Local puzzle hunts, part 2: Daffle and Bash

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tagged: boston, mystery hunt, puzzle hunts, baphl, interactive fiction, dash, if

And now, the part where I review DASH and BAPHL (spring 2011 editions). Okay, not really review. The part where I call out some interesting aspects of each, and compare them. Because I like it when game design improves over time.

The first point of comparison is how well we did. (I speak for the mighty puzzle-solving engine that is Team Win Lose Or Banana.) BAPHL has not yet posted official results, but unofficially, WLB was the second team to finish, after Team Plugh. DASH's scores are also sort of unofficial, but it looks like we're at the 75% mark in the pack. (Both nationally and among Boston teams.)

Difficulty: I'd say the two events were just about at the same difficulty level. (For comparison, a Panda hunt is considerably harder.) DASH and BAPHL each had some good solid thinkers, some puzzles that took a lot of pencil-pushing but weren't really difficult, a couple of puzzles that made us say "That's all? I feel like this should have another stage," and a meta that we sweated over for 45 minutes, asked for a hint, and then felt stupid for missing the obvious.

The most obvious distinction between the hunts is that BAPHL, unlike DASH, has two difficulty settings: hard mode and easy mode. (Oh, they call it "normal", but I'm on a Mystery Hunt team so I'm allowed to call it "easy". Says so right here.) This year, the puzzles were the same in the two modes, but the easy players got more information -- free letters filled out, clearer instructions, etc. Last year, I believe, the easy mode had different puzzles (although generally related).

This dual approach is clearly a big win for puzzlers (albeit a big extra workload for puzzle-designers). It goes a long way towards addressing the "but how do we get into this sport?" problem that I talked about in my last post. This is not to say that all hunt designers should be doing this; the cost is obvious, and writing (e.g.) an "easy mode" for the Mystery Hunt would kill the designers dead. But it's worth thinking about.

This gets into the second-order question of whether puzzle hunts should be trying to attract new participants. Purely online hunts (like Panda) scale well, but real-life events don't. Larger groups have increased organizational costs, both in effort and (eventually) in money. ("We need a permit for this?")

I guess my position is that as more people become interested in puzzle-hunting, more hunts will arise. People will say "Damn, we should really do one of these ourselves," and presto -- new hunt event. Of course that's easy for me to say. I've never... ahem. I did run a tiny puzzle hunt event in college. (It wasn't very good. I wasn't part of the culture yet and had no idea how they were supposed to go.) Anyhow, I've never been on a modern hunt-running team, so I should talk, right? But I don't believe that this should be a closed hobby, where the same group of people write hunts and play hunts forever. Ergo, there should be more hunts. Ergo, there should be more puzzle creators (because the ones I know are already working their butts off!) Ergo, there should be more puzzle enthusiasts. It won't be a stress-free growth path, but hey.

What was I talking about? BAPHL and DASH, right.

Pacing: BAPHL used the traditional marathon model. All the teams start at the same time; when you solve a puzzle you get more puzzles immediately; the first team to solve the final puzzle is the winner. (With adjustments if you ask for hints.) This is how the Mystery Hunt works, and it's straightforward. It produces a somewhat frenetic experience, since you're always "on the clock", but for a lot of players that's part of the fun.

(Note that "on the clock" does not have to mean "rushed". My team has an enthusiastic-but-not-stressed policy -- this goes for my Mystery Hunt team as well -- and this leads us to comfortably high, but not first-place, outcomes. In particularly, we did really well in BAPHL even though we never felt like we had sprinted.)

DASH had a different setup. All the teams start the first puzzle at the same time, but they're only timed while solving; the clock stops once you solve a puzzle. You then discover the location of the next puzzle. (This is itself a puzzle, but a deliberately easy one). You hike over there, and when you pick up your next puzzle, the clock starts again.

This is clearly to avoid penalizing people in difficult-to-navigate cities (DASH is a multi-city event) and people with mobility problems. (Which included me, as it turned out. I twisted the heck out of my ankle after puzzle 3, and spent the rest of DASH limping and grinning and swearing I was fine.) But it has the extremely nice benefit that you can take breaks -- stopping for lunch between puzzles doesn't cost anything. BAPHL, in contrast, encourages you to grab a sandwich and eat it at the puzzle table.

Use of space: DASH, running in many cities simultaneously, necessarily treated its territory in a fairly generic way. We had a map, and (as noted) we had to find locations on it, but these were clued as arbitrary markers. Every city had the same markers scattered around a different map. I gather that each city's organizers tried to match the puzzles to local landmarks, but it wasn't particularly visible to the players.

BAPHL was specific to Brookline, MA, and it used its space very well indeed. Early in the hunt, teams were given a "runaround": follow directions through a few blocks of the city, noting clues. Traditional enough for a hunt. But a later puzzle was photo scavenging on the same streets, which was considerably more fun than it could have been, simply because we had walked the territory already. The meta, too, turned out to involve that path and its landmarks in a sneaky way. These were simple elements, and certainly not the hardest parts of the hunt -- running around the city was more of a solving break than a solving experience. Nonetheless, it tied the afternoon together very nicely.

(The BAPHL designers, when asked, confessed that they hadn't planned this. Well, good work anyway.)

The Metapuzzles: DASH's meta turned into a whole argument behind the scenes, we later found out. I'm going to skip that, because really, it was just one of those well-that-puzzle-was-a-little-awkward-wasn't-it things that crop up in every puzzle event ever. (Go listen to a bunch of puzzle players at a post-hunt dinner, if you don't believe me.)

Instead, I will note the experience that Win Lose Or Banana had in both hunts, which was overthinking the hell out of some part of the meta. Lesson: before you go writing down columns of words and looking for the common letters, try reading the diagonal.

(I apologize to you non-Mystery-Hunt readers, who are asking "why the diagonal?" Just trust me: the diagonal is the first thing you try. First letter of the first answer, second letter of the second answer, and so on. It's obvious and usually right. You have to have figured out what order the answers go in, of course. Looking for common letters in two columns is obscure, wacky, and probably wrong.)

Narrative: This is an odd-dude-out category, because the Mystery Hunt tradition has very clear ratios: twenty minutes of narrative setup, then 48 hours of puzzles, then a bit more storyline at the end when everybody is too punch-drunk to object. It's not that players object to storytelling, it's just that they don't want it to interfere with their fun.

However: I am interested in interactive narrative, so I get to talk about it. Says so right -- er, well, somewhere around here.

(I'm distinguishing here between narrative and theme. Theme plays well in hunts, because puzzles have flavor text -- which can contain clues. The puzzles also have organization and structure, which can be thematic in both obvious and sneaky ways.)

DASH had a fairy-tale theme, which was maintained throughout. However, the story content was a sheet of text at the beginning and another at the end, which we were more or less explicitly told to ignore. Pity.

BAPHL had much more going on. The theme was Lovecraftian (as the web site hints). The teams were started off with a quick spoken introduction -- basically what you see on the web page -- and then handed their first puzzles. However, this was not a solvable puzzle per se. Each team assembled a jigsaw puzzle into what was clearly a small piece of a larger jigsaw puzzle. Everyone therefore gathered to put their pieces together.

The designers were clearly aiming to draw players into the storyline by use of the game mechanics -- puzzles and puzzle-solving action. The initial jigsaws were of course very easy; and the reward for assembling everything was not a big puzzle, but a chunk of story. Nonetheless, the players all seemed happy with the setup. It came across as an introduction rather than a distraction.

The plot continued with some nifty twists in the middle and a satisfying (albeit low-budget) conclusion. Our only disappointment was that the cipher drawn on the initial jigsaw never reappeared. Obviously it wasn't practical to solve a cipher on the initial jigsaw -- eighty players packed around one sheet of paper can't all have a good time. But the designers could have handed us copies halfway through, to be used in the endgame somehow. Even as a token bit of decipherment, rather than a serious puzzle, it would have made a nice tie-up.

Organization: Ahem. Neither hunt has posted official team rankings. The events themselves went off fine, to be fair.

DASH had another whole argument behind the scenes, about the scoring. I still won't get into it, because I know some of those people (and I don't want to see them cry). Coordinating twelve local hunt-running groups is clearly difficult, let's just say that. Possibly it's not worth it? But then, having those twelve teams write twelve independent hunts would be a huge cumulative effort too. I don't know.

In conclusion: Fun!