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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.
Todd Ettertoddetter on January 23rd, 2013 09:15 pm (UTC)
Why partials are sometimes needed
It was mentioned earlier about confirming partials, and while I understand that the MIT hunt traditionally hasn't done this, I think constructors need to realize the pitfalls of not having it.

Take Ex Post Facto, for example.

Solution: http://z.manicsages.org/puzzle/uploads/puzzle_files/50c68f8070358.txt

I was solving this with a team of four and even though it took us quite a while, it was tremendously fun and satisfying, probably my favorite puzzle of the hunt so far. When we finally realized to rebuild the grid, it was one of those fun aha moments, culminating with what we expected to be the final answer.

After rebuilding, assuming we were very close to being done, we got the message: PROB CLEARLY STATED. So we first called that in. Wrong. So then we found the quote, "A problem clearly stated is a problem half solved" So we called in PROBLEM HALF SOLVED. And PROB HALF SOLVED, and about 5 different versions of this, including the author of the quote.

So at this point we were very deflated. And it mostly a function of wondering if we were just not wording the answer correctly or we actually had to sit down and do a lot more work.

In this case, the intended path was to backtrack to the halfway point and find a nine-letter message split into three different segments spanning the middle of the grid. A very impressive construction, indeed, but one we never found.

If the message had been something like "SOLVE THIS PUZZLE HALFWAY" or some other explicit instruction, then we would have likely plowed onward. But with the current answer system, the problem lies in not knowing if something is an instruction or a hint at the answer. And after spending hours on something, you really don't want to spend more time... you just want to end on a high point.

So, as a result, we became deflated on something that could have been a high point of the hunt for us and one in which we really enjoyed. Ultimately this was fixed when the hint was released so some of our teammates were able to pick it back up and eventually solve it.

This was a great puzzle and brilliantly constructed. My point here is that if you want your solver to dig deeper and uncover more layers, you need to be either pretty explicit about it or confirm partial answers.

Thanks to Manic Sages for all the hard work put into this year's hunt. Despite the length, we had a great time.

motrismotris on January 23rd, 2013 09:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Why partials are sometimes needed
As I wrote elsewhere, when I was called in to kill Ex Post Facto dead, I had Tyler do the "so what if we just write in half the grid step" and that still took many minutes to find and read out the answer. If it weren't for the awesome almost perfect symmetry of the half grid I would have discounted such an odd step.

And of course, I was more interested in knowing how "INTERPOSE" could work in the puzzle as the next step, since in this Hunt it clearly could not be the final answer and my Pavlovian response was to interpose something but I wasn't sure what. *sigh*

Edited at 2013-01-23 09:33 pm (UTC)
ze top blurberryztbb on January 24th, 2013 12:25 am (UTC)
Yes, this is a great example of one of the many places where an editor should have stepped in and said "no". The puzzle up through the step of re-filling the grid and reading the single letters is a beautiful, novel idea. The last step -- whether or not it was properly clued -- only serves to prolong and detract from the solving experience.

Edited at 2013-01-24 12:25 am (UTC)
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 24th, 2013 04:35 am (UTC)
Re: ztbb
I'll mention 50/50 as another puzzle with an interesting idea that contains three or four too many ahas... leading to a bitmap picture which only ambiguously clues the desired answer word. This would be a much better puzzle with the core statistics idea intact and a streamlined extraction once you had figured out the "groups of 1729" aha.
Tom Yueyuethomas on January 25th, 2013 05:17 am (UTC)
Re: Why partials are sometimes needed
Indulge me if you will. Towards the middle of the hunt, we had attempted to send an email to teams containing various hints to Agent 99 puzzles. Did any of you get that email? Because it contains the following text:

"Ex Post Facto: If you get a three-word clue, and then get another three-word clue from it, consider that as an instruction."

So, yes, we should've put that into the puzzle somehow to begin with, but it was there... some time after the hunt began.
Todd Ettertoddetter on January 25th, 2013 05:19 am (UTC)
Re: Why partials are sometimes needed
Yes, indeed, and that was very helpful. In fact, I did mention that in my comment as being what unlocked it for us. So thanks for adding that.
Tom Yueyuethomas on January 25th, 2013 05:21 am (UTC)
Re: Why partials are sometimes needed
Oops, missed that particular sentence in your post. Thanks for clarifying!