(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.)
Early Sunday morning, a social media post was forwarded to several members of our team, which declared that Setec had intentionally made the Hunt shorter to “make a point,” and that we should have warned teams that we would be presenting a “mini huntlet” so they could plan for that when making travel/hotel arrangements. Said post is not publicly available, although I later realized I could see it because the author was, at the time, friends with me on Facebook. (Incidentally, if you consider 143 puzzles and 14 metapuzzles, most of which had an average solve time of over an hour, to be a “mini huntlet,” you may want to dial down your expectations, or you’re in for a lot of future disappointment. Just saying.)
I’ve said this elsewhere, and I think people know it by now, but I’ll say it again here: We did not intentionally make the hunt “shorter.” We certainly wanted parts of it (particularly the character rounds) to be accessible to small/casual teams, but nobody on our team, many of whom have experience writing previous Hunts, believed the coin would be found before Saturday evening. In fact, the question of what we would do if a team finished all the metas before the fourth event didn’t even come up until an e-mail thread three and a half days before Hunt, and in that thread, I said, “I’ll note again (as others have) that if no one finishes all the metas and most of the character puzzles by 6:30pm Saturday, and it would be unprecedented if they did (I think? when did Sages finish the metas in ’12?), none of this will be relevant. So in all likelihood the contingency plan won’t be used.” So at the time, we thought a team finding the coin by 6:30pm was unlikely; a victory fourteen hours earlier than that was not even on the radar. (The realization that the top team might finish before THREE of the events didn’t come until Friday night; we discussed contingency plans before I went to sleep, and by the time I woke up they’d been carried out… kudos to the late shift team for managing the situation effectively.)
One of my personal pet peeves is the statement, “The Hunt ended early.” The coin was found early, but the Hunt ended Sunday at 6pm. When I first starting hunting, everything shut down as soon as a team won (I remember we were doing the endgame during the Matrix Hunt, and they just stopped us when the coin was found), but the SPIES folks had the great idea in 2006 of continuing to manage HQ for the rest of the weekend so that other teams could continue to enjoy the experience. The degree to which things were operated have varied from year to year, but in 2014 and 2017 we made it a point to continue to run full endgames for teams that got there, so that if a team hung in and kept solving, they still got the reward they deserved if they finished in time. One of my least favorite Hunt memories was when somebody on MY TEAM (in 2010 when I was solving with the team that would become Alice Shrugged) saw me continuing to solve a puzzle after the winner was announced, and derisively said to me, “Didn’t you hear the Hunt is over?” That year a lot of our team members gave up, but about a dozen of us persevered and finished the Hunt, and we convinced more people to stay in it for the long haul the next year.
As a side note, the aforementioned team definitely knows how I feel about this sort of thing; this year, as We’ve Made A Huge Mistake, their HQ had a room called the Things Dan Katz Hates Room, in which work tables were named after things they were pretty sure that I hate… including “Teams That Stop Hunting When The Coin Is Found.” As a side side note, I played Mystereo during their character endgame and made it a point to add in the line, “And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s special abilities!” To which Erin Rhode, on cue, responded, “Make another table!”
As a Hunt constructor, a philosophy I have repeatedly given, received, and applied is to “write for the middle teams.” We had 90+ teams this year (though a couple dozen dropped out without solving a puzzle) and once you’ve run a Hunt, you realize that you want to try to keep them all happy. Most of the Hunts I’ve co-written for middle teams (the four Setec Hunts, the two Evil Midnight Hunts, and Alice Shrugged) have been well-regarded by most teams, modulo the occasional underclued killer meta that artificially slowed down the top teams. What’s changed over the years is that the spread of team size and ability has become massive. To put it bluntly, when you have superteams of 150-200 power solvers alongside casual teams of a dozen MIT students, there is no way to avoid the former finishing quickly and simultaneously avoid the latter becoming overwhelmed. This year was certainly atypical, but I also think it’s really cool that seventeen teams got to complete the Hunt. On the one hand, I think a lot of us would have preferred for the completion times to be pushed back about twelve hours (I’m sure the top teams feel that way in terms of entertainment time), but if that had happened, a bunch of teams that finished probably wouldn’t have. Where exactly is the “sweet spot”? It’s debatable, and I’m not sure what I think myself.
Some historical context for people relatively new to the Hunt: In the 2000s when I started hunting, there was a bit of an arms race between small “outsider” teams and larger “MIT” teams. After a bunch of Hunts were run by smallish teams like Setec Astronomy and Palindrome, two of the more passionate MIT-based teams (from Third East and Random Hall) became larger than previous Hunt teams had been in order to compete; but when each team won, they split up into smaller teams in the future. But those big teams had a lot of very casual solvers, whereas both of the teams that finished the Hunt super-early this year had 150+ members AND a nontrivial number of power-solvers. In addition, the team that ran the Hunt last year splintered, and there were multiple members of that team on BOTH of these teams.
Having said all that, there have been large skilled teams in the past as well, so why DID the coin get found so early? I think there were three key reasons:
1) Quest metas weren’t as hard as we anticipated.
A lot of metas got solved by top-level teams using fewer than half of the puzzle answers. We didn’t expect this; an intentional design of the structure was that if teams focused on character puzzles, at some point they would get stuck and not be able to open anything else until the first event happened, or they bumped themselves up by solving a quest meta. Since we wanted that first event to be enough of a bump to the character-focused teams, solving your first meta also had to be a significant bump, as well as the second. When the power teams sliced through the first few quest metas like a hot knife through butter, they were off to the races; we wanted teams who weren’t that good at our metas to make steady progress, and that means the teams that were excellent at them swamped the map.
One possible explanation for why the metas ended up easier than expected is that we tested them using Puzzletron (when I wrote in 2014, individual puzzles were tested in Puzzletron but metas were generally tested in group sessions). That means a lot of them got cleanly solved by one person, and when 100+ people are all staring at it at the same time, a meta is going to fall more easily. Again, I think we were more concerned about solvability and elegance than ensuring that metas were sufficiently hard, which has rarely been a problem in the past, and this time, for some teams, it was.
2) Quest rounds had low-hanging fruit.
We had a strict rule that character puzzles had to be fun and accessible (a 1 or 2 on our difficulty scale of 5). While quest puzzles were intended to be 3/4/5, if they tested as 1 or 2, that didn’t bother us too much, because occasionally running into an easier puzzle is nice, and we didn’t have the time to totally revamp many puzzles. But as noted above, some teams could solve quest metas with only a few puzzles, and if those few puzzles weren’t too hard, the round didn’t put up much of a fight. This might have been less of a problem if the unlock requirements for individual puzzles within the quest rounds had been higher (those numbers were chosen by me, so that’s entirely my fault). Ultimately we were more nervous about bottlenecks than overconnectivity; until this year, I’d witnessed lots of team frustration about being stuck and very little about accessing things too quickly. After this year, the latter may be more of a concern for constructing teams.
3) The Cleric meta was super-backsolvable.
I thought The Cleric was going to be our hardest character meta… In practice, most of the top teams cracked it first. (I’d say The Linguist was the character meta that was frequently solved last, though that’s from memory, not from stats, and it might not apply to the top-level teams.) The thing about the Cleric meta is that once you know the answer, you can figure out pretty much all of the feeder answers. So for the teams that solved it with three or four answers, they got six or seven future answers for free. We intended solvers to have to keep moving back between solving quest and character puzzles, and having a bunch of character puzzles that could be trivially backsolved interrupted that flow.
So in the long run, what do we (the Hunt community) do? The simplest solution is for solvers to accept the status quo and act accordingly; if you choose to be on a team that’s really big, there’s a good chance you’ll have a shortened Hunt, and everyone can decide that for themselves. (The social media post I complained about above noted that teams can’t be expected to police their own size… I apologize that the people writing you 100+ puzzles for free don’t have time to manage your team politics.) The main problem with this is the tradition that the winning team writes the next Hunt, which means that to “control” the Hunt, you’d have to opt into the big team “division.” I’m not sure I think the Hunt should exclusively belong to the people willing to be on giant teams.
There’s also the idea of team size limits, which has come up multiple times over the years. I know of two main reasons that it’s usually been dismissed. One is that it’s easy for teams to break that rule, intentionally or unintentionally (as it is, most big teams said they had more members than they estimated when they registered), and another is that the Mystery Hunt originated as an MIT social event, and limiting team size interferes with that. Having been an MIT student, I wanted to be able to tell freshmen they should come by and solve some puzzles, and I would hate for people to have to decide whether a new member should be welcome because they’ll count toward a size limit.
I made a novel suggestion at lunch after the wrap-up, which I’m not even sure if I like, but I’ll say it for brainstorming purposes. In the spirit of events like BAPHL and DASH, you could change the rules from “winner runs the next one” to “whoever’s due runs the next one.” For example, the next Hunt could be written by the earliest-finishing team that doesn’t have any members who have run the Hunt in the last three years. But having the winning team run Hunt is a hallowed tradition, and there’s no way you could get consensus from the Hunt community to permanently change that tradition. Not to mention the question of what happens if a Hunt runs long, and the team that finally finds the coin Monday at 2pm is ineligible to write…
Regardless of whether or how the team size epidemic is dealt with, I want to make one last plea to Death & Mayhem. You’re a giant team. Don’t write a Hunt just for giant teams. There are thousands of people who participate in Hunt and are looking forward to what you’re going to give them, and you’ll have a much more satisfying weekend if you prepare for all of them, not just for the team that’s going to win. In 2012, Manic Sages won as probably the biggest Hunt team in history, and I think they wrote a Hunt designed for a team like them… since that team didn’t exist, the 2013 Hunt set a record for length, and only ended because tons of puzzle answers were given out for free, and the meta requirement was relaxed to five out of six. There are many things in that Hunt that many people liked, but it would be hard to argue that they didn’t overshoot their target (and as a result, few teams saw their super-creative endgame).
D&M has been in contention for a long time, and it’s nice to see you guys finally win, but as the latest mega-team to write the Hunt, just remember that with great power comes great responsibility. 2018 will be the 20th anniversary(!) of my first participation in Mystery Hunt (as a high school junior) and I look forward to celebrating it with you, even if my team’s done in fifteen hours.