Puzzle Teams and Leadership

Puzzle Teamwork

I’m counting down the days until next Saturday, April 28th, when I’ll seriously participate in my first puzzle hunt ever, DASH!  I guess technically you could say Post Hunt 2011 was my first puzzle hunt, but it seems different from the other hunts I’ve read about (maybe some combination of free/tons of people/all the puzzle locations being clearly marked/me sort of casually checking it out for the first time?).  DASH will be my first hunt post-learning-that-these-puzzle-hunt-things-exist-and-are-plentiful, so it feels different somehow!

Listening to SnoutCast taught me that there exist puzzle teams–groups of friends who frequently attend puzzles hunts together and sometimes end up running their own.  They have funny team names, T-shirts, and sometimes team leaders!  This all sounded very exciting and fun to me, so I’m really pumped to have a Team Clavis Cryptica put together for DASH.  Our name isn’t very interesting or funny, and we probably won’t have T-shirts, but I’m really interested in the team leader part.

I held several leadership positions in marching band in high school and college, and I really enjoyed those experiences.  I liked the responsibility of making sure that everyone had everything they needed and of keeping everyone motivated to do their best.  Now I’m looking forward to stepping into a similar role for DASH!

It’s a little weird to talk about a leadership position in something like a puzzle hunt.  After all, it’s supposed to just be a fun day of puzzle solving.  The idea of a “team leader” seems to immediately indicate that you’re taking things too seriously.  But even things that are supposed to be fun can end up being stressful for a variety of reasons.

DASH lasts from noon to 7pm.  That’s seven hours where 2-5 people (and in my team’s case, two of those people are married and two haven’t even met each other) must co-exist, each dealing with their own levels hunger, thirst, physical exhaustion, mental exhaustion, sun exposure, bodily functions, and social tolerance for the other people on the team.  It has the potential for a stressful event before you even throw in the part about trying to solve puzzles together!  Add that in, and you’ve got another handful of potential conflicts about what path to take when solving, where to go next, good ideas, bad ideas, hogging the puzzle, and who knows what else.

Another stressful element is the competition.  Different members of the team might want to take the competitive aspect more or less seriously than their teammates.  Even if the entire team decides to take it easy, it can be hard not to let the ticking of the clock influence you in some way.  In both Post Hunt and the first artifact of the Black Letter Game, I let that competition aspect drive me crazy.  I couldn’t stand the seconds that were passing, knocking me further down the leaderboard.  It made me irritable and rendered me pretty much incapable of any critical thinking to solve those puzzles.

Combine all of these elements and you have the potential for one very stressful, exhausting, and not fun day.  That’s where I want to step in as team leader, to anticipate and prevent conflicts and make sure everyone has a nice, fun, stress-free day.  Here is a list of things I’ll try to do:

  • Let my teammates know what they need to bring, and inform them that I’m bringing all the office supply stuff and sunscreen (don’t want anyone to have to carry any extra unneeded items).
  • Anticipate and bring anything that might make the day run more smoothly (printed map of the area, band-aids for blisters, extra snacks, etc.).
  • Make sure we all have each other’s cell numbers.
  • Establish a meeting place for if we get separated.
  • Bring lots of snacks because I get grumpy when I’m hungry.
  • Organize carpooling, parking, and brunch before the game.
  • Work together with my teammates before the event to establish ground rules regarding how competitive we want to be as a group, food/snack stops, bathroom breaks, and any other comfort precautions.  My vote: if you are uncomfortable in any way, speak up and we will deal with it.  Comfort is key on Team Clavis Cryptica!
  • Talk about how we want to approach solving the puzzles, see if anyone has any strengths, weaknesses, likes, or dislikes.  Figure out what we’ll do if we get totally stuck and our brains are fried (ice cream break?).
  • Establish a safe word!  We did this on a big family trip to Brazil.  Our word was “pineapple”, and if anybody said it then everyone would cool down/back off/give that person some space.  It was great for situations where anyone was feeling uncomfortable or pressured in any way, which can happen when someone like me might be trying too hard to make sure everyone is happy and content (I’m fine! Trust me! Can we just drop it?? Pineapple!!)
  • Make sure everyone knows they should feel comfortable speaking up and that our primary goal is to have a fun time.

Again, listed all out like that it seems like I’m probably taking things too seriously.  I’ll do my best to keep in mind that a leader who is overbearing about people having enough fun can be another source of stress.  I’ll try to be a resource to the team as needed, not a cheerleader or a fun-enforcer.

Any puzzle hunt veterans out there have experience with teams and/or leadership?  Do you find that any leadership is really necessary in hunts that are as short as DASH?  Do you set up any ground rules in advance about comfort or the puzzle solving?

6 comments on Puzzle Teams and Leadership

  • Alex Pearson

    There’s one specific thing you also should plan for in puzzle hunts in general and DASH in particular, if they’re scoring it the same way they have the last 2 years): When to ask for a hint. The Universal Longshot Scoring System is a way to make sure that even the slowest teams keep moving through the puzzles at a fairly predictable pace. That means there’s some strategy to when your team asks for a hint. The nice thing is (at least how DC ran it last year), once your team asks for a hint, you get as many of them as you need to complete the puzzle. The bad news is, no matter how long you’ve been trying to solve a puzzle, you always lose points when you ask for your first hint. So part of taking the pulse of the competitiveness of a team is thinking about whether hints are a hit to people’s pride or an efficient way to make sure that you’re going to see every puzzle.

    • clavicarius (author)

      Wow, thanks so much for this info! That’s seems like a pretty cool and elegant system. I’ll definitely pass this along to my teammates and see if we can get some idea of how we want to handle hints (though that may change in the heat of the moment).

      I think I’m a flip-flopper when it comes to hints.. Sometimes I’ll be super determined to keep trying without hints, but other times I’ll just be totally annoyed/jaded and open to any help I can get.

      Thanks for the advice =)

  • tabstop

    I’ve been avoiding the issue by not solving anything as a team, even the things that you’re supposed to (viz Black Letter, ACPT team puzzle night, etc). The only team thing I did as part of a team was the last Intercoastal Altercations, and that was virtual (between me in VA, team leader in MA, other team members in CO and … QC? somewhere in Canada anyway). Not really sure how I would actually handle the situation.

    Is DASH 4/28? I’ll be in DC that weekend, but working the National History Bowl — we’ll be spread out all over Dupont Circle and the Mall (I have no idea where specifically I’ll be). I doubt either of us is large enough to really get in the other’s way though.

    • clavicarius (author)

      I sent out an email to a bunch of friends about DASH and was really surprised at the level of interest, even from people who don’t really do any puzzle stuff. My team experiences have all been great, it’s fun to share the excitement with other people. Although I did get a little frustrated at Post Hunt last year as one of our team members was REALLY sharp and solved most of the puzzles almost instantly, kind of leaving the rest of us in the dust, haha. There is probably an art to building a balanced team (or swallowing one’s pride)!

      DASH is indeed 4/28, but I think it’s more in Arlington than downtown DC, which is nice because downtown driving/parking seems like a pain, although I always enjoy seeing more of the area. Have fun at the Bowl!

  • Larry Hosken

    “Make sure everyone knows they should feel comfortable speaking up…”

    If you’re ready to ask for a hint, and you’re feeling sheepish about telling the rest of the team that you think we’re all stumped… you’re probably not the only one thinking it.

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