Recap: P&A 71 (aka Hot Take: Puzzle Solving is Easier Than Skiing and Less Life-Threatening)

(P&A 72 was released yesterday, which means the answers are now online for P&A 71; so here’s my spoiler-laden recap of our experience solving the last issue, “Taking A Powder.”)

For the last issue, I mentioned that it was a fairly straightforward issue for us since we polished off the meta in about two hours. This month we managed to get the final answer with 9 our of 12 answers at 1:45pm, shaving even more time off. It seems that P&A, like the Mystery Hunt, is getting shorter and shorter (for the leaders) in terms of duration; I don’t think either is due to a reduction in quality, but rather I think top solvers are being exposed to more puzzle concepts as time goes by, and instructors are running out of new ideas they can apply without being unfair.

The title of this issue was Taking A Powder, and given the wintry timing, it was sure to be ski-themed. In the hours before the release, I imagined a skiing meta would probably involve slalom and came up with a few ideas for how such a meta would work. As it turns out, the metapuzzle WAS themed around the slalom event, although the way it actually worked was different from any of the ideas I’d brainstormed. All times below are Eastern, so we started printing at noon.

While printing I saw Extreme Altitude looked like a logic puzzle, so I offered it to Jackie who cheerfully accepted (especially after seeing it was Skyscrapers, which I hadn’t even noticed). I saw a Spiral (Death Spiral) and thought that might be one of the easier puzzles… boy, was I wrong, as it wasn’t hard to figure out how the double threads worked, but filling the grid was a bookkeeping slog. With less than half of the grid filled in, I checked the stats page and switched to the most-often-solved-at-that-point Unexpected Flyer. I filled three sets of blanks with progressive deletions, and I just noticed that there was a third deletion to a vegetable when Jackie solved Extreme Altitude, at 12:19 (pretty late for a first solve for us, as we didn’t latch on to low-hanging fruit early).

I asked her to look at Unexpected Flyer with me, and I’d just worked out the extraction and had J????A?L. I looked up MACRON at the same time that she figured out ACRONYM and ACORN for the same entry, giving us J???MA?L, enough to get the answer at 12:21 (I just got the reference to the answer in the title now, and it’s cute).

Jackie started on Hit It and Quit It, and I picked up Slow & Steady, which could have been called Fast & Straightforward… I finished it at 12:28. Then I worked on Death Spiral, making some more progress but not getting to the extraction, and since Snow Leopard was getting solved a lot, I identified the faces (getting a bit more than half the names from memory, and getting all but one of the rest by text search, since I didn’t feel like going back to the PDF to do image search). Some time during that period I also filled the answers into an 8xN grid, convinced that the meta answer was going to slalom through the grid on two parallel diagonals. (The letters on this path looked good for the moment. They did not look as good later.)

I then looked over at Jackie’s grid, which appeared to be yielding AB…I…A…, with probably no more than one letter between the B and I. Some strategic Onelooking led to the answer, allowing us to skip the second half of the grid, at 12:48. I then asked Jackie to look at the names we had for Snow Leopard. The clues looked like they wanted to refer to animals (such as the horse in the flavortext) and even though I’ve seen about eight times as many episodes of Bojack Horseman as she has, Jackie has an encyclopedic knowledge of Mara Wilson (who, to be fair, is awesome) and when she mentioned that, I instantly remembered Keith Olbermann’s appearance as a newscaster reading Beyonce lyrics. She left me to do the research step, and the answer popped out of that puzzle at 12:54. (This issue, by the way, may have set a record for answer phrases that begin with ANSWER or ANSWER IS; whenever this is the case, we inevitably break in on the ANSWER bits before the useful bits, which is probably intended.)

After this, Jackie made steady progress on ???????, while I worked on finishing Death Spiral. I needed the whole grid to get the answer to that at 1:07. Then I took a look over Jackie’s shoulder at her almost completed grids (though we were confused about some enumeration errors). When we started focusing on the branch points, I anagrammed CLUBS, and Jackie spotted the other two suits, giving us our answer at 1:15.

Dancing Star was another puzzle everyone seemed to be solving more quickly than we were, but I’d looked at in passing a few times and hadn’t seen more than CHOREOGRAPHY. I thought it would be exclusively about Dancing With The Stars and asked Jackie to see if she could spot any names… as I did so, I noticed BOMBAY DREAMS and started Googling to see if anyone had danced to a song from Bombay Dreams on DWTS. As the internet said no to this question, Jackie noticed TONY in the other corner, and we confirmed that BOMBAY DREAMS lost that Tony to WONDERFUL TOWN. We quickly polished this off, with me on the award nominees list and Jackie on the grid, getting the clue phrase from all but three answers. When looking up the answer, we were briefly terrified we were being led to generally horrible person Hope Solo, but thankfully there was another eight-letter contestant that year. Correct answer submitted at 1:24.

I started working on Drunk Yodeler while Jackie stared at the meta trying to find a better way to pull letters, since our weaving path (and any other slalomy path we tried) was giving gibberish. She noted that the flavor text implied we wanted to look between flags, so she was looking for matching pairs of letters to look between. I finished Drunk Yodeler at 1:40, and a few minutes later Jackie called out that she’d had a meta breakthrough. Her correct extraction gave the entire first word, and together we figured out the second word (which I only vaguely recognized as a word), taking first place by a margin of at least half an hour at around 1:45.

Going for the complete (knowing one bigram that should appear in each answer), Jackie worked on the grid for Snow Fort, and I noticed a couple of anagrammed planets on Popular Choice. I also noticed that the percentages didn’t add up to 100%. I also noticed a NEPTUNE that was short an E, and so I stated assembling quartets with one extra letter. These also didn’t add up to 100%, but they were close enough to provide an ordering. Knowing the answer was of the form O?????E? and contained a TV, there were two natural choices for a thematic answer. I luckily guessed the right one at 1:57.

The breakthrough on Big Air was SUGAR DADDY being the most clearly identifiable picture, and “Sandler Film” jumping out as cluing BIG DADDY. The enumeration on BANG helped elucidate where we should be indexing. I worked back and forth, again with no desire to resort to image search unless absolutely necessary, and after misassigning BIG BEAR at least twice (and I don’t know what that BEAR picture is anyway, because I’ve now learned that BJ AND THE BEAR isn’t actually about a bear), I managed to read the clue phrase from 15 out of 20 letters and submit the answer at 2:21.

Jackie was almost done with the Snow Fort grid (after some multitasking) and I helped her finish it, but we had no idea how to extract an answer, apart from assuming it would involve the “snowball stacks” which were unchecked. We both looked at this a long time with no leads, and eventually I noticed the letters in each stack were alphabetized (well, they were once we changed NAES to NOES). This suggested we might be pulling letters from each stack, and hey, there’s one more ANSWER IS! We submitted the answer at 2:40, and as I write this an hour later, I still don’t know how you’re supposed to know which letter to take from each triplet. But I’m still trying to figure it out.

Update from five minutes later: Got it. Decided something must be reading down (otherwise this would be four disconnected grids) and found PLOW, which led to seven more SNOW____ words. Loose ends resolved!


Recap: Galactic Puzzle Hunt 2018

(This is a recap/review of the 2017 Galactic Puzzle Hunt, which happened earlier this month. Puzzles and solutions can be found here. This recap may contain spoilers, but I’ll try to avoid them where possible, especially for puzzles I recommend.)

Much of my puzzlehunting bandwidth recently has been devoted to things I can’t tell you about (or that I potentially could tell you about, but it would disqualify you from Mystery Hunt and give me an excuse to try to rope you in for constructing), but I’ve participated in two very ambitious hunts this month: the second Galactic Puzzle Hunt, and the first Cryptex Hunt. I have a lot to say about the latter, including my experience trying to solve the Finals 1.0, and why I didn’t pick up a daily prize until the very last opportunity, but that event is still ongoing (and recommended). The Galactic Puzzle Hunt wrapped up earlier this week, so let’s chat about it, shall we?

This year’s event departed from last year’s Aussie-style structure to a more Puzzle Boat/Mystery Hunt-like format. The overall theme was Cookie Clicker, and while you could up your number of cookies by manually clicking (which I believe was a reasonable way to open puzzles at the very beginning), solving puzzles was necessary to earn enough cookies to open puzzles at a reasonable pace. Then after the first round (in which the puzzles were much more approachable), cookies split into three separate currencies, with every puzzle transparent about how many cookies it would add of each type (and every next-puzzle-in-a-round transparent about what it would require to be opened). Metapuzzles were the last puzzles to unlock in each round, and so even if they were short-circuitable, you were unlikely to have much of an opportunity to do so. We got bottlenecked toward the end with six puzzles in a state where solving any one puzzle would open nothing, but solving another would unlock two metapuzzles at once. Once we finally did this, we basically insta-solved both metas.

I for one approve of this structural change, partially because that’s the style I grew up on, but also because I find the daily releases of Aussie hunts a bit artificial, and it also makes you more likely to be stuck with only one thing you can work on. Of course, I say that having happened to have most of the weekend free; if I’d had any major conflicts, I’m sure I would have been delighted to solve all/most of the puzzles for a particular day and then getting non-puzzle-stuff done until the next release.

This was a *really* good puzzlehunt. I might have to decide whether it squeezes its way into my all-time top ten. As one of my teammates said, “I hope they don’t use all their best ideas by the time they win Mystery Hunt.” I thought there was so much creativity demonstrated in difficult but fair puzzles with artful and clean execution. If this were the first four rounds of a Mystery Hunt (which is my gold standard), I would consider it on pace to be one of the better Mystery Hunts in history.

For the second year in a row, Jackie and I solved with our adopted Aussie-hunt teammates on Killer Chicken Bones, a group of seasoned solvers that mostly (all?) solve the Mystery Hunt with Left Out. Near the beginning we were mostly dueling with plugh for first place (not counting Cookie Monster, who “won” the hunt by cheating and thus held the top of the leaderboard by a wide margin after a while), but after we reached the hard puzzles, we gradually started to lose ground on the other teams. When I went to sleep, I think we were in seventh or eighth place. In the morning, I nervously loaded the standings to see how far we’d fallen… and we were back in first. My west coast colleagues apparently had a lot more oomph left, and as I understand it, Ian Tullis (a power-solver that didn’t know if he was going to be able to contribute but whom we added to the team in case he had time) showed up briefly and magically turned puzzles into answers). I did not witness his presence, so he may be a unicorn, though I have seen him in person before as a human, so he would have to have been unicornified some time in the last decade.

After that we made steady progress and hung on to the lead for a while, but we then got bottlenecked Saturday night, and in time two teams passed us: have you tried random anagramming (members of [full text of Atlas Shrugged], whose team name is presumably advice for solvers in their 2004 Mystery Hunt) and Tasty Samoas, Please Ingest, which I assume is the cookie version of Reddit-based hunters Test Solution, Please Ignore.

Our six-puzzle logjam consisted of:

1) Unusual and Strange Puzzle Collection, which I’d immediately identified as a Best of the USPC puzzle. We’d solved enough of the logic puzzles to extract a clue phrase showing us where to look for something obviously significant, but we had a whole lot of data with what seemed like no obvious extraction. Jackie and I went back and solved the remaining puzzles, but between the new puzzles, the original USPC puzzles, and the puzzles referenced in the extra grid, we were in giant-spreadsheet-with-no-idea-what-to-index-into mode.

2) Cryptic Command, in which we’d solved some fairly clunky cryptic clues (the “modifications” were loose enough that it was easy to get an answer and not know if it was right) and hadn’t gotten much farther.

3) Adventure, in which I’d explored enough to determine what the puzzle was asking you to do (wander around a virtual keyboard and somehow “type” the same sequence of letters that you were actually typing to do this), but which none of the non-unicorn members present felt they were capable of doing. I read a lot about quines, but couldn’t grok how to make the blackboards process input.

4) Destructive Interference, an excellent example of an “oh you f***ers” puzzle, where shortly after encountering it you realize what you’re expected to do and find yourself glaring at the constructor (in a playful way, honestly!). Rich Bragg had been working steadily with Audacity, and after hours of work he was fairly sure he had the first two letters of the answer. It had thirteen. [This is a good time to applaud the organizers on their solutions and author’s notes, which were posted immediately after the event ended and are incredibly well written. The writeup of both ways to solve this puzzle is fascinating.]

5) Third Rail, which we (correctly) believed was a mashup between two specific board games. We had few conclusions from there on, and none of the ones we did have were particularly accurate.

6) Sequencing: Actually, we had a 5-puzzle bottleneck, since solving this one would earn us chocolate chip cookies, which while delicious were now a useless delicacy for unlocking purposes.

Late Sunday morning, I found Todd working on Cryptic Command, and between us we decided that the answers might be cluing unique casting costs (which seemed unlikely, but these were indeed some cards with very strange casting costs). Between the two of us we managed to work out most of the steps of the puzzle (except the very last one, in which we didn’t work out the correspondences of letter-to-item-in-final-list and just arbitrarily assigned them to make a word) and solve it. Then Todd had the aha for USPC (we weren’t using the hex grid given with the puzzle correctly), and once we knew what to do, our giant spreadsheet thankfully had all the information we needed. As noted earlier, the metas this opened were not hard, and we were then able to backsolve everything remaining besides Sequencing.

This brings us to the very creative prelude to the final puzzle, which I’ll spoil since it likely can’t be recreated in a meaningful way on the website. The text on the unlocked puzzle (which had no answer submission option) strongly suggested security cookies, and we had been informed when we logged in that the site uses them, which I thought was just a thematic pun. In order to access the puzzle, we had to edit our own cookie, which is something I’ve never done or would have expected to do to solve a puzzle. In a hunt where the puzzles were mostly self-contained, it was cool to come across one that was more environmental in nature, almost like playing an ARG.

According to the solution, our cookie should have shown our answers to the security questions from when we registered. Ours actually just said “[our username]_COMPOUNDWORD_MYBACKYARD_ACTOR.” I’m not sure if this means we said our favorite compound word was COMPOUNDWORD, or if we left it blank and this was the default. I won’t say which of our team members did the registration, but now you know they approach their security questions in one of two ways, so hack accordingly. (They were unfortunately unavailable for most of the period when we were trying to solve this, or they might have remembered the terms from registration. Also, I’m sure they take their real security questions much more seriously.)

We actually did almost the right thing hours before we did the actual right thing, as we correctly changed the second through fourth items, but never changed the first, as we didn’t realize we should be trying to impersonate someone. We were looking through the Story page when we realized that mewantcookie was actually a username. This caused me to check out the “forgot my password” link, and I was about to point out that the three strings indicated security questions when Rich tried changing the username and got us to the final challenge.

Said challenge was very cool, but in certain ways it seemed designed to maximize tension and grumpiness between team members. I would have enjoyed it much more if we’d had the ability to independently play with the system (Rich was actually coding one before Kenny Young stumbled upon a number close enough to a reducible one that we could apply our intended algorithm), and most of all, if THE OVEN HAD HAD AN “ARE YOU SURE” BUTTON. An undo button would have been even nicer, but having an irrevocable reset button right next to a button we had to click frequently turned a fun algorithm challenge into a massively stressful experience. By the time we got to this point, Atlas and Reddit had already finished; we had no idea plugh was lurking right behind us, and we ended up beating them by only eight minutes.

I’ve touched on most of the puzzles I spent the most time thinking about above, but a few others worth noting my experience with:

Make Your Own Fillomino, Cookie Clicker, The Answer To This Puzzle Is: I only worked on the second and third of these, but I wanted to express my appreciation for the varying interaction mechanisms that were employed in this hunt. Puzzles weren’t necessarily self-contained, but rather things you had to interact with (well, I guess Cookie Clicker was self-contained in that sense). Another mild example is:

Pride and Accomplishment: Somebody fixed Fifty-Fifty! But seriously, I really liked the initial step (well, five steps) of this puzzle, as well as the assembly… But from there on, the actual answer extraction felt tacked on. In the last stage of solving, it sort of seemed like we were solving a puzzle that was separate from the puzzle we initially set out to solve (apart from a theme-appropriate answer). For me, that detracted from the cohesiveness of the puzzle.

Lips Are Movin’: When Jackie and I woke up on Saturday, a lot of the low-hanging fruit had been devoured. Thankfully this was inexplicably unsolved, and we solved it together sitting on the couch in maybe fifteen minutes. Not a complicated puzzle compared to a lot of the rest of the hunt, but fun and clean.

In conclusion, I loved this hunt, and I encourage Galactic to keep producing it… just don’t make it so good that at some point you burn yourself out trying to meet your own expectations. Mildly fantastic would still be appreciated, especially if you can make it last. 🙂


Upcoming: Three Online Puzzlehunts

Greetings from the front lines of writing the Mystery Hunt! If you thought I was bad about updating this blog last year, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet… But I am dropping in to let you know about three puzzlehunts appearing online in the next couple of months, one of which was just announced and is very very soon.

Cambridge Puzzle Hunt: This is the second year of the CPH. Loyal readers might recall that I did not adore the first installment, and I was not alone. The good news is that I’ve seen a lot of puzzlehunts improve dramatically between years one and two. The bad news is that this one was announced on less than 48 hours notice (the first round unlocks this Saturday at 9am ET if I’m converting time zones correctly), which does not instill confidence. Australian rules, two rounds of four puzzles each, teams of five (or one if you want to be eligible in the “Lone Wolf” division… I hear Mystereo Cantos will be defending his championship).

Cryptex Hunt: Justin Nevins, who makes professionally crafted Cryptexes (Cryptices?) is sponsoring what appears to be a text-adventure-based hunt that starts on February 24, a week from Saturday. Details on the website are scant, but having listened to an interview with Justin on Room Escape Divas, I can tell you that registration will be for single players (oddly, on the podcast they still encouraged people to solve in teams, but I guess they want one name since the prizes aren’t really splittable), and that the first weekend will be a warmup phase for solvers to figure out “how things work.” There will then be a puzzle a day throughout the week with prizes for the first solver of each, and a more involved puzzle Saturday (determining the grand prize winner) that requires you to have solved the earlier ones. I have conflicts on three of the five weeknights, but I’ll be doing my best to compete on the other days.

Galactic Puzzle Hunt: The Galactic Puzzle Hunt also debuted last year with a March Madness theme… And it was awesome! This year’s event departs from the Australian format to embrace a more Mystery-Hunt-style puzzles-unlock-puzzles structure. So while it’s scheduled to last nine days, presumably you win it when you win it. (That said, given the apparent Cookie Clicker theme, your team of up to ten players might have to occasionally wait for your army of grandmas to bake the next puzzle.) This one kicks off on Friday, March 16 at the crack of pi (3:14pm ET) and my Killer Chicken Bones teammates and I are psyched.



2018 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 4: Some Puzzles

(This is a recap/review of the 2018 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened this month. Puzzles and solutions can currently be found here. This recap will contain spoilers on some puzzles.)

I’m in danger of dropping the ball on a Part 4 post for the second time in under a year, so let me close out my Mystery Hunt posting by chiming in on some non-metapuzzles I solved or helped solve that I have opinions about.

Let’s Get Ready to Jumble: Scott Purdy and I looked at this at the same time… I was drawn to the picture of The Undertaker and immediately noticed the feeder entries were all names of pro wrestlers, whereas across the table Scott figured out the answer to the first pun without doing any of the anagrams. (“They’re all wrestlers!” “Linear B is a wrestler?”) We teamed up and made short work of the puzzle, and then filmed our heel turn together, which was aided by the fact that I was already wearing a Marty Scurll Villain Club T-shirt. I suspect we were one of the earliest solves, because there were technical difficulties with the upload… Whatever our solve time appears to be if a log comes out, subtract about a delay of about 40 minutes that came between sending our video and receiving an answer.

Temperance: The aha on this came from someone else; I jumped in for the extraction phase. I just wanted to mention that I think the title is cute, and that I cannot promise a third puzzle in the streak of puzzles about TV characters nicknamed Bones.

Good Fences Make Sad and Disgusted Neighbors, Hashiwakakuro, A Learning Path: I solved a bunch of abstract logic puzzles in this Hunt that I really enjoyed, and I appreciated that most of them had a bunch of separate grids, so that those of who like logic puzzles could split them up. Roger Barkan, Dave Savitt, and I had a lot of fun with Good Fences, though we made it much harder than intended before Roger re-read the flavortext and realized that the shadedness of a hex determined which type of clue it was; we were solving a much more open-ended variant. I was not involved in the Shoal Patrol/Submarine Patrol solve, but I heard good things.

You Know What’s Missing, Mass Aid: We never even considered urinating on the urine puzzle… We tried putting it in water and nothing seemed to happen, and then managed to read the clues with the aid of a flashlight. We thought they would somehow tell us the pH of the material we needed to put them in, and then somebody came up with the P deletions and we realized what we were “supposed” to do to get to where we already were. We also then regarded the evolved puzzle with fear, appropriately. It was gross. Boo.

A Tribute: 2010-2017: I solved this almost entirely by knowing about puzzles I’d written or co-written. I knew the extraction mechanisms from Heirplay and Magic Mushrooms, someone else had worked out another one, and from those three letters I guessed the thematic answer.

The Year’s Hardest Crossword: Once we knew we had to solve the Listener, a half dozen of our best cryptic solvers worked together to do so. It took hours. British cryptics are not my cup of English Breakfast tea.

Flattery Will Get You Nowhere: Solved this with Guy Jacobson and some others helping via spreadsheet. Figuring out that the answers were all synonyms for FLAT was a nice aha, and figuring out that they were all different definitions was even cooler (the link to 11C was much appreciated).

Cash Cab: Speaking of nice ahas, figuring out that this was about Ramanujan was one of those moments where a whole lot of random decoration on the puzzle suddenly comes into focus and makes sense. Once we figured out we should be looking for 1729 in the sequences based on the theme, we were able to get enough of these to guess the answer. I wrote down the Death Cab songs immediately but never thought to look at their lyrics.

Flags o1 6ur 10the15: I did almost none of the solving for this… But I’m pleased with myself that when Steve Peters explained the mechanism and asked if I had any ideas for Set W (the last one they were missing), I came up with Wheel of Time despite never having read any of the books.

No Context: LOVED this puzzle. It was the sort of puzzle where we immediately knew what we were expected to do, but it looked completely impossible… but then we made a little headway, and the farther we got, the easier it was to make additional progress. Just the right difficulty for a group solve, and possibly my favorite regular puzzle in the Hunt.

Voter Fraud, Arts and Crafts: Didn’t solve either of these… I’d just like to complain that we unlocked (and solved) the MLS puzzle while I was sleeping and Jackie was still en route from California, and that we did the same with Voter Fraud before she arrived (when she’s teaching a Math & Politics course this semester that covers voting methods. On the other hand, I was fortunate to be around for the wrestling puzzle mentioned above, and Jackie absolutely crushed Studies in Two-Factor Authentication (she’s also teaching number theory, and looked at the puzzle and immediately said, “Are these Gaussian primes?”).

Murder at the Asylum: I talked about this in an earlier post. The assignment of sanities and honesties required a ton of concentration but was very satisfying. I never worked out a scenario that made sense for the murder itself… The solution revealed something I didn’t consider, and while it’s fair, it also reminded me why I don’t like when logic puzzles have “rules” that aren’t completely clear. Everything up to there was awesome.

Zelma & Frank: As we broke into this, our data (gathered mostly by Street View) was coming out a bit inconsistently, I pointed out that it was going to be very unpleasant if we had to try to fill a crisscross without a fully reliable wordlist. It was. (The fact that there were only three answer lengths was very nice for discarding incorrect answers, but unspeakably cruel when filling the grid.

Hey, there are three bonus backup puzzles posted at the bottom of the List of Puzzles! I didn’t notice them until now and am off to check them out.












(Mostly) Non-Mystery-Hunt Stuff

Still one Mystery Hunt post to come (and lots of intriguing discussion ongoing below the previous posts), but a few bullet points worth mentioning:

  • Palindrome’s pre-MIT practice hunt is publicly posted here. I used to make these too! I used to have free time.
  • The only place I’ve seen more detailed Mystery Hunt discussion than on Puzzlvaria is in the Ask Me Anything that Death & Mayhem ran on Reddit yesterday. (I used to avoid Reddit entirely because I thought by reputation that it was a toxic cesspool of childishness and hostility. It turns out that it’s just large parts of Reddit that are a toxic cesspool of childishness and hostility.)
  • If you’re in the Boston area, Boxaroo (my favorite Boston-area escape room company before they indefinitely closed) is running a live puzzlehunt on February 3; it’s 75 minutes long and costs $38 per person. At that price, my Mystik Spiral colleagues (mostly Setec members) and I are still on the fence about participating; I think we’re spoiled by the availability of cheaper longer events. Particularly with THREE BAPHLs apparently upcoming in June, September, and October; the September organizers are looking for creative and logistical help, and I don’t want to post their contact info publicly without permission, but if you’re interested, drop me a line and I can put you in touch.
  • By the way, with Boxaroo closed, my favorite CURRENT Boston-area escape room company is Escape Rhode Island. They don’t have anything puzzlehunty going on, but I like them and want to promote them. I particularly recommend Ex Machina and The Mausoleum, which are both 6-person rooms where you can actually bring a max-size team and not have half the people get bored.

2018 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 3: My Meta Experience, Continued

(This is a recap/review of the 2018 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened this month. Puzzles and solutions can currently be found here. This recap will contain spoilers on many metapuzzles.)

Shortly after gaining access to Games Island, my wife arrived! Jackie was giving a talk Friday at the Joint Mathematical Meetings, which sometimes overlaps with Mystery Hunt (as it will again in 2019 and 2020) and sometimes doesn’t (as it won’t for a couple of years afterward), and then taking a red-eye to Boston. After last year’s short Hunt, and the warning this year that there would be fewer puzzles, we were both a little worried that we might finish before she got to Cambridge. This was not a problem.

I spent some time eating breakfast and solving regular puzzles before someone solved Wolf in the Fold; we had already confirmed that all the answers had outer words, and FITZSIMMONS GUILBERT made us reasonably confident that the inside letters were not going to matter. I forget who noticed the “nut”/”bolt” theme, but once we spotted that and corrected our botched enumeration count in the grids, it wasn’t too hard to read off the Build answer.

Over the rest of the afternoon, the folks who had been working on the Pokemon round figured out the intricate setup of how evolutions and battles worked; I mostly observed, though I managed to contribute the right interpretation of how BLACK MAGIC would work. Finishing the Pokemon super-meta was enough to open our fourth island, Sci-Fi, at 5:13pm. Sci-Fi was where I finally found my meta-solving stride, as Jackie and I teamed up to solve the Aliens Country Road submeta at 9:31pm (we filled in half the path with 3 out of 5 answers but needed a fourth to pin down which SE????TION/E????TIONS word we wanted) and the Transformers submeta less than an hour later (someone else had figured out the doubling/deleting/changing, but I got the “bit change” constraint quickly, and Jackie and I worked together to find five or six of the car models).

Meanwhile we’d amassed all of the Hacking Deploy answers, and Roger Barkan and Dave Savitt had already figured out the Akari mechanism, but they didn’t have an ordering. Jackie and I worked on this for a long time but couldn’t find an ordering of rows that yielded a unique answer and message. We concluded it couldn’t be done, and then, of course, somebody else on our team did it. I see now that there was a very subtle ordering clue in the puzzle titles, and I don’t believe we ever found it. Noticing key words in a puzzle title is one thing… First letters is a bit of an ask.

As we passed midnight, I had the big decision of whether to go to sleep… how long was this Hunt going? If I slept, might I miss the end? I didn’t actually care that much whether we wanted to come in first, but I didn’t want to doze through the endgame. Jackie was certainly going to go to sleep, but I decided I was going to “power through.” We had finished solving puzzles that fed into the Stargate submeta, and no one was working on that, so I spent the next few hours working on it (partially with Roger’s help, though he eventually ran out of ideas and moved on). It was a very tightly constructed logic puzzle, brutally hard but incredibly satisfying to solve once I/we cracked it (there’s no explanation of the logic in the solution, but the hardest step involved looking at all of the possible total counts of stargates on the board). I enjoyed it, but I’m not at all convinced that it should have been a metapuzzle. I can’t imagine it’s possible to solve with less than 100% of the four inputs (maybe if you code it?), and even with all four it took hours to solve, and I think I’m an unusually strong logic solver, as is Roger. Great puzzle, but I question its placement.

Throughout the solve, my energy was fading, and so at this point, as Philip Loh was breaking into the Firefly submeta and debating whether to call in REAL EVIL (so close!), I decided I would go back to the hotel and sleep for two or three hours. I did that, and when I woke up, I saw we still had at least three supermetas unsolved. Confident that we weren’t about to finish in my absence, I snuck in another hour and a half of sleep.

I walked back into HQ just as the seven team members still in HQ had called in the correct answer to the Hacking supermeta. Brace yourself for horn-tooting, because we’re approaching my best contribution of the weekend. While I was asleep, the team had assembled the Games Island soccer ball but hadn’t decided what to do with it. Looking at the folded paper version, I wondered if you might need to look at opposite faces; this was before reading the flavortext, so when I looked there and saw references to Australia, I was delighted that it was confirming what I already wanted to do. A lot of our cube faces were not uniquely placed, since we didn’t know all the terrains, but I did find three antipodal pairs of faces that had puzzles assigned to them.

I was expecting to read around the ball, but someone pointed out that the answers already had an ordering from the first meta. I wrote two columns on the board, one based on switching the index numbers, and one based on switching the words being indexed into. One of the columns said ????O??I??E??E??RT. Someone else noted that DESERT was thematic, and I said, in my finest moment of this year’s Hunt, “What about THE FORBIDDEN DESERT?” (I hadn’t played that game, but we’d given it as a prize after our Forbidden Island-themed BAPHL in Providence. That was wrong, but continuing to stare at the board, I suggested IN A FORBIDDEN DESERT. We were going to start looking at whether the options for the remaining faces would allow this, and I suggested that we might as well call it in and save ourselves the extra work if it happened to be right. And that’s how we solved a supermeta with 6 out of 16 letters placed. Though we’d solved more than 6 out of 16 puzzles, of course.

So now we found ourselves, at 8:39am, one meta-meta away from the final runaround (excuse me, walkaround) with all six Sci-Fi submetas already solved, and fourteen out of fifteen answers. And with most of the room focused on this last meta, we got hopelessly stuck. We were reasonably sure based on the flavortext that (a) we needed to use country flags, (b) we needed to view the cube as a circuit with resistors (likely reinterpreting three-stripe flags as color codes), and (c) we needed to generate the missing stardate to get one more Star Trek episode (that part wasn’t true). But we were fixated on extracting countries from the meta answers rather than the regular puzzle answers (did you know EMANATIONS contains all of the letters in ESTONIA?). Over time, some of us got tired of the meta-meta and worked on other puzzles to keep ourselves interested; then, sometime around noon, someone spotted the country codes in the puzzle answers. From here, we did exactly what we were supposed to, simulating the circuit in a computer program, but it wasn’t giving us anything useful. It turns out that one of the voltage drops was coded in backward; essentially, Philip had plugged in a virtual battery backward (forgive me if that’s not the right interpretation, I haven’t taken E&M in almost twenty years). We called in the answer (at 2:42pm), had the somewhat intense discussion alluded to in Part 1 of this post, and then we helped Miss Terry Hunt find the coin. And that’s what the metapuzzle structure was like for me.

One more post to come, with some comments on particular (non-meta) puzzles I solved.