Skirmos: Open Source Laser Tag

I was Googling “laser tag” the other day, trying to find somewhere local to play, and the link for something called Skirmos: Open Source Laser Tag came up in the results.  It turned out to be a Kickstarter-funded, Arduino-based laser tag gun, and it looks pretty sweet!

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The gun has lots of cool features, including:

  • Glowing LED lights inside
  • LCD screen that shows important info and stats
  • Rumble vibration
  • MP3/Wave sound card

And the open source part means that you can program the guns however you like, making your own play modes, setting certain constraints, and probably a whole bunch of other stuff. I don’t know much about Arduino, but I would assume that the options are pretty much limitless for creative gameplay incorporating other Arduino devices. This photo on the Skirmos Flickr stream of a player capturing an objective from an object in the environment seems to confirm that idea.

The project saw a successful Kickstarter campaign, drawing in 165% of their $60k goal for a total of just under $100k. This put the team just under their first stretch goal, which will hopefully mean a very well-developed basic product.

The Kickstarter is over, but the guns are currently available for pre-order at a price of $132.99 per system in US and Canada (International is a bit higher). This includes one gun, an SD card, USB cable, and 3 pre-programmed game modes. You can pre-order sets of 1, 2, 4, or 8 systems with slight discounts for the higher quantities. Systems are slated to ship in December 2014.

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My local laser tag club uses the “Lazer Tag” style guns by Nerf, Tiger, and Hasbro, which come in a 2-pack via Amazon for about $70. If these models are the standard, the Skirmos system might be a bit out of range for the average laser tag enthusiast. But the potential for unique custom gameplay through Arduino, the added functionality of the display screen, and the cool factor of the gun’s visual design should certainly make it appealing to more hardcore fans. The team also recently announced their work on a “pro” model specifically tailored for traditional laser tag arenas.

I have to say, I’m pretty tempted to just drop $1k on a set of 8 guns so I could play awesome custom laser tag whenever I wanted! Though I suppose I’d need 7 friends and a place to play first… In any case, I’m excited to see the future of Skirmos, and I hope it sees a lot of success and widespread adoption.

MIT Mystery Hunt 2014 Recap – Part 4

At long (LONG) last, here is the final installment of my 2014 MIT Mystery Hunt Recap. Keeping in mind that I only have the 2013 hunt to compare to, let me list some of my pros/cons about 2014.

Things I particularly liked about this year’s Mystery Hunt:

  • Smoothness – Everything seemed to be run extremely smoothly. The event started promptly (almost too promptly!), and there seemed to be very few hiccups.
  • Quality of Puzzles – I’m not the best judge of puzzle quality, but they seemed pretty darned good.
  • Funny Puzzles – I was crying laughing as we worked through The Most Dangerous Night.
  • Go-sees – There were so many puzzles that sent us around campus doing things. I did as many as possible and had a great time. For events like this, I’m of the opinion that the more stuff there is that requires you to be there in person, the better.
  • Pre-Kickoff – I never experienced kickoff in Lobby 7, so I’m free from all nostalgia bias. I really liked the atmosphere in the auditorium before the kickoff started. It was nice that there seemed to be plenty of space outside the auditorium to mingle with friends from other teams, and the music playing in the auditorium made it feel exciting somehow.
  • Pretty much everything!

There were a few things I disliked a bit about this year’s Mystery Hunt:

  • Story – I know the hunt was based around a piece of literature, so I feel a little silly saying that I thought the narrative elements of the hunt were too wordy. The last thing I wanted to do when I opened an exciting new batch of puzzles (especially the first batch!) was read a wall of text. On top of that, being apparently unfamiliar with a lot of Alice and Wonderland characters and plot elements, I found it a bit tough to keep the rounds clear in my head and understand what was going on. I felt like last year’s hunt was much easier to understand at a glance. (Then again, I guess being confused/overwhelmed fits with the Wonderland theme!)
  • Event(s) – I only went to one event this year, Cards Against Humanity, which turned out to essentially be “mandatory fun” until enough time had passed and a solution phrase was handed out. After last year’s enigmatic casino game/puzzle and exciting Thomas Crown recreation, sitting and playing a card game I don’t really like, with a lot of references I didn’t get, with no stakes whatsoever was a bit of a bummer. I can understand the sentiment of wanting teams to unwind and have fun, but I don’t think it needed to feel so disconnected from the rest of the hunt as to make me feel like I was wasting time and energy. The CAH concept itself was really cute, and the cards themselves seemed like a great platform for a puzzle, so I was actually pretty disappointed when there was nothing there to solve. I heard great things about the other events, so I guess I’m just complaining about this one.
  • Character Interactions – Again, I only did one character meet-up for this hunt, so I can’t speak for the rest, but it essentially boiled down to standing and listening to a character talk until they said the Phrase That Pays. I think when I go do a special investigation or interaction like that in a hunt, I hope to have a fun story to tell my teammates when I get back, not just “The character said some weird stuff, and then told us the answer is xyz.”

Although I thought these areas were the weaker elements of the hunt, I know that these types of things definitely take a back seat to solid puzzle development and running the hunt smoothly. They just happen to be the types of things I really like in a puzzle hunt, so I’m going to be more critical of them than the actual puzzles.

There were also some differences in my personal hunt experience compared to last year. Most noticeably, my energy levels were totally unpredictable. I think this was due to the pacing of the hunt and the types of activities I did. This year, I seemed to go on a lot of errands around campus, starting very early in the day on Friday. By Friday night, I was already feeling exhausted and wondering how I was going to make it for the rest of the hunt. Unlike last year’s hunt, however, this year’s hunt had a lot of peaks and valleys in our team activity and progress, so there was always something around the corner to provide an energy boost. Last year was more of a continuous steady stream of mild energy (as we struggled through the slog of tough puzzles), while this year had a lot of highs and lows.

One more thought on all of those errand activities I did. Since we moved to the West coast last year, I’ve been wondering if I should start joining the remote team in California instead of flying all the way out to Boston. They have comfy-looking furniture down there, and lots of food and snacks, and seem to always be having a good time (solving our puzzles out from under us). But I think I realized this year just how much I like doing the tasks that require running around campus, and how the puzzles and puzzle-solving aren’t that important to me. It feels worth flying out to Boston for the stuff I like, but I’m not sure it feels even worth flying down to Los Altos if I only get to do the puzzles.

As I mentioned, we had some team discussion after the hunt about our thoughts on winning, now that it seems like a very real possibility for us. As I’m sure is the case with most teams, there were a lot of mixed opinions on the subject. I’m not sure how I feel about it myself, but I couldn’t seem to stop coming up with puzzle, theme, and event ideas during my flight back. We’re one of the smaller teams out there, but we’ve got some serious puzzle writers and event designers on our roster, and I think we would do a fine job.

And now it’s time for the traditional sappy part of my hunt re-cap! I had another awesome time with Left Out and still consider myself crazy lucky to be a part of this team. Everyone is so nice and smart and competent and considerate and awesome and FUNNY. While writing this post, I couldn’t go ten lines through the hangout chat without cracking up, especially during the Runaround. (There is definitely a LOT of value in having half of your team observe remotely and offer snappy remarks intermittently. It’s great for team morale!) It’s awesome to come away from the hunt each year feeling like I am definitely on the best team. The best team! No drama, great solvers, lots of friends, everything is awesome. And this year was even better since we added Phil and Summer to the team!

In closing, I had another pretty great Mystery Hunt six months ago, and I plan on doing it again in another six months. A huge thanks and major props to Alice Shrugged for putting on a fun and practically flawless event.

MIT Mystery Hunt 2014 Recap – Part 3

I woke up from my One Big Sleep at around 6pm on Saturday evening. I saw that I had missed a call from Todd, but a quick look through the Hangout chat seemed to indicate that I hadn’t missed out on anything too important (like, say, a Runaround). I got cleaned up, and used Hangout again (so convenient!) to check on the dinner situation, then headed back over to campus.

I’m reminded as I write this that when I had left for the hotel that morning, it had been pouring down rain. (My socks and shoes were soaked by the time I got to our hotel room.) When I headed back to campus that evening, I saw that the rain had changed over to snow and left an inch or so while I had slept. That was kind of fun, and sure made it seem like I had slept longer!

I got back to headquarters and found everyone pretty occupied by their current puzzles. Todd said he had called to tell me there was a puzzle about Japanese bands. I took a quick glance at it, but it seemed like the West coast had made most of the progress on it already. I kind of floundered around for a bit, trying to find something else to work on, but I was having trouble jumping into anything. Eventually, I ended up back on that Japanese puzzle, called 1! 2! 3! 4! 4649!

I think it would have been really fun to have been a part of the initial a-ha moments of this puzzle, which West had already knocked out. Despite getting a late start, I think being somewhat familiar with Japanese numbers gave me a bit of an advantage as I tried to help West work through the data. I did a little brute-forcing and figured out one key component, and maybe a piece of another? Before too long, we had enough data to extract the answer. It’s nice that even when you aren’t the one to have the big light bulb moment on a puzzle, or even to do most of the data work, you can still help push everyone over the finish line just by being interested with fresh eyes and energy.

(I had some nice entertainment during that puzzle as well, as Summer quizzed Matt for the Eggsam — a challenge which required memorizing a bunch of odd words and their incorrect definitions. Summer would quiz Matt with definitions like “a person who intentionally and illegally destroys property by setting it on fire,” and Matt would respond, earnest and focused, with a word like “organelle.”)

After that solve, I tried to help Matt and Summer work on a puzzle called Top Shelf, but wasn’t really able to add any insight. I noticed some other members trying to Photoshop together the jigsaw puzzle images we were getting from solving puzzles in the latest round, and I thought I could do it more quickly/efficiency with my mad skillz, so I hopped on that task. Shelly also helped me make notes of some important data in the images.

At 11:50pm, our team solved the last meta. The people on our team who had been paying attention to the various metas and flow of the hunt said they pretty much knew that the runaround would be next. Our team captain, Mike, started getting everyone prepared. The atmosphere got very serious and exciting all of a sudden! Mike was telling us what we would need to bring, and what to expect. Ah, I got very excited!

Mike preps the team, I am anxious!

Mike preps the team, I am anxious!

Before long, the Cheshire Cat came to visit our team and take us on the Runaround! She said she would be with us the whole time, in sort of a comforting way, which made it all sound very momentous and quest-like (and maybe somewhat harrowing?).

It's go time!

It’s go time!

We gathered up our things and followed the Cheshire Cat across campus to an auditorium-style room where we met the Queen of Hearts. She was upset about a white wooden bed structure in the middle of the room. She said she had bought it at Wonderkea (cute), but that it was too small, and she needed a Queen-sized bed. She also said she used the headboard to write her dreams (in red dry-erase marker). Finally, she heavily implied that we had the tool to take the bed apart, which was an Allen wrench we had received from one of the characters earlier in the hunt.

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Team Left Out crowded around the bed and inspected the pieces and parts. It seemed like it would be sort of like a Japanese puzzle box, where pushing and sliding certain parts in the right sequence would allow it to open or expand. We also discovered four sliding posts on both sides of the bed that were clearly meant to take in a combination.

An enigmatic drawing on the headboard

An enigmatic drawing on the headboard

We messed around with different ideas for some time, until GC interrupted us with an important question. Other teams were also on the runaround, which was structured in a nonlinear way so that you could hit the different key points in any order. But another team was ready to use the room we were in. If we weren’t trying to be competitive, it would be appreciated if we put that puzzle on pause and moved to another room. So, we were asked — are you trying to win? And Team Left Out’s collective answer was a resounding “NO!” We happily gathered our things and headed to another part of the runaround. We had been wondering about the other teams on the runaround, and were a bit nervous about what place we might be in, so we all appreciated the transparency from GC on the matter. (I’d say it was a win-win situation, but as I mentioned, we did not want to win-win at all.)

Our new task was to visit the Duchess and help console her crying baby (played by a grown man GC) with a lullaby. Our tools were a record player (which we were not allowed to plug in) and a table full of random stuff (which we were not allowed to move away from the table).

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We recognized that the record player would want a record, and we had received one from a character earlier in the hunt. Unfortunately, it was still with Dan (I believe?) who had been off trying to find some way to play it and record the contents. For about three seconds, we thought we were going to be up a creek for a while, but then Dan magically appeared, record in hand. He had managed to get a faint recording of the record’s contents, but it seemed at first unusable. And in any case, the Duchess required us to prove that we could make the record play manually before using any supplemental materials.

Making a DIY phonograph with a sewing needle, paper cone, and manual spinning action was a job that required only about three people and total silence (and was amazing to watch), so the rest of us occupied ourselves with other things. I spent most of the time studying the photo we had taken of the drawings on the Queen’s headboard, determined to solve this strange puzzle before we went back to that room. After a while, the phonograph team started getting some solid (and very creepy) results. The Duchess then allowed us to use our recordings, and our team quickly started solving the non-mechanical parts of this puzzle. The audio on the record was a voice listing off items found on the table in the room, each of which had a single letter taped to it. The message “SING I AM THE WALRUS AS A LULLABY” was soon deciphered (though with partial data we first tried to “SING I AM THE WALRUS SILENTLY” — surprisingly difficult!).

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The lyrics to the song were brought up, and Team Left Out awkwardly, halfheartedly, mumble-sang them to the tune of Brahms’ Lullaby, laughing in between, feeling totally unsure that this was the thing we were supposed to be doing. Finally, after enough lines had been sung, the “baby” drifted off to sleep and the Duchess thanked us for our help. As a reward, we could take one object from the table. Knowing that one of The Beast’s weaknesses was her own reflection, we dutifully took a mirror.

The Queen of Hearts room was still occupied, so we headed to another new room, just around the corner from our home base. There, we found the Lion and the Unicorn having an argument about playing games. One of them had stolen the game pieces from the other and smashed all the boards. We provided some little playing cards we had received, and they were magically transformed into little playing pieces. Then it was our task to reassemble the playing boards, which turned into some various Nikoli puzzles.

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This was another activity that seemed to be pretty easily saturated, and we also happened to have a Nikoli champion on our team, so I was happy to sit back and look at the bed puzzle some more. It was a little bit easier to hash out ideas since we didn’t need to be silent for record-playing, so I worked through every logical path I could think of out loud trying to make sense of the thing. Maybe some of the letters are numbers? Maybe it’s a rebus? “This is the kind of puzzle where we’re going to feel sooo dumb when we see the solution,” I said. “There’s just some connection we’re not making,” I said. “Every puzzle has an answer,” I might have even said.

Meanwhile, our team made quick work of the Nikoli puzzles, and the characters turned a tiny chess piece into a comically large chess piece for us to take along on our quest. On our way back to the bed puzzle, we heard that the coin had been found! This was at about 2:30am. At that point, I don’t think any of us were seriously concerned about winning anymore, but it was still exciting to know that someone had won.

Back at the bed, we noticed that the headboard had been partially redrawn! Likely due to other teams messing it up while moving things around. This was HUGE for us! We could compare the two images and see what was consistent. Maybe some of those letters weren’t numbers after all?

After even more head-scratching, things still weren’t making any sense. But then we had the most brilliant a-ha. It was so simple, so perfect: some parts of the drawing were actually drawn in permanent marker. If we just erased everything, the answer would be revealed! Erase it! Erase it! There is a huge eraser just sitting there! Just go for it! Don’t erase little parts, just erase the whole thing! Yeah!!

And then… well, I think it’s best to let Hangouts tell the rest of the story:

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Perhaps we were too hasty. It really was the perfect solution, though.

Eventually, the Queen of Hearts fed us a much more blunt hint about using the Allen wrench (which we hadn’t yet found a place for and assumed we would need later in the process). It’s funny how hints work. I think as soon as that hint was given, everyone in the room immediately knew what to do — and felt like a bunch of idiots. But how many more hours would we have spent floundering if we hadn’t been nudged in that direction?

The Allen wrench matched up perfectly with the letter L (previously) written on the whiteboard, and something magnetized behind the board let us know we were on the right track. The rest of headboard mechanism involved guiding a magnetic ball through a maze with the wrench, which proved to be pretty tricky. When it was complete, the headboard shifted slightly, allowing the foot of the bed to extend a bit. The rest of the drawing was just a red herring!

The next step seemed to be to work out the combination of the sliding posts on the side of the bed. We spent some time half-picking the lock, half-trying to deduce a combination, until another GC hint told us that we were in fact meant to simply pick it. Luckily, we had Ben on our team who is very lockpick-savvy. He directed the effort, telling everyone which posts to push in and pull out and when to give the whole thing a good shake (all hilariously dirty for those of us in the peanut gallery, especially at 4:00 am).

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Finally, after yet another nudge about the combination not having any prime numbers, the bed was solved! The top of the bed slid away to reveal a compartment with a down pillow. It also revealed the combination lock mechanisms, full of very tricky “local minimums”, and also full of shredded wood splinters we had generated in the process.

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With an object corresponding to each of Alice’s weaknesses (a mirror for her reflection, a chess piece for games, and a down pillow for her allergies), we were off to the final showdown with The Beast herself. This part was definitely a Runaround highlight and extremely well executed. It took place in Lobby 7, once again taking advantage of the unique layout of the lobby with its third-story balcony overlooking the ground floor of the lobby (last year’s Thomas Crown game did the same). GC essentially recreated a maze-style puzzle video game with live actors and props on the floor of Lobby 7!

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From the third floor balcony, you could look down and get basically a top-down view of the maze. Alice and the Rabbit had their own set of rules for how they would move on any given turn. The game started out with Alice holding the Rabbit, and the goal was to get the Rabbit to the exit without Alice. The three items we had collected along the way could be placed in the maze and would have effects on Alice (such as making her drop the Rabbit, turn around, or pause one turn). Once the items were placed, the game would “start” and the actors would play out each turn according to a set of clock ticks, and we would see if we won or not. It was pretty much the cutest thing ever. The actors did a remarkably good job at remembering their move conditions, and even threw in some cute idle animations when they would get stuck. It was really like watching a couple of video game characters!

The rules of the game were pretty complicated, so it was tempting to just sit back and let another group come up with the solution, but it was a lot more fun to get involved, understand the rules, and try to work from the ending condition back to a solved game state. Eventually, one group from our team was ready to start trying out some ideas, and I think they got a solve in about 3-4 tries! It was fun to follow along from above, especially for the winning design. Since it was difficult to visualize how the starting conditions would play out, we got to be delightfully surprised when it became clear that the solution was going to work.

With the last activity completed, we were given a short paper puzzle that utilized a lot of the answers from the puzzles we had solved throughout the hunt, and produced a message for where to find the coin! We followed the directions to that location, and GC explained what would have happened if we had been the first team (actors would have lead us to each of the wormhole locations to seal them off, and at the last location, the courtyard right next to our HQ, we would have found the coin). We were also told that we were the third team to solve the hunt! Awesome! We finished at about 5:45am on Sunday morning.

We all headed back to home base to pack up our things and get some sleep, while the West Coast kept plugging away at our last remaining puzzle — Monster Potatoes. About 2 hours later, they had solved it and we had officially completed the 2014 MIT Mystery Hunt!

 

Sunday Afternoon

After getting a few hours of much-needed sleep, we had a partial team lunch at Chipotle and then headed back over to the classroom to help clean up. It was a pretty quick task, and we spent another hour or so just sitting and talking about the future of the team. We talked about our views on winning (now that our team seems to be a solid contender), our views on taking on new members each year, how to better utilize our two classroom spaces, and how to adjust the roles and responsibilities listed in our team docs to better reflect what actually happens during the hunt. This was all really interesting discussion, and it made me even more thankful to be on such a carefully crafted team with such a thoughtful and effective captain in Mike.

Unfortunately, I had to head out early to catch my flight back to Seattle. I had been really anxious all weekend about missing the end of the Hunt because I had booked my flight for Sunday evening instead of Monday, but it ended up working out okay. I was still bummed to leave the team discussion and miss out on games and visiting that night, but it all worked out better than I was expecting.

With that, my 2014 Mystery Hunt experience was over. In the next post, I’ll go over my closing thoughts about the hunt, and my feelings looking forward to next year.

MIT Mystery Hunt 2014 Recap – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIT Mystery Hunt 2014 Recap – Part 1

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

 

Pre-Hunt:

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

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

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

 

Thursday:

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

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

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

 

Friday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Puzzle Break #1: Escape from Studio D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our team, Imperfect Strangers

Our team, Imperfect Strangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday Round-Up

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Genius: Rules of the Game

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

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

players

game

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

garnet

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

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

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

branding

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

explanation

strategy

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

garnet2

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Round-Up

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

SF Puzzle Weekend – Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teams mingling at the starting location

Teams mingling at the starting location

 

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

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

Looking over our materials

Looking over our materials

 

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

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

 

Clue 1: 

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

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

 

Clue 2:

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

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

 

Clues 3+4:

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

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

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

 

Clue 5:

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

Playing games with Rich!

Playing games with Rich!

 

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

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

 

Clue 6:

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

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

 

Clue 7: 

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

 

Clue 8: 

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

 

Clue 9:

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

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Todd shows us how it's done

Todd shows us how it’s done

Andy and I opt for the easier route

Andy and I opt for the easier route

 

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

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

IMAG0133

 

Clue 10:

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

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

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

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

 

Clue 10:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Everyone having a nice time

ClueKeeper leaderboard in action!

ClueKeeper leaderboard in action!

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

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

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