Search Results for: metapuzzles

The Fool and His Money -- talking about the game now

Okay, I did my moral homily, now I'll talk about the game. It occurs to me that some of my readership may not have played The Fool's Errand.

Well... probably most of my readership here has, because my friends include a lot of Mystery Hunt types. Plus people who (like me) were already gamers when TFE came out in (oy) 1987. Plus people who played System's Twilight, my TFE homage from (gah) 1994.

So, for the rest of you! The Fool and his Money is a puzzle collection wrapped in a narrative, with more puzzles hidden in the gooey center.

It's not an adventure game. The early example of TFE played hell with my notion of what an adventure game was, because it had puzzles and text and a story just like Zork, but it... was... something else. Years of research and meditation (--playing more games) clarified the distinction: The Fool games do not present you with an explorable game world. You don't find a puzzle by looking under a rug; you find a puzzle on your screen. This is not a flaw, this is a different outlook.

(Potential sidetrack for student discussion: the narrative in TFE and TFahM is third-person, rather than the traditional second-person text of IF. Does this make a difference to the genre? Why? Contrariwise, they have an explorable interface, within their simple mouse-and-click bounds. Is that like the interface conventions of text or graphical IF?)

The Fool games do have a clear genre analogue -- though I wasn't familiar with it when I played TFE back in college. They're puzzle extravaganzas, like the Mystery Hunt I mentioned earlier. So:

  • a collection of puzzles, presented en masse or in groups;
  • with few or no instructions, so that the solving process involves experimentation;
  • of varying types, often variations on familiar themes but usually with creative twists which must be figured out;
  • in two or more layers, where the puzzle solutions become clues for further "metapuzzles", so that the final challenge can only be attacked when all (or most) of the earlier puzzles are complete.

All clear? So much for the generalizations. What's TFahM like?

The Fool is returning from his earlier Errand, with the fourteen Treasures in his bindlestiff, when wham! Pirates. They even steal his pointy hat. Beyond that, there's something terribly wrong with the kingdom... And then the puzzles begin.

The puzzles include word/letter puzzles and general symbolic/pattern puzzles. (A couple so far with light arithmetic, but no math puzzles per se.) Rather heavier on the word puzzles. These are very broad categories I'm using, of course. On the one hand you wind up putting letters in grid, pulling letters out of grids, anagramming, assembling word fragments into sentences, dividing words into groups... and on the other hand there are jigsaw puzzles, arranging symbols to line up without duplicates, tracing geometric paths, and so on.

These puzzles mostly abjure dexterity and mouse-clicking skill. The very first (jigsaw) puzzle throws in a click-things-fast twist, which really isn't typical of the game as a whole. (I'm not sure why the author thought it was a good idea.) Don't be disheartened; it is possible to avoid that part of the puzzle if you plan carefully. A later puzzle requires some careful clicking with a time constraint, but it's not too bad (though perhaps worse if you're using a trackpad rather than a mouse). I'm halfway through the game so there are probably more like that I haven't seen. It's not a huge thing; just be aware that it's not a pure-brainpower game.

I'd say that the Johnson has greatly improved the way he sequences his puzzles. TFE was a wild grab-bag of puzzle forms. This game still has a variety, but they're more harmonious. Rather than totally off-the-wall gags (everyone remember the Three Ships?), we get variations on the puzzle forms, which increase smoothly in complexity as you progress through the game.

Are these familiar types? That depends on your context. Some of the puzzle forms are imported directly from the original TFE. Others start that way but then, as I said, get changed up and altered. Yet other types are (as far as I can recall) entirely new to Johnson's work.

If you're not familiar with his earlier games, you're going to be in new territory. These are not Zork-style puzzles, nor Myst-style puzzles, nor the types rehashed endlessly in the modern hidden-object genre.

You start with about a dozen puzzles unlocked. Each time you solve one, another one opens up, so you always have a range of stuff to work on. Of course, as you play, the list of open puzzles will accumulate more and more of the ones you're stuck on... that's life, I'm afraid. You're going to have to finish everything eventually, so don't totally neglect the evil ones. Come back to them occasionally and see if you can't make a little bit of progress.

And then you reach the meta stages. I haven't, yet, mostly. I've found a couple of puzzles which are unlocked by earlier puzzles, and one set of challenges hidden in a way which one must experiment to discover.

The primary metapuzzle mechanism is the Moon's Map, which starts out blank, and accumulates pieces as you solve puzzles. Once it's complete -- well, if it works like the Sun's Map in the original TFE, you'll have to unscramble it like a jigsaw, and then solve a new set of revealed puzzles.

The clues will come from everything you've solved thus far. Puzzle answers, letters and symbols that appear on completed puzzle screens, and -- I don't know what else! There are definitely some suspicious phrases in the story text, though. As with any good puzzle extravaganza, the story gives thematic cues and allusive comments that support the developing meta.

A few strategic tips for the newcomer to this field. Not hints -- rather, expectations. I don't want anybody to try this game on a whim and be thrown into a shark pit.

  • This is not a casual puzzle game. This is a brain-burner. I am blasting through it pretty fast, but I have, you know, a flexible schedule. "Halfway through" represents a bunch of my gaming hours since Thursday.

  • Don't be shy about pressing the "Help" button. It doesn't give spoilers or hints. It only tells you the general shape of the puzzle. Yes, it's fun to try to work that out yourself, and you should certainly experiment too. But as soon as you stop making progress, go ahead and read the help text. Probably that's where the solving will start. (It often gives some handy shortcut keystrokes, too.)

  • Expect frustration. I meant it about "not casual"! Even with the puzzle variations, you will come to dread Yet Another Round of those damn whatever-it-is-you-dread.

  • And yet, you will solve them.

  • The twelve tarot cards on the title screen are your save slots. You would have known that if you'd pressed the "Help" button.

  • You will need scrap paper. Or a text file to take notes in. But eventually, probably scrap paper to draw on, too.

  • For hacker-type people: writing a program to solve a puzzle is solving the puzzle. It's totally not cheating at all. I have a directory called "fooltricks" where I am accumulating Python scripts which have helped me solve various puzzles. (I still have the C program I wrote in 1989 to solve the 3x3 letter grids in TFE! I've been saving it in this directory for years.)

  • Using an anagram tool or searchable word list is maybe cheating a little bit. But I do it. It makes many of the puzzles easier, but it doesn't make most of them easy; you still have to think and experiment. (I like the Internet Anagram Servant. If you're on a Mac or Linux, you've got a word list in /usr/share/dict/words.)

  • If you're not an experienced puzzle person, work with someone. (This is a valid tip for all kinds of puzzle and adventure games.)

  • Don't get the idea that every puzzle in TFahM is insanely difficult. Some of them are quite easy! It's just that, you know, you wind up spending all your time on the hard ones.

  • Losing sleep on this game is a very real hazard.

  • I am throwing progress tweets on #foolandhismoney.

I have come to the end of this review, and I realize I have not been jumping up and down yelling "Play this game!" Please understand, I am jumping. You should play this game -- if you like puzzles, if you like challenges, if you like working all-out on crazy-hard puzzles where they barely even tell you the rules. The Fool's Errand was a great game; The Fool and His Money is a better game. So far. I am going to finish it (forwarrrrrrd!) and I do not expect it to disappoint me.

There's a demo, by the way -- in case I haven't convinced you yet. (See "Teaser" on the game site.) It came out a couple of years ago, but it represents the first five puzzles of the game accurately, as best I can recall.

I am told that when you buy the game online, your license key email may take a few hours to show up. Possibly more. Watch spam folders, as usual, etc. Also, er, Cliff Johnson is being walloped by a hurricane this week, which may impact his ability to fulfill orders.

Posted in Zarf on Games | Tagged , , , | 20 Comments

Puzzle structure in 2015

I recently read Tony Bourdain's Medium Raw, which was a fascinating look into the world of people who are really, really interested in food. I like food. These people think about food more than I do. So much so that I can barely understand their explanations.

At my first meal at Momofuku Ssäm, one particular dish slapped me upside the head [...] It was a riff on a classic French salad of frisée aux lardons: a respectful version of the bistro staple -- smallish, garnished with puffy fried chicharrones of pork skin instead of the usual bacon, and topped with a wonderfully runny, perfectly poached quail egg. Good enough [...] But the salad sat on top of a wildly incongruous stew of spicy, Korean-style tripe -- and it was, well, it was... genius. Here, on the one hand, was everything I usually hate about modern cooking -- and in one bowl, no less. It was "fusion" -- in the sense that it combined a perfectly good European classic with Asian ingredients and preparation. It was post-modern and contained my least favorite ingredient these days: irony. [...] But this was truly audacious. It was fucking delicious. And it had tripe in it.

(--from Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain, chapter 17)

Mind you, the whole book isn't like that. Bourdain talks about everything from hamburgers, to fatherhood, to foie gras, to the Food Network, to the stupid things he wrote in his first book. But that paragraph in particular grabbed me because I have no idea what he's talking about. I can look up the recipe (frisée lettuce with hot pork, vinaigrette); maybe I've even eaten it somewhere. I've eaten spicy Korean stews. But why is this ironic? Or audacious? What is it reacting against? What are the things it is reacting against reacting against? If I'd been sitting next to Bourdain, eating off his plate, I still wouldn't have a clue.

I recalled this paragraph on Sunday afternoon, sitting in an MIT auditorium, listening to the designers of the 2011 Mystery Hunt talk about their puzzle structures. I knew exactly what they were talking about. I'd just lived through it (or half of it, anyway, since I got two good nights' sleep during the Hunt.) Everybody in the room was smiling and nodding along to the speaker's presentation, and laughing at the jokes on the slides. This was our field. This was our side of the wall. Tony Bourdain would have been completely befuddled, see?

(Mind you, if I'd tried his salad, I'm certain I would have enjoyed the hell out of it. Puzzles have more of an entry barrier. But put that aside.)

I want to talk about how the Mystery Hunt has evolved in the five years I've experienced it. But that wouldn't be enough perspective. Many of my teammates have been doing it for ten years; some longer. Several of them have designed Hunts. Somebody needs to write the Hunt history thesis and it shouldn't be me. But I can start pointing at the questions.

What was new in 2011? What does puzzledom look like when it's playing above itself, reacting to things that the non-puzzlers have never heard of? I'll put down two lines, and then fill in the explanations for those of you who don't know from lardons.

Backsolving is solving.

Metas are a tool.


The earliest Hunts, we are told, were unstructured lists of puzzle questions. Then some genius added the idea of the "meta", or metapuzzle -- a puzzle built using the answers to other puzzles. (I first encounted this concept in The Fool's Errand, in 1988 or so.)

A simple example (not from any Hunt or game in particular): imagine you've solved a group of ten puzzles. The answer to each is a ten-letter word or phrase. In fact, each answer is a ten-letter name, and it's the name of a famous scientist or inventor. ("MARIE CURIE", for example.) You write down the ten names, in order of their famous discoveries (radium, 1898). That gives you a neat ten-by-ten-letter square. Then you read down the diagonal of the square. It spells out a new ten-letter word, which is the answer to the metapuzzle.

(Why the diagonal? It's not an arbitrary gimmick, although it is something of a genre convention. You need to pull an answer out of the letters of ten names. The important insight is that the order of discoveries is important. Given an ordering, you can pull the first letter from the first name, the second letter from the second name, and so on. The diagonal is just a way to visualize this rule.)

(Why not simply use the first letter of every name? Some metapuzzles do work that way. It's a question of puzzle difficulty. No insight is needed to look at the first letters -- that's such a common convention that we do it automatically. With that setup, you don't have to figure out the ordering of the names. You do have to unscramble the letters, but a ten-letter anagram is trivial with the right software. So that would be an easier final stage, which the designer might use if the earlier parts of the puzzle were particularly hard.)

(By the way, this example is kind of weak -- Marie Curie discovered more than one thing, you know! And radium could be said to have been discovered in 1898, when it was identified, or 1910, when it was isolated in pure form. A serious puzzle designer would eliminate these ambiguities. Fortunately, I'm just making stuff up for a blog post.)


But this metapuzzle system leads to an interesting side effect. You can solve a meta without solving all the puzzles that feed into it. If you've solved nine of the round's puzzles, figured out the ordering, and gotten "INS-GHTFUL", you don't need to solve "MARIE CURIE" to guess that last letter. You punch in the meta's answer and move on to the next round.

That leads directly to the question of backsolving. Say you're in this position, with nine puzzles solved. You can easily solve the meta; but you also have a lot of extra information about the earlier puzzle, the one you're missing. Because of the meta structure, you know that it's a ten-letter name, a famous scientist. The fourth letter of the name is "I"; and the scientist worked between, say, 1880 and 1915 (or whatever the years of the third and fifth letters were). With that information (and Wikipedia) you could probably guess "MARIE CURIE". That's backsolving the puzzle -- working from meta-information you know about the answer.

So do you punch that backsolved answer in? In my first hunts, my team preferred not to. It seemed like a form of cheating, and it didn't really get us anything -- not when we already had the meta solved. (The winners aren't the team that solves the most puzzles; they're the first team to solve the last puzzle.)

But this year, the organizers made a couple of subtle changes which flipped this on its head. First, they used a point system in which solving any puzzle got you closer to unlocking new puzzles. (Thus, going back to fill in old gaps was valuable.) And second, they added a simple checkbox to the answer page: "Did you backsolve this puzzle?" Just by recognizing that option, they made it feel more legitimate.

As a result, everybody did a heck of a lot more backsolving this year. And my impression is that this generated more fun for everybody.

After all, any given Hunt puzzle involves looking for patterns, and working both backwards and forwards between the clues and the answers. (If this makes no sense to you, think about crosswords. Of course you work back and forth between the clues and the grid. Looking at the crossing letters in the grid isn't cheating, it's the whole point.)

If metas are part of the solution process, then that back-and-forth information flow becomes multilayered. Any puzzle might require both clues and context to solve. That can only lead to more interesting puzzles.

(Plus, of course, backsolving is solving, and solving is fun. One teammate remarked that the best two moments of the weekend were the Hunt's launch, when the first brand-new puzzles appeared -- and 3 AM Sunday morning, after the successful cracking of a meta pulled the group into an intense burst of fruitful work on its related puzzles.)


Back to this year's metapuzzles. Metas are now a standard Hunt element. Standard enough, in fact, that for several years everyone took them for granted. That's why "metapuzzle" got abbreviated to "meta", right? A round consisted of a bunch of puzzles and a meta. Solve all the metas, you get into the endgame. That's the way my first Hunt worked.

There were always variations in this structure, of course. But the 2011 hunt got a little more crazy than usual. It was divided into five rounds -- five "worlds", as it had a videogame theme. Each round was roughly twenty puzzles, divided into (say) three groups. Each group had a meta. The solutions to the three metas then had to be assembled into a meta-metapuzzle for the round. When you had the five meta-metas, you got to the endgame. (Which was not technically a meta-meta-meta, because you weren't assembling the five meta-metas into a new answer -- you just had to collect them.)

Furthermore, each of the five worlds had a different meta structure. (Spoilers coming for anyone who wants to try the Hunt puzzles...) The first world was an unadorned meta-meta, involving the answers to the three metas. In the second world, each meta answer describes a transformation that has to be applied to the previous meta puzzle name. In the third round, each puzzle has three answers, one for each of the three metas... and so on.

The creators were justifiably smug about their experimentation. In a sense, they wrote five mini-Hunts, each with a creatively different meta structure.

In another sense, I think, they put the knife in "the meta" as a concept. (Although it may be a while before it expires.) The meta-metas are the first hint. Why not go for a meta-meta-meta? Well, you could, but it wouldn't be three times as clever -- it would just be another puzzle relation. These new structures? They're interesting puzzles, which involve the answers to other puzzles. But all the puzzles in a Hunt should be interesting! And they are.

Metas aren't qualitatively different puzzles. They're a tool for hooking puzzles together.

For some reason, the Hunt spent several years going around in this loop where all the metas kind of looked the same. I mean, they were distinct puzzles -- but they all had the same shape, where you looked at an incoming set of puzzle answers and applied brain-sweat. This, as the non-meta puzzles went through cycle after cycle of creative improvisation.


So what will the Hunt look like in 2015?

I'm waving my hands, of course, and I don't particularly expect to be the one writing the 2015 Hunt. (My team consistently does well, but not that well.) But let's say that I'm right.

Designers will let go of the notion that solving has a direction. It won't be puzzles feeding into metas; it'll be puzzles connected to other puzzles. And those puzzles connected to yet others, or maybe back to the first bunch.

I don't mean that all structure will dissolve into an N-simplex of every puzzle using answers from every other puzzle. That wouldn't be constructible. (Although someone's gotta try it.) But the point of puzzle design is insight, and insight about where the answers are coming from -- or going to -- is a valid dimension to play with.

Certainly there will be puzzles which you pick up and solve directly, with no other context. My points are (a) knowing that from the start is less fun than figuring it out; (b) if you are stuck, shouldn't the context -- the related puzzles -- be an avenue of attack? Start wherever you can make an entrée, and work around to the puzzles you're stuck on. The more directions you can approach your stuck spots from, the more fun you'll have.

Maybe a "nexus" puzzle -- one which involves the answers to many other puzzles -- will actually be solvable on its own. (Or partially so.) You'd be expected to then "backsolve" into the other puzzles and make progress on them from there. Or maybe you'd find two puzzles that were unsolvable on their own; you'd have to work them in parallel, through a common relative.

Maybe all puzzles will just get a little bit harder, because back-and-forth is the expected mode of solving. That might be frustrating at times, but then it would be more satisfying at other times. It's hard to deny that Hunts have been getting more complex, though the creators have tried to keep the difficulty balanced. This sort of interweaving is the way I see that evolving.

And, in closing, I'll link to the 2011 Hunt's opening act and closing credits. If this all sounds like tripe, you can still watch those.

Mmm. Spicy Korean tripe.

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