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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.
motrismotris on January 23rd, 2013 07:17 pm (UTC)
The answer I've heard for years, when solving or constructing, is that tradition is not to confirm partials as is done at Microsoft Hunts or Google or elsewhere.

I've wanted an automated system that confirms partials (and maybe pushes "keep going" or eventually hints) since we ran 2009's Zyzzlvaria Hunt. I had no traction with my last team, but if I ever have my own team and win I'll modernize many aspects of Hunt including partial confirmations.
Adam R. Wood: butasanzotmeister on January 23rd, 2013 09:58 pm (UTC)
As I suggested during the Hunt (and you apparently responded to, although at the time I wasn't able to catch your entire response), the three distinct portions of every puzzle (realization, execution, extraction) should be separately hintable. Using "magic bullets" (free answers) is a last-resort failsafe that in theory should only be needed if a puzzle is broken in the first place... which of course means it should NEVER be needed, rather only a strategic option to be employed after being earned. Two or rarely three bullets should be far more than enough for an entire Hunt. When I left Sunday night, we'd already fired two full chambers of magic bullets, and Manic Sages kept reloading the revolver. What started as a Hunt became an absolute farce; forget what other teams thought of the Hunt, the Sages themselves clearly gave up on their own creation. Quod erat demonstrandum.

I daresay the operation of the Hunt this year turned me off the Hunt as it is entirely, and just about the only way I'd consider reattending at this point is exactly as you describe: as part of a team whose purpose is fixing it. - ZM
(Deleted comment)
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 23rd, 2013 10:19 pm (UTC)
Yes, Mystery Hunt has a very different team dynamic. Especially for competitive teams, you need to have very strict rules or else there will be a lot of "competitive" pressure to find angles.

I don't like hints, and I don't like partials. I like free answers because it's the first fair & working mechanism to overcome stuck puzzles and generally control the length of the hunt. This year was so broken that even free answers didn't work---but in general I think it's a sound mechanism to include, and hope to never use.

I do like hints *after the coin is found*. I found that Codex's HQ got a big burst of extra energy after we started getting hints, as a lot of puzzlers really wanted to figure out how to solve some of the nasty puzzles we'd been stuck for hours/days on. Unfortunately, most of those puzzles did not yield to hints -- we just found out that we have exactly the right clue phrase (for example) but that it was still too ambiguous to let us determine the final answer. =(
motrismotris on January 23rd, 2013 10:33 pm (UTC)
I agree generally with the goal of not needing to have partial confirms. Elegant puzzles should tell you when you are done and a system that circumvents this elegance slightly diminishes the beauty. But not all constructors and not all editors can achieve this nirvana state.

I'd make a similar comment about flavortext. If the title is enough to do everything, and flavortext fully avoided, go for it. Only SPIES in 2006 really achieved that incredible goal. So when you do add flavortext, make sure it is 100% helpful and nothing else.
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 23rd, 2013 10:36 pm (UTC)
There have also been hunts where it was explicitly stated that "flavortext is for *flavor* and has nothing to do with the puzzle". I also approve of this variant, if you've got a clever enough theme and witty writers to capitalize on it.
noahspuzzlelj on January 23rd, 2013 10:46 pm (UTC)
I think Normalville was also essentially zero flavor text. (Both have a few possible exceptions, e.g. http://www.mit.edu/~puzzle/06/puzzles/paris/syncopation/)
motrismotris on January 23rd, 2013 10:48 pm (UTC)
Thanks. Unlike the 11-year old on Palindrome, I really have not memorized the whole archive and Normalville slightly predates my participation.
AJDdr_whom on January 24th, 2013 12:44 am (UTC)
I disagree with your comment about flavortext, but I understand I'm in the minority here.
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 24th, 2013 04:27 am (UTC)
An intermediate position, sometimes used, is to distinguish "helpful" from "flavor" text in some way. For example, italicized text is always "just flavor" while non-italicized text is part of the puzzle. This takes copyediting discipline to make work.