Eric's Puzzle Party, 2004

The first Saturday of October 2004 saw the enactment of something which I had thought about doing for a long, long time. I don't know what finally inspired me to organize one, but it was on this day that I finally got off my butt and hosted a Puzzle Party.

What is a Puzzle Party, you ask?

Well, I'm sure that is what a lot of my friends were thinking when I sent out the first announcement emails at the beginning of September.

Writing this the day after the party, my immediate reaction is to say that a Puzzle Party is this: "a lot of work!".

But, happily it also turned out to be an extraordinary amount of fun (I think I am speaking for all the players, not just as the host).

Getting more specific, this first Puzzle Party of mine can be described this way: I assembled a bunch of friends (around 20), split them into teams and gave each a Puzzle Booklet. The players had 4 hours to earn as many points as possible from the variety of puzzles within (there were seventeen problems total).

Let me right away give more details by linking to the electronic version of the Puzzle Booklet (this is a PDF file). A few additional pages are also needed: a periodic table of chemical elements (PDF File for problem #8), another PDF for problem #9, and a reference grid image for problem #13

All of the puzzles were ones I had either invented or collected through much of my life. Some I had known about for years, others I had made up quite recently. Of the many candidates for this booklet, I tried to narrow the selection down to seventeen problems that required a wide variety of mental skills.

Many also used props which were provided to the teams at the beginning of the contest. The 'prop box' of each team contained the following:

Finally, as the referee, I provided other needed items including access to a bunch of dictionaries and small abstract LEGO models used in problem #5.

By 1PM I had partitioned everyone up into the following teams:

Red Green Yellow Blue Purple
Robert Ford
Henry Lim
Bill Sherling
Dorothy Sherling
Tracy Cobbs
Kelly Hollingsworth
Michael Hollingsworth
Marshall Jansen
Bob Gillis
Dan Gillis
Marsha Gillis
Blane Hollingsworth
Sean Lowery
Katie Baldwin
Michael Francis
Christy Jansen
Jimmy Yeung
Abby Creel
John Creel
Tim Hardwick
Betty Senger

The Puzzle Booklets and boxes were handed out and the clock started running... four hours... I had warned the teams beforehand that I doubted any team would finish all seventeen problems. 'Finish' is not the best term to use, though, since many of the problems were rather open-ended, and while a team potentially could have gotten some answers quickly, they might not have felt satisfied that they were maximized. In short, I just figured that the teams were going to stay very busy during the full duration of the contest.

I took it as a good sign that almost immediately my house fell quiet. The teams all found a place to set up a base (Green took the dining room, Red the livingroom,Yellow the guest bedroom, and Blue and Purple both remained in my screened-in carport... within sight of the scoreboard).

Some teams started to carefully read each problem before assigning them to a particular member, while other groups immediately attacked problems that looked interesting or easily approachable.

Between referee duties I managed to take some pictures. Friend, Lauren Havens, was also present and acting as the official photographer of the event. The pictures below were taken by either myself, her, or player Henry Lim.


Creating as many U.S. state names as possible with a set of Scrabble tiles was a popular problem (#7). Here's Abby working on it for her team, and Bob doing the same with his son, Dan. This was a problem I had previously listed under the Scrabble section of my website. All teams obtained 12 state names (though none had the exact same list), but that is not the best answer.

The 14th problem involving a stacked deck of cards and poker hands was likely the most frustrating and time consuming conundrum. I honestly didn't think players would bother with it for as long as they did. Here's Blane puzzling over it. Jimmy spent over 2 hours on it. Amazingly, Mike of the Green Team spent about three hours on it, but that time paid off; he was the only one to obtain a perfect score of 2000 on it (and that after spending the first hour doing the whole problem incorrectly!)

I never got a group shot of the Yellow Team, but they sequestered themselves in the guest bedroom for the most part. Team member Marsha Gillis carefully studied the "Better Living Through Chemistry" problem (#8) and obtained the second highest score on it (7 points behind the top score, though both were well short of the maximum).

Red Team member, Robert Ford, was generally considered the "Pentomino Expert" among the players, but here found the going rough at first. He spent quite a long time sitting on the couch trying to build various shapes with the twelve blocks (problem #3). With no luck after 90 minutes or so, he moved on to other problems (poker problem and the Pentomino Farm). Eventually, he returned to the Pentominoes Building and managed to create a 3x20 rectangle for 500 points. He was one of only two people to get any of the configurations (Betty Senger completed the same shape for the Purple Team).

Problem #5 required one team member to get a second team member to recreate a small sculpture of LEGO bricks using verbal description only. Here are Dorothy and Henry of the Red Team working at this. Dorothy is describing the model to Henry, being careful to follow the rules and not allow Henry to actually see the object.

I spent most of my time answering questions about problems, recording scores on the scoreboard, and in general just making sure everything ran smoothly. Occasionally I could relax a bit.

There was no doubt that everyone was staying pretty busy. Here was John, seemingly tackling three of the problems at once.

Five O'clock...

By the fourth hour the challenges were starting to take their tolls. Teams were beginning to have to seriously consider which problems they had not yet approached adequately. At 5PM I called "time" and collected all of the Puzzle Booklets.

Before Lauren and I began grading the puzzles, I wanted to keep the players occupied by posing three simpler questions as "Individual Puzzles" -- ones that folks could work on by themselves if they wished. Those puzzles were as follows:

  1. On an outside table had been placed a large masonry jar filled will M&M Candies. The players were to guess the number of candies. The person guessing closest would win a small trophy and get to keep the jar of M&Ms (there was almost 6 pounds of candy in the jar). They were not allowed to touch the jar while guessing.
  2. On the dining room table I had placed a geometric object made of magnetic rods and steel balls. The goal was to guess the number of rods used to make this very symmetric object. Again, they could not touch the model while guessing. The winner would get a small trophy and another starlike magnet sculpture I had built.
  3. Finally, they were asked to compile an alphabetic list of words such that for each letter of the alphabet they found the longest word that both began and ended with that letter. The person whose list contain the greatest total of lengths of all the words would win a trophy and a travel Scrabble set.
The players could work on any of the individual puzzles they wished and turn in the answers for each separately on colored index cards. The contests remained open until the pizza arrived (I had ordered pizza for everyone, and it was supposed to arrive around 6PM).

The Winners

While people relaxed or worked on the new questions, Lauren and I graded the booklets from the Team Contest. The pizza arrived and everyone was then occupied food. By about 6:30PM I started to fill in the scoreboard with the final answers. Here is a chart reflecting the numbers:

            Max.* Enjoyment** Difficulty
1. DIGITS AND FRACTIONS 100 80 60 40 140 300 3.000 (14) 2.800 (11)
2. MOVIES AND NUMBERS 380 970 1020 250 540 4000 ? 4.375 (2) 2.625 (15)
3. PENTOMINO BUILDING 500 0 0 0 500 4850 2.143 (17) 4.500 (2)
4. INCREASING ALPHABET 2310 1900 1930 2310 1710 2310 3.667 (8) 3.333 (7)
(22 min.)
(8 min.)
(15 min.)
(29 min.)
(11 min.)
2000 4.500 (1) 3.400 (6)
6. BASEBALL CROSSWORD 870 705 960 520 740 1020 ? 3.500 (10) 2.800 (11)
7. SCRABBLE STATES 1165 1165 1165 1165 1165 1885 4.333 (3) 3.167 (8)
8. BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY 296 654 647 318 524 763 4.167 (4) 2.500 (16)
9. COLORBLIND WORDSEARCH 1800 1250 300 400 1150 1900 3.875 (6) 3.857 (4)
10. LETTER FREQUENCY 410 430 395 370 325 620 ? 3.600 (9) 3.000 (9)
11. SELF-DESCRIBING NUMBER 300 300 300 300 300 300 3.500 (10) 2.286 (17)
12. WORD RECTANGLE 900 0 900 0 450 2450 ? 3.167 (13) 3.800 (5)
13. PENTOMINO FARM 545 490 530 510 500 640 4.000 (5) 2.750 (14)
14. STACK THE DECK 1800 2000 1120 1440 0 2000 3.000 (14) 4.750 (1)
15. CUBIC MAZE 500 500 500 500 500 500 3.200 (12) 2.800 (11)
16. RHOMBIC DODECAHEDRON 2023 2032 1958 2036 1973 2071 ? 3.750 (7) 3.000 (9)
17. LONGITUDE AND LATITUDE -234 -402 -285 -357 -377 0 2.714 (16) 4.286 (3)
TOTAL 14165 14074 12740 10052 11640 27609 ? Averages
  1st 2nd 3rd 5th 4th   3.558 3.274
* Maximum possible scores, I think (or maximum I've seen or estimated). Ones with question marks are either not known for sure. Readers are encouraged to send me corrections or better solutions.
** Enjoyment and Difficulty scores are based on averaged evaluation scores from players (problems had differing numbers of people submitting evaluation scores). 5 == Very Enjoyable/Very Difficult, 1 == Not Enjoyable At All/Very Easy. Rankings are placed in parentheses.

As you can see, the Red Team pulled off a narrow victory. I was pleased to see that all of the teams did quite well, all of the problems were tackled by each team (with varying degrees of success, of course), and that there was some definite anxiety up to the final moments as scores were being tallied.

So what was won for all of this work? Well, nothing too grand. Each member of the winning team got a trophy commemerating the occasion; the trophies were constructed out of LEGO bricks and read, "PUZZLE PARTY WINNER MMIV". Here's the proud Red Team with their prizes (ignore me and Bob Gillis in the background of the pic).

I must admit at this point that later we found a few mistakes in grading of booklets, but they would not have affected the outcome (in fact, Red would likely have won by a slightly larger margin). If there was one thing I learned about all of this Puzzle-Party-Hosting-Business, it's that next time I will need to create problems that can be graded a bit more quickly. Of course, this was all just for fun, so while people were certainly competitive, no one should be too upset if a few points were mistaken here or there.

We had fun.

Oh! And now the individual puzzle results.

Thank yous

"Thank you" to Lauren for helping me grade and for taking many, many pictures. And a huge "thank you" goes to Joe Mantler who showed up ten minutes late but did not mind wrangling the children instead of puzzling. I'm sure Marshall and Christy appreciate it as much as I do.

I would also like to thank everyone who showed up to this party. I hope you had as much fun as I did. Unless everyone was simply being polite, there seemed to be more than enough enthusiasm to encourage me to hold another one.

Everyone should look for invitations next year for a 2005 edition...

For people who did not attend but who are reading this webpage casually, I would encourage you to download my Puzzle Booklet if you haven't already. Though you won't have the props necessary to do all of the puzzles, there should be enough there to challenge you plenty.

See what you can accomplish in a few hours.


- Eric Harshbarger

Party participant, Marshall Jansen, wrote this account of the Puzzle Party. Thanks, Marshall.