Recap: Miskatonic University Game, Part 3

(This is a recap/review of the Miskatonic University Game, which happened on August 15-18. Puzzles and solutions are not currently online but should be posted eventually, likely here. This post will likely contain spoilers.)

Happy Labor Day! Two days ago, Jackie and I won the prize division of this year’s Labor Day Extravaganza, the Revs salvaged a tie, and I have not, to date, died of a mosquito-borne disease. Decent Saturday.

So before I continue with the Miskatonic recap, let me comment on two big picture things. At the end of Part 2, I mentioned that we were surprised to be solving yet another puzzle in Newburyport; all of the puzzles happening within walking distance were feeling a lot like a BAPHL (or DASH or DCPHR for those of you who don’t live in Boston). The structure of this Game did seemed like it was based primarily around a handful of BAPHL-like robust locations (the Castle Friday night, Newburyport Saturday morning, the overnight location I can’t remember the name of right now, and then downtown Boston on Sunday) with a smattering of one-puzzle locations between the big nodes.

On one hand, I totally understand the advantages of that setup from a construction perspective; there are probably only so many locations that can accommodate many teams, so you want to make use of those locations as much as possible if you have them, and it’s also probably easier to skip teams past puzzles when the puzzle after the next puzzle is within walking distance. On the other hand, as a New Englander who’s spoiled by having 2ish local walk-around hunts in my backyard every year, it felt weird to spend both money and sleep to do a bunch of them in a row. We weren’t in our van nearly as much as any of us expected, and that took the “adventure” feeling down a few notches. That said, running these things is a logistical nightmare, and I support design decisions that mean less stress for the saints that are organizing.

Another thing I want to comment on, as alluded to above, is “skipping”… unlike in most puzzlehunts, teams in the Game are traditionally skipped past puzzles without explicitly being told it’s happening. In this Game, the puzzles fit into metas, so you might discover you skipped something when, after solving six puzzles, you reach a meta and are provided a list of eight answers, two of which you might not have seen before. There also aren’t explicit standings during or after the event (at least I didn’t think so, but more on that later), so what’s the motivation to solve quickly? I can think of at least three reasons: (1) Keeping up with the top teams makes it less likely that you’ll skip a puzzle. (2) Arriving at locations early makes it more likely that the locations are comfortable and have good solving space. (3) I just think solving puzzles with the goal of finishing quickly is fun.

In any case, we were trying to go at high speed throughout, and since we were never fed an unearned meta answer, we were put on “pause” due to not having puzzles available a couple of times, and we even earned one explicitly bonus puzzle, we were pretty confident that we got to see everything. So imagine our faces when data/statistics were released to teams last week, and it turns out we DID skip a puzzle! Dagnabbit. I blame the ^#%$^@ boats. We were one of five teams to solve 45 out of 46 puzzles; congrats to the Burninators and The Gray Old Ones for being the only teams to move fast enough to see everything. (The GOOs is Brent Holman’s team, and I knew they were the only ones to see one puzzle in the Famine Game, so this was not a surprise; and I didn’t see Wei-Hwa Huang from Burninators at most of the Saturday stops, so they were clearly staying ahead of us.)

This could be a post by itself, but I really need to keep making progress while I still remember some of what happened, so:

Saturday, continued

The last stop in Newburyport was a pond (lake?) where we were given a tiara and handout shaped like the tiara (which, fun fact, I didn’t notice at first). The person giving out puzzles also recommended we choose a place “near one of the birdhouses,” which was doubily useful because I don’t think I would have noticed one birdhouse, much less that there was more than one. We needed to gather info from birdhouses all around the pond (lake?), and we sent a couple of team members to go looking… But our team mojo was still not at maximum function, and instead of suggesting that the teammates text us info as they got it, we waited for them to do a full lap. Which took a while, because it was a big pond (LAKE?). Once we had the necessary info, all of which was pre-existing but some of which the constructors had to rebuild at the last minute when a birdhouse disappeared, we drew some lines and solved a puzzle and left with a tiara (possibly being worn by Princess Tanis at the time).

Now we finally got to drive somewhere (forgive me for forgetting where) and it wasn’t totally clear from the instructions whether we’d need to solve something on site or if someone could pick up something to bring back for solving in the van. So we sent Scott into the park initially, and he came back to confirm that, no, he could not bring the display of sixty boxes with him. This was my kind of puzzlehunt puzzle, in that there was an immediate task you could sink your teeth into (taking lots of superimposed sets of letters and figuring out what words they represented) but still having a nice aha to work out (the numbers on the sides of the boxes indicated the lengths of *adjacent* words in clues, and stringing the words together to form clues was a satisfying challenge). This was one of many puzzles in the weekend where I collected a bunch of data and wrote it down in handwriting half the team couldn’t read, which slowed us down, but it felt like we picked up some time on the teams we were competing with, though the data dump suggests that wasn’t really the case.

Next stop: Georgetown, MA, where some boards with photos connected by colored strings, conspiracy-theory-style. (These puzzles were starting to feel not-very-Lovecraft-themed.) It didn’t take us too long to notice the pictures were cluing MA towns (it helped that half of us were local and one of the images was, well, Georgetown), giving us a bunch of sequences of towns and no idea what to do with them. This location was extremely sunny as well, so our brains were being fried as we stared at our town lists.

I had plugged my phone in to charge in the van, and for reasons I won’t get into, I couldn’t go back to get it. So I was suggesting things we might want to look up (without being able to do it myself) leading to a testy exchange with a teammate. This caused me to storm off and stand under a nearby tree with my copy of the town lists, which was a blessing in disguise, because by abandoning all possible outside reference options, I tried just pulling letters from each name, and noticed I could spell one of the town names with letters from town names. I returned to the group, and we were able to work out a town-name-to-letter cipher to produce seven town names and thus seven letters, which we anagrammed to form an answer. I still don’t know if there was supposed to be a less haphazard way to decide which letter to pull from each town (rather than just a constrained cryptogram) but we definitely banked “send Dan off to sulk” as a potential solving technique for the future. This was another stop where it felt like we made up time, but the solve data suggests that if we did it was minor. These stats are super-interesting, but also very ego-deflating. Maybe those are both good things.

This is a completely random place to interrupt the narrative, but it’s getting late here and tragically it is no longer the season in which academics can sleep in. I may have to speed this recap up in future chapters.


Plug: Mark Halpin’s Labor Day Puzzles 2019

I’m still in the middle of blogging the Miskatonic University Game, but as it’s the Saturday before Labor Day, I would be derelict in my duties if I didn’t remind you that Mark Halpin’s annual Labor Day Puzzle Suite is premiering today at 1pm Eastern. This is traditionally one of my favorite online puzzlehunts of the year, as Mark’s puzzles are usually very challenging but elegant and fair. Solve, enjoy, and tip!

This will also be my first puzzle-soccer-conflict day in a while, as the Revs play at home tonight at 7:30, so under non-puzzle circumstances we would probably show up to tailgate by 5 (and I doubt we’ll be done solving by then). On the other hand, my region of Massachusetts is currently beset by lethal EEE-infected mosquitoes, so I’m not sure I ever want to go outside after dark again. Off to the drug store now to buy all of their insect repellent.

Recap: Miskatonic University Game, Part 2

(This is a recap/review of the Miskatonic University Game, which happened on August 15-18. Puzzles and solutions are not currently online but should be posted eventually, likely here. This post will likely contain spoilers.)

Friday at the Castle

Hammond Castle did not disappoint as a thematic setting; when we arrived, Chancellor Red welcomed us to the Activities Fair and ushered us across an honest-to-goodness drawbridge and into a stone basement with lots of art and antique displays. We were also given an envelope full of puzzles, and while no time limit was announced, we had a self-imposed urgency based on sleep. Once we finished, we’d need to travel for an hour and get as much sleep as possible before traveling another hour. (That second hour would theoretically be a good time for bonus sleep, but it’s tough to nap when you’re geared up to start a puzzlehunt.)

I think we finished relatively early compared to the pack, though two things slowed us down. One was team strategy; even though 5/6 of us are on Setec Astronomy, we’d rarely solved together as a unit and didn’t have much of a rhythm. We divvied up puzzles and went our separate ways immediately, when we probably would have benefitted from giving every puzzle a first look as a group so that each subgroup would move forward with the wisdom of the whole team. (Speaking of the team, I don’t think I’ve formally mentioned who I solved with: my Mystik Spiral teammates included my Famine Game allies Eric Berlin and Scott Purdy, plus college-and-beyond friends Tanis O’Connor and Jenn Braun, and one of the most pleasant human beings on earth, Todd McClary.)

So for example, I went off on my own with half a list of scavenger hunt items and quickly found one, a green statue of a nude person with a fig leaf. I was hoping once I figured out what area of the castle the puzzle referred to, the rest of the items would fall quickly, but it turned out the puzzle referenced items throughout this floor of the castle, and walking around with one of two pages was not particularly efficient. I also noticed while wandering around that a bunch of people were gathered around a table full of flags in one room, and I figured one of our puzzles would eventually send us there.

The second slow-down factor came from something we were warned about in advance, the lack of cell signal and wi-fi in most of the puzzle area. Essentially we had to walk upstairs or outside to get any internet, and even then both signals were inconsistent and unreliable. This was pretty rough given that (a) some puzzle required research, (b) answer submission was online, and (c) hints were sporadically distributed online. It was annoying to have to venture out of the castle just to see if there might be a hint, and to not be able to instantly check suspected answers.

While I floundered on my art studies, two teammates were making steady progress on a sheet-music-based puzzle, and I think they solved the whole thing modulo a nudge on the extraction from teammates once we re-merged. I passed on the art runaround to teammates who were more patient and thorough at searching, and instead did something I was better at by providing an extraction aha for the sports puzzle others were working on. At some point I also realized that our web app (hard to access inside, remember) referenced four puzzles instead of three; the flag table was not something that would be pointed at by something in our packet, but in fact it was a self-contained puzzle we had not been paying attention to.

Some of us started getting data on that new puzzle, which involved a list of crossword clues and a lot of information on flags, while others found enough art pieces to extract a message telling us to request a copy of the MU humor magazine. Scott pulled me aside to work on the Jumble puzzle we’d been given (I think the two of us also worked together on the awesome pro wrestling Jumble in the 2018 Mystery Hunt) and we discovered the “humor magazine” was actually about humors, a very nice touch. From there, we proceeded fairly smoothly (once we found a 4G spot outdoor to bring up the Wikipedia article on humorism).

As we solved that, the sports puzzle fell as well, leaving the flags. Our two biggest obstacles on this puzzle were not noticing early enough that the clues on a handout were also on the flags themselves (giving us a clue-to-flag correspondence that we were working without for a long time) and not being able to interpret the hints, which told us there was another thing in the castle that applied to this puzzle. The hint said we needed something “besides the table,” but I misread this as “beside the table” and was focused on the flag room itself; it turned out we needed to go back to the biggest hall and apply the puzzle data to ten colored banners hanging from the ceiling. Once we had all the inputs, this puzzle involved some very pretty wordplay, and solving the fourth and final puzzle gave us access to the The Freshman Facebook meta upstairs. Actually, let’s just call it the Freshman Facebook meta, it’s cleaner.

Teams had been asked to send a photo of each team member (with a gimmick that varied by team) to facilitate construction of this puzzle, and each of the puzzle answers (HEADGEAR, PROJECTILE, etc.) referred to items that might or might not appear in a given photo. We were presented with a large array of these photos with a “major” listed under each one. We briefly considered things like connecting dots, binary, Braille, etc., but enough of the majors started with vowels that we suspected we’d be reading off an acrostic, either by answer or overall across the grid. We got enough letters to wheel-of-fortune out the answer, and at this point our teamwork was functioning better than it did at the beginning of the evening, as we entered after another team had already started work on the meta and left before they were done.

Our team was asked to send pictures featuring our favorite number, and while my picture appeared in the puzzle (unlike a couple of my teammates), my number was cropped out. I’m not surprised by this, because the number-related answer was PRIME, and my picture featured the number 511 formed from two soccer jerseys with the numbers 5 and 11. Since 5 and 11 are prime but 511 is not, I can see how this would have confused the hell out of people if the photo wasn’t edited. Sorry, organizers!

The trip back to Dedham was much less trafficky than the rush hour trip to Newburyport. As we disembarked and half of us headed to a nearby hotel, we noticed that a tentacle holding a pencil (now on my refrigerator) had been added to the MU logo on the side of our van when we weren’t looking. I thought these might eventually become puzzle content, but they were just a neat thematic touch. That night I got as much sleep as one can get on an air mattress the night before an event one is excited about. Which is to say, not very much.

Saturday morning in Newburyport

The trip to Newburyport was also straightforward, with a brief breakfast stop at McDonald’s en route. Side note: Leading up to the event, our team had some internal debate over whether we should bring food for meals or just for snacks. We eventually settled on snacks, with a majority of the team suggesting we plan to get meals on the road. I said something about stopping at places that would be quick like McDonald’s, and the response I got could be paraphrased as, “Ha ha ha, we are adults! Unlike you, we do not eat garbage.” Well, we stopped at McDonald’s twice on Saturday, and it was not my idea either time.

Our team sat down at a table in the first location to find an exam book, since college always has exams on the first day, right? Once things got started, we found that the exam book was one of three active puzzles, with a Horology puzzle based around the exam book, a Math puzzle based on a Power Point presentation that the organizers had some difficulty starting, and an Anatomy puzzle based on a timed appointment that was more than an hour away.

Once the presentation got started, my instinct to write stuff down was defeated by other people’s instinct to photograph/video the slides, which was definitely easier to work with. The puzzle involved solving some straightforward “D in a W = 7” style puzzles with an extra snag of determining what base the right-side numbers were expressed in. Meanwhile, other team members had discovered (likely in part due to the throngs of people that had assembled near the back of the room) that the clock opposite the presentation screen was changing every few seconds. This data was even harder to collect, but we split into data collection and semaphore-deciphering, and applying the resulting message to the cities and letters in our exam book got us to an answer.

With the two available puzzles solved and our Anatomy appointment still some time away, we unlocked Cartography, an overlapping map jigsaw puzzle requiring us to walk around the surrounding town and retrieve letters missing from photos. We assembled the map and then walked around as a unit collecting letters. We were able to wheel-of-fortune the answer from a little over half of the inputs, which was perfect timing as we got the solution as we were walking back for Anatomy. While walking, we also noticed what appeared to be a puzzle distribution stop, so we knew there was likely to be at least one more puzzle in Newburyport.

Anatomy was an extra-large game of Operation that was not that much different than playing regular Operation; in fact, the Operation step felt kind of like busywork, since we only needed to know which items were at which body part, which we could tell by looking at the board. (If we set off the buzzer on an item, we had to drop it and try again, but doing that wasn’t that different from a continuous try… This activity might have been more interesting if buzzing forced us to immediately hand the “tweezers” over to someone else on the team.) Having collected the data, we were also handed a bag of all the things we extracted–which we never used, so this felt like a waste of organizer money, although I imagine it would have been necessary if a team’s data recording was flawed. We considered a few wordplay ways to use the body parts and items, and one of our early theories was correct. This sent us to the station we’d observed earlier, and despite the fact that we’d already passed it, we still got a bit lost en route.

The next puzzle… oy, the next puzzle. The web app suggested we should get lunch during this puzzle if we hadn’t already, and it’s a good thing we did, because we were stuck on it for over an hour, and at least we were stuck on it for over an hour with pizza. The puzzle had two steps: photographing a set of mosaics of sailboats along the river, and then matching pieces of construction paper to irregular tiles, after which we’d connect the holes punched in the tiles to form letters. Our main problem was that we repeatedly assigned the right letters to the wrong mosaics since their tile shapes were very similar, and even given enough hints to know how the entire extraction worked, we could not reassign enough letters to squeeze out an answer phrase. After struggling on this forever, we finally decided we should start from scratch and re-check all of the data, and I think we had to revisit every mosaic before getting an answer. Leaving the exam room we thought we were among the fastest teams, but we definitely squandered any lead we had on what I would refer to for the rest of the weekend as the ^#%$^@ boats.

Each of the answers to our puzzles so far was the title of a textbook, and at our next stop (still on foot) we were given covers to all of those textbooks, with dotted lines along which to cut them apart. The resulting pieces had some letter overlap, and we combined them into a frankentextbook with our metapuzzle answer. Having spent hours walking around Newburyport, we were ready for closure and a change of scenery, and so we eagerly consulted the web app for our instructions to go to… another on-foot stop in Newburyport? Come on.

Even though that next puzzle was still within walking distance, it was part of a new “round,” so we’ll pick up with that in the next post.

Recap: Miskatonic University Game, Part 1

(This is a recap/review of the Miskatonic University Game, which happened on August 15-18. Puzzles and solutions are not currently online but should be posted eventually, likely here. This post will likely contain spoilers.)

You didn’t need any posts in June or July, did you? I’ve been doing a lot of traveling this summer, including two weeks in France to see the knockout rounds of the Women’s World Cup, five days in Colorado to get a nasty stomach virus during the National Puzzlers’ League convention, and most recently half a week in North Carolina, my first visit to the state since living there for three years in the early 2010s… the casual racism is still embarrassing but the biscuits are still delicious.

So far the puzzle highlights of August have been the Melbourne University Maths Society Puzzle Hunt (MUMS), which my team unexpectedly won, and the long-awaited Miskatonic University Game in the Boston area. I was going to cover them chronologically, but MUMS solutions still aren’t up (and there are a lot of questions I need answered about that metapuzzle before I talk about it) so Miskatonic gets first honors.

A couple of things to note before I start writing: One is that I’m not going to try to document every puzzle we encountered, because there were a whole lot of them. Word is that they’ll be posted online in the near future, and Matt Gruskin, showing far more patience than I possess, put together a marvelously detailed blow-by-blow writeup here. (Two of my teammates also wrote reports on their perspectives, if you’d like to hear from Eric and Todd.) I’ll comment on some of the more interesting, memorable, and/or problematic puzzles, but there will be an emphasis on my team’s experiences, both during and between the puzzle solving.

The second point I want to make is that no puzzlehunt is perfect, and so I am certain that I’ll have critical things to say; but overall, this was a really fun event, and so my nitpicking should not be read as lack of appreciation. The Game is almost certainly the most difficult puzzle event to produce (the Mystery Hunt requires more content creation and testing, but I can’t even wrap my head around the site procurements and legal red tape necessary to host an event at more than a dozen locations in one weekend), and just because I have isolated complaints doesn’t mean I don’t have immense respect and gratitude for all the work invested by Sarah Leadbeater, her puzzle Nathans (Fung and Curtis), and the rest of her eldritch minions in order to make this event happen.

Disclaimers processed? Cool. Let’s roll.


As new Miskatonic University students, before our classes started on Saturday morning, we had a freshman orientation to attend in Gloucester, MA on Friday night. (At least our orientation was Friday; the organizers added in an alternate session on Thursday that allowed them to accommodate more teams.) Based on the number of people they said they could fit in, some participants on the escape room Slack I frequent had hypothesized that the orientation would be held at Hammond Castle, so I was surprised when we were told to show up to a random fraternity hall. That is, I was surprised until we were told we would be eating at that location and then proceeding to another, which I correctly assumed would be the castle.

Despite being advised to spend Friday night at a location near Newburyport, my half-local team had decided to spend the night in the Boston area, since it formed roughly a temporal equilateral triangle (one hour per side) with Gloucester and Newburyport. Or at least I thought it did, but after making plans, it occurred to me to check travel time during Friday rush hour, which was when I discovered we’d want to allot 2-3 hours for the first travel leg. Oof.

Speaking of “Oof,” I arrived at Jenn’s (our Boston homebase) to be immediately told, “Don’t freak out.” Despite her confirming with Budget two weeks earlier that they would have our van, confirming with Budget four days earlier that they would have our van, and BUDGET CONFIRMING WITH HER two days earlier that they would have our van, Jenn had gotten a call an hour before pickup that they did not have our van, and was that okay? No, it was not. Budget Rental Car Denham doesn’t have a Yelp page, but if anyone’s considering renting from them and accidentally stumbles upon this article (and has read this far for some reason), RUN AWAY AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE. Jenn and her husband started calling every rental place in town, and thankfully Adventure Vehicle Rental in Allston had a van available day-of. In fact, it was way nicer (and according to our two drivers, easier to drive) than I expected. They do have a Yelp page that’s actually riddled with negative reviews, but our experience was delightful, especially considering the alternative.

The one real drawback to our new van was that the built-in GPS made extremely poor decisions about our route to Gloucester, so after driving straight through Boston during rush hour, we got to the first location after dinner was already being served. The volunteers handling registration seemed a bit testy after having dealt with lots of other teams… we kind of wanted to grab food before submitting waivers, but they insisted on having the waivers first, presumably in case the pizza toppings were poisonous. However, when we explained one of our team members was parking the van, they didn’t seem to understand why that meant we couldn’t yet hand them six signed waivers. But once the initial chaos resolved, we received nifty non-name-specific student ID cards, collectible plastic MU cups, and some tasty pizza. We also got a car mirror hanger designed to remind us that due to our van’s excessive height, we would not be able to park in a garage near the end of the event (we were reassured an alternative lot would be provided) but that unlike many unprepared college freshmen, we could survive a trip down Storrow Drive if necessary.

I realize I haven’t even gotten to any of the puzzles yet, and they awaited at Hammond Castle after a run-down of the rules and instructions on how to use the event website. But the clock just struck midnight here, and since there’s no Game going on, I’m actually going to sleep. More solving-relevant content to come.

Summer Puzzling, Happened So Fast (Upcoming Puzzlehunts)

Hi folks! Brown’s semester is over (exams are still wrapping up but my courses had theirs last week) and so now I have months of glorious summer expanding in front of me, during which I look forward to… doing all the big work tasks I kept saying I didn’t have time to work on during the spring. But I hope to do some puzzle-solving as well, so in addition to the downs-only solving I’m trying out for Boswords training, here’s a rundown of puzzlehunts available either in New England or more nationally this summer.

P&A: Foggy abruptly moved the next P&A drop from last Saturday, when I couldn’t work on it at all since I was at Disney World celebrating my dad’s 70th birthday, to tomorrow, when I can barely work at it all because Jackie’s in a wedding at 1:30pm with a reception at 4:30. I do hope to squeeze in an hour and a half or so of solving between, but since I’m starting late and solving briefly, my only hope is that the meta is very short-circuitable, but only by me. I have mentally prepared myself for my top ten streak to stop at 77, but the last time I did that, a miracle occurred and I still came in tenth, so we’ll see.

There’s a second issue scheduled for July, likely on the 6th. Je vais voyager en France that weekend, and I can’t say much more about that in French because Duolingo hasn’t taught me future tense yet.

Puzzle Potluck: On June 15, Mystery Hunt regulars Super Team Awesome is presenting their second edition of Puzzle Potluck, a short online event that evolved from their habit of writing puzzles for fellow team members. I still haven’t solved the puzzles from the last iteration, but I skimmed them and they seemed fun and fairly accessible. There’s no team size recommendation that I can find on the website, but I don’t recommend throwing a dozen hardcore solvers at this one. Or do if you want to finish in an hour and brag about it. Maybe that’s how you roll. Who am I to judge?

BAPHL: After a long radio silence on the BAPHL front, two events were announced in quick succession for June 9 and July 13. I’ll definitely miss the second of these, as it’s during the National Puzzlers’ League convention (if you’re in the probably empty sliver of Venn diagram that lives in Boulder, Colorado and reads this blog yet doesn’t know about the NPL Con, you should definitely stop by), and I’m finding it challenging to assemble a full team for the first of these, partially due to the short notice and partially because my regular teammates are starting to develop families and non-puzzling lives.

I would urge future BAPHL organizers to (a) try to pick and announce dates well in advance, and (b) check for potential conflicts, both of which will help you maximize the number of people that get to participate in your event. Folks going to the NPL Con are by no means entitled to have BAPHL only happen when they’re around, but if I was putting in the time and energy to write a BAPHL, I’d want the most active puzzlers to be around for it. If you will be around for it (the first is in East Cambridge, and the second in a Boston-area location to be announced later), I recommend signing up, as BAPHL is almost always a good time.

MUMS: The Melbourne University Puzzle Hunt hasn’t happened since 2016, but they’re advertising a 2019 event on the aforementioned Puzzle Hunt Calendar… However, they were advertising it for an early summer date (in May or June, I believe) and it got shifted to August, so who knows if it will be moved again. As it stands, it’s scheduled for August 7-16, which likely means the puzzle releases will happen at night on August 6-10. No website link because I can’t find a current website that acknowledges the new event. Google it in August?

Miskatonic University: As mentioned earlier, the application process for this New England drive-around event is closed, so either you’re participating and know about it, or you’re not. The game designers were at some point looking for teams to participate in a dry run earlier in the summer and to man puzzle stations during the event itself. I don’t know if they still need personpower, but if you’re in the Boston area or will be and want to help, you can find info and a contact address near the bottom of this FAQ.

Metapuzzles, Backsolving, and Short-Circuiting: A Study of Three Puzzlehunts

(This post will include limited commentary, and potentially spoilers, on three puzzlehunts from earlier this year: the MIT Mystery Hunt, which can be found here), the Galactic Puzzle Hunt, which can be found here, and the Cryptex Hunt, which can be found here.)

Hi all! Since we last spoke, Mystik Spiral was (were?) accepted to Miskatonic University, and my team is very excited. You can see our application video (and lots of others) on the Miskatonic site. In addition to an obvious bias toward ours, I really enjoyed the videos from The AMI-Gos, Boneless Chickthyologists, Friday the 13th Part VI, The Gray Old Ones, and Innsmouth High School Scuba Squad. I have friends on all those teams, which probably made them extra-amusing.

I’ve promised to discuss backsolving policies in the Mystery Hunt, which was going to be Part 6 of my Mystery Hunt recap, but then I participated in two other puzzlehunts that dealt with backsolving in very different ways, and I thought it might be useful to compare and contrast. Of course, that means I’ve been assembling an epic post in my head for weeks, which makes it harder to get things on the page. Let’s see if it lives up to my personal hype.

First of all, let’s get some terminology straight, since I know some people think of “backsolving” as solving any puzzle with partial information, but I think it’s more specific than that. I’ll define backsolving as the practice of solving a metapuzzle (or at the very least, figuring out how the metapuzzle works) and using that information to confirm a correct answer to a feeder puzzle without solving that puzzle. I’ll define short-circuiting as the practice of solving a metapuzzle and understanding how it works, but managing to do so while missing a significant number of feeder answers. (Note that short-circuiting often leads to subsequent backsolving.) Short-circuiting sometimes results from wheel-of-fortuning, a common puzzlehunting strategy where the solver figures out that a puzzle or metapuzzle is generating a series of letters, and the solver manages to guess a lot of missing letters by pattern-matching.

Okay? Okay.


What elements of this puzzlehunt encouraged backsolving?

In the 2017 Mystery Hunt, solving metas was a very powerful thing. We intended quest metas to be a mechanic through which power teams kept themselves from being bottlenecked, but if you solved quest metas quickly (not to mention if you solved character metas quickly and used them to help you solve other character puzzles) you could cut through the Hunt like a hot knife through butter.

There were multiple exploitable features of that structure, but one was that strong teams solve metas faster, so if solving metas opens puzzles faster, the rich get richer. This was one of the motivations behind a structure that based unlocks exclusively on puzzle solving rather than on metapuzzle solving. The problem with this is that if you solve a metapuzzle and don’t get a bonus for it, it massively incentivizes backsolving, as we discovered when many many teams (starting with Left Out, who short-circuited the first meta with ten missing answers, which is insane, by the way) started calling the remaining answers in for everything in sight.

What, if anything, did this puzzlehunt do to discourage backsolving?

We didn’t have any explicit policy (certainly not communicated to teams at large) about backsolving. When we wrote the Hunt, we thought the “mingled metas” mechanism would effectively reduce backsolving, because teams wouldn’t know where to put their orphan answers. But a lot of us on Setec feel that calling in an answer twice is totally part of Hunt, and calling it in nine times is tres obnoxious. A lot of teams don’t feel that way, and in their defense, if the goal is to win and you have no way to know other teams aren’t doing that, it’s hard to argue that you should place artificial constraints on yourself.

In practice during Hunt, when we felt a team was attempting backsolves to an abusive extent, we sometimes put them in the “penalty box” by giving them a stern phone call and then not answering their calls for a while. We’ve done this in past years and it usually only affected a few teams… but this year we hit the trigger too quickly and then felt compelled to treat other teams the same way out of fairness. Yet based on comments on an earlier post, we didn’t succeed in consistency here. And there’s a question of whether penalizing people for doing something we didn’t tell them to do is fair. I think there were balls dropped here.

What, if anything, did this puzzlehunt do to discourage short-circuiting?

We thought the mingled metas would make it tougher to solve metas in general, particularly in that you might not know how many feeder answers to expect. We also ended up with more metas than usual where even when you knew how the meta worked, you needed most or all of the answers to carry the process out. This was not intentional on my part as meta captain, but I suspect some of our authors had the 2017 Cleric round in the backs of their minds.

What (in your blog host’s opinion) should be changed?

Backsolving is a part of Mystery Hunt, and I don’t think that should stop. How much backsolving is appropriate is an incredibly controversial question, and I encourage you to voice your opinions in the comments. I’ve already said some of what I think in the “two backsolves vs. nine backsolves” example above. But there’s a whole lot of gray area between 2 and 9… where’s the line? And how do you set up a policy that limits abusive backsolving, but doesn’t penalize teams (especially casual teams) if a puzzle is legitimately challenging for them and they need to try multiple answers?

I would recommend, at the very least, two things to future Mystery Hunt constructors. First, if you’re going to have a backsolving limit policy, make it clear to solvers as part of the Hunt instructions. Don’t make them guess, and don’t assume their sense of etiquette matches yours. Second, there are two things Setec pretty clearly agrees should be prevented by the Hunt software; it should not allow teams to have two pending answers submitted for the same puzzle, and it should not allow teams to have the same answer submitted for two different puzzles. Should teams be able to spam the answer confirmer? Maybe, maybe not. But I maintain that submitting two things that can’t both be right, and cutting in front of everyone else before you find out if either of them is wrong, is a jerk move. Our tech team realized after Hunt started that this would probably have been easy to implement. We just didn’t think of it, because we didn’t realize that SOME OF YOU ARE MONSTERS.


What elements of this puzzlehunt encouraged backsolving?

To start with, the fact that you had to solve every single puzzle. I know this because… well, let’s back up.

The hunt was run through ClueKeeper and built around a collection of puzzles embedded in a fake magazine. Incidentally, I really liked this combination; in a puzzle set like this, one of the potential annoyances is not knowing if this page is one puzzle or two; having a separate interface that listed which magazine elements had corresponding puzzle answers (and their enumerations) felt like it made the playing field more fair.

Last year, the Cryptex Hunt (eventually) got a couple of full posts from me in this blog… that was back when I had small amounts of free time. So this year, instead of a full post about how I failed to win Cryptex Hunt, you get a partial post about how I (co-)WON Cryptex Hunt! Wooooo! This was not something I expected when I fell asleep. I solved a bunch of puzzles right away when the hunt began on a Friday evening, but I started to stall out, and the leaderboard showed a big lead for [flips my Jangler/Projectyl two-sided die] Projectyl, with several other solvers slightly ahead of me. I didn’t feel close enough to finish before passing out, so I went to bed, expecting a winner to be crowned by the time I woke up.

One wasn’t. I guess you know that since I already told you I won, unless you thought I somehow finished the hunt in my sleep, which might be a better story, so feel free to skip ahead and pretend that happened. Actually, in the morning I noticed no one had solved the puzzle I believed was the meta, and I had some ideas on how it might work, so I decided to put more focus on that. Also, Jackie was now awake and able to contribute, and she made some progress on puzzles I wasn’t getting anywhere on.

I thought I was placing enough answers into the meta grid that my idea must be right, but I proved not everything could go in. Then I realized that if one of the letters was misplaced, everything could fit; so I pinged the main hunt author, and he confirmed that the grid was wrong, which was released as an erratum shortly after. That fix was enough to solve the meta, and we were the first to do so! But nothing special happened! I poked my head into the escape room Slack and asked if solving the meta meant we won. Nope. The goal was to solve every puzzle. (Errol seemed surprised… I’m not sure if he was surprised the meta could be solved without all the inputs, or just that anybody would try? Neither surprises me, but this is what I do.)

And so the backsolving began. Because enumerations were given and we had a few letters in some answers, we were able to guess two of them right away. Another took a bunch of guesses, because the answer we wanted, while common, was not an option that came up on OneLook (it was a title). One answer resisted backsolving, and we had a large chunk of that puzzle solved… Eventually Jackie cracked the last step of it, and we finished our complete.

So to answer the question I asked in the first place, if a hunt allows you to solve a metapuzzle but won’t let you be done unless you go BACK and SOLVE all of the puzzles that fed into it, then yes, that incentivizes backsolving.

What, if anything, did this puzzlehunt do to discourage backsolving?

Since the hunt was on ClueKeeper, there wasn’t anybody on the other end of the line to throttle excessive backsolving. CK itself does have some auto-throttling; if I submitted three wrong answers in a short period of time (guess how I know this), it would lock me out for a minute. What effect does that have on a solver? I can say that it slows you down, but it also means you feel no guilt whatsoever submitting an answer 61 seconds later. That may or may not be the desired effect.

What, if anything, did this puzzlehunt do to discourage short-circuiting?

Nothing, really. But if you did short-circuit (as we did), the “gotta solve ’em all” requirement made that accomplishment less helpful, unless you complemented it with backsolving.

What (in your blog host’s opinion) should be changed?

Mileage will vary here, but one of the things I find satisfying about puzzlehunts is that it’s a mad dash from Point A to Point B. Good metapuzzles don’t require you to have all the inputs, and the process of solving around the missing data is something I really enjoy. The goal of solving everything on the page feels more like a crossword than a puzzlehunt, where you’re not done until you’ve filled in every box. I enjoy crosswords, but I enjoy them more for the themes; once I know the theme, completing the grid is only appealing to me as a timed competition (or practice for timed competition).

In a structure like last year’s Cryptex Hunt finale, where you only see one puzzle at a time and you need to solve each one to unlock the rest, it makes sense that you have to solve everything to finish. But in an event like this one, where everything was provided at once, finishing the metapuzzle and then having to go back and clean up was a bit weird. Backsolving as a strategy to advance in a puzzlehunt feels like part of a game; backsolving to check the boxes to be declared the winner was anticlimactic. (Apart from that objection, I thought it was a well-designed event that was slickly presented and led to an exciting race that kept changing leaders. And I’m excited to have a gorgeous cryptex in our house soon!)


What elements of this puzzlehunt encouraged backsolving?

The Galactic Puzzle Hunt is a lot like the MIT Mystery Hunt on a smaller scale, which makes sense since it was created by a Mystery Hunt team. As I understand it, the 2017 GPH was actually created because Galactic Trendsetters had time on their hands after the 2017 Mystery Hunt ran short. Add this to the fact that the 2009 WALL-E-themed GPH was clearly inspired by the Escape From Zyzzlvaria theme my team used for the Mystery Hunt that year, and I think we can all agree that I am the spiritual founder of the Galactic Puzzle Hunt.

Anyway, there are a lot of gonzo puzzlehunt ideas, in terms of both puzzle content and overarching meta structure, that have rarely fit anywhere other than into the Mystery Hunt, and I admire the fact that GPH throws a lot of these ideas at the wall and most of them stick. I love both the Puzzle Boat and Mark Halpin’s Labor Day puzzle suites, but I think GPH has established itself as the premiere online-only puzzlehunt in terms of quality and ambition.

Anyway, my point is that GPH is a lot like the Mystery Hunt. There are a lot of reasons backsolving is beneficial during Mystery Hunt. So there are a lot of reasons backsolving is beneficial during GPH.

What, if anything, did this puzzlehunt do to discourage backsolving?

GPH has what I think is a brilliant policy for wrong answers. The various Australian online puzzlehunts (MUMS, SUMS, CISRA we hardly knew ye) often allow either 100 answer attempts per puzzle, or per day. This is a very reasonable cap if the puzzles are clean; they aren’t always, and I remember at least one Aussie puzzle on which my team spent 50 guesses before getting it correct, and we weren’t backsolving. I don’t remember it fondly.

GPH instead allows only 20 guesses per puzzle, but they note in their rules that if you use 20 guesses, and they judge you used them legitimately in an attempt to solve the puzzle (as opposed to, say, trying the name of every US state), they’ll give you more. This seems like a sane way to curb abusive backsolving attempts while still allowing for the possibility that a nasty puzzle might call for a high quantity of submissions. I think 20 may still be a high limit for an event with live submissions, but the GPH model works just fine for an electronic-submission event.

Having said all this, backsolving is only relevant if you have unsolved puzzles by the time you solve the meta. That didn’t happen a lot in this year’s GPH because…

What, if anything, did this puzzlehunt do to discourage short-circuiting?

My team, Killer Chicken Bones, was in second place near the end of the weekend before two things happened: (a) most of my team disappeared (half the team knew in advance they’d be leaving for two separate work trips in Hawaii, and another had separate work obligations… all this was before I had an ugly health scare later that week), and (b) due to the length of the hunt, the organizers started passing out meta hints and free answers like candy. All of this made me a lot less engaged in the event  and led to our team not finishing, but we probably would have kept more momentum going if we hadn’t gotten to the point where we had four puzzles left to solve, and NO METAPUZZLES AVAILABLE. Despite the fact that we had two of these left to solve. What?!

As it turns out, the structure was designed such that you would get to see a meta once you solved a certain (pretty high) proportion of the puzzles going into that meta. During the hunt, we had no idea this was what was happening; we just thought they required a lot of total puzzle solves to access the metapuzzles. Later I heard that one of the last metas we opened was the first meta another team opened. This certainly blocked both backsolving and short-circuiting. You can’t solve a metapuzzle with 6/10 answers if you can’t even see the metapuzzle!

This was especially problematic with this year’s structure/theme, which revolved around learning a constructed alien language. (I could go on about that for hundreds of words, but this is closing in on 3K already. In short, I liked the concept, and I enjoyed associating concepts with words/roots; I did not enjoy trying and failing to work out the tense/case infix conjugations, and ultimately I thought the depth and detail of the language design was too big for its britches.) All of the metapuzzles involved digesting certain aspects of this language, which took time. I find that in most puzzlehunts, I look at the meta(s) early and spend a lot of time thinking about it in parallel as I solve other puzzles. That wasn’t possible here because of how late the metas opened. Once we finally opened one, we had to start from scratch. Ultimately, we failed to solve the Artists meta, which certainly had the most work to do after opening it, and if it had been available earlier, we could have used our resources more efficiently.

What (in your blog host’s opinion) should be changed?

There is a traditional “eighty percent rule” for metapuzzle writing. The idea of this is that a good metapuzzle should be solvable with any 80% of the answers and ideally not much less. This forces teams to solve a reasonable number of feeder puzzles (and thus not short-circuit the meta too drastically) while allowing them to solve around a puzzle that might be broken, too hard, or simply not their cup of tea.

This is a hard balance to nail (I’ve failed at it many many times) but the solution is not to hide the metapuzzle until teams already have 80% of the answers. What makes a metapuzzle special is that it’s initially impossible, and it gradually becomes more approachable as you obtain more feeder answers from elsewhere in the hunt. If you don’t show teams the meta until they have enough answers to solve it, it’s not really a meta… it’s just one more puzzle. Albeit one that you have to solve to advance, and thus one you wished you’d had more time to look at.

GPH has done really cool and creative things with their unlock structures, and I have faith that they will keep trying new stuff (until they win Mystery Hunt and get to try stuff on an even more epic stage). I hope, at least in terms of what I like about puzzlehunts, that they consider this “don’t show them the meta until they have most of the answers” mechanic to be something that did not stick to the wall.


Well, first of all, I can’t believe you read this far. The hunts described above are three different hunts of different lengths run for different audiences, so it’s not surprising that they all dealt with metapuzzle “enforcement” differently, and the results varied. I wrote one of these hunts, I won another, and I crashed and burned in the third, and my instincts on how constructors should deal with backsolving and short-circuiting were sharpened by all three experiences. What are your opinions and instincts about it? Let’s chat about it in the comments. I’ve put a few hours and a few thousand words into writing this, so I’m going to bed, and I assume that by the time I wake up, Projectyl will have won the blog post.

2019 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 5: Acknowledgments

(This is a recap/review of the 2019 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened in January. Puzzles and solutions can currently be found here. These posts will contain many spoilers. Maybe not so much this one.)

It’s an atypical Thursday night at Chez Dan, as Jackie is on an overnight trip to NYC, and I’ve been alternating between solving logic puzzles and catching up on wrestling. (Okay, my portion isn’t that atypical.) In any event, this seems like a good time to write up my penultimate Hunt post, which may be of less interest to puzzle enthusiasts… I’ve said what I want to say about Hunt content, and now I want to thank some people who made Hunt happen.

I should start by saying that everyone on Setec (listed here) contributed to Hunt and everyone was important; I’m not writing this post to try to identify everybody or try to single out who did the most work, but rather just to tip my hat to the people who contributed especially to my own Hunt-writing experience.

Setec picked up a whole bunch of new members (from Illegal Immoral & Fattening, Left as an Exercise for the Reader, and Om [some number of Noms that I can’t remember]) this year specifically for construction. Setec was not what I would consider a small team when we won, but we weren’t big either, and the Hunt has grown to a scale that I don’t think we could have written without recruiting. So thank you to Sami Casanova, Chris Cieslik, Jesse Gelles, Avram Gottschlich, Albert Lin (actually returning to Setec after a long time away), John McLaren (repeatedly called Australian John despite being the only John on our team), Matto Mildenberger, Julia Tenney, Julia Urquhart, Rebecca Vessenes, Mike and Sandy Walsh, and anybody else I may have missed. Without you, Hunt likely would not have happened, and I hope some of you stick around to solve with us in January.

We had our executive structure mostly figured out before the new folks joined us, which probably made it difficult for them to wiggle their way into big-picture roles. Chris Cieslik thankfully insisted on being involved in the nuts and bolts of releasing and ordering puzzles, and he built some simulations that provided a nice counterpoint to my approach of “my instincts from running Hunt before say this feels right.” These are the advantages of having an experienced game designer in your ranks… I now realize I’m too late to plug his company’s Kickstarter, but you can read about the successfully funded game here.

I’d also like to credit Rebecca Vessenes for taking control of the midgame (the birthday party interaction) late in the year along with Justin Werfel. I led the midgame construction in 2017, and a big priority was making the whole thing run efficiently, since I knew we’d be executing dozens of times with varying groups of people. My biggest worry in handing it off was that whoever took it over might not be as organized, but Rebecca did phenomenal work in gathering and constructing the props and equipment, and more importantly, idiot-proofing the organization and instructions so that anybody could portray the Fool and their handler. Given that none of us had done any event planning with Rebecca before, we realy lucked into having the best possible person doing this.

Speaking of Justin, I don’t know if he noticed it at the time (it might just have been my being pompous), but the first year we hunted together with Setec, our personalities didn’t gel well at all. But I’m glad we’ve now had the chance to construct together, because it turns out he’s a great collaborator, and in particular, as I said in my story post, I really appreciate the character development (and scriptwriting) he contributed to weave the April Fool into the plot. In my hands, the Fool would likely have been a generic chaotic evil villain (that’s what I do), but the story we told was a lot more nuanced, and a lot of that is Justin’s doing.

Scripts are only as good as the people who perform them, and so thank you to Marisa Debowsky, Philip Loh, Josh Oratz, Greg and Margot Pliska, Scott Purdy, Julia Urquhart, and particularly Jesse Gelles and Steve Peters for bringing the kickoff to life. I had never seen Jesse perform before, and I cast him based on meeting him for a couple of days at our construction retreat, and he surpassed my expectations as Jack. In contrast, I’ve seen Steve perform tons of times, as we did a lot of musical theater together at MIT. Given that Steve gave me my first significant role in college (as Adam/Noah in Children of Eden), it was nice to finally get to direct him in something.

I cannot even fathom Matt Gruskin’s computer skills. Certainly he contributed to the website and made Hunt happen from a tech perspective, but I lost count of the number of times we needed an interactive implementation of a puzzle or a simulation of a tester saying “what if I asked the coding guy on my team to do this?” and our default approach was, “Someone ask Matt.” Frequently I’d tell him something was no hurry and still get a response in less than an hour that was exactly what I wanted. I was sitting across from him in HQ on Sunday morning when the Hunt website went down–conveniently right after TK, our head of tech, had left to sleep–and I watched as he got on the phone with TK, and they calmly identified and fixed the problem. (To be fair, when I say calmly, Matt may have just hidden his panic well, and I only heard half the conversation, so for all I know TK was screaming.) Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and as far as I (with my pitifully amateur coding skills) am concerned, Matt and TK are sorcerers that put Mystereo Cantos to shame.

Speaking of TK (Focht), I believe that after 2017 I said he was one of a couple of people who kept me sane through the year. That was true this year as well, and since I was running metas and he was running story/structure, we had to interact a lot. TK and I often have matching perspectives about Hunt philosophical issues, and the nice thing about having a person on your wavelength like that is that when they do disagree, you tend to trust them. I know I’ve done it before, but at this point when I imagine writing a Mystery Hunt without TK on my team, I curl up in a corner and cry. Okay, to be fair, right now I do that when I imagine writing any Mystery Hunt. (I’m done for a while, for real this time.)

Almost last but by no means least, there is Tanis O’Connor, who was in charge of the whole dog and pony show. Unlike my creative rhythm with TK, Tanis and I frequently don’t approach things the same way by default, and in 2017, we had a significant number of arguments and personality clashes. So to Tanis’s credit, when we won the Hunt again, she immediately initiated a conversation with me about how we could work together without getting on each other’s nerves. We still didn’t always see eye to eye, and we still had a few disputes throughout the year, but we collaborated much more productively than last time, and I suspect that where we met in the middle was farther from her comfort zone than it was from mine. I am deeply grateful for her flexibility and her patience, and that’s just in dealing with me; as editor-in-chief, she had to keep watch over all the puzzles and deal with an entire team worth of constructors with idiosyncratic creative processes, and she made it happen. If it weren’t for Chris Morse, Setec Astronomy wouldn’t exist, and I’m glad he let me join the team back in 1998(!) when I was still in high school. But if it weren’t for Tanis O’Connor, neither of the last two Setec Hunts would exist, and I hope people appreciate all the time she’s volunteered.

Also, I don’t know if I talked about this in an earlier post, but when I unsuccessfully tested Funkin’ at the retreat (in its original form that involved mini-CDs rather than USB sticks) I thought the concept was a logistical nightmare. I insisted that we should have a website version ready to deploy if we didn’t get the donuts as intended, which I honestly didn’t think we would. I eventually leaned extra-hard into my role as a “donut truther,” repeatedly referring to “the donuts that won’t actually exist” and consistently generating rude gestures in response from Tanis, who was guaranteeing she could make the donuts happen. Hear ye, hear ye, internet. The donuts happened and were one of the most memorable elements of Hunt for many teams. Tanis was right, and I was totally wrong.

Finally, I want to thank Jackie Anderson, because if you’ve never lived with me in a year when I was writing Mystery Hunt, you have no idea what she’s been going through. (I heard at least four accounts of executive committee members’ spouses, some of whom are on Setec and some of whom aren’t, looking forward to late January when they’d finally get their husband/wife back.)

Thanks to everybody I mentioned above, and everybody else on the team; if you pick a name on the credits list, I could tell you something they did that made this a better event. But more than 1600 words in, I’m going to call this done, get some sleep before Galactic starts tomorrow evening, and hopefully moderate a backsolving discussion in a future post before the Hunt is three months old. Cheers.