Puzzle Hunts: Shinteki Decathlon 3

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It was August 4, 2007. Dwight Freund, Peter Tang, and I were at a foggy baseball field in South San Francisco. We were there for Shinteki Decathlon 3, a puzzle hunt game which would ping-pong us around a bit of the San Francisco peninsula for the next twelve hours.

These notes might not make much sense if you weren't there or if you haven't already read someone else's puzzle-by-puzzle description. Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent puzzle-by-puzzle descriptions out there.

Actually, these notes might make sense if you weren't there. Know this: this game uses LEON, a program that runs on a Palm Zire. To enter answers, you tap them into LEON. LEON also "sells" hints for points. If you decide to give up on a puzzle, you ask LEON to "sell" you the answer.


We excitedly looked through the game materials which Game Control had just handed over. Most interesting was a $5 bill which they'd given us to use for parking later. It had been rubber-stamped with the message "wheresabe.net". What was this, a variation on wheresgeorge?

I hauled out the laptop, hooked it up to the cellular modem and went on the net. Soon we were looking at a web site. I was overjoyed: Setting up that cellular modem had been an expensive hassle, but now it was paying off. The site tracked the progress of a $5 bill across the USA, with stops at various cities, much like wheresgeorge. There were comments for each stop. Oho, putting together the first letters spelled out "FED BANKS". Sure enough, the cities which the bill had visited were all sites of Federal Reserve Banks.

Ian Tullis walked past. He was volunteering with GC for the day. (To be precise, he was apprenticing with GC for the day. He'd actually contributed a fair amount to the day's puzzles. But I didn't know that yet.) He asked "What's with the computer?" I said that we'd seen the stamp on the $5 bill. This seemed to make him happy. He moved on.

Dwight looked around at the rest of the web page, asked "What's this other stuff?" I said, "Oh, ignore that. They only had control over this part in the middle here." I was wrong--game control had actually faked this website together. If I'd clicked on some of the links on the page, I would have discovered that the site only had a couple of pages. Or if I'd tried WHOIS, I would have seen that it was owned by one of the Shinteki people.

Dwight said, "OK, so what do we do with this?" And I said, "Oh, I don't think we use this now. But probably later on, we'll need to know where the fed banks are." I went to Wikipedia, carefully wrote down the cities which hosted Federal Reserve Banks.

It's too bad that I'm so persuasive--I was totally wrong. Each Federal Reserve Bank is in a numbered district. If we'd looked at the cities which our $5 had visited, and considered their district numbers (available in that same Wikipedia article I'd just looked at), then used those numbers to index into the alphabet, we would have found a secret message--our first bonus puzzle.

For our main challenge, we were tied together with two other teams. Our goal was to get loose. Because we were short a person, Rich Bragg stood in as our fourth for this challenge. This was a good countermeasure: where Rich stands, there is no short person. Or something.

We were the last team to finish this puzzle, but by such a short margin that I wasn't too worried.

Contrapositive of Legible

The next puzzle was hidden in a park. Pete found the puzzle quickly while Dwight and I wandered around in entirely the wrong area. The rookie was already proving valuable.

Soon we had a deck of trivia cards--each card had seven trivia questions on it. Someone figured out that the answers for each card fit a theme--some of them were synonyms and some of them were antonyms. Someone figured out that the theme for each card was one of the Decathlon question categories. So the answers might be "Information", "Ignorance", "Education", "Knowledge", "Stupidity", "Blank", "Smarts".

We entered "WACKO" into LEON--these were the initials of the first five Decathlon categories, in the order that they appeared in our deck of cards. LEON was happy, told us that we were making progress and told us that some hints were now free. So we entered "WACKOMEETS"--all of the initials of the Decathlon categories. LEON said that we'd found the bonus puzzle--but we still needed to figure out the main puzzle.

Hmm, seven values per card, each of which matched or didn't match some theme. 7-bit binary value sounded like ASCII to me. I tried ASCII. I got bupkis. What if we discarded the theme and only considered the other six bits. Six bits sounded like Braille. We tried a few ways of getting Braille out. We got bupkis.

Meanwhile, LEON was beeping at us, letting us know that more hints were free. And there was a biggie in there. On the backs of these cards, there was the outline of a Shinteki logo, which looked like a three-ring Venn diagram. The hints were pretty clear: we needed to color in parts of the logo based upon the trivia answers. The colored-in parts should make letter-forms. We just needed to read the letters.

Soon we had the logos filled in. Then we stared at them for a while, trying to discern letters. The logo didn't really lend itself to forming letters. Eventually, we had some that we were pretty sure about, others that we weren't so sure about, and some that looked like splunge. Dwight had a device, made by Franklin, that grep'd a dictionary. So we fed it our best guess at the letters and let it give us choices. It came up with a few, we entered them into LEON, LEON didn't like them.

We sat, we stared. We tried more things. We grew more desperate. Finally, we bit the bullet and gave up, let LEON tell us the answer. Ah, one of the letter-forms we'd been "sure" of was meant to be another letter. We'd spent a lot of time on this puzzle just to give up at the end; it was with sorrowful tread that we headed back to the car.

Better to be Lucky than Smart

In Golden Gate Park, there were some mini-puzzles. These were fun for me because everyone had something to do, everyone got to contribute, there was a lot of chatter in the car. Also, I had another chance to justify my gadgetry--one mini-puzzle solved to a trivia question which none of us knew the answer to. Hooray for my cellular Internet connection, my only vice.

We reached the final stage. This was a page of two-word crosswords. Each word contained a dimension-ish word. E.g., "SPACEman spiff" had "space", the third dimension. "POINTfingers" was a point, a zero-dimensional thingy. We had a partial answer "FIFTHBASE".

I was certain that we wanted to use a letter grid like


Looking at each two-word crossword would give us a number across and a number down. SPACEmanspiff across, quickTIME down would mean go three across, four down in the grid for Y. But that gave garbage. And several variations on that idea also gave garbage. OK, so that wasn't it.

The ideas were not flowing. I was grumpy because my beautiful idea hadn't worked out. I said, "Guys, we're not making progress. We should scratch." But they wanted to keep thinking.

Now I was twice as grumpy. I decided to enter wild guesses into LEON. Hmm, there were nine crosswords. We were probably looking for a nine-letter answer. Something on theme.

So I entered SPACETIME. LEON beeped happily--that was the answer. "^((^ #$!)!!" I informed the team. And then I thanked them for not letting us scratch. We'd ignored that the partial answer FIFTHBASE suggested using Base-5 numbers. But luck had saved us.

Contrapositive of I Can't Read This

At Lake Merced, there was another puzzle in which we had to figure out some letter-forms. Once again, we could not read them. But this time, GC was merciful. A free hint appeared. It said that we could show our letter-forms to a GC volunteer and ask them questions a la "Did we get this shape correct? Is it an R? No? Maybe an L?"

In hindsight, a hint like that would have sweetened the synonym puzzle plenty.

Rampant Favoritism

Lesson Learned: Sit close to GC.

I'm getting ahead of myself.

We drove up to a parking lot on top of a hill. Brent from GC was there, standing on a rock. We parked right in front of him.

This puzzle was based on telephone keypads. We'd gathered data, written stuff down, gleefully accepted some free hints from LEON, figured some stuff out, and some up with a partial answer. Some words and phrases: CRAB CAKES, I AM NOT A CROOK, and stranger things.

We weren't sure where to go from there. Since this puzzle was based on a phone keypad theme, I tried drawing a keypad and figuring out where the letters of CRAB CAKES fell:

|         |C.ABCA...|.......E.|

Most of the letters were concentrated on one phone button, but I wasn't really sure what to do with that. I tried a couple of other words and each of them seemed to have an unusually high number of letters concentrated on one button.

I was staring at this. We were sitting in the car. The car in front of the rock on which Brent was standing. I guess he could see in, see what we were talking about, see what we were scribbling. Well, if he couldn't see it when he was standing on that rock, I'm sure he saw it when he hopped down off of that rock, wandered over to the car window and looked at my notes.

He asked what I was doing. I showed him. He said "Oh, you're so close. Try tapping it out with your fingers. You see what happened there?" Someone figured it out: Oh, each phrase has three letters in a row that are from a phone button. "crABCakes" "iaMNOtacrook". Brent gave a big grin and wandered back to his rock.

With that nudge, we soon had the answer. I leaned out the window and called to Brent: "Thank you for the silver platter, sir!" He smiled back and said, "Aw, you guys were right on top of it. I knew you just needed a little nudge."

Flashback: On Nudges

I remembered the finish line of BATH3. Teams sat at tables in a big room in some Community Center. They were solving mini-puzzles in hopes of figuring out the game's meta-puzzle. I was wandering around looking over shoulders. I was curious: I'd written the first drafts of many of those mini-puzzles, wanted to see if folks liked them.

I watched one team as they tackled this puzzle:

Pirate Digits

After you fill in the grid, look at it from every vantage point, up down and sideways, to find the lowest possible pirate digit.

answer grid: 1 2 3 4 / X 5 6 7 / X 8 9 10

A. Rapunzel was prisoner in one: ___ ___ ___ ___ ___
                                  8   5   9   7   2
B. This layer is above Antarctica: ___ ___ ___ ___ ___
                                    4   1  10   6   2

I watched as they solved the clues: TOWER, OZONE. I watched as they filled in the grid


Then I watched as they searched this grid up, down, and diagonally for the "low digit". I wanted them to find it. It was staring right at them, wasn't it? Well, I was staring right at it.


Argh! It was TOE! Why didn't they spot it?!

This was not the first TOE puzzle I'd written for this hunt. There had been another, rejected as impossible. I'd created three sudoku puzzles, with instructions to "connect the dots" with the "low digits" that the user had filled in. Connecting the 1s formed the letters T O E--uhm, if you squinted. I asked GC if they saw it too. They didn't.

By the time I was done writing that puzzle, the part I liked best was the "low digit"/TOE pun. So I wrote down the names of low digits on a piece of paper, saw TOE. It was quite a coincidence--it's the sort of thing when you might not have a solution word in mind, but might pick a solution word to take advantage of that coincidence. It had been such a thrill to find that.

Now I wanted to watch this team experience that same thrill. They stared at the grid, turned it around. Shrugged. Stuck it into their pile of unsolved puzzles.

I wish I'd given them a nudge. They weren't a frontrunner team; it wouldn't have affected the standings much. I was just looking forward so much to witnessing that moment of insight that when it escaped, I was boggled, I didn't react fast enough.

Brent had picked up an sense of the right time for a nudge. I should help run enough puzzle hunts such that I develop such a sense.

Un-flashback: Driving to the Next Puzzle...

As he drove the team to the next puzzle, Dwight said that he'd liked this telephone-pad puzzle. At first he hadn't liked it because it had seemed arbitrary--but towards the end, he'd really liked the way that we had to re-use the telephone pad idea. "It was really quite elegant." The recursive quality was nice. It seemed like it was becoming popular. He said, "A lot of those little puzzles in BATH3 had it."

Suddenly, I was extra curious. I'm always happy to talk about the, uhm, conversational nature of Game puzzles. As in an artistic Movement, one person's work influences another--people inspiring each other by sharing their works. But this was extra interesting. By "little puzzles," did Dwight mean the mini-puzzles? I'd had a hand in creating about half of BATH3's mini-puzzles. A better man than I would have passed by this opportunity to fish for compliments. I, on the other hand, said, "Oh, uhm, really? Which of those puzzles did you have in mind?" At this point I focused my telepathic powers, sending out a strong command: One of my puzzles. Say one of my puzzles.

Dwight didn't remember which puzzles had made him think of this.

I abandoned telepathy and fell back on the spoken word. "Recursive... Maybe you meant that CHEMISTRY/WHALEBIRD one?"

"I don't think I did that one."

"Oh." With that, I despaired of fishing a compliment out of Dwight and was thus able to go back to concentrating on his point--recursive puzzles. You apply some solving technique on a puzzle, get a partial answer out. Then apply that technique again--or maybe a variation--on the partial answer to get the final answer. Ah, bliss. Where had I first noticed that?

Of course. The Wheaties word-search from the first Shinteki Decathlon Game. I remembered the sense of wonder, the rush, the sense of elegance that accompanied the final layer of that puzzle. When I'd written puzzles, was I just trying to recreate that thrill, share it with others? Was I stretching too far towards recursion? If you're aiming towards elegance, alarms should go off if you find yourself using the word WHALEBIRD.

On Moderate Quality

The next challenge was twofold.

Dwight was blindfolded and given a little flag, told to plant it as close to Curtis Chen as possible. The closer he got, the more points we got. He got as many tries as he liked.

Peter and I were told to run a Palm application. The challenge: Press the Start button. Count off 100 seconds as best you can. Press the Stop button. The closer we got, the more points we got. We got as many tries as we liked.

Neither of these activities seemed like fun to me but that was OK--we could skip this (taking zero points), or just try each challenge a couple of times, settling for a crappy score.

Dwight is an orienteer so we thought he might do well at accurately directing himself towards Curtis. But it turns out that Orienteering is not a sport for blind people after all. But after a couple of tries, he'd got pretty close. I tried the 100-seconds challenge a couple of times and failed pretty hard. Peter had studied music and could count off 100 equal beats. He needed a couple of tries to get the duration of a second just right--and then he was accurate to within a second--that was worth maximum points. Thinking to boost blindfolded-Dwight's performance at finding Curtis, I asked DeeAnn, Curtis' wife, if she had any good ideas about how to get Curtis to emit noises at regular intervals. She refused to divulge any. So, we had maximum 100-second-counting points and reasonable points for blindfolded Curtis-finding. Good enough. We moved on.

Dinner Clue

GC suggested that we solve our next puzzle over dinner. We went to Fresh Choice. Here, I displayed a well-practiced skill where I totally excelled over my team-mates: I wolfed down a plate of pasta really, really quickly. Thus, I was able to get a head start on this puzzle.

The challenge: we had 3-D goggles. We had some pieces of card-stock printed with 3-D dots. We had a photo showing the start of how to assemble these pieces into a polyhedron based on a number rule.

I liked this puzzle because each of us had a key role:

I claim this was the most fun team-solve of the day.

Athletics: Not a Complete Waste of Human Effort

By the time we picked up our last puzzle, it was dark out. I was rocking the triclops head-lamp, so I could see, but that wasn't going to help Dwight or Pete much. But someone spotted a nearby tennis court. No-one was playing tennis there, but there were still some absurdly bright lights on there. We sat on a court-side bench and made some progress on this puzzle--but then the game ended.

As we left the tennis court, back into darkness, my triclops head-lamp seemed puny and dim--though it possesses the lighting power of three ordinary headlamps. I failed to think of a way to create a headlamp that bright which didn't need a power source bigger than me.

Lesson Learned: The phenomenon of tennis isn't totally useless; it's especially useful if there are no players.


I was, as usual, a sleepyhead at the party. This was a pity because there was a lot of interesting stuff going on.

JessicaLa had brought the New Improved Hogwarts Wands. I'd read some notes about how folks had improved the wands for the Microsoft Intern Hunt, but it was pretty cool to see it in real life.

I asked Doug Zongker why he was volunteering instead of playing. He said that he'd playtested the game because he couldn't play on game day. I pointed out: Bu-but he'd volunteered all day Game day, so he was free. He explained: The Burninators wanted to play on the first weekend, the "competitive" weekend, and he'd been busy that day. (It's times like this when I'm glad to be on an "also-ran" team.)

Finally, when the Just Passing Through folks were thanking volunteers, they gave exta-big thanks to Ian Tullis. He'd said that he was volunteering for this hunt, but I hadn't picked up on his level of involvement. Which, it turns out, was big--and would continue. This seemed like it could be a good fit. Brent had mentioned that after putting on so many hunts, year after year, it was getting hard to keep thinking up fresh puzzle ideas. Ian always seemed to have another puzzle idea bubbling away.

So with hope for the future, Team Mystic Fish slipped away into the night towards welcome slumber.


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