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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.
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)
noahspuzzlelj on January 23rd, 2013 07:09 pm (UTC)
The wrong answer call-in mechanic would have worked much better if the hunt website kept lists of wrong answers called in previously, as several recent hunts did.

Edited at 2013-01-23 07:09 pm (UTC)
David Glasserdavidglasser on January 23rd, 2013 07:14 pm (UTC)
Actually, it did, or at least it started to do so at some point during Hunt.
And if that list included the "RED HERRING", then I take back my criticism. (And I suspect it did, honestly.)

Still a very cool puzzle either way :)
fclbrokle on January 23rd, 2013 09:04 pm (UTC)
FWIW, it did include RED HERRING. When you click "Call-in answer", you would typically get a list like "Puzzle unlocked // ANSWER ATTEMPT 1 // ANSWER ATTEMPT 2 // etc." For Time Conundrum, it read "RED HERRING // Puzzle unlocked // ANSWER ATTEMPT 1 // ANSWER ATTEMPT 2 // etc."
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 23rd, 2013 10:15 pm (UTC)
Oddly, the list of phoned in answers didn't distinguish "correct" answers from "incorrect" answers. Our list for Wordplay stated, "Answer attempt 1: PLANAR // Answer attempt 2.... Answer attempt 10: PLANAR". sigh...
Glenn Willengwillen on January 24th, 2013 10:01 pm (UTC)
We actually got the showing-of-called-in-answers feature working basically right before Time Conundrum started opening, because it was essentially a mandatory feature for that puzzle.
rlangmit on January 23rd, 2013 11:31 pm (UTC)
In our case, *I* was the on-duty manager when "red herring" was deemed incorrect. Looking back at our chat logs (at around the same time, 6:30 AM), I see that I didn't understand the name of the puzzle as said by the Manic Sage. But I didn't care, because I figured if I typed "red herring is wrong for ???" the person who needed to know would see it. Oops.

Our Time Conundrum solvers weren't happy to learn this yesterday. Cool concept, but VERY easy to miss. (It reminds me of "build a spaceship" in 2011, which was released at like 5 AM or something, so that none of our skeleton crew saw it until Plant showed up.)