The lead-up to this year’s DASH (Different Area, Same Hunt) was a time of great excitement. For the first time in the multicity puzzle hunt’s seven-year history, DASH was going to have a presence in Denver! Some friends of mine who run an escape room in Lower Downtown and participated in the 2014 DASH in Washington, DC contacted DASH headquarters and volunteered to be the local Game Control. The DASH website hinted at a J. K. Rowling theme for the 2014 edition so I formed a team with my friend Kristy and her friend Jennie which we called I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Beer. DASH pre-hunt announcements reminded solvers to install the ClueKeeper. My previous DASH experiences preceded the partnership with ClueKeeper and I was excited to see how this app, designed by my friends at Shinteki, would improve the hunt experience by automating timekeeping and answer confirmation. DASH also announced that this hunt would be beginner-friendly, family-friendly, and feature easier puzzles than one might encounter in BAPHL, Decathlon, etc. While I’ve enjoyed previous DASH hunts I have not considered them beginner-friendly. The puzzle sets often contain one or two toughies that clearly cater to experience puzzle hunters. So the news that DASH has apparently forced puzzle constructors to kill their diabolical darlings and create clean,simple puzzles that I could recommend to my casual puzzling friends was really, really exciting.
And was my pre-DASH excitement borne out in the actual event? For solving DASH in Denver with Kristy and Jenny, absolutely! For solving a DASH with ClueKeeper, pretty much. For solving a DASH with clean, beginner-friendly puzzles, uh, hold that thought.
DASH is composed of a series of puzzles that lead to a meta-puzzle that ties all the previous puzzles together. The puzzles are distributed along a walkable route in the host city. At each route location a solving team finds the GC (member of the Game Control team), starts a timer (using ClueKeeper), and receives a puzzle based on wordplay, math, logic, pattern recognition, etc. Puzzles have brief, elliptical instructions (figuring out how to solve a puzzle is often part of the puzzle) and lead to an answer word or phrase. When a team enters the correct answer into ClueKeeper the solving time is recorded and the team is given directions to the next location on the route. Each puzzle has a “par” solving time. A team that solves a puzzle faster than the par time receives bonus points for each unused minute; otherwise a team received the base score. Teams are only timed for puzzle solving, not transportation between locations, lunch breaks, etc. While solving a puzzle, a team may purchase hints from ClueKeeper. Purchasing a hint drops the maximum score potential to 90% of the base score. Also, hints gradually become free as the time elapses so there are few circumstances in which buying a hint would make sense. Also, a team may skip a puzzle, which results in a score of zero points but allows a team to proceed to the next location.
During the hunt, our team found a few of the the puzzles much more difficult than we were previously led to believe by the pre-hunt announcements. As we struggled with these puzzles we assumed that other teams were experiencing the same difficulties. The leader boards were posted a few days after the hunt and we confirmed that our team finished second among the three Experienced track teams in Denver and 222nd out of the 333 Experienced teams overall. Novice track teams completed DASH with slightly adjusted par times and a few extra hints but basically the same puzzles. The leader board show that Novice teams fared better than we had speculated. So, DASH may well have honored their beginner-friendly promise. My feelings about the tough puzzles have become more positive as I reflect on them though I do plan to include in the descriptions a few thoughts on how some puzzles could have been improved.
Entering Your Name Into The Cup
Par: n/a / Our Time: 32:41
The 15 Denver DASH team gathered at Puzzah, the escape room business owned by the local GCs, and were told that Hogwarts was hosting another Tri-Wizard Tournament. We were invited to participate by placing our team’s name in the Goblet of Fire and then making tournament preparations at locations along the hunt route. The first puzzle was not played for points and did not have a par time. It also involved some team interaction, as is now typical of the first DASH puzzle. Each team needed to compile a spell book and figure out an incantation to use for entering our name into the cup. We received four identical spell book pages and needed to,exchange them with other teams so we had four different pages. We had trouble finding a team with one of the pages so the interactive part of the puzzle took us longer than we expected. Once we had all the pages we saw that some were title pages with the name of a spell and other pages contained spell descriptions. We quickly saw that the descriptions each contained a misspelled word (in each case a missing letter), but collecting these missing letters didn’t produce a readable answer. Eventually a free hint told us that we also needed a letter from each of the title pages by using a grade level number to index into the spell name. The ordering of the pages took us a while. We tried a number of mechanical sorting approaches before noticing that the spell names and descriptions could be conceptually matched. We got the incantation SCRIBO HANCOCKUS and directions to the next location. Fun start.
Weighing of the Wands
Par: 30:00 / Our Time: 40:37
We proceeded to a nearby park representing Olivander’s Wand Shop. Our puzzle comprised a list of wood/plant types and three weight balance puzzles. The weights featured pictures that clued the names of woods in three ways: anagrams (SNAPE = ASPEN), homophones (YOU = YEW), and beheadments (HELM = ELM). We made quick work of the picture clues and the weight problems, with a refresher on how to calculate torque, and saw that the numerical value of the weights could be used to index into the wood names to produce a word for each balance system: PHONIES for anagrams, WIDTH for homophones, and TORE for beheadments. We reasoned to apply the relevant wordplay on these answers, thus IPHONES, WITH, and ORE. What answer was being clued by these words? We exchanged theories and tried a few guesses in ClueKeeper. GOLDEN APPLES, SILVER APPLES, IRON APPLES returned “Incorrect,” as did the guess APPLES. Finally, with no other ideas we tried just APPLE and confirmed a correct answer. We didn’t understand how the answer worked until after the hunt when a GC explained that we were supposed to interpret the beheadment as as a head addition and produce the clue STORE WITH IPHONES. I would guess that other teams made the same misstep but perhaps a fair number of those teams recovered from it more quickly that we did. My suggestion to the puzzle constructor would have been to add a hint to clarify the wordplay and word ordering as in “The transformed answer words form a clue with the enumeration 5 4 7.”
Interview With Rita Skeeter
Par: 40:00 / Our Time: 61:20
Our next stop was a storefront courtyard where we were given a three puzzle sheets with word clues and a logic puzzle diagram. The clues led to three-word, alliterative phrases in which one word was an antonym of what was suggested by the clue (that’s dishonest Rita for you). The logic puzzle was a square lattice with some squares containing a number and an arrow. A number-arrow square indicated how many squares between the arrow and the grid edge needed to be shaded, but only if the number-arrow square were “truthful.” An unshaded number-arrow square was always truthful but as shaded number-arrow square could be truthful or untruthful. In the completed logic grid numbers in the unshaded number squares would be used as indexes into words from the wordplay section to yield and answer. Kristy and Jennie worked on the wordplay clues while I tackled the logic grid. I could figure out the initial square-shading steps but got stuck by a section in the lower right and kept making errors leading to contradictions. The free hints weren’t helping and eventually Kristy and Jennie were finished while I was still struggling. We got the answer by making backsolve deductions from the likely index letters and successfully entered SPELLS SEEM STRONG into ClueKeeper. I later learned that several other teams had similar difficulties with the logic puzzle and resorted to a similar backsolving process.
Par 35:00 / Our Time: 27:31
The quidditch pitch was near Confluence Park. This puzzle featured an untimed pre-challenge in which we had to find a golden snitch before starting the puzzle. The snitch was a yellow stress ball sitting next to the park path about ten feet from the GC. Ah well, it was still a cute touch. The puzzle was a word search with rebus squares representing either KEEP or SEEK. The unused words contained three wandering word paths that clued CHASE in different ways. The un-unused letter spelled the final answer SWEEPSTAKES. The puzzle tied the quidditch elements together beautifully and we were thrilled to finally solve a puzzle faster than the par time.
Tea For Two
Par 25:00 / Our Time: 30:12
We grabbed some lunch and then picked up our puzzle on the LoDo bridge after another quick pre-puzzle involving Bertie Bott’s Every Flavored Beans. The actual handout puzzle contained a college of picture clues, letters, and leaves. We quickly saw that the pictures could be paired to form varieties of tea, e.g. EARL + GREY, and that lines connecting the paired pictures intersected letters and leaves. We got stuck until free hints told us to look at the letters not in line order but in top-to-bottom order. The letters spelled a clue that instructed us to Caesar shift the first letters of the tea names a number of positions equal to the number of points on the leaves. We got the letters but remained stuck until we recounted one of the leaves and realized that we had a wrong letter. My made the fix and entered the correct answer WHITMAN. This was another puzzle where we hit the ground running but stalled on the final extraction, and it simply based on our carelessness. One of the tea varieties was new to me: Matcha, clued by a match and a girl at the doctor’s office presumably saying “ah.”
Potions and Sabotage
Par: 35:00 / Our Time: 31:39
Our GC was enjoying a beer in a cafe next to Union Station when we arrived. Our pre-puzzle task was to mix a potion that could be used to reveal a word written in invisible ink on an index card. We then received a sheet with a word grid within a triangular lattice and some card stock with cut-and-tape triangles featuring words. We noticed connections among the words — synonyms, antonyms, word changes, etc. and gathered related triangles to construct triangular pyramids. The pyramid wordplay themes corresponded to words on the lattice and we could see how the pyramids rolled along the lattice according to numbers printed on the pyramids. The six unused lattice words formed a transformation chain using the same transformations featured on the pyramids, and when ordered in this chain the main diagonal of the unused spelled the answer word COFFEE. The puzzle was nicely constructed with a final set of six words that worked cyclically with the transformations (the last word connected back to the first) while concealing an answer word. We sailed through the mental steps of this puzzle and spent most of our solving time cutting, taping, and preventing pieces from blowing away in the afternoon breeze.
House Elves Help
Par: 35:00 / Our Time: 49:39
At Skyline Park we collected a sheet with a large 5×5 grid and 25 tiles with words along each edge. The tile words could be connected to form compound words and we soon had an arrangement of the 25 tiles that fit inside the grid. On each tile the four words had one letter in common and these letters spelled the message LOOK FOR TEN CONFUSED ANIMALS. On the back of each tile was a single letter and we noted the each row and each column anagrammed into a five-letter animal — a very impressive word square construction! We got to this point in about ten minutes and then, as with previous puzzles, we got stuck on the extraction of the final answer. The timer clicked on and eventually we received a free hint to use the index numbers on back of the grid. We scooted the tiles over, flipped the sheet and discovered a duplicate 5×5 grid with index numbers. Sigh. After replacing the tiles we saw that the row indexes spelled HORSE and the column indexes spelled…OAONS? What did that mean? We tried some alternate indexing methods and then random guessing in ClueKeeper. HORSE? Nope. HORSEFLIES? Nope. HORSESENSE? Nope. HORSESHOES? Correct! After the hunt the GC explained that we had flipped the tiles column by column when we should have flipped the entire 5×5 arrangement as a single unit. This would have changed the order of the columns to one that worked with the index numbers. Other teams reported hitting the same snags and overcoming them either by lucky insight or, like us, random guessing. The puzzle overall had some wonderful elements but I remain disappointed over losing so many bonus points due to some easily fixable “traps” that the constructor didn’t notice or, perhaps, intentionally left in.
Par: 40:00 / Our Time: 36:53
Our pre-puzzle in Writer’s Square involved a ring toss with a stuffed monster attached to an orange construction cone. A team that arrived before us had set up a solving area in a shady spot near the cone but quickly relocated when our team’s early attempts caused put them in the line of fire. Jennie finally scored the ring and we received three puzzle sheets with nurikabe variants. Each shaded section of the complete nurikabe contained a monster and part of the puzzle was determining the numerical value of each monster, I finished my puzzle first and then helped the other two with their puzzles. The extraction involved finding a path through the nurikabe mazes and forming clue words from the initial letters of the monsters passed in each path. The clue phrase CREATURE CAPTURED ON CRETE led us to the answer MINOTAUR. The puzzle was fun as nurikabe variants go. We did pretty well forward solving the puzzle, though we learned after the fact that a backsolve approach, i.e. ignoring the nurikabe and deducing likely clue words that could be formed by maze paths, would likely lead to an answer much faster.
Regarding the Cup
Par: 30:00 / Our Time: 34:15
When we returned to Puzzah for the final puzzle we had been on the puzzle route for just over seven hours. Our GC told us that the Triwizard Cup had been mysteriously transformed into a rubber duck, and our goal was to figure out who was responsible. The final puzzle consisted of 14 minipuzzles whose answers were to be used with a “Revelation Matrix” in some unspecified way. We grabbed at puzzles and solved more or less independently. I started with a string maze puzzle that connected unusual Goblin spell words. I made the connections and then read something on another page about how ClueKeeper could translate Goblin words. I tried the translator and got some unusual four-letter sequences for some of the spell words but nothing that produced an answer to what I assumed was a simple mini-puzzle. By this time I was getting hints about the Revelation Matrix, no one on our team had even looked at yet. The answer words could be traced among the letters of the Matrix to produce the shapes of other letters, and these letters could be arranged to form our final answer. So I skipped the string maze and collected the minipuzzle answers from Kristy and Jennie to work on the Matrix. With four puzzle answers I could tell that the first part of the answer was TRIWIZARD. I suggested two more minipuzzles that would be most helpful with the remainder of the answer and was able to get CHAMPIONS. So the TRIWIZARDCHAMPIONS, i.e. us, were responsible for transforming the cup. ClueKeeper gave us the option of either stopping or completing an “extra credit” puzzle (Regarding the Cup, Part II), with a par time of 75 minutes, to figure out how to transform the duck back into a cup. If we chose to skip it we could solve it at home for fun and forfeit the potential extra credit score. We weighed the pros and cons and finally decided to skip it. At this point we had no idea about the progress of other teams and though that we might be easily in first place without the need of bonus points. At the awards ceremony we learned that another Experienced team completed the nine puzzle with 4 more points than us and they completed the extra credit puzzle on-site for 75 bonus points making that team the clear winner in Denver. If we had chosen to solve the extra credit we would have need to complete it in less than 71 minutes to overtake them. We congratulated the winning team for their well-deserved victory.
Regarding the Cup, Part II
Par: 75 / My Time: more than 75 minutes
A few days after the hunt I felt rested enough to try the final meta, and decided to try it alone rather than figuring out a way to gather with Kristy and Jennie. First I went back and solved all the Regarding the Cup puzzles, which were generally simple, quick solves. The Goblin translations I discovered for the string maze were actually part of the Part II puzzle and the initial solution was much simpler than I had made out, so my problems with Regarding the Cup were due largely to unlucky puzzle selection and accidentally stumbling upon premature information. The 14 puzzles contained a gratuitous amount of flavortext and the information in this flavortext yielded clues that explained how the Triwizard Cup was transformed and how the transformation could be reversed. Apparently, the Goblin language has many words that are idential to English words, and occasionally a string of English words is identical to a magical Goblin incantation. The puzzle answer words, starting with SCRIBO HANCOCKUS and ending with MINOTAUR turned out to be an incantation that turned the cup into a duck. To reverse the transformation, one needed to find the counterspell word for each spell word and then deliver the incantation in reverse order. In some cases, the counterspell words were revealed in the puzzle flavortext, often using clues from multiple puzzles. A majority of the counterspells could be determined by making a “Jorvikspar” circle of magical words. The elements of the Jorvikspar could be collected from other minipuzzles and from collecting the Goblin translations from ClueKeeper. Once I determined all the counterspell words I typed in the incantation and was told that I was successful in restoring the cup.
I call this type of puzzle a “Chinese Restaurant,” based on a similar puzzle in the NPL extravaganza “Small Town News” that featured a puzzle in which solvers needed to connect a series of news clippings and photos to determined the location of a Chinese restaurant on a city map. RtC2 is a pretty good example of the puzzle type. I took my time and made successful inferences that allowed me to enter the correct incantation on my first try with no hints. The puzzle was furnished with eight hints that probably helped teams sift through the complications in a faster time, and ClueKeeper may be set up to give help for near guesses, as the final answer is rather long and typos are easy to make.
Kristy, Jennie, and I had a fantastic experience overall and are immensely grateful to the puzzle constructors and organizers who made the event possible. Aside from the nits I mentioned related to Weighing of the Wands and House Elves Help we were very impressed by the puzzle design. ClueKeeper required a bit of a learning curve, and we got the impression (perhaps mistakenly) that it would offer some sort of “you’re on the right track” response for close-but-incorrect answers such as APPLES or HORSE. Still, the advantages of ClueKeeper outweigh the disadvantages and I’m happy that the app is available for puzzle hunts such as DASH. I hope that DASH returns to Denver in 2016, and I hope that I can convince more of my friends to partake in this enjoyable event.