Puzzlehunts: Shinteki Decathlon 9

Decathlon 9 sites:

Team Mystic Fish played Shinteki Decathlon 9 on its second weekend, May 31, 2014. We were

We had a fun time! (I'm pointing that out early. As I read over this write-up, I notice that I focused on the snags, the hitches, the bumps in the road. I wrote about those because these write-ups are my notes to myself. What are things we could do better next time? I don't write down "remember to savor the amazing aha moments!" because… I've never needed a reminder for that.)

Really: We had a fun time!

Some of the fun may have been due to seeing puzzling champ Tyler Hinman's tweet from the first weekend: his team had finished with just six minutes to spare. For the previous couple of years, Decathlons haven't required so much time. Thus, in previous years, when we were stuck on a puzzle, we'd wait around for a free hint to unlock: many teams would get perfect scores; spending one point on a hint ranks a team behind all of those teams. But if we tried that this year, we'd fall behind the puzzle schedule and get skipped over puzzles. So instead of waiting around, we bought hints. Yay, less waiting! (As it turned out, we got skipped over a puzzle anyhow.)


Usually before a game, I catch up with teammates. Afterwards, I kick myself: I'll get to hang out with them all day. And then I forget and do the same thing again hunt after hunt. This time, I forced myself to mingle. I talked a bit with Ian and Bill of GC. Jan came over to talk. I wondered if Jan and I were allowed to talk about the upcoming Twitter puzzlehunt: did it count as spoilering if we were talking to folks who probably wouldn't be able to play? And then it was time to start.


For the first half of the puzzle, our team was split up: each of us got a mini-challenge; we would need to combine our answers to earn the second half of the puzzle. I'd gathered perhaps half the data for my part when I got a phone call: two folks on the team already had their mini-answers, and had figured out the answer therefrom. So we regrouped to work on the second/main part of this puzzle.

This year, Decathlon's theme was Stratego. We were playing the orange army, recruiting a force to take on the blue army. (This suited Mystic Fish, resplendant in our orange-lettered t-shirts, just fine.) Thus, our first challenge was to recruit a Lieutenant for our army. We got a wooden peg-figure, representing the lieutenant. And we got a puzzle, Lieutenant Uhura. This was 25 printed magnetic tiles on a magnetic board. 24 of the tiles had letters on them in a distinctive pixelated font; the 25th tile had a big question mark. Aha, we probably wanted to figure out what letters were on that tile; they'd make a message. Probably our message used some of the letters ACEHILMORPSTUX, the letters that appeared on our tiles.

We had a few ideas of how to solve this. We tried one that didn't work, then our Cluekeeper beeped to say we had a free hint, and told us what to do. So we did that.

Cluekeeper told us where to go next: the Legion of Honor. We fiddled with our peg. We'd been told that we'd collect many of these over the course of the day. No doubt, they'd be the basis of our metapuzzle. We just had this peg labeled LIEU. Rex noticed that it was magnetic. Oho, when solving this puzzle, we'd noticed it came on a magnetic board, but we hadn't used the magnetism. But now I knew that we'd re-use it and how: we would gather more magnetic figures, affixing them to our magnetic tile-covered board. That LIEU label used only letters from ACEHILMORPSTUX; no doubt that would indicate where to put that piece… Too bad I'd pulled all the tiles off to put the board away neatly.

Someone on GC (I forget who) snapped this photo of us.


Our next puzzle was at the Legion of Honor. I didn't pay much attention: I was mostly re-assembling the arrangement of magnetic tiles from our previous puzzle. Still, it was a scenic spot.

As it turns out, it was silly of me to fix that magnetic board. We never used it again. The weekend after the game, I talked with Debbie, who'd playtested the game.

"That first puzzle… when you playtested it, were the pieces just paper? Did they blow away?"

"Yeah. GC said not to worry, for the real game they were going to give weighted pieces or something."

General Knowledge

For our next puzzle, GC set us up on a picnic blanket in Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadow and brought us trivia questions to solve. There was a structure tying the trivia answers together. We weren't allowed to use anything but our memories to answer the questions and they were really hard. Out of each a batch of a dozen questions, we might get one answer.

Cluekeeper gave us a hint that let us squeak to the final answer without many trivia-answers. It was pretty amazing: all of our trivia answers could be grouped into nine categories; our final answer was a multi-meaninged word that could fit into all nine categories.


The scout puzzle was several mini-puzzles at Sausalito's Bay Model. Some of the puzzles you could get right away; some not so much. The Bay Model was, appropriately, full of water. The building's not air-conditioned; so we were wandering around a sort of hot, humid environment for the better part of two hours. The longer we stayed in there, the slower we got. We were the slowest team on this set of puzzles.

Eventually, we emerged out into the sweet cool breeze. On a table set up by Richardson Bay, we tried programming a "Shintanki" to navigate a simple maze. I was distracted for a while when that cool breeze flung my clipboard around, sending most of my papers into the bay. We figured out how our pegs "programmed" the Shintanki and thus got it through the maze on our first try; but not as intended.


Our next set of driving instructions sent us to downtown Sausalito to look for "a large coded signal". I got excited: I was pretty sure I'd seen the large coded signal getting installed several months before (and tweeted it, even). The Sausalito weekend traffic was less exciting. As it was, Rex and I hopped out of the car a few blocks early to trot ahead and pick up our puzzle.

Back in the car, we inched our way out of traffic, pulled into a cafe, and hopped out to solve. The cafe had two unoccupied tables: one kinda small, one big enough for four... but with a still-warm cup of coffee. Was the coffee cup's owner about to return? If we grabbed the big table, would we then have to give it back to its original owner? And would the small table already be claimed by then?

Some nearby nice people nicely let us know that the coffee cup's owner hadn't been here in a long while, so we set up at the big table. Which was good because we had a lot to lay out.

We had a set of cards. Each one depicted the right half of a nautical signal flag and had the two last letters of something from the NATO phonetic alphabet. The flag-letter and NATO-letter for each card were different. We tried alphabetizing by flag-letter and looking at the NATO-letters. Gibberish. We tried alphabetizing by NATO-letter and looking at the flag-letters. Gibberish. A free hint told us to arrange the cards in a ring: put the N-flag card next to the N-NATO card, and so on.

We stared at the ring for perhaps a minute before buying out next hint: those NATO-word-endings spelled things out. FA ER IE were all next to each other to spell FAERIE. We hadn't checked for that because... it would be impossible to spell out words if you were constrained to using NATO-word-endings, once each. Impossible. But somehow Ian had done it.

Even once we had the answer, we just kind of sat and stared for a while, trying to figure out how he'd pulled it off.


Our next challenge was a set of mini-puzzles at the Carvallo Point Lodge at Fort Baker. I thought of Carvallo Point as a hoity-toity spa that I'd never have occasion to visit. But I was wrong: They were cool with letting hordes of puzzlers take over a seminar room two Saturdays in a row.

Some team and team Loki

Erik interprets pretzels

Kiki and Ian welcome folks and hand out puzzles.

Here, we faced a set of mini-puzzles. This was probably my favorite activity of the day. There was a puzzle that was a simple game of hangman in which you couldn't lose… but to "earn" the right to guess a letter, you had to nibble down a pretzel to form that letter; the excellent site monitor Erik Stuart was our pretzelegibility judge. At another station, there was a dartboard with another so-constrained-that-we-didnt-try-it message extraction. (The numbers of a dartboard aren't in numerical order; if you go around the dartboard, using A=1,B=2 code, skipping some hinted-at letters, you can spell things.) There was a two-tone-esque puzzle: drawing a QR code in a grid by filling in some letters, coloring in letters from BLACK black, leaving letters from WHITE as white.


But how strange the change from Major to Miner: Perhaps the best part about the Carvallo Lodge is that it's smack in Fort Baker, a beautiful spot for a puzzle pickup. Thus we drove hardly-far-at-all and walked out to Battery Yates, a little promontory with a great view… so that we could pick up our next puzzle from Jasters, get back in the car and drive to the not-so-scenic Strawberry Village strip mall. No view there, but there was a Pasta Pomodoro with a good worktable and that whipped up food quicker than you could solve a sort of 3-D crossword, which is what we had.

Jasters braves the elements, mere minutes away from a luxurious spa.

3D crossword is perhaps not the best description. This puzzle was supposed to depict a set of mines. "Ground level" was a sort of hexagonal latticework; we used crossword-clues to figure out what letters to fill in the edges of the lattice. Some of the letters were "pitheads"—the first letters of words that went into the third dimension. (If you lay a regular crossword on a table, it's strange that we call some words "down"—they don't tunnel down through the table; rather they amble towards the solver. For this crossword, the "down" words really went down.) These 3-D words didn't intersect, though; basically they just headed down. We were given more pages: a level of the "mines" in which to write the second letters of these words; another level for the third-letters; etc. The "puzzle" here was that we were given a few letters for each level, but had to figure out how to orient them.

These down-words had an interesting twist. They were actually word pairs. Each pair had a regular word and then a treasure-word formed by substuting a precious-metal-element-symbol for one letter. E.g., AFTER transformed with CU (copper) was paired with ACUTER. These were clued by crossword-clues within crossword clues. So you might have "sharper later in time, for an angle". We lost some time trying to solve these as cryptics before a free hint told us how they really worked.

So we had Alexandra and Dwight solving clues; Rex and I worked on fitting words into the grid. When we had a partial answer, cluekeeper told us that the answer-extraction mechanism depended on the values of precious metals in the card game Dominion. These values turned out to be surprisingly hard to Google; those metals seem to have more than one number associated with them in Dominion, depending on what you're doing with them. But we eventually got the right numbers and thus an answer. This was probably Alexandra's favorite activity of the day: the whole team was working on one puzzle, everyone had something to do, and there were words.


This puzzle was at Blackie's Pasture. If you know the story behind Blackie's Pasture, it's a cool spot. Based on talking with some not-from-around-here folks, if you don't know the story behind Blackie's Pasture, then you wonder Why do we have to solve this puzzle here? It's just some field and it's chilly! Fortunately, I knew the story and thus I thought of this as a fun puzzle in a fun spot.

It was a series of padlocked ammo boxes. Each box contained a quick puzzle with a five-letter answer word. Each box was padlocked with a five-letter word-combo-lock. So we had 20 fun little "aha"s. We failed to notice that some of the lock-letters were raised and some were not: each answer combo was also a piece of 5-bit binary. Fortunately, when we entered our partial answer, Cluekeeper told us what we'd overlooked so we went back, re-did each padlock, and got the data we needed.


We got skipped over the Sergeant puzzle; a little over half the teams our weekend were likewise skipped.


This was a set of four sudokus. We were pretty sure that at least one of these didn't have enough information to be solved. We set out to solve as far as we could—but none of us were good at sudoku. Eventually, we hauled out PuzzlePal and its excellent Sudoku solver. Alas, that solver doesn't warn you if a puzzle's ambiguous: it happily gave us complete solutions to puzzles that couldn't be uniquely solved. We weren't good enough at sudoku to figure out that was happening.

So a free clue told us that those puzzles couldn't be completely solved; but that if we filled in what we could, we could get letters from that. By the time we were done erasing our fills and starting over, another free clue gave us the info we needed to skip that step, and what to do instead. As it turned out, the free clues basically led us through this one.


We arrived at the final location, the excellent Wipeout pizza place, with less than an hour to figure out how to navigate our now fully-staffed programmable tank through two mazes. We made some progress—then realized the game was going to shut down in a few minutes. So we bought hints to give us the final solution, plopped down our tank in the maze and set it going—and the time ran out. GC showed mercy on us: they gave us credit for finishing this puzzle. Then it was time to collapse into exhaustion.


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