Every January I go to MIT to join my team, Palindrome, for the annual Mystery Hunt, a weekend-long immersion in dangerously difficult puzzles. I solve other puzzle hunts throughout the year, and am helping to create one that’ll run just about a month from now, but these tend to be smaller events, lasting a day or a few hours. The Mystery Hunt is non-stop puzzling — some people on my team don’t even stop to sleep.
On the other coast are other, similarly intense annual events, including the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt. Since the Microsoft Hunt is on the other coast, however, I have never participated in it.
But aha! This past weekend, the Microsoft Hunt had an online “simulcast” — any team anywhere could join in the fun. And so a subset of Palindrome warmed up their internet connections, logged into a chat room, and pretended like they were in Seattle. Over a 24-hour span of time between Saturday and Sunday, I think I solved puzzles for, oh, 19 hours.
This was a particular pleasure, because my 9-year-old daughter, Lea, wanted to join in, too… and she was able to! Together, she and I did the legwork on “Twister,” a puzzle whose first step involved adding letters to words so that the new words belonged to the same category. (So GAPE, EACH, LIE, and PLOT became GRAPE, PEACH, LIME, and PLUOT.) Another puzzle, “Road Trip,” turned into a chance to test Lea on her state capitals — we then connected those capitals on a map to form letters.
Lea didn’t stick with it for 19 hours, of course. But I sat in that kitchen chair for hours on end, working on the various Google Docs that served as my team’s online headquarters. My goal, as always, was to walk away having made at least some contribution to my team’s progress: I still remember the complete cluelessness I experienced at my first MIT Hunt, and I am always out to prove, at least to myself, that I’m a bit more puzzle-savvy than I was back then. Happily, I made breakthroughs on a number of puzzles, and in other cases said the magic words that caused other people to make breakthroughs, which is nearly as good. I stuck to the word puzzles, of course, and left the more complicated stuff to my brilliant teammates — one puzzle involved “folding cubes over the periodic table.” I still have no idea what this means.
Amazingly, despite not being in Seattle for the actual Hunt, my team found itself leading the pack for the longest time. We couldn’t maintain this, however: When night rolled around, Palindrome was reduced to a skeleton crew of its most fanatical solvers. The four or five of us did our best, but we began to sink in the rankings. Then there was the problem of two largish physical puzzles, one of which all but demanded that a team assemble it together as a group. Scattered across the country, we couldn’t do that. Last I checked, one of my teammates was trying to do it solo, but I’m not sure he succeeded.
So ultimately we came in sixth — a pretty good showing all in all. Not that winning is the point of these things. Having as many aha moments as you can in the space of a weekend: That’s the point. On that, the Microsoft Hunt succeeded brilliantly. I really hope the online simulcast becomes a regular feature. I will definitely be back.
Now. If I may put on my critic’s hat for a moment, I found myself flustered by one major element of the Microsoft Hunt — or rather, an element that was missing.
I am used to puzzle hunts that work as follows: Teams solve a round of puzzles, and then use the answers to those puzzles in a final, extra puzzle — the “metapuzzle.” In small hunts, there might be only one round of puzzles: The solution to the metapuzzle is the finish line. In larger hunts, there might be multiple rounds, each with its own meta. (And sometimes the solutions to all the metapuzzles are assembled into their own metapuzzle — a meta meta!) As puzzle hunts have grown in sophistication, puzzle-making teams have sought to dazzle with ever more elaborate and elegant metapuzzles. Metapuzzles are like the climax of a great story. They transform a bunch of scattered puzzles into a unified, satisfying piece of art.
The Microsoft Hunt didn’t use a metapuzzle structure at all, and I’ve since learned that other hunts, notably out of Australia, also forgo this common form of presentation. That would be fine if metapuzzles were replaced with something as good or better, but that is not the case.
The individual puzzles in the Microsoft Hunt are as good as any I’ve solved, but the structure of it was bewildering to me: Every puzzle had an answer, of course, but those answers were completely incidental. They may as well have been chosen at random, and might well have been. We dutifully recorded these answers, because that’s what we’ve grown used to doing, but we needn’t have bothered: These words, which we struggled to discern by solving complicated, dastardly puzzles, were never used again. What makes this extra weird, from where I stand, is that after finally solving a puzzle and submitting its answer, you were given “evidence” to help apprehend various criminals… and in at least one round, this evidence took the form of words. You essentially traded your hard-fought answer words for completely different words. The disconnect here is baffling: Why not just form puzzles around the answer words that teams will ultimately need? Why instead choose a bunch of other, random answers that play no part in the larger structure?
Since my team did not reach the finale (and I was long gone by that point anyway), perhaps those puzzle answers WERE used in the Hunt’s final moments. But I don’t get the sense this was the case.
There may well have been a good reason to ditch the metapuzzle structure. Indeed, this may be, to some, an equally satisfying and artistic way of presenting a puzzle event. If so, I hope someone can explain it to me, because I do not see it.
None of this is intended to take away from the puzzlemakers’ achievement. The production values of the Microsoft Hunt were beautiful, the use of technology was marvelous (I loved the “Whistle Stop” puzzles and am sorry I missed the last of these), and the puzzles themselves were largely excellent and a lot of fun. But a metapuzzle framework allows a group of puzzlemakers to work together to build something larger, like musicians taking their individual instruments and playing a symphony. The Microsoft Hunt was not quite this. There was a uniting theme, but the structure was incidental. Instead of a symphony, it was a bunch of very talented musicians, all playing their own separate songs.