It all started a few months ago with a contest/competition from a fictional software company. Skip back to my post on the application if you need background on that piece of the story. There is a great amount of worldbuilding and foreshadowing in the application that wove into the weekend quite well. This is how Team Snout’s latest instance of The Game began.
Note that if you are a time-traveller, reading this blog post from the future, doing research, as you do, on past Snout games in preparation for their upcoming neovictorian steampunk murder mystery Game (well, I can only assume and/or hope that is the theme), then this blog post may or may not be for you. While it may not give exact answers to puzzles, it may spoil you on the methods and thought processes used to arrive at the answers. You have been warned.
Also: if someone wants to link me to detailed puzzle analysis elsewhere, I’ll link out from the relevant sections.
Spelling and grammar errors are entirely mine and absolutely expected — this is a hurried post-event 5000 word blog-post/brain-dump before I munge too many details. Little, if any, proofreading was performed.
The Game itself started Friday night at the North Star Ballroom. We checked in, received some information packets, and sat down to pizza and beverages. We received a login to the “BUGME” system and a mysterious cardboard box sporting electronics sealed in tape and epoxy called “BYTE.” Naming them both computer-like B-words was a cause for a tiny bit of confusion throughout the weekend, but they did serve two distinct purposes. BUGME was a “repurposed bug tracking system” sitting on the internet and accessed via ssh through a smartphone or other connected device. You use it to look up keywords (i.e. puzzle answers) in a database and display the corresponding record (i.e. the new location plus some related flavor text). I thought that this was a great way to check answers, plus my understanding is that behind the scenes, it allowed the gamemasters to transparently skip teams past locations if they’re running a bit behind, thereby freeing up some gamerunner resources. The BYTE (or as we called it Byte Me) was a little gadget with a USB port and blinkenlights. Connected at 9600 baud over a laptop, you could issue commands and interact with it. It turned out to also do some other cool stuff over the weekend, but at the moment everything except some code reference sheets (morse code, letters, numbers, ASCII values, etc.) was locked. I was extremely tempted to whip out a JTAG programmer to see if I could pull anything from the device, but I refrained, fearing I’d break something in the process and cause us to miss out on something cool. We also received plastic ID badges that were not RFID enabled. (We checked.)
Once situated with our gear at the North Star, we had a brief meta-introduction to the game and then everything else from then on was “in character.” The GotoVision chief of security came on stage and explained the format of “The Weekend With Wartron.” It would start with a sightseeing tour of the Portland area to view locations that inspired Professor Goto’s videogames. It would then conclude with us being able to playtest
in with their upcoming WarTron video game. Next, Professor Goto came up on stage, angry at having to take time from her research to babysit a bunch of contest winners. Finally, we were given a Doubleclicks performance while mingling and solving.
At one point in the evening, the BYTE box flashed and beeped, displaying the individual letters of “Alert” on its one-character display. Plugging it in and accessing the alert menu (which was now unlocked), we found a message from the rogue AI. Our box had one key, with others distributed to the other teams. We had to start using our BYTE box to “wardial” other teams. Each box has a little speaker and microphone and could be placed next to each other like a little acoustic coupler. It was a great social way to go from team to team, um, bumping boxes, as it were. (We will gloss over a minor technical glitch that prompted Game Control to tweet out a number of keys that could not be otherwise received on the boxes).
We basically had two puzzles: one we received in our information packets involving coasters and one that was the result of wardialing to collect keys. And also, the Doubleclicks just “happened” to print out way too many copies of their setlist. I won’t go to deep into the coaster puzzle, mainly because I was only half paying attention while trying to explore and hack the BYTE device. It was Morse code, wrapped around squares, with something (letters? symbols?) removed. The key puzzle was finding sound-alikes in the setlist, then indexing letters into the song title. Both puzzles were fairly easy in retrospect, but we were one of the last teams there. I am not sure if we were just being slow that evening (though we stuck to soda, no beer), felt overwhelmed by having so many veteran teams around, or just hadn’t yet found our groove. Playing Jeopardy from your couch is a lot easier and less stressful than being on stage with Alex Trebek; I assume similar factors were at play here.
We concluded the evening and left for home. As we pulled in to drop off our first team members at home for the night, the BYTE beeped an alert that startled us all. Pull out laptop, attach USB cable, check for messages. It was the AI, of course, thanking us for helping it crack secret military codes.
Saturday morning started at the Portland Women’s Forum, offering a great view of the Gorge, mountains, and Crown Point Vista House. Curtis, the GotoVision security chief met talked with us for a bit and then some military officers hauled him away for questioning — something about hacking military systems. As he got led away, he threw to us business cards with a code on them. Punching those into the BYTE revealed a world map and eight 6-letter words. We quickly noticed those words were composed of two-letter country codes (partly because the BYTE reference sheet listed some), though it took a little longer than hoped to distill things down further than that. We finally got a keyword that BugMe accepted, leading us to Multnomah Falls.
In the van, head to Multnomah Falls! Oddly, this was my first time there in all the nine years I’ve been in Portland. I never really did many of the touristy things myself and when friends and family come to visit, it is typically more about Powells and museums and restaurants than the gorge. Up on the bridge, we met with Anna. She was a disgruntled member of the US Army Corps of Software Engineers and had an encrypted document she wanted to get to wikileaks. Sure, we’ll take that document off your hands.
The puzzle itself started with some cryptic crossword style clues. Most of our team had never even heard of this style of clue before about 4 weeks ago when we saw one in the Puzzles & Answers Magazine sampler, so had a bit of difficulty on this end, even knowing they map to game names. We threw the answers into the grid and noticed “bone evil dam.” Bonneville Dam! Back in the van!
While also a tourist destination, Bonneville Dam is also a secure government facility with a vehicle inspection and a ban on backpacks and purses inside the buildings. We decided our BYTE, which looks like an experimental improvised electronics device of unknown function and typically lives on a tray between the driver and passenger should wait it out inside an opaque tupperware bin. The puzzle here, masquerading as a USAC of Software Engineers examination, was relatively easy to solve, having seen a few like it in previous DASHes and/or Puzzled Pints. It was kind of cool, solving it on a bench in front of one of the fish ladder windows, seeing the fish and eels go by. We brought our answer sheet to the officer in charge, who also happened to be holding the GotoVision security chief in custody. When he turned his back to grade our test (a few lines were not straight enough, some were too straight, F-) we were slipped some info about the situation as well as an email address for Professor Goto. An autoresponse sent us to Rooster Rock.
At Rooster Rock, we received a CD of Madonna music (Professor Goto’s favorite) and some beaded necklaces. We recognized fairly quickly a pattern in the beads not unlike the Beadwork Perplex City puzzle. These mapped to music notes, which (eventually, after a lot of trial and error — we seem to have difficulty decoding notes without durations or rests) mapped to songs and lyrics. This sent us to Rocky Butte.
The road winding to the top of Rocky Butte (or more specifically its speedbumps) was not designed for heavy 12-passenger vans. At the top we found “art installations” featuring video games. It was pretty easy to pull letters from the data we had, but we didn’t quite have the right order. We kept getting a weird phrase about something in an ark and something about feds. Several failed Indiana Jones references and one partial hint later, we found the answer. Plugging it into BugMe brought us to Union/Pine.
Here we had a QR puzzle that just about killed us. Around the space were a bunch of QR codes, some obvious, some very hidden. We were also given a QR code “blank grid” sheet. Each of the scanned codes spit out a line of X’es and dots, representing a line in the grid, only there were about 10 extra lines. We did not immediately recognize that there were extras, nor did we know how many extra. I happen to know a few things about QR codes — in fact, I have the QR Code standard [ISO/IEC 18004:2006(E)] sitting on my laptop. Error-correction can handle a few missing or wrong pixels, but we were still missing enough lines that error-correction didn’t help and trial-and-error didn’t quite seem right. This is when we learned that a second sheet of paper, with arrows and boxes, and which we assumed the QR would tell us what to do with, was actually the key to knowing which lines to throw away. I suspect we lost a lot of time on this one. The answer here took us to the Canby Ferry.
The Canby Ferry, which I had never even heard of before, was not quite the “hold the boat” scene from WarGames, but it was a good little trip and added some flavor to the trip. No pterodactyls at the other end, though. Part of the puzzle here (unlocked by some text on a nearby sign) brought about a phone number (busy) and a URL to an MP3. The MP3 (and presumably phone) played back a series of DTMF tones. In theory, the BYTE box decodes them, but we had a bit of a cascade failure here between laptop battery, car power inverter, phone, and BYTE device. I think we phoned in for some heavy hintage on this one (I’m a little uncertain, as I was examining voltage levels and fuse boxes). Whatever the solve process was here, we ended up at the Canby Country Inn.
The Canby Country Inn was very much a CSI-style room search. They put two teams together and stuck them in a room to look for clues. From a game perspective, I thought this was a great idea. In our instance, it brought about some awesome teamwork (though I expect that, from team to team, mileage may vary) with the Silly Hat Brigade. The puzzle itself was a sequence of 6 colored dots around the room, each with a number, a lockbox, a hidden key, and a clue message with reverse/counterclockwise type phrasing. Opening the lockbox revealed... another lockbox with a combination lock and a vague color sequence and equation. Opening that one with the number-colors provided revealed... another lockbox with combination lock. Using the corresponding colored numbers on this second lock did not work. After some trial and error, we discovered the numbers worked if you worked the lock counterclockwise! I had no idea that they even made counterclockwise combination locks. It turns out they don’t. But they’ll work either way if you pick the right numbers. The counter-clockwise numbers are off by a bit from the clockwise ones due to the width of the pins and how those translate out to the angular rotation of the dials. (The third photo down on this wooden combination lock page helps show how the pins work). This (sort of roundaboutly) led us to a different room in the inn where Professor Goto was hiding out. She explained that things were wrong in the computer system, that AI was getting worse, and that we had to shut the system down. We could do that at a particular address on High Street by providing a company name to the valet, and taking the elevator down to the server room.
Into The Grid.
The address, of course, was the Oregon City Elevator. (Can I just say that more pieces of architecture need flying-saucer style observation decks?) They took our van and we continued on foot for a bit. My understanding is that the elevator represented a descent into the game grid computer, we arrived just a tad bit too late and it was closed. Our travels into the world of Tron were on foot, down the stairs. At the bottom of the elevator, we met someone who looked surprisingly like the Goto security chief, only he was decked out in EL wire and identified himself as a welcoming program. He handed out identity discs to each team.
Our van was delivered, transformed into a data transit vehicle. This is a surprisingly easy transform that can be made by just adding some yellow EL wire. (I also took this opportunity to put on my Tron-style yoga bag to get into the theme.)
Our BYTE device had really gone south for a bit. It looked like it got stuck in a programming mode, blinking a red light and dumping interrupt addresses, stack values, and EEPROM checksums. Fortunately, Acorn was really helpful over the phone in getting it out of this stuck state. I think maybe it power-cycled into a bootloader?
My initial impression with the identity disc was that this looked like a difficult puzzle with way too many variables, but unravelling it was not as formidable as originally thought. It was just following lines to make sound-alike computer terms, then looking at specific letters. This brought us to... The Statue of Liberty...?
All Portlanders know of the Statue-of-Liberty-inspired Portlandia statue downtown. None of us had been to, heard of, nor seen in any “offbeat Portland” style tour books mentioning the Milwaukie Statue of Liberty — a 60 ft. replica at a... car dealership? What? Arriving, we discovered Light Cycles (literally). This was another fun two-team solve, though I think we both sort of pitched through it and stumbled on the right answers. Team members had to pilot bicycles around in a circle in a particular order in a way that I think was a bit reminiscent of Mastermind, except there was a bit of confusion over the patterns. The overall scene gets lots of style and story points, but I’m still a little fuzzy on how we arrived at the right answer and whether it was just dumb luck. This unlocked an envelope with a board and pieces that we plowed through very quickly, bringing us to Mill Ends Park.
At Mill Ends Park, a few team members hopped out and received some “baseball card” style superhero cards. Between operating the french press, prepping some snacks, and just generally needing a dose of caffeine to kick in, I didn’t quite catch the solve here. Something about ternary, altered letters, and converting them to binary based on vowels.
This led us to the Portland Collective Agency, and a 3D paper puzzle. We typically kick some major butt on these sorts of things. While this one was a little larger and more intricate than most, we got it assembled quickly, pulled out groupings of words, then found commonalities among them (senses, NY Boroughs, oceans, etc.) We prodded Corby for a small hint to tip us over the edge: the previously unused bolded letters. I think we were all feeling pretty fatigued at that point; we had noticed those at the beginning, but they had faded into the background by the time we had the thing assembled and we were pulling phrases from it. Next stop: Voodoo!
Voodoo Doughnuts was on our shortlist of places we’d likely end up. The team received their namesake doughnut, except the pretzel “pin” had been replaced by a straw and that straw held a rolled-up note. The note led to a URL which led to a YouTube video featuring a color-changing circle. We thought we had an extremely clever solution to this. The colors were all red/green/blue with either zero/half/full intensity. With three three-state “bits,” we thought we’d translate to ternary, but this ended up producing a lot of garbage. It later turned out that if you map the x/y position of the color as if it were a color wheel, it draws out letters. This then led us to the the first place on our shortlist: Ground Kontrol.
Ground Kontrol. It has Tron. Two of them. It even has Tron-themed bathrooms. What it doesn’t have, unfortunately, is enough space for a whole bunch of teams. We retrieved a Mario question box containing coins, but had to return to the van to solve. What happened next might be what separates us from the more hardcore teams. (Though I’m not sure if it shows we’re more green than them or more resourceful. I’m going to stick to the latter.) I think it also caused us to drop off of Game Control’s map for a bit. We have a team member whose house was only about a mile away from our van and whose dining room table was a place where we solved many a Black Letter Game, and (most importantly) has a bathroom and shower. We figured we’d gather around the table and figure out what the coins with PacMans (PacMen?) and arrows meant and one person at a time could rotate out to get cleaned up. The transformation into a clean, fresh person with a new set of clothes was also a positive mental boost. Our puzzle solving vs. ask for hints schedule told us we’d maybe been there about an hour, but Game Control thought we’d been missing for at least a couple of hours. (Poor Kara got skeeved out by some dude with a camera at Starbucks while waiting for us.) I believe this is where we got skipped ahead by a puzzle or two (there was a chess puzzle of some sort we never saw).
The next stop was one of the SmartPark structures downtown. We were instructed to take the van, er, data transfer vehicle, to the top. We went a little off-script here, too. Our driver wasn’t comfortable with taking the long, tall van up the crazy corkscrew of the structure. It’s a bit rough even with a compact car. We took the elevator, but the elevator was also used for another story route, so some confusion resulted.
At any rate, we found ourselves at the Keller Fountain, where CLU, a very green version of Professor Goto told us to get past a security daemon by throwing hitting a target. Of course, we threw
our identity disc a shoe at that target. Several teams in line before us threw shoes, even though thematically it felt like you should be using the disc. One team did, in fact, break from the pack and use the disc instead of a shoe — only to have their disc ricochet off into the energy fountain. Shoes it is.
CLU handed us a piece of the override code (an equation printed on a card) and explained that she would hook us up with a primitive program that could grant us access to the output port and back into the real world. “The primitive program” was a girl that could speak no more than ready, handshake, end of line, message, and then end of line. The handshake and message were literally a “hand-jive” sort of sequence, the first being a primer for the second. This led us back to the elevator, this time the ascent representing emerging from the game world into the real one. Had our van been there instead of parked safely a block away, it would have been stripped of the EL wire effects.
The next stop was the Rose Test Garden for a dastardly puzzle. The BYTE device outputted a list of 20 words. One of the information sign boards at the garden had a map and list of about 100 types of roses. We tried mapping the one to the other using sound-alikes and anagrams, but to no luck. We asked for a minor hint, pointing us to the flavor text, which specifically said “Please enjoy sightseeing right here in Washington Park.” A sign board next to the list of roses mapped out nearby points of interest within Washington Park. I believe we got one or two to fit, with an extra letter left over. They were near-anagrams. Fun. We couldn’t find any more than about four, nor could we find any other popular place names that fit (Voodoo, Powells, etc.) At this point, an hour of struggling had gone by and it might have even been a bit closer to two and we had to, for the first time at any puzzle event, invoke the “we’re not having fun anymore” clause and get an outright answer. I feel really bad about this, but I think the fatigue amplified what otherwise would have been minor frustration. Also, I think we were counting on puzzles getting easier the second morning to compensate for such fatigue. At any rate, the spelled-out answer led us to Cathedral Park.
Once at Cathedral Park, Anna handed us a packet. I seem to recall her handing us a similar packet at a similar time of day at the same place a few months previous, also under preventing-the-end-of-the-world, only that time it was Aztecs and not global thermonuclear war. Our envelope contained some hex grids with letters. We quickly recognized color names and then thought about turning it into papercraft. I vaguely remember stating that it won’t work; hexes can’t be make into a sphere — they need pentagrams in there, like a soccer ball. Laura soldiered on with the cutting and folding. Soon I had egg on my face when it turned out to be a not only a ball, but a representation of a soccer ball, with the pentagons formed from the negative space between the hexes. The solution here led us to the Fort Vancouver Artillery Barracks.
The Barracks was the location of the final showdown. There were a few puzzles to do there. First and foremost, CLU’s override code. Each team had information for one digit of the code, in the form of an equation. Each team also had a letter=number value when you combined a letter from their name badge to a number on their identity disc. I believe the plan was to get teams to interact, trading letters, numbers, and equations, pooling together the answers. Because we’re all big nerds, one team posted the URL to a Google spreadsheet to share data, skipping past the face-to-face interactions. The BYTE had a binary puzzle that we didn’t quite get to solving, possibly due to technical difficulty (ours actually needed to be swapped out for a different one and I believe I saw some blue-wire fixes on the new one that were not present on the old). There was also a page with some hex translated to braille, I believe, then back out to hex (Kristin ran off with the page and solved it while collecting data from other teams).
The grand finale used our BYTE boxes to enter an override code. Each team programmed their box with one digit from the code. Each team then plugged its box into the correct spot in a chain of USB hubs. Those letters spelled out a bad pun that I can’t quite remember now. It didn’t shut down the AI, but did get us into the system. The only way to defeat it was to overload the system... by playing a large number of games of Simon. The skill level of play (or some reasonable facsimile thereof) caused bar graphs to go from red to green and one that was sustained for a while, the computer went explodey! We saved the world! Game over! Have some food and refreshments!
The previous 4000+ words were strictly recap with little analysis. I suspect it will take at least a few days for the full effects fo the weekend to set in. For now, I will make some brief conclusions. I had a lot of fun. I had a lot of tired. I could see that we were a rookie team compared to the others. I do not think that is because we did not have the abilities. I think it comes down to that Jeopardy on the couch vs. studio simile I used above. We didn’t quite have the experience. We did some deep planning in some realms but almost totally overlooked others. We also could have used a bit more discipline in sticking to plans. And more cat naps. We sort of waited until dark before naps, which might not have been the best plan (though we didn’t want to miss any in-van discussion!). I think all of this can be improved with practice.
That was us. As for the event itself, I think it was run with the utmost professionalism and was executed without any major hitches. The BugMe system for entering answers was smooth. On the player side, it provided a consistent interface for answers. It also provided detailed driving directions when required. The metadata about the food and bathroom situation was unexpected but so very useful. I imagine on the Game Control side it provided good positional feedback on teams and allowed the GCs to transparently skip people over puzzles when required. I think the biggest source of glitches was also the biggest source of cool. In the movie world, James Bond is cool because he has the gadgets (and the chicks and the attitude). In the real world, spies avoid gadgets like the plague because they’re the biggest source of uncorrectable-in-the-field failure. I believe the same applies to the BYTE(me) gadgets. Having an almost-literal “black box” was great. What was it going to do? How could we use it? Why are these commands locked? When will they unlock? There was a certain level of exploring there that was entirely virtual. Having it beep with messages throughout the event was great (that 11pm Friday surprise, especially). While the circuit-board-potted-in-epoxy is an old tried and true method of hardening (and preventing tampering), I fear the loose battery pack in a cardboard box was a bit fragile. I can see why it was done that way. A cardboard box is cheaper than a generic plastic enclosure by several dollars, is cheaper to ship, and can be assembled using a hobby knife and lots of epoxy during a build party. The plastic needs more exacting holes drilled and more careful manufacturing. [Aside: Curtis, if you ever find yourself manufacturing mystery boxes in the future, drop me a line and I’ll see what sort of easily-assembled laser-cut acrylic design I can throw together.] [Another aside: will the schematics and code ever be Open Sourced?] But despite some glitches and hiccups, we were able to log (Minicom: Ctrl-A, L) a good deal of information (read: everything we did with it) from the BYTE(me) — enough so that it was rarely in the critical path and more generally served a role as a plot device to add flavor and immersion to the story.
This was my first Game. I doubt it will be my last. Go Team Goat Masonry!