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Dan Egnor's Thoughts on Midnight Madness [Apr. 10th, 2008|09:56 am]
Posted because Dan doesn't have a blog.


Nobody does theme like Snout. Seriously. Most Games (including all the ones we've run) have a theme sort of pasted on top, in flavor text and iconography and the occasional "cut scene". Snout games, particularly recent ones, are really schooling us all in how a theme can actually weave into the experience of a game. There were several times during this game which really *felt* like the movie. If only we had been able to destroy more expensive props...

So that was awesome. I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say we'll really miss you guys.

My quibbles mostly have to do with the "arbitrary" feel of some of the puzzles (which is a philosophical thing, I think, see my notes about the X=3 puzzle), the use of "off the shelf" puzzles in some places (not actually a big deal) and the fact that teams would often get bunched up and released all at once (making earlier gains and losses feel moot -- see the Pinball City notes).

Kick-off: Midnight Madness trivia contest

I appreciate why this was done: it's a group activity, highly thematic, fun to watch, and creates some initial spread. I didn't really like the way it worked out, though. Psychologically, at the start of the game, we're all really, really excited to get started, and having to wait for other people to have their names drawn, come up, and answer a question mostly just causes anxiety. The random-draw aspect also feels gratuitously unfair -- of course those extra 15 minutes probably won't matter in the end, but right at the start it felt like a really big deal. I really prefer the good old "tear open the envelope on the mark" kickoff.

First puzzle: Simple cryptic-ish wordplay, hex calculator numbers

We got "shoreline" and "vista" right away, and because we're Googlers we knew what it was talking about. We didn't figure out the hex thing until we were most of the way there. Familiarity with the area is a perfectly fair thing to use when solving, but familiarity with the Google environment felt a little dirty for some reason. Maybe it's just that the community has a lot of Google and a lot of Stanford, and things that depend on knowing things about one of those campuses feel sort of unfair. Compare this with the Cardinal Coffee clue, below.

Anyway, the clue itself was fine. It fit nicely with the first clue from the movie. The calculator thing was a little "geekier" than I expected for some reason but I think that's just me.

Vista slope: X=3

There aren't enough survey-distant-objects puzzles in Games, so I was happy to see this. It was also nice when preparation comes in handy, and Corey's nice image-stabilized binoculars were great for the Crittenden text (which was barely legible with the binoculars GC was handing out). So that was cool. And, of course, it was a great reference to the movie.

But I was otherwise frustrated with this clue. It seemed obvious that there were three sets of equations, and we (along with every other team) spent a great deal of time carefully surveying the scene for it. Apparently it was simply not visible from the top of the hill. This feels deeply wrong for some reason (and I don't think it's just me): putting the mailbox at the summit really makes it seem like the puzzle ought to be solved by looking around from there.

The tubes were a nice touch, and a good way to handle oncoming darkness, but it was sad that we all ended up having to use them. The tubes also taught us that several items of apparent information (the order of the lines in each sign, the position of the girls with respect to the equations, the placement of parentheses) weren't important, because they differed in the tube version. That was dissatisfying.

But above all, it felt weird and really, really arbitrary to just set X=3 and add up all the equations. We actually went through several "maybe X really is just one fixed value" possibilities, but since many of the equations ended up negative, we discarded it. Why add them up? Why not multiply them, or concatenate them, or combine them in lots of other plausible ways? I think this puzzle very directly points at the major difference between Snout's puzzle design philosophy and ours: the Snout school holds that searching a space of equally plausible mechanisms for extracting an answer is fair game; we hold that in an elegant puzzle, there should really only be one reasonable way to get an answer (if you're smart enough to recognize what it is).

We went through many, many alternatives, including digit pangrams for X, Diophantine equations, and all kinds of things, many of which yielded decent partial answers (but of course no final answer), many of which seem like they would have been better puzzles than what we got.

Acorn's house: Piano music

This was a good music clue. It would have really sucked to not have musical talent on the team... but fortunately, we did. (I wonder what the experience was like for a team that took GC up on their offer to play for them.) The mechanism was clean. It took us a while to recognize the final jingle, but once we made sure to borrow the timing of the sour notes (not just their pitch), it came out quickly in a great "ahhhh" moment. Also, of course, the whole thing was nicely thematic.

We had fun acting out a scene from the movie, and other teams reported enjoying their creative challenges. This is notable because we're usually grumpy about creative challenges. A skit or scene enactment is IMHO a lot nicer than being asked to write a poem or something, because you can just do it without feeling like you're struggling not to obsess over iambic pentameter.

Hopefully the videos will show up somewhere.

Tied House brewery (or rather, the Old Spaghetti Factory next door): Nonagram rebus

Something was seriously wrong with the placement of this clue. Stuff happens, of course, but it would have been nice to get more help from GC sooner. This was one of several places where, for one reason or another, several teams ended up bunched up and then released all at once (in this case, once GC finally told some team where to find the clue).

I was actually expecting a lot more "easter egg hunt" clue sites, since the movie tended to have that. I sort of dread those, and our team had spent some time discussing how to do better on them. This was really the only one, though, and it was broken, so much for that.

The nonagrams were very "stock", we all expected there to be some twist but there wasn't; that was sort of strange. The scrambled rebus was pretty much straight out of the movie, which was cool. We actually mentioned the word "cardinal" several times, but since none of us had ever heard of Cardinal Coffee, and there are lots of Cardinal businesses, it didn't help us. Also, the "coffee" really looked a lot like tea, in a cup with a rounded bottom. I looked at it several times and said to myself "yes, someone definitely drew this picture specifically to say *tea*, not 'cup' or 'coffee' or 'drink' or 'hot'...". A simple square bottom would have helped a lot.

I imagine a team which was familiar with Cardinal Coffee (a major local landmark, I guess -- one of us had actually been there, though he hadn't remembered the name) could have an experience much like we did with Vista Slope. That's fair.

Cardinal Coffee: Breast-euphemism word search

We found the word search right away in the Metro. Not sure how other teams fared with finding the "waitress" plant (I was a little sorry later to find out we missed that -- but not too sad since it gave us a time advantage).

Giggling over the euphemisms was fun. Otherwise, it was just a vanilla cross-off-the-words-and-read-the-message, right down to "you should probably start at the end, to get the actual answer and skip the long intro filler text".

Purple Moose: Words in the convertible

Driving around with the hilarious couple was super fun. It was one of the least thematic clues (there is a connection, but it's tenuous), but that's okay, the actors more than made up for it in sheer brilliance.

The actual solving was another instance of arbitrariness, though not too bad really. We needed a nudge from GC ("look for the patterns between the words"), but given that we started looking at shared letters and eventually found the answer. What really threw us for a loop here were the pointed references to Scrabble in the patter (not just the word "scrabble", but commentary about how "rattlesnake" was placed on two triple word scores and scored 800 points and so on), which seemed like it very directly indicated a solution where the words would be placed on a Scrabble board, or at least have their point values computed. That really seemed like a gratuitous red herring.

Golfland: "Fore-" words

Normally I would think it was unfair to hose a team that didn't play through the course. In this case, given the movie, I think it's totally fine.

We collected the data from the cards, and after getting stuck for a little while some people went out to roll the balls through all the "interactive" holes, and they discovered the message. Other teams who actually played the course weren't so lucky -- they thought the audio recordings were just a normal part of the course, and disregarded them. Adding some sort of "Leon says" flavor there might have helped, but eh, we've made worse mistakes. :) Also, other teams can't help but notice the activity around the air hockey tables, so you won't be hosed forever unless you leave the site or something.

With all the data in hand, the puzzle was pretty straightforward. I really do like how it simulated the experience of the movie, where rushing through and skipping the experience makes you miss the vital information. I wonder if any team actually played an honest round of mini golf. Oh, and it was cool to be at a place that was warm and had tables and served snacks and had bathrooms and stuff.

Diridon Station: Radio music clue

Fortunately we called GC when we got there and were told to check out the Obama sign, otherwise I doubt we would have found the clue. Having struggled with setting up a mini radio station ourselves for a clue, I appreciate that the radio broadcaster worked quite well, and the channels were well separated! Kudos to the technical team.

The actual clue was a bit frustrating because the announcement text seemed to be specifically saying that the band name was *not* important. Only after we called GC and had that impression corrected did we go back to look. It really didn't help that some of the pieces were from musicals or TV theme songs, which don't really have an obvious "artist" (the composer? the performer? the name of the musical/show?), which seemed like it was confirming "artist doesn't matter". And the actual solution seemed to rely on a sort of loosely defined overlap of phonetics between the artist on one side and the title on another, with no particular ordering? Maybe there was a deeper pattern we missed that made it all clean and tidy.

VTA station: Hare Krisha typo text

I guess not too many teams actually had to solve this puzzle. It was... kind of tedious. The initial "aha" where you realize there are different versions is kind of neat, and the final "aha" where you recognize the picture is definitely neat, but in between it's an English teacher's nightmare. After a while, in the middle of the night, your eyes just slide right over the typos...

Greyhound terminal: Lolcatz

I really like the idea of a lolcatz puzzle, and I really like the idea of the "corrections", as if some enraged English teacher (continuing the theme) had come upon a lolcat archive and gone mad. Also, the actual images brought a nice dose of levity, always welcome during the wee hours. A word chain is also a nice thing to be doing in the wee hours, you can plug away identifying phrases and lining things up without having to exercise those strategic-planning brain segments that would really rather just doze off.

The actual correction mechanic, with the crossed-out insert/delete signs, was a little strange and arbitrary. I actually slept through much of the puzzle, so I wasn't sure how much trouble this really gave us.

"Pinball City" (Calderon Ave, Mountain View): Star Fire video game

We never did recognize the Q*bert sound, and needed a hint for that. When we did enter the correct initials (and another team did so around the same time), pretty much all the teams there got the answer. This was another place (and quite late in the game) where a "bunching" effect occurred, which felt like it sort of defeated any earlier progress differences. (It was especially weird because many teams had been skipped over the typo clue.)

The directions to "watch your score" were a little strange; many of us spent quite a while poring over the score while shooting blue enemies (which are always worth the same amount). Eventually we thought maybe it was an oblique way of referring to the musical *score* of the game, but technically sound effects aren't the score, and anyway that's super oblique and seems like an unnecessary red herring.

It also seemed weird for the whole puzzle to hinge on the ability to recognize these specific video game sounds, with no escape hatch at all if you can't.

Stanford Memorial Auditorium: Hissy Fit

This was really, really, really great. Every team that saw this clue had funny stories.

Stanford Oval: Don't Get Hammered

We tend to have a "hate-hate" relationship with physical challenge puzzles... but we all quite enjoyed this one. The deflation of the balls was sort of unfortunate but in some ways made things easier to deal with. Everyone seemed like they had a good time, and it was a good way to let off some steam after a lot of hours in the van.

It seemed like maybe there should have been one or two fewer hammers on the field, though. Other players were brutal with hammers at first -- it was hard to even get a peek at "popular" balls. Once GC took over the hammers, things seemed a lot more fair; you got some chance to look at things, but you had to keep moving and work for it.

The actual puzzle was sort of a slog with all that data, it was an exercise in careful note-taking, which is challenging to do in the run-around sweaty environment of the game, but that's all part of the clue. Still, I think making it 2/3 the size might have improved matters. It's really hard to test out this kind of thing, though, and GC did a great job of adapting.

From: clynne
2008-04-10 05:16 pm (UTC)
What was the movie? Or did you leave the name out on purpose?

And is Snout a person or a team?
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[User Picture]From: persona
2008-04-11 01:00 am (UTC)
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From: clynne
2008-04-11 01:26 am (UTC)
Aha, I get it.
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-04-11 02:23 pm (UTC)
Snout's a team (http://www.snout.org/Game/).

This post came about because there was some dinnertime discussion where someone referred to something I said in this writeup, and someone else said "oh, you did a writeup, where is it?" and I said "um, it's not posted anywhere, I just mailed it to Snout directly, but I can send you a copy" and various snarky comments were made about me not having a blog and Wei-Hwa said something like "I'll post it on my blog, then" and I said "sure, sounds good".

I haven't seen any other reviews of the game unfortunately. I guess Wei-Hwa is too busy to write it up. Actually, so am I, but I felt the need to procrastinate instead of working on performance reviews.

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From: clynne
2008-04-11 05:50 pm (UTC)
Oh, hey, nice to see ya.
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[User Picture]From: cuthalion
2008-04-12 10:34 pm (UTC)
FWIW, we (lowkey) found the preclue.
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[User Picture]From: neilfred
2008-04-14 08:59 am (UTC)
Dan -- thanks for taking the time to write this up. Our experience (Here Be Dragons) was pretty similar on a number of points, so it's nice to hear others agree. :)

We found the word search right away in the Metro. Not sure how other teams fared with finding the "waitress" plant (I was a little sorry later to find out we missed that -- but not too sad since it gave us a time advantage).

That was our bad, really -- we probably should have just picked up a copy and walked away, but we didn't immediately find the sheets inside and since it seemed unmodified, we were hesitant to walk away just yet. So then when you guys walked up it was pretty obvious that you should look there. Ah well.

I wonder if any team actually played an honest round of mini golf.

We speculated that we were probably the only team that (more or less) did. We didn't keep score, and we didn't necessarily finish every hole, but at each hole, all five of us actually teed off and tried to finish the hole for at least a few strokes.

After the frustration of "intuit the value of X", "wander around near Tied House", and "ignore Scrabble", as well as some actually-our-own-fault difficulties, playing mini-golf was a welcome fun thing to do. Unfortunately, doing so gave us no advantage over teams that just collected the images, as we assumed "Fore!" to be part of the regular course and completely failed to hear the air hockey message.

The directions to "watch your score" were a little strange;

There was relevance there -- although the blue ships were all worth the same number of points, which video game noise you got when shooting a blue ship depended on your score before shooting it. 0-99: no sound; 100-199: Donkey Kong; 200-299: Pac-Man; 300-399: Q-Bert; and then it repeated so 400s were Donkey Kong again and 500s Pac-Man... So this gave the ordering DPQ, which was what led us to the idea to punch that in for the initials.
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