Upcoming: Galactic Puzzle Hunt 2017

Are you ready for some puzzleball?

Perennial puzzlehunt contenders [three airplanes] Galactic Trendsetters [three more airplanes] are bestowing upon us a six-day Aussie-style puzzlehunt starting on March 14. It has a year on it, which makes it sound like the event might be recurring, and the debut theme is the “Puzzleball Championships.”

There are some interesting rules innovations, such as replacing the canned hints with yes/no questions (potentially an improvement, but this sounds like a potential bear for the organizers) and breaking ties via adjusted average solve time, where the adjustment is that anything in the first day counts as a full day (I actually hate this idea, because it means ties will likely be broken by teams’ times on the most flawed puzzles, but we’ll see what happens!).

I enjoyed BAPHL 11, which I believe came from some of the constructors involved in this project, so I have high hopes. Now if it had just been a week later to coincide with my spring break…

By Request: All-Time Top Ten Puzzlehunts (#10-#6)

In a thread on Facebook where I asked what sort of posts other than recaps readers would like to see, Scott Weiss asked for my top ten puzzlehunts of all time, which apparently I proposed doing at some point in the past. I’m a bit obsessive about ranking things (though not as much as I was when I was younger, and also not as much as Craig Cackowski is), so I couldn’t turn this suggestion down.

Below are #10 through #6 on my list at the moment; ask me in two weeks and the ranking could be totally different. It’s also a bit hard to separate the objective quality of a puzzlehunt from my personal experience… for example, I loved some of my earliest MIT Mystery Hunt experiences because they were novel and exciting at the time, but compared to modern hunts, the puzzles in many of them are a bit flat. I’m disqualifying any puzzlehunt I helped write for obvious reasons, and there are probably many hunts that were great that won’t make it because I didn’t participate. I also admit to leaning toward options that created a good variety of hunt sources. I’ll note one example of that in the first entry.

The top half of my list is etched in stone and will appear in a follow-up post in the near future. Feel free to post your own all-time top 5 or 10 or 100 in the comments, and if you want to try to guess my top five, that might be fun too. (I’ll throw in a hint about those at the end.)

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10. BAPHL 13 – Monkey Island (July 2015)

I’m going to start the list by immediately cheating, because there are almost certainly some MIT Mystery Hunts that yielded more total enjoyment than BAPHL 13 did; that’s inevitable when you compare a 40-hour puzzling experience to a 3-hour puzzle experience. But I’m giving BAPHL 13 for a number of reasons. First, BAPHL, the Boston area’s series of walk-around puzzlehunts, is otherwise unrepresented on this list (probably due to the aforementioned shortness), and I love BAPHL enough that I wanted it to appear. Second, most BAPHLs occur in Boston/Cambridge/Somerville, with stops on the red line particularly frequently used, and I really like when the organizers think outside the box and take me to an unfamiliar location (as we did when we made everybody trek to Providence for BAPHL 9: Forbidden Rhode Island). BAPHL 13 was held on one of the harbor islands, which I’d never visited, and the ferry trip to the hunt site made the whole thing feel more like an adventure. And finally, I grew up with Sierra and LucasArts adventure games and especially enjoyed the latter, and The Secret of Monkey Island is one of my favorite computer game series. So this was a theme that hit my nostalgia button, and it made the experience even more fun. The puzzles here were solid if not tremendously memorable, but the overall staging made this my favorite BAPHL I’ve solved (slightly edging out 12), and it squeaks onto the list.

9. The Puzzle Boat 2 (March 2014)

I am a devoted solver of P&A Magazine (you should be too… see the sidebar for a link), and I enjoyed solving the first Puzzle Boat (Foggy Brume’s more Mystery Hunt-sized epics hosted on the P&A website) with Chris Morse, though it felt a little bit unpolished. The next two, which I’ve solved with Mystik Spiral, have been a lot sleeker, with intriguing meta-structures and high production values. PB2 stands out as having a rather subtle theme that emerged over the course of solving, and as a result it’s one of few hunts where I distinctly remember what our solving spreadsheet looked like; solving (and sometimes backsolving) the last handful of puzzles felt very much like clicking the last pieces into a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzles themselves were the usual quality I expect from P&A: fairly clued, elegant, and not always groundbreaking or super-challenging, but almost always entertaining. As a side-note, I was the main proponent behind having SHORT thematic flavortext on every puzzle in the 2017 Mystery Hunt; Foggy’s style on P&A was a big influence on that feeling right to me.

8. MIT Mystery Hunt – SPIES (January 2006)

I’ve been participating in the Mystery Hunt since 1998, and there have been a lot of innovations since then, some of which have been good, some bad, and some well-intentioned but not perfected until later. SPIES stands out as a Hunt that set out to “ground” things… It came after two Hunts that were way too hard for different reasons (2003’s Matrix being way too long for the era, and 2004’s Time Bandits suffering from some poor testing/editing choices that made a lot of the puzzles unfair) and then 2005’s Normalville, which was mostly better-tuned puzzlewise, but which suffered from a particular nasty meta that bottlenecked front-runner teams for uncomfortable amounts of time. The SPIES Hunt didn’t re-invent the wheel, but it featured consistently clean puzzles and metas, a very pretty and cleanly designed website, and a fun theme and character interactions. In addition, while the round structure was not incredibly novel, there was a nice feature referred to as “antepuzzles,” in which new rounds were not opened by solving the standard metapuzzles, but rather by solving separate metas based on environmental information that became available as you solved round puzzles. It’s a simple mechanic, and it’s not one that has become a mainstay in Hunt design, but for this Hunt it was great.

I’m also naturally biased toward my experience solving this Hunt, because it was my first year solving with the Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb At Midnight, the Hunt team I co-founded with Jenn Braun. A lot of people complained at the time that we had put together a super-team due to my being very competitive, but honestly, the primary recruitment goals were to solve with people we’d enjoy writing with if we won, and to keep the team size fairly lean and mean (so that we wouldn’t need to track things on a wiki or spreadsheet… if you wanted to know something about a puzzle, we were small enough that you could just ask the room). I was excited but not sure how it would go, but it turned out we had really good chemistry, and there’s a reason we won both the Hunts we competed in (2006 and 2008) before we went our separate ways. I had won the Hunt three previous times with Setec, but that felt like a group I latched onto, whereas Evil Midnight felt like something we had built from the ground up. 2006 is the only year I cried when we found the coin.

(This is as good a time as any to address what you’ve probably already noticed in this blog… I capitalize Hunt when referring to the Mystery Hunt, and I usually leave it lowercase otherwise. It comes from years of referring to the Mystery Hunt for short as just “Hunt,” and it’s an idiosyncrasy I fully embrace.)

7. The Eleventh Hour (published in 1988)

Out-of-left-field pick! I’m counting a book as a puzzlehunt. Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery, along with the Usborne Puzzle Adventures series, were the coolest books I stumbled upon in my youth. The latter were a series of illustrated stories in which there was a puzzle to solve after every two pages; most of these puzzles were self-contained, so the books weren’t really puzzlehunts, though occasionally there was a puzzle that would require to pay attention to details from earlier in the story (I remember Escape From Blood Castle being particularly cohesive). There was also a spinoff series called “Superpuzzles” that were much more puzzlehuntesque, and I remember these being much more intriguing and challenging. They’re out of print and I can’t say or sure whether I’d still be excited by them as a seasoned solver, but if you can get your hands on any of the Superpuzzles volumes I recommend them.

The Eleventh Hour is a gorgeously illustrated story of an elephant’s birthday party, during which one of a plethora of animal guests eats the birthday feast, an the reader is invited to figure out who it was. The pictures are dense in secrets, with tons of coded messages and also traditional mystery clues. One of the nice features of the book is that you can solve the mystery either as a traditional whodunnit, based on visual cues, or by combining all of the hidden messages, which is enough for me to qualify this as a puzzlehunt and put it on this list. (Though the high position on the list is undoubtedly nostalgia-based.) There is also a fun bonus challenge presented in the back even after you have the final answer.

As a warning, if you’re thinking of buying this book on Amazon and you have a tendency to use the “Look Inside” option before purchasing, don’t do it! Part of the book consists of detailed spoilers (which were actually sealed by a sticker in the hardback edition I had as a child). Also, there is a code in the back of the book that you’re supposed to use to confirm your answer (the name of the guilty party is used to decrypt the message). If you’re adept at puzzles, steer clear of the code until you have a legitimate guess… even as a kid, the code was simple enough for me to accidentally solve, which spoiled the ending (though I still enjoyed trying to figure out why the final answer was correct). Having said all this, the book is worth a look for any puzzle enthusiasts who haven’t seen it, and if you have kids who like puzzles, you should buy this yesterday.

6. WarTron Boston (June 2013)

One of the oldest puzzlehunt traditions is The Game, the sporadic series of west coast drive-around puzzlehunts that was mostly developed at Stanford (though Wikipedia says it originated earlier). As someone who has lived on the east coast my entire life and went to MIT as an undergrad, the Mystery Hunt was always the gold standard of puzzlehunting for me, but I know many Californians whose puzzling worlds revolved around The Game. (It also doesn’t help that the significant entry fees associated with typical Games had too many digits for my blood when I was growing up, even if I’d had the connections to find a team.) Now I’ve participated in one-and-a-half Games, and man, do I want to do more (but there haven’t been any since the ones I’ve done!). I’d also like to help run one someday, because helping run a Mystery Hunt apparently isn’t enough masochism for me, but I’d like to solve a few more first.

Wait, did he say one-and-a-half? Sort of. WarTron was originally run in August 2012 in Portland, Oregon, and a group of wonderful people volunteered to organize a second run of the content (with some changes) in the Boston area. When I first heard it was running in Boston, I wasn’t that interested in doing a second-run event, but a few teammates from the Mystery Hunt invited me to join a team; they actually hadn’t completed the application process, but the organizers asked them to play anyway because they were short on participants. That’s another reason I haven’t played as many Games as I’d like; there’s usually a limited capacity and an application process to get the slots. The first Game I wanted to play was Ghost Patrol, and the team that invited me to join was rejected, which was a lousy experience.

So anyway, I’m counting this as half a Game because (a) I didn’t participate in the real version, and some of the content in WarTron Boston was retrofit to go in a new setting (and the main electronic devices the event revolved around didn’t work properly), (b) since we didn’t do much planning, we decided to squeeze five team members into a regular-sized car rather than the traditional van, which I can tell you is a TERRIBLE idea, and (c) I started experiencing cold symptoms about six hours in, which made about 12 hours of the event hellish, including one part where I took a nap in the car during what would otherwise have been the coolest and most thematic location (Funspot in Laconia, New Hampshire). Eventually after I got a little sleep, which was harder in a five-person car than it would be in a more appropriate vehicle, adrenaline overcame whatever virus I had, and I felt more myself on the second day.

But despite the health issues I was grappling with, WarTron Boston helped me get what is so neat about the whole Game concept. Walk-around puzzlehunts are good for a change in scenery, and it’s neat when the puzzles are embedded in the surroundings in some way, but when you literally have to drive miles to the next location and you have no idea what it’s going to look like and what you’re going to have to do when you arrive… that’s an adventure. And while I structurally prefer the Puzzle Boat/Mystery Hunt model where you can work on things in parallel and put a puzzle down if it’s annoying you, the Amazing Race aspects really make up for the linearity of the puzzles. More, please!

= = = = =

So for anybody who wants to guess #5 through #1, I’ll give you the additional info that the remaining five hunts are all from different years, and no two of those years are consecutive. Have fun, and I’ll post the rest early next week.

Recap: Cambridge Puzzle Hunt 2017

(This is a recap/review of the 2017 Cambridge Puzzle Hunt, which happened in January. 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.)

I want to emphasize that this was a first-time event, and that a lot of the things I didn’t like about it commonly occur with first-time constructors. I consider it part of my job here to complain about those things, but it’s not intended to hurt the constructors’ feelings… Hopefully they, along with other future constructors, can learn from the discussion here.

You can probably guess from that last paragraph that I didn’t care for this event very much. In my last post, I talked about how I’m often unclear how much Australian puzzlehunts go through testing and editing. This was one of the first “Australian-style” puzzlehunts hosted by a school outside Australia, and I’m pretty confident that testing and editing was minimal (registration only opened a few days before the event, and after an initial announcement, the event was pushed back a few days and had fewer puzzles, so I suspect that a lot of what did come in did so at the last minute). Unfortunately, that last-minute nature was reflected in a lot of the puzzles.

Incidentally, due to the short notice and the fact that they advertised a “lone wolf” division, I didn’t bother to join a team and instead competed solo as Mystereo Cantos. I was actually announced as winning the division, despite the fact that I didn’t register as a UK student. (To those who actually placed in the main division, if you were actually eligible, did the organizers contact you about prizes? I don’t want anything, but I’m curious about how much follow-through there was.)

In addition to puzzle issues, there were some aesthetic/logistical issues that made it hard to get too engaged in the competition:

* There was very little consistency in puzzle format: Different fonts, title in different places, some puzzles with the puzzle number and some with just the title, one puzzle made in TeX, one appearing as an image file rather than a PDF, and so forth. This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a bit like the brown M&M’s in the Van Halen rider… when an experienced solver sees that the constructors haven’t taken the time to give the puzzles a look that’s at least minimally consistent, it immediately makes them suspicious about whether there’s been attention to detail in other places.

* I found the website pretty clunky, especially the fact that the scoreboard listed tied teams in seemingly random order, rather than breaking ties by last solve time as specified in the rules. This means, for example, that if you were tied with a team on points, there was no way to see which team was actually in the lead, and since the top two teams did tie on points, that seems problematic. As a bit of a stats nut, one of the things I like about Aussie hunts is looking at the statuses of other teams and figuring out what we have to solve and when to pass or stay ahead of Team X.

* Also missing from the website compared to other Aussie hunts: Information on which puzzles have been solved and how often. Not all puzzlehunts have this feature, but Aussie hunts do, and it’s often important because sometimes a puzzle is flawed and unsolvable without hints… When that happens, it’s nice to know it’s not just your team that’s stuck. It’s probably pretty difficult to build a website from scratch with these features, but there are at least three organizations that already have a functioning one… why not ask them to share their code? (I hope they’d be willing to do so, for the good of the community.)

* It was also a little weird that the links to puzzles themselves were marked “Question”… That seemed nonstandard, and that and other idiosyncrasies in the website test suggest English might not be the first language of some of the designers, not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that.

* Several corrections were made during the hunt (to puzzles or hints) and there were no indications of that sent to solvers. So unless you happened to randomly reload puzzles and notice the change, the constructors were content to let you keep work on puzzles with errors in them.

* Finally, as is sometimes the case with Aussie-style hunts, the predetermined hints were sometimes helpful and sometimes staggeringly unhelpful. More frequently the latter, and I suspect that was due to the constructor guessing where solvers would get stuck, rather than actually having people solve the puzzle in advance and give feedback.

Puzzles I especially liked:

* A Martian Makes a Phone Call Home: This used an interesting data set in which some bits were easier to process than others, and I like puzzles where you have to gradually hack away with partial information. The answer was admittedly kind of random.

* Lips, Secure: Simple, well-executed. It’s a shame the right column had to have so many repeats, but I get that that’s a constraint of the puzzle mechanism.

* Colour: The first step of this was a bit awkward, but once you knew what mechanism to use at the beginning (which was one I was previously unfamiliar with), the rest of the puzzle worked in a really elegant way. I needed a hint to interpret the hint already given in the puzzle, but after that point, this was my favorite puzzle in the hunt.

* Lingo: Here I got stuck on the last step rather than the first step, and I think the use of the numbers 1 to 7 appearing in the grid in order is pretty misleading (since they’re ultimately used in a way where they could have been almost any numbers, and they’re not used in 1-7 order). But I thought the picture cluing was a lot of fun, so this gets a B+ from me.

Puzzles I especially disliked:

* Metathesis: I did lots of work on this puzzle, including the tedious part, which involved looking up a lot of dates. I then tried to do what the puzzle told me to do (in a few different ways) and got gibberish. I then decided that if I had a mistake in my ordering, it would just give me a different substitution cipher, and so I threw the encoded sentence into a cryptogram solver… which spit out the clue phrase without any need to look at the rest of the puzzle.

To quote the posted solution: “There was also a mistake here (which no solvers seemed to be bothered by) where the writer mixed up the dates, so the final phrase obtained is something else. However, the impact is minimal, and it’s easily deduced what the phrase should be.” I was actually extremely bothered by it, and the only reason it’s “easily deduced” is that you can bypass the entire puzzle by using a cryptogram solver. Here’s a tip for both puzzlehunt constructors and escape room operators. When your creation has errors and you’re defensive about it afterwards, it makes a bad solving experience much worse.

* Th Ilid: After solving the mostly de-voweled clues, I pretty quickly got the phrase COUNT VOWEL. Putting aside the fact that “COUNT VOWEL” doesn’t make any grammatical sense, as the solution acknowledges, there are many ways to interpret that phrase: counting the given vowels, the removed vowels, the vowels in the answers, the vowels in the answers that match the given vowel, the vowels in the answer that don’t, et cetera. With that big a solve space, this becomes a “guess what I’m thinking” puzzle; you only know you’ve done the right thing once it turns into something (deciding you want an ISBN based on the formatting helps, but that just tells you you want numbers less than ten). If anything, as a solver, you’re drawn to the extractions that would involve the answers, because that was the part of the puzzle you actually had to solve, and the words generated seem way too random for only their first letters to matter… But in fact, every letter in the answers except the first one is just noise.

According to the solution, the constructor thinks maybe the clue “COUNT VOWEL” possibly shouldn’t have been there (in favor of BOOK NUMBER). I think this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what made the puzzle hard; having a hint that you wanted an ISBN could help narrow the searchspace, but the searchspace is only narrowed in the first place by telling solvers to count the vowels. There’s also no reason the answers couldn’t point at more than one phrase, since they’re otherwise unconstrained.

* Dionysia: First of all, I’m not sure how many people loaded Round 4 right when it was released, but the PDF went up appeared to be a solution rather than the puzzle itself (it had some anagrams with their solutions also given in a different color, and while the final answer wasn’t given, I figured out what it was supposed to be by applying one more step). This was then taken down due to “technical difficulties” and replaced shortly after by Dionysia. I’m not sure if the latter was a backup, or if it got written in a hurry. At least not having a metapuzzle (or any other constraints on answers) makes it a lot easier to throw in a replacement puzzle. A similar production error happened in a Mystery Hunt puzzle around the turn of the century (1998, maybe?), where instead of giving a grid of 49 clues that would resolve to 49 of the states, where the answer was the missing one, we were given a list of the 49 states. This was very confusing for a moment, but then very easy to solve.

Solving this puzzle required you to completely disregard most of the data the puzzle gave you (Oscar years, the number that was removed from one film in each group, which movie or pair of movies was missing from each list, which one won), ignore the fact that the “number” film jumped from the first position to the last position in the last set, and most egregiously, interpret the opposite of “sense” as “sensibility.” Reading the solution, there was a very meandering path you were intended to follow to justify this last step, but it’s inconsistent with everything else in the puzzle. Boo.

* Trojan Hippo, Archimedes’ Calculus: In a set of sixteen puzzles, there’s no need to have two different puzzles that both revolve around the Greek alphabet.

* Calligraphy: I came nowhere close to solving this, and I think few if any teams ended up getting points for it (if the website gave those stats, I’d tell you for sure). Looking at the solution, I would say the very last step makes an already-difficult puzzle much much harder for no good reason.

Despite my complaints, I would still love to see this event become an annual mainstay on the puzzlehunt calendar; we can always use more puzzle competitions! But for it to be successful, the people in charge have to make sure the puzzles are written well in advance, and then spend time editing and testing to make sure they’re fair and reasonable. Consistent puzzle formatting and a more robust website will also help make this a more user-friendly puzzlehunt, and there’s a year to work on that starting now, but the puzzles need to be clean or the rest won’t matter.

Recap: SUMS 2016

(This is a recap/review of the 2016 SUMS Puzzle Hunt, which happened in late December. 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.)

Once upon a time, there was a yearly triumvirate of Australian puzzlehunts: MUMS (based at the University of Melbourne), SUMS (based at the University of Sydney), and CiSRA (sponsored by a research company in Australia). CISRA stopped running their event in 2014, which brought the yearly number down to two, but then some CiSRA Puzzle Competition alums created the mezzacotta Puzzle Competition, which ran for the first time this year. However, in mid-December, it was still looking like this would be a two-Aussie-Hunt year, because SUMS had not occurred. Then just before Christmas, there was an announcement that there would be a 2016 SUMS just under the wire between Christmas and New Year’s, on less than a week’s notice.

Daily puzzle releases for Aussie hunts have traditionally been at noon in Australia, but the most recent mezzacotta and SUMS both released in the evening. This is pretty awful for Americans, especially if you’re on the east coast; for me, it’s gone from releases at 9pm or 10pm, meaning I can get a few hours of solving in before I need to sleep, to releases around 3am. That almost certainly means waiting to solve until the next day (after any west coast teammates have picked off the low-hanging fruit), though mezzacotta happened in the summer when my schedule is flexible and I was crazy enough to go to sleep early and wake up for the release. In any case, just as I think the MIT Mystery Hunt should be designed for students, and anybody from outside the MIT community should be an afterthought, I feel the same way here… if the new release time is better for Australians, Americans (including myself) should suck it up. But I won’t be sad if MUMS sticks with noon releases this year.

I solved SUMS 2016 with Killer Chicken Bones, a team that usually consists of some subset of Brent Holman, Rich Bragg, John Owens, Kenny Young, Todd Etter, Ian Tullis, and myself (if space allows, since I’m the most recent addition). This time around Todd and Ian sat out, and the five of us remaining came in seventh, solving 15 out of 20 puzzles. That’s pretty low for us, as we usually solve most if not all of the puzzles, and often we solve them all with no hints; this year, even with three hints, five of the puzzles eluded us. In fact, only one team, one of the usual plugh subteams [obligatory fist shake at plugh] solved all twenty puzzles, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this year was hard.

I am always curious how much testing is done with the Australian hunts… My guess is not a lot. The posted solutions often have commentary about what the constructors expected and what actually happened, and when there is, there isn’t any mention of what happened in testing. If any constructors from SUMS/MUMS/mezzacotta are reading, I’d love to hear about your puzzle testing process, and if there isn’t any internal testing, I’d strongly encourage you to introduce it… I can tell you that virtually every American puzzlehunt gets solved by someone unspoiled (either as a unit or in bits and pieces) before it’s released to the public.

Aussie hunts have a static hint system (everybody gets the same hint after 24 hours, then another, and then another), and the helpfulness of these hints varies from hunt to hunt (and even year to year within the same hunt). In my personal opinion, the best possible first hint is one that both helps teams get started but also helps them if they’ve gotten the aha and are stuck on extraction (since both those teams are sad for different reasons), and that the third hint should pretty much tell teams how to solve the puzzle. There were several puzzles that were solved by very few teams even with three hints… in my opinion, that’s very unfortunate, and if that wasn’t intentional, testing should have shown that it was likely to be the case.

We also didn’t solve the metapuzzle, though I suspect we could have (at least with hints) if we’d tried… but by the time the metapuzzle was out, particularly since it was delayed due to tech difficulties, we had been worn down by the difficulty of the puzzles and pretty much threw n the towel. SUMS, like mezzacotta, has a prize for the first meta solve but doesn’t incorporate the meta in team rankings, which really minimizes motivation to solve it.

Puzzles I especially liked:

* 1.3 (Big Break), 4.4 (Knit-Picking): On a recent podcast interview (coming soon to a device near you) I mentioned I don’t tend to like puzzles where there’s nothing to do immediately. Aussie puzzles often have this issue, in that you’re given some kind of abstracted form of data, and there’s not much to do but look through it until you have an idea. But the best examples of these puzzles have clear enough patterns/repetitions that you’re immediately drawn to something you can look at, which then draws your attention to other patterns, and so you make gradual but satisfying progress. I’d put both of these puzzles in that category.

I won’t spoil either of them further because I found both very satisfying. I will say that if you solve Knit-Picking alone, you will have some fairly tedious work to do once you know what you’re doing, and the final answer might not be easy to identify.

* 5.3 (A Way Out!): This puzzle is based on a pop culture property I first encountered in the Mystery Hunt and then ran into on various websites since. That said, the puzzle only relies on that property to a small degree; the meat of the puzzle is a set of subpuzzles riffing on a very specific theme, and the puzzle uses that theme on multiple levels in many creative ways. I think this was the most satisfying puzzle I encountered in this Hunt.

* 1.2 (Daze): This got solved while I was asleep, but I think it’s nifty.

* 3.4 (xxXWord): I also wasn’t involved in solving this, but the constraints satisfied are dazzling (although the final step is generally considered a no-no in puzzle construction).

Puzzles I especially disliked (sorry):

* 2.2 (Schoenflies When You’re Having Fun), 3.2 (Die Wohltemperierte Sequenz): These were solved by the fewest teams (three and two respectively despite three hints) and both were intensely frustrating because they were what I usually refer to as “Guess what I’m thinking” puzzles (which I’ll abbreviate as GWIT here, since it’ll come up in the future). These are puzzles where the puzzle itself gives you a lot of information, and the answer extraction is achieved by doing one of many possible things with that data, with no indication of what you should do. Rookie constructors often create puzzles like this innocently, because the extraction is the first thing they thought of, and it doesn’t occur to them there are lots of other reasonable ways to proceed. An elegant puzzle, in my opinion, will give you motivation to do the right thing.

For 3.2 in particular, I did a lot of legwork determining with WTC segments were transposed, and by how many steps; that data took a long time to collect, and once you had it, I feel that what you were expected to do with it required some pretty big leaps. (Similarly, we knew we needed crystal structure symmetry groups in 2.2, but it wasn’t at all clear how to use the “tags”). It also didn’t help that the hints for these two puzzles were overstuffed; they contained a whole bunch of nouns that were clearly intended to be useful, but if you already knew to manipulate these things, it wasn’t clear how. Again, good playtesting will help bring these things to light in advance.

* 4.3 (Hexiamonds): I wanted to like this puzzle much better than I did, but again, once you have the twelve grids filled (and I’m impressed that they could all be filled uniquely) there were many things you could do with the completed boards. The intersection letters you were supposed to get read as garbage until you do a further action with them, and that’s to me the essence of a GWIT puzzle. If there are ten things you can do, and one of them yields an answer in one step, that might be okay. If there’s only one thing you can do (or one thing most clearly clued) that yields an answer in multiple steps, that’s okay to. But in this case, the solver is expected to take one of many possible paths, and then look at one of those paths much more closely, and that’s not a reasonable expectation.

The hints were admittedly better on this one, and fourteen teams (including KCB) eventually solved it. But nobody solved it without at least two hints, which probably means the information in those two hints needed to be in the puzzle itself.

3.3 (Transmutation): This might not belong here, because I actually liked most of this puzzle… But I think it was severely underclued. If there was a reference to chemistry (the title is one, but it’s very subtle) or especially to making three changes instead of just one (which was given in Hint 1), I think the aha would have been more reasonable, and once we had the aha, the part after that was super-fun. It makes me sad that the fun part was hidden behind a wall, and then the author didn’t really give you the right tools to break through the wall. Props to the four teams that still did so without the hint.

I’ll add that SUMS has a very user-friendly website, well-presented puzzles, and a good scoreboard that tells you which puzzles are causing teams trouble, and when teams are solving things (allowing all teams to see the “competitive story” of the hunt). These are nice features I’ve come to take for granted in Aussie hunts, and having just completed a similar event that lacked these bells and whistles, I appreciate them much more. Polish really makes a difference… more on that in an upcoming post.

Some of the puzzles were frustrating, and the scheduling was not great for my American team, but I certainly enjoyed aspects of SUMS 2016. It was not my favorite Aussie hunt ever, and I think it was certainly pitched on the hard side (possibly unintentionally due to the rush to get it up in 2016), but I thank the constructors for their hard work in putting it together.

Now Available: The Wanderer and the Wu Xing (and What’s That Spell?)

Sorry for the lack of recent posts… I got very exciting about expressing my Mystery Hunt thoughts, and after four posts on that I was out of energy. Also, the Cambridge Puzzle Hunt is in progress, about which I will have a lot of opinions to share after it’s over…

Nathan Curtis (aka Tortoise) crowdfunded a puzzlehunt this past fall called What’s That Spell?, which ran live in Boston and could also be mail-ordered. Part of the draw was a set of physical objects that would be used in solving, so there’s been a bit of a production delay, but I’m told it’ll be sent out in the very near future, and you can still order the puzzles here. (You can also patronize Nathan’s occasional-puzzle-pack service here.)

The campaign had a ton of stretch goals offering puzzles from a rogues’ gallery of constructors from the puzzlehunt community (one semi-prolific constructor wasn’t asked but is trying not to be bitter about it), including a puzzlehunt by Denis and Marc Moskowitz. That hunt is now available to everybody, and you can find it here.

I’m currently hoping to find time to post a SUMS 2016 recap before the CPH ends. So far my only recaps have been for things I wrote, so I’m curious what people would like to see in a puzzlehunt recap from a solver’s perspective. I’m certainly going to comment on what I found easy vs. hard, what I enjoyed and didn’t, and what changes might have helped things work better (purely in my opinion, of course). Is there other information people might want to see? And how spoilery should I be (keeping in mind I’ve already decided not to spoil any puzzlehunt unless the authors have already posted solutions)?

Now Available: Ya Buncha Yo-yos, Puzzles For Progress

Today Palindrome (the team that came in second in this year’s Mystery Hunt) has released the practice hunt that fourteen of them wrote leading up to this year’s Hunt; it’s being hosted on P&A’s website, and it’s called Ya Buncha Yo-yos.

Use it to sharpen your skills, and next year you too can solve the Mystery Hunt in less than 18 hours! (And if you enjoy the puzzles, be sure to make use of the tip jar… as someone who used to post my own practice hunts, I can confirm that it’s very nice to be paid for your work.)

= = =

Also, this isn’t exactly puzzlehunt content, but perennial Mystery Hunt winner Francis Heaney has crowdsourced a packet of puzzles, Puzzles for Progress, to raise money for charity. A little off-topic, I know, but it’s for a good cause, and if there are people reading that disagree with my political views, I might as well drive them away early.

Mystery Hunt 2017, Part 4: Team Size and Hunt Length

(Note: The 2017 Mystery Hunt was created by Setec Astronomy, a team of about fifty people. I did a small fraction of the work and was not in charge in any way. Any opinions or perspectives below are my own and don’t necessarily reflect that of my teammates.)

Early Sunday morning, a social media post was forwarded to several members of our team, which declared that Setec had intentionally made the Hunt shorter to “make a point,” and that we should have warned teams that we would be presenting a “mini huntlet” so they could plan for that when making travel/hotel arrangements. Said post is not publicly available, although I later realized I could see it because the author was, at the time, friends with me on Facebook. (Incidentally, if you consider 143 puzzles and 14 metapuzzles, most of which had an average solve time of over an hour, to be a “mini huntlet,” you may want to dial down your expectations, or you’re in for a lot of future disappointment. Just saying.)

I’ve said this elsewhere, and I think people know it by now, but I’ll say it again here: We did not intentionally make the hunt “shorter.” We certainly wanted parts of it (particularly the character rounds) to be accessible to small/casual teams, but nobody on our team, many of whom have experience writing previous Hunts, believed the coin would be found before Saturday evening. In fact, the question of what we would do if a team finished all the metas before the fourth event didn’t even come up until an e-mail thread three and a half days before Hunt, and in that thread, I said, “I’ll note again (as others have) that if no one finishes all the metas and most of the character puzzles by 6:30pm Saturday, and it would be unprecedented if they did (I think? when did Sages finish the metas in ’12?), none of this will be relevant. So in all likelihood the contingency plan won’t be used.” So at the time, we thought a team finding the coin by 6:30pm was unlikely; a victory fourteen hours earlier than that was not even on the radar. (The realization that the top team might finish before THREE of the events didn’t come until Friday night; we discussed contingency plans before I went to sleep, and by the time I woke up they’d been carried out… kudos to the late shift team for managing the situation effectively.)

One of my personal pet peeves is the statement, “The Hunt ended early.” The coin was found early, but the Hunt ended Sunday at 6pm. When I first starting hunting, everything shut down as soon as a team won (I remember we were doing the endgame during the Matrix Hunt, and they just stopped us when the coin was found), but the SPIES folks had the great idea in 2006 of continuing to manage HQ for the rest of the weekend so that other teams could continue to enjoy the experience. The degree to which things were operated have varied from year to year, but in 2014 and 2017 we made it a point to continue to run full endgames for teams that got there, so that if a team hung in and kept solving, they still got the reward they deserved if they finished in time. One of my least favorite Hunt memories was when somebody on MY TEAM (in 2010 when I was solving with the team that would become Alice Shrugged) saw me continuing to solve a puzzle after the winner was announced, and derisively said to me, “Didn’t you hear the Hunt is over?” That year a lot of our team members gave up, but about a dozen of us persevered and finished the Hunt, and we convinced more people to stay in it for the long haul the next year.

As a side note, the aforementioned team definitely knows how I feel about this sort of thing; this year, as We’ve Made A Huge Mistake, their HQ had a room called the Things Dan Katz Hates Room, in which work tables were named after things they were pretty sure that I hate… including “Teams That Stop Hunting When The Coin Is Found.” As a side side note, I played Mystereo during their character endgame and made it a point to add in the line, “And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s special abilities!” To which Erin Rhode, on cue, responded, “Make another table!”

As a Hunt constructor, a philosophy I have repeatedly given, received, and applied is to “write for the middle teams.” We had 90+ teams this year (though a couple dozen dropped out without solving a puzzle) and once you’ve run a Hunt, you realize that you want to try to keep them all happy. Most of the Hunts I’ve co-written for middle teams (the four Setec Hunts, the two Evil Midnight Hunts, and Alice Shrugged) have been well-regarded by most teams, modulo the occasional underclued killer meta that artificially slowed down the top teams. What’s changed over the years is that the spread of team size and ability has become massive. To put it bluntly, when you have superteams of 150-200 power solvers alongside casual teams of a dozen MIT students, there is no way to avoid the former finishing quickly and simultaneously avoid the latter becoming overwhelmed. This year was certainly atypical, but I also think it’s really cool that seventeen teams got to complete the Hunt. On the one hand, I think a lot of us would have preferred for the completion times to be pushed back about twelve hours (I’m sure the top teams feel that way in terms of entertainment time), but if that had happened, a bunch of teams that finished probably wouldn’t have. Where exactly is the “sweet spot”? It’s debatable, and I’m not sure what I think myself.

Some historical context for people relatively new to the Hunt: In the 2000s when I started hunting, there was a bit of an arms race between small “outsider” teams and larger “MIT” teams. After a bunch of Hunts were run by smallish teams like Setec Astronomy and Palindrome, two of the more passionate MIT-based teams (from Third East and Random Hall) became larger than previous Hunt teams had been in order to compete; but when each team won, they split up into smaller teams in the future. But those big teams had a lot of very casual solvers, whereas both of the teams that finished the Hunt super-early this year had 150+ members AND a nontrivial number of power-solvers. In addition, the team that ran the Hunt last year splintered, and there were multiple members of that team on BOTH of these teams.

Having said all that, there have been large skilled teams in the past as well, so why DID the coin get found so early? I think there were three key reasons:

1) Quest metas weren’t as hard as we anticipated.

A lot of metas got solved by top-level teams using fewer than half of the puzzle answers. We didn’t expect this; an intentional design of the structure was that if teams focused on character puzzles, at some point they would get stuck and not be able to open anything else until the first event happened, or they bumped themselves up by solving a quest meta. Since we wanted that first event to be enough of a bump to the character-focused teams, solving your first meta also had to be a significant bump, as well as the second. When the power teams sliced through the first few quest metas like a hot knife through butter, they were off to the races; we wanted teams who weren’t that good at our metas to make steady progress, and that means the teams that were excellent at them swamped the map.

One possible explanation for why the metas ended up easier than expected is that we tested them using Puzzletron (when I wrote in 2014, individual puzzles were tested in Puzzletron but metas were generally tested in group sessions). That means a lot of them got cleanly solved by one person, and when 100+ people are all staring at it at the same time, a meta is going to fall more easily. Again, I think we were more concerned about solvability and elegance than ensuring that metas were sufficiently hard, which has rarely been a problem in the past, and this time, for some teams, it was.

2) Quest rounds had low-hanging fruit.

We had a strict rule that character puzzles had to be fun and accessible (a 1 or 2 on our difficulty scale of 5). While quest puzzles were intended to be 3/4/5, if they tested as 1 or 2, that didn’t bother us too much, because occasionally running into an easier puzzle is nice, and we didn’t have the time to totally revamp many puzzles. But as noted above, some teams could solve quest metas with only a few puzzles, and if those few puzzles weren’t too hard, the round didn’t put up much of a fight. This might have been less of a problem if the unlock requirements for individual puzzles within the quest rounds had been higher (those numbers were chosen by me, so that’s entirely my fault). Ultimately we were more nervous about bottlenecks than overconnectivity; until this year, I’d witnessed lots of team frustration about being stuck and very little about accessing things too quickly. After this year, the latter may be more of a concern for constructing teams.

3) The Cleric meta was super-backsolvable.

I thought The Cleric was going to be our hardest character meta… In practice, most of the top teams cracked it first. (I’d say The Linguist was the character meta that was frequently solved last, though that’s from memory, not from stats, and it might not apply to the top-level teams.) The thing about the Cleric meta is that once you know the answer, you can figure out pretty much all of the feeder answers. So for the teams that solved it with three or four answers, they got six or seven future answers for free. We intended solvers to have to keep moving back between solving quest and character puzzles, and having a bunch of character puzzles that could be trivially backsolved interrupted that flow.

So in the long run, what do we (the Hunt community) do? The simplest solution is for solvers to accept the status quo and act accordingly; if you choose to be on a team that’s really big, there’s a good chance you’ll have a shortened Hunt, and everyone can decide that for themselves. (The social media post I complained about above noted that teams can’t be expected to police their own size… I apologize that the people writing you 100+ puzzles for free don’t have time to manage your team politics.) The main problem with this is the tradition that the winning team writes the next Hunt, which means that to “control” the Hunt, you’d have to opt into the big team “division.” I’m not sure I think the Hunt should exclusively belong to the people willing to be on giant teams.

There’s also the idea of team size limits, which has come up multiple times over the years. I know of two main reasons that it’s usually been dismissed. One is that it’s easy for teams to break that rule, intentionally or unintentionally (as it is, most big teams said they had more members than they estimated when they registered), and another is that the Mystery Hunt originated as an MIT social event, and limiting team size interferes with that. Having been an MIT student, I wanted to be able to tell freshmen they should come by and solve some puzzles, and I would hate for people to have to decide whether a new member should be welcome because they’ll count toward a size limit.

I made a novel suggestion at lunch after the wrap-up, which I’m not even sure if I like, but I’ll say it for brainstorming purposes. In the spirit of events like BAPHL and DASH, you could change the rules from “winner runs the next one” to “whoever’s due runs the next one.” For example, the next Hunt could be written by the earliest-finishing team that doesn’t have any members who have run the Hunt in the last three years. But having the winning team run Hunt is a hallowed tradition, and there’s no way you could get consensus from the Hunt community to permanently change that tradition. Not to mention the question of what happens if a Hunt runs long, and the team that finally finds the coin Monday at 2pm is ineligible to write…

Regardless of whether or how the team size epidemic is dealt with, I want to make one last plea to Death & Mayhem. You’re a giant team. Don’t write a Hunt just for giant teams. There are thousands of people who participate in Hunt and are looking forward to what you’re going to give them, and you’ll have a much more satisfying weekend if you prepare for all of them, not just for the team that’s going to win. In 2012, Manic Sages won as probably the biggest Hunt team in history, and I think they wrote a Hunt designed for a team like them… since that team didn’t exist, the 2013 Hunt set a record for length, and only ended because tons of puzzle answers were given out for free, and the meta requirement was relaxed to five out of six. There are many things in that Hunt that many people liked, but it would be hard to argue that they didn’t overshoot their target (and as a result, few teams saw their super-creative endgame).

D&M has been in contention for a long time, and it’s nice to see you guys finally win, but as the latest mega-team to write the Hunt, just remember that with great power comes great responsibility. 2018 will be the 20th anniversary(!) of my first participation in Mystery Hunt (as a high school junior) and I look forward to celebrating it with you, even if my team’s done in fifteen hours.