My 2016 Mystery Hunt Puzzles – Dog Show Round

This post discusses my contributions to the Dog Show round of the 2016 MIT Mystery Hunt. It will contain spoilers.


I wrote the puzzles listed below in the Dog Show round of the 2016 Mystery hunt.  Note that, in general, the Dog Show puzzles were not intended to be as difficult or complex as puzzles in the following rounds, though there certainly were a few puzzles which did not end up adhering to this very closely.

Gaming the System – This puzzle, with a theme of video game Easter eggs, was one of the first puzzles I wrote for the 2016 hunt.  Because the idea for the puzzle dictated quite a bit about the form it would take, but not very much about the content, I had a fair amount of freedom in regards to what the questions were.  I did pick a question with a Cambridge tie-in for the first question, and referenced Contra (the game in which the necessary-to-solve-the-puzzle Konami Code originated) in the very first answer.

This puzzle is one of the two or three most playful I wrote or co-wrote for this hunt.  In addition to the subject matter and some of the answers (“Contra Band” and “Grand Theft Audio” are not actual music-based video games, for example, though perhaps they should be…), this puzzle also has an Easter egg, which one of the puzzle’s testers did find during testing.  I don’t imagine that many solvers, if any, would have noticed it during hunt, but you are certainly welcome to see if you can find it now after the fact.

You Complete Me – The idea behind this puzzle was relatively straightforward by hunt standards:  Use completing the square to generate sets of numbers between 1 and 26.  Convert those numbers into letter in the standard way, then complete the square with those letters by adding a letter which allows those letters to be arranged into the name of one of Boston/Cambridge/etc.’s prominent squares.  And it was straightforward to our testers, but with a catch: testers were able to identify the numbers and then complete the names of the squares but did not actually understand what the first step was supposed to be.  So we kept tweaking flavortext and re-testing until we were more or less through every available tester.  I think that the version that we eventually ran with made it relatively evident to the solvers for whom the method mattered, but there’s a part of me that still wonders whether there was some superior mode of presentation for this that we simply missed.

Mad Dogs – This puzzle was brought over from what I informally refer to as “The Lost Puzzles of Seqquel.”  Let me pause and explain what I mean when I refer to Seqquel.

Seqquel was the one-time proposed sequel to the Sekkrets puzzle hunt originally prepared for members of The Grey Labyrinth puzzle forum.  The Plugh team and offshoots which have an extensive history of participation in Australian puzzle hunts originated as a team of solvers who were the first to solve this puzzle hunt, and my original connection to Team Luck is through mutual membership on the Plugh team dating back to Sekkrets. Any work on Seqquel by members of Plugh was set aside when Team Luck won its first hunt 2009 and the people who were writing Seqquel turned their attention to writing a hunt with a larger scope and more urgent deadline.  As Seqquel is unlikely to be completed in the near future, Team Luck has occasionally adapted puzzles from it for use in the mystery hunt.

Mad Dogs was originally the Coach Z puzzle from the Homestar Runner round, and pretty much worked exactly as it did here, though the title and flavortext used for hunt was different, of course.  It was a fortunate thing for this puzzle that there was an answer of appropriate length which fit the puzzle’s requirements (no letters later in the alphabet than O) which was also a nickname, and I think this puzzle came off rather nicely, in general.  Some post-hunt commentators have made the valid point that there are quite a few different numbers which could be potential fodder for answer extraction.  I do think that the puzzle did use the number of most significance to the puzzle’s subject matter (the March Madness tournament), but I can see how having so much possible data to use could make it much more difficult to actually identify which data is actually relevant.

Lastly, I should mention that the athlete without a nickname given did not have a nickname because the team went without a team nickname in the year in question, even though the team had a nickname both before and after that year.

“So that happened…” – My Musings on the 2016 MIT Mystery Hunt

As I sit down to write this, the 2016 MIT Mystery Hunt is two weeks past, and I am finally shaking off the exhaustion of being one of the primary movers and shakers who moved and shook on the puzzle writing and editing end.

Based on my experiences on the hunt-running team and my editorial involvement in the hunt, I had arranged to arrive on Sunday night of the previous weekend; it was a sound decision to do so.  In addition to being available to help wrangle the available locally-based people and other early arrivers, it allowed me to hive off some of the concentrated time needed to finish my last few remaining puzzles and do the puzzle preparation for “The Matrix” – a puzzle-centric event being run on the Saturday morning of hunt.

Now, I’ve been reading the feedback on this year’s hunt, as I think maybe two-thirds to three-quarters of the people involved in running a mystery hunt do, and from this I already know that some of my readers may very well be shaking their heads at the notion of someone finishing their puzzle-writing during the week before the hunt.  In an ideal world where a team has thirty or more team members writing three to five puzzles each, it’s possible that you won’t have puzzles being finished the week before hunt.  I wrote more than a few more puzzles than that: sixteen puzzles by myself, with another eight which I was a co-author of to varying extents.  (I hope to blog about all of them in the near future.)  I was continually writing puzzles more or less from when the first answers were released; I believe that the second puzzle to enter testing was one of mine.

I do agree that the ideal – the thing to aim for – is to have all puzzles for one’s mystery hunt to be ready at least a week before hunt, and preferably more than that.  That being said, sometimes simply stating the ideal after the fact is kind of like telling someone that they should lose weight.  You may well be right, but stating it so baldly may come across poorly and actually by somewhat discouraging, at least in the short term.  While I am committed to diligently working through the criticisms and complaints people have had about the 2016 hunt, there are a few instances where I’m going to wait for the sting from the way the criticism was delivered to die down first.

It should be said that learning from the experience of running a hunt is somewhat tricky.  Given that one of the few certainties there are about running the hunt is that the composition of the team running the hunt changes every year, it’s not even a certainty that the challenges faced by the team running the hunt one year will be the same challenges faced by the team running the hunt the next year (or even that the challenges faced by a team running the hunt twice will be the same both times).  Indeed, using the running of the 2010 hunt as a reference point (though I was only a puzzle writer and not one of the editors then), with a five-year swath of hunts in between which were ran by teams of eighty people or more, does lend itself to a couple of interesting observations.

Firstly, in the years between the 2010 and 2016 hunts, the complexity of running the hunt increased significantly (perhaps in part due to the ability of larger teams to initiate new and positive things which smaller teams may have lacked the capacity for). Team Luck increased in size by a little more than fifty percent during that time, if my figuring is right, and that simple growth in team size was not enough in and of itself to allow us to address the additional complexity involved in putting on a hunt.  If Team Luck has aspirations to run another hunt, we need to give serious thought to how to either recruit new people or train existing members into roles where we are understaffed.

Secondly, changes in team composition over time can also have an effect on team organization and dynamics.  Certain things which worked well with the team at the size it was in 2010 did not work out quite as well in 2016.  If Team Luck has aspirations to run another hunt, we may also need to ponder whether there are changes we should make to how the team approaches running a hunt to allow us to be more effective at what we do.

Running a mystery hunt will always be a combination of collective accomplishment and collective insanity, or if you prefer, a combination of a grand adventure and a grand calamity.  Accordingly, as is proverbially true of plane landings, any mystery hunt (that your team runs) that you can walk away from unscathed is a good one.  I’m so thankful that the 2016 hunt fell into that category.

A New Outlet, a New Design, and a New Puzzle

The silent period over the summer and early fall between the start of this blog and my current return to it has in large part been characterized by two things. One of those things was a period during which my work life provided me with significantly elevated levels of responsibility, deadlines, and stress. Now that those elevated levels are subsiding, I expect to be both producing puzzles and posting here with more regularity.

The other thing that has characterized the silent period is the emergence of a different creative outlet for me. A fortuitous bit of circumstantial prodding turned my attention to tabletop game design, and I’ve discovered that I have the ability to generate tabletop game ideas which are interesting, practical, and (based on returns from early play-testing) enjoyable to play.

Discovering I had this knack I never really knew I had has been a little disorienting, to say the least. Some of this is because a great deal of both my fulfillment and recognition as a creative person has come through my involvement in pursuits which are essentially solitary and private, while tabletop gaming is inherently social. But some of the disorientation has also come from the fact that the game publishing world is very different, with an independent games scene which has really come into its own through KickStarter as an entrepreneurship, marketing, and funding platform, and through viable self-publishing options. One can navigate the world of puzzles at low risk and with well-defined rewards fairly easily if one wants to. If one is hoping to publish a game, on the other hand, there is considerable competition, and the best ways to try to get your game produced and in the hands of other people tend to have a high learning curve and a considerable risk of failure to launch. There are certainly any number of reasons for me to doubt myself, if I do choose to.

There is also one significant reason for my to trust myself as a game designer, as one of my friends pointed out to me. Puzzle design is game design, with the parameters of each puzzle being the puzzle constructor’s move, and the process of completing the puzzle being the solver’s move. Indeed, a lot of the motivations of each type of design map nicely to the other; in each case, the designer of a new type of puzzle or game typically wants to connect a few simple mechanisms to each other in ways produce interesting, understandable, and subtle complexity. Often, a puzzle or game’s design is motivated to explore one or two simple design questions: What happens if the goal of a particular game changes over time? what happens if you try to put a puzzle which is normally done on a square grid into a hexagonal one?

This week, a new puzzle design of mine (“Round Trip”) debuted on the Grandmaster Puzzles blog. It is a puzzle type which originated from a design question that occurred to me: what would happen if one tried to re-imagine Grant Fikes’ Cross the Streams puzzle type as a loop puzzle, rather than a shading puzzle? As it turns out, what happened with the loop constraint I was using – the one which made it into Round Trip – is that the use of ? and * are problematic, because the loop constraint doesn’t constrain them sufficiently, and vice versa. But asking the first question led me to a second design question: What would happen if a designer tried to take the loop constraint I was using, and apply it using the visibility mechanic that End View and Skyscrapers puzzles use? The result is the Round Trip puzzle type, and I really like how it turned out.

Some quick housekeeping, while I’m here. You may have noticed that Puzzle 1 does not have any specific puzzle type attached to it; that is because it is both a valid Haido puzzle and a valid Skyscrapers puzzle, published to the blog at the same time a bunch of other dual-type puzzles (including one of mine) surfaced. In the future, if you see a puzzle with no type specified for it, you should probably assuming that I’m posting a dual type puzzle again.

Secondly, I have more explorations of Skyscrapers/Haido coming. In particular, I will be exploring a couple of different ways of hybridizing the two types, with examples. (But not today.)

Lastly, it simply wouldn’t do for me to post again and not leave you with a puzzle. Here it is.

Puzzle 2 (image)
Puzzle 2 (image)

Puzzle 1

One of my friends who is a fellow puzzler goaded me last night into constructing and posting this puzzle.  Unlike the Haido in the last post, however, there’s no walkthrough for this puzzle, though it shouldn’t be difficult enough to merit one.


On Building a Haido / On Solving a Haido

Note: This post contains full spoilers on Puzzle 37 at the Canada Puzzle Blog.  You may wish to solve this puzzle before reading this post.

One of the things that people who are puzzle solvers occasionally fail to realize about puzzle construction is that, for certain kinds of puzzles, creating the puzzle can sometimes be an interesting puzzle in itself.  (Accordingly, it is not surprising that over time, high-level puzzle solvers sometimes find their way into puzzle construction.)

In fact, some puzzles are constructed in largely the same way they are solved, with one notable exception I’ll talk about later.  Haido is one of these puzzle types, and after the cut, I’ll talk you through how I created the Haido which was puzzle 37 at the Canada Puzzle Team blog – the first Haido puzzle I ever created.

Continue reading “On Building a Haido / On Solving a Haido”

So why another puzzle blog? And Why “Puzzle Junk?”

Allow me to get this blog started by answering a couple of implicit questions the very existence of this blog suggests.

The first of these questions is the question of purpose.  Why does this blog exist?  It will certainly not the be only blog out there which is puzzle-related; and there are already puzzle blogs out there which boast terrific and prolific content: puzzles, puzzle news, or puzzle criticism.  I do create puzzle content, but this will typically find its way to places like Will Shortz’s Wordplay, Grandmaster Puzzles, or the Canada Puzzle Team blog (where I have recently been granted contributor’s privileges).  I’m not much of a source of puzzle news.  And puzzle criticism (as it is normally practiced in crossword blogs such as Diary of a Crossword Fiend or the Rex Parker blog) is normally in the Siskel-and-Ebert thumbs-up/thumbs-down tradition.  Such criticism does say things about the art of puzzle construction, but indirectly, and with a higher volume of text than I intend to generate for this blog.  And I do want to say things (and demonstrate things) about the art of puzzle construction – and in parallel, about the art of puzzle solving.  That is why this blog exists.

As for the second question – why is this blog called Puzzle Junk? – I can answer that question more briefly.

This blog will host all of the discussion I wish to have, and content I wish to provide, which has no home anywhere that would currently be suitable for it.  It is a home for things which would otherwise be thrown away; my puzzle-related junk drawer of sorts.  That being said, while one man’s junk isn’t always another man’s treasure, I think you’ll find more than enough of interest here to make it worth dropping in from time to time.