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November 20th, 2013

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11:28 pm - Puzzle Hunts past
Quickly wrapping up some puzzle hunts past: as forewarned, there have been two online hunts in the last month or so. Meg and I took part, forming part of teams which brought UK solvers together by Skype, so we could all solve from the comfort of our own home. Both were very enjoyable in their own way, and both are still available to be solved online at your own pace if you like.

1) Ghost Patrol Reconstructed saw us take part as a team that was a cross between the Riddler on the Hoof DASH team and the group that got together for our party in October. The puzzles were very highly thematic with quite a degree of variety, though - as suggested - they were all "print out and solve" to a stronger extent than we anticipated. Ghost Patrol Recon advertised itself as featuring no codes and did particulalrly well at largely avoiding standard puzzle hunt encryption techniques.

As the hunt is still available for people to solve (you can still register your team and solve the puzzles, though you won't be scored) then I'll not go into great detail about them. However, they were towards the tougher end of the spectrum. We took about 5-6 hours for the whole hunt, using fairly extensive hints on the last three puzzles and needing a giveaway for one of them. In truth, we don't quite understand the logic in a couple of places, even after having our solutions accepted. Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed the hunt; the "Aha!"s were sufficiently meaty and hard-earned to be very satisfying. Many thanks to the organisers for putting the hunt together and for making it available to the world at large.

For the record, I fairly extensively promoted the hunt among the UK puzzle community. Four teams participated. I haven't worked out who the fourth team was, which is actually not a bad thing.

2) The Octothorpean Order saw us take part as a team that was near enough a subset of the group that got together for our party in October, with only a dash of the DASH team (a very welcome influence, nevertheless!) and another long-time puzzle teammate trying to keep in touch by e-mail when the action and teamwork were on Skype.

Octothorpe has long been mooted and planned as an overtly newcomer-friendly, almost didactic puzzle hunt, with an aim to introduce people to some of the puzzle hunt enciphering conventions. It's not a spoiler to suggest that early puzzles might be very gentle introductions to, for instance, morse and semaphore, and a dozen other standard techniques, then slightly more cryptic morse and semaphore variations, then morse and semaphore together and all manner of combining or dressing up the standard techniques. Nevertheless, there were some similarities in wordplay to the ones used in Ghost Patrol Recon.

I think Octothorpe is a tremendous addition to the puzzle hunt landscape and one that I wish had existed years ago. For years, people have been writing about all manner of exciting games; this is a development that means that people can go from reading about puzzle hunts to playing one, from their own home. (I'm not saying it's the first such example - for instance, The Puzzle Boat is, what, eight years old, and comes from an author with an impeccable puzzle hunt pedigree. I haven't played it yet so cannot compare.)

The second reason why I think Octothorpe is such a big step forward, and so well-focused towards newcomers, is that it has really well-designed confirmations of partial answers and a thoughtfully-engineered, generous hinting system. The arguable downside is that progress is really only on an honour basis and you could probably shoot through the whole works in an hour by rapidly clicking on the hints button apace. Similarly, it is always acknowledged that there can be no limit to team sizes and so immense teams could be event more efficient still at parallelising the solving process.

All this means that the hunt is not all that competitive, and there are no obvious permanent records of anyone having "won" to the exclusion of others, though ours is not the only team to have collected a goodly assortment of "merit badges" (achievements!) and I think we're convinced our team was the sixth to crack the big "conspiracy" metapuzzle that, more or less, defines the organised end of the hunt. (To be fair, there are plenty of - effectively - optional extra "bonus tracks" afterwards, particularly with location-specific sections, and the system has been set up to add additional arcs relatively easily in the future.)

Huge credit and appreciation must go to Larry Hosken, the principal driver behind the progress of the Octothorpean Order - and so much more. Very similar infrastructure was used for the 2-Tone Game of his that we remotely enjoyed at our party last month, and it also underpinned the answer processing of Ghost Patrol Reconnected. (Larry wrote about his perspective of adapting the technology for GPR, too.)

Larry is also one of the foremost documentors of puzzle hunts past, with a delightful writing style. His blog is always worth a read; you can filter to the puzzle hunt tag to see most of a decade's worth of claims that puzzle hunts are everywhere. Much as his technical take above from behind the scenes at GPR, he has written about his experience behind the server for Octothorpe; fascinating reading, and rather more concise than I can manage.

There's a school of thought that applied to some of the initial incarnations of one of the generations of the Stanford Game tradition of sequential live-action puzzle hunts, whereby the activity was participated in by quite a closed community and part of the attraction was the secrecy and underground nature of the enterprise. Doubtless there are plenty of other such closed communities having all sorts of exciting fun that we don't know about.

I think it's possible to make a variety of cases about how accessible the world of puzzle hunts can be, and doubtless there are all manner of levels of engagement. Case in point: Goldman Sachs' recent Midnight Madness where the minimum buy-in was US$50k per team of ten; $2.9 million was raised, and the event "cost about $360,000 to produce". A team known from "our" part of the puzzle hunt world won, but by only three minutes, or a fraction of a percent. It's fascinating to consider how the puzzle hunt tradition can independently evolve and reoccur through time and space, and how the different manifestations of the tradition manage not to get in touch with each other. Oh wait the Isle of Man in 1930 wait what?

In general, though, I have the liberal presumption and bias that barriers to entry, while not necessarily inherently bad, need unusual justification. I love those who bring the world of puzzle hunts to the masses - or, at least, the self-selecting niche, but increasing the number of people who might decide to look to see whether it's for them. Anyway, I salute Larry Hosken for all his work and this important step forward, and it's not just because he linked to my previous post. *whistles innocently*

If you think you might enjoy puzzle hunt-like activities but don't really know where to start, or think you can't start, there are few (if any) places to start better than The Octothorpean Order. Go! Now!

3) If the Octothorpean Order is the most accessible of online puzzle hunts, then perhaps the most accessible of in-person hunt-style puzzle competitions might be Puzzled Pint. I've talked about it on short-form social media, but rather less here, other than through passing mentions in the previous post. Also, "hunt-style puzzle competitions" is a particularly unwieldy bunch of words, but it could well be argued that a sense of mobility or transport is an essential component of the in-person hunt nature (if only to avoid the extra qualifier of "conference-room-style"), which is why Puzzled Pint seems usually to be described alongside events using the word "hunt" rather than as one.

So I reran an old edition of Puzzled Pint as part of my birthday celebration last month; teams (in our case, of four) solved a location puzzle to find the identity of a pub at which they would be presented with four puzzles (and in our case, a metapuzzle relying on the four puzzles' answers) of various types, loosely connected by a theme. One of the solvers, Dan, enjoyed it so much that he is starting to run the event on a monthly basis in London. Hurrah! Puzzled Pint has been running for over three years in Portland and Seattle for over one, so it's long been a multi-venue event - and now three locations for the price of one, rather than two as before.

Writing about the first London Puzzled Pint is more difficult for me because, well, I didn't attend. (Shift patterns are working out badly; I won't be at December's, either, and January's is looking unlikely as well; I'm building up shift swaps, but will need to cash them in for DASH.) However, Meggie did. She had a great time! She was on rather a strong team (with David J. Bodycombe and two couples, with QI researchers heavily represented) and fairly raced through the puzzles. A week and a bit after the event, the standings have not yet been posted, but I understand their rather stacked team may have been quickest in London and their time may well have been globally competitive.

The London event had 24 attendees forming five teams, which is tremendous; my notional money was on 14 attendees and three teams. Part of the attendance might be due to the novelty as being a first-time event and willingness to support the very sociable host, so the challenge is to maintain the momentum going into the second month and beyond. On the other hand, month two will be a rare Tuesday evening that doesn't clash with the Quiz League of London, so perhaps sundry Eggheads and others who like both quizzes and puzzles might be able to attend.

Congratulations to Dan for the success of the first event and I dearly hope that people bring their friends in future months to enjoy the puzzles. London is a long way away for many UK readers, but if Meggie can come down from here in Stockton-in-Tees to attend... *whistles*

To be fair, there are probably far more US-based readers who are struggling from the only US venues being Portland and Seattle. However, if the event can be transported and simultaneously recast from the Pacific North-West to London, there's no reason why it couldn't be recast elsewhere in the US... or elsewhere in the UK. DASH has grown over the years and might well provide a model, or at least some similarities.

I think a large part of why I've been so obsessed with puzzle hunts over the last (grief, I wish I knew how many) years, and have increased the extent of my participation over the last year or so, is a long-held belief that puzzle hunt participants and organisers are the people having the most interesting, exciting and relevant-to-me fun on the planet at the moment. It would be interesting to trace my obsessions over the years as to which different groups of gamers have borne that mantle as technology and availability have changed, but would take some serious research.

I've long kept a slightly suspicious but mostly admiring sidelong glance at the work of Fire Hazard's street games. Their action-movie-paralleled mission, with a serious focus on physical exertion, is seriously Not My Jam, but I love the thought they have put into clarifying their manifesto over the years and their generosity into making their assembly kit available for free. Effectively, it's the collected wisdom from years of design documents and experimentation. Similarly, I admire the clarity of thought that FH's principal Gwyn Morfey puts into his blog posts, but his preferences and drivers make it hard for me to feel I can relate to him. Interesting, cool, very likely to have lessons for puzzle hunt people to learn from - at least, if they're more open-minded than me - but very, very Other.

Please redirect any comments here, using OpenID or (identified, ideally) anonymous posting; there are comment count unavailable comments to the post already. Thank you!
Current Mood: impressedintrigued!


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