Mystery at the Birthday Party
By Neal Engledow
Recently I was able to kill two birds with one Atari and I thought that Antic readers might like to know how I did it. My first problem, a general one shared by all home computer owners, was to justify the time and money the hobby absorbs like a black hole.
Most parents would recognize my specific second problem-My daughter, Asha, wanted to celebrate her ninth birthday by inviting a dozen friends over for a guaranteed good time. One solution would have been to let her guests play with my computer. They undoubtedly would have fought over games and access-and quite likely would have broken my trusty Atari into 64,000 bits.
However, I thought there must be a better way. So I turned to my wife, who never has problems finding things for me to do. She observed that our daughter had been reading children's mystery series books featuring detectives such as Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown, and she suggested a Mystery Party.
Great, I said, thinking once again I had put myself in a position to prove that genius is 1 percent inspiration (hem) and 99 percent perspiration (mine). We decided to take something from Asha's room and hide it. Then we'd put together a series of clues that would lead the kids to that object.
First, I had to make the invitations. Inside each invitation we explained that the young detectives helping search for the missing treasure would be rewarded with cake and other goodies.
With Print Shop and Print Shop Companion I devised a Sherlock Holmes icon and a question mark border for the cover. This took three times as long as it should have, but I came up with a reasonable facsimile. Of course, I later found a better Sherlock on one of the Print Shop Library disks.
The next step was to figure out what to hide and where to hide it. We chose a small crystal unicorn Asha keeps on her bedside table. My wife cut a hole for it in the bottom layer of the birthday cake. Now we had to figure Out clues that would lead the kids to the cake. That was fairly easy-we hid small bags filled with cake ingredients such as flour, chocolate, sugar and an egg. We hoped the kids would find them, put two and two together and come up with chocolate cake.
The next step was a little harder. didn't want the kids to scavenge for clues like they would for Easter eggs-we wanted to challenge them. So we designed some puzzles that directed them to the locations of the clues. When the kids arrived, we handed them the first puzzle. They figured it out and found the first due-attached to which would bean-other puzzle directing them to the second clue, and so on.
Realizing that 12 detectives working on a single puzzle would be like 12 cooks stirring the soup, we divided the kids into four teams. Each team would have its own set of puzzles and clues. So we hid an egg for team A, an egg for team B, etc.
That meant that we needed 16 puzzles to provide each team with four sets of clues. I thought it would be impossible-especially for someone who can't solve Zork with a clue book. But with the help of an ordinary dime-store variety puzzle book, I came up with four types of puzzles. We used crosswords, scrambled words, a reverse alphabet code and rebuses (combinations of pictures and letters that form words). I created four crosswords, each directing one team to its egg, and four apiece of the other types for the other clues.
As all computer enthusiasts know, when you have gizmos interacting with do-dads it's time to break out the old CPU. I really needed an outliner, but since I don't have one, out came the PaperClip word processor. First, I listed the places where I would hide the clues:
1. The FIREWOOD pile
2. ASHA'S BED
3. The BARBECUE grill
..and so on
After listing all 16 clue locations, I began working on the puzzles. On the outline, under the location for each egg, I listed the hints and answers that would eventually spell out the location's key word. I printed out the hints and drew in dashes for the kids to write the answers. One letter in each answer was in a block. When all the answers-which were staggered- were filled in, all the blocked letters lined up vertically, spelling Out the location of the clue Here's how the firewood clue looked on my outline:
unicorn in the
A. Indians hunted it (bufFalo)
B. Underwater boat (submarIne)
C. Someone who shoots arrows (aRcher)
D. Birds that honk (geEse)
E. A bird that hunts (haWk)
F. State where oranges grow (FLOrida)
G. Game with clubs (gOlf)
H. Blow out on birthdays (canDles)
All the clues in this category had eight letters, so each team would need to put in the same amount of effort. The second type of puzzle was easier to set up. I gave directions in a reverse alphabet code (A=Z, B=Y, C = X, etc.) The clues had several words, such as "In the front seat of Mr. Engledow's car."
I found PaperClip's global substitution feature useful with this puzzle, changing words that were used more than once, such as "the" into "gsv."
The third puzzle was easy too, but like the crossword you have to be careful. I hid the location amid a string of garbled letters. I gave the kids an example-apxuyliketzthispucatljh--and they had no trouble figuring out what to do. The problem arose when words slipped into the puzzle by accident. (Did you notice the "cat" at the end of the example?) The best way to avoid this is not to use vowels.
The final puzzle was the most fun. Using a drawing program, I did a series of rebuses. One, for instance, was "On top of the cookbooks." For the word cookbooks I drew a picture of an ice cream CONE, subtracted the letters NE, added a picture of a HOOK minus the letters HO and added a picture of an open book followed by a letter S. Then I printed them out in mirror image To do the rebuses, I used my KoalaPad software for the drawing and The Catalog's Picture Plus for lettering and to flip the finished work.
The birthday party, the real reason for the effort, was a roaring success. The only complaint was that the search wasn't long enough. The kids took about half an hour to figure everything out. If I do another mystery party, I'll add at least two more clue-and-puzzle combinations. The kids had a wonderful time, and despite admonitions that they were not competing, members of each team huddled quietly in isolation while figuring out the puzzles, squealed with glee when they found the solution, and raced to find each clue and puzzle.
As icing on the cake, so to speak, the cost of the entertainment aspect
of the party was a little time and a few sheets of fanfold paper. In addition,
when my son turns nine in two years, entertainment for his party is in
the bag, or at least on the disk.
Neal Engledow is a copy editor at USA Today. He has owned an 800XL for three years and calls himself "an inept programmer always looking for new ways to use the Atari."