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.


2018 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 2: My Meta Experience

(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.)

I mentioned in my previous post that to me the most exciting thing about Mystery Hunt is finding the most efficient way to navigate the structure. This leads to my spending just as much time, if not more, staring at a blackboard full of answers as opposed to solving individual puzzles. I think of this as “strategic”… A passing observer might characterize it as “lazy,” which is probably occasionally accurate in moments that I’m not fully awake. (Though I worked on a fair share of individual puzzles, which I plan to talk about in the next post.)

As we solved emotion puzzles from the intro round, various members of the team made various bits of progress on the five metapuzzles. I focused on Fear, as I’d guessed from “medical emergency” that the words and phrases appeared in the Health & Safety guide (as had other team members) and I thought it was pretty significant that the small-word answers we had like “except” only appeared once. I correctly looked at the words after the answer words, and unfortunately, our first four gave the words “locations,” “of,” and “lost,” which sounded like parts of a useful phrase. We tried putting these words in the guide order, but they didn’t make a meaningful phrase, so I kept trying to rearrange them… meanwhile another group of team members thought of looking at the acrostic and got the right answer. We actually solved our emotion metas in a pretty narrow period of time: according to our Activity Log, we called in Sadness at 4:16, Joy at 4:26 (after incorrectly trying BUCK UP), Fear at 4:28, and both Anger and Disgust at 4:40 literally five seconds apart (we didn’t get a Disgust interaction, as Anger brought us our item from Disgust).

We were surprised that solving all of the emotion metas didn’t immediately open an island; we had to go back and solve a bunch of additional puzzles to pump up our brainpower, though we did get our first island (Hacking) open at 4:52. I did some backsolving cleanup and was proud of myself for getting ASCENSION based on some letter information and the book requirement for Joy; I did, however, convince myself that Beast Workshop’s answer would surely have GORILLA in the answer, as a homophone for GUERRILLA, which, like KNIGHTLY, is eight letters and has an L as its 7th letter. Well, it does if you spell it wrong. Let’s move on, nothing to see here.

Presumably due to a backup on interactions (planning to send five visits to every team during the first round is ambitious!), we didn’t actually unlock the Brainstorm until 6:28. Like many teams, judging by what I see elsewhere, we brought back the five words and thought we needed to solve them; eventually someone found the instruction that said to just enter them as a string (although there was some text elsewhere that seemed to contradict that), and thankfully we did that. It was a little underwhelming, especially because this would have been a nice opportunity to “solve” the logo (we tried taking shared letters at the points where colored regions met).

We had been eating dinner when the Brainstorm happened, and afterward I went back to trying to fill in letters into the chutes and ladders grid for the Scout meta. Before dinner we only had two answers that overlapped, and they fit into two places. I had noted (to Josh Oratz, I think) that in one place they could make ?XO???????? if you read upward, and I brainstormed out loud “EXOSKELETON?” After dinner we had a second overlap that only fit in one place and blocked one of the options for the first pair. Josh was thankfully still around and said, “Look, it is EXOSKELETON!” which I had not noticed. After calling this in, I fit in the rest of our answers and determined that the other two should be of the form L????A?? and PE??????L. The latter seemed like it could only be PERSONNEL, PERENNIAL, or PERPETUAL. The folks working on Murder at the Asylum pointed out that the answer was likely to be nine letters long, and PERSONNEL seemed thematic, so we guessed that at 10:47pm. It was incorrect. We’ll come back to that.

I hadn’t left HQ in a while, so I decided to participate in the Scouting Challenge with some other alums. We definitely missed some pictures early on, because when we finished we had the string TTNOONE. We were going to retrace our steps when I suggested the answer might be TRUST NO ONE, and we called that in and confirmed it, saving us some time. When we returned to HQ, James Douberley was coming by to visit… I whispered “Trust no one!” to him, and he laughed politely with a look that suggested he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.

We had a second island open by now, and I wasn’t really following the Pokemon structure other than hearing that there were puzzles and harder evolved puzzles. I participated in the solving of You Know What’s Missing (without urinating) and Mass Aid (uggggh) and helped wheel-of-fortune out the answer to the Advertiser meta (from 2/5 answers, I think) after someone else worked out the extraction. Around 11:30pm I decided it was a good time to go back to the hotel and sleep.

I probably got about 5.5 hours of sleep in and returned to HQ around 6:30am. I was shocked that we still didn’t have a third island open, particularly since the organizers had bumped up the requirement for said island due to points flowing too quickly. They had actually called us, since we were (in their words) “very close” to opening a third, to make sure we wouldn’t think that was unfair. I didn’t realize that was going to result in six more hours with only two islands! We were close now, so after being sad about missing the MLS puzzle overnight and circling the word CONIFER in CONFINED AQUIFER, I noticed everyone had given up on Murder at the Asylum. I talked through some of it with the half dozen people in the room but eventually decided I needed to go out in the seating area in the hall to try to concentrate on solving it frontward. It’s a great puzzle but it took a loooong time; from the Log, it looks like it was hours, though I didn’t think it was *that* long. I never fully worked out the murderers/accomplices, but I got enough information to squeeze out the answer ALTERNATE. That’s weird, that’s not PE??????L or L????A??. The printout I made of the chutes & ladders board had been thrown away, so I filled in a new one and discovered I’d left out a letter. With ALTERNATE confirmed, I realized that the PE??????L options were now valid for 10000-Puzzle Tesseract, which lots of people had put time into without finishing. We tried all three, and the last one PERSONNEL was correct at 9:37am… almost eleven hours after we’d tried it on the other unsolved puzzle. Major. Backsolve. Fail. On the bright side, this was just enough brainpower to open up Games Island.

This is getting quite long, so I’ll wrap up this post and continue in Part 3.

2018 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 1: General Thoughts

(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 may contain spoilers, but I’ll try to avoid them where possible, especially for puzzles I recommend.)

Going into this weekend as a member of Setec Astronomy, I did not expect my team to win the Mystery Hunt. Some of my teammates were taking a more relaxed approach, although I pretty much only have one intensity setting at Hunt; for me, the most fun thing about a puzzlehunt of the size and complexity of Mystery Hunt is figuring out the most efficient way to get from Point A to Point C (for coin) through strategic puzzle-solving, meta-cracking, backsolving, and time management. Navigating the Hunt itself is the most interesting puzzle of all.

On Sunday, after grappling with the final Sci-Fi Island metapuzzle for about five or six hours (for those on the construction team who asked, we were NOT stalling; we were missing a key insight for more than half that time, and then once we implemented the right thing, it gave us garbage output due to a technical error we didn’t find for quite a while), it became apparent we were about to win the Hunt, and we had a conversation about that. My philosophy, which I acknowledged is not every participant’s philosophy, is that if you choose to be on a team strong enough to win the Hunt, you owe it to the community to write the Hunt if you’re the fastest team to reach a point where you can finish. Members of our team had lots of different perspectives and conclusions, but the vast majority agreed, for one reason or another, that we should finish what we started, and we surprisingly found ourselves in charge of next year’s Hunt. Again.

We learned a lot writing in 2017, and we have yet another data point in seeing this year’s Hunt and how it worked from our perspective (and I hope to hear how it went for other teams). There are some things we’ll try to do again, there are some things we’ll try to do differently, and there are some things that will be much easier having done them recently (I know TK is super-psyched that most of the Hunt website code already exists in a form he understands). We’ll probably lose some members, we might gain some members, and our Hunt may be very different than the one many of you just solved. But like every construction team, our goal will be to produce an event that everyone enjoys, and we’ll do our best to achieve that goal.

But enough about 2019, what about 2018? My favorite Hunt of all time, the 2011 Hunt (Video Games) felt in many ways like an improved form of the 2009 Hunt (Zyzzlvaria) taking a lot of the bolder innovations of that Hunt and presenting them in a more effective way. Similarly, I thought that this year’s Hunt felt very much like an improved version of the 2013 Hunt (coin heist); the rounds had complex structures, often with multiple tiers and/or multiple metapuzzles, and the metapuzzles themselves often involved elaborate procedures as opposed to a simple aha about the feeder answers. I was thinking this long before we opened the Sci-Fi Island (which was our fourth), so I already made a connection to the 2013 Hunt before another six-sided-cube-with-overlapping-metapuzzles appeared!

There were at least three big improvements over 2013, however: (1) Puzzle quality across the board was a lot higher. Puzzle concepts were bold and creative, and execution seemed clean. 2013’s Hunt only ended on Monday because the organizers handed out puzzle answers like candy; this year the first completion happened later than Death & Mayhem (Life & Order) expected, but it happened organically (by the end we could afford to “buy” two free answers, and we just bought one to make our last meta solve easier). (2) While the metapuzzles were often very difficult, they were reasonable. All four of the top-level metas were complex but none of them took hours of processing; if we had all of the answers and knew what to do, they would not be a slog. (3) I found the theme (at least the main theme) very engrossing; Inside Out is fantastic source material, and the production values in the kickoff and final runaround were ridiculously high.

If you can’t tell, I liked this Hunt a lot… there were a couple of two-hour periods where I felt useless and a little frustrated, but the Hunt never felt unfair, and most of the time it was a lot of fun. My biggest complaint was that the island themes felt pretty random and a bit disappointing. The Hacking round, which we opened first, seemed like a labor of love clearly designed by people familiar with MIT hacking culture, and the tier filled with physical puzzles was very cool. We opened Pokemon next, and the structure of that round was neat, but “Pokemon” and “hacking” don’t really seem like items in the same category. We could tell from the “preview text” that our third island was going to be Catan-themed, and ultimately I didn’t really buy it as “Games Island,” since it wasn’t really about general games. And as for the Sci-Fi Island, the cube structure’s been done, and a space fiction theme that unites lots of different existing properties is a great Hunt theme… which is why we used it in 2009. The point made at wrap-up that these were different chronological stages of Terry’s life made them feel more related, but I didn’t grasp that at all during the Hunt when it matters most. I was definitely expecting the islands to be either closer to the Inside Out plot or themed around other Pixar films, and I think either of these would have resulted in a more cohesive Hunt. This was a great Hunt, but the stitches in the overall structure were showing.

One intriguing decision by the organizers was to allow solving teams to choose the order of the round unlocks, which hasn’t been done since 2004. (For anybody who heard James mention the “Vatican Effect” at the wrapup and didn’t know what that means, in 2004 you could choose which round you’d unlock next, and the organizers thought solvers would likely open rounds in numerical order… but the highest-numbered and hardest round was visually closest to the opening round on the visual map, and so many teams chose that thinking they were supposed to.) This “choose-your-own-adventure” approach has been brought up in multiple years when I wrote, and I’ve always opposed it out of fear that solvers who choose the “wrong” order might get bottlenecked and get screwed out of the opportunity to win by random bad luck. It also gives the organizers less control over when solvers encounter key concepts… When we were dealing with the scavenger hunt, we wondered how frustrating it would be to open said scavenger hunt in one of the last unlocked rounds, since we had to send team members home to gather stuff. From talking to other teams at wrap-up, I can confirm it would be very frustrating.

This got discussed a little bit at wrap-up, but I was hoping for a lot more information. What order did you open the rounds and why? And do you think it helped or hindered your progress? I’m glad someone had the guts to try this in a year where I wouldn’t be responsible for the result, and I’d love to hear how it affected your experiences.

Coming soon: More posts on my personal Hunt experience with the metas and sleep (or lack thereof) and some notes about puzzles I particularly liked or wanted to throttle for one reason or another. If there are things you particularly liked or disliked this year that you hope next year’s team will preserve or change, chime in via the comments; I can’t guarantee any/all requests will be honored, but I’m pretty confident that next year’s constructors will at least hear about your feedback.

Recap: P&A 70 (aka Lion, Schmion, Backsolved)

(P&A 71 was released today, which means the answers are now online for P&A 70; so here’s my spoiler-laden recap of our experience solving the last issue, themed around Madeleine L’Engle.)

For a change, we weren’t racing to be done for soccer reasons; the Midnight Riders actually had a pub trivia night (well, afternoon) at 2, but we knew we wouldn’t make it to Boston by 2 and it had already been a busy holiday weekend, so we decided to punt trivia and focus on puzzles. As it turns out, we finished just after 2 (starting at noon Eastern), so this was a very quick issue for us.

My printer prints pages in reverse order, and so New Year’s Eve caught my eye right away. I got the aha immediately (from the flavortext and spotting the anagrammed “INFINITY”). Jackie had picked up Earth Day, but I asked her to help spot a few of the remaining math words, and after switching from the incorrect ordering (vertical) to the correct one (horizontal), we submitted the answer from six out of nine letters at 12:06. As usual, I went to the Stats page to try to identify the low-hanging fruit, but at that point our solve was the only solve! So I flipped through the stack and New Year’s Day seemed approachable; that was solvable with only about 2/3 of the grid filled, submitted at 12:14 (after incorrectly submitting the plural form). As it turns out, the first two answers we got were probably the two of the most helpful in breaking into the meta, but we didn’t know yet that they were paired!

Now there were a few other solves on the Stats page, which led me to Mother’s Day. The third clue on that one was the break-in, and I submitted the answer at 12:19. At this point, Jackie had the gimmick on Earth Day and most of the grid filled, and we worked together to figure out the answer at 12:25. We then teamed up on Flag Day, which wasn’t too bad (12:29). Now there were six puzzles solved on the stats page, and the only remaining one was Back to School, a word search. Faced with the choice between a word search and an unsolved puzzle, Jackie wisely ran toward the unsolved, grabbing the logic puzzle Independence Day while I dealt with Back to School. It was tedious but not too difficult, and I finished it at 12:42. We now had six puzzles solved, and according to the Stats page, no other puzzles had been solved by anyone else.

Jackie kept working on the logic puzzle, while I focused on Christmas Eve. I ID’d a lot of pictures and didn’t see a common thread, so I employed a standard strategy for this sort of puzzle… Google various combinations of likely interpretations and hope the results yield, say, the lyrics to You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch. Once that page came up, I was able to ID all of the pictures except the Eel and the termites. (Fun fact: Early in our relationship, Jackie wrote a short Christmas puzzlehunt for me that featured a Grinch song parody; the lyrics were about me, and the extraction involved looking up the long bits at the end of the verses. I bring this up in case anyone doubts that I married the perfect woman.)

I was stuck on extraction and so was Jackie (having finished the logic portion of her puzzle) so we worked together to finish the extractions for Independence Day (1:07) and then Christmas Eve (1:09). We then worked together on President’s Day, and after filing the grid with what seemed like garbage letters, I wondered aloud, “What does this have to do with presidents?” and she had the aha moment that the letters (mostly) corresponded to last names of presidents. Once again we tried reading vertically before we read horizontally, but then we had an answer at 1:25.

Nine answers and no ideas on the meta… I had noticed MON in LEMOND and thought from the date pages that we might be using days of the week, but I didn’t know how that would work with the clocks, and there weren’t day abbreviations jumping out of the other answers. Jackie got to work on the anaquote lyrics while I started chipping away at the cryptic clues in Valentine’s Day. I was noticing some overlaps between clue answers (PANACHE/PANACEA, for example), and when Jackie had about half of her lyrics identified and was trying to do the same creative Googling we’d been successful with before, I thought about the title and noticed the Days of Christmas gifts in the artists. Initially we counted wrong when indexing and got a key letter wrong, but after correcting the L, we got from ?EC?LA?MUSI? to an answer at 1:55.

Jackie went to move her laundry, and I still had cryptic clues to solve, but I figured that with ten out of twelve answers, we should really be able to break into the meta. After some staring, I found MIN/UTE and SEC/OND (now having SECULAR MUSIC was very helpful) and figured that SECOND/MINUTE/HOUR/DAY/WEEK/YEAR would fit the clocks and calendars. I filled in the ten answers we had and wanted the letters to somehow fit the sequences of wrinkles… they did not. But the other ends of the answers did seem to spell something, and with ten out of twelve answers, the meta answer fell at 2:04.

Based on the meta mechanism, the remaining answers needed to be of the form R*AR and T*Y. Since one of the remaining puzzles (First Day of Spring) prominently featured lions, I tried ROAR as a wild stab… Success! Jackie returned and we teamed up to finish Valentine’s Day; we knew the first and last letters from backsolving and worked out the second and fourth (and first) letters as intended, which was enough to figure out the answer and secure a complete.

January Update: Two months later, we never figured out how the lion/lamb puzzle worked. I’ve looked at the solution now, and it appears the lions and lambs are just showing you which letters the hidden Boggle words start and end with; if that’s the case, I cry foul at the fact that some of the corner squares are indicated by icons orthogonally adjacent to the letter, and some diagonally adjacent (see, for example, the two lambs in the bottom center grid). I don’t see any reason to place them inconsistently unless they’re trying to be something more involved than “next to a letter”).

Miscellaneous Updates (or Keeping Up a Blog is Hard)

Sorry again for the long delay between posts; the end of the semester can be busy for academics like me, and it only gets busier when (a) you have to report a whole bunch of students for exam cheating, and (b) you’re hosting Christmas for the first time (we made a prime rib roast and didn’t poison anyone!). Most of my own puzzle solving has consisted of logic puzzles from past WPC/WSCs, some online programming challenges,  and test-solving some top secret Microsoft Puzzle Hunt puzzles for a friend (which were very good!).

The MIT Mystery Hunt, which is for me the highlight of the puzzling year, is in just a week, and I’m sure I’ll have lots to say about it afterward. In the meantime, let me take care of a few loose ends and bits of news:

  • There’s a new issue of P&A out tomorrow, as Foggy tends to schedule around the Mystery Hunt in January. This means that I’ll be posting a solving report on the last issue soon, and it also means you should purchase and solve tomorrow’s issue, as it’ll make for a nice Mystery Hunt appetizer. For the first year in a while, I won’t be solving it at a math conference, so I look forward to getting to use my own printer instead of staking out a FedEx Office store.
  • Another pre-Mystery-Hunt tradition is Kevin Wald’s excellent pre-Hunt cryptic crossword, which takes its theme from the previous year’s Hunt. Kevin’s cryptics are often very densely structured in general, and I’m always impressed at the connections he finds within the pre-existing Hunt theme/structure (especially when it’s one I helped write, and thus one I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about!). You can find this year’s puzzle and previous years’ here.
  • One of our Hunt team members, Tom Buehler, did a ton of filming during the 2017 Hunt (which we wrote), and he’s just released the final cut of his 52-minute documentary. I think it’s really good, and it’s worth watching if you’re getting psyched for this year’s Hunt and want to walk down memory lane (and get some insight into how we handled the re-staged events for the teams that outran our intended schedule), or if you’ve never participated in an on-location puzzlehunt and want to know what they’re like (there are some really nice visual segments showing how some of the puzzles are solved, so it’s a nice watch for newbies).
  • There’s a ClueKeeper hunt happening now in conjunction with an upcoming film called Solver. The main page for the hunt is here, and the puzzles are appearing on Instagram. I found the first six puzzles pretty uninteresting (though to be fair, they’re intended for a more general audience). The seventh, by escape room podcaster Errol Elumir, is more intriguing, and I think I know how it works, but I haven’t been able to crack it yet.
  • Embarrassingly, I still have yet to post about the puzzles from our July NPL Con extravaganza, despite writing three novelettes about the logistics of putting it together. I really will get to it at some point, hopefully before next year’s extravaganza.

I intend to be at the opening ceremony for this year’s Mystery Hunt, assuming I’m not totally foiled by MIT’s more restrictive parking policies (as of June, it’s no longer a free-for-all on the weekends, so beware). If your a reader who knows what I look like and we’ve never met, feel free to say hello!