Corin Anderson (magellanic) wrote,
Corin Anderson

Midnight Madness

Late June this year this article appeared talking about a "Midnight Madness" puzzle event in NYC. The event sounded super interesting and right up the collective alley of us puzzlers so we started inquiring. With some work we found out that "Midnight Madness" was a series of events in NYC for the past several years, mostly for Columbia students, and really harkens back to the original movie: lighter on puzzles and heavier on searching for things and impeding others. MM had a reboot in 2012 when it was run as a thank-you event for a charitable fundraiser. With, effectively, a steep entrance fee most of the gooning seems to have disappeared, leaving a few hundred people really excited about racing through NYC overnight, solving puzzles better than anyone else. The write-up talked about some extravagant puzzles, including one that changed the light pattern on the Bank of America building and one using lasers and mirrors in a fog-filled abandoned hotel. Pretty slick. We Burninators wanted in.

Midnight Madness had many aspects pretty foreign to Burninators (at least, certainly, to me). For one, the team size was 10 -- that's a lot of people in a foot game. But the second aspect explains that -- the 2012 and 2013 games had parallel solving paths and the team was expected to split up. Before the event we did some planning and arranged for "squads" of 3-4 people including a "squad leader", which despite the name really was just someone who promised to always answer the phone and keep the other squads updated.

A second aspect, of course, was that the event was as long as a decathlon but entirely on foot (or, "on foot" -- subways, bikes, and taxis were legal conveyance). And run at night. I'd never think to sleep in the middle of a decathlon, but taking a cat nap at 4:45am is pretty tempting. Overnight I managed to never wink out -- keeping moving helped with that -- but some Burninators did get 20 minute naps in place.

So let's run through the night in chronological order, at least briefly, and I'll come back to a few points at the end.

The event started at a closed-down grocery store in China town. We were among the first people to arrive but we were clearly among our people -- puzzle hunters have this young, nerdy, college student look to them whether they be Googlers in San Francisco or Wall Street robotraders in NYC. At 6:30 we were let in to the parking lot -- the starting area -- where we registered then idled about. A small band was playing music, which we were sure would be a clue -- the three players wore red, green, and blue jackets -- but it all proved to be just entertainment, nothing more. Weird. Over time more people trickled in until we had about 200 or so players milling about. Awesome. The only problem with a game starting late in the day is that I was wound up all day long waiting for it to start. So much excitement!

Some announcements, then our initial puzzle packets distributed. Go! We were given: a map of the green zone; some eggs which could be exchanged for hints; an electronic gizmo which was going to be a puzzle later; and a puzzle now. The now-puzzle was a bunch of movie images and a big sheet to place them on. Figure out where to place each image, pull out a letter, and it spells a message. I really didn't take part in this puzzle -- I inventoried our other items, and I was sure that the rule book had a puzzle because the line breaks in the text were at unnecessary locations. Turns out I was wrong. [shrug]. In many places in the event we got extra data or things that looked like puzzles that ended up not being anything. The musicians at the start was another example -- they really were *just* entertainment, not a puzzle.

So we solved the movie puzzle for a bit, I watched a couple teams leave pretty quickly, but then Ian (I think) magic eyed a possible answer -- fifty-six something or other. Seemed plausible, let's head out. We pack up and leave behind many teams still placing movies on their sheets of paper. Okay. Then we start our first non-puzzle puzzle: getting a ride. We use Uber to summon a few rides and hail a cab for the third. Uber ends up being not that great in the end, so this is the only time we use it -- it's easy enough to hail a cab for the rest of the event. On the ride to the next location, which is many minutes away, my squad has enough time to start second guessing the answer -- maybe it's TWENTYSIX rather than FIFTY-SIX. Fortunately, we round the corner at 56th and see a bunch of posters taped to a wall and GC sitting beneath them and this conversation ends.

The posters puzzle is perhaps my favorite. Posters show, say, Tina Fey and Harrison Ford laying together in a bed. Huh? I point out that there's colored borders around each poster. Neat. Then one. I resort to Googling. Another poster has Pres. Obama bowling on a green carpet, and I find there's a "Bowling Green" not far away. One thing leads to another and we figure that the colors refer to subway lines and the images depict to stations. Bowling Green is a station, is as Bedford (get it?). Rockefeller is another station which is the location of 30 Rock, which Tina Fey stars in. Okay, a bit of a stretch, but we have our letters. Bruce pulls SHOE REPAIR out of my SHLE REPA(scratch scratch scratch) and I find an M&G Shoe Repair not far away. We get MAND solidly at the start but can't really torture that into a G. But M&G Shoe Repair is a place so we hail cabs and head out. Oh, also, Wei-Hwa and Rich have headed out for a "queued" location, which is a puzzle that only one team at a time can do -- the others are queued up. Oh, and did I mention that we were the first team to arrive at this location? We felt pretty good about that. I guess the other teams that'd left the start early were either just solving elsewhere, or had driven somewhere speculatively (more on that in a second).

We cab to M&G Shoe Repair, and where we'd expected to find GC we find nothing. Hm. We fret for a bit, then some more Googling. I find M and M shoe repair, too -- come on, NYC, have some creativity in these names. We decide that this is a pretty likely candidate but this time take the subway. I feel bad for the side trip, but arriving at M and M shoe repair we find (a) GC; (b) we're the first ones here. Awesome. This puzzle is pretty straightforward, especially because GC explained how the first half would work to us. (I think this volunteer was confused on what she was supposed to do --- I'm sure the explanation was a mistake, but I never checked in with GC later.) One card was a word search grid, one card had slots for letters. Find words to fit the slots. Okay, let's go. Jasters uses magic software to find all the words in about 2 minutes -- sweet. We write them in the slots -- then what. About this time Doug's bag starts to talk.

Turns out, Doug's been carrying the electronic gizmo we got at the start, and for the past 45 minutes it's been saying something every minute. Only, we never heard it -- not sure how we'd ever had heard it. Also, we don't know it's been doing this for awhile, so we start working on that puzzle, too -- maybe it was triggered by GPS to this location? We just finally decipher what it's saying -- take me to pier something or other -- when we get an e-mail message from GC: "Your box wants you to take it to pier something or other; do that now." I guess we were supposed to have figured this out earlier. Oops. We send a squad to the pier with the box. We also get an e-mail message telling us to visit the carousel at pier something else -- we dispatch another squad. See, that green zone map we got at the start, it also had a blue box in it. We were told that the map would have a zone which we'd have to visit despite not getting any puzzles leading us there, but the significance of those instructions was lost on us. Also, we didn't know we needed to do that *now*. I suspect that the first few teams leaving the start headed to the blue zone. That'd have been a good move -- the first location, on 56th, was not far from the blue zone.

Anyway, back to the word search puzzle. Jasters makes an observation about overlaying one grid on the other, Doug spots that a doubled letter lines up correctly, and we get a cryptokey very quickly. The puzzle decodes to SIX POINT FIVE AVE. Neat - let's go. Turns out that 6 1/2 Ave. is a real place, extending for just a few blocks a bit north of Times square. Off goes my squad: Doug, Jonathan (aka Jasters), and me.

Unfortunately, this is about where things start to get rocky for my squad. We arrive at 51st and 6.5 Ave -- it's a cavernous plaza beneath some building with some artwork, some signs, but not GC. Okay, we're not licked. Let's just walk up the avenue. But, oh -- it's blocked. Ugh. We go on to discover that most of 6.5 Ave is blocked, and that the only way to walk along it, at least at this hour, is to either cut back to 7th, or to walk through parking garages. We do both, of course. We walk the length, which is 6 short blocks, and find no sign of GC. Hrm. We walk about along 7th and search the plaza again. Harder. Still, nothing. Frustrated, we contact another squad, who's near GC at the pier. It seems that they're not having a ton of fun there just yet. The gizmo puzzle is meant to be a social mixer puzzle but the social mixer part sort of fails -- not clear why, I'd need to ask Dan. Probably just too many cooks. The carousel puzzle has us stumped, but now that I know how that one works someone did suggest the right idea at some point, but it'd be hours later before we came back to it. In any event, we get Dan to acquire us a hint for where the puzzle location is: "it's right there, try looking harder." Ugh. Oh, also, we're told that it's at the M&M *Store*. That's not far, so we walk there. Nope - it's closed, and no GC. We radio back and learn that the "store" part was a misinterpretation. Fine. We return to the plaza and look harder. We start to give up. Jasters leaves his bag and walks the ave. again. This time, he finds GC -- they've been in the corner a few blocks up all along. We didn't see them the first time, and we walked back along 7th and were too far away. [sigh]

This puzzle ended up being pretty straightforward. Three packs of M&Ms. Open them up, count the unique of each color. They're in the 1-26 range which looks promising but doesn't work. They're printed with [MM 2013] in a little box, Doug guesses it's like an atomic element, and he's right. The counts are atomic numbers (atommic nummbers, apparently, for M&M) and we get three words, {PARK, NEAR, HSES}. What's an HSES? PARK and NEAR are really solid. Ugh. We wring hands on this for a while. We find a high school with the right initials but we're reluctant to go. By this time we'd heard that the blue zone puzzles were kind of broken, and our frustration in just finding the M&M puzzle kind of got the better of us (despite it being kind of our own fault). So, we go back to the clue site. This time, we find a start code -- Jasters is sure it wasn't there before. Okay, maybe a clue. Start code tells us to go to Saks Fifth Avenue -- hey, that's a clear message. Let's do that.

We walk to Saks -- it's 10-15 minutes walk and about at the break-even point for a cab ride, in time. We arrive there -- no GC, and nothing with a big M&M on it. Hm. We walk the building and look in all the windows. I see one window being changed -- really, I saw a child manikin moving seemingly on its own and it's really creepy. Then I see someone's hands. I walk on. Nothing here. So, a wild goose chase? I'm convinced we'll need to fetch something from elsewhere and bring it here, and only then the story will be clear. Why summon us here now? To tell us we need this location, I guess. Hm. So, now what? We go to HQ with eggs.

We were given five foam eggs at the start of the event, and these are tokens to be exchanged for hints. Bring an egg to GC's HQ (a diner in midtown) and they'll give you a hint. Only, we made a tactical error -- Doug was carrying all the eggs, so no other squad could get a hint. We needed to get our eggs to HQ, so we bailed on Saks and headed to HQ to pass around the eggs. We arrived there to find Bruce and Greg working on a puzzle they'd gotten from the pier, when the gizmo group-solve puzzle was completed. That activity had opened up the red zone map and given us the "menu" puzzle, which was causing them some hardship. We looked things over, distributed some eggs, and exchanged eggs for hints. Eggs helped us resolve the menu puzzle and helped our blue zone squads out. We redivide our squad -- I think Bruce and Jasters head off elsewhere? Doug, Greg, and I head out for the high school.

We find nothing at the high school. Across the street is a parking garage that's closed up -- Greg checked it out as we walked by -- and on the corner there's a city park. We walk around the park and look in but it's also closed up. Nothin'. We get another message at this point, I think Dan wants us to come in to HQ for something, so we head back to HQ. ... Something happens, I forget what. ... more time passes. It's sort of blurry now. But now, the important point is, I use an egg to get a hint on the M&M puzzle. I find out that HSES *is* correct, and in fact we should go to the parking garage. I pull my squad together and we head back. We arrive to find the garage closed up. I ring the bell and wake up the poor guy staffing the night shift. He doesn't know anything about a scavenger hunt. We hear a car door behind us and see that GC's just pulled up. I see. We get a USB drive in the form of a cassette tape from GC and we're off.

The M&M experience really killed this squad. It started out with our own issue -- not finding the right part of 6.5 Ave. but (a) we got bad hint advice for there the real location was -- it wasn't at the M&M store -- and (b) we'd been to this site before and GC wasn't there -- Greg looked right where we were told GC would be on the first visit, and GC drove up on the second visit. So, hrm.

In any event, the cassette puzzle was a neat little puzzle -- songs and 8-bit arcade sounds overlapping each other. Identify the songs and the games and some puzzly things happen. Pulls out the message CHOICES RUGS very cleanly. Ian and Wei-Hwa get a chance to use their arcade game knowledge by speakerphone to get us through this one. Also, Greg shows Doug and me his office on Times Square. It's nice to sit for a bit of time, and Doug catches a quick nap as I wrap up the puzzle.

Choice's Rugs isn't far, I think we walk it. We get there and ... no GC. I call GC's hotline and get voicemail. I e-mail and wait. GC's photographer friend arrives and wonders why we're not doing anything. We explain there's no puzzle. He calls GC, gets someone, and relays that GC forgot to post this puzzle. Ugh. We wait outside for about 30 minutes for this one. GC and puzzle arrives: just a large sheet of paper with some letters and symbols. Just as we're copying down the data another team arrives. I'll admit, I'm a little bitter that we burned up time waiting for the puzzle to appear while the other team didn't have that misfortune.

Melinda radios in that our puzzle may combine with a puzzle in Chinatown -- the wheel -- so we head there. The wheel is a plastic wheel with letters that can turn and a lamp behind it. Also, some circuitry. Clearly, it's meant to do something, just not clear what. I'm convinced it'll be a pad lock -- spin the right sequence of letters and it'll start spinning on its own. I try a few ideas but nothing works. We bail and return to HQ.

At HQ we meet Melinda, Wei-Hwa, Ian, and a few other people we haven't seen in about 8 hours. We learn a bit about the other puzzles and figure out where we have leads left over. I head out for Saks again, taking Doug and Greg with me, IIRC. On this visit we find another team and we find GC, who's just now *removing* the puzzle. I guess there was a technical problem. I'm all but certain that the puzzle was not there when we visited the first time, so I'm a little unhappy that we wasted time earlier on a fruitless search. And, having come so close, the puzzle moves again, but at least to a location where another squad is already waiting (ie, to a queued location). I head back to ... HQ, I think?

There's not a lot left at HQ so I head to Chinatown, this time with Melinda on the Constellation puzzle (it's bad to name a puzzle based on a key insight, but, well, too late). Melinda and I look around and try to figure out what the puzzle might do. She figures it's a chase, with each clue leading to the next. In the end that is how it works but the path is pretty hard to trace. Greg, Melinda, and I try a few things, we even try jumping to the end guessing at a particular location. No dice. While we're away the rest of the team has wrapped up all the other puzzles and ends up converging at our location. With another hint, I think, we manage to figure out the right approach, and get the first two or three steps. All other squads show up and we're a 10-person team again for the first time in 12 hours. We follow a few more steps but get stuck. We end up seeing a few other teams and they're actually at the 11th of 12 steps. We're perplexed but we don't let that stop us from figuring out the final step. We look around and find the final location. It's been compromised, apparently, but GC's nearby and we get the next location. Definitely, we caught a time windfall here, making up for some of the lost minutes earlier.

We hop in three cabs and head to that location. We find a few other teams there working on data. The data here is similar to at Choice's Rugs, and that's good because it all feeds in to the puzzle that Wei-Hwa, Rich, and others had already figured out. So with this data they decoded the next location almost immediately. Then things get exciting.

See, at this point we figure that we've now closed up all the open paths in the event. We have no unconsumed data, and only this one location left. We're thinking it's the final location. It's 0.7 miles away but cabs are hard to find here. We end up just fast-walking it, for the most part. I think Doug & Dan caught a cab. Also, another squad catches a cab, there's no room for me but I run instead, and end up being better off because the cab gets stuck in traffic and the squad bails on the cab. Heh.

We reach that location and find ... 40 boxes, each with five padlocks. Throughout the night we'd collected foam keys at the queued puzzles and exchanged those keys for real keys with GC. Now we have a use for those keys. We split the keys among five of us and start trying locks. We expect one box will open with all our keys. We find some boxes that have one lock that'll open but nothing else does. We figure that's just random chance -- tip: don't secure your things with this lock brand. In literally the last box that we hadn't yet tested, we find that the keys open the locks. We also figure, later, that the boxes were alphabetically arranged and that our key ring was "Apollo theatre." Clever us.

Oh, also, to add to the fray: we were the only team at this location, but GC was here, along with the NY Times reporter and her photographer. They expected some excitement, it would seem.

Inside the box we found -- another piece of paper. "7 WTC 10th floor." The World Trade Center complex was 0.8 miles away. I guess we're heading there. Do we cab? We look for a cab but don't easily find one. We fast-walk. Also, there's lots of pedestrian traffic so we don't want to risk getting stuck in traffic. The reporter and photographer go with us, and the photographer runs out ahead of us several times to take action shots of us. We're really walking hard -- we must be this close. We find 7 WTC and GC's inside. Check us off a list, find an elevator. Up we go and -- it's the end! Leon's there (the actor who played Leon in the movie originally was on GC!), the director of the charity was there, a little "Finish" line was there, and bagels and water was there. We walk in and get lots of pictures taken. We're exhausted but exuberant. OMG we won, we actually won! We start talking with people, looking around, and, not more than 5 minutes later, a second team arrives (or, at least, one squad of that team). Wow, that was *really* close! I'm so glad we fast-walked and that we didn't try to find a cab -- I'm sure a taxi would have been slower. We get more pictures taken, we have much-needed munchies, and we talk with various people, including the NY Times reporter and the reporter from Bloomberg. More pictures, and more soaking it in. Over the next 45 minutes about one team every five minutes arrives -- the final is pretty close, although I also wonder if GC has some control in how much they help teams through the final couple of stages.

I'm pretty happy at the end, and Melinda does point out that winning makes things much better. I'm sure I'd be much unhappy about all those puzzle-isn't-ready-yet moments if we ended up in second place.

So, on the whole, I had a good time. I'd describe this event as an ambitious BANG run overnight. It's kind of crazy to fly cross-country for *just* this event, but, well, I at least didn't. And even at that, if the entrance requirements were aside, I'd play again, I'm sure.

I liked the long-form non-driving event, but I think that works in few locales. Eg, I don't think it works in San Francisco -- not enough subways (although we used taxis for almost all transit). I liked fusion/fission, as Melinda put it, and playing in squads. We swapped people around a bit and I was never the only person on a puzzle, even if the puzzle had Issues. Most of the puzzles decoded to a location in this event, and I found that I really missed that type of solution. Instead of using nutrimatic we used Maps search to find probable locations. I'd like to see more of that. GC was in one central location the whole night and could always be found there. It was also a good place to solve and eat tater-tots. The physical tokens for a hint was a little frustrating, of course, but it meant the event was a race and not just a personal challenge. We had real race-like decisions to make -- is it worth spending 20 minutes to move this egg to HQ to get a hint? This also meant that I didn't feel bad about taking shortcuts when presented -- eg, bypassing half of Constellations. It's a race, not about proving you've done all the steps of the puzzle. I wish GC had been a little more sympathetic to teams when puzzle sites were not yet ready. My squad had issues at four locations: one was our fault, one was GC's fault, and two, I think, were GC's issues but I'm not 100% certain. A "so sorry that this wasn't set up for you yet -- blue zone is on fire and we're a little frantic. Here's an egg, our apologies" would have been great. Instead, we had to *give up* a hint token to learn that we were in the right location all along but couldn't find GC. I also wish that we could have confirmed things such as "is this site really set up yet" without taking a hint. One other aspect I didn't like entirely was that I didn't see any of the gadget puzzles. My squad was on one path that was paper-and-M&M-only puzzles. I missed all the installations in the blue zone and all the queued puzzles. A lot of effort went into those puzzles but they seemed to have been designed for only two or there people per team to experience. That seems a missed opportunity to share some great work with more people.

There's more yet to this event, such as what the blue zone was like, but Melinda or someone else will write about that.

P.S. This post sounds sort of complainy, that we got the short end of the stick. Yes, some things that happened could have gone better for me or my squad. But on the whole I had a very great time. I enjoyed the romp around Manhattan overnight. I enjoyed puzzling in an all new locale and with all new other teams. I enjoyed the many novel game aspects of this event. I understand that GC put in innumerable hours to make this event happen and I thank them for their effort. I would enjoy and look forward to playing in this event in future.
Tags: puzzling
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