Hogwarts Inside Out: Puzzle Construction Parties

Hogwarts Inside Out: Puzzle Construction Parties

The play-test was done. Now there was plenty of grunt-work to do. Team Snout had tweaked their plan to unhitch some hitches noted in the play-test. E.g., though I'd enjoyed talking on the gate phone with the security department of some arms manufacturer, Team Snout decided to tweak the FLOO Network puzzle to direct teams to GOTO NIMBUS FISH HATCHERY FOLSOM instead of NIMBUS TWO THOUSAND ROAD FOLSOM. Now they knew exactly what the puzzles should look like for the final game. Thus, they were ready to build several copies of each puzzle--one per team plus a spare or two just in case.

Constructing puzzles is a lot of work and a good time to ask for volunteers. I volunteered. As it turns out, constructing puzzles is a fun time for volunteers. It's like a little craft party except that the "craft" changes between parties and you probably can't wear your creation when you're done.

I attended three puzzle construction parties. I missed some others.

August 30

On August 30th, I showed up at the Casa de Snout in Mountain View. Who was there? Cary, Karl, Crissy Gugler, Chris Nichols, and Anna of Team Snout; Ian and Darcy of Get on a Raft with [Taft | the Weasleys]; and me.

The Casa de Snout had been halfway taken over by the Game. Game stuff was piled up in the living room, in the study--and those two rooms seemed to be about half of the available land area. Many puzzles had already been constructed. I looked out over shiny star-shaped boxes full of assorted jellybeans, brooms ready to receive rolled-up broomsweeper puzzles, and boxes of tiles for some puzzle I hadn't even seen.

I got to work. A spreadsheet tracked GC's progress towards getting each puzzle ready. I taped a printout of that up to the wall. I play-tested the new version of the FLOO network puzzle, made sure that it decoded correctly. (It didn't--which is why we test.) I affixed labels to first aid kits. I drew pigpen cipher marks onto tiles.

We chatted as we worked. Team Snout was still discussing the implications of the play-test. It was a relief that there were only(!) two compromised clues: one site with unexpected couple-in-coitus; one puzzle blown up. Blown up? I didn't know this story. There was a puzzle called Firefly. We play-testers hadn't seen it because it had blown up. It was an electronic device which would light up and play magical animal sounds. Unfortunately, when the clue was set up, something had gone wrong. A power wire and a grounding wire had traded places, amps had run rampant, magic smoke had escaped. Cary would re-construct it before the game proper.

We learned that, based on feedback from the play-test, Coasters had been taken out of the main track, and was now an emergency puzzle, to be deployed at an emergency puzzle station.

You might ask "What's an emergency station?" I didn't know about them; I don't know whether they're a Team Snout thing or a common Game Control thing. Anyhow: Most puzzle hunts have some "skippable" clues. If some team finishes clue #14 an hour later than you expected, maybe Game Control will skip them over clue #15 and send them straight to clue #16.

"Emergency" clues are clues that very few teams will see, just the quickest teams, teams that are "breaking the game" by solving it too quickly, threatening to show up at a station before Game Control can set up that station. When I first heard Snoutfolks mention "emergency puzzles", I assumed that these were just very-skippable clues. But that wasn't exactly right.

Suppose a team solves clue #14 very quickly, so quickly that they would arrive at clue #15 too early. In that case, you send them to an emergency station that you've scouted out earlier, where you've just dispatched a couple of GC folks to drop off an emergency clues. You might scout out eight emergency locations, but only design four emergency puzzles. If no team is going "too fast" at some point, you don't need to use that emergency location. And if you've only designed four emergency puzzles, hopefully you won't need to throw more than four of them at any one team. A good emergency clue can be dropped in anywhere in a Game's "story line".

The "Coasters" puzzle (with some extra hint text) was a good emergency puzzle. It wasn't part of the story line. It would also take a while to solve--good for slowing down fast teams.

DeeAnn Sole was surprised at how little teams ate from their food bags. I pointed out "Well, it was labeled 'breakfast', so we were saving it for breakfast. And then we had a really big dinner and weren't hungry until morning." "Huh? The bags weren't labeled 'breakfast'" "Oh--" "--'Continental Breakfast'" A fold in the bag had covered part of its label, changed its meaning.

Curtis Chen was trying to find something useful I could do on Game Day. I didn't make it easy for him: I didn't remember how to drive and I didn't have a mobile phone. He decided to make me Dee Ann's personal assistant. That sounded great to me. Team Snout was known for the impressive logistics of their games--people and materials moved into position, a good phone set-up, games that flowed smoothly. DeeAnn was at the center of this, dispatching people, keeping track of where everyone was, ensuring the flow. I suspected that being her assistant would give me an interesting perspective on the Game, and that turned out to be right.

September 3

When I walked up to the Casa de Snout, Yar (known to his fans as "Yar!") of coed astronomy was out on the porch, setting fire to some paper. Specifically, he was burning the edges of some FLOO network diagrams, making them look antique-y. DeeAnn and Crissy of Team Snout were inside, getting organized.

Soon I was hard at work, affixing symbol-labeled stickers onto the magnetic toy pieces of the Sticks and Stones puzzle. When Yar was done setting fire to FLOO network diagrams, he joined me.

Now that DeeAnn and Crissy had found an easy-to-explain task for the volunteers, they had some time to sit down and figure out logistics. The Game would have a schedule. The Game would have 37 volunteers to keep track of. DeeAnn didn't want 37 volunteers asking "What do I do next?" all at once. So she and Crissy were figuring out a schedule for everyone.

I eavesdropped. DeeAnn was figuring out how to get 16 6-player teams and most of the volunteers to Sacramento. Niggling details abounded. Some volunteers weren't going straight to Sacramento--they needed to go to the San Francisco airport to pick up rental vans, then drive the rental vans up to Sacramento. Some volunteers were driving cars; those volunteers could drive van-drivers to SFO airport, then drive up to Sacramento. Different volunteers needed to go to different places in Sacramento. Some volunteers wouldn't be available the whole time, would show up late, would leave early, would make their own way to Sacramento, would go a strange way. It was like one of those puzzles in which you need to row a fox, chicken, and peck of corn across a river--but involving 8 foxes, 7 chickens, 9 pecks of grain, 6 rowboats.

One reason that I wanted to volunteer with GC was to watch DeeAnn work. I wanted to see her legendary logistical abilities. I hoped to learn her secrets. Watching her and Crissy, I learned: the secret is that it's hard work, and involves a lot of thought.

Justin and Elena of team coed astronomy showed up. Justin joined Yar and me on label-affixing duty. He'd been here the night before, affixing labels. He knew the routine, quickly fell into the groove. Elena called up Placerville restaurants, finding out which ones stayed open late on Saturday nights.

DeeAnn and Crissy had figured out the logistics for the first several hours of the game. DeeAnn needed to take a break--her brain was tired. I asked her if she'd always figured out this level of people-placement for a game. She said no--this game was unusual because there were 37 volunteers to keep track of and she didn't want to try to keep all that in her head during the game. "And, if I die, we can keep going--" I must have given her a look. My priorities weren't that far gone; I was pretty sure that if DeeAnn died, no-one would want to keep playing. She clarified: she'd recently started getting migraine headaches. Maybe she'd get one partway through the game, need to lie down with her eyes closed for a while. Then we'd use this spreadsheet as our static virtual DeeAnn.

Crissy and DeeAnn switched over to putting stickers onto the tile puzzle I'd seen on Wednesday. This didn't require so much mental effort. Sean "Professor Guzzany" Gugler and Curtis showed up. They'd taped a movie of the Sorting Hat. They hoped to show it at the theater on Saturday.

We worked on puzzles; we gossipped. The Holmans' baby had been born during the play-test the previous weekend. Did anyone know the baby's name? No-one did; DeeAnn thought she had the information in an email somewhere; she poked through the computer. Justin pointed out that the baby's name might have been picked for use in some upcoming Shinteki game. "Like maybe it has all of the vowels?" "Yeah, or some unusual letters in case--" DeeAnn piped up: "It's 'Casey Jade'. There's an 'A' there's an 'E'-- Oh, there's no 'I'" "You were doing the vowel analysis, too?" "Oh, we were all doing the vowel analysis." "Well, it has some unusual letters, it has the all-important 'J'--" "Are you sure on the pronunciation of 'jade'? Most of the name is pronounced like the names of letters: K C J.." "Jaydee?" "Hrm." "Let's call them up, tell them 'We have solved the baby.'"

Yar had to leave--he was going to a birthday party. Yar lived just a few blocks away from my apartment, so I was happy to mooch a ride. Mooching a ride with Yar was a great way to learn about the Game.

What I Learned from Yar

Yar had grown up in Connecticut but he liked living in California better. The coed astronomy team had met at Stanford. They'd played some Stanford-local short games, and had started playing in the long games with the Genome Game--just a couple of years ago. Since then, they had played in many Games, BANGs, and Shintekis.

Yar asked me what my favorite hint system is for a game. I liked it when you could "buy" a hint with points instead of waiting for them. Yar didn't agree: it was nice that you were never stuck waiting for the next hint, but it could lead to team friction, deciding whether or not to buy the next hint.

I talked about the Mystic Fish rule of thumb for deciding when to take a hint--after an extended lack of progress, you could ask for a hint, but it had to be a unanimous decision. Yar agreed--but maybe it wasn't always so easy to get to that unanimous decision. He said that on coed astronomy, he and Justin went for the quick insights. They would get a good idea early on, and follow it quickly. But if that early idea turned out to be wrong, they had a tough time letting go, would keep trying to make it fit. Meanwhile, Jan and Crystal were more methodical. They'd figure out a few ways to approach the problem, and try each of them in turn. "I don't know how they do it, how they switch--they just clear out their head and go on to the next idea."

If neither Yar's nor Justin's brilliant initial insight bore fruit, they wanted to take hints. If they tried exploring alternate theories, they were just as likely to get distracted, still try to make that first idea work. Jan and Crystal wanted to try out more theories before asking for hints. In practice, it usually didn't turn out to be a big time difference. Ten minutes after Yar and Justin were ready for a hint, Jan and/or Crystal would either have found a working approach, or would be ready to call GC.

Yar talked about playing in the Mooncursers game up in Seattle. There, team coed astronomy had teamed up with team XX-Rated. Yar was impressed with XX's level of organization, especially organization of gear. "They have two backpacks which contain everything that they need. On their way out of the van, they just grab those two packs. There's none of this 'Oh, I left my clipboard back in the van' garbage." Team coed astronomy was not normally so organized, gear-wise.

Yar's favorite Game puzzle ever was probably the one with the windows with letters in the Genome Game. (I never did figure out exactly which puzzle he meant.) He didn't like puzzles that sent you into a forest late at night looking for a clue. One thing he'd liked about the Mooncursers game is that the night-time clues had all been in civilized places--city streets, a bowling alley. No forests.

When Yar wanted to decide which Game was his favorite, he considered the puzzles. During the play-test, Crissy had been coed astronomy's observer, and they'd talked about what made a good game. Crissy decided based on game themes. When the The Apprentice: Zorg game had been announced, Crissy wasn't interested. Why not? Because she didn't like the TV show "The Apprentice." This idea made my head spin. But then, wasn't that why I wanted to talk to other players? There were plenty of folks who played The Game, and they played it for a variety of reasons. Maybe I'd been hanging out too much with the puzzle freaks, picked up a skewed view.

Yar had a tough question for me: If you're Game Control, what's the best way to decide which teams get into a game? First-come-first-serve? Or have each team submit an application and then judge it? I went for human judging. While first-come-first-served was measurable and fair, what I really wanted to do was get teams to list their contributions to "the community". Then I'd make an probably-unfair, subjective decision about which teams most deserved to play.

Yar liked first-come-first-serve. He liked games with big complicated applications because they had the property that the team that most wanted to get in would get in--if some team went to the trouble to construct a spaceship that dispensed coffee and donuts, they probably had the enthusiasm to make it through a Game. Then again, it was tough to measure application quality with applications so different. As an applicant, Yar liked the certainty of the first-come-first-served system. You solved some puzzles; you knew whether you had them right or wrong. You submitted your application and knew right away whether you were in. Was your team the 10th to submit their answers? Good! With a big, judged application, you turned in your application--and then spent a week worrying that it wasn't good enough.

I told him about the Justice Unlimited application process--the first ten teams to solve a puzzle had a guaranteed "in", but other teams had to show up and wait in line. He liked that idea. I also told him that maybe he didn't need to worry as much about the big applications as he thought he did. Mystic Fish had submitted some not-so-impressive applications. We tended to get in anyhow. For the Genome Game, Game Control had mocked us--our application, a tower of donuts, had fallen apart in their van--but they'd let us in anyhow.

September 4

Us play-testers had had an easy time finding our vans in the mall parking lot--there weren't many vans. The real game would have more teams, more vans. Thus, we were making team signs to put in the van windows. Teams had mailed in coats of arms, and now I was taping those into some plastic sheaths. Briny Deep's coat of arms was gorgeous, hand-colored. Lustrum Pistrix!' coat of arms made me laugh, using a stubby surfboard as its heraldic shield. Team Lowkey had a beautiful design. They either plagiarized some pretty art or had a Genuine Designer. [Alert reader Darcy notes: "Team LowKey really does have a Real Graphic Designer. Jen, one of their members, is a Real Artist. Hence their awesome coat of arms. :)"]

There were more tasks. I condensed Elena's Placerville restaurant notes into a one-page summary sheet. Justin Santamaria, Yar, and Jan of coed astronomy play-tested a new clue, a meta-puzzle to slow down fast teams before they picked up their Draconus piece. I fact-checked some corrected wand messages, trying to follow them on AAA maps, looking for mis-wordings.

We set to work on constructing Honeydukes Candy bars. Each team would receive three candy bars; each candy bar had a grid pattern. Onto each grid square, we put either: a pink candy sprinkle, a blue candy sprinkle, both a pink and a red candy sprinkle, or no candy sprinkle. Since this was a puzzle, we of course had to put blue and pink candy sprinkles onto just the right squares.

Justin Santamaria and I worked together. He held a candle-lighter over a candy bar. I picked up [a] candy sprinkle(s) of the appropriate color(s), dropped them roughly onto the proper square. Justin embedded them into the soft chocolate with a bamboo skewer. My fingertips become coated with sugar. After a while, the candy clung to my fingertips more than it clung to the molten chocolate. I scoured my fingertips, continued. Bits of candy-sprinkle gravel were all around. They tried to sneak onto my fingertips, onto the chocolate bar. Candy gravel on the bars was intolerable. Teams looking at this candy bar were supposed to think "This square has a blue sprinkle, this other square has a blue sprinkle; what does it mean?" They were not supposed to think "This square has a blue sprinkle, this other square has two blue sprinkles; what does it mean?" We watched out for the little gravelly bits.

Jan and Yar worked at the same task. They made faster progress than Justin and I. Justin and Yar razzed each other. Why were we so slow? Well, look at the messy job that Jan and Yar did on that bar. Later on, we exchanged jobs; Justin and I have been working on the top-layer bar. Now we worked on the other layers, and went faster. The puzzle was based on Braille. It turns out that Braille is "denser" on the top row, has more dots in the top rows of letters than in other rows. To truly understand an encoding, it is not enough to study it. You must write it out, write it out in candy sprinkles, biting your lip and concentrating on every dot, until you see the patterns everywhere.

We had filled all of the house's cooling raps with candy-sprinkle-covered chocolate bars. Curtis and DeeAnn were done with volunteer tasks--they wanted to clean up and get ready for the weekly Game Control meeting. Game Control had been meeting once a week throughout the planning process. This was to be the last meeting before the game itself.

More Snout people showed up as the weekly meeting began. Miss Jerry showed around a draft of the "Daily Prophet" clue-bearing newsletter for review. Sean and Crissy Gugler arrived, bearing CDs and magic mirrors. Folks ate pizza and gave status updates. Acorn had prototypes plastic wand shells. We play-testers had used wands wrapped in tape; Acorn wanded something prettier. he had some molded plastic to show us. Unfortunately, his first prototype had turned out pinker than hoped, and shaped more like a marital aid than hoped. And thus the meeting dissolved into giggles. When the giggles were under control, folks worked with a mass of sculpy wrapped around a dowel.

[Photo: Three Wand Shell Prototypes] [Photo: NSFWand] [Photo: Curtis Sculpts the New Wand Design]

GC Operations [>]

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