Bonsai Sculptures Solution

How It Works

When teams arrived at the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection at Weyerhaeuser headquarters, they were greeted by two Firelake representatives and a table full of custom-made "bonsai trees". Their goal was to determine the message encoded in each tree (the trees were all identical). The teams were instructed to stay at the table until the message was determined. The message was encoded in Morse code, from top to bottom, and counterclockwise around the trunk; it decoded to GO 150.

When they determined the message and communicated it to the Firelake reps, they were invited to explore the bonsai garden and find the symbols affixed to many of the real bonsai's signs. Upon returning to the Firelake desk, they could order a "souvenir" for any particular bonsai tree found in the garden, using the symbol from the bonsai's sign.

The message encoded in the trees on the table (GO 150) led to a specific bonsai in the garden: the Hollywood Juniper, tree number 150. When the symbol (a dollar sign) was ordered at the souvenir shop, one of the trees from the table was broken down into pieces (one "trunk", 14 long "branches", 7 short branches) and handed to the team.

The 14 long pegs had the following letters on the ends in black ink: S M H C A O B T G L N I R E

The 7 short pegs had the following letters on the ends in colored ink: S (red), E (orange), M (yellow), A (green), F (cyan), O (indigo), R (violet).

Additionally, a new trunk was given to the team as well. The new trunk had 14 holes drilled at many angles, and a small stick figure drawing on one end.

Sorting the small pegs in rainbow order spelled out SEMAFOR [sic]. This indicated that the encoding used for the second trunk was semaphore. Either inserting the pegs into the 14 holes in the trunk, or just using fingers, the semaphore decode led to the answer SHIRLEY. The stick figure helped with properly orienting the trunk for semaphore readout. Note that the letters on the long pegs were not used.

The answer, SHIRLEY, led to another bonsai in the garden: Dwarf Scots Pine by Shirley Stafford, tree number 164. The guidebooks present at the facility aided in determining which tree to visit.

Asking for the second symbol at the souvenir shop (a musical note) led to the teams receiving a third trunk, along with seven new branches, a rope with markings on it, and several copies of paper trivia about many trees in the garden. The seven new branches were marked with solid black on the ends. At this time, the teams were instructed to relinquish the small branches from the first trunk, as they were no longer needed.

The paper trivia was the key to properly assembling the branches into the third trunk. The paper trivia matched a letter to a trivia question. Each trivia question led to a specific tree (the guidebook was essential here), and the symbol on that tree's sign was inside one or more holes on the trunk. The branches had letters or solid black paint on the ends.

After the third tree was constructed, the rope was wound around the trunk using the solid black pegs as anchors for the rope. The rope's markings lined up with the ends of the black pegs. This was designed to have a limited amount of "search" potential - you would have to search for the next valid stop on the rope. Correctly matching the rope markings to the black pegs, and writing down the letters crossed by the rope in order produced the answer STAGHORN.

The answer STAGHORN led to another bonsai in the garden: Staghorn Sumac, tree number 160. At the souvenir shop, the teams ordered yet another symbol (a question mark). The teams received a fourth trunk and two more long branches, each with the letter E on the end.

The fourth trunk had the same symbols as the third trunk, except the symbol for the letter E was present in three holes instead of just one (hence the two extra E pegs). The fourth trunk was constructed by trivially moving the pegs from the third trunk into the fourth trunk using the symbols.

At this point, the teams should notice that the fourth trunk has colors painted on the ends. Additionally, they should notice that the first trunk they were given also has similar colored markings on one of its ends (the colors are not visible when the first trunk was sitting on the Firelake table). The team should also notice that some of the holes on the first trunk are drilled all the way through the trunk, while other holes are not.

Matching the colored ends on the first trunk to the fourth trunk, only certain pegs in the fourth trunk show through the fully drilled holes on the first trunk. Writing down the letters that show through, and ignoring solid black pegs that show through, and sorting the letters by the trunk end colors used, the final answer is GAMETREE. Teams called this answer into Game Control and were released to the next location.


Stage 1 solution: GO 150

Stage 2 solution: SHIRLEY

Stage 3 solution: STAGHORN

Stage 4 solution: GAMETREE (this was called into GC)

Design Notes

The trunks were made of 2x2 pine lumber, and the pegs/branches were made of 5/8" oak dowel. A 5/8" forstner bit was used in a drill press to drill the holes in the trunk. Markings for the pegs and trunks were made with black Sharpie markers and colored tempera poster paints.

This puzzle was beta tested at least 4 times, and small revisions were made in the puzzle as a result.

The stage 2 trunk originally had 21 holes, including a row of 7 holes where the SEMAFOR pegs would be placed. The idea was to use the short pegs as the orientation for the other 14 long pegs. However, it was not obvious why these 7 pegs should go in the 7 holes drilled for them. Additionally, they did not provide a complete orientation hint - it merely reduced the possibilities down to 4 (the short pegs could be up or down, and the trunk could be read back-to-front or front-to-back).

The 7 holes for the short pegs were eliminated, which reduced confusion and reduced construction time as well. The stick character (named "Lieutenant Cluebat" by Nick) provided what we thought would be an unambiguous orientation hint. The need for an orientation hint was somewhat controversial; some designers thought that teams could simply try different orientations until a valid message was produced (the wrong orientations did not produce valid semaphore letters for all 7 patterns). Our beta testing experiences indicated that teams that had been awake and puzzling for over 24 hours at that point might not be able to handle this task, and the decision was made to strongly hint the orientation to move the puzzle along at this stage.

The original rope path for the third stage was deemed too ambiguous and difficult during testing; many teams failed to get STAGHORN. In particular, the letter H and beyond was hard to obtain due to construction tolerances in the rope.

The rope path was simplified and the decision was made to handmake each rope to a matched set of trunks and pegs. This was why the trunks and bags were individually labeled - to keep a certain set of pegs and rope with a certain set of trunks.

During testing, the rope turned out to be a distraction when solving the fourth stage. We decided to take away the rope for the fourth stage. Unfortunately, we forgot to do this during the event.

Construction tolerances for the holes turned out to be much more exact than anticipated. The prototype was hand drilled, while the 15-set build for the game was mass manufactured on a drill press. It turned out that the holes were exactly the same size as the dowels, and the dowels varied in diameter by abut 1/32". The result was that many of the dowels could not be inserted into the trunk holes without a great deal of force.

Several solutions were proposed, including hand-sanding all 450 dowels (each dowel took about 5-10 minutes to sand by hand). The solution that ended up working the best was hand-sanding out the holes on the trunks with a Dremel tool and sanding drum. The Dremel tool allowed the work to go very quickly, despite the fact that there was 1,027 holes to sand. One complication was that the symbol stickers had already been inserted into the holes, so temporary plastic squares were dropped into each hole to protect the sticker from the high speed Dremel sanding drum attachment.

GC Notes

Two staffers turned out to be sufficient for the event. Had the teams been bunched up more, more staffers would have been required, because there was a lot of interaction that had to be done with each team.

A few staff mistakes were made, but none were serious. One team did not receive the paper trivia with the stage 3 trunk, and received it a few minutes later (an "oh shit" moment for the staff). One team received another stage 2 trunk instead of the stage 3 trunk, and spent about 20 minutes trying to figure out what to do before they asked for a correction (the team got a time credit for this).

We forgot to take away the rope from all teams for the fourth stage. The rope was probably a distraction, but it did not prevent any team from solving the puzzle.

The adhesive on the symbol stickers used on the bonsai signs turned out to be a very strong adhesive, and the stickers did not cleanly separate from the signs at the end of the event. It took about 30 frantic minutes for the staffers to clean 40 signs.