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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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!!
(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.
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….)
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 =)