Mystery Hunt 2017, Part 2: Puzzles I Wrote

(Note: The 2017 Mystery Hunt was created by Setec Astronomy, a team of about fifty people. I did a small fraction of the work and was not in charge in any way. Any opinions or perspectives below are my own and don’t necessarily reflect that of my teammates.)

I’m credited on 19 puzzles in this year’s Hunt, not counting metas and endgames. Here’s a list of all of them, in case you’re a Dan Katz completist (which would be a little weird, quite frankly), and then I’ll comment on some of them individually.

(Puzzles and solutions are available here; please forgive me for not linking every puzzle individually, but I’ve specified the rounds, so you should be able to get to any of them with two clicks from the front page.)

Character puzzles:
– Before and After MASH (Fighter)
– Crossing Your Arms (Fighter)
– Hand Them Over! (Chemist) (with Jackie Anderson)
– Local Coverage (Economist) (with Scott Purdy)
– Precipice (Linguist)
– Spontaneous Reactions (Chemist)
– Ye Olde Seventhe Duck Konundrum: The Cones of Duckshire (Economist)

Quest puzzles:
– A Lengthy Journey (Dynast)
– Advisor’s Nightmare (Bridge)
– Attention Span (Bridge) (with Roger Barkan and art by Todd McClary)
– Cutting the Cord (Bridge)
– Dammit, Jim (Warlord)
– Fleshed Out (Cube)
– Heirplay (Dynast)
– How I Spent My Pre/Post-Apocalyptic Vacation (Dungeon)
– Listicle (Thespians) (with Kiran Kedlaya)
– Oh, You! (Criminal)
– Stackuro (Minstrels)
– Stick the Landing (Thespians)

Crossing Your Arms:
The last step of this puzzle was originally my proposal for a Fighter meta. Each puzzle answer would have been equivalent to a weapon (i.e. ASPARAGUS gives SPEAR, OBELISK gives DAGGER) and the answer comes from one letter of each weapon (I think MIGHTY ARMS was one of our leading answer options). The biggest problem was that there wasn’t anything inherent in the answers that was going to tell you which letter to pick, so we were going to have to blatantly give the index numbers (likely as a number of shields next to each puzzle). That would have been pretty inelegant for a metapuzzle, and the Fighter meta we used instead is much nicer.

Local Coverage:
It was Scott’s idea to clue people who were on TIB covers, and as an editor I suggested the one uber-cover that draws letters from different points on the cover; eventually, I got so into the idea that I was promoted to co-author. I actually made a hideous frankenlogo for The Imprudent Economist by hacking together letter bits in Photoshop that I was disproportionately proud of, but Philip Loh eventually just found the right font and made it pretty.

Meanwhile, The Improper Bostonian decided to mock us by finally changing their logo this year. I noticed this while walking down the street during this fall’s BAPHL, after the puzzle was written and tested; Scott was on my BAPHL team, and we briefly discussed the change and decided to ignore it.

The Cones of Duckshire:
Apparently Ben Smith has been planning a Konundrum-style Cones of Dunshire puzzle for a few years, and I beat him to it. As soon as we had a theme and I was trying to decide on a theme-appropriate Duck Konundrum, Cones of Dunshire, the super-complex fictional fantasy board game invented by a character on Parks and Recreation, leapt to mind. We wanted this puzzle to be in a character round so everyone would see it, so it was intentionally more of a “duckling konundrum” that wasn’t meant to be a huge time sink.

If you solved this puzzle and you haven’t looked at the four unused steps, I recommend it. There are a few Easter eggs, including a very specific Choose Your Own Adventure reference that is more apt than you may realize (look up the book if you want to know why) and an instruction clearly meant to apply to a different board game due to be released in 3009.

A Lengthy Journey:
No interesting stories here, but this puzzle revolves around a pretty simple aha that ended up being one of my favorite things I came up with for this Hunt. In testing, when Trip Payne figured out the aha, he gave the following flattering testing feedback: “If this isn’t what I think it is, then I’m writing THAT puzzle myself.” (It was.) In any case, I have a tendency to construct things that are rather sprawling and have a lot of moving parts, and I think this was simple and really elegant. So go solve it if you haven’t, now that I’ve ruined it with hype.

Advisor’s Nightmare:
If you’ve solved a lot of Mystery Hunts (or solve a lot of puzzles in general), make sure you take a look at this inside-joke-fest; the “courses” in this college schedule assembly logic puzzle are all courses about puzzle constructing/solving, and there are a ton of references in the titles (which are otherwise irrelevant to solving, as a message in the puzzle tells you) to people in the puzzle industry and previous Hunts.

The meta/answer constraints meant that this puzzle had to avoid using the words “must,” “require,” or “prerequisite.” You’d be surprised how difficult it is to specify course requirements without using any of those words.

Attention Span:
The idea here was mine (how could we have a bridge-themed round without a Hashi variant?), but Roger did all of the actual logic puzzle construction. I believe he also came up with the idea of breaking the grids into pieces, which made it a much more interesting puzzle.

Fleshed Out:
I think I’m a good cryptic clue writer, but my grid-filling skills are pretty substandard. Having said that, I think this is by leaps and bounds the best cryptic grid I’ve ever constructed, and I’m damn proud of it.

This puzzle was initially in the Wizard round, but after a lot of testing difficulty, we decided it belonged in a quest round. I was initially pretty cranky about this because it involved rewriting most of the puzzle, but the answer I got for it was awesome enough to make up for the extra work.

This used to have much less blatant cluing in the listicle headline, and Trip testsolved that version instantly and thought it was way too easy. Then six or seven subsequent testers failed to solve it at all. This was a fairly late construction (I came up with the puzzle concept based on one of the few unclaimed answers left) and so we kept hitting it with the easy stick until it had a few clean solves. If it had been written earlier, it might have gotten more group testing, and it might have ended up harder, but for safety we often prioritized solvability over challenge.

Stick the Landing:
We wrote about half a dozen “flex puzzles” that could be assigned to any answer in case of puzzle breakage, and three of those ended up being inserted into the Hunt before the Hunt started because we liked them (the other two were The Most Interesting Puzzle in the World and Hamiltonian Path). When we assigned an answer, I came up with the second phase of the puzzle, and it was Philip’s idea to insert that phase into a pack of gum. This was very late in the year, late enough that I didn’t think we’d have time to make that work, and Philip said he could do it… I was floored when he showed up to Hunt with a box of Doublemint packs that looked like they had never been opened, all of which contained puzzles. Hopefully teams thought that was neat.

Hamiltonian Path, which I didn’t write, had a similar “coda” step added where Philip suggested the object we could give teams, a CD, and I suggested what could be on the CD in order to clue the answer. I like it when “do this task” puzzles result in a mini-puzzle you solve to get the answer; just being given the answer as a reward and then still needing to submit it feels a little anticlimactic.

Some Puzzles Not By Me:
I liked lots of puzzles in this Hunt (and if I didn’t like one, as a tester or editor I tried to get the author to make me like it more) but my three favorites were Basic Phrenology (Dynast), which has a jaw-dropping final step; Changing Rooms (Dungeon), which has multiple jaw-dropping steps; and The Puzzle at the End of This Book (Cube), which will only drop your jaw in the sense that you will be saying, “Awwwwww!” at how cute it is.


6 thoughts on “Mystery Hunt 2017, Part 2: Puzzles I Wrote

  1. The extent of my Cones of Dunshire idea was “this has a lot of rules, would make for a nice Konundrum-ish puzzle (I’ve read the how-to guide – no duck would have been included in the final version), and involves a pop culture thing I like a lot”. The fact that the shorthand I used for that in my list of Hunt Puzzle Ideas was “Cones of Duckshire” completely shocked me when going through that on Monday.


  2. Shout out to Stick the Landing, my personal favorite moment of the hunt!! After we solved the main part (by the way, is there a name for that kind of puzzle, the non-dropquote part, where you un-transform a clue and re-transform the answer? I always enjoy those, and this was fun as usual, though ending up with non-words was a little awkward), I mentioned to some team members (Central Services) that I was going to La Verde’s to buy some gumdrops; someone else overheard and said “oh, I brought a gingerbread house kit I had lying around, in case we needed it for a creative challenge. I bet that has gumdrops in it!” and sure enough, it turned out our team had come equipped with gumdrops. Then when the “magic box” turned the gumdrops into gum… that drops (clonk), okay, that made us laugh. But then we got back to base and realized we hadn’t been credited with an answer, so we flailed around wondering how to call in a sealed pack of gum (I’d love to see all the wrong answers called in for that!), when finally we decided it would be okay to open it and chew some gum while pondering what to do, and boom, there was the rest of the puzzle. Perfect! Were they steamed and re-glued? Or some sort of 4D topological magic manipulation? Anyway, thanks!


  3. Loved A Lengthy Journey and Attention Span. Also loved the Crafty Criminals meta.

    When do we get to see the politically controversial puzzle that was nixed? I have a guess about what the answer may have been (on this theory, the puzzle was supposed to be part of the Broken Bridge meta).


  4. For public context: A few months ago I commented on FB that I had a puzzle cut due to political content, which is true. (It wasn’t in Bridge, though.)

    We have a handful of unused “flex” puzzles that we’re planning to eventually post on the Hunt site, and I think it’s likely to show up with them, with a disclaimer attached. If not, or if that seems like it’s not going to happen any time soon, I’ll post it somewhere else. Thematically, it would have been nice if it had made it to the internet before tomorrow, but I doubt that’s going to happen.


  5. Heirplay wasn’t meant for that round? But it fits the story there so well – the emperor is missing his son just like we’re missing [spoiler]. Was it originally written with a different musician?


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