June 19, 2021

cruciforme

travel, Always a step ahead

Mystery Takes Downtown Back To Future

6 min read

Thomas Breen photos

Archaeologists from the future have sent a backpack of clues back to present-day New Haven. They need our help solving an outdoor puzzle.

If you solve the challenges laid out below by the end of this article, it will reveal to you the secrets behind a new brain-crunching, pandemic-safe way to explore downtown.

This new outdoor puzzle is called The Chauncey Conundrum.

It was created by the real-life adventure game designers at Escape New Haven. It launched two weeks ago.

The game starts with 19th-century industrialist Chauncey Jerome.

It turns out that, when he wasn’t running the Hamilton Street clock factory, Jerome was tinkering away on quite the novel discovery: time travel.

According to the game, Elm City archaeologists from the future need the help of present-day puzzle solvers to crack the code on how Jerome’s time-hopping tech really works.

So they’ve sent a backpack full of objects, maps, instructions, and clues for teams of up to five people at a time to work together to make sense of.

The answers lie encoded in various downtown spots rich in Elm City history.

“All you need to bring is your mental prowess,” the game’s opening document reads, “and you will be able to solve Chauncey’s Conundrum.”

To help you solve the puzzle, I’ve secured the help of an expert guide: Escape New Haven Co-Founder and Chief Producer Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (pictured).

But the conundrum posed by this article is not the same as Chauncey’s. You’ll have to play the game itself to discover the exact questions, prompts, puzzles, routes, carefully crafted plastic and metal tools, and, yes, the answers themselves that illuminate Jerome’s four-dimensional feat.

The puzzle you must solve for here is: What goes into a fun, intelligent, and engaging outdoor puzzle game?

Our first stop: Escape New Haven headquarters at 103 Whitney Ave.

Challenge #1: Ask What? Who? Why?

In pre-pandemic times, when one could enjoy spending an hour inside with friends without worrying about catching a highly contagious airborne virus, this is where you’d go to take a crack at solving the local shop’s escape rooms.

Those are carefully built environments that immerse small teams in the world of a puzzle, and require some quick thinking and group problem solving before a team can, well, escape. (Click here to read a previous Independent article about an art gallery-themed adventure at Escape New Haven, and here to read about the group’s recent werewolf-haunted game, “Before Moonrise.”)

“Obviously, indoor entertainment isn’t doing so hot right now,” Rodriguez-Torrent cautions when we meet up outside the Whitney Avenue office complex on the edge of downtown.

The 30-year-old Southbury native says that he and co-founder Max Sutter decided to shutter all in-person games two weeks ago as local Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations continued to spike.

The past nine months have been rough for their business. Their pre-pandemic staff of 11 has dropped to three full-timers and another three working part-time.

While the indoor space is closed, Escape New Haven has pivoted online — and outdoors, with the newly launched, “The Chauncey Conundrum.”

Rodriguez-Torrent says that his was a circuitous route to puzzle-making. He graduated from Yale in 2013 with a degree in East Asian Studies. He planned to be a police officer, but a workout-related injury derailed that career ambition. So he worked as a bartender, at 116 Crown and at Taste of China, and met up with friends on a regular basis for drink and game nights at their various apartments.

Then in May 2014, everything he changed. He visited one of the first escape rooms on the East Coast, in New York City, and left hooked.

“It was like playing a video game in real life,” he says.

It was also something more than pure entertainment. The best escape rooms are challenges in communication and leadership, he says.

Over the past six years since the founding of the local business, Escape New Haven has designed games for groups as small as a handful to as large as 800—that one a mass team-building exercise at the University of New Haven.

“The Chauncey Conundrum” represents a bit of a shift for Escape New Haven away from what Rodriguez-Torrent describes as the early days of “puzzle factories”—that is, games that rely overwhelmingly on solving problem after problem after problem for the intellectual stimulation of it all. This one injects a narrative into the game to tie those challenges together with a coherent storytelling thread.


“I hope people can learn a bit about New Haven history” after playing the game, says Trevor Frederiksen (pictured), a 30-year-old former theater producer and prop designer who now works for Escape New Haven.

Frederiksen took the lead in designing “The Chauncey Conundrum,” coming up with its stories and challenges, and creating the game’s tools at the local maker space, Make Haven.

“I’m hoping that it can make people stop and see things that were right in front of their noses,” says Rodriguez-Torrent. “Some of our history.”

Group problem-solving. Communication. Local history. … Click! Nice work. You’ve solved the first challenge.

Next stop: the Amistad.

Challenge #2: Is One Enough For A Team

Ok, I’ll admit it. I was a bit misleading in my initial instructions. I am going to divulge a clue or two included in “The Chauncey Conundrum.”

But only for the purpose of helping you solve this article’s puzzle-about-a-puzzle.

You look up at Ed Hamilton’s three-sided sculpture commemorating Sengbe Pieh and the Amistad revolt.

You look down at a set of blueprint-like instructions.

You look up again. You look down. You struggle.

Frankly, you’re not the best with geometry.

And then it hits you: you’re trying to solve this challenge by yourself.

“Ethan, can you help me with this?” you ask. He agrees.

He’s test-played a few different versions of the game before, and knows some of the answers—but not all. He’ll nudge you in the right direction when he can, and you’ll have to work together to solve the various puzzles when he doesn’t already hold the key.

The best real-life puzzle games, he said, include challenges that fit different types of learners: visual, analytical, logical. Someone adept at cryptograms may flounder with math puzzles.

Working together, the angles start lining up.

Another click! You’re picking up steam.

Challenge #3: Look Close. Closer. Closer.

Circle back to Fredericksen, this game’s designer.

What does he look for when designing a game like “The Chauncey Conundrum”? What makes one historical stop more worthy of including in the game than another?

“I looked for things that could be puzzleified,” he says.

Puzzleified?

Sure, he says. Repeating patterns. Curious details. Objects that require close, sustained looking.

Oh. Puzzleified.

Rodriguez-Torrent raises a circular red disk with a few teeth-like holes cut out at seemingly random spots along the edge, and holds it to his eye on College Street.


“We like to get people seeing things,” he says. “You walk by a million times and you don’t really see it.” And then you do.

“Like those really cool curved tiles” across the way, he adds.

Me, I notice the man behind the fence who’s not wearing a tophat.

Click.

Final Challenge: “Always Tweaking”

“The Chauncey Game” does indeed have an end. As does this article.

But in some ways, games like these never quite end, because they’re always changing, Rodriguez-Torrent says.

“We’re always tweaking,” trying to figure out which challenges work best, which tools need some tinkering with.

I looked up at Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall—pondering its domineering neo-Gothic architecture, its past as pre-Yale as The Scientific School.

Rodriguez-Torrent stays close to the sidewalk, bending over the board and box of clues.

“Some of these magnet pieces are too strong,” he says, as he pries at two of the instruction pages.

“You never want to feel like you’re breaking something.”

Mental note: swap in gentler magnets.

Click.

“The Chauncey Game” costs a $79 flat fee to play for two hours. Click here to learn more.

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