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21 January 2013 @ 02:40 pm
Too Big to Solve?  
Not my tagline, but a good description for the Mystery Hunt that just happened. One line of dialogue after last year's Hunt that I led with in my wrap-up was a question of when is too soon for a Hunt to end. I said, in this era of a few competitive teams trying to grow to get over the winning hurdle, constructors aiming bigger was a mistake. The Hunt ending after 36 hours (Midnight Saturday) is fine if that makes the solving experience stretch over the weekend for everyone else. I won't comment generally on this year's effort but it seems a great example to point back to of too much ambition by too many people towards the further militarization of the size of Hunt so that by 2025 the team "The whole of new USA" can go after the coin against "USSReunited" for at least a month. The sense of "puzzle" versus "grindy work" is also a discussion I have every year and I don't choose to repeat myself. I've felt since 2008 that the Mystery Hunt is far from an event I'd regularly attend in person although I'm glad to have finally been onsite to play with Team Luck with whom I've been a "free agent" now for three years.

I had a good solving year as things go relatively, but it was mostly demoralizing personally. I soloed Palmer's Portals, for example, but spent many hours after basically solving 8/10ths with a need to tweak a very small and underconstrained set of things to get from that hard work state to a finished state. At some stage I told the team "I'm going to solve Portals and the Feynman meta and then go sleep" and I met this goal but in many times the expected time when I gave the statement. I led the solve of both Danny Ocean (with zebraboy stating the most necessary last bit to get my work over the cliff) and Richard Feynman (with Jasters). I obviously co-solved lots of the logic puzzles and other puzzles, and gave various finishing help to a range of things too. I think I did this best for "Kid Crossword" once when he had spent a lot of timing mastering the hard steps of a crossword/scrabble puzzle -- and could quite impressively fast rewrite out the set of steps I wanted him to do about the puzzle -- and the follow-up steps were not obvious but I led the killing of the beast. This was too often the feel for these puzzles, and my assassination rate was far lower than I wanted. My Sunday was spent earning 3 puzzle answers by actually going to an event, and then falsely believing the power to buy some answers would let me finish solving the Indiana Jones mini-metas -- where I had already mostly soloed Adventure 2's snakes with 5/8 answers, but then killed myself dead on #1/Ouroboros for the rest of the day for so long solving, as many solvers will say in hindsight, the puzzle that was meant to be in one of a dozen ways and not the puzzle it was. Let me state here as I did for hours with my team, the phrase "I'm not cut out for this" is horrible flavor. It implies both cut this out and, in a different way, also don't cut this out. This makes you want to cut it out, which takes a lot of time, but also to not invest too much time in cutting it out, so as to save the wasted time of doing a task you are being told not to do. Other wordings are far safer, and implied negatives within positives is one of the five worst flavor failure modes in my opinion. Puzzle editing and flavor text is an art and is certainly the biggest variable from year to year and constructing team to constructing team.

So yeah, Mystery Hunt happened. And there were the usual share of overwhelmingly incredible Aha moments. Endgame seemed very fun and I wish all teams could do just that for the weekend or at least a lot more things like that. More of that, and more sleep, would have both been some good choices this year. If only the puzzles solved on schedule.

ETA: And as I added far below around comment #300, as a solver who was both frustrated yet had fun in this Hunt, I do want to thank everyone on Sages for the incredible effort they put in. Making a Mystery Hunt is a gift for all solvers whether it matches expectations or not, and as a mostly thankless job I do want the constructors and editors and software engineers and graphic designers and cooks and phone center workers and everyone else to know I appreciated all you did over the last weekend to give us several days together for puzzling.

Further, as I was asked to write a larger piece elsewhere that has given me personally a lot more attention as the face of the criticism, and as I use the phrase "My team" a lot in general as solving forms this kind of bond, I want to be very clear: since Bombers broke up after 2009 I have been a free agent. I have solved recently with Team Luck but am not a core part of their leadership and these opinions I state are my own. I intend to form my own team next year to go after the coin again, and if you have a problem with what I have said anywhere on the internets, please hate me for it. I believe in my posts I have been offering constructive criticism, but even what I have said is without all the facts of what went on inside Sages so I could easily be speaking from ignorance a lot of the time.

EFTA: Thanks to tablesaw for pointing out this chronologic feature of posts. If you want to see all the additions to this post in time sorted order, go here http://motris.livejournal.com/181790.html?view=flat. We're on page 14 at the moment.
 
 
 
(Anonymous) on January 22nd, 2013 09:05 pm (UTC)
I certainly have some sympathy for what you must have gone through. We obviously failed spectacularly at estimating difficulty/length. We also had an initial plan to keep the number of open puzzles reasonable, to try to avoid favoring large teams; you probably noticed that on Friday. But by Saturday, *everyone* was behind the time curve (we simply had to release puzzles at a certain rate so they would all be out by Sunday), and with 30+ puzzles open, large teams had an obvious advantage. My impression was that the less serious teams loved having a vast array of puzzles to pick and choose from. But it just wasn't a good competitive Hunt, given the crazy amount of hints and "options" (free puzzles) we had to give out in a desperate (failed) attempt to end the Hunt by Monday morning.

On the other hand, walking around and seeing different teams and contrasting their approaches to the Hunt was quite interesting. Even other top teams like Death From Above (in the lead through most of the Hunt) and the eventual winners John Galt (second up till Sunday before establishing a convincing lead) were all smiles and obviously enjoying themselves when I visited. Then I got to Luck, and some of you (not all) seemed to be locked into a grim death march, desperate to get to the end.

I know Luck really wants to win, and we probably made it impossible for a mid-sized team this year. But keeping morale up should help your odds of being the victor in future years... :)

Regarding your specific complaints: Portals was a brilliant puzzle and obviously parallelizable, as I saw several teams doing exactly that. :P And Ouroboros has its issues (the main one being how hard it is to assemble the loops), but I really find it strange that you think we would be hinting in flavortext at something you SHOULDN'T do. Your mind must have been pretty scrambled by early Monday morning. :) It wasn't just you, either; everyone - except Palindrome! - really seemed to stumble on the last few supermetas. Nobody's close to their best after 60 straight hours of puzzling.

- Derek Kisman
motrismotris on January 22nd, 2013 10:45 pm (UTC)
There are many valid interpretations of the flavor including don't cut out. The meta clearly presented snakes with the letters in the answer words and the concept of knotting and just seemed to obfuscate snake identity to be mean. One can imagine a single ouroboros assembled in one loop so that going head to tail around it all the letters can be crossed off in order uniquely in the answer words leaving the leftovers. That would have a nice word and logic component to match the other parts. It was a much more fun idea that almost was fully constrained. One can imagine knitting a head to tail snake group like a potholder to spell out all answer words with overs and unders and edge leftovers read cw or ccw for extract. Certainly one can even with sleep read not cut out to mean not cut out because those are the words in a row.

I will hate all Hunt construction teams that have any contingency that needs to unlock a round of 20(+6) puzzles all at once to a competive team of any size as happened to my team at midnight to 4 AM with Rubik.

Edited at 2013-01-22 10:52 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous) on January 23rd, 2013 12:34 am (UTC)
Wait, how can you make a giant Ouroboros loop without cutting anything out? (And where would the "1/2" markers fit in, or were you just ignoring them?) I don't understand your "pot holder" description at all. I was the author, btw, so I probably shouldn't try to defend this universally hated puzzle. I just thought disassembling one set of snakes to form another set of snakes was neat. Sigh.

Incidentally, I just read Eric Berlin's writeup ( http://ericberlin.com/?p=5228 ). Palindrome also considered themselves "stuck" on the three supermetas, which is interesting because I think they were by far the fastest to get them (relative to when they'd solved enough metas to have a chance). They really caught fire once they got serious on Sunday. They were the only ones to solve Rubik, and [Atlas Shrugged] were the only ones to solve Indiana Jones.

If you want some cheering up, Luck was the first to solve a meta in the last three rounds (the Snake logic puzzle).

- Derek Kisman
(no subject) - ericberlin on January 23rd, 2013 07:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - motris on January 23rd, 2013 10:59 pm (UTC) (Expand)
TH: cartmanrpipuzzleguy on January 23rd, 2013 12:56 am (UTC)
As long as we're criticizing team demeanors, I'd advise future Hunt GCs not to respond to a Monday morning plea for confirmation of intermediate data with "You don't know what you're doing" and gales of laughter. It's bad for, you know, morale.
The waking life stitched together in your headdalryaug on January 23rd, 2013 01:11 am (UTC)
This was a incident that made me very, very unhappy and really soured my impression of the event.

Edited at 2013-01-23 01:12 am (UTC)
That terrible phone call - sin_vraal on January 23rd, 2013 04:58 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - lunchboy on January 23rd, 2013 07:04 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - cmouse on January 24th, 2013 12:47 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - cananian on January 24th, 2013 03:37 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - cmouse on January 24th, 2013 03:46 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - brokenwndw on January 24th, 2013 04:09 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - lunchboy on January 24th, 2013 05:23 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - brokenwndw on January 24th, 2013 05:32 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - affpuzz on January 24th, 2013 06:48 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: That terrible phone call - cmouse on January 24th, 2013 12:45 am (UTC) (Expand)
devjoedevjoe on January 23rd, 2013 02:59 am (UTC)
And, despite how demoralizing this may have been, we continued asking yes/no questions about the enigma to determine what we were doing wrong. Ultimately, just before the "a team is on the runaround" email went out, we ended up with a response that confirmed we were doing the right thing on the enigma message's first letter (with a detailed question which explained each step of how we got there via each conversion step through the enigma machine) when earlier we had been told that we should not get a U from the enigma decode of that first H.
(no subject) - Derek Kisman on January 23rd, 2013 10:05 am (UTC) (Expand)
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Robpurplebob on January 23rd, 2013 10:00 am (UTC)
There is probably a misunderstanding here.

I was taking a lot of Enigma calls. I do not remember saying "You don't know what you're doing". I don't think anyone else would have said that to you either. And the room was not at all listening to the people taking the calls so they could join in in laughter. So what happened is probably an event that was misheard as that.

When a lot of Enigma calls were coming in, the team whose name was the text of Atlas Shrugged was *frantically* guessing puns for the Indy meta, like THEY ARE BAD ADDERS. That is what would cause the room to laugh, not a hint call.

Whatever you heard on the phone was very likely an unfortunate coincidence, and not directed at you, but I apologize for the result anyway. If it was me on the phone, I should have been in a place where I would not have to shout over people laughing at answers coming in.
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BAD ADDERS - Dan Katz on January 23rd, 2013 09:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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Re: BAD ADDERS - (Anonymous) on January 24th, 2013 11:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
puns - (Anonymous) on January 23rd, 2013 10:47 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Cody B.: contemplationcodeman38 on January 23rd, 2013 03:08 pm (UTC)
Also, double-check after the fact that the answers that you identify as wrong are in fact wrong.

I'm not entirely sure how this incident played out on Sages' end, but there was one puzzle where Codex had managed to extract the answer "PLANAR" and called it in. We got the callback and were told it was wrong, so we spent hours trying to figure out what other ways we might be able to extract an answer. (In what seemed to be another common occurrence during this hunt, there was barely anything in the puzzle to confirm that our extraction process was the intended one, so this seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea at the time.)

As it turned out, those hours were completely wasted, because the answer was in fact "PLANAR". Which we only found out by calling in the same answer a second time.
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same problem - (Anonymous) on January 23rd, 2013 11:49 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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 Catherinecmouse on January 24th, 2013 12:50 am (UTC)
You can see my response below. The laughter was unrelated to the call and was simply happening in the same room.

Our team, like every team, has their share of socially awkward people. I'm really sorry one of them spoke to you on the phone.
(no subject) - tahnan on January 25th, 2013 02:29 am (UTC) (Expand)
lunchboylunchboy on January 23rd, 2013 01:11 am (UTC)
I don't know, I think pretty much anyone could have told you a hunt with 170+ puzzles would be way too long. I don't know what the largest number of puzzles in a Hunt has been to date, but I want to say around 120? And some of the Hunts with that amount or fewer still ran long. Based on the one obstacle training puzzle my team did (the maze of guards), which I thought was excellent, I suspect there were other cool, fun live action puzzles which we -- and most teams -- never saw, and personally I think building such high, insurmountable walls around those puzzles did the people who wrote them a disservice.
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Craig K.canadianpuzzler on January 23rd, 2013 02:26 am (UTC)
Craig of Team Luck here, with a data point for you.

As I remember it, my morale never really flagged, and I never became part of that "grim death march" that you described.

There's a reason for that, however: as the team ran out of puzzles for which more manpower in general, or more of my brainpower in particular, I started stepping aside to stay out of the way of the efforts that our alpha solvers were making to continue to make progress on the remaining puzzles. I believe that it's safe to say that the other people on site who were not alpha solvers did the same thing. I'd say that for the entire time when Team Luck was working on metas exclusively, and at least to some extent before that, that there were two distinct functional groups at our HQ: the alpha solvers who were working at full power at making further progress; and the beta solvers who were staying out of the way of the alpha solvers, remaining at HQ for moral support, and enjoying each others' company. The betas were having fun; the alphas weren't.

Based on the above, I can say with confidence that Team Luck's morale will not be a problem next year, and not only that, that it wasn't a problem this year. If anything, I would have to say that the fact that we stuck with certain puzzles well after it was fun to continue to do so indicates that our morale was actually holding up relatively well under trying circumstances.
yes - sin_vraal on January 23rd, 2013 05:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: yes - brokenwndw on January 23rd, 2013 05:35 am (UTC) (Expand)
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Andrewbrokenwndw on January 23rd, 2013 04:35 am (UTC)
We also had an initial plan to keep the number of open puzzles reasonable...

Funny enough, so did we. Ours went haywire for a slightly different reason though; we were assuming a much higher density of orphaned puzzles than actually happened, probably due to unexpected levels of backsolving.
(no subject) - noahspuzzlelj on January 23rd, 2013 04:07 pm (UTC) (Expand)
David Glasserdavidglasser on January 23rd, 2013 06:02 pm (UTC)
Re "My impression was that the less serious teams loved having a vast array of puzzles to pick and choose from".

It can vary. Sure, it's nice to not end up in a situation where you just have three loathed puzzles that you have to solve. But it is really intimidating to have 70+ open puzzles, especially with a smaller or less serious team. Maybe there's one in there that's the perfect puzzle for you, but are you going to find it? Are you going to find a teammate to work on a puzzle with you when the awake team member to open puzzle ratio is 1:3, even in non-graveyard hours? While admittedly my not-particularly-serious team (this year's RoboPop) is a little smaller and less student-heavy (and thus weird-hours-compatible) than in years past, we certainly managed to feel like we had managed to see most of the hunt and understand the basic structure in most previous years. Not so this year.

There also seemed to be a lot of puzzles that were more or less impossible for teams that weren't seriously organized on a high level. Take Time Conundrum. Now, TC was an awesome puzzle, don't get me wrong. And the "wrong answer called in before it opens" was a cute idea.

But for our team, what that meant was that an important piece of data for solving the puzzle was provided precisely once, out of band, to somebody at 6:38AM who wasn't aware that it was an unknown puzzle... since there were so many unsolved open puzzles, how was the random person getting the call to recognize that there was anything strange about a wrong answer call? I know many of the large competitive teams carefully organize puzzle answer call-ins to go through a single person, but for smaller teams which are less focused on solving metas (and where many of even our core members only make it in for overlapping halves of the hunt), that piece of information just slipped through the cracks. Our teammate who got the call did email the team list mentioning that "red herring is the wrong answer", but didn't mention "to time conundrum". And well, that one mistake at 6:38AM meant that when a completely different set of people tried to solve it 10 hours later, it was much much harder.

(We still solved it though! Albeit with a big helping of "we don't understand why half of the information in this puzzle seems to be completely unused except for constraining that certainly values have to be in the range 1-26", and with a programmatic search over pairs of words from a word list matching certain constraints.)

This isn't to say that I didn't have a great time, or that most of the puzzles themselves weren't great. (Halting Problem was one of my favorite puzzles of all time, for example.) But it definitely seemed like a hunt designed for huge highly organized teams, not for everyone.

Edited at 2013-01-23 06:08 pm (UTC)
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