Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Challenge: Total Madness

totalmad head

[Image courtesy of The Nikki Sin.]

One of the first reality TV shows to make an impact was MTV’s The Real World, which debuted back in 1992. A show wherein seven strangers would live together in a house and have their lives and interactions taped, it is credited with helping launch the modern reality TV genre.

In the decades since, one of the show’s longest-lasting spin-offs has been The Challenge, a competition show where former Real World alums and other reality show figures compete against each other in physical and mental games, both individually and as teams. There is also a social element to the show, as players form alliances, scheme against other competitors, and often vote out players at regular intervals.

Challenge 35

[Image courtesy of TV Guide.]

As you might expect, puzzles have worked their way into The Challenge from time to time. Memory games, riddles, anagrams, sliding tile puzzles, and variations on the Tower of Hanoi puzzle have all appeared in past seasons.

The most recent iteration of the show, The Challenge: Total Madness, pits the players against each other in the hopes of making it to the finals and winning a big cash prize.

In last week’s episode, the players arrived at a quarry, where a puzzly surprise awaited them: Decode and Detonate.

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The players each had a sign bearing a sequence of symbols. Their job was to decode the sequence and display the correct decryption below the sign, using letter and number cards found in a box below the sign.

But in order to decode the sign, they would have to acquire the key to the puzzle.

Well, keys.

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Yes, the key indicating which symbols represented which letters / numbers was split between two boards a fair distance apart. With two puzzle keys to run to — and each key only bearing some of the symbols on your sign — you’re going to have to run to both puzzle keys at some point. And that doesn’t include any running back to your sign you have to do in order to decode the letters you can remember.

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Once you’ve decoded your sign (and it’s been confirmed as correct by the judges), you have to run to a detonator and push down the plunger, blowing up one of the two trucks perched on the bluff high above. Out of 26 competitors, only 2 can push a detonator and win the game.

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The players, as you might expect, had different strategies going into today’s challenge.

Swaggy C, a rookie, bragged about relying on his photographic memory. CT, a veteran, immediately created a memorization tool for himself, associating each character with an image or something familiar so he could better remember it.

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Jordan hoped to remember four or five symbols on his first run, figuring he could make up time because of his endurance. Fessy, meanwhile, kept it simpler, hoping to remember three symbols, because he thought trying to remember too many would cause him to jumble them up and get confused.

Wes opted to group the symbols in sets of four, hoping to keep each smaller bundle of characters in his brain more efficiently, and then make up time during the runs between stations.

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After a fair amount of running, Swaggy C and CT were neck and neck. Swaggy C was the first to call for a check — asking the judges to confirm his solution — but it was incorrect. So much for that photographic memory of his.

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CT called for a check and was correct, becoming the first competitor to run to one of the detonators and blow up a truck, earning him the win and power going forward in the game.

When the truck exploded, all of the competitors, no matter how far away, now knew that someone had completed the puzzle. Only one spot left.

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You might think people would pair up to divide and conquer, hitting both puzzle keys at once and reconvening to see how many letters they could cobble together as a team.

No one opted to pair up. But one player DID consult another player’s work.

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Bayleigh took advantage of the fact that everyone was using the same code language. One of the other competitors, Jenny, had the same C-shaped coded letter Bayleigh had on her sign, and had placed a decoded letter beneath it. Bayleigh took a chance that Jenny was right about the decryption, and used the information to complete her sign’s coded sequence.

When she asked for a check, it was correct. TRICKY. Not exactly in the spirit of the challenge, but effective nonetheless.

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Bayleigh then sprinted to the second detonator and blew up the second truck, joining CT in victory and bringing the day’s challenge to a close.

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One of the cleverest things about the way The Challenge uses puzzles is that they incorporate physical obstacles as well.

For instance, solving a puzzle on a hot day, and making the players run all over. As you get tired, you’re not in peak puzzle-solving condition, and it makes memorization and recall harder. Even if you have a (supposedly) photographic memory under normal circumstances, stressing the body always makes mental tasks more taxing.

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Although this wasn’t the most difficult puzzle-based event I’ve seen in previous editions of The Challenge, it was a nice variation and certainly kept the competitors on their toes. I look forward to seeing if there are more puzzly obstacles awaiting the two teams as the competition continues.


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To Solve This Murder Mystery, You Need to Break the Game

[Image courtesy of Game Informer.]

Our readership isn’t a predominantly video game-savvy audience. We have lots of app users and lots of pencil-and-paper solvers in the PuzzleNation membership, but fewer gamers.

So you may wonder why I periodically write about video games when it’s a niche interest for the majority of our readers. That’s an entirely fair question.

As a puzzle enthusiast, I’m constantly seeking out new ways to build puzzles and solve them. Brain teasers, word problems, riddles, and mechanical puzzles all fit under the umbrella of “puzzles,” but they’re all very different solving experiences. Similarly, there’s a huge difference between a pencil-and-paper puzzle and an escape room, a murder mystery and a scavenger hunt, an encrypted message and a puzzle box.

But they’re all puzzles. And that’s what I find so fascinating. There are endless ways to challenge ourselves in puzzly fashion, and video games are constantly innovating when it comes to puzzle-solving.

[Image courtesy of Zelda Dungeons.]

Whether we’re talking about navigating past guards with well-placed arrow shots in the Thief games, navigating the labyrinth of the Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or maneuvering around a room in mind-bending ways with your portal gun in Portal, video games can take 2D puzzle ideas and bring them into the third dimension in amazing ways.

A friend recently told me about a game called Iris Fall, where you actually manipulate light and shadows in order to solve puzzles. That’s not just ingenious, it’s beautiful as well.

There are even games that let you change the rules of the puzzle itself in order to solve it.

[Image courtesy of Born Frustrated Studio.]

And another game in that vein recently came to market, a detective game called File://maniac.

In this murder mystery, you’re tasked with tracking down a devious murderer who happily taunts you with messages as you pursue them. But instead of pursuing leads and accomplishing tasks in more traditional detective-game format, you actually have to manipulate the files of the game itself as you play.

Yes, the very coding and organization of the game is the basis of the puzzles and codes for you to unravel.

Heather Alexandra at Kotaku explains more:

Getting rid of a locked door might require placing the door’s files in your recycling bin. Finding the password to a lock means opening up a handful of notebook files and searching until you find the code. It’s a different sort of puzzle solving, one that encourages the player to be aware of the game world’s artificiality… playing around with the actual game files creates a fun mixture of puzzling and “exploration” as you poke around folders and directories.

[Image courtesy of Go Go Free Games.]

It’s a brilliantly meta concept. Whereas many games and puzzle experiences are all about immersion, ensuring you forget you’re playing a game and encouraging you to dive into the narrative and gameplay itself, File://maniac demands that you not only remember you’re playing a game, but forces you to think like the designers of the game to circumvent each challenge.

It’s like being trapped in a maze, then being able to shift your perspective to an overhead view of the maze and navigate yourself out with omniscient ease. It’s a total perspective shift, and the a-ha moment of figuring out how to change the rules to your advantage is an immensely satisfying reward.

Do you know of any games out there that create unique and unexpected puzzly experiences? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: ThinkFun’s Potato Pirates

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that. Yada yada disclaimer.]

Most of ThinkFun‘s coding-based puzzle games are either solo endeavors or head-to-head races to complete tasks. Potato Pirates adds a marvelous new wrinkle, since 3 to 6 players are required to take to the high seas for some swashbuckling spudly fun!

Potato Pirates is a tactical game where players compete to outlast their opponents and become the most dominant potato pirate the world has ever known, a Dread Pirate Roberts of starchy goodness. You do so by either collecting all seven Potato King cards, or by eliminating every other player at the table.

Each player starts with two ships and twenty potato crew members, along with a hand of five cards. There are control cards, action cards, and surprise cards (along with the aforementioned Potato King cards).

The coding aspect of the game allows you to battle your fellow players. The control and action cards can be combined into commands that you program one round and activate the next in order to attack the other players.

Action cards indicate damage dealt to the potato crew of your target, while control cards indicate conditions for that action, like multipliers to cause more damage or how many ships you can target with one command. (Surprise cards can be played at any time, even when it’s not your turn.)

And that coding structure makes Potato Pirates more strategic and tactical than a lot of other card games where you can play any card at any time. Since you can code a command or modify a command on one turn, and have to wait for the next to activate it, you may leave yourself open to attack during that turn you spend coding.

An important thing to remember is that you code and deploy each ship separately, so since you have two ships to start, you can take the tactic of coding one ship while attacking with the other, and then switching during the next round, so you’re never totally on defense. (My fellow players and I immediately adopted this tactic, which lengthened the gameplay and made things slightly more frantic. That’s two big bonuses for this game.)

[Two commands in progress. The first is ready to go next round, the second is currently attacking this round.]

Since players burn through the coding cards so quickly, reshuffling the deck can slow things down from time to time, but otherwise, the game is nicely designed, and once you’ve read and played around with the control cards for a little while, the concepts become second nature to you and you can really start plotting some devious attacks on the other potato buccaneers at the table.

Oh, and speaking of, making the little potato pirates balls of fuzz is both an adorable aesthetic choice and a kid-friendly way to make the game approachable for young players. Leading off with cards and coding can be a bit daunting, but once they’re divvying up their potato pirates across different ships (with delightful punny names), younger players are hooked.

Although the coding aspect of the game isn’t as predominant here as it is in games like Robot Turtles, Hacker, or On the Brink, the fun gameplay offered here — and the desperate need you feel to play again if your ships sink! — ensures that these basic coding commands and ideas will become familiar through sheer repetition.

And getting saluted each time you find a Potato King card is pretty great as well.

One of these days, fellow PuzzleNationers, I shall be the Potato King. I promise you that.

Potato Pirates is available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Hacker

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that. And this concludes the disclaimer.]

All of the puzzles and games produced by ThinkFun have one thing in common: learning through play. Whether you’re solving logic problems with lasers, creating unique patterns with color wheels, or deducing the culprit of a feline crime, you’re learning valuable skills through puzzling.

Several ThinkFun games are designed with computer coding in mind, as the gameplay mimics some of the rudimentary concepts of preparing and entering commands, then seeing how those commands can interact with an environment.

If you’re familiar with Robot Turtles, or any of their puzzle games from the //Code series, like On the Brink, you’ve already experienced this for yourself or seen someone else putting newfound puzzly skills to the test.

But Hacker offers a new twist on this concept.

[The various game pieces: agents, data files, exit points, commands to move the agent and rotate parts of the playing grid, and others, including the virus, alarm, and locks.]

As ThinkFun’s newest logic game, Hacker goes above and beyond those introductory coding games, challenging players to add their own coding to an established scenario in order to complete a specific task.

Then the players have to locate vulnerabilities and correct them before they can move on to the next challenge.

But by working your way through the various difficulty levels — Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, and Expert — the game introduces new elements and challenges to the player gradually, allowing younger solvers to develop their skills and learn new tricks as they work out increasingly complex scenarios.

Let’s look at one Intermediate-level challenge to give you a better idea of how the game works.

The first part of each challenge is the coding. Each challenge card presents you with the initial layout of the grid, as well as which commands are hard-coded into the scenario (listed on the Platform line), and the openings for you to code movements for your agent (shaded in on the Red Agent line).

In this scenario, the agent must retrieve a single data file and deliver it to the exit point.

[The commands I “coded” in order to complete the scenario.]

You will use the arrow tiles to indicate where you want the agent to move. The rotation tiles are hard-programmed at certain times, so you can’t move them; you have to plot your path and code your agent to take advantage of those rotation commands.

[A full scenario ready to go. Clockwise from the upper left, we have the Challenge Booklet, the playing grid, the coding Control Panel, and the Solutions Booklet.]

As the scenarios grow more complex, those hard-coded rotation tiles will offer greater challenges, forcing you to become more creative and more tactical in your programming.

In addition to handling the rotation tiles, you must pick up the data file and reach the exit point while avoiding any contact with the virus.

[Here, the command as coded plays out. The agent moves left and acquires the data file, then moves down. The platform rotates twice, and then it’s a straight shot right to the exit point.]

And by using the special answer flipbook — which separates each challenge into three different pages for Code It, Hack It, and Fix It, so you can look at each individually without spoiling the rest of the solve — we can confirm our coding is correct.

The second part of the challenge is an element I haven’t seen in any previous ThinkFun release: hacking.

In this stage, you’re trying to debug your coding by seeking out vulnerabilities in the code that would allow the agent to encounter a virus. You’re essentially troubleshooting yourself!

To do so, you have to play the role of a malicious hacker hell-bent on corrupting your coding and delivering the agent directly into the hands of the virus.

This part of the game is more like a traditional sliding-tile puzzle, as you try to manipulate the tiles already in place to engineer a different outcome. In this case, I’ve moved the platform command forward and the down movement command over, altering the agent’s path.

As you can see here, by “hacking” our code, we picked up the data file and delivered it right to the virus, corrupting the entire program. Although our original program avoided the virus entirely, it isn’t safeguarded against hacking. Yet.

That brings us to the third part of the challenge, fixing, which allows you to correct the flaws you identified in the second part.

You can do so by placing an alarm on an open tile, which prevents the agent from encountering the virus; but you must do so without interfering with the successful completion of the original coding’s goal. In more difficult scenarios, you can also fix your coding by using a link token to link certain commands together, so a hacker has to move them as a whole, rather than as individual commands.

So in order to have a successful fix, you should be able to play through the original coding and succeed, but the hacked coding should be thwarted by the changes you’ve made.

[Below the blue agent and the blue exit point, you have the primary tools used in the Fixing phase of gameplay: the transaction link and the alarm.]

It’s an effective metaphor for the amount of review and beta-testing that goes into actual coding, since tiny mistakes can have dire consequences. By requiring younger players to review the same data in three different ways, you’re subconsciously encouraging diligence and care in one’s programming.

It’s a simple lesson, but an important one, and the gameplay promotes it without feeling preachy or heavy-handed. Instead, you’re almost partners-in-crime with the game as you develop new tricks to outwit each scenario.

Hacker is one of ThinkFun’s most complex and immerse logic games yet, one that never forgets to be great fun and an engaging, multilayered puzzly challenge, even as it educates. Other ThinkFun games might look flashier at first glance, but I think they’ve truly outdone themselves this time around.

Hacker is available from ThinkFun and participating retailers, starting at $24.99.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: //CODE: On the Brink

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that. /end disclaimer]

There has been a tidal shift over the last few decades from the analog realm to digital. So much happens in cyberspace, by email, and in the liminal spaces between smartphones and computers, that it feels like we’re leaving behind physical media entirely. In the next decade, knowledge of programming will become an essential skill.

And it’s never too early to begin laying the foundation for that future. The folks at ThinkFun have been ahead of the curve there for a long time — their game Robot Turtles is a prime example — and they continue to push forward with their new //CODE Programming Game Series, a line of puzzly products designed to teach the basics of programming to young solvers.

The first game in the series, On the Brink, serves as an excellent primer. The game is based around a simple concept: navigating a robot along a particular path. This path can twist, turn, and even cross itself. But it’s up to the solver to figure out how to use the available programming cards to control and determine the robot’s path.

There are two sets of programming cards, one simpler deck designed for the first 20 challenges and one larger deck designed for the more difficult challenges that follow. Just as you learn simpler commands before you learn finer, more detail-oriented, and more complex ones, you must master the basic commands in On the Brink before moving forward.

Whereas Robot Turtles required players to be supervised by a Turtle Master who governed the setup, difficulty, and execution of commands, On the Brink can be played alone, as the solver tackles each puzzle in the challenge booklet, complete with starting cards, a given path to replicate, and colored boxes on the board that align with the three sections of the control panel.

I was impressed by the amount of variety to be found in a relatively small deck of commands. A cagey programmer can navigate the robot through some unexpectedly thorny paths, reminding me a bit of the step-by-step deductive reasoning that made Lunar Landing such a delightful challenge.

One way that On the Brink improves upon Robot Turtles is with the concept of commands that continue to run once activated. In On the Brink, your robot will follow a command for as long as the programming cards and colored spaces on the challenge booklet page dictate. Just as a command in programming requires parameters in order to know when to stop, your robot needs similar commands. Otherwise, it’s liable to pass right over the finish square instead of landing there perfectly.

On the Brink invites players as young as 8 to tackle the various challenges in the booklet, either alone or in groups, and the steady ratcheting-up of difficulty teaches the young programmer as they advance, putting new wrinkles and obstacles in the player’s path.

It’s the sort of patient, clever gameplay we’ve come to expect from ThinkFun, and they do not disappoint here. Figuring out how to utilize the available commands and complete the path given makes for an excellent puzzly challenge — especially the later scenarios! — but it never feels inaccessible or overwhelming.

You’re always in good hands with ThinkFun, and they’ve proven it again here with On the Brink.

On the Brink is available from ThinkFun and participating brick-and-mortar and online retailers for $14.99.


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An Escape Room in a Box!

[Image courtesy of Escape Game Addicts.]

Escape rooms have been all the rage lately, as teams of people pit themselves against riddles, puzzles, codes, and other challenges in order to escape a room within a certain amount of time. It’s about as close as you’ll get to being MacGyver or Batman in this life, and it can be great fun.

They’ve been around long enough that themed escape rooms are beginning to emerge. From post-apocalyptic and horror themes to hockey, schools, pirates, and more, escape rooms are constantly innovating to keep solvers on their toes.

So when I heard about an upcoming escape-the-room-style event in Chicago, I had to share it with my fellow puzzlers.

Revolution Brewing Tap Room in Chicago will be hosting Creatures on the Loose on December 28, a creation of The Mystery League, and they’ve put a curious twist on the escape-the-room scenario: everything you’ll need is inside a locked briefcase.

From the announcement on Eventbrite.com:

Ten terrible creatures, each from an alternate dimension, have been let loose to wreak havoc on our town. The culprit’s identity and motives are unknown. Hunters have been on the case, snooping around town and collecting evidence. But they too have vanished, leaving just their locked briefcases behind. You will need to break into the briefcase, find the creatures, and figure out who is causing all this mayhem.

Inside the briefcase you will find all the tools you need to solve the mystery, including (but not limited to): a newspaper, a magic wand, a bible, a calculator, a wallet of money, a pile of stocks, a Wonka bar, a leather strap, a code wheel, a map, and an enigmatic computer.

The idea of an escape room that comes to you is an awesome one, and I hope the Mystery League finds great success with this challenge. (And the winning team gets a round of pints as their prize!)

Tickets start at $29 for a 90-minute event, and that sounds like a great deal for a puzzly experience like this. Let me know if you participate! I’d love to hear about it!


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