Upcoming: P&A 67, Puzzle Boat 4

P&A Issue 67 will be released tomorrow (Saturday the 13th) at 10am Arizona time, which is probably an hour off of what you think it is because the Arizonans are weird about daylight savings. P&A is currently $10 an issue, and well worth it given that you not only get a hearty mini-puzzlehunt, but also some fun bonus variety puzzles. I don’t solve those while the clock is running, but sometimes I return to them later.

I was planning on posting a recap of the last issue to get people psyched, but I see that P&A 66 solutions aren’t up yet, and I don’t want to interfere with stats if answer submission is still active. So I’ll try to write that in advance and plan to post it once solutions go public.

What I will do in the meantime is plug the Kickstarter for Puzzle Boat 4 which has seventeen days to go but has already reached its goal! (Yay!) For anyone who hasn’t participated before, the Puzzle Boat by Foggy Brume, the creator of P&A, but it’s more Mystery Huntesque in scope (well, more like the Mystery Hunts in the 2000s before the size really blew up) and usually has an interesting unlock system and cool meta-meta structures. The planned release date is some time in October, and for $100 you can register a full team and get your hands on a Kickstarter-exclusive puzzle suite. (There are also higher tiers if you want a P&A subscription or three, and/or if you want to get a picture of you wedged into the hunt.)

I’ve written this post during the first twenty minutes of my “this is when you can look at your graded Calculus I exam” office hour. Students seen so far? Zilch. This is what teaching a pass-fail course in the spring is like…

Recap: DASH 9

(This is a recap/review of the DASH 9, which happened this past Saturday in all of the cities. Puzzles and solutions are not yet posted. This recap may contain spoilers, but I’ll try to avoid them where possible, especially for puzzles I recommend.)

Once Boston registration opened for DASH, I immediately registered a Mystik Spiral team with the intention of filling it up later. As it turns out, many of our MS regulars were busy, so for a long time our team was me, Jackie, and Jenn Braun. After a successful run at Escape Rhode Island (where Mystik Spiral XL set a record that has since been broken by Dan K. Memes, which is a team I am not on but which I *think* is named after me? It’s complicated) we picked up Matthew Gardner-Spencer and his infant as a fourth and fourth-and-a-half member, though some time between then and event day, we lost the two of them and gained Scott Purdy. The max team size was six, but in retrospect, I’m really glad we ended up with four, because that seemed like the optimal number of solvers for many of the puzzles.

For anyone who doesn’t know, DASH stands for Different Area, Same Hunt; a central group writes a one-day linear puzzlehunt and recruits local organizers to assign the puzzles to locations and administer the event. Solves are entered into ClueKeeper and time between solves doesn’t count toward your score, so if two puzzles are half a mile apart in my city and a block apart in yours, the competition is still fair because the walking time doesn’t count. (Not that it should actually count for anything, but if you rank teams by total start-to-finish time, we had the fastest time. Lunch breaks are for the weak.)

This year’s theme had shades of Indiana Jones to begin, but a few puzzles in, it became clear that the actual theme was based on Arrival. That’s actually an ingenious theme for a hunt the size of DASH, because (a) it’s one of the few recent successful movies that is essentially about a protagonist spending the whole time trying to solve a puzzle, and (b) it really didn’t have enough plot to sustain more than nine or ten puzzles. We had on-and-off rain throughout, but since we were ahead of the pack in Boston, we generally had our first pick of a solving area at every location, so we were usually able to find a protective awning. (Puzzle 3 was probably the most weather-affected, as there was enough wind and rain to get us from the side… naturally it stopped right after we finished solving.) After we finished, we had lunch at Granary Tavern, and when we emerged the weather was absolutely gorgeous, proving the event should have been moved to 2pm. (As a side note, shout-out to the Zinneken’s food truck, where a fellow Revs fan served us really delicious waffles for dessert.)

We were in first place in the country when we finished, but we figured we would probably be passed by other teams as they finished; in the end we placed fifth, and only second in Boston as we were passed by one of a swarm of Galactic-Trendsetters-affiliated teams (another finished in second on the other side of the country).

= = = = =

Puzzles I especially liked:

* Explore The Chamber, What Did We Miss?

The recurring thread of the event was a set of polygonal tiles that were assembled in various configurations to translate symbols into words. Explore The Chamber taught us how to use drawings of the configurations to extract those letters… mostly, they taught Scott and Jenn this while Jackie and I split up two mini star battles. The organizers helpfully gave us two pages with copies of both star battles, which is good because I broke mine, and then Jackie managed to solve both of them before I fixed mine. Perhaps this is why she kicked my ass in last year’s USPC.

Then What Did We Miss? revealed that all of our translations had been wrong because we were missing a third of the tiles, and “mistakenly” using the wrong translation system! Adjusting our interpretation of the language felt very thematic, and it was neat to use the information we’d produced earlier in an entirely different way.

Incidentally, I thought hints came a bit too fast on some of this year’s puzzles. For example, on What Did We Miss?, we figured out the tiles needed to form a 3-D object and were very excited to figure that out; my phone gave us that information for free about two seconds later. We’re a pretty fast team, so I imagine that most teams ended up being told that rather than figuring it out on their own. I get that you want hints to flow continuously so that teams don’t get stuck for too long, but I thought the hint curve felt too aggressive on some puzzles.

* Wide Field Array

This was a word search variant that didn’t set the world on fire, but I thought it was a great example of a puzzle where everything you need to do is elegantly contained within the elements of the puzzle itself. (I think there was a hint in the flavortext to the final extraction that we used, but we probably didn’t need to.) We had the second-fastest time on this puzzle, so maybe it was less clear to others, but I enjoyed it.

= = = = =

Puzzles I especially disliked:

* Radio Telescope

“Dislike” is unnecessarily strong here (I used it in my first recap and am trying to be consistent in terms of format… I should probably change it). This was still an enjoyable puzzle, but it didn’t feel as tightly constructed as the day’s other puzzles. Why was the criss-cross on a cube? Why were the numbers presented the way they were? How were we supposed to know for sure that the fourth item on the list was a five-letter-word and not the more specific seven-letter-word? All of these elements were solvable, but for me they felt like a lot of interesting ideas combined with a staple gun.

* Prevent Hostilities

ClueKeeper now has built-in Zappar support to allow augmented reality in their hunts. This is a really cool idea… that felt misused here. We were told to point our phone at a target, and that process revealed a 3-D rocketship, that we looked at and got very little information out of. Eventually we focused on the puzzle element of the puzzle and got a sequence of colors… After a while someone noticed we had colored buttons, so we could enter that sequence! Which we did. Over and over. We were checking our work yet again when we got our first “hint”… which explained that what looked like a window on the rocketship was actually a button, and that until we pressed it, all our colors were disappearing into the void. This seemed more like instructions than a hint, and I didn’t love that part of the puzzle was guessing how to use the app.

Meanwhile, at least one of our teammates couldn’t see my phone easily and was getting really annoyed by this. Now granted, if it was more clear how we could start the code entry, we wouldn’t actually have had to look at the phone for as long as we did. But it wasn’t ideal to have the big finish reveal (which honestly wasn’t much of a reveal) happen on a small screen. The idea of translating a message into symbols (instead of the other way around) in the last puzzle was a good one, and I liked the makeshift objects gimmick. But entering the encoded message into Zappar didn’t really add much, and the lack of guidance in how we should interact with the object subtracted a lot.

= = = = =

So that was DASH. I have to admit that the linear puzzlehunt is not usually my favorite format… If I’m stuck on something, I like to be able to look at something else and/or try to solve around the obstacle by solving enough other puzzles. But I found this DASH to have better continuity than the others I’ve solved, and we were never stuck long enough to stop having fun. I wish the weather had cooperated more, but it was a great day. Seven tentacles up.

 

 

Now Available: Escape from the Haunted Library

First off, a quick apology for being a terrible blogger, as it’s been almost a month and a half since I last posted. Next week I’ll finish up my teaching for the semester, so I should have more time for some random non-recap articles… and on the recap front, I owe you reports on this past weekend’s DASH, and the last issue of P&A since the next one drops this Saturday. (I’m giving all of you a 30-minute head start while I finish up Google Code Jam Round 2.)

Before any of that, I want to nod to a good friend, Eric Berlin. He’s been my teammate for several of my top ten puzzlehunts, and if you have/know any youngsters interested in puzzles, please point them toward Puzzle Your Kids and the Winston Breen book series posthaste. His latest puzzlehunt, a virtual room escape called Escape from the Haunted Library that he created for the Connecticut Library Association is now hosted on the P&A website on a pay-what-you-wish basis. Enjoy!

Recap: Galactic Puzzle Hunt 2017

(This is a recap/review of the 2017 Galactic Puzzle Hunt, which happened earlier this month. Puzzles and solutions can be found here. This recap may contain spoilers, but I’ll try to avoid them where possible, especially for puzzles I recommend.)

Back when I started solving Australian puzzlehunts, I usually played with The Sons of Tamarkin; we were perennial contenders against plugh, The Elite, and [pi] (aka Galactic Trendsetters, the team that generously brought us this hunt). A few years ago, I decided to join Killer Chicken Bones for SUMS, figuring that would be my annual break from my usual team… but in the meantime, some of the Sons of Tamarkin have gotten too busy to solve and others have found better teammates (for this hunt they totally outclassed us as Brown Herrings). So for now I’m with KCB for the immediate future, until we hit a hunt where enough original members are available to hit the team size cap and I get bumped.

The GPH is the second American “Australian rules” puzzlehunt I’m aware of, and the first intended for the public. (Last year some friends at Brown ran an event called CRUMS, which was aimed at the Brown community and doesn’t appear to be online anymore.) Maybe the American “flavor” made it more appealing, but it was definitely my favorite Aussie-style hunt I’ve participated in. Puzzles were generally solid and polished, and there was a very elegant meta structure at the end (and the meta was actually worth points… what a concept!).

On Day 1 and 2, we solved all of the puzzles before I went to sleep; on Day 3 we knew what we were doing on our last puzzle when I turned in, and everything was solved when I woke up. Things took a turn on Day 4; we only solved two puzzles before I went to sleep, and we still only had two the next morning. We hammered away at the rest and solved two of them before I had to leave for a wedding, but we went 24 hours without solving A Basic Puzzle, knocking ourselves out of contention for first place. We failed to solve one additional puzzle on Day 5 before overtime, but we were able to solve both puzzles fairly quickly with hints, so we finished first among the non-perfect teams (fifth overall).

Speaking of hints, being on this end of the yes/no system has changed my opinion of the oracular hint system, which we used in the Mystery Hunt, and which very few teams took advantage of. Galactic Puzzlesetters (sorry guys, I’m too lazy to figure out how to insert the airplanes, but rest assured I made the noises while typing) have posted a great wrap-up dissecting their own hunt, and they have some interesting thoughts on yes/no hints, but here’s mine: One yes/no hint is rarely useful, but a series of them (where you can ask follow-up questions) is potentially very useful. On both of the puzzles we solved in overtime, we figured out what we needed to do not by asking one question, but by  asking several and narrowing down what we shouldn’t be thinking about. So in retrospect, I think we should probably have given out batches of questions in the Mystery Hunt, rather than singletons. (Though I again want to emphasize that earned hints were only intended to sort things out as needed for contender teams… we always intended to be generous to more casual teams, and that was instituted here with the “infinite hint” system, which is much tougher to execute in an online hunt!)

= = = = =

Puzzles I especially liked:

* Zero Space (Day 1)

Took a long time to get the last aha here (exactly how to interpret the first phrase you extract) but once we did, it was hard to believe we didn’t see it for so long. Very clever and elegant solve path.

* Very Fun Logic Puzzle (Day 2)

As advertised.

* How to Best Write an Essay (Day 2)

Completely missed the hidden message in this puzzle. We guessed the interpretation of W quickly (though we were surprised there was no accompanying S), and then recognizing what Y should be without the message was an extremely satisfying aha. I’m almost a little sad that we weren’t supposed to figure it out the way we did, though I get that someone unfamiliar with the artist would have no way in in that case.

* Drive (Day 5)

This mostly got solved while I was at Jenn’s wedding. When I got back, I found a mostly solved puzzle on the spreadsheet, at which point I said to myself, “What a cool data set. And what a cool way to put it into a grid! And it would also be neat if you extracted like this… Yup. Solved.”

* Everything on Day 6 (Day 6)

There was no advertised meta in this set, but given the weirdness of the Day 1 answers and the sixth day that usually doesn’t exist, I predicted the five puzzles on Day 6 would be five five-puzzle metas. I suppose it makes much more sense in a March Madness hunt to have a 2^n-puzzle final meta, but you can’t blame for failing to predict that 25 puzzles would lead to a 16-answer bracket!

For what it’s worth, I do think the “put these answers in a line and modify them step by step,” as seen in Duck Quonundrum, may have jumped the shark. I’ve seen it used in a few places, and I don’t think it’s ever been as cool as it was in MH2015. But given that these answers each had to work in two metas, I get that this is a flexible mechanism to achieve that goal.

The main mechanism for the final meta was something we immediately considered when we saw it… and dismissed, even after solving two conferences. The rest of the team put two and two together while Jackie and I were asleep, but looking over it after it was already solved, I thought everything was fair and satisfying.

Puzzles I especially disliked:

* Famous by Association (Day 4)

I was delighted by the puzzle quality for most of this hunt, but I thought there was a downturn in quality on Day 4. Famous by Association was probably the clunkiest puzzle for me; the matches weren’t clean enough for us to be confident about how the mechanic was intended to work, and even after we sort of knew what we were doing, we frequently had multiple options for some of the items, and we eventually chose things based on giving us good letters. It’s never good when solving individual pieces of a puzzle leads less to an “Aha!” and more to a “Well, maybe? I guess?”

* The Treasure of Apollo (Day 4)

Most of the issues I had with this puzzle are acknowledged in the posted solution. The overall gimmick of the puzzle is neat (though once again the matching wasn’t tremendously clean… we had our third and ninth characters switched for a long time), but there was a lot of extraneous data, and the way you’re expected to parse the data was inconsistent. I also see why they added the enumeration after the fact… given all of that ambiguity, that’s an incredibly indirect phrase to parse without spaces.

* A Basic Puzzle (Day 4)

This was one of our late solves. We immediately figured out what to do with the first line, but we tried a lot of similar approaches to the other lines with no success. Personally, I think the solution space was just too open here… you could do a lot of almost-right things without confirmation if you didn’t know what you were looking for, whereas with some narrowing via hinting, the rest of the team was able to polish this off while I was at the wedding.

* Unaligned (Day 5)

This is the other puzzle where we couldn’t figure out what to do without narrowing the solution space (though we should have, since Kristy suggested doing the right thing and I advised against pursuing it). My complaints about this are that (a) having two identical grids really makes you want to combine them in some way, and (b) confirmation here really relies on seeing that a bunch of three-letter strings are all words, which is something that could easily happen by accident. Our hint requests helped us determine which parts of the completed grids we could completely ignore, which helped a lot.

This was another puzzle where the posted solution revealed a hidden message we never found (two of them, in fact!).

Puzzles I simultaneously reluctantly loved and lovingly despised:

* Scramble for the Stars (Day 3)

This will be a bit more spoilery than the responses above, because I want to get into details. Somebody counted the number of clues and suggested constellations, and after trying a few things, I suggested the puzzle might work exactly how it turned out it did work, and said I really hoped it didn’t, because that sounded like it would be a pain in the ass. Then it occurred to me that this would only work if there was an even number of letters… I added them up and got an odd number, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

We had STRAIGHTLINE instead of STRAIGHTLINES.

Once we made that correction, I feared again that the puzzle would work the way I thought it did. I remembered from my ceiling growing up that Draco was the largest constellation (my incredibly awesome parents not only put a bunch of glow in the dark stars on my ceiling one day while I was at school, they took the time to make an accurate star map with constellations), and Draco didn’t have the right number of neighbors. But then I looked up the actual largest constellation and smallest constellation, and looked up their numbers of neighbors. They matched. Crap.

So, finally believing my original idea was right, four of us spent a looong time scraping the adjacency data from Wikipedia by hand (I considered doing it on a printed-out star map, but it was way too small to see anything). Once we actually got that data down and figured out how to keep track of assignments, the logic puzzle portion was exquisitely elegant. As the posted solution suggested, we started with rare letters and the necessary degrees of their neighboring nodes, and then things got easier and easier. This would have been a nightmare if we weren’t sure of most of the answers, but the clues were clear enough that we had all but two right. One of them, LOAD, was our fault… but having a clue for NOSTALGIA that could just as easily clue NOSTALGIC as just mean.

I went to sleep while Brent and Kristy were still assigning letters, and my only idea for extraction was to alphabetize the constellations and read all the letters in that order… but constraining all 88 letters seemed like an impossible construction feat. Putting the answer phrase on the zodiac was genius.

So as it turns out, this was a magnificent puzzle, and I have tremendous respect for the constructors. But at the same time, I stand by my initial prediction… solving it was a pain in the ass. 🙂

* X-Ray Fish (Day 3)

My only hate for this puzzle came from the sound clip being really annoying after 50 times, and from it being very difficult to count stuff in the video (even pausing it). I did like the overall mechanism, and knowing which part of the song to focus on due to playing it too many times in Rock Band. (Me: “I think those sounds are in the actual song, aren’t they?” Someone I will not name: “No, definitely not.”) And if you haven’t already, be sure to check out the posted solution for this puzzle.

= = = = =

As it happens, part of the reason the Galactic Puzzle Hunt happened (according to the wrap-up) is that the constructors had some downtime after finishing the Mystery Hunt early… So as a member of Setec, I take partial credit for miscalibrating the difficulty of our Hunt! In any case, this was a great addition to the online huntscape. Given that it was free, the constructors have no obligation to give us another one next year. But I hope they will, and I hope they start writing now just in case they don’t have quite as much free time next MLK weekend.

(Note to self: If I’m going to keep writing these recaps regularly, I’m going to have to start making them shorter.)

By Request: All-Time Top Ten Puzzlehunts (#5-#1)

And we’re back! (Sorry this resumed about two weeks later than I intended.)

5. NPL Convention Extravaganza – Small Town News (July 2003)

The annual National Puzzlers’ League convention has three nights of official program activities, culminating in the “extravaganza,” a puzzlehunt that usually runs most teams about 2-4 hours. (I should say that it’s almost always a puzzlehunt; the first convention I attended, in Newark, instead had a puzzle carnival with various competitive midway games. I actually missed the extravaganza that year because I was dealing with a personal crisis, but from what I’m told, I didn’t miss much.) Given the time frame and the audience (many of whom are more into casual individual puzzle solving than interwoven puzzle experiences), extravaganzas don’t tend to have much in the way of sophisticated structure, when they do, there are often complaints. As a result, while I always look forward to the extravaganza, I rarely find them very memorable, with one notable exception.

The 2003 extravaganza, at a convention held in Indianapolis, was written by Rick Rubenstein, Andrew Murdoch, and Andrew Hertz. Teams were given all the puzzles at once, which is not my favorite puzzlehunt structure, but in this case, “all the puzzles” means a newspaper. The entire hunt consisted of a 8-page custom newspaper in which every element of the paper, from the comics to the photos to the horoscope to the bridge column to every article, contained puzzle content. Furthermore, the puzzle answers all fit together in a logical way; rather than having a metapuzzle that just used the answers as inputs, the goal was to help the police department stop a sinister plot, and chunks of the paper combined to reveal different elements of the plot. At the end, rather than giving a final answer, we were required to explain the plot to the moderators, justifying our deductions with proof from the paper. (In fact, if I remember correctly, we had subverted one of the puzzles and were asked to go back and figure out the puzzle we skipped when our explanation wasn’t complete… we still finished first in about ninety minutes, because for some reason, every time Rick co-writes the extravaganza, my team wins.) I’m a big fan of puzzles embedded in other media when they work, and in this case, everything was assembled in a very elegant and satisfying manner.

So far, I have co-written two NPL Con extravaganzas: an award-show-themed one in Los Angeles with Francis Heaney and Dave Tuller, and an auction-themed one in Seattle with Todd McClary, Kevin Wald, and Mike Selinker. Check with me again in five months and the count will be up to three.

4. MIT Mystery Hunt – 20,000 Puzzles Under the Sea (January 2015)

2015 was my first year returning to Setec Astronomy after a nine-year hiatus. I wrote the 2005 Hunt (Normalville) with them, and they decided to become the Mystery Hunt Writer’s Retirement Home or the Mystery Hunt Tavern, depending on who you ask, while I went off to win a few Hunts with Evil Midnight and then join a bunch of my college friends on the Tetazoo team (whose name changes every year) until we ran the Hunt in 2014. I was ready for a change in pace after that, and it turned out that most of my best friends had settled on Setec, so Jackie and I joined them once I was assured that, while not everyone on the team was ready to win, if we did finish first we would not run away from the coin screaming.

I didn’t care for the 2013 Mystery Hunt and helped write 2014, so in 2015 I was looking for my first enjoyable Mystery Hunt solve in a while. After an initial group of puzzles that looked like a traditional round structure, we assembled our submarine and started moving downward, with a super-long linear Hut web page in which every puzzle solve helped us dive deeper, and we encountered new puzzle links as we approached. I think this was a great example of structure matching theme; not every Hunt story lends itself to traveling further and further along a linear path, but diving to the bottom of the sea obviously does. This also meant that you wouldn’t know what was going to unlock next, but you could sometimes see the next thing coming… Some of these we could identify by silhouette, and some were exciting to reveal.

There was also a very novel round of physical objects puzzles that were given to us in a locked treasure chest. As it turned out, we secured this chest at a time when few people were awake, and when I showed up early in the morning I was not ready to process a batch of items no one else had made progress on. I didn’t love the late portions of the story of this Hunt, and I thought the endgame was waaaaay too long (I actually slept through it due to a delay, but I’m going by conversations with people on my team and on others), but it’s one of the more smooth and satisfying Hunts I’ve solved in recent years.

3. The Haystack (August 2006)

Once upon a time, Eric Berlin contacted me and asked if I wanted to come to New York City to do a puzzlehunt with him. I had heard of The Haystack (presumably named after the idea that you’re looking for a needle in one) but had never really considered playing, since this was a decade ago when my threshold for puzzle travel was higher (as my salary as lower).

I don’t remember a ton of details about the puzzle structure; I remember there were nine pairs of puzzles, and in each pair, you needed to be in a particular Manhattan location to solve the puzzle. I think solving the first gave you the location, which potentially helped you make progress on the second, but I won’t commit to that being right. What I do remember is finding the location tie-ins much more satisfying than in other walkaround hunts. New York City is nothing if not data-rich, and the author(s) found really creative ways to require information from the surrounding environment to make the puzzles solvable. The final metapuzzle somehow involved filling in a sudoku grid with data from the nine criminals and crimes we’d identified over the course of the day… or in our case, seven or so of those criminals, and at the bar where we were meeting at the end of the line, I was struggling to try to short-circuit the final puzzle with partial information. I was convinced I was in a race against time, until with a minute or so left, one of the people who had solved the meta confirmed I wasn’t doing close to the right thing. (I’m not sure I ever actually figured out what to do. It’s sad that these puzzles aren’t archived anywhere, as far as I know.)

I really enjoyed The Haystack, and after it ended, I was very excited to participate again in the next one. So of course, 2006 was the last Haystack.

2. The Famine Game (September 2013)

When Scott asked me to list my top ten puzzlehunts, I knew the top two within seconds. The questions that remained were (a) what are the other eight, and (b) what order would the top two go in? After some relection, I’m declaring The Famine Game second by a razor-thin margin, even though it was one of my most exciting puzzle experiences.

The Famine Game was the first and only first-run Game I’ve done; it’s also, to my knowledge, the only one so far on the east coast. The event had a Hunger Games theme and thus took place in The Capital (Washington, DC and the surrounding area). Our team was called Apetitius Giganticus (one of the various scientific names for Wile E. Coyote), and we rented a van that was much much too large, which made driving and parking very challenging at times, though thankfully my awesome teammates never made me drive.

I could go on for hours about all the features I loved about the Famine Game: The consistently great puzzles. The creative thematic locations. The “kill” videos our app played every time we defeated another team (puzzles yielded methods of murder, and when you solved a puzzle the game app told you which team you’d defeated… naturally, our app claimed every team except ours was eventually knocked out. The weird hallucinogenic effect on our app when we were stung by trackerjackers. The simulation of the second book’s “clock”-structured Games that stuffed twelve rotating mini-puzzle challenges in an elementary school after hours. The team evaluation challenges the night before the Game officially began. The XBox, which remains the most technically dazzling physical puzzle I’ve ever solved. The fantastic improv performances from several parodies of Hunger Game characters. I don’t remember sleeping, and yet I don’t remember getting very tired… most of it was just that damn good.

The reason I say “most” is the same reason I decided to rank this as #2; the first half to two-thirds of the event, with the goal of eliminating the opposition and then navigating the Clock, was really enthralling, with heavy puzzle variety and compelling immersion. Once we got to the part of the plot where we were assaulting the Capital, it felt like the puzzles got a little more average and the story felt less exciting. The Famine Game came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, but it was a freaking awesome lion. It was Mufasa. (There was also another negative that wasn’t the organizers’ fault… we had one of multiple vans that was broken into when we parked in DC for the last phase. Another team had all their computers stolen… I believe we lost a computer, a tablet, and a power cord. I lugged all my electronics around for much of the last part of the event, thinking we’d be returning to the van soon. I felt awful for the people who were robbed but I’ve gotten over it. If my computer had been stolen, I would have still been holding a grudge.

It occurs to me that Eric Berlin was on my team for #2 and #3. Maybe puzzles are just more fun when he’s around.

1. MIT Mystery Hunt – Video Games (January 2011)

When we wrote the Escape From Zyzzlvaria Mystery Hunt (2009), there were a lot of elements we incorporated that I was very excited about. Opening a new round is one of the most exciting parts of a Mystery Hunt, and because of that, I really like distinctly themed rounds (which were one of the strong elements of the 2004 Time Bandits Hunt). With Zyzzlvaria, we wanted those rounds to feel distinct both in terms of round and structure. We also liked the idea of advancing based on a point system, so that we could eventually grant point boosts that would give larger benefits to the teams in the back that needed them than to the teams in contention.

I think we did a decent job with these elements in Zyzzlvaria. But the 2011 constructors had a lot of the same goals and showed their true potential with the video game Hunt. First of all, they utilized a more sophisticated point system that also accounted for continuous passage of time (the other Hunt in my top ten, 2015, used a variation on that function). As for the rounds, the Hunt opened with a Super Mario Brothers theme with no indication that there were any other video games coming, so the first time we opened the Mega Man round, it was super-exciting. I don’t remember many individual puzzles from this Hunt (these days that’s a good sign, because with so many Hunt puzzles in the modern era, I remember the lowlights more than the highlights) but I remember the metapuzzles vividly as creative constructions that reflected the unique structures of their rounds. Yet unlike the Zyzzlvaria round structures, which we cooked up without constraints, these structures perfectly suited the video games they were based on. I was floored by the Mega Man round structure and meta, and had I actually played Civilization before this Hunt (I have since) I would have gone crazy over that round as well. And I should note that the beautiful website really brought all these varied themes to life.

The year before this Hunt was my first with the team that would become Alice Shrugged, and it was the dreaded year where someone on my team scoffed at me when I wanted to keep solving after another team found the coin. That year all but about a dozen of our team members abandoned ship early, but the rest of us pressed on, reached the end of the Hunt… and were told there were no plans to run the endgame for us because the people involved had gone to sleep. (Craig Kasper came and described it to us, which was nice of him, but it felt likea serious bait and switch.) We weren’t the first team to finish the 2011 Hunt, but the organizers were ready to give us the same rich endgame experience that the winners got, including a very high-production-value GlaDoS confrontation. I’m grateful to them for that, and I’ve tried to give back by making sure the Hunts I’ve co-run since had endgames that could be reproduced for everybody that earned them.

Podcast: Room Escape Divas

While you’re waiting on the edge of your seat for my top five puzzlehunts post, an interview I did a few weeks ago with Room Escape Divas has just hit the internet. I haven’t listened to it yet, but we talked for about two hours, and from the episode length, it looks like they didn’t cut very much. Topics may or may not include:

  • The Mystery Hunt!
  • The Cambridge Puzzle Hunt!
  • BAPHL!
  • Duck Konundrums!
  • Pet peeves about puzzlehunts and escape rooms!
  • My puzzle competition archnemeses!
  • The World Puzzle Championships!
  • How great my wife is!

Also, I recorded a karaoke Radiohead parody for the opening, so show up for that at minimum. And I don’t remember much of what I said, so if I said anything offensive, let me know so I can begin damage control.