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Shinteki   ...   random thoughts
mon 2004-nov-08 17:28:25 pst   ...   permalink

Last saturday I participated in the second Shinteki all-day puzzle hunt event, called "Untamed". Overall it was quite well done, and I had a great time.

However, I did have a few quibbles. Most notably, there was too much reliance on web research. My feeling is that these puzzles should be self-contained, requiring very little research or domain-specific knowledge -- it should be more about your figuring-stuff-out skills than about your ability to use the web while on the road (web-heavy puzzles could be fine if you weren't also driving all over, though even then, I would probably in general find them less fun to solve)... Not that this hunt didn't have the figuring-stuff-out aspect, just that it was too heavy on the research.

Another issue is that a puzzle shouldn't be so hard that the only possible way to solve it is with hints -- it should at least feel like you could eventually have done it without the hint. When you get a hint, you should realize "oh, right, that makes sense, I just didn't notice this particular aspect before," or somesuch, rather than, "what?? we were never going to come up with that on our own!"

One of the most frustrating puzzles was one where it turned out we'd been doing exactly the right thing, but because of one little error, we couldn't see the answer. We just had one letter in the wrong position! The fact that it was the correct letter actually was just by chance, but still, we were one letter off, and could not see the answer. If you can't get it when you're that close, that shouldn't be the answer! We had it down to "AFREATEV", and we knew it was supposed to be something you might win in a sweepstakes, or somesuch. We tried "A FLAT TV" and "A FREE TV" and a number of other things around there, and we tried tweaking various of the parts we were less sure of, but nothing helped. Turns out it was "A FREE ATV" (ATV == all terrain vehicle). Huh?? Lame.

Of the other clues, well, some were better than others, but most were quite good. I think my favorite was one where they had included a whole bunch of anagrams of "Shinteki Untamed" in a body of text, and it turned out that you had to find the anagrams and then count the words in between one anagram and the next (and then apply A=1 to those counts). Reading the text, it was clear that it had been written under some constraint -- so many parts of it just sounded weird... So that was pretty cool. Solving it was also very much a team effort, which made it fun.

In preparation for this hunt, I decided to learn to read morse code, braille, and other common systems used to encode messages in these sorts of puzzle hunts. So I wrote a little "flash card" web interface for all the common encodings. It shows you a coded letter, and you just type your guess in, and it then gives you the answer and a new one to guess. I found that I was able to very quickly learn most of the codes this way -- I didn't bother studying the lookup tables first, I just started having it prompt me, and at first I didn't know any, and then gradually I'd start to know some, and eventually pretty much all of them.

Having done this turned out to be reasonably helpful, though not as much as it could have been. In particular, the only message all day which was in morse code was not even really needed to get the final answer for that puzzle; and then the part of that puzzle which involved a message in Braille wound up getting shut down by the police while we were there! (I don't know what they were thinking when they decided to take a puzzle that required both darkness and noise, and put it in a park which closes at sunset...) And semaphore never came up at all (though I think it was actually in one of the puzzles we never saw). However, A=1 came up several times, and binary came up once, so being able to do those relatively directly certainly helped.

I think their previous event, "Aquarius", did a better job of emphasizing solving skill over research capability. Also, I think it had a good deal less extraneous information in the puzzles. As one of my teammates pointed out, when writing these kinds of puzzles, the more you write, the less you say. Everything that's extraneous, whether intended or not, winds up being a red herring. And they had a lot of extraneous stuff in the flavor-text.

But anyway, complaints aside, I really did have a good time, and will very likely participate in their next event.

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