My Favorite Puzzlehunts of 2021

Disclaimer for all three of my year-end top ten lists: Descriptions of puzzles/hunts may include spoilers, especially as you approach the top of the list and I have more detailed gushing to do. Also, keep in mind that these are my personal favorites, which means they are shaped by (a) my personal content tastes, (b) the fact that I tend to like harder puzzles (which doesn’t mean easier puzzles are bad!!), and (c) the fact that I happened to solve or co-solve these particular puzzles, since hunts have swelled to the size that I can rarely pay attention to every puzzle my team solves.

A good blogger would add links to all the relevant puzzles and hunts, but I’ve already spent too much time writing these posts. Maybe I’ll add them later, and if not, I bet you can all use Google.

  1. UMD Puzzlehunt

This is specifically the UMD Puzzlehunt from January; I believe they’ve had another since then that was on-site without the puzzles being archived online. I really hope they post the second event, because the first event was quite good, with a nice variety of polished meaty puzzles, a fun plot twist, and an excellent final metapuzzle.

  1. Huntinality

Wah! It was exciting to see a fresh hunt by new contructors (early in the year before there started being multiple nontrivial events per month) with a fun theme. I might be a little biased here in that I too believe Waluigi has been unjustly snubbed by the Smash Brothers design team. As have Raz, Mike Jones, and Guybrush Threepwood.

  1. Puzzle Boat 8

Recent Puzzle Boats have been different for me than the older ones due to COVID; Puzzle Boat was traditionally the yearly event where I convinced some Boston-area friends to schlep out to my house in the suburbs and solve in person, and we haven’t been able to do that in 2020 or 2021. In addition, the size of Puzzle Boat is becoming a bit less novel as online hunts become larger-scale, and the mostly-PDF format limits some of the interesting things that are being done with interactive puzzles. On the other hand, the overall structure of grouping puzzles into metas (which has been used in lots of other places since but was mostly innovated by PB) is still a really fun and daunting task, and it continues to be insane that Foggy Brume can create an event this large on his own, especially in a year when he’s also contributing to Mystery Hunt.

  1. Puzzle Rojak

I honestly wasn’t expecting much from this event since I know almost nothing about the authors, but a mutual friend assured me that the constructors knew what they were doing. And that was very true! While a number of the puzzles we didn’t solve fell into my weakest puzzlehunt categories (I’m unlikely to touch a puzzle with a double-digit number of chessboards or one with languages in a non-Western alphabet with a ten foot pole), Go-Karts, Drop Tower, Sea Caves, and Shallow Waters were all delightful (one made my top ten list, and I was tempted to include others but wanted to control for recency bias), and I also really enjoyed how the final metapuzzles came together.

  1. Puzzle Potluck

There have been a lot of great sets of interlocking puzzles this year, so as we approach the top of the list, you’ll find that in many cases, what makes the difference for me is a compelling theme with surprising story moments. I have minimal experience with Animal Crossing beyond memes, Smash Brothers appearances, and that heartbreaking story from years ago about the kid’s mother, but I definitely know Among Us, and I cannot say I was expecting to come across a brutally murdered Animal Crossing character. Mashing up the two social video games that gained the most traction during the pandemic almost feels like a no-brainer in retrospect, but I certainly didn’t see it coming, and I enjoyed the result. That plus a nice pairing gimmick made for a solid Potluck outing in 2021.

  1. Silph Puzzle Hunt

While I don’t like to think of myself as a person who values style over substance, I have at times tried to delve through the Smogon Puzzle Hunt archives, and I generally haven’t made it very far because the puzzles are PDFs plunked into a folder system. I don’t know if people are getting tired of all of the online hunts that use forks of the gph-site hunt code, but I think it makes those hunts look polished and appealing, and it’s arguably spoiled me for anything more gritty. This year’s Silph Hunt was an attempt by the Smogon authors to port the event from a Pokemon message board to a mainstream audience, and I found the result very entertaining. Difficulties seemed nicely tuned for the first and second phases, metapuzzles were nice and thematic, RED SUS was aggravating in all the right ways, and I haven’t stopped hearing nice things about The Minimeta That Goes Wrong (though I only assisted in the final extraction, which was clever but bottlenecky). It is a testament to the quality of this hunt that I have almost zero (maybe less than zero) interest in Pokemon, and I still thought this was a great event.

  1. QoDE

Shortly before QoDE, the constructors released a short teaser puzzle that revealed its Batman theme. Speaking as the author of the Learned League One-Day Special on Batman villains, I immediately decided the best way to carry out this theme would be one puzzle per ridiculous BatUniverse villain, and I was not disappointed.

One of the big changes to the online huntscape during the pandemic, besides just the obvious increase in content, has been the increase in content difficulty. For many years, there was a significant gap between the average puzzle difficulty in, say, the Mystery Hunt versus most online events, until Galactic Puzzle Hunt (particularly starting in its second year) really upped the ante for how Mystery Hunty an online event could be. This year I didn’t expect to get those sorts of puzzles in the window between Galactic and teammate, and QoDE dropped in unexpectedly with some awesomely challenging content. I had some issues with the presentation of the final metapuzzle, but all the other metas were great (including my favorite of the year, and a beautifully illustrated first-round capstone) and the metaswere preceded by consistently interesting puzzles with fun flavor from a universe I personally enjoyed. Na na na na na na na na good hunt.

  • 3. MIT Mystery Hunt
  • 2. Galactic Puzzle Hunt

(Please excuse the weird double bullet points above… WordPress was NOT psyched about two consecutive numbered items in reverse order for some reason.)

Look some planes Galactic Trendsetters what a coincidence some more planes should be extremely proud of themselves for delivering two high-quality large-scale events in a single year (I know when I saw they were doing a GPH this year, first my head exploded, and then I got really excited that it was during the summer when Jackie and I have more flexible schedules). However, I’m probably surprising some readers, and maybe some members of Galactic, by putting GPH above Mystery Hunt. This doesn’t mean GPH was an objectively better event; the Mystery Hunt was a phenomenal accomplishment this year, especially under unprecedented difficult circumstances.

But as I said in my Hunt recap, the remote nature made me feel more disconnected than usual from my team, and I didn’t get familiar enough with the avatar space quickly enough to feel like I could process that element of the Hunt. GPH, on the other hand, had more digestible length, and my team was small enough that I felt I could interact with them fully and take in most of the hunt. Does this mean Mystery Hunt has passed me by? I hope not, and I suspect I would have enjoyed the Mystery Hunt even more had I been in a room with the rest of the Setec crew. But at least in the form I experienced the two events, I got a more satisfying experience out of GPH. Yet I got an even MORE satisfying experience out of…

  1. Matt & Emma’s Carnival Conundrum

Not to drive a wedge between sibling teams Galactic and teammate, but in 2021, I think teammatehunt was the highlight of my puzzlehunting year. The puzzles were high-quality and challenging (just as they were in the 2020 version) and while the pairs of puzzles that interacted with each other were sometimes frustrating, the connections that revealed themselves were often pleasing.

But I think the thing that propelled this event to #1 on my list was one of the most impressive story beats I’ve seen in any puzzlehunt I can remember. After last year’s Matt & Emma hunt, I commented that I was surprised at how wholesome the theme was and continued to be; I’m so used to puzzlehunt themes being darkly comic that I was certain the birthday party would turn into Five Nights At Freddy’s, rather than just a jaunt through a delightful fantasy realm. One of the effects of that wholesomeness is that I think of Matt & Emma as two sweet kids, and even though I don’t know much about them, I know they care about each other. So when the magician in this year’s hunt told each of them bluntly that not only was their sibling gone, but that they never existed… and suddenly the previously bright side design turned dark… I remember gasping audibly.

That said, the rest of the story, as told through silent images, didn’t work for me nearly as well. I got the general beats but didn’t feel story happening with every puzzle, and I didn’t need to. But that one big shift was so simply and artfully executed, that it gave me a real emotional investment in helping the main characters. That took what was already a great set of tough, well-written puzzles and elevated it to something more meaningful, at least for me. That was enough to bring it to the top of the medal stand.

Thank you to everybody who solved puzzlehunts and especially wrote puzzlehunts this year. 2021 was a roller coaster of a year, as COVID still ravaged the earth, which is awful in almost all ways, but it did facilitate more puzzlehunting opportunities. Meanwhile, I had a child, which is great in lots of ways, but it did facilitate less puzzlehunting time for me personally. I’m grateful to my wife for doing more than her fair share of Simon-wrangling on certain weekends to allow me to squeeze in as much solving as I could, and I’m grateful to this community for continuing to do cool things and support each other’s projects. Sorry for the sparse posting this year, but I hope to keep encountering many of you online and (fingers crossed) in person in the new year.

My Favorite Metapuzzles of 2021

Disclaimer for all three of my year-end top ten lists: Descriptions of puzzles/hunts may include spoilers, especially as you approach the top of the list and I have more detailed gushing to do. Also, keep in mind that these are my personal favorites, which means they are shaped by (a) my personal content tastes, (b) the fact that I tend to like harder puzzles (which doesn’t mean easier puzzles are bad!!), and (c) the fact that I happened to solve or co-solve these particular puzzles, since hunts have swelled to the size that I can rarely pay attention to every puzzle my team solves.

A good blogger would add links to all the relevant puzzles and hunts, but I’ve already spent too much time writing these posts. Maybe I’ll add them later, and if not, I bet you can all use Google.

  1. Candela’s Mystic Correspondence (Silph Hunt, Level 51 and lydian)

The mechanic here is slick and well-executed, even if it doesn’t really break much new ground. What I really liked from a thematic perspective was using the text of “Fire and Ice” as the data set for the collision between the Pokemon fire and ice factions. This is a good time to point out that even though this was one of my top ten metas of the year, it’s still not even my top “fire and ice” meta of the year.

  1. Infinite Corridor (Mystery Hunt, Jon Schneider)

I have to be honest: Even though this is ostensibly a list of my favorite metas, Infinite Corridor makes the list more for slack-jawed awe than for my remembering it as an enjoyable solving experience. (To quote one of my favorite test-solve comments I ever got one of my puzzles: “Do I like it? I don’t know, but I respect it.” Complicated metas are often not my jam, but I liked that this meta facilitated five puzzle families that each had both interesting mechanics and submetas to solve in their own right. Plus, we had a teammate who coded the Python script (the Infinite Corridor Simulator Simulator?) to pull the answer once we had enough submeta answers, and that teammate happened to not be around when we had enough data to finish, which meant I got to run the code and be super-excited when it actually spit out a thematic answer instead of just another word.

  1. Wah Street Bets (Huntinality, Benji Nguyen, Dan Simon, and Ryan Liu)

While the finale to Huntinality was a little reminiscent of the cookie clicker in the second Galactic Puzzle Hunt, I liked this more because (a) there was a greater variety of stuff to do, and (b) I didn’t have to tensely watch my teammates click buttons just the right number of times so that we didn’t screw up and have to start over. Then the very last step did a great job drawing our attention to something we didn’t notice when solving the subpuzzles for a nice punchline. This felt more like a gentle victory lap than a difficult capstone to the event, but it served its purpose nicely.

  1. Magical/Entanglement (Matt & Emma’s Carnival Conundrum, Herman Chau, Rachel Wei, and Patrick Xia)

The one puzzle my team never solved in the first round was Radio Noise, which contributes the most to the answers to this pair of metas… fortunately, the output is the most thematic, so it’s easiest to guess (though not as easy to use it to backsolve the puzzle) so we were able to intuit the right beginnings, and that arguably made the solve even more satisfying. This was also a nice teaser for the main gimmick of the rest of the hunt, without giving it away outright.

  1. Final Metapuzzle (Edric’s Truzzle Hunt; Edric Haleen)

This was the first of Edric’s events that I fully participated in, so I didn’t know what to expect. It was reminiscent of the old Australian hunts in a lot of ways (including the visual presentation). But those hunts frequently had underconstrained answers and inelegant and/or inscrutable metapuzzles. The Truzzle Hunt meta, on the other hand, required the answers to be ridiculously constrained in a way I did not notice at all until I had to, and with those constraints in place, very little shell was needed to produce an answer. It was very pleasing to discover that so much structure had been hidden the whole time in plain sight.

  1. Student Center (Mystery Hunt; Jon Schneider, Rahul Sridhar, Anderson Wang)

The Student Center meta is another metapuzzle I already talked about in my Mystery Hunt writeup. It’s high on the list due to its use of one big aha, a bunch of fun little mini-ahas, and a lot of logic-poking to work out what goes where once you know what’s happening. It’s also very self-confirming for a large metapuzzle; once you think you know how to interpret a club, the data does a good job letting you know if you’re right or not. You could also argue that the Student Center meta incidentally includes its submetas, which means it includes both Random Hall and MacGregor Hall, which were both awesome. In extremely different ways.

  1. Telescope (Galactic Puzzle Hunt; Jon Schneider with contributions from Brian Chen, Colin Lu, Rahul Sridhar, and Anderson Wang)

It’s been a while, so I might be misremembering, but early on when we had 36 dots and the pictures of eyes, I quickly wanted this to tie into the eye chart meta from the beginning of the hunt (which had seemed awkwardly underconstrained at the time). The payoff here is really nice; I love the epicness of revealing that the pyramid-shaped thing you were looking at in Round 1 is actually a nice orderly square if you just view it from the right angle. My team almost certainly didn’t build the square as efficiently as we could have, but it was satisfying to do so, and even though my teammates worked out the right interpretation shortly after I fell asleep, I was still pleased to see how it worked in the end.

  1. Bulletin Board (Puzzle Potluck; Curtis Liu, Darren Yin, and Rajeev Nayak)

You’re just cruising along, thinking, “Okay, I guess these visually hinted transformations are kind of cute, and I can apply them to each of the answers, but I’m not sure what to do now…” And then you realize that these psychopaths (no offense) managed to find answers that could each take on two transformations each. I’m giving this a very high ranking for the wow factor of that mechanic, the appropriateness of this meta for a hunt in which you had to pair up puzzles and chain together locations, and a solid thematic punchline to tie it all up.

  1. Hall of Mirrors (Matt & Emma’s Carnival Conundrum; Jacqui Fashimpaur, Liam Thomas, and Samuel Yeom)

Metapuzzles often fall into one of two categories: the type where there’s one big aha, and once you figure out the gimmick, you can apply it and instantly grab an answer (nothing wrong with that); and the type where the answers are inputs to a multi-step puzzle that requires a lot of effort, to the point where the metapuzzle is itself just another puzzle, but one you have to solve (maybe something wrong with that, but that’s in the eye of the beholder). Hall of Mirrors landed in a nice space between these, where there were multiple ahas and some gruntwork to do, but the puzzle presentation guided us through it fairly and the properties of the answers were important enough to make this not feel like a standalone puzzle. When I really wanted a mirror to change the vowels of words, and a teammate pointed out how that was embedded in the design, I was floored. Solving this puzzle was a series of “Wouldn’t it be cool if it worked like this?” moments, where it almost always worked just like that.

  1. Firefly & Mr Freeze (QoDE; Scott Handelman and Jonah Ostroff, featuring Adam Maresca)

I did promise you another temperature extremes meta, and this one’s all the way at the top of the list. This had an elegant presentation, it was fun to solve, and it relies on a really clever data set (big spoilers coming here): groups that not only have two clear members associated with hot and cold, but that also have a member with one H and no C’s, and another with vice versa. When solving this meta, we spotted the first of these properties first, and I was delighted when the second popped out of the answers we had to work with. If you’re an elegance nitpicker, you could argue that the plus/minus numbers in the shell make the construction slightly easier, but there’s so much neat stuff going on in an organized fashion here that I have no objections to shifting the positions to make the whole thing work.

This meta also gets bonus points because it admitted an answer that fit a Batman puzzle (in a Batman Hunt) so thematically that I was 100% sure the meta was written around forcing that phrase into the answer pool. I was subsequently informed that this was not the case, and it has caused me to reevaluate my own views on creationism ever since.

My Favorite Feeder (Nonmeta) Puzzles of 2021

Disclaimer for all three of my year-end top ten lists: Descriptions of puzzles/hunts may include spoilers, especially as you approach the top of the list and I have more detailed gushing to do. Also, keep in mind that these are my personal favorites, which means they are shaped by (a) my personal content tastes, (b) the fact that I tend to like harder puzzles (which doesn’t mean easier puzzles are bad!!), and (c) the fact that I happened to solve or co-solve these particular puzzles, since hunts have swelled to the size that I can rarely pay attention to every puzzle my team solves.

A good blogger would add links to all the relevant puzzles and hunts, but I’ve already spent too much time writing these posts. Maybe I’ll add them later, and if not, I bet you can all use Google.

  1. Intersections (Galactic Puzzle Hunt; Brian Chen)

While I’ve sung for a whole bunch of hunt puzzles I’ve written, it’s pretty rare that I solve one by singing. But that turned out to be the best strategy for Intersections; once I knew what I was trying to do, I found myself singing duets with the puzzle author to find the unison notes. This could have been an unpleasant experience, except the alt-melodies were both written and performed excellently, so I thought we sounded quite pretty together. (I just checked with my wife, who was sitting next to me at the time, to see if it actually sounded good. She does not remember.)

  1. Cafe Five (MIT Mystery Hunt; Nathan Pinsker and Josh Alman)

I won’t say too much here about Mystery Hunt puzzles since I already posted about my favorites in January, but if you want the opportunity to show off by speed-solving all sorts of different puzzles, Cafe Five is for you! (Barbie’s Murder Party at the House on the Hill is also for you, but that was from last year.) It’s also the sort of puzzle that requires so much of the team to pay attention to it that it’s instantly part of the shared Mystery Hunt consciousness. I expect “L. Rafael Reif approaches the cafe” to be slang for “this puzzle suddenly got much harder” for years to come.

  1. The Meta Meta Meta… Puzzle (Galactic Puzzle Hunt; Yannick Yao)

The Author’s Notes for this puzzle mention the Infinite Corridor meta from the MIT Mystery Hunt, and this felt very much like a more approachable version of that epic puzzle recursion. There are a lot of levels of discoveries to make, and it was fun to chip away at it with my teammates, particularly while it was still in “blurry” mode.

  1. Go-Karts (Puzzle Rojak; aki and Jonathan)

I admittedly didn’t carry out some of the more tedious word-searchy steps of this puzzle (props to my teammates Scott and Jenn for doing most of the grunt work), so I might be biased via only seeing the flashy parts. But there was something very satisfying about seeing all the messages fall out of the puzzle, and then to hear characters pop up in the sound clips at just the right time (once we knew to expect them), and on top of all that an unexpectedly jaw-dropping extraction step. It also helps that I like Mario Kart. I’m-a-gonna win!

  1. Fun With Sudoku (MIT Mystery Hunt; Josh Alman and Mitchell Lee)

This is another one I posted about after Mystery Hunt. Logic puzzles plus combinatorics equals A-OK in my book, and this resulted in a particularly satisfying team solve.

  1. All That’s Left To Do is Extract (Matt & Emma’s Carnival Conundrum; Ivan Wang, Alex Irpan, and Rachel Wei)

It’s always fun when a puzzle takes you to things that were hidden in plain sight in some corner of the hunt website (well, I should say it’s fun as long as you’re guided there in a fair way). ATLTDIE takes you on a pretty exhaustive tour of the teammate website and does some fairly bonkers things along the way, from hiding data in what you thought was your own image file, to embedding Braille in the otherwise innocent looking favicon (a term I learned from this puzzle), to making the website respond to the Konami code.

  1. Make Your Own Math Quiz (Galactic Puzzle Hunt; Jakob Weisblat and Josh Alman)

It wouldn’t be a GPH without a Make Your Own Something Or Other, and having made quite a few math quizzes in my time, this felt like home. The concept of students complaining that questions aren’t similar enough is actually common in some situations, and so the interpretation here is pretty funny. And from a puzzling perspective, figuring out how to make the constraints all work at the same time was satisfying, with a great extraction punchline right at the end.

  1. Qatalog (QoDE; Jonah Ostroff)

Chatting (and solving!) with puzzlehunters on many teams this year has brought at least one thing sharply into focus… I use OneLook more than a lot of people, and I use Nutrimatic less than a lot of people. I had also encountered Qat, but I hadn’t made much use of it because the syntax is fairly intmidating. Qatalog simultaneously served as a really effective Qat tutorial, and an ingenious array of puzzly ways to utilize said unusual syntax, with the most thematically appropriate final step that you could ask for. (It’s nice when your puzzle about Website X ends with Website X spitting out your answer verbatim.) “Minimeta” puzzles are in vogue right now and are almost always appreciated (The Minimeta That Goes Wrong was likely a favorite of many people, but I just wasn’t around for most of the solve), but I loved this one in particular for both its creative variations on a theme and for its ability to actually teach me something that I’ve used since.

  1. Meta-Eval Times/Pin the Tail (Matt & Emma’s Carnival Conundrum; Andrew He, Katie Dunn, Catherine Wu, and Patrick Xia)

I’m considering this entangled pair of puzzles from this year’s teammatehunt as a single entry. Puzzles with lots of parallelizable mini-ahas are always fun, and the first stage of Meta-Eval Times delivered in that respect; meanwhile, after I spent several years of my life mapping Pin The Tail, I was thrilled that one of my teammates recognized it as an Among Us board. But by far the highlight of the puzzle, after spending way too much time trying to satisfy all the advanced Meta-Eval constraints at once, was remembering how actions in Remember to Hydrate had affected Mystery Manor and having the realization, “When we kill crewmates in Pin The Tail, does anyone die in Meta-Eval?” Not only is this a wonderfully unexpected effect, there’s also something delightful about the idea of writing a metapuzzle for picky test-solvers and assassinating half of them to get your puzzle into post-production. No offense to anyone that I’ve written Hunt with. You’re all wonderful, and it’s been long enough that I do not want to murder any of you.

  1. Divide and Conquer (Galactic Puzzle Hunt; Lewis Chen and Anderson Wang)

It was difficult to rank most of the items in my three “best of” lists, except for this puzzle, which frankly never budged from the #1 slot for non-meta-puzzles since I finished solving it. Back in the early days of Setec Mystery Hunt writing, there was a house rule that a puzzle shouldn’t have more than one aha. Puzzles were much much much simpler then, and good puzzles these days often have multiple steps; the true art to this is giving the solver enough help to progress but enough resistance to feel challenged. And boy, was this challenging… I think I devoted a full afternoon to it, with Jackie’s help.

Having quarter-specific approval/rejection for the example puzzles was the perfect amount of assistance to help me identify regional mechanics. And I suspect I would have found the puzzle overwhelming if we’d had to solve every bit of it, but getting two of the mini-puzzles and recognizing the four-letter pictures was enough to crack the letter-to-variant relationship and solve just enough of the other feeders to complete the correspondence grid. Then we were able to crack enough of the big grid to get the clue phrase without the whole picture; thankfully after calling in the one example I knew of that could answer the clue phrase, someone on my team knew another correct one. I’m the opposite of a Star Wars fan, but I’ll still mine it for a metaphor; this puzzle is like an imposing Death Star that seems impossible to overcome from a distance, but there are enough (intentional!) cracks in the armor, that with enough skill I was able to fly in, drop a bomb, and break the thing wide open. I haven’t had a more satisfying solve this year, and probably not in the last few years either.

Year-End Posts Coming Soon!

Hello all! I hope that you’re safe and well as you’re reading this. COVID continues to ruin the Greek alphabet for all of us.

I’ve participated in a lot of amazing online puzzlehunts this year with a nice variety of teammates (in addition to my usual hunting with Killer Chicken Bones for Galactic and Mystik Spiral for pretty much everything else, I want to thank members of TruFact, Have You Tried, and Herrings for helping me keep things fresh throughout the year), and I have done a terrible job documenting them. But over the last few months, the High Fidelity part of my brain has been obsessively ranking puzzles from the past year, and at some point I started actually writing them down.

So! Coming after Christmas! My highly subjective top ten lists of my favorite metapuzzles, feeder puzzles, and puzzlehunts from a year of solving online. Will your favorite make the list? Maybe! Will something you wrote make the list? Perhaps! Will you agree with the entire list? Certainly not, but that’s what the comments are for! (That and bot spam. But WordPress is pretty good at killing most of that.)

See you at the end of the year, and have a happy holiday.

The Summer of Puzz

Hi folks. I notice my last post’s subject included “final thoughts” in the title, so some of you may have assumed I disappeared off of the face of the earth. I did not, but I did two things that are isomorphic to falling off the face of the earth:

  1. I taught two calculus courses online, which is something I also did in the fall, but it was a lot harder than in the fall; I attribute that to more student dishonesty (sigh), more student unrest, and the rather distracting fact that…
  2. My wife and I had a baby! Simon Anderson Katz was born on March 10, pretty much right on time, happy and healthy. He’s our first child, which is something I say to clarify that we haven’t done this before, not to imply there will be a second child. (He’s great, but we’re good with one of him.)

As it turns out, there were a number of good puzzlehunts during my blogging absence, and there are a few on the horizon too. Hopefully you’re getting your puzzlehunt scheduling info from Puzzle Hunt Calendar, which updates more often than I do, but here are some of the things coming up, and then some things you should check out if you missed them:

Upcoming

Most imminently, Huntinality starts tomorrow. This is the latest in a trend of high-level puzzlehunt teams contributing to the hunt community with online hunts, this one coming from Cardinality (who I didn’t previously realize was Stanford-based, explaining the name). They’re using a re-skin of the GPH web code, which is very purple because Waluigi is very annoyed according to the prologue. I’m looking forward to solving with Culms of Munj, with some friends from my former Mystery Hunt team.

Most improbably, there’s a Galactic Puzzle Hunt in July. This is absolutely ridiculous given that Galactic just wrote the most recent Mystery Hunt, and can’t possibly have had the time to create a separate puzzlehunt, especially not one of their usual size; but it’s advertised as having about 40 puzzles, which seems standard for GPH. I’m really looking forward to solving this (with Killer Chicken Bones), as GPH has become one of my favorite non-Mystery-Hunt events on the calendar, and I definitely felt its absence last year.

Most secretly (because it’s not on the PH Calendar), Puzzle Potluck 4 is tentatively scheduled for August, according to the website for Puzzle Potluck 3. PP3 had a really cool structure and serious wow moment (that was maybe a little bit dulled by the same “secret theme” occurring in another event earlier that year) but I’m looking forward to seeing what they create next. Especially because the current trend in online hunts is for the FAQ to frequently say whether the event will be easier or harder than Puzzle Potluck to try to gauge difficulty. Will Puzzle Potluck be easier or harder than Puzzle Potluck?

Downgoing (no longer upcoming)

The twice-a-year Puzzlehunt CMU keeps getting better, and yet I keep forgetting to take it seriously and get a team together. I really liked the multiple interpretations of “pirate” that formed the theme and structure, which reminded me of the triangle BAPHL but felt a bit tighter (and I don’t know how I didn’t see a baseball pirate coming in a puzzlehunt out of Pittsburgh).

If you’re interested in something that’s more of a snack than a full meal, consider the most recent P&A (where my wife and I managed to short-circuit the meta in under an hour), or the Inaudible Hunt, which was written as puzzle-writing practice by a subset of my aforementioned former Hunt team (who were most recently We Can’t Hear You, You’re On Mute in the 2021 Mystery Hunt). They also advertise on that site that they’re actively looking for other new authors to collaborate with, so if you’ve never written a puzzlehunt puzzle and want to learn how, there’s contact info at the link above.

Finally, with the general increase in online puzzlehunt density and my limited free time, I admit to some puzzle snobbery in often deciding whether to set aside time for an event by asking, “Do I know who these people are?” Sometimes that causes me to make bad decisions, like not realizing until a couple days from the end of Paradox Puzzlehunt that it was pretty great (through word of mouth on social media). Sometimes hunts from new constructors have filler or very easy puzzles, but everything here was clever, meaty, and well-constructed, and I enjoyed their take on the theme. It was a shame that a change in a third-party site sort of broke their Hunt structure, but they found a good way to set up a way for teams to still finish (which I did just under the wire). I hope there will be a Paradox 2, and I’ll know to pay attention to this one!

I’m going to shift my attention to the tiny person hiccuping across the room. See you when I see you, get vaccinated if you haven’t already, and may your less-than-half-the-letters wheel-of-fortune guesses be productive!

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

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

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

Analog Circuitry

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

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

Cafe Five

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

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

Circular Reasoning

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

A Collection of Conundrums and Riddles

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

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

Filler Puzzle

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

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

For Your Eyes Only

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

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

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

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

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

Fun With Sudoku

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

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

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

Slithe[rlinks]-1

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Random Hall

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

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

Student Center

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

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

Athletics (Basketball, Athletics)

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

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

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

Giga/Kilo/Milli/Nano

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

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

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

Clusters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isolation

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

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

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

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

Hunt Size

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checking In, Recent & Upcoming Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowdsourcing: Language-Neutral Puzzlehunts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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