Accommodating Beginners at Puzzle Events

I’ve been crazy busy this week, and haven’t really been inspired for a post for today.  So I just asked my brother-in-law Mike, of Team Dragons, if he had anything interesting to say regarding DASH from the perspective of someone who doesn’t do puzzles and stuff regularly.  “I thought it was fun,” he said, “but there were too many puzzles.”

What he meant was that there were too many puzzles for our beginner teams to solve within the allotted time, and by the end we were all just basically asking for step-by-step help from Game Control because we were running out of time.  This is perfectly normal, it being both of our teams first times playing an event like this (I still say Post Hunt isn’t really the same), and I was the only person across our two teams who does puzzle-type things regularly.  Still, we wonder whether we might have had more fun if we had been playing at a more beginner-oriented level somehow.

Should event designers even consider offering beginners options?  I think it’s definitely worth some consideration.  I would assume that one goal of the community is to grow and attract more and more interested people.  Someone who thinks puzzles are fun, but who doesn’t solve or play anything regularly might be intimidated by the hardcore nature of many puzzle hunts.  And casual or beginner teams that do make it out to an event might get frustrated and feel so out of their league that they don’t come back.  If there was some way to help beginner players get started, they could play at their pace until they felt comfortable participating in a more competitive capacity.  It seems like taking measures to help include and welcome beginner players could only benefit the community, as long as those measures wouldn’t negatively affect more seasoned players.

Mike suggested maybe offering a beginner’s “track” for DASH, where beginners receive a variation of each puzzle where some step is already completed, or where beginners are given a free hint to start.  The goal would be to bring the beginner solving time up to match the normal solving time so that beginner teams could enjoy the whole event.  Beginner teams could also be given a written schedule to help them easily recognize if they’re running behind.  Beginner teams that are behind might be given extra hints automatically.  And of course, beginner scores would be kept on a separate leaderboard.

Probably the biggest obstacle to accommodating beginners is that it would require more work from a volunteer-based event.  DASH is also a tricky example since things must be coordinated across so many cities.  Perhaps a single-city event might be a good place to experiment with a beginner option and see how things go.  At the very least, I think DASH could take a few small measures to help out new teams, such as discouraging participation in the collaborative puzzle and maybe including an optimal solving schedule to keep teams on track.

Post Hunt seems to do a good job of addressing beginner and expert interests — the five main puzzles are manageable by teams of all skill levels, while the End Game requires very high skill and speed (but is totally optional for beginners).

What do you think?  Should puzzle hunts be made more accessible and palatable to new and/or casual teams, or is being thrown into the deep end right from the start actually a defining element of the community and its events?

10 comments on Accommodating Beginners at Puzzle Events

  • Alex Pearson

    The good news is, DASH has a built-in schedule: the par times for each puzzle used for scoring. They aren’t officially used to pace earlier teams, but the intention is that they guide people in deciding about how much longer it’ll take to get through the rest of the hunt. It’d only take a few explicit sentences to that effect in the opening, perhaps with the other suggestions, to bring new solvers up to speed.

    DASH has an odd positioning: it’s not quite a ‘green game’ (Taken from The Game nomenclature, by analogy to a green-circle ski run), but it is a gateway for a lot of puzzlers. I know that the BAPHL hunts sometimes have had a beginner track with different/nerfed puzzles.

    • clavicarius (author)

      The par times were very helpful, you’re right, it is sort of built-in. Next year, I think the first thing I need to do is actually take those times and convert them into an hourly schedule to keep myself on track. Somehow “consistently taking too long on each puzzle” did not add up to “not going to have time to finish all the puzzles” in my brain until it was too late.

      I would say two factors go into making DASH a gateway game: It’s everywhere (not just West coast), and it’s cheap! No risk of paying money/time/effort to register and travel and then turn out not to like it.

      I like the term green game, maybe someone should run a beginners-oriented event and call it The Green Game, very catchy.

  • Larry Hosken

    Some of the San Francisco hunts have beginner+advanced versions. Not many, tho.

  • Steve

    At least one Microsoft Puzzle Hunt had a casual vs. hardcore distinction. Both got the same puzzles. Those teams choosing casual could get as many hints as they wanted, as explicit as they wanted, but were ineligible to win. Given that only three teams win and maybe a dozen finish, at most, you would think the other 90% would opt for casual so they can see more puzzles. But very few teams did.

    One thing you can do to favor newbies is to put the easier/more fun puzzles early on. Then at least all teams get to see and solve them. Of course then you end up with all the hard puzzles near the end when teams are tired.

    • Steve

      … and of course, that’s not really applicable in a serial event like DASH or Post Hunt.

  • tabstop

    This is something that’s been bubbling under for me for a little while; I started to write a massive comment, but decided maybe I should make it a blog post of my own. Will provide link when it is finished. 🙂

  • Jason

    Personally, I think the GenCon puzzle hunt is great for beginners. It’s where I cut my puzzle-solving teeth. It spans the four-day convention, so it doesn’t have the same sort of time pressure as DASH (or any other single-day hunt), which makes it less frustrating, even when you’re lost or stuck. But you still need to finish by the end of the con, so there’s a lot more urgency than just working puzzles at your leisure.
    While some teams may finish on the second day, it’s generally possible to win prizes by finishing later, even if it takes you all weekend. And after the first teams have finished, you can generally get clues from the folks running the event. Although, after a day or two of thinking about a puzzle, the AHA moment may hit you before you ever need a clue.

    So, I think those are two aspects that make for a good beginner hunt: 1) reduced time pressure and 2) clues. But, by delaying the release of clues, you don’t help the top competitive teams, and you encourage beginners to take their time in thinking things through, before seeking more info.

    • clavicarius (author)

      Man, when I lived in Southern IL, I had friends who were always wanting to go to GenCon, but I was never interested. Should have gone! And they have True Dungeon too, which is something I’d be interested in.

      A hunt over four days in a con setting does sound really fun. It sounds like it has sort of the long-term feeling of a Game (I would imagine) with the comfort of always being near your hotel room, minus any real time pressure… awesome!

      It sounds like there are a lot of important things to consider when designing a hunt that is beginner friendly. Time management was definitely the aspect I struggled with the most at DASH, so I can definitely agree with #1.

  • Jason

    GenCon has had a good, solid hunt since around 2001. It was one of my very first hunt experiences (along with a similar hunt at the Origins game con). The pacing is such that you can do lots of other events while also doing the hunt in the background. If you want to race to be the first team finished, though, I think it would be fairly tense and a little more like The Game.

    They basically have lots of puzzles around the convention center on placards, which you can work as you have the time. They generally lead to a final meta-puzzle, which is often quite hard, although, the puzzles themselves are a good mix, ranging from fairly easy to fairly difficult. Because of other events, I haven’t always had time to really do well in the puzzle hunt, but some years I’ve made it a priority and really had a blast. I’ve only completely finished the hunt twice. In two other years, I hit the meta and got stuck. That includes last year, when we came up one step short. Only one guy finished the hunt, but I still (finally) won a free GenCon pass in the drawing.

    True Dungeon is also a really awesome event. I’ve run through every dungeon they’ve ever done, since it started in 2003. If you like big hands-on puzzles with cool props and a hefty dose of teamwork, then True Dungeon is the perfect fit. TD has had some unbelievably cool puzzles over the years.

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