🧩 Karen's birthday puzzle game 🎂

Wednesday, October 21, 2020 :: Tagged under: pablolife games. ⏰ 6 minutes.

Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄

🎵 The song for this post is Gas Pedal (Dave Audé Club Remix), by Sage the Gemini and Dave Audé. 🎵

Karen's birthday is 10/10, easy to remember if you hear, as I always do, the "Top Ten!" guy and replace it with "Ten Ten!"

For various reasons, both mundane and of the juicy gossip variety, I wanted to go a little harder on helping her celebrate her birthday this year, so I tried making her a Zoom escape/puzzle game. Here's what I tried building, what it ended up being, and some learnings on the process.

Professor Layton and Luke Triton, looking good as ever.

Two of these are cribbed from Layton games, one of which inspired me to learn Prolog a decade ago.

So you want to make a puzzle room?

Karen is… hardwired for puzzles? If you tell her something is a game, especially a game of cleverness, she's becomes like the shark in Finding Nemo when he smells blood. She talks a lot about being competitive in Orienteering when she was a little girl, and she gets absolutely radiant anytime I've heard someone say "that's the fastest anyone's solved this!" after an escape room.

After buying a professional Zoom puzzle room for my birthday, I tried making one for Karen. I was going to theme it around some media we've enjoyed together, bring a few of her friends into it, and give it my best.

The idea

The goal was to theme it around Overcooked 2 and Netflix's Sugar Rush, both of which we've enjoyed together in 2020. In this, she and a few of her friends get "trapped" and have to bake their way out of a cupcake round, a confection round, and a cake round (per Sugar Rush's format). Each of these rounds requires completing three steps: gather ingredients, preparing ingredients, and final assembly (this is something like Overcooked, where each dish might require chopping vegetables, grilling meat, mixing batter, etc.). Each of these, of course, would be some kind of puzzle.

I piped in selections from the Overcooked soundtrack (love that Kevin Level song), and made a fake "select chef" screen, since that's a happy part of the ritual.

Finally, much of the chaos of Overcooked is the stages: the layouts of the kitchens greatly influence how you'll play. In this one, you'll see that all chefs have all they need to cook and serve without any substantive obstacles:

Overcooked screenshot with all the chefs on a single landmass.

But here, you'll note that the cutting board is on the top "island," but the fryers and plates are on the bottom; to get around this, the two chefs have to toss things back and forth.

Overcooked screenshot with various islands and chefs on them.

And this one has a moving platform at the bottom that ferries items that can't be tossed, adding some timing mechanics.

Overcooked screenshot where there are islands and a moving platform

Now with all this throat-clearing out of the way, the goal was:

Lastly the wildcard! Karen is hardwired for games and surprises, so I asked a friend to hop in the call between rounds 2 and 3 as an evil rival chef who could interfere with the players.

(He fucking killed it btw, the mechanic we introduced was that he could mute a player for 2 minutes at a time. He came in wearing a chef outfit, holding a rolling pin, calling himself "Chef Mütter!" He even watched Sugar Rush for the role, so bless this friend)

After the final round had been solved, they were "judged" by one of the real-life judges of Sugar Rush (thanks, Cameo) and I served Karen some real cake.

If you want to see the puzzles themselves, they're here:

Cupcakes Confection Cake
Ingredients Straight-up logic puzzle Smullyan puzzle "not-static" programming
Chop/Assemble Milkman puzzle Slide Puzzle Multiplication + Logic
Serve Arithmetic Snake Stepdown Colin's Test

Feel free to send me your candidate answers, they're meant to be pretty hard lol.

How it went, actually

Not nearly this smoothly! We hit a few snags!

FILLME. Click for full size.

Another puzzle came from To Mock a Mockingbird, by Raymond Smullyan, above. That book is delightfully brain-twisty, and great for D&D adventures.

Learnings, cutting room floor

Main learning is there's no replacement for time investment and playtesting. I ran through the puzzles to make sure they were doable, but I didn't get to playtest with a group of people, and there are still plenty of rough edges.

On puzzle rooms generally, I don't love how this was mostly "puzzle gauntlet" where they get sent to you; much of the fun is discovering the puzzles in the first place without explicit instructions of how they're meant to be interpreted. Something like a page with a painting but nothing else, and once you solve another puzzle you find how it fits into the painting. Or red herrings!

I had a few ideas in this vein: the solution to a puzzle being a Twilio number you could SMS, or making them derive what their window arrangement was on my Zoom view and make them "link arms" by reaching for the boundaries of their webcams. Basically, more raw discovery, boundary-breaking, and different kinds of puzzles.

(also, it could stand to have been more thematically unified lol: those puzzle pages are pretty bare, and I wanted to GIF them up)

One puzzle would have been a "scavenger hunt" on the internet, where the solution was to produce things like "a phrase you could put through Bing that only returns one result," or a light research task (some Castlevania monsters, for example, have some wild histories!)

The "antagonist enters halfway through" was a wild success with Chef Mütter, and I toyed with the idea of surprising him with another friend who'd throw him into the pit with the puzzle solvers team, a "betrayal betrayal," but didn't get that in time.

One of our participants made a great little CYOA game from using Twine and a few other code-free tools for a similar puzzle party, if I'd invested a little time to learn them it might have been easier to construct a more coherent experience.

But! The only way to get great at something is by sucking at it for a bit. This was still a success — folks were merry, cake was delicious, and it was fabulous seeing friends again. I'm now more clear on what blockers look like for the next Zoom puzzle game 😊

(big thanks to Ian McQuade for Chef Mütter, and Saurya Velagapudi for workshopping puzzles with me)

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