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.

Upcoming: Cambridge (UK) Puzzle Hunt Next Week

Hat tip to Chris Dickson for already pointing out an upcoming puzzlehunt I didn’t know existed!

The first ever Cambridge Puzzle Hunt is being held next week, starting Monday at noon GMT (that’s Monday 7am ET, and probably other times in other places). It’s Australian-style, with five four-puzzle days. Team size is limited to five (though there’s also a division for solo solvers, which I might enter given the short notice), ties are broken by time of last submission, and prizes are limited to teams with at least one Cambridge student. (That’s Cambridge in England, not the one a lot of us descended on this past weekend.)

Now is as good a time as any to explain what I mean by an “Australian-style” puzzlehunt; this format originated with the MUMS Puzzle Hunt run by the Melbourne University Maths Society, and then similar rules were used for the SUMS Puzzle Hunt (replace Melbourne with Sydney) and the CISRA Puzzle Hunt, the creators of which have gone on to create the mezzacotta hunt. (All three of these are linked in the sidebar.) In each of these hunts, there is a series of rounds of puzzles released on subsequent days. If you solve a puzzle in its first 24 hours, you get full credit; after that, a hint is released and the puzzle is worth one point less. There are usually three hints for each puzzle, and teams are ranked by score, with ties broken either by average solve time, or more frequently last solve time… The latter means that if all the puzzles are fairly solvable, the final day is the only one where speed matters.

I used to solve the Australian hunts with The Sons of Tamarkin, a team I founded at Brown University, but now I often play with Killer Chicken Bones (which usually consists of some subset of Brent Holman/Rich Bragg/Kenny Young/John Owens/Todd Etter/Ian Tullis).

The most recent of these was SUMS 2016, which happened in late December (just barely avoiding being SUMS 2017), which was… um… quite difficult. After Mystery Hunt posting is out of the way, and perhaps after my beginning-of-semester rush, I plan to post a SUMS recap (and maybe also talk about the November P&A).

If anybody’s reading this and is looking for a CPH team, feel free to post below… If the winning team is formed in the Puzzlvaria comment section, I will graciously accept part of the credit.

Mystery Hunt 2017, Part 3: Procedural Issues and Gratitude

(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.)

Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that I had a very stressful year; a lot of things contributed to that, ranging from personal to professional to political, but Hunt was a big one. There were a number of things I wish we had done differently (some of which I complained about at the time), and I want to document them here not to throw anybody under the bus (I’m certainly not going to name any names) but rather to provide a warning to future construction teams, especially a first time construction team like Death & Mayhem, about small things that can cause you headaches later on.

I also want to emphasize that some of the people I was most frustrated with over these issues really stepped up in the last few months, which I deeply appreciate. But in a perfect world, November and December could have been a tune-up period, rather than a period in which a third of the Hunt’s puzzles were still being drafted.

1) We didn’t do enough to keep the whole team aware of the process throughout the year.

We had two primary ways for the team to communicate: Slack, and the team e-mail list. Between the day the theme was chosen and December, we didn’t use either enough for my tastes. Early on, a committee of about twenty people interested in metapuzzle writing was split into two halves and worked on metapuzzle development, with the idea that the other half could be the first testers and develop the metas further, before they were tested by folks outside the committee. This took several months, and as it turned out, (a) we didn’t do much testing outside the committee after all, and (b) we got used to not talking about what was going on using the main list, since what was going on was a secret to most, and I don’t think we ever kicked that habit. Just to show that I’m not just assigning blame to others, I was one of the people principally in charge of story, and in December, when I told a constructor their flavortext was inconsistent with the story, they told me that they didn’t know what the story was at that point. That’s as much my fault as anyone else’s.

We also had a small executive committee that accomplished a lot of really important tasks (props to them) but didn’t always keep the rest of the team updated on what they were doing (and I think that made it look to people outside that committee like there wasn’t much to do, which probably contributed to #2). I was on that committee briefly but ended up leaving out of frustration, and sort of designated myself “person outside the committee who constantly annoys the committee about keeping the rest of us aware of what’s going on.” When Setec ran the Hunt, Ray Jones served as “Team Asshole” (his term, I believe, not mine) whose job it was to step in bluntly when people weren’t meeting deadlines. We didn’t officially have a team asshole this year, but I think I unofficially stepped into that role, and I suspect some of my teammates would consider that an apt name for me during this process. (They would not be wrong.)

In any case, I suspect there are casual members of our team that would have happily done more than they did if they had been in the loop earlier, and I found that very frustrating.

2) We didn’t have enough urgency in the first half of the year.

The beginning of Hunt construction is very bottlenecky. You can’t do anything until you have a theme and structure. Then you can do very little until you have metas. (I know some teams have actually split up round creation and have thus started building the puzzles in a round as soon as that meta is complete, though I’ve never done so. We did start accepting character puzzle proposals while the quest metas were being written.)

I already mentioned that our meta process was a bit isolated, but even within that process, there were sometimes stages where nothing happened for several days. Sometimes that was because it wasn’t clear that we had to move on, and sometimes it was because the person in charge of the next step vanished and didn’t delegate to anyone. In any case, there were definitely times when, from my perspective, the Hunt seemed like it was on pause, and we suffered for it later.

3) We spent too much time using a one-editor system.

In 2011, Metaphysical Plant created a Hunt construction platform called Puzzletron, which will almost certainly be passed on to you if you run a Hunt. It tracks each puzzle from proposal to draft to testing (which can be done by testers through Puzzletron without a moderator, which is AMAZING) to postproduction to final version. It’s an invaluable tool, and I would never write a Mystery Hunt without it at this point. (Thanks, MPP!)

One of the key elements of that process is assigning editors to puzzles. My experience in 2014 was that every puzzle got three editors; at each advancement stage (most importantly idea-to-start-writing, draft-to-testable, testing-to-ready) happened once 2 out of 3 editors clicked a button, and it was all a very smooth and automatic process. The last time Setec wrote a Hunt was pre-Puzzletron, and editing was a more ad hoc process… likely stemming from that, this time we started with one editor assigned to each puzzle. This did not work; having one editor and one author is not conducive to discussion, and if the editor got busy or didn’t log into Puzzletron for a while, everything ground to a halt. Eventually we made more people editors (establishing two tiers of editors, the top tier of which would end up with more assignments) and put at least three editors on each puzzle and a lot more started happening. Based on these two Hunts, I think it’s good practice to assign a lot of your team members to be editors; even if someone has no experience, if they’re part of a team of three where others do, they’ll likely be useful.

Again, the good news is that none of these missteps (or at the very least, they’re things I considered missteps) damaged the Hunt, thanks to a lot of work from everyone in the last two months. But those two months were much more frantic than they would have had to be if we’d have a smoother process. I think the moral of all this is that in April, the Hunt seems like it’s a long way away… it really isn’t. If a week goes by and not much happens, imagine it’s December 1, at which point losing a full week would be terrifying. Get everyone involved in the process early, so that everybody doesn’t have to drive themselves crazy by the end to get everything done. (And if it seems impossible to stay on a well-paced schedule, ask Erin Rhode for advice.)

= = =

I’m grateful to virtually everybody on our Hunt team for the work they put in, but I’d like to give particular thanks to a handful of people that made this experience better for me personally, and whose contributions might not be obvious from the outside. (I’ll also tip my hat again to the kickoff cast, whom I already thanked in Part 1.) So thanks:

To Philip Loh and Guy Jacobson, both of whom accepted a field promotion in terms of editing and ended up doing a lot more work than they initially signed up for. Their contributions were absolutely crucial to getting things going at a necessary pace, and I was grateful that they were willing to volunteer much more of their time than they probably intended.

To TK Focht and Jenn Braun for proposing a structure that I could really get excited about (see Part 1 of my recap for more on that), and for letting me get involved with the story development.

To TK Focht (again) and Matt Gruskin for building a smoothly functioning website (which, as we learned in 2016, is not a given) and showing us enough partial work throughout the process to keep me confident that the one thing I have no control over (I do a little programming, but a project on the level of the Hunt website might as well be magic to me) was going to be just fine. And they both wrote some great puzzles at the same time; each of them was fully or partially responsible for one of the puzzles in the top three I listed at the end of Part 2.

And to Jenn Braun (again) for keeping me sane for most of the year. Jenn and I started a Hunt team (not this one) together eleven years ago, and having run two Hunts together, we agree on a lot of things and generally understand each other when we disagree. I was figuratively on the ledge a lot writing this Hunt, and Jenn did a great job talking me down when I was overreacting, and helping to advocate for me when I wasn’t. She’s one of my best friends, and I wouldn’t have made it through this project without her.

So that’s it! Nothing left to talk about… Oh, right. Stay tuned for Part 4, where I’ll talk about the amount of time it took Death & Mayhem to find the coin, and maybe we can all have a little chat about what it means for the Mystery Hunt in the long term.

Mystery Hunt 2017, Part 2: Puzzles I Wrote

(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.)

I’m credited on 19 puzzles in this year’s Hunt, not counting metas and endgames. Here’s a list of all of them, in case you’re a Dan Katz completist (which would be a little weird, quite frankly), and then I’ll comment on some of them individually.

(Puzzles and solutions are available here; please forgive me for not linking every puzzle individually, but I’ve specified the rounds, so you should be able to get to any of them with two clicks from the front page.)

Character puzzles:
– Before and After MASH (Fighter)
– Crossing Your Arms (Fighter)
– Hand Them Over! (Chemist) (with Jackie Anderson)
– Local Coverage (Economist) (with Scott Purdy)
– Precipice (Linguist)
– Spontaneous Reactions (Chemist)
– Ye Olde Seventhe Duck Konundrum: The Cones of Duckshire (Economist)

Quest puzzles:
– A Lengthy Journey (Dynast)
– Advisor’s Nightmare (Bridge)
– Attention Span (Bridge) (with Roger Barkan and art by Todd McClary)
– Cutting the Cord (Bridge)
– Dammit, Jim (Warlord)
– Fleshed Out (Cube)
– Heirplay (Dynast)
– How I Spent My Pre/Post-Apocalyptic Vacation (Dungeon)
– Listicle (Thespians) (with Kiran Kedlaya)
– Oh, You! (Criminal)
– Stackuro (Minstrels)
– Stick the Landing (Thespians)

Crossing Your Arms:
The last step of this puzzle was originally my proposal for a Fighter meta. Each puzzle answer would have been equivalent to a weapon (i.e. ASPARAGUS gives SPEAR, OBELISK gives DAGGER) and the answer comes from one letter of each weapon (I think MIGHTY ARMS was one of our leading answer options). The biggest problem was that there wasn’t anything inherent in the answers that was going to tell you which letter to pick, so we were going to have to blatantly give the index numbers (likely as a number of shields next to each puzzle). That would have been pretty inelegant for a metapuzzle, and the Fighter meta we used instead is much nicer.

Local Coverage:
It was Scott’s idea to clue people who were on TIB covers, and as an editor I suggested the one uber-cover that draws letters from different points on the cover; eventually, I got so into the idea that I was promoted to co-author. I actually made a hideous frankenlogo for The Imprudent Economist by hacking together letter bits in Photoshop that I was disproportionately proud of, but Philip Loh eventually just found the right font and made it pretty.

Meanwhile, The Improper Bostonian decided to mock us by finally changing their logo this year. I noticed this while walking down the street during this fall’s BAPHL, after the puzzle was written and tested; Scott was on my BAPHL team, and we briefly discussed the change and decided to ignore it.

The Cones of Duckshire:
Apparently Ben Smith has been planning a Konundrum-style Cones of Dunshire puzzle for a few years, and I beat him to it. As soon as we had a theme and I was trying to decide on a theme-appropriate Duck Konundrum, Cones of Dunshire, the super-complex fictional fantasy board game invented by a character on Parks and Recreation, leapt to mind. We wanted this puzzle to be in a character round so everyone would see it, so it was intentionally more of a “duckling konundrum” that wasn’t meant to be a huge time sink.

If you solved this puzzle and you haven’t looked at the four unused steps, I recommend it. There are a few Easter eggs, including a very specific Choose Your Own Adventure reference that is more apt than you may realize (look up the book if you want to know why) and an instruction clearly meant to apply to a different board game due to be released in 3009.

A Lengthy Journey:
No interesting stories here, but this puzzle revolves around a pretty simple aha that ended up being one of my favorite things I came up with for this Hunt. In testing, when Trip Payne figured out the aha, he gave the following flattering testing feedback: “If this isn’t what I think it is, then I’m writing THAT puzzle myself.” (It was.) In any case, I have a tendency to construct things that are rather sprawling and have a lot of moving parts, and I think this was simple and really elegant. So go solve it if you haven’t, now that I’ve ruined it with hype.

Advisor’s Nightmare:
If you’ve solved a lot of Mystery Hunts (or solve a lot of puzzles in general), make sure you take a look at this inside-joke-fest; the “courses” in this college schedule assembly logic puzzle are all courses about puzzle constructing/solving, and there are a ton of references in the titles (which are otherwise irrelevant to solving, as a message in the puzzle tells you) to people in the puzzle industry and previous Hunts.

The meta/answer constraints meant that this puzzle had to avoid using the words “must,” “require,” or “prerequisite.” You’d be surprised how difficult it is to specify course requirements without using any of those words.

Attention Span:
The idea here was mine (how could we have a bridge-themed round without a Hashi variant?), but Roger did all of the actual logic puzzle construction. I believe he also came up with the idea of breaking the grids into pieces, which made it a much more interesting puzzle.

Fleshed Out:
I think I’m a good cryptic clue writer, but my grid-filling skills are pretty substandard. Having said that, I think this is by leaps and bounds the best cryptic grid I’ve ever constructed, and I’m damn proud of it.

Heirplay:
This puzzle was initially in the Wizard round, but after a lot of testing difficulty, we decided it belonged in a quest round. I was initially pretty cranky about this because it involved rewriting most of the puzzle, but the answer I got for it was awesome enough to make up for the extra work.

Listicle:
This used to have much less blatant cluing in the listicle headline, and Trip testsolved that version instantly and thought it was way too easy. Then six or seven subsequent testers failed to solve it at all. This was a fairly late construction (I came up with the puzzle concept based on one of the few unclaimed answers left) and so we kept hitting it with the easy stick until it had a few clean solves. If it had been written earlier, it might have gotten more group testing, and it might have ended up harder, but for safety we often prioritized solvability over challenge.

Stick the Landing:
We wrote about half a dozen “flex puzzles” that could be assigned to any answer in case of puzzle breakage, and three of those ended up being inserted into the Hunt before the Hunt started because we liked them (the other two were The Most Interesting Puzzle in the World and Hamiltonian Path). When we assigned an answer, I came up with the second phase of the puzzle, and it was Philip’s idea to insert that phase into a pack of gum. This was very late in the year, late enough that I didn’t think we’d have time to make that work, and Philip said he could do it… I was floored when he showed up to Hunt with a box of Doublemint packs that looked like they had never been opened, all of which contained puzzles. Hopefully teams thought that was neat.

Hamiltonian Path, which I didn’t write, had a similar “coda” step added where Philip suggested the object we could give teams, a CD, and I suggested what could be on the CD in order to clue the answer. I like it when “do this task” puzzles result in a mini-puzzle you solve to get the answer; just being given the answer as a reward and then still needing to submit it feels a little anticlimactic.

Some Puzzles Not By Me:
I liked lots of puzzles in this Hunt (and if I didn’t like one, as a tester or editor I tried to get the author to make me like it more) but my three favorites were Basic Phrenology (Dynast), which has a jaw-dropping final step; Changing Rooms (Dungeon), which has multiple jaw-dropping steps; and The Puzzle at the End of This Book (Cube), which will only drop your jaw in the sense that you will be saying, “Awwwwww!” at how cute it is.