Monday, October 26, 2009

Puzzle Party!

Over the weekend some friends and I drove down to Auburn University to participate in the Auburn Puzzle Party, a semiannual team-based puzzle-solving event. Because some of the puzzle elements required knowledge of area landmarks, we merged with an existing group of Auburn locals to form an eight-person team.

Our team, one of six competing in the event, established "base camp" in an off-campus Burger King (this would come back to haunt us later) and met over at the party organizer's house for the introduction.

After reading a comic posted on the door of the house, the teams were herded inside and treated to a live-action sketch. The premise was that we had been touring the Large Hadron Collider, but had stumbled into the laboratory for a secret time-travel project (dubbed, appropriately, Quantum Leap -- the "host" character even carried a colorful hand-held computer named Ziggy).

According to the background story, we had traveled back to the 1980's. The entire house was full of 80's paraphernalia, complete with costumed characters who could have jumped straight off the Flashdance DVD (sorry, VHS tape). The participating teams were tasked with solving puzzles that would help us figure out the identity of a Russian gangster/killer/terrorist. The exact details of the storyline were a bit hazy, but rest assured that the plot would have fit perfectly into an episode of MacGyver.

With the introduction complete, the team captains were given large envelopes containing three the first three puzzles, each beginning a separate chain. Each solution led to an new envelope containing next puzzle in the chain, a number of victory point tokens, and few puzzle pieces that, when fully assembled, would create a pictogram/rebus leading to the final envelope -- and, presumably, the identity of the villain.

The puzzles themselves were enjoyable, all heavily 80's-themed with some requiring a fair amount of 80's pop culture knowledge. Extensive use of the Internet was also invaluable for many of the solutions.

For one early puzzle, teams were required to solve a cryptogram consisting of Q-Bert swear-word characters. The solution led to a metal pyramid at one of the campus buildings, under which the next envelope was hidden.

Another puzzle came in the form of an audio CD, from which players had to identify short snippets of 80's songs (fortunately, mostly hits) in order to spell out the location. The answer seemed fairly straightforward: "TOOMER'S COFFEE, FIND WAR AND PEACE, SAY WORD UP". We headed to the coffee shop, only to find that there wasn't a copy of War and Peace on the shop's bookshelf. After scaring most of the patrons by wandering around and randomly yelling "Word Up", my team spotted a young woman reading a book. You can probably guess what it was. After confronting her directly and saying the magic code phrase, we were awarded the next envelope.

Other puzzles weren't quite as elegantly designed. One that kept us stumped for over two hours consisted of a Pac-Man maze full of dots, power pellets, and ghosts, along with rules on movement through the maze. We correctly assumed that the dots spelled out morse code characters, but none of the valid paths through the maze made any sense. The spacing was ambiguous, and it was difficult to figure out where the breaks were. After banging our head against the puzzle for hours, we called the party organizer for clarification. Apparently all of the teams were having trouble with this one, and the key was to ignore spacing altogether (which would have been more intuitive if several groups of dots/dashes hadn't been spaced tightly together in valid morse code groups).

Another puzzle required identification of stars on a provided star chart. Connecting the correct stars would spell out part of the solution. The problem was that the puzzle creator had used a specific computer program to generate the star chart, and it was nearly impossible to match up with any publicly-available resources from the web.

It was unfortunate that we ran into snags like this, because both puzzles were extremely interesting in concept but failed somewhat in design. Still, most of the puzzles were quite fun, if occasionally a bit too easy.

Unfortunately, due to getting stuck on all three puzzle chains at approximately the same time, my team didn't manage to finish. My small group at "base camp" solved the rebus pictogram with only 10 minutes left before the final deadline. We were carrying the group's victory points (cleverly disguised as Russian currency) that had to be turned in before the deadline, so there was simply no time for us to pick up the final envelope.

Even though we didn't quite finish, we had a great time with the event. Everyone contributed to the group effort; from my encyclopedic knowledge of 80's pop music to our team captain identifying braille patterns within seconds of seeing a puzzle, every player was valuable.

As close as we were to grabbing the final envelope, I think we would have easily finished on time if we hadn't made a couple of key mistakes:

Most significantly, using Burger King as our base camp was a terrible idea. A sticker on the front door touted free Wi-Fi internet access, but it wasn't working correctly. Despite having three laptops with us, we were forced to tether to my friend's cellphone to get online. When he left to pick up a puzzle piece, we were stranded without web access for nearly an hour. We also didn't have access to power for our electronics -- the restaurant had plenty of outlets, but none of them were turned on. The Burger King was several blocks from the university proper, while most of the puzzle solutions led to campus locations. We could have saved a lot of time by choosing an on-campus headquarters with reliable power and internet access.

Also, we spent far too long stuck on specific puzzles when we could have called for clarification much earlier. It was my understanding that we had to spend victory points to receive clues for anything we were stuck on, but it turns out that clarifications were free in some cases. We didn't see an actual copy of the event rules until pretty far into the day, so this could have saved us an hour or two of solving time.

Fortunately, both of these problems are easily remedied. If we go back for the next event in the Spring (and we're definitely planning on it!), I have no doubt that our team will put in an even better performance.

I'd like to give a huge "thank you" to everyone responsible for organizing and running the event. The amount of prep-work involved seemed incredible, from the 20ish unique puzzles and custom-developed website to the human-sized wooden sliding puzzle and free pizza and drinks at the end. It all made for an absolutely amazing Saturday that I will remember for a very long time.