Bar Exam (NPL Con 2017) Available Online, P&A Issues 65-67 Recaplets

(After the first couple of paragraphs, this post includes spoilers for P&A issues 65-67 from January, March, and May 2017. Solutions to these issues have already been posted on the P&A website.)

Hi all! Over the last two months, most of my puzzlehunt attention has gone not to blogging but to constructing Bar Exam, the very well-received “extravaganza” (evening puzzlehunt) that was presented at the 2017 NPL Convention in Boston. I look forward to posting in detail about our creative process in the near future, but those posts will almost certainly involve spoilers, so you should go solve those puzzles if you haven’t already.

But before I get to that, I’ve been meaning to post about recent P&A issues. When I started this blog, one thing I figured would allow me to post regular content was that I solve P&A every two months and could talk about my solving process. But I’ve run into the obstacle that I don’t like to post spoiler content on online puzzlehunts until the solutions have been posted. For P&A, by the time that happens, I have generally forgotten about the last issue and am more focused on the new issue about to drop. For Issue 68, I was finally disciplined and took notes about what I solved in what order, so I should actually be able to post a decent recap in September. But for the sake of completeness, particularly because this year’s issues fit into a themed set of six (presumably with some sort of uber-meta coming), I thought I’d comment on the first three issues of the year in terms of the shreds I remember.

P&A 65 (Jane Austen): This was the second year in a row that I happened to be giving a talk at the AMS/MAA Joint Mathematics Meetings on the Saturday on which P&A was released. (For the next three years, the Joint Meetings will coincide with Mystery Hunt weekend, which prevents the P&A problem but opens an entirely different can of worms.) Since we were on the East Coast this year and my talk was in the morning, I was able to get my part out of the way before puzzle-solving started, but I had a lot of talks to attend in the afternoon, so a lot of solving happened in the ten-minute breaks between talks.

The ordering for the metapuzzle was pretty clear, and I remember locking into the mechanism pretty quickly, as I was convinced at one point that the answer was COMMON COUPLE, meaning I must have been solving from ?OM??? ?O????. I really liked that answer, because it fit the storyline but also described the matching pairs of letters that the meta revolved around, but there’s presumably an additional constraint this had to fit, since the meta answers this year have been a bit clunkier than usual and all the same length. The actual answer fell once I managed to solve the puzzle yielding the Z.

It’s been a long time since I looked at the puzzles, but I remember particularly enjoying Faults and Faultiness (the interpretations of pictures were funny and pleasing to work out), and that Decks and Detectives was challenging but satisfying. I believe Jackie did the heavy lifting on the traditional big-ass logic puzzle (as she often does), and Gliding and Gladiators was the last holdout in achieving a complete.

P&A 66 (Edgar Allan Poe): I solved this one solo, and it was a rare issue where I had all the puzzle answers for quite a while before cracking the meta. The symbols were pretty clear, and the ordering fell after spending way too much time trying to order by publication date, but the problem is that the pair of parentheses in the symbol string made the string look like it MUST be an emoticon, and I spend much too much time trying to interpret it as a picture rather than a coded message. Thankfully at some point it occurred to me that there might be a code associated with Poe, and once I had the key the answer (and complete) came instantaneously.

Purloined Letter was a lot of fun, and a good example of an identification puzzle where identifying some answers gives you traction with some others, which is a great thing to aim for since it makes the last stages fun rather than frustrating. Masque of the Red Death was a nice variation on a standard type, and Cask of Amontillado was a great example of a puzzle that fully reflects its theme.  I never fully understood how The Tell-Tale Heart worked (and according to the solutions, that’s because it still had errors at publication) but was able to chip away at it enough to solve it… and as usual, I avoided the cryptogram puzzle as long as possible, since those quickly devolve into typing chunks of code into Quipqiup.

P&A 67 (Agatha Christie): If I remember correctly, Cards on the Table caught my eye first, and I ended up solving it early even though I don’t think it was one of the easiest puzzles. (I generally scan the set for something that looks approachable, and after solving it, I check the current stats to determine the “low-hanging fruit” lots of people are solving and prioritize that.) For both And Then There Were None and Dumb Witness, Jackie did a lot of the solving and I joined in to help with the pieces she was having trouble finishing. Five Little Pigs was tedious but had a nice aha, and we tried doing the right thing on The Mirror Puzzle almost immediately, but I messed things up by incorrectly parsing which instructions were intended to go with which pictures.

As for the meta, we had lots of names early, but we needed most of them before we decided the first names were likely what was important and happened to web-search the right ones as a group; at that point, I think we had all but two or three answers, and so the result followed quickly. I didn’t understand the final answer until I read the comment in the solutions, which is embarassing since I think that’s one of the last episodes of the series I watched before I got bored with it and stopped. (I started with the “modern era” series, so the only Doctors I know are Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith; of those, Tennant was my favorite by a country mile.) We solved most of the puzzles forward either before or after solving the meta, but we never figured out A Murder Is Announced; the answer to that one was readily backsolvable from the metapuzzle, and even after knowing the answer, I couldn’t make any solving progress before I read the solution two months later.


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