Though the Escape Room International Championship occurred after Red Bull Discovery Lab, I think it’s more fitting to talk about it first. There’s so much more to unpack about the Discovery Lab that I might have to break out a full series of writeups about.
Not to say that the ER Championship was boring, though. Quite the opposite. One of my Red Bull Discovery Lab teammates (Auggie) shared the event with the group, and another of my teammates (John) and I decided to team up in the contest. With only three days before the event, we scrambled together a team by inviting my wife Christina and my best friend Jon and getting everyone signed up right before the deadline. We called our team “The Sign of the Four” after the Sherlock Holmes story.
John and I played around with a few of the previous years’ games to get familiar with the interface, and we felt like we were getting the hang of it. We spent a few late nights signing on to spend a few minutes playing the games and managed to complete the 2019 version before the day of the tournament.
Christina and I went to Jon’s home at about 10:30 AM, grabbing coffee on the way. I signed on to Discord and got John on audio so our full team could collaborate.
The first round of the ER Championship was a qualifier, with all teams finishing in under two hours moving on to the next round, and if less than 100 teams finish in under two hours, the first 100 teams would move on. We were feeling pretty good about our chances given the rate at which we went through the 2019 version, but we knew that practice doesn’t always work the same way as the real thing.
With all that setup, how did it go?
The game itself looked somewhat familiar to the demo games the championship site offered, with somewhat updated graphics. Unlike the 2019 game, the 2020 game started players together at the same point and didn’t force the group to split up until very late in the game. We skipped through the basic plot to keep our time lower, but from what I gathered, the game was about a random worker and his/her mother escaping from the worker’s job.
Lesson #1: Scrap the Brute Force
One of the biggest lessons we took from the practice round was to not fear brute force. With four players on our team, our team would be able to afford to have someone dive into a three digit lock and try every plausible combination.
The lag killed this plan. With so many participating teams (800 in 2019, likely more this year), one guess often took about 20 seconds to process, meaning that we couldn’t afford to try dozens of options. The lag got better as we progressed through the game, and with the finals pool limited to 100 teams, the strategy may work better the next time around.
Lesson #2: Windows – 1 macOS – 0
Bold statement, and I may have to eat my words if someone knows an Apple trick my team doesn’t, but for this round our Windows machines outperformed our Apple colleagues for one simple reason: Snipping Tool.
One of our fundamental strategies was to share screenshots frequently in a Discord session our group had open. This makes life a thousand times easier- not just for cases where players are separated into different game spaces, but also for when a puzzle involves multiple components that need to be used together.
On a Windows machine: In the Snipping Tool, click “New.” Highlight the part of the screen you want to grab. Hit the copy button. Paste into Discord.
On an Apple machine: Hit the screenshot key. Navigate to the folder the screenshot automatically saved to. Open the screenshot in a photo editing tool. Crop the photo. Save the file to a new name. Attach the new file to Discord.
I was wondering why some of my teammates were avoiding sharing screens regularly, and it really came to a head late in the game when our group was split into two different “rooms” in the game, separating our two Windows users from our two Apple users. We lost probably about 15 minutes at this stage trying to get our bearings.
I’m sure that Apple has some kind of solution for this scenario, and I’ll definitely be looking for an answer on it before our next round.
Lesson #3: Reset Your Mind
This one was probably the biggest cause of delay for our group, and it led to a single puzzle costing us about 45 minutes of game time. As much as possible, I’d like to allow each teammate to look at a puzzle independently so everyone can formulate their own opinions before we convene on proposing solutions. Otherwise, it’s easy to get a mental picture you can’t unsee, and it’s possible to get very far off the track on even a simple puzzle.
For our group, the case was a puzzle with a switchboard on an electrical grid. Only one team member could access the board at a single time, and the first player in described the switches as having three settings- plus, minus, and plus/minus.
After that initial description, our group struggled for a very long time on the question of “What could plus/minus mean?” About 35 minutes in, we connected that these operators only occurred on the board where two different inputs were fed into each switch. At about 40 minutes was when we hypothesized that the plus/minus was to be ignored and we tried a solution with the revolutionary idea that plus meant “add” and minus meant “subtract.” Can you believe it?
While entering the final answer, I was struggling mightily to input the answer. I was under the impression that I had to click each of the switches to rotate it between plus, minus, and plus/minus. But when I’d click, it was only alternating between plus and plus/minus.
When I mentioned that to the group, a teammate mentioned that I needed to click the appropriate option on the plus/minus’s plus if I wanted plus, and minus if I wanted minus. The plus/minus was only a selector, not one of the options!
Getting stuck on a bad impression kept us from seeing the obvious- that sometimes a plus is just a plus and a minus is just a minus. I don’t know if there’s a way to unsee something like this, but at the very least next time I’ll try to both consume raw inputs first without making assumptions and encouraging my team members to do the same.
Lesson #4: Know the Designer
On the same puzzle above, there’s something else that should have forced us to rethink our solution earlier- the designer for these challenges has never forced groups to bring in outside knowledge. If plus, minus, and plus/minus meant something else, there would have been a matching diagram somewhere else in the game.
When trying to figure out what plus/minus could mean, we tried all sorts of theories, that maybe plus was vertical flow, minus was horizontal, and plus/minus was both. It could even make sense in some logic- a minus looks like a pipe going left and right, and a plus looks like a junction of pipe as well. It’s plausible that a solution to a puzzle could involve that aspect. But it wouldn’t fit this puzzle designer. Not a single one of their puzzles has a solution like this, where a color, letter, or number needs to be interpreted as something other than that color, letter, or number.
With so many lessons learned, it may sound like we had struggles- but our group kicked butt! There were some puzzles I never even saw because my team solved them too quickly. We didn’t finish in under two hours, but we placed 43rd and comfortably qualified for the next round. If we clean up a few of the edges of our game, we’re contending for the top!
It’s a fallacy to think that if we save 45 minutes on our biggest gaffe and 15 minutes on our screenshots that we’d leapfrog to position #1- I’m sure teams 1-42 would also love a do-over on the parts that stuck them the most that would help them shave off time too. But as someone who is addicted to improvement, I’m licking my chops at the opportunity to cut our solve time by 33% game to game.
The final hundred go toe to toe in November, and I’m looking forward to our next round!
A few days after the contest, the 2018 sample game went back online, and I stayed up until about 12:30 AM on a work night teaming up with John to go through it. From 11 PM onward, I kept planning to sign off, and then at the last moment John would ping me with a breakthrough idea we just had to test. Rinse and repeat and that’s how you stay up far later than planned. But it was so worth it!