EPP5: A Success

My Fifth Puzzle Party was, no doubt, longer, more hectic, and more ambitious than any of my previous Parties. This was the first time I got my Players to actually run around town looking for clues. It was over nine hours in length (and no team actually finished the whole thing).

It was definitely a learning experience for everyone involved. Some things worked perfectly; some things did not. Mike Hollingsworth, who helped me organize and run the Party, called it a "trainwreck" during the first two hours, but by the end, things had settled down, and we realized that everyone, Players and referees had had a blast.

One thing that was perfect: the weather. Alabama weather in late September can be crazy hot (a long summer), crazy cold (an early winter), or anywhere in between. We had sunny and 79 degrees. Absolutely perfect for jaunting about the town, running through the woods, and solving puzzles outdoors.

I'm hoping to receive plenty of photographs and written accounts from the Players and Teams (photographs on and linked to from this page are by Daniel Auchenpaugh and Mark Brady); undoubtedly their day was more exciting than mine as I was simply answering the phone back at my house, fielding questions, giving hints, and keeping score. Mike and my second helper, Joe, had to go out and reposition some puzzles during the day, but I stayed put the whole time until everyone showed back up at the end (7:00PM), had pizza, and learned who won.

Of the three teams, only the winning group (Blue Team) actually progressed through the day as I had planned. Months ago I had the "brilliant" idea of building tension by releasing what I thought were obscure previews of the Party. Well, two of the teams (Black & Green), obsessively located almost every place in those previews, and so they had some ideas about where the various puzzles would be hidden on Party-Day.

Ironically this seemed to actually be a hindrance. Not knowing the order, they, at times, found themselves solving puzzles which them pointed them to puzzles they had already obtained. Whatever the case, all teams seemed to have a lot of fun.

Unlike a traditional PuzzleHunt, there was not a single "prize" the teams were looking for; rather there were a few Tasks which awarded them Points in various ways. This turned out to be a good thing since no team actually made it through all of the puzzles. At 7:00PM I call "Time" and we simply went with the current score totals.

My future PuzzleHunts (yes, I will do more) will be a litle more focused (a central theme, a single task/race to complete). Like my very first in-house Party, this first PuzzleHunt was really just to test the waters. As enthusiastic as everyone was at the end of this one, I feel I can now start refining my methods, and it will definitely be worth my time to invest even more energy in their organization.

Below are descriptions of most of the Tasks and Puzzles as I had designed them to be tackled. I'll let Mike write up a description about most of Task #2 (which he was resposible for -- I simply kicked it off with a cryptex).

The Puzzles and Tasks

After a quick welcome at 9:30AM, I handed each team captain and envelope with an introduction message taped to the outside. Within the envelope where there following items: Also, I handed each team a cryptex which I had built. It had a tag affixed which told them this puzzle was the start of Task #2... they had to find the correct 5-letter combination to open the cryptex (they would receive no further information about it; it was a self-contained puzzle/riddle).

Task #1: Looking for Treasures

On the floppy disk in the starting envelope was a digital photo (different picture for each team: Black, Blue, Green). The photos showed an ecclectic arrangement of items (some had dice, others, chess pieces, coins, crayons, etc). The groups were told that they had to venture forth along the "puzzle paths", solve puzles, go to new locations, and eventually they would collect some of the items pictured in their photo (they would not find every item, they were not allowed to just BUY similar items, and they would receive a checklist at the end of Task 1 to double check what they should have). Which ever team finished this Task first would received 100 Points (second == 90, third == 80).

Photo Album Puzzle

The photo album that each team received had twelve 4x6" photos in it. Here they are: 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 07, 08, 09, 10, 11, 12 (in that order). No other information was given; however, a blue ribon was conspicuously tied around the spine of the album. This is a puzzle you can try to do yourself (though, for the answer to make sense, you will need to be familiar with Auburn, AL), if you want to try to do this one, don't read the answer below.

ANSWER: This was a puzzle loaded with distractions: the Braille (which decodes to "WHEREDOYOUGO"), the goof actions of Mike in the photos, and even the locations themselves... they were all irrelevant. The number codes were not yet useful. The important clues were the signs of the various buildings and signs in the backgrounds of the pictures. If you take all of the readable parts of the visible substrings and put them together, in order, you get: "STAR-TATTOO-MERS-CORNER-HEA-DEA-STU-NT-IL-ROAD-STOP-S", or "START AT TOOMERS CORNER HEAD EAST UNTIL ROAD STOPS" (Toomer's Corner is a famous location in Auburn). Two teams got this puzle fairly quickly (within about 30 minutes); the other teams fell for the distractions in the pictures hook, line, and sinker... they did not solve it until very late in the day.

When the directions are followed you end up at the next location...

Pebble Hill

The teams would now find themselves at Pebble Hill; a very nice city/arts building. Sharp eyes would spot a blue ribbon tied around the historic sign in front of the building (right where "the road stops"). Actually, the blue ribbon had been removed by some non-player during the past 24 hours, so until we got it replaced, there was some confusion. The teams were now supposed to use the number codes from the photo album...

ANSWER: The number-dash codes in the pictures are "word-letter" references to the sign (of course, the team had to guess which of the two different sides to use). The code decrypted to a message that read: "GO TO TOWN CREEK PARK (GET MAP FROM ERIC)"

Town Creek Park

From Pebble Hill teams then needed to come back to my house, get a 2'x3' map of Town Creek Park (yes, Black Team, there really is such a park in Auburn), and head to that location. Once there, they went to the marked "Pirate's Tower" (a restored farm silo). Attached to it was a notice:
Pirates of Town Creek
Aaarghhh! You probably never knew there used to be pirates in Auburn. Well, despite the lack of any major body of water, amazingly, five legendary pirates did adventure in these parts. And each one buried a treasure in this park! The pirates, appropriately enough, were known as:
  • Blackbeard
  • Bluebeard
  • Greenbeard
  • Redbeard
  • Yellowbeard
Your goal is to find the treasure chest hidden by the pirate whose beard corresponds to your team's color (avast, Mateys! if you happen to find a treasure chest marked for another team, you'd be well advised to leave it be!). So, how do you find your hidden treasure chest? Well, the pirates were kind enough to leave clues for you around the park -- you shouldn't even have to stray too far from the paths to find them.

To locate the actual treasure chests, though... well, that may require a bit more adventure,(and it wouldn't hurt to have a compass handy).

If the teams had not run around before this, now was the time I was going to force the issue [grin]. Near the silo was the first of many bricks they would find just off the many trails throughout the park. The closest brick had a yellow number spray painted on it (here is a picture of all of the bricks I painted before taking them to the park the day before). After investigating the whole park, teams would have found 15 bricks, three of each teams color (I had designed the Day to accommodate up to five participating teams). So, they have their map, the notice, and the bricks. What to do?

ANSWER: The last sentence of the notice mentioned a "compass," and as I had hoped, the teams first went down the wrong "thought path" by thinking of a navigational compass (north, south, etc). What was really needed was a compass of the type used in drawing constructions (a mathematical or architectural tool). By locating their three colored bricks on their map, and using the scale on the map with a compass... they could triangulate with enough accuracy to know roughly were in the woods to search for their treasure chest.

Within the chest were the following things:

  • The first set of items from the teams Task 1 photo (on floppy disk)
  • A long (18 feet or so, I think!) label of single line vertically printed text (a scytale -- I'll explain the use for this later)
  • A key-chain, miniature Rubik's Cube
  • A primer for the Rubik's Cube
  • A pirate figurine (not relevant to Party... just there for the theme)
The Cube and it's primer were the things that advanced the Players to the next location (the primer stating where they should go)...

Rubik's Cube

Once at Graham McTeer park, the octagonal becn around the pictured sculpture had eight pages affixed to it.

ANSWER: By carefully following the notation, the cube would, at each interval, display a letter from a Rubik's Font which I had devised. The real "puzzle" here was just to work with the notation and the cube VERY CAREFULLY. If the cube were dropped or otherwise improperly mixed up, the teams ran the risk of mucking up the process -- and then need to start over with a solved cube. If no one on their team could solve a cube to make corrections, they had the option of buying a new cube from the store, or getting a back-up cube from me (but that would cost them a -5 Point penalty each new cube they needed, plus the time to get back to my house).

It turns out Blue Team is the only team that actually did this puzzle. Black and Green Teams managed to skip it due to their obsessive Preview studying before the Party (this, to me, was the biggest problem I caused by release early previews of the Party over the summer. Robert of the Blue Team did work with the cube flawlessly, however, and slowly the following eight letters were revealed: U-P-S-T-R-E-A-M (Tim stated that after the first to letters were formed, the team, in unison, all immediately looked upward -- ha!).

The sculpture/bench where the Cube puzzle was was near a creek. They followed it UPSTREAM to an underpass at the nearest intersection (this was the location the other two teams knew from the preview, so they completely bypassed the Cube Puzzle).


On a ledge next to the creek underneath Thach Ave. the teams found the following items:
  • A cigar box with some of their Task 1 Photo items contained therein (and, in fact, one of the team's sought after items was the cigar box itself).
  • A hint envelope which had a hint to the puzzle at this location. If they chose not to open the sealed envelope, they would earn another 25 Points.
  • The next puzzle...
On some drainage pipes were two labels:

27 86 68 8 9 20 34 39 & 31 39
ANSWER: The hint envelope, if opened, had another simple puzzle that resulted in the word "ANAGRAM" being spelled out. None of the teams needed the hint, however, as they all realized that the words in the odd label-sentence were all anagrams of chemical elements (IRON, ARSENIC, ASTATINE, etc). This then hinted at what the number code was all about.

If one replaces the numbers in the code with the chemical abbreviations with corresponding atomic weights (one Player actually had the Periodic Table of Elements on her shirt!), the following message is revealed:

CoRnEr OF CaSeY & Gay
The teams then quickly journeyed to the intersection of Casey Ave. and Gay St. in Auburn.


At Casey and Gay the teams then found a similar numeric code on the back of the stop sign. This one decoded to:
FONTaINe & Gay
And so they then raced to the intersection at Fontaine Ave. and Gay St. They were similarly directed to PaYNe & HaRe and finally HArPEr & CoOK. At Harper Ave. and Cook St. the sticker (which had fallen off the sign but was still found by everyone) was different.

ANSWER: A "1" followed by one hundred zeros is a number known as a "googol". This prompted the teams to "Google" the phrase "Florida Pitchfork Goldfish"

"Florida Pitchfork Goldfish"

Clicking to the page returned by Google, the Players are then confronted with a password request. There is really no way to deduce the password without using the link/hint: a PDF of a wordsearch featuring the names of all Players who have attended past Puzzle Parties.

ANSWER: This actually turned out to be a bit easier than I had planned... because I screwed up the Perl script behind the password entry. The seek-a-word puzzle contained all but two of the names on the list: FRANCIS and SCOTT. Furthermore, the opening line of the instructions for the puzzle were the intalicize, "O say can you see...". Finally, if the word search is completed, the unused spaces are filled, left-to-right, top-to-botom with the first stanza of "The Star Spangled Banner".

The only password that was supposed was the word "key" (FRANCIS SCOTT ___). However, instead of my Perl filter looking for an exact match to "key", I accidently wrote it to accept any phrase with "key" as a substring. So "Francis Scott Key" works... so does "golden key"... "donkey"... "monkey".

Oh well.

Anyway, the password script did shoot an email to me whenever anyone atempted a password, so I knew, back at "headquarters", when teams had made it this far in the PuzzleHunt. They were nearing the end of Task 1.

Number Jump

Entering the correct password led them to a webpage with a Java applet of a Number Jump puzzle that revealed a picture as they elimnated squares. It was not necessary to get rid of all of the squares to deduce what the photograph showed: the historic marker at Pine Hill Cemetery.

If teams took the time to reveal more of the photo embedded in the puzzle, they would get a more specific clue: the sign in the picture was edited. The sentence referring to the Confederate Memorial site in the cemetery was taken out.

Pine Hill Cemetery

At the Confederate Memorial in Pine Hill Cemetery the teams would find an envelope with their final set of items from their Task 1 photographs (for example, here is the final note to Blue Team).

End of Task 1

It was now up to teams to get the collected items back to me. Green Team completed Task 1 first, earning 100 Points. Blue Team arrived 7 minutes after them and got 90 Points (alas, Black Team was so out of sorts the whole day -- they will readily admit that, I think -- they never completed Task 1). Of course, this whole time, there was Task 2 to deal with in parallel... and Task 3 was yet to be fully revealed (though it was referenced in the Checklist above).

Task #2: Show Me The Money

Originally this Task was simply going to involve one significant puzzle: the Cryptex; but, late in the planning stages Mike Hollingsworth (who was assisting me in design and execution of EPP5) was fretting that there would not be enough for the teams to do during the day. I disagreed, but finally told him, "okay, instead of the Cryptices leading Teams to envelopes full of $100 in fake money, you can design a puzzle to continue after that... and we'll just give the some of the fake money after the Cryptex."

He agreed, and set off to design a puzzle of his own...

The Cryptex

I hand built custom cryptices for each team (I like to say that the idea for a cryptex is the only worth while thing I took away from viewing The DaVinci Docde). My cryptex was more than just a lock, however... it was a self-contained riddle. Yes, you needed to determine the five-letter combination to open it, but that password was not going to come from an outside source; all of the needed information was on the item itself.

I won't go into the details here (this is one secret I won't give away on a webpage). Besides, as it turns out, no Team actually solved the cryptex... they all picked it. In my paranoia about the cryptices being too precise, and not having any leeway unless the combination was perfectly aligned, I erred in building them too loose (I hand-made each out of oak).

So, each team ended up opening their cryptex, but not in the way I had anticipated. I really don't mind that they were picked (as picking a lock is a puzzle unto itself).

Anyway, when the inner key to the cryptex was removed, on it were coordinates:

32.5921N 85.4696W
This was supposed to lead the Teams to a local Boy Scout hut where envelopes were waiting. Alas, this location was compromised (someone removed the envelopes the night before), so instead, we had the teams come back to my house to pick up what would have been in the envelopes.

Originally there was just going to be $100 in fake money. Teams were told that they could trade the money with other teams for hints if the other teams had solved puzzles they had not. At the end of the day each $1 they had would be worth 1 Point for their team. This was all supposed to encourage interaction between the Teams. It didn't really work out that way... Teams were too secretive to even think about bargaining with other teams.

Plus, as I said before, we ended up only giving the Teams some of the money at this point: $30, with the rest to be earned by solving Mike's puzzle (which did not happen as Mike had planned). I'll let Mike provide a write-up about his puzzle.

Task #3: Movie Rebuses

The idea behind Task 3 was to have an end puzzle which would be rather light and fun... something a whole team could collaborate on, not think too hard, but still be a challenge. However, I decided not to just give the end-puzzle to them... they would have to find it. A reader of this webpage should have noticed that a few props and puzzles mentioned earlier have not yet been addressed...


Despite a couple of significant errors cropping up in this puzzle (why one should never proofread one's own puzzles!), this was still a fun one to make; and I know some of the players really liked it. Since this Puzzle Party was allowing teams to use the Internet and prety much all resources, I wanted to give them a puzzle that would force them to rely on Google and such. To that end, I cooked up a crazy Calcu-trivia puzzle.

The two errors:

  • Variable "P" was miscalculated. For some bonehead reason I had used an answer of "56" for the total number of pips in a set of Double-Six dominoes. Why I thought this I'll never know (there are 168 pips)... maybe I was just thinking about the number of unit squares (2 for each of 28 dominoes).
  • Worse, even using 56 for "P" (by midday I had told all teams to use that erroneous answer), my overall EQUATION was screwed up. I have double and triple checked my order of operations (several months apart), but somehow I still messed things up. So, once a team proved to me they had gotten correct values for all of the leters in the equation, I went ahead and told them the answer the equations was supposed to yield...
ANSWER: That numerical answer was to be: 71077345. Looking carefully at the introduction paragrapgh of the Calcu-trivia puzzle, one will read bold-faced letters: ANSWERUPSIDEDOWN. If one types the answer in a standard LED calculator and turns it upside down, "71077345" becomes "SHELLOIL".

Teams had to proceed to the corner in downtown Auburn where the Shell gas station was located (intersection of Glenn Ave. & Gay St.) The blue arrow in the intro paragraph clued them to a blue arrow painted on the sidewalk at that corner pointing southward (did I spray-paint that arrow on the ground? I would never do such a thing...

Follow the Arrows

... there just happened to exist blue arrows painted along curbsides which directed followers to another local park: Felton Little Park. the arrows seemed to stop at a bridge passing over a creek. Tacked underneath that bridge were more labeled envelopes...

Jigsaw Puzzle

Within the envelopes the teams found custom jigsaw puzzles (I really liked using a "traditional" puzzle in this PuzzleHunt). Assembling the jigsaw puzzle yielded this image. Downtown Auburn featured a number of such plaques of "important" athletes from the local University's past. this particular plaque happens to be right in from of Taylor's Bakery and Coffeeshop; a local business I hang out at far too often.

Encrypted Scrabble Board

This is the puzzle where all three teams ended their day. No one made it past this one. Blue Team actually decrypted the Scrabble board that hung in the window of the coffeeshop, but they did not find the message hidden one step further. So, from here onward, this webpage is describing puzzles in the Hunt I had hoped the players would reach.

Like I said earlier, this was a (very fun) learning experience for us all. The main thing we learned is that the teams could have used more time [grin].

ANSWER: anyway, this Scrabble puzzle was a major pain to construct... but I managed to do it error free. When the board is decrypted (the trick is too mainly rely on known letter distributions in a Scrabble game... the scoresheet provided was only a secondary help), the dark tiles spell out a message: GO TO ERICS BACKYARD SHED. After the Party I heard that at least two of the teams had people on them who dismissed the dark/light Scrabble tile differences on the board, thinking that I simply had run out of light ones and needed dark ones to complete the puzzle construction... not that the dark tiles would actually spell out a message (come on, guys! you should know me better than that! of course the dark tiles are important!)

The Computer Is Your Friend

At this point Teams should race back to my house. Going to the workshed in my backyard, they would find within it a sign that reads "THE COMPUTER IS YOUR FRIEND." This, of course, is a reference to the chart on the back of the Auburn map I gave to each team at the beginning of the day.

Inside the shed, a computer was turned on, and the monitor presented a web browser displaying this Java applet. Every ten seconds or so the applet spit out random facts that related the outcome of a fictional race that had occurred. Players had to determine the order that the twenty racers finished in (each of the twenty names was seven letters long, so it should have been fairly obvious what to do with the 20x7 grid).

ANSWER: the trouble here, of course, is that the facts stated by the computer are coming so fast (Players were not to touch the machine). Facts might get repeated, but many would likely be missed. This was all supposed to cause a feeling of hurried panic in the Players (in case they were not hurried enough already). Eventually, enough information should be gleaned to fill in the grid correctly. If one then considers the grid cells with numbers in their corners, and sequences the appropriate letters, the following message appears:

An odd riddle... unless you consider the piece of paper this grid-puzzle is printed upon. The other side of the page is the Auburn map. The map that suspiciously had names in all of the margins. It turns out that among all possible combinations of first and last names that one could make by dot-connection, only one would form a U.S. President (James Polk), and only one would form the name of an actor who has played James Bond (Roger Moore). Where those two connecting lines cross was the location to which the teams were to advance.

The Arboretum

That location was the local Auburn University Arboretum. When teams arrived at the location on the map they would find Mike Hollingsworth (my co-executor of this whole fiasco) sitting at a picnic table with four radios around him (he was to take up position at this locale as soon as the first team had come back looking for my backyard shed). He would happily speak to the Players (they would recognize him, no doubt), but unless specifically asked what they were to do next, he would not tell them.

If specifically asked, however, he would tell them that the arboretum was a lovely park, and that they should consider walking about it (but they should probably stay on the main trail). That is all he would say. Until, that is, they actually departed. Right as they were almost away he would add: "oh, you might want to take one of these." (and hand them one of the small FM transistor radios).

The radios were all tuned to (and all had labels next to their tuners reading), "88.7FM". Underneath one of the bridges on the trail in the park was hidden a portable CD Player. That CD player contained an audio Morse code message... a bunch of short and long beeps. It was transmitting its message weakly at frequency 88.7FM (the Players would have to be within about 20 feet of the hidden device).

I really liked these last two puzzles (the computer one and this morse code message), I really wish the Teams had reached them. The inclusion of actual, audible Morse code is not really much of a puzzle (you just have to listen closely and decode it), but it is nice because so often these puzzlehunts only use printed versions of codes (and Morse code is commonly used). To actually make a Player listen to Morse code, rather than read it, is something special.

ANSWER: When decoded the message would be:

Use the objects found to recreate the photo as much as possible.
This was the big clue as to how to actually find Task #3. The cryptic message refers to the photograph used in Task #1, and the objects the teams found from each. Teams did not find all of the objects in their photos... and it turns out, if they tried to reconstruct their photos (each team had a different picture) with the objects they did collect, a visual clue would appear.

For example: Black Team should have found, by the end of Task #1, the following items from their picture:

  • A menu from a local restaurant (the menu was slightly altered: the item "Po'Boy" was highlighted)
  • A highlighting pen
  • A calculator
  • only four of the white lettered/numbered tiles (X,Y,-,+)
If the team positions the objects they did find as closely as possible to the original photograph, keen eyes would notice this message:
PO'BOY - Y + X 691
That is, "P.O. Box 691"

That box at the local Post Office was unlocked and propped open for the day. Within they would find an envelope containing Task #3. The other team's pictures can all be similarly deciphered to the same P.O. Box...

Task #3: Movie Rebuses

This was a much lighter task; simply figure out as many of the one hundred movie rebuses I had created. Each correct answer turned in by 7PM was worth 1 Point to the team.

ANSWER: Some of them are very hard... some quite easy. I won't justify all of the answers, but here they are in case you are stumped.

The End

So, that's that. Whew. Everyone was exhausted yet exhilirated at 7PM (when I ordered pizza for everone as has become tradition). This is a good feeling to have. I explained the whole Party to everyone (basically everything you just read on this webpage). It took over two hours. There was even a bit more to explain. Bonus puzzles were hidden throughout the puzzle paths, with about half a dozen oppotunities for teams to earn additional blocks of 25 Points. I won't go into all of the details here (you'll have to participate in one of my Parties in person to have all the fun).

Here is the "progress" sheet I was keeping throughout the day, trying to keep track of which teams solved which puzzles. It might not be exactly accurate, but the final scores at the bottom are correct, so you can get an idea of how close it was (notice that if Black Team had finished Task #1, even as third slowest, the 80 Points earned would have put them in 1st Place overall -- but the mysterious "Town Creek Park" eluded them [grin]).

Anyway, "thank you" to all of the players (especially the ones who traveled from great distances -- Huntsville, Mobile, and Henry from Los Angeles). Tradition of PuzzleHunts asks that the winning team organize the next one. So I look forward to seeing what Blue Team cooks up (and when it is ready).

I would love to actaully play in a local PuzzleHunt.

In the meantime, I'm already preparing for my next Decathlon (Spring 2007) as well as kicking around ideas for another full blown Hunt (a sequel to my "EPP4: Puzzles from Wonderland", I hope).


Eric Harshbarger, 15 October 2006

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