So DASH happened in London on Saturday a couple of days back. The weather stayed dry, despite threatening to at least shower in the morning, and I found the puzzles, the company and the event at large all to be glorious. Speaking on behalf of others is dangerous but I think it's reasonable to say that everyone on my team had a fantastic time and I'm pretty sure Nick G., at the very least, did as well. I'm guessing that the other DASHers around these parts are likely to have done so too!
The puzzles were very much not the language-free culture-neutral staples of WPF fare; they tended to rely on wordplay and pattern recognition. Indeed, there was far less of a focus on logic than I was expecting. While this may not play to our particular strengths, I guess that this helps towards accessibility to a wider audience.
There were nine puzzles in total, each programmed to take 25- to 60- minutes in duration. Many teams earned bonus points by solving them more quickly than these par times; there was also the option to solve each one with hints as required for a slightly lower point return and no opportunity for a bonus on that puzzle. There were nine teams of 3-5 solvers and I understand that every team saw every puzzle and made their way - with hints as required - through to solving the final puzzle, which depended on the answers to the first eight and spotting a commonality between them.
I will highlight one puzzle in particular as being among the most spectacular I have ever had the joy to witness. In short, it was Meta-Extreme-Connecting Walls. The puzzles and answers will surely be posted to the DASH 5 web site imminently, but if you can't wait, i'll describe the general principle
PRIME_BBCODE_SPOILER_SHOW PRIME_BBCODE_SPOILER: within.
UK readers will surely be familiar (though non-UK readers might not) with Only Connect, whose seventh triumphant series is in progress on BBC Four right now. One round there invites teams to arrange sixteen items into four groups of four, such that the groups have a common property, though this commonality may potentially be rather obtuse and lateral. The counterpart puzzle here turned up the difficulty by inviting us to partition walls of 25 items into five sets of five, though each set was illustrated with an item or two to get you started. Having as many as five walls to work upon kept everyone busy, and there was the tactile fun of affixing physical stickers to the answer sheets and moving them around as required. Upon dividing the walls up correctly, and arranging them into row-wise and partly column-wise alphabetical order as requested, it was then possible to use the background shading as a simple cipher to generate an instruction to determine which of the stickers should be used to form the source material for a *sixth* wall, playing by the same rules. Determining the commonalities in this meta-wall led to a description of the answer to the puzzle. This was incredibly intricate and a wonderful feat of construction; I doff my cap to whoever devised it, not least because they are surely a US-based composer, possibly less familiar with the show. As it happened, three of the members of my team (not me!) have successfully submitted questions to OC, thus we were on reasonably familiar territory.
That was the detail of the most sensational and beautifully designed puzzle, but the standard of the puzzles at large was broadly very high, with every puzzle clearly thoroughly playtested and strong theming throughout. The vast majority of puzzles were extremely parallelisable, so several solvers - every solver? - could work on the same puzzle at the same time. Teams moved from location to location to solve puzzles; our path was broadly up and down the Euston Road, between UCL and the British Library, taking in a cafe and a couple of pubs along the way. Teams were not penalised for travelling slowly, taking refreshment or liquid adjustment breaks along the way as required; you were only on the clock between taking a puzzle and submitting your answers. Staff were on hand at each location to check answers and provide hints as required.
There were nine teams in all; I think it would be polite, as well as fair, to suggest that four of them had much more experience with this sort of puzzle at large than the other five. A team named after, and probably representing, the Magpie small press magazine of unusually difficult crosswords found all the wordplay completely to their taste and burned through things at a considerable rate of knots. (Rumour is that they had got together and worked through every puzzle from every previous DASH already; points for dedication and preparation, and how well it has paid off!) The final scoring has not been announced but it seems a racing certainty that they must have won the London leg with what I suspect will be likely to prove a metaphorical Champions' League performance. I know that they were a few minutes faster than us on each of the puzzles where we had times to compare.
Other than that, our team (Riddler on the Hoof - effectively an online UK game show fandom team, with Ronald occasionally of this parish and three other gents who I know on Twitter) managed to power through most of the hold-ups, and I know the Moore and Less team (featuring Gareth, Nick and friends) and the Two Jesters, Two Lesters And A Bloke From Chester team (including Phil Hannay, with whom I ran the tiny team hunt event at the UKPA con in 2012) all managed to mow the puzzles down apace. Again, I look forward to the scoring being published.
If there was a way in which DASH did not meet my hopes - though, I am pretty sure, this was due to my expectations being awry rather than a fault of the design, which worked as intended - it was that I didn't get to spend as much time with other teams as I would have liked to have done. (The first puzzle did see us working in super-teams made up of three teams; this wasn't scored, so primarily acted as a way to stagger the teams starting their second puzzle and thus ease the rush of many teams all arriving for the second and subsequent puzzles at the same time.) The problem is that because teams solve at their own pace, they will finish the hunt at their own pace and so cannot all be guaranteed to be in the same place at the same time afterwards.
Sadly the Magpie team had all disappeared by the time we got to the final location to start our last puzzle; if they came back after having eaten, I fear I didn't recognise them. It would have been lovely to get to meet them and find out just who was part of the team that day; I know there's a fair degree of overlap between the Magpie editorial team and our own competitions and a good chance that some of them will get to read this. (Follow-up question: Magpie team, out of curiosity, was it this thread that brought the event to your attention?) Likewise, I know that Ronald went and spent some time with Moore or Lesk after the hunt; after he came back to sit with us, I tried to marshall our team over to sit with them and make further connections but sadly they too had gone! Never mind. There was some inter-team mingling, mostly among the outfits who stayed and ate dinner at the pub. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed getting to meet the Game Control team as well.
Many thanks to Jordan Smith and the rest of the UK organisers. Jordan was an experienced DASH player in Los Angeles and bravely got up to be the first on the London dancefloor, lighting the metaphorical DASH touchpaper within the UK. Other members of the staff had come across from the US for the event - or, at least, combined a holiday to the UK with bringing their expertise of this particular DASH incarnation from over there to over here. It was a delight to get to meet lots of new and exciting puzzle-y people, not least those whose puzzle experience has manifested itself in all sorts of different ways. There's a wide world of puzzling out there far from the WPF events, Logic Masters both Indian and German and family. Frankly, that turns me on. Let's keep in touch and keep spreading the word!
There's a whole lot of work that goes into running a DASH; not only do the cities' organising teams submit their own puzzles for consideration for global syndication, each local organising team has to plan their own route and organise not just a local staff (all of whom must be trained into really understanding their puzzle, or puzzles, and be prepared to stay around to help even the last team through) but also local playtesters to spot special difficulties that might be faced in one city without arising in the others. In the UK, there's also the issue of localising the puzzles as well; not much was required, though we were provided with a list of US state postal abbreviations that proved essential for one puzzle and it's tempting to wonder whether this list was required by the teams solving the same puzzle within the US. I get the impression that the London organisers reflected the delight of the teams solving the puzzles. There is definitely a bigger puzzle community in the UK than this forum alone has tapped and that has to be a good thing all round.
If you couldn't make it, you missed a treat. Fingers firmly crossed that people (maybe the same, maybe others) will step up and organise the party to make a DASH event happen in London next year. If you didn't get the chance to play this year, do start considering whether it might be your cup of tea for 2014... and if you're reading this, then I'd bet good money at short odds that it just might be. You'd better believe that as soon as I get a scent of the details then I will sound the alarms here. Anyone who thought "the UKPA con was great - why must it be a year between our meeting up?" should start to pencil this in as a second fixture - and, being a single day, it may be more convenient for all the members in the south.
And yet, much as DASH takes place in 14 different cities in the US, there's no reason why it has to be restricted to happening in just a single city in the UK at some point down the line. Just putting that out there...
(Edited: corrected prior misquote of another team name.)