Hanukkah LOL, part 5: Three massive, real world, nationwide puzzles

This is part five. Here are parts one, two, three and four.

The story so far: The game is afoot. Dad is trapped in a basement, and thousands of players are converging on Slack and Reddit to solve puzzles. We’re going to break from the chronological story now and talk about three specific puzzle threads that stand out for the way they incorporated the holiday gifts, encouraged collaboration, and forced players to interact with real world places and objects.

Jew Packs & Comic Books

Gifts 4 and 7 included two Jewish-themed expansion packs, each with 15 cards in them. CAH cards are finely tuned and carefully tested; there was no way we were going to be able to alter one to fit a puzzle. We were just going to have to use what was there.

The Jew Pack

I looked over the first pack. There were 13 white cards. I typed them all into a spreadsheet, and scanned for patterns. I noticed something interesting: exactly three of them started with a W:

Put them together and you get WWW, as in the beginning of a URL. This was very promising! Assuming I could build a clue that indicated how to order the 13 cards, then I could leave it to the players to notice the WWW and interpret the whole thing as web domain.

I played around with the remaining 10 letters: AAABCDHHSS. There are tons of top-level domains these days, and it wasn’t too long before I found a good one in the remaining letters: .cash. That left AABDHS. From there it was just a few minutes of anagramming to find our winner: www.badash.cash.

We were incredibly lucky. It was the kind of elegant pattern that players would simply assume was intentionally baked into the writing of the cards. In reality, it was an accidental signal among noise, and because we caught it early on, we could take advantage of it and parlay it into a puzzle.

(We would see lots of those signals over the next month. Some would be caught by us and turned into a puzzle; some would be caught by the players and lead them into deep, dark rabbit holes.)


We had been looking for more ways to bring real world interactions into the game. One idea that had been floating around was to build an online store that the players would have to buy something from. The stuff would come in the mail, and there’d be a clue inside. Now that we had this domain, we had a perfect place to put our store. We just had to decide what to sell.

One of the items from our Things in a Basement list was old comics. Making Dad a comic book hoarder seemed like a natural fit. It wasn’t too long before we figured out the hook: Tom & Karlee would sell his comics to someone, who would then turn around and sell them back to the players through his online store. Now that we had a domain, we also had his name: Ashford.

I went to the comic book store and bought 13 comics from the quarter bin. These would be the comics we’d sell and mail to the players. Then we took the 13 comic book names — like The Mighty Thor and Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight — and combined each of them with words from the 13 white cards from the Jew Pack. That gave us 13 fake comic book titles that would be the bridge between the clues and the physical items.

B + C = D. Ignore columns E & F for now.

We used the gorgeous Pulp-O-Mizer to make 13 authentic-looking comic book covers for the 13 fake comics. We added them all to our Shopify-powered BadAsh.cash website, and set the inventory for each to 1. We had our website.

The comics chest

We needed a way to clue the players about the order of the cards, so they could discover and load the URL. Something that showed a list of the 13 fake comics. We settled on a receipt, from Ashford, from when he bought the comics from the kids.

We put a chest in the room and labeled “COMICS. DON’T TOUCH.” and locked it up. After breaking open the lock, Dad found the chest empty, except for a receipt from Ashford’s Big Bad Comic Company.

Those naughty kids!

The receipt information was un-Googleable and inscrutable — these aren’t real comic books, after all — until gift 4 arrived, holding the CAH expansion pack. At that point, someone noticed that the number of items on the receipt equaled the number of CAH white cards in the pack—and that each comic book title shared a word with one of the white cards. Then, after fiddling around with the data in a spreadsheet, they put the 13 white cards in the order of the 13 titles on the receipt, read the first letter of each one, and saw wwwbadashcash staring out at them.

As soon as they discovered the site, we started “selling” comics. We didn’t want one person swooping in and claiming them all, so we sold one at a time, waiting 15 minutes before adding the next piece of inventory. Every time a comic went live, it would get snatched up within seconds by one of the hundreds of players who were obsessively reloading the site, trying to grab a comic, in what ended up being a three-hour game of internet whack-a-mole.

It was really fun experiment in artificial scarcity and fabricated value — no one actually knew what they were “buying” here. They weren’t even paying money, so it was conceivable we wouldn’t be sending them any product at all. But they expected, rightly, that if we did send them something, it would be a special, tangible piece of the game. A thing that no one else had. So they went apeshit for it.

The prices

So we had 13 buyers and 13 real comics. We sent them out. The final step was to use the price of the comic, from the receipt, as an index. Each price’s dollar amount indicated a page number, and the cents amount was a letter count. So, for the comic book that cost $4.09, we were looking for the 4th page, 9th letter. (See the rightmost two columns in the spreadsheet above.)

The 13 cards led to 13 fake comics which led to 13 real comics which were sent out to 13 people, and which led to 13 letters, which combined to form this phrase: SUMMER OR TARTT. The answer: DONNA.

This was the rare distributed puzzle that didn’t have any redundancy. Only one person received any given comic, which meant that if they didn’t contribute to the final solve, their letter would be missing. I felt the risk was worth it because a) the players who bought a comic were clearly self-selecting as avid puzzlers and were very likely to contribute, and b) the final phrase could withstand a few missing letters and still be solvable.

Dad letters

Seven of the eight gifts were to include a handwritten note from a father of a CAH founder. Again, using the notes was in-bounds, but editing them was not.

Some widsom from Josh’s dad

One of my favorite tools to use for real-life puzzle hunts are masks — pieces of material purposefully cut to fit over something else, usually text, to reveal a message peeking through. I like it because it’s an inherently tactile act. It’s not something you can easily replicate while sitting at a computer.

The Notes From Father felt like a perfect opportunity to use a mask. First job: decide what we wanted to reveal. The scribblings were too irregular and too small to build masks that revealed just one letter. We could reveal a word, but the job of composing a sentence by extracting one word per note felt unlikely to yield a final sentence that we felt good about.

Jon eventually hit upon our answer, a combination of the two above ideas: we would build masks that revealed three words per note. The three words would be seemingly unrelated, save one property: one letter, and only one letter, would be common between the three words. For example, if the words were crisis, doctor, and act, the extracted letter would be the only one that’s in all three words: C. Find all seven letters, one per note, and together you’d get your answer.

We needed to answer three more questions:

  1. What would the mask be made out of?
  2. How would we get the masks in the hands of the players?
  3. How would we indicate where to align the masks on top of the letters?

1. Masks

I got approval from Ben to build custom CAH cards to solve the first question. At first they were going to say #2 Dad, #3 Dad, and so on, which would indicate which day’s note each paired up with. As we were building out the masks, we got to reading the letters, which ran the range from touching to funny, from poignant to Daddishly corny. We hit on a idea way better than #N Dad. Wouldn’t it be great to have the Dads’ words immortalized on their sons’ creation? Of course it would.

Dads say the darnedest things.

Step 2 was turning these into masks. We needed a bunch, and cutting them up by X-Acto blade was proving to be tedious and inexact. I’m lucky enough to be friends with Shawn Smith, who happens to have a laser cutter in his basement. We spent a fun evening slicing up cards with frickin’ laser beams.

I posted this on my personal Instagram about a week before these cards entered the game. Some noticed.

2. Distribution

We were already using the mail to send out the comic books. We wanted these masks to show up somewhere in the world, and force the players to go get them. Given that these were CAH cards, we hit on the idea of using a pre-existing network that already knows and loves CAH: local game stores. We talked to a few dozen stores and asked if they’d be interested in handing out a small number of secret cards to a small number of people, and almost all of them said yes. Everyones loves to be in a secret club.

We ended up making 10 copies of each card and sending each store 2–3 copies of a single card, with instructions to keep them hidden until someone asked for one of the cards.

3. Alignment

To indicate alignment, we figured out which word was covered up by the top left corner of each card. We then wrote those words on seven pieces of paper, labeled them to indicate which letter they went with, and planted them in the room.

4. Announcement

We had our cards and we had our businesses. The last step was informing the crowd where to go. To do this we set up a fake Foursquare account that listed all the game stores which were holding cards. To point players to the account, we drew a miniature foursquare court on the floor of the room in chalk, and covered it with a small rug. All the players would have to do is ask Dad to look under the rug. Which they eventually did…

Screencap of Dad looking under the basement rug.

… which led them to the hanukkahlol Foursquare account, which led them to this list

Fifteen stores across the country partcipated.

… which led them to visit fifteen game and comics stores all over the country, which got them the sliced-up cards…

…which revealed the words, which distilled to letters, which combined to form the answer: CLIFTON.

Missing cats & Starbucks

Among the list of retail chains prevalent in dense cities, Starbucks stands out as the only ones that are, in a very small way, customizable. Starbucks shops position themselves as centers of their communities, and some even encourage it by hanging a bulletin board that citizens can use to broadcast their events, as long as they’re not for-profit. And a bulletin board is just the right kind of medium for disseminating information.

We looked over the CAH gifts again to see what we hadn’t yet used. Every year in their holiday promotion, CAH includes a small newspaper zine called Funny Pages, filled with custom strips by their favorite web comic artists.

This year’s Funny Pages

It was too late to embed clues in the comics themselves. But, printed underneath each comic was the URL of their online home. What if we could host something custom on these websites?

The headlining comic on the Funny Pages is always Diesel Sweeties, by Richard Stevens. We wrote Richard with this idea, which he then called and raised. Not only would he be willing to hide stuff on his site, he’d be willing to write an entirely custom comic for us. And, if we wanted to, he’d replace any comic in his archive with this comic for the duration of the game. The man is truly a saint.

Our rough outline for the puzzle was as follows:

  1. Players find a clue in the Funny Pages that points them to an archived comic on dieselsweeties.com.
  2. They load the archive page only to find a new, custom comic there, cluing them to several Starbucks locations around the country.
  3. They go to the Starbucks to find a poster for a free “concert” pinned up to the bulletin board.
  4. Comparing all the bulletin board posters reveals a final, hidden name.

1. The Funny Pages

We wanted the first instruction, the one that led people to dieselsweeties.com, to be in the Funny Pages. This wouldn’t be easy, because we couldn’t change any text — the paper was already printed.

Our first attempt around this was to scan all the panels and hunt for words that could be extracted from their contexts to form a message. We couldn’t get that to work.

Our second idea was more fruitful — find longer words that included the words we wanted in our message.

Read just the highlighted letters.

Then it was just a matter of cluing the unused letters — i.e. the parts of those words that were not in our message. For that we composed a note from Tom & Karlee that Dad would find in the room on Day 3. Some of the letters in the note appeared to be cut from newspapers, ransom note-style.

Dad found the note on Day 3, but it wasn’t decipherable until around Day 17.

Two weeks later, when the Funny Pages arrived in the mail, they would be able to finally recognize those cut-out letters. By comparing the letters to the paper, and finding the words those letters came from, they could extract the rest of each word, and finally form the message: PAGE ONE FIVE FOUR AT DIESEL.

2. Starbucks

Before we were able to write the comic, we had to know which Starbucks we were using. We started by picking cities where we had friends who’d be willing to help us pull this off. Then we hunted around on Google Maps in those cities, looking at the stores’ interior photos, trying to find locations that were well-trafficked and had a bulletin board. We confirmed with a phone call that each location would be willing to let us put a poster up.

3. The Diesel Sweeties comic

Once they loaded dieselsweeties.com/archive/154, players would be greeted with a custom comic. Richard gave us a blank canvas to work with. After some back and forth with him about tone — I wanted the comic to feature regular DS character Clango the Robot but also someone from CAH— we settled on eight panels: one intro panel, one outro panel, and six panels that each clued to a Starbucks location.

At first we tried writing clues about the intersection that each Starbucks was at. This didn’t work out, because some stores weren’t on intersections, and some street names were boring. I also wanted to clue in a way that was completely non-arbitrary. I finally realized that each of these stores has a canonical ID number, so, as long as we hinted somewhere that they were looking for a Starbucks, and we clued the number, they could home in on the exact location.

The final comic was a story about Clango stealing the six cats that appeared in the printed Funny Pages comic. (See above.) In the online comic that Richard made for us, Clango boasts about his crime while holding a Starbucks-branded cup. Then he spends six panels, each titled with a city, describing in flowery language the cat he hid there.

The solution is in enumerations of the six Clango quote balloons. For the words in each of the six balloons, count up the number of letters in each word (or 0 if it’s an ellipses), then combine those digits together. That gets you get the ID of the store in question. The city name is there as confirmation that you deduced the right place.

4. The posters

The last step was designing these posters and getting them in the hands of our friends across the country. I turned again to Amy Schwartz, designer at CAH, with this request:

  • Six posters…
  • each advertising a free concert…
  • in a nearby park…
  • by a particular band…
  • which was all made up of cats.

What she came up with is a thing of beauty.

I mean, seriously.

We had to play a little game of chance with the hanging of these posters. We needed the posters hunt up before the crowd solved the puzzle, and we didn’t know when that would be. We could track the online conversation but by then it might be too late to send our team out to hang stuff. But if we hung a poster too early, there was a chance some hyper-observant Starbuckian would take it down before a player got there.

In the end, we got the posters up one or two days before the puzzle was solved. Five of the six posters were still there when a player showed up to find it. Only the New Orleans poster got taken down.

On display in San Francisco.

5. Solution

The final bit of the puzzle was in interpreting the band names, which were:

  • Roma & Juliet
  • DJ Danger Diggybeats with special guest Q. Uniform
  • The Sierra Purrs
  • Frankie Likes To Tango
  • India Jones
  • Ivy and the November Miracle

The bold names are all from the NATO alphabet. Taken together, they spell JUSTIN.

Continued in part 6 »

The perils of scripting a dynamic game, how we learned to give hints, and some of the craziest false signals that arose from the noise.

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