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Saturday August 4, 2007 // By Sandy

Mystery of the Poisoned Picnic, part 2

(continued from part 1)

We struggle to find a balance when we do craft projects, between the time we commit to produce something cool and the total number of seconds the recipients of our creations will spend looking at and enjoying it. We often err on the side of the former, busting out tools like the Xyron, the sewing machine, sometimes even the letterpress. It rarely seems justified, but after spending most of my life in front of the computer screen, it’s refreshing to actually make something with my hands.

This time, however, with the invitations for the Mystery Hunt, we forwent the toys and did everything in InDesign. It pained me, but justified it by realizing my time was going to be better spent coming up with puzzles. I still wouldn’t stoop to the level of Evite — not for this party — and so I also spent an inordinate amount of time designing a web page and online reply system (with the help of the awesome Wufoo).

With the name of the hunt carved in stone and invitations sent out, it was now time to determine the story. We’d intentionally painted ourselves into a corner (it’s those niggling self-imposed constraints again), knowing there had to be a good solution for that theme. We brainstormed for about a week, coming up with lots of different stories and constructs. We whittled out the tedious and silly ones, and finally came up with this, presented here roughly as we told it to the assembled crowd on game day:

We’re here to solve the mystery of a deadly picnic. The host — and victim — was one Cecil Marple-Poirot, a descendent of the famous marriage between the grandnephew of Miss Marple and granddaughter of Hercule Poirot. Cecil invited five special, alphabetically consecutive guests to his picnic: Anakin, Bilbo, Cthulhu, Demeter and Eloise. Each guest brought one of the following dishes: Kimchee, Turducken, Caprese Salad, Poutine and Latkes. And each dish held a special ingredient: parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme… or POISON. Your mission is to determine which dish it was, who brought it and in what order they arrived at the party.

Each team was then given a booklet, which contained nine puzzles, a master grid and a map of the area.

There were then told which puzzle to start at, and to go consecutively through the booklet, wrapping around when they got to the end, and coming back home when they finished them all. With all nine puzzles solved, they’d have the nine necessary clues to solve the grid, and figure out who poisoned Cecil. At least that’s what we’d hoped for.

Puzzle #1: The Rekder

All puzzles were location-specific with the exception of this one, which required them to find a Chicago Reader, a free newsweekly, and look for the encrypted personal ad:

DECIPHER ME, CLUE-HUNTERS: Dro Csdr Vybn arrived after the person who brought the Uybokx mkllkqo.

A cryptogram, but too small to solve with trial-and-error letter substitution. The key was to notice the misspelling in the title of the puzzle. There was a k where an a should have been. If you extrapolate, and figure an l means b, m means c, etc. the text became simple to decipher. The plain text clue:

DECIPHER ME, CLUE-HUNTERS: The Sith Lord arrived after the person who brought the Korean cabbage.

Post-game analysis: I was worried people would be stymied with this one, but everyone seemed to get it right away. A good puzzle for this kind of game — not too difficult, but still requiring that a-ha moment to find the key. The notebook page design was a little weak.
Grade: A-

Puzzle #2: Western Ave. L plaza

When designing each puzzle, we tried to find a sweet spot between the information given to them on each page and the information they’d need to gather at the location. It was hard to do with each puzzle, but this one I thought did it well. Teams saw in their notebook an iChat (see photo above). It read:

  • PoutineLover4Eva: Hi, Cthulhu! What are you bringing to the picnic?
  • Cthulhu: Can’t tell you. It’s a secret. What are about you?
  • PL4E: Poutine, of course! It’s all I ever make. My twins love it.
  • C: Mmm hmm. How old are your twins now?
  • PL4E: Well, I’ll put it to you this way. If you take the product of the ages of all three of my kids, it equals the number of cents required to buy one of every paper behind you.
  • C: Say what now?
  • PL4E: Nevermind. When are you planning to get to the party?
  • C: Whenever I get there, I guess. You?
  • PL4E: Let’s just say that my place in the order of arriving guests will be the same as the age of my youngest child.
  • C: You frighten me.

Going to Western and Leland and counting up the cost of each honor box, you’d find the total cost to be $2.25. Then it became a simple task of finding your prime factors and getting the right combination of numbers.

A lot of teams thought they beat this puzzle, only to discover the answer didn’t jibe with the solution to other puzzles. Some thought they’d discovered a flaw in that the puzzle has two possible answers. It doesn’t. I’ll wait until the next post to give the answer, in case there’s anyone out there interested in giving it a go.

Post-game analysis: I loved making this puzzle, and thought it was perfect for the game, requiring the right amount of brute force and ingenuity. I didn’t account for people missing the answer entirely, so I’m downgrading my score slightly. Lesson for next time: be clear that all answers are decidedly unambiguous.
Grade: B+


Posted by Joe // Aug 6, 06:59
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