Puzzle Hunts: MSPH1[23]

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Ah, Microsoft Puzzlehunt 12 (&13). It was fun. These are some disorganized notes about the 2009 game. You want the full story, go read notes from someone else. I was a playtester on this game; I was a volunteer on game-day, where I mostly handled in-person interactions with teams: handing out puzzles, losing a chess game while dressed up as the angel of death, that kind of thing. I didn't help to design the game; that was done by teams Cracking Good Toast and The Usual Suspects. It sounds like they had a hellish time of it, but I never saw that hell.

The Microsoft Puzzlehunt is a conference-room puzzlehunt game. I don't enjoy conference room puzzlehunt games. After I work on some puzzle for an hour, I don't especially want to see another puzzle right away. (Yeah, I know, you totally disagree with me. You're probably reading this bundle of notes because you Googled "Microsoft Puzzle Hunt" and you loves conference-room puzzlehunts more than anything. Good for you; please don't waste your time telling me how wrong I am about conference-room games. Different strokes, right?) So I had a brilliant idea: instead of playing in the game, I'd volunteer to help run it. Thus I wouldn't spend time on a game I wouldn't like, but I'd accrue game-running karma (and experience). What a brilliant plan. Except that the organizers needed more playtesters. So first, I hung around for 24 hours of playtesting.

This was a bay area "simulcast" of a game that was happening in Redmond. Rich Bragg was a bay area "ringer" for a Microsoft team. Instead of flying up to Washington to help the run the game up there he'd taken on a stranger task: tweaking the game to fit the Stanford University campus and running the game for teams in the bay area.

So we playtested at Rich's house. I thought I might last longer in a comfy living room than I did in drab conference rooms, but no: 24 hours was about all I could take.

I ike the team dynamics of the conference room games, though. Multiple people working on puzzles; different groups within the team tackling different puzzles at the same time.

The way that we solved the Mosaic puzzle reminded me why I like team solves. I'd been in one group and we were putting down some puzzle--I forget whether we'd solved it or given up on it. Anyhow, across the room, Jutta spoke up: she couldn't get traction on this puzzle, Mosaic. I waved and wandered over. I look at the puzzle, and it makes sense to me. The puzzle's designer started out by giving directions on how to solve the puzzle. Sort of. Well, not directions exactly so much as uhm... Anyhow, it made sense to me right away, though it hadn't made sense to Jutta. So I explain it to her. The first stage of this puzzle has five parts to do. Jutta does four of them in the time it takes me to do one. She's totally sharp.

If she'd been on her own, she would have been stuck trying to figure out how the puzzle worked, frustrated.

If I'd been on my own, it would have taken me five times as long to finish the puzzle.

As it was, Jutta got to flex her brain and do an impressively quick solve. And I, though not-so-sharp, got to experience that sharpness vicariously. That kind of thing happens a lot in conference room games. You get to see people accomplish some things, things that amaze you.

Behold, crappy phone camera photos from the playtest:

[Photo: playtesters early in the morning] [Photo: playtesters early in the morning]

That's Rob, Scott K., Simon, Josh, Ed, and Chris.

The Microsoft Puzzlehunt is a storied and distinguished institution. Over the course of the past few hunts, the Microsofties developed a server program. Teams can fetch puzzles and enter answers on this server. For this game, I was able to see the administrator's view on the server. It's very impressive. It's like a CRM tool, showing an administrator how long a team's been working on a puzzle, which answers they've tried answering... It's very impressive. Not just impressive for its features--it also handled requests from many teams.

We probably had more volunteers than we needed. If you have some awesome software which allows teams to take care of most of their interactions with the hunt--getting new puzzles, checking answers--that takes care of a lot. It's also nice if setting up a physical puzzle entails "going across campus" instead of, say, "driving to Auburn". Your "away team" is more likely to be gone for a couple of hours rather than all night. I think when Sarah went to check on puzzles, she mostly went by bicycle.

If you weren't on support duty, you probably had a lot of downtime. I had a lot of downtime. I dozed off on a couch for a couple of hours. I caught up on the internet. I took a walk (finally figuring out where the excellent restaurant Calafia is). I read a book.

Our email support duties were just for the simulcast--we weren't connected with the main group up in Redmond. There were just 16 teams playing in the bay area simulcast. They didn't have that many questions. Thus, even folks on email duty had a fair amount of downtime.

Rich and Matt were the organizing people. They didn't have much downtime because whenever one of us disorganized people had to ask "Hey, how are we gonna do _____ ______ ______," Rich or Matt would need to answer.

I'm not saying that having so many volunteers was a problem. It's not like Rich&Matt had to figure out logistics of where to put us all. (Well, it was probably tougher to figure out lunch logistics than it would have been with a smaller crew...) I'm just saying that I probably didn't rack up that much game-running karma on this game; I did a pretty small fraction of stuff.

There was this guy? He was really good at HALO? I'm already forgetting the details? I'm forgetting the details about everything?

The game's denouement was a chess game with death. And thus, on Sunday afternoon I dressed up in robes so that the victorious Demonic Robot Tyrannosaurs could beat me at 3-D chess.

Part of the game's schtick was that I was slowly turning into the angel of death over the course of the game. Now it all makes sense, right? Right?!?


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