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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 26th, 2013 07:02 am (UTC)
As a first-time author/editor, I would be grateful for feedback on a number of puzzles that I helped with writing/editing (and, in one instance, test-solving):

* A Streetcar Named... (Rubik)
* A Walk Around Town (Get Smart)
. Eclectic Spatial Geometry (Marty Bishop)
. Houston, We Have Liftoff (Indiana Jones, Adventure 3)
. I Left My Stomach In Salt Lake City (Indiana Jones, Adventure 3)
. Numbers (Indiana Jones, Adventure 1)
* Security Theater (Marty Bishop)
* Stratosphere (Casino puzzle in Danny Ocean)

Puzzles marked * are those in which I had an idea/authorship role, and I'd be particularly happy to get feedback on them.

I'm generally interested in solvers' experiences, because I'd like to hone my instincts for what makes a good puzzle so that I can write more of them. I'm also interested in whether any prolonged periods of not-very-fun frustration occurred and, if so, how the relevant puzzle could have been adapted in order to mitigate these.

Thanks,
Sean
Adam R. Woodzotmeister on January 26th, 2013 09:12 am (UTC)
I ultimately was responsible for not a single element of solving Houston, We Have Liftoff, but I followed along with the whole thing and did a bit of wrangling.

SPOILERS AHEAD

I'm not entirely sure who got the first grid squared away, but I know it didn't take long at all. Then it sat for HOURS. Martin had several ideas for how the "rainbow row" could be used/manipulated, but ultimately none of them panned out, and certainly nothing was reconciling with "Fifty-one minus A". We tried several ideas for those damn numbers to the right of the second grid, seeing if we could justify them as contestant scores or a number-round process, but nothing worked. The stalemate was broken thanks to Mapmaker, who was apparently the only person on the entire team who could have recognized those numbers as Shuttle launch IDs. Of course, the moment he looked at the puzzle, he recognized them IMMEDIATELY. Between him and Tyler (who knew of the existence of an online database with the results of EVERY COUNTDOWN EPISODE EVER HOLY CRAP HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THAT), the twin a-ha was broken, and Tin finished it off in short order. All in all, seeing how it went down, I feel the puzzle was perfectly fair. The way the a-ha is chimeric and multidisciplinary is tricky, but it was clued brilliantly and thoroughly (that hint that was given out for it was redundant, by the way, and completely useless for us as we'd already made the gameshow connection). The way the first row of the second grid INSTANTLY confirms the a-ha is key; without that, the puzzle would have been decidedly less elegant. Having 'SCRANBLED' [snicker] down the "other" diagonal of the first grid was a nice touch, as it confirmed which version of the Conundra—solved or pre-solved—were to be adjusted for the second grid.
(Anonymous) on January 26th, 2013 09:59 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your comments. I was the author of that puzzle, and actually that was (almost) my first puzzle ever. Snow Day was my real first, but I only came up with the general idea and didn't construct any of it.

Looking back, there are some minor tweaks that should have been there, such as cluing the shuttles a bit better. I spent all my time coming up with ways to clue Countdown instead. Then I told myself that solvers would totally google "51-A" or "51-C" to find the shuttles, which in retrospect is pretty unlikely. (Somewhere I read that one team thought the flavortext "launch sequence" clued space missions, which was entirely unintended but made a lot of sense.)

In a high level sense, it's awkward how the first grid goes so quickly, and then you get stuck right away. But all in all I'm still quite fond of the thing.
Peasant's Paladinppaladin on January 26th, 2013 02:46 pm (UTC)
Sean,

Codex solved streetcar. Andrew and I posted our comments in response to emengee elsewhere in the thread. Thanks for the fun puzzle!

Edited at 2013-01-26 02:46 pm (UTC)
antimonyantimony on January 27th, 2013 01:45 am (UTC)
I solo-solved A Walk Around Town, and found it great fun, and a fairly straightforward puzzle. Somewhat easy puzzles were rare, and this was a good solid one that was clever and cute and not too hard. SPOILERS, though I'll keep this vague enough that it shouldn't be too big of a deal:


There was one point I felt could have used better editing/confirmation setup, and that was the "name of the building across and to the right" step about halfway through -- I was correct, but the fact that the name didn't jump out at me made me doubt myself. I kept going, though, which was good, because I did have it right although I had to fudge some of the beginning to get it to work.
(Anonymous) on January 27th, 2013 04:22 am (UTC)
Re: Puzzle feedback
(Oops, looks like I forgot to put a subject line on my previous post.)

Thanks for the feedback! I realized only after I had posted that emengee had made the same request about Streetcar and Salt Lake City only an hour or so before.

Glad to hear that A Walk Around Town was fun. IIRC, our first drafts of the puzzle were written to be a bit more humorous, and had more of a Grand Theft Auto flavor to them. We were thinking of doing something along the lines of this comic (http://xkcd.com/461/), but the extraneous instructions confused testsolvers, so we pulled them out.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

We found the clues quite hard to write. At three points in the route we were worried that the construction might have been a little strained, since there just weren't that many points of interest to choose from that would give the letters we wanted using natural-sounding, non-branching clues. The point you mentioned was one of these; I believe that the others were steps 7 and 9.

By the way, when you say halfway through, did you mean 1/4 or 3/4 of the way through the whole puzzle? (I hope this question makes sense; we were aware that part of this step was tricky, but had been having trouble coming up with a clue at all.)

- Sean
antimonyantimony on January 28th, 2013 12:18 am (UTC)
Re: Puzzle feedback
3/4 -- I was being vague because I think it's a puzzle that people who didn't see it during hunt would enjoy doing some other time -- it's very solo-solver friendly. The first half I found very straightforward although I was a little surprised at how straightforward it was -- then I hit the twist and was very amused.

The rest of the clues did feel very natural, except that I think I overthought "stories", though I just put down both possible letters and that was plenty to go on with.
(Anonymous) on January 28th, 2013 11:05 am (UTC)
Re: Puzzle feedback
For A Walk About Town, I'd like to say how much I liked the clues, although they did give me a shortcut because it was obvious that the constraints were there for a very specific reason - and I recognised enough of the roads to guess what was going on so I skipped, um, half of it...

I did solve it single-handed and entirely using Google Streetview* (along with enough knowledge of the area to enable me to figure out where some of the routes needed to end up) and enjoyed every minute of it. So thank you. I was genuinely impressed by the fundamental design - I really didn't think it would be possible to do something like that at all, let alone as smoothly as it appeared to work.

(*I am currently writing a similar walking puzzle which I am trying to make sure can't be solved using Maps and Streetview. It's very hard.)
(Anonymous) on January 28th, 2013 04:10 pm (UTC)
Re: Puzzle feedback
Please don't. In my experience lots of bad puzzles are written from the "keep the solvers from doing X" mindset
Why not embrace google street view and just try to make the most fun puzzle possible with the least unnecessary scutwork? "Square Routes" struck a good balance this year: almost all of the paths could be traced out with street view and only a small number of locations had to be visited in real life in order to bread some signs too small to show up on street view. It was very efficient to visit them once you knew what was going on. Street view+wandering = win.
Philsnowspinner on January 29th, 2013 04:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Puzzle feedback
I just want to second this. Puzzles that are built around trying to prevent solvers from doing things are, to my mind, inherently flawed. Focus on giving solvers something fun to do, not on policing their solving.
(Anonymous) on January 30th, 2013 01:10 am (UTC)
Re: Puzzle feedback
Oh I agree with that - the puzzle is being written for a specific event, where I know solvers will be on the ground and that most of them probably wouldn't even think of Streetview in the first place. So I'm attempting to create a level playing field, not "keep solvers from doing X". But of course testing is liable to kill it anyway...
devjoedevjoe on January 27th, 2013 06:03 am (UTC)
Out of Sean's puzzles, the ones I worked on were:

Eclectic Spatial Geometry: I started on this, found the shape, found the bands named ESG and their albums referred to, found the MIT ESG web page, with a logo of an Escher "Reptile", undoubtedly the geckos referred to in the puzzle, and I pointed out to my teammates that the tiling for those shapes is just a distorted hexagon. At this point, because there were many other puzzles open (I think we had about 80 open puzzles when I was looking at this), I passed it on to other people to try to find out more about the home plane arrangement that was referred to. Was there some game with geckos? Was there something about MIT's ESG that was being referred to? And nothing happened, and about 24 hours later we bought the answer.

Numbers: I was working with this one in our spreadsheet and another team member figured out that the binary translated into barcodes. He had translated these to numbers and we split up the task of locating the books they referred to. So in a couple minutes we had the list of books and we noticed that the initial words spelled E53 First Floor Reading List. Somebody knew that the Dewey Library was there and we sent someone off to find the list (and basically handed off the whole puzzle to them. It looks like they didn't have much trouble and about an hour later solved it.

I Left My Stomach in Salt Lake City: I only worked on this briefly, when they were still looking for integer points on each line, but I pointed out that there were many integer points on some of the lines, and I tried to find some with nice round numbers for at least one variable which were closer to the origin, where they might look for these restaurants. But I didn't stay on it long, and Eric Prestemon has already given the rest of the story on that one.
Dima KamalovDima Kamalov on January 28th, 2013 06:21 am (UTC)
ESG: we got to the point of having a correctly mapped gyrobicupola and favorite letters in about 5 hours, and took 4 hours to extract the answer...

As you might guess, there was one thing we were particularly unhappy about:

The fact that you mentioned the lizards got to their "favorite" letter seemed to indicate that the goal was to decode those letters rather than subtract the originals (which had already been widely used in the puzzle). When I first saw the MINUS acrostic, I proceeded to subtract their lizard numerals, find the spacings between final lizard positions, etc. I also thought that there might be "MC MINUS ___" and tried for a while to get something meaningful out of the spacing pattern in the morse code. I'd be curious if we were the only team stuck on this -- it seemed like the spirit of the puzzle was just to finish the cube / find the favorite letters. It really would not be the end of the world if we got a direct solution out of that; sure, we might not entirely finish the cube, but would that be a bad thing?

We had totally minor unhappiness about:
*you could have just left letters on the mural to eliminate confusion about the "center of the plane," or that it was in fact the right plane.
*you could have said that each gecko moves between the centroids of each face. we decided to roll with this assumption unless we ran into a contradiction, but it left us uneasy.
*the readability of clue #10 (it is entirely unambiguous, just painful to comprehend especially without the centroid assumption)
*gecko vs. clue numbering ("gecko 6 (from clue 8)" is not exactly elegant -- just title the clues "Gecko 1:, Geckos 5 & 6:", etc.

Things that were really cool:
*The fact that antipodal adjacency was not the same as normal adjacency.
*The permutation of ways that Gecko 9 can end with three letters on the equator
*I think the logic puzzle aspect of it was a good difficulty level; there was redundant information, but not enough so to get by without any one clue. If anything, it was probably a bit too easy. Fortunately, we didn't notice until after solving that U and T are adjacent in the word "out," so it was just hard enough for us.
*The interplay between gecko positions and face labels was pretty sweet.

Anyway, I appreciate the huge amount of time this puzzle must have taken to generate, that it was pretty novel, and that it wasn't broken.

-Dima (Palindrome)

Edited at 2013-01-28 06:24 am (UTC)