Puzzle Hunts: BANG XX

Other BANG XX sites:

BANG XX was a fun game, though we did it plenty wrong. In this game, "we" was Team Mystic Fish, though we thought of ourselves as Team Goldfish: two folks from Team Mystic Fish and two folks from the Golden Golems. We all kinda knew each other from running BANG 19. The folks running the game were team XX-Rated; they'd named the team after their XX chromosomes, but when the Bay Area Night Game's 20th iteration loomed, they volunteered to run it, citing XX's Roman numeral meaning. It would be themed on Lucky Charms cereal, of all things.

[Photo: Team Goldfish: Alexandra Dixon, Jon Wilkening, Anna Thanukos, Larry Hosken]

According to the official BANG XX page, 61 teams played in BANG XX. That is many many teams! You expect to see a number more like twenty-something teams. Team XX-Rated, the organizers, must have figured out how to run things so that teams wouldn't get in each others' way. There weren't many times in this game when teams had to interact with people in GC--generally, we picked up puzzles and then went away a little to sit and solve. Then again, that's not so different from most BANG games, so maybe more of them could handle more teams.

Starting Order

Rachel P., XX-Rated honcho, announced the rules. And then it was time to distribute the first puzzle. Each team had been given some scratch-off tickets. Scratching those tickets revealed numbers. Whichever team had the lowest number could pick up their ticket first.

You might think Aw, it's too bad they didn't set up some "mixer" activity so that teams would get a chance to interact with each other while they were all at the same place. On the other hand: 61 teams is a lot of teams. Mathematicians will point out that if there were just 25 teams, then there are 300 possible team-team interactions, possible meetings as it were. But with 61 teams milling around, there's about 1800 possible team-team meetings. That's a lot of mixing. To heck with that. I'm glad they used the system they did.

First Puzzle

The first puzzle was funny! Go solve the first puzzle. (The excellent game organizers posted the puzzles online.) Humor in a puzzle is risky. If the puzzle's too hard, then the players will get a picture in there heads: Game Control, sitting around in a living room, laughing at how clever they are, smug... But this puzzle wasn't too hard. And we laughed a lot while solving it.

After we solved it, we had to find out where to go next. The puzzle's solution was a word. The game organizers had told us a function by which we could compute a number from a word, expressed here in shorthand: (E + 2I + 3O + 4U) C. That's once the number of "E"s plus twice the number of "I"s plus thrice the number of "O"s plus, uhm, frice the number of "U"s, all multiplied by the number of consonants.

Computer geeks use text -> number formulas often. We call them hash functions. After this game, when some of the computer geek players talked about how it had gone, when they talked about "the hash function", this is what they meant. A hash function is useful if you're going to compare several blobs of data with each other for equality. Rather than compare blobs to each other piece-by-piece, you compute the "hash", a number, for each blob. To find out if two blobs are identical, compare their hashes--if the hashes match, probably the blobs do, too. This requires that you choose a hash function computes different hash values for different input blobs. If two different blobs yield the same hash value, that's called a "hash collision".

So... we had a number. The organizers had given us a stack of numbered envelopes. Most of these envelopes contained notes that said something like "you did it wrong!". But if we solved the puzzle correctly and then computed the hash value correctly, we'd open up an envelope with a nicer message, one telling us where to go next. And that's what happened.

Second Puzzle

To avoid swamping the XX-Rated folks (61 teams!), our team was supposed to send just one member to pick up our puzzle at the next site. But soon we were all gathered around our next puzzle: a bag of chocolates.

We solved it! Then one of us computed the hash function, we opened the appropriately-numbered envelope, and soon we were on our way to our next puzzle at Cafe Tosca.

Folks who played this game are probably scratching their heads right now: the next puzzle wasn't at Cafe Tosca. We'd calculated the formula incorrectly. By coincidence, our incorrectly-computer number was the correct number for another puzzle which we hadn't seen yet. Thus, there was an envelope with the appropriate number, an envelope with instructions for us.

We'd discovered a new kind of hash collision, one which involved a "bug" in our hash function. Later on, I'd wonder if people who design hash functions ever worry about that kind of thing. But that was later.

Third Sixth The Puzzle at Tosca

We kinda suspected that we weren't going the right way: we were walking quite a ways, further than you'd expect to go between a couple of puzzles in a BANG. But when we arrived at Tosca, that cinched it: there weren't any other teams there yet. We were smart, but we sure weren't the smartest team playing.

The bad news was that we were off-course. But the good news was that it wasn't crowded. Thus, instead of sending one team representative up to pick up our puzzle, we all trundled over to the table where Jan Chong sat in front of a display of giant paper clover. She indicated that we could take one clover and I reached out to grab the nearest one, but Anna stopped me: Maybe we should take the thematic four-leaf clover instead of a three-leaf clover like the one I was about to grab. Those three-leaf clovers were decoys.

Anyhow, we solved the third puzzle. Sixth puzzle. Whatever, we solved it. Jan had advice on what we should do next: instead of continuing to short-circuit the course, re-work our math from the bag-of-candy course, find out where we should have gone. Eventually, if we solved a puzzle that told us to go to Tosca, we should then go to the place indicated by the clover puzzle.

After we left, I realized that I should have asked which blank of our answer sheet I was supposed to write this answer in. Oh well. Something told me we weren't going to be incredibly high scorers in this puzzle hunt anyhow.

The Telegraph Hill Puzzle

This puzzle rewarded my previous years' study of the XX-Rated website. There had been a Lucky Charms theme there, and I'd learned to recognize the shapes despite never having eaten the cereal. This puzzle involved identifying the shapes from textual descriptions. We tore through it.

The Washington Square Park Puzzle

The thing was, from a computer programmer's point of view, a ray tracing puzzle. Half of our team was given diagrams showing scenes: the layout of horseshoes and stakes, as seen from above. Half of our team was given physical stakes and horseshoes along with instructions on where to stand to view each scene. The first half of the team had to write verbal descriptions of these diagrams. Then it was up to the second half of the team to lay out the items based on the verbal description.

When we did it right, each scene looked like a letter. The horseshoes formed curvy parts of letters; the stake formed straight parts. Viewed from above, they seemed disjoint objects. Viewed from the right place, they came together to form letters.

Ray tracing is one method for 3D graphics. You trace rays from light sources, figuring where (if anywhere) each ray hits the virtual "camera". If these rays bounce off of things along the way, then the camera can see those things. By mathematically describing how the light should go through its medium, how it should bounce off of these surfaces, Team captain Rachel used to work at one of those computer-graphics places. Later on, I'd see someone else from Game Control wearing an ILM shirt. I imagined some computer geek laying out these scenes in Maya, setting up a virtual camera, shifting things around to see when letters emerged.

Unfortunately, we were not as good at this as computers are. We were supposed to see letter forms. And we did see letter forms. But not the letter forms we were supposed to. g d l l o u. Then I was seized by inspiration. There were six "scenes" we'd laid out, one for each letter. These scenes were identified by color. We'd assumed that this was to suggest an order for the letters--but what if really, we were supposed to order elsewise and our answer was a color? And maybe that "u" was wrong. Maybe that g d l l o u was IndIgO.

It seemed dicey, but worth a shot. We computed the hash function, found the corresponding envelope, opened up that envelope: and there were directions to the next location!

Once again, people who played in the game are scratching their heads. The answer was "gallop", not "indigo". It so happens that "indigo", though not the answer to any puzzle in this game, nevertheless hashed to the same number as the answer to the metapuzzle.

So we went to the end location. Partway there, we were pretty sure that we were going to the end location, i.e., to the wrong location. But the game was just a few minutes from finishing, so we went on in anyhow.

End Party

At the end party, I did my usual thing after a puzzle hunt: I zoned out. I'd been thinking too frantically for a while; my energy level crashed. I listlessly watched the rest of team Goldfish solve a puzzle that we'd missed. Then I realized that I was in my home town, not waiting on a ride from anybody. I left early, went home to bed.


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