I had a busy weekend; unfortunately, from a puzzling perspective, it was a pretty lousy one.
It started with Saturday morning's United States Puzzle Championship. This is probably the fastest two and a half hours of my puzzling year. I was going in pretty cold this time around, as, for the most part, I was unable to take advantage of what precious little time competitors have to go over the instructions. I did get a chance to work through some of the example puzzles, but to a large degree, I was going to have to simply let it rip.
When the dust settled, I'd polished off Battleships, Complementary Domains, Corral, A Crossword, Masyu, Multiplicative Corral, Sudoku, Magic Order, Fences Variation, Musketeer Sudoku, and six Pond Scum differences, for a total of 186 points. To a neutral observer, I'd done quite well; I felt I would probably crack the top 25, and thus get a puzzle prize, for my performance. But from my own perspective, I was very disappointed for a few reasons. For one, the threshold of 200 was a psychologically big one for me. Also, I could have reached that score if I hadn't spent the bulk of the last half-hour failing to solve Packing For Croatia. This was an amazingly frustrating experience; I had virtually all of it filled in, but there was simply no place left for IMOTSKI. Everything fit so neatly that an error seemed impossible, but clearly it was there. The last few seconds ticked away as I stalled. Drat!
Then, on Monday, disaster struck, as I finally visited the solutions page to check my answers. To my utter horror, I'd somehow neglected to enter one of the two rows required for the sudoku answer, dropping me to 166. A well-earned twenty points, over 10% of my total, fumbled away through unadulterated stupidity. If I sound annoyed at myself, it's because I really am. In my decade of USPC participation, only twice have I not botched something on the answer form and cost myself earned points. It's spectacularly humiliating. What hope do I have of ever being a major player in this competition if I'm so thoroughly incapable of following simple directions and filling out a form correctly?
Of course, that's not my biggest problem. The fact is, I'm still not good enough at these puzzles. With the exception of Magic Order, which I messed up near the end and needed a second attempt at, I didn't feel like I made mistakes or got frustrated with the puzzles I solved. I simply wasn't fast enough to leave myself time for more points. Practice readily springs to mind as a solution to this, but I wonder if it can be that simple. Many of the puzzle types in the USPC (and indeed the WPC) are new; aside from a few examples competitors might post in the hours preceding the test, there's no real opportunity to get good at the specific varieties. The key seems to be a way of thinking: a quick sense for what clues are most constraining and lend themselves best to break-ins, knowing when to bifurcate (i.e. guess), knowing when to go by feel, etc. I'm unsure of how to improve this. Any thoughts out there from the experts?
Speaking of experts, hearty congratulations are in order for Thomas Snyder, who reclaimed his USPC crown with an incredible performance. And my own shortcomings do not reflect the quality of the test, which was excellent. I have another copy of the packet and, when I'm less traumatized, I hope to work through the fine creations therein.
Unfortunately, I have some less kind words for the third edition of the Real Escape Game, which I did at San Francisco's J-Pop festival in Japantown on Sunday. After succeeding at the first two games, the second time with the same teammates who joined me on this occasion, I was eager to prove myself again.
The theme was Evangelion; teams had to try to escape the Angel before Eva's emergency power ran out in one hour. After a brief, somewhat odd introduction, we were sent out onto the streets, as the game was taking place outdoors for the first time.
This will be rather vague, as I'm avoiding specifics at the organizers' request, but, basically, we killed it, solving all the puzzles in half the allotted time. We took the remainder of the hour to get some pork buns and feel good about our victory before we returned to the end location, where we were joined by a couple other teams who barely made it. Game Control congratulated us, lined us up, and took us to the room where the game recap would take place, sitting us in the front. They explained the puzzles we'd seen, and the players behind us reacted to the solutions and their failure to grasp them. When they reached the end, they had us escapees stand up and collect applause. Hooray!
...But that wasn't the end. To our shock, we were then informed that the Angel had killed us because of an extremely cruel gotcha that took place right before we walked to the recap. In front of everyone, after they'd built us up, they snatched our win away. My teammates and I sat in shock for several moments. We rightly savaged the twist on our comment cards before dejectedly leaving, rebuffing the organizers' offer to get a team picture taken in a frame with a "We Failed!" sign. This was additionally insulting, since we didn't feel like we'd failed.
The more I think about what happened, the less sense it makes to me. This gotcha took place a half-hour after we were given every indication that we were finished; with that much time with no game-related activity, our guard was fully let down. We were told we'd escaped; how can one escape something and be killed by it at the same time? Furthermore, to pass the final test, we each had to make a decision in a brief moment, with no apparent opportunity for consulting our teammates or our materials. The decision didn't even feel like it was a decision; it seemed like they were just ending the story, as it were, before bringing us to the postgame. We followed suit with the players in front of us and nothing unseemly happened to any of us in that moment. Instead, they waited to assemble the entire group before slapping us with the bad news.
Simply put, this twist wasn't designed to challenge us, but to make us lose. That's a very important difference, and Real Escape Game 3 was absolutely on the wrong side of it. This offense is made even worse by doing it after making teams think they'd won and could relax. It really soured us on the whole experience, which is a shame, because the puzzles, though perhaps a bit light, were quite nice. It may even affect future REGs for us, as we'll be looking for potential screw-yous at every turn. I'm willing to give this event another chance, but I sincerely hope Game Control gets the message that I and other players are clearly expressing.
So that was my dour weekend. But hey, things are looking up! I'm headed to Las Vegas on Friday for a National Puzzlers' League mini-convention. This does mean I'll miss the USPC's sister test, the United States Sudoku Team Qualifier, which is unfortunate. However, to look on the bright side, I won't exasperate myself by entering half-solutions to screw myself out of points. Good luck to all participating, and here's to better puzzling days ahead!