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!