Puzzle Hunts: PG?E vs Shinteki Decathlon

On May 7 2005, Team Pacific Guess & Eclectic participated in Shinteki Decathlon, a day-long team puzzle/treasure hunt around the San Francisco bay area run by Just Passing Through, aka the Shinteki folk. There was plenty of wacky fun and excitement; however I'm writing this up six months after the fact and in my brain, it is all now hazy wacky fun and hazier excitement.

Fair warning: This is not a coherent narrative. This is a set of notes and halfway hazy remembrances. Sorry about that.

The required team size was four people. I kvetched about this. In an ideal world, team size can vary from size N to 2N-1. For example, it would be nice if teams were allowed to have 3-5 people. Why, you ask? Because then a team captain could recruit a bunch of his friends--and if he got together a team of six people, instead of saying "one of you guys can't play", he could say "We are fissioning into two teams of three". As it was, teams with less than four people were desperate; teams with more than four people were awkwardly forced to decide who was really on the team, and who might not get a chance to play.

I kvetched about the exactly-four-person team rule, but the good news was that it forced me to take a chance on Emily Marcroft. To be precise: Five people in team Mystic Fish wanted to play, and I was last to pipe up; so I wasn't playing with the four-member Team Mystic Fish. I started mustering a team. Peter Tang, the "Tang" in the Lester-Tang conjecture was up for the challenge. Dave Loftesness was in; I'd worked with Dave, and knew he was unflappable and clever with a good head for trivia. But we needed a fourth person--and no more friends came forward. So I checked on the Shinteki players-seeking-teams board, sent mail to those folks... and Emily Marcroft wrote back. She'd grown up in the bay area, went to Cal, and claimed to be a "pub quiz biotch". I wasn't 100% sure what that meant, but she seemed like she'd be a good addition. (This turned out to be the case.)

Anyhow, we were ready for Shinteki. It was a day-long puzzle hunt. We would carry a PDA device. We would find planted puzzles. When we solved a puzzle, we would enter the solution word into the PDA device--which would tell us where to find the next puzzle. We would have fun and learn more about the bay area.

Getting Started

[Photo: Team Vehicle plus traffic cones]
Our team vehicle with traffic cones. More about the traffic cones later.

And so we gathered at the Stanford University football field. We transferred gear into Dave's station wagon. And we set out the traffic cones to mark our parking spot.

At the football field, we registered, we headed down to the field with the other teams, and we faced our first challenge. We were to give up our backpacks, our reference materials. One at a time, relay style, players were to run out on the field and pick up a plastic ball. Did I mention that the field was sprinkled with plastic balls? It was. Each ball was labelled with a team name and a year number. You only wanted to pick up balls labelled with your team's name. Once you found one of those, you looked at the year. Each year corresponded to an occurrence of the Summer Olympics. At the edge of the football field were volunteers labelled with the names of cities. You handed a ball to a volunteer. If your ball was labelled, say, 1963 and the 1963 Olympics took place in Katmandu, and if you knew this and thus handed the ball to the Katmandu-labelled volunteer, you earned a sticker. Otherwise, the volunteer tossed your ball back out onto the field. Once you had enough stickers, you had completed the challenge--and the officials would tell you where to find the next one. As you might notice from the example I used above, I don't know squat about the Olympics. I was glad that we had trivia buffs on the team. They soon had things figured out. I wasn't much help here. I even cost the team some time when I gaped in shock at volunteer Curtis Chen--he'd had a dramatic haircut since I'd seen him last.

Thanks to my knowledgeable and eager team-mates, we finished the challenge. Dave liked this activity a lot; he'd never played a game that mixed trivia with running around. Soon we were directed to make our way to the, uhm, Northeast corner of the East Palo Alto Ikea. (Was it Northeast? Let's say Northeast.) So we picked up our backpacks, headed back to the parking lot, put the traffic cones back into the car. Drove to Ikea. At the parking lot, we set out the orange traffic cones again--I insisted on this. Dave had a compass. His wife Penny had bought him a big watch with 17 functions including a barometer, a bubble level, and--a compass. We knew we were looking for the Northeast corner of the store. A frenzy of teams milled around in a corner--but it was the North West corner. (Was it Northwest? let's say Northwest.) So we trusted the compass, kept walking to the next corner, and there was Linda Holman of game control. Wow, that watch saved us some time. Good thing we kept going. Tucked away on a window sill were some decks of cards labelled with teams' names.

Swedish Maze; Paddling

I picked up the wrong team's deck of cards because I am an idiot. Fortunately,I noticed this before we get too far away, and quickly scuttled back to trade for the correct deck of cards. We made our way to the Ikea food court. Of course the Ikea had a food court. We got sodas and solved. Or rather, we failed to solve. We sat and stared at the deck of cards and noticed some patterns but made no progress. Eventually, our automatic hint-giver PDA thingy gave us must of the answer, and we cranked it out. It took us forever to reach the Ikea's exit. And then in the parking lot--where is the car? We spot it by means of the traffic cones. Soon we were putting the cones back into the car and heading off to the next site.

We drove, lost, through Mountain View's Shoreline business park. Dave drove, but we all were lost. It was amazing how lost I was, since I was just a mile from work. We were looking for boats on Shoreline Lake. We found Shoreline Lake, but no boats, only mobile homes. We drove through empty business park weekend parking lots until we found a road to a Shoreline Lake boathouse. There, we found out our next challenge--pedal a pedal boat out to another boat to pick up a puzzle.

Paddling a pedal boat need not be a relaxing activity. If approached with the proper intensity, it can be quite awkward. Dave Loftesness and I are tall. Each of us is too tall to pedal comfortably in one of these boats. However, by sitting one's bottom on the "neck rest" of the seat, each of us could sort of fit. We also found out that paddling harder does not result in a proportional increase in speed--once you hit a fairly low speed, the water resistance slows you down. You can pedal harder, but you just create a bunch of splashes.

Team Theme; Awesome Puzzle

We picked up our puzzle. It was a Wheaties Box! With our photo on the cover! I should explain the photo. I should explain our team name. I should explain the traffic cones.

[Photo collage: Pacific Guess and Eclectic; synchronized shinnying; elevated 4x100m hot stick relay; medium-range supervision; exhibition event: self-propelling bootstrapped caber toss]
Our "team photo"

The Shinteki officials had decreed that all teams play in costume. I had applied as "Pacific Guess and Eclectic", a team of stochastic linemen. The Shinteki folk also demanded a team photo showing an Olympic event. I had no team photo--our team never met each other until the week before the event, after the photo was due. (I set up a dinner which I called the "Let's-Make-Sure-That-Emily's-Not-a-Psycho Dinner"; I suppose that Emily called it something similar but different.) So instead I pasted together photos of linemen and added Olympic-sounding captions:

I went to White Cap, a store for building contractors. There I picked up some hardhats and reflective orange vests. But the piece de resistance was the traffic cones. In Shinteki Untamed, the most awesome team may have been Team Briny Deep. Why? Because they played dressed up as pirates and their van had an anchor. When I saw that anchor, I understood the supreme importance of proper vehicle accessories. Thus, I picked up four traffic cones and plastered PG?E stickers on them.

(On game day, as Dave drove me and Pete down to the game start, I kept noticing abandoned traffic cones by the side of the road. "Why did I buy traffic cones?" I wailed, "There must be hundreds of them out here free for the taking." Days later, I was still very aware of the cones which saturate our world. But I got over it.)

Where was I? Oh, right, so the Wheaties Box had our photo on it. Yeah. We tore open the box. Inside were... Wheaties. And a word search puzzle.

I handed over the word search to Dave. (For the pedal back to land, Dave and I had stepped back to the pedal boats passenger area; Pete and Emily were paddling.) I spent a couple of minutes looking at the Wheaties Box, which had a lot of weird stuff in its graphics. Captions referred to Tom Pappas and Bob Kersee--strange names with unusual double letters--they had to be clues! Except that I eventually noticed that the only doctored part of the box was our photo is glued onto the front--the front of a regulation Wheaties box. Wheaties boxes are just generally covered with stuff that doesn't make much sense, I guess.

The Word Search was really cool. Once you solved it, the leftover letters spelled out a secret message. The message told you that that message--could be found in the list-of-words-to-find. And there was another layer of puzzle after that. The Shinteki folks generally don't want participants to reprint their puzzles. But believe me--that puzzle was awesome. It may have seemed extra awesome because we did the first part of the solving on the boat. Emily and Pete figured out that they could look backwards over their shoulders at the puzzle and find words as they pedaled. Back on land, we finished off the puzzle while lounging on a lawn under a shady tree. Yay for lawns and shady trees.

Oh man, it's months later, and I'm still thinking that word search may have been the most elegant puzzle I've ever seen in a game.

Logistics and Wanderings

I am hazy on the order in which we encountered the next couple of puzzles.

I stole this photo from Dave's blog entry about the game. That's Pete, me, and Emily.

We drove to a tiny parking lot by a nature area--we were to walk up to a view point... Uhm, Hunter's Point, Dave says... to pick up our next puzzle. But there were no parking spots left in the tiny parking area. So we made our own spot, setting out the orange traffic cones around the car. The cones made it an official parking spot: after we hiked up, picked up the next puzzle, and hiked back, there were other vehicles parked next to ours. We packed up the cones; we drove away from the parking lot to make room for more teams.

Specifically, we drove in search of a coffee shop in which to sit and solve. We went past a dingy place, but did not stop. Nor did we stop at one of the many fast-food places and taquerias that might have sold us soft drinks. If I was an efficiency-centric team captain, I would have railed at my team about the need to settle for a dingy dive so as to not spend precious time. But one of my top reasons for enjoying these games is finding unusual places. And any strip-mall street where one can drive five miles before hitting a Starbucks is pretty unusual around here.

At the eventual Starbucks, we solved the puzzle, a fun bit of fill-in-the-blanks anagramming. And I spilled coffee all over the place; I think we took more time mopping up coffee with paper towels than we took finishing off the solution. But let's not dwell on that. Uhm, right. We went on to the next puzzle site.

In a park, speakers perched, attached to trees. The speakers kept saying "ready set go". Except that they kept leaving words out. "ready set ___, ready ___ ___, ready ___ go, ..." Each speaker spoke in a loop. Oh, it was some kind of binary--you needed to notice which words got left out. So we took a lot of notes. And then we re-took those notes when our notes didn't agree. It took us approximately forever. One thing that Dave liked: as he took notes by a tree, I stood next to him just saying "ready set go, ready set go" in time with the speaker--and not leaving any words out. This made it easier to figure out the gaps. I wasn't much help; I was boggled by Curtis' haircut again. Dave liked this puzzle--sitting in a park, working on a tricky puzzle, with snacks available. I think we received lots of hints from the hint-giving PDA; we were making progress without the hints; but we were so slow that it gave them to us for free on time-release.

[Photo: Building a bridge]
Pete, Emily, and Dave working on the bridge

Our next challenge: building a bridge from drinking straws and tape. None of us were structural engineers; based upon the performance of our first bridge attempt, it is a good thing that none of us were structural engineers. Our second attempt used some extra materials, and our solution was not pretty and it took us forever. But it worked. We moved on. (Dave points out that he built a toothpick bridge in high school and took a statics class--so I don't know what our excuse was. Anyhow.)


Next, a physical challenge: a precision Frisbee toss. We needed to earn points by tossing frisbees into baskets. Smaller baskets were worth more points. Back in the days of Geoworks Berkeley, there was the tradition of LotL: Lunch on the Lawn. Many of the employees would take some frisbees, aerobies, and/or footballs over to the UC Berkeley campus to eat lunch and goof around. We played a lot of frisbee. Dave proved the value of all that training, putting a frisbee into the 100-point basket. Boom, we were done.

Then we got a jigsaw puzzle which was covered with colored circles. It took us quite a while to put the puzzle together--it was a fun group activity. We needed hints to figure out what the circles were for. The sun went down. Emily had one of those nifty head-lamps which I used to make fun of--but wow, it sure proved useful this time. We got rained on a little. We kept cranking.

There was a puzzle we picked up after dark at the statue of the Olympic Wanna-bes; there was a puzzle that consisted of a music CD. Were these the same puzzle? Am I leaving out a puzzle? I don't remember. Anyhow.

There was this music CD full of songs. There was a puzzle based on the artist & title information for the songs. Right now you're smirking, remembering Pete's & my failure to recognize songs in the previous Shinteki. And we tried to use Dave's internet phone to search for song information based on lyrics. But lyrics websites are, of course, depraved sinkholes of poor coding that don't show up so well on handheld device browsers. All seemed lost. But here the new Shinteki hint rules really shined. Shined? Shone? Uhm, the hint system proved itself to be a Good Thing. As in previous games, we'd been given a PalmOS device running a program that would dispense hints. In the previous game, these hints had been released based on a timer. If you were stuck, you sat around waiting for the device to beep--that meant you had a new hint available. This time, you could pay points to get your hint early. (The supposed goal of the game was to score the most points. Teams scored points by solving puzzles; they could spend puzzles for hints. If your team's real goal was to have a fun time despite not being great puzzle-solvers, this pay-for-hints system was great.) We gladly, joyfully asked the PDA for the artists/titles of songs we didn't recognize, and it told us. Thus, we lost some points, but we quickly moved on to the fun part of the puzzle: using the artist/title info to get a message.

(Should I point out that these points were separate from the previously-mentioned frisbee-toss points? Well, they were.)


That sent us to a parking lot where we picked up the last puzzle, a series of boggle puzzles to solve... in three minutes before the game ended... uhm, we didn't finish that puzzle. Our PDA told us to go to the Dutch Goose. Wow, the Dutch Goose. If you read about The Game, you keep seeing references to the Dutch Goose. I'd wondered about it, now I'd get a chance to go there.

Wimpy admission: I hopped out of the car and asked Brent Holman, Shinteki official and puzzle genius, for directions to the Dutch Goose. If I was hard core, I would have navigated there.

And so I got to see the Dutch Goose, where I slumped exhausted in a corner. The rest of the team looked happy--happy and exhausted. All in all, a grand day out.


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