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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.
Adam R. Woodzotmeister on January 21st, 2013 11:12 pm (UTC)
I wanted to remark on the seeming change in attitude you present between this entry and your previous "that happened" ones, but it occurs to me that this is quite possibly entirely the result of my having read this one in YOUR voice rather than my own. - ZM
motrismotris on January 21st, 2013 11:15 pm (UTC)
I'm slowly getting the entries shorter so that I can just tweet "so XXX happened" in the future with a link and not rant for paragraphs again. But the phrase is certainly a loaded part of my lexicon, after WSCs and Philly Sudoku tournaments and such past.

Edited at 2013-01-21 11:18 pm (UTC)
MellowMelonMellowMelon [wordpress.com] on January 22nd, 2013 02:01 am (UTC)
I'm not expecting a whole lot of positive reviews given that the difficulty fell so far outside of our expectations. I hope Portals was enjoyable at least - of the half a dozen puzzles I made, that's probably the only one I was proud of. But now that things are over I also realize it was probably part of the length problem.

I can't really say anything about how the length debacle happened since even now I still only vaguely know about how one of our supermetas worked, and I only saw a few dozen non-metapuzzles in all. Conjectures from the organizing end about how we were so off-target will have to come from someone else.
motrismotris on January 22nd, 2013 03:06 am (UTC)
Portals fits the space of great puzzle, but great Hunt puzzle?!? as I felt about the Kakuro from last year. Yes, it was certainly a very impressive feat of puzzle construction and had many of the same joys of your last marathon from your blog. But I saw no easy way to parallelize the process, and no easy way after 3 hours of getting to an almost answer that incorrectly copied the wrong snake shape into the Statue Park and then built off of it, to hand off or get help from anyone else except to dig myself out of my own hole. Once I got the Statue Park to "feel" right to constrain the lower-right corner, I knew I'd get to the end soon, but I was not expecting to sign up for a six hour puzzle experience.

Edited at 2013-01-22 03:08 am (UTC)
MellowMelonMellowMelon [wordpress.com] on January 22nd, 2013 04:05 am (UTC)
Actually I deliberately constructed it be parallelizable. There were about 10 break-ins to that puzzle and they did not merge for a long time. Guess that didn't work out so well in practice?

The inability to correct mistakes is certainly a problem though. In hindsight I might have fixed that by finding an extraction mechanism that could let you self-correct or self-confirm your progress.
zundevilzundevil on January 22nd, 2013 06:14 am (UTC)
"Solving" very very remotely and sporadically here in ABQ gave me the ability to spend all afternoon on the Portals puzzle (and not even bother with answer extraction) and I greatly enjoyed it and marvel at its construction. I look forward to seeing the official solution, as Corral felt like it could go a couple of ways, and my Nurikabe has an ambiguous 3. But the other eight feel solid. Norinori, a puzzle-type I'd never seen before, was a lot more pleasant than I'd been figuring.

Aside from one scary moment where the top-center of my Slitherlink went haywire, it was all forward, however slowly and steadily. Kudos.

(Anonymous) on January 22nd, 2013 09:21 am (UTC)
In all honesty, I was looking forward to one of Palmer's puzzles on the hunt, and when I saw Portals, I knew it was going to be good. Not that I made a lot of progress at all on it, but now that the hunt is over, I can solve it my way.

I have to agree that this hunt and some of the puzzles felt made for a larger team to solve, like the Jigsaw Puzzle (god why)and Analogy Farm. That might be one of the reasons the hunt set the record for length. Along with the unassailable difficulty of ones that should have been simple, like Dessert Party. Not that there weren't some great ideas in the puzzles my team got, but this was not a good year for a first-time on-location solver like me.

Well, I look forward to trying to solve some of these later. Here's to next year, which will hopefully hit a middle ground after the past two years.

Giovanni P.

P.S. It was a pleasure to talk with you briefly at the kickoff, motris. I look forward to your work in the upcoming months. Also, apologies if this message shows up a couple of times in the forum. The sign-in forms are giving me a problem.
motrismotris on January 22nd, 2013 01:20 pm (UTC)
My comment on not splitting may also have been affected by two other things: 1) we got this ~1-2 AM and people I could have worked with were asleep and 2) I am paranoid about working on such a big task and having mistakes pop in not of my own making.

Compared to the ~10 independent path puzzles or the 8 independent sudoku, or several hunts ago my 8 unknown Kakuro variants with Dan, that each split into a "you do this page, I do this page" kind of thing, having 10 different break-ins does not help if it means pencils are crossing across puzzles to use them or track progress on two sets of sheets. So splittable I guess, but not 100% in practice to split only other routes.
meanderlawn.blogspot.com on January 22nd, 2013 03:41 pm (UTC)
Codex parallelized Portals by copying it on a Google spreadsheet. Most of it was solved by several people in at least three locations. Near the end, the local contingent took over, and polished the remainder and the extraction. Errors were made, but they were quickly challenged and Ctrl-Zed away. Personally, I also kept a graphical copy, partly because it allowed for more complex notation, and partly as a failsafe.

We were rather thankful the solving path was not narrow, and we did have fun on it as a group. One of the hunt's highlights for me.
affpuzz on January 22nd, 2013 08:41 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, one of the pitfalls that Motris brings up happened to Codex here; the google spreadsheet was not correct and the puzzle had to be re-done from "scratch" locally (at least, after we brought up the error, nobody seemed to update the spreadsheet, it still seems to have the ambiguity). The quote around "scratch" I thought was amusing, after seeing Motris's comment about the lower right of the statue park. Basically, I was convinced that that puzzle was correct due to the way that that corner resolved, so on the second printout, I took that puzzle as a given.

Oh Zundevil, if you still have your paper copy with you, I can tell you why I thought I had an ambiguous Nurikabe; one of the 10's covered a square of the dark purple portal, and when checking it, it looked like a black square.... Took a while to figure out that it was part of the island.

It was a fun puzzle, it just makes me wish I had a color printer at home so I go over it again before the USPC or something...

(Anonymous) on January 22nd, 2013 09:05 pm (UTC)
I certainly have some sympathy for what you must have gone through. We obviously failed spectacularly at estimating difficulty/length. We also had an initial plan to keep the number of open puzzles reasonable, to try to avoid favoring large teams; you probably noticed that on Friday. But by Saturday, *everyone* was behind the time curve (we simply had to release puzzles at a certain rate so they would all be out by Sunday), and with 30+ puzzles open, large teams had an obvious advantage. My impression was that the less serious teams loved having a vast array of puzzles to pick and choose from. But it just wasn't a good competitive Hunt, given the crazy amount of hints and "options" (free puzzles) we had to give out in a desperate (failed) attempt to end the Hunt by Monday morning.

On the other hand, walking around and seeing different teams and contrasting their approaches to the Hunt was quite interesting. Even other top teams like Death From Above (in the lead through most of the Hunt) and the eventual winners John Galt (second up till Sunday before establishing a convincing lead) were all smiles and obviously enjoying themselves when I visited. Then I got to Luck, and some of you (not all) seemed to be locked into a grim death march, desperate to get to the end.

I know Luck really wants to win, and we probably made it impossible for a mid-sized team this year. But keeping morale up should help your odds of being the victor in future years... :)

Regarding your specific complaints: Portals was a brilliant puzzle and obviously parallelizable, as I saw several teams doing exactly that. :P And Ouroboros has its issues (the main one being how hard it is to assemble the loops), but I really find it strange that you think we would be hinting in flavortext at something you SHOULDN'T do. Your mind must have been pretty scrambled by early Monday morning. :) It wasn't just you, either; everyone - except Palindrome! - really seemed to stumble on the last few supermetas. Nobody's close to their best after 60 straight hours of puzzling.

- Derek Kisman
lunchboylunchboy on January 22nd, 2013 09:32 pm (UTC)
I had a great time solving Portals, though I was part of a group that helped break it on the first time through. I then joined the remnants of a second group that broke it a second time through, and between us we learned from our various bad assumptions and cracked it. I was actively uninterested in winning this year and was only solving puzzles that looked like fun, so the fact that this took a while wasn't really a big problem for me. It was definitely a highlight of the weekend's puzzles, I thought.
motrismotris on January 22nd, 2013 10:45 pm (UTC)
There are many valid interpretations of the flavor including don't cut out. The meta clearly presented snakes with the letters in the answer words and the concept of knotting and just seemed to obfuscate snake identity to be mean. One can imagine a single ouroboros assembled in one loop so that going head to tail around it all the letters can be crossed off in order uniquely in the answer words leaving the leftovers. That would have a nice word and logic component to match the other parts. It was a much more fun idea that almost was fully constrained. One can imagine knitting a head to tail snake group like a potholder to spell out all answer words with overs and unders and edge leftovers read cw or ccw for extract. Certainly one can even with sleep read not cut out to mean not cut out because those are the words in a row.

I will hate all Hunt construction teams that have any contingency that needs to unlock a round of 20(+6) puzzles all at once to a competive team of any size as happened to my team at midnight to 4 AM with Rubik.

Edited at 2013-01-22 10:52 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous) on January 23rd, 2013 12:34 am (UTC)
Wait, how can you make a giant Ouroboros loop without cutting anything out? (And where would the "1/2" markers fit in, or were you just ignoring them?) I don't understand your "pot holder" description at all. I was the author, btw, so I probably shouldn't try to defend this universally hated puzzle. I just thought disassembling one set of snakes to form another set of snakes was neat. Sigh.

Incidentally, I just read Eric Berlin's writeup ( http://ericberlin.com/?p=5228 ). Palindrome also considered themselves "stuck" on the three supermetas, which is interesting because I think they were by far the fastest to get them (relative to when they'd solved enough metas to have a chance). They really caught fire once they got serious on Sunday. They were the only ones to solve Rubik, and [Atlas Shrugged] were the only ones to solve Indiana Jones.

If you want some cheering up, Luck was the first to solve a meta in the last three rounds (the Snake logic puzzle).

- Derek Kisman
TH: cartmanrpipuzzleguy on January 23rd, 2013 12:56 am (UTC)
As long as we're criticizing team demeanors, I'd advise future Hunt GCs not to respond to a Monday morning plea for confirmation of intermediate data with "You don't know what you're doing" and gales of laughter. It's bad for, you know, morale.
The waking life stitched together in your headdalryaug on January 23rd, 2013 01:11 am (UTC)
This was a incident that made me very, very unhappy and really soured my impression of the event.

Edited at 2013-01-23 01:12 am (UTC)
lunchboylunchboy on January 23rd, 2013 01:11 am (UTC)
I don't know, I think pretty much anyone could have told you a hunt with 170+ puzzles would be way too long. I don't know what the largest number of puzzles in a Hunt has been to date, but I want to say around 120? And some of the Hunts with that amount or fewer still ran long. Based on the one obstacle training puzzle my team did (the maze of guards), which I thought was excellent, I suspect there were other cool, fun live action puzzles which we -- and most teams -- never saw, and personally I think building such high, insurmountable walls around those puzzles did the people who wrote them a disservice.
Jenny G: Crazy Puzzlehahathor on January 23rd, 2013 02:14 am (UTC)
FWIW, I came in in the morning reasonably well rested, and when I saw the flavor text it seemed very clear to me that it meant you shouldn't cut the snakes out. As it did to pretty much everyone else on Palindrome.

I enjoyed the hunt, other than being forced to sniff & ingest such a large amount of horseradish and white pepper. As did about half a dozen others on the team - then we ended up buying the answer just so we wouldn't have to deal with the damned spices any more.
Craig K.canadianpuzzler on January 23rd, 2013 02:26 am (UTC)
Craig of Team Luck here, with a data point for you.

As I remember it, my morale never really flagged, and I never became part of that "grim death march" that you described.

There's a reason for that, however: as the team ran out of puzzles for which more manpower in general, or more of my brainpower in particular, I started stepping aside to stay out of the way of the efforts that our alpha solvers were making to continue to make progress on the remaining puzzles. I believe that it's safe to say that the other people on site who were not alpha solvers did the same thing. I'd say that for the entire time when Team Luck was working on metas exclusively, and at least to some extent before that, that there were two distinct functional groups at our HQ: the alpha solvers who were working at full power at making further progress; and the beta solvers who were staying out of the way of the alpha solvers, remaining at HQ for moral support, and enjoying each others' company. The betas were having fun; the alphas weren't.

Based on the above, I can say with confidence that Team Luck's morale will not be a problem next year, and not only that, that it wasn't a problem this year. If anything, I would have to say that the fact that we stuck with certain puzzles well after it was fun to continue to do so indicates that our morale was actually holding up relatively well under trying circumstances.
devjoedevjoe on January 23rd, 2013 02:59 am (UTC)
And, despite how demoralizing this may have been, we continued asking yes/no questions about the enigma to determine what we were doing wrong. Ultimately, just before the "a team is on the runaround" email went out, we ended up with a response that confirmed we were doing the right thing on the enigma message's first letter (with a detailed question which explained each step of how we got there via each conversion step through the enigma machine) when earlier we had been told that we should not get a U from the enigma decode of that first H.
Andrewbrokenwndw on January 23rd, 2013 04:35 am (UTC)
We also had an initial plan to keep the number of open puzzles reasonable...

Funny enough, so did we. Ours went haywire for a slightly different reason though; we were assuming a much higher density of orphaned puzzles than actually happened, probably due to unexpected levels of backsolving.
Andrewbrokenwndw on January 23rd, 2013 04:42 am (UTC)
I did the math on this some time back. There is not necessarily a perfect correlation between end time and puzzle count, though, which is something I'm planning to write about soon.
Andrewbrokenwndw on January 23rd, 2013 04:47 am (UTC)
In reply to myself: Noah Snyder makes a truly prescient comment in that post, the very first one.

I'd also like to say (especially since people from sages might be reading) that first time hunt writers *should* be writing short hunts. I think 107 puzzles was already ambitious for a first time team (though certainly pulled off brilliantly). There's a great tradition (Setec00, Plant06, Midnight07, Luck10, Codex12) of short clean "warmup" hunts before you really go nuts for your next hunt. It's the right way to run a first time hunt, and you really shouldn't feel bad *at all* about ending on the early side.
Sin Vraalsin_vraal on January 23rd, 2013 04:58 am (UTC)
That terrible phone call
If I recall Derek's visit, it wasn't too long after this phone call. I have been debating contacting Manic Sages directly about it, but since it is now out in the open, I am choosing to express my feelings here.

The response to our phone call is what put me over the edge. We basically begged HQ to send someone to simply watch us perform the Enigma decoding, which only takes a few minutes, since we got the example code to work but the puzzle code to not work (even failing a full AAA-ZZZ keyword brute-forcing by program). In the spirit of the hunt, I pitched that the person could simply say "you should probably check your work, the puzzle appears to be working as intended" or else note what we were doing wrong and choose to hint mildly, at their discretion.

Instead, in response to the request and a Call to HQ that consisted of the gibberish the puzzle message gave us, we were met simply with a "you CLEARLY don't know what you're doing" and a group of people in the background snickering and laughing in response.

I don't know if that was nervous laughter at the audacity of the response, a knee-jerk response of sleepless, punch-drunk individuals, or actual derision, or stark arrogance that we dare question a super hard meta could possibly have an unintended bug or ambiguity that could be addressed. But it doesn't really matter. That one act showed me and my team that our enjoyment of the Hunt was no longer, if ever, a priority of those individuals and/or the Hunt Team at large (that person was a "supervisor", as the person on the phone had that person call us back after our initial request was explained).

Did I have fun? Yes, I did - whoever(s) came up with your hunt theme and overall concept deserve high praise. Did I tell the hunt organizers who visited that I and my team were having fun? Absolutely; I respect the hell out of the job you (mostly) accomplished on-site. And there were so many amazing things - that laser maze, for instance - that I truly, deeply wish you had designed your Hunt to allow more teams to experience. I estimate, oh, about 20% of the teams got to try that beautiful piece of art (or any of the other Obstacle training), and only one or two got to try the souped up Runaround versions. And I must commend Catherine (and others who visited, please forgive me for not remembering all of your names) for your genuine concern, and your extremely patient phone operators with whom I feel I am nearly on a first-name basis by now (hi, Tanya!!). Most of them ad-libbed zanily with me every night through hundreds of phone confirmations, and I hope/think that small indulgence on their collective part was fun for all of us.

All of these nice things you provided us had offset, in my opinion, the huge flaws that include sheer size and purposely-exaggerated difficulty/lack of puzzle "in" issues Derek and others have cited. But our "death march" as it was labelled on this blog was fueled by that phone call. Those people all but ruined my Hunt experience by deriding my trust in your compassion in light of the literal man-day(s) poured into something that might, just might, have NOT been our fault for not being able to solve.

Thank you.
Sin Vraalsin_vraal on January 23rd, 2013 05:10 am (UTC)
If our morale weren't high, we would have done as at least one other competitive team did, and just walked away. How many teams aborted without seeing it through?