2021 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 3: Some Puzzles and Some Final Thoughts

(This is a recap/review of the 2021 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened this month. Puzzles and solutions can currently be found here. This recap may contain spoilers.)

Some puzzles are not metapuzzles. In the puzzling community, we eloquently call these puzzlesthatarenotmetapuzzles. In alphabetical order, here are some of those I wanted to comment on:

Analog Circuitry

I joined this puzzle late, when it was one of three puzzles bottlenecking our progress in the Basketball round. Teammates had already figured out which color combos created the correct subwords, and they’d worked out about half of the gate actions, but I noticed that most of the identified actions weren’t clearly related to the type of gate (AND, OR, XOR, etc.). I found that a bunch of them were bitwise actions on the letters, and also hypothesized that the wire colors told us whether the outputs were valid words. That was enough for us to work out two of the three final outputs and infer the answer.

The main reason I wanted to bring this puzzle up is to highlight just how much the definition of a Hunt puzzle has changed. Back in 2007, I wrote Transmogrifiers, a puzzle in a somewhat similar spirit that asked solvers to analyze the results of applying sequences of functions to letter strings. Fourteen years later, this puzzle has better presentation, asks solvers to do way more, and is much more satisfying. Sometimes I think the entire 2000 Hunt would count as one puzzle in 2021.

Cafe Five

I definitely wandered into a Cafe Five session without initially knowing other people were working on it and that it was a shared instance. Unlike some other puzzles (like Divided Is You), it’s fortunately pretty hard to break; I guess I could have gotten really confused and spent all of our comps.

Anyway, once we actually connected with the rest of the group, this was tense but super fun! A lot of my personal puzzle strength lies in being able to solve a wide variety of puzzle types very quickly, and it’s fun to keep switching back and forth between those different sides of my brain. It was a little frustrating to repeatedly have to abandon logic puzzles because we broke them or their time was going to run out; I was involved in two runs, I don’t think we ever got President Reif to pay for his food.

Circular Reasoning

What a great puzzle! The concept is fairly simple, but the execution seems like it was not at all easy for the constructor(s), and given the constraints, the cycles (including the DELTA &lit) all seemed to be pulled off pretty well. And I feel like I’ve now had the same post-solve conversation with folks on half a dozen teams: “So, did you do a search at some point for words with an alphanumeric sum of 44?”

A Collection of Conundrums and Riddles

I joined this puzzle after some teammates had already done the initial steps, including locating the relevant Riddler column. My main contribution was letting everyone know that Bloomberg also has a weekly puzzle column, and that we needed to look at that too. I read both columns sporadically, but somehow hadn’t seen either in advance, and it boggles my mind that both of these (plus the Stata meta crossword) were blatantly signed Barbara Yew; that was a great “this is relevant” confirmation, but I’m surprised that they were out there in advance with a character name that had been pre-advertised.

And apparently we were not the only team that saw “Barbara S. Yew” all over the place and were absolutely convinced that the theme was going to be Baba Is You… to the point where we streamed some gameplay in a social Zoom on Thursday night to introduce it to Setec members who weren’t familiar with it. And yet we still didn’t solve Divided Is You during Hunt.

Filler Puzzle

A bunch of us descended on this all at once after the coin was found and our projection squad unlocked the unexpected bucket of kilo puzzles. At first the answers to the clues appeared to all be three letters (that’s a lot of work to clue EON), but other late ones were clearly longer. We spent a long time looking for flat-style pairings, until someone ID’d one of the names (Theda BARA, maybe?) and we all realized we were dealing with a pile of crosswordese in search of a crossword.

My initial theory was that unlike a normal crossword with mostly good entries and some filler, this grid would be filled with mostly filler and some good entries, which is where the extraction would arise. In fact, when we came to the answer, the fact that it was centrally placed made us confident enough to call it in, which means we never filled in the bottom half of the grid. So that was a lot of unnecessary image identification on the back end.

For Your Eyes Only

I mentioned above in my Cafe Five comments that I’m a sucker for a decathlon (or in this case, triskadeikathlon?) of straightforward mindbenders. I noticed this puzzle was available with nothing in our spreadsheet and asked why no one had done anything, and someone on our team said they’d tried it (and described the general idea) but that they needed to know a lot of codes that they didn’t know. Earlier, before I knew about this puzzle, someone on our team had wondered if the intention of the puzzle was for participants to cheat, so they wrote and asked, and we were definitively told not to. And thank god for that.

Some background: Many of you know that I teach college math for a living. (Fun fact: As I write this, I’m watching an episode of Veep where a character declared that math teachers are terrorists! We’re not.) Exam cheating has always been a disheartening issue, and by disheartening, I mean the single worst aspect of my job. When I created and ran the alt-vocab memorization task Eggsam from the 2014 Hunt, someone showed off in a blog entry that they’d come in with a crib sheet on the inside of a water bottle, and it infuriated me. Since college courses moved online for the pandemic, academic dishonesty has unfortunately become a lot more common across the country; it was incredibly demoralizing over the course of the fall semester, and I’m pretty sure that if a Hunt puzzle had intentionally been about trying to cheat on an online test, it would have broken me and I would have had a much worse opinion of this Hunt as a whole.

So anyway, I was glad to hear that this was a legitimate mental challenge, and it sounded like a blast, so I jumped into the Zoom. On my first run, I was able to solve six mini-puzzles; I actually might have gotten more, but at six I was afraid I was starting to forget the previous answers (not only could you not write things down or look at references to solve puzzles, you also couldn’t write your answers down) so I decided to leave, record what I had, and come back for the rest in 30 minutes when we were allowed to send a representative again. I didn’t notice until I wrote down the answers that the vowels were all binary, and I almost got the right answer right there; I misremembered the total number of puzzles, thought that the answer was ??EINS????O?E?, and called in THE INSIDE COVER. So close…

Going into my second visit and knowing I just needed to know the binary bits, I memorized the Braille and Semaphore for I and O, but I came in at Puzzle 2 (right before a run of four answers I already knew). This meant I had some time to hang around, during which I saw the other solver present clearly looking back and forth at the screen and some kind of reference off-screen; they didn’t seem to be hiding it, so it seemed like they might not have understood the rules. The proctor clearly also saw this, and looked really uncomfortable about how to react. Ostensibly they were there to prevent this behavior, but they looked like the last thing they wanted to do was to confront them. Running Mystery Hunt is a lot of work, and seeing people solve your puzzles should be fun, not massively uncomfortable.

Anyway, my point of all this is that if you cheated at For Your Eyes Only, bite me.

Fun With Sudoku

Loved this puzzle! My eye was drawn to the skyscrapers first, which reminded me a lot of some of the circulant Latin squares I studied for the last math research project I worked on (a talk about minimal Futoshiki cluing for the 2012 Joint Meetings, which, the discrete math fanboy in me has to point out, was cited by Don Knuth). I was able to calculate the correct number of solutions for that puzzle, and I warned Matt, one of our tech gurus who was thinking of auto-solving the individual puzzles, that they would likely have more than one solution, and we might need to count them. He said he could do that by computer too, but I saw the thermo and warned him, no, some of these may have a LOT of solutions. (In that case, probably close to one-sixth of all sudoku solutions.)

While Jackie and I worked on the late puzzles, Matt wrote a program to successfully count the solutions to the first two, though for the third and fourth he just wrote something like “More than 5000.” Then we had two breakthroughs: figuring out that the parentheticals in the final puzzles represented digits, and realizing that if we could figure out what proportion of all sudoku solutions we needed, the total number of sudoku solutions is known and could be altered rather than building the number from the ground up. Jackie, TK, and I worked on the metasudoku while we generated givens and were making steady process, while Matt was working on a solver for the last puzzle; once we had two-thirds of the givens, we were down to under fifty options, and Matt was able to pull the one that generated a word.

While I’d like to think we could have done the math to solve this by hand if we used to, I really enjoyed the teamwork of hacking away at parts of this with programming and parts of it with math; we solved this at a time when we were stalled on a lot of puzzles and I wasn’t feeling very productive, and solving this was fun (as advertised) and revitalizing.

Slithe[rlinks]-1

I hate to end on a sour note, but alphabetical order demands it. Jackie and I spent hours solving the slitherlinks on Mobius strips, and that part of the puzzle was great… but we were 100% unable to read the intended letters off of the correct hexagons, and even after seeing what they’re supposed to spell, I can barely read the letters. It doesn’t help that it’s not clear whether you’re meant to read all the fronts then all the backs or front-back-front-back, and how the resulting hexes should be oriented. Given how difficult it is to read the letters, you shouldn’t be trying to read them off of six different hypothetical hexagon sequences. Great puzzle idea, but the execution did not work for me.

Conclusion

Thus concludes my ramblings on Mystery Hunt, and in a sense concludes an incredible year of puzzlehunt content (yes, I know it’s January, but there’s a sizable gap coming up on the puzzlehunt calendar). It’s been frustrating not to have live puzzling events like BAPHL and the NPL convention and of course the Mystery Hunt, as well as not being able to have parties to solve any of the online events with friends in person. But from Penny Park to now, we’ve had two excellent (if overstuffed) Mystery Hunts, as well as great smaller events ranging from Puzzle Boat to Puzzles are Magic to Teammate Hunt to Puzzle Potluck to CRUMS to REDDOT to Labor Day to CMU to UMD. This has been a terrible period for the world, but puzzle folks have worked hard to create excellent content, and I want to thank everybody who’s provided content in the COVID era. Here’s hoping life gets better and puzzles stay awesome.

2021 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 2: Metas in the Time of Corona

(This is a recap/review of the 2021 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened this month. Puzzles and solutions can currently be found here. This recap may contain spoilers.)

Here are some comments on some memorable puzzles I worked on in this year’s Hunt (memorable because I liked them, or found them frustrating, or have interesting stores about them, etc.). Naturally it doesn’t include everything I solved or tried to solve. Let’s start with metapuzzles, shall we?

Random Hall

This was a great example of a metapuzzle that was likely inspired by the theme (in this case the dorm name), rather than an independent idea wedged into a round. By the time I looked at it, Philip had already associated the four answers we had with distributions and worked out which columns corresponded to which distributions (with which parameters) but his indices were giving garbage because we were trying to use two letters every time there were two parameters. Eventually I noticed that if we only used the max for our second uniform distribution, we could make the answer end in SPONGES, which felt like a good fit for the meta prompt. But then we were trying to use just the max for all of the uniform spots; eventually it dawned on us that each of the two-parameter disributions happened to occur twice, and we did the right thing and solved with 4/6. Three cheers for a random data generator puzzle that didn’t give me significant Fifty Fifty PTSD.

A while later, Jackie and I returned to the puzzle to try to backsolve the remaining answers and came up with HABITUAL, but then we found that we had solved the puzzle with that answer about twenty minutes after solving the meta… I’m not sure if that was done forward or backward. (Our wild guess for Beta was PRODUCTION PHASE, which was not too far off.)

Student Center

I wasn’t very involved in the other dorm feeder metas… the Dorm Row metas were solved by a bunch of folks in a breakout room that tore through them in sequence like a chainsaw cutting through a sequence of metapuzzles, and I spent a lot of time brainstorming on East Campus without much success. I did get involved with the group working on the overall Student Center, and when someone suggested elements (I forget what got us there, because I’m not sure we noticed the earth/wind/air/fire motif), I immediately came up with what a bunch of the clubs might represent, and in particular, suggesting that the Honor Society might be noble gases was a good way to confirm both the name-length concept and the mechanics for some of the other clubs.

I thought the matching process was just the right difficulty (we made steady progress without feeling stuck, partially through good use of the column filter function on Google Sheets to view all of the students in a certain club), and the extraction worked the way we expected, once we remembered we had a bunch of sets of four students to work with. My only complaint is that, as a Senior Haus alum, I wanted some kind of Sport Death reference to show up in the overall meta answer and hijack the proceedings. (Thanks for putting us in the scavenger hunt, at least.)

Athletics (Basketball, Athletics)

This was probably my most significant contribution to meta solving and thus to our team’s progress. Jeff and I were around when the Basketball meta got opened (thanks to a solve of You Will Explode, I believe), and after brainstorming ideas, I made the prescient comment, “If I were a bunch of nerds who didn’t know anything about basketball, and I had to write a meta about basketball, it would be about Space Jam.” I thought I was joking, but fortunately I checked the Wikipedia article to see which players were in Space Jam, and the teams matching up (including a little Hornets jersey for Muggsy Bogues) confirmed that we were clearly on the right track. I assumed there was a way to match the answers to Nerdlucks, but we never found the hidden characters; we just looked for ways to place the answers so that the index numbers weren’t too high (we were missing the longest answer from Divided Is You that could have gone anywhere), and once we got an SQU at the beginning, we were off to the races.

Since that was our third sports meta solve (you know, in 2007 when we wrote a sports-themed round, people yelled at us), we then opened Athletics, and noticing the unusual letters at the beginnings of answers plus the 5×5 grid, we got to Playfair square pretty quickly. Once we noticed the prime/square/gaps element in the feeder metas, we were able to deduce that the Z must go somewhere in the keyword, somebody noticed that PUZLE would fit nicely (they said it would if PUZZLE only had one Z, but I remembered how you deal with repeated letters in a Playfair keyword), and we managed to get PUZZLE NAMES and then decode our way to the answer with about four missing answers.

Putting everything in the right place in the Playfair felt like a series of leaps of faith… We knew after solving Basketball that we had skipped a step, and I thought it was likely that we skipped one for Athletics too that might tell us in what order we should fill in the primes, squares, etc. But judging from the wrap-up, we were supposed to do the off-the-cuff grid filling that we did. Considering that, this meta feels quite hard to me. Even though it didn’t take us that long once we had it open, I’m curious how this played for other teams.

Giga/Kilo/Milli/Nano

As noted in my previous post, we never made it past the Giga level before it was pity-unlocked for us once Palindrome found the coin. (A member of my team would like to correct me and say that some people did consider that the goal might be to backsolve, but I know that as recently as Sunday I was still saying I didn’t know where we’d submit the answer if we did solve the meta, and nobody corrected me and said the goal was to somehow “solve” Twins. We did understand roughly how the Rule of Three meta should work, and we’d even considered TWIX as a possible feeder answer, which for some reason we called in for two of our unsolved puzzles and yet not the one it actually went with.

When I woke up on Monday morning, we were down to a couple of puzzles (one of which, the Super Mario Maker puzzle, I solved after applying rested eyes to someone else’s partial data; by the way, we did have some team members with MM2, but on principle, throttling a team for hours because they don’t own a particular video game is not cool), and this meta, so in the end everybody was looking at it at the same time. Our big problem was that we essentially refused to move the arrows to positions that didn’t start in the circle’s center… we rotated and scaled all over the place, but didn’t translate them until we got a hint (which suggested “moving” them, which was general enough that it convinced us not to just rotate). I feel like we should have figured this out on our own for two reasons. First, one of the arrows is too long to point to anything from the center; we thought this meant we had to rescale it or point to somewhere else as a final answer, but we should have noticed it was small enough to point from one part of the seal to another. And second, I had already recorded my first multivariable calculus lecture for the semester, which explicitly talked about how the starting point of a vector could be relocated while still representing the same vector.

One of the possible rotations of the arrows sends the long arrow through the Y on the seal and lands on the Harvard Bridge. And of course, even though the bridge is outside the One.MIT circle, there is a name on it. So Galactic, if you’re wondering why you got a few guesses for answers starting with T and associated with Oliver Smoot, that’s what happened.

Clusters

This was the second of the two metapuzzles we had left on Sunday night, and it got solved overnight with help from a hint. This hint mainly just shook us loose from two blind alleys we had hurtled ourselves down to varying degrees. One was noticing (correctly) that the first letters of the puzzle titles were A-G, and instead of viewing this as early entries in two alphabets, some of us decided we should somehow apply flats and sharps to them to form a chromatic scale. I was pretty skeptical of this, although some teammates made the point that “clusters” can refer to a bunch of notes that are close together.

The other was convincing ourselves that the grid-like map of the institute should be used as some sort of crossword grid for entering something (likely the translated answers, which started generating right away). I think I suggested this first and was willing to abandon it, but when someone pointed out that mousing over the puzzles on the round page lit up cluster locations on the grid, it seemed like there was no way we should ignore this setup. Until someone submitted a hint request, and we were basically told that two of the things we were staring at were irrelevant for solving.

There are two entertaining takeaways from this: (1) Our Clusters solve was impacted by tunnel vision, but as far as I’m aware, we had no cluster vision problem on our Tunnels solve. And (2) Setec got stuck on a late meta partially because we DID notice a mouse-over feature on the website. (Revel in that, 2005 Hunters.)

This is getting pretty long already, so I’ll upload what I have and save the non-metapuzzles for a third post.

2021 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 1: Whoosh Big Picture Pros and Cons Nyeeeow

(This is a recap/review of the 2021 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened this month. Puzzles and solutions can currently be found here. This recap may contain spoilers.)

I’ve gotten some sleep now. Disclaimer: I want to get some Mystery Hunt posts on the record (and give people a forum to comment on the Hunt if this is where they want to do that), but after that, Puzzlvaria will likely be mostly dark for a while. Brown’s semester begins today, so I’m kicking off another period of online teaching, which is challenging in itself, but we’re also expecting a baby boy in March, which will make things exponentially harder.

How parenting will ultimately affect my puzzlehunt bandwidth is certainly not the biggest concern when it comes to raising a child… but for me, it’s not the smallest one either. I’m sure that balance will come up as a topic moving forward on this blog. But for the immediate future, my sporadic posting schedule will probably become even more sporadic. The upcoming puzzlehunt calendar is a lot leaner than in recent months anyway, so there may not be as much to cover.

This year’s Mystery Hunt was a monumental achievement on multiple levels. Even without the constraints of the pandemic, there were some excellent puzzles and metapuzzles, and the “projection device” MMO is the kind of big idea that I would have vetoed out of the gate for being completely unfeasible. Certainly, when we solved the opening meta and watched the video explaining the projection device, my instinctive reaction was, “This is going to crash constantly.” But to Galactic’s credit, apart from some hiccups when the device was time unlocked and thousands of people gained access at once, the thing worked pretty consistently, and certainly more reliably than Cyberpunk 2077. It was also not just a collection of bells and whistles spread on top of a “traditional” Hunt, with unlocks/events/runarounds happening within the virtual world in a variety of creative ways (although I didn’t become aware of a lot of these until wrap-up, which is an issue I’ll talk about). And even though Galactic’s MMO idea pre-dated the need to put the Hunt entirely online, ultimately it allowed for the best possible remote Hunt experience, especially with all the loving MIT-specific detail invested into the virtual campus.

Back in the day, there was a rule of thumb that teams should consider not totally reinventing the wheel in their first Mystery Hunt, since Hunts are hard to write without introducing unpredictable variables, and then experiment if/when they win again. In a certain sense, Old School Setec (2000/2002), New School Setec (2017/2019), Random/Metaphysical Plant (2006/2011), and Evil Midnight (2007/2009) all did this, with the level of second-hunt innovation relative to the era. Left Out made bold choices out of the gate last year (at least in terms of round structure), and Galactic made even bolder ones, and both were astonishingly successful.

I plan to talk about some puzzles and metapuzzles I participated in solving (and have opinions about) in a later post, but while I’m in big-picture mode, I want to take a deep dive on two concerns I had about this Hunt (and perhaps past and future Hunts), despite being so impressed by it; one, which Galactic had minimal control over, is isolation, and the other, which they did, is Hunt size.

Isolation

Setec usually has a handful of remote solvers, but not enough to warrant full audio/video chat capabilities; in recent years for both solving and writing, we’ve used Slack for most discussion, and an organizational platform wired into both Google Sheets and Slack channels. In a typical year, most of this is intended to make sure information doesn’t get lost between solving sessions, and to allow people to look at and edit spreadsheets on their own screens, although in a lot of cases those people are across the table from each other and can actually speak in meatspace.

For this year, we used Slack plus Zoom, with most of our co-solving interactions happening in breakout rooms. Shifting puzzle-solving from in-person to breakout rooms has a lot of the same drawbacks as shifting classroom math collaboration from in-person to breakout rooms. When you’re in your portion of a physical room, you hear a lot of ambient noise from other groups; that noise can be distracting, but it also makes you aware that other groups are doing things, and as an instructor, I rely on that general sound of the room to know whom I should probably check on. But in a breakout room, you have zero A/V from other groups until you leave the room, so it’s like erecting a ton of completely impenetrable walls in the middle of your HQ. There were a few times when Jackie and I jumped into a breakout room to work on a logic puzzle, and after an hour I’d realize that the entire team could have given up and gone home and we wouldn’t notice, because they were totally invisible to us from inside the breakout room. It was hard to feel part of a team at those times, and I’d sometimes park myself in our Zoom “lobby” just for the human contact.

There was also a self-inflicted element to this isolation; early in the period that the projection device was available, I puttered around the Green Building for a few minutes, unlocked a couple of puzzles, but then swooped on some puzzles and didn’t really look back much. Then throughout the rest of Hunt I heard people saying there were puzzles available to unlock or “field goals” that needed to be done, but I always figured these would be more easily carried about by people who had been paying attention to the projection world, and I should stick to what I’m good at, puzzles. Bu this means that just like I couldn’t hear what was going on in the other breakout rooms, I couldn’t hear what was happening inside the projection device. For me it was mostly a black box… other people went in, puzzles came out. And as someone who usually thrives on having a good mental picture of how the Hunt fits together, I frequently did not.

During the endgame, I actually did have a reason to walk around the projection device, and I found it a lot more user-friendly than I’d expected. I think it still would have been tough to be an “unlocker” without diverting a lot of “traditional” puzzle-solving time to navigating PerpIW. I’m still not sure if I would have been happier making that trade, but my experiences certainly left me feeling like I was missing big chunks of the Hunt. And I’m curious how things were for a small casual team that couldn’t devote some people to navigation and others to puzzle-solving. Though for such a team, I imagine there were bigger problems, with emphasis on “big”…

Hunt Size

Devoted Puzzlvarians will remember that I was shell-shocked by my experience of not finishing the 2020 Hunt, and while I thought said Hunt was very well-written, I also thought it was too long. Setec did finish the 2021 Hunt, although we cut it about as close as one could, finishing our last meta (Giga/Nano) at around 9:30am ET on Monday, before the cutoff time of 10am. So did finishing this year make me feel like the size was better calibrated? Nope. In 2020, on Sunday evening when Hunt wrapped up, we were stuck on one meta where we’d solved a big chunk of the round (Cascade Bay) and one where we’d only scratched the surface (Cactus Canyon). This year, we really only finished because none of us had to travel home, and we were able to solve (in shifts, of course) through Monday morning. As for Sunday evening, we were stuck on… one meta where we’d solved a big chunk of the round (Clusters) and one where we’d only scratched the surface. As it happened, we didn’t know about the surface-scratching part until Palindrome found the coin, since we didn’t understand the Giga structure and had no idea there were additional levels below it. We were apparently not the only team to have this issue.

So in a typical year, this Hunt would have run just as “long” as last year’s, and Galactic wouldn’t have come close to their goal of 10+ teams finishing, though that goal may have been based on a hunt-until-Monday assumption.

I’ve been spending a lot of time yammering in the Puzzlers Club Discord recently, and there was an interesting brief discussion of the “epochs” that the Mystery Hunt can be separated into. There’s innovation in every Hunt, but I argued that the key turning points for me are 1998 (rounds and unlocking rather than having all the puzzles at once), 2002 (structure heavily influenced by theme), 2009 (significant variation of structure between rounds), and 2018 (Hunt size and completion time go way up). The more I think about this, the more I think there were two big influences to the Hunt blowing up from 2018 on.

One was, of course, the 2017 Hunt and teams not wanting to repeat the surprise of having a team find the coin Saturday morning. (I know many teams were totally fine with the 2017 Hunt and the fact that it allowed way more teams to reach the endgame. I personally would have liked it to run a bit longer for the top teams, and whether you agree with that or not, having the coin found way before the construction team expects is not the best experience.) Another was the fact that Galactic Puzzle Hunt debuted in 2017; I believe this was a direct result of the 2017 Hunt, since Galactic found themselves with a free Sunday to start writing a kickass puzzle hunt.

The Mystery Hunt always had something of a reputation for puzzle types and interactivity and nefariousness that didn’t show up in any other puzzle hunts (there are immersive puzzle experiences that only show up in The Game, but those feel extreme on a different axis). I believe that GPH was the first online hunt to really start pushing that envelope. It showed you could have online puzzles with crazy procedurally generated elements (man, do I love Ministry of Word Searches) and teamwide interactivity and messing with expectations like team standings and answer submission. Teammate did a great job in their hunt this fall following in those footsteps, and even hunts like the My Little Pony hunt and Puzzle Potluck did ambitious things this year with metapuzzles and structure and plot twists. (Incidentally, have I told people to solve UMD Puzzlehunt from a few weeks ago? Run, don’t walk. It was excellent and came totally out of left field.)

Anyway, I love GPH and hope it will continue to push boundaries in its own lovely way. But as it pushes boundaries, the expectation of what can only happen in Mystery Hunt gets higher, both in terms of individual puzzle complexity and scope of the Hunt itself. And between that and teams erring on the side of not ending too quickly, recent Hunts have only been solvable in a weekend if your team is huge. And then your huge team feels like it needs to cater to other huge teams, and pretty soon there are only half a dozen teams that are really in contention not just to win, but even to see the whole Hunt.

I’m very curious about the experience of small casual teams (especially student teams new to puzzling) in this Hunt. I had a great time, but I had 59 teammates handling the bits I couldn’t or didn’t have the time for. This Hunt had a very friendly opening round that I’d expect small teams to be able to handle, but by Friday evening everybody had been thrown into the deep end, and the organization of what was ahead did not become clear for quite a while. 112 teams solved a metapuzzle, which is fantastic, but did those teams feel like they really experienced this Hunt? Maybe they did, and I hope they did. But at the current trajectory of Hunt size, I’m not sure a team off the street can make a dent in the puzzle structure, and that’s not great for sustainability (both from a writing perspective, and from a perspective of serving the Hunt’s intended audience, and as much as the puzzling community would like to claim ownership, as long as MIT is hosting the event, that audience is the MIT community and especially MIT students).

Okay, I think I’ve said enough controversial stuff to get people sniping at each other in the comments. I’ll post at least once more talking about puzzles I liked (and at least one that I literally ripped into tiny pieces out of frustration). For now, tell us what you thought about Hunt and/or about my thoughts if you’d like to. And somebody generate the team progress vs. guessing graph, because I’m sure I’ll have opinions about that again! (Five minutes? You call that throttling?)

Checking In, Recent & Upcoming Events

Last time I posted, I said the new WordPress interface would take some getting used to. Then I didn’t post for three months, so I clearly didn’t get used to it. (My absence has not been due to an inability to use this website, and it certainly hasn’t been due to a lack of quality puzzle events… teaching in 2020 is a draining experience, and I’ve rarely felt relaxed enough to type hundreds of words about puzzling.)

I’m mostly checking in to mention two events in the next two weeks that might fly under the radar since they’re not written by well-known constructors. Tomorrow night marks the beginning of Daro & Caro’s Pixar Puzzle Hunt, which is advertised as 15ish puzzles and a meta for teams of 3-6. I don’t know the authors and have no idea how strong the puzzles will be, but some friends and I have a regular Friday puzzles/trivia meetup, so we plan to give this a whirl, at least at the beginning. The website’s pretty, even if the font wouldn’t be my first choice…

Then next weekend, starting on Saturday (hopefully the same day that the New England Revolution will be winning their first MLS Cup, Final Four, baby!) is CRUMS, which is written by some friends of mine I met solving puzzles at Brown in events like MUMS and SUMS. This is actually the second CRUMS, and the first one was not publicized and only had something like 4-6 teams compete (one of which was just me solving solo), but it had some really nice puzzles that showed promise. I’m intrigued by the fact that this is scheduled for a week but only has six puzzles and a meta. That’s a long time for a short slate of puzzles, and it’s interesting that they claim to be similar to late-stage rather than early-stage SUMS/MUMS puzzles.

A lot of good events have happened while I was too busy to post, most notably two previously hyped October events, Puzzle Boat 7 and Matt & Emma’s Birthday Bash (teammatehunt). Both of these were excellent, and both took longer than expected; in both cases my team hoped to polish them off in a weekend, and in both cases we needed a day or two extra to wrap things up. Beforehand I tried to predict which I’d enjoy more, and my guess was teammatehunt, since I expected the puzzles to be harder on average, and in my “you kids get off of my lawn” stage of puzzledom, I’ve seen a lot and want to be challenged. I think that was accurate, but Puzzle Boat, in addition to having many more puzzles to contend with, had some VERY tough metapuzzles! It also left me really wanting to play The World According To Ubi.

The Birthday Bash made me acutely aware that my puzzlehunt theme inclinations are cynical to an unhealthy degree… I always assume that if the theme is going to take a turn, it’s going to be in a dark direction, and thus I was convinced we were going to be solving a Five Nights at Freddy’s hunt. But no, even though there was a bigger theme than initially implied, it was fun and friendly and non-menacing. (I had the same experience with Penny Park in the 2020 Mystery Hunt… when is the other shoe going to drop? It’s not. It’s an amusement park. Chill out, Dan.)

In any case, the puzzles were generally excellent, and while they were quite hard as expected, and we did get bottlenecked on a few (hence the needing the extra days, as well as one hint to confirm that we should keep doing what we were doing on Connect The Dots), I had a blast. It very effectively filled the hole in this year’s schedule vacated by the Galactic Puzzle Hunt… teammate hunt had a lot of similar sensibilities, which makes sense since they’re written by sibling Mystery Hunt teams. I know teammate aren’t the ones writing the 2021 Hunt, but if the two are anything alike, I’ll be very happy with this year’s atypical event. (And teammate did very well in the 2020 Hunt, so maybe they’ll be writing 2022? If they can beat Test Solution Bees Ignore, who won both of the October events and have been terrifyingly effective on online puzzlehunts recently.)

On a much smaller scale, Jackie and I had a lot of fun solving CMU’s Oregon Trail Hunt as a pair; this wasn’t anywhere near as involved as the other events, but it made for an enjoyable low-key afternoon. If you’re looking for something to solve on your own for fun, the October hunts might be too intimidating, but I’d recommend giving this one a try. The most recent issue of P&A was also breezy, with the top ten filling up (I think) within the first two hours!

I won’t say which of the above hunts they were in, but this fall I solved puzzlehunt puzzles about Pokemon and Hanabi (both of which are hobbies I do not enjoy) and liked both of them a lot. Maybe 2020 isn’t the darkest timeline after all. Everyone be safe.

Crowdsourcing: Language-Neutral Puzzlehunts?

Oh boy, this new WordPress interface is going to take some getting used to.

Labor Day puzzles tomorrow! Get psyched if that’s a thing you get psyched for.

I recently received a message from a reader for whom English is not their first language, who said they really enjoy solving puzzlehunts but often need assistance with word-intensive puzzles like crosswords. (I’ve never tried to solve a crossword in a foreign language, but I have been trying to solve British cryptics from The Listener recently, and in some ways that’s a similar experience… it’s weird to have to reference a big book or virtual equivalent on almost every clue.)

A lot of good puzzlehunts have a diverse mix of puzzle types, though word puzzles still tend to be pretty prevalent, which makes sense given that most metapuzzle structures rely on words; the thing each puzzle resolves to for metapuzzle interaction is almost always an English word or phrase, and if our puzzle has to generate letters, it’s easiest to do that if your puzzle revolves around letters. I know that when I write a logic puzzle for a hunt, the biggest stumbling block is figuring out how the puzzle will yield an answer when solved; in my case, that responsibility often gets passed off to a “lookup” grid of random mostly unused letters that helps translate a sequence of positions into a sequence of letters.

But puzzlehunts that are relatively language-neutral are not unheard of. Earlier this summer I posted links to a sudoku puzzlehunt and a Zelda-themed huntesque set of sudoku, as well as From Muddled to Clean, a set of instructionless loop puzzles that I have to admit I never finished (though with the help of a friend, I got past a particular stumbling block and reached an absolutely jaw-dropping aha moment). I also believe there have been puzzlehunts at some of the World Puzzle Championships, where the main program is language-neutral by necessity. I’m not sure if any of these are archived online; if they are, and people know about them, I’d love to see them. If the pandemic clears up, I believe next year’s WPC will be in Canada. I’m reasonably confident that it will feature some sort of hunt, in that if nobody else writes one, I probably will. (The WPC itself sometimes has rounds with an interesting meta-structure, though these generally don’t get released after the fact… the US retains rights to publish them in this country, but I think the one book of WPC puzzles that came out in America didn’t sell all that well. I bought it!)

Even among the non-linguistically-neutral puzzlehunts, some are more linguistically neutral than others. The aforementioned reader cited DASH as a hunt they found frequently accessible. Those puzzles certainly have word answers, but maybe they’re less heavy on word puzzles since the meta-structures tend to be light. I also remember a lot of visual puzzles in Australian hunts… I feel like it’s more frequent in those events than in others that I open a puzzle to find a weird one-page visual display of colors/shapes/dots/lines that is completely impenetrable until you figure out what it’s actually supposed to represent or how it’s supposed to be processed.

So I’ll open this up to the gallery… do you have any memorable Hunt puzzles or entire puzzlehunts to share that don’t rely heavily on wordplay? Or failing that, any individual puzzles in the non-word genre you found particularly rewarding? Inquiring minds want to know.

Now Is The Autumn of Our Puzzle Content

It’s the penultimate day of August, and I was going to say that I just squeezed this entry in under the wire to maintain monthly posting… and then I looked back and realized I missed July, and in fact it’s been more than 80 days since I wrote anything here. So, um, hi! How’ve you been? Hope you’re surviving a pandemic mixed with the increasingly disturbing moral decay of a nontrivial subset of the country I live in.

Given that I didn’t post much in the summer, and I expect a full semester of online teaching to be mentally draining, you can probably expect even less frequent posting in the immediate future. But there are some exciting events happening over the next couple of months, at least one of which I promised my former Teaching Assistant that I’d plug, so let me bring you one more “list of links” post before I’m swallowed by a blizzard of Gradescope, Explain EDU, and Zoom.

I’m going to split this up into “heavy” hunts and “light” hunts. Heavy hunts are likely to take the average solver/team a long time, because they have a lot of puzzles and/or very hard puzzles. Light hunts are lighter. Heavy hunts are the ones I get jazzed about, because I’ve seen and solved a lot of puzzles and appreciate a challenge I can sink my teeth into.

Heavy Hunts

Mark Halpin’s Labor Day Extravaganza, as usual, is the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, which is September 5. Mark has been writing these since 2006, starting with a very holiday-specific Labors of Hercules puzzlehunt and moving on to various themes inspired by classical literature. Every time I look at one of these, it seems roughly the length of a P&A issue (more on that below) until I actually start solving and remember that Mark doesn’t pull punches on the difficulty scale. For me, they put up just the right amount of resistance, so this is one of my favorite online hunts on the puzzlehunt calendar. This year’s title is “Balancing Act,” and I have a guess at the source material, but I was sure that last year’s “Distressed” would be about Samson and Delilah, so what do I know? These puzzles are free, but please tip your constructor.

The seventh Puzzle Boat sets sail on Saturday, October 10. Puzzle Boat is heavy more due to length than average puzzle difficulty; the Puzzle Boat puzzles tend to be at roughly the level of P&A puzzles (which makes sense since they come from the same author, Foggy Brume) but with dozens of puzzles, there’s room for the kind of interesting unlock structures and metapuzzles that usually only arise in Mystery Hunt. This is the one puzzle event where I usually guilt my friends into visiting my house in the suburbs. That obviously won’t be happening this year, but I look forward to solving with Mystik Spiral online. Registration is $100 per team, but well worth it for the quantity of puzzles you get.

In a year without the ambitious and format-bending Galactic Puzzle Hunt, I was excited to hear about Matt and Emma’s Birthday Bash, an upcoming 40ish-puzzle hunt brought to us by team mate, the sister team of Some Pictures of Planes Galactic Trendsetters Some More Pictures of Planes, starting on October 23. The kid’s birthday theme screams, “There’s something else going on here,” (again, I have a theory, and again, I’ll probably be wrong), but the format/timing/authors suggest that this will be the closest approximation we get to GPH in 2020, and I am here for it. Registration is free, but again, tip appropriately.

And it’s a long way away, but it’s the heaviest hunt of them all, so it’s worth mentioning that Galactic have confirmed that January’s MIT Mystery Hunt will be online and full-sized. It was pretty obvious that Hunt was not going to be in person in a traditional way, so in that sense moving online was not news. But I would not have been shocked if they decided to have a short or crowdsourced Hunt and ask the community to punt their real turn to 2022. Writing a full-length Hunt without on-campus elements and turning over next year’s Hunt to the winners as usual is a noble sacrifice and a real contribution to the Hunt community. As many others have said, GT have over the last few years created the closest event to a fully online Mystery Hunt (with Puzzle Boat closer in number of puzzles, but GPH closer in you-want-us-to-solve-what factor), so while writing MH 2021 is far from an ideal situation, I can’t think of a team I’d trust more to pull it off.

Light Hunts

The next issue of P&A drops on September 12. This would probably go in the medium category if I had one, but I don’t, and anyway, if you read this blog regularly (or as regularly as one can read less than a dozen posts a year), you probably know what P&A is; it’s basically one round of Puzzle Boat, usually with a few very accessible puzzles, a few toughies, a cryptogram and/or anaquote I’ll bend over backwards to skip, a logic puzzle my wife will refuse to let me solve, and a metapuzzle we’ll either break into after solving five puzzles or bang our heads on all afternoon. Sounds like a good Saturday to me! $10 per issue, with many earlier issues less expensive than that if you have a backlog and want to catch up.

Boxaroo is my favorite escape room company in the Boston area (once you’re ready to go to things in person, The Storyteller’s Secret is one of my favorite rooms in the country, and Conundrum Museum is also quite good), and like many companies in that industry, they’ve had to pivot to paid online experiences. Boxaroo didn’t make any of their rooms virtual, but for years they’ve also been running occasional team puzzlehunts, which I admit I haven’t played because they seemed a bit pricy. This year they put a multi-round hunt called Colby’s Curious Cook-Off online, on a pay-what-you-want basis with a recommended price of $25 (more reasonable than the prices that turned me off in the past). I haven’t solved this because the sample puzzles felt easier than I’d like, but I was very impressed with the online solving interfaces of all the samples, and I’ve heard good things from everybody who’s played through it. Likely a good starter hunt if you enjoy puzzles with a through-line but find things like the Mystery Hunt intimidating.

And speaking of starter hunts, the DP Puzzle Hunt, starting on September 18, claims to be exactly that… it’s a puzzlehunt with a similar aesthetic look to Galactic (they appear to be using their website design with permission) but promising an easier experience for teams new to puzzlehunts. I have no idea who’s writing this, whether it’ll be any good, or what the name stands for, though there is a badass phoenix in their logo.

The FAQ for DP mentions mentions inspiration from a spring competition hosted by inteGIRLS, and they’re not the only ones; there are a handful of recent and upcoming puzzle competitions, often written by high school students, that cite inteGIRLS as an influence. Now, I’m 100% in favor of young people writing puzzles and getting their work seen, but I admit I was more than a little underwhelmed that one of these events has a FAQ that says, “A puzzle hunt is an event where teams race to solve a packet of puzzles!” I’m not sure that I buy that a packet of puzzles without metapuzzles or a release structure qualifies as a puzzlehunt. As someone who loves creative puzzlehunt structures, I’d hate to see puzzlehunt culture drift toward putting a whole bunch of unrelated puzzles on a website at once. That doesn’t mean these are bad events… it just means I wouldn’t consider them within the puzzlehunt purview of this blog, despite their advertising. #puzzlehuntsnob

(Also, one of the authors of one of these events pretty blatantly plagiarized a Mystery Hunt puzzle; they’ve publicly apologized, but if they’re reading this, it would be nice if you apologized to the puzzle authors specifically, rather than to the Mystery Hunt in general as if it were one person. It wasn’t me, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling bitter on the authors’ behalf.)

I hope getting that last complaint off my chest doesn’t put too much of a downer on what’s an exciting slate of upcoming puzzle experiences. The end of the year is often a time when hardcore puzzlehunters are counting down the days until Mystery Hunt, but this looks like a busy autumn. Let’s enjoy some puzzles while we social distance, in the hopes that next year can have some more puzzling in person like the good old days.

JUNE I Offer You Some More Puzzlehunts?

Pro tip for bloggers: If your post title is going to be an awkward joke about your previous post title, it’s probably not great if that previous post was 39 days ago. Most of your readers will just be confused.

A majority of the puzzlehunts I post about here are event-based, since those are the hunts I get most excited about… there’s something about the thrill of competition and knowing other people are solving what you are that gives this fairly pointless hobby a bit more meaning. (In that spirit, I really enjoyed this past weekend’s REDDOTHunt when it wasn’t proving my incompetence at assembling 3-D jigsaws, and I’m eagerly looking forward to Puzzle Potluck in a couple of weeks.)

But with more time on my hands until my employer decides the structure of our next academic year, I’ve been delving into puzzle suites that are less “everybody solve this at once” and more “get to this when you get to it,” and compiling a list of them to share. And since I plugged the blog during my appearance on this week’s episode of The Geek Bracket (which, if you like pop culture trivia, is a fun listen even when I’m not on it), I figured now’s a good time to actually post some content. So rather than waiting for the next big puzzlehunt kickoff, here are some things you can solve riiiiiight now! Or in one case, in the very near future.

Sudoku on Steroids

If you’re a word puzzle solver who hands all your logic puzzles to a teammate, you can go ahead and skip this section. Personally, I love abstract logic puzzles; I’m excited about the recent return of regularly posted puzzles on Grandmaster Puzzles, sad about the prospect of no US Puzzle and Sudoku Championships this year (since the world championships they feed into were canceled), and anxious for Nikoli to start shipping books again so I can replenish my Puzzle The Giants supply. But I have to admit that as a puzzlehunter, logic puzzles, especially sudoku, often lack the punchline that a well-constructed word puzzle might conceal. A good newspaper crossword will at least have a theme that makes it different from others, whereas a newspaper sudoku will probably occupy your attention for a few minutes and then fade away.

So I was delighted to happen upon two collections of interconnected variety sudoku (sudoku with additional constraints) with an overall goal. One is presented by Cracking The Cryptic, the puzzle video producers who recently went semi-viral with this video of a guy solving a two-given highly constrained sudoku… and if you don’t think a 25-minute logic puzzle solve can be dramatic, I beg to differ. But what I really enjoyed was this Sudoku Puzzle Hunt they posted, written by Ben Needham. The visual presentation is a bit offputting (those thermometers do not make it easy to put numbers in the squares), but there’s some deep hidden theming and content here beyond the logic solving, and as you make discoveries and gain momentum, the difficulty ramps from near-impossible to everything clicking into place in a really satisfying way.

If you’d like something a bit easier with not quite as many secrets, there’s this Zelda adventure in sudoku form, which is apparently based on Ocarina of Time, but which was perfectly enjoyable by this guy who didn’t play any Zelda games between Link To The Past and Breath of the Wild. It starts off as a vanilla sudoku with some weird squares in it you can’t do anything with, but as you make solving progress, you unlock new puzzles with interesting gimmicks. Note that you get rewards for completing 3×3 squares, which is the mechanic for moving on, but also means that if you’re stuck, you can trial-and-error a region and if you get it right, you’ll get confirmation. I used this fairly liberally, which made things easier but meant I wasn’t solving purely by logic. You can decide if you’re the kind of person who figures out 3 digits of a lock combination in an escape room and tries all possibilities for the fourth digit, and proceed accordingly.

Also, while it’s not a suite of sudoku, Jack Lance of the Pi Day Hunts released this intriguing collection of instructionless loop puzzles where you work out the constraints as you go. Like the Pi Day Hunt, I’ve gotten quite close to the end and am now completely stuck. But also like the Pi Day Hunt, I enjoyed the journey to where I got stuck. If you get past Set A and want to hint me, drop me a line.

Cryptic Crosswords, Also on Steroids

Unlike sudoku, variety cryptics tend to justify their own existence, as there is often a satisfying theme reveal. I don’t talk much about cryptics on this blog because a good puzzle alone does not a puzzlehunt make, and if I blogged about every puzzle I solved, I’d never make it to work in the morning. Assuming that at some point in the future I’ll be able to physically make it to work.

But sometimes a cryptic author creates multiple puzzles that fit together, and that warrants mention here. The latest example of this I’ve seen was written by National Puzzlers’ League member Negroni (since their real name isn’t on the puzzles, I won’t include it without permission, though they did give me the green light to link to the puzzles). This collection consists of four cryptics and a metapuzzle, and Negroni intended to bring it to this year’s NPL convention in Toronto which was unfortunately but understandably canceled. So they’ve generously shared it online, and it looks really fun.

I haven’t had a chance to solve Negroni’s puzzles yet, because looking at them reminded me of Ucaoimhu (Kevin Wald)’s similar multi-cryptic NPL Con suites. Negroni mentioned being inspired by Uc’s work, and I know of at least three other people who have also written crazy instruction-heavy cryptics inspired by Uc’s puzzles (I’m one of them). For the last few years, Jackie and I haven’t gotten around to finishing Ucaoimhu’s Con cryptics for almost a year, and last night we wrapped up his Ruby/Cinnabar/Garnet triptych from last year’s Boulder convention. I don’t know if three cryptics where the third refers back to the first two counts as a puzzlehunt, but if you like challenging cryptic crosswords and don’t mind a LOT of bookkeeping, every Ucaoimhu cryptic is worth your time. You can find all of the previous Con cryptics on Kevin’s page here (including eight three-puzzle suites), as well as years of Mystery-Hunt-themed cryptics here, and way too many other cryptics here. Do not try to solve all of Uc’s cryptics. No one has that much free time, even in quarantine.

Raising Funds

Some of my friends are using their superpowers for good, as while their puzzles aren’t being offered for free like the options above, instead of taking money themselves, the authors are encouraging and/or requiring solvers to donate to a good cause. Puzzle Bouquet is a little out of date now, as it was published for Mother’s Day, but it’s written by some highly competent constructors (and in one case their offspring), and it’s the sort of puzzle collection where just glancing at it makes me appreciate what a difference good visual presentation makes. The authors raised over $11,000 for Every Mother Counts, and while there are a lot of different causes that could use our help right now, add this one to the list if your wallet allows.

The one thing I’m going to plug in this post that’s not yet available is Eric Berlin’s Social Distancing Puzzles. This is a collection of puzzles and a metapuzzle that are designed to be solved by two people each looking at a different packet, forcing the solvers to collaborate and share information in order to solve each puzzle. Jackie and I test-solved this and had a great time… and we never looked at each other’s pages, so I can confirm that this is solvable even if you’re nowhere near your partner, and the ways in which the information is split are very varied and creative. When it comes out, find a friend you haven’t seen in a while, hop on Zoom or Skype or Hangouts or Meet or Teams or Facetime or Slack or Discord or Hoodwink or iBall or Zinf or… okay, I admit I started making up app names after a while. Use one of the ones that actually exists, have fun solving, and help raise money for Feeding America.

And I’ve plugged Scott Weiss’s audio escape rooms before, but he has a new room in his repertoire, Book Smart, which is reportedly his longest and most puzzlehunty to date. I’m hoping to play in the next few weeks, but we had lots of fun questing for the purple unicorn, and it sounds like the new room is more in my wheelhouse (and potentially in the wheelhouse of folks who read this blog). You can sign up for live sessions here, and you can pay what you can either to Scott or to one of his preferred charities.

Braising Foods

Finally, having said that this is a post about non-competitive non-timed puzzlehunts, let me completely break that rule and point out Pilcrow Bar, a gorgeous sequence of “pop-up restaurant” puzzles produced by Sandor Weisz’s Mystery League and Alinea, the Chicago foodie mecca at which I will probably never eat because I prefer my dessert in a non-exploding-at-me format. The puzzles have been popping up at a rate of one or two a week, and solving one allows you to enter to win a cool food-related prize (I’m still bummed I didn’t get the mocktail book), as well as giving you an answer relevant to a future metapuzzle with the biggest prize at all. This is another puzzle set where the visual design is constantly jaw-dropping, and if you’re looking for a cool puzzle to start with, I think Sparvelous Moons and Word Salad have been my favorites so far.

MAY I Offer You Some Puzzlehunts?

Because it’s May. Get it?

I’ll be honest, I thought by the time I got to May and my last lectures was recorded, there’d be an easy glide to the finish of the semester… as it happens, between constructing exams, scheduling online review sessions, and trying to prevent academic dishonesty, I am an emotional husk and look forward to sleeping for the entire second half of this month.

Consequently, I haven’t written here for a while, but I did want to highlight a few puzzling experiences you might enjoy.

The most timely one is P&A, which releases a new issue tomorrow! I may be even more exhausted then, since I’m waking up at 5am for my third and final attempt to qualify for CodeJam Round 2. It might be my imagination, but it seems like competition has been fiercer in those competitions, probably because everyone is stuck at home with time on their hands to solve silly algorithm problems. Will the same be true for P&A? Bring it!

The least timely one is the Carnegie Mellon Puzzle Hunt, which happens… last week! (Sorry.) I forgot about this until a friend mentioned it once it was already happening, and Jackie and I poked at it for a few hours, but we only solved five or six puzzles and didn’t get to the point of opening any metapuzzles. All the puzzles are now posted, complete with answer-checking. I found Broken Phone straightforward but fun, and I’ ve heard good things about Stroke of Genius, which I toyed with long enough to rage-quit it (but in a good Mystery Huntesque, “I can’t believe those monsters did this to me,” kind of way).

And the most ahead-of-timely one is Puzzle Potluck 3, which isn’t until June 20, but I was asked to plug it, and who knows when I’ll get around to posting again? I dug Puzzle Potluck 2, which had some very creative theming via flavortext, and I appreciate them their including Mystik Spiral in their wrap-up graph as a “solved real fast but started real late” team.  I think it’ll be neat, and with the sad but inevitable cancellation/postponement of the NPL Con, I’ll be glad to have a midsummer puzzlehunt to sink my teeth into. (Not to mention no BAPHLs in the foreseeable future… Hey, is anyone working on a virtual BAPHL? Please say yes so I’m not tempted to do it.)

Be safe, all!

Puzzlehunts for the Sophisticated Quarantiner

If anybody’s reading this later than Spring 2020, hopefully most of us got through this. The world and the country are pretty terrifying right now, and the CDC just announced a recommendation to avoid public gatherings for at least two months.

If you’re cooped up at home but at least have internet access, most of the links on this blog’s sidebar have a metric ton of past puzzlehunts archived. (Heck, even BAPHL 21 is up now! When did that happen?) If you go into a cave and try to solo the last two or three MIT Mystery Hunts, hopefully by the time you emerge, we’ll have a COVID-19 vaccine, along with flying cars and a president who can spell. But most of my recent posts have been about MIT, so I wanted to take some time to talk about recent puzzlehunts I didn’t blog about, so that if you’re trying to kill time with interconnected puzzle collections, you know your options. I’m also going to throw in some plugs for some of my friends who sell puzzles professionally and have discounts up in some form or another to help you in this trying time.

Cryptex Hunt

The 2020 Cryptex Hunt has already been won (by a subgroup of team mate) but it’s still active, so you can still solve it by March 31 and have a chance to win a hella pretty and functional cryptex from Justin Nevins. This is the third Cryptex Hunt, and the general link between them seems to be that (a) you can win a cryptex, and (b) the format is “Look, this puzzlehunt is an X!” The values of X have been multi-user dungeon, magazine, and this year, a YA-style National Novel Writing Month novel written by Errol Elumir, which I haven’t had time to read yet but seems pretty nifty modulo the non-puzzle-content spelling errors (sorry, Errol). The puzzles I’ve solved so far (Chapters 1 through 6) have been a bit more “I squeezed some puzzles into my novel” than “the novel is a puzzlehunt,” but I suspect the endgame is much more deeply integrated.

P&A 83 (plus discounted Puzzle Boats)

The latest issue of Foggy Brume’s P&A was released this past Saturday. Jackie and I cruised through it (the metapuzzle is fairly short-circuitable if you start thinking about it early enough, and we speak fluent Foggymeta), but I went back and solved all of the puzzles, and some of them were particularly cool. Issue 83 is the fresh set (you can still get on the Completists list for next issue if you solve all fourteen puzzles and the meta), but if you haven’t solved all of Foggy’s Puzzle Boat megahunts, Puzzle Boat 2, 3, 4, and 5 are now on sale for only $15 each. That works out to less than a quarter a puzzle (in some cases, much less), and unlike manually skimming through the archives of most puzzlehunts, if you register a Puzzle Boat team, you get the whole solve-and-unlock interactive experience. Highly recommended.

P. I. Hunt

Jack Lance writes a puzzlehunt each year for Pi Day, and while I’ve heard of them before, I’m not sure I’ve ever solved one. Based on the quality of the puzzles we’ve solved so far in this year’s hunt (four out of ostensibly five), I’ve been missing out. They’ve been creative, mostly elegant (I had some issues with the last phase of Clowns), and in at least one case, mind-blowingly constrained from a construction perspective. The one puzzle I haven’t solved yet seems the most ambitious… there’s just a lot to do.

My Little Pony: Puzzles are Magic

I talked about MLP: PAM in passing during my MIT Hunt posts, but think of this as Galactic Puzzle Hunt Lite, falling somewhere between Puzzle Potluck and GPH on the difficulty scale (that’s a vast chasm) and feeling rather similar to both in terms of structure and website feel, with all the requisite twists and turns in plot and theme. I would caution that the FAQ’s reassurance that you don’t need to know about MLP is a bit misplaced… you will need to either know about or learn about a bunch of pony culture and fandom to complete this hunt. I found that aspect a bit tedious, but there are some lovely puzzles along the way, and I really liked how the whole thing tied up thematically in the end.

Squonkland Virtual Escape Rooms

An escape room is not exactly a puzzlehunt… though you do solve a bunch of puzzles that result in things that fit together to grant access to more puzzles… let’s debate this in a hypothetical future period where I’m willing to go into an escape room without a hazmat suit. (Seriously though, escape rooms are going to be hit very hard by this economic lull… if there’s a company you like with at least one room you haven’t played, consider keeping them in business by buying a gift card for later.)

In the meantime, Scott Weiss, engineer of the only three-way tie in Jeopardy! history, has been running a handful of original virtual escape rooms (in the vein of Escape This Podcast, on which one of them appeared) over various video chat platforms. These are, of course, still doable if you’re confined to your home, and Scott has reduced the cost to Pay What You Can to him or a charity, or simply agreeing to do something nice for your community during the COVID crisis. I can vouch that Jackie and I had a fun time questing for the purple unicorn, and Scott was very patient with my constant wiseass attempts to break his room.

The Maze of Games and Puzzlecraft (and other Lone Shark Games products)

The evil geniuses at Lone Shark Games have put pretty much their entire product line on sale to keep people sane during social distancing. Of the available swag, The Maze of Games is by far the most puzzlehunty (it’s the Kickstarted puzzlehunt/escape-room-in-a-book that predates all the other Kickstarted puzzlehunt/escape-room-in-a-books), although I will also put in a plug for Puzzlecraft, which is an incredible resource if you’d like to write puzzlehunts, since it’s one of the best sources of advice to learn how to construct almost any type of puzzle (apart from crosswords, for which I’d recommend Patrick Berry’s bible, because if you’re trying to learn to play basketball, why not take classes from LeBron James?). There are also a ton of example puzzles, so even if you’re not going to build things yourself, it’s worth the price of admission to solve everything yourself and idly read about how the pros do it. It also says nice things about my duck konundrums, but that’s not why I’m promoting it.

What’d I miss? There are hundreds of online puzzle suites and play-at-home quests in book and board game form, so I was trying to emphasize the options that are most recent, most accessible from home, and most familiar to me. If you want to second any of these recommendations or add your own, you know where the comments are. And I have a lot of work to do over the next couple of months attempting to teach calculus through a series of tubes, but I’m always happy to write about puzzles, so if you have requests for particular post topics, type them below or drop me a line.

Be safe, everyone.

2020 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 3: Points of Contention

(This is a recap/review of the 2020 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened this last month. Puzzles and solutions can currently be found here. This recap may contain spoilers.)

I haven’t managed to find time to blog recently, which is unfortunate because when I envisioned this third post, the main purpose was to encourage discussion, and I’m not sure people are going to be that excited to opine a month after Hunt. But better late than never, I hope.

[Since I also haven’t had time to post about other puzzlehunts, let me mention that I thought My Little Pony: Puzzles Are Magic was quite good! It had too much MLP-specific content for my tastes (you’d think that’s to be expected, but the FAQ was misleading in that respect), but the puzzles were fun, and the story took some twists and turns in a “GPH Lite” sort of way. Also be on the lookout for Cryptex Hunt 2020, which starts on Leap Day (much like the Revs season) and is apparently a novel.]

Before I totally run out of mental fuel to talk about this year’s Mystery Hunt (and the state of Hunt moving forward), I want to ask some questions that I think I have subjective answers. I have my own answers to them, which I’ll provide in some cases, and some of you may have answered them in your own way in the post-Hunt feedback form, but I think it’s often useful for solving teams to know what other solving teams think, and for teams to know what teams think about what teams think, etc. (Though everybody should keep in mind that the vast majority of Mystery Hunt teams are fairly casual and may not be reading a sparsely updated puzzlehunt blog. Hunt is for them too, so don’t assume any consensus reached here reflects the community ethos!)

I’ll number questions below so that it’s easier to refer to them in the comments.

Q1: Are there too many puzzles?

I loved most of the puzzles and metapuzzles I encountered in Hunt this year and thought the quality and polish was really solid on all of them… but there sure were a lot of them. It felt like a big jump in quantity, although comparing the number of puzzles to 2019, my back of the envelope calculation from a few weeks ago showed there wasn’t actually that much of a difference. Of course, I didn’t solve 2019, so maybe people felt the spike then, and I didn’t notice it from constructing HQ. I did think the average puzzle this year was harder/more involved than the average 2019 puzzle, but again, I don’t have the solver perspective. More teams finished “on time” this year than in 2019 by infinity percent, though teams in 2019 seemed more logjammed by metas, and I feel like in 2020 our team was never stuck for long on metapuzzles.

The traditional discussion in this realm is “when should the coin be found?” People have varying opinions about this: an earlier first finish means more teams will get to see the entire Hunt, but some will have a truncated experience, and a later finish means fewer teams will get a satisfying conclusion. But even if you agreed on a target, anyone who’s constructed Hunt can tell you this is something that isn’t purely a function of number of puzzles, and also something you’ll never be able to completely control. Actual Hunt teams are impossible to accurately replicate/simulate in testing, and I’ve helped write Hunts were the coin was found much earlier than intended and much later.

In any case, you can probably guess from my Part 1 post that I would have liked Hunt to be a round or two shorter so that my team could finish. I probably would have endorsed aiming for fewer puzzles in 2019 too, except that the structure we chose needed a lot of puzzles to support it… having metas split between rounds isn’t interesting unless you have a lot of connectivity between the rounds. Structural innovations are something valuable that set Mystery Hunt apart from other puzzlehunts for me, and sometimes those innovations require a large size. But at the same time, a long stretch of Hunts with many many puzzles is inevitably going to lead to an increase in average team size. And that’s something that (a) may not be sustainable on a campus of fixed size, and (b) makes it hard for casual student teams to get involved, and given that Hunt lives off of MIT resources, they’re the teams we owe the most to. More on that in a bit.

Q2: Should every team see every puzzle?

When we designed the “Santa curve” for 2019, one of our goals was that every team, regardless of progress, should have every puzzle unlocked at least an hour or two before close of HQ. We made pretty steady progress this year, and as a result I didn’t realize until afterward that (as far as I’m aware) Left Out didn’t time-release rounds*. This meant a team that didn’t solve a lot of puzzles early probably never saw the Outer Lands and missed a large chunk of story and innovation.

*[Edited to correct myself: As Wei-Hwa points out in the comments, my “as far as I was aware” statement was incorrect, and rounds were in fact time released. I think the main reason I gathered they weren’t is that three of the four largest rounds were batch-opened at once right around when the coin was found, so the isolated bits of information I heard from teams well behind the curve was that they got an impression of “Okay, folks, competitition’s over, now the rest of the Hunt is open.” I would still argue that given the size of these rounds, opening them at 1pm on Sunday makes it impossible for those teams to see all of the content in them, and opening them all at once diminishes the discovery effect, so the Q2 debate is still relevant to this Hunt. But I apologize for my false assumption above.]

There’s certainly a debate to be had about this, and the big unknown variable is trying to predict what will make casual teams happiest: focusing on early meaningful goals, or getting to solve whatever they want. There’s an easy argument that if you give teams all the puzzles eventually, they can make this decision for themselves. But there’s a counterargument that teams that are only solving a few puzzles may be overwhelmed/dispirited to have a pool of 100+ puzzles to wade through. Some constructors would probably like to encourage those teams to solve a meta (maybe their first ever!) and keep them in the shallow end so they can do that. On the other hand, some constructors probably want as many teams as possible to see what they’ve written, especially if they wrote the last puzzle released in the last round…

My own opinion on this probably varies based on the Hunt structure. When a new round or concept is revealed on the Hunt website, I get an endorphin rush, and I want every team to get that rush. So for this year, my preference would have been to have the round openings time-released to teams. (Maybe this did happen, but I gather it either didn’t, or it happened very late.) Within each round, you had to solve puzzles to unlock other puzzles, which means even as a strong team, some puzzles were never opened to us. I don’t object to that. I’d like teams to be able to see what the whole structure looks like by the end of the weekend, but I’m not fixed on everybody seeing every single puzzle. We did that in 2019, but due to the linear release structure, getting everybody every round wasn’t that different from getting everybody every puzzle.

Q3: Where do you put the story?

This is a nitpick, but 2016 and 2020 were the two Hunts I can remember that conveyed major story elements through videos isolated on the website. I take a lot of interest in the Hunt theme and story, but in both of these years, I never felt particularly driven toward the video page. As a result, these were probably the years that I felt least engaged in the story. This is, of course, my own fault, since I could have watched the videos if I wanted to (and the 2020 videos in particular, I discovered later, were adorable). But my interactions with the website and puzzles never really encouraged me to do that.

I also get the sense that a lot of story/theme/aura was conveyed to the people who went to squish pennies after each meta solve. I didn’t go to any of these, and the people who did didn’t tell us much else than that they got pennies. On a large team, a lot of members won’t end up going on any of those trips, especially since some team members like to volunteer for multiple pick-up missions. There was a nice skit when we opened the Outer Lands, and I appreciated that that skit happened in our HQ so that as many people could see it as possible. But it was something we watched rather than something we did, and the plot didn’t have a whole lot of urgency (especially once we established that the park was no longer closing).

I don’t want to send the message that I didn’t like the story or theme this year… I thought the kickoff (even after the wedding) was creative and well-written, and the theme park “lands” structure was intuitive enough that you didn’t need to follow the story to understand how the puzzles fit together. If you don’t care about story, the website and puzzle design made it easy to ignore the story and solve the Hunt. But as someone who does care, it was too easy for me to ignore it too. To paraphrase an argument I remember making to someone on another team I constructed with, Mystery Hunt is a set of puzzles with a story layered onto it, not a story with some puzzles, and so the story will (and should) always take a back seat. But I think it’s worth discussing narrative strategies to immerse solvers in that story as much as possible (without obscuring the puzzles).

Q4: Is phoneless answer confirmation the way of the future?

I dropped a question about this at the end of my Part 1 entry, and a lot of people already commented (as they did on Reddit). I think the question is fairly well-understood, so I won’t restate the problem, but it’s certainly an open question, so I’m including it again here.

I will say this: Virtually all of the people/teams I’ve heard who didn’t like losing the phones are Hunt veterans… I was concerned with the effect on newer teams, and they don’t seem to have had a problem, though by definition they wouldn’t have anything to compare to. And a lot of the veteran complaints have been along the lines of, “We expected to do X and have done X in the past, and we were bummed that we didn’t get to do X,” whether X is using the phone calls to keep team members aware when progress is made, or to check in with HQ, or to make wisecracks. Maybe some more advance notice might have been useful to smooth the transition, and I would encourage PPPGTPPP to let teams know in advance what to plan for next year.

I might get kicked off Setec for saying this, but I actually think the online submission is mostly better (and I especially loved the sound tags on solves). But there was one related issue that might be a dealbreaker. I’ll meet you at Q5.

Q5: How much guessing is too much guessing?

If you’re a regular reader (at least as much as I’m a “regular” poster), you probably remember my ranting about backsolving and THE WOLF’S HOUR in 2019. (I hope THE WOLF’S HOUR will join BE NOISY and RECTION in the die-hard Hunter’s inside-joke file.) I am by no means the most opposed person to backsolving/guessing, but I’m certainly not the least. That said, the captain of teammate wrote a great blog post about their Hunt experience that contained this little nugget: “during the minutes before the hunt started I encouraged everyone to submit a guess as long as they were >10% sure that it could be the right answer.”

The next paragraph begins, “I realize that this aggressive guessing strategy seems horrifying to some teams”… And I would like to confirm that YES, IT DOES. I realize this isn’t how it’ll happen in practice, but “more than ten percent sure” suggests that a team may expect to call in nine or ten answers per puzzle. With no live phones, that’s no longer something that’s going to jam up the lines and prevent other people from confirming answers. But the same post also includes this very relevant graph:

>=D=> >=D=> >=D=> GT >=D=> >=D=> >=D=> (yes, I am going to write that differently every time instead of looking up how to type a damn airplane symbol) is certainly a team to be reckoned with… They have great solvers, and I’ve loved all three Galactic Puzzle Hunts, and I was honestly rooting for them to win (sorry, Palindrome, I know you’ve been waiting) this year. But I find it very troubling that the two teams that guessed answers the most aggressively were two of the first three teams to finish, and in particular, in the first year without phones (and thus without a construction team potentially getting annoyed about answer spamming), the two most aggressive guessing teams had a notable increase in performance. I’m not sure that’s entirely a coincidence.

So here’s the thing. I think it’s up to the constructors to decide what parameters they think are reasonable for solving teams. On one hand, I think those standards should be communicated better to teams, and on the other hand, if teams know the precise standards, it could encourage some teams to engage in “unacceptable behavior minus epsilon.” And I suspect Trendsetters will have a pretty loose attitude about this given their own solving style. But I encourage all Hunt writers to consider that allowing teams to guess aggressively will encourage any team that wants to win to guess aggressively. And that will cause a lot of puzzles to fall more quickly. Which may cause constructors to feel obligated to write more puzzles. At which point I refer you to Q1.

Q6: How should non-student participants (and teams) approach Mystery Hunt?

This question is here for two reasons. The first is that the late-night-visitors-on-campus policy this year was a major event in Hunt history, and it’s worth discussing. The second is that I spent a lot of time before and after Hunt ranting at people on various social media platforms, and I want to collect those thoughts here for the record.

I did not state the question as something like, “What resources should MIT provide to non-students?” because no one creating or participating in Mystery Hunt ultimately has control of that (though the evolution of Puzzle Club is probably the best thing that has happened in years in terms of giving Hunt a stable voice on campus). MIT doesn’t have any obligation to support or continue Mystery Hunt, and they certainly aren’t required to host a large number of visitors on campus for the event. Yet they allow Hunt to use a large number of rooms, both for solving teams and the constructing team, and they also partially fund the event through various avenues.

Based on some of the posts I saw elsewhere and flipped out about, this relationship between Hunt and MIT is not fully understood. People suggested that Mystery Hunt is a vital part of MIT’s educational mission. It’s not. People suggested that Mystery Hunt is one of the biggest events of the year on campus. It’s not. People suggested that Mystery Hunt is a large enough event that Boston and Cambridge should be aware of it and provide support. It’s not. I think it’s a wonderful part of MIT culture, and it’s one of the most important events of the year to me (and has played an outsized role in my development as a human being). But it serves a niche audience, and we should not let ourselves believe the world revolves around that audience.

People also suggested that MIT is paying attention to the event design throughout the year, and so any policy changes they make are through some fault of the construction team. That’s not how this works. If anyone still believes any rule changes for late night HQs this year were because of Left Out, please understand that, in fact, the reason so many rules eventually were left unchanged were because of diligent work by Left Out and the Puzzle Club. I am very grateful for everything they did, especially in the last week when there are a million other things to worry about.

If you are not an MIT student–and I’m including myself in this even though I paid MIT four years of tuition back around the turn of the century–any resources, classrooms or otherwise, that MIT provides you are a gift. The Institute is not perfect (I refer you to a lot of other blogs and news outlets for more information on that), but they are doing the Mystery Hunt community a big favor. The best way to ensure that this favor continues to be done is to remember that, whether you donate to Hunt or not (and please consider doing so), you are a guest on campus. Enjoy the event within whatever constraints are put into place, don’t be entitled, and trust that the people who interact with MIT are doing what they can to include as many solvers as possible.

Sorry to end this post on such a ranty note, but Q6 has been a touchy subject for me this year. With that, I’m going to close the book on 2020 Mystery Hunt posting. If you have thoughts on any of the questions above (or other Hunt thoughts that you don’t have a convenient place to deposit), please respond below, and I’ll see you in the comments.