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We start by identifying what pictures we can. On the first line of the first page we have a phoenix, a lion, a conversion of lead to gold that seems likely to indicate alchemy, a coconut chocolate bar (which is a Bounty), some guns, a camouflaged ship, some kind of device, an axe, a helicopter-like thing, and a snake. On the second line we have a strike in ten-pin bowling, a shuriken, Icarus, a spraycan, a double helix, a pointing finger, some weapons on a wall, a cannon, a grave, and a black hole.
The images on other pages are perhaps less clear, but we can see a vacuum, a tornado, a screenshot from one of the Doom games, a razor, a mirror, a representation of chakras, and an anchor.
At this point, players of a certain game will have spotted the connection, but otherwise throwing enough of those terms into a search engine will reveal it: These are all related to the names of heroes or skills used in the game Dota 2. This reveals the connection to the title, as "Dota" stands for "Defense of the Ancients".
With this connection in mind, we can find a list of heroes and their skills and fully identify the items on the first page. The Dota 2 heroes page is particularly helpful here. In the process, we find out that the top line corresponds to heroes, and the bottom line to skills of those heroes, and we can identify the items that may have been unclear: The picture of guns represents silencers, the ship is in dazzle camouflage, the device is an Enigma machine, the flying vehicle is specifically a gyrocopter, and the snake is a viper.
Pairing up the heroes with their skills, then indexing into those skills by the number above the corresponding hero, we get the following when we use the order of the skills:
|Bounty Hunter||Shuriken Toss||5||I|
|Lion||Finger of Death||1||F|
|Silencer||Glaives of Wisdom||4||I|
Slotting these letters into the provided spaces below spells out T.I. SIX FINAL. This refers to The International 2016, the sixth of the Dota 2 championships. The grand final of that was played between the teams Digital Chaos and Wings Gaming. (As a meaningless coincidence, we could also fill the provided spaces with D.C. AND WINGS, the two shortened names of the teams.)
On the next page, we see a reversal of format: Doom and Razor are heroes, not skills (although Doom also has a skill named Doom). So the heroes are on the bottom half in each section, and the skills are on top. This makes sense with the green and red outlines, as we will see. In the game, each team gets to choose five heroes with which to play, and also to ban five heroes so that nobody may use them. The top section thus corresponds to heroes that were picked, while the bottom section corresponds to heroes that were banned.
Looking at the games in the grand final, we see that these selections all belong to the second game, with Wings Gaming being green and Digital Chaos being red. This enables us to identify all the heroes involved (most of which do not have easy representations in pictorial format, and thus were left as question marks), and from that to find corresponding skills. Some items may need explanation:
This time we want to order by the skills and take the index into the hero names, giving us the following results:
|Hand of God||Chen||2||H|
|Call of the Wild: Hawk||Beastmaster||8||S|
|Time Dilation||Faceless Void||5||L|
|Soul Catcher||Shadow Demon||6||W|
|Precision Aura||Drow Ranger||7||N|
|Earth Splitter||Elder Titan||7||I|
|Mirror Image||Naga Siren||3||G|
|Chakra Magic||Keeper of the Light||4||P|
|Eye of the Storm||Razor||3||Z|
The message formed is ECHO SLAM WINNING PRIZE. This refers to the match-winning moment from the grand final of The International 5, where strategic use of the skill echo slam was key in all but destroying the opposition team and winning the game. IGN has a good article that explains all about it, but for this puzzle all that is needed is the amount of prize money earned by the winning team (Evil Geniuses) as a result.
That total, and the solution to this puzzle, was SIX MILLION DOLLARS. The more specific alternatives of SIX MILLION US DOLLARS, SIX MILLION DOLLARS US, and US SIX MILLION DOLLARS were also accepted.
Additionally, despite the many headlines reporting the result shouting that the team won "$6 million", the actual prize money was $6,616,014. If a team did scrupulous research before trying their answer, and entered SIXMILIONSIXHUNDREDSIXTENTHOUSANDANDFOURTEENDOLLARS (or some variant thereof), we didn't want the answer server to just tell them they were wrong. So we coded it to respond to any answer containing the key phrase "SIXMILLION" (indicating the team had essentially solved the puzzle), with a message saying they were close, but to round their answer down. As it turned out, this evidently caused some confusion to teams who simply entered SIXMILLION, only to be told to round down. Fortunately, we think every such team quickly realised the problem and tried SIXMILLIONDOLLARS.
The idea for this puzzle began when I noticed that many Dota 2 heroes and abilities could be represented by otherwise unrelated pictures. Lion <-> Finger and Razor <-> Eye were the first pairings considered. The International 2015 came and went, and after watching the Six Million Dollar Echo Slam and the ensuing memes and articles, I knew what I wanted my final clue phrase to be.
My original attempts at putting together a secondary mechanic were unsuccessful. I wanted the solver to correctly identify game 4 from the 2015 TI, but didn't know how to clue it without giving a pretty big hint for what the final answer was. I also (mistakenly) thought that I needed to represent every hero with a picture, which was impossible. As I'd been working on the puzzle in secret, and the group postponed the puzzle competition for another year, I quietly shelved it...
Fast forward to 2016, the puzzle competition was confirmed as going ahead and still needed puzzles. I reluctantly admitted I had been working on a puzzle idea, but I needed help. This is where Tim came on board and discussions with him provided crucial insights:
Firstly, the final draft didn't need all heroes clued. In fact, they needed to be missing so that identifying the draft would fill in the missing information. We weren't sure what the optimal number would be, but ended up providing pictures for all the heroes we could (just Razor or Doom would have been enough to uniquely identify the draft from the four games)
Secondly, the draft didn't need to be from 2015. Having another year pass by gave the perspective to realise that cluing a draft from a different year would separate the first clue phrase from the final answer. This was also when we settled on an initial clue phrase of TI ONE/TWO/SIX FINAL.
This was when I became stuck again, as there was no 'Z' in any of the hero skills for these drafts to form ECHO SLAM WINNING PRIZE. David Morgan-Mar, who is a much more experienced puzzle designer, pointed out that, "There's a 'Z' in Razor, silly", which resulted in the swap of indexing into the hero names for the second phase.
The first clue phrase was quickly confirmed feasible, and in fact had so much freedom that as a final twist I chose unique indexing numbers as an intentional red herring.
If I could do it again:
I would have tried to make the pictures for the second phase abilities more ambiguous, as we wanted identifying the missing heroes from the draft to be a crucial step. For example, we went to great pains to locate a picture of sprinters that did not have Usain Bolt prominently featured, when in hindsight a Sprint/Bolt ambiguity would have been good. As it was, if the abilities were all successfully identified the clue phrase could have been extracted.
This was my first puzzle, and I hope I was successful in producing one with a different kind of hidden mechanic. It was unapologetically biased towards a younger generation - hopefully, if your group's missing millennials, you'll encourage some to tag along next time. ;)
Many thanks to Tim and David Morgan-Mar for help in puzzle design, in concept, sourcing a large number of the images, and compositing the final PDF. Thanks to Steven and Geoff for testing the puzzle mechanics were sound, and additionally thanks to Geoff for writing the excellent solution above. And finally, thanks to Loki for solving the puzzle with minimal hints, despite knowing absolutely nothing about Dota.
We took some efforts to ensure this puzzle could be solvable without any prior knowledge about DOTA. Once we’d decided to clue heroes and abilities using images, we created a list of every hero in the game. We assigned each hero a rating of how “directly” an image would suggest that hero’s name. Our goal was that Page 1 would contain simpler image-to-name associations, so that puzzlers could confidently work out a few words, and via websearching discover the DOTA theme and the core puzzle mechanic of matching heroes to their abilities. A bit of ambiguity is fine (and even quite fun), and we hoped puzzlers would get a sense of satisfaction when they realised that snake was actually a viper. For Page 1, we then repeated this process for the abilities of the more easily clued heroes, and selected appropriate abilities that contained appropriate letters for forming "T.I. SIX FINAL".
Page 2 developed the hero/ability association mechanic further, but by now we assumed puzzlers were looking out for DOTA heroes and abilities. Therefore we were willing to be a bit less direct with our clues. For example, "Oracle" was clued by the grounds of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi — slightly more recognisable than artworks of the Pythia, the oracle herself. Some heroes implied by the draft, such as Mirana, did not have workable clues, so we gladly replaced them with question marks. Hopefully this would indicate that these hero names had to come from some alternative source.
On a final note, we hope that any puzzlers already familiar with DOTA had a thrill of delight when they realised the theme!