Puzzle Hunts: All Kinds Of

Over the weekend of September 18-19, I did some treasure-hunt stuff, scurrying after Alexandra Dixon. Some arguably interesting things happened along the way.

I will not write a complete narrative of that weekend. I will just write about some things that happened along the way. I am not sure if the result is coherent.

The Most Stoned Stoner in the World

The most stoned stoner in the world asked me: "Do you want a cigarette?" His eyelids drooped. His words came slowly, slurred. I replied: "No thanks, man." This confused him. He asked, "But do you smoke?" while making a flailing set of hand gestures. Was he trying to mime quote marks around the "smoke"? Did he think anyone could miss what he meant by "smoke", standing here on the corner of Haight and Ashbury?

When I heard that the eigth incarnation of BANG, the Bay Area Night Game, would take place on the Haight, my first thought had been of the drug dealers. The Bay Area Night Game is a treasure hunt game based on puzzles. I had imagined a conversation:

"Nuggets, nuggets, buds."

"No thanks, man."

"Nuggets, nuggets, nuggets."

"Look man, we're just here on a treasure hunt, OK?"


"We're looking for a puzzle clue here."

"Nuggets, nuggets, nuggets."

"The previous clue told us to come to this corner and find the next clue."

"Nuggets, buds, nuggets."

"So now we're here and we're looking, you know?"

"Buds, buds."

"But we can't look for it very well if you keep trying to sell us stuff."

"Nuggets, buds, buds."

"Oh man, wait, is this Morse code?"

"Buds, nuggets, buds"

"Could you start over, please?"

But this was not a puzzle. BANG H8 had not yet started. I was waiting on the corner of Haight and Ashbury to meet Alexandra and Dwight, the same people I had played with in BANG V. I still had the free ice ice cream coupons from BANG V. So we were meeting ahead of time at the Haight/Ashbury Ben and Jerry's to use those coupons.

The most stoned stoner in the world reeled when I told him I did not "smoke." He was pretty out of it. He obviously did not need to smoke a joint right then. But that is what he did. He did not puf smoke signals; I checked.

BANG H8 Proper

The official BANG H8 site has the hunt's puzzles, solutions, photos, and other interesting information. It's the best place to study up on the puzzles. Unless you don't have MS Word installed, in which case, the following might prove useful:

It was the start of BANG H8, a most excellent puzzle hunt.. Alexandra and Dwight, full of ice cream, were waiting for the pre-game activity. I was on the sidelines, talking with Eric Prestemon. He was playing on a team with his young son and with a lady who I guess was his S.O. Eric's son enjoyed treasure hunts. And I did too, back when I was a sprat.

BANG H8 was awesome. The organizers (featuring David Alyea and Greg DeBeer who were big Kahunas at BANG V) had come up with some great puzzles. They also put the puzzles up on the web, so will not describe them here.

After the pre-game activity, Alexandra, Dwight, and I ran our first batch of clues over to Alexandra's car, which was parked nearby. We sat in there and solved puzzles, staying out of the wind. Though I will not describe the "Toss the J" puzzle, I will say that it was a pleasure to solve, tickling the same part of the brain that controls Tetris.

We passed around puzzles. We talked about solution theories. There was more chatter than there had been on previous games; if we tried a theory which did not work, but did produce something interesting, we were more likely to pipe up about it. We solved puzzles. We went to clue sites. We solved more puzzles.

We made mistakes which cost us time. My contribution to our litany of error: writing down a wrong adddress, sending us a half-mile out of our way. But it never felt frustrating, and we had a blast.

One puzzle involved standing in a garage, listening to different sounds coming from four speakers. It was delightfully surreal to look around and see a crowd of intent people standing around a garage, making notes on their clipboards: "Doggie, dumptruck, kitty, drum, ..."

One puzzle involved arranging 12 playing cards into rows and columns, constrained to various rules. E.g., if a row/column contains hearts, it can not contain diamonds. So we were sliding around a few playing cards, sitting outside in the wind. The wind threatened to blow away the cards. So I pulled out a pad of Post-Its I had brought. I had made a note that this might be useful after wind had blown papers around on prior treasure hunts. I thought to use the Post-Its to lightly adhere the cards to a clipboard. Dwight had a better idea: write the cards' number/suit information on Post-Its, put the cards away, and just move the Post-Its around. Dwight was obviously a computer scientist, comfortable with multiple levels of indirection.

This game had two divisions: recreational and elite. Our team came in last place in the elite division. This seemed appropriate: we played with a very recreational attitude, but we liked the tough puzzles.

The hunt ended at some bar on Haight Street. By the time Team Fishstick Mess showed up, most folks had gone home. Greg DeBeer was there. He talked about one of the puzzles: he had come up with it the night before, after some other puzzle idea hadn't worked out. I wondered how many puzzle ideas he had simmering away in the back of his brain at any given moment.

When I got home, I stayed up until 3AM in the morning solving puzzles in an issue of Games Magazine. My brain was not ready for sleep, not ready to stop thinking about puzzles.

City Guides Streetcar Adventure

Sukhi's REMIND stand at the Civic Center Sunday farmer's market may have saved my life. Somehow I had woken up at 7AM and couldn't get back to sleep. I had spent the morning drinking coffee. Now my stomach was upset, full of bitterness. But a samosa buffered all that with potato-ey goodness. I was ready to face the City Guides Streetcar Adventure.

This was a treasure hunt, but based on city knowledge and riddling instead of on puzzling. I was playing with Alexandra, Hank, and Bill Hamilton as team www.t-hunts.com.

At the start of the hunt, the game organizers gave us a booklet containing clues to 12 locations, each location within a few blocks of the F streetcar line. We were supposed to solve the clues, go to each location on foot or by public transit, and find a secret message at each location in blue letters.

I enjoyed the first part the most: solving the clues. To solve the clues required knowledge of San Francisco sites and history. Alexandra had learned a fair number of interesting city locations as she studied for various treasure hunts. Hank knew a lot about city history and locations--he was a prize-winning San Francisco tour guide. It was amazing to watch these two talk: "Oh, I bet it's on ______ Street." "Yeah, you're right, I've seen it, it's by the _______." At this point, we had enough information to go to the location, but they did not stop--they traded information about other places nearby.

Overall, I did not enjoy this treasure hunt. At some locations, we were to get our blue letters by interacting with actors playing historical figures. Hank had his historical knowledge on faster recall than the actors did. One actor didn't give us our word in blue letters--he just told us that he was going swimming and that we should focus on the word "swimming." What he meant is that the answer at his location was the word "swimming," but it was not blue letters, so of course we wasted time at the swimming pool in that building looking for blue letters. About a third of the clues had a flaw of this kind--some tweak that made the answer seem like a non-answer. When we failed to find a flawed answer, it was frustrating; when we found a flawed answer, it was not satisfying.

Then again, eight of the puzzles were satisfying. Maybe I shouldn't complain too much about a 2/3 success rate until I've tried making up some of my own puzzles and see what flaws show up in my first efforts.

And it wasn't the puzzle organizer's fault that te F-Line streetcar was delayed (as it often is) and we ended up jog/walking from Pier 39 to the hunt's finish line at the Ferry Building.

Treasure Hunts Are Everywhere

I had agreed to help Alexandra with a heavy-lifting errand after the hunt. On the way to this errand, we passed through the Mission. Alexandra wanted to stop off at Taqueria Cancun. But she was not hungry for a burrito. She was on a treasure hunt.

A couple of weeks earlier, she had searched for the phrase "treasure hunt" on craigslist. She had found one. This was not a treasure hunt in which a bunch of teams all tried to play the hunt at the same time. In this case, the organizers had hidden clues in several Mission district establishments, and posted to craigslist, encouraging locals to follow the trail.

Alexandra had followed this treasure hunt on and off for a while. And she knew that there was a hint in Taqueria Cancun. Because these clues needed to survive for weeks instead of just for a day, they were very well hidden. Thus, Alexandra had not yet seen the clue in Cancun, though she had searched the restaurant.

So we went in to Cancun. And we walked over to a table, and asked the two guys there if they would mind if we looked at the underside of their table. They were a bit non-plussed but were OK with the idea.

Sure enough, there was a card taped to the bottom of the table. Alexandra had not found it on her previous because she'd looked too quickly, not wanting to disturb the people who had sat there dining.

The card was marked with a skull-and-crossbones. This pleased me. I was wearing a skull-and-crossbones t-shirt. It was International Talk Like a Pirate day, and I had started my day with grand plans to talk like a pirate the whole time. So I had worn my piratey skull-and-crossbones t-shirt. Unfortunately, I was about halfway through buying my morning's first cup of coffee when I realized that the talking-like-a-pirate gag got old fast. Perhaps more unfortunately, it was too late to change shirts. The skull-and-crossbones t-shirt was not an appropriate choice for someone in a City Guides treasure hunt who was not talking like a pirate.

But this clue had a skull and crossbones and was a piratey poem--a clue quatrain that used the word "booty" to encourage us to search a restaurant bathroom. Where to go?

The guys whose table we invaded were tickled to find out that there was a treasure hunt hidden in the Mission district. They were into the idea. They wanted to play. Alexandra told them how she had got started, but warned them that at least one clue had gone missing.

The guys looked at our clue. It mentioned plantains. Maybe we were looking for a restaurant that served plantains? "Baobab" they said.

My Many Smells

Baobab was a restaurant. Actually, it was a pair of restaurants--Baobab and Little Baobab. They had great food. I had been to Baobab before to watch my friend Steven perform in the band Sangano. With great music and great food, that evening had been a delight for about 95% of the senses.

That had been the right way to experience Baobab.

Alexandra and I now took a different approach to these establishments. We did not want to eat. (We did not have enough time before we needed to get on with the heavy lifting.) We just wanted to search their restrooms.

So we stepped in to Little Baobab. At this point, we were surrounded by wonderful smells of great food. We stepped past the crowd that was waiting for tables. At this point, most of my brainpower was going into processing the information coming in from my olfactory nerves. We lingered for a while in the dining area. A direct link had been set up between my nose and my brain a connection full of spice and pleasure.

Then we stepped into the restroom. The restroom did not smell so great. I do not mean that it smelled bad. It smelled like a reasonably clean public restroom. But by this point, my soul was inside my nose, and the harsh smell of antibacterial cleaners was a shock to the system.

We did not find the clue there, nor at the big Baobab. Alexandra decided to come back later, to see what other places in the correct area offered plantains.

And that was arguably enough puzzle hunting for one weekend.


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