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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 26th, 2013 08:43 am (UTC)
Transit Links was the high-point of the Hunt for me. WARNING: Story alert, contains spoilers.

It was after the hint for the puzzle was released that our team's resident cartographer tackled it in earnest, figuring out the stations were to be paired up (and in the process editing an earlier station identification that was the name of a station in more than one city!). Devjoe, who had just walked by and asked about the puzzle ten seconds prior, promptly determined, "You know there's a puzzle type called Number Link, right?" If he hadn't have said that, I could have stared over Mapmaker's shoulder for hours and gotten nowhere, but from that gifted a-ha, all the rest was mine. I pointed out the flavortext implied we'd have TWO superimposed Number Links, and that we should do some math (thanks to that hint) to determine if the grid size supported that theory. I botched the addition, but they didn't, and finding a total of exactly 242, we knew we were on the right track.

Joe was able to get to graph paper before I did, so he made his own copy of the puzzle while I waited for Mapmaker to fill a spreadsheet, which we then discovered couldn't be printed from his machine, so I copied it onto graph paper as well. Joe had already gotten a head start of about five minutes when I sat down at the same table and said, "You know something Joe, if I solve this before you do, despite your head start, I will never hold it against you, but boy will I ever feel good about it!" Joe laughed in the way only he can, and we put our heads down and worked at it. I'm sure that at times we each looked up at the other's paper, but I know the times that I did, either I didn't like what I saw and didn't go with it, or what he had matched what I did already.

Sure enough, I finished first. I was beyond impressed with that puzzle; I wouldn't have expected something with so many variables and so little deduction to feel so... fair. I felt my false assumptions were all very quickly disproven. Answer extraction not being my thing, I handed the solved paper back to Mapmaker for him to do his thing, but I did leave him with a theory; after one false lead was followed, Tyler tested my theory and it proved to be correct. But I'm skipping ahead.

It was not a close race. Joe finished the puzzle at least five minutes after I did, probably closer to ten, and at the end of it he was staring right at my solution, comparing it to what he had tried, in order to finish it. To say Joe is a better solver than I is a massive understatement, but that one time, I surpassed him. I'll take it.

The best part, however, was not long after the solve. Thomas walked by to see what we were up to. Joe told him I just solved a Siamese Number Link. Thomas started to put his hand up, then just slowly turned around and walked away without another word. Needless to say, Joe and I both reacted to this by laughing hysterically.

I thought the puzzle was very well designed. The hint should have been there all along - it was needed to confirm our "a-ha" theory, and it basically meant I had the benefits of a Link-A-Pix to help with my Siamese Number Link, without which it'd have been a real headscratcher, if not actually intractable. But with it, the resulting puzzle was nothing short of elegant, and frankly I'm damn impressed it was ever built. Even with the "burn-offs" involved (by which I mean segments the paths travel through JUST to use up necessary length to get the distances to match, areas that could be left blank if these were just Number Links), I was quite confident the solution was unique, which for a puzzle of intuition with that level of variability is an astounding feat.

In case you're curious: that false answer extraction lead came courtesy of someone who usually nails that sort of thing first guess, when he said, "Shouldn't EVERY cell of the grid have a name now?" Two names, actually, but yes, that made too much sense, and time was spent filling in a spreadsheet with intermediate station names, looking for correlations between the pairings.

I should remember solving this puzzle for a long time. It was a great team effort, and we each had an epic performance enabled by a very solidly constructed puzzle.
MellowMelonMellowMelon [wordpress.com] on January 26th, 2013 09:37 am (UTC)
I had a similarly and surprisingly positive test-solve report about the logic portion to this puzzle (and I'll let landofnowhere take credit for all the rest). I think, like the test-solvers, you may not be expecting that it is far more likely that randomly superimposing two Link-a-pixes with numbers around that range will turn out to be unique and fairly well-constrained than not. So honestly, I wasn't thinking too hard when setting it. I think the one and only way my experience in logic puzzle construction helped at all was in putting down the "fill" of extra paths in the corners not used by extraction, where my experience with Numberlink gave me good intuition for what kinds of paths are fun to find. But it didn't feel like much, and I almost felt guilty for signing on as a coauthor since the contribution seemed to me to be minimal.

The idea of superimposing two of those puzzles in the first place was all landofnowhere's. I thought that innovation alone was really cool, and I had a lot of fun solving the prototype before making the real thing.

Duly noted about the hint being needed to make the puzzle into a great one, though I was pretty sure of that already after absorbing all the feedback in this thread.
(Anonymous) on January 29th, 2013 08:13 pm (UTC)
transit links
i loved transit links too, for many of the reasons mentioned above. so elegant, and so much fun to solve.

HOWEVER, i first looked at the puzzle after both of the following things had already occurred:

1. the hint had been mailed out
2. my teammate had spent an inordinate amount of time looking up subway systems and counting stops.

now, it's totally obvious looking at the puzzle from the first time that it's about subway stations, so there's no "aha" to be had in making the identifications and then looking everything up. it's just gruntwork. i had been spared the gruntwork by my teammate, who was pulling her hair out, and i got to reap the rewards, but the puzzle itself could have been stronger by just giving us the data to begin with.

as far as extractions, there are lots of things you can try, and it seemed like we tried all of them, but in the end it took under an hour to extract once the logic part had been solved. some of the false leads (e.g. names of intermediate stations) could have been prevented by cutting out that data-gathering step and abstracting the problem to its essence.