The importance of cookie counting

23 strangers and I entered a wide, dark room and I noticed that 3 tables had been set as though for a dinner for 30 guests. Each of the 30 spots had a circular glow-stick resting on the table and a paper menu standing up within in. The glow sticks were our only light source, illuminating the table and clearly identifying the 30 seats. We spilled into the room and took our seats; some walking to the closest, some to the farthest, and others circling the room warily before choosing a seat. Heavy rock versions of classical music blared from the sound system for a few minutes then slowly receded as the lights came on and revealed that the feast was actually supermarket packets filled with a variety of cookies. “Don’t touch the cookies until you’ve counted them and written a description!” exclaimed one of the other puzzlers. A few people on each table started madly scribbling on their notepads as I cast my eyes around the edge of the room where 10 long, trestle tables were filled with seemingly random objects like fruit, gems, playing cards, dice and a xylophone. And so began The $5,000 Interactive Puzzle Challenge at DexCon.

It’s true that I came to this convention for board gaming, but I had the time to sign up for a few sundry events so I did. This was the one that I was most unsure of. The task was to spend 5 hours locked in a room and solve a puzzle with up to 30 strangers. The cash prize reduced for every hour that passed until we provided the correct answer to the master riddler, who wore a chef’s hat, chef’s apron and pants that were quite reminiscent of “The Riddler”. There was a diplomatic element at hand, too, whereby players could play solo or in groups to try and claim a bigger share of the prize by excluding others. I was unsure of everything, so I didn’t want to commit to any friendships just yet, and I headed off on my own to analyse the 10 tables.

One table contained a big fruit bowl with half of the fruit being natural and half plastic. Plastic fruit was also strewn along the back of each table in a seemingly (though probably not) random fashion. People started counting the fruits and drawing their position, before anyone could touch them and ruin a possible clue. Another table held 4 glasses of weird-smelling/looking fruit juice. Another table contained a large, plastic kids’ kitchen set, with various items on shelves/drawers of the kitchen. Someone started scribbling a description of this table while I lifted up the kitchen set to let someone else look underneath it. And so I kept slowly looking at each table, being careful not to change anything.

Whenever I noticed something interesting or clue-worthy, I wrote it down quietly in my own notebook. Other people left behind their sheets of paper showing detailed descriptions and drawings of everything, with key clues highlighted. I thought this quite foolish, to share info with the whole room before any alliances had been agreed upon. When it comes to games of any kind, I’m as altruistic as a skunk. It turns out that this challenge was much too tricky for one or a few people to solve, and by the time 2 hours had passed, I think we all realised that we all needed each other. From here on, the cookies were our only source of sanity and encouragement.

We gradually became aware that all of the objects scattered around the room belonged to 9 large puzzles. One puzzle involved groups of large playing cards, placed in small groups on the table tops. One puzzle involved 4 coloured placemats with 4 coloured cups filled with 4 flavoured juices that had been dyed with 4 food colours. One puzzle required us to listen to 26 full songs on an iPod shuffle, and hear the notes of a xylophone on 1 of the tracks (but we simply didn’t have the patience, nor realise that this was required). One of the puzzles involved a large jigsaw that had small pieces in one corner, with larger and larger pieces as you moved to the opposite corner. This jigsaw was so unique that it took a whole hour for anyone to realise that it wasn’t 3 separate jigsaws. The jigsaw picture ended up being a bunch of cereal boxes, which lo-and-behold were connected to various cereal boxes scattered around the 10 tables.

The puzzles involved a variety of skills like maths, logic, music and geography. In general, each of the 9 puzzles produced a single letter which, all together, spelled the 9-letter solution to the master puzzle. It may sound easy, but it wasn’t. Some items were related and others weren’t. The connections were always different, so that many of the relationships that we saw between objects and numbers ended up being wrong. The master riddler gave us progress reports, whereby we learned that we only solved approximately 5% and 10% in each of the first 2 hours.

After the whole 5 hours had passed, he said we’d solved approximately 40%, which was more than double the progress that any previous years had achieved. This was some high praise, but we still were all thoroughly flabbergasted as he proceeded to show us how to solve each of the 9 major puzzles. Every tiny, missed clue or incorrect assumption, which had thrown us off course, was a stab to the heart. I came to DexCon for board games, but this distraction was a truly unique and enjoyable challenge. My hat goes off to the master riddler and his 3 assistants, who must have spent months creating these puzzles. I’ll be back next year, and now I know how your brain works, Master Riddler.

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