By Request: All-Time Top Ten Puzzlehunts (#5-#1)

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.

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16 thoughts on “By Request: All-Time Top Ten Puzzlehunts (#5-#1)

  1. Hey there, Dan.

    Actually, I did not come to you when your team finished the 2010 hunt; your team came to me in our team’s HQ, where I was still on phone duty, to drop off the items required to make the timey-wimey ball (whose actual name I no longer remember) which you needed within the context of the story to track down and capture the coin. Or rather, in the case of your team, the schematic drawings which included all of those items, drawn on a sheet of paper, which HQ (me again) had decided would suffice given the amount of time required to gather the items versus the amount of time left before HQ would be shutting down. (I still have the paper with those drawings as a personal and one-of-a-kind hunt souvenir.)

    The runaround concept in 2010 was conceived very late in the hunt writing and organizing process, and was settled upon in part because it was very thematic, and in part because it was a runaround concept which had no vector for a fatal flaw to be introduced. It involved minimal narrative content, minimal puzzle solving, and a whole lot of actual running around.

    We had two people in total who were trained to staff that runaround, and it didn’t really matter whether the other people were asleep at that time in regards to doing the runaround; those two people were asleep, and it didn’t really matter that none of the other people who had gone to sleep off the hunt were there at the time your team finished, as none of those people could have taken you running around anyway.

    I think – though my memory is hazy on this – that the decision to leave HQ with a skeleton crew and let everyone else go sleep was made at a time when it was clear that most teams had stopped making significant progress and/or calling in answers frequently, and when it looked like it was quite unlikely that any other team was going to finish the hunt. As it was, even with the heroic performance your team put on to finish everything, I’m pretty sure the call in to HQ asking whether the schematic drawings would suffice came in with under an hour left before the announced hunt end time/HQ closing time, and that your team delivered the schematic with something like fifteen minutes to spare.

    It’s unfortunate that you felt let down due to my inability to actually take you on the runaround. I’m of the informed opinion that you would have also felt let down by the actual runaround, but I agree that it would have been better for you to be let down by the actual runaround (if it were possible) than by not being able to go on the actual runaround.

    I’ve been enjoying your blogging here a great deal, even if I haven’t generally been commenting. Keep it up!

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    • Hi Craig –

      It sounds like you may have taken my comment personally… I wasn’t saying we were let down by your not finding a way in that moment to run the endgame in its entirety; we were disappointed because it wasn’t made clear to us that after a certain point that if we finished the metas before the deadline, we wouldn’t get to do the rest of the Hunt, and the team as a whole didn’t seem to plan for the possibility of many teams doing the runaround (based on only training two people to run it). We appreciated you giving us the endgame summary, but it was still very anticlimactic, and no one’s saying that’s specifically your fault; you did what you could in the moment.

      It’s true that I had forgotten about the scavenger hunt/construction aspect before the final runaround, though for what it’s worth, I think right before the final runaround is an incredibly stressful time to place that task (we considered asking teams to construct the six magical objects for our 2017 endgame, and we quickly decided it would be annoying). In other years, such as 2012, I’ve been on a team that finished the metas but was told we would have to wait for an hour plus before we could complete the Hunt; that’s another case where I don’t think Codex did anything wrong in the moment, but they didn’t plan a system that would allow teams to keep flowing into the last phase, and I think we may have done the same to at least one team in 2014 (though at one point we considered just shutting down the endgame due to lack of resources, and I vehemently disagreed, getting three or four more teams through).

      Personally, I think the endgame of Mystery Hunt should be satisfying, but also straightforward and parallelizable, so no one gets close to the finish line and then gets stopped or delayed due to resource issues. I think what we did in 2017 (a quick dramatic set piece with puzzle content and minimal physical requirements, followed by a thematic but straightforward runaround) achieved my ideal.

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      • I’ve only recently been doing the Hunts, and only remotely, but I’ve gone through the archives and the conceit of the Time Bandits Hunt has always impressed me even if, on some occasions, it might have been slightly frustrating or tedious to resolve the same puzzles under the new timeline.

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  2. Is it true the Haystack guys didn’t consider themselves “puzzle people” per se since they never really wrote puzzles before?

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  3. It’s interesting how difficult it is to compare top 10 lists of puzzle hunts, compared to say 2016 movies, because there’s so little overlap between hunts that different people have played in. Even for Mystery Hunt, we can’t easily compare lists because of which ones we’ve written. Your top 10 only has one hunt that I’ve completed but didn’t write, and I think if I tried to put together a similar list it might have the same feature. I haven’t thought about it in detail, but it’d probably be something like Monopoly, the Burninators Googol hunt, 20K leagues under the sea, Coed Astronomy’s leasurely mini-game played on foot, Bang 13, Ian’s birthday hunt, maybe Coed Astronomy’s Sneakers game (I loved loved the puzzles, but I dislike being in a car and really hate not sleeping), maybe the 2009 Mathcamp hunt, and probably some subset of Normalville, Zyzzlvaria, Producers, Alice, or M&M (which subset depending strongly on my mood concerning ambition vs. smoothness on that particular day).

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  4. I’m so glad you liked the Video Games hunt! I could talk for hours about the similarities and differences between Zyzzlvaria and Video Games. I really liked Zyzzlvaria, and I was disappointed at first that it meant I wouldn’t get to use my “each round has a different structure” idea the next time we ran because it was already used. But the more I thought about it the more I was convinced that this was a big enough and flexible enough idea that it would be okay to reuse it, especially because replacing “rounds” with “super rounds” was a big difference and one that I hoped would make things run better. (Though as you say it also makes it closer to Time Bandits. It’s a tricky thing to sort out what kind of Mystery Hunt ideas would feel like a ripoff to repeat, and which are innovations that should be built on.) The idea of a Megaman hunt had been percolating around Random for over a decade, but it always ran into the problem that Megaman is too specific and obscure a theme to hang a whole hunt around, and so I really liked Video Games with Worlds as a way to get Megaman into the hunt in a more manageable way. It certainly helped that there are so many video games, so that we didn’t have to pick 5 video games and then find structures to match those specific 5, but instead had a couple dozen games we were willing to use if we could find a structure that worked. For example, Katamari Damacy started as an example of a structure (obvs based on Normalville) and the choice of game (and the size theme to the metas) came later. Of course with Megaman and Civilization it went the other way, where you pick the game because it has such a clear structure and then you work on adapting that structure to a puzzle.

    Bruce Springsteen in his liner notes for his Greatest Hits says about Born to Run: “My shot at the title. A 24 yr. old kid aimin’ at ‘The greatest rock ‘n roll record ever.'” I still think of Monopoly as the title holder for Mystery Hunts, but I also really like it when a team takes a shot at the title. Even when it doesn’t quite take the title, like I think happened with Zyzzlvaria (though I thought it was on pace to take the title through the first 36 hours), it’s a thrilling thing to experience. Video Games was our shot at the title, and I don’t feel like we managed to knock Monopoly off its perch, but I’m certainly thrilled it made the top of your list.

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    • It’s hard to specify where the line is between “innovation that can be used in other Hunts without comment” and “gimmick appropriate to a specific Hunt.” I know we had multiple arguments about where the line falls for regular puzzles while we were writing 2017.

      For me it’s very much an “I know it when I see it” matter, and in my opinion, points systems, themed rounds, and rounds with varying structures are all platforms rather than content. (You don’t see the Mega Man developers yelling at the people who made, say, Super Mario 64 because the levels have themes!) On the other hand, things like the SPIES antepuzzles, the first round puzzles altered by meta answers in 2010, and the character leveling this year are specific to those Hunts, and using them again without major changes would feel awkward.

      As for Zyzzlvaria, I’m proud of it, but I think our biggest misstep was overshooting the difficulty on Inner Zyzzlvaria. While we tried to make the IZ metas easier than the OZ metas, they were still far from trivial, and the board game was very involved. In fact, our initial structure called for no one to get to OZ without first completing IZ, and if we hadn’t made a runtime decision to just move teams forward, very few teams would have seen more than half of the Hunt! The first-part metas in 2014 and 2017 are closer to what we probably should have aimed for, the “approachable subhunt” (IZ in 2009, MIT in 2014, fish in 2015, characters in 2017) is a mechanic that I hope teams continue to play with.

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  5. How many of these Hunts (mentioned in the posts and the comments) have some manner of archives, especially if they can still be solved (read: don’t have too strong an on-site component)?

    I’m particularly asking after some of the better-regarded ones that might still be solvable (NPL Convention hunts, say, especially Small Town News). I’m an NPL member (though my membership might have lapsed), but I recall their site being difficult to navigate.

    Also interested in general in where I might could find hints that are still enjoyable and solvable, as there’s probably an extensive back catalog that I’ve not experienced.

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    • Don’t even get me started about the NPL website.

      Most of the hunts I know of that maintain archives are listed on the “Puzzlehunts” link list on the right margin of this site. The Famine Game also has a lovely site (http://www.thefaminegame.com/) with the puzzles. The Haystack and Small Town News are sadly, as far as I know, lost to the ages. (I have a copy of STN tucked away somewhere, but I’d have to find it and then get the authors’ permission to post it, if it isn’t already up somewhere in the bowels of the internet.)

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  6. Weakly-related question. If the creators of some future MIT Mystery Hunt were to create a system whereby teams could still submit the answers to puzzles and have their progress tracked after HQ officially closed up for the weekend, and effectively continue to hunt (though without the in-person interactions, runaround, yes/no questions or other clue structure, and so on), do you think that at least some members of teams who had got – say – three-quarters of the way through the hunt would use it to finish it for themselves, in practice?

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    • The 2015 Hunt has actually done something like this (not for teams that were actually partway done, but for anyone to sign up a new team and complete the Hunt with answer verification and progress tracking… it took a long time to set up, but it’s available now at 20000puzzles.com).

      My perhaps controversial reaction to this is that it’s very difficult and time-consuming to write a Mystery Hunt (even one that certain teams cut through like a hot knife slicing butter), and construction teams should focus on the event itself, with less energy put toward solvers who want to experience the content in some other way. Creating one mechanic for teams to confirm answers and advance when HQ is life is hard enough; expecting the constructors to build a second mechanic for after HQ is closed feels like a lot to ask.

      On a related note that illustrates my cynicism, we allowed completely remote teams in this year’s Hunt, and I didn’t know that until the Hunt started, but I would have been against it… It’s hard enough for construction teams to deal with all of the teams onsite, and it’s a bad precedent to send a message that any remote team that wants to play will be supported. Events like SUMS and MUMS are run on the internet, but they’re fully automated and thus have few if any live requirements; one of the distinguishing features of Mystery Hunt is its physical setting, and I feel like setting up an automatic interface, even if it’s just for after HQ closes, feels like a step away from that component.

      (After re-reading this response, I think I’m totally overreacting to your point… But I think these things are worth saying anyway, even if they’re a bit off-topic.)

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      • What do you mean that you allowed completely remote teams this year? Does that basically just mean that you allowed teams to start without picking up a piece of paper at kickoff, or that you actually made it feasible for “completely remote” teams to do puzzles that relied on objects or physical presence? (I assume the former?)

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      • Probably somewhere between. There were some puzzles they obviously couldn’t solve without physical presence (for example, we didn’t give them the printout necessary for Dot Matrix) but I believe we gave them event credit after a certain amount of time passed, since otherwise they likely couldn’t advance.

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  7. I’ve only played in the Mystery Hunt for a few years now, but I’ve read through the archives multiple times, and I love hearing about Hunt history. What’s the general opinion on 2003’s Matrix hunt? I know it ran long, which is never a good sign, but the structure (trained and untrained answers, plus Facility puzzles) seems ambitious and interesting.

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    • I think it was way ahead of its time. It did a lot of bold things with structure and immersion that were really cool, but it was much much too big for what Mystery Hunt teams were capable of processing in a weekend at that time, and as a result, it was one of the two consecutive “hint Hunts” in which hints were given out like candy to get the Hunt to end at a reasonable time, and the winner was arguably determined more by patience and assertiveness than pure puzzle-solving. The size and structure would be totally acceptable for a modern Hunt, but that’s because team size and average knowledge base have both increased a lot since then.

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