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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 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.


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...