Larry Hosken: New: Thinking about Puzzle Hunt Answer Systems, Unlock Codes

The goal of the Universal Longshots Scoring System is: A team's score should consider hints and time spent on puzzles; it should not consider the time between puzzles. You can agree or diagree that this is a worthy goal. But for now, suppose it's your goal.

In practice, this means that you need to know how long the team took to finish. If you've got a fancy-pants online answering system, you know when the team entered the answer. But you might not know when the team started.

You could have teams use the fancy-pants answering system to note when they started on the puzzle. That's what Shinteki does. Teams enter a "start code". Shinteki doesn't use the Universal Longshots Scoring System, but if they did, there would be a problem. Suppose a team messes up while entering their start code but, in puzzling frenzy, didn't notice. They solve the puzzle, go to enter the answer, and only then notice that they never officially started the puzzle. They can enter the start code now, and then answer the puzzle. The scoring system might think they took less than a minute on the puzzle. OK, you think, we can solve this "by hand". We just need the team to report what time they started on the puzzle. But that same frenzy that made them screw up the start code probably means they didn't think to write down their start time anywhere. (This isn't a problem in Shinteki because, again, Shinteki doesn't use the Universal Longshots Scoring System. If a team messes up their start code, they hurt only themselves; quick solving times don't boost their Shinteki score; if they don't enter the start code, they miss useful free hints.)

BANG25 and DASH2 had GC volunteers enter start times for the teams. A team runs up, says "We are the Anagram Cyclones". A GC volunteer notes that the Anagram Cyclones started on the Hoozit puzzle at 3:45. That worked pretty well! And yet, I find myself trying to refine this. This system puts pressure on the GC volunteer. I've been in this conversation a few times:

ME: Howdy! Welcome to the puzzle site. You're team "Yellow Snow", right?

    (scribbles on clipboard)

THEM: Actually, we're team "Snow Job".

ME: Oh, uh, hang on.

    (stops scribbling, starts erasing)

I want a system that's easier for the GC volunteer, makes teams do more of the work... but that system should "notice" when a team has messed up. Here's a protocol that might work:

  1. Team presses a button on fancy-pants answering system to signal that they're starting a puzzle. (This can just be a button. It doesn't have to be an unguessable word a la Shinteki; teams don't want to start early.)
  2. Pressing that button displays a screen that legibly makes it clear that the team has started the puzzle.
    Puzzle: Hoozit Conundrum

    Enter your answer:

  3. GC volunteer hands over puzzle to team, but only if team shows that screen.

Some teams don't have smartphones and can't use fancy-pants answering systems. So GC volunteers would still need a way to enter start/stop times for the low-tech teams. But most teams have smartphones, so that takes a lot of pressure off the volunteer.

Tags: puzzle hunts teams
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