August 26, 2005

The needle and the damage done

Last Saturday was my second go-round competing in the Haystack (a recount of last year's event is here). Once again, tons of fun, although I liked last year's Haystack better for a few reasons. (And not merely because my team won last year!)

This time around the Haystack, by design, had more puzzles than it was reasonable to be able to solve in the time available -- which just sort of bugs me philosophically, because I am an obsessive completist and want to solve everything. (Maybe this was a reaction to last year, when the organizers didn't expect anyone to solve all the puzzles, but then my team actually did solve all the puzzles.) And I felt like we spent more time on getting from place to place this year; the locations were farther apart, and that combined with the puzzle overload made the day a little more stressful than last year.

The puzzle hunt was set up as a game of "New York Rummy"; solving puzzles gave you cards, which you then could use to gain points in various ways, either by playing them as melds or by using each card's special power (which allowed you to steal points from other teams or get back a card you had already playes; things like that). So the optimal strategy was to figure out which cards you wanted most and solve the puzzles needed to get them.

Well, my team -- this year consisting of me, Greg Pliska (G Natural in the National Puzzlers' League), Jessica Switzer (a Stamford attendee), Joe DiPietro (a local crossword constructor), and Chris Morse (Sprout in the NPL, down from Boston for the event) -- pretty much ignored the cards in favor of solving whichever puzzles we most felt like solving. This was not a winning strategy, but what can I say? We were more interested in the puzzles than the cards. At the end of the day, we finished third with 144 points (and were the highest-scoring NPL team, beating the 4th-place team by a scant 2 points, so, a small victory there), behind two teams with (if I remember correctly), 531 and 901 points. The reason for the massive score gap is because one of the cards allowed you to reverse the digits of your score, and only one team solved that puzzle, I believe; the other team to reverse their score was the one team that solved the puzzle in the final round that allowed you to get any card you wanted, and naturally they picked the score-flipping one. Unflipped, our score beat theirs, but them's the breaks.

I had started the day by waking up early and keyed-up, so I ran four miles in the park, which is, honestly, an odd way to start a day on which one is expecting to do a lot of walking. But I did feel energized by the time our team met up in Harlem, and stayed in pretty good spirits for most of the day, until the final round, when I acquired a SPLITTING headache and ended up working on a (god help me) sudoku puzzle. But then we got to the final meeting place -- a Vietnamese restaurant -- and once I had some food and a beer, I felt much better. And then some NPL folks invited me to go drinking, and on the way home I thought perhaps the second beer had been not such a swell idea for a fellow who'd been having mood problems, but it was still enjoyable catching up a bit with people.

As for the puzzles, my favorite was the Joker puzzle from round three. The main part of the puzzle was not especially exciting -- it was just a regular old logic puzzle -- but the payoff was brilliant, involving comparing info in the logic puzzle to a massive Monopoly board on the wall at Toys R Us in Times Square. Very cool. Some other highlights: Queen of Roaches in round one (a nice little wordplay puzzle), the Joker in round two (a follow-the-directions puzzle; far from difficult, but very entertainingly written), Six of Roaches in round two (hard to describe, but fun), Jack of Cabs in round three (a crostic with a clever gimmick), and King of Mammon in round four (a cool little word puzzle, even though I didn't solve it through my headachy haze).

Oh, and the damage done? That would be the massive leg cramps I had the next morning. Must remember to stretch after walking all day!

Posted by Francis at 01:37 PM

I *hate* extravaganzas/hunts where no one is expected to solve all the puzzles. As a solver, it leaves you feeling dissatisfied, and as a constructor it means some (often most) teams won't even get to see what you worked so hard on.

Are there people who like this format? About the only rationale I can see is that it lets everyone finish at the same time. But has anyone ever complained "Well, that sucked-- our team won, and so we had an hour to kill during which there was nothing to do but hang out and talk about the puzzles."?

My feeling is that in nearly all cases, these should be designed so that *most* teams will finish everything, some sooner (and perhaps with fewer hints) than others.

I hope this puzzle asthetics NPL panel thingy comes to pass. And that I'm on it.

Posted by: Rick at August 30, 2005 07:30 PM