This is a recap/review of the 2018 Cryptex Hunt, which happened in February/March. Information on the hunt can be found here. This recap may contain spoilers.)
In February/March, Justin Nevins, who owns a company that makes gorgeous cryptexes (cryptices?), brought the internet the first Cryptex Hunt, “Prexcyt Quest,” with puzzles created by Errol Elumir, Dan Egnor, and Darren Miller. This online puzzlehunt featured creative puzzles in an ambitiously interactive setting, and a grand prize worth thousands of dollars. That creates a certain high-stakes flavor for some solvers, which isn’t really a problem as long as the hunt doesn’t break during the finale… which it did. So here’s how it went from my perspective. (Spoiler alert: The technical issues were VERY frustrating, but it was still a solid hunt, and given that it was free, I got far more than I paid for.)
The Cryptex Hunt consisted of one weekend of interconnected “qualifying” puzzles, then five consecutive evenings with one puzzle release and a prize package for the first solve, and then one more multi-puzzle weekend event where the first finisher would receive the ultra-fancy custom cryptex. And then another multi-puzzle weekend event where the first finisher would actually receive the ultra-fancy custom cryptex, but we’ll get to that. It was clear from the advertising that the event would be fantasy RPG/text adventure themed, but as it turned out, the designers staged all of the puzzles within a fully functioning MUD (multi-user dungeon).
This was super-confusing at first, as when faced with things like gyms where you could increase your stats, I initially assumed those things must be there for a reason, and so I started interacting with them on my way to the puzzles. But after wasting some time virtually exercising, I googled the name of the world setting and realized that the whole thing was a previously existent MUD with puzzles wedged inside. Most of the contents, including the stray dogs that would randomly try to kill solvers in the street, could be safely ignored. (Okay, “safely” might not be the best adverb for that last example.)
Qualifiers: The qualifying puzzles, once I realized I should go straight to them, were reasonably straightforward. One quick gauntlet of standard puzzlehunt alphabets led to a nice little suite of puzzles with a meta. Another of the three main puzzles required you to map a multi-level area and spell out an answer via the labeled walls. The final one was a bit tougher because the directions were in a runic alphabet that would come up again a few times. After being stuck for a while, I eventually realized that the background set of short stories that had unlocked at some point had the author names written in the language, and while not every letter of the alphabet (or even in the message I was trying to decipher) appeared there, there was enough of a pattern for me to figure out how the components worked in terms of building numbers that translated to letters. What I didn’t realize until much later is that the language rules I was so proud of reverse-engineering were actually EXPLICITLY EXPLAINED in one of the short stories. I’ve always been lazy about skimming reading assignments instead of actually reading them.
Monday: The majority of the Cryptex Hunt fell on a non-ideal week for me, as the two courses I teach had evening exams on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Jackie and I had theater tickets on Thursday, so I’d only have a realistic chance of winning Monday or Friday. On Monday, before the puzzle released, I made sure to walk from the starting tavern to the entrance where the puzzle was likely to appear. At 8pm, I strode through the entrance into a tavern with a note, a singing bard, and a door to the back room. Okay, let’s check out the back room first! In the back room, there was the cryptex into which I’d need to enter the puzzle answer and… no door back to the main room (or perhaps there was a door but it was broken, I forget which). In any case, due to the glitch, I’d bypassed the puzzle itself and was stuck, so I had to teleport back to the tavern and run all the way back to the puzzle again. When I got there, the puzzle was pretty easy to solve (especially since it involved lyrics that had just come up in the 2018 Mystery Hunt), but even without the glitch, I likely would have finished behind the lightning-fast solving of Mike “Projectyl” Sylvia.
Tuesday: As noted, I didn’t get a chance to solve this on release night, but I looked at it during a long break at work the next day. The puzzle turned out to be a GPS-based app parodying Pokemon Go, which required you to find coordinates that satisfied certain requirements. I walked around the Brown campus long enough to figure out all the constraints, but nowhere nearby was going to check all the boxes… In fact, on Google Maps I determined I’d need to drive at least 20 minutes to get to somewhere sufficient.
This is a good time to point out that I periodically visit an escape room forum frequented by the authors, and they were chatting about the hunt frequently. They were careful not to give any spoilers, but I’m still not sure how kosher it was that some solvers had a direct line to the authors and some didn’t. It turned out to be fairly important later, since it’s what allowed me to notify them as quickly as possible that the MUD had broken during the final. In this case, I noticed people were talking about spoofing their GPS coordinates, which I didn’t realize was a thing… So I downloaded an app, told my phone where I wanted to be, and quickly had the solution. I also gathered from the chat that at least one constructor was annoyed that people were able to solve the puzzle this way… Well, if you couldn’t, people in some geographical areas would have major advantages over others. Given this was a competition with prizes, I think it’s a bit sketchy to prioritize your own vision of the solving process over fairness. That said, the puzzle itself was great, given the ability to force it if necessary.
Wednesday: After Monday and Tuesday I’d noticed that the answers were formed from N/W/E/S/U/D letters (the commands used to move in a text adventure) and had generated a list of likely answers, wondering if backsolving was feasible. When I had a chance to look at Wednesday’s puzzle, I first looked at the standings and noticed that one solver had finished it in a ridiculously short period of time, which convinced me it must be guessable… When the descriptive text said that I was suddenly invisible, I figured UNSEEN was worth trying, and that was enough to solve the puzzle without solving the puzzle.
The puzzle itself was shockingly similar to one of the more memorable puzzles from the 2017 Mystery Hunt, Hexed Adventure, enough so that the Hexed Adventure constructors got in touch with me and were pretty upset. I reached out to the Cryptex Hunt constructors and confirmed that the author of this particular puzzle hadn’t seen the previously published puzzles, which satisfied me and my Setec colleagues. On the other hand, one of the other constructors argued that if he had seen it, the puzzles were different enough that it wouldn’t be an issue. Sorry, not a chance. There are enough puzzlehunts in the world that some ideas are inevitably going to be duplicated, but if you’re aware before construction that a connection has been used before (which apparently wasn’t the case here), you have the responsibility to let it go.
Thursday: I don’t remember for sure which puzzle this was… I think it was the Pigpen-cipher-based one (set in an actual pigpen!). In any case, another where I didn’t get to work on it as scheduled, but it didn’t put up too much resistance. Nicely designed.
Friday: This was my second and last chance to win a daily puzzle, and I benefitted from the fact that (a) it was a word puzzle, and (b) it had multiple ahas that were likely more approachable if you have a lot of puzzlehunt experience. The puzzle consisted of an elaborate multi-floor dungeon which, based on previous puzzles, I started mapping right away. In certain rooms there were numbers scratched on the wall, and in some there were cryptic clues. I solved some of the clues and determined that they were all producing 7-letter words… It took me a little while to realize that the dungeon itself was the (three-dimensional grid) and that the clue rooms were all in first-letter positions. I ran around filling the grid and got enough numbered letters to figure out the command I needed to execute, but then I was surprised to discover I still needed a six-letter answer beyond that. Fortunately my map was organized enough for me to notice that each face of the roughly cube-shaped grid had three of one letter (from A to F) extending out, and one odd-man-out letter. Those letters, ordered from A face to F face, spelled the answer. A really beautiful construction, with the 3-D grid making the most of the MUD structure and an unexpectedly slick final answer extraction.
As soon as I finished, I jumped into the escape room Slack to see how other solvers had done; when I said the puzzle was great, Justin asked why I wasn’t still solving… When I pointed out that I was done, he confirmed that I had finished first. I actually finished with a comfortable five-minute cushion (I took 27 minutes and the next solver took 32), though I maintain that this was only because Projectyl was ineligible having won on Monday. He’ll come up again in Finalsgate, which I’ll get to in another post, because this is getting long.