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.

2020 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 2: Some Puzzles I Remember

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

[Before I start, if you’re seeing this shortly after I post it on Sunday, you may have time to drop by Left Out’s AMA on the Mystery Hunt subreddit. And even if you’re seeing this later, I’m sure the Q&A there will still be interesting to look at after the fact!]

It’s more standard for me to start by talking about structure, since that tends to be my favorite thing about a new Mystery Hunt, but I expect I’ll have more complex things to say about that, so I’m going to start with a rundown of some puzzles I remember solving (or not) and have something to say about. They don’t necessarily represent my favorite puzzles that I did, and certainly not my favorite in the Hunt as a whole since I still haven’t seen everything!

The Ferris of Them All

This was my first instance of following Setec’s planned “casual approach” to this year’s Hunt; this released very early, and while abstract logic puzzles often get devoured very quickly on our team, Jackie and I decided to print out our own copies regardless of what everybody else was doing. (The team explicitly mentioned solving puzzles in parallel as a way to make sure we didn’t finish first… in practice, when one group finished a puzzle, everyone else usually stopped, and if a group didn’t let other folks know what they were doing, feelings sometimes got hurt, so we’re still working out the kinks.)

Some steps of the puzzle were harder than others; I think on Step 2 we realized too late that looking ahead to Step 3 would have eliminated some options, and so on Step 3, I used some constraints from Step 4. Jackie and I mostly worked independently and then combined forces when we got stuck. If I’d known we were going to be struggling to finish the Hunt a couple of days later, I would have approached this (and probably some other early puzzles) very differently.

Star Maps

Star Maps was probably the puzzle I put the most time into solving, and it’s another case where if we were trying to win, I probably wouldn’t have focused it for so long; but it was very satisfying, so I’m glad I stuck with it. I joined the puzzle after the jigsaw had been assembled, at which point we needed to decide where to place the red dot pieces. We briefly pursued a red herring–surely a puzzle called “Star Maps” with fifty nodes would have something to do with connectivity of the 50 states–but Alaska and Hawaii eliminated that option, and as we got some dots placed that seemed to match up, we realized each edge seemed to pass through one graph. The more dots we placed, the easier remaining ones were to place, which led to a nice solve flow. We didn’t do ourselves any favors by setting the puzzle up in a room with poor lighting; between that and the small printing, we eventually had to use flashlights to finish solving.

For the graph identifications, we ID’d about 15 out of 50 properties (I’ve never taken a course in graph theory but I used to dabble for fun), and once it occurred to us to assume the 5’s at the ends were all “graph,” that gave us enough letters to wheel-of-fortune the first 40 out of 50 letters of the clue phrase. For the last ten, we got stuck with T???PL?????, and even once we guessed that the PL?? might be PLUS, we didn’t know what the T??? could be. With some more ID’s, we got to TW??PLUSO??, still perplexed by the four letters before PLUS; finally somebody suggested TWON (it was actually K, and I still don’t know what a snark is), and we were able to draw the answer. It was a loooong process, but it got more approachable a bit at a time, and it was very rewarding to make it to the end.

Looking at the solution, I can tell you we never wrote the properties on the intact sheet, and therefore I had no idea until now that the properties were alphabetized on the sheet. And don’t get me started about the easier-to-read erratum that came out after we solved the whole thing.

Peak Adventure (and Ox and Chairiot Races and Penny Park Guide, etc.)

I’m a fan of the sort of puzzle that is actually a little suite of variety puzzles; it provides a lot of ahas, and if any of them are unusually hard to approach, you can usually solve them from a large subset of solutions. (This should not be surprising… I like puzzlehunts enough to have a poorly updated blog about them, so of course I’m going to like puzzles that are little puzzlehunts.) I’d say the only real drawback to this kind of puzzle is that it’s time-consuming to write, so I have no idea how Left Out wedged a whole bunch of them into their Hunt.

The one I interacted with the most successfully was Peak Adventure. Clicking around the puzzles in Cascade Bay at a time that most of our power solvers were hammering away at the Safari metas, I found a nice little collection of a dozen mountain-themed puzzles. Checking our solving spreadsheet, I saw people had spreadsheetified a lot of data, but only about four of them had been solved, so I started bouncing around completing partial solves and getting a few ahas myself. In the last stage, Jackie and Josh Oratz and I figured out which three winter weather words could be combined with nonconsecutive substrings of our answers (well done by the author in making the set enumerations similar so that you needed most answers to start placing things confidently), and we worked out a final answer.

Ox was the puzzle of this type I heard the most positive feedback about on social media; I didn’t look at this during the Hunt, but Jackie and I cosolved a bunch of the subpuzzles after Hunt (I’d already spoiled myself on the extraction) and they were fun and creative, though I was sad that the sound file link was broken. There were at least two more mini-suites that proved too hard for us overall; I was sitting next to the group working on Penny Park Guide, and there was a lot of cool stuff going on, but in particular there was a lot of it, and by the time they solved it (still forward, I believe!) I believe we had solved the metapuzzle for that round and had all the other answers. I did work on Chairiot Races, and after hours of solving and many people looking, I don’t think we solved half of the subpuzzles… which was a shame since reading the solution after the fact, the end step seemed really cool. I think the pieces of this last puzzle suite were probably miscalibrated in terms of difficulty, and I’d be curious to hear how many teams solved it as intended.

Spaghetti Western

I almost included this in the mini-suite catchall section, but this one was inherently different, since the individual puzzles overlapped by four inputs, which means the main first goal was to solve for those inputs by comparing ALL of the minipuzzles, and then eventually completing each one independently. I’ve certainly played Spaghetti on Eric Berlin’s social media before (in fact, I was unexpectedly the author of the weirdest example “solution” when he presented it as an exercise at a recent NPL Con), so I appreciated the reference, and I thought the flow of solving was a lot of fun… just like in Star Maps, making progress in one area made everything else a little bit easier, so there was a gradual and satisfying acceleration toward the final answer.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Sing

I believe I was the first on our team to open this puzzle and see that I should submit the word KARAOKE and come do a thing, and if you know me at all, you know you don’t have to tell me to do this twice! We did, on the other hand, have a hard time finding a second person to go… eventually when leadership asked the room, “Seriously, we need someone to go to this thing with Dan,” Jenn Braun said, “Okay, I’ll do it. What is it?” When somebody volunteers for karaoke without realizing it’s karaoke, it’s useful if that person happens to be, like me, a former president of the MIT Musical Theater Guild.

We were happy to see some of our good friends from Attorney (I’m calling them that from now on, see Part 1), and since we’d been told HQ would be able to (and was strongly encouraged to) watch our karaoke game show, I Slacked the room that there would be Rhode/Anand content, and Tanis was very pleased. Erin unfortunately got stuck with a set of songs she didn’t recognize (Rich Bragg had to tell her to stop reading the entire list, as it made the puzzle potentially easier, at least if you hadn’t spotted the aha), and so from now on I will assume that Lady Gaga’s “Diamondheart” is an avant-garde spoken word number. For some reason, I tried to pick my song very quickly once the options came up, thinking that would help(?), and I ended up doing a mediocre down-one-octave rendition of “Feel It Still.” I only actually remember processing the middle two songs on my list of four, and choosing the one I did because I liked it much more than the other. In retrospect, based on the puzzle mechanic, I think “X’s and O’s” by Elle King was likely on my list, and I regret not choosing it because I think it suits my vocal range better. None of this was the point of the puzzle, of course.

Weakest Carouselink

This was the other game show I volunteered to go play, shortly after I woke up Saturday morning when few of our team members were awake. Apparently few teams in general were awake, as we (Todd McClary and I) ended up playing a game designed for eight people with only four. The organizers handled this by giving us four “ghost” players, which made things… anticlimactic? No, antibeginningic, since in the first four rounds, no matter what we answered right or wrong, a ghost was eliminated each time. I survived to the last round of two people, in which we tied on questions answered (I think zero each), and I got eliminated simply by virtue of order placement. Again, as above, not the point of the puzzle.

The point of the puzzle was to take the correct answers to the questions and link them into chains. Todd and I had fun trying to link the answers partially from memory and partially from the cards on our way back to HQ, so when we got there we already knew half of what we needed to do. We got stuck on extraction, but Scott Purdy walked by and noticed there was consistently one overlap that was shorter… I thought this was a bit of a stretch until I processed that the short overlap was literally “the weakest link,” and we read off the clue phrase and answer shortly afterward.

Dance Party

I didn’t get involved in the HQ step of solving this, but I was recruited when the invite to the follow-up interaction heavily implied there would be DDR. As it happens, I didn’t actually play any of the DDR, as Philip Loh came with me, jumped on the dance pad first, and never really needed to leave.

The last step of the multi-phase interaction involved placing a gibberish handout on a turntable in front of a strobe light, which highlighted the answer letters in a very cool effect. Our experience here was slightly awkward because one of the two turntable setups had broken down right before we arrived, and so our handlers were extremely paranoid about our doing anything to break the one version that remained. This led to a frustrating dynamic where they were clearly encouraging us to touch the turntable, but not do this, or this, or this… I voiced my annoyance at this and was probably unfairly impatient, since I can imagine how panicky I would be running this station with two instances suddenly becoming one. Eventually they reminded us they’d told us to bring our handouts but took all the no-longer-relevant ones away from us, which was a nice way to narrow the search space and get us to the near effect (and, of course, clear the room so other teams could play).

Wolf and Rat

Both of these were fairly straightforward, and I co-solved each of them during a period where HQ was a bit slow and we needed more answers to plug into the Safari Adventure metas. Rat was one of the first puzzles I tackled Sunday morning, and a crostic was a good thing to wake up my tired brain without requiring too much creative thinking. Wolf appeared to be a food pyramid puzzle (somehow my eye picked out the relevant lines for that amidst the others) and turned out to be a food-and-two-other-pyramids-I’d-never-seen puzzle. We didn’t get the ordering mechanism at first, particularly since the first batch of letters we extracted was anagrammable without a mechanism, but the last step was cute once we grokked it.

Film Clips

I did nothing to help with this task-then-puzzle until the end. When I arrived in HQ on Sunday morning, the emoji meta had been solved in my absence (and worked much more satisfyingly than I’d expected when I went to sleep, since I’d been finding single-digit changes in the hex codes for the emojis) and there were a handful of backsolved emoji listed on the board next to our unsolved puzzles, one of which was an envelope. There was also an envelope marked FILM CLIPS taped to the board, which we’d received after making a movie trailer and which apparently no one particularly wanted to solve. I suggested that we try the envelope emoji for Film Clips, just in case the puzzle resolved to something like “What this puzzle came in.” We did, and it did.

Magic Railway

Or as we called it, the Harry Potter Konundrum. I have a fairly established rule not to solve konundrums (or generally immersive direction-following puzzles) for my Hunt teams, because I usually get annoyed by them. So it’s a testament to the quality of this one that after glancing at a bunch of the cause-and-effect instructions, I thought it actually looked fun, and I would happily participate as long as I could be Professor Ophidian. After all, my crossword grid nameplate on my office door does contain the hidden micro-bio, “Math Snape.” Anyway, I did enjoy the interplay between characters, but I was kind of disappointed when after two actions aboard the train, I got off the train, and I never got back on. I know from experience that writing these can be exhausting, but I would have been happy for this to go about twice as long… I felt like our group had finally found a good rhythm in interpreting the instructions, and then all of a sudden we were extracting stuff. But it’s rare for me to want there to be MORE stuff in someone else’s konundrum, so compliments to the chefs.

Water Slides

This was a chutes and ladders wordplay grid variant we solved in a group of four that was very straightforward to solve, given its placement. I want to bring it up to say three things about it: (1) Given that the constructors didn’t get to pick the locations of the chutes and ladders (they were taken from the original game board), the grid fill was very impressive to me. (2) While my teammates saw immediately that the player banter referenced the clued words, I initially thought they’d reference the pictures of kids doing things on the originaly published game board. This means I spent way too much time finding a hi-res version of that image, and also that I can attest that those kids are doing weird stuff. (3) In reference to this being a pretty easy puzzle near the end of the Hunt, after Hunt someone on Left Out mentioned that they’d put some easy puzzles right near the end in order to give people a smooth landing. If this was intentional, oy, please don’t do this, constructing teams. I get this principle in the design of, say, mixtapes or calculus exams, but in a Mystery Hunt where you have to unlock earlier puzzles to open later ones, the end of the Hunt is the last place you want to bottleneck teams. If Cascade Bay and Cactus Canyon had opened their puzzles in a different order, we might have had a fighting chance to reach the endgame.

TEAMWORK TIME: Various Subtitles

I was asleep for the first few of these, so I think my first participation was Tug of War, when only five or six of us were awake, and therefore at least three of our players had to be Philip running separate instances on his computer. Anyway, I think these were fun, and whenever they occurred at a time I was awake, somebody yelled out, “Teamwork Time!” and most of the team participated. I’m told these were similar in nature to the Whistle Stops from a recent Microsoft Puzzle Hunt, and whomever you want to credit for the innovation, I think it was a cool social element for Hunt. Based on some of the interactive features in recent GPH’s, I hope/suspect Six Planes Two Words will do something similarly inspired. Though if it could not require me to work out a set of English words that adds up alphanumerically to 851, that’d be swell.

First You Visit…

This parody/loving tribute to First You Visit Burkina Faso unlocked while I was asleep, and I woke up to see everybody poking Ben Monreal (the author of the original, who was remote this year) on Slack. Sadly, I’m not sure we ever solved this, and I don’t actually know if we even cracked the pop culture reference that I now see the puzzle revolved around. Given how significant the original was in the battle between the top two teams in 2019, I think sending it up this year was great, and the particular mechanic used was ingenious. I apologize to Mark and Gaby that you didn’t get to see our team solve this, as I’m sure it would have been the highlight of your entire weekend. (Nothing else significant happened to the two of you during Hunt, did it? Well, other than the release of the Radiohead Public Library, which I’m sure caused Mark’s head to explode.)

Next time: Structure and Big-Picture Design! What was different about this Hunt compared to other Hunts? What worked? What didn’t? You decide! (Well, it’s my blog, so I quasi-decide first, then I let y’all weigh in in the comments. Speaking of comments, what puzzles did you particularly like from this year? Opine below…)

2020 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 1: Coping With Anticlimax

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

As usual, I expect to devote multiple blog posts to the premier puzzlehunt of the year. But for the second year in a row, the Brown schedule is such that there’s no buffer week between Hunt and my teaching responsibilities, so I’m about to become quite busy. As a result, Hunt posts may be spread out, though I’ll try to keep things a bit more together than I did with Miskatonic. I’ll open with a post about what I’m feeling right now a day after Hunt and address content/structure/length/policies/what-have-you later, and if there are particular topics you think should be discussed here, feel free to bring them up in the comments.

Regardless of how good the content of this Hunt was (and I think it was very very good), it will be hard not to remember this year as both the first Mystery Hunt where I explicitly didn’t want to win, and the first Mystery Hunt where my team didn’t solve all of the metas. I realize the latter might be surprising, since the vast majority of Hunt participants don’t see the end of the Hunt before HQ shuts down, and so expecting to finish is admittedly somewhat entitled. But here’s a brief summary of my Mystery Hunt experience:

  • 1998: Hunted with Setec, reached the coin location at the same time as Iliaphay, who found it during their turn in alternating shifts in the elevator
  • 1999/2000: Won with Setec, wrote with Setec
  • 2001/2002: Won with Setec, wrote with Setec
  • 2003: Hunted with ACRONYM, and we were informed during the first phase of endgame that the coin had been found
  • 2004/2005: Won with Setec, wrote with Setec
  • 2006/2007: Won with Evil Midnight, wrote with Evil Midnight
  • 2008/2009: Won with Evil Midnight, wrote with Evil Midnight
  • 2010: Hunted with Attorney (A Team That Obstinately Replaces Names Every Year), solved the last meta while HQ was open, but they didn’t have resources to run endgame
  • 2011: Hunted with Attorney, finished the Hunt
  • 2012: Hunted with Attorney, finished the Hunt
  • 2013/2014: Hunted with Attorney, wrote with Attorney [Alice Shrugged]
  • 2015: Hunted with Setec, finished the Hunt (though I slept through the endgame)
  • 2016/2017: Won with Setec, wrote with Setec
  • 2018/2019: Won with Setec, wrote with Setec

Which brings us to 2020. After writing in 2017 and 2019, the leaders of Setec Astronomy polled the team, and we pretty much established we didn’t have the time/energy/interest to run a third (well, sixth) Hunt in 2021. So we basically said we would approach the Hunt in a more casual way. We said it would be okay to solve puzzles in parallel, people should feel free to get as much sleep as they wanted to, and people brought board games, though I’m not sure any of them actually got played.

In practice, the extent to which people took their foot off the gas probably varied from solver to solver. Early on when the first logic puzzle came out, Jackie and I solved it independently even knowing another group was working on it, but other than that I thought I was going pretty much my normal speed, especially once I started to suspect how big the Hunt was, as I really didn’t want to miss out on completing the endgame. After talking to Jackie, there are still ways in which I gave less than 100%… I slept a few hours more than normal per night (especially from Saturday into Sunday), and there were a few occasions where I sunk a lot of time into one puzzle, and in a more competitive environment, I probably would have abandoned ship and looked for things that were closer to an answer. (I am glad I got to see Star Maps through to its conclusion, but man was it a time sink, and I didn’t even help people assemble the jigsaw.)

As time went on, I became more sure we weren’t likely to finish by 5pm, but I didn’t think we were doing much more slowly than usual, so I was worried we were going to enter an awkward stage; if Hunt passed 5, we couldn’t finish without winning, and I wanted to finish but we were not willing to win. This became a moot point when PNGTOPN (plane noise Galactic Trendsetters other plane noise] officially won, but now we had a race against time to try to finish our last two rounds.

We didn’t, and at the end of the Hunt, we still had 4-6 puzzles in each of those rounds we hadn’t even unlocked. I spent most of the last hour of Hunt desperately trying to contribute to Cascade Bay by backsolving one of two missing answers that would have to fit into both Lazy River and Coast Guard, apart from about 25 minutes where we had a teamwork time open and I had to learn to speak Beale. At the time, I didn’t think we had a chance at finishing on time, though I thought we definitely could wrap things up given another five hours or so. But having been to wrapup, I actually think we should have been able to get in under the wire, given three things I discovered today:

  • Our theories on how to solve the two remaining metas were pretty much exactly correct, but we just needed more inputs (in particular, for the Cascade meta, most of our answers had different lengths and didn’t pair up, and we had almost all of the PH halves and very few of the answers that actually provided meta letters.
  • My Cascade backsolving was handicapped by the fact that we hadn’t put HELICOPTER DROP into the grid yet, and so I had been trying to fill an answer in where two went.
  • At breakfast I discovered that one of my teammates had guessed a pun answer for Cactus Canyon based purely on the flavortext, but never called it in. It was correct. (Given our goal of not winning, I wouldn’t have wanted to skip an entire round while the coin was still active, but once Galactic found the coin, I desperately wish I’d known we had a guess, because if we’d been able to focus on Cascade Bay for three hours, I think we could have wrapped things up.)

I shouldn’t be frustrated about missing endgame; I had a great weekend solving well-written puzzles with people I like. But I have a perhaps unhealthy habit of characterizing myself based on accomplishments over time, and it’s hard to cope with the fact that I’ll never again be able to say I have a perfect record of finishing Mystery Hunts. But all things must come to an end, and so maybe it’s good to rip off this band-aid and not have to worry so much about getting to endgame next year, though I certainly hope we will.

In any case, the end of the 2020 Hunt was very anticlimactic for me, and I’m still strangely uneasy, but I suspect I’ll get over it in a few days, and then I can evaluate the Hunt from a more rational perspective. So I’ll check in again when I’ve chilled out.

In the meantime… answer checking without phones! Loved it? Hated it? Did the world end? Setec had a lot of members expressing displeasure about it, but for me, it was actually fine. I did wonder (once others brought it up) whether it made Hunt less welcoming for newb teams.

Recap: Miskatonic University Game, Part 6

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

I wanted to finish up this recap before the end of the calendar year, and it’s three days until Christmas (last time I said, “hopefully soon doesn’t mean December,” but it definitely did), so let’s try to wrap things up. The main things holding me back have been (a) having a busy semester with a new course prep for the first time in years, and (b) the fact that the last phase of Miskatonic University was almost certainly my least favorite part of the event.

That second thing is almost certainly not a function of event quality, though I noticed that, much like in the Famine Game, the last wave of puzzles didn’t include much in the way of plot advancement, which made things less immersive. A much more significant factor was sleep deprivation. Apart from the hour of sleep I got at the overnight location (right before the Eyeglasses Nightmare of 2019) I hadn’t managed to nap at all, and it was finally catching up to me big time.

Jackie, my usual first-choice puzzling partner (and life partner) didn’t join us for Miskatonic because she values sleep, and she asked me several times why these events don’t have sleep breaks. I think there are multiple reasons for this in a Game-style event, including the fact that having a place to sleep increases cost and logistical complications, and that people who fly in want to get the most puzzle bang for their buck. But I’m getting too old for extreme all-night puzzling, and I have to admit that a longer event with an overnight sleep stop sounds more appealing to me.

I should note that in 2001, when Palindrome declared that the Mystery Hunt was going to have an overnight break where HQ would close and no puzzles could be confirmed or unlocked, I was among the many community members who were infuriated. Lest I sound inconsistent now, I want to point out first that the Mystery Hunt is very different in that it’s a competitive event where no one is skipped forward, and so not being able to unlock puzzles while other people catch up to you is a big problem; and second, that I was literally half my current age at the time, and forgoing sleep was way less of a problem back then.

We were warned that once we parked for this phase, we’d be on foot for the rest of the time, which is again probably logistically necessary, but is arguably the worst time to be away from your van from an extended period of time, since when I really needed a nap, I didn’t have a place to take it. This was even more of an issue for our team, because (as you might remember from Part 1 of this recap posted about nine years ago) we had an oversized van, and as a result we had to park in a lot farther away from things than the intended garage, so going back to rest in the van was even less feasible. Probably the only thing that could cause me to be even less comfortable would be if when we left the van I forgot to bring my daily acid reflux medicine that prevents me from having heartburn when I eat or drink. So guess what I did?

Anyway, all of the above left me in a crankiness spiral where I wasn’t a very pleasant teammate, and I probably didn’t process the puzzles well enough that it makes sense to do a full blow-by-blow recap. So let me just mention some of the puzzles I remember liking most, and then I’ll summarize the endgame…

I already skipped over describing the puzzle we had to solve en route to Boston, which was one of the only puzzles we actually solved in the van. This was also one of the times we might have needed a laptop, since we had a bunch of Lovecraftian Christmas carol parodies on a USB, but our van had about eight places to plug in a USB, and one of them came on over the car stereo. I took the very important role of music box cranker, and while I didn’t find the carols as funny as some people did, I did enjoy IDing the melodies.

We were given a magnetic white board to use for some of the remaining puzzles, which was really convenient given that we had a lot of jigsaw-style puzzles coming up. I worked on one based on the Greenway labyrinth that was clever but a bit frustrating, and the one I enjoyed more was a “brick by brick” puzzle where we had to build a grid to accommodate a bunch of phrases with the word FISH in them. The concept of that one was not groundbreaking, but it hit a good level of difficulty for my weary brain. The other half of our team was working on a much harder puzzle at the time, and when we went to help them finish, I could see why they took longer… they definitely drew the short straw.

Puzzles from there included a Jenga puzzle (with very large provided Jenga bricks!) where we messed ourselves up by trying to construct the tower from the wrong end… a Harry Potter/Cthulhu mashup spelling bee where the text of the puzzle was funny enough to make the actual puzzle solving anticlimactic… and a letter weaving puzzle and another listed on the website that I honestly don’t remember. We then got to solve one more meta presented by a man dressed as the Gorton’s Fisherman (a joke I’m sure he only heard two or three thousand times). I remember this involved phrases associated with GOLD, SILVER, and BRONZE, and nothing else. We finished the meta early enough that we were told we’d be off for 90 minutes before the final puzzle. Most of the team went to lunch, but I was afraid eating was going to cause me pain (I still hadn’t recovered my meds) so I hung out in Boston Common and strongly considered catching a train home. Like I said, this was not a pleasant morning for me, and if the commuter rail schedule had been more cooperative (and if not for the fact that I’d need to drive to Jenn’s later and collect my stuff from the van), I might have jumped ship early. Though Jackie reminded me over the phone that if I missed the end I’d probably have serious FOMO regret later on, so I rejoined the team after lunch.

The final confrontation was a very elaborate large-scale Survivoresque physical challenge involving solving one face of a Rubik’s cube to spec and winning a game of very loosely adjudicated Simon Says. And then repeating this over and over again. As much as I wanted to fight for humanity (this was where we discovered that some of us had been assigned to support humans and some the Cthulhu cultists, though I didn’t know until later that we were sorted by inkblot puzzle answer), there was no way in hell that I was going to drag my half-asleep body into a Simon Says game, so I, along with most of my team, decided to watch. Humans won anyway. This is not a good metaphor for presidential elections. Participate when things are important, kids… don’t just expect everybody else to do the work for you.

While all of this was going on, a member of Here Be Dagons heard me whining about my acid reflux plight and gave me a Zantac. Not a permanent solution, but very helpful for the moment, and the second time somebody on another team proved to be my hero. In the alternate-timeline version of this endgame where I had both heartburn and broken glasses, I might have just wandered out on the field and started punching cultists.

After all of this, there was actually a puzzle! For most teams. We were one of two teams who didn’t get a copy, because apparently some teams took too many copies. And from what I heard, when they asked teams to surrender extra copies if they had them, somebody saw a solver hide an extra copy. That’s coming third-hand, but if you’re reading this, and you did that, thanks for being a massive jerk. Then when we did get a secondhand copy of the puzzle, it didn’t include instructions that said we should submit once we had an initial collection of words that clearly wasn’t an answer, so we spent a bunch more time trying to “solve” those words, and I think I should stop talking about this puzzle before it makes me angry.

Anyway, this was an appropriate capper to what was for me a rough seven hours at the end of an otherwise great event. Most of the roughness was my own fault, though I think taking teams far away from their mobile HQ during the period when they’re most likely to be exhausting is something construction teams should consider. (I don’t remember having the same problem during the Famine Game, but again, I was younger then.)

I feel bad that I’m ending this six-part series with my crankiest reaction, and I hope any organizers reading this note that when one of six posts is notably negative, that means the other five are mostly positive. I’ve written eight Mystery Hunts, two BAPHLs, and three NPL Con extravaganzas, and in all of these I’ve had a ton of fun creating puzzles and an overarching structure, while most of the most significant stress I’ve experienced has been tied to logistics and protecting against every problem that can occur. I feel like Game running is even more tipped toward the latter than the Mystery Hunt is (even though it involves fewer solvers), and I cannot express enough admiration to Sarah and her minions and their ability to track dozens of independent vans darting around New England and keep things from falling apart. I’ve criticized some elements of the event, and any opinions are my own; I hope my perspective is useful to anybody who runs a Game in the future, and I hope those who ran this one don’t let the negative feedback eclipse the positive.

I don’t think that last paragraph tied everything together very eloquently, but writing this entry has somehow caused me to feel sleep-deprived all over again, and thankfully I don’t have to sleep in a van or on my glasses tonight. Happy holidays, y’all. See you at Hunt.

Recap: Miskatonic University Game, Part 5

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

Real talk, folks. It’s been a long time since Miskatonic, and as it gets farther away, my memories become less focused and less useful. So as much as I want to document everything in exquisite detail, I’m going to try to go faster so I can reach the end. (Besides, this is the point in our journey where I was starting to get extremely sleep-deprived, so about half of the details I remember were probably hallucinated anyway.)

Side note: While I was being an absent puzzlehunt blogger, Puzzle Boat 6 happened! It was great even if it did take a perennial Mystery Hunt theme contender (unchosen finalist in 2009 and 2014) off the table. Grab some friends and sign up for lots of puzzly goodness.

Frat party? Frat party.

Frat party!

When we last left our heroes, they were feeling all smug that they had managed to surge past all the other teams, not knowing this was because they’d been skipped past a puzzle (the only puzzle we wouldn’t see all weekend). As it turned out, arriving to this multi-puzzle location in the fake lead was a big advantage, as a lot of the puzzles were in small rooms/areas that we initially had to ourselves, and later they were super-crowded.

The first and frattiest puzzles took place in a cafeteria area, as we arranged a collection of solo cups in beer pong formation to spell out beer names and then solved a nifty physical maze on the surface of a wooden hazing paddle. Teams were apparently sent to the remaining puzzles in this round in different orders (I am delighted that I did not have to work out the logistics of this). The other puzzles were mostly upstairs and did not feel particularly fraternity or university themed. I’m thinking that the idea was that the party was downstairs, but once you snuck upstairs you got access to all the creepy supernatural stuff that the frat bros were really up to.

We next went upstairs to solve a nice non-rectangular grid puzzle on a whiteboard, which could be erased quickly for the next team. This was one of the times we were grateful to be early, since there were stations set up for four teams to work at once. We were the only team in the room and thus we could shout out answers as loud as we wanted… I think this would have been more frustrating with other teams present, as I’m hypersensitive to overhearing unintentional spoilers.

The next puzzle involved going outside, and I’m grateful it was served to us next, because a terrifying and thematic rainstorm was rolling in. We had to grab a multicolored cryptogram from a box on a bench, and then transcribe Morse Code from a whole bunch of blinking eyes. Transcribing Morse is not easy in real time, and it’s harder in the dark, and even harder when you’re under time pressure because it’s starting to rain. Some of our data seemed wonky, but we fled into the lobby with what we had, and it was enough to finish solving inside. Meanwhile, we saw several poor souls run outside into what was now a torrent, run outside and run back in soaked with a wet piece of paper, asking, “We don’t need anything else from out there, do we?” Bad news for you.

We got shuttled between four more frat party stations, the coolest of which by far was a Ouija board with a paddle that moved automatically when you spoke a word to it (or more accurately to the data inputter listening nearby). The puzzle itself was essentially just word mastermind, but this was the sort of visually impressive set piece that I look for in a Game versus a typical puzzlehunt. We also tackled a very challenging but eventually pretty cool puzzle based around a gallery of paintings of tentacled creatures, a set of jars of mutilated stuffed animals communicating in both Braille and genetic code, and a puzzle box where the box was unintentionally open when we first arrived, and which was closed by the organizers and then didn’t open without assistance when we did the right thing. I heard positive feedback about this puzzle from others, so hopefully we just had a dud box.

Next stop: metapuzzle! We were told to proceed outside (thankfully the rain had passed) to find a dark and creepy path leading to the back of a truck. The truck contained a pretty cool padded room with words drawn on the walls and meandering paths all over the walls connecting various letters. This was yet another case where getting there early was a boon, as we had the truck to ourselves and could write down all of the paths pretty effectively. But we got stuck for quite a while on what to do with our puzzle answers and the words on the walls, until we remembered a sign on the outside saying something like “What do you fear most?” All of the items on the walls had phobia names that could be linked to our puzzle answers, yielding a meta answer.

This led to the best plot twist of the weekend; we were confronted by an excellent actor playing a stern psychiatrist in a very nicely understated performance, telling us that, in the spirit of some disturbing episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Community, everything we’d been doing so far was imagined and that we were actually in a mental hospital. It was a particularly nice touch that when he asked where we really were, and I incorrectly said, “Arkham Asylum,” without missing a beat and without breaking character, he patiently explained to me that that was a fictional location from the Batman universe. Here’s to you, creepy psychiatrist guy.

We were ahead of the curve at this point, so we were fed a non-meta bonus puzzle. I’d been carting around my laptop all weekend for no reason, and this was the one time I used it; not only did we have to speed up some super-slow recordings, we had to know exactly how much we’d sped them up, so having Audacity was a godsend. Once we finished this puzzle (which was honestly kind of tedious) we were told other puzzles weren’t ready for us, and that we’d be paused for about an hour. So we squatted in the room we’d solved that puzzle in, turned off the lights, and attempted to take a nap.

Bad morning!

When I woke up, I encountered the most horrific moment of the weekend. In trying to fall asleep, I’d tried a lot of positions including a few in which I slumped onto my bag on the table. My glasses were also on the table, and presumably at some point I had put my bag, and all of my head weight, onto the glasses. So when I put them on, they had been bent and mangled to the point where I could not place them on my head in a position I could see. This was really distressing, and thankfully one of the people around when I was freaking out about this was brave enough to carefully bend them back into position. I don’t remember who you were, glasses repair guy, but you kept me from having a panic attack, and thus you occupy an echelon even higher than creepy psychiatrist guy. I still had trouble getting past how jarring this experience was, and much to my team’s dismay, I proceeded to tell this story to everyone I encountered for several hours.

Before departing for breakfast, we had another quick interaction where we established we were consciously choosing madness (as opposed to exposing the charade of Evil John Hodgman, making this officially more like Buffy than Community), and we solved an inkblot-themed puzzle, folding sheets of paper to yield the phrase THAT WAY LIES MADNESS. As we’d find out after the event was over, this was one of two possible answers to this puzzle, which was integrated into the event in a surprising way that we wouldn’t fully appreciate until much late.

For breakfast, we finally took the van to another location, where before entering the main room, we were whisked off into a small room where we were told there was a humans-versus-cultists war brewing, and we were on the human side. Given the general dark undertones of the event, I assumed we were being led to believe we were helping the humans, but that we would actually secretly be helping Cthulhu. But in fact, based on the answer we’d found to the inkblot, we had legitimately been assigned to oppose Cthulhu. This is pretty cool in retrospect, but in the moment, it was just confusing.

The breakfast room had two puzzles. The first involved viewing a whole bunch of crayon drawings of monsters around the room and determining a complex monster naming convention, which we would then use to draw our own monster. Jenn drew a fantastic picture of Thaathlog that you can appreciate here, then stood in a long line only to be told it was close but not right. So we spent a long time re-studying the pictures to figure out what was wrong, and then eventually decided to re-check the exact same picture, whch was then ruled correct; apparently there was a mistake in the way the judge was interpreting the language rule. There was a second wordplay puzzle involving monster bags in monster bags in monster bags, but I don’t think I appreciated it due to being annoyed that we had been held up looking for a nonexistent error.

Once we finished these puzzles, we were given an old-timey music box, a collection of audio files, and directions to park in Boston for the final phase of Miskatonic. Which I’ll describe in the final part of my Miskatonic write-up, coming soon. Hopefully soon doesn’t mean December.