2019 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 1: Structure and Story

(This is a recap/review of the 2019 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened this month. Puzzles and solutions can currently be found here. These posts will contain many spoilers.)

How did we get to Molasses Awareness Day? As TK Focht noted at wrap-up, some members of our team (okay, mostly Scott Purdy) have been advocating for a molasses-flood-related theme for years, to the point where a lot of Setec was saying we should wait to try to win in 2019. As it turns out, we got the itch earlier than that. Then we forgot to retire. I seriously did not think we were going to win in 2018.

That said, “molasses flood” itself is not the sort of theme that can sustain 100+ puzzles. (We could have woven it into a Willy Wonka theme, but we rejected Willy Wonka as a theme in 2017 due to at least one team member’s fear of Oompa-Loompas, with me warning Setec that if we didn’t use Wonka as a theme for Hunt, I’d use it for something else. And I did!) So we considered a wide array of other themes with varying levels of molasses content. I think we ended up with about 20 options on our first team-wide preference vote, which occurred before we brought a bunch of new members (I’ll say much more about those new members later on; they saved the Hunt this year and they deserve truckloads of gratitude), which narrowed the field to four clear finalists. I’ll call them A, B, C, and D, without revealing their identities, so that we can repurpose one of them when we run Hunt again in 2083.

One thing that became clear early in the process was that the team was interested in messing with a traditional meta-round structure, likely by putting a bunch of answers in one pot and requiring teams to “sort out” which answers fed into which metas; this is a thing that isn’t obviously solvable, but Foggy Brume (not on Setec) has proven in several Puzzle Boats that it can be done, so we were intrigued. All of A, B, C, and D had some degree of this. C and D were themes I was not jazzed about, so I will not expound further on them. B was my idea and had a multi-phase theme that used “sortable” metas in only one phase, which I figured would be easier to build; I really liked the structure we came up with and was endorsing this as my top choice.

Theme A is the theme you saw this year. It evolved from a TNBC holiday misunderstanding theme that Brian Tivol posed in 2005 (not a typo) when Setec wrote Normalville. He threw it in again this year, and I had the idea that if we wanted sortable metas, we could use a graph in which holidays were vertices but metas were edges, so that teams would have to figure out which puzzles were escaping into which other towns. This also seemed to lend itself well to a molasses flood as an inciting incident; a flood would explain why the walls between towns had been newly breached.

After welcoming our new teammates, we spent some time developing all four finalists in Slack channels and then voted on the final proposals (ranking all four). Theme A won according to pretty much any voting system you could choose to apply to the ranked lists, and I understand it was 1st or 2nd on almost every ranking. My first choice of Theme B, also featuring a molasses motivation, was apparently frequently ranked 1st or 4th. Hashtag polarizing.

It was around this time when I realized I’d shot myself in the foot with my meta structure suggestion for Holidays. In 2017*, I had gotten very frustrated with the pace of meta construction, peaking with me flipping out at Tanis O’Connor (who wasn’t even in charge of metas either, sorry, Tanis) in the middle of a trip to Europe. So when we won again, I thought the best way to keep things running at a pace I was comfortable would be to take charge of metapuzzles.

[*I realize that by “in 2017,” I actually mean “in 2016 for the 2017 Hunt,” but if I worry about that level of detail I’m never going to finish these posts, so any years refer to the associated Hunt.]

But in 2017, we generated a whole bunch of character and quest metas, loaded them into an online system where people could test them on their own time, and eventually picked the ones we liked most. We couldn’t just pick the best ones in this case; we had to pick metas that actually fit together into a graph, since if a holiday only showed up once, its sorting would be trivial. We initially intended to have none of these, but we eventually decided it would be good to have one degree-1 holiday as an “orientation” round, and given our source material, Christmas-Halloween seemed like the natural pair to reveal first.

So anyway, finding a way to build a map full of metas was now my problem, and I have lots to say about it, but that probably fits more into a post about metapuzzles (likely coming next after this one). So let me say a little about story.

Those who have written Hunts with me before will not be surprised to hear that I wrote the kickoff script. I’ve done that for seven out of eight Hunts I’ve worked on, and I think I have a good sense of the sort of wacky self-referential humor that functions well in this setting. I think the audience wants larger-than-life characters that help them enter the world of the Hunt, but they also know that they’re looking at a bunch of puzzle constructors who are puzzle hunters just like they are, not professional actors. I usually know which lines are going to get laughs based on Hunt content or nerd content, and to those of you who came to kickoff, you did not disappoint. Particularly when you laughed at the “pigeonhole principle” line, which helped me win an argument with my wife.

We initially had 26-100 for kickoff due to lack of Kresge, but then Kresge became available when another event canceled. I was actually a little bit opposed to moving, since I thought the bigger fancier space might raise people’s expectations in terms of props/costumes. Several teammates reassured me that Setec has a reputation for low production values (uh, do we?) and I think the finished product was quite good for something we didn’t rehearse in person until the day before. The whole cast was phenomenal, but I want to give an extra shout-out to Steve Peters and Jesse Gelles, who played Santa and Jack respectively and arguably had the heaviest lifting to do character-wise. They showed up for rehearsal with their characters pretty much nailed, and it was great to be able to direct them around landing jokes rather than getting their delivery right in the first place.

It was very unusual for me not to act in the kickoff, but I felt like I’d had enough of a turn in recent years, and lots of people wanted to participate (the part I was most likely to cast myself in, believe it or not, was the Valentine emissary played adorably by Margot Pliska; that character used to be very different, and Margot was a major upgrade). I did throw myself in as the organizational person at the end, where my most important task was to tell people the website URL and keep them busy until 1pm… which, of course, I forgot to do. YOU HAD ONE JOB, DAN.

Those who have written Hunts with me before will likely be more surprised to hear that I did not write the scripts for midgame (the Mayor of Your Birthday Town) or endgame. Those were written by Justin Werfel, who also played the April Fool and did an incredible job with both of those tasks. The evolution of the April Fool as a character was really interesting, in that they were initially conceived as a fairly stereotypical villain, but as we wrote the Hunt, a lot of us noted that we sympathized with the Fool, since they were really only doing what they’re supposed to do. One of my favorite ideas to heighten this sympathy got swept slightly under the rug by the art design once we decided to simplify and represent each town by a single building, with the April Fool living in a rundown shack. In an early conception, every town would have been a collection of buildings, but April Fool’s Day Town would still have been that single little shack with no one else living anywhere nearby.

This is actually the second Setec Hunt in a row where I saw a fairly moving emotional arc develop itself under the story elements, and when we noticed it we committed to making it clearer. In 2017, we designed the midgame and endgame around combining the six characters’ skills, since that’s sort of what you do in a “meta-meta”… This encouraged me to heighten the bickering between MIT characters (and between RPG characters) in the kickoff, and what we ended up with was a fairly sweet story about friends putting aside their differences and working together to save another friend. In 2019, we wrote a whole lot of Hunt before realizing that by making the goal to solve these interholiday problems caused by walls breaking down, maybe our Hunt was a bit more pro-wall than we’d intended? (Ggggggghhhhhh.) We had a really good conversation at our east coast retreat where we conceived the idea that having some interaction between towns, and letting the April Fool do what they do, were both good things in moderation. Justin wrote this really nicely into the endgame skit (which you can see in the video shown at wrap-up), and he and Jesse performed this moment really well. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

I think that sums up most of my thoughts on the skeleton of this thing. next up, I’ll reveal more about how we made the metas happen (which can hopefully help future construction teams decide what to do, what not to do, or maybe both).

2019 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 0: The Watercooler

(This is a preview to a recap/review of the 2019 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened this month. Puzzles and solutions can currently be found here. The next few posts will contain many spoilers.)

We made a Mystery Hunt! Hope you liked it. I was proud of what we did.

As you can imagine, I’ve got lots to say about Hunt. But unlike the last couple of years, I don’t have a buffer week between now and the beginning of my semester; tomorrow I have orientation meetings (assuming my car can traverse the sheet of ice on my driveway) and Wednesday I’m in front of a class. I’m itching to talk about the project I had to keep secret for a year, but I don’t get paid to write about Hunt, so my Mystery Hunt posts (covering things like story/structure, my experience overseeing metas, puzzles I wrote, and a conversation about backsolving etiquette) may dribble out over the next month or so.

In the meantime, feel free to comment here about things you liked and disliked (let’s be constructive, please) about Hunt, puzzles you recommend that others look at, and/or questions you might have about the construction process. I’ll chime in if I have simple answers; deeper questions may give me something to talk about in my upcoming posts. My opinions do not necessarily reflect that of the entire team, of course.

Happy holidays!

Recap: Cryptex Hunt 2018, Part 3 (Endgame the Second)

This is a recap/review of the 2018 Cryptex Hunt, which happened in February/March. Information on the hunt can be found here. This recap may contain spoilers.)

When last we left the Cryptex Hunt, I had been dismayed to discover that the finale would occur while Jackie and I were at the first Revs game of 2018. It did, and I was. (And we won!) I didn’t expect to have a chance to win the Hunt with a multi-hour handicap, but it couldn’t hurt to try.

I’m working off of a summary of the puzzles and an incredibly faulty memory ten months later. I remember that on the initial “Weaving” puzzle, I did the right first step and then got very stuck on the answer extraction. When I finally made it through that, I found myself back in the catacombs, the original second puzzle from the first iteration of the finale. Most of the puzzles I glimpsed or solved in the first run were removed from this one out of fairness to everyone. I guess I must have been one of few people (the only person?) to see any of the catacombs, because it was considered secret enough to be reused. I has a theory about how it worked that turned out to be right, and I was lucky enough to head east first (when I’d gone west first, the MUD has broken, so I was kind of scared of the ground to the west). In the east segment I managed to spell the word BAR, and decide the answer should be a word that would form a compound word/phrase when preceding BAR and when succeeding… well, I didn’t care what word was spelled in the west half because I correctly guessed SPACE. (I think these were the words… I might have the wrong detailed, but I definitely pulled an answer from half the puzzle.)

The next two puzzles were pretty straightforward, and then I got stuck in a Web, which was apparently a challenging puzzle for many; I actually got a lot of the hidden RGB data that was relevant, but I didn’t pull out everything that was needed. As I remained stuck on this, there was some discussion in the escape room Slack about when there might be a winner (organizers, appropriately, were mum). A friend of mine seemed like they were where I was or behind, but also seemed convinced they were on the verge of winning; I was skeptical, and it turned out I was right, since DoctorXor claimed victory a bit later while I was still six puzzles behind.

Once somebody had won the big prize, there wasn’t as much urgency or need to solve puzzles on my own, so I did a bit of collaboration along the rest of the way with members of Setec; for some reason I thought they helped me work through Web, but I don’t see Slack evidence of that, so maybe not. I found the puzzle after (Dragon Hobbies) very tedious, and definitely needed help from the aforementioned Seteccers (Seteckers?) for Demon Song.

After that, Mystery Hunt was demanding a lot of my attention, and I’d amassed quite a bit of in-game wealth, so I became a fairly shameless customer at the Hint Store. This led to a pretty amusing blunder on my part. Essentially, there was an in-game store in which there were hints of different levels for sale. For one of the late puzzles, I was stuck right at the beginning, and I decided to buy one of each level hint, so that as I solved, if I got stuck again, I wouldn’t have to walk all the way back to where the hints were located.

Eventually I had one puzzle left, and I noticed I could afford all of the hints, so I decided to buy them all. Being lazy, instead of buying them one by one, I typed “BUY ALL.” Unfortunately, the ALL interpreter in the MUD didn’t know I wanted to avoid duplicates; and the game promptly spent all my money on multiple copies of one of the hints. I crawled back to the escape room Slack with my tail between my legs and explained the situation to the organizers, and they were kind enough to refund my unintended scheme to corner the market on “Hint 5″s.

This is the rather anticlimactic end of my Cryptex Hunt journey. The portion of it where people were solving simultaneously and competing to be the first was exciting and thrilling (when it was functioning), but once it converted to “solve when you like,” the puzzles were still good, but the overall experience became less immersive for me. Solving the rest of the puzzles felt more like checking boxes than completing a story, and that was probably influenced by my frustration at how the first finale had gone.

There’s a lot worth exploring in the structure and execution of this puzzlehunt. The organizers took some bold risks in terms of structure and technical presentation, and when they worked, they paid off… When they blew up, they put a damper on the experience. There’s also something to be said about prizes and their effect on entitlement. Normally, when a free puzzlehunt has issues, it’s tough to complain… but when there’s a prize at the end worth a significant amount of money, suddenly if you feel like you’re being slighted (and to be honest, I don’t necessarily think I was) it leaves more of a bad taste in one’s mouth.

I’d love to go deeper into those issues, and I probably would have if I’d managed to write this post in 2018. But we’re a couple of days away from the Mystery Hunt, and just as I found myself wrapping up the last steps of the Cryptex Hunt to get it off my to-do list, today I find myself doing the same with my Cryptex Hunt write-up; honestly, the writers deserve more. Despite the hiccups, it was a really creative endeavor, and I’m looking forward to what they put together in 2019. Bonus points if it wraps up when I’m not in a soccer stadium.



Recap: Cryptex Hunt 2018, Part 2 (Endgame the First)

This is a recap/review of the 2018 Cryptex Hunt, which happened in February/March. Information on the hunt can be found here. This recap may contain spoilers.)

The MIT Mystery Hunt (written by Setec Astronomy) is two and a half weeks away, and I’m sure I’ll have lots to say about the process and the results of that project after the fact. That means I should probably clear the docket… oh, six months ago I wrote the first half of a recap about a hunt that’s now ten months old. I did promise a unique perspective on the endgame, and my memories aren’t getting any less faint, so let’s roll up our sleeves and dig in.

Pre-Finale: In addition to providing fun individual competitions, the puzzles during the preceding week were a crucial step to participate in the finale, because while the five daily puzzles all launched from the same hub location, the start location for the finale wasn’t specified. (Nor was the format or number of puzzles… we were going in pretty blind in terms of whether the last task would take hours or days.) As noted earlier, the first four daily puzzle answers were formed from text adventure direction abbreviations, which allowed for a certain degree of backsolving. So I have to admit that I was surprised when the fifth answer was… PAGODA. I was less surprised when I checked the MUD map and saw that there was a pagoda to which I could navigate. There wasn’t much to see there, but the first letter of the first answer was U, and typing it in sent me into a weird void where I could travel in any direction. Typing in further letters gave me minimal feedback, but entering all four answers one letter at a time took me to a waiting area for the finale. When I arrived there was only a person or two there (if I remember correctly), though when I logged back in the next day, the room was teeming with competitors. Party time.

Finale 1.0: When the finale began, everyone leapt into the first room. The first puzzle was a relatively traditional grid logic puzzle, which felt advantageous to me given that I’ve written a book of those. I polished the logic elements off quickly but stumbled a bit on extraction before I noticed the weird staticky bits that told me which letters to take to yield the correct answer.

In the second phase, I found myself in a interconnected series of rooms, some of which had plaques cluing simple words. I remember that I started by heading west, and I think I actually had enough time to get the aha (that the clued words formed compound words/phrases), so looking at the map, maybe I went west a few steps and then north. In any case, I was busily wandering around mapping when I found myself in a room with no exits. I flashed back to the first daily puzzle where I ended up in a dead end and had to teleport back to the start… But the start was very far from the beginning of the finale. So I ducked into the Escape Room Slack to try to figure out what the heck was going on.

I was apparently the first to report this bug (which makes sense since I later discovered I was the first to complete the first puzzle) but not the last… I’m not sure exactly how it manifested, but it sounds like most people who finished the first puzzle immediately ended up in limbo. Lots of panicky messages ensued, and I was encouraged not to teleport back to start. After some time, they implemented a quick fix that teleported me (and presumably other players) to a cryptex where the password was given; I entered that password it took me to the third puzzle. But this fix apparently didn’t fix things for everyone, and the powers that be quickly decided to temporarily shut the MUD down. So I waited.

Once things were activated again, I was still in position to do Puzzle 3, which turned out to be based around the Golden Lock-In awards for escape rooms, which I was fortunately familiar with. I solved this puzzle and everything seemed to be working as intended. But apparently thing were still broken somewhere behind me (later the creators said that the catacombs, Puzzle 2, essentially disappeared entirely from the MUD build somehow) and so the MUD was shut down. At first this was announced as temporary, but then a replacement announcement said the problem wouldn’t be fixed imminently, and so the new endgame would occur the next day. Okay. Unfortunately, a bit later a new announcement revealed that some replacement puzzle design would be needed to level the playing field (since some solvers has already seen some of the puzzles) and so the finale would be delayed a week. This was terrible news, because the rescheduled finale was taking place when I would be at the New England Revolution home opener. I had cleared the weekend when the finale was initially scheduled, but I wasn’t going to be able to be in front of a computer for the one that counted. Booooooo.

Later on, the puzzles from this first iteration of the finale were implemented as bonus puzzles, and the earlier solves still appeared on the leaderboards; this was how I discovered that I was the first solver of the first puzzle, but that Projectyl had crushed me on the puzzle afterward. In any case, I was clearly in first place when the system broke down, so Justin, you can mail me my cryptex at your earliest convenience. 😉

I won’t have as much to say about the real finale since I didn’t start it on time, but I’ll wrap up the remainder in a third post. I promise it won’t take six months to write.

Housekeeping – Existing and Upcoming Puzzlehunts

I started this blog in 2017 after running the MIT Mystery Hunt, at which point I had lots to say about the process. What I’ve learned this year is that the year after writing a major puzzlehunt is a great time to operate a puzzlehunt blog. The year during? Not so much. Virtually all of my puzzle time this year is going to testing, editing, and construction that I can’t talk about, so it’s been mostly radio silence on this front. I’ll try to make up for it in late January/February, when I’m sure we’ll all have opinions about whether ALF was actually a good idea for a Hunt theme.

In the meantime, let me do a quick rundown of non-Mystery-Hunt puzzle events/suites that might strike your fancy:

It Takes Two (online, already available): I didn’t have a chance to pre-advertise Mark Halpin’s Labor Day extravaganza, which I always look forward to since it’s one of the most challenging one-round hunts of the year. This year was as high-quality as ever, and while prize consideration is closed, the puzzles are still available and worth solving.

REDDOT Hunt 2 (online, this weekend): Last year’s RED DOT Hunt, assembled by a team in Singapore, showed up with little fanfare but was an unexpected treat, with two well-constructed stealth themes and relatively solid puzzles. It starts Friday at 10am Eastern time, and I’m looking forward to trying the puzzles solo when I can find the time.

BAPHL 19 (Boston, Sat Oct 6): BAPHL is this weekend, and it’s full. Sorry if you’re reading about this for the first time, but if it makes you feel any better, I missed registration for DASH (and thus missed DASH) and I have managed to move on with my life. If you will be there, come say hi!

Puzzle Boat 5 (online, Sat Oct 27): If you didn’t get the memo, the Puzzle Boat (Foggy Brume’s multi-round online hunt, essentially P&A on steroids) was pushed back two weeks. This is good news for me, because it no longer falls on the same day as a Revs home loss (er, game), so Mystik Spiral will be starting on time and playing to win with no multi-hour breaks. We look forward to losing to Brent Holman’s team anyway.

Catch That Ghost (New York City, Sun Oct 21): Eric Berlin, whose Puzzle Your Kids subscription site should be on your shopping list if you have intellectually curious offspring, is creating this year’s puzzlehunt at the Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan. MoMath itself is worth a visit if you’re in NYC and haven’t been, and having participated in multiple Eric Berlin events targeting different audiences, I expect this one to be accessible and fun.

Puzzle Potluck (online, Sat Nov 10): Mystery Hunt mainstays Super Team Awesome have apparently been holding puzzle potlucks for the past few years, and this year they’ve decided to share their creations with the puzzlehunt community. This year’s batch will be held as a competition, but their website also includes puzzles from previous years; I haven’t had a chance to try them, but presumably they’ll give you a good idea of what to expect this year.

Recap: Cryptex Hunt 2018, Part 1 (Qualifiers and Daily Puzzles)

This is a recap/review of the 2018 Cryptex Hunt, which happened in February/March. Information on the hunt can be found here. This recap may contain spoilers.)

In February/March, Justin Nevins, who owns a company that makes gorgeous cryptexes (cryptices?), brought the internet the first Cryptex Hunt, “Prexcyt Quest,” with puzzles created by Errol Elumir, Dan Egnor, and Darren Miller. This online puzzlehunt featured creative puzzles in an ambitiously interactive setting, and a grand prize worth thousands of dollars. That creates a certain high-stakes flavor for some solvers, which isn’t really a problem as long as the hunt doesn’t break during the finale… which it did. So here’s how it went from my perspective. (Spoiler alert: The technical issues were VERY frustrating, but it was still a solid hunt, and given that it was free, I got far more than I paid for.)

The Cryptex Hunt consisted of one weekend of interconnected “qualifying” puzzles, then five consecutive evenings with one puzzle release and a prize package for the first solve, and then one more multi-puzzle weekend event where the first finisher would receive the ultra-fancy custom cryptex. And then another multi-puzzle weekend event where the first finisher would actually receive the ultra-fancy custom cryptex, but we’ll get to that. It was clear from the advertising that the event would be fantasy RPG/text adventure themed, but as it turned out, the designers staged all of the puzzles within a fully functioning MUD (multi-user dungeon).

This was super-confusing at first, as when faced with things like gyms where you could increase your stats, I initially assumed those things must be there for a reason, and so I started interacting with them on my way to the puzzles. But after wasting some time virtually exercising, I googled the name of the world setting and realized that the whole thing was a previously existent MUD with puzzles wedged inside. Most of the contents, including the stray dogs that would randomly try to kill solvers in the street, could be safely ignored. (Okay, “safely” might not be the best adverb for that last example.)

Qualifiers: The qualifying puzzles, once I realized I should go straight to them, were reasonably straightforward. One quick gauntlet of standard puzzlehunt alphabets led to a nice little suite of puzzles with a meta. Another of the three main puzzles required you to map a multi-level area and spell out an answer via the labeled walls. The final one was a bit tougher because the directions were in a runic alphabet that would come up again a few times. After being stuck for a while, I eventually realized that the background set of short stories that had unlocked at some point had the author names written in the language, and while not every letter of the alphabet (or even in the message I was trying to decipher) appeared there, there was enough of a pattern for me to figure out how the components worked in terms of building numbers that translated to letters. What I didn’t realize until much later is that the language rules I was so proud of reverse-engineering were actually EXPLICITLY EXPLAINED in one of the short stories. I’ve always been lazy about skimming reading assignments instead of actually reading them.

Monday: The majority of the Cryptex Hunt fell on a non-ideal week for me, as the two courses I teach had evening exams on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Jackie and I had theater tickets on Thursday, so I’d only have a realistic chance of winning Monday or Friday. On Monday, before the puzzle released, I made sure to walk from the starting tavern to the entrance where the puzzle was likely to appear. At 8pm, I strode through the entrance into a tavern with a note, a singing bard, and a door to the back room. Okay, let’s check out the back room first! In the back room, there was the cryptex into which I’d need to enter the puzzle answer and… no door back to the main room (or perhaps there was a door but it was broken, I forget which). In any case, due to the glitch, I’d bypassed the puzzle itself and was stuck, so I had to teleport back to the tavern and run all the way back to the puzzle again. When I got there, the puzzle was pretty easy to solve (especially since it involved lyrics that had just come up in the 2018 Mystery Hunt), but even without the glitch, I likely would have finished behind the lightning-fast solving of Mike “Projectyl” Sylvia.

Tuesday: As noted, I didn’t get a chance to solve this on release night, but I looked at it during a long break at work the next day. The puzzle turned out to be a GPS-based app parodying Pokemon Go, which required you to find coordinates that satisfied certain requirements. I walked around the Brown campus long enough to figure out all the constraints, but nowhere nearby was going to check all the boxes… In fact, on Google Maps I determined I’d need to drive at least 20 minutes to get to somewhere sufficient.

This is a good time to point out that I periodically visit an escape room forum frequented by the authors, and they were chatting about the hunt frequently. They were careful not to give any spoilers, but I’m still not sure how kosher it was that some solvers had a direct line to the authors and some didn’t. It turned out to be fairly important later, since it’s what allowed me to notify them as quickly as possible that the MUD had broken during the final. In this case, I noticed people were talking about spoofing their GPS coordinates, which I didn’t realize was a thing… So I downloaded an app, told my phone where I wanted to be, and quickly had the solution. I also gathered from the chat that at least one constructor was annoyed that people were able to solve the puzzle this way… Well, if you couldn’t, people in some geographical areas would have major advantages over others. Given this was a competition with prizes, I think it’s a bit sketchy to prioritize your own vision of the solving process over fairness. That said, the puzzle itself was great, given the ability to force it if necessary.

Wednesday: After Monday and Tuesday I’d noticed that the answers were formed from N/W/E/S/U/D letters (the commands used to move in a text adventure) and had generated a list of likely answers, wondering if backsolving was feasible. When I had a chance to look at Wednesday’s puzzle, I first looked at the standings and noticed that one solver had finished it in a ridiculously short period of time, which convinced me it must be guessable… When the descriptive text said that I was suddenly invisible, I figured UNSEEN was worth trying, and that was enough to solve the puzzle without solving the puzzle.

The puzzle itself was shockingly similar to one of the more memorable puzzles from the 2017 Mystery Hunt, Hexed Adventure, enough so that the Hexed Adventure constructors got in touch with me and were pretty upset. I reached out to the Cryptex Hunt constructors and confirmed that the author of this particular puzzle hadn’t seen the previously published puzzles, which satisfied me and my Setec colleagues. On the other hand, one of the other constructors argued that if he had seen it, the puzzles were different enough that it wouldn’t be an issue. Sorry, not a chance. There are enough puzzlehunts in the world that some ideas are inevitably going to be duplicated, but if you’re aware before construction that a connection has been used before (which apparently wasn’t the case here), you have the responsibility to let it go.

Thursday: I don’t remember for sure which puzzle this was… I think it was the Pigpen-cipher-based one (set in an actual pigpen!). In any case, another where I didn’t get to work on it as scheduled, but it didn’t put up too much resistance. Nicely designed.

Friday: This was my second and last chance to win a daily puzzle, and I benefitted from the fact that (a) it was a word puzzle, and (b) it had multiple ahas that were likely more approachable if you have a lot of puzzlehunt experience. The puzzle consisted of an elaborate multi-floor dungeon which, based on previous puzzles, I started mapping right away. In certain rooms there were numbers scratched on the wall, and in some there were cryptic clues. I solved some of the clues and determined that they were all producing 7-letter words… It took me a little while to realize that the dungeon itself was the (three-dimensional grid) and that the clue rooms were all in first-letter positions. I ran around filling the grid and got enough numbered letters to figure out the command I needed to execute, but then I was surprised to discover I still needed a six-letter answer beyond that. Fortunately my map was organized enough for me to notice that each face of the roughly cube-shaped grid had three of one letter (from A to F) extending out, and one odd-man-out letter. Those letters, ordered from A face to F face, spelled the answer. A really beautiful construction, with the 3-D grid making the most of the MUD structure and an unexpectedly slick final answer extraction.

As soon as I finished, I jumped into the escape room Slack to see how other solvers had done; when I said the puzzle was great, Justin asked why I wasn’t still solving… When I pointed out that I was done, he confirmed that I had finished first. I actually finished with a comfortable five-minute cushion (I took 27 minutes and the next solver took 32), though I maintain that this was only because Projectyl was ineligible having won on Monday. He’ll come up again in Finalsgate, which I’ll get to in another post, because this is getting long.

Bar Exam, Part 4: And Then There Were Puzzles

(These posts will discuss the creation of Bar Exam (aka Willy Wonka and the Puzzle Factory), which was the extravaganza presented at the 2017 National Puzzlers’ League convention in Boston at the Revere Hotel. Puzzles are posted via the link above; this post will include puzzle spoilers.)

Surprise! It’s been about eleven months since our NPL Con extravanaganza, and ten since I posted three of the four parts (starting here) of my behind the scenes recap, so I wouldn’t blame anybody for thinking the fourth part was never coming. In fact, it was swallowed first by work responsibilities and then (like most potential 2018 Puzzlvaria posts) by Mystery Hunt responsibilities. This long after the fact, a lot of my memories are hazy, but I hate leaving things unresolved, so I want to wrap up with some construction comments about some of the puzzles; I’ll skip over the ones I don’t have semi-interesting thoughts on. Descriptions will likely be spoilery, so if you still haven’t solved this hunt, click the link above and give them a shot.

Dessert Oasis: Amazingly, that’s the actual board from Candy Land, which means Todd created a variety crossword on a preexisting grid with the rebus squares already placed. There were some minor changes (using PhotoShop skills far beyond my ability): the Licorice spaces have been removed, and the signs have been made blank so that they don’t advertise what the rebus squares stand for. Despite the fact that the cards give a lot of flexibility when it comes to pulling answers, this construction still blows me away.

Chilly Parlor: Another grid construction (courtesy of Mark) that I never would have been able to pull off. When I was testing it, I wasn’t too surprised by the use of M&Ms and Skittles in rebus squares, but I did not see it coming that they could slide to other squares to form valid entries. Logistically, there was some debate about whether we should give teams a baggie containing exactly the right candies, or a fun size bag of each that they could decide how to use themselves. We eventually settled on the former, partially due to cost, and partially because the Revere Hotel is very picky about food in the meeting rooms.

The Egg Plant: This was the first puzzle I wrote for this event, which is why it has one of the more satisfyingly thematic joke answers. Mark was trying to make the metapuzzle happen and knew that he wouldn’t be able to choose all the answers, but he asked us to suggest answers we did want, and he’d fill in the rest. I’m more used to writing puzzles for the Mystery Hunt where research is available, so I wanted to write a more pattern-based puzzle for this non-research event, and I liked that teammates could get individual ahas on the various minipuzzles. I was also pleased to (not really) use my additive number theory skills to make the numerical extraction work with all eggs labeled with different numbers and still make the answer I wanted.

Lifting Lounge: The puzzle we used was much closer to the second draft than my first draft. In my original version, the answer read column by column, and there were larger gaps between beverages. After testing, Brent pointed out those and other flaws in the puzzle, and I mentioned that I would love for all of those things to be fixed, but I had spent lots of time trying to build them into the grid, and I was convinced it was impossible. Brent came back to me with a version that checked off every box on my wishlist. A few hours later. (Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to tell your collaborators what you’d like to construct, and see if they can do it, especially if they’re super-talented.)

Oomphitheatre: This will undoubtedly be the most remembered puzzle from the event, especially for the poor volunteer who babysat the room in which it was on endless repeat for hours. Todd and I collaborated on the lyrics (with Brent nitpicking appropriately as meter police if I recall correctly), and then Todd sent the instrumental backing to Mark and me, and the three of us each sang and recorded the entire song. Todd then edited the audio and created the video for the masterpiece that we mercifully played in a separate room so that teams wouldn’t have to hear it the entire time. One issue with that is that more than one team didn’t notice the Oompa-Loompas sticking their arms in the air to extract letters, and returned to their team with a list of delicious treats, trying to get their teammates to help “solve” the list without the necessary information.

Ice Cream: I managed to attend weekly video chats about this project without spoiling my wife on anything, since I wanted her to get to play. (She says she liked it.) Shortly before the event, I asked what she thought the theme would be, and she facetiously said, “Ice cream!” I expected her to be very pleased with herself when she found out that was not only in the thematic ballpark but also the exact name of a puzzle, and my expectations were accurate. I have little else to say about this puzzle, other than that the pictures are adorable.

Everlasting Gobstopper: Mark originally gave this to me with all of the starting squares and clues numbered, and he was disappointed when I sliced through it like a hot knife through butter. I think it worked much better in its current state, with the word starts labeled but without saying which is which, so that it’s harder to jump right to the clue answers you know. In, say, the Mystery Hunt, the right move would have been not to label most of the starting points at all, but in this case we were catering to a wide range of skill levels with a time limit, even though this was one of the optional bonus puzzles that only affected progress for competitive teams.

Eggstreme Eggdicators: The NPL is by definition a word puzzle organization, though a lot of us really like logic puzzles, even if this year’s US Puzzle and Sudoku Championships may have revealed that we’re not as awesome at them as we used to be. Anyway, I have been guilty of putting a much-too-hard logic puzzle in a Con extravaganza (the semi-infamous “Bar Tab” from LA), and I know some Con attendees resent being given a puzzle that isn’t in the genre they’re used to, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear that last year the entertainment committee advised Erin Rhode’s group, “No logic puzzles.” I was unsurprised, but also EXTREMELY DEFIANT. But as abstract logic puzzles go, I definitely tried to make this one (an Easy as ABC/Futoshiki hybrid) as approachable as possible while still being a little bit interesting. If you want a more challenging logic puzzle by me, might I suggest this one?

The Great Glass Elevator: It took us a long time to decide how to implement the meta. Being fairly conservative when it comes to physical objects, I was advocating for something traditional that would involve filling answers onto a physical piece of paper, but Mark was passionate about building something three-dimensional, and I think we definitely got the tactile fun/wow factor the construction team was looking for with the “elevators” we gave teams. Ultimately we used a clear elevator that fit around a solid tube, even though at least one member of the team thought this was counterintuitive since that’s not how elevators work, and was insisting on a solid object inside a clear tube. I’m glad we chose the thing that was easier to build and easier for teams to manipulate and write on… sometimes solving experience should be prioritized over accuracy of simulation.

And that wraps up the 2017 NPL Con extravaganza, just in time for the 2018 extravaganza in under a month, which I am NOT writing. Next up on this blog when I get around to it, I’m hoping to recap the Cryptex Hunt from way back in February/March, a very ambitious and creative endeavor which I have a unique perspective on, since I was the first person to report that it had broken somewhat disastrously. That might sound like a prelude to a negative review, but on the contrary, I actually liked it a lot! Mostly.