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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 05:44 pm (UTC)
Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
Hi Guys: I have a small subchain request (not intended to detract from the overall discussion.)

I would love feedback on Alphabet Book and the Shoephone and Thomas Crowne Events if you have any. (I’m quite a novice writer so I may ask you to clarify for which I apologize in advance.)

Re Alphabet Book: In first testsolve, people solved it without getting the Aha (that the objects clued by the couplets looked like the capital letters of their clues i.e. Eiffel looks like a capital A) so I was told to make the clues harder. Clues were *supposed* to be vague and confusing without this Aha but then be solvable once you’d found the Aha, and they were supposed to be quite clear once you’d gotten the answer. (I don’t know if this was successful).

Re Shoephone: I know the single-team-at-a-time final round was frustrating (We’d thought about this issue but thought it wouldn’t be a problem).

Any thoughts appreciated (about the things I knew were issues, or other things)! (Sorry once again for making a side conversation).
~Halimeda Glickman-Hoch
AJDdr_whom on January 26th, 2013 06:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
I worked on Alphabet Book very briefly (I started on it, and then we unlocked Grandson of the Realm of Unspeakable Chaos, so I went work on that instead), but what I saw of it I liked a great deal. Very cute and clever puzzle idea, with clues that were just solvable enough.

The teammate of mine who went to the Thomas Crowne event said he liked it a lot.
Scott HandelmanScott Handelman on January 26th, 2013 06:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
I can't really comment too much on the actual solving of Alphabet Book, but I will say that it was the source of my most indignant insistence of what a puzzle was about that turned out to be completely, utterly wrong. Reading the clues, I got to "K is for ______, let it bounce and go on" and got very excited:

"This year, an alphabet book called K is for Knifeball came out. YOU CANNOT TELL ME this clue does not refer to that book!"
"Knifeball doesn't fit."
"I don't care. 'Let it bounce and go on?' How can that NOT be about knifeball?" So I then went to look for other books that were named "_ is for ______".

At one point I had "adultery jailbait knifeball" typed into my Google search bar. If I ever write an essay on the Mystery Hunt, I'm going to title it Adultery Jailbait Knifeball.
(Anonymous) on January 27th, 2013 10:03 pm (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
flatluigi: lizard guitarflatluigi on January 26th, 2013 07:13 pm (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
A lot of us worked on Alphabet Book and filled in many many answers with no idea what to do with them - because we never worked out what the gimmick was! Flavortext would have been great here to point us in the right direction.

The major issue with the puzzle, however, is that even if we figured it out there's absolutely nothing to confirm right answers and debunk wrong answers. The *correct* solution to the puzzle gives absolute gibberish in the blanks, and when that's decoded the message in the blanks is *still* mostly gibberish ("????YPTLFZHPGTSZCEVOZTHRI??????" is a hell of a thing to see after making the leap of faith to decode the blanks).

Apologies, but it was unfortunately one of my least favorite puzzles in the hunt and it was flawed basically throughout.
Scott HandelmanScott Handelman on January 26th, 2013 07:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
I guess I sorta *can* comment on the actual solving of alphabet book, because after reading the solution, my fears were basically exactly what you experienced. Some of the letter likenesses were huge stretches, and there was basically zero confirmation.HOWE TRUSS? I can guarantee you that no bridge said to have a troll under it was ever built with a Howe Truss, a 19th century American invention. A BARNACLE doesn't look any more like a D than any other letter. There's a heck of a lot of author mind-reading that has to occur on the solver's part to get to the final answer. It's a cute idea, but the decision to make the clues more ambiguous was a mistake.

A question for the author: after it passed and went back to make it more difficult, was it tested again? Was it tested again twice? In general, I think anytime the decision is made to make a puzzle harder, that should completely wipe out the first testsolve as if it had never happened.
(Anonymous) on January 26th, 2013 09:14 pm (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
(Being a parent and well-versed with such things,) I loved the concept of Alphabet Book. Also thought the extraction was fine - recursing was one of the first things we thought of.

Had a bit of an issue with the souped-up-ness of some of the answers (Howe Truss among them). Thought that if difficulty needed to be increased (and I'm not sure it did), then that could have been handled by a slightly more obscure rhyme.

D and H were definitely among two of the last handful of letters for us to solve (I think F was as well).

- JJ
(Anonymous) on January 27th, 2013 10:14 pm (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
Scott-- yes it was indeed testsolved after it was made more difficult, but it was not tested twice. (I think this was probably due to time constraints)

JJ/all--I think the less well fitting answers were a product of the constraint that each answer start with a different answer and my own lack of ingenuity, although I just generally had trouble finding answers I liked for "N". We went through a bunch of rounds of answer possibilities and both Barnacle and Howe Truss entered fairly late, and were not among my favorites. I am surprised by Fish Hook though so it's good to know that that wasn't as good as I thought.

flatluigi--I'm sorry it was so frustrating for you. Thank you for that feedback!
Rikchikrikchik on January 27th, 2013 01:20 am (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
I went to three events: Casino Lobdell, Shoephone, and Thomas Crowne.

Casino was a painful slog, of which enough has already been said.

Shoephone was a fun game, and I appreciated being told early on that there was no puzzle content in the game. I was in one of the two teams that got to do the final together, which was a clever way to get more teams in and I appreciated being able to solve together with the other team.

Crowne was also a fun game. There was a lot of cheating, mostly due to people not paying attention to the rules I think, and it could have used more refereeing, but it was fun to come up with the idea "let's put our hats down as well" and see that take off into shoes and jackets. It was a fantastic concept and I'm very glad to have taken part in it. And the gorilla was a stroke of genius.
(Anonymous) on January 27th, 2013 01:59 am (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
(spoilers) Alphabet Book was my favorite puzzle of the hunt. Hard to break into but not impossible; slowly yielding as you get accustomed to the fact that the words really don't start with those letters; then the absolutely giddy aha, followed by shouts of "ooooh!" as the dominoes fell, followed by a perfectly tractable final solution. AND it all scanned (O.P. excepted, whatever :-). Cute, elegant, and the group working on it had more fun while it lasted than anyone else I saw all weekend. This is the puzzle I have been showing to friends who I want to get to the Hunt next year. Great job.
(Anonymous) on January 27th, 2013 02:14 am (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
Oh and no scut work, just imagination and patience. A real breath of fresh air for this hunt.
(Anonymous) on January 27th, 2013 02:35 am (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
OK, one more comment after looking over others' reactions ... it is possible that the puzzle shone a little more brightly in the light of contrast than it would have done taken purely on its own merits. And yes, barnacle and howe truss were weak --- we moved on without them. But it was still cute and fun, and everything else really did work as it was supposed to once we had the aha --- someone raised objections to newly discovered answers on the ground of the gibberish appearing in the blanks, and we simply agreed "but eiffel *has* to be right; look at the picture, plus the french; what else can it be? Maybe the blanks are a cryptogram or something. Let's keep pushing forward." Definitely rate it a success.
(Anonymous) on January 27th, 2013 08:04 am (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
I went to the Thomas Crowne event and I absolutely loved it. (I was the guy from I Prefer Pi/Palindrome who kept doing crazy things like Gangam Style or faking tripping in the middle of the floor.) It involved a weird premise that forced us to come up with strategies on the fly to win. And it adapted to force us to constantly think. And it let me do crazy things in front of the rest of the hunt. Win all around.

(As a side note, were there pictures from that event and are they going to be posted anywhere?)

-- James McTeague
David Glasserdavidglasser on January 27th, 2013 08:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
Can somebody describe the Crowne event? I've only heard good things and the pictures were great, but... what was it?
(Anonymous) on January 28th, 2013 05:17 am (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
This was the event that we were asked to bring black suits for. Every round, the teams present were split into two halves. One was on the floor of Lobby 7 the other was on the 3rd floor looking down. Everyone on the floor had a bag - two of them had money in it. The people on the bottom were each given a black hat to hide their heads/faces from those above. They basically had to mingle and move around and make it hard for the people above to follow them. This was because at the beginning the people at the top were told who had the money and they had to follow the money throughout the mixing. If the people at the top guessed the right people with the money then they got 50 options. Otherwise the team at the bottom got the options. The rules changed as the event went on as to how we were allowed to swap bags (or not) and strategies changed. One of the dominant strategies was to use our suit jackets to cover the possible swaps as to throw a shadow of doubt as to where the money actually was. Also filling dummy bags with scrap paper/cell phones. Also switching clothes part of the way through.

-- James McTeague
(Anonymous) on January 28th, 2013 05:19 am (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
Also there are pictures? Are they available on the internet anywhere?

-- James McTeague
fuurei on January 28th, 2013 03:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
Though I doubt these are the pictures that are referred to above, here are the pictures I took at the Thomas Crown event:
mystery_fish on January 28th, 2013 05:32 am (UTC)
Re: Shoephone Event
I attended Shoephone. I wasn't in the best of shape going in, but still, I didn't like it. I was annoyed to go through the entire thing without seeing any puzzle or get much real interaction with other teams - in fact, trying to deduce the true signal or talking to others seemed (in hindsight) to be a losing strategy, as the time taken to do so outweighed any gains. It's IMHO a bad fit for a Hunt event.

I must have missed the announcement that there was no puzzle content; hearing that actually makes me feel better about the event. As long as we agree on what given events are (in this case a game, not a puzzle or social opportunity) and as long as this is communicated up front, I'm (more) OK with disagreeing over what events should be.

I felt bad for the girl who kept consistently getting Noise (and therefore no points, as most people tried to allow Signal to win).

We were one of the last teams to finish Shoephone. Part of it was the bottleneck at the end, but part of it was because when we had gotten our 15 points and were waiting for the lock, we kept participating so there would be enough people so other teams could get their last few points. While we were playing, the end bottleneck opened up, we were stuck in the game, and other teams jumped ahead of us. That didn't feel good either.
(Anonymous) on January 28th, 2013 06:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Alphabet Book, Shoephone Event, Thomas Crowne Event
I can only comment on the Shoephone event:

* As a plus, there was no puzzle content until the end. This was refreshing after having done Casino earlier.

* As a minus, some people (including my own team) realized that the fastest way through this was for the noise to throw the game to signal, thereby maximizing the number of points awarded (7 for signal versus 3 for noise). However, this really made the event rather boring. It really felt like a timewaster we were getting through. To be fair, part of the blame for that falls on the strategy of throwing the game. However, since two teams simultaneously came up with this strategy, I do think the design was begging for it. To compensate, I think successful noise players should have gotten 2 points for victory, bringing things close to even (6 points awarded if noise wins vs 7 points if signal wins).

* However, since my team was one of the two most strongly advocating this strategy, we were the first to complete and didn't have to wait for the final round. It was obvious to us that the other teams weren't far behind and that there would be a jam soon. Perhaps this could have been organized more like a tournament with rankings. The #1 undefeated team could go first, the #2 team go second, and the others have to play additional games to determine their ranking, which gives them something to do while the #1 and #2 teams go. So, everyone finishes but the better teams finish faster, while the teams that do less well have to do more rounds.
mystery_fish on January 28th, 2013 08:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Shoephone Event
> To compensate, I think successful noise players should have gotten 2 points for victory

The problem with this is that it's even easier to throw the game to noise, as you don't have to wait for the information to propagate.

I suspect more than two teams simultaneously came up with the "throw to signal" strategy, but it didn't always work. My team was one of the last to finish despite me strongly advocating the strategy every game. I think the real winning strategy was "finish games quickly", as a number of games I saw dragged on while signal tried to figure out who was lying. We all would have done better if signal had just given up, let noise win, and moved on to another game.
antimonyantimony on January 30th, 2013 10:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Shoephone Event
I kept pointing out that one could fundamentally throw it and end quickly by instantly giving a wrong answer and points to noise, but no one liked that idea.

The only issue I had was at least one proctor not allowing people to write down messages, the messages were too long for me to hold in my head, and sometimes very small deviations were taken as a win for noise. (My audio processing sucks. It was not the best event<->solver matchup, although I had a lot of fun with the event anyway, which is a credit to the creators.)