Housekeeping – Existing and Upcoming Puzzlehunts

I started this blog in 2017 after running the MIT Mystery Hunt, at which point I had lots to say about the process. What I’ve learned this year is that the year after writing a major puzzlehunt is a great time to operate a puzzlehunt blog. The year during? Not so much. Virtually all of my puzzle time this year is going to testing, editing, and construction that I can’t talk about, so it’s been mostly radio silence on this front. I’ll try to make up for it in late January/February, when I’m sure we’ll all have opinions about whether ALF was actually a good idea for a Hunt theme.

In the meantime, let me do a quick rundown of non-Mystery-Hunt puzzle events/suites that might strike your fancy:

It Takes Two (online, already available): I didn’t have a chance to pre-advertise Mark Halpin’s Labor Day extravaganza, which I always look forward to since it’s one of the most challenging one-round hunts of the year. This year was as high-quality as ever, and while prize consideration is closed, the puzzles are still available and worth solving.

REDDOT Hunt 2 (online, this weekend): Last year’s RED DOT Hunt, assembled by a team in Singapore, showed up with little fanfare but was an unexpected treat, with two well-constructed stealth themes and relatively solid puzzles. It starts Friday at 10am Eastern time, and I’m looking forward to trying the puzzles solo when I can find the time.

BAPHL 19 (Boston, Sat Oct 6): BAPHL is this weekend, and it’s full. Sorry if you’re reading about this for the first time, but if it makes you feel any better, I missed registration for DASH (and thus missed DASH) and I have managed to move on with my life. If you will be there, come say hi!

Puzzle Boat 5 (online, Sat Oct 27): If you didn’t get the memo, the Puzzle Boat (Foggy Brume’s multi-round online hunt, essentially P&A on steroids) was pushed back two weeks. This is good news for me, because it no longer falls on the same day as a Revs home loss (er, game), so Mystik Spiral will be starting on time and playing to win with no multi-hour breaks. We look forward to losing to Brent Holman’s team anyway.

Catch That Ghost (New York City, Sun Oct 21): Eric Berlin, whose Puzzle Your Kids subscription site should be on your shopping list if you have intellectually curious offspring, is creating this year’s puzzlehunt at the Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan. MoMath itself is worth a visit if you’re in NYC and haven’t been, and having participated in multiple Eric Berlin events targeting different audiences, I expect this one to be accessible and fun.

Puzzle Potluck (online, Sat Nov 10): Mystery Hunt mainstays Super Team Awesome have apparently been holding puzzle potlucks for the past few years, and this year they’ve decided to share their creations with the puzzlehunt community. This year’s batch will be held as a competition, but their website also includes puzzles from previous years; I haven’t had a chance to try them, but presumably they’ll give you a good idea of what to expect this year.


Recap: Cryptex Hunt 2018, Part 1 (Qualifiers and Daily Puzzles)

This is a recap/review of the 2018 Cryptex Hunt, which happened in February/March. Information on the hunt can be found here. This recap may contain spoilers.)

In February/March, Justin Nevins, who owns a company that makes gorgeous cryptexes (cryptices?), brought the internet the first Cryptex Hunt, “Prexcyt Quest,” with puzzles created by Errol Elumir, Dan Egnor, and Darren Miller. This online puzzlehunt featured creative puzzles in an ambitiously interactive setting, and a grand prize worth thousands of dollars. That creates a certain high-stakes flavor for some solvers, which isn’t really a problem as long as the hunt doesn’t break during the finale… which it did. So here’s how it went from my perspective. (Spoiler alert: The technical issues were VERY frustrating, but it was still a solid hunt, and given that it was free, I got far more than I paid for.)

The Cryptex Hunt consisted of one weekend of interconnected “qualifying” puzzles, then five consecutive evenings with one puzzle release and a prize package for the first solve, and then one more multi-puzzle weekend event where the first finisher would receive the ultra-fancy custom cryptex. And then another multi-puzzle weekend event where the first finisher would actually receive the ultra-fancy custom cryptex, but we’ll get to that. It was clear from the advertising that the event would be fantasy RPG/text adventure themed, but as it turned out, the designers staged all of the puzzles within a fully functioning MUD (multi-user dungeon).

This was super-confusing at first, as when faced with things like gyms where you could increase your stats, I initially assumed those things must be there for a reason, and so I started interacting with them on my way to the puzzles. But after wasting some time virtually exercising, I googled the name of the world setting and realized that the whole thing was a previously existent MUD with puzzles wedged inside. Most of the contents, including the stray dogs that would randomly try to kill solvers in the street, could be safely ignored. (Okay, “safely” might not be the best adverb for that last example.)

Qualifiers: The qualifying puzzles, once I realized I should go straight to them, were reasonably straightforward. One quick gauntlet of standard puzzlehunt alphabets led to a nice little suite of puzzles with a meta. Another of the three main puzzles required you to map a multi-level area and spell out an answer via the labeled walls. The final one was a bit tougher because the directions were in a runic alphabet that would come up again a few times. After being stuck for a while, I eventually realized that the background set of short stories that had unlocked at some point had the author names written in the language, and while not every letter of the alphabet (or even in the message I was trying to decipher) appeared there, there was enough of a pattern for me to figure out how the components worked in terms of building numbers that translated to letters. What I didn’t realize until much later is that the language rules I was so proud of reverse-engineering were actually EXPLICITLY EXPLAINED in one of the short stories. I’ve always been lazy about skimming reading assignments instead of actually reading them.

Monday: The majority of the Cryptex Hunt fell on a non-ideal week for me, as the two courses I teach had evening exams on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Jackie and I had theater tickets on Thursday, so I’d only have a realistic chance of winning Monday or Friday. On Monday, before the puzzle released, I made sure to walk from the starting tavern to the entrance where the puzzle was likely to appear. At 8pm, I strode through the entrance into a tavern with a note, a singing bard, and a door to the back room. Okay, let’s check out the back room first! In the back room, there was the cryptex into which I’d need to enter the puzzle answer and… no door back to the main room (or perhaps there was a door but it was broken, I forget which). In any case, due to the glitch, I’d bypassed the puzzle itself and was stuck, so I had to teleport back to the tavern and run all the way back to the puzzle again. When I got there, the puzzle was pretty easy to solve (especially since it involved lyrics that had just come up in the 2018 Mystery Hunt), but even without the glitch, I likely would have finished behind the lightning-fast solving of Mike “Projectyl” Sylvia.

Tuesday: As noted, I didn’t get a chance to solve this on release night, but I looked at it during a long break at work the next day. The puzzle turned out to be a GPS-based app parodying Pokemon Go, which required you to find coordinates that satisfied certain requirements. I walked around the Brown campus long enough to figure out all the constraints, but nowhere nearby was going to check all the boxes… In fact, on Google Maps I determined I’d need to drive at least 20 minutes to get to somewhere sufficient.

This is a good time to point out that I periodically visit an escape room forum frequented by the authors, and they were chatting about the hunt frequently. They were careful not to give any spoilers, but I’m still not sure how kosher it was that some solvers had a direct line to the authors and some didn’t. It turned out to be fairly important later, since it’s what allowed me to notify them as quickly as possible that the MUD had broken during the final. In this case, I noticed people were talking about spoofing their GPS coordinates, which I didn’t realize was a thing… So I downloaded an app, told my phone where I wanted to be, and quickly had the solution. I also gathered from the chat that at least one constructor was annoyed that people were able to solve the puzzle this way… Well, if you couldn’t, people in some geographical areas would have major advantages over others. Given this was a competition with prizes, I think it’s a bit sketchy to prioritize your own vision of the solving process over fairness. That said, the puzzle itself was great, given the ability to force it if necessary.

Wednesday: After Monday and Tuesday I’d noticed that the answers were formed from N/W/E/S/U/D letters (the commands used to move in a text adventure) and had generated a list of likely answers, wondering if backsolving was feasible. When I had a chance to look at Wednesday’s puzzle, I first looked at the standings and noticed that one solver had finished it in a ridiculously short period of time, which convinced me it must be guessable… When the descriptive text said that I was suddenly invisible, I figured UNSEEN was worth trying, and that was enough to solve the puzzle without solving the puzzle.

The puzzle itself was shockingly similar to one of the more memorable puzzles from the 2017 Mystery Hunt, Hexed Adventure, enough so that the Hexed Adventure constructors got in touch with me and were pretty upset. I reached out to the Cryptex Hunt constructors and confirmed that the author of this particular puzzle hadn’t seen the previously published puzzles, which satisfied me and my Setec colleagues. On the other hand, one of the other constructors argued that if he had seen it, the puzzles were different enough that it wouldn’t be an issue. Sorry, not a chance. There are enough puzzlehunts in the world that some ideas are inevitably going to be duplicated, but if you’re aware before construction that a connection has been used before (which apparently wasn’t the case here), you have the responsibility to let it go.

Thursday: I don’t remember for sure which puzzle this was… I think it was the Pigpen-cipher-based one (set in an actual pigpen!). In any case, another where I didn’t get to work on it as scheduled, but it didn’t put up too much resistance. Nicely designed.

Friday: This was my second and last chance to win a daily puzzle, and I benefitted from the fact that (a) it was a word puzzle, and (b) it had multiple ahas that were likely more approachable if you have a lot of puzzlehunt experience. The puzzle consisted of an elaborate multi-floor dungeon which, based on previous puzzles, I started mapping right away. In certain rooms there were numbers scratched on the wall, and in some there were cryptic clues. I solved some of the clues and determined that they were all producing 7-letter words… It took me a little while to realize that the dungeon itself was the (three-dimensional grid) and that the clue rooms were all in first-letter positions. I ran around filling the grid and got enough numbered letters to figure out the command I needed to execute, but then I was surprised to discover I still needed a six-letter answer beyond that. Fortunately my map was organized enough for me to notice that each face of the roughly cube-shaped grid had three of one letter (from A to F) extending out, and one odd-man-out letter. Those letters, ordered from A face to F face, spelled the answer. A really beautiful construction, with the 3-D grid making the most of the MUD structure and an unexpectedly slick final answer extraction.

As soon as I finished, I jumped into the escape room Slack to see how other solvers had done; when I said the puzzle was great, Justin asked why I wasn’t still solving… When I pointed out that I was done, he confirmed that I had finished first. I actually finished with a comfortable five-minute cushion (I took 27 minutes and the next solver took 32), though I maintain that this was only because Projectyl was ineligible having won on Monday. He’ll come up again in Finalsgate, which I’ll get to in another post, because this is getting long.

Bar Exam, Part 4: And Then There Were Puzzles

(These posts will discuss the creation of Bar Exam (aka Willy Wonka and the Puzzle Factory), which was the extravaganza presented at the 2017 National Puzzlers’ League convention in Boston at the Revere Hotel. Puzzles are posted via the link above; this post will include puzzle spoilers.)

Surprise! It’s been about eleven months since our NPL Con extravanaganza, and ten since I posted three of the four parts (starting here) of my behind the scenes recap, so I wouldn’t blame anybody for thinking the fourth part was never coming. In fact, it was swallowed first by work responsibilities and then (like most potential 2018 Puzzlvaria posts) by Mystery Hunt responsibilities. This long after the fact, a lot of my memories are hazy, but I hate leaving things unresolved, so I want to wrap up with some construction comments about some of the puzzles; I’ll skip over the ones I don’t have semi-interesting thoughts on. Descriptions will likely be spoilery, so if you still haven’t solved this hunt, click the link above and give them a shot.

Dessert Oasis: Amazingly, that’s the actual board from Candy Land, which means Todd created a variety crossword on a preexisting grid with the rebus squares already placed. There were some minor changes (using PhotoShop skills far beyond my ability): the Licorice spaces have been removed, and the signs have been made blank so that they don’t advertise what the rebus squares stand for. Despite the fact that the cards give a lot of flexibility when it comes to pulling answers, this construction still blows me away.

Chilly Parlor: Another grid construction (courtesy of Mark) that I never would have been able to pull off. When I was testing it, I wasn’t too surprised by the use of M&Ms and Skittles in rebus squares, but I did not see it coming that they could slide to other squares to form valid entries. Logistically, there was some debate about whether we should give teams a baggie containing exactly the right candies, or a fun size bag of each that they could decide how to use themselves. We eventually settled on the former, partially due to cost, and partially because the Revere Hotel is very picky about food in the meeting rooms.

The Egg Plant: This was the first puzzle I wrote for this event, which is why it has one of the more satisfyingly thematic joke answers. Mark was trying to make the metapuzzle happen and knew that he wouldn’t be able to choose all the answers, but he asked us to suggest answers we did want, and he’d fill in the rest. I’m more used to writing puzzles for the Mystery Hunt where research is available, so I wanted to write a more pattern-based puzzle for this non-research event, and I liked that teammates could get individual ahas on the various minipuzzles. I was also pleased to (not really) use my additive number theory skills to make the numerical extraction work with all eggs labeled with different numbers and still make the answer I wanted.

Lifting Lounge: The puzzle we used was much closer to the second draft than my first draft. In my original version, the answer read column by column, and there were larger gaps between beverages. After testing, Brent pointed out those and other flaws in the puzzle, and I mentioned that I would love for all of those things to be fixed, but I had spent lots of time trying to build them into the grid, and I was convinced it was impossible. Brent came back to me with a version that checked off every box on my wishlist. A few hours later. (Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to tell your collaborators what you’d like to construct, and see if they can do it, especially if they’re super-talented.)

Oomphitheatre: This will undoubtedly be the most remembered puzzle from the event, especially for the poor volunteer who babysat the room in which it was on endless repeat for hours. Todd and I collaborated on the lyrics (with Brent nitpicking appropriately as meter police if I recall correctly), and then Todd sent the instrumental backing to Mark and me, and the three of us each sang and recorded the entire song. Todd then edited the audio and created the video for the masterpiece that we mercifully played in a separate room so that teams wouldn’t have to hear it the entire time. One issue with that is that more than one team didn’t notice the Oompa-Loompas sticking their arms in the air to extract letters, and returned to their team with a list of delicious treats, trying to get their teammates to help “solve” the list without the necessary information.

Ice Cream: I managed to attend weekly video chats about this project without spoiling my wife on anything, since I wanted her to get to play. (She says she liked it.) Shortly before the event, I asked what she thought the theme would be, and she facetiously said, “Ice cream!” I expected her to be very pleased with herself when she found out that was not only in the thematic ballpark but also the exact name of a puzzle, and my expectations were accurate. I have little else to say about this puzzle, other than that the pictures are adorable.

Everlasting Gobstopper: Mark originally gave this to me with all of the starting squares and clues numbered, and he was disappointed when I sliced through it like a hot knife through butter. I think it worked much better in its current state, with the word starts labeled but without saying which is which, so that it’s harder to jump right to the clue answers you know. In, say, the Mystery Hunt, the right move would have been not to label most of the starting points at all, but in this case we were catering to a wide range of skill levels with a time limit, even though this was one of the optional bonus puzzles that only affected progress for competitive teams.

Eggstreme Eggdicators: The NPL is by definition a word puzzle organization, though a lot of us really like logic puzzles, even if this year’s US Puzzle and Sudoku Championships may have revealed that we’re not as awesome at them as we used to be. Anyway, I have been guilty of putting a much-too-hard logic puzzle in a Con extravaganza (the semi-infamous “Bar Tab” from LA), and I know some Con attendees resent being given a puzzle that isn’t in the genre they’re used to, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear that last year the entertainment committee advised Erin Rhode’s group, “No logic puzzles.” I was unsurprised, but also EXTREMELY DEFIANT. But as abstract logic puzzles go, I definitely tried to make this one (an Easy as ABC/Futoshiki hybrid) as approachable as possible while still being a little bit interesting. If you want a more challenging logic puzzle by me, might I suggest this one?

The Great Glass Elevator: It took us a long time to decide how to implement the meta. Being fairly conservative when it comes to physical objects, I was advocating for something traditional that would involve filling answers onto a physical piece of paper, but Mark was passionate about building something three-dimensional, and I think we definitely got the tactile fun/wow factor the construction team was looking for with the “elevators” we gave teams. Ultimately we used a clear elevator that fit around a solid tube, even though at least one member of the team thought this was counterintuitive since that’s not how elevators work, and was insisting on a solid object inside a clear tube. I’m glad we chose the thing that was easier to build and easier for teams to manipulate and write on… sometimes solving experience should be prioritized over accuracy of simulation.

And that wraps up the 2017 NPL Con extravaganza, just in time for the 2018 extravaganza in under a month, which I am NOT writing. Next up on this blog when I get around to it, I’m hoping to recap the Cryptex Hunt from way back in February/March, a very ambitious and creative endeavor which I have a unique perspective on, since I was the first person to report that it had broken somewhat disastrously. That might sound like a prelude to a negative review, but on the contrary, I actually liked it a lot! Mostly.






Recap: P&A 72 (aka Sis Boom Bah, Raw Raw Raw)

(P&A 73 was released this past weekend, which means the answers are now online for P&A 72; so here’s my spoiler-laden recap of our experience solving the last issue, “Kelp.” While Jackie and I solved P&A 73, we had to start late due to the US Sudoku Team Qualifier, so I was too distracted by time pressure to take detailed notes. Thus, this might be the last detailed P&A recap for a while.)

The short version: This looked like a long issue at the outset, with sixteen puzzles to work through, but we caught on to how the metapuzzle worked after only 5/16, and we solved the meta with 9/16 in less than two hours. We then backsolved five of the remaining seven on our way to getting a complete.

We started a few minutes late (1:02ish), as we’d just gotten back from the hardware store to gear up for dealing with a household maintenance crisis (which still hasn’t been fully resolved because, naturally, puzzles take priority). Amidst the chaos, I printed, and Jackie, as usual, claimed the logic puzzle. While the printer was chugging away, I skimmed the document and The Daycare Center caught my eye; I found the anagram of BUGS MEANY and started jotting data down on paper, getting to an answer at 1:18. I then checked the Stats to see where the low-hanging fruit was… It appeared to be at The Buffet, and was actually various low-hanging fruit, vegetables, and other food items. Straightforward solve, complete at 1:24. I saw Dollar Store had also been solved, and that was fairly quick as well, finished at 1:29.

By this time, Jackie had filled the sudoku grid for The Prison (or The Police Station, since the document had one title and the answer submission had another), and we worked together to interpret the extraction at 1:33. Since the Bookshop had been solved a few times, we took a look at it together and ID’d six titles, but we couldn’t get the resulting letters to spell anything. (We weren’t using Image Search and just trying to get titles from context… We had Dracula for the first one, which was throwing off our first letter, but it turns out all five of our other guesses yielded correct letters.)

So we then split off again working on two word puzzles, with Jackie filling the Haunted House grid as I made very slow progress on Clothes Shop, in which the gimmick was apparent right away but solving the clues was a bit of a slog. Once the Haunted House grid was complete, we teamed up on extraction, and the flavortext suggested that we should draw in the “walls” between answers; this led us to an answer at 1:58.

Before going back to Clothes Shop, I took a look at the meta, and it occurred to me that the very specific types of seafood on the sushi menu might have official names. The first sushi glossary I found seemed promising, since it had an entry for “very young yellowtail,” but some of the other dishes weren’t listed and some had more than one name. Still, this seemed strong enough to keep looking, and the second glossary I found had perfect matches for every item. We then found that the translations could be found in all five of our answers, and the letters near the end could spell VALUE, so we knew we just needed enough answers to work out the rest of the phrase.

With this in mind, we teamed up to finish Clothes Shop at 2:13, and then I took a look at The Newspaper. After researching four headlines and finding they were all real, I thankfully decided to see what would happen if they were all real, and completed the puzzle at 2:19. I then moved to Strip Club, while Jackie was working on Hardware Store. She completed the Hardware Store grid and we worked together on the extraction at 2:34. I had found a couple of old comic strip names in the Strip Club grid (the first one in the grid, and Li’l Folks, which I recognized without research) but was having trouble getting others. Once I realized the additional words were all numbers, that helped a lot with the fill, I found enough titles to generate SL?????ALL and guess the answer at 2:52.

At this point, we started brainstorming seaweed-related words that might be in the meta answer, since that seemed to be the strongest thematic connection between the sushi menu and the title of “Kelp!” Jackie suggested based on the letters we had that there might be a pun on “redeeming value,” and when I suggested the right phrase, Jackie understood the surface reading better than I did and said it must be right. (In terms of coming up with the right word, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t helpful to have dated someone with a seaweed-related nickname.) We were the first team to solve the meta at 2:53.

Commence the backsolve bonanza! I started using OneLook to see what words contained the right sushi words with the right extraction letters in the right places. BANDWAGONS jumped out, and skimming the titles and flavortext, we “solved” Record Shop at 2:58 with no idea how it worked (I went back and solved enough of it later to see how it worked, and despite the cryptogram-ness, it was mostly my kind of puzzle). Jackie was working on the Gun Shop cryptic, and without OneLooking, she proposed AMMUNITION as an answer, which was also correct at 2:58. At 3:00, we came up with STORYBOARD, which seemed like a likely fit for Bookshop, and in fact it matched five out of six of the letters we’d generated earlier, so it was clear we were doing the right thing but didn’t have enough correct titles.

The remaining four didn’t seem as easy to backsolve, so I sat down for a bit with Movie Theater and got the first eight letters of the clue phrase, which were enough to solve it at 3:32. I then got lazy and went back into backsolving mode. GRANNY KNOT looked good for The Chapel, so that went down at 3:36. (I find it a little surprising that the flavortext for that puzzle includes the word “knot” *and* the BANDWAGONS puzzle contains the word “band”… feels a little bit on the nose.) I’ve since figured out how that puzzle works, and unless I’m missing something in terms of why the letters on the left are interspersed in the way they are, it doesn’t set my world on fire.

The TAKO answer had a lot of options, but by inspection I thought it could easily start with TAKING. That didn’t obviously go with one puzzle or the other, but since the Farmers’ Market explicitly asked for a 6 4 answer, I figured I’d try something there. TAKING HOLD wasn’t right, but TAKING OVER was (at 3:37), and in retrospect I’m surprised I didn’t try TAKING ROOT. For the last puzzle, Steakhouse, I didn’t come upon anything that looked strong to guess, so I solved the puzzle as intended (calves’ brains… yeeccch) and got the answer at 4:00. We were the first to solve the meta but only the second to make the completists’ list, so a tip of the hat to Circles All The Way Down. You are worthy adversaries.

Overall it was a nice issue with a good variety of puzzles, though I thought the meta mechanism advertised itself somewhat blatantly (if I’d looked at the sushi menu earlier, I’m betting I would have known how the meta worked after a couple of answers) and it turned out to be quite backsolvable. Having written for the 2017 Mystery Hunt, I’m not convinced I can criticize anyone for either of those metapuzzle properties.

Recap: P&A 71 (aka Hot Take: Puzzle Solving is Easier Than Skiing and Less Life-Threatening)

(P&A 72 was released yesterday, which means the answers are now online for P&A 71; so here’s my spoiler-laden recap of our experience solving the last issue, “Taking A Powder.”)

For the last issue, I mentioned that it was a fairly straightforward issue for us since we polished off the meta in about two hours. This month we managed to get the final answer with 9 our of 12 answers at 1:45pm, shaving even more time off. It seems that P&A, like the Mystery Hunt, is getting shorter and shorter (for the leaders) in terms of duration; I don’t think either is due to a reduction in quality, but rather I think top solvers are being exposed to more puzzle concepts as time goes by, and instructors are running out of new ideas they can apply without being unfair.

The title of this issue was Taking A Powder, and given the wintry timing, it was sure to be ski-themed. In the hours before the release, I imagined a skiing meta would probably involve slalom and came up with a few ideas for how such a meta would work. As it turns out, the metapuzzle WAS themed around the slalom event, although the way it actually worked was different from any of the ideas I’d brainstormed. All times below are Eastern, so we started printing at noon.

While printing I saw Extreme Altitude looked like a logic puzzle, so I offered it to Jackie who cheerfully accepted (especially after seeing it was Skyscrapers, which I hadn’t even noticed). I saw a Spiral (Death Spiral) and thought that might be one of the easier puzzles… boy, was I wrong, as it wasn’t hard to figure out how the double threads worked, but filling the grid was a bookkeeping slog. With less than half of the grid filled in, I checked the stats page and switched to the most-often-solved-at-that-point Unexpected Flyer. I filled three sets of blanks with progressive deletions, and I just noticed that there was a third deletion to a vegetable when Jackie solved Extreme Altitude, at 12:19 (pretty late for a first solve for us, as we didn’t latch on to low-hanging fruit early).

I asked her to look at Unexpected Flyer with me, and I’d just worked out the extraction and had J????A?L. I looked up MACRON at the same time that she figured out ACRONYM and ACORN for the same entry, giving us J???MA?L, enough to get the answer at 12:21 (I just got the reference to the answer in the title now, and it’s cute).

Jackie started on Hit It and Quit It, and I picked up Slow & Steady, which could have been called Fast & Straightforward… I finished it at 12:28. Then I worked on Death Spiral, making some more progress but not getting to the extraction, and since Snow Leopard was getting solved a lot, I identified the faces (getting a bit more than half the names from memory, and getting all but one of the rest by text search, since I didn’t feel like going back to the PDF to do image search). Some time during that period I also filled the answers into an 8xN grid, convinced that the meta answer was going to slalom through the grid on two parallel diagonals. (The letters on this path looked good for the moment. They did not look as good later.)

I then looked over at Jackie’s grid, which appeared to be yielding AB…I…A…, with probably no more than one letter between the B and I. Some strategic Onelooking led to the answer, allowing us to skip the second half of the grid, at 12:48. I then asked Jackie to look at the names we had for Snow Leopard. The clues looked like they wanted to refer to animals (such as the horse in the flavortext) and even though I’ve seen about eight times as many episodes of Bojack Horseman as she has, Jackie has an encyclopedic knowledge of Mara Wilson (who, to be fair, is awesome) and when she mentioned that, I instantly remembered Keith Olbermann’s appearance as a newscaster reading Beyonce lyrics. She left me to do the research step, and the answer popped out of that puzzle at 12:54. (This issue, by the way, may have set a record for answer phrases that begin with ANSWER or ANSWER IS; whenever this is the case, we inevitably break in on the ANSWER bits before the useful bits, which is probably intended.)

After this, Jackie made steady progress on ???????, while I worked on finishing Death Spiral. I needed the whole grid to get the answer to that at 1:07. Then I took a look over Jackie’s shoulder at her almost completed grids (though we were confused about some enumeration errors). When we started focusing on the branch points, I anagrammed CLUBS, and Jackie spotted the other two suits, giving us our answer at 1:15.

Dancing Star was another puzzle everyone seemed to be solving more quickly than we were, but I’d looked at in passing a few times and hadn’t seen more than CHOREOGRAPHY. I thought it would be exclusively about Dancing With The Stars and asked Jackie to see if she could spot any names… as I did so, I noticed BOMBAY DREAMS and started Googling to see if anyone had danced to a song from Bombay Dreams on DWTS. As the internet said no to this question, Jackie noticed TONY in the other corner, and we confirmed that BOMBAY DREAMS lost that Tony to WONDERFUL TOWN. We quickly polished this off, with me on the award nominees list and Jackie on the grid, getting the clue phrase from all but three answers. When looking up the answer, we were briefly terrified we were being led to generally horrible person Hope Solo, but thankfully there was another eight-letter contestant that year. Correct answer submitted at 1:24.

I started working on Drunk Yodeler while Jackie stared at the meta trying to find a better way to pull letters, since our weaving path (and any other slalomy path we tried) was giving gibberish. She noted that the flavor text implied we wanted to look between flags, so she was looking for matching pairs of letters to look between. I finished Drunk Yodeler at 1:40, and a few minutes later Jackie called out that she’d had a meta breakthrough. Her correct extraction gave the entire first word, and together we figured out the second word (which I only vaguely recognized as a word), taking first place by a margin of at least half an hour at around 1:45.

Going for the complete (knowing one bigram that should appear in each answer), Jackie worked on the grid for Snow Fort, and I noticed a couple of anagrammed planets on Popular Choice. I also noticed that the percentages didn’t add up to 100%. I also noticed a NEPTUNE that was short an E, and so I stated assembling quartets with one extra letter. These also didn’t add up to 100%, but they were close enough to provide an ordering. Knowing the answer was of the form O?????E? and contained a TV, there were two natural choices for a thematic answer. I luckily guessed the right one at 1:57.

The breakthrough on Big Air was SUGAR DADDY being the most clearly identifiable picture, and “Sandler Film” jumping out as cluing BIG DADDY. The enumeration on BANG helped elucidate where we should be indexing. I worked back and forth, again with no desire to resort to image search unless absolutely necessary, and after misassigning BIG BEAR at least twice (and I don’t know what that BEAR picture is anyway, because I’ve now learned that BJ AND THE BEAR isn’t actually about a bear), I managed to read the clue phrase from 15 out of 20 letters and submit the answer at 2:21.

Jackie was almost done with the Snow Fort grid (after some multitasking) and I helped her finish it, but we had no idea how to extract an answer, apart from assuming it would involve the “snowball stacks” which were unchecked. We both looked at this a long time with no leads, and eventually I noticed the letters in each stack were alphabetized (well, they were once we changed NAES to NOES). This suggested we might be pulling letters from each stack, and hey, there’s one more ANSWER IS! We submitted the answer at 2:40, and as I write this an hour later, I still don’t know how you’re supposed to know which letter to take from each triplet. But I’m still trying to figure it out.

Update from five minutes later: Got it. Decided something must be reading down (otherwise this would be four disconnected grids) and found PLOW, which led to seven more SNOW____ words. Loose ends resolved!

Recap: Galactic Puzzle Hunt 2018

(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.)

Much of my puzzlehunting bandwidth recently has been devoted to things I can’t tell you about (or that I potentially could tell you about, but it would disqualify you from Mystery Hunt and give me an excuse to try to rope you in for constructing), but I’ve participated in two very ambitious hunts this month: the second Galactic Puzzle Hunt, and the first Cryptex Hunt. I have a lot to say about the latter, including my experience trying to solve the Finals 1.0, and why I didn’t pick up a daily prize until the very last opportunity, but that event is still ongoing (and recommended). The Galactic Puzzle Hunt wrapped up earlier this week, so let’s chat about it, shall we?

This year’s event departed from last year’s Aussie-style structure to a more Puzzle Boat/Mystery Hunt-like format. The overall theme was Cookie Clicker, and while you could up your number of cookies by manually clicking (which I believe was a reasonable way to open puzzles at the very beginning), solving puzzles was necessary to earn enough cookies to open puzzles at a reasonable pace. Then after the first round (in which the puzzles were much more approachable), cookies split into three separate currencies, with every puzzle transparent about how many cookies it would add of each type (and every next-puzzle-in-a-round transparent about what it would require to be opened). Metapuzzles were the last puzzles to unlock in each round, and so even if they were short-circuitable, you were unlikely to have much of an opportunity to do so. We got bottlenecked toward the end with six puzzles in a state where solving any one puzzle would open nothing, but solving another would unlock two metapuzzles at once. Once we finally did this, we basically insta-solved both metas.

I for one approve of this structural change, partially because that’s the style I grew up on, but also because I find the daily releases of Aussie hunts a bit artificial, and it also makes you more likely to be stuck with only one thing you can work on. Of course, I say that having happened to have most of the weekend free; if I’d had any major conflicts, I’m sure I would have been delighted to solve all/most of the puzzles for a particular day and then getting non-puzzle-stuff done until the next release.

This was a *really* good puzzlehunt. I might have to decide whether it squeezes its way into my all-time top ten. As one of my teammates said, “I hope they don’t use all their best ideas by the time they win Mystery Hunt.” I thought there was so much creativity demonstrated in difficult but fair puzzles with artful and clean execution. If this were the first four rounds of a Mystery Hunt (which is my gold standard), I would consider it on pace to be one of the better Mystery Hunts in history.

For the second year in a row, Jackie and I solved with our adopted Aussie-hunt teammates on Killer Chicken Bones, a group of seasoned solvers that mostly (all?) solve the Mystery Hunt with Left Out. Near the beginning we were mostly dueling with plugh for first place (not counting Cookie Monster, who “won” the hunt by cheating and thus held the top of the leaderboard by a wide margin after a while), but after we reached the hard puzzles, we gradually started to lose ground on the other teams. When I went to sleep, I think we were in seventh or eighth place. In the morning, I nervously loaded the standings to see how far we’d fallen… and we were back in first. My west coast colleagues apparently had a lot more oomph left, and as I understand it, Ian Tullis (a power-solver that didn’t know if he was going to be able to contribute but whom we added to the team in case he had time) showed up briefly and magically turned puzzles into answers). I did not witness his presence, so he may be a unicorn, though I have seen him in person before as a human, so he would have to have been unicornified some time in the last decade.

After that we made steady progress and hung on to the lead for a while, but we then got bottlenecked Saturday night, and in time two teams passed us: have you tried random anagramming (members of [full text of Atlas Shrugged], whose team name is presumably advice for solvers in their 2004 Mystery Hunt) and Tasty Samoas, Please Ingest, which I assume is the cookie version of Reddit-based hunters Test Solution, Please Ignore.

Our six-puzzle logjam consisted of:

1) Unusual and Strange Puzzle Collection, which I’d immediately identified as a Best of the USPC puzzle. We’d solved enough of the logic puzzles to extract a clue phrase showing us where to look for something obviously significant, but we had a whole lot of data with what seemed like no obvious extraction. Jackie and I went back and solved the remaining puzzles, but between the new puzzles, the original USPC puzzles, and the puzzles referenced in the extra grid, we were in giant-spreadsheet-with-no-idea-what-to-index-into mode.

2) Cryptic Command, in which we’d solved some fairly clunky cryptic clues (the “modifications” were loose enough that it was easy to get an answer and not know if it was right) and hadn’t gotten much farther.

3) Adventure, in which I’d explored enough to determine what the puzzle was asking you to do (wander around a virtual keyboard and somehow “type” the same sequence of letters that you were actually typing to do this), but which none of the non-unicorn members present felt they were capable of doing. I read a lot about quines, but couldn’t grok how to make the blackboards process input.

4) Destructive Interference, an excellent example of an “oh you f***ers” puzzle, where shortly after encountering it you realize what you’re expected to do and find yourself glaring at the constructor (in a playful way, honestly!). Rich Bragg had been working steadily with Audacity, and after hours of work he was fairly sure he had the first two letters of the answer. It had thirteen. [This is a good time to applaud the organizers on their solutions and author’s notes, which were posted immediately after the event ended and are incredibly well written. The writeup of both ways to solve this puzzle is fascinating.]

5) Third Rail, which we (correctly) believed was a mashup between two specific board games. We had few conclusions from there on, and none of the ones we did have were particularly accurate.

6) Sequencing: Actually, we had a 5-puzzle bottleneck, since solving this one would earn us chocolate chip cookies, which while delicious were now a useless delicacy for unlocking purposes.

Late Sunday morning, I found Todd working on Cryptic Command, and between us we decided that the answers might be cluing unique casting costs (which seemed unlikely, but these were indeed some cards with very strange casting costs). Between the two of us we managed to work out most of the steps of the puzzle (except the very last one, in which we didn’t work out the correspondences of letter-to-item-in-final-list and just arbitrarily assigned them to make a word) and solve it. Then Todd had the aha for USPC (we weren’t using the hex grid given with the puzzle correctly), and once we knew what to do, our giant spreadsheet thankfully had all the information we needed. As noted earlier, the metas this opened were not hard, and we were then able to backsolve everything remaining besides Sequencing.

This brings us to the very creative prelude to the final puzzle, which I’ll spoil since it likely can’t be recreated in a meaningful way on the website. The text on the unlocked puzzle (which had no answer submission option) strongly suggested security cookies, and we had been informed when we logged in that the site uses them, which I thought was just a thematic pun. In order to access the puzzle, we had to edit our own cookie, which is something I’ve never done or would have expected to do to solve a puzzle. In a hunt where the puzzles were mostly self-contained, it was cool to come across one that was more environmental in nature, almost like playing an ARG.

According to the solution, our cookie should have shown our answers to the security questions from when we registered. Ours actually just said “[our username]_COMPOUNDWORD_MYBACKYARD_ACTOR.” I’m not sure if this means we said our favorite compound word was COMPOUNDWORD, or if we left it blank and this was the default. I won’t say which of our team members did the registration, but now you know they approach their security questions in one of two ways, so hack accordingly. (They were unfortunately unavailable for most of the period when we were trying to solve this, or they might have remembered the terms from registration. Also, I’m sure they take their real security questions much more seriously.)

We actually did almost the right thing hours before we did the actual right thing, as we correctly changed the second through fourth items, but never changed the first, as we didn’t realize we should be trying to impersonate someone. We were looking through the Story page when we realized that mewantcookie was actually a username. This caused me to check out the “forgot my password” link, and I was about to point out that the three strings indicated security questions when Rich tried changing the username and got us to the final challenge.

Said challenge was very cool, but in certain ways it seemed designed to maximize tension and grumpiness between team members. I would have enjoyed it much more if we’d had the ability to independently play with the system (Rich was actually coding one before Kenny Young stumbled upon a number close enough to a reducible one that we could apply our intended algorithm), and most of all, if THE OVEN HAD HAD AN “ARE YOU SURE” BUTTON. An undo button would have been even nicer, but having an irrevocable reset button right next to a button we had to click frequently turned a fun algorithm challenge into a massively stressful experience. By the time we got to this point, Atlas and Reddit had already finished; we had no idea plugh was lurking right behind us, and we ended up beating them by only eight minutes.

I’ve touched on most of the puzzles I spent the most time thinking about above, but a few others worth noting my experience with:

Make Your Own Fillomino, Cookie Clicker, The Answer To This Puzzle Is: I only worked on the second and third of these, but I wanted to express my appreciation for the varying interaction mechanisms that were employed in this hunt. Puzzles weren’t necessarily self-contained, but rather things you had to interact with (well, I guess Cookie Clicker was self-contained in that sense). Another mild example is:

Pride and Accomplishment: Somebody fixed Fifty-Fifty! But seriously, I really liked the initial step (well, five steps) of this puzzle, as well as the assembly… But from there on, the actual answer extraction felt tacked on. In the last stage of solving, it sort of seemed like we were solving a puzzle that was separate from the puzzle we initially set out to solve (apart from a theme-appropriate answer). For me, that detracted from the cohesiveness of the puzzle.

Lips Are Movin’: When Jackie and I woke up on Saturday, a lot of the low-hanging fruit had been devoured. Thankfully this was inexplicably unsolved, and we solved it together sitting on the couch in maybe fifteen minutes. Not a complicated puzzle compared to a lot of the rest of the hunt, but fun and clean.

In conclusion, I loved this hunt, and I encourage Galactic to keep producing it… just don’t make it so good that at some point you burn yourself out trying to meet your own expectations. Mildly fantastic would still be appreciated, especially if you can make it last. 🙂