(This is a recap/review of the Miskatonic University Game, which happened on August 15-18. Puzzles and solutions are not fully online, but some of them are posted here. This post will likely contain spoilers.)
I wanted to finish up this recap before the end of the calendar year, and it’s three days until Christmas (last time I said, “hopefully soon doesn’t mean December,” but it definitely did), so let’s try to wrap things up. The main things holding me back have been (a) having a busy semester with a new course prep for the first time in years, and (b) the fact that the last phase of Miskatonic University was almost certainly my least favorite part of the event.
That second thing is almost certainly not a function of event quality, though I noticed that, much like in the Famine Game, the last wave of puzzles didn’t include much in the way of plot advancement, which made things less immersive. A much more significant factor was sleep deprivation. Apart from the hour of sleep I got at the overnight location (right before the Eyeglasses Nightmare of 2019) I hadn’t managed to nap at all, and it was finally catching up to me big time.
Jackie, my usual first-choice puzzling partner (and life partner) didn’t join us for Miskatonic because she values sleep, and she asked me several times why these events don’t have sleep breaks. I think there are multiple reasons for this in a Game-style event, including the fact that having a place to sleep increases cost and logistical complications, and that people who fly in want to get the most puzzle bang for their buck. But I’m getting too old for extreme all-night puzzling, and I have to admit that a longer event with an overnight sleep stop sounds more appealing to me.
I should note that in 2001, when Palindrome declared that the Mystery Hunt was going to have an overnight break where HQ would close and no puzzles could be confirmed or unlocked, I was among the many community members who were infuriated. Lest I sound inconsistent now, I want to point out first that the Mystery Hunt is very different in that it’s a competitive event where no one is skipped forward, and so not being able to unlock puzzles while other people catch up to you is a big problem; and second, that I was literally half my current age at the time, and forgoing sleep was way less of a problem back then.
We were warned that once we parked for this phase, we’d be on foot for the rest of the time, which is again probably logistically necessary, but is arguably the worst time to be away from your van from an extended period of time, since when I really needed a nap, I didn’t have a place to take it. This was even more of an issue for our team, because (as you might remember from Part 1 of this recap posted about nine years ago) we had an oversized van, and as a result we had to park in a lot farther away from things than the intended garage, so going back to rest in the van was even less feasible. Probably the only thing that could cause me to be even less comfortable would be if when we left the van I forgot to bring my daily acid reflux medicine that prevents me from having heartburn when I eat or drink. So guess what I did?
Anyway, all of the above left me in a crankiness spiral where I wasn’t a very pleasant teammate, and I probably didn’t process the puzzles well enough that it makes sense to do a full blow-by-blow recap. So let me just mention some of the puzzles I remember liking most, and then I’ll summarize the endgame…
I already skipped over describing the puzzle we had to solve en route to Boston, which was one of the only puzzles we actually solved in the van. This was also one of the times we might have needed a laptop, since we had a bunch of Lovecraftian Christmas carol parodies on a USB, but our van had about eight places to plug in a USB, and one of them came on over the car stereo. I took the very important role of music box cranker, and while I didn’t find the carols as funny as some people did, I did enjoy IDing the melodies.
We were given a magnetic white board to use for some of the remaining puzzles, which was really convenient given that we had a lot of jigsaw-style puzzles coming up. I worked on one based on the Greenway labyrinth that was clever but a bit frustrating, and the one I enjoyed more was a “brick by brick” puzzle where we had to build a grid to accommodate a bunch of phrases with the word FISH in them. The concept of that one was not groundbreaking, but it hit a good level of difficulty for my weary brain. The other half of our team was working on a much harder puzzle at the time, and when we went to help them finish, I could see why they took longer… they definitely drew the short straw.
Puzzles from there included a Jenga puzzle (with very large provided Jenga bricks!) where we messed ourselves up by trying to construct the tower from the wrong end… a Harry Potter/Cthulhu mashup spelling bee where the text of the puzzle was funny enough to make the actual puzzle solving anticlimactic… and a letter weaving puzzle and another listed on the website that I honestly don’t remember. We then got to solve one more meta presented by a man dressed as the Gorton’s Fisherman (a joke I’m sure he only heard two or three thousand times). I remember this involved phrases associated with GOLD, SILVER, and BRONZE, and nothing else. We finished the meta early enough that we were told we’d be off for 90 minutes before the final puzzle. Most of the team went to lunch, but I was afraid eating was going to cause me pain (I still hadn’t recovered my meds) so I hung out in Boston Common and strongly considered catching a train home. Like I said, this was not a pleasant morning for me, and if the commuter rail schedule had been more cooperative (and if not for the fact that I’d need to drive to Jenn’s later and collect my stuff from the van), I might have jumped ship early. Though Jackie reminded me over the phone that if I missed the end I’d probably have serious FOMO regret later on, so I rejoined the team after lunch.
The final confrontation was a very elaborate large-scale Survivoresque physical challenge involving solving one face of a Rubik’s cube to spec and winning a game of very loosely adjudicated Simon Says. And then repeating this over and over again. As much as I wanted to fight for humanity (this was where we discovered that some of us had been assigned to support humans and some the Cthulhu cultists, though I didn’t know until later that we were sorted by inkblot puzzle answer), there was no way in hell that I was going to drag my half-asleep body into a Simon Says game, so I, along with most of my team, decided to watch. Humans won anyway. This is not a good metaphor for presidential elections. Participate when things are important, kids… don’t just expect everybody else to do the work for you.
While all of this was going on, a member of Here Be Dagons heard me whining about my acid reflux plight and gave me a Zantac. Not a permanent solution, but very helpful for the moment, and the second time somebody on another team proved to be my hero. In the alternate-timeline version of this endgame where I had both heartburn and broken glasses, I might have just wandered out on the field and started punching cultists.
After all of this, there was actually a puzzle! For most teams. We were one of two teams who didn’t get a copy, because apparently some teams took too many copies. And from what I heard, when they asked teams to surrender extra copies if they had them, somebody saw a solver hide an extra copy. That’s coming third-hand, but if you’re reading this, and you did that, thanks for being a massive jerk. Then when we did get a secondhand copy of the puzzle, it didn’t include instructions that said we should submit once we had an initial collection of words that clearly wasn’t an answer, so we spent a bunch more time trying to “solve” those words, and I think I should stop talking about this puzzle before it makes me angry.
Anyway, this was an appropriate capper to what was for me a rough seven hours at the end of an otherwise great event. Most of the roughness was my own fault, though I think taking teams far away from their mobile HQ during the period when they’re most likely to be exhausting is something construction teams should consider. (I don’t remember having the same problem during the Famine Game, but again, I was younger then.)
I feel bad that I’m ending this six-part series with my crankiest reaction, and I hope any organizers reading this note that when one of six posts is notably negative, that means the other five are mostly positive. I’ve written eight Mystery Hunts, two BAPHLs, and three NPL Con extravaganzas, and in all of these I’ve had a ton of fun creating puzzles and an overarching structure, while most of the most significant stress I’ve experienced has been tied to logistics and protecting against every problem that can occur. I feel like Game running is even more tipped toward the latter than the Mystery Hunt is (even though it involves fewer solvers), and I cannot express enough admiration to Sarah and her minions and their ability to track dozens of independent vans darting around New England and keep things from falling apart. I’ve criticized some elements of the event, and any opinions are my own; I hope my perspective is useful to anybody who runs a Game in the future, and I hope those who ran this one don’t let the negative feedback eclipse the positive.
I don’t think that last paragraph tied everything together very eloquently, but writing this entry has somehow caused me to feel sleep-deprived all over again, and thankfully I don’t have to sleep in a van or on my glasses tonight. Happy holidays, y’all. See you at Hunt.