Saturday, June 30, 2007


This summer has had a lot of games crammed into a short time. Or maybe it just feels that way because we were so busy with NMS. Anyway, coed astronomy recently played in BATH3 on June 9-10 and the Google Puzzle Hunt on June 23-24. Here the write-up for BATH3.

BATH3 (Picasa Album)

BATH3 was a Pirate themed all-weekend game (yes, everyone said "Yarrrrrr"... a lot...). There were several major differences between BATH3 and other weekend games, however. First, the majority of the puzzles were written by other teams, rather than by GC. Secondly, we were asked to bring tents and sleeping bags, and we actually camped over night, rather than solving clues non-stop. And lastly, there was this weird point based side-economy for bartering for hints and help.

The Clues

Each team playing had the opportunity to write a clue. The benefits of this were that during the application process, you had priority over teams who didn't write a clue, and then during the game, you basically got to skip a clue for free. It was an interesting idea, though not one that coed astronomy would ever be likely to consider. It's all of the painful stuff (logistics and site scouting) with non of the fun stuff (clue writing)!

I'm curious to know how this worked from a GC perspective, since it meant less work, but I'm sure it was also much more difficult to ensure quality control on the clues. There was also an incentive for teams to make their clue as difficult/time consuming as GC would allow, and I'd be curious if GC had to deal with this issue at all.

I think my general reaction to the clues was mixed. There were some really awesome ones in there (Lowkey's crates clue was awesome, and puzzles by Ian never disappoint), but there were also some not-so-great or at least could-have-been-much-better puzzles. For example, I'm usually a fan of origami puzzles, but there's nothing like spending a ton of time trying to get the parrot to fold right, only to find out that you didn't need to have folded him at all. Also, the battleship/nautical flags clue (is that a French pinnace in your pants or are you just happy to see me?) was such a good idea, but it was so hard for more than 2 people to work on it at once.

There was one clue that we got skipped over, and while we were pissed at the time, I think it was probably good in the long run that we got skipped. From NMS, my elements clue may have been "[h]ands down, the worst puzzle in the event", but at least it didn't get peed on by not one, but two pirates! I would imagine that Stanford would be a little miffed by gamers peeing in the hallways of Terman.

Along with the regular puzzles, there were a set of mini puzzles. Since we weren't driving or navigating, Jan and I monopolized most of these early on. They were a nice diversion when we were stuck on the actual clues, or when we were doing something that not all of us could work on. Because they were a lot of fun, it was rather unfortunate that they really didn't matter much at all until the meta puzzle, which I think most teams didn't get to do.

The Camping

So, unlike the members of my team who are frightened of earwigs or don't like the outdoors or whatever, I was actually very excited at the prospect of camping. I haven't gone camping in a long long time, and this game was an excellent excuse, and I thought this was the coolest "innovation" that BATH3 brought to the game. This also meant I was tasked with solving the "tent" clue. Really, it's only like 5 steps to assemble the tent, but when Yar pulled out one of the poles and said "ok, so we put this down on the ground like the foundation, right?", I decided it might be best if I took the lead.

GC provided burgers and hotdogs, as well as soda and chips at the camp site. Given the $100/person entry fee and the likely low budget of most of the clues, we were hoping for something a little better. Having just run our game a few weeks prior, we were very familiar with the costs of various game expenses, and so I think we were a little more critical of things like this than we would have been otherwise.

After dinner, we hit up the mini-carnival for our various dubloons. After looking over the trading game and realizing that it was conceptually mostly the same as my BANG12 trading game (start with a random hand and a limited amount of information, trade with teams for rules or cards, various combinations of cards are worth points), Yar and I immediately sold our whole hand to Ian's team for skulls. This is not to say that my BANG12 game was in any way original, but more that I thought it was such an awesome idea at the time, but hated it afterwards and don't plan on doing anything similar in the future. Trading games are so cool in theory--optimization, limited information, interaction with other teams--but in practice, I simply don't like them.

On the plus side, though we kicked ass on all of the other carnival dubloons. I solidly bested Captain Bloodbath at liar's dice (the Captain really needs to learn to bluff better!), Jan turned in her pirate panda (sword, treasure map, eye patch, and all!), Justin did something involving a canon, and Yar and I wrote a limerick which I will attempt to reproduce here from memory:
Captain Bloodbath was a terrible menace,
He sailed the high seas on his pinnace,
But when he went ashore,
To consort with a whore,
She said "my that's an awful small....... nose"

The actual camping was what you might expect--everyone was smelly, the tent was a little cozy, there was some sort of pinecone under the tent right in the middle of my back, etc. At least there were warm showers in the morning. I thought it was fun enough that I'm trying to organize a coed astronomy camping trip, at least.

The Skull Economy

At the beginning of the game, we were given some number of skulls (50?), each of which were worth a single point. For comparison, a clue was worth 100 points if solved without hints. We were told we could trade the skulls to other teams for any form of assistance. Because the hint system was very restrictive, this generated an entire economy out of the skulls. GC had a bare-bones (har!) staff, and so all of the hints were given to us at the beginning on pages with that silver scratch-off stuff.

As with most pre-made, non-timed hint systems, if you were stuck on the very last step of the clue, you had to take all of the hints telling you everything you did over the past 2 hours just to get the hint that you need. And in the process, you would lose something like 55 points. So instead, teams would purchase hints from each other for 5-10 skulls. It caused unprecedented amounts of inter-team cooperation, to the point that the 3 lead teams solved the popsicle clue together.

While it was an odd diversion, I'm not entirely sure how I felt about the skull economy. It was interesting to see Darcy going car to car pimping out hints, and it did cause more non-contrived inter-team interaction than I've seen previously. However, when it comes down to it, I would have liked to have had a better hint system instead, I guess.

The Route

Oddly enough, we soon discovered while playing BATH3 that they had a very similar route as ours during NMS, for the first day, at least. Coming only 3 weeks after, it's not as if they had any time to change anything after playing our game. Humorously enough, I think we were actually quite happy with their route. Unlike the teams that had played in NMS, I was the only one on our team who had actually seen all of our Santa Cruz sites, and we actually kept hoping they would send us to more of the same sites. Sadly most of coed astronomy still has never seen Blue Ball Park!


All in all, BATH3 was, as most games are, a great way to spend the weekend. We came in 5th or 6th, depending on whether you saw the stats on the day of or what they posted on their website. We're not sure, but we think the difference may be some shenanigans involving the beach boardwalk clue that we were suppossed to have been given credit for. Maybe somewhere on one of Rich's spreadsheets, we have a little asterisk next to our placing, indicating that under more correct scoring systems, we actually did much better. =)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Clues Postmortem

Sorry for the lag between my last postmortem post and now--I was taking time to get re-acquainted with *my life*.

Today I'll be talking about my favorite part of the game, the clues. We've talked about it a lot, and while good plotting and good sites are certainly appreciated, what coed astronomy tends to remember most about games and judge them upon is clues. So, when making a game of our own, our focus from the very beginning was on puzzles.

Answer Words

The use of palms, phones, magic wands, and word to location mappings a la BANG has really changed the nature of clues that can be used in games. In particular, there's a wider variety of encodings possible when the answer can be more arbitrary--things like encodings that require all answer letters to begin with a dash in morse or encodings where the answer has to have certain substrings.

But, even more importantly for NMS, it allows the clues to be completely divorced from the route. We *really* like writing clues. Scouting sites and planning a route... not so much. In fact, I would be willing to bet we had at least 15 clues written and playtested before we even began to talk about a route. On top of that, if clues came out poorly on the playtest because they were in the middle of the night, as long as they didn't have heavy site or plotting requirements, it wasn't too hard to swap them with other clues before the real game.

I realize that some teams don't like the weird disconnect between solving to an arbitrary word and having to do some sort of lookup to figure out where to go next. I also realize that our game made it even worse with first a phone entry followed by a laptop lookup. But for us, the clues are so much more important that we made an easy decision early on and never looked back.

Clue Types

We tried very hard to have a wide range of clue types represented in NMS. All teams have their likes and dislikes (we like word puzzles and hate data collection), and to create only a few types of clues would be to create a game that lacked broad appeal. We realized that this would be a problem pretty early on, when Jan, Yar, and myself compared notes and noticed we were all working on at least one word puzzle and had others in mind.

After that, we made a concerted effort to broaden the types of clues we made. Our big fear was that most of our clues would be paper clues, and teams would complain that they could have done all of our puzzles from the comfort of their own living rooms.

In several cases, we simply took clues that could have been done on paper and tried to translate them to a different format. For me, both Blinkenlights and Bugged (the No Morse Egrets) clue started out on paper and made the transition away from paper at various stages of their development.

As it turns out, we wound up being surprised with the number of non-paper clues we were able to put on our route. And doing the field offices means we had somewhere to put all of the extra paper clues we wrote. We hoped it wouldn't be too much of a letdown to get *another paper clue* at a field office, given that they were bonus clues meant for teams in the lead.


Playtesting is actually surprisingly hard to do, but it's something we got a lot of practice with while making our game. In particular, the difficulty lies in picking the optimal number of people to show the clue to. If you show it to a large group, you get great feedback, but you limit the number of playtest runs you can do because you quickly run out of people.

Given the number of core GC members and the number of people we could pull into helping us playtest, we found the optimal number of people to playtest a clue at once was often 2-3. Having a single person test is usually pretty rough, especially if the clue requires an "aha! moment". For any clue we were unsure on or thought might need a number of revisions, the creator would usually run it past their roommate/significant other with copious hints and then some subset of GC to test it on. This would hopefully save a couple of people for additional feedback or to test a revision on. Obviously some clues, particularly those where it's obvious what to do but takes some time to do it are better tested in larger groups.

We also had a sit-down playtest and a full route playtest, as well as roping in a few friends to test a final version of a couple clues. Thus, any clue that really needed it probably could have gotten 6 tests/revisions if need be. Of course, the clue that really needed it, the elements data collection clue, didn't get such treatment. Unfortunately, the clue went through multiple major revisions, and we simply weren't able to get enough testing. Eh, you win some, you lose some, I guess.

The one thing playtesting really didn't get us was accurate times for clues. When we were playtesting on ourselves, we didn't have a full 6. And as we found out, even the full route playtest didn't get us accurate times. For example, all of our playtest teams took a good hour longer on the Cellular Automata clue than the average team during the real game.

Route Clues vs. Bonus Clues

Going with the whole bonus site thing means we had a lot of clues to write, which was great. It also meant that we got to select the best clues to be on the route, which probably made the game a better experience for most teams, even if it meant that the top teams had to slog through some tedious puzzles.

Our decision process for whether to put a clue on the route or in the bonus queue was as follows:

  • If it's way cool, it goes on the route
  • If it's non paper or could be made into something non-paper, it goes on the route
  • If it requires the internet (the countries clue), knowledge the average gamer may not have (cryptics), or if it's a long grind (wordsearch), it goes into bonus land
  • For everything else, high spread clues go in the bonus queue, and low spread clues go on route

So that's more or less what we did in the way of clues for our game. This post has seriously been at least 2 weeks in the making, and while I was really excited to finally be able to talk about all of the stuff we did for our game, the effect has kinda worn off by now. I loved running the game, but it was a lot of work, and it's nice to not have to come home with it hanging over my head. So, I think this may have inadvertently become the last post in my NMS postmortem, at least until I can look back on it with more nostalgia and less *oh my god I'm so glad it's finally over*.