By Request: All-Time Top Ten Puzzlehunts (#10-#6)

In a thread on Facebook where I asked what sort of posts other than recaps readers would like to see, Scott Weiss asked for my top ten puzzlehunts of all time, which apparently I proposed doing at some point in the past. I’m a bit obsessive about ranking things (though not as much as I was when I was younger, and also not as much as Craig Cackowski is), so I couldn’t turn this suggestion down.

Below are #10 through #6 on my list at the moment; ask me in two weeks and the ranking could be totally different. It’s also a bit hard to separate the objective quality of a puzzlehunt from my personal experience… for example, I loved some of my earliest MIT Mystery Hunt experiences because they were novel and exciting at the time, but compared to modern hunts, the puzzles in many of them are a bit flat. I’m disqualifying any puzzlehunt I helped write for obvious reasons, and there are probably many hunts that were great that won’t make it because I didn’t participate. I also admit to leaning toward options that created a good variety of hunt sources. I’ll note one example of that in the first entry.

The top half of my list is etched in stone and will appear in a follow-up post in the near future. Feel free to post your own all-time top 5 or 10 or 100 in the comments, and if you want to try to guess my top five, that might be fun too. (I’ll throw in a hint about those at the end.)

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10. BAPHL 13 – Monkey Island (July 2015)

I’m going to start the list by immediately cheating, because there are almost certainly some MIT Mystery Hunts that yielded more total enjoyment than BAPHL 13 did; that’s inevitable when you compare a 40-hour puzzling experience to a 3-hour puzzle experience. But I’m giving BAPHL 13 for a number of reasons. First, BAPHL, the Boston area’s series of walk-around puzzlehunts, is otherwise unrepresented on this list (probably due to the aforementioned shortness), and I love BAPHL enough that I wanted it to appear. Second, most BAPHLs occur in Boston/Cambridge/Somerville, with stops on the red line particularly frequently used, and I really like when the organizers think outside the box and take me to an unfamiliar location (as we did when we made everybody trek to Providence for BAPHL 9: Forbidden Rhode Island). BAPHL 13 was held on one of the harbor islands, which I’d never visited, and the ferry trip to the hunt site made the whole thing feel more like an adventure. And finally, I grew up with Sierra and LucasArts adventure games and especially enjoyed the latter, and The Secret of Monkey Island is one of my favorite computer game series. So this was a theme that hit my nostalgia button, and it made the experience even more fun. The puzzles here were solid if not tremendously memorable, but the overall staging made this my favorite BAPHL I’ve solved (slightly edging out 12), and it squeaks onto the list.

9. The Puzzle Boat 2 (March 2014)

I am a devoted solver of P&A Magazine (you should be too… see the sidebar for a link), and I enjoyed solving the first Puzzle Boat (Foggy Brume’s more Mystery Hunt-sized epics hosted on the P&A website) with Chris Morse, though it felt a little bit unpolished. The next two, which I’ve solved with Mystik Spiral, have been a lot sleeker, with intriguing meta-structures and high production values. PB2 stands out as having a rather subtle theme that emerged over the course of solving, and as a result it’s one of few hunts where I distinctly remember what our solving spreadsheet looked like; solving (and sometimes backsolving) the last handful of puzzles felt very much like clicking the last pieces into a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzles themselves were the usual quality I expect from P&A: fairly clued, elegant, and not always groundbreaking or super-challenging, but almost always entertaining. As a side-note, I was the main proponent behind having SHORT thematic flavortext on every puzzle in the 2017 Mystery Hunt; Foggy’s style on P&A was a big influence on that feeling right to me.

8. MIT Mystery Hunt – SPIES (January 2006)

I’ve been participating in the Mystery Hunt since 1998, and there have been a lot of innovations since then, some of which have been good, some bad, and some well-intentioned but not perfected until later. SPIES stands out as a Hunt that set out to “ground” things… It came after two Hunts that were way too hard for different reasons (2003’s Matrix being way too long for the era, and 2004’s Time Bandits suffering from some poor testing/editing choices that made a lot of the puzzles unfair) and then 2005’s Normalville, which was mostly better-tuned puzzlewise, but which suffered from a particular nasty meta that bottlenecked front-runner teams for uncomfortable amounts of time. The SPIES Hunt didn’t re-invent the wheel, but it featured consistently clean puzzles and metas, a very pretty and cleanly designed website, and a fun theme and character interactions. In addition, while the round structure was not incredibly novel, there was a nice feature referred to as “antepuzzles,” in which new rounds were not opened by solving the standard metapuzzles, but rather by solving separate metas based on environmental information that became available as you solved round puzzles. It’s a simple mechanic, and it’s not one that has become a mainstay in Hunt design, but for this Hunt it was great.

I’m also naturally biased toward my experience solving this Hunt, because it was my first year solving with the Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb At Midnight, the Hunt team I co-founded with Jenn Braun. A lot of people complained at the time that we had put together a super-team due to my being very competitive, but honestly, the primary recruitment goals were to solve with people we’d enjoy writing with if we won, and to keep the team size fairly lean and mean (so that we wouldn’t need to track things on a wiki or spreadsheet… if you wanted to know something about a puzzle, we were small enough that you could just ask the room). I was excited but not sure how it would go, but it turned out we had really good chemistry, and there’s a reason we won both the Hunts we competed in (2006 and 2008) before we went our separate ways. I had won the Hunt three previous times with Setec, but that felt like a group I latched onto, whereas Evil Midnight felt like something we had built from the ground up. 2006 is the only year I cried when we found the coin.

(This is as good a time as any to address what you’ve probably already noticed in this blog… I capitalize Hunt when referring to the Mystery Hunt, and I usually leave it lowercase otherwise. It comes from years of referring to the Mystery Hunt for short as just “Hunt,” and it’s an idiosyncrasy I fully embrace.)

7. The Eleventh Hour (published in 1988)

Out-of-left-field pick! I’m counting a book as a puzzlehunt. Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery, along with the Usborne Puzzle Adventures series, were the coolest books I stumbled upon in my youth. The latter were a series of illustrated stories in which there was a puzzle to solve after every two pages; most of these puzzles were self-contained, so the books weren’t really puzzlehunts, though occasionally there was a puzzle that would require to pay attention to details from earlier in the story (I remember Escape From Blood Castle being particularly cohesive). There was also a spinoff series called “Superpuzzles” that were much more puzzlehuntesque, and I remember these being much more intriguing and challenging. They’re out of print and I can’t say or sure whether I’d still be excited by them as a seasoned solver, but if you can get your hands on any of the Superpuzzles volumes I recommend them.

The Eleventh Hour is a gorgeously illustrated story of an elephant’s birthday party, during which one of a plethora of animal guests eats the birthday feast, an the reader is invited to figure out who it was. The pictures are dense in secrets, with tons of coded messages and also traditional mystery clues. One of the nice features of the book is that you can solve the mystery either as a traditional whodunnit, based on visual cues, or by combining all of the hidden messages, which is enough for me to qualify this as a puzzlehunt and put it on this list. (Though the high position on the list is undoubtedly nostalgia-based.) There is also a fun bonus challenge presented in the back even after you have the final answer.

As a warning, if you’re thinking of buying this book on Amazon and you have a tendency to use the “Look Inside” option before purchasing, don’t do it! Part of the book consists of detailed spoilers (which were actually sealed by a sticker in the hardback edition I had as a child). Also, there is a code in the back of the book that you’re supposed to use to confirm your answer (the name of the guilty party is used to decrypt the message). If you’re adept at puzzles, steer clear of the code until you have a legitimate guess… even as a kid, the code was simple enough for me to accidentally solve, which spoiled the ending (though I still enjoyed trying to figure out why the final answer was correct). Having said all this, the book is worth a look for any puzzle enthusiasts who haven’t seen it, and if you have kids who like puzzles, you should buy this yesterday.

6. WarTron Boston (June 2013)

One of the oldest puzzlehunt traditions is The Game, the sporadic series of west coast drive-around puzzlehunts that was mostly developed at Stanford (though Wikipedia says it originated earlier). As someone who has lived on the east coast my entire life and went to MIT as an undergrad, the Mystery Hunt was always the gold standard of puzzlehunting for me, but I know many Californians whose puzzling worlds revolved around The Game. (It also doesn’t help that the significant entry fees associated with typical Games had too many digits for my blood when I was growing up, even if I’d had the connections to find a team.) Now I’ve participated in one-and-a-half Games, and man, do I want to do more (but there haven’t been any since the ones I’ve done!). I’d also like to help run one someday, because helping run a Mystery Hunt apparently isn’t enough masochism for me, but I’d like to solve a few more first.

Wait, did he say one-and-a-half? Sort of. WarTron was originally run in August 2012 in Portland, Oregon, and a group of wonderful people volunteered to organize a second run of the content (with some changes) in the Boston area. When I first heard it was running in Boston, I wasn’t that interested in doing a second-run event, but a few teammates from the Mystery Hunt invited me to join a team; they actually hadn’t completed the application process, but the organizers asked them to play anyway because they were short on participants. That’s another reason I haven’t played as many Games as I’d like; there’s usually a limited capacity and an application process to get the slots. The first Game I wanted to play was Ghost Patrol, and the team that invited me to join was rejected, which was a lousy experience.

So anyway, I’m counting this as half a Game because (a) I didn’t participate in the real version, and some of the content in WarTron Boston was retrofit to go in a new setting (and the main electronic devices the event revolved around didn’t work properly), (b) since we didn’t do much planning, we decided to squeeze five team members into a regular-sized car rather than the traditional van, which I can tell you is a TERRIBLE idea, and (c) I started experiencing cold symptoms about six hours in, which made about 12 hours of the event hellish, including one part where I took a nap in the car during what would otherwise have been the coolest and most thematic location (Funspot in Laconia, New Hampshire). Eventually after I got a little sleep, which was harder in a five-person car than it would be in a more appropriate vehicle, adrenaline overcame whatever virus I had, and I felt more myself on the second day.

But despite the health issues I was grappling with, WarTron Boston helped me get what is so neat about the whole Game concept. Walk-around puzzlehunts are good for a change in scenery, and it’s neat when the puzzles are embedded in the surroundings in some way, but when you literally have to drive miles to the next location and you have no idea what it’s going to look like and what you’re going to have to do when you arrive… that’s an adventure. And while I structurally prefer the Puzzle Boat/Mystery Hunt model where you can work on things in parallel and put a puzzle down if it’s annoying you, the Amazing Race aspects really make up for the linearity of the puzzles. More, please!

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So for anybody who wants to guess #5 through #1, I’ll give you the additional info that the remaining five hunts are all from different years, and no two of those years are consecutive. Have fun, and I’ll post the rest early next week.

6 thoughts on “By Request: All-Time Top Ten Puzzlehunts (#10-#6)

  1. I find it hard to compare things from different time periods, as my tastes have changed and my memory gets hazy, but I can certainly offer commentary on your list:

    10. BAPHL has become one of my favorite events. I think it’s a great format for solving, and it gives a lot of constructors the chance to write a hunt that isn’t the Hunt. As an event, BAPHL 13 was great fun. Getting on the boat in the morning made it feel like something special. FWIW, I had proposed the Harbor Islands as a possible venue for BAPHL 10, and was shot down for logistical reasons. I’m happy with what we wound up with for BAPHL 10, but I’m also glad DFA didn’t let logistics stand in their way.

    Other BAPHLs I particularly enjoyed: BAPHL 4, which was one of the earliest structural experiments I enjoy seeing on this scale. BAPHL 9, which had a nice exploratory feel, and several aspects that I was only slightly miffed to see, because we were planning similar things for BAPHL 10 and you beat us to them. BAPHL 11, which had one of my single favorite wordplay metas. I also like that many recent BAPHLs have had somewhat meta themes.

    9. PB 2 is also my favorite Puzzle Boat to date. The meta-meta was so darn satisfying. I have a lot of respect for Foggy as a constructor, and that respect has only grown since I started writing my own puzzles regularly.

    8. There’s a lot to be said for a good, clean, grounded Hunt. SPIES was a lot of fun. I’m all for structural innovation when done well, but at the same time, hunts like SPIES, Alice Shrugged, and Monsters et Manus demonstrate the value of creativity, design, editing, good execution, and fun.

    7. I haven’t read this book, but it did give rise to the name of my current BAPHL team, so I approve of the selection.

    6. The Game is still a tough sell for me with its price point, but when Left as an Exercise for the Reader started working on their recast, I decided to give it a go. Then Todd Etter announced the Famine Game later that year, and I was torn. I could only afford to do one of these, and I opted to support the more local effort. I have heard nothing but rave reviews for the Famine Game, and I’m sure it’s in your top 3, so I’m sorry to have missed out on that. However, WarTron was a fun experience, and LaaEftR and friends are continuing to work on an original Game to be run in the Boston area, so I’m glad I helped them get started.

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  2. Thanks for taking on my suggestion! If I had to pick my top events, that list would include the SPIES Hunt as my favorite Mystery Hunt, Todd Etter’s inaugural DCPHR hunt in DC last year, Puzzle Boat 1, my first escape room experience in KC last year, and Small Town News from the NPL.

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  3. I’ll try my hand at guessing. I think there must be two remaining Mystery Hunts: 20K Leagues from 2015, and Video Games from 2011 (without the hint I would have thought 2010 and 2012 had chances). Beyond that it gets harder to guess because we haven’t done the same puzzle hunts. E.g. the googol hunt (https://gooooogol.theburninators.org/puzzles/) is clearly in my top 5, but I’m guessing you haven’t done it. Maybe one of the labor day hunts? But I haven’t done enough of them to know which is the top one. I’d guess one of them is an escape room. This isn’t strictly a guess, but in some order, one escape room, one bay area hunt by either burninators or coed astronomy, one labor day hunt, MH2011, and MH2015.

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