, Lauren brought her laptop into the living room where we were working. "My roommate is going to flip out if she has to listen to Sinatra for another two hours," she explained, and it was true--there had been a steady stream of Sinatra (and other contemporaneous crooners) playing since we'd started the hunt. But rather than simply stopping the music, Lauren chose to relocate it, which we took as a pretty big hint. We finally started listening, and noticed that each one of the songs had something to do with the moon--"Moon River," "Moonlight Serenade," and so on.

So we identified that "moon" was probably the answer to one of the puzzles, but we had no idea which one. Eventually our benevolent hosts relented and told us that we'd solved puzzle 2. It was obvious that "It starts you up" somehow led to "moon," but we had no idea how we were supposed to have gotten there.

After the hunt was over, we asked what "It starts you up" was supposed to have meant. We came closest with the stair idea but weren't being literal enough on the first part of the clue. "It starts you up" was intended to point us to the first stair, underneath which was taped the clue "you never listen."

Puzzle 3: "The Cure"

The puzzle we found upstairs when misinterpreting "It starts you up" was three mini jigsaw puzzles along with the clue "there's no missing pieces to my diagnosis." Two things became abundantly obvious as we put the puzzles together: there were in fact missing pieces, and the puzzles were going to reveal pictures of red herrings. Knowing full well that we might be wasting our time, we decided to put the puzzles together anyway because it was fun.

Upon finishing the puzzles, we had pictures of one, two, and three red herrings, with puzzle pieces worth of the letters "I", "L", and "L" missing, so the answer to the puzzle was "ill". The real question: how were we supposed to have gotten to the puzzle in the first place? The answer lay in the blood-dripping streamers. To our credit, we did have the idea that maybe something was written on the streamers, but we never thought that the streamers themselves spelled out a message. Taking a closer look, they weren't arranged at random heights (like we thought) but at exactly two heights, meant to represent the dots and dashes in Morse code. (Always Morse code.) The "blood" spelled out "Upstairs small cabinet" or something to that effect.

Given the spirit of the puzzle hunt, I feel a little bad about brute-forcing this one so thoroughly yet accidentally, but once we convinced ourselves that the streamers were mere decoration, we could have spent many hours looking at them before getting the idea to decode them. The puzzle itself was probably the most straightforward we encountered: put a jigsaw puzzle into a puzzle hunt, and clearly anyone's first instinct is to piece it together.

Check out the conclusion to the hunt in Part 2!