The Christmas Conundrumby Xander Thompson on 09 Jan 2018
Or: How my siblings learned to stop worrying and love the puzzles.
This is the sort of thing you’ll hear all throughout January. And you’re about to hear it again from me.
What I did over winter break was set up an elaborate scavenger-hunt-puzzle-quest for my siblings, girlfriend, and parents. They had to overcome my puzzles in order to receive their christmas presents.
Alexa, my wonderful girlfriend, helped me brainstorm and tweak puzzles for my siblings and my parents. I used my coworkers as guinea pigs for Alexa’s.
Let’s look at what I think were some of the highlights and great moments of the puzzles:
Alexa’s puzzles were some of the most interesting to build, because I know a lot about how she approaches puzzles. She has a few things that she doesn’t like, such as when the solution/means are clear but tedious. I tried to avoid that style as much as I could with hers.
Her puzzles started at her house and after finding 5 different map pieces, she discovered that the puzzles continued at my house. At my house, I had rearranged the keys on a mechanical keyboard, and gave her a note with some gibberish message. Typing the message out on the modified keyboard spelled out a message giving her the clues to a constraint-satisfaction problem. Each of my family members had a code-word relating to cute doggos, and Alexa took delight in delivering the answers: “Zack! You’re a burnt-marshmallow shibe! Dad, you’re a danger doggo!”
The other big puzzles for Alexa were more visual: a maze, and a page filled with numbers. The maze had letters that, when traced along the maze’s solution, spelled out “the presents are yours” followed by the code for the final combination lock. The page filled with numbers had grouped digits that spelled out “L A M P”, the location of her next puzzle. I was afraid Alexa would be too clever for her own good and start trying to find a pattern to all the numbers, so I included a note telling her not to miss the forest and keep an eye out for the trees.
Alexa’s puzzles were the most time-consuming to make, and I had the most fun watching her work through them. Despite a minor snag at the end (my house is messy enough that Alexa assumed the locked suitcase was just a part of the scenery), the whole experience went off very well and gave me a few tips to smooth out the experience for my siblings and for my parents, whose puzzles would come on Christmas Day itself.
The puzzles for my siblings got fairly elaborate, since I had the most time/input on them. These puzzles actually followed a semblance of a storyline: Krampus was coming to ruin Christmas and steal their presents. I had hidden the presents from him and left my siblings a series of clues in the hopes that they would get to the presents before Krampus could take them!
This was a tough series of puzzles, with puzzles and clues hidden all around our house. Max certainly enjoyed “hunting for Future Clues!”, as he put it. Their puzzles often lead to partial clues - I wanted my siblings to have to work together of course! That worked about as well as sibling-teamwork can, as evidenced by some of the shouting and clue-grabbing that you’ll see in some of the videos below!
The high point was abandoning my siblings as they left for the park to find clues. I hid the presents in my truck and took it to our old elementary school. My siblings went back home, called my voicemail and received a frantic plea to come to Morse Elementary - Krampus had the truck! They arrived to find me sitting in the truckbed, and had to find out where Krampus hid the key!
Overall, this series of puzzles was a great first attempt for me to design a game or experience in real life. I had a great time watching my siblings struggle through the puzzles, and the puzzles seemed to be an appropriate difficulty level.
My parent’s puzzles couldn’t be too complicated (not for insult to their intelligence, just that my parents have never done an escape room or the like before) so I relied a lot on riddles or “once you see it” kind of puzzles. The puzzles were also less-involved in terms of moving around and hard-to-reach spaces.
The highlight of my parent’s puzzles was the look of horror on my mom’s face when she opened the fridge and pulled out a water bottle filled with murky black water. She made my dad drink it.
My dad’s highlight came at the very end. I had put a comment in a Python file that said “TODO: hide Dad’s present in the back of Mom’s car.” He had been thinking over the output of the program and trying to figure out what to do. He opened up the source code and saw it, then turned to me. “Ah, you dick!”
This was a good test of my ability to make the puzzle fun and challenging, but at a level for people who do not often play puzzle games or go to escape rooms.
Feedback and Critique
Once the puzzles were over, I made sure to ask everyone for their feedback. The feedback generally followed the same trend:
I had fallen trap to the same assumption that many a game designer or puzzlemaker will make when they first start out. I was expecting my players to think like me, instead of thinking like themselves. I could perfectly see what was supposed to be done, so they should too. Wrong wrong wrong!
My family had their own ideas of what each puzzle needed, and they approached each puzzle differently.
Going forward, I’ll be focused more on how a complete and total stranger would approach each puzzle. There were a couple points in each group of puzzles where I had to give a little wink wink nudge nudge in the right direction because they were unsure of how to approach the puzzle.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this write-up, and I certainly hope you enjoy the videos of my dorky family! Leave any comments, questions, or tell me about your puzzle experiences!
Warning, these videos may contain strong language (my family is unabashed in our use of colorful language)