Saturday, September 7, 2013

Rich's Final Thoughts

Another Great America Race is in the books, and again I had a fantastic time.  There is definitely something I particularly enjoy about traveling across the country with good friends solving puzzles in great cities with unfamiliar environments day after day, and this is something that no one does better than Ravenchase.  Here are my parting thoughts on this year's race, which I believe was the best one yet.

Fewer, But Longer Days

As the only person alive to have played in all three Great America Races, I am uniquely qualified to discuss some of the differences between this year's race and the past two.  The most obvious difference between this year's race from past years is that it was only five days long, compared to eight, then seven, for the first two.  While I find the trend for this race getting shorter to be a little alarming, I can't imagine it would get much shorter (at least in terms of calendar days) than it was this year, since it just takes time to travel between multiple cities.  Without that aspect, this wouldn't really be the same race.

That said, despite fewer days this year, the days were *much* longer.  The first year we spent maybe 1 to 4 hours each day puzzling, and much more than that driving.  That year there was far too much driving to puzzling.  Last year, the ratio was better, as the days were more typically 5-6 hours of puzzling.  This year, however was off the charts, with multiple days that had over 12 hours of puzzling, and two days where we finished close to midnight!  Personally, I loved the long days, and happily accept the trade-off of fewer days for more puzzles.  In fact, even though we had only 4 official days of puzzling this year, by my count we spent more total hours puzzling than we did over the 7 days last year!

I think the biggest casualty of the longer days was that it made it nearly impossible to keep up with the daily blogging.  As a result, we are likely to vastly change our approach to blogging next year, possibly by having more, shorter posts, and likely won't strive to report on every gory detail.  Small price to pay for which is a much meatier puzzling experience.  Even better would be more days at the same length we had this year!


The scoring system this year was pretty much the same as the past events, and I'd still love to see some reform in this area.  In a nutshell, GAR3 used a constant time penalty for hints, a system which essentially rewards the teams that punt faster on the harder puzzles.  I'd love to see that shift to a system in which the hints become less costly as time progresses, a system which encourages teams to try to stick it out, while still preventing them from getting doubly punished by being stubborn.

Another aspect about the scoring that I didn't love this year (or last year, for that matter) was the complete lack of transparency in scoring.  The first year we were given a complete standings after each leg that showed us our performance on the latest leg, and the overall standings.  This year we were only told the standings on a couple of occasions, and it was done pretty cryptically and non-transparently, to the point where we weren't completely convinced that Josh wasn't just making up the data on the spot to add drama.  This made it difficult for us to strategize in Indianapolis when we weren't certain exactly how hint penalties would actually be applied, and how we should adjust our approach accordingly.


I was very happy to see that this hunt was far more playtested than past year's, and it was evident in the quality of the clues.  This is particularly pleasing when you consider how difficult it might be to recruit playtesters for an event where you can only get 8 people to play in the real thing.  That said, there were still a handful of what I'd consider QC issues, things that having a second set of super detail-oriented eyes (like say a Wei-Hwa) pore over before publication could make a huge difference in the overall feeling of quality.  This is the sort of thing that is tough when you are a one-man show like Josh, but finding such a person that can help with that could make a huge difference.

Puzzle Style

Each year, I've become more and more impressed with Josh's puzzle writing abilities.  I love the very environment-heavy data extraction mechanisms, and have really come to appreciate and enjoy the "use the interesting environmental design pattern to create a new way of mapping the alphabet" approach that manifests in many ways.  These are puzzles that we aren't often exposed to in the west coast Game community, and it is too bad.  Every time I thought we'd seen every variation imaginable of these types of puzzles, Josh would cleverly come up with something new, and now I'm sure he's still got many more in store.  I also like that he works in all sorts of historical codes that were invented long ago.  This gives everything a very historic feel that works very well with the Ravenchase brand.

Strategy Changes for Next Year

There are a few things I think we'll want to differently next year, based on this year's hunt.  First, I think we need a way to duplicate the puzzles, as there was almost never enough copies of the puzzles for everyone to look at, and this can become a real issue (and occasionally a source of conflict) on a team of four alpha puzzlers like ourselves.  A printer/copier used to be a staple for my team in all van games, but we've gotten away from that as it has become more and more common practice for GCs to provide multiple copies of clues.  Providing multiple copies of a scroll seems like it might break the illusion of a real treasure hunt for Ravenchase, so I can understand the reason why multiple clues aren't given, but if that's not going to change, we'll need to adjust accordingly.

Second, with the longer legs, it was common for us to run out of battery on our phones, laptops, etc, and when we traveled we'd quickly run out of outlets.  Crazily, none of us thought to bring an inverter this year.  Next year that's a no-brainer.

Recruiting More Teams

The elephant in the room for this race is why it has been so difficult to recruit more teams to play.  At the end location, we discussed with Josh where the race might be next year, and he threw out the idea of a western US hunt this time, in hopes that it might get some of the Bay Area or Seattle communities to give it a shot.  Reasons I have heard for teams not playing so far have ranged from not wanting to take a week off work, to worries about the quality, to many other things.  Personally, I find the Great America Race to now be one of my puzzling highlights of the year, and it is sad that so many people that would enjoy it have not yet taken the plunge.  Let us know in the comments what it would take for you to join the race next year.  I can only imagine that the more teams play, the more Josh can justify putting even more manpower into the race, making it even better than what we've seen so far.

Puzzling Across the Country

As I've mentioned before, one of the nice side effects of the Great America Race is that nothing helps me more in my lifetime goal to play in a puzzle hunt in every state.  This year's race added Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to bring my lifetime total to 21 states!  This is up from 17 last year; I also added Texas this year based on a runaround hunt I did at this year's NPL Con. My new map looks like this:

For reference, here are the rules I set forth last year for a state to count:
  1. The hunt must be open to the public and have more than one team playing, so no "quick, write a puzzle so I can count this state", nor can I count private events like hunts at birthday parties or weddings.
  2. The hunt must involve multiple distinct locations, so conference room style hunts don't count, since really you could do those anywhere.
  3. For a state to count, the hunt must have at least one puzzle destination in that state.  It is for this reason, for instance, that I can't count states we drove through as part of GAR, even if we may have been working on driving puzzles at the time.
There is still some debate as to whether I should change the rules to count the states that we drove through while on these races that didn't actually have puzzle stops.  If we did, my total would be 26 (as it would include Mississippi and Alabama from GAR I, Delaware and Connecticut from GAR II, and West Virginia from GAR III).  What do you think?  Should those count?  Does anyone else come close to my 21 (or 26), or can I assume I've played puzzle hunts in more states than anyone on Earth?  I think I'll choose to believe that I'm in the lead until I have reason to believe otherwise.  :)

The Iron Raven's Last Word

Finally, after spending some time over the past year with the Raven, I learned a lot about its favorite things, and finally figured out the common thread.  Here are a few of them.  If you can figure them all out, I think you might find a message that best sums up this year's experience.

The Iron Raven's favorite square  - - - - - - * * *
The Iron Raven's favorite country  - - - * * * -
The Iron Raven's favorite medium  - * * *
The Iron Raven's favorite swimming hole  - - - * * * -   - - - - -
The Iron Raven's favorite hopper - - - * * * - -
The Iron Raven's favorite fairy  - - * * *   - - - -

The Iron Raven's favorite U.S. president  - - - - -   * * * - - - - -
The Iron Raven's favorite political system  - - - * * * - - -
The Iron Raven's favorite German city - - - - - * * * -
The Iron Raven's favorite Viking  - - * * *   - - -   - - - - - - - -

See you next year!


  1. I tried to find folks to play with: . I didn't try very hard, though; I couldn't think of any likely prospects to lean especially hard on.

  2. Re: Recruiting More Teams: I suspect there's always going to be limited interest in an event like GAR, for many reasons, but IMHO the primary reason is that only the most hardcore Gamers are willing to travel for *any* puzzle hunt event.

    For example, DASH exists because people want to puzzle where they live. Very few people, percentage-wise, have actually traveled to other cities for DASH. And I'll always remember this: one year, when DASH was run in both Palo Alto and San Francisco, and Palo Alto sold out first, people were *not* willing to drive an hour up to SF to play. That, to me, is very telling. (See also: re-casts of WHO, BANGs/SNAPs, and WarTron.)

    Personally, I've passed on GAR because the timing has been inconvenient (lots of stuff seems to happen in August), and the theme/story has never felt very compelling to me. I need a reason--even if it's a made-up reason or a lame, transparent story--to commit myself to the world of a Game. :)

    YMMV, etc. I'd love to hear what more people think!

    1. I'm not sure that's very telling to me. I'd rather drive 2 hours to play in a suburban area than drive 1 hour to play in a major city like SF. I know some people like major cities but the crowded traffic and parking difficulties are a strong turnoff for me.

      Also, I'm not sure I understand your point about WHO and BANGs/SNAPs. Weren't those all filled on the original run and the recast? I don't think that shows anything one way or the other. I don't know what the attendance of the WarTron recast was like, but was it not at capacity?

    2. I suspect travel requirements, time commitment, unfamiliar/unpreferred hunt structure and theming (or lack thereof), unfamiliar authorship, and "quality" concerns all play roles. It would be nice to know the breakdown...

      I actually suspect travel requirements are the least of it based on my poll and observed enrollment in other games. But I'm sure all the factors contribute.

      "Run More Games... no wait, not that type of game!"

      (As an aside, my theming preferences are for original story > no theme > fanfic theme. Same as for video games, though in that case s/fanfic/licensed/.)

    3. My point about re-casts is that they exist because people want The Game to come to them, instead of wanting to travel for faraway events. For the record, I think this is a good thing.

    4. I don't think I believe your point. Re-casts don't get created because people say "Hey, I wish The Game was in my area, let me pay some people some money so that I can play in a local version." I think re-casts exist because people want to RUN the Game locally, because they want their local friends to have a fun time and they want to build credit in their local community. If you're not great at coming up with original puzzles but you have the energy to run a Game, you'll run a re-cast. Or, in other words, I think re-casts exists because puzzle-writing is hard, not because travelling is hard. Travelling is generally quite easy compared to puzzle-writing (for most people).

      I agree with your original point that most players won't travel a long distance to play in a puzzle hunt, by the way; I just disagree that the existence of re-casts supports that point.

  3. Curtis -- and yet, Famine Game seems to have no shortage of teams... we don't expect 60 teams, but 10 would be nice.

    1. We can talk about this off-line, if you like. I feel there are significant differences between a "community" event like Famine Game and a nominally for-profit venture like GAR. Maybe their target audiences should be different, and maybe there are other issues. Shrug.

  4. Time commitment is the killer for me. Anyone with a full time job and a family is going to balk at using a week of vacation for any puzzle event, no matter how great it is. I'm very grateful for the excellent blogs so I can live vicariously, though!

  5. Rich: you briefly dipped into Arizona (for a mandatory destination) during Jackpot. So you'd certainly be justified in adding that one to your list!

    1. Ooh, good point, thanks! So that means I'm really at 22 (or 27)

    I never thought of the Niagara is a good place to swim. Maybe if you're a bird it's different...