Feast of Puzzles

I’ve spoken to a lot of kids over the past few years, about puzzles and about my Winston Breen books, and one question that always comes up is this: Are the books real? Are they based on things that actually happened?

I tell the kids that, like Winston, I participate in puzzle hunts all the time — events where I get to solve puzzles with my friends, and we try to solve everything as fast as we can, racing other teams to the finish line. 99% of the time, the puzzles we solve are simply given to us on pieces of paper: Here’s a crossword, here’s a clever spin on a word seek, here are some logic puzzles. That’s fine; I love pencil puzzles. And what more can we expect? The people who put together puzzle hunts do so on their own time, and any money they spend comes out of their own wallets. Sure, it would be nice to have extra-special puzzles, puzzles that leap off the printed page, puzzles that require special props, or a cast of actors, or amazing locations — but that kind of thing gets expensive, fast.

So while Winston Breen and his friends get the opportunity to solve a puzzle that has been painted onto the cars of a Ferris wheel, that is not the kind of thing your average die-hard puzzle lover will ever get to experience in real life.

Unless that die-hard puzzle lover participates in a Game.

I first read about The Game many years ago, I forget in which magazine. It depicted a puzzle event like no other. Teams drove around all night in rented vans, solving puzzles at different locations — and these puzzles were anything but usual. When you play The Game, you might be sent to an art museum in the middle of the night — and the puzzle might be found in the very paintings on the wall. A puzzle might come in the form of a box of candy, or an intricately constructed device. That first article I read described a puzzle in the form of an out-of-control house party full of thuggish youths, and half the goal was simply recognizing that this was, indeed, the puzzle, and daring yourself to walk in.

A key element of The Game is this: It costs serious money to play it. Which means that the puzzlemakers have a sizable budget. Which means they can do pretty much anything they want, as long as they have the imagination and the expertise to make it happen.

This past weekend I finally participated in my first Game — “The Famine Games,” an event produced and largely constructed by Todd Etter. It is fair to say that it is the most ambitious, dazzling puzzle hunt I have ever experienced.

“The Famine Games” was part parody / part faithful retelling of Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy, reproduced in the form of puzzles. Twenty-four teams of 4 to 7 people became sets of tributes, sent off into the arena to kill off the other teams or die trying. From there, teams had to rise up against the corrupt government of Pangram, and finally storm the Capitol — a role portrayed by the actual United States Capitol building, as the setting of “The Famine Games” was Washington, D.C. and its environs.

Yes, among the weekend’s 70 puzzles, there were many pencil puzzles, such that you might see in any decent puzzle hunt — although in this case all the puzzles were meticulously constructed and polished to a high gleam. (I don’t recall seeing a single correction or errata. This is borderline miraculous.) But peppered among the more typical fare were puzzles to make even the most experienced puzzle-solver sit back and say “Wow!”

– One puzzle arrived in the form of Lincoln Logs, which needed to be stacked in exactly the right way in order to reveal a message. Another puzzle was presented as a small house of black-and-white Legos, the construction of which contained coded instructions. After cracking the code, we had to dismantle the house and then build it back up again in a new way. The reconstructed house spelled out a series of letters on the walls; that was the answer to the puzzle.

– Modified store-bought toys are all well and good, but we were also given astonishing, specially manufactured gizmos. The best of these by far was a gorgeous wooden cube studded with electronic readouts and sensors and etched all around with a cryptographic code. Deciphering the cryptogram, we learned that each side of the cube was keyed to a different superhero (or villain) from the X-Men series — Iceman, Magneto, Surge, Jean Grey, etc. It turned out that we had to do something to each side of the cube that was in keeping with the various X-Men. So when we placed a magnet against Magneto’s side of the cube, the electronic readout gave us a letter. When we placed an ice cube against the sensor on the Iceman side, we got a different letter. And so on. Pretty damn amazing, right? And I have barely scratched the surface on what it took to actually solve this puzzle, which had to do with binary code and using the various X-Men superpowers in combination with each other. The “Xbox,” as it was called, was one of perhaps a half-dozen puzzles that left me shaking my head with awe.

– Even the puzzles that were largely paper-and-pencil affairs were presented with joyous theatricality. A nifty hexagonal word seek involving bees actually required you to first wander into a park and cut down a plastic beehive from a tree. Another puzzle was presented at a veterinarian’s office / dog kennel, where we were greeted by a woman in a dog suit. The puzzle itself was given to us inside a stuffed canine —
we had to snip it open to reach it. A whole series of puzzles took the form of a box of cereal, complete with toy surprise. We were sent to a comic-book store; to a Denny’s; to suburban backyards and the Kennedy Center; to museums and memorials and finally to the Capitol Building itself.

– The highlight of the event was perhaps a twelve-puzzle mini-hunt embedded within the larger hunt. Hosted in the wee hours at a community center in Springfield, VA, each puzzle could be found in a separate room — and each puzzle was an imaginative combination of props and physical challenges. In one room, we had to complete three different electric circuits, using nothing but a cylinder of Play-Doh, some sections of plastic piping, a pitcher of water, and a metal bowl. In another room, we had to open three different locks in order to get at the puzzle. One small problem: We had to wear oven mitts. In yet another room, the puzzle in its entirety consisted of a flashing lightning bolt made out of white Christmas lights. Did I mention that each of the twelve puzzles had to be solved in fifteen minutes or less, and if you couldn’t manage it, you had to leave the room and come back later?

I was lucky to be on a team with Dan Katz, who can read puzzles the way normal people read their native language. At a glance, he can tell if a given puzzle will require the use of Braille, or Morse, or semaphore, or some other, totally made-up code. Everyone on the team helped shoulder the puzzle load — I had a few good moments myself, I’m happy to say. But Dan is on a whole other plane of puzzle-solving ability. It’s hard to imagine we would have solved even half as many puzzles without him.

And supersolvers were mandatory — mere enthusiasm for puzzles was not enough. Teams needed to keep a brisk solving pace, lest they risk getting “skipped” past future puzzles, missing them entirely. Some puzzles needed to shut down at a particular time; more generally, Game Control wisely wanted to keep the twenty-four teams reasonably close together as they made their way through the event. From an organizational standpoint, it would be deeply problematic to have a few teams lingering hours and hours behind everybody else.

I wonder, then, if this weekend-long feast of puzzles didn’t perhaps have too many puzzles in it. How many teams actually saw every single one of them? My guess is, not many. I thought my team acquitted itself fairly well — there was a long stretch where, puzzle after puzzle, we never even slowed down. We saw what we needed to do; we compiled all the right information; we decoded the resulting message and got our answer; and boom, we were back in our van and heading to the next location. I’d say we only got seriously stuck twice, maybe three times — out of 70 puzzles, that’s not too shabby. And yet looking at the puzzle list, I see that we were skipped past at least one puzzle and possibly more. Did every team have the equivalent of a Dan Katz on their team? If not, how many puzzles did they miss?

If Dan was our MVP, the team’s Least Valuable Player is equally easy to assign: That would be the Chevrolet Express, the van that was our home for the duration of the event. This was a much larger vehicle than we had intended to rent. We had a team of six, and would have been fine in something that could seat eight. The Express could have sat twelve people comfortably and a few more than that without much trouble; it was roughly the size of the Space Shuttle. It was certainly the largest thing I had ever attempted to drive. I split the driving duties with my friend and teammate Scott Purdy, and between the two of us, we amassed an exhausting catalog of misadventures: Quasi-legal U-turns; missed exits and wrong turns, which on DC’s unforgiving roads usually meant a twenty-minute delay before getting back on track; at least one missed-by-inches serious car accident (me); one collision with a parking garage ticket machine (Scott). At one point, I had to parallel park this monstrosity — the less said about that one, the better. At another point, I managed to get us stuck on a 75-degree downward slope. If I am sent to hell after I die, I imagine I will spend eternity looking for a parking spot near the National Mall.

The business with the van reached its ugly culmination when we got back to it after completing the final puzzles of the event: Someone had broken into it and helped himself to my iPad and my teammate’s laptop. I understand this was not strictly the van’s fault — another team got hit in the same manner — but it felt like somehow the van hated us and decided not to put up much of a fight when somebody wanted to take our stuff.

Did the robbery put a damper on things? Yes, but not as much as you’d expect. The event was just too damn good. I would do it all again even knowing up front I wouldn’t have my iPad at the end of it. The magnificent variety of puzzles, the production values, the enthusiastic volunteers — this was all worth far more than I paid. Yes, staying up all night wasn’t easy, and that damn van was a constant thorn in our sides. But “Apetitius Giganticus” was a great team — besides Dan Katz and Scott Purdy, I got to hang out for the weekend with Tyler Hinman, Rachael Groynom, and Pavel Curtis. I got to have a couple of nice brainstorms that helped propel our team forward, and that’s always a joyous moment. Ultimately, I left “The Famine Games” achy, exhausted, and hungry for more.

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  1. Dan Katz
    Posted October 2, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    You know, Eric, if you keep saying nice things about me in blog posts, I’m just going to keep asking you to solve with me… :)

    In truth, I think everybody on the team made consistently solid contributions to solving. If anything, my biggest strength is that I leap to the extraction process sooner than anyone else with the hope of wheel-of-fortuning the answer… that means I’m often the one that gets the big shout-out-the-solution moment, but it’s just as often on the basis of other people’s work.

    I would be lying if I said our 22nd-to-4th-in-five stops run wasn’t exhilarating….


  2. Thomas Snyder
    Posted October 2, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    We somehow get by with fewer solvers than other teams but I don’t think it is because of just having a high concentration of “supersolvers” [despite the team name and our members’ reputations].

    Rather, we try by design to have a range of capabilities (logic, word, meta/extraction thinking, …) and have become very good at the logistics of shifting roles around on puzzles that suit us better as those roles become apparent. For the Bracelet clue, for example, our stronger word guys built out the 12×4 grid pretty well as I got prepared to do something with the other component. I didn’t even bother molding the shape as I just drew the reverse shape from understanding what would happen. This might seem like magic to the wordsmiths, in the same way their work might seem like magic to me, but it is getting the parts working together and concurrently instead of serially that keeps us rolling — at least until puzzles where our weakness in numbers (like heavy data collection puzzles) split the team up too much and keep us from working as a unit.


  3. Elaine (Tyger)
    Posted October 2, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this description. I wondered what the event was all about. Y’all are as good or better than I am at solving puzzles, but if you need a driver next year, I’d love to tag along for that.


  4. Todd
    Posted October 4, 2013 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    Great writeup, Eric. You could definitely make the argument that we had too many puzzles. At times, I felt the same way. But ultimately, I think it worked out just about right. I think it’s a simple case of do you want lead teams finishing way early and possibly being disappointed? Or do you want the slowest teams missing out on some puzzles and feeling short-changed? I don’t think there’s really a perfect solution here.

    Our hope was to create a really fun “core” experience that everybody saw and then let the faster teams see bonus stuff with the hope that most teams would finish in between 2 and 4PM. We came pretty close to that. I think as long as people don’t feel like they missed out on the defining puzzle of the event, this is probably fine. But sometimes it’s tough to judge. People really enjoyed Avox catch-phrase, for example, but since we really didn’t know how that would play out, we had it as a non-core activity. I feel bad that every team didn’t get to do that now, since it apparently was a complete hoot. :)


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