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.