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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.
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 25th, 2013 10:40 pm (UTC)
Codex never solved Grandson, but we got very close. I wasn't involved too much on the solving side, but I edited Seth Schoen when he wrote the conlang puzzle "Sounds Good To Me" for the Producers hunt. So I can talk a little bit about editing conlang puzzles.

First, be sure you have enough test solvers and editors. Codex had barely enough solvers able to tackle the "Sounds Good", and although I'm not a conlang expert, I was editing the puzzle in part because our better conlang'ers needed to be saved for the test solve step. We all knew the puzzle was on thin ice because of the thinness of our solvers, and we took great care to make sure that it was in final shape before it went to the test solvers. If there had been any issues found during the test solve, the puzzle would probably have had to be cut, because we didn't have enough solvers for another go-round. We all accepted this up front.

I think we also finessed the lack of test solvers by testing the extraction step and clue phrases separate from the puzzle. Not really possible for 'Grandson', but it helped us gain confidence in the "Sounds Good".

The other thing we were careful to do was to provide confirmation of the essential ahas, as high up in the puzzle as possible. "Sounds Good" is written in toki pona transliterated into hiragana. We added a clue phrase explicitly warning that this was not Japanese, to forestall a bunch of wasted effort which a solver might spend on hiragana cryptograms. The words "toki pona" are the very first words after that. I also made sure that Seth's introductory text included every hiragana syllable so that the desired mapping could be confirmed.

Each clue phrase in "Sounds Good" also ends with the exact same stereotyped phrase: "this is ______ in [language]". This meant that you could get pretty far through the puzzle just looking up language names in toki pona. Combined with the straight-forward extraction (which was forgiving of some missed identifications) it provided an angle of attack even if this was the first time you were reading toki pona.

For "Grandson", the thing that jumps out at me from the solution is that there are six linguistic rules necessary, which need to be applied in a specific order. As an editor, I would have asked the author to provide the exact contexts which the hunter would use the infer these rules and their order. Perhaps there's not quite enough evidence for some of the rules (or the order), or the evidence provided could be interpreted more than one way. (Certainly Codex managed to translate the text but ended up with a different transliteration at the end.) Without seeing the exact reasoning which the puzzle's author expected to be used (which should really be documented in the solution), I can't tell if this was an ambiguity/flaw in the puzzle or a mistake we made while solving it. This is the same information the editor or fact-checker should demand, in order to ensure that the puzzle is well-formed and the answer is unique.

I guess my basic advice for a conlang puzzle would be to force the author to provide translations and written-down reasoning in the solution such that the puzzle can be reasonably checked by a non-expert.
pesto17 on January 28th, 2013 04:08 pm (UTC)
If you're curious, contexts which hunters could use to figure out the order of the (three) rules whose order mattered are at http://dr-whom.livejournal.com/48040.html . (That would indeed have been a good sort of thing for the editors to ask for.)